Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some things for which I'm grateful...

1. Miracles. Our friend, on a lung transplant list, went for a regular checkup this past week. In the most sobering and yet beautiful example of the circle of life (the real circle, not the Disney version) I can imagine, while she was there two healthy lungs became available. So, on the day before Thanksgiving, she had a double lung transplant. She may well be the only genuinely optimistic person I know, and she’s a necessary spark of light in our community, so we are all walking around with happy idiot grins over this amazing turn of events, which our friend absolutely trusted would come.

2. Food. I have a lifelong love/hate/love-too-much relationship with food. I forget that it’s only fuel and more often think of it as reward, comfort, confidant, friend. And on holidays, I can’t help but think of it as bounty, too—when the table is spread and the candles are lit, some prehistoric part of my brain sends the message that we’ll survive until the next dinosaur kill, which makes happy-to-be-alive endorphins kick in, which reinforces my twisted relationship with food. It’s a vicious cycle, one I’ll gladly analyze over another bowl of my Mom’s corn and macaroni casserole.

3. Dancing. On the night after Thanksgiving, we gathered at Our Lady of Perpetual Dancing Bar & Grille, where Ray’s band was playing their traditional post-turkey gig. We had a large contingent of family & friends, good dark beer, exceptional music that included a friend from the Hills sitting in with the band, and much freakish, loose-jointed, sweaty dancing. It’s quite purging, really, to dance with wild abandon. Women at Our Lady don’t wait around for men to ask us to dance; we just head for the floor, alone or in gaggles. Some of the dancers—me, maybe—look a lot like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine tried to dance, but it’s such a comfortable hometown scene that no one cares. And I think I threw out a hip at some point, but it’s nothing Advil and a walk around the pasture can’t whip back into shape. Well worth it.

4. Dogs. We had six at our house for Thanksgiving, three puppies and three adults. They established a pack order right away. We had one minor skirmish between the big older Aussie and the Chessie pup, but order was quickly restored. The peacocks, not as grateful for dogs as I am, disappeared into the grove almost as soon as company started arriving, and they didn’t come back into the yard until late Friday.

5. Coffee. The older I get, the harder it is to get moving after a night of song & dance. So bless the goatherder who first noticed his goats gaily frolicking after eating coffee cherries. And bless the Turkish nomads who thought to roast the beans over a desert fire until they were dark & greasy.

6. Time off work. I’m sure there’s an algebraic formula for how long it takes me to recover from festive holiday celebrating: something like X/Y=Z, where X is my current age, Y is the number of hours I spend celebrating, and Z is the number of days it will take me to feel human again. Today it’s snowing and grey, the peacocks are tucked up against the greenhouse windows, and the leftover turkey will soon be turkey noodle soup. So, what’s one to do but watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and doze under a fuzzy blankie with a dog in one's lap?

7. Family. We had twelve people from four states for Thanksgiving dinner. In spite of individual quirks and mutual dysfunctions, I love family gatherings. If you pay attention, you can see how well kids are growing up, how relationships bend & shift, how bonds deepen, how life paradoxically moves us forward together, but along divergent paths. And, if you’re really lucky, you can wing your little brother with a Nerf dart in retribution for the day in 1971 when he found and bit the head off of the chocolate Easter bunny (your friend & confidant) you had stashed in Grandpa’s red toolbox on the back porch. is good. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A clean home, shaken, not stirred...

I have these brass hooks made for displaying decorative plates. They were my grandmother’s. They’re dangling from a wire shelf in my laundry room because, well, you never know when you’ll get the urge to hang a decorative plate. So one day, I was hanging underwear on these brass plate hooks so our delicates could air dry, when it hit me like a bolt of Thor’s own lightning: prairie people are ingenious. My revelation was soon affirmed by Ray.

There are some domestic chores I’ve sworn off for life, and vacuuming is one of them. So in our household, Ray does all the vacuuming. He doesn’t like it, but he does it because he knows I won’t. For my part, I know to steer clear of him when he gets out the Rainbow. He curses cords that pull out of the wall, kicks half-chewed dog biscuits under the computer desk, and mutters as he sucks up the fine layer of dog hair and bird dander that settles on everything in our house. So I stay out of sight, where I won’t have to witness the soft-spoken We Are the World pre-vacuum man I love, morphing into maniacal, wall-crashing, spitting, fuming VACUUM MAN. But today, in a flash of pure prairie ingenuity, Ray discovered the secret to keeping Mr. Hyde hidden—gin martinis.

