Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Blackberry Picking

From a fast write during a summer writing workshop...

There was a vast woods behind my house and through the woods ran a long trail which we called the Indian Trail. Whether Indians really used it or not is unknown to me. I always imagine they did.  The woods was a bountiful place for playing.  When you followed that trail for a quarter of a mile or so it came out in field filled with blackberries.

In summer when the blackberries were out—early august or so, it was expected that you grab a bucket, make your way down the trail and pick as many as you could.  Because the briars were thick and the bugs were everywhere you generally had to put on shoes (something I rarely did in the summer) and long pants and long sleeved shirts.  I hated that.  It was so hot already.  But mother insisted that we get as many blackberries as we could before the birds or the other neighbors did.  Come to think of it, no one else was out there except us. 

Those were the day when property was not marked by no trespassing signs.  People could just go into fields and pick.  I have no idea who owned that land.  It has since been taken over by developers—those berries long gone under the blade of a backhoe.  But there we went…covered from head to toe, out into the evening hours when the sun was lower but the bugs were worse.  I can remember wading into brambles over my head, crouching down unable to move because every movement caught my hands and face and arms,  Scratching thin trickles of blood across my shins and ankles.  Bees buzzing in my ears, dragonflies as they whipped by my head.  I hated doing this.  Hated the heat and the scratch and the bugs.  Swatting, swiping, sweat trickling down my cheek.  Plunk after plunk of berries in the can.  Fill, filling, full.  Feeling victorious when I stumble across a pocket of rich ripe black fruit.  Trying to get them all without getting stuck. Reaching the highest ones, some eaten already by bees and birds.  Tracking back, down the Indian Trail, once spilling a whole bucket on the ground and frantically picking up the moist hot fruit in my hands.

Back home mother would give us big dishes of fruit doused in sugar, back when sugar was good for you, and we ate them and scraped seeds out of our teeth; she made ice cream with blackberries and blackberry pies.

I hated the expectation that I would go.  Hated  the heat and the work. Hated the bugs and the buzzing, always the buzzing, hated the thin trickle of sweat and that threatened feeling I had surrounded by brambles, no way in or out.  I loved the sweet fruit and the way it made my mother remember her childhood.  The way that made her happy in a way other things could not.

But now, like many things from summer, I wish I could go back. Wish I could turn the earth back over and grow the patch again.  Pick some blackberries one more time.

--Amy for the PGM

Monday, June 18, 2012

Where The Treasured Thing Hides

Note: When I arrived in Western Scotland in May of this year, I learned that birders come from far and wide to seek a bird called the Corncrake.  This plain brown creature has a distinctive rattling call, not unlike the sound a cricket makes on a summer evening, but in shorter bursts, raspy, a much- amplified echo in the air. You can hear it from far away.  Up on the high hill.  Under the yellow broom plant, in the sea grass.  Over there. No, there!   It's a dry, head-turning, percussive holler you hear as you walk along…”hey…HEY!”  When you turn to look, the bird is seldom seen.  There are people with fancy cameras and telescopic lenses all over the place on Mull and Iona, seeking the elusive Corncrake. 

Journal excerpt:  On Iona May, 2012
This listening is not first-time listening although I hear things for the first time.  A Corncrake, elusive bird, a little like a percussion instrument anyone can play (think Guiro… a small dry stick raked across a hollow wooden cylinder) It comes from the bush, the iris bog, from behind the stone wall, and is suddenly gone –or Craking up the hillside driving the birders mad.  The name alone makes me grin. 

This is not the first time I’ve heard lapping waves against rock…the distant laughter of children, church bells that might just as soon be a call to dinner.  Home call for so many, those bells, I suppose. Pipes rattle in the walls, footsteps creak overhead, baa and caw filter through my open window—most of these noises familiar enough, but all together here and now in this new context, they sound a brand new song. 

What brought me to Iona was the reverberation of this homing song in someone else’s heart and her conviction that I should hear it too.  We’ve got to take a writing circle there, Rebekah said in so many words.  And thus began a two year journey of manifestation that lead me here today.   

This next stage journey-beginning is, for me, about tuning my ears as much as my eyes, my nose, mind, and heart to the familiar wrapped in the unfamiliar.  Where the rock that pushes up to warm in the sun is as old as rock gets, where waves lap, gulls cry, sheep graze under the wash drying on the laundry line in the white cottage gardens, and invisible footsteps mark the spot where holy and hungry have walked together for centuries asking questions.  Looking for something.

This is where the murmurings of the heart play corncrake games; where the path to finding my words…true heart, soul home, new inspiration, requires the skill and patience of a birder who listens, waits, watches then follows.  Listens and follows.  Watching for movement underneath and over top of things.  Listening again.  Following the sound to where the treasured thing hides. 

Journeys are like this: Corncrake quests – a bit disorienting, destabilizing, and challenging to the daily status quo. I watch the birders traipse up and down the island following a yearning that won’t let go.  My particular yearning is still searching for a name.  It asks questions like “Why am I not happier?” “Where can there be more ease and flow in my life and in the world?”  “What needs attention so I can pay better attention?”  Simple enough, eh?

The writing part of this journey will help. May I be brave enough and curious enough to persevere.   The quest is in the questions.   The Corncrake calls. 

