Looking Back Four Years…

Four years ago today, the buyers got funded for my house in California, a house I was sad to leave and a place I where expected to live out my life, but as happens seemingly random stuff coalesces around fate and there you are. Rather spontaneously, while at a conference in Colorado that spring, I did the paper work to retire. In the background other things were happening that I didn’t even know about. My intuition had been right. It was over.

I was scared. My real estate agend thought I was brave to do what I was doing — selling a house and moving to a town where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t really have a choice. I had an income and some cash from the sale. I knew what these numbers were and I had to live within them. That’s why I left a small mountain town in California and my dream house. California had become not only incredibly hot (temps in my town in the summer had gone from an average high of 90 to an average high of 104) but incredibly expensive. Gas alone cost me $400/month. I learned how much our lives depend on petroleum from that — food, utilities, clothing everything has to be hauled somewhere. All blood under the bridge.



My house in Descanso, CA


“We want to hear about your adventure,” said my agent and her boss at lunch one day. “You have to blog about it.”

I did. Yesterday I had a look at that blog (now set to private). I read the post I wrote the day I drove away from my house, the first step toward Colorado. Packing had been an ordeal. I was getting up at 4 am to have a few hours to work before the blistering heat descended.

“I spent several hours (8) cleaning and packing the car and taking the dogs to the kennel where they’ll be until I take off Friday morning. It was liberating to close the door, knowing there was nothing more I could do, and drive away. I loved my house and I loved the dream I had when I moved there, but it didn’t really pan out. I made some mistakes and the world changed, still, I always felt that house was more than a roof and walls. It has a soul and it loved me. More than once it helped me and it helped me again. Since it was made by hand of local rocks, it’s never been (for me) just a house. It’s a piece of the mountain it sits on. I know the new owners will love it, and if they don’t, they won’t stay long. (And they didn’t…)

So now I’m in a motel near the university where I taught for most of 30 years. It’s convenient and nice and I knew I could find it. 😉 And, it’s air-conditioned.” (Colorado or Bust, September 18, 2014)

I thought all the time I was in California that I wanted to be in Colorado — but there was a moment when I stopped yearning. It was a weekend in 2002 when I was pondering a job offer in Wyoming. That weekend I took a hike and saw 7 mule deer, a beautiful sunset, and had some great experiences at school. I realized I had a great job and I loved the university where I was teaching. Why should I go anywhere? It was at that moment — about 20 years after I move to California — that I arrived psychically. Soon after I bought my house in the mountains.

No one knows what the future holds. And there I was, ten years after buying my house, selling it and driving east, home.

“It’s…bewildering to close the door on a time in my life. I’ve thought that our lives seem to break naturally into thirty year chunks. The first thirty years of my life seemed to have been growth, learning, mastery and self-definition. The second thirty were giving to life what I had been made for. Now? How could I possibly know? For whatever it is I bring the tools life has taught me — a viable living space and safety (thanks, Maslow, for stating the obvious), financial security and time to create. I don’t know what else there will be. I know only that those are the things I must prepare — for whom? Sometimes I think about the person who moved to San Diego with her husband in 1984. I think of all the things she did and hoped for. I packed up some of her work in preparation for moving here. She left some good things behind. I feel she left them for me. A book about Pearl S. Buck as a writer in the Chinese literary tradition and the other a love story. ‘I can’t do this now,’ she said. ‘I must teach. I must try to find my road. I have to make this marriage work. I have to settle these questions with my family. I am holding up the sky. I’ll make a start, but I’m afraid you’ll have to finish.’ I love that young woman. I am proud of her. She got here.” (Colorado or Bust, September 21, 2014)

I have friends who are in the time of life of holding up the sky. I have friends who are older than I who are still holding up the sky. I let go of it when I moved here. I thought of it recently in terms of Rainbow Girls. When I was a member, I held two offices — Nature and Service, yellow and lavender, opposites on the color wheel. I’ve been struck a few times by how those two colors ended up describing my life. I arrived here wrung dry of any desire to serve, but once it was my mission.

