Friday, April 9, 2021

Long Hard March

Prescient?: My mom in fur with a cane, Cemetery Walk 2009 

It was a long hard March, and now evidently it’s April, as the poems and flowers prove. On March 6, my mother fell down the (carpeted!) stairs—we hope only 2 or 3 of them—and broke several bones in “non-displaced” ways. That, and the fact that both parents were already fully vaccinated, was the lucky part! She is making a steady and remarkable recovery, with good days and bad days, and great home health care, plus lots of family and local support. Our fragility and resilience continue to amaze me. 

During this time, I participated in an outdoor event on the steps of the history museum, a Remembrance of those lost to Covid-19 in the past year. Candace Summers, Education Director at the McLean County Museum of History, had arranged it, bringing speakers, a singer, young dancers, and me. “I’m no Amanda Gorman,” I had warned her, but I was honored to be asked. My inspiration came from our shared experiences over the last year, plus words from the community, offered in the 12 Months in 6 Words project, and I used many of the shared words, ideas, feelings I found there, creating a poem of 6 stanzas of 6 lines each of 6 words each. (The 666 association was, sadly, not lost on me.) My sister, who had come from Nebraska to help, set it up on her laptop for my parents to watch as it streamed live, and the audience sat or stood in the blocked-off street at safe social distances, bundled against the March chill. Candace had placed 175 small white flags on the museum lawn, one for each of our community’s residents who died; later, updated statistics raised that number to 200+. It was good to come together, safely, solemn and amazed. 

Zooms continued, Passover came, Palm Sunday and Easter, I brought Jessy Randall to Poetry is Normal Presents via Zoom at the library, and I’m offering an annual poem-a-day forum in April, as usual, in an online writing community I visit, but time feels even weirder and more suspended than it already was during this pandemic year, a year now stretching as if into forever, despite the increased availability of testing, treatment, and vaccination. So many of us learned what we value, what we find important, necessary in our lives, and not so necessary. So many of us suffered losses and changes. My thanks to all who are helping each other adjust. My thanks to those helping my family in our time of need, and to those helping you and yours.

Thursday, February 18, 2021


While I was grousing, wrapping up in blankets, feeling cranky and fatigued from the cold and Zoom, Japan had an earthquake (a delayed aftershock), a train derailed downtown, there was a bad fire at a complex housing students (12 apartments destroyed, the residents displaced), local firefighters had to battle that fire and fires related to the derailment in sub-zero wind-chills, Texas had a snowstorm (!), Portland had an ice storm, and now it's snowed in Nashville. Meanwhile, though Covid-19 rates are down, people are still suffering and dying from it. My little problems feel small indeed. Still, I forgive myself and give myself the needed days of just reading and resting. It helps me be better, I hope, when I interact with people again. Sigh....

One of the books I read on my couch was News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, a paperback I got from the ongoing library sale and which will go out in our Little Free Library once it's warm enough to go out there again. Tom Hanks is in the movie of this, and when I Googled it, it looked like I could see it on Netflix, but that was old news indeed. Or confusing news. Netflix streams it internationally but not here in the U.S., where it is again playing in some theatres, it appears. I will wait. But I am eager to see Helena Zengel, the young actor who plays the girl taken captive by the Kiowa, with whom she identifies, though her family of origin is German. I was drawn to her in the book.

The sun is shining today! It's up to 22 degrees! I felt warmer at work by keeping my hat on, and now I'm warmer at home by keeping it on still! My chalkboard poems have been shivery and blurry but there all month so far, and it's a short month, so I'll probably make it--a poem a day.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rough Week

I had a rough week of not being able to do or say anything right 1) in Zoom meetings 2) in general. People sometimes disappear in Zoom if someone is screen sharing, and it's getting harder and harder for me to connect, engage in true communication, and feel like myself. Also, it's so very cold outside, and I'd rather sit on the couch reading books, wrapped up in a soft blue fleece blanket, than do anything else. 

Today I gave in to the couch, and that produced 4 poem drafts, a healing calm, and restored my sense of who I really am. Sigh... It helped this past week to call up some friends up spontaneously on the phone. Thank you, friends! It's been almost a year of isolation, and maybe I hadn't felt it as intensely till now. I know I've had it easier than many, as a shy person and an introvert and someone with a safe, masked, part-time job. Feeling for all the rest of you, you can be sure.

This week I read things with blue dustjackets and/or circular patterns in them. One was a play--3 women trading conversations à la ronde. One was The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, where one must choose among one's parallel lives in the multiverse. One was Faithful, by Alice Hoffman, in which a woman punishes herself, needing to heal and be forgiven. I was feeling like that. It helped to write some little poems, to send some poems out, to have a few taken.

One was The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald, a writer I like because of her writing and because she was a late bloomer, and a title I like, because of the hope in it. Sigh... The cover of the paperback, though, had snow. It takes place in Russia, like all the Russian stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders, which I had just finished. The Beginning of Spring had a circular structure. I did indeed read all these books at exactly the right time. And now I am reading the Collected Stories of Shirley Hazzard, who calms with the clarity of her style, her subtle humor, her precise observations. Its dust-jacket of coral and gray calms me, as does her sense of nonlinear time: "she couldn't be sure that she was not recollecting something in the future." This has happened to me.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Sunshine, Lollipops...Sigh

I had a Cranky Doodle Day this week, which is pretty rare for me (Buddhism, yoga, deep breathing), connected to an awkward Zoom meeting and (mostly*) undone by a pleasant Zoom meeting the next day, with a wise and charming person, plus steady, productive work, which cures a lot of things for me. Along with reading.

*I say “mostly” because evidently I am writing about it here in connection to crankiness, so its effects may be lingering still. 

In the meantime, I was so happy with myself for starting the year off right, and getting three submissions out in January, the last right on January 31. That submission was rejected two days letter with a cheerful suggestion that I subscribe via discount. There was a brief moment then, too, of laugh-out-loud-crankiness-slash-recognition, as I said to myself, “Oh, yeah! That’s why I stopped submitting to that journal!” 

Auugghh. I actually write notes to myself in my non-Excel recordkeeping system, “Do not submit here again” or “NEVER submit here again,” and, sadly, I don’t always heed my own advice, or I forget, after I have moved those notes to the archived recordkeeping files. Anyhoo…! 

But, on February 1, I doggedly resumed my chalkboard poem a day on Facebook. Oops, I just realized I forgot the Instagram simulcast….OK, done. Double sigh… 

Today’s poem was drafted yesterday evening, as it happened, and revised this morning, before posting: 

February 3, 2021 

Yesterday evening   

briefly, in the shift of light,
      I was gone,
nameless, part of the night
     now fallen. 

I’ve been reading Russian short stories in the book by George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. The stories and his commentary make me want to stop everything and write fiction again. (I did a little of that, longhand in a journal.) As it says in the poem above, I did feel nameless, gone, at one with the universe, at dusk, and I sense that at times in the Russians. My husband feels at-one-ment much of the time. In a comic version of all this, I forgot who I was in an email, when someone referred to “Kathy,” and I thought she meant me, but, to her, I am only “Kathleen.” We got it sorted out. 

It’s been very sunny here lately, but a deep, deep cold is coming soon. Thanks, Groundhog.

Sunday, January 24, 2021


I've been known to do that, read while walking, and knew I would love our new next-door neighbor back in Chicago, when I saw her reading-while-walking down the sidewalk on her way home one day! Our babies grew up side by side and played together in our back yards. Wonderful to encounter the practice again in the book Milkman, by Anna Burns, published in 2018, which I finally got around to reading, pretty much, as always, at exactly the right time! 

