Monthly Archives: January 2013

Deviation and Beauty

The red maple up past the McKinley Elementary School playground on Emerson Street, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is etched on the backdrop of my mind like a permanent screen saver.  A symmetrical outline, the tree turned crimson every October for exactly one month.

As a kindergartener looking up the street from my Grandma’s side yard, the tree represented perfection to me.  The first time I noticed it was probably when I was pushed in my stroller up the street and someone, my mother or grandmother, gave me a red leaf from the ground.

Later, Grandma ironed one under wax paper for me to keep.

When my mother worked at Checker Motors and I entered McKinley school in the morning kindergarten, I stayed with my grandparents during the days.  I used to gather leaves from under the tree by myself.  Each leaf, shaped like a small hand, matched my own as I picked it up and placed it in my palm.

When I looked up into the leaves, the light sparkled, dappling my view of the world around me.

Red trees stir me with their deviation from the norm, their place in the firmament of “all things counter, original, spare, strange” (Pied BeautyGerard Manley Hopkins)  Like the passion of tender new peony shoots against a backdrop of green bushes, the red tree blazes against greenery, blue sky, or dreary human-drawn landscape.

***

On a related note, I am wondering if I am obsessed with trees.  I’ve written about the palo verde, the elm, the plum, and more.  If I didn’t have this paper trail of evidence leading me to the source of my obsession, I couldn’t have told you that this is one of my writing topics.  I recognize my obsession with writing about family and my childhood, but I didn’t see the trees until I looked back.

In her seminal book Writing Down the BonesNatalie Goldberg suggests:

Writers end up writing about their obsessions.  Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be leased.

She insists that obsessions have power.  “Harness that power,” she urges.

What are your writing obsessions?  If you look back at what you have written, can you identify an obsession you didn’t realize you had?

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The Focus on Where I Am

When I walk outside in my Arizona yard I see the palo verde trees.

I grew up in Michigan where trees are real trees.  You probably know what I mean: oak, maple, birch, and pine trees.  They all have strong, symmetrical shapes–specific enough to be cookie cutters.

But here in the southwest, we have the palo verde, sort of a weed on steroids. This is a particularly bedraggled specimen. The outer branches and leaves of the tree are weed-like, fragile, with a few thin limbs over-long and droopy.  Nobody would want to make a cookie cutter out of this palo verde, and if they did, nobody would recognize it.

Like the scorpion and the rattlesnake, the palo verde is one of God’s creations.   This tree has been on my mind since I first moved to Arizona five years ago.

***

Focus

In this perfectly off-center palo verde tree

the digressions fall away.

Christ’s fourth avatar sleeps in a karated gold pagoda.

The pilgrims search for dust with a metallic taste.

A hummingbird’s snoop into yellow bells

transmutes into the clapper of the so-called miracles.

Well.  Miracles or mysterious occurrences,

maybe misreadings.

From this focus, the architecture is the tree,

a holy manger

nesting the saguaro cacti,

offering Eucharist for burros and jackrabbits,

sanctuary for the songbirds.

In my confusion, I read the wrong miracles.

God’s toolbelt begets stained glass

mirrors of beatitude, where incense

smokes through silver filigreed sieves,

fogging the view of the palo verde,

the Ark of the holy secrets.

Thank God toolbelts unbuckle, their great weight

tumbling down to the ground

from which the palo verde grows.

(published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vol 3, Iss 2)

The “yellow bells” are the spring blossoms, which allow the palo verdes to compete with the fall colors of Michigan.  And while they will never be my favorite tree, their delicate fronds and flowers create a lively lace against the sky.

May at the Mayo Clinic, Phoenix Campus

May at the Mayo Clinic, Phoenix Campus

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What Were My People Like?

I put a page on here  (see tab at the top of this page) which links to my genealogy blog.  A year ago I barely knew what a blog was, and now I have three blogs (with ideas for more–slap me, please).   The third blog was actually the first one–it’s about adoption and I write it with my daughter.  I had so much fun, I decided to keep going.

Back to the genealogy blog.  Long before I had kids (both of them were adopted), I was interested in family history and genealogy.  For a while I worked on a master’s degree in history, specializing in just that subject.  That’s before I gained/lost my senses and switched over to creative writing and English.  So while genealogy is a strange subject for someone with kids and a brother who were adopted, it’s something I’ve long been interested in.  Because of my interest, family members have told me stories and given me memorabilia.  I feel a great responsibility for this trust.

If you’re also into this subject, or if you just want to see what kind of weird family created me ;), check out my mother’s Dutch ancestors at The Family Kalamazoo.

I keep the focus on the DeKorn and Zuidweg families of southwestern Michigan. On this site, I share old photographs (100 years old), many taken by family photographer Joseph DeKorn.

Flooding at the Water Works Bridge in Kalamazoo, March 26, 1904. That spring, the water got 6″ higher than the photo shows.


I also have many other old photos and artifacts from the family.

Years ago, my grandfather Adrian Zuidweg shared a portion of the collection with Western Michigan University‘s Archives and Regional History Collections. A larger portion is not at the archives, and my goal is to share the rest of the collection on this blog.

At the lake

At the lake

The lives of my family members revolved around their families, small businesses (such as retail and construction), and the many lakes of the Kalamazoo area.

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“Small Stone” and a Poetic Mountain in a Flock of Pansies

These pansies made it through the frost last week because we protected them. With white freeze blankets, my husband and I covered as many flowers and plants as we could manage.  Our yard looked as if it had been overrun by ghosts; it was worth it to save the beauties.

Today I contemplated these pansies, the star shapes inside, the concentric “circles,” the complimentary and harmonious colors, and the thin velvety feel to my fingers.  Ultimately, what I wanted to say was in the Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty.”  No point of saying anything else.

