“Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.” ~ Carl Schurz

Sun Reflected in Frosty River

 

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston from Dust Tracks on the Road

Well, we survived Thanksgiving and my mother’s lovely running critical commentary throughout dinner. Had a bit of a snafu though: Alexis overslept because her electricity went out during the night, so her alarm did not go off, and as a result, the turkey went into the oven rather late. Since it was a 20-pound turkey, we didn’t eat dinner until 8 p.m., which doesn’t really bother most of us because we tend to eat late, but my mother was beside herself.

I called her at 2:30 to tell her that everything was going to be late and suggested that she eat a small meal, but that didn’t stop the bitching. “What do you mean . . . why? . . . how did her electricity go out in the middle of the night . . . I’ve never heard of such a thing . . . I can’t believe this . . .” Unfortunately, we could not cook the turkey here as we are still without natural gas, and our oven is a beautiful, large gas oven that is sitting unused, but that my friends, is a different saga.

This couple couldn't take the time to put on clothes

So the waiting became too much for eldest son as he had an urgent need to get to his girlfriend’s house; we sent him on his way with our blessings and suggested that he check back in later, although he didn’t.  In spite of the delay, dinner was delicious, not way too much food as it used to be, and we had open-faced hot turkey sandwiches on Friday night for dinner.

The madness that is Black Friday did not leave the country unscathed. No stampedes at Wal Marts this year because the stores allowed shoppers into the building; the catch was that no one was allowed to touch the early bird specials until 5 a.m. Everything was on pallets and covered with plastic. I know about this not because I was there (Wal Mart the day after Thanksgiving? me? shudder), but because Alexis’s friend Jennifer went and was out by 5:40 a.m. in time to go to work. Amazing.

I didn’t read any stories about fights in the aisles or mayhem, and the American consumer seemed to be more willing to part with dwindling cash, somewhat. Preliminary data show that shoppers deposited almost $41.2 billion into retail coffers (oh to have just .001 percent of that), this according to the National Retail Federation.  But the madness that normally plagues the pages of the news seemed to be less this year.

There was a shooting in which a man killed his adult sisters and a 6-year-old cousin on Thanksgiving day; another man locked his children in the trunk of his Trans Am while he ran into a sporting goods store (“They like to play in the trunk”). However, the most horrific thing that happened over the holiday weekend state side was the shooting of four Seattle police officers in a coffee shop early Sunday morning. The officers were sitting at a table with their laptops preparing their day when 37-year-old Maurice Clemmons walked in and opened fire. No other patrons were shot, only the officers. For more details on this story, click here.

“To receive everything, one must open one’s hands and give.” ~ Taisen Deshimaru

A Salvation Army Kettle

Oh, and one more on holiday cheer and good will towards all: In Toledo, Ohio, a man grabbed a Salvation Army kettle full of donations and pushed the bell ringer to the ground. Supposedly the man said, “I can’t stand you and your bell-ringing. I hate Christmas.” Clearly, this year’s winner for the Ebenezer Scrooge award. Personally, I love to see the kettles, but I miss seeing real Salvation Army members ringing the bells. I always try to put something in at least a few kettles each year.

And by the way, the rumor that bell-ringers receive part of the kettle coffers is absolutely false. Bell-ringing is done by civic organizations, scout troops, schools, etc, but the Salvation Army does employ people from shelters to be bell-ringers. These needy individuals receive minimum wage to stand out in the cold, snow, and rain collecting donations that are used to fund the Salvation Army’ s many charitable programs, including shelters, meal programs, after-school programs, to name but a few.

“You’re the love of my life
And the breath in my prayers
Take my hand, lead me there” ~ Dave Matthews Band

So with the one holiday over and the big one looming, Corey and I are in a kind of stasis. The bills continue to pile up, and the money continues to be non-existent. We have a huge payment due to the power company in just a few days, and absolutely no way to pay it. It’s hard to think about putting up Christmas lights when there might not be electricity to power them.

So that’s what I mean about stasis. We cannot really do anything as far as decorating until the living room undergoes a major clearing, but that is dependent upon painting the bedroom, and I had forgotten that one of the reasons that we didn’t move  the very heavy bureau into the bedroom before this is that the bedroom needs to be carpeted. Once that huge dresser is in place, it’s going to be very hard to move it. So do we wait to paint until we can carpet so that we move everything once? Do we move everything twice? And who is this we I speak of, Kemosabe . . .

