Friday, May 28, 2010

Pathological Nesting

I come from a long line of serious nesters. Not hoarders, not collectors, not agoraphobes. Nesters. My home is lined from top to bottom with shiny, downy, or odd found objects. I have baby teeth, baby hair, notes to the tooth fairy, graduation tassels, love notes, chunks of rock, single earrings and other treasures stowed in every conceivable cubbyhole. I’m like a European magpie or bowerbird, dragging interesting stuff back to my nest and weaving the tidbits into the warp & weft. Unlike my feathered cousins, I don’t adorn my nest as part of a mating ritual (though, come to think of it, Ray does love the eclectic hippie-museum-esque d├ęcor, so maybe…). I do it mostly because each object is like a snapshot of a moment in my 50+ years. My grandma, my mom, me, and now my daughter…we’re not happy unless we’re living in one gigantic scrapbook.

So after an amazing little thunderstorm plowed its way through the Row a few nights ago, I felt compelled to check on the Row’s other nesters – my kindred spirits. Walking the yard, I found a little pin-feathered mourning dove, which I scooped up and put in the crook of a pine tree bough, out of the wind and the puppy path. (It’s an old wives’ tale that mother birds will “smell” human touch and abandon handled young; most birds have a terrible sense of smell, and if the baby’s strong enough to chirp and the mom can hear it, she’ll try to keep feeding it, wherever it is.) The swallow nests are tucked up under the greenhouse eaves, so they were all okay, and the pigeons have their comfy barn. I don’t know where the bats roost, or I would have checked on them, too.

Two chipping sparrows have built a nest in a bird feeder I neglected to close tight. The nest is a work of art, lined with twigs, leaves, and brushed-out dog and human hair we put out for them. The 65 mpg gusts had blown the plastic side off the birdfeeder, but the nest inside is so tightly constructed that it kept its shape. A baby was on the ground, though, so I popped him back in the nest.

A peahen, Isetta (formerly Ike) is sitting on eight eggs in the middle of a flower garden, as if we planted it just for her. Another peahen managed to work the grate off a window well and has at least 3 eggs in it now. Two more hens are nesting somewhere out in the pasture grass. In bad weather, the hens hunker down around their eggs, tuck their heads to avoid the worst of the rain, wind or hail, and sit tight. Even in the most driving thunderstorm, I doubt the eggs even get damp. So Isetta was wet but fine, and window well hen’s nest is safe under an eave on the most protected side of the house.

One interesting facet of powerful genetic nestiness is a reluctance to leave home. My friend G and I are hitting the road next week for a meditation retreat in Colorado. And though I adore road trips, and though flying off means evolution & adventure, it also means leaving the nest. So I’m comforting myself by remembering that Ray is as much a nester as I am and will tend things with great love & care, and by imagining all the amazing Rocky Mountain treasures I’ll find, to work into the nooks & crannies of our Big Nest on the prairie.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

City Mouse, Country Mouse

I chopped off all my hair recently, partly to foil the wood ticks (the down-side of our south-40 walking trail), and partly to prove to myself that I’m still a sophisticated, unflappable, urbane city girl. I mean, I grew up in Omaha, right? I went to three different high schools….I slept in the grass at Memorial Park amid all-night rallies or parties…I took city busses through the projects to get to the downtown bank where I worked…I zoomed around in my 1971 VW bug (with a moon roof and maple leaves airbrushed on the hood…suh-weet) like a NASCAR queen...I was car-hopping at A & W the night the pimp in the orange and green suit drove through the plate glass storefront, for Pete's sake.

But I don’t think my haircut's fooling anyone, least of all me. Last weekend, when Ray and I took a road trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul to hang for a couple of days with Ray’s son, it became instantly clear that we’re now almost completely pasture-ized (not to be corn-fused with pasteurized, which involves boiling, and which, on summer prairie days, might also fit).

Because we now live by the moon & stars here on the Row, making us constitutionally unable to hurry, we ambled up county and state highways and crawled onto the Cities beltway at rush hour on Friday. Oh. Dear. God. I’m pretty sure we both stopped breathing several times. By the time we made it to the hotel parking lot, we both needed (a) a cigarette; (b) a shot of whisky; and (c) a defibrillator. Then, as soon as we checked in and dropped off our stuff, it was time to back onto the deathway…er…beltway to go to Jesse’s. My hands remain white and curved, claw-like, as if still gripping a car doorframe.

