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Donald Hall, "Essays After Eighty"

Donald Hall’s latest book

Why would a fifty-something-year-old woman relate to the essays of an eighty-something-year-old man? Does that say something about him, about me, or both of us? This is not really a review, but a review of sorts; my stream-of-consciousness emotional reaction to his latest book. In all reality, just what a writer really wants…a confirmation of a connection made, not just an intellectual criticism of the writing.

I have always liked Donald Hall’s poetry, and when I read John Freeman‘s well-written interview with him in Poets and Writers (Nov/Dec edition) and read the excerpts from the book, Essays After Eighty, I was burning to read it. So off to the library I went.

Sitting down to read the first essay “Out the Window,” (without a window in sight) I can see what he sees — the old barn, the snow falling, the birds at the feeder — because he describes his view in vivid language, in a poet’s way. But I also feel what he feels — the isolation of New Hampshire in winter (having just been through the worst winter in my life in MA), feeling unable to do what used to be easily accomplished, and feeling abandoned by contemporaries and left to spend time with the ghosts of old ancestors (those to be joined sooner rather than later). His writing just seems to add credence to what I already know…why? Because my best friend right now is my mother, who is 86. I talk to her daily. She watches out the window when she can and has dreams of cooking and cleaning and doing things she can do now only with difficulty, so I understand the mindset and the feelings. That, and the fact that timing and circumstances took me out of challenging but ultimately satisfying work too young; I have felt abandoned by a changed world that no longer values my skills and my abilities ($9 to $10 an hour to proofread…really?), and no longer believes in my beliefs.

Donald Hall describes old age and aging as “…alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae…If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

And though I have some decades to go before I officially get to his age, I feel the separateness as he describes, as if I went to sleep and woke up on a planet I didn’t recognize, where I was suddenly an outcast, where suddenly people could see my antennae.

Well, that is easily rectified you might think: study the creatures of this new world and remake yourself to be like them. Hide those antennae or — better yet — cut them off. But I can’t do it, ugly as they seem to be, all of my beauty is there. And all the positive personal development books I read tell me to value them. They represent that last crumb of hope I still possess that someday another alien will show up at my door with their own antennae displayed in all their glory, smile, and come in and sit down for tea. Maybe that being will tell me of a colony of others like us, which still exists, and that my isolation has kept me from finding. And we will set out together, where the warm sun and exercise will make me feel 50 again. The gears of my mind will squeak and groan, at first reluctant with pain, but begin to chip off the rust and neglect, and then revel in something too long lost and left behind. But I digress…as old people do.

The book also contains an essay entitled “A Yeti in the District.” Each of the essays in the book ends with Hall’s tongue in cheek, a wry twist on what has come before. This one made me smile from ear to ear. Its truth reflected in my librarian’s reaction to my checking out of the book.

Mr Hall reminisces about trips he made to Washington DC over the years, including the year he was Poet Laureate, and the most recent trip to receive a National Medal of the Arts from President Obama. Let me be clear: the author is “scruffy” in his advanced years, but it doesn’t bother me (he looks much like my own brother!) In the “Yeti” essay, the author writes of the picture published in his local paper of him receiving the Medal. “Top of the first page was a photograph of the President looming over me, hanging the medal around my neck. My mouth is open in life’s widest smile as I confront the neatly dressed Obama in my sports coat and khakis, with my frizzy hair and reckless beard.”

He goes on to tell of the picture then being picked up by a blogger for the Washington Post named Alexandra Petri. “She identified me, called me a poet, and assured her audience that I was not a yeti. She announced a contest for a caption.” But of course in this age of Internet bullying, the picture brought in entry after entry “…gleeful with ridicule. Then there were reactions. I was praised and Ms. Petri was scolded. I was defended as a poet, and flattered despite my appearance.” He ends the essay with this: “…With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.”

Now back to my librarian. She handed me the book and said, “That’s quite the cover art,” with what I sensed as some distaste (and perhaps a little insult to me for wanting to read it??) I said, “well, yes, it is a bit of a close-up.” I chuckled to release the sense of “judgement(?)” I felt. And she went on, “Yes, I wouldn’t want to put that on my bedside table.” (I hadn’t read the book yet or I would have questioned whether she knew Ms. Petri?). This time I didn’t answer. And she still went on, “Yes, I wouldn’t want to put it on my bedside table because I would feel like someone was watching me.” I then made a judgment on her in return…You are a librarian and you are passing judgment on a Poet Laureate and Medal of the Arts winner???? But again, I digress.

Bottom line is that I enjoyed the book because I enjoy Donald Hall’s writing, his irreverence, and his sense of humor. I’m glad that after eighty he is still writing. And I hope there are plenty of people who won’t judge a book by its cover!