I must admit that my recent renewed addiction to home renovation shows is not helping with my complete dissatisfaction with the state of our house. There are so many things that we could do to make the house better, less cluttered, easier to get around in if we just had a little cash. Having said that, using cash for renovations has to take a backseat to using it for bills, so once again, the infamous Catch 22 comes into play.

Oh well, moving along . . .

“We clasp the hands of those that go before us, and the hands of those who come after us.” ~ Wendell Berry

Brett's Hands

I have been thinking of hands lately. Don’t ask my why, but  I have. Hands that are moving through the air. Sunlight glowing through hands. Babies’ hands. My children’s hands, which are very much like my own. I have very long fingers, which was great when it came to playing the piano, and all three of my children have long thin fingers.

I remember my father’s hands. He had a degenerative condition in his right hand that caused the muscle to atrophy, so much so that he had to use his left hand to turn the ignition in his 1966 Ford Falcon.  I remember more than once looking at my father’s hands, so bent and worn with age and work, and being just amazed at how much those hands had accomplished over the years.

I really don’t remember anything that my father couldn’t do when he tried. He built things around the house, sewed things, fixed things, worked on his car (all of the time), and maintained the engines on those huge cargo ships that traveled all over the world. I know that my father was very good at his job because he had ship captains who routinely requested him.

In the end, when he was in the hospital, it was his hands that I watched. So small and shrunken, they knitted the sheets to and fro. This man who was never really still his entire life was working even in the midst of his morphine dreams. Watching that automatic movement day after day almost broke me.

But my thoughts about hands are not all painful. In my mind’s eye I see a pre-school craft project that Alexis made: a piece of muslin with small green handprints in a circle, forming a wreath. I still have that. Brett’s hands, specifically his thumb, which he sucked when he was a baby. I never really fretted that he sucked his thumb because I knew that he would stop when he was ready. Nine-year-old Eamonn’s long fingers scooped around a basketball, his slightly crooked smile as he stood for his team picture.

These memories are good memories. I can take the memory of my father’s hands when it is balanced against these memories from my children’s earlier days.

My hands when I had long manicured nails

I look down at my own hands as they skate aross the keys: long, thin fingers, the one vein on each hand that has always been prominent, cuticles a bit ragged from worrying them unconsciously. These hands have touched piano keys and computer keys; they have brushed my daughter’s long hair and finger-combed my son’s waves. These hands have held four babies, cupped their small heads and massaged their backs. These hands have polished a thousand pieces of furniture and cleaned thousands of dishes. They have planted countless flowers and strung colored lights year after year.

These hands are my strength and my weakness: For everything that these hands have allowed me to do, they have also felt the pain of being idle at times when doing something, anything, would have helped.

These hands stroked the soft dark hair on my daughter’s head as she lay dying in my arms, but these hands could not stop death. These hands held my father’s small, curled hands as he lay sleeping in a hospital bed, but these hands could not keep the pain at bay nor force death to wait.

These hands have held newborn babies, and puppies seconds from their mother’s womb. They have stroked the flanks of a chestnut mare and loosened the bolts in an engine. They have turned the pages of thousands of books and held countless cups of tea and coffee. Each morning, these hands move across a face that belies its age, while fingers probe for wrinkles that have yet to appear. These hands stroke Corey’s cheek when he is asleep, and rub the belly of my fat, spoiled dog as he lays snoring by my side.

Everything that is or has been me is within these hands, and when I hold them up to my eyes when the summer sun beats down relentlessly, my fingers seem to glow with life, and I am reminded of that scene in the old movie Ladyhawke when Isabeau raises her hands to the morning sun just before she transforms into the hawk.

I have my father’s hands. My desire is that when I am in the dusk of my life, my hands will have created more than they have destroyed, that they will have caressed more than they have repelled, that they will have calmed more than they have worried, and that they will have written a million words, filled with the myriad sides of myself, my life, and those who have used their own hands to help me, guide me, hold me, and teach me along the way.

More later. Peace.

This video of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” somehow seemed appropriate.

 

 

The Poems, the poets, the writers

When I was teaching at Old Dominion University, I had the good fortune to meet many different poets and writers over the years. Each year, ODU was host to the annual Literary Festival; in addition, the English Department hosted an annual visiting writing series, which has now evolved into a visiting writer in residence. There were writers and poets such as William Styron, Gerald Stern, Maxine Hong Kingston, Galway Kinnell, W. P. Kinsella, Carolyn Forche, Maxine Kumin, Tim O’Brien, Bruce Weigl, Toi Derricotte, Christopher Buckley, and many, many more.