And how about that cover, that sunset, right? Looking up from one's reading, or one's life, to notice the actual colors of the actual sky is a crucial part of this book, in which what people say and do is completely constricted by their circumstances. This story is set in the "troubles" or "sorrows" of Northern Ireland, not ever named, like most of the characters. To stay alive during the political/religious conflicts raging all around, people have to contort themselves--their speech, their behavior, their emotions. Part of the "right time" to read this, for me, connects to the current constrictions of the pandemic, and part, the main part, is how it evokes the current political divide in the country I live in. We can't really talk to each other, kindly and well, because we're living in different realities. It's awkward, dangerous, and strange.

The other book I read--quickly, sometimes skimming--at the "right time" was Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America's Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. This is a new book at the library, I was the first to check it out, and I didn't want to keep it too long, which is one reason for the skimming, another being self-protection. I didn't want to dwell too long in pandemic reflections, so if a poem was too long, too prosey-looking, or with too many virus-related words glaring up at me, or if it seemed too easy, bordering on the cliched or sentimental, I skipped it. Instead, I went for the shorter poems, with simple, direct language--"simple" being quite different from "easy" in my meaning here, with simple language so often the container for rich complexity.

I want to share some favorite lines, images, facts, and, of course, random coincidii with you.

I loved "Facetime" by George Bilgere, partly about the return of the animals to human-deserted places, and partly about phoning up the eels! I loved Sarah Paley's strong sonnet about a store cashier, "At the Hardware Store on the Island (March 21, 2020)," and noted the coincidence that Paley has a chapbook forthcoming from Eyewear Publishing called The Autobiography of an Eel. A coincidence of eels! Who gnu?

In "May Day," by Nicholas Christopher, I heard the woman crying out from a dark corner. I joined a man and his wife in delighting in watching a couple across the way who played cards every night in "Cards," by John Freeman. It reminded me of my parents playing cards, and also playing characters playing cards in The Gin Game. I loved how the sequestration in "As If," by Dana Levin, has shifted from "natural sloth" to "domestic industry" when suddenly two Labs, one black, one yellow, appear on Mount Atalaya in the past... Yes, anything can happen!

I loved learning about "arborial cemeteries" in Gail Mazur's wonderful and funny "Matzoh." I was sad to learn this personal history detail from "Under Juncos, the Baby Stones," by Tess Taylor, which begins:

     Grandmother, born 1918,
     half-orphaned, mother dead of the flu,
     your father, widowed, alone,
     taped your mouth shut
     to keep you from crying.

There is the connection of our pandemic to the 1918 pandemic, and also to whatever contortions of grief and circumstances might be happening now. My heart broke to read the phenomenal "An American Nurse Foresees Her Death," by Amit Majmudar, where, sadly, the title tells the story. With "Leaving Evanston," by Deborah Garrison, I sympathized with the theatre students having to leave school before their spring showcase production, before their Commencement, and thus also with all the students whose lives and expectations were disrupted this past spring...and likely will be in the spring to come. 

"How I wish feeling terrible felt useful, as it did when I was a teenager," says Nicole Cooley in the poem "At CVS Wearing a Mask I Buy Plastic Eggs for My Daughter." That resonated, and also reminded me of the narrator of Milkman, who is seventeen and eighteen when the main events happen; it's hard to come of age when the adults don't know how to show you, teach you, bring you along. And in "Poem for My Students," by Sharon Olds, I encountered "chain-reading" (like chain smoking), something I do, reading one book right after another.

Despite my skimming and skipping, I found much to marvel at in ...a Sudden Strangeness, including this deftness with line and stanza break in the beautiful and simple "Quarantine" by Dave Lucas, that begins:

     You could not come to me
                    so instead I set out for you

                    these lines.

