Norma’s Cairn

IMG_2717There was Norma walking up the steep road to Jacks Peak Park; I knew who it was because the woman leaning into the hill a ways ahead of me had on bright yellow sweatpants. Norma is a painter; she wears bright paint-splattered clothing when out walking so drivers will see her. Though she’s in her late 80’s, it took a bit to catch up to her so we could walk together. Norma’s the only other woman I’ve seen at the park who wears the red a shade of lipstick I do to go for a walk. We walked and talked about art and life, in that order. Norma works in oils. Her abstracts are no less vivid than her lips.

Mid-sentence she stopped, not to catch her breath, but to say, “Did we walk by the cairn?” “What cairn?” “Yes, we did,” she said looking back down the hill. “I’ve got to go back and say hello.” We turned around; her eyes peeled.

A cairn is a marker made of a small or large pile of stones, an ancient form of place marking—the first cairns come from as far back as the Neolithic period. They are used around the world—from Africa to the Pacific Island—to denote burial places; some have and had ceremonial purposes; offerings might be placed atop and, in other cases, important goods, such as charcoal, were buried beneath. An old Scottish blessing says, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”

Norma stopped briefly, turning toward her cairn. I didn’t ask what its significance was, just enjoyed observing her attention to the small assemblage of stacked beige stones. Then she turned back and we continued up the hill.

What might your art be building? What’s beneath the cairn of it? What do you wish to honor, to mark, to express your homage to through word or movement, sound or color?

When the World Feels Unsteady

IMG_2719_2When the world feels unsteady as it does right now after the injustice of the grand jury’s decision in the death of Michael Brown, I turn to what I trust, for ballast.
Today, I turn to something I both trust and am thankful for. More than 30 years ago, when I was a young woman, I began teaching poetry to children.
It’s true that kids are very different in a number of ways than they were in 1978, but in more ways they’re just the same. In working with a few fourth grade classes these past weeks, one of my favorite grades, I’m struck by how much children need and want to say their truths, to find the poetry in their lives—nuance, detail, the previously unspoken, and give it form. The quest for meaning starts when we are young.
Here are 3 newborn poems. With them I wish you thankfulness for the goodness you have, for the places you trust, where you, too, find ballast.

GRIP

There once was a seed. The seed grew into a tree.

The tree was home to two birds.

The birds held a song that was beautiful to my ears.

It helped me sleep. It reminded me of life.

It kept me in its grip of love.

by M. N.

VOICE

The voice inside me is like a flower starting to sprout.

The voice inside me is an artist getting ready to paint.

It is a child alone, crying.

The voice inside me is love, and it is so sad.

My voice is a poem.

by E.

NEVER STOPS

One day after another

I sit and wait for everything to happen

before my eyes,

and it does, one day after another.

by R. N.

“Before You Were Born, Who Were You?”

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The rain has opened the door onto a new world. It’s not just the same world gone grayish and damp; the birds are out there telling me there’s more to this changed day than that. Despite the headache that kept me from writing this earlier today as planned, I feel celebratory, quietly so. Two cats are curled on the rug before the fire; one husband is sipping tea on the couch and the thirsty plants outside are sipping the rainwater. Michael says, “Just as I think the sun is going to come out for a little bit, back comes the dark.” The dark of night is one thing; a dark day is another.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Ask a cloud when is your date of birth? Before you were born, who were you?” Easier to ask that kind of question on a quiet day like this one. Monterey poet Laura Bayless wrote, “Were you ever the river/ that finally flows/ to its mother sea?”
What questions approach you more willingly on a day like this one? Who were you before you had the body you live in now? Were you ever that flowing river, reaching its mother sea? Plenty to write and draw there!

X Marks the Spot

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Years ago, looking at some Common sparrows on the ground, a birder friend despaired, “How could any bird be called ‘common’?” At the time I wasn’t wild about nature; her comment went right by me. The birds looked pretty common to me.

Early last Sunday morning, pockets stuffed with carrots, I took the neighborhood walk, disappointed that the day ahead meant there wasn’t enough time for a long forest walk. Instead, over to horse-friends Oatie and Tessa I went. Before I could hand them their treats, a young cat scampered up to me, rubbing my legs and when I bent to pet her she jumped onto my legs and from there onto my shoulder, draped herself around my neck, snuggled in, purring. (The horses were less interested in her than I was.) Each time I put the kitten down to continue my walk, she ran after me. So I crouched down street-side to pet and play, felt a surge of happiness, and resisted the urge to take the kitty home. Standing up, a scuffling sound turned my head and there on the street, proceeding toward me was a small buck—fur still covering his rack of antlers. We stopped and looked at each other, long and slow. The kitten’s attention got taken by a wind-swept leaf. The buck went on his way and I went on mine.

Just before turning onto my street, I looked up to the sky and saw plane-trails that formed a large X in the sky. Oh, I thought, X marks the spot, indeed. I’d found myself in the just-right place once again. Maybe not so common, after all…

Lost in the Familiar

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There’s a particular part of Pine Trail at Jacks Peak Park that crosses the road near the park’s east side—a Bermuda Triangle sort of part of the trail. Each of the few times I’ve walked it and have come to its end, arriving on Rhus Trail, I can’t figure out which way is which. I say to myself, “You know this park, Tricey. (That’s what Michael and Marion call me.) You’ve walked her several times a week for more than a couple years.” I won’t write what I say next, but let’s just say, it isn’t pretty. That’s when the old parental voice with its litany of shoulds comes parading its dirty rags.

