Featured Poet: The Bard

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday (observed), and I ran across one of his sonnets today that I didn’t remember having read before (though maybe I did in college).

 

***

 

Sonnet 73

 

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

***

 

Do I really need to give you biographical information about William Shakespeare? How about this: he wasn’t Francis Bacon.

Featured Poet: Brian Lu

Today’s featured poet is Brian Lu, another (former) student of mine who wrote exceptional poetry that I was sometimes jealous of because it was so thoughtful and adept.  This poem, “Re,” draws on Asian influences regarding death and the afterlife and reincarnation.  It’s one of my favorites of his, and he wrote it in tenth grade.

When I asked him to send me a bio, this is what I got:  “I enjoy having my back cracked when my friends hug me and eating fried eggs with cheese for weekend brunch. I have an art blog that I really should update.”  And here’s the link to it

***

Re

 

Men and women no longer with beating
heart or rushing blood or warm skin realize real rest
as they ramble down crowded glowing streets
talk of nothing for the sake of nothing          and wallow in steaming bath houses
all the while happy          euphoric          ecstatic          doing anything but thinking

The glorious hammer does not so much waltz near the mind or bother the thought
because as is life          repose in the heavens is preteritely short

Well          this is death          but not really death as the dead will soon live again
upon the resonating gong of a bronze bell rung

Guests of death will be ushered into a line loose like string
and one by one the magnificent hammer will crash upon memories          thoughts          skulls
erasing men and women into infant boys and girls who leave
to be birthed again          rising like bald featherless phoenixes
happily remembering nothing

 

Featured Poet: Sandra Danby

Another writer I’ve been privileged to make a connection with throughout that whole lovely motherhood anthology project is Sandra Danby. Her novel Ignoring Gravity, about two pairs of sisters linked by a generation of secrets, is scheduled for publication in September 2014 by BNBS Books. It is part of the new publishing imprint, Britain’s Next Bestseller from BNBS Books, where book readers get to choose the books they want to see published.

She is currently writing on the sequel, Connectedness, in which Ignoring Gravity’s journalist Rose Haldane becomes an identity detective. She interviews controversial artist Justine Tree and falls once again into the turmoil of adoption secrets, a trail which leads her from Yorkshire to Spain in search of Justine’s truth.

Sandra Danby’s award-winning blog at http://www.sandrandanby.com features her own fiction, her thoughts and ideas on the process of writing, and reviews of new and classic fiction.

Her short stories have appeared online, in magazines, and published in two anthologies: Diaspora City: The London New Writing Anthology [Arcadia] and The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood [Kasia James]. Both anthologies are available from Amazon. Her short stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted for various prizes. She has written about books for MsLexia magazine and The Bookseller.

She also blogs about her life in rural Spain here, writing about nature, wildlife, Spanish culture, Spanish food, fiction and non-fiction books about Spain.

Here are some more links if you want to find her online:

Blog: www.sandradanby.com

Click here to pre0order Ignoring Gravity before its September 2014 launch.

Twitter: @SandraDanby

Facebook: www.facebook.com/sandradanbyauthor

 

***

Waiting for the last breath

 

My breath

Mum’s breath

My breath

Mum’s breath

My breath

My breath

… Mum’s breath

My breath

My breath

My breath

… Mum’s breath

My breath

My breath

…Mum’s breath

My breath

My breath

My breath

 

 

Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them

It seems like everyone comes out with a list of must-read books each summer.  And since I’m clearly too late to jump on that bandwagon, I thought I’d do it up a little differently and give you some suggestions of books which are very, very good but which made me rather unhappy while I was reading them.  These are books which were well written or technically astute enough to break through my misery, distaste, or other negative reaction to convince me they were still awfully good books.

And a warning: this post isn’t just a series of book reviews.  I’ve often said that one Continue reading “Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them”

Remembering the Challenger

On January 28, 1986, I was in sixth grade at the St. Francis de Sales parish school in Houston.  We were changing classes between religion and social studies.  It was a Tuesday, so we were on a short-day schedule and had five classes before lunch instead of four.  Social studies was fifth.

All the classrooms had TVs in them, which we used occasionally for important events, like the attempted assassination of President Reagan, like the Astros actually making it to the World Series.  Like the day a faulty O-ring, as we would later be told, disastered the space shuttle across an indigo sky.

All the teachers went to watch the news reports in the library together and left the kids alone in the classrooms with the TVs on.  I watched the replays of the explosion a few times and then, in my typical anxiety response, sat down and started copying the notes for class off the board while everyone else jumped around excitedly, perhaps in fear or awe.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the shape of the cloud, the Y-split, the bulbous contrails of grief and despair, nor of the face of Christa McAuliffe’s husband as he watched the shuttle unfold itself into a brief fire, then a billowing slingshot of destruction, then finally a silent, dripping trail of sadness and disbelief highlit against the too-dark blue of the lower stratosphere.

I recently came across this article, posted about a year ago, which clarified some of the nation’s myths about the Challenger.  In theory, I like knowing that the way we remember things is not always accurate but can be remedied.  However, in this case, some of the details might just be worse than the myths in which we enshrouded ourselves.  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/#.TyOHEZgqMfE

The day the shuttle broke apart, we were sent home from school earlier than usual.  The sky above Houston was turquoise, perfect, unbroken by clouds or contrails or debris.  I went out to the swingset in my backyard, where I’d spent most of my free time since I’d turned five, and thought about President Reagan’s address to the nation, how he’d called the astronauts heroes, how he’d likened them to stars in the firmament.  The mid-afternoon sun was piercing, the air a little cold.  I swung up higher, higher, higher until my eyes closed from the bright searing light, until my eyelids closed upon a red semi-darkness, until I couldn’t reach any higher without slackening the chains holding my swing to the set.

On what I determined would be my final climb, I took a deep breath and leaped into the air.  I don’t remember my fall.  I don’t remember my body’s arc across the yard.  I remember only the brightness, the sky that touched all the way to the ground, the suspension of everything that had ever mattered.  The brief, brief flight of a bird I never was.

Hallowe’en Routines

My son awakened me the other day, his beautiful blonde dumpling noggin very close to mine at the side of my bed, saying, “Mommy, I didn’t have an accident.  I need fruit snacks.”

It was still dark outside.  It was so dark, in fact, that the sun wouldn’t be rising for a couple more hours.  Groggily I registered this fact, and then reflected on the relative merits of pushing the kids’ bedtime back a little bit so they wouldn’t wake up so early.

“Mommy, fruit snacks,” he continued, reminding me of the bribe we’ve offered him for not wetting the bed.  (And yes, that method is the current expert opinion.)  “Mommy, please.  I didn’t have an accident.”

“Okay, sweetie, just a minute,” I said.  “I’m proud of you for staying dry.”

“Me too.  Can I have my fruit snacks now?  I even got myself dressed.”

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them, thought I bet I’m going to need glasses soon, and then finally saw that he was in fact dressed for school.  Even his little leather belt was around his waist.  It was over his untucked shirt instead of through his belt loops, but we’ll take that.

By now Daddy was awake, too, and lauding our little man on his morning’s accomplishments.  Our son is four years old, and these little milestones are a big and welcome deal, one that, in the not-too-distant past, we felt like we wouldn’t ever see.

I rolled out of bed and paddled down to the kitchen to get the fruit snacks, rewarded him, and then decided it was in fact late enough for me to be up and in the shower.  The morning routine commenced, and I was grateful it didn’t start with whiny, sleep-deprived children resisting the sullen call of the Wake-Up-For-School Fairy (also known as a cranky parent who really could have had another three or four hours of sleep, too, thanks very much).

They say that, when training one’s very young children, three days of a consistent pattern establishes a routine.  So sleep training and potty training and brush-your-teeth training and stories and songs at bedtime, as well as a host of other things, need only three days or nights in a row to become habit.  This is delightful rhetoric, an optimistic forecast that many parents will probably laugh at in hindsight.