That’s right. Gin martinis. He vacuumed for FOUR hours, upstairs and down, while sipping gin & olive martinis. He was patient, amused by the cobwebs in the bathroom doorway, and I thought I heard him whistling once. I actually walked through the room just to test. He didn’t glare. He didn’t swear. He smiled at me. If he’d been wearing a tuxedo and cocked an eyebrow once or twice, my knees would have buckled, I would have swooned—I’d have been in James Bond Meets Hazel heaven (you gotta be my age to get that one).

This flash of brilliance on Ray’s part is especially ingenious because Ray does not drink. Even when the band plays in smoky dive bars, Ray drinks Mountain Dew, and he never hunkers down in his Lazy Boy in the evening with a cold brewski. So for him to put these two disparate elements together—martinis and vacuuming—somehow intuiting that the combo would make for a productive and peaceful afternoon, was every bit as practical and ingenious as sorting nails and screws by size into Mason jelly jars, or putting a brooder lamp in the loafing shed rafters to keep the peacocks thawed on January nights.

Thanks to Ray, I’m feeling a surge of prairie pride & inspiration. I’m gonna tear up old stained dishtowels and holey socks, and piece together a quilt commemorating indigenous grasses of the Plains. But first, I think I’ll see if Ray will mix me up a martini…

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Road Trip Reverie

It’s a grey, lazy Sunday at Uncannery Row. We got a couple inches of snow Friday night, but it’s in the 30’s today and melting, a good day to load some Little Feat and Tom Waits into my iPod, catch up on laundry, cut through a layer or two of dust, and think about Thanksgiving dinner.

I can’t begin to name the things for which I’m grateful this year—the list is too long—but just today, I’m especially thankful for one thing in particular: road trips.

Ray and I went to Alejandro MN Friday night so he could play a gig with Small Howard, a band of brothers from Ray’s 20’s. The boys all lived together in an old farmhouse, and they gather every few months or years to do what we all know they really love (in spite of pledges to wives, spouse-equivalents, children, or home fires). I’ve SEEN that look of adoration for a 1970’s Gibson electric—puts stars in a man’s eyes. The boys love each other, too, but talk about it only in private to wives and spouse-equivalents. Women, even prairie women, will tell each other how much they need & enjoy each others’ company. But for men, maybe especially for prairie men, the most they can muster to each other is “good to see you” or “nice licks.”

In spite of a little Norlander stoicism, we had a great time. The boys smiled in and out of moments where the music clicked so perfectly, they were simultaneously in the Alejandro wine bar AND sitting around the living room of the Small Howard House 30 years ago, pushing their long hair out of their eyes and jamming in their holey bell bottoms.

Penelope, Artemis, and I had just as much fun. We sipped wine or Belgian beers, sampled chocol
ate genache-filled pastry, sang along, and laughed. We celebrated the happy news that Artemis and Byron will dive into the mysterious marital abyss next spring or summer. And we all kept room in our hearts for Betsy, Arnold’s wife, who is home battling cancer. No one said anything, but we were all feeling her absence and aware of the delicacy of our days, somewhere in these middle years where we begin to see the horizon at both ends of life. We did our best to surround Arnold with joy, warm friendship, and music, filling him to overflowing so he could take the extra home to Betsy.

Maybe it’s just a stray drop or two of gypsy blood on my father’s Czech side, a little mongrel wanderlust stirring somewhere, but there’s something about a road trip that restores my spiritual center, re-aligns my emotional compass. Seeing newly harvested fields roll by in black & white striped blurs, or beyond those fields, snow hanging like mist over river bluffs, or beyond the bluffs, the curve of the earth at the edge of my vision, makes me realize not just how small I am, but also that the bigness of the world is a good thing. It puts my puny fears, complaints, and troubles in their proper place, at least temporarily. So today, while I’m worrying that a new green bean recipe (sans the crunchy fake onions) might be a kind of sacrilege, or while I’m coming unhinged because I can’t find the little pilgrim salt & pepper shakers, the prairie will be resting peacefully, healing the necessary brutality of farming, highway traffic, and human need under her brief, beautiful blanket of winter.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Going All Prairie Girl

I grew up in the Omaha, spent 20-some years in a city I never had to leave and couldn’t possibly get to know. There was noise, 24-hour light, fast-moving everything, busy people everywhere. When we were tired of our own neighborhood, north Omaha, we wandered into South O, snuck downtown, or cruised out to West O. When that wasn’t exotic enough, we crossed a bridge into Council Bluffs and there we were, in the foreign land of Iowa, without once leaving the city lights.

