Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stomach Flu

A nasty stomach virus ripped through our home this week, upending routines, temporarily transforming relationships, humbling each of us by reminding us how vulnerable we are, not only in our bodies, but in our illusion of control over our lives. The fiercely private and independent teenager, for a few miserable hours, is reduced almost to her helpless infant self, weak, utterly dependent on and grateful for the care of her usually unbearable parents. Those who cannot attend school, but most mornings resent rising in darkness, want nothing more than to board the early bus and go; those fortunate healthy ones who can attend school, who unfailingly want to be present and engaged at a desk among peers, long to stay home and bear witness to the mortification of the flesh. All who have not yet been brought down wonder if and when their turn will come, if that twinge of headache or fleeting off taste in the mouth marks the onset of the ordeal.

I, mother and caretaker, am left—loads of laundry, wholesale applications of disinfectant, and many urgent fetchings and carryings later—mourning the fleeting glimpse of a earlier bond, an unconscious and unmediated acknowledgement of the terrifying interdependence and overwhelming love between parent and child.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, February 15, 2010


I sew on the button eyes and Pepper sparks to life. She looks at me with silent anticipation. She knows her purpose. Whom will she comfort in the days ahead?

When I give Pepper an honest once-over, I notice her legs are too skinny and her torso bulges in all the wrong places. She’s not exactly symmetrical. Nonetheless, she is comfortable in her own skin. She is ready to serve, to love, to listen. I admire her centeredness even though her head isn’t on straight.

I can learn from Pepper, the sock monkey, a gift for my 2-year-old niece. Pepper doesn’t let her imperfections interfere. She goes on being herself –squeezable and one-of-a-kind.

Steph W, for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

If You Haven't Got Anything Nice To Say...Say What's On Your Mind Anyway

I’m a little hard pressed today to say much since I’m in one of those skin crawling, anxious/irritable moods. If I were three, I’d be whining or I might stomp around. My throat would ache. I might break something that isn’t mine just because I feel like it. Or shave off my eyebrows. Probably best to put myself into a self-imposed time- out until I snap out of it. A week ago I was in a nice juicy flow, feeling generally strong and calm and grateful for everyone and everything in my life. Today I want to break glass. Maybe it’s Menopause (sung to the commercial jingle tune of Maybe It’s Maybelline).

My irritation is partly barometric. In Bloomington, Indiana, they called off school last Friday in response to warnings that the storm of the century would slam in to us. It missed— barely brushing us with its frosty fingers. A couple of inches fell twelve hours later than predicted. But the whole town stopped for a day. Waiting. And so things were put off. We lost our good sense to get our work done. Hours were lost to television weather reports, walks across the room to see if anything was freezing on the car windows. Getting up. Sitting down again. And by the time it did start to stick, it was time to venture forth to a show I didn’t have tickets for. I did NOT want to mobilize.

But venture forth I did. Not without some low pressure anxiety on my part and gentle prodding and an offer to drive from my friend, Carol. She felt optimistic and fearless about going out in a wintery mess. My impulse was to continue to sit. To wait. To wave a feeble flag for nothingness and not-doingness. I’m ashamed of this, given that I truly wasn’t engrossed in any other meaningful activity in my house-bound state and given what I might have missed and the fact that my husband and some very good friends were IN the show… but it’s the truth.

The show, (Woody Guthrie’s, American Song), made me momentarily happy. Thank you Carol. Thank you cast and crew. I watched family and friends pick guitars,play and sing songs most of us have known most of our lives. Masses of folk showed up in spite of the weather. I felt the triumph of the community arriving for one another snowfall- be- damned. And inside the warm space of the music hall (ok, a church) I forgot that I’d spent the better part of the day completely disengaged from my self and others.

Maybe my tooth-grinding irritation is a purely self-indulgent perseveration on my own shame. I ask people so often to show up, to engage, to sing along even when they think everyone in the room is listening and they're sure they can’t sing. I've exposed my own resistance to being out in the world, my failure to walk my own talk. I’m showing my ass; exposing my limitations when it comes to showing up –particularly where crowds are concerned. It’s always been big work for me. Tiring. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve got issues with the "being seen" part. A big narcissistic piece of me still wants to hide behind my Mother’s skirts because I’m sure you’re all looking at me and I can’t really take it. Another part of me knows, on the cusp of my next changes and nearly 50, it’s not one bit about me. But old neuroses die hard.

Lots of us don’t want or enjoy the responsibility of showing up or taking the risks that engagement requires. Our culture sure isn’t picky about what it means to “engage”. Heck, engaging in the questions arising for me as I write this little essay are kicking my butt! I mean, how many of us sit for days in solitude waiting for our lives to take shape and become known to us? How many of us cannot even fathom the worlds we live in because we cannot fathom our own lives? How many of us cannot risk showing this vulnerability to others until life hands us something too big to bear alone. Even many of us do? It’s sad. My guess is there are lots of us. And there are so many more of us for whom circumstances, weather systems, war and forces of nature offer no choice but to engage in the bloody work of survival alongside of others doing the very same thing.

I realize as I write this that the hard times Woody Guthrie’s music gave voice to, Great Depression, Dust Bowl Refugee Reality and the forced communities that sprang up along the railroad tracks, brought people together in unfortunate circumstances -- unintentionally, but necessarily they found ways to share their struggles in their own words. And then more intentionally, no? People’s Movements rise out of dust. They are living things, just as the words and songs and art that come out of them live. Did the songs lead the way or did they follow? All I know is that people have been singing about their hard traveled lives since the first poet songmaker decided to declare her first rose-fingered dawn after a storm, or cry out his loss, chant her gratitude, or trill a tender moment.

