Literary Tea and Book Reading

Jean Marie Baldwin hosted a beautiful tea on April 10. Tea sandwiches on beautiful tiered plates, china cups and teapots.  Beautiful desserts. It was a lovely time and a pleasure to meet so many new interesting women. Many thanks to Jean-Marie and all the women who gave up a sunny Naples afternoon to talk books.IMG_1496 IMG_1501 IMG_1503 IMG_1504 IMG_1505, and beautiful desserts. It was a lovely time and a pleasure to meet so many new interesting women.

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STANDING ON THE CORNER OF LOST AND FOUND

Now Available on Smashwords.com/book/view/285701   $3.99

Framed by the political and social landscape of the sixties, this is a story about broken hearts and fragile dreams repaired through the indelible ties of friendship.

KIRKUS REVIEW:  Her writerly strength lies in her characters…they are complicated, flawed and believable.

PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY:…boasts a strong sense of place…realistic portrayal of period…well drawn characters.

E-Formats: Kindle, Epub: Apple, Nook, SONY reader, Kobo, Adobe Digital, PDF, RTF, PDB, and Plain Text

Sample Story

I’ve enrolled Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found in the Kindle Direct Program which stipulates that you can’t have any book content on your website.  It’s a 90 day trial that I thought was worth a shot.

So, I’ve taken down the prologue and in its place, I’ll be posting some of my short fiction.

Here is a sample. It was originally published in paper plates, a Canadian Lit Mag.

The Landlady

Miranda stood at the curb looking at the house, a house similar to many of the others she had lived in before, those dilapidated two-family houses with heaving front porches, wide doorways and peeling paint.  This one was a faded yellow trimmed with dark green that leaned to the left. She had never lived in a house that wasn’t sinking in one way of another.

It was her second year of law school.  The student housing, with its crowded dormitories and annoying roommates, left her gasping for air. With the housing allowance allotted to her as a student on full scholarship, Miranda saw one rat hole after another but she was determined to live off campus.

Discouraged, she stood in front of the one place in the classifieds that had to be a mistake, a bargain rent she could almost afford, including utilities.  The last listing in her price range. She walked up the stairs to the front door and rang the bell. Miranda heard a rattling of slats in the window blinds and slow thumping steps moving toward the door. An elderly woman appeared.

“Hello, dear.” Miranda extended her hand. The woman grasped it firmly with one hand, holding the cane handle with the other.

“Mrs. Polanski? I’m Miranda Stone. I called you this morning to look at the apartment for rent.”

“Come in. I was boiling water for tea. Make yourself comfortable while I fix tray. I’d like we should talk before we go upstairs.”

Miranda’s eyes followed her and she walked slowly through the living room and dining room to the kitchen doorway. Her back and shoulders were ramrod straight, despite the limp. Dressed in navy wool, she had white hair upswept into a twist held by a pearl comb. Cameo earrings dangled from her earlobes.

The living room had overstuffed blue velvet furniture. The backs and arms were covered with heavy brocade print scarves.  On the coffee table was a foreign-language newspaper. A grand piano stood on the other side of the room; the keys were yellowed and chipped. The closed top, covered with lace, displayed sepia-toned pictures in ornate frames, two silver candlesticks, paperweights, and a collection of porcelain dolls.

Many of the dolls couldn’t keep their eyes open; their bisque faces were discolored; their legs were cracked, and some had broken fingers. Most were international dolls dressed in costume, but in the center was a delicate ballerina, surrounded by a row of dolls holding musical instruments.

Photographs hung on one wall. Each stiffly posed unsmiling face had its own frame. The eyes of a young girl seemed to be looking straight at Miranda. She shuddered, backing away from the morbid faces and hit her ankle on the end table. As she rubbed it to massage away the pain, she looked again, this time noticing that the individual frames were encased as a group in a large, rectangular frame. Beneath it was a wide ledge holding a row of candles.

Mrs. Polanski called out, “Miranda, dear, please come help me with the tray.”

She walked through the dining room quickly looking at the table and the crowded china closet.  Maybe, Mrs. Polanski was an antiques dealer, she thought.

The kitchen was also old-fashioned, but there was no time to look around. Mrs. Polanski gestured for her to pick up the tray, eager to get back to the living room.

She sank heavily into the chair, wincing as she lifted her bad leg onto the ottoman. “Ah, doing simple things can sometimes take so much, “she said.

“Are you in pain?”

“Ah, not pain. “She waved her hand. “Just ache. Bad hip from fall.  Sometimes even sidewalk has hidden trap,” she laughed. “Have some tea. There is sugar and lemon.”

Miranda poured the tea into the tall glasses on the tray. She held one out, her fingers at the rim, the glass steaming. Mrs. Polanski held it as if it were a glass of ice water. She took a sugar cube and placed it inside her cheek, taking a sip. “Ah, good. I made butter cookies. Take one. Please.”

Miranda bit into the cookie, sinking her teeth into a buttery sweetness she’d never tasted before.  The cookies were still warm from the oven.

“Well, Miranda. You are here to see about the apartment. So let’s not beat about the bush. I never did quite understand this American expression but… so. I would think smart girl like you would think why so cheap. A palace it isn’t. But nice enough with plenty of space. This is situation. The house is big. I don’t need to rent upstairs but I don’t like it empty.  I like to know the creaks I hear in the night belong to someone I know. So money is not so important as who is up there.”

She paused to take a sip of tea. “A couple from the medical school just moved out.  Nobody ever stays put anymore. Darling children. Helped me out sometimes. Not too much, but sometimes.”

Nodding, Miranda said, “You can’t expect to do everything you used to.”

Mrs. Polanski looked her over.  “You are young thing to be living alone. With me, it’s something else altogether. How old are you if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Old enough,” she laughed shaking out her ponytail, her blonde hair now reaching below her shoulders. “Do I look older now?”

Mrs. Polanski smiled, holding a palm to each cheek. “Oy, a mature woman I have here before my eyes.” She had a beautiful face, her eyes a sharp blue, her ruddy skin, heavily wrinkled but rosy.

“Ah, not so young, you think!” Mrs. Polanski smiled. “Your family here, yes?”

Miranda smiled. “No. No family here. I am on scholarship and need a quiet space to get my work done.”

“It’s lonely having no family around you, she muttered. “Another cookie?”

“Thank you. Just one more. They are delicious. Then, may we take a look upstairs?”

“Of course. You are here for business, not to vaste time with old woman.”

“Oh no, Mrs. Polanski. I’m just curious to see what the apartment looks like,” she said, hoping she didn’t blow her chances.

“Okay. We talk business. Upstairs, the layout is same. Living room, dining room, bedrooms, kitchen, and back porch. It’s furnished. Not full like this, but my own furniture. Long time ago, my son lived there and he left everything. He is modern and doesn’t like old things. My tenants before like it furnished for no extras and it was easier than trying to get rid of. Is that a problem?”

“It’s furnished?” Miranda opened her eyes wide. “No, it’s not a problem since I don’t own a single thing,” she laughed.

“Ah, a girl at the start of life. Good. My main thought is to have somebody I like up there. I need someone quiet. But I was once a young girl, too, and a pretty one so I was told, so a boyfriend is okay. Just not to live.  Love is life’s big treasure.”She paused, lost in her own thoughts for a moment. “But I decide who lives in my house. Gnug, enough, you want to see?”

“Yes, please.”

She reached into her pocket. “Here is the key. I’ll save my leg the stairs. One key for both doors. Take your time. Then you ask questions when you come back down.”

Miranda took the keys and darted up the stairs. Opening the top door, she walked into a living room with an old couch, chair and a coffee tables etched with deep scratches. The walls and windows were bare. Unlike the downstairs flat, light streamed in through the large front windows. Looking out the window at the narrow street and closely connected houses, she saw only a little boy riding a bike with training wheels. Despite the warm day, there was no one sitting idly on front porches. Not like home where that is all they do.

The first bedroom was empty but the back room had a desk set against a window overlooking a small yard with flowerbeds.  A picture of a smiling young boy and girl standing in front of a farmhouse was on the desk. The other walls had bookshelves jammed with books and papers, some in English but many others looked German or Polish and have the curvy scroll of the newspaper she saw. Sliding her hand across the nicked desktop, Miranda imagined how good it would feel to live by herself. Finally. The flat was five blocks from school and only twenty-five dollars more than her stipend.

She locked the door and ran down the stairs.  Mrs. Polanski’s door was ajar, so she knocked before walking in. Still sitting in the chair, looking up at the pictures, she was lost in thought.  She said softly, “My brother Georgie, now, he could have been a lawyer.  So smart and such a good talker.”

Aware that Miranda was back, she smiled at her, “You darling girl, your mother must kvell, must be so proud of you, her daughter to be a lawyer. So, you like?”

“Like it? I love it! It’s more than I ever hoped for. But there is a small problem.”

“Yes?”

“As reasonable as the rent it, it is twenty-five dollars a month more than my housing allowance so I would have to pay the balance during the month from my job at the library. I get paid…”

“Maybe,” Mrs. Polanski interrupted, “instead, you help me sometimes. Nothing too much.  Pickup my medicine, a few things at the market. Help like that.”

Miranda nodded. She needed every dollar she earned.

“So good. We have no more problem. We have deal. I like you, my shayna meidele.”

What does that mean, shay mei…?”

“It’s a compliment in Yiddish language.  I was born in Poland so I speak Polish, also a little Russian and German, but my mama spoke Yiddish to me and that is what she called me.  It means pretty girl, Miranda. Shayna meidele.”

Miranda smiled and sat back in the chair.

“We’ll have more tea to make deal.  I want no lease because if it doesn’t work out like we think, I want no trouble.  We just part friends.  All right, then, raise your glass for tea toast. Miranda Stone. Velcome.”

****

Half dozing, Miranda jumped to the thud of the cane, tapping on the downstairs ceiling. Sprawled out on the living room chair, she fought to keep her eyes open to focus on the case she was to present to the class in the morning. She must have dozed off. Jarred by the tapping, she woke up and saw it was only 9:30. Thank heavens she woke me, Miranda thought.

This was how Mrs. Polanski, or Lena, as she now insisted upon, called her. A couple of taps meant come down. If Miranda didn’t come it wasn’t a problem. But if Lena really needed help or for Miranda to run and errand or do something the next day, she phoned.  Most of the cane taps were for company, with invented excuses to bring her down.

Miranda slipped a sweater on over her t-shirt. A half hour, then back upstairs, she thought. Lena was at the door. She was still dressed. Miranda saw tears drying on her face.

The candles, sitting on the shelf beneath the photo wall were lit as they were every night and the teakettle whistled from the kitchen. Looking at the piano, Miranda saw the ballerina was gone and there was a farm girl with thick braids in its place. How many dolls could she have, Miranda wondered.

“Come, kinde, have a cup of tea with a lonely old woman.”

As was their routine, Miranda would fix the tray with whatever she had to go with the tea while Lena sat in her big chair facing the pictures. Everything was prepared—the tea glasses, sugar for Lena, lemon for Miranda, and for tonight pound cake.

Settled with her tea, Miranda asked, “Lena, you were crying. What’s wrong?”

“Were you learning?”

“Trying to. I have a presentation to make for my 11:00 class and I’m falling asleep over it.  Tell me a story to wake me up. Please!” she laughed, begging her.

“Ah, you remind me of my boychuk, when we lived in Cracow, begging me for stories and songs because he didn’t want to go to sleep.” Lena began to sing a lullaby in a rich sweet voice.  When she sang, it was always in Polish. Miranda closed her eyes, listening to the soothing melody, so unlike the sounds of her childhood.

She smiled when finished. “Ah, my children loved that song.”

“Children?” Miranda repeated.  Lena only told Miranda what she wanted to. Miranda would ask questions and Lena would talk about whatever she wanted as if she didn’t hear her. Miranda could never ask her what she really wanted to know, how she came to America, whether she was in Europe during World War II, what happened to her family.

But even less probing questions remained unanswered. Why were there sometimes different dolls on the piano, how many did she have, why was she always rearranging them, and where the son who used to live upstairs. Lena ignored them and only heard what she wanted to.

“Ya, the children’s favorite song. It’s a Polish folk story, “ Lena said. My children loved my singing, ‘Sing more,’ they would say. ‘Please can I sit in your lap?’ My sister, Hannah, was a teacher, too. She didn’t have a voice like me. But she danced.  Very graceful, my Hannah.”

Lena was looking at the pictures on the wall, faces illuminated by the candles. She traveled somewhere far from here. Miranda took a sip of tea, suddenly needing to get away, suffocated by the wretched smell of the yellow candles, wanting only to get back upstairs to her books, her cheeks blazing hot as they always did when she needed to bolt.

Lena finally spoke.  “We used to take the children to a walled garden for recess. Inside was magic. Gardens of all kinds, Miranda. Old trees, good for hiding games, one with a sturdy limb the children could sit and dream on. I tried to plant a garden here,” she said gesturing toward the back of the house. “But never same. Different earth. Different light. I grow good flowers. Special roses. Green thumb, some say. What this means green thumb? Idiotic American talk. The irises I grow are close to home garden but the rest,” she waved her hand, dismissing them, “just flowers.”

Miranda, nodding, concentrated on slowing down her breath, relaxing the knot in her stomach.

“Back to story, I would calm children with story before it was time to go home. Make up fantastic stories of horses that could fly, magic fairies in the forest. They would call out the names of their favorites, but each time I tell new because I make up.”

She continued, wistful, “That garden. So beautiful. My husband proposed marriage to me there. Ah, so young and in love, thinking life would always be sweet, just as at that moment. A cruel joke,” she spat.  Waving her hand to dismiss Miranda, “It’s late, work hard but be happy girl.”

She closed her eyes, signaling the end of the tea party. Miranda gathered up the tea tray, tiptoed to the kitchen and then back past Lena, whose slackened face was pale. Miranda hesitated at the candles. Lena let them burn out each night. They were flickering low in their glass jars, safe to leave.  She locked the door handle and went upstairs, eager now to tackle Bowman v. State of Ohio.

***

It was a sunny Saturday morning, warm for late October. Too beautiful to spend in the library with a study group, she mused. Miranda was on the back porch finishing her coffee when she heard voices in the driveway.  She couldn’t hear what Lena was saying but her tone was irritated. Maybe she was talking to a repairman.

She went back inside, rinsed her cup, grabbed her books, and went down the stairs onto the front porch. The man that she must have been talking to was unloading packages from a minivan parked in the driveway.

He smiled at her, “You must be Miranda,” he said, extending his hand.

She looked puzzled.

“All her talk, talk, talk, and I bet she never mentioned me. I’m her son, Benjamin.”

“She mentioned a son when I first looked at the apartment. But I never thought…”

“That he lived in town,” he finished her sentence. ”Yup, right here with a wife and child. My sister moved away. Lives in Colorado. But then you don’t really count until you have a candle,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” Miranda asked.

“Oh, nothing.” Benjamin replied.

“She doesn’t really talk much about her family.”

Benjamin was slight, had dark curly hair, sharp blue eyes like Lena’s and the same ruddy complexion. He grabbed up the shopping bags, leaving the tools on the porch. “Let me get this in before she refuses the meat telling me it’s spoiled because I was too slow.”

“Nice meeting you, Benjamin.”

“You, too.” He paused. “Listen, Miranda. I’m going to give you my phone number if anything comes up. Got a pen?”

She opened her backpack and pulled out a pen and notebook. “Okay, shoot.” Miranda wrote it down on the inside cover.

“Keep it safe,” he said. “And don’t ever hesitate to call. My wife’s name is Ruthie.” He held the screen door open with his knee.

Miranda held the door while he picked up the third bag. Once he was in the house, she stood on the porch for a moment waiting to hear voices, but all was quiet except the rustle of the bags.

She looked at her watch and sprinted down the stairs across the grass. She had ten minutes to get to the library.

****

Classes were over for Thanksgiving break.  Miranda had put off her mother, who wept for her to come home, promising everything would be different, that it wasn’t fair, cutting them all off like that.  They needed her.  Reluctantly, she called her mother to let her know not to expect her, holding the phone away from her ear, trying not to listen to the railing on the other end.  She decided if she had to acknowledge the holiday at all, she would go home with one of her study partners, Robin. They decided to wait to travel Thanksgiving morning to avoid the traffic.  And one less day of family time, whether it was hers or not, was fine with Miranda.

Robin and Miranda caught a Billy Crystal movie to celebrate the break from school.  She was still smiling as she turned the key in the front door. Lena’s door was partially opened. She was chatting with someone. Good, she won’t need anything from me, Miranda thought.

“Ah, Miranda, you’re home,” she called out. “Come in and say hello to Harriet.” Lena smiled. “We went to a farmer’s market. Bought too much. Here take some fruits.”

“No, thank you, Lena. I’m going away for the holiday tomorrow.”

“Then take for your family.  Harriet, she’s a beautiful girl, yes?”

Harriet nodded.

Miranda took the bag Lena pushed into her hands. “If I don’t see you, I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving and I’ll be back Sunday night.”

“Good-bye!  Safe trip!” Lena called out gaily.

Miranda went upstairs, packed her bag, watched some TV and went to sleep. She woke up to a foul smell. Grabbing the clock, she saw it was 3:10. The smell was nauseating. It was far worse than those candles. The stench wasn’t that of a fire, but something was burning.  Oh my God, she thought, if the house isn’t on fire yet, it will be.  I’ve got to get out.

Miranda’s heart pounded hard and fast. Her breath was shallow. She stepped down on the cold floor and wiped bead of sweat from her forehead. Grabbing her jeans, she missed the leg hole but finally managed to get them on.  What should she do?  Call the police? The fire department?

“Ayahahahahahaha.” A slow cry. It didn’t sound human, more like a feral cat, and it was coming from downstairs, from the front of the house.

Benjamin.  He said to call anytime. Yes. His number? Where was it? Inside the cover of one of her notebooks.  Miranda turned the backpack upside down. All the books fell to the floor. One by one, she opened the front covers, looking. There. With trembling fingers, she dialed.

One ring…two..three…four.  What should she do if they didn’t answer?  She let it ring and ring. Finally, there was a sleepy hello on the other end. “This better be good.” A male voice.

“Benjamin?” Miranda asked

“Yes, who is this?”

It’s Miranda. Miranda Stone, your mother’s tenant. There is a terrible smell coming from downstairs and weird sounds and banging and I don’t know what to do.  Should I call the police? I’m afraid to go down but what if the house if on fire?”

Benjamin sighed. “It’s okay.  Don’t panic. I’ll be right over. Ten minutes. You did the right thing by calling me. Listen to me carefully, Miranda. Don’t call anyone. Get dressed and go downstairs, in case there is a fire. If you don’t want to go in, just wait for me outside.  I’ll be right there.  Don’t call anyone, you hear me?”

She nodded.

“Miranda, are you still there? I’m going to hang up and come over. Answer me.”

More noise, then, a crash.

“Yes. Please hurry,” she whispered.

Missing the cradle when she hung up the phone, she left it, zipped up her jeans, threw her books back in the bag and grabbed the suitcase she was going to bring to Robin’s. She went down the stairs three at a time.

The door to Lena’s flat was closed. Miranda stood in front of it for a long minute before knocking. Forget it.  She didn’t want to go in anyway. She was safer on the porch. Dropping her things, she cupped her hands around her eyes, pressing close to the window. The slats of the blinds were open just wide enough for Miranda to peer in.

Lena’s long white hair hung loose, flowing to her waist. She was in her bathrobe. There was a wagon in the middle of the living room.  It was lined with a blanket, the paperweights from the piano and her purchases from the farmers market — apples, potatoes, and bread. Lena was methodically dressing the dolls an gently placing them into the wagon. Miranda couldn’t hear her but she could see she was talking to them.

Behind Lena, it looked as if all the dolls that were standing on the piano had been swept off in a single motion. Maybe with the large stick that was lying on the floor.  There were heaped on the floor, broken into pieces. Arms and legs were separated from their bodies. There were gouges in the porcelain, and the doll on the top of the pile had smoking hair.  That was the terrible smell.  She had set the doll’s hair on fire.

Lena ignored the jumbled mess. She cradled the dancing doll in her arms. Miranda could hear her now. She was singing that Polish lullaby.  The only word Miranda could make out was Hannelah, which Lena kept murmuring. When the song was over, she put the doll on the floor by the wall of photos and covered her completely with one of the scarves from the couch as if she had just died. Her motions were calm and steady.

She the looked at the dolls in the wagon, smiled sadly at them and said clearly, “Come, kinde, I keep you safe now.” She pinned up her hair in a single motion and took off her robe. She was fully dressed.

Benjamin pulled up, shutting the headlights off as he turned into the driveway.  He was at Miranda’s side in an instant. “Where are we?” he asked. “Is the wagon prepared for escape? Has the dancer died? Watch the front door,” he said, wearily.

Miranda looked at him, her mouth wide open. “She’s done this before?”

“Many times. She won’t remember in the morning, though. It will only be a dream, just like all the others.”

At that moment, the door opened. Lena turned to face the wagon, her fingers to her lips, motioning to the dolls to be quiet. She turned around and jumped when Benjamin put his arm around her but his gentleness quieted her. He said something in Yiddish to soothe her. Turning to Miranda, Lena gripped his arm, whispering in Yiddish. Her tone implied instructions.  She spoke straight at her but without a hint of recognition in her eyes. Miranda understood that she was a stranger who must be trusted. Lena put the wagon handle in Miranda’s hand and turned with Ben to go back into the house.

Before they did, he said quietly,” Don’t believe it when people tell you about survivors. There were a few but most are walking shadows living between two worlds.” He looked down at the old lady, clinging to him, “Frozen to us, saving what little is left for the rest of the world. But,” he kissed her forehead, “one day I finally understood.

They disappeared into the house. Miranda sat on the porch a long time before she went up to bed, listening to the sounds of Benjamin sweeping up the remains of Lena’s foiled rescue.

***

When Miranda returned from her Thanksgiving holiday, Lena wanted to know how her family had liked her fruits. Benjamin expected her to move out as the others had, but Miranda had no desire to leave her landlady. She lived in the upstairs flat of Lena’s house through that year, the remainder of law school, and her first job, long past the time when it was all she could afford, having found something she hadn’t known she was looking for.

A young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe’s beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald.  He was finally free but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.

Elie Weisel, The Perils of Indifference, Millennium Lecture Series, April 1999

 

 

The Landlady was  first published in paperplates

New Poetry Book: FLOATING ISLANDS: New and Collected Poems

I have a new poetry book available.  It may be purchased through the website or on Amazon at this point.

Floating Islands is a rich fusion of sound and image, well seasoned with commentary on human connections, the impact of war, and the vagaries of relationships.  Her poetry bears witness to the world we live in as well as the one we dream.
Judith Prest,  Sailing on Spirit Wind, The Geography of Loss, Late Day Night 

POETS AS WITNESS: WAR AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS

National Poetry Month has come and gone.  If you happen to live in a place that flourishes with poetry events, it’s like Christmas all over again; if poetry is pretty sparse in your community, not much happens. But  it seems that wherever you may live, the spoken word gets out, as it always has. Through time as oral history. Now, in print, online, on Facebook, on phones, on YouTube. There is so much needing to be said, felt, understood.

There are two poetry projects on my mind today having come out of the poetry immersion  April has become—  the poet soldier and  Afghan women. The poet as witness to war has a long history.  What the war poet writes is invariably an anti war poem.

Early 20th century Iraqi poet,  Al Jawahiri wrote:

I see a horizon lit with blood

And many a starless night.

A generation comes and another goes

And the fire keeps burning.

A century later, Iraqi war veteran Brian Turner continues the conversation. He writes of war in a dimension that is deeply felt.  He writes of Iraq but it could be any war, any time. When I heard him give a talk, he was very direct.  I was in Lowe’s one Saturday afternoon, he said, and I was stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a bin of nail guns.  Frozen. I could only think of what harm they could do if used for an IED.

He speaks. He writes. He tells us what it’s like and why it shouldn’t be and how it never goes away. He joins a long list of poets through the centuries that we turn to over and over—to know and to understand. And to ask ourselves why.

One of the programs I went to in April was a screening of the documentary Voices in Wartime followed by a poetry reading by veterans. To say it was moving is understatement.

I’m going to back up a bit to give some history of Poets Against the War, the foundation of the Voices in Wartime Project.

In 2003, Sam Hamill, poet and editor of Copper Canyon Press, received an invitation from Laura Bush to attend a White House reception on poetry and the American voice. [The context — Bush had just called for a “shock and awe” attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing.]

Hamill’s response: “I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.”

He then put out a call for poems:

“Dear Friends and Fellow Poets “I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against the war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon…”

Within 36 hours, he received 1500 poems; in 2 weeks, 7500 poems and accompanying letters from within and outside the literary community. He launched a website in collaboration with Project Alchemy to handle all the poems. The total reached 10,000 and an anthology was published.  And by the way, the First lady’s poetry party was cancelled.

The Voice Project is an outgrowth of this. Its mission: to amplify the voices of veterans and civilian witnesses to war, in order to heal the wounds of war and lay the basis for a more peaceful world.  It shows how poetry and war have been intertwined through the ages. We see how poetry illuminates reality and sears the sacrifice and experience into our minds.

And it is needed now more than ever.

Let’s turn to the women of Afghanistan.

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Eliza Griswold wrote an article entitled “Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me.” Why Afghan Women Risk Death To Write Poetry.” At great risk, these women write their poems to find their voice, to be heard, in an oppressive culture that tries to silence them.

Miram Baheer is a woman’s literary society based in Kabul. It has over 100 members of Afghan elite who travel openly to Saturday afternoon meetings.  However, the 300 members who live in the outlying, rural provinces must function in secret.  They engage in subterfuge to call in their poems to be read for them to the other women poets.

The plight of Afghan women is well known. About eight out of ten  live in rural areas with the most restriction. Their statistics are dismal: 5 of 100 graduate high school; 3 out of 4 are forced into marriage as teenagers. Yet, these women have spunk.

Pashtun poetry of that region is their form of rebellion.  They write the Landai, (meaning short, poisonous snake), a two-line folk poem that is collective so no one can be held responsible.   An acclaimed Pashtun poet calls poetry the women’s movement from the inside.

The poems say it all.

They can be funny. (Or not!)

Making love to an old man is like

Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus

Or of war:

May your airplane crash and may the pilot die

That you are pouring bombs on my beloved Afghanistan

Of Desolation:

My pains grow as my life dwindles

I will die with a heart full of hope.

My favorite:

You won’t allow me to go to school.

I won’t become a doctor.

Remember this:

One day you will be sick.

Poetry. Well-chosen words cutting through the noise, the dogma, finding voice, speaking loud, always hopeful.

I’d like to close this with a poem by the late, Palestinian poet Tata Muhammed Ali.

If only.

Revenge

At times … I wish 
I could meet

in a duel 
the man who killed

my father and razed our home,

expelling me
 into a narrow country.

And if he killed me, 
I’d rest at last

and if I were ready -
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,

that he had a mother
 waiting for him,

or a father who’d put
 his right hand

over 
the heart’s place in his chest

whenever his son was late

even by just a quarter-hour

for a meeting they’d set –

then I would not kill him, 
even if I could.

Likewise … I
 would not murder him

if it were soon made clear

that he had a brother or sisters

who loved him and constantly longed to see him.

Or if he had a wife to greet him
 and children

who
 couldn’t bear his absence

and who his presents thrilled.

Or if he had
 friends or companions,

neighbors he knew 
or allies from prison

or a hospital room, 
or classmates from his school…

asking about him 
and sending him regards.

But if he turned 
out to be on his own –

cut off like a branch from a tree –

without mother or father,

with neither a brother nor sister,

wifeless, without a child,
and without kin

or neighbors or friends,

colleagues or companions,

then I’d add not a thing to his pain

within that aloneness –

nor the torment of death,

and not the sorrow of passing away.

Instead I’d be content 
to ignore him

when I passed him by 
on the street –

as I
 convinced myself
 that paying him

no attention 
in itself was a kind of revenge.

An American Story

I’m taking a mini-course on the Harlem Renaissance at the College of St. Rose.  Taught by the brilliant Mark Ledbetter, it seems that our conversation often drifts away from the subject but inevitably flows back to where we began in perfect asymmetry. His particular form of magic.

The search for identity kept creeping back into the conversation. It is, of course, the sensible place to start when learning about the explosion of art, music, literature and culture during that time period.  With the influx of southern African-Americans to the north, and Caribbean and Hispanic migration, the time was right for creating new self and community identity. Harlem was the place to do that.

Identity is something we wrestle with everyday whether or not we’re even aware of it.  There is personal identity, identity within a family, a community, a workplace, a marriage.  We muddle through somehow but don’t have the luxury of time to think about it nor do we have the distance to view ourselves in any meaningful way.

But for the African-American of the 1920s, the time to become was here.  It was time to blot out the notion of whiteness as the metaphor of power. As described by Alain Lock, Harlem became a chrysalis of spiritual emancipation, the birthing of a new moment because it was the first time a diverse Black population completely dominated daily life. As he said so beautifully, “It has attracted the African, West Indian, Negro American; has brought together the men from the city and the men from the town and village; the peasant, the student…artist, poet, musician, preacher and criminal…Each group has come with separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience was in finding one another.”

I was moved to talk about this today largely because of the national conversation about race and immigration. The lesson of the Harlem Renaissance is that transformation can happen if the alchemy is right.  Yet, it can also be a historical blip. Harlem 2012 has had resurgence. But now, it’s happened more from without than within. Gentrification has reached 125th Street.  Before that, it suffered the decay of all our urban centers and was left to rot from the inside out.

Dennis Lehane’s book, The Given Day, is set in the same time period —1920s Boston.  It was principally a story of the fight for survival amongst the poor— white Irish, blacks, Italian anarchists, and Babe Ruth thrown in for a glimpse of racism through that lens. We think we have a bullying problem now?  I don’t know how that has come to be but I’m afraid it’s in our DNA and always has been. The immigrant populations have always lived separately in our America: they both feared and hated one another.  No one lived the pretty picture of an America with arms wide open to take care of the poor and the weary.

We have carried on the tradition we pretend didn’t exist.  We are bipolar regarding immigrants. We hire them to pick our fruit, to watch our babies, to do the jobs we don’t want to do.  And then we disparage them. Resent them. Stand at our borders and terrify them.  Did we not come here with the same needs? Or is it more of our long history of racism.

How we treat American Muslims is a whole other story.

We elected an African-American president yet there seems to be a pervasive racism in how he is judged. Questioning his loyalty, his Americanism, his religion. I’m afraid Martin Luther King would be rolling over in his grave if he knew the America he left had changed so little. And what about the perils of being a black boy walking down the street or driving while black? Do we have to wait until we are of one race to be fair and at peace?

It makes me very sad to think about these things. But as always, certain poems make me hopeful.  Here is one by Langston Hughes.

As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.

I have almost forgotten my dream.

But was there then,

In front of me,

Bright like a sun—

My dream,

And then the wall rose,

Rose slowly,

Slowly,

Between me and my dream.

Rose until it touched the sky—

The wall.

Shadow.

I am black.

I lie down in shadow.

No longer the light of my dream before me,

Above me.

Only the thick wall.

Only the shadow.

My hands!

My dark hands!

Break through the wall!

Find my dream!

Help me to shatter this darkness,

To smash this night,

To break this shadow

Into a thousand lights of sun,

Into a thousand whirling dreams

Of sun!

Genius Clusters?

I just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids.  It is the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the time of a burgeoning New York City art scene of the 1960s and 70s. They WERE kids who arrived in New York with nothing but their determination to be artists. They wandered into one another’s lives and became inseparable. Early on, they made a pact to help one another until they found their voices–or the world was ready for them.Their belief in one another sustained them.

Poor, hungry, cold.  It didn’t seem to matter. For Mapplethorpe especially, It was only a matter of time before they would be important contributors to art.

The thing that I found most remarkable in this book, aside from her spare yet majestic prose, was the lack of self-consciousness on their path of self-discovery. It never seemed to cross their minds that their art was junk or just plain bad. They were just happy doing it and Patti made it work. There didn’t seem to be doubt about the why they were making art even when they never knew where their next meal was coming from. A room, a hotplate and a communal bathroom was just fine. What they lacked, paled next to a find on the street, perfect for a collage or subject for a poem.

While reading this book, I remembered a conversation I had with my husband a month or so ago.  We were lamenting about how the enthusiasm with which children first write and draw is drummed out of them with the ‘rules’ of school.  My daughters had a teacher, Judy Simon, who read a story to parents at open school night, addressing just that subject.  It was her promise to us that she wouldn’t do that. But for more reasons than just this one, Judy was an exception. More typical feedback to an elementary schooler: Why did you color the cow purple. Have you ever seen a purple cow? Stay in the lines.  You spelled that wrong. Don’t write so fast. Your handwriting is messy. I couldn’t believe it when a teacher of the gifted and talented told my daughter her poem was no good because it didn’t rhyme. Are you kidding me?

That rigidity is unbelievable short sighted. We all grow up with far too many restrictions in all phases of our lives. Think of the backstory for entrepreneurs, inventors—all kinds of creators. It is an amazing thing to watch and listen to a child create a world of aliens and villains and heroes.

Mapplethorpe pushed hard against boundaries .  Mapplethorpe, an altar boy raised in a strict Catholic home, found fame with his photographic exploration of hustling and the world of S & M. He was unthwarted.

There are so many examples of how artists thrive when they live in a creative cocoon.  In the case of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, it was not just the belief in each other but the world they inhabited. They frequented Max’s Kansas City bar, where Andy Warhol held court at a regular  table. They lived in Hotel Chelsea and got to know William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter.

How different is this from the expat gatherings in Paris fifty years earlier at Shakespeare & Company and the Café Flore? Then it was Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Lawrence, Jean Paul Sartre, and Joyce who hung out.

But there is more through the centuries.  Think Italian Rennaissance.

When Susan Cheever was promoting her book, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, I asked her what she thought about these groups popping up sporadically who produce such incredible work.  What were the chances that these writers in the 1850s would all live in the same neighborhood?

She said, “genius clusters.”

I’m not sure about this.  I know synergy is critical. But beyond that, it seems like an easy out.  There has got to be something more to it.

When someone is comfortable in one art form, they are more likely to try others successfully.  Tony Bennett paints. Clint Eastwood composes music. Steve Martin plays the banjo and writes novels.  In my own circle of friends who are writers, there are many who are also visual artists.

Genius clusters aside, I know that the inner critic is a pretty hardy specimen.  The trick is finding the balance between your own perpetual nagging doubt  (nobody needs help with that!)and the people you surround yourself with.

Patti seemed to care less about the trappings of life than finding her artistic metier.  That undoubtedly helped her evolve as a multi-talented artist. But beyond that, she was a true friend.  If we are lucky, we will have someone like her in our lives.  Someone who encourages, doesn’t judge, and gives us safe haven.

Reading Revs Up the Brain

Are you one of those people who watch violent movies with a hand spread across your face, fingers splayed for a quick check to see if the pummeling is over? Does every volatile action make you feel sick? Are you like me when reading? Laugh out loud or sob as a story unfolds. As tears flow down my face, my husband always says to me, “what is the matter with you, relax, it’s fiction, it’s a movie?” Or fill in the blank.

I just finished Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day.  Beautifully written but grim. Very grim. And more than likely mostly true, at least in the spirit of the storytelling.  I think I had a perpetual anxiety attack as I plowed through 700 pages, experiencing the cruelty of one character to another and the circumstances surrounding the anarchists and Boston police strike in the early twentieth century.  If you think we are behaving any differently toward our new immigrants as we did then or you wonder why enacting civil rights legislation was so slow in coming, I’d say it’s recommended reading.  But never mind that, I’ll try to stay on topic.

My youngest daughter is just like me.  She can’t read or even watch a comedy if someone is bullied or taunted.  It turns that it is not that we are empathetic people (though, in truth we are). Rather, there is scientific proof in our brains to explain what is happening to make us have physical engagement with what we are reading or seeing.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote an op-ed called, Your Brain on Fiction.   She begins by saying that researchers have long known the brain interprets written words in its language regions.  But now, through a multitude of studies using MRIs, we are learning that words describing the senses affect the sensory brain regions. This means that when reading, the language processing centers are not the only parts of the brain lighting up.

Dr. Raymond Mar (York University, Canada) analyzed 86 such MRI studies and concluded that narrative provides an opportunity to engage the theory of mind. The brain actually has the capacity of to map other people’s intentions. Stories engage this by our identification with character’s “longings and frustrations…. their motives…and track their encounters.”

Examples: words like perfume and coffee elicit a sensory response; whereas, chair and key do not. When study subjects read something like kicking a ball or running away from an assailant, the motor sensors are engaged.

Ms Paul’s interpretation of this research is: “There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells textures and movement as if the real thing, so it treats interactions among fictional characters as something real-life.” I think this means that the brain doesn’t really distinguish between reading something and experiencing it.

This interests me on a couple of levels.

I have always believed that reading fiction, really good fiction, gave me a window to the world intellectually, socially, and practically. They open your mind and take you to places that may be uncomfortable or out of reach. The truly forgettable books are the ones in which the authors don’t even try to use language well or involve the reader in layered response.

In my own writing, I physically experience the world I am creating.  I know it’s made up.  I know it’s me making it up. Alas, that doesn’t seem to matter.  When I was writing the scene in Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found, in which a Vietnam veteran with PTSD threatens one of the characters, I had heart flutters and sweaty palms. I know it’s alive only in my head and then on a one-dimensional piece of paper or computer screen, as the case may be.  Yet, if I write any scene of visceral conflict, my stomach does flip-flops and my heart rate speeds ahead.  This idea of brain engagement helps explain why this happens.

Double that if it’s a book I’m reading.

The other thing is this.  The writing mantra of ‘show not tell’ has a new dimension. These studies strengthen the case for the careful crafting of evocative prose. It is metaphor that has the greatest impact. If a book is to involve the reader on all fronts, it needs to be crafted to activate all sensors in the brain.  As Ms. Paul concludes: “reading great literature enlarges us and improves us. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

So start a new book today and travel to a place you’ve never been. Go back to Lehane’s early twentieth century Boston or become the ballerina in Stalinist Russia in Kolotay’s Russian Winter.

Not only is your soul waiting.  So is your brain.

IT’S COMPLICATED

A couple of things are on my mind today— what we think we know, what we really know, and how to learn more.

There is a lot of talk in this election year about what the government should or should not do and should not pay for. It is characterized as wasteful, inept, almost like an interfering parent who doesn’t really know what’s best.  Much of the polarization comes from assumptions that either eschew fact or propel empty platitudes forward.

As a country, we are big-hearted. We want to help raise the standard of living and quality of life in countries around the world. Yet we don’t seem to extend that noble calling to those at home.  In a new book, A People’s History of Poverty in America, Steven Pimpare suggests that we have a notion in our country of deserving versus undeserving poor. This idea enables those with political and economic power to justify their beliefs by rationalizing their failure to intervene and provide assistance.

I don’t think it unfair to say that these beliefs are tinged with underlying racism.  But the fact of the matter is that according to the census bureau in 2009, there were 29.9 million whites versus 9.9 million African Americans living below the poverty line. (it should be noted that given the size of these populations blacks outnumber whites in poverty 12 versus 26 percent). Mind you these numbers are based on a federal guideline that is extraordinarily low. In reality, there are millions more who are living in poverty though they have more than  a family of four making $22,000 a year.

It seems that the polarizing line in the sand is on one side, you pick yourself up by the bootstraps and become the success story Americans love.  The other is that, like in a big family, you provide a social net that can soften the blow until you get back on your feet.

That aside for a moment, I never hear the simple fact that  we all benefit from government services.  Think about it.

One of the biggest federal aid programs is the home mortgage interest deduction program that benefits all homeowners.  A $120 billion per year expenditure through the tax code (Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University).

People who lose their jobs get unemployment benefits to live on.  What would they do without it?

That all seniors collect both social security and Medicare, seems to be working just fine.  The reason the social security fund is depleted is because it is raided to pay other bills. The rank and file of America don’t make enough money to save through their work lives. They just get by.  Privatize social security? How would that work? And for whom?

The toll-free federal highway system enables private companies a transportation system for their corporations.

We don’t think much about what we can’t see but Infrastructure costs and minimum standards are part of a public safety net:  roads, bridges, water supply, community sanitation, environmental protection, etc.  Do you want to wonder if the bridge you cross daily with your kids has been compromised? Would you rather boil your drinking water than support a water filtration plant?  Would you like to band together with your neighbors to plough your city streets after a blizzard?

What about emergency funds for tornados, hurricanes, floods, and ice storms. Your town was wiped out during a tornado and FEMA is gone.  What do you do?

I could go on…

So what gives?  Look at the list and think about what you’d like to do without.

None of these things can be replaced by the private sector for one reason.  Corporate profit.  There is nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t look at problems holistically. Government and private industry are two sides of the same coin.

We need both. The candidates will say just about anything to avoid the complicated issues we face.  They say things that make no sense and people believe them.  Obama isn’t raising gas prices.  The oil speculators are.  They all should be reading up on the history of world events.  What do you think about Syria? How’s it going in Afghanistan?  The president doesn’t create jobs.  He influences very complex policies. What would you do differently. Just what has Obama actually done that his opponents wouldn’t have.  Let our car industry disappear? And that ridiculous stand-off on the debt.  Fact check: Bush went into his presidency with a trillion dollar surplus that he blew through to get into an unfunded war on false pretenses.  The subprime fiasco began on his watch as well. Obama inherited that and has dealt with it.  Our spending has spiraled out of control.  That’s true. But this debt didn’t occur in a day and won’t be fixed in one no matter how much grandstanding there is.

So let’s acknowledge that we live in very complex, fast moving times. Let’s let some light in.  Find America’s brain power and get them going.  A leader, Democrat or Republican, African American, White, or Hispanic, old or young, anyone who has ever worked for any kind of organization knows that you are only as good as the people you work with.

A Brief History of Lying

The research for the book I’m working on has gotten me thinking about the lies we tell. From our early childhood, we are counseled to always tell the truth.  George Washington is our model for that until we’re much older and find out there were probably no cherry trees in his life.  As children, we quickly learn the value in our little falsehoods. We lie to stay out of trouble, to avoid hurt feelings, to get out of doing what we don’t want to do. It’s habit forming. The little white lies (why white?) may be considered good lies.  They are either the lies that don’t really hurt anybody or are self-protective.  Does it really matter if you put your yucky peas in your shoe when you said you ate them? Or you really did hit your brother first or you only practiced the piano for ten minutes rather than thirty?  We gradually move from there to bigger ones that may start tarnishing your character.  Or not.  Maybe it makes you a more interesting person. We try things out on our friends, embellish the stories a bit so they are more tantalizing, and we tell those stories so often we believe them ourselves.

Lying is so pervasive that we now have character education in elementary schools.  And later on, the college papers you say you wrote have to be checked for plagiarism via websites like turnitin.com.  What does that say about us?

But the reason for this blog is more about my disgust at institutionalized lies. It is, of course, not a new phenomenon.  Maybe I’m just late in seeing how pervasive it is.  In the book I’m working on, one of my characters is a Gulf War veteran who is very sick.  I’ve been reading reams of testimony from soldiers who were exposed to chemical agents that have left them with a myriad of illnesses and have resulted in birth defects among their children. Yet, the country that sent them to war has put up a wall of deception.  It was somehow decided that none of the medical and psychological needs were a result their experience in Kuwait and Iraq.  It’s the handling of Agent Orange (dioxin) exposure in Vietnam all over again.

What color might those nastier lies be?  Red? Black? Purple? How can you be a physician, having taken an oath to do no harm, sit across from a suffering vet and dismiss his symptoms and their causes. All the lip service paid to our soldiers is just window dressing.  I try to imagine Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, a CIA director, maybe the director of Walter Reed hospital, and the other agency stakeholders, sitting around a conference table making up numbers and facts to create a policy of deniability. I wonder if it would help make the case if an actual soldier with a ruined life sat in.  Could they then maintain their callousness and wrongdoing?

Crazy.  In the Gulf War, our soldiers were exposed to chemical agents, and the responsible agencies said there were none, that whatever protective gear they were given was sufficient.  Then we go back to fight a second war on the premise that we need to destroy these weapons and there are none.  It’s more like theater of the absurd than intelligence.

Fiction finds a good home in the liars among us whether we tell white lies or whoppers. I just learned a great word for that. Fabulist. A person who lies or invents. It has so much more panache than liar, don’t you think? I like nothing better than sitting at my computer making stuff up. The difference is I know it’s made up and so does everybody else. I may root my stories in fact but that’s where my reality stops. If you’re reading a work of fiction, you don’t expect it to be true.

I think we started getting a little murky when we all of a sudden have a new genre, creative non-fiction.  Come on.  Make up your mind.  Is it true or isn’t it?  Hmmm.

There is a new book out called The Lifespan of a Fact.  It came about with the collision of two points of view. A writer felt he needed to alter the truth to make it a more interesting essay.  His fact checker did not agree.  While changing numbers from four to eight to make a point isn’t a game changer, it goes to how much can you change something and have it still be true.  Does the creative part of non-fiction come to play here?  I think by now we can all agree that memoir is as true as the memory of the person writing it.  Sit around the table with your siblings and you are reminded that memory is a personal matter.  Memory, truth, unintentional lies, and some intentional—all are what make us human.

I get that.  I understand that when people want something really badly, they might say anything to make that happen. It might not be right but it’s understandable.  I also understand the waves of memory that ripple and recede over the course of a lifetime.  But what I don’t understand is perpetuating lies that harm others, telling and retelling a group lie. That never can be explained away as being for the greater good.