Books, Boxing, Changes, Family

Un-boxing. Re-boxing.

My mother bequeathed her art book collection to my stepfather in the fall of 1986. A few hundred books that spanned from her art school days to her death — large and small plated books on Renoir and Picasso, Warhol and Rothko, American quilts and Inuit drawings  —  all boxed, moved and shelved at least six times in three states since then. When he became ill and I received a call offering them to me last month, I had to weigh and measure more than just the books before deciding whether I wanted to retrieve them.

I have spent that same period of time accumulating — and sloughing off — twice that amount of books. Now at an age when I am lightening my load both for myself and my children, I had to consider the quantity of books, the drive to central Oregon, the sorting through, the decision making, the re-boxing, then the mailing off to family and extended family. I considered letting them all go — sight unseen —  to the library book sale near his home.

After all, I had to let them go once, when the will was read, when I slipped a few favorites into the moving van and drove away from her house for the last time. I had reconciled thirty-five years ago that this part of her had been given to him. I considered that holding this part of her might be too hard now.

I called my stepbrother. He had laid eyes on them more recently than me. “Is this worth it — what would you do?” I queried. It only took one sentence. “Your mom stuck stuff in her books.” And with that I knew their value to me. Was anything remaining between the pages after all these years? How would I ever know if I didn’t look.

We left Seattle before dawn on a heroic twenty-four hour turn-around road trip, thanks to a strong and willing cousin. Loaded the twelve boxes six hours later, fed and watered ourselves in Portland and returned to Seattle the next day. I poured myself a glass, then slowly opened the first box top and folded back the cardboard.

There they were, all those old friends that had sat on the tables of my childhood. One by one I unpacked and stacked the books around me. At times I didn’t breathe or found myself gasping a little. In the middle of some books I laughed. For the most part I was deep in my head, remembering, the bitter and the sweet rolling through me.

My mother drifted through the room — there she was in her sixties prairie skirt, showing me a photo, daring me to understand abstraction, color, the blurred line between fact and fiction. My mother as the young, stunning, mind-snapping, creative difficult brilliant artist, attending gallery openings, dazzling and being dazzled, exploring line and color and the pulse of the art world. Seated on the living room floor with her artist friends — sculptors and painters and writers — drinking wine and changing the eyes of the world with their fiberglass and canvas, oil paint and wood.

And the scraps of paper did keep falling out from between the pages; poetry, lines scored, erased, rewritten. Letters from family and friends, the ones she obviously wanted to keep and reread, worn thin at the folds. Pencil sketches that I knew later turned into paintings and sculpture. Postcards and notes from her favorite people. And endless lines of her handwriting tilting down the margins of books and catalogs, her script as familiar to me as her laugh. Healing, difficult and amazing to see after all this time.

I was pretty ruthless with my sorting, that’s just the reality. But dozens of friends and family will be getting a little something in the mail — or a lot of something — in the next month. And I will have fulfilled one of her last wishes, demanded of me before she died;

“Please don’t put my things in boxes. Send them into the world.”

Big love to the people that brought these books back into my hands and helped me do just that. I am breathing.

ChickenAHC

“Chicken nesting in garden.” Sketch in pencil on notepaper.

Alexandra Hammer Clark, @1982.

 

 

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Mending, wellness, writing

What Matters.

If you live on the cutting edge,
surely you’ll get cut.

If you live the simple life,
it won’t be simple.

If you sit at a desk composing words
the alphabet will mock you,

or you’ll drown in the currents
of the page.

Work hard. Be lazy.
Money will come and go

like green leaves in their season.
But don’t forget

the wise man and the fool
are blood brothers.

At the end
what matters

is the sun, the moon:
arterial red, bone white.

“Commencement Address” by Linda Pastan, from Insomnia. © W. W. Norton, 2015.

I have been a devoted fan of Linda Pastan since 1982 when I came across her book The Five Stages of Grief. Her words skewered me and bled me and set me free to grieve during my mother’s illness. This poem showed up today in The Writer’s Almanac — a sign, I firmly believe — and I am reassessing the next few days to figure out what matters to my well but rumpled soul.