Today, the sun is shining and I can smell the earth trying to come back to life underneath the crusty white stuff. I want to embrace that promise of spring, but predictions tell us there’s another bunch of snow coming our way. I’ve got a day full of important meetings tomorrow that might be put off again due to the weather. As my life has become ever-more dependent on things happening on time in the right sequence, and as my already legendary tendency toward control and order has led me down a predictable path, the mere prospect of having to rearrange another day has me on edge. Mini-Me still grumbles knowing full well my struggles are the struggles of privilege. Mini-Me wants an unobstructed way. She wants to get her blasted work done and resents the distractions of being trapped inside a snow globe.

The grump in me recognizes not much good or productive or life-giving emerges from complaining, from laziness or self-imposed paralysis… but I do want to tip my hat to the kind of ordinary “hard travelin’” lots of ordinary folk do. For the sharing we manage on whatever level we manage it. And for the tolerance to accept the woes of our fellow humans along the way with compassion no matter the relative scale of the woe.

The image shown here was drawn from the University of Texas Ransom Center's Sanora Babb manuscript collection and the California Migrant Farm Workers Slide Collection (Discrete Collection 191) in the Photography Collection. The slide collection is comprised of 221 black-and-white 35mm slides in glass mounts, taken by Dorothy Babb, the sister of the American writer Sanora Babb.

Beth for the Poplar Grove Muse 2/8/10

Monday, February 1, 2010

“We move ahead into the vast unknown, metaphor by trembling metaphor.” Thomas Cleary

Lately, I have been thinking about walking to school when I was a child. We lived near the end of a long dead end street and to get to school I had to walk to the top and take a right and walk about three more blocks on some sidewalk which paralleled a busy neighborhood street. At age 5, the walk was interminable, now I could make it in 15 minutes, but at age five it seemed to me to take most of the morning. How my mother could trust that I was getting to school is beyond any memory I have. I suppose there were other kids who guided me and with whom I knew to keep up, but any real memory I have of that long walk is a remembrance of myself alone.

Kids did not get rides from their parents then and there was no bus for us, we were walkers and I had not yet mastered the two wheeled bike that sat patiently in the garage. We had plastic book bags with pink handles. No backpacks like they have now. This slow meandering unremembered walk of my very young youth is something I have been trying to conjure from my past. I was never afraid of the walk, I was only lazy and the thought of those miles in front of me to the school bored me to death. I was not even particularly aware of time. Was I ever late for school? Early? Who were the people that walked with me?

Walking that tiny stretch of neighborhood street became a constant in my youth. On warm summer evenings in high school, I slipped through the front door of my parents tiny ranch house to walk up and down, up and down the street, even at midnight. I was restless and full of ideas. I would walk and dream and write stories in my head to the beat of my own sneakered feet. I was oblivious to all but cars coming, when I would dodge bright headlights and make myself invisible while their owners passed, in a hurry to get home after late nights at the bars. I was not scared or unhappy, I was simply restless and wanted to move. I needed to fuel my late night imagination with cool air and stars. I wrote stories in my head. Vivid detailed fantasies of other lives I might lead or other people I might become.

Walking has been both myth and metaphor for me through the years. In college, on the shores of lake Michigan, I would come home after a night in the library, drop my backpack and begin to walk. Listening for the sounds of the lake reaching up over the rocky shore. Sorting through my day.

Walking for me in those earliest of years was never about physical exercise. It has been both flight and fantasy. It never occurred to me that I could walk for good health. It almost seemed to me that when I walked I was nobody, but that that was good. I could disappear from the folds of the earth for a few minutes. Capturing myself from above. Black stars, cool nights, and more than a thousand ideas to fuel me. I am sure the things that fueled me were about love. I had a hard time settling down to understand anything unless I was in the throes of unreciprocated love. When I had that excitement to hold onto, I walked and dreamed. It seemed love made me weightless and timeless and drifted with me through campus, lifted me up beyond the cold winds. These walks are the closest I have ever come to a lifelong dream of projecting myself out of body. The gift to look at myself from some astral plane—wings of angels tied to my back. I want an other’s perspective.

I have also been lucky to spend my professional career working on various college campuses. It is here near ivy covered walls and tree lined walk ways of Florida, Vermont and Indiana that I have felt most at home. Walking from one place to the next as I go from meeting to lunch to symposium. Enjoying the feel of swimming with youth as they make their ways through these beginnings of their adult life. I dream still. Not about love but about other things I love. My child, faraway places, a problem I am solving, how to fly, what to listen to if I should become invisible, who has the keys to the grail and how do I find it? Here, somewhere hidden in the brick and mortar of these holy places are my dreams. I enjoy especially coming to the campus after hours. When everyone has gone in and the place is silent. I am bothered by people who have created the boogeyman in places like this. Worries about dark spots and strangers. I am sorry they have to be out there and ruin our chances to experience the mysterious thrill of walking alone in these silent places: enjoying the ghosts that hang out between the stairwells and bronze plaques. Making us worry and install blue lights.

But still I walk to bring me comfort: stepping on cracks, greeting dogs, counting stairs, walking balanced on thin curbs, kicking the can, running my stick through a fence, watching for lost trinkets, enjoying the burst of buds in the spring and the green leaves of summer and the mantle of reds and oranges in the fall, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming...