Painting With Words: #Poet #ElizabethBishop

Studying poetry in school made me feel dumb, as if the poet was specifically trying to hide the real meaning of whatever it is he or she wanted to communicate in a bunch of undecipherable formats and words. I was irritated that you had to work that hard to figure out what an author was trying to say, and that even if you thought you’d figured it out, you weren’t sure. As a teenager, that uncertainty didn’t seem worth the mental exertion. Yet, I’ve always loved writing poetry. In fact, my family has a tradition of giving gifts along with a poem. Mine are best known for the rhymes involving curse words. There’s just so much that rhymes with shit, shitty and ass!

When you think about it, poetry, just like all writing, is just the creative science of picking from the same words available to all of us and putting them together in clever ways that no one else thinks about. As poet Terrance Hayes said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross yesterday, poems are music with language as the instrument.

A few months ago my new friend Carmen invited me to join her poetry discussion group. Last week we focused on Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose work you might have been introduced to in the movie In Her Shoes. Cameron Diaz’s character reads Bishop’s poem One Art to the dying English professor. After re-reading One Art, I’m blown away by how eloquently Bishop expresses the way we protect ourselves from loss. Bishop experienced incredible loss early in life with the death of her father when she was an infant and her mother losing her mind and getting taken away to a mental hospital when she was five. For that reason, much of her poetry focuses less on emotion and more on keen powers of observation. Her ability to zoom in on details others might miss is astounding in poems such as The Fish and At The Fishhouses.

Many years ago one of my favorite English professors in college, Camille Roman, sent me a signed book she wrote on Elizabeth Bishop’s work during World War II and the Cold War era. I was so touched by her sharing her work with me and admired the book on my shelf for many years without actually reading it. When my poetry group picked Elizabeth Bishop, I finally read it for the first time, drawn to the comprehensive literary analysis of Bishop’s work and how her writing was affected by world events.

I also watched Reaching For The Moon, a movie about Bishop’s Brazilian years, which gave me further insight into her work as well as showed her painstaking slow process of picking combinations of words and her battle with addiction. You can find it on Netflix.Reaching_for_the_Moon_1

It turns out that I wasn’t dumb about poetry. I just wasn’t ready for it back in high school. I’m grateful to have been exposed to Elizabeth Bishop’s work and highly recommend Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979.

My Mother’s Dying Wish (With Apologies to the Fine People of Lubbock, Texas*)

I was sitting next to my mother in the doctor’s office when the doctor said that there was nothing else to do about her cancer. No more chemo. No more liver stents. No more anything. The cancer had won. She might have a couple of months left. It was early August 1994 and I had flown up from Texas to be with her in Boston for this ominous appointment.

“If there’s anything you want to do, now’s the time,” the doctor said.

“I want to go to Lubbock, Texas,” she said. “Can I make the trip?”

“Lubbock, Texas? Why?” the doctor asked, frowning.

Yeah. Why would anyone want to make Lubbock their last travel destination?

“Because that’s where my daughter just moved with her husband and I have to see her new house so I’ll be able to picture her in it before I die,” she said.

Oh. Because of me.

As they discussed the necessary details of an end-stage cancer patient flying across the country – number of flights required, names of local doctors in Lubbock to call, medicines to take with her, etc., I felt increasingly guilty. Why hadn’t I moved to Hawaii or Santa Fe or somewhere that had something beautiful to see that made it worth being the very last destination my mom visited before she died? All we could offer in Lubbock were dusty, flat, red plains, a heck of a lot of sky, a few prairie dogs, and a Grandy’s where you could get all you can eat brunch with unlimited biscuits and gravy for $6.99. Plus there was the occasional stench of cow poop wafting in from the nearby feed lots when the wind was right.

It seemed like the very worst place to see before dying. And it was my fault she was going to spend her last precious trip going there.

“I can send you pictures,” I said. “You really don’t need to come to Lubbock. Let’s go somewhere beautiful.”

But my mother was undeterred. A few weeks later she and my dad arrived at the airport. She looked even thinner and yellower than she had been in the doctor’s office. Even the whites of her eyes were yellow.

We took her to our tiny house and gave her the two minute tour. Den, Kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, postage stamp-sized backyard. Her favorite thing was the dishwasher on wheels. The house had been built without space for a dishwasher so it came with one on wheels. We wheeled it over to the sink and showed her how we hooked up the hose to the kitchen faucet to run the dishwasher.

“Isn’t that the damndest thing,” she said. “See, if didn’t come, I wouldn’t have seen your dishwasher on wheels.”

So, on the eve of Mother’s Day, a day that is always difficult for those of us without our mothers (see last year’s post on that topic), I remember with gratitude that my mother loved me so much that she went to one of the least desirable places in America for her last trip. Just so she could picture me in my new house before she died.