The time before last when I felt lost I was kinder. What is that Buddha said? Something like, “If you don’t extend compassion to yourself, you’re not compassionate.” That time, instead of being critical, I laughed a little, said, “Yup, you don’t know which way to go. It’s okay; walk one way, it’s that’s not right, why take the other.” Much better.

Yesterday, when I took that walk I didn’t worry for an iota of a second, even though, as before, I was uncertain. I crossed Rhus and started up another trail that I didn’t recognize until, a few seconds later, I did! “Sage Trail,” I said, and turned around and knew just which way would get me home in time to teach.

The thing about being lost to remember, even when we think we shouldn’t be lost, is to be relaxed about it. That’s the first step to being found. You might write or dance or draw a picture of being lost and what that’s like for you.

Imagination & Memory: What’s Hidden & What’s Not

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When I was a girl and we went from Manhattan to visit my Massachusetts grandmother, either by train or car, the place I couldn’t wait to get to was Gram’s utility closet. From the outside, from the closed door, it appeared nondescript. But tucked behind the mop, the broom, and buckets, a row of hanging winter coats and old clothes, there was a hidden staircase. That the staircase led up to a second story storage area wasn’t what intrigued me; the stairway itself did. I’d go in, turn on the dim light, close the door quietly behind me, climb over the cleaning supplies, push the coats apart, walk up a few steps with a doll in hand or a pad of paper and a box of crayons, and sit down. Many happy solitary hours were spent there—no one interrupted me. There was no boisterous family; no bickering; no nothing, just me by my very own self. If gone too long and my mother couldn’t find me elsewhere, she knew where to look. Growing up in that West Springfield house, my mother had also sought privacy on those same steps. My grandmother is gone; my mother’s gone; but the hidden room is very much here. My imagination’s got it. When lost to myself, I look there.

Green Pushing Up

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Out in the woods less than a week after our first big rain of the season, on a level part of the trail where the rain neither sluiced down stream-like clearing everything in its way nor pooled at hill-bottom leaving a sponge like quality to the trail, a multitude of tiny two-leafed sprouts push up, reaching for sunlight, to unfurl in the air. How similar to how the imagination works—given a little sustenance and a plot of open ground, our lives, by their very nature—will give us our own green growth. Within the very dailiness of our lives, have over time, planted seed upon seed, even when we were completely unawares, caught up in whatever tasks the days held. That unsuspecting everyday is imagination’s fuel. Sometimes we refrain from art-making because we think nothing special enough is happening. But if you stop, grab pen and notebook, and begin jotting down what seems obvious, irrelevant, even, or if you pick up a box of colors and a sheet of paper, setting down color beside color, shape within shape, you’ll find your rich imagination has mulched whatever ordinariness the days may have seemed to hold and turned into something more. What’s sprouting in your life, what’s feeding your imagination, what’s there for you to look closely at and transform?

Whose Gates Are These?

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Last Saturday I wrote about what I call My Grandfather’s Gates—the enormous black iron gateway to Columbia University that my iron-worker grandfather helped to build, those gates that whether every weather and age, that the young walk through into their new college life. Later that day I received this from the photographer Bob Nielsen, who, interestingly, had just gifted me with a photograph he’d taken of New York City, “I went to law and business schools at Columbia, and every morning walked through your grandfather’s gates on my way to class. Those gates were a portal for me in so many ways. They have subsequently served as a touch-point whenever I’ve gone back to New York and up to Morningside Heights, and reflected on where I am, how far I’ve come.” Pictured here is another gate, a much smaller gate, this one built by my grandfather alone, that welcomed me as a child every Sunday afternoon.

My wish, in all I do is to reinforce, to strengthen, the circle we all stand in, to be sure the earth is unforgotten, and for us to stand in that circle knowing how inextricably we’re bound to one another, knowing that honesty, imagination, and love are the gates to our long-lastingness.

A Long Sigh of Relief

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All Saints’ Day—a gathering of the Saints in Heaven that follows the holy night—from which comes our word Halloween. Though I’ve never liked Halloween—not even as a kid—this next day has always caused me a long sigh of relief.

Last evening, waiting for the trick-or-treaters who didn’t come, listening and delighting in the rain, Michael said, “We need the rain; I love the rain, but I hate to see summer go.” My, perhaps, too-quick reply was: “I’m ready to be done with summer till next year.” I’m ready for the turning in, time before the fire, for life’s focus, at least in a spiritual sense, to draw down, into the darkness, for the work of the darkness and the quiet. Enough of the outward gaiety, the reign of the external life.

One night last winter when Michael and I were in New York City we went up to Columbia. I wanted him to see the gates to the university that my iron-worker grandfather had helped to build. In the photos you can see how deep even the city darkness was. I stood beside those gates, held onto their sturdiness, proud of the dark strength my grandfather helped make; proud to be descended from that hardworking immigrant. On All Saints Day I’m remembering him and welcoming the return of darkness, this deep tunneling time of year.

And you? Ready for the chillier weather, hopefully buckets of rain? You might write, dance, or paint your way into the coming dark and discover what’s ready to receive you there.