Another sign of my de-citification? As we ran hither & yon around the Cities for the next couple of days, I realized that the quirky fashion statements I made in my youth have devolved into barely audible, mostly beige, whispers. I am a pasty prairie wallflower compared to the City-folk and their penchant for le couture horreur. Like the middle-aged man with the bad bleach-blonde perm and the seriously skin-tight hotpants and cowboy boots (and that was ALL he had on), or the boy with the dreads and the tea saucers in his ear lobes, or the guy dressed like Jack Sparrow for no apparent reason, or the girl in all yellow except for her purple tights, into which she’d torn several large holes (prairie people are too steeped in Lutheran/Catholic guilt to intentionally damage something). I even caught myself, for a split second, trying to figure out what sort of fashion statement the clerk in the Tibet Shop was making – the Tibetan monk clerk.

Ray and I also discovered that we’re not so much countrified as we are country-fried. But one can eat out in the city every night with nary a meal that’s chicken-fried, breaded & boiled in oil, super-sized or slathered in mayo. In the big city, we indulged Cuban grilled plantain with black beans and rice; Mexican tacos al pastor and horchata; Thai som dtam salad and green curry chicken; and Chinese noodle and bok choy soup. I loaded up on supplies at United Noodle, a huge Asian market, which will henceforth be known as The United Church of the Divine Noodle, and where I will worship each time I go to the Cities.

I might have been feeling just a twinge of my old city instincts by the time we had to head back home. But a sure sign of our progressive prairieness was our collective sigh pulling into the Row yard, with peacocks trumpeting, dandelions exploding, and that beautiful prairie darkness (except for the gazillion solar lights in our gardens). So I’m glad to be home again. I’m almost done knitting another pair of fingerless gloves, and today I’m tattooing my gnarled hands with henna, then later this afternoon I’ll sip wine on the patio to set the henna in the sun while I watch the peas’ courtship shenanigans, listen to the orioles, and toss a tennis ball for the dogs. Something about the bustle, flashes of color, and anonymity of the city still calls to me, but gimme a straw hat and call me Flannery…the city just can’t beat this calm, this space, this hermitage. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Meditations

It’s Mother’s Day on Uncannery Row, and motherhood abounds. The peahens are playing hard-to-get with honking, fanning, thrumming peacocks, who’ve divided up the acreage into tiny little kingdoms. A house sparrow has taken over a wooden bird feeder, stuffing it full of leaves and peafowl down in which to lay her first clutch of eggs. The swallows are constructing their muddy teacup nests under greenhouse eaves. We have a new female cat, Rickie Lee, who’s taken over the pyramid building and calls each night for food & scratches. She’s my son’s cat, who at 5 or 6 years refuses to be litterbox trained, so she’s come home to Mama’s House of Permanent Retirement here on the farm. Even the hen & chicks are spreading out in profound fecundity across the flower garden.

I’m so grateful, this day and every day, to have been raised in a home with both my mother and grandmother. Though in occasional dark moments I brood over growing up essentially fatherless, I know that at least one result of my femalecentric upbringing is a sense of my own sufficiency and ability. Another result is that I have the mothering instincts of a lioness—hurt my offspring, and I’ll eat you. This intense parenting gene can be burdensome to others, because I have a natural tendency to [s]mother my husband, friends, co-workers, students, mail carrier, UPS guy and complete strangers. The upside is that in spite of my many, many mistakes, I was (and am…you can’t shake that gene) a dedicated and ever-present parent. And the most amazing thing has happened now that two of our four children have children of their own—they’re incredibly devoted, conscientious parents themselves.

I’d also like to say a word today about step-parenting, which slips through the Mother’s Day cracks. Maybe because of the lioness gene, I never felt differently about Ray’s son than I did about my own. Though intellectually I know I’m not his mom, and I have no urge to dethrone his mom, emotionally and instinctually, he’s one of my cubs; I scold, cajole, comfort, support and box his ears when I have to, as I do all the kids. We tend to think of step-parents as once-removed somehow, but that’s just symantics when a kid needs a bandaid and a hug.

So here’s my Mother’s Day poem, a poem about continuity, with gratitude for moms, step-moms, adoptive moms, foster moms, surrogate moms—we’re all part of the same flea-bitten pride…

If you were any more alive in me, Mother,
my heart would burst, split open
like a ripe peach soaked in holy water.

Whisper from every corner of this clapboard
cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Chores,
your small and powerful prayers:

    white coral bells 
    itsy bitsy spider 
    battle hymn of the republic

Chant caramel pudding and corn casserole
recipes, ancient sacred texts handed down
from your own mother, that dark marble saint
atop the bell tower, one arm wrapped around
a gilded laundry basket, a silver pressure cooker
cradled in the other. Her heart, too, burst open.

Keep me, I ask, in your blessing of trying, failing,
laughing about failure. Grant me the grace
of history, repeated mistakes, promises.

Look down on me with love when they raise you
to the bell tower, at the way I sing your praises
off-key, from behind my daughter’s stove.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Don't quit your day job, but...

In early April, I got to read poems at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, Oklahoma. Then in late April, I got to sit in with Ray’s reunion band, Little Henry, at a gig in Sioux Falls. Giving readings and singing on stage are more alike than one might think—same performance aspect, same musical rhythms, crescendos, syncopation, and for me, the same mystery in the bones.