Pied Beauty

BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

###

For more on “small stones,” you can read my first post on the subject.  It’s all about this: find a moment in which to be  mindful and record it.

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Can I Be More Than a Stonecutter?

In the early sixties, when my father hauled trash, he would bring me gifts which were cast-offs from other people.  One time he brought me a large carton of textbooks from the 1940s, which an elementary school had thrown away.  They were primarily English and social studies texts, and in these books I discovered a wide variety of stories which my brain played like a never-ending movie projector in my head.

One of my favorites was the Japanese folk tale, “The Stonecutter.”  In this story, the protagonist is a laborer who cuts rock out of the mountainside.  The man doesn’t realize it, but a spirit lives inside the mountain.  This spirit has the power to grant wishes.  The man wishes to become a rich man so he doesn’t have to labor so hard, and he becomes one.  Later, he sees that the prince has power over the rich man and wishes to become a prince.  You know what happens.  He becomes a prince, of course.

In his quest for something more, he hadn’t realized that even a prince has his limitations until he discovers that the sun has more power.  He wishes to become the sun.  As he continues his quest, he becomes a cloud and then a rock, which is the rock of the mountain.  The most powerful of all.

As a rock, he suddenly feels pain and discovers that a man is chipping away at him.  He wishes once again for power over his own life and becomes a man–a stonecutter cutting away at the mountain.  He’s right back where he started before he wished his life away.

Outside my bedroom window

I’ve never forgotten this story, although sometimes I move too far from the lesson itself.  The power is mine to live my own authentic life, even if I am the stonecutter, chipping away at the mountain in front of me.

***

Writing, though, is not always like life.  As a writer, I believe that it’s possible to do more than live my own life.

Mindful of my work, by some miraculous force, I can be the stonecutter and the mountain at the same time.

Have you ever had that feeling when you were involved in the process of writing?

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Meaningful, Mindfulness, Meditation: The Three Ms and Me

Two weeks ago I asked you to try a month of meaningful moments.  I went on to explain the Mindful Writing Challenge for January 2013.  The directions are simple:

1. Notice something properly every day during January.
2. Write it down.

It occurred to me as I  have tried to write these moments that what I am doing is a form of meditation.  The realization that the mindfulness it takes to “notice something properly” is meditation led me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness

After I began to accept this “capacity to be aware” of my surroundings as meditation I wondered why I had thought of meditation only as an emptying of my mind.

It’s impossible to empty my mind.  As soon as a thought slips in, I focus on getting rid of that thought (“out, out, brief thought” or something like that) and that causes me to focus even more on the thought itself.  So to be truly aware makes more sense to me.  What’s more, it has worked for me this month.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, I learned that there is a specific way to wash the dishes.  It is not to wash them to get them done or to enjoy a cup of tea afterward.  The way to wash the dishes is “in order to wash the dishes.”  It is relaxing into the moment of what you are doing and being fully present at that moment.

Mindfulness meditation is not about removing oneself from one’s “life” or environment, but rather about experiencing each moment as meaningful.

The Foundation of Mindfulness begins with mindfulness of the body.  Today I noticed my breath.

I feel my intake of air.

I envision it.

When I don’t release my thought

I breathe in rhythm

and purpose.

My lungs expand then contract

until my insides

have been swept clean.

If you are interested in more ways to be mindful of the body, Thich Nhat Hanh leads the monks through a series of mindful movements.

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Today’s reblog is about an influence on my life–and a prevailing metaphor.

Writer Site

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “

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Today’s reblog remembers my cousin Leah who I will always miss.

Writer Site

This poem features my dad’s Sunfish sailboat, which we sailed on our little lake in the 60s and early 70s.

Dad bought it used, but only gently so.  We put more miles on that boat in the first summer than it had accumulated with its previous owner.  Dad and I were calm and talked little when we sailed together.  When my best friend and I took it out our goal was to sail past the docks of the boys with the big motorboats.  It was when my cousin Leah came from Chicago to visit that the boat’s potential for capsizing was realized.

***

“Underwater Sisters” was published by Prairie Wolf Press Review in their Fall 2010 issue.

Underwater Sisters

You wanted to switch places with my brother.

I told you how bored you’d be in Michigan,

that we can’t bottle fireflies on July nights,

have to go to  bed during…

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Today’s reblog is the 3rd piece I posted. Please make it a beautiful day!

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When I was four, I spent the seven-month Michigan winter playing in our basement.  Dad had built walls in opposite corners, one to create a laundry for Mom and the other for his workshop.  The open area just outside the workshop had become my playroom.  Nothing special designated it as mine. The floor was concrete, which Dad had painted with gray industrial paint.  Scotch tape didn’t hold up my drawings on the cinder block wall, and when I tried to nail a finger-painting to the gritty cement, I wasn’t strong enough and Dad’s hammer was too heavy.  The nail slipped to the floor, my painting torn.

What my playroom contained were wooden crates of costumes and dolls and books.  These served as portals to my imagination.  With the single light bulbs shining from overhead, and these possessions spread out before me, the room felt cozy and cheerful, no matter that…

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Day 2 of my hiatus, here is the 2nd post I wrote for this blog about learning to read and writing memoir and, above all, the ways of memory.

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“Each [memoir] is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

When I was a young teen we had a subscription to Psychology Today.  I read about codes and code breaking in one issue and all my Nancy Drew instincts banded together and urged me on to become a code cracker.  This desire had probably originated even earlier as I’d ordered a book on codes from the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade.  The book had seemed beyond my abilities until I read the magazine article; that’s when I appropriated the large blackboard on our basement wall and began studying code breaking in earnest.  My mother would shake her head when she came down to sort laundry.  The board was riddled with what looked…

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