Even though the landscape itself is less than beautiful, and I’ve never experienced wind or dust or cold like I did in Lubbock, the people who live there are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met.  

 

New Friend

Here’s what I like about my new friend, Carmen: she is creative, interesting, funny, generous, and a great conversationalist on a 4-hour 6 a.m. flight to Boston. We exchanged business cards. She invited me to her poetry discussion group, which turned out to include women just like her. Artists. Creative types. Mothers. People with passion. None of them read poetry in the Dreaded Poetry Voice. And the poet we discussed was Lydia Davis, whose spare narrative style I am emulating here. Probably badly. But that’s OK, because I have a new friend. 

 

The Snail, Free Advice and “Music”

The snail greeted us on the sidewalk Imageas we rounded the corner of the cemetery. I thought it was a small rock and nearly walked right by. But Lucy wasn’t fooled. Her nose took her right to the snail’s tiny little antennae. Have you ever seen a snail close up? They are really fascinating and beautiful. The way the shell circles around reminds me of the rug in my grandmother’s bedroom which had lines inside it like lanes in a mini track. As kids, my cousins and I used to run around it and call it the “roundy roundy rug.”

Anyway, the snail was enjoying the moist, sunny morning after a rare rainfall. He cast a tiny shadow and undulated along the rough sidewalk concrete. We watched him for a few minutes, listening to the silence of his slow, methodical journey and then we continued a little more peacefully on our own journey past the cemetery and back home.

Later, after the walk was long over, we left Lucy home sleeping went for a bike ride around White Rock Lake. Very few people were crazy enough to be out since the windchill had dipped into the low 30s. As we rode along the water in parkas and gloves, we passed a man and woman  dressed in ski gear sitting in lawn chairs. A black sign with white letters was propped up against a full laundry basket in front of them.

Free Advice, the sign said.

“You guys deserve a medal!” the man called out to me as we passed. I laughed, knowing that I’d have to stop by and talk to him on the way back. Because how can you not stop and talk to someone who is sitting behind a Free Advice sign when the wind chill is 35 degrees?

“Easy,” my husband said later, after waiting at the car for me for half and hour.

It turns out that Roderick MacElwain has been giving Free Advice to people at the Lake every Sunday afternoon for 17 years. It started as an experiment with a friend who was not good at talking to people. But now it’s a service to humanity. He claims that he has autistic tendencies which allow to him to have certain gifts as well as deficits (and also made teachers and doctors think he was retarded while he was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s), and he experiences everything – people included – in music. Or not actually music, sort of like rhythm and beats. But music is the best way to explain it to people, he told me.

“You give off wonderful music,” he said. “And you make those around you feel it.”

I was struck by his powerful words. Because I felt that same way about the snail I saw that morning. It, too, emitted wonderful music that no one could actually hear with their ears, but until I met the Free Advice guy, I didn’t have the words for it.

After I got home, I Googled the Free Advice guy and found out that many people have been helped by him and his friend over the years. Here’s a story about the two from several years ago. I’m not sure where there other guy was yesterday or who the woman was, but when I have more time and a pressing question or dilemma, I know where to go for advice.

After all, it’s Free!

Recycling Bin Gratitude: Thank You #CityofDallas!

Sometimes people surprise you with the extra effort they go to on your behalf, even when you have made it difficult for them. For example, just a couple of days ago I filled out an online request at the City of Dallas website for a recycling roll cart at my new house. I failed to do my research to find out that there are three sizes of carts and instead I just requested a “smaller size” to fit in my new, tiny garage. It arrived promptly a day later. The two guys who delivered it were very friendly and both smiled when I went to retrieve the little blue cart, which was so small that I called it adorable.

Unfortunately, my husband thought the adorable cart was too tiny since, as a family of four with two teenage boys who have been known to take the entire carton of milk in the car on a 20-minute errand because, “Why not? I’m going to drink it all,” we recycle more than an adorable amount each week. So I went back to the City of Dallas website and politely asked for an exchange to a larger size, apologizing for the inconvenience. Within a few hours, my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize so I assumed it was a telemarketer and didn’t pick up. Imagine my surprise when a man’s voice began leaving a message regarding my recycling bin. With all the needs that the City must get bombarded with every day, someone from the enormous bureaucracy of City government was actually responding to my tiny little recycling cart need? I lunged for the phone and intercepted the message.

“No problem,” he said, when I explained why I needed an exchange. “Just have it out tomorrow morning and we’ll exchange it with a bigger one.”

Well, guess what? I FORGOT! Like an idiot, I got caught up in the crazy afternoon of errands and meetings and dinner preparation and forgot to put the adorable cart out.

So this morning, just as I was pouring my first cup of coffee, the phone rang. It was a vaguely familiar number so I picked up. “Mrs. Richie, we’re out here with your new recycling cart,” a man said. Sure enough I heard the rumbling of an idling truck outside. I felt like one of those vegetable-avoiding actors in a V-8 commercial who needs a slap on the forehead to jog their memory.

