19 February 2013

See beyond the photo's borders

PROMPT: Choose a photo from your personal collection that you have a strong emotional reaction or attachment to. Write first about what's IN the picture, then about what's beyond its borders, that only you see and know, then move back to the photo for some new insight into its contents.

I used this prompt in the Jan. 19 meeting of my Saturday writing group. First, we read The Invention of Dragons by the late Sandford (Sandy) Lyne and noted how this wonderful writer and teacher of children did the very same thing. Click on the poem title so you can read it too and on the poet's name for more information about him.

The poem I wrote while my group was writing is posted below. The inspiration for it is the photo at right. I waited a month to post this because today is my mother's birthday. If she were alive, she'd be 86. I still miss you, mom, will always love you and know now how much you loved me.

What I especially like about Lyne's poem is that we don't have the actual photograph that inspired the poem, but we can still "see" it. Does my poem stand up to that scrutiny? Does yours?

Susan 2 mos.

Wilma, 29 years,
holds her baby girl up to the glass.

Wilma smiles broadly.
Susan squints and looks down.

The glare hurts her eyes.
It’s the first day of school for her

two big brothers. They wave
bye and board the bus but are

invisible from this angle.
The world outside is

reflected in the storm door
that stands between them.

Wilma and Susan have clouds
for hair, and a hill in the distance

furrows their brows. They have
a whole future together ahead of them

to ruin, to rise to, to remember, someday.
This daughter will disappoint her mother.

This mother will fail her daughter but
not in all ways. The end will

bring them together again. It’s all
right there—

reflected in the glass
that stood between them

a whole world.

12 February 2013

My Dad: No Major Goof-up

Gunner Jack Clark
in the turret of his half-track
 "Any Gum Chum?"
My dad--Jack Meredith Clark Sr.--turns 91 today. In his honor, I wanted to call attention to the story of his experiences in WWII and the role played by his unit, the 474th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons battalions. This group of men landed at Utah Beach in the first wave of D-Day, marched through France to Belgium and Germany, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and, eventually, served in the Army of Occupation before being discharged and returned home.

I began work on this story with dad back in 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I remembered from my childhood dad joking about his life in the Army, but as more specials came on TV to honor the anniversary of the event, he began talking about it again, but in a more factual AND emotional way. I decided to take notes.

This led to writing a letter to the one Army buddy dad had kept in contact with, Ray Bilicki. Ray has since passed on, but before he did his legacy to me was a treasure trove: a commemorative troop movement map of the 7th Corps, of which dad's unit was a part, and a privately published book about the unit, The Maverick Outfit by Frank Spaletti. I also dug out all dad's old photos from this time.

The book gave me a guideline for formally interviewing my dad about this monumental time in his life and in world history. We also went through the photos, and he told me all he could remember about who was in them and where they were taken. Then I put all the pieces together into three-ring binders for each member of our immediate family.

Through the years cousins, aunts, uncles and acquaintances have asked for copies. And five great-grandchildren have joined dad's list of offspring since then and may someday have questions. So in May 2012 I converted the book to a website, No Major Goof-up. Follow the link to read where the name came from. It will give you a chuckle over dad's sense of humor and Susan's naivete.

I've also added a permanent link to dad's blog in the sidebar of this blog, just below a listing of my other posts. I hope you'll take time to check it out. Everyone who reads it tells me it's a compelling story. And if you've ever wanted to write family history of any sort, it may give you some ideas. I put it together on Google Blogger, which is free and has a wide range of design templates available. I have a background in publication layout, so I modified a basic template to get the look I wanted.

This year dad will spend his birthday in rehab, following a hospitalization for pneumonia and congestive heart failure. He navigates life from a power-chair and needs to regain some strength for everyday tasks so he can return to his assisted living apartment. Though his days now consist more of Bingo, physical therapy, stamp collecting and emergency rooms, he always has a clever comeback for anything his caregivers throw his way. And he can still beat all comers (including me!) at Checkers.

Happy birthday, dad! I'm glad you made it back from the war, and I'm glad you're still fighting the good fight!!

02 February 2013

To know or not to know?

I believe in mystery.

I don’t know who or what created the heavens or the earth or me, and I don’t need to know.

In fact, I do not want to know. The world doesn’t need more people who think they have the inside scoop.

There’s something, yes, mysterious about experiencing the world through the eyes of ignorance, free from the clouded lens of traditional belief. If I begin by knowing I don’t know, to paraphrase Socrates, I learn more, see more, do more. To embrace mystery is to stay young, to be always a child on the inside, regardless of gray hair, wrinkles or creaky bones.