I’d rather sing & give readings than just about anything else I can think of. And I’m not alone. I’ve been hanging around musicians for a few decades now. Ray, and most other musicians I know, will take gigs without regard to anything else—holidays, anniversaries, family vacation plans, surgery, pending childbirth—anything. They’ll drive through blizzards, over treacherous ice-covered roads, in a high-profile used school bus with no windows and 250 zillion miles on it, to get to a gig. They’ll face the wrath of significant others left home to rearrange lives and pick up the slack. And all of this in order to drive long distances, haul & set up heavy equipment, play 3 hours, tear down & pack up equipment, and drive back home, for wages that haven’t really changed since 1975. And it’s not like they’re playing to 300,000 screaming fans. Often, it’s a tiny pub or dive-y bar with 20 chatty texting “beautiful people” (or 10 loud, obnoxious drunks) who think of the band as little more than an animated jukebox.

When I watch Ray play, I know he feels it too, that mystery, though he doesn’t feel compelled to examine it the way some overly analytical, can’t-leave-well-enough-alone woman might. Me, I got a million theories…

…like the standard psychological stuff: need for attention, compensation for lack of attention, need for approval, compensation for unmet emotional needs, delusions of grandeur, etc. etc. I’m not too proud to admit these all figure in. But I’m smart enough not to quit my day job. There’s no money in live music, not unless you sell your soul for stardom (uh...Mellencamp, Neil Diamond, Helen Reddy?). And there’s certainly no money in poetry unless we revive the wealthy benefactor system; that’s right, I’d do private readings in a corset, push-up bra and powdered wig if it paid a handsome monthly salary and included a velvet settee.

…like the need for an audience. I know folks think performers just want people to look at them. But if that were the case, I’d write rhymy, Hallmarky, funny or overly sentimental poems, because these are the poems people want to hear. Or I’d sing only Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline or Aretha Franklin (sorry, Aretha) songs, because these are the songs people expect women to sing. Who wants to hear a poem about the burning of Joan of Arc or listen to an obscure song by Jane Siberry? It’s like wearing your lime green and yellow plaid jumper in junior high when everyone knows neutral solids are in. Everyone. Duh.

…like the fact that I’ve been performing since I could first form words. Singing “White Coral Bells” or “Row Your Boat” in rounds with Mom and my brothers was SOP for backyard work, family gatherings, dinner table. One of my earliest memories of my dad is him crooning “Autumn Leaves” or “Fly Me to the Moon” in the car, and us trying to sing along. And the closest I got to a religious experience at Twin Brooks Bible Camp (what were those counselors doing after lights-out, up over the hill?) was my teary daily wailing of “Old Rugged Cross” in the chapel.

…like it’s a healing thing, a vibrational thing. It’s chakras popping open. Sometimes when I’m singing, a little tremor starts in my sacrum, rumbles up my spine, lights up my solar plexus, shivers my brainstem, swirls around in my cranium for a nanosecond, then pours out my mouth like holy water. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying it’s so gorgeous that people in the audience are spontaneously baptized or grow extra fingers. In fact, sometimes it’s off-key, dragging behind the beat, and croaking like frog calls. Even then, though, it trembles in my bones and makes me feel blessed. In those moments, it’s just me & the waves. It can literally make me cry, it feels so good.

…like it’s pure physiology. Singing and reading aloud stimulate the frontal cortex in the brain. Therapists use them to ease stuttering. Some innovators are even using singing, “Melodic Intonation Therapy,” to re-wire the brains of stroke patients so they can regain lost speech.  Singing, according to neurology prof Gottfried Schlaug, fosters deeper connections and new pathways between brain hemispheres. See So maybe I just like that wiry whole-brain supercharge.

But really, in the end, I think it's about release, about letting go. We take SO much in: responsibilities, obligations, frustrations, work, worry, sorrow, anxiety, disappointments, fear. Singing, and to a lesser degree reading poems, is an outpouring. When I close my eyes and sing, I can breathe. Seems ironic, I know, since singing actually requires more breath. But once the anticipation jitters are gone—almost the instant the song starts—everything else is gone and I’m as relaxed as I can get while upright and awake. Singing at home doesn’t get me there, either; part of me is just too aware that I can stop at any moment to put the wet clothes in the dryer, start the dishwasher, grade another paper. And the awareness causes tension. At a gig, though, there’s nowhere else to go, nothing else to do except let it out. No phones. No work. No worries. Often, no audience. Just those notes, the rhythm vibrating in the soles of my feet, the humming in my rib cage, the song. The beautiful, beautiful breath. Ah[ohm].