I’ve written three books since I moved here. I haven’t made a lot of friends, but I haven’t tried very hard. I’m not that kind of person, anyway. I realize that I keep a distance from my town and the people in it. Retired, I have the luxury of solitude that I didn’t have as a teacher. I like the friends I have very much and am grateful every day that they live next door and across the street. I still haven’t been up in the mountains, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever go. If I hadn’t moved here I wouldn’t know how potatoes are grown, I’d know nothing about the migration of Sandhill Cranes, or the prisms on old snow on a -10 degree day — or thousands of other things — big and small — that are part and parcel of this place. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the conversation I had yesterday with my dogs’ vet about the courage and sweetness of dogs like Bear. I would not have heard his stories. I would not have Bear. There are thousands of ways in which my life would be diminished if I had not made that rather radical decision four years ago.


Pickled Herring

My ancestry is 34% Scandinavian, so you could say my brother and I were born into the Smorgasbord world, but… There is 56% other stuff in our DNA so my brother’s love for the single smorgasbord restaurant in Denver in the 50s could not be blamed totally on genetics.

It could be blamed on pickled herring.

Cream Herring 2


OK but WHY????

A few years ago I found my old typewriter in the shed. It was a graduation gift (high school) from my mom who had dreams of my becoming an international news correspondent and traveling the world with a typewriter.


My typewriter and I didn’t travel the world but we did have a few adventures — lots of homework during my undergrad years, editorial columns for the Western Graphic — the newspaper of Colorado Womans College (one of which got me thrown out of the school), my senior thesis at the university of Colorado, tons of papers in grad school  but NOT (thanks be to the powers) my masters thesis. By then I had a clerical job, a nice big desk and an IBM Selectric II with a cool little white ribbon that would correct my mistakes if I told it to. OK, I had to hang out at the office a lot, but so what?

I learned at about the same time that people collect old typewriters and use them as “decor.” What? They’re not easy to keep clean. Their little arms with the letters on them get greasy and dusty. I learned that people even use them to TYPE ON!!!! How precious is THAT?

I remember thinking it had to be a response to a perverse atavistic urge to learn to live with one’s mistakes because, well, every single paper I typed on mine ended up with the words:

“Good ideas! Proofread!!!



This is NOT the Sexy Part of Colorado

In my 20s, I hung out in the sexy parts of Colorado fairly often. I would say that Aspen is the sexiest of the sexy. I had a good friend who’s parents owned a condo at the bottom of Little Nell (a ski lift). These excursions were usually in the summer when, back in the 70s, the population was less glamorous than during ski season. It was nothing for us to drive up there from Denver for the weekend. I spent a lot of time with them. The sexiest parts were getting dolled up (“Take off your glasses Martha!” “But Bess, if I do that I can’t see!” “You don’t have to see. You have to be SEEN!!!”)  to dance and drink at the Red Onion.

People don’t think of it this way, but Aspen is surrounded by legit Colorado and on those summer nights, if I took I took my Jack Daniels outside the Red Onion for a little fresh air and break from the noise and sat down at one of the tables set up on the sidewalk, I was likely to share the space with a cowboy and his beer.

I spent some winter times there, too, skiing at Snowmass with my boyfriend’s parents and watching women in restaurants drop their fur jackets on the floor beside their chairs. There were also lines of cocaine (it was the 70s, and I was young) that left me wondering if I’d ever sleep again and why anyone found that fun at all (I didn’t). In the swirling 70s mystique cocaine in Aspen was part of the sexiness. I even happened to be at my friend’s apartment when a scary ragabash showed up with a bag of uncut coke. My friend — a young, talented Aspen architect — bought it, we snorted some. I was “up” for three miserable nights and days, hating every minute of it, and that was the end of that social experiment, for me, anyway. My friend died a few years later at 35. Nothing sexy about that, nothing sexy about a wasted life.

I spent time — and skied some hills — in less sexy parts of Colorado, too. My favorite not-all-that-sexy ski mountain was Arapahoe Basin. Still, it was sexy in its way, too, sexy in the “I’m the highest ski mountain anywhere” kind of sexy. It was sexy in the “Only extremely cool real Coloradans who are able to drive over Loveland Pass come here.” I was there every weekend one winter. I do not know if there is a pass anywhere that my VW Bug wasn’t ready to take on.

So here is am in South Central Colorado in a flat, mysterious, ancient valley ringed by mountains, a hard-working valley where potatoes are cultivated and giant trucks carry them off to points north, south, east and west. The other night, a visiting friend and I drove across Heaven’s fields — potatoes, alfalfa, hops, barley — and she said, “This is the Colorado people don’t know. It’s not the sexy part.”

I said, “Yeah, but you know, last time I drove out of this valley to go to Colorado Springs all I could think was ‘every other place is bullshit’.” My friend agreed. She lives in proximity to a somewhat sexy part of the state (Durango and Telluride) but her town might be smaller than mine.

I pointed to the Sangre de Cristo mountains, about to be hit with late afternoon light and I said, “See those? Those are MY mountains. And these fields here? They’re mine. And that immense changing sky? That’s mine, too. There’s a river over there. It’s one of the perqs of living here. It’s my river.” I said “my” but in fact, I belong to them, heart and soul.

She’s the friend who acted as my real estate agent when I wanted to move here. She said, “I was so worried when you said you wanted to live here. I couldn’t imagine you not hating it.”

“I knew I wouldn’t hate it.” My heart filled as it often does here in Heaven. “It’s the best thing I ever did, move here. But no, it’s not sexy. It’s legit.”

Today I went to visit the dogs and take a drive through the legit part of Colorado where I live, past the neat, rich Amish farms, the small herds of sheep, the cattle on the distant fields, the two beautiful mules near the kennel. Summer birds swooped and hunted and sun behind the San Juans made them silhouettes. Fields that had been irrigated were filled with wild iris.

Not in the least sexy.


Lucio Means Light

The occurence of love is often suprising, precious, random. Some of the loves in my life have been sweet beyond belief, and one of those was Lucio.

Lucio was a little boy who lived down the street from me when I lived in the “hood.” He was Mexican, his status was not quite up to Donald Trump’s idea of “legal.” He lived with his grandma and several animals — also not quite legal in the city limits, ducks, chickens, a small pig, a dog and a cat. His aunt and her little daughters lived next door. I first knew him when he was six or so years old. He came up the street to visit, sometimes with another little kid, sometimes by himself.

He liked to draw and when I was doing art in my garage, he liked to draw his own pictures while I did whatever project engrossed me at the time. Then, of course, he got deported.

A few years later (!) Lucio was back. He was twelve! Almost as tall as I. There had been major changes in my world — my marriage had broken up, and I was teaching a lot more to hold life together. Still, as before, I was doing art work in my garage. Lucio asked about my ex and I said, “It didn’t work out. He left a couple years ago.”

“That’s too bad,” said Lucio. “But you’re still here. You need someone to take care of you.”

“I’m fine this way,” I answered and we both nodded.

The project at the time was “Barbies’ Battle of the Bands Benefit Concert for Cellulite Victims” and involved two stages, instruments and costumes for eight Barbie dolls. I didn’t finish the project; I got to the last part — sewing doll clothes — and realized that wasn’t happening.

Lucio hung out while I was drawing guitars. Then, one day he said, “Aren’t you kind of old to play with Barbies?” I cracked up and tried to explain it was sculpture; I wasn’t playing with Barbies. I gave up the project anyway and starting painting a mountain at Zion National Park. Lucio had no objection to a 42 year old woman painting a mountain.

One day Lucio came up with a brightly painted blue, purple and white wooden push cart, the kind used in Tijuana by street vendors. “My grandpa died and left me this,” he said. It was truly amazing. I believe Lucio saw himself as having inherited the family business and having become a man because the next thing he said was, “I want to take you out for lunch.”

I was mildly dumbfounded (if that’s possible). “Ok,” I said. “Where? Did you ask your grandma?”


There was a new restaurant (Mexican) a few blocks away. Lucio had it all planned out He’d saved his money, too. We walked over to the restaurant, ordered our lunch, talked about art, school, whether there was a ghost in the crawl space of my house. The food was pretty good the usual Baja/Tijuana cuisine that I did, finally, get used to and even miss now that I’m back in the land of hot green chile and sopapillas.

We walked back home and Lucio said, “I’ve wanted to take you out for a long time.”

I said, “Thank you, Lucio, it was fun,” realizing, suddenly, that I’d been on a date with a 12 year old.

Not too long after, Lucio, his grandma, his aunt and his cousins were all deported. I never again saw my young prince or his beautiful cart.



It was in 2000. I was in Genova. I was supposed to be visiting…well, it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to say the entire journey was a living nightmare that included a REAL nightmare. The room in which I slept — a beautiful sunny room decorated in aqua, gold and white in an expensive apartment looking over the Mediterrenean — also looked over a train station and night was filled not with the sounds of gentle warm waves against the rocky shore but trains screaming to a stop outside the wall of glass.

That morning I was to embark early on an adventure to the Cinque Terre. I was in the midst of a horrible, horrible, horrible dream (my mom was rubbing excrement on my chest, OK? Now you know) and I couldn’t get away from her. “La Zia” — my friend’s aunt — came into the room to wake me up, “Marta! Marta!”

Being awakened so suddenly scared me to death. I shot out of bed, shaking my head and looking around the room, no doubt wild-eyed and strange. She looked at me, “Che è successo??” (What happened?)

“Ho avuto un incubo.” (I had a nightmare) I was still in the midst of it. My heart was pounding.

“Ma si. Francesco ti sta portando alla stazione. Devi sbrigarti.” (F is taking you to the station. You have to hurry)

I thought to myself, “I can get myself to the fucking station. I don’t need THAT person’s (a-HA) help at all!!!”

La Zia and I had coffee and cookies together in the kitchen. Then F and I got into a old orange VW bug (the car of his dad’s youth), and I was dropped at the station in Santa Margarita. Barely a word was spoken between us.

(Painting, “The Nightmare” Henry Fuseli, 1781)



Imagination, Smagination…

Compared to reality, imagination is nothing. This hit me one rainy Denver night while I was sitting on a kitchen chair in my then boyfriend’s apartment. We had just been to the grocery store. Innocuous enough, right? But grocery stores are not JUST grocery stores, and that particular night, Peter had exchanged some meaningful glances with the cute boy who had been tasked with stacking oranges.

I was trying (again!) to wrap my head around our love relationship. That was impossible. How could two people love each other as deeply as we did and STILL have no chance at all ever? None of the stories I’d read up to that point had prepared me for THIS reality.

“I could never make this up,” I thought as my former cat — Agate — wandered back and forth from where Peter lay on the bed and I sat by the table. I’m sure she could feel everything in that room, the sadness, the anger, the love, the yearning, the “way-things-are” against which Peter and I had consistently pushed for the previous four years. We had, so far, not turned back, just went in another direction to find a breach in the wall, a weak spot. We broke up, met up, tried again.

“You think I chose this?” he asked from the bedroom. “Who would choose this? You’re the only thing that matters to me. Talk to me!!!” But I couldn’t talk to him. I got up, put on my jacket, and went home.

I didn’t think he’d chosen to be gay. I was sure about his choices; his choice was me, but… That night I knew that it was I who had to choose, not Peter. I COULD choose. I could choose this exquisite, literary suffering or I could choose something else. I had that power, something Peter had understood all along though I hadn’t.

I wrote about it, but I hadn’t lived enough life to make characters (finite, neat, believable) out of those two lovers, Peter and me. Though the end was in sight, we kept loving each other and I kept writing.

Above my work table is a photocopy of one of his last letters to me. It was written after we had physically split up (he was in Chicago, I remained in Denver) but were still psychically together. At some point, I sent him the story. He was a writer, had a PhD in Creative Writing. I wondered how the story would read to him, the prototype for the not-all-that-fictional male protagonist. “Yes, I like the story. It moves fast and smoothly,” he says, “Keep Writing!! Love, Peter.”



Ragtag Daily Prompt

RDP #3: Imagination

RDP #3: Imagination

Archeological Insight: Who WAS that Teacher?

In the drama over the demise of the WordPress Daily Prompt, I went to my old Blogger sites to see about maybe you know, switching back? I haven’t looked at those sites for years. Among them are two I developed for my classes. One of them from WAY back before I evolved and changed, way back in 2011.

At the time, I was teaching five sections of basic business communication at San Diego State and several different composition classes at a couple of community colleges. The composition classes were online, hybrid and in the classroom. Being an adjunct teacher is a lot like being the cowboy who’s told to “dance” just before the other cowboy starts shooting at his feet. You have to be ready to do any and everything at the last minute. I taught online classes for as long as there have been online classes because — unlike many English teachers — I’ve always been interested in and comfortable with computers.

Many students signed up for those classes because they didn’t want to go to school or they thought it was an easy way out. It didn’t occur to them that an online class was basically “all writing, all the time.” After a few years, I understood this well and the very first page of a very detailed (cover-your-ass-so-we-don’t-get-sued-by-little-Johnny’s-helicopter-parents) syllabus was actually MEANT to discourage people from signing up. The goal was to help those who DID take the class succeed and to direct students who would not succeed into classes where they would have a better chance. More than traditional classes, online classes depend on reading and writing fluency. There’s no one to talk things over with.