I flew back to Seattle yesterday to my writing space, the crabby squirrels, chirping crows and waving neighbors. Awaiting on a lease and wondering if I will stay at this Nest for much longer. My words are stuck somewhere on the roof of my mouth — or brain — but I believe they will spill soon enough. I am well if a little battered by an oral surgeon, a bone spur in my hip and fears about what exactly does this long string of challenges mean.

But oh, the sunrises. The smell of the massive fir tree by my door. The hummingbirds flying by on the way to the sunflowers. The thought of fresh fish tacos on my cousin’s deck.

I sit today and absorb them all. This matters. And mends.

NestRise82019

 

 

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#scent, Grief, Tears

Scent of a Memory

I have one of those noses. From twenty feet away with my eyes closed I know a diaper needs to be changed, what perfume you are wearing, if the day is wet or dry. This morning, on a short trip to Bainbridge Island, I leaned over my cousin’s porch rail, took a deep breath and immediately knew the blackberries were ripe for picking — the heady scent of hot dirt and perfectly ripened fruit almost knocked me over. And made me immensely sad.

August is blackberry time on the island. Over the last twenty years, if I was lucky enough to make a trip out here when they were ripe, I was put right to work. Manicures and freckles be damned: my cousin and I would pick madly and for hours, wearing long sleeved shirts dripping under the dry, driving sun, usually in her “secret” spot overlooking Puget Sound, sea lions and keening eagles keeping us company. Next, we would haul the overflowing buckets to my Aunt’s house, where we took over her tiny kitchen to make the berries into jam. Under Aunt Marion’s sharp gaze and enduring her dry quips about ladies and purple tongues and unsightly stained fingers we worked like dervishes; spinning between the dark brown cabinets, electric stove and worn linoleum tiles, taking turns monitoring the simmering sugar and berries, keeping the boiling jars and lids in check, cleaning the funnels and spills. There was laughter, sweat and gossip. We drank endless cups of the house coffee, Nescafé.

How much we made, how deeply we sweat, the mess we made in her kitchen was never important; the time together was blessed.

My Aunt died in April. This morning the scent of earth and ripened berries broke my heart in two, renting a new little hole in my chest. I almost skipped going down to check the bushes; I missed her so much, the loss of something and some one I loved so strong. But then I took a long, deep breath of sun ripened earth, brambles and fruit and pushed some happy into that opening instead — I thought of her chuckle as she ribbed me, her face of joy when I made a scone to go with that fresh jam, the approval on her face when we were scrubbed up, scrubbed down and finished.

Girl time. Make some for yourself whatever gender you relate to: breathe in the scent of those moments because someday, that same inhale will bring the scent of a memory — a scent that will stop you in your shoes —  yes. And make you hurt — yes.

But also make you smile when you remember.

This is how we mend.

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Apricot Jam, my cousin’s house, Bainbridge Island, July 2019

 

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Coping, Grief, Healing, Squirrels

Finding Sanity.

 

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” Haruki Murakami

Yesterday, a few hours before Game of Thrones was scheduled to air, my Comcast service quit. I was not all that upset: #GOT last-season-how-much-blood-can-you-stand fatigue had set in for me. Mystery solved this morning, when after three hours of ladders, dusty gross cellar crawling, rewiring, more ladders, more dust, a technician informed me that squirrels had chewed through the wires to the house. And I laughed.

When I returned from Seattle last week I didn’t find much funny, or edible, or worthy. I spent days in deep self care, so saddened, wrapped in a blanket staring out the window, recovering from both the privilege of holding my Aunt’s hand through the end of her life and the trauma of this loss. Curled up in a soft chair, I stared out the kitchen window at my bird feeder for hours until it became evident that even the good-sized, cherry-red Cardinal could not compete with the new generation of juvenile squirrels who had perfected the art of holding the bird feeder open with one toe, while spooning out the birdseed with another. By the second day this blatant pirating made me cross: rustling up shoes, I stomped outside with a can of Pam spray and blanket flying, greased the pole.