As much as I enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity in my life, I have to admit I am a creature of habit, one who appreciates routine and order, even if I’m not great at maintaining them myself.  Routine and order are predictable, stable, familiar.  They are a safeguard against anxiety.  They make enormous tasks conquerable.  They give us something to hold onto when our lives go spiraling out of control.

* * *

Hallowe’en is one of my favorite holidays — second, in fact, only to Christmas.  I consider it the official kick-off to the holiday season, the very best time of year.  In the autumn, the weather is better, everything feels festive, the semester is winding down to its glorious end, and people in general are more generous and kind and happy.

Yes, of course I’m generalizing.  I’m sweeping broad strokes across my palette of existence.  This leaves me able to appreciate the specific details of every holiday season in a fresh way, since those details tend to shift around in surprising little moments.  Most of the time they are happy or pleasant at least.  And yes, “real life” still intrudes sometimes.  But if I pan out from the scene and look from a wide angle, I will see that life is very good, and I will count my blessings and be grateful.  I don’t want to forget to do that, though it can be easy to do so in the crazy-hectic routine of every day.

* * *

When I was in eighth grade, my social circle consisted of very few people.  There were a couple of other kids in my class at school whom I was sometimes friends with, but mostly I was dramatically unpopular.  I had been at that awful school since kindergarten, and although I’d had friends in the elementary grades, over the years they’d moved away, been held back a year, decided I was just too weird for them — whatever.  By eighth grade, all I could think about was graduating and moving on to high school.  Sure, most of the kids I had gone to junior high with would be there with me — the girls at least:  this was Catholic school, after all — but all the other Catholic grade schools in Houston and some of the public ones, too, would be feeding in as well, and so the potential for friendship would yawn wide like the Grand Canyon.

I did have two very good friends, however, though neither was my age and neither attended my school.  They were two of my first cousins, Meredith and Chuck.  Chuck was in sixth grade, Meredith in fourth, and because our large extended family tended to get together a lot on the weekends, I could reliably depend on something like a social life, and so the trauma of having to go to school every day where I was, for all intents and purposes, treated like a bug, was lessened a little bit.

On Hallowe’en, that year I was in eighth grade, my twelve-year-old cousin Chuck died.  It was unexpected.  He’d been in the hospital three days.  He’d been diagnosed earlier that week with what my mother referred to as “acute adult leukemia,” and then in the hospital he’d contracted strep throat.  That afternoon — it was a Saturday — they’d turned off his life support, and the shell of a precious boy who had once been my cousin was no more.

* * *

I would spend the next six weeks crying myself to sleep, unable to articulate to anyone what I was going through, but the days following the death were undoubtedly horrendous for everyone.  I remember the tortured face of my Great-Aunt Mary, leading the San Antonio contingent, climbing the steps to my cousins’ front porch with arms flung open to embrace my grieving uncle.  I remember Sister Jane, the principal of the high school I would be attending next year, coming over because Chuck’s older sister was already in ninth grade there, and Sister Jane knew it was her duty to come.

The monsignor at my school, Father James Dinkins, did not come to my house, or to my cousin’s house.  At the All Saints’ Day Mass Monday morning, his homily in front of the entire school was about an experience he’d had as an adolescent, when his twelve-year-old cousin had died of leukemia.  I remember nothing else about his sermon except that it seemed strange he would have had any experience like mine, and I assumed he was making it all up, straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, directing his homily at me without making eye contact, without offering me or my family a word of direct support, even though we’d been in the parish for years longer than he had.  He appreciated my family’s tithes, that much I knew, but that was where the social contract ended.

That afternoon, he paid a visit to my eighth grade class, and after a few words of pleasant greeting with everyone in general and a little discussion about what everyone had done for Hallowe’en, he walked right up to my desk and said jovially, “I understand you had a very interesting weekend,” as if I’d gone white-water rafting or deer hunting for the first time.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” he asked.  I glanced at my teacher.  She looked taut, ready to spring into action, assuming her help would be needed or welcome, or permitted.  The priest was between her and me.  I shifted in my desk.

“My cousin died,” I said.