This is a very important class for building a foundation for good writing and thinking skills that you will need throughout the rest of your education and in your life. Writing is a skill everyone uses in EVERY field of work. You will need to be a good writer regardless of your major or planned career.

In any online class, you bear a large part of the responsibility for your OWN learning. This is NOT the best choice if you’re a student who hates English, who hasn’t done well in English classes in the past, and is a second-language learner without native speaker proficiency.  

 Q: Why do most students take online or hybrid classes?
A: Convenience! Most students who choose distance learning choose it because they feel that they can work on their own when it’s convenient for them. Great, huh?
Fact: Online/hybrid classes require MORE self-motivation than traditional, face-to-face classes. They require excellent time management skills and the ability to work without a teacher pushing or praising you. Students need to be very self-motivated and organized to do well in an online class. 
It will be up to you to review lectures, take quizzes, post homework, participate in the discussion forum. You will find lectures online, information about writing online, grammar and reading comprehension exercises online and you are responsible for doing them just as you would be in a 16/17 week traditional class meeting in a classroom with the teacher standing over you waiting for you to hand in your homework. 
Important Things to Think About Before Taking this Class:
  • If you are NOT self-motivated and willing to work very hard for the length of this class learning to write, somewhat on your own, drop this class ASAP.
  • If you “work well under pressure” (meaning you are a person who procrastinates) drop this class NOW.
  • If you think that an online writing class is a good way to “get it over with” an online class is not your best choice. Online classes involve a major time commitment and unless you are organized, motivated and focused, it is very easy to fall behind.
  • Your homework will be posted online where your classmates can read it. If you are uncomfortable letting others read your writing or taking and receiving constructive criticism from your professor and your classmates that others will read, drop this class NOW.

If you are uncomfortable using computers, but you still want to take an online class, take an introductory course to computers FIRST. Your experience will be MUCH better in an online class if you don’t have to learn to use computers too.

If you are not sure about your ability to handle an online class, here are two surveys you can take to assess your aptitude in this area. Answer HONESTLY. It’s for your own benefit to know yourself well and to get the most from a class.

For those mature and motivated enough, the online writing class was usually a good choice and they learned a lot.  Once the mechanical agonies were over, things got good. Reading this made me happy this morning.

How to Comment on the Work of Your Classmates

When you comment on your classmates’ work, open their thread, read what they have written, then press the Reply button. That is the space in which you can comment.

Please write something more than, “I thought it was great.” The hard thing for writers is to know how their writing comes across to other people. To get credit for commenting (worth 1/2 grade point to you) really TELL your classmate what you read. Tell them when something makes sense (and tell them what it is) and tell them when something doesn’t. Comments like, “Great job!” aren’t very helpful when your teacher comes along later and writes more suggestions for correcting your homework than you wrote for your homework. Remember: writing concrete and useful comments to your classmates about their work will help your grade just as reading their comments and applying useful suggestions to your own writing will help your grade.

Things to look for:

  • Small grammar problems (sentence fragments, spelling)
  • Something beautiful
  • Something confusing
  • Places where your classmate’s work doesn’t make sense
  • Places where your classmate’s work makes GREAT sense

Give examples in your comment so your classmate can get concrete help and encouragement from you. Ideally you will write at least 100 words.

I remembered how well this had worked out; how enthusiastically and helpfully my students usually commented on their classmate’s work. I thought of the online classes I taught that turned into communities of writers.

I cared SO MUCH about this in 2011, more than did my students, certainly more than did my bosses who just wanted a competent warm body to plug into a slot on the schedule.

That’s the thing about education. It’s predicated on the dedication of teachers. As school shooting is followed by school shooting I wonder that teachers even go to school, but there they go, trucking off with the white board markers they bought themselves, their lesson plans, their iPads, their laptops, their dreams for their students. There they are, staying up until the wee hours, worried about the kid who seems to be suffering from some secret trouble that’s affecting his/her work. There they are, staying late to help a kid understand a story, polynomial equations, the thesis statement. There they are, sitting in the bleachers, sun in their eye, perspiration running down their back in the rented regalia showing the colors of their university, during an interminable graduation ceremony because a student asked them to give him/her his/her diploma. Who does that? What other career “demands” that?

