Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Cardboard Refrigerator Box

Assignment: write a short piece, a poem or fictional or autobiographical story, that comes from your ancestral memories, as far back as you can remember (as a child or adult). Tell us a story that gives us one or more specific ways of being you have inherited from your ancestors, and its effect on you. Look at this as an exercise in circling the universe you have grown up within, and try to express the largest circle of your life. Note what was strange, odd, weird, or bewildering - our ancestral memories, recovered – transform them into the richness of narrative

My Cardboard Refrigerator Box
     The year was probably 1955, so I was five years old. My home was a farm house set alone on a half section of family farm passed to my father from his father. It was dry farm land in central Texas and we were in the middle of a ten year drought. At the beginning of yet another thirsty summer, winds stirred up dust devils on the acreage between where the cotton was planted and where the maize was struggling to sprout. The most prolific crop that grew on our land was tumbleweeds. They were carried over and across the fields by wind that blew relentlessly. Howling winds also brought colorless grit into the house that settled on the window sills like a membrane of dust and sneaked into the cracked linoleum kitchen floor.
     About fifty feet east of the chicken coop was what I thought of as my play area. It was perhaps twenty feet north of the area where my mother vainly tried to grow purple iris, carefully carrying jugs of water to encourage their growth. From this vantage point, within sight of the kitchen window, the pecking chickens and the iris blades, I liked to sit and play on the packed dirt. I would create imaginary Lilliputian animals from limestone rocks and use paper dolls as characters in stories. It was a fantasy play world that my two older brothers did not share. They thought it not an active enough place for their world of playing cowboys and hunters. They ventured further away from the house where they could hide in scrub brush and mesquite trees that gave scant coverage for their war games.
     In my place among the rocks, tumbleweeds and hard packed dirt, I had laboriously cleared off a space where I could sit more comfortably on the ground without intrusion of goathead weeds and burr stickers that dominated my parched earth playground. Those thorns were a pesky part of outdoors, as were the cactus prickly pears sporting larger needles that also flourished within a few feet of my area. It was almost impossible to move around without some vicious sticker finding a way to burrow under skin.
     There were no trees to provide shade from the relentless, burning hot sun, so I chose to be in my area only in the early mornings or just before supper when the sun was low on the horizon. That was also a time when the wind slowed down just a bit, and the sizzling temperatures abated. When the wind quieted from its fearsome whistling at those morning and evening hours, the sandy dust would not blow into eyes so readily. Those were my times for playing outside, for make-believe and thinking of the future.
     I don't recall the purchase of a new refrigerator that year, but I clearly remember how excited I was that the corrugated box that crated the appliance was given to me after my brothers were through using it for target practice with their home made bows and arrows. The big target practice box then became mine and was dragged over to my area for a playhouse.
     Drawing pictures with crayons on school lined Big Chief tablet paper, I began to decorate the inside of the refrigerator box, making it my fantasy home. Someone (my older brother?) cut a hole in its side after laying the box horizontally, so I had a “real” window in my rectangular box. Inside, it offered shade from the bright sun and protection from the tumbleweeds and stickers. On my cardboard floor, I would lie on my stomach and look out, and claimed the box as my very own house.
     It is hard to believe that at the age of five, I worried about where I would live when I grew up. I had a sense of knowing that I would not live with my parents in the future, yet I worried how I could afford to live in my own house. I knew in the depths of my heart and soul that all the grown ups had paying jobs, and that there would be no more jobs in the future. I was absolutely sure that when I grew up, there would not be an occupation for me because all the jobs in the entire world were already taken.
     I envisioned forever living in this box, and how it would be to live without running water, how cold it would be during the wintertime. I had seen “bums” on the trains, the term used by both my grandparents and my parents who grew up in the Depression years, and I suppose I thought I might be like one of them, living in a box, without a job.
     My dad worked all the time, during the days farming and even at night when he taught, and we did not have much money. I knew life was hard and money was scarce. It must have been at this point in my distress when I finally brought up these concerns to mother.
     Mother came through. She assured me I would not have to live in a cardboard box, and it was not for me to worry about that these adult problems. When I confided my concern that all the jobs in the world were already taken by other people, she told me that those individuals would die by the time I grew to be an adult, and that I could have one of their jobs. Of course! Why had I not thought of this, that there was a job replacement mechanism already in place in God's world. Relief must have flooded through me.
     Mother told me of the Biblical scripture in Matthew that if God cared enough for the birds to feed and clothe them, he would surely care for me. That was the first time I recall that she brought up that message, and one she repeated many times during her life. I was reassured that I would get by when I grew up.
    That beat up, finally discarded corrugated box must have either been burned later when the fields were occasionally cleared by fire, or perhaps it was blown away into another cotton field. Whatever happened to that box, it was not longer my worry place.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Woman With Open Eyes

(this was revised after critiques from class members on 2/24/15; thank you all!)

I was in a skilled nursing facility for a visit with Claire who now lived there.  Inside her assigned room that she shared with another women, I walked past her roommate who was lying in bed.  I said "hello" to the first woman who shared this room, but as usual, she did not respond, this woman lying in bed with her eyes open.  I walked on past her and toward her roommate, Claire. This was my monthly visit to take the Eucharist to Claire, an elderly female church member. I wanted to help the church in outreach activities and did so by taking communion to those not able to participate during services because they were home bound or in a nursing facility.  For many years, Claire had been a vibrant member of the church and she still wanted to continue with her active faith, although she was now unable to drive. 

Now Claire lived in this nursing home, rooming alongside the woman who did not speak and who often just lay in her bed with her eyes open. Each woman had a single bed lowered to the floor with a thin blue plastic safety mat placed next to the regular foam mattress to prevent serious injury if either rolled over too far on their beds.

At 94, Claire was infirm in body and mind, but was grateful for my visit and a time to talk. On good days, when her mind was sharper than usual and when she was fully awake, she sometimes mumbled along with me as I said “The Lord's Prayer” prior to administering the bread and wine, symbols of Jesus' blood and body shed for mankind. 

On this day, as I glanced over at Claire's roommate, I noticed once again her unfocused eyes and wondered if she were actually seeing anything, or if she were in a state of wakeful sleep. If she were looking at what was in front of her as she lay on her side in bed, she would have seen only an unadorned white closet metal door.

Did Claire's roommate, the one with the open eyes, have anything personal in that closet? Were there any clothes, nice shoes, or any other clues that might reveal something of the woman's life? A single box of tissues was placed on the bedside table next to the blank closet door, along with some latex gloves and hand wipes. A solitary reading lamp took up space next to the box of tissues, but I had never seen it switched on for illumination. In fact, the harsh fluorescent overhead light was rarely ever on. It was as if no one lived in her half of the room. No personal objects could be seen that proved a personality actually occupied this space.

Juxtaposed next to the rich life of Claire, who had trinkets, piles of cards, opened letters and accumulations of photographs, the open eyed woman had nothing. Claire had snapshots and a “thinking of you” card on her wall space, candy at the bedside, books and pamphlets in stacks on little bedside tables overflowing with abundance. Claire had a wardrobe full of skirts and tops, gowns and shoes. There was so much plenty there; drawers overflowing with objects of significance. An embarrassment of riches in comparison to that of the woman with the open eyes. And Claire could talk your head off about her teaching career in the 1950's or about her family; she was never at a loss for words. Then there was Claire's roommate who said nothing and seemed to have no personal item for personality identification.

On those occasions when I entered the doubly occupied room, not another person had ever been with Claire's roommate except for occasional staff. And even that did not happen except when necessitated by an action made by her instinctive bodily functions. There were no visitors, and no small tokens of friendship were ever left behind for the woman 
with open eyes, not even an artificial flower in a vase. What had been the life of this woman before she was supine, before she had come to this place, before her misfortune had placed her here, I often wondered. There was no one I could ask to tell me about her; no staff member would be allowed to share information about her because of the confidentiality rule. I knew her name because it was on the little plastic room identifier alongside Claire's, two names with the room number printed underneath. Sometimes I would whisper her name in prayer, as if to evoke a primitive blessing on the spirit of the woman with open eyes.

On the wall of her confined area hung a rather tired, faded picture. It was placed on a nail high above arms' reach on the wall in the space assigned to the woman. The scene in the picture did not have a personal feel to it, and was likely provided by the facility, one found at a second hand store or donated from a family care giver of a previous patient. It did not give color or personality to the woman's personal space. The small, dingy, copied landscape was not even well painted, and was faded from the sun, layered with the accretions of time and grime. It simply filled a negative wall space with its wooden frame. The sun did not reach as far into the room as where the woman lay, so the wood on the 
frame must have been damaged in a prior time and place.

I had some familiarity with this room, as another person whom I had previously known had also been an occupant of this room. This other, different person had been assigned to me in the past when I was an active hospice volunteer with a visiting therapy dog. It had been several years since I had been in this same room, but for a different purpose.

Going back to my prior working life as a mental health counselor, I had learned to observe clients in a rather clinical manner in order to be an objective and helpful therapist. Do not become a friend with the person you are helping; maintain psychological boundaries; be helpful but not intrusive; do not offer advice; do not get too personal; keep your distance. All good advice and necessary guideposts for a constructive relationship between client and worker. And also in this case, now in relationship between volunteer church member and communicant.

Knowing the floor of this room had carpeting of a sturdy nature, I was aware my heavy clog shoes clumped weightily when I walked. The clogs made unfriendly, noisy sounds and besides, the shoes made me unstable, so unsteady that I had to put my feet down precisely, keeping my ankles from wobbling in order not to trip or waver on the short walk into the room to visit Claire. Another reason not to wear these heavy, serviceable shoes were because they had open sides that gave no ankle support. I was beginning to have weak ankles, prone to tripping over my own feet. These were the very shoes I was wearing when I had sustained a hard tumble just this autumn, bruising my leg and wounding my own ego with the knowledge that I myself was getting older and not so sure-footed.

Straightening my back and pulling my shoulders down, I still felt awkward carrying the oblong basket, the wicker scratchy against my arms. Since I knew nothing about Claire's roommate, I hoped I was not imposing our Christian faith on a woman who might have long ago given up on God. Not only did I feel a bit intrusive in this room, but I was also cognizant that wearing my jewelry, a bold sterling silver cross, might somehow offend the woman with the open eyes. Then again, I probably was making unfounded suppositions and tried to dismiss that niggling thought. I would not let that meaningful piece of jewelry be an impediment on this mindful communion journey today.

The woman in the bed had been in this recumbent state for months, a prisoner of thin mattress, lumpy pillow and well worn linens. “A prisoner on a bed” was a phrase that haunted my memory. This was what I thought each time my own daughter was hospitalized, sometimes for months on end, staying in bed and trying to heal physical wounds while the world turned on its axis, day after day.

Was this woman on the bed with her eyes open exiled by self-imposement and why did she not speak? Why did no one ever seem to visit her? Was she loved? Did she have family? Did anyone pray for this woman in a manner that she herself would have desired? I feared the answer would be “no” to all my questions. These questions haunted me. I wondered if my own small communion task trumped that of the purpose of the life behind those opened eyes, now low on the ground, low because the bed had been depressed for reasons of safety.

My visit with Claire now completed, with the liturgy symbols of wine and bread taken, it led me to think about food and water and how this woman was physically sustained. The woman might be out of my sight, but she was still a real presence in my

Thinking of nutrition, I recalled my mother, ill with cancer, drinking Ensure, a product with calories and nutritive vitamins so good for a dying body. The hospice nurses were kind, giving dollar saving coupons for the product, as if saving one dollar here or there would actually make any difference to the family budget. Besides, all mother ate was ½ can of creamed soup at noon time, and perhaps the other half in the evening. It did not take more than a dollar a day to feed that shrinking little frame of a body still called “mother.”

There was much more to cost of care than just the commodity that money conveys when caring for an ill family member, for there was a true and almost tangible psychic toll that also had to be paid in terms of stress and grief. Grief has the price of sometimes changing personalities, and often, the price of changing priorities. At the end of mother's life, my psychic resources had been depleted.

Was Ensure the favored drink of the woman with open eyes? Was she ever served sherry in the later afternoons like I sometimes had given my mother? Surely at this place where she now resided, such a treat was never offered. Sometimes the young woman working on her nursing unit who generally wore a brightly colored shirt with a tabbed collar might bring her a popsicle. It always turned into such a mess. It was too cold to eat, too burning with cold to lick, and always served in a paper cup. When the banana popsicle melted just enough to take a sip, down the sticky juice dribbled onto the front of her gown. I felt so very sorry for this woman.

Once I told my husband of the woman's eyes, those orbs that blinked but did not follow motion, and how the woman did not speak. The husband reminded her that even if one might be in a coma, one could still hear and comprehend what might be going on around her. So maybe next time I will see her, I will not be as restrained about my spiritual visit with Claire. Perhaps I will just say “hello” softly to her the next time I walk by her bed. If the woman with open eyes was still there. She likely would be as she had been there for many months already.

Maybe her open eyes were reflecting over her past life, a happy time in which memories were recalled, good times were being relived. Perhaps the woman was taking a much deserved rest from the active process of dying. And maybe this resting time with her eyes being open was a period when she was thinking about her prior years, her successes and maybe a failure or two, making silent amends for previous sins of commission and for sins of omission. And may be she was playing the role of the main actor at the center of a dizzying, spinning world in which she was part of a dance full of life and movement. Hopefully, she was at peace as she lay inert, and just perhaps she wanted to be left alone for a time of intense concentration on her dream life.

I wanted to be honest about my true motives around the nature of my fascination with the woman. I think it was because I she saw a bit of my future self in this woman. After all, I had two prior deceased husbands that often came to mind, along with self recriminations and shades of sorrow. And likely it was my fault that one of my daughters was estranged from me. These were weighty concerns that caused me constant internal turmoil.  I realized I was feeling sorry for myself as well as for the woman with open eyes when I thought about my own future.  A lot of psychological projection was happening here.

 After my next visit to Claire and as I leave, I will lean over the bed with the woman with open eyes who will be lying on her side.  I will look into her eyes.  I will bless her and offer a prayer for her well being. And I will believe that if in the future it is you who might wonder about my being in a similar state, you will also offer a prayer.  I pray my life will be reviewed with some compassion, free of blame, full of forgiveness and love, and ready for a new journey of living with eyes open to expanding possibilities.  This is my prayer for her as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Class Notes from Feb. 24

All information given here is attributable to Sandy Dorr (unless prefaced with "My notes").  Dorr is teaching a series of eight writing sessions in Grand Junction, Colorado

Notes: Discussed two poems by Ellen Bass, with emphasis on Irony and Ambiguity
  • "Looking at a Diadegma Insulare Wasp Under a Microscope" from Like a Beggar
  • "Birdsong from my Patio" from The Human Line. then these authors....
  • Annunciation by Meridele Le Sueur (Salute to Spring)
  • writings from The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, including the prologue by Elizabeth Kolbert (pp. 148-172) entitled "The Forest and the Trees"
from Dorr's Notes:

Irony...the reader's or audience's awareness of a reality that differs from the reality the characters perceive (dramatic irony) or the literal meaning of the author's words (verbal irony).  In Annunciation, we look at the irony present in a a pregnant woman's narrative during the 1930's, an American writer trying to understand trees and their significance to the world's warming, in a Peruvian forest, and a poet's attempt to understand the beauty of birds eating contaminated food, or a wasp whose head-polishing reminds her of a girl across the alley, brushing her hair

Ambiguity...A situation expressed in such a way as to admit more than one possible interpretation; also, the way of expressing such a situation.  Often writers intend some element of their work to be ambiguous, but sometimes create unintentional ambiguity, vague or confusing to the reader

1)  My notes from "...Wasp Under a Microscope":

Descriptions of the wasp's waist, the breathing of her thorax, brushing her hair almost like a human; all strange ways of describing actions of a wasp, but familiar.  She stirs up more than one emotion as we need differing emotions and feelings to keep us interested.  Oppositional forces make good writings and readings.

Actions and formations need to take place, as in there is a beginning, a middle and an end.  The more mysterious the transitions, the more interesting the read.

Looking at Ellen Bass, she goes from known truths and examinations to realizations of sorrow and tragedy. There is something Wrong in Paradise with loss, then at the end of the poem "Birdsong," the
songs impale the air: the opposition of despair, going on to hope

2)  My notes from "The Forest and the Trees"

She describes in a physical way what is happening across the world, giving explanations, theories, all fair and balanced
from page 157: Images: tree plots of 2.5 acres; she compares trees to teenagers running, then more comparisons of growth of trees to growth of children
from page 158: Images and distance: good uses and very playful as she enjoys the use of language
from page 163: imagery of "headlamps like coal miners"
from page 172: she has an "odd sense of pride"
Kolbert steps back, explains, often uses research in her writings for further impact

3)  My notes from "Annunciation"

Imagery is used throughout as in "I feel like a pear"  hanging ripe from the trees,

For next class on March 10: (copied from Sandra Dorr's handout)

  • Shawn Lowe (read her piece and respond)
  • A short writing exercise naming twelve important events in your life
  • Read as background to writing assignment the following "The Lover of Horses" by Tess Gallagher, an autobiographical short story (Sandy will email these)
  • First chapters of Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich (Sandy will email this)
  • "Veteran's Day" by Sandra Dorr, radio essay from The Milk of Paradise (Sandy provided on 2/24/15 in class)
  • All of these stories concern ancestral roots, each writer giving us her sense of struggle, joy and truth in what she has inherited from her family, told with certainty as well as ambiguity and mystery, sincerity as well as irony.    Note that what was strange, odd, weird, or bewildering in writers' lives - our ancestral memories, recovered -- transform into the richness of our narratives.
  • Assignment: write a short piece, a poem or fictional or autobiographical story, that comes from your ancestral memories, as far back as you can remember (as a child or adult).  Tell us a story that gives us one or more specific ways of being you have inherited from your ancestors, and its effect on you.  Look at this as an exercise in circling the universe you have grown up within, and try to express the largest circle of your life.

Critiques from my writing of "Woman with Open Eyes"

  • Need to use more verbs in writing, set the story as on a stage
  • Perhaps use first person throughout
  • Tighten up the story
  • Say what Nancy is doing sooner in the story, at the very beginning, her current role. what exactly?
  • Clarify her earlier role and how she knew to interact with "client" or "patient"
  • Why is she a volunteer?  for how long?
  • Use more intereaction among characters
  • use shorter sentences for tightening up
  • if the focus of the story is Nancy's focus, say it early on
  • Use more physicality in the bodies of the characters
  • Why was Nancy there?  Begin with explanation, don't try to let reader figure it out
  • Take out HCFA rules or else explain it; how did I know it was a good facility?
  • Too much railing and maybe too many "maybes"
  • Too much questioning...distracting
  • Write more about my faith that brought me to the woman with open eyes
  • Talk more about my visit with the person
  • Why did I not talk to the woman with open eyes if I knew her name?? Was that a turning point?
  • Why was I there as a Eucharistic minister and what is a Eucharistic minister?
  • Why not speak to the woman?  What prevented that?
  • Why write the story?  What did I want people to learn or hear?  Go more into motives
  • Use more adjectives, use more color; it all seemed grey and it seemed too stark, too cold
  • Give more descriptions of the roommate
  • Way too much detail of the product Ensure; cut lots of that out
  • More about what the woman would have been like if her eyes were opened during her life
  • The Post Script might be a prayer at the end for both the woman and Nancy

Sandy Dorr's specifics on "Woman with the Open Eyes" (paraphrased...)
perhaps use first person;  let's see what Nancy does, step by step, give her more to do so that the physicality of the story is more convincing. Her interior monologue is strong but we need a real physical structure and more of it.  The deliberate pacing builds suspense of the story.  In any work, the characters must undergo change.  Nancy needs to gain more insight after her visit.  What else might she recognize?    lots of notes on the and re-read for revision

Many thanks for all who read and critiqued !

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lenten Readings and Discussions

The Prodigal Son

the link is here:

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669, courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

(Not a part of writing class)

A discussion question I will try to answer is this:

2) In reflecting on the painting, Henri says seeing  “… the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before” (p4).
a) How have you been touched by the hand of the Father in your life?   How did your life change?

My response is here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ode to Our Owl

Our silent western screech owl has his needs
We thought to get him just the right sized box
He stayed for days, almost four, then a fox
Must have scared him on sev'ral night time feeds.
Whist I also provided birds with seeds,
Close watch with power ten bran new bi-nocks
Trying to feed the wrens tasty floc blocs
But not seeing our owl amongst the weeds.

Could he have flown because it was not time
To build his nest, it was the right season
For him to find more varmints, he succumbed
And went forth to another, dif'frent clime?
For whatever, it was his just reason
I only end by saying I am bummed.

(Italian sonnet)
Nancy McCarroll

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Notes from Feb. 17 Class

Personal Journal book ideas for writing:
  • random ideas
  • thankfulness pieces
  • images
  • similes
  • centering
  • metaphors (spilling over in rivulets of fire)
Definition of "enjambed" is when a poem continues in longer lines...Ellen Bass is known for enjambed poetry

When explaining difficult situations, usual of a personal nature, using the second person as narrator is effective (=you walk, you do, you see)

Effective way of starting a poem, essay, etc. is to use "Dear X:..."  not necessarily using the salutation, just using it as if you were writing to a person

Use opposite points of view to strengthen a story, juxtaposing the points of view to create tension

Use research to strengthen a story, give facts, show something interesting.  It could oppose the view of the writer, as well

  1. a concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure
  2. a concluding part of a literary or dramatic work
Look coda for when poems undergo a pronounced or invisible coda, or a repeated coda, ending sometimes on a fine point, or stepping back to give us a few last details

Use metaphors and images in writing; Leslie Jamison is great at this.  Examples of her good writing:
  • I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo
  • when bad things happen to others, I imagined them happening to me.  I didn't know if this was empathy or theft
  • empathy isn't just something that happens to us -- a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain -- it is also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse
  • I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for the better ones
Purchased EMPATHY EXAMS by Jamison today

Workshopping handout:

There are techniques to writing, just as in art or jewelry making, bird watching, singing, etc.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Sonnet

From The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco, a classic published in 1968 and still used as a reference:
Roughly speaking, any fourteen line poem written in rhymed iambic pentameter verse. However, there are two basic traditional patterns of the sonnet. 
The Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet is divided into an octave and a sestet. The octave's rhyme is abba abba.
He goes on to describe the sestet.  For my purposes, I will study the octave rhyming scheme.

     lines:     meters and rhymes:
  1.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xa
  2.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xb
  3.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xb
  4.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xa
  5.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xa
  6.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xb
  7.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xb
  8.      xx  xx  xx  xx  xa 
    9.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xc
  10.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xd
  11.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xe
  12.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xc
  13.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xd
  14.       xx  xx  xx  xx  xe

The Shakespearean or English sonnet is divided into three Sicilian quatrains and one heroic couplet, written in iambic pentameter measures.

 Lines     Rhymes       Word example

  1.           a                     green
  2.           b                     hot
  3.           a                     bean
  4.           b                     cot
  5.           c                     very
  6.           d                     loud
  7.           c                     merry
  8.           d                     proud
  9.           e                     penny
  10.           f                     shout
  11.           e                     many
  12.           f                     clout
  13.           g                     sweet
  14.           g                     meat
Traditional Example of an English sonnet would be Shakespeare's Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

by William Shakespeare

Here is one I found on the internet of a modern sonnet by Denise Rogers at this site:

The sonnet form is old and full of dust
And yet I want to learn to write one well.
To learn new forms and grow is quite a must,
But I will learn it quickly, I can tell.
And so I sit, today, with pen in hand,
Composing three new quatrains with a rhyme.
The rhythm flows like wind at my command.
The A-B-A-B form consumes my time.
But I’m not done until there’s fourteen lines.
One ending couplet, after three quatrains.
I’ve tried to write this new form several times.
The effort’s huge; I have to rack my brain.
But I persist, my fourteen lines now done.
I wrote my poem; my sonnet work is won.

Now I shall get to work on a sonnet.
Update at 11:00 AM on Feb. 11, 2015:

I am going to Phoenix tomorrow for a four day Scrabble Tournament.  Barbara Van Alen and Larry Rand will again be the directors.  It will be the 31st annual tournament there in Scottsdale, all of which Barbara has directed or co-directed. There are monetary prizes, door prizes, and claim to fame bragging rights in six different categories of achievement according to individual ratings.

Here it is my sonnet written for the games beginning on Feb. 13, 2015:

A Sonnet to a Scrabble Tournament

It's off to Scrabble Thursday I will go
To Scottsdale where the clime is very hot
To try and put together words that flow
And maybe use some words that I'd forgot.

Surprising those opponents ever new
Using high value tiles, oh please, oh please!
With words that from their mem'ries maybe flew
To fling down on the board...effortless ease

Just let him challenge esoteric words
Only to see the challenge not prevail
For nonetheless we are all wordy nerds
And each time Z Z Va might say "no fail"

So wish me luck on February games
And also bring to others goodly fames.

(go to this post for more information about the games last year in Phoenix)

* (Z Z VA is a computerized word judge showing either "acceptable" or "non acceptable" words in play)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Spina Bifida: Pivotal Decision

It was September, 1970.  I was twenty years old, at the end of an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.   My then husband and I we were both students at The University of Kentucky, so the timing was not optimal to start a family. We were stone cold broke.  I was way too young to become a mother, but there I was, largely pregnant and facing birth.  

It was in a lovely time of year in Lexington with the leaves turning shades of red and orange and yellow, the horse farms looking like picture post cards.  Classes had just started for the autumn term at UK. But I had not enrolled because I was near term for the baby's birth and would have to take care of an infant.  I was resentful that I would have to interrupt my education to become a full time mother.  Having someone else care for this new baby was not an option, given the cost involved.  And I was not that heartless that I would let someone else give care to my future child.

Disliking babysitting, except for the measly money it provided while in high school, I really had never thought about being an actual mother to my own child.  In fact, up until that time, preventing pregnancy had been my only concern as it related to children.  And here I was about to give birth to a child.

At least I was married and would not be a single parent and having a child without a father. There was a measure of solace there.  

And my husband was smart, an intellectual in every sense of the word in my then rather immature way of thinking.  He had just finished his M.S. degree; he was reliable.  Even though he also believed impending fatherhood would be a hiccup in his career, he had accepted responsibility for my pregnancy and was ready to move on to his next stage of life duties.  At the time, he was about to be drafted into service by the Army because his lottery number was to be called during the next month after the completion of his graduate degree.  This was during the Viet Nam war years and he really had no other choice that to be recruited for a two year stint.  I was to live with my divorced father in Texas while my husband served his time in the Army.

Literally, we were broke. If it were not for my mother-in-law sending us a $5 bill in her letters, almost weekly, we would not have enjoyed those hamburger treats from McDonald's on Saturdays.  I had finished my half time job, twenty hours a week, the prior month.  Both he and I had worked while attending university, but now I was not bringing in any money and he was awaiting his call from the Army.  We had to borrow money from his parents while we waited for the birth of the baby.  Had it not been for my mother-in-law sending us a $5 bill in her weekly letters, we would not have been able to afford our Saturday night dates of a McDonald's hamburger or go to an occasional movie. We were living on borrowed money just waiting for that baby to come.

We both had health insurance through the university, and I had visited the student medical clinic twice previously that prior winter because of stomach issues. After exams and blood extracted to run pregnancy tests, the first time that test had turned out to be negative.  (The physical issues later turned out to be acid stomach reflux.)  So the baby's birth would be covered by our student health insurance.  This was another plus on the balance sheet, but the minuses seemed to be way offset on this mental check list. 

Let me digress a few months and go back to the time when I learned I was pregnant.

A few days after yet another visit to the university health clinic during the spring semester of 1970, I was waiting for a call back on lab results.  I was working at my part time job at the university supply center when I got the call back from the clinic saying my most recent pregnancy test was positive.  I was so naive that I had to ask "Does a positive blood test mean that I am pregnant?" The answer was definitive.  The young man on the phone did not know how to respond when I said "I can't be pregnant because I use contraception." Hemming and hawing, he assured me that indeed, lab tests confirmed my pregnancy.  

I was very upset hearing this news.  After putting that telephone receiver down I went to talk to my supervisor, Mrs. Million.  She and I had a fairly close relationship and I wanted to share this devastating news with someone right then.  Mrs. Million was probably in her fifties, a mentor for me in many ways, a strong and sweet Christian woman with grandchildren.  She told me that everything would be all right, and that lots of young married women had babies that were not in their immediate plans, but things "worked out."  She may have even patted my hand or arm, but I do remember her hugging me, giving some reassurance that my future would be "OK" and that God would take care of us.  Although I felt this was a simple platitude of concern, she did give me some confidence that I could get through this motherhood gig.

So my second semester of schooling continued, and my belly enlarged.  I remember being a little embarrassed to wear maternity clothing on campus, feeling I was both too young to be pregnant, and thinking my peers assumed I had gotten knocked up.  Summer of 1970 passed, and it passed slowly because I was due to give birth the first week of August, according to the obstetrician. But I did not give birth until the first week of September.  Obviously, the doctors were fallible in their baby due date prediction.

Finally, the birth pangs began in the early hours of September 4, 1970.  My husband and I made our way to the UK emergency room with labor well under way.  After my hospital admittance, my husband went to get breakfast, believing he had several hours before the birth.  I was so mad at him when I was almost immediately wheeled into the delivery room, and then my obstetrician was called. So neither my husband nor my regular doctor was present when I gave birth to my baby girl less than an hour after arriving at the hospital. I was angry at them both for not being there with me.  Angry and feeling sorry for myself and hurting, I was already feeling isolated.

Then a final push and my baby was born.  It was a girl.  I had really expected to have a boy.  I was happy that the waiting and the labor was over now, and I knew the sex of the baby and could now call her by the name we had chosen, Juliet Parke. We would call her Parke.  So we now had Parke and we were a family of three. My husband still had not shown up in the delivery room and I thought "but it is just the two of us," harboring a bit of resentment that he had not been with me in the delivery room.

It was only a few moments after giving birth that I knew something was wrong, because they would not let me see my baby girl.  Several people in the delivery room were behind my back and were talking in low tones.  I asked if she were breathing and assured she was, and I heard a little cry when they were cleaning her.  A nurse took her into the next room, wrapped in a warming blanket. Whomever it was that was delivering the afterbirth did not talk to me.  I asked if there was something wrong with my baby because they had not shown her to me and he only said "yes, there is a problem, but I can't really explain in detail about problems your daughter may have."  It was a bit hazy after that, but another physician came into the delivery room a short while later and said that a specialist had been called and he would be in to see me shortly. Still my husband was not there.  And my obstetrician had not shown up either.

Then I was taken to a recovery room, and after that my husband came in from his pancake and bacon hospital cafeteria breakfast he had enjoyed while I gave birth.  He had talked with a doctor outside the recovery room and said that the baby had a birth defect, something wrong with her back, and that her back was not fully closed.  What the heck did that mean, I wondered.  Neither he nor I was allowed to see our child for many hours after her birth because she was being examined.  (I finally saw her when she was two days old when she was in an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit.  By that time, I was numbed from anxiety and too much knowledge about what might lie ahead for us.)

The physicians attending to her in those first hours after her birth at the UK Albert B. Chandler Medical Center came into my maternity ward room where I was taken a few hours after her delivery. It was late morning by that time.  The doctors, there were two, said they had come to discuss the problems our baby presented and the words "spina bifida" were said and explained.  She was born with a birth defect, called spina bifida, and it meant that her spinal column was not fused during the first weeks after conception.  This birth defect had occurred way back eight months before she was born, when I had been only pregnant for a few weeks.  I thought back to that time, about Christmas time in Texas in 1969.  What had I eaten then?  Was I sick back then?  Had I had the flu? Several times I was assured that this was not my fault and that I did not cause this defect.  We were told that this birth defect occurred in about one in one thousand live births.

Still, I had not seen my baby, Julie.  I asked if she was normal looking, "Yes, but her back has an opening in it.  It is called myelomeningocele, which means that it has a sac at the base of her spine that is protruding from her skin that holds her spinal nerves within the sac." One of these physicians then said my husband and I had to quickly make a decision: either perform medical interventions, or let nature take its course, with her death imminent within a few painful weeks or months.  Her dad and I were devastated.  Here I had not even wanted to be pregnant, and then something had gone wrong.  It was my fault, even though I had been told to the contrary.

We were then advised of many future difficulties which would inevitably occur if further surgical treatments were pursued, and with no guarantees of any success relating to her quality of life. We were told that she would be unable to walk, that she would use a wheel chair when the time came that she grew too heavy to carry, that she would not have bowel or bladder control, and that she would likely have hydrocephalus. This last piece of bad news was what I deemed the worst condition and one I was familiar with from my childhood since a neighbor's brother in first grade had “water on the brain” and was severely retarded. He did not talk and his tongue hung from his mouth.  His head was huge.  He scared me.
I remembered seeing that boy with the big head while I was a first grader.  I had seen him from a distance from the school yard playground and recalled my mother saying that it was a tragedy, and that he was just "born that way."  I was not to be afraid of him, and that it was just an accident of nature.  My mother said "poor boy."
It was about three hours after her birth that the specialists came into the post natal maternity ward and posed the question of what we wanted to do next. These “next steps” were to be answered by us, young, overwhelmed college students lacking most resources. We had never even planned on being parents, much less parents to a child with grave problems present at her birth. I was still having migraines from the epidural given to help me with her birth process, but clear thinking was requisite. Should the physicians operate now, or let nature “take its course?”

This was a true, heartfelt hour of decision making. Julie's father initially did not think we should go ahead with a surgical back closure as he knew that our future lives would be severely impacted if she were to continue to live. He was worried that he might not be able to finish his education and be prepared to teach at the university level.

But as a mother, my decision prevailed that hour when decisions had to be made, and I opted for not only the myelomeningocele surgery, but also for a shunting procedure on her brain to follow if necessary.  After discussion, my husband agreed to what we could for her, allowing necessary surgeries.

I clearly remember lying on my assigned hospital bed with another woman in the four-to-a-room maternity ward across the listening to this conversation presented by the neurosurgeon to my husband and me.  Standing around my bed were a nurse and a few teaching personnel from the medical school, with another new mother ward mate across the room. This ward mate had also given birth to a child, a healthy baby.  She had never received prenatal care and was from Appalachia; her husband told her when to expect the baby would be born by the cycles of the moon.  Brother, I thought.  She is from the back woods, no education, no medical care during her entire pregnancy, and here her sixth baby is perfectly healthy.  My baby, on the other hand, being a sophisticated young woman who tried to eat healthy while pregnant and had the best of prenatal care available in Lexington ... and my baby is damaged.   

Mrs. Appalachia overheard the entire conversation relating to our sick child.  The physicians and other personnel talked freely, with every detail about our child's future being laid out before this stranger.  I remembering thinking this was much too personal a conversation to have with a stranger listening to us.  Privacy laws were non-existent then.

I finally saw my daughter when she was two days old when she was in an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit and after her back was repaired to the extent possible.  (Our daughter's back was surgically closed when she was four hours old.)  Her eyes began bulging, and her fontanel was enlarged by the fourth day after birth.  She was hydrocephalic, as are 95% of babies born with spina bifida.  Her first arterial ventricular shunt, a tube placed in the cranium to help recirculate cerebrospinal fluid from around the head and back to the spinal column, was placed when she was four days old.  She had a little shaved head, and the shunt worked, relieving the pressure from around her skull.  Her head went back to a normal size, with the top of the head becoming just a bit depressed in shape.  And her eyes were also back to looking more normal.  

Here is Julie at twelve days of age being held by a nurse.  This photo was taken the day she was discharged from the hospital.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Assignment for February 24

from Sandy Dorr, copied from her email:

This first email describes the readings, with one attachment:  a two-page prologue and a chapter, "The Forest and the Trees," from The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert.

So for this class on Feb. 24, we'll read Elizabeth Kolbert, plus a story,"Annunciation," from the 1930s' by Meridel Le Sueur, and two more poems by Ellen Bass. 

Elizabeth Kolbert is a New Yorker essayist with a wonderful sense of humor and an ability to tackle any subject with graceful storytelling and precision.  This book focuses on climate change through a series of reportorial, first-person essays wherein she explores different sites of warming in countries around the world.  I think that any writer at this point in time can't ignore the repercussions of the vast changes we're living in, so I wanted us to have one class where we discussed this.  In the prologue -- an exquisite example of how to cover centuries in two pages -- she mentions a chapter on noticing something changing and dying off in her own backyard.  The assignment is to see what you have or are noticing closer to where you live or travel. 

The second prose piece is Meridel Le Sueur, whose book, Salute to Spring, was blacklisted under McCarthy politics, and which gives us a very eloquent picture of life in the U.S. in the 1930s,' and her relationship to a tree in her backyard and a child growing within her. 

The two poems by Ellen Bass (email #3) are about what she is noticing in her backyard.  (We WILL read other poets, but I'm very taken by what Bass has been doing lately, and she is at the top of her form in writing and publishing right now).

The fiction and poems both have a quality of deep tenderness.  I can't ask writers to express a particular emotion in a writing assignment -- which simply requires what you are feeling about the subject -- but I would like you all to write a poem or a prose piece about what you are noticing in our changed climate, and see if you can create within the reader the catharsis you are undergoing on the subject.

Note to self: Use The Book of Forms and use CINQUAIN form, p. 56, an American form:Syllabic or accentual-syllabic.  Five lines long, the lines consist of two, four, six, eight and two syllable respectively. It is unrhymed, a set form of the QUINTET.  Originally the poem was written in iambs: one iambic foot in the first line, two in the second, three in the third, four in the fourth, and one in the fifth line.