And I identify with this impulse in "A Private Life," by Mark Wunderlich, which I may, though lacking in chickens, follow:

     I think when this is done, I'll stay
     shut in, tending my hens, mending

     the threadbare life nobody will see.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Still the Right Book at the Right Time

The judge in the Calyx prose-writing contest, where I was a runner-up, compared me to Sigrid Nunez. I kept coming across her name in other reading, and figured it was the right time to seek her out. I read For Rouenna, about a Vietnam War nurse, and Sempre Susan, her memoir of Susan Sontag. And, while I really enjoyed her discursive style, sometimes fragmentary and vignette-like, which reminded me of Jenny Offill, I didn't understand the comparison to me. Then I read The Friend--about a dog! And grief. Yes, and also about writing and writers in academia, and I finally saw the connection, as that's also the subject matter of my story "A Retiring Woman." At any rate, a fine compliment!

I didn't have any "anxiety of influence," as I was just reading the book now, and I wrote the story years ago and kept submitting it and revising it over the years until it found its proper home, which I had always thought was Calyx, having sent them an earlier draft before entering the prize competition! Ah, persistence. Ah, coincidence. The coincidences abound. For one, Nunez writes, "My own first writing teacher used to tell her students that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of becoming writers, any other profession, they should do it." That's exactly what my dad told me, only about acting! Ironically, he was encouraging me to pursue writing instead.

Another coincidence is that the novel I read right before this one, Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, also has suicide as a central subject. In Backman's book, a bridge is the site of a suicide and an attempted suicide that persist in the memories of characters brought together in an "anxious" situation. In The Friend, the narrator is recalling some suicide facts reported by a coroner about people who jumped into the Seine: "Those whose reason for wanting to die was love had tried to scramble back out of the water. Those whose reason was financial ruin had sunk like stones." Both reasons occur in the Backman book. And there's an important bridge in The Friend that the narrator has in view when she visits the site of a famous double suicide, also the grave site, on "a shady green slope" down to a lake in Germany. And as I read about the swans in Germany in The Friend, I recalled the swans in and around Berlin in the poems of Maria Garcia Teutsch, which I had published in Escape Into Life, with images of love, snow, water, bridge...death.

And then I encountered Rilke, also quoted by Patricia Hampl in The Art of the Wasted Day and in one of my blog entries about that. Nunez's narrator, quoting Rilke in italics, commenting on her own reading (the way I comment upon mine in my blog...) says, "Once again I come upon his famous definition of love: two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other." In the Hampl book, the translation chooses "touch" instead of "border." I had just just quoted that book/translation here, noting the similarity to my own marriage, in the context of being lucky to be married to another artist. Layer upon layer of reading the right book at the right time, making almost every day a Random Coinciday.

Finally, I identified with the problems of writing itself: "You write a thing down because you're hoping to get a hold on it. You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean.... But there's always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience to the memory of writing about it." Nunez makes that connection to people who realize some of their memories arise not so much from events themselves but from photographs of these events. 

I know I sometimes lose track of what really happened if I make a poem of my own experience, or base a story on observed life and behaviors. I often write to better understand something or someone, to expand my compassion for someone who hurt me or behaved badly or inexplicably. What would make someone do that? I ask, and then try to answer that question in a story that loves the character who did it, in part by exploring the character's motivation, as I would as an actor...  By the time the story is finished, my compassion is expanded, yes, but my imagination has already taken over, and my fiction-writing self has mixed and matched details as needed, and who knows what the "facts" were on the way to the new truth? That's why it's fiction. Hmm, is this another "wasted day"?

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Chess Story

A couple days ago I mentioned I was reading Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig; it's a short one, and I've finished it. I was sort of thrilled to recognize chess facts and names from my earlier reading and viewing of The Queen's Gambit, and noticed how a character in Chess Story can and must visualize the board the way Beth Harmon does, although without the help of green tranquilizers.