The mystery of what lies ahead wakes me each morning and carries me through each day. It makes me savor the feel of the bed against my body at night, the slow drift into the world of sleep and dreams, and the return trip toward another mysterious day.

I don’t want to read any book that claims to give me all the answers. I want to read lots of books and let each one reveal to me a mystery new to me. Why does my husband love me? Why does the moth fly into the flame? Why is falling asleep outside on a summer night so fine?

Am I destined for hell then? Could be. Some people probably think so, but who really knows for sure? It’s a mystery, and I’m okay with that because I want to experience as much of mystery as I can and write about it. 

Not to solve anything, mind you. None of us ever really solves anything. All we do is leave breadcrumbs for someone else. And the most we can hope for is to find the crumbs someone left for us. They may be hidden in a dream, pressed between the pages of a library book, dropped along a gravel road. They may be contained in a shard of sea-blue pottery, a feather, a mangled wrapper, a pressed leaf—each one pregnant with the secret of how it came to be where we found it.

This is what it is to be human. 

To me, this is religion

In fact, when I dream about writing, the setting of the dream is church because this is a holy thing.

I lead writing groups, and I tell those who write with me that it’s a writer's job to embrace mystery and get comfortable with not knowing. It’s a little like getting lost on purpose and learning to like it. Writers must make certainty their enemy and their senses their best friend. What does the mystery look and feel like? How does it taste and smell? What is the sound of it and how does it move across the pages of our lives?

Writers should do this so that those who hide behind certainty—which is all of us at least some of the time—will know that it’s okay not to know. Because too much certainty smothers possibility.

Because mystery, if we let it, can grow and open inside us, like a flower. 

Like a flower in nature, it opens so wide that it wilts and seems to die. It gives everything in a splurge of beauty and pain just so it can make the seed the wind sows.

And that's why mystery is the only resource that will never run out. 

PROMPT: NPR ran a series of personal essays on the topic "This I Believe," which are archived online here. Read a few, then write your own. Mine was written in my Saturday morning writing group today, Feb. 2, 2013, Thank you to Mark, Miriam, Sadie and Linda for your comments and encouragement.

01 February 2013

Below the surface, beneath the snow

Once upon a time in spring, down on my knees, yanking weeds, I found a perfect rabbit skeleton sprawled on the rock edging of my garden.

I almost missed seeing it, hidden as it was by the low-hanging boughs of an eastern white pine tree.

I guessed the rabbit sought shelter there during a winter storm and drifted into its forever sleep protected by the curtain of soft needles and a hedge of drifting snow. My husband and I had seen other animals do as much during wind and snow and pelting rain--squirrels, birds, raccoons, even possums.

I thought about this discovery again on this wintry day when I saw this photo by ALWARDii Photography. It brought back the sense of wonder I felt that particular spring day, that I could be so intent at as mundane a task as pulling weeds and stumble upon evidence of a life lived. That I could be tearing out something that spoiled my idea of nature--my garden--only to come across Nature herself, in all her raw beauty and mysterious terror. 

Days like that one--discoveries like that--are why gardeners garden, I think. It's good to be reminded of what's real about nature and what we just invent. Not that gardens or invention are wrong--certainly not! But friendly reminders of how life and death continue on with or without our conscious participation are something I think gardeners are on the lookout for. 

I know I am. Not to mention that the endless digging and pulling and planting gives a person time to sink into a slim, silent moment.

I remember how the rabbit's jaw was open--as if in a scream, I thought at first. But maybe the mouth opened as a reflex to collect one last taste of this world. 

I searched my garden bench until I found a long, flat container, then I placed the skeleton in the same arrangement I'd found it on the rocks. Later I cleaned the bones. Then later in the summer I buried them in the tomato patch, something I thought the rabbit would appreciate, food for the journey into the next life. 

More than once I'd found a plump, over-ripe tomato with a bite out of it, often on the ground, but now and then still on the vine. I never minded much because I always planted more than I needed so I could share. Perhaps it was my tomatoes that rabbit opened its mouth wide to taste one last time before it dozed off into the sleep that melted its fur, long ears and fluffy tail into pale outlines on the stone.

I hope so.

A light blanket of snow dusts the ground this bitter cold day outside my home in central Indiana. Tomorrow, the blanket is expected to thicken. This photo reminds me that so much goes on beneath the surface, and I should always remember to look for it. That I should never forget to open my mouth wide and be ready to bite into each moment as if my last.

PROMPT: What does the photo call to your mind? Of what experience of nature or of an animal does it remind you?