I offered a sincere apology and thanked him for taking the time to call me and make sure I got the new cart. He could have easily just driven away and written on his report that the absent-minded citizen had not done what he’d asked. But no, he went the extra mile.

Thank you, sir. I appreciate your efforts and love my new, large recycling bin!

My shiny new recycling cart in its spot next to the trash. They make a cute couple!

My shiny new recycling cart in its spot next to the trash. They make a cute couple!

Lucy Lessons: How an Old Dog Overcame Her Fear

We finally moved.

No more one story ranch house. We are now climbing two sets of stairs daily in a cozy three-story townhouse in the heart of the city. The move itself was the usual pain in the butt. Lucy stayed at the Petshotel because she’s a bit anxious to begin with. And at 12 years old, I thought the move might put her over the edge. So I left her at the PetSmart Petshotel for four days. Don’t think she didn’t love it; she got the Bizzy Bundle package, after all. Who wouldn’t love a peanut butter snack Kong and dish of doggy ice cream at the end of the day after playtime?

By the day I picked her up, we’d unpacked about two-thirds of the boxes. The new place was still a mess, but there were definite walkways to navigate. Lucy was super excited to see me, but when we finally made our way downtown after the school pick up, she was totally perplexed as to why we were in this unfamiliar house.

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Where’s the elevator?

She took one look at the staircase leading up to the main level and balked.  Even as my son and I coaxed her with new treats and tried pulling her leash, she would not go up. When I yanked a little harder, her legs didn’t cooperate and she stumbled and fell.  It was as if Lucy had never, ever seen a flight of stairs in her life! And then I realized, she hadn’t. We’d always lived on one story. She had no idea how to climb stairs.

That night, she whimpered in her crate pathetically for a while before finally falling asleep. Anxiety crept into my dreams, waking me up in the darkness. What if she never figured out how to climb stairs? What if moving to a townhouse was a huge mistake? What if she hurt herself?

The next morning, I let Lucy out of the crate and tried, in my most upbeat doggie voice, to make going down the stairs sound like a trip to the squirrel zoo. But she cowered in the kitchen.

I changed my tactics and stood at the bottom of the stairs, calling her and rattling her leash like I used to do when it was time for a walk.

She fled to her crate.

Finally, I went back up the stairs, put the leash on her and coaxed her down by pulling, but she tumbled at the bottom, landing awkwardly with a sickening combination of claws and bone on slate tile. After checking her for injury and determining she was ok, I started to worry that Lucy was only going to be able to live on the first floor. There’s only one bedroom down there and it would be a lonely, terrible existence. It was not an option. We wanted her upstairs with us. She had to learn the stairs.

There was only one choice. I had to bring out the big guns: Cheddar and Monterey Jack.

For several hours that morning, I used little bits of cheese to entice Lucy to go up and down one stair. Then two. Then three. And so on. Then she napped. We did another round of practice that afternoon.

And you know what? It worked! She was exhausted, but she was no longer petrified of the stairs.

Three days later and now she goes up and down with ease. The one downside? She thinks she deserves cheese every time she makes it to the top!

My Yoga Do-Over

I really, really want to like yoga. But every time I go to a class I get annoyed with the sheer volume of sun salutations, over and over and over. I think it’s supposed to be meditative, but to me it’s just irritating. All I can think is, “Ok, I’ve saluted the sun. Move on, already!”

For years I have dealt unsuccessfully with my own inability to quiet my mind during yoga. I’ll just say it: I’m a yoga failure. But so many people I know credit yoga with both physical and mental fitness, that I’m starting to think I just haven’t given yoga a real chance.  I mean, if Adam Levine, who is notoriously hyper, can quiet his mind during yoga, then I should be able to as well. I think.

So just as I was challenging myself to try yoga again, a blogger friend who writes a great blog about positivity, reached out to me to tell me about a free 12-Day program guide  combining yoga and gratitude from My Yoga Online that she thought I might be interested in. I took it as a sign from the universe telling me that now is the time to start doing yoga regularly in order to cultivate gratitude. I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection between yoga and gratitude before. On December 10th, when the guide goes live, I’m going to start following it for all 12 days. During this time, my house will be going on the market, I’ll be helping my in-laws move, and I’ll be preparing for all the chaos of the holidays. If there’s every a time to learn to quiet my mind and focus on gratitude, it’s during these next few stressful weeks.

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Soon this will be me…
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy My Yoga Online

If you’re a former yoga failure like me, maybe you should join me. All you need to do is sign up for the free membership option at My Yoga Online and you will be able to access the program guide. Two more days. The countdown has begun and I’m gearing up for yoga-induced gratitude!