BLR 6/18/12

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Apple of His Eye

I had planned on writing about Iona for this blog post, but my dad kept tapping on my shoulder and appearing in my dreams. He passed away January 15, 2012. Initially, I was in relief mode because he had suffered horribly for two years and was no longer the big, strong dad I had known all of my life, but grief changes its face constantly and loves to catch you off guard.  It also sometimes puzzles you. I’ve known for a few months that I was really starting to miss him, but that didn’t feel like the whole story. I couldn’t quite name exactly how I was missing him.

I have been reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies and when I got to the chapter titled “Dad”, this amazing writer took her metaphorical hammer and hit me between the eyes. On this material plane I am no longer the apple of any one’s eye.  I am no longer daddy’s little girl. (He used to love it when I played a song by that name on the piano.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve walked around knowing that there was one person who thought I was beyond wonderful, who was proud of the woman I’d become, who loved me unconditionally. That’s the hole in my life.  The ache that I suspect will never go away.  It’s not a sharp pain, more like the headache that threatens when the barometric pressure is changing.

I can’t write about my relationship with my dad without bringing in my mother, because she did her best to destroy my relationship with him. I look just like him. My DNA is imprinted with his patience, his impish sense of humor, his love of family and his sense of right and wrong.  He was also my protector and tried his best to deflect my mother’s constant disapproval of me. That wasn’t always easy and I’m sure he paid a high price for it. If he did, he never said a word to me about it. He never said one bad thing about her as I was growing up. There are things I know I did that hurt him because my mother had such an influential grip on me. When I grew up and got away from her, he and I talked about those things. He understood and let go of it, most likely because he was the one of the few people on earth who understood the slyness of her toxicity.

He influenced how I parent my son. I learned from him the importance of honoring your child as the person they truly are, to always be there without intrusiveness and to love without strings.

Everywhere I turn there are reminders that Father’s Day is coming up. He loved getting cards from me, especially on a dad’s special day. Last year on Father’s Day he was in the hospital suffering from sepsis and unable to shave himself. I went out and got him an electric shaver. You’d have thought I bought him a new car. He was still telling me how much he liked it at Christmas time. It was something that made his life a little easier. This year I don’t think I can let the day pass without buying him a card. I will simply write Dad on the envelope, as I always did, and just drop it in the mailbox. I truly believe he will receive it. Love you, Dad.

Rebekah for the Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, June 4, 2012

Viva La Gubar

I have just come from a truly remarkable event, an evening program of the IU Writers' Conference featuring Professor Emerita Susan Gubar reading from her new book, "Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer," alongside her oncologist, Romanian poet Daniela Matei, reading from her collection “The Way Back Machine.” 

I worked briefly with Susan Gubar on projects that ended abruptly with her cancer diagnosis late in 2008. Since that time I have marveled at her deep humanity and insightfulness (both too often, in my experience, absent in people of great brilliance) and grieved her illness and the devastating experiences it inflicted upon her.

So, both personally, and as a writer and sometime academic, tonight was a joyful occasion, a reading from a searching memoir of cancer treatment into remission, and a celebration of the resilience of a beloved teacher and critic.

Susan Gubar (I understand her students call her, lovingly, “La Gubar”) is as gracious a human being as I have met.  She apparently only agreed to appear if her oncologist read alongside her, and Dr. Matei opened the reading. Her long title poem, read in English translation, evoked a nearly medieval childhood in the village of Sibiu under CeauČ™escu's Communist dictatorship.  Another, “Bloom,” spoke out of the freighted emotional territory of her oncology practice. Later in the program,  in response to an audience question about the poetry circle she met with under surveillance at university, she read an arresting poem, “Sex on the Tape Recorder,” narrating the sounds of a sexual encounter in her now-husband’s bugged dorm room under the recorded surveillance of secret police. 

Gubar offered a brief meditation on the exigencies of memoir and illness narratives. She questioned the “ethicality” of memoir, focusing on the potential violation of others’ privacy in any narrated event and observing that “certain information is not just only your information.” She was above all concerned with not hurting the feelings of well-intentioned participants in her medical odyssey. She moved on to explore the “constructedness of memoir,” citing the difficulties of conveying the tedium of treatment without replicating it, the challenges of describing physical horrors without horrifying an audience (she took license from Roland Barthes’ quip that "when written, the word shit doesn't smell”), and the demands of trade press publishing and its rigorous privileging of “happily ever after” narratives. Gubar also shared her ideas on the role of art in both memoir and her own grueling experience, as well as her personal  and publication-directed struggle for moments of lightening and affirmation in her memoir, as in her life. 

For Gubar, reading and writing have been a lifeline in sickness and in treatment; she referenced the art of Frieda Kahlo and the poetry of Emily Dickenson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Philip Larkin as offering incisive explorations of mortality.

A veteran of too many literary departmental and job talks, I was especially gratified by Professor Gubar’s elegant and gracious deflection of the obligatory monologuing, self-referential non-question question posed by an elderly male colleague during the final audience discussion. She was poised, humane, and generous in redirecting the event away from a dreary self-reflexive exercise (an impulse her work and teaching have always modeled constructive alternatives to) toward a well-earned celebration of art and life. As an eternally-recovering English graduate student, a cancer survivor, an admirer of “La Gubar,” and a human being, I can’t get enough of authentic, generous, humane celebrations of art and life. 

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse