Friday, September 23, 2016

Inch One-Hundred Thirty-Seven: Burning Down The House

Today's post is short, and comes from my job.

Several weeks ago, my fabulous coworker Cecelia and I started a new writing program at Juvenile Court. We work with a small group of juveniles (there are four of them in this this first round), giving them themed prompts and encouraging them to write. In any class, there are three to five prompts taped to the wall, and the juveniles may pick and choose as suits them. We then share the writing, discussing issues that come out in the course of the writing.

Did I say we encourage them to write? Encouragement has not been a problem. Sometimes, the issue is getting them to stop writing and share within the 90 minutes we have.

One of the unexpected consequences of facilitating the writing group is that I am writing more. For one thing, the kids expect us to write alongside them and demand that we too share our work. For another, it is impossible to be in a small room with everyone bent over their notebooks, pens and pencils scratching away, and not be moved to put down something. Not every piece I produce is a winner, but occasionally I sit back and think "not bad."

This week's class was about control. One of the prompts was "He was like a forest fire, burning down the excess beauty in the name of control." This is what I wrote in response:

Burning Down The House

Sometimes you just burn it all to the ground.

Sacrifice the curtains and the towels
and the china
and the painting over the couch.

Sit back and watch the show
The sirens coming closer
The flames shooting through the roof
The garden trampled by the firefighters.

Flick the soot off your jeans
and walk away.
Nothing to hold you now.

In the remaining weeks, we will be tackling such topics as goals and overcoming barriers. One of the prompts I hope to use is this one attributed to Mizuta Masahide: Since my house burned down I now own a better view of the rising moon. Seems like an appropriate one for me to write about it light of my piece this week.

I love my job. I love this part of my job even more. And I love that I get to go on writing with Cecelia and an amazing group of young people.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-Six: Of Words and Writing

I am soaked in words today.

I am so soaked in words that I walked around this morning murmuring the opening lines of Eve, by Ralph Hodgson:
EVE, with her basket, was
Deep in the bells and grass,
Wading in bells and grass
Up to her knees...
Back in July, I wrote about Poetry Night. Although August was pretty much a wash for me because of travel and other obligations, here it is September and we are still at it. In deference to schedules (Michele being a teacher and school being back in session), we are going to a 2nd and 4th Wednesday schedule for the school year.

At this week's gathering, we talked a lot about the writing of poetry. Casey, who just joined the group, posed the question: How do you do it? We talked about the economy of words. Michele is teaching Emily Dickinson right now, and those are poems so sparse there is not an inch of fat on them.

We talked about saving scraps of lines, scraps of thoughts, a phrase or an idea. Michele presented a stapled together sheaf of papers in which she wrote down lines and ideas, thumbing through it to a draft poem she has not yet strung together in final form. I held up my latest spiral notebook, bought for dimes at back-to school sales and used until I have torn out every page.

Intermixed with that talk were readings of our own works and the works of others. Casey read this one by Raymond Carver:

So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

It is a beautiful work that none of us knew and we all asked him to read it again, the words hanging in the evening air after the sound of the last line faded.

I walked home quickly in the gathering dusk thinking about the conversation, the topics, the words. Michele had talked about the making of ink from charred bones and that one stuck with me. Whose bones? I spent a good hour just now researching ink made from char. It is often called Ivory Black when made from bones.

I am watching the fruit of the dogwood turn red and wondering whether the little red pellets can be pressed into ink. And would I write a different poem in dogwood red than ballpoint blue?

I am wondering what it would mean to write a poem, tear the paper up, then soak and press it into new paper. What words might come to the surface of the new paper? Would it be a new poem?

I am thinking of little poems, of words writ small, of words scribed onto a sliver of parchment.

I am soaked in words today.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-Five: The Cost of Eating

My brother Mark called me Monday evening, as I was finishing cleaning up the kitchen from an all-day session of making stock and bean soups (split pea with ham, Cuban black beans) to freeze for eating later in the fall and winter. Somehow we got around to talking about our household budgets.

Mark and my sister-in-law Jackie just became true empty nesters with my niece Elizabeth (their youngest) moving to New England for graduate school. I said that ought to be a positive impact on the bank balance. In the middle of that discussion, I mentioned our grocery bill.

Several years ago, I blogged that we spent less than $200.00 a month on groceries, with another $25.00 on non-food household items (soap, toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste). That figure did not include prescription medications, but did include eating out, which has rarely ever exceeded $25.00 a month (and usually does not exceed $10.00). When I was talking with Mark, I gave him the wrong figure: $100.00.

Mark was intrigued. "$100.00? Really?"

Well, not quite. I discovered my error today and emailed Mark and Jackie to tell them the figure was actually $200.00. During the phone conversation the night before, I told Mark that I had not tracked our food spending closely for a long time, and that I was tracking it this month to see if we are still close to that figure, given just the overall rise in the cost of food.

When I learned the target is $200.00, I was thrilled. Heck, $200.00? Piece of cake, especially since I think our actual spending is closer to $150.00. If anything, we have reduced our food expenses in the six years since that first blog post ran. 

At least I think so. I'll know in a few more weeks.

So I will be saving the grocery receipts, noting the non-receipt purchases ($7.50 yesterday at my friend Donna's great farm stand to get local sweet corn, some cherry tomatoes (mine having mostly bit the dust thanks to an invasion of cucumber beetles), and four of the most beautiful bell peppers I have ever seen and all four of which ended up going into the black bean soup mentioned above), tallying up the odd meals out here and there.

And then we'll see what September brings.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-Four: An Apology Letter

Warren and I do not argue. Heck, we rarely pick at one another.


I know what you're thinking. That's unhealthy. That's the sign of a disconnected relationship. I know: I read all those "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" columns in the Ladies Home Journal when I was growing up too. Where couples said "we never argue," the counselor would be quick to note that all couples needed to learn healthy and vigorous ways to express their disagreements or the relationship would stagnate and wither.

But that is not our situation. We don't argue because at this stage of our lives, coming into a later-in-life marriage out of two contentious marriages marked by a lot of strife, we choose to resolve differences in ways other than arguing.

But last night came as close to an argument as we ever come, especially when I threw my napkin across the table, jumped up, sprinkled two inappropriate words in the sentence I flung at Warren, and stormed into the percussion room to cry and mop at my nose, which chose that moment to start bleeding.

The flashpoint? How I have characterized the vacation we just took. The match that lit the kindling? A sentence in a letter from our sister-in-law about "Warren's vacation."

Warren was hurt. It was our vacation. Why have I characterized it as his vacation? That makes it sound like he demanded we go to Colorado.

I was defensive. But this vacation was for Warren, I insisted, in that we revisited places he had hoped to see for the last few decades. I was thrilled to take it for the pleasure I hoped it would bring him. Why wasn't he appreciating that and accepting it as a gift from my heart? I'm not sure how many more vacations I have left in me and wanted one that would be special for him.

At one point Warren even said I characterized the vacation unfairly in my blog. I did not, I insisted.

I looked at my blog this morning.

Warren was right. The sentence is right there: This was Warren's vacation, revisiting places he had last seen when he was 15. 

Crap. That is not what I meant to say. At all. What I meant to say was This was a vacation we planned together, in part to revisit some places Warren had last seen when he was 15. I figured everyone could read between the lines. 

I help facilitate a class at Juvenile Court called Victim's Awareness. It is a class for juvenile offenders who just don't quite get the victim piece. Either they are clueless they had a victim at all ("I shoplifted from a Big Store. They didn't get hurt.") or they don't care that they had a victim ("She deserved it."). One of the homework exercises the juveniles struggle the most with is writing an apology letter to their victim. They then have to share the letter by reading it aloud to the rest of the class. We require the letter have more than just "I'm sorry." The letter must acknowledge the wrong behavior and recognize how the victim was hurt. 

And it must be sincere. 

Oh man, that's torture. I have seen kids turn red at this assignment.  I have heard kids labor through the reading, not because their reading skills are substandard but because it is so hard to say "I'm sorry." 

I know why this exercise is so hard for our juveniles. Because it is hard. It is hard to say "I was wrong." It is hard to say "I'm sorry" without adding a "but" to the rest of the sentence. The "but" leads to an excuse. Or a justification. It is hard to say "I hurt you," especially when the victim is someone you know and love, like a family member. Sometimes our juveniles break down and cry reading a letter.

I am not crying while I write this blog post, but I think I now know how a juvenile feels facing that empty white page. I need to own up to my thoughtless actions that made a victim, in this case my dear husband. I don't get to say "I didn't mean it the way you took it" or "how could you think I felt that way?" or even (although I did not resort to this last night) "you know I don't feel well anymore and you need to cut me some slack."

I need to swallow my pride and excuses and defensiveness and own up to my actions.  So here's my apology letter:

Dear Warren:

I hurt you by my calling and characterizing our vacation as "your vacation." This is unfair and gives the idea that I had nothing to do with it except accompany you. My behavior diminishes the trip we took, the sights we saw, and the fun we had. I know from last night that my words have hurt you deeply. I am sorry.

With love,


Inch One Hundred Thirty-Three: Birthday

This girl turned four yesterday. Here she is from earlier this summer, when I was out in Portland visiting.

Grandpa Warren and I talked with Ramona very briefly last night: she was full of sushi and shouting, and very, very wound up at being FOUR.

I would be too.

Happy birthday, Ramona!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-Two: The Trip

We have been back from our trip for about a week and a half and I am just now blogging about it.

My difficulty is in finding the words. Not because the trip was so incredible that words fail me, but because I have such mixed feelings that I don't know what to say.

We traveled by car to Colorado and back, a journey of 4261 miles per our odometer. Part of the time we stayed in a condo in the heart of the Rockies, the rest of the time we were either camping or staying in motels or with friends, but always at a different location each night.

The camping, despite that I have not camped since I was in my 20s and Warren does not like camping, was easier and more enjoyable than either of us expected. We camped five of six planned nights, once at 9000 feet, and would have camped the sixth night but for the the torrential rains the night before that left the tent, our air mattress, and everything else, including shoes, wet and muddy.
At 9000 feet

As I noted previously, we took a minimalist approach to packing. We could have packed even lighter, in retrospect. To do minimalist packing for a long trip (anything over a long weekend, as far as I am concerned), you need (a) access to laundry of some sort and (b) a tolerance for wearing the same clothes over and over. Fortunately, we had both.

What can I say about Colorado? We were in the Rockies for over a week and traversed Colorado from north out of Wyoming to south into New Mexico. The Rockies, even in August when the snowpack is light, are everything you would expect: majestic, awe-inspiring, stunning.


They did nothing for me except block the view. It occurred to me many times that had I been a homesteader in Colorado, I'd have spent my days longing for a horizon.  Great Sand Dunes National Park in south central Colorado redeemed the state for me, but I cannot help but rejoice that I never have to go to Colorado again.

Give me Nebraska.

This was Warren's vacation, revisiting places he had last seen when he was 15. We saw a lot of trains (Warren) and a lot of statehouses (both of us).  I was gratified to find in the Nebraska statehouse's Hall of Fame both Red Cloud and Bess Streeter Aldrich. And our guide in the Kansas statehouse was stunned that I knew who William Allen White was. "Are you a librarian? A journalist?" No, just a nerd who discovered White when I was still in junior high.
Lots of trains

 I'm very glad we took the trip, because it is now clear to me that the likelihood of our taking such a lengthy and wearing car trip again is slim. The trip was very hard on me physically and caused havoc with my body's reactions to the new medications I am on. But we made it through with no medical emergencies, not even a stop at an urgent care facility, and that was a victory.

It was a thrifty trip in many ways, with the one special event, a lengthy steam engine ride along, up, and over steep mountains, including a mountain pass at 10,000+ feet, being the big splurge. We spent more on eating out, even at the condo, ($291, with another $110 on groceries) and less on gas ($309) than we had expected. Without the train ride, we'd have done the trip for $1150, only 15% more than we'd hoped for. Even with the train ride ($200), we still came in under our maximum allowance of $1500, and the balance went back in our travel account the Monday we got back.

As much as possible, we traveled not by interstate but by US routes or state highways, so we saw a lot of the country up close. As is often the case when we travel, I was both uplifted and disheartened. Disheartened by how much poverty—tenacious and deep—this nation continues to hold. Uplifted because, in spite of the struggles, there were bright spots everywhere: thriving small businesses in small towns and cities, local-sourced restaurants in the middle of nowhere that the locals were supporting, civic/community developments (parks, concerts, farmers markets, downtown projects) in many communities. It is seeing those little spots that leave with me a sense of hope.

There was one stop we had discussed, but did not make and that was the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, yet another example of the US government committing genocide against Native Americans. I told Warren I didn't think I could begin to atone to the dead. And there was one stop we had not planned to make, but did, and that was Amache, a Colorado relocation center for over 7000 Japanese-American citizens forcibly imprisoned during World War II.

In the Chaim Potok novel In the Beginning, Rav Sharfman tells rabbinical student David that he will ordain him with the ordination that Sharfman's grandfather gave to him. But David must not be neglectful of that honor, as he would be liable to earlier generations. "You will have to go to the graves of those against whom you transgress and ask them to forgive you. But remember, you may be unable to do that. You may not know where the dead are buried."

Potok's words followed me the whole day, past the Sand Creek turnoff and through Amache. Then we came into Kansas, and the horizon opened up.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Inch One Hundred Thirty-One: Update

We are back from vacation, having arrived home Saturday in the early evening.

Sunday was spent in a whirl of laundry, cleaning, unpacking, recycling, sorting, shop work, gardening, and all the other tasks that accompany a homecoming after a lengthy absence. Monday we both jumped back into work: Warren with drumming and a benefit concert at the end of this week, me with the first session of a new court program that my good friend and coworker Cecelia created earlier this year.

Legal Clinic was last night. Clinic was packed with clients and I did not get home until later than I had anticipated (and I ended up leaving before we were all done). We were to have dinner guests tonight, but they had to cancel due to family matters. I regret the loss of the social time, but can make use of the resulting free time. My dear friend Katrina arrives tomorrow for a long weekend; her room is ready.

Chemo resumed yesterday. We (the doctors and I) are trying to get my new treatment regimen (new meds on top of old meds) smoothed out. The vacation, be it the high altitudes or the wear and tear of travel, impacted some of that process in less than wonderful ways and I spent a lot of time on the phone with my personal physician.

It has been raining raining raining here. We have been in and out of rain since Thursday evening of last week. The tomatoes started ripening while we were gone, so we came home to a flood of red. I picked them in some of that rain.

And those are just the headlines, folks.

I will not even begin to write about the vacation until next week. The minimalist packing (room for improvement there), the budget (we did run over the $1000 goal but came in under the $1500 limit), the sights, the impressions: all of that has to wait until later. 

Judy Garland clicked her ruby slippers three times and said "there's no place like home." I know just how she felt.