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{November 29, 2014}   Using Genealogy to Find Yourself

My Grandfather with his Sisters

My Grandfather with his Sisters

I love when the pieces fit. I started this post weeks ago but life got in the way and I was too busy to finish it. Then last week the writing prompt was “Digging for Roots,” and I said, well, that’s a sign I need to finish the genealogy post. The final piece was put in place as I was reading “The Law of Happiness” by Dr. Henry Cloud and he discussed the “mathematics of happiness.” I knew I had to finish this blog post.

The last few years I have been on a journey to find myself. This journey has required a lot of “textbooks”: Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, just to name a couple of my favorites. But the farther along in the journey I go, the more I am finding genealogy an essential piece of the puzzle.

This was confirmed for me as I read Dr. Cloud’s book. In the section on “The Mathematical Makeup of Happiness,” he breaks down the origins of happiness into percentages:

…at any given moment, circumstances may be contributing about 10 percent or so to your happiness….The next factor comes from your internal makeup, which is probably composed of genetic, temperament, and constitutional factors. This seems to account for about 50 percent of your happiness level….the rest of what goes into your happiness comes from things that are directly under your control: your behaviors, thoughts, and intentional practices in your life.

(In case you are interested, Dr. Cloud cites Sonja Lyubomirsky’s paper and book on “The How of Happiness.”) Of course, both Dr. Cloud and Ms. Lyubomirsky are focusing on the 40% under our control and looking at it as a positive finding. Of course, me being me — someone whose genetic makeup is to be a “glass-half-empty” person (or as my friends used to say, “every silver lining has a cloud” person) — I jump right on the statement that there is only 40% (or less than half) under my control. Also, I jump back to the 50% genetics…so my instincts in wanting to learn about my genetics seems to be on the mark.

I can blame some of my nature on genetics; there is mental illness and depression in my blood. But I also feel there is a “karma” of sorts flowing there. Like a story that hasn’t ended and needs to be played out. This is the thought process behind this first draft poem I wrote:

 

My relatives clamor for acknowledgment; 

my blood teems with their unmet dreams,

but I am a dead end.

The buck stops here.

 

My grandfather, who died at thirty-six,

wrote of the first World War

in tiny notebooks of concise script.

He filled letters with sketches, inspired by Paris,

he dreamed of art school, but never got there;

Perhaps it is from him I got the eyes squinting for beauty

that none of my siblings have,

covered by the glasses they don’t need.

 

My seemingly self-reliant, resilient grandmother,

Who married over and over, looking for the care

no one knew she needed, or the cure for the loneliness

no knew she had; she can no longer tell me

if after 102 years, and four husbands

she ever found it, but I suspect not.

 

My other grandmother did:

on her second try she found a kind man

who thought her as beautiful as her own father did;

she had the hats to prove it.

How she loved style and fashion,

but she lived with him in a little house set back from the road

in a tiny town, where she hermited herself after he died.

 

My grandmother’s first husband,

my blood grandfather, I know nothing of him.

He is the mystery ingredient,

the wild card, a scapegoat for the intangibles.

My father thought him dead for most of his life,

believing my grandmother’s well-intentioned lie —

her wave of a pair of scissors over photos made him disappear —

He died at mid-life with a new wife,

and no contact or acknowledgement by his only child,

or grandchildren.

Which leads to me, some combination,

unable to pass the buck to another generation.

They want resolution here and now, from me:

I feel all their pain,

but I am a dead end.

But now I am determined to learn more: understand the why’s of who I am on the road to the how’s of finding out how to be the best version of me. I may not be able to extend the dead-end with asphalt, but I can cut a path through the forest and build myself a cabin in the woods.



{May 2, 2014}   Ted and Sylvia

Birthday Letters

Birthday Letters

I know, I know…National Poetry Month is over so I’m late. But fellow blogger, Janna Hill published a great post on Wednesday about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Path to end the month, and it got me inspired (as great posts do!).

Ted Hughes published a book of poems about Plath called, “Birthday Letters.”  It is a “must read” for Plath fans. Although I had picked it up and read it here and there after I bought it, I finally sat down and read it cover to cover last year.  The post by Janna brought it back out of my bookcase; I wanted to share a couple of things.

One of my favorite poems in the book is called “Fingers.”

Fingers

Who will remember your fingers?

Their winged life? They flew

With the light in your look.

At the piano, stomping out hits from the forties,

They performed an incidental clowning

Routine of their own, deadpan puppets.

You were only concerned to get them to the keys.

But as you talked, as your eyes signalled

The strobes of your elation,

They flared, flicked balletic aerobatics.

I thought of birds in some tropical sexual

Play of display, leaping and somersaulting,

Doing strange things in the air, and dropping to the dust.

Those dancers of your excess!

With such deft, practical touches —  so accurate.

Thinking your own thoughts caressed like lightning

The lipstick into your mouth corners.

Trim conductors of your expertise,

Cavorting at your typewriter,

Possessed by infant spirit, puckish,

Who, whatever they did, danced or mimed it

In a weightless largesse of espressivo.

I remember your fingers. And your daughter’s

Fingers remember your fingers

In everything they do.

Her fingers obey and honour your fingers,

The Lares and Penates of our house.

The book jacket said that all but two of the poems were about Sylvia. I was curious as to whether she DID play the piano and I found this blog. Apparently “stomping out hits from the forties” is quite accurate.

I loved the book, because I love the poetry of both Plath and Hughes. And I admit to the fascination with the “tragic” story. Given that, I try not to make judgments on their personal life. But reading the book DID give me an emotional reaction that came out as my own poem.

Ted and Sylvia

Words precisely chosen,

A perfect construction —

or deconstruction you could say —

I see her clearly,

her eyes flashing fire,

colliding colors,

a star burning to a boil,

destined to explode,

one can’t look away

only watch in wonder

without interference.

I can’t blame you for that.

You show the flip-side too:

Fragility and fear,

her surety and psychic sense

that her skin could not contain this fury,

this inferno.

But I see love too:

the pushing, the pulling,

the genius, the frailties

two magnetic poles.

I admit,

I feel some jealousy.

I strive in vain,

but alive and alone.

Wishing for that talent, 

to be loved like this:

my vices overwhelmed,

minimized, dwarfed into dust.

But then again,

Life is the bottom line,

breathing still

the ultimate period

to a life’s sentence.

 

 



{December 27, 2013}   The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

The wording of the title seems to imply I have a definitive answer. Yet on any given day my answer might be different. My lack of conviction on this and other “favorite” questions has often felt like a problem to me: one that indicated that I had no core, no strength of conviction, or no knowledge of myself. I either assumed my lack of an answer was because I am too wishy-washy (when I was feeling bad about myself) or because I am too intellectually curious (when I’m feeling good about myself).

Many books have vied to be the answer to that question for me over the course of my life: Leaves of Grass, Wuthering Heights, Tuesdays with Morrie, A Gift from the Sea, Simple Abundance, The Artist’s Way…the list could go on and on because reading has always been a staple in my life. And I have always had this crazy concept of commitment when it comes to reading that if I start a book, I have to finish it. This creed results in my slogging through books at times (I have done this lately, making me think that I no longer liked to read).

Book cover for The Alchemist

Then the other day when I started reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. TODAY, this is my answer to the question/statement of this blog’s title. I know I’m arriving late to this party: the book was published in 1988, and the number of translations and books sold is staggering…but it is brand new TO ME. It came to me on a free table at work, and it appeared for me exactly when it needed to appear.

I have recently been in a dark place…a very scary place. For someone who has LOVED Christmas her whole life to want to turn her back on it forever, sleep through it (or skip it as John Grisham wrote — the comedy movie version of his book is what I watched yesterday trying to get out of my bad mood) is not a good sign for holding onto a joy of living. I was also finally considering giving up on this blog, one of the few things that has brought me joy and kept me going the last couple of years. But during this time I was also reading Paulo Coelho’s book.

This morning I read this:

“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them…few follow the path laid out for them — the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed to be a threatening place.

“So, we, their hearts speak more and more softly. We never stop speaking out, but we begin to hope that our words won’t be heard: we don’t want people to suffer because they don’t follow their hearts.”

“Why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?” the boy asked the alchemist.

“Because that’s what makes a heart suffer most, and hearts don’t like to suffer.”

The alchemist then told the boy…”What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’

“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”

When I read this, I recognized the place where I am; I could hear my heart again (which had become quiet) and I came back to the keyboard and back to the blog. I have read a lot of inspiring and positive blogs and books recently trying to light my way out of the black hole, but for some reason, this spoke to me in a way that nothing else I read did. I believe it is because it was what I needed to read and it was put there to help me on this part of my life’s journey.

Now I feel that it is fitting that the answer to the question, “What is the best book you ever read?” can change throughout your life. Because the best book you ever read is the one that touches you and communicates to you when you need it. Today I give a hearty “Thank You,” to the person who put this book on the free table to share it, to Paulo Coelho for writing it, and to the Soul of the World for communicating it to him.