Scheme in syllabics:

Line                syllables:
1.                    x   x
2.                    x    x    x    x
3.                    x    x    x    x    x    x
4,                    x    x    x    x    x    x
5.                    x    x
For similar forms, see HAIKU and TANKA

Using the above information:

Old Trees (NM)
Old trees
Cottonwood shade.
Leaves fall in summer time
We are alarmed to see this change
Why now?

They thirst
Nature's moisture
From mountain snow is less.
Last year they needed supplements
To live.

Times past
They thrived with creeks
Sending mesa snow melt
Supplying water from nearby.
Not now.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taboo Topic

Due for discussion on Feb. 17: a taboo topic
Empathy Exams: from Leslie Jamieson

This essay is what is often called a "braided" form, with different voices woven within it, using a structure of a series of medical exams, in which the narrator is at first an actor, then a participant.  There's a very deliberate use of repetition which I was impatient with, as a reader, to begin, and then I began to understand what the writer was up to.  Memoir can take so many forms, and this is a very intriguing one.  It may give you ideas as to how you want to go about writing a memoir; what from your life might you take to improvise a narrative structure?  How could you affect the atmosphere, the mood of the piece, with a different structure?  These are questions that get answered over time and with drafts, but are well worth thinking about.

            For our assignment Feb. 17th, please read and notate what interests you of "The Empathy Exams" and the three Ellen Bass poems I gave you in class last night.  Then, write a piece from something in your life considered taboo, as in the syllabus assignment.  Try writing a scene between at least two people in which something important must happen or be said, and edit down a 2-pp. version for us, acknowledging its sacredness, its great power..
Then start a memoir-like piece beginning, "It would be much too dangerous to talk about..."

Homework: read excerpt from the Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, and poems from Ellen Bass, The Human Line.  Continue taboo exercise; bring two pages on Feb. 17, 2015.

(Taboo Restaurant and shops offering full body massage on Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1 March 2011 source)
Third Draft:
 It would be much too dangerous to talk about the humor in dying, especially at the hospice office headquarters. But that is what happened recently.

Collapsing in a chair in the volunteer office, filling out a time sheet, I caught Susie's eye. Susie was another volunteer for hospice. She retrieved some paperwork and looked around for a pen. A few coffee cups and a plate of half eaten chocolate chip cookies were on the round work table, along with an over sized crockery jug containing a few pencils and ball point pens left by pharmaceutical reps. Locating a pen from the upright jug, one with a cap on it, she put it behind her ear and looked over at me.

Roz Chast's book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was on my mind. Having just finished reading it, especially mulling over the cartoons, I was thinking about how I had laughed out loud at some of Chast's drawings. “Are you going to be around for a little while, Susie?” I asked her as she was picking up the documentation form. I wanted to tell her about some of the funny, googly eyed characters that I found so humorous in the book, and also wanted to chat with her about one of my assignments on the unit.

“Yeah, talk, I am just filling in the blanks,” she responded in an off-hand manner.  We chatted a bit about the book, agreeing the approach to the mother dying was one that was not often broached with such honest insight. Chatz had described her relationship with her mother as always having been one of those love/hate, age old dilemmas between a mother and daughter. Chatz never outwardly opposed her mother, but inwardly seethed with resentment over past criticisms.

“In the latter part, where the mother was taking so long to die, I just laughed out loud remembering the daughter's eyes popping out of her head, showing both anxiety and frustration. And that part about when the mom reached the Chrysalis Stage, when the mother looks at The Grim Reaper and says 'Back off', Mister.' ” I trailed off with a few chortles, realizing Susie did not have the same reaction as I had toward that scene.

“Well, I saw nothing humorous about the book. It was serious way of looking at the problem of dying, including the costs, the indignities, the suffering. What is funny about that?”  Susie was bristling, 

“Of course, there is nothing funny about her dying, just that the cartoons were so realistic, so very much how that was my experience with mother taking such a long time to finally give up,” I replied, trying to backpedal out of this now uncomfortable conversation. “I thought Chatz did an excellent job portraying how she felt in pictures, being sad and also weary from the dying process.” Realizing this was not the way I had envisioned Susie reacting to my words, I became quiet, avoiding her look.

Maybe Susie did not understand what I had said about my own experience with my mother. I felt I needed to let her know that I actually had been in a similar situation to that portrayed in the book.
I continued, “With Mother, I was still pushing the Ensure until the time she finally quit drinking it, as well as when she no longer swallowed water.” More silence, then I looked again at Susie with just a tear coming from one of my eyes, brushing it away with the back of my hand. “I just meant that having a mother die is a process that no one wants to go through or even talk about, other than to say how hard it is on the person dying. But it is hard on the caregivers, too,” I finished. Then thinking about The Grim Reaper scene toward the last chapter, I half smiled to myself. “OK, if not funny, Chatz understood it. And she cartooned it in a way that should earn her top billing on the New York Times book list.”

 Susie shrugged, got up from the chair, tidied around her work space, said goodbye and left.  “She thinks I am a jerk talking about the book being funny,” I muttered to myself. And here I was just like one of those helpful hospice volunteers in the book who won't give an answer to a family member who questions how long their loved one has left.

 I realized that I had better be wary talking about the book being humorous; Susie was likely typical in thinking that this death business was nothing to joke about, especially at the hospice office.

But in those earlier hours of the morning when I had finished the book, I had thought it extremely poignant. And funny. I decided to be a little more circumspect when talking about Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?