What I didn't expect was the strange pertinence of this novella to now, even though I have noticed weird coincidences in my "Covid reading" before. A character in Chess Story is held as a prisoner to get information out of him, and the form of psychological torture is "the most exquisite isolation imaginable." Yes, it's a form of solitary confinement but in a hotel. "They did nothing--other than subjecting us to complete nothingness. For, as is well known, nothing on earth puts more pressure on the human mind than nothing. Locking each of us into a total vacuum, a room hermetically sealed off from the outside world...." Well, you get the idea. I know people are truly suffering in their loneliness and isolation right now.

The prisoner suffers, and a doctor later gives him some relief, saying "Perfectly understandable when you get down to it," speaking of the forced isolation. "Since March 13, isn't it?" March 13 was when my own isolation began, a stay-at-home order beginning a work-from-home period until June 1. And I know that Friday the 13th was the end, and beginning, of something similar for a lot of us here in the USA. Imagine my shock at seeing that particular date in a book from 1941 that I was reading in 2021.

My recent reading has also delighted me with word meanings. I was reminded in Chess Story that a dilletante, that dabbler so often despised for surface involvement, is simply someone who delights in, say, the arts, as an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Zweig speaks of "a true dilettante in the best sense of the word, one who plays for the pure delight--that is, the diletto--of playing." I also looked up "antimacassar" (I think in The Queen's Gambit?), a word I always get from context, and delighted in the discovery that this upholstery protector = anti + Macassar, a brand of hair oil. Perfect!

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Queen's Gambit

We watched and enjoyed The Queen's Gambit, a limited series on Netflix, and when I saw it was based on a book, I knew I'd have to read it. What a delight! The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis, is as sharp and stylish, and relentless in pursuit of the game, as the series. And both have the perfect ending! In the novel, privy to the inner life of the main character, I had an even better sense of the fear, anger, and vulnerability of the orphaned girl who becomes a great chess player. 

The Queen's Gambit was the last book I read in 2020, finished on New Year's Eve, for a total of 162 books in 2020.

By chance, I was seeking out--and found, through interlibrary loan--The Post Office Girl, by Stefan Zweig, which I read next, another great story with a young woman as the central character, a vulnerable person tossed by circumstances who develops an anger about her life that helps her rise above despair. Maybe. Also by chance, I found Chess Story,* also by Zweig, also translated by Joel Rotenberg, which I am reading now. *Sometimes translated as The Royal Game.

And completely by chance, I found myself resting my chin on my hands, and my elbows on the windowsill, just like Anya Taylor-Joy in her thinking pose, regarding the chessboard or her opponent, while looking out the window at great fallen chunks of ice, all looking like the white pieces in chess. This was during the first power outage, followed, alas, by the second power outage, an interesting but chilly way to start the year 2021! I am grateful to have the heat back on, the tree lights back on, and not to be cooking by candlelight...although it was romantic and sort of fun.

So it was two days of reading by milky (foggy, overcast) sunlight, wrapped in the silky blue blankie, layered in jammies, sweater, soft blue robe, wearing scarves around my neck and fingerless gloves. Talk about the "wasted day"! And now I am catching up, with email, blog, various bits of online business, and warmth, in general. We rang in the new year literally with a glass bell in our back yard, at midnight, with friends who came bundled and masked, standing around a wood fire laid in a barbecue grill, with champagne, while other backyard neighbors 1) also rang a bell 2) set off fireworks. The ice storm came the next day, with many branches down, followed by inches of snow. 

Followed by tree-cutters and power company guys. We finally realized, when four trucks pulled up in front of our house, and workers in bright vests carried a ladder into our back yard, that a subcontractor was perhaps carrying out a six-year-old work order, dating from a past ice storm with a four-day power outage at Christmastime, back when we could gather with family, when the workers climbed up, rigged a pulley to the electric lines that come from the pole to the house, and fixed slack lines into taut lines. Shortly thereafter, we had power! Power! Which might comfort Stefan Zweig's and Walter Tevis's characters!! And that makes it a Random Coinciday in the blog!