P.S. As I sat down to write this, I realized this was also the topic of the Daily Post prompt today. It was my moment of clarity for what has been bothering me…if that isn’t a message from the Universe, I don’t know what is. 🙂




inspirational books, midlife books

My Navigation Manuals

I mean this in more ways than one. Literally, it IS time for me to rewrite the brief, third-person “about” page I wrote when I started this blog almost 4 years ago, when I had no idea what I was doing beyond reaching out desperately for a purpose in my disconnected desert of a life. But…I am also at the stage of my life when I have been struggling to find out who I really am (better late than never!). If you are into labels, there are many — menopause, mid-life crisis, empty nest syndrome — and just as many ways that it can play itself out in life. Sometimes it is a brief sense of vertigo where you lose your footing for a moment but get right back up with just a scraped knee; sometimes it is like suffering a stroke and having to learn to walk and talk again. We don’t choose the path; it appears before us. It is almost always a time of loss of some sort, but it can also be a time of renewal; it depends on how you approach it. As Christiane Northrup, M.D. writes in her book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”:

At midlife, I, like thousands of others, had to give up my fantasies of how I thought my life would be. I had to face, head-on, the old adage about how hard it is to lose what you never really had. It means giving up all your illusions, and it is very difficult. But for me the issue was larger than where, and with whom, I would grow old. It was a warning, coming from deep within my spirit, that said, “Grow…or die.” Those were my choices. I chose to grow.

I’m making that choice as well. I have had days when I literally felt like I was fighting for my life; dark thoughts were demons I allowed to hide and survive in the “gloom and doom” inside for too many years, and they came at me with ferocity. But I proved equally fierce. The time had come to break open the caves and let in the sunlight, sending them racing off to live somewhere else. To this end, I have been meditating and reading a lot. The aforementioned book is one that has helped me. “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach is another. And these books appeared on a “free table” at work, calling my name; others were given to me. I MUST CONCLUDE I HAVE A COMPANION ON THIS JOURNEY WHO IS HELPING ME ALONG. And I am comforted by that.

For years I have been questioning why the things that used to bring me joy do not anymore, as if it were a sign of an illness or disease, distressing myself all the more, not knowing how to “cure” myself. Reading Christiane’s book made me feel more relaxed about it, made me feel it is not something “wrong” with me, but a normal part of a growth process. Sarah Ban Breathnach gave me the “discovery journal” and “personal treasure map” as navigation tools for my journey. She says it better than I can:

Pray your journey be a long one. Savor the stops along the way. They make the search marvelous. Meaningful. Memorable. Find and honor your own pace. There are still so many harbors to be seen for the first time. You’re headed for someplace you’ve never been before. Keep your thoughts held high….Set your course for Authentica. Legend has it that once you reach her shores, you’ll not leave the same woman.

I’m set to enjoy the journey. For those new to my blog I hope you’ll want to join me and enjoy it as well. For those who have been with me for a while…I hope you are enjoying it…there are still so many harbors to be seen…don’t get off the boat!




I was telling my mother (currently my best friend) about my last post on different kinds of friends. My mother said, “Well I can’t read it because I don’t have a computer.” Fair enough…I understand that and I don’t hold it against her.

I have been told by some friends: “I don’t have time to read blogs…sorry.” I also understand that and I don’t get angry; many of them work a lot of hours, and we all have our priorities and different ways of relaxing. I don’t go to some peoples’ “events” because I don’t have time or it doesn’t fit my lifestyle, but I am choosing NOT to make it a priority. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about them, but I know I am missing out on getting to know them better and sharing an experience that is part of their life. It IS a choice that I am making and I have to “man up” about that.

But acknowledging and understanding these responses as choices doesn’t stop me from thinking that because my friends and family don’t read what I write, they don’t know me as well as bloggers from across the globe who’ve never met me! What’s up with that?! Of course our blogging personas are different than our “real life” personas, but they are surely an aspect of who we are.

That got me curious…fellow bloggers…Do your friends and family read your blog?

Just for fun, fill out this quick poll and let’s see what we find out!



{July 31, 2013}   The Garden of Books…

Garden at Flower Show

This morning I read Colline’s blog about curling up on the couch with a book and tea…Oh, I could so relate!

It inspired me to pull out a poem I wrote several years ago about reading and share it.  My reading time has always been the highlight of my day (except for going for a walk outside on a beautiful day). Reading is going for a virtual walk. 🙂

Reading in the Morning

 The story grabs me

like a childhood friend;

Together we tumble

through a garden gate,

where the words are blooms,

some delicate, some loud,

vying for my raptured gaze.

In this garden of a book,

there are places to pause and sit

and soak it in,

and places to roll,

smell the soft grass.