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Summer

It’s finals week at Little Town U., and since I don’t have finals to give, I’m in that magic, brief lull between brutal Semester’s constant pounding, the pile of portfolio grading on my desk, and the wantonness of spring gardens that need squelching before they go all jungle on me.

I’m not teaching this summer. For those who think “school teachers are slacker pansies, with their summers off,” this is my first summer off in probably 20 years. I’m all a’jitter with possibilities and have started a to-do list. I won’t get to all of these; I’m great at making lists, but I seldom look at them once they’re made. In fact, I usually lose them. It’s as if just listing something is accomplishment enough. I also have a teensy weensy stubborn streak, and my list is not the boss of me, dangit. But here’s what I’m dreaming up:

1. Spend time with my family – Ray, Mom, the kids, the grandkids. So many patio BBQ’s, hugs, swaddles, zoo trips, belly-laughs…so little time.

2. Roller skate – someone brought up Skateland in Omaha recently. I spent many hours there in junior high, whizzing around the Big Circle, dodging potential gropes from pimply boys and girls, checking my hair & makeup in the bathroom mirror...good times. I still have my childhood metal clamp-on skates, and I’m pretty sure my muscles remember the moves. If I find my skate key, watch out.

3. Plan a trip to Ecuador – my brother and his wife have a condo in the mountains, not far from Quito. How cool would it be to hike, take photos, and write there? If plane fares ever come down to school marm affordability, I’m so there.

4. Do a Buddhist meditation retreat – I’m looking at Shambala Mountain Center in Colorado for 2 days. It’s a retreat for beginners, a sort of total immersion “learn to meditate.” I’ve attempted meditation off and on for 30 years and have read practically every book ever published on the subject, but I’m hopeless at stilling this mind. It’s scary inside my head. I can spend 15 minutes thinking about how cool it would be to stop thinking for 15 minutes. In spite of my own ineptitude, I’m convinced that meditation is essential to direct, first-hand experience of spiritual truth; I don’t know what “it” is, but I know there’s something, and I’m pretty sure meditation is the key. Sadly, I have a couple of vices I should tackle in order to get myself as clear as possible before I go. Like procrastination and caffeine, both of which I’ll work on. Later.

5. Paint – My kitchen is pale steel blue. Right now, I have swatches of banana cream yellow and rose mauve painted on my white living/dining/music room walls, one big, open L-shaped space. I’m gonna paint these walls in spite of the fact that I have the interior design skills of, say, a small burrowing rodent.

6. Go to Village Inn at 3 a.m. – You know how, if you live in an old rented farmhouse with a bunch of hippies, sometimes you get up at 3 a.m., turn on the kitchen light, and all manner of seedy nocturnal wildlife scurries for the cupboards? Yeah, well that’s Village Inn at 3 a.m. It’s an amazing, revealing study in the diversity of human life and in one’s own capacity for unconditional compassion. With coffee.

7. Re-do my downstairs bathroom – My bathroom is tiled with small blue ceramic tile, floor-to-ceiling. I’ve never tiled before, so this oughtta be fun. My friend G does remodeling for living. She’ll help, right? After all, what girl doesn’t like wielding a hammer and crowbar?

8. Work on the new poetry manuscript – It’s well underway but needs some dedicated, daily work. Printing a book myself is getting too expensive, and I’m too impatient to send my stuff out to publishers/journals hoping for that 1 in 500 nibble, so I’ll bind this one in old leather tied with ribbon, for someone to “discover” long after I’ve gone on to pen celestial poems (or fiery manifestos). Publishing's awesome, but it's the making that matters.

9. Make wine – Ray got me a deluxe winemaking setup last Christmas. Our acreage is wooded with wild plums. My friend V has been making wine for a while now and knows the drill. It’s a perfect storm of wine-making wizardry.

10. Write a song – songwriting and poetry writing are two different animals. I don't care what Raffi says--good songs are not sung poems. Songwriting uses a different part of the brain, I think, one I may have burnt out in my angst-filled adolescence. I’ll try the gear-shift, though; the peacocks will be my test audience. Poor, poor peacocks.

11. Spin – Speaking of meditation, one of the most meditative things I know of is spinning. Not the hard-body, maniac biking kind—the peaceful Sleeping Beauty kind. I have an Ashford spinning wheel and at least 3 Rubbermaid tubs of every possible kind of wool, camel, silk, dog hair, angora and llama fiber. I could spin enough yarn to knit socks for every peacock & tree on the farm. See

12. Garden, can, dry, freeze – Prairie people have an instinctual need to put food by, to stock the larder. We know Jack Blizzard’s sniggering in his sleeve, just waiting to catch us without venison, flour and potatoes.

13. Relax – I love silence, but I’m no good at idleness. So one of my main objectives for this summer, and probably the hardest task on my list, is to learn to relax. To sit. To watch. To listen. To breathe. To breathe. To breathe.