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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At The Fault Line, Bravery, Memoir, Read, Support, writing

At The Fault Line

Today, Friday June 8, I am reading one of my recent essays at a ticketed event in Seattle. Eleven writers in my memoir group have crafted, honed and polished their words with grace and guts for the last few months. Writing a personal trauma story is a naked enough feeling. To read it in public takes exposure to a whole new level.

Last year, after my diagnosis and series of surgeries, three years of writing a manuscript went up in smoke. The questions came fast and hard, especially at night: do I bury my mother’s story, interweave mine, move on from past to present or take the story present to past? Do I even have the skills to do any or all of this? Do I want to?

When I finally wrote down the words which became my essay, “We Don’t Know Everything,” I felt there had been a nuclear explosion in my head; the collision of my story, my mother’s story, cancer information and understanding illness, all locking together in believable — and unbelievable — ways. All the pieces will be sharing, for lack of a better word, the radioactive fissure — the cracking of the fault lines —  that comes from speaking out on trauma. Eleven times over.

This is the second year of this event At The Fault Line. I hope we do this forever. The experience of professional coaching — by our mentor Tara Hardy —  speaking our words aloud into a microphone, into the atmosphere, into the ears of friends and strangers, validates our writing. And our existence. And our purpose.

Last year we sold tickets at the door. This year we have been sold out for almost two weeks. I am watching the seedling of a mighty tree of storytelling grow and grow and grow.

The stories will crack open hearts, from the mundane to the profound, from folding laundry to holding an Alzheimer patient. I am so proud of all of us.

Buddha

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flowers, gratitude, Spring, Women

Hi, Lovely.

This weekend, if you are of a certain age, you have permission to wear white. This edict has been debunked by fashionistas recently; white has become the new black. Hurrah — it is fresh and clean. Only white is not-so-flattering on my butt. So I strategically wear this bright, happy color with layers and smile at my shocked grandmother in the mirror.

I am also of the age where May brings up a flood of memories and gratitude.

Every scent and sound throws me back to the women who cultivated my love of the dirt. I remember you all — both grandmothers with their carefully chosen long-stemmed rose bushes, my mother with the wild willful planters of fiery red geraniums and mint. I wish they could see that I plant herbs close together and crush lavender as I walk by.

This spring in Seattle I have the privilege to see the season of roses, peonies and Mock Orange bushes. My morning walks with Olive, in my white linen and wool sweater (Seattle sports a “marine layer” until noon) are sumptuous and breathtaking. I snap masses of photos and inhale Abraham Darby up my nose, all while leaning dangerously into the gardens of strangers.

I have to talk on the phone away from the window, the birdsong is so loud.

I put up the Silver Palate Minted Spinach and Snap Pea soup recipe, fragrant and bright green, to drink cold out of a jar. I simmer down pot-fulls of strawberries. I plant another round of sorrel, tarragon and basil in foraged containers.

And like the women who showed me how to cultivate, I, too, go down to the beds in the morning and greet my garden. For these women not only taught me to plant deep and water well, they showed me that our gardens, as all things that bring me joy, need to be thanked.

So I am the pajama-clad, bed-haired and graying lady speaking to my little garden at six in the morning. “Hello, Lovely,” I usually begin, then bury my nose in a blossom. I swear they nod at me.

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Feminism, Women, writing

Kick Butt.

I remember the day my grandmother taught me how to curtsey. She was somehow in charge of me on bridge day and I was dressed to be shown off, squeezed into an uncomfortable wool jumper, the white blouse underneath bunching up around my middle. I knew I fell short on many levels, but determined, she gave me a quick how-to before her guests arrived. Holding my plump hands in hers she positioned me in front of her and demonstrated: slide one foot behind the other, dip my knees together, look her in the eye.

I remember feeling a little sick to my stomach. At home I ran barefoot in the wheat fields. Why am I learning this I wondered. The year was 1965 and I had personally witnessed my mother throwing away her bra. “You can do EVERYTHING I couldn’t” my mother told me as she dropped it in the bin with a flourish. But I also knew, like my grandmother’s even, back-slanted handwriting, that today’s lesson held the key to being a lady, a term my mother scorned but the little fat girl secretly worshipped. I stood by the front door with my grandmother that day and executed a perfect curtsey to each guest. They cooed in admiration. This felt just fine.

So began my conflicted relationship with being a woman that frankly has not abated fifty-two years later. Does it ever abate with any woman my age? I write my essays on being white, middle aged and full of words. I question retiring from life when the kids leave for theirs. My essays and blog posts are sprinkled on the internet weekly and after publication I am full of heavy dread each time I turn on my laptop. Who will be offended? Can I live what I say and say what I mean?

But then we have the elections of 2016 and I face that I have been coasting along, letting other women do the heavy lifting. How to hone feminism and fifty and language to shape the next generation now keeps me awake at night.

“Look what we did for you!” was my mother’s favorite line when she pushed me to college, graduate school, begged me to get a PHD. This year I assure my oldest daughter as she plans her wedding, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” and I know my mother would be proud. Then I order my daughter monogrammed stationary. Because, honestly, I am still doing a little curtsey with a pen in my hand, bridging the worlds that raised me.

If I want my daughter to keep the path for equality and feminism open despite the elections of 2016, for her to be the next female president (why not?) or know her, I need to trample the have to’s and remind myself and other women daily that women can do anything. So here goes another blog, and some more words, and the choice of honesty.

You will still be a lady if you kick butt. Even more of one now in 2016. And you need to.

Thanks for cutting the path, Mom. Stomping on it right now for you and all of us.

lilacs1964

Gathering lilacs at Moose Hill. Alexandra Dane, 1965

 

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Community, Friendship

Moving on.