The Literary Festival was always a predictably busy week in the department, and I could count on at least two things happening: I would get my fall cold, and I would spend lots of money on books by new authors whose readings I had attended. Christopher Buckley was not a Festival reader; he was a visiting writer who my friend and office mate Mari had invited to read, which made me exceedingly lucky. I had direct access to this wonderful writer. The two of us, Mari and I, took him to dinner before his reading, and then I had the privilege of introducing him before his reading. Introducing a poet is no small thing. You must be familiar with his background and his work if your are going to do him justice, so I did not do an off-the-cuff introduction. I prepared and made notes because I did not want to slight him and because I truly loved his poems. After his reading, I ended up buying every title that he had brought with him so that I could get all of them signed. In them, he urged me to keep writing. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not.

I have many reasons/excuses as to why I have not kept up on my writing. Some legitimate, most not. And now with Google, I can put in names of others who were in workshops with me, or who came after me, and see just how far they have come. Buckley has won a Guggenheim and deservedly so. He has written six or seven more books since I met him. I have sent nothing out to be published. Fear of failure? Fear of success?

I really don’t know. I just know that if I don’t get off my ass soon, I’ll have died without ever having reached any of my goals as far as my writing goes, and that’s only because I won’t have tried. I’ve published, but not the things I intended to publish. The purpose of this blog is to exercise my mind, to flex myself creatively. And I believe that it is working, because I’m starting to come back to the memories that matter in my creative cortex, if you will. The literary festivals, the talks with writers, Christopher Buckley, lines that I wished that I had written, working on one line over and over, creating something like “My Father’s Hands” and knowing that it was good. Knowing that feeling again.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember–poems, essays, journal entries, long diatribes about things that make me crazy, musings about life. Words are to me what drugs are to an addict. I roll them around my tongue, taste them, hear them. I cannot live without them. I test phrases in my head constantly. Opening lines pop into my consciousness at all hours of the day and night. I wonder if this happens to other people, and then I realize that of course it does, but other people do things with it. And that’s what separates me from the ones who succeed. They actually do something past this step. They take the next step, and I am paralyzed on this one step. It’s as if I am still on my childhood porch, waiting for permission to leave, to go exploring in the neighborhood. But I know, deep in my soul, permission was granted years ago.

That first step is a killer, or it’s salvation.

My Father’s Hands

My father’s hands

are gnarled and time worn

Atrophy has eaten away at the muscles,

leaving his hands weak and small.

They remind me of a monkey’s hands –

brown and leathery.

These hands that have tended to so many machines,

fixed so many moving parts,

these same hands have stroked the hair on my sons’ heads

and lovingly cradled my daughter’s face.

With these hands he has planted generations of gardens,

patted down the earth around all of the tender shoots.

He has cast lines into many waters

and unhooked his catch again and again,

alone under the moon on warm summer nights.

These hands held the back of my first two-wheeler,

blue with silver fenders and tassels streaming from the handlebars,

before finally letting me go to find my way on my own,

and they have wiped the blood and picked the gravel

from my skinned knees,

patched my wounds, only to let me go again.

They patiently whittled the sticks to frame a homemade kite

that I had to have but could never get to take flight

and taught me the right way to pound a nail into wood

and make a seam true.

I have watched these hands make fine knots in a net

with the same careful tenderness

as when they held an injured dog as it lay dying.

And I watched these same hands pull a drowning woman

from a deadly current

with a strength I hadn’t known they possessed.

A world away in another lifetime,

my father’s hands wielded a rifle and a machete

in the jungles of a homeland that he left behind

but never forgot.

Now, I watch his hands move back and forth

in morphine dreams,

sewing imaginary threads through invisible garments.

I look on helplessly as they pleat the stiff white sheets

and knit them to and fro, over and over.

In the few moments when they are still,

I hold my father’s hands close to my chest,

against my beating heart –

they are so diminished within my own.

These hands

that have labored and loved

harvested and hewn

These hands are the man he was

and the life he lived.

And now that his days are waning,

I want nothing more

than to be taken back to that one innocent moment

when everything was safe,

and nothing could harm me

because I was cloaked in my father’s inviolable protection,

taken back to that instant

when he held the fender of my bike

and guided me on the path.

touched me on the shoulder once

before setting me free to find my way.

 

May 31, 2001