It was perpetual motion, constant stimulation. If we wanted a cool light show, we parked just outside Eppley airfield fence, spread blankets on the hoods of our cars, laid back and braced ourselves, then waited for our bones to rattle around in our skinny little bodies as jets took off overhead. Sometimes we played chicken on the train trestle over 30th Street. Sometimes we jumped the fence at the Water Works and played balance beam on the rims of cement holding tanks. We ate Chinese at King Fong’s, where the tables were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and we had to point at pictures on the menu to order. We shared pancakes and bottomless pots of coffee at Village Inn at 2 in the morning, to watch the post-bar folks drift (or stagger) in. We hung out in the Greyhound depot in the middle of the night and smoked cigarettes, imagining peoples’ stories as they got on and off the buses.

So when I moved from the city to a little farmhouse in South Dakota, ten miles from the nearest dinky town, I felt Dorothy’s pain—lions and tigers and bears…oh my. I couldn’t imagine a more complete desolation, except maybe on the surface of Mars. I wasn’t sure how people survived the dark, the quiet, the oceans of corn. And it was summer. I hadn’t been through a South Dakota winter yet.

I have almost three decades under my prairie belt now. I’ve spent some of it in the country, some in small towns, some in smaller towns, and now back in the country. Once I knew I wouldn’t be eaten by roving wolves, I started to like the slower pace. When my friend Paul from New York came to visit and asked, on the drive from the airport to my house, “Are those real cows?” I rolled my eyes. You don’t get it, my rolled eyeballs said.

I knew I’d gone Prairie Girl all the way, knew I’d never go back to the city, when I came up over a country hill one morning at sunrise. A perfectly illuminated Maxfield Parrish landscape stretched out as far as I could see, and I actually wept, it was so beautiful.

I don’t have the lights at Eppley any more, but I can walk 30 feet out my front door on a moonless night, spread a blanket on the ground, and watch the Milky Way. And I may have to pawn a guitar amp or two for the gas it takes to get to decent Chinese food, but just out my east windows tonight is the moon, breaking over the trees in a cloudy sky. She’s half in light, half in shadow, a grinning wài pó or a bright yin yang, reminding me again why I’m out here in the dark, in the quiet, on the prairie--BALANCE.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Good Day for Snowetry

The first real, sticky snow is falling on Uncannery Row today. It looks like a Currier & Ives calendar. It makes me want to wrap presents. Mull cider. String cranberries. Sing carols. I can’t help it—I’m a hopeless, really hopeless, romantic.

We lost Snowflake, our wild barn kitty, last week after the first hard freeze. She’d always been a little wobbly, so I suspect a generally weak constitution. It’s sad, though, and I’ll admit I cried a little even though she’d never let me get closer than 5 feet to her. I haven’t seen much of her mom, Snowball, since, but she's eating the food I put out for her in the pyramid. There’s a black cat, too, we call him Spook, but I haven’t seen him for a while, either.

The flock is fine, though, still 15 strong, and this year’s babies are getting hard to pick out from the adults. They’re all roosting in the communal Tree in the yard at night, and there’s prolonged fussing & whining at night as they jockey for spots. Fifteen is a lot of big birds for one small ash tree.

I got to attend a reception in the Big City last weekend for poets and artists who collaborated on paired works of poems with paintings, drawings, or photos. The poem I selected for the exhibit is St. John of God, printed below. I wrote it when my friend Dave died alone and miserable after years of alcoholism. I wondered how the outcome might have changed—how everyone’s life would change— if we knew (& believed) how loved we’ve really been, all along.

Many good friends were at the reception, Ray, my daughter and her paramour, a friend who designed a poetry book I put together, my midlife lifelines, some of the Wild Women. These people are gifted poets themselves or amazingly talented artists in other mediums—words, counsel, hospitality, building materials & power tools, food, graphic deisgn, humor. So as this gorgeous snow drifts down, I’m grateful for every delicate flake, and for the beautiful, creative people around me. Told ya. Hopeless romantic.

for the dead

What if there is no dreaming, no dancing,
no opalescent mist in which we float
suddenly weightless or winged,
what if trumpets don’t sound
and in no distant fog
do chords come clean from harps,
what if there never were seraphim
swallowed in flames of love
so radiant we turn our heads.

What if there is only a pause
a mirrored moment in which we see,
most of us for the first time,
our selves, and in that moment know
with certainty that we have been bathed
in love since the beginning
that all along while we wept and prayed
saved unanswered letters
left the receiver on the hook

we were pure love twisted into human shapes
so, like impulse and receptor cell
we fit, and could only spark together,
blood and bone going up in a flash of love
so radiant people turned their heads.
What if that moment is all we have,
one gauzy white curtain drawn quickly
over a small dim window
then out, out, into the long night.

St. John, was it looking out
too soon that drove you mad?
Or could you bless me with that moment now,
walk me past the mirror now,
with the window still wide open,
curtain billowing like a sail
until I know love, love, love,
that sea of flame and beautiful sorrow
so radiant I turn my head?