The dog threw up at five this morning. Then again at seven. She won’t have a name until the three loads of laundry are finished. And I swear she can’t reach the Halloween candy.

My Seattle pied-à-terre entrance is in back of a house and up thirty five steps. I have had all of three trick-or-treater’s in the last three years. But for 364 days of the year I store a purple plastic pumpkin, bloody hand decal and illuminated spider web for just this one night.

Why? I continue to claim this is my least favorite holiday. But consider the one or two faces that struggle up the steps clutching wands, gowns, masks, bags of candy, oversized pants, dogs. Then the rifling hands. Then the “Thank you!” and thundering feet descending back down the stairs, dashing off to the next house, fast, as my back yard might be a little bit SCARY.

All Hallow’s Eve is heartwarming. And brings back memories of Disney princesses, Robin Hoods and Ninja Turtles of days gone past, of borrowing bits of costume from across the street, contriving swords out of boxes, spraying glitter on a line-up of star wands, of trailing the neighborhood pack of kids with other parents, keeping a respectable distance sometimes with warming libations tucked in our pockets. It’s good memory of friendship, taking care of one another, of October leaves and the harvest moon.

This afternoon in the pouring rain I will carve a pumpkin, light it with a Glassybaby (of course) and wait. Even for one smiling princess. And remember Robin Hood in his green tights filched from his sister’s dresser. Of Princess Jasmine. And remember community is the backbone of who we are, regardless of political party or race or sexual identification. We are the people who will make tomorrow happen, together, raucously, maybe with a wand, hopefully with a ballot. We will move on and make it work. We always have.

Then Olive and I will turn off all the lights, the universal signal that this eve is over and go to bed at eight due to our early day, full of good thoughts and hopefully a memory of that knock, knock, knock at the door and a chance to meet a new neighbor.

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Olive, Halloween 2015. She wants to be Newt Gingrich this year. I suggested we reuse the same costume.

 

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Changes

Details.

I am fresh off summer. Too tan and crunching sand in my closet. Today I aired sweaters and gazed with dismay at the soles of my feet. Waistbands are not my friend yet.

I brought some tokens home from summer holiday, tucked into pockets and the bottom of my duffle bag. Something to remind me of the light on the water, the lull of the crickets, the soul-warming smoothness of a summer day.

Rocks.

I was choosy. They had to be smooth. Just the right round. Just the right shade of grey. Warm when I picked them up. They had to fit in the palm of my hand with fingers closed or my palm open to the sky.

I often forget to look down and under my feet, I am so busy getting places. I talked sternly with myself on the last beach walk: slow down, take time, notice the details, remember this day, you don’t know when you will return.

Yesterday, I piled them on the edge of my writing desk, feeling a little guilty, a little bit like a thief. Little bits of mica I hadn’t noticed winked at me. I saw they weren’t just grey at all — veins of pink and white ran through and around them. I have already stacked them two different ways while thinking out a word. I worry the roundest one in my hand while I reread paragraphs.

I believe they will carry me through the darkening days of fall, just as they steadied me on the uneven shore. beachstone

Just five arbitrary stones lifted off the sand. I caught endless flak when everyone realized why my bags were so heavy. But there is a good chance that I will return them next summer, a gesture of good faith to that little beach. And say thank you.

I swear they still feel warm when I cup them in my hand.

 

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Uncategorized

And so we go on.

 

The mother-of-the-bride status has been interesting. Sort of like being visibly pregnant and strangers feeling free to rub their hands on my belly. With the engagement of my oldest daughter, suddenly the subject matter of every conversation is weddings past and present. And dresses. And money. And the best way to do things is…

But here’s what keeps me up at night.

I regret many decisions or lack of decisions back thirty years ago when I got married. So I cannot help imposing my “what-if’s” on their “maybe’s.” Today the issues are not that different: While the costs are so much more significant, getting a wedding planned still makes it hard to remember that love drives us to these conversations about flowers, and dresses, and invitations. I keep a running mantra in my head, thanks to a friend — what will make this wedding feel wonderful to you? I repeat myself often to everyone’s frustration.

I have an Aunt who now has known five generations of women in my family. One of my favorite conversations with her over a cup of tea sitting in front of her bay windows wreathed in rangy red geraniums is listing them off and commingling our memories. My Aunt was a young adult when I was five years old yet our memories of Anma, my great-grandmother, her grandmother, are not dissimilar. As the eaglets fly outside the picture window and the sea lions dive for fish in Puget Sound just beyond our chairs, I never cease to be amazed how our ages evaporate as we laugh over these women, how pulling the thread of family and time tighter between us makes me so incredibly happy.

How do I pull the thread tight as our family marches towards the next phase, a new man at the table, new holiday traditions? My son watches us as we role model as sisters, mothers, daughters, women. I want all of them to be able to pull that thread tight in the years to come — with or without me — to laugh at the memories, to remember shopping for the wedding dresses, the successes or disasters of our first holidays as a new family. Our favorite colors. How we stayed in touch.

In the middle of the night I am filled with a fierceness that keeps me awake until the birds begin to sing. How do I make this feel right for all of us?

I want them to remember all the quirks and failures and fabulousness like my Aunt and I share together. I want to rub their bellies and swat the hands of strangers away. I want to welcome my son’s partner into our quirky house and applaud her for jumping into this family of strong women that will soon go back six generations in my memory when babies arrive. I want to rub her belly when the time comes and tell stories about a great-great-grandmother that embroidered the footrest for her swollen feet.

And so we go on. I just have to keep the faith I am a thread that will not break, despite any and all changes. That I cannot control much of anything.

But I will keep saying,

“What do you want to feel so this is the most wonderful day of your life?”

And ignore the eye rolling.

 

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Me and the girls. Canton, NY May 2016

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