The little pissed off spitting grey fur-balls dashed up, then slid down faster, to the ground. Some, after wiping off their paws, their tails spinning in an angry, indignant twitch, then decapitated a nearby heirloom quince bush of all the coral blossoms. Payback seems to have also included snacking on my utility line. Maybe not so funny anymore — but this small, focused preoccupation with squirrel sabatage over the rest of the week helped me regain my footing into the weekend.

I treasured our relationship: my Aunt, also my Godmother, my mother’s first cousin and best friend, knew five generations of the women in my family. She unabashedly drank Nescafè all day long with hazelnut creamer and never minced on words. Our connection was part daughter-sister-sage-advocate-protector. The loss of this 87 year-old woman who had grounded me since my mother died, thirty-five years ago, was for some reason unexpected. Are we ever ready? I mourn her completely. Life has experienced a seismic shift. But just when I get buried in this grief I also remember her scolding me —  get on with it what are you waiting for — when, after all my surgeries, I was consumed with lethargy. She would have loved that I took on squirrels to ease my pain about her, to get me out of the chair.

So I grilled this technician: Why? What do you all do for that? Is this common? All the while knowing full well that ‘my’ squirrels — and there are too many to count —  are here for a reason. Much better than Game of Thrones.

Thanks, Auntie.

 

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Easter, Father, flowers, Hyacinth, Memoir

Love, Delivered.

Funny what starts a trigger. For me, it is hyacinth.

My first: delivered to the back steps of my childhood home on a snowy Connecticut March day, the potted bulb cradled in pink foil tied with a white bow, buds tightly closed on verdant green stalks leaning bravely into the winter wind. Tucked between the stems, a minuscule florist envelope, the card reading From the E. Bunny penned in my father’s funny half-script-half-print, signed off with his signature smiley face adorned with a small squiggle of hair. Oh, Dad. I felt so grown up I thought I would burst.

And a few days later, as the centerpiece on the Easter dinner table, the flowers opened to bundles of lilac blossoms, the fragrance — mingled with lamb, mint jelly, roasted potatoes — imprinted on me forever. My first, of almost forty, potted hyacinth delivered by florists to my door over the next four decades, whether my dining table was in Connecticut, Seattle, San Francisco, or later, Boston.

My father died in March, 2011. I held his hand those final days and rambled on about all the things I could and would remember about him and us, thanked him for so many things, even got a faint smile once or twice. But I forgot the flowers. When Easter came a few weeks later there were lilies on my table. My doorbell didn’t ring. I lost him all over again: it’s the little things that can hurt the most.

Spring is here in Seattle, the bulbs are bursting. Walking a neighbor’s puppy this afternoon we chanced upon a garden flocked with those white, pink, purple spring bulbs. The fragrance staggered me and left me breathless. All those memories firing and triggering and my heart bleeding just a little. Did he realize that eight years after he died I would still half-anticipate the doorbell, a florist delivery person standing on the step holding a foil wrapped pot? That I would miss seeing the lopsided grin of his silly squiggle person on those cards? That just a tiny whiff of the blossom would make me cry? I will never know what made him begin that tradition. I do know that at Easter I miss him the most.

As a parent I often reevaluate before the holidays and think well the kids are grownups now, they can’t possibly care about this tradition anymore. Then I remember his simple gesture, repeated over and over; the pink foil, the little skip of joy in my chest, the smell of a hyacinth bursting from the bulb. How it felt to have a father.

We are never too young, or too grown up, for love to be delivered, in any way.

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 Kingsland Kitchen, Portland, Oregon

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#AWP2019, Memoir, New Vocabulary, writing

Gathered Together.

I am in Portland, Oregon, for the yearly AWP — Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I am not on a panel, am not a published book author, will give no readings and cannot expense this: I am, however, one of 15,000 attendees that have paid the fee to marathon through three days of fast-paced workshops and readings on topics that will range from sexuality, travel, teaching, #metoo, memory, trauma, health, gender, publishing, literary agents, every and all literary genres to digital poetry. I will learn new words. My feet and head will hurt by Saturday night.