“What was that?” he asked, leaning his ear over.  I could detect whispers in the room around me.

I cleared my throat.  “My cousin died.  He was twelve.  He had leukemia.”

“Oh, that’s very interesting,” Father Dinkins said, standing straight again.  I excused myself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for a while.  When I returned, he was still chatting pleasantly with the class, no doubt about something dogmatic and theological.  He and I did not make eye contact again.  I heard from my parents later that when the news of our family’s tragedy broke, our pastor said, “The Jamails are a big family.  They will console themselves.”

* * *

I didn’t know how to mourn something so profound as the death of one of my best friends.  I quit playing the piano and even stopped, for a while, writing stories.  I began wearing black on the weekends.  I tried to find as many pictures of my cousin as possible to make a collage for my room until my mother scolded me not to build a shrine.  Everyone was sad, my grandmother explained, enfolding me in a hug and telling me I needed to stop crying.

At school a couple of boys who sat next to me in science class asked me, “Are you mourning?”

I nodded my head.  “Yes, I am.”

“Are you nighttime?”  Their punchline, hilarious to them, stung me just the way it was supposed to, and I swallowed my grief down, understanding that it was not a safe thing to show.

Eventually, what saved me from a crippling sadness was stoic routine.  I had things to do.  Tests to study for.  A school newspaper column to write.  Essay contests and spelling bees to win.  That grade school to put behind me as I embarked on a hopeful time, high school.  Eventually, life continued on at its genial pace, and all the grief I and my entire family was feeling got tucked away into the corners of our traditions, one more new wrinkle to incorporate.

* * *

I got back to celebrating Hallowe’en slowly at first.  Even though I still dressed up and participated in parties and trick-or-treating, it was a long time before I could look at my candy bucket and not remember the handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that had been dropped into my cousin’s casket with him by his classmates.  I spent about a decade letting my grief for him be the go-to sadness I defaulted to when I was feeling depressed, the thing I most remembered when someone else died, the gravitas that I, as a young adolescent, could not shake and which fed my Otherness.

I’ve never been much of a drinker.  The only time I’ve ever drunk alone was on what would have been Chuck’s twenty-first birthday.  I had just broken up with a boyfriend whom I should have kicked to the curb six months before.  He wasn’t dealing well with the break-up and wanted really badly to be friends.  I went to a pub and ordered myself dinner and an imposing pint of Ace Pear in honor of my cousin.  The boy I’d just dumped showed up at the tail end of it, invading my solitude, and I let him listen to stories about my cousin.  He looked eager and supportive and hopeful.  I told him good-bye and left him at the table without even a glance over my shoulder.

Later, at home, I launched myself into my routine, locking my grief back into the recesses of my heart for what I hoped would be the last painful time.

* * *

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my cousin died, and here I am writing about it — which I hadn’t really intended to do when I sat down to write today.  Hallowe’en is a big holiday at my house now.  And in my immediate family.  Again.  My parents picked the holiday back up once I had children of my own.  Traditions, you know.  Comfortable, familiar habits.  Costumes, candy, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of treats that will bring the little ones joy.

We put out decorations every year:  witches, spiders, pumpkins with knowing grins.  And always ghosts, the representation of our collective fears and hopes about the afterlife.  We traipse around on what the old religions tell us is the night when the veil between the worlds — those of the living and the dead — is the thinnest.  We light candles.  We don’t tell the kids they can’t eat candy before bedtime and with breakfast the next morning.  We watch Tim Burton movies.  We dress ourselves in costumes, costumes, costumes.  My girlfriends are I wear pointy hats to tea.

And then we put it all away until next year. We focus on Thanksgiving.  The guest list, the order at the butcher’s market.  The sculpted turkey with a double-fan scrollwork tail I put on the mantel for decoration.  The ceramic pumpkin tureen and little pumpkin bowls which will hold my famous creamy pumpkin soup in just a few short weeks.  And the discussions with my husband over what we’re going to get the kids for Christmas this year.  The ghosts recede, and this too is their habit.

Ah, routine.