I watch the sun

scamper squirrel-like

around the garden,

teasing the leaves

and branches.

I watch them brush each other

hesitant, yet tender

as new lovers,

my vicarious pleasure,

becomes longing and then…

I come to the end.

There is reality,

solid as a wall my fingers can touch;

away from the sun,

the stones are cold.

Duty time has come

too soon.

The world calls,

harsh as a crow’s caw.

Time to leave this place;

place my closed book

aside

and get to work.



{March 6, 2013}   A Writer’s Sense of Service

Julia Cameron's booksI have recently been rereading Julia Cameron‘s books to give my creativity a boost, but it’s also been making me think about being a writer with a “sense of service” or an “attitude of gratitude.” I decided that what I really like about Julia’s books is her teacher’s sensibility and her nurturing attitude. I’m not naive enough not to recognize that she’s trying to sell books, but I see some sincerity there. I think she truly believes in writing as the salvation and glorious gift it can be and wants others to experience that feeling. It lead me to thinking about being “of service” as a writer and what that means.

One of my coworkers writes poems for her church in her spare time. Her church publishes them in their program and sometimes they read them as a congregation. I think this is a wonderful use of her gift. This is her third Easter performing this service and if you think it is easy to keep seeing a topic in a new way and creating fresh material, then you haven’t tried to do it.

For myself, it has been most gratifying to me when I have been able to write a poem for a friend going through some kind of worry or difficulty: a death in the family or a sibling serving overseas. This is one way I can be “of service” as a writer.

How else can we be of service as writers? The most important way is to encourage and nurture other writers; this is what I feel Julia does very successfully. This type of service could be as small and simple as “liking” someone’s work on Facebook or a blog, or attending a poetry reading. If you feel confident and can take an interest, critique their work in a positive and constructive way. If you have extra money, you could purchase their book. Give them the kudos they need and deserve for completing such an undertaking.

Funny thing, though, I think a lot of writers, once they start to have a following forget what it was like to need that support. They forget what it was like to be someone struggling to find their voice, struggling to feel that what they have to say is relevant. Many writers write because they have a need to be heard. If they don’t feel heard, they give up, and I believe the world loses something important. We let jealousy stand in the way of being of service as writers. (See the video where Julia addresses this topic.)

I believe every writer, famous or not, has a duty to encourage other writers; they are performing a very important service if they do. So…you bloggers reading this…go out and like someone’s blog, comment on someone’s poem…do your part to keep the world writing!



{February 28, 2013}   A Poem on Poet’s Corner

Yesterday I had a poem posted on Poet’s Corner (click here to read it).

If you haven’t checked out the blog before, you should! They post a poem daily; many different poetic styles are featured. It’s a great way to discover some creative bloggers!



{February 23, 2013}   Book “Stories”

After reading a comment by Annina on my last blog on Book Care and a comment by Lingering Visions on another blog, I felt inspired to tell the “stories” of a couple of my books.

First of all, I’m a saver. (I prefer that term to “horder” or “pack rat.”) I love meeting people and consider myself blessed by all the wonderful people I have met in my life. But, as we all know, acquaintances come and go; saving things they gave me or wrote to me helps me remember them and their role in my life, however brief. I’m very aware, though, that a lot of this will be lost someday when my memory (and my body) is no more, and someone combs through and discards my belongings. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but it is reality.

So…I’m starting to allow some of my books to tell their own story. Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean.

books, God Among the ShakersA one-time co-worker and friend wrote a book about The Shakers. We lost touch when she moved out of state. While going through some old stuff, I found a photocopied review of  her book, as well as a promotional card on which she had jotted a note to me. Instead of throwing these things out, I put them in the back of the book. As I continue to sort through my papers and saved items, I will find other things and add them (I know I have photos, cards, etc.) If I never tell anyone the story of our relationship, I hope someday that someone finds the “treasures” in the book and is interested in the story behind it.

John Adams, David McCulloughAnother book with a story? I have an autographed copy of “John Adams” by David McCullough. When the book came out, McCullough was reading from it at a nearby charity event. My employer’s president had purchased a whole table of tickets to the event. He was not able to attend, but he gave the tickets to our company librarian to distribute. The librarian thought the company book club members were the logical choice to receive the tickets; I was one of the lucky ones! Each table had one autographed copy of the book. At the event, a photographer took pictures of the attendees at each table, trying to sell the photographs. I did not buy a picture, but I have a xerox copy of our photo. I came across it in some papers and put it in the back of the book, along with a the ticket and brochure about the event.

The story is there if someone wants to piece the items together and read the clues. How about you? Do any of your books tell their own story?



et cetera
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