I did a trial run to the conference center on light rail this afternoon. Our 2019 host city chose to rain hard today, the humidity rising from our shoulders as we were corralled through the the registration area like airport security. Behind me, I saw a famous author I hoped remembered me from a workshop in Seattle. Waving madly at him, I thought; what gives me the cred to be here with him?

Tomorrow quite early I will  have a good coffee with an extra shot, probably swallow three Advil, purchase a day pass for the train and swim upstream through the escalator masses to find the ballroom where author Pam Houston’s panel convenes on writing about intimacy. Then I am off and running: Colson Whitehead’s keynote, Lidia Yuknavitch’s reading, Cheryl Strayed’s talk about her writing process, workshops on trauma, healing and humor. I will end the three days with a panel talking about being 60 and writing about death. If I hold up, eighteen sessions. And I may even attend a yoga class or two for writers.

I will watch people read famous author’s name tag as they pass him in the hallway, stop him, talk with him, ask him to sign one of his books. My name tag —  Alexandra Dane — won’t ring any bells. I will be handing out my business card to anyone who smiles at me, and if I am lucky they might read my blog, a few of my articles, remember me next time.

Yet a common denominator brings us here; on Monday morning, all of us will face a blank sheet of paper. Each of these 15,000 writers will search to find the first word of many to write something that will make you, the reader, think.

Our name tags are the same color at AWP2019 for a reason: under the dome of this conference center we gather together — young, old, famous and not famous —  and learn how to be better writers.

Humbling.

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Billboard on the building across from my hotel room.

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Choices, Diet, Dieting, fat girl, Women

Taking Steps.

It takes me exactly 3,500 steps, according to my FitBit, to walk over and down the hill to the french bakery, Rosallini’s, that in my opinion pulls the best coffee between Ballard and Green Lake. The walk puts a hefty dent in my hard-won 10,000 daily steps. However, I only indulge in a pastry there about once a week. When I order my lattes I breathe in the butter-filled air, gaze into the pastry cases, and plot out the next treat. This appreciation-not-deprivation makes the equation of exercise and calories work for me.

This morning, as I tried to make my hot coffee match the length of the New York Times, two women sidled up to the bar next to me, deeply engaged in conversation. I began to hear “ten pounds” and “diet” and “no carbs.” They were talking over each other, competing pounds lost and gained. Do women really talk like this anymore to each other?

I had just finished reading my health writer idol Jane Brody’s article, For Real Weight Control, published January 28th, that addressed just this issue of extreme dieting.  She supported the idea — with data and fact and personal experience — that we have to change habits to control our weight, not take away eating. The deprivation vs. moderation argument that has become personal to me.

When you have lost as many bits and pieces as I have including a length of colon, time is precious and so is my food. It matters what I eat and how I eat and silver lining time; this has become a lesson for me. I feel better if I eat thoughtfully and every four hours. Generally, my portions are small plate. I still have two pieces or more of chocolate at tea time. There is no food martyrdom, just a consideration that what goes in has to be good for this battered flesh and bone, aging despite all the diets in the universe. Once a fat girl who hated her body, I now am grateful it is carrying me into the next decade.

It was a close call at the bakery this morning — whether I was going to lean over and let fly some unfiltered and unsolicited opinions and offer this link — or whether I was going to sit this one out. Super close when I swiveled, put down my paper and saw two beautiful, thin women were having this conversation. And it is January, ladies — not the month to punish ourselves.

I won’t pounce on you at the bakery; I hope you will click on and read the article linked above. But I will send you healing vibes as I eat my vanilla bean eclair in a few days with a creamy, steaming 12 oz latte.

Get informed. Love the body you live in. Take a walk with that friend who is obsessed with dieting. Hug them.

Then enjoy yourself.img_4917

Painting by Todd Young, owned by Beth Slattery

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