Yesterday I took my walk and on my way home, saw my neighbor outside and stopped to talk. As we were talking, my OTHER neighbor from across the street came running over with rhubarb cake for me. ❤ We were instantly in an animated and funny conversation about being pulled over for making a rolling stop and then arguing with the cop. At one point I said to my neighbor (a retired teacher) “We have that teacher look, E. We kind of scare people.”

We had to laugh. But I’ve seen her when the kids and young teachers walk by on their way to the park. Her face lights up, “School kids! Young teachers!” and she has to say hi to all of them that she knows. And that enthusiasm is really the jist of it. I wanted my students to succeed; I honestly and sincerely cared very much about that even if it meant starting the semester with a tough-love message telling them to drop my class.


If you’re interested in participating:

Saturday: Mary, Cactus Haiku
Sunday: Patty, Lovenlosses
Monday:  Sgeoil
Tuesday: Lorna, Gin and Lemonade
Wednesday: Curious Cat
Thursday: Tracy, Reflections of an Untidy Mind
Friday: Steph, Curious Steph

Walt Whitman’s Birthday

Among the books that are most rewarding to buy in a used book store is Leaves of Grass. I’ve owned three and what makes them so wonderful (besides Whitman’s poetry) are the relics often hidden inside. No one buys that book without loving it. Inside all the old copies I’ve owned have been newspaper clippings, notes, favorite lines written in margins, dedications usually signed with “love.”

Today is Walt Whitman’s birthday.

I remember the day Reagan was inaugurated. I had a party in my apartment in Denver. I was a year or two out of graduate school. I had worked on John Anderson’s campaign. The party was some of my real-life personal friends and a bunch of people from the Anderson campaign. Someone had to bring a TV because I didn’t have one. The plan was to watch Bedtime for Bonzo in which our new President was the adopted father of a chimpanzee. I didn’t have a lot of furniture and my floor was solid oak. There was no where comfortable and I wasn’t really interested in the movie. My friends and I stayed in the kitchen, got plowed and that led, naturally, to my reading Walt Whitman (whether anyone liked it or not).

Back then I had the belief that poetry was more important than politics and writing was the single most important thing for me to do, beyond earning a living or love or anything else.

Whitman had influenced some of that.

There are many amazing poems in Leaves of Grass. Some I’ve taught, particularly “There was a Child Went Forth” which I had my students act out as a way to prove that poetry is not inaccessible. Another that often made it up on my chalkboard was “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” —

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

This one I drew.

But that night of Reagan’s inauguration I wasn’t reading these poems. I don’t think I’d even met them, yet. I was reading from the book within the book, Calamus. My favorite at the time was “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” It spoke to me so clearly of artistic integrity, sexuality and death. He is speaking to the leaves of grass (and other plants) that come out of his heart and will someday rise from the ground above his body.

Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter
how long,
That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very
But you will last very long.

At this point in the story — so many years later — I remember that young woman who got so drunk on wine and poetry that she banged her head on the ledge below her kitchen sink when she sat down. I remember her ecstatic lecture to the small group (four? five?) of friends who were also not interested in the antics of Ronald Reagan and a monkey. I doubt they were all that interested in Whitman, either, but the young woman all on her own was a pretty good show.

Far more often than I think of that evening, I think of this poem. I think of what it means to “dissipate the entire show of appearance” and how much that matters.

As for the “scented herbage of my breast” — that young woman had no idea what it would be, what that would mean. She wrote anyway, but had no real story except a sad but lovely romance that could never work.

So she wrote it, as practice, you know, for the real stories that came later.



She was also an artist… These are linoleum cuts

A song from the practice story…


A lovely movie starring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman — Beautiful Dreamers

The Cast


“What happened?”

My little brother held his arm as if it were a bone china tureen filled with hot soup, not that he’d know or care at all about what bone china is.

“I fell out of a tree up at the mission.” The Columban fathers had a mission a block from our house. It was acres and acres of deciduous forest. It was our playground, our happy place.

“I’ll call your father.”

She didn’t drive.

I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know where I went — probably to a neighbor’s  or maybe (I think) my grandma was visiting — or where the bone was set, but my brother came home with a cast on his forearm.

“Simple break,” said my dad. “No reason for hysterics, Helen.”

“I broke my arm,” she stuck out her left arm so we could see the crooked bit. “It never healed right.”

“Helen,” sighed my dad, “there were no hospitals.”

“She sent David for Dr. Festy.” David being her older brother.

“Had to set it with boards in the kitchen, right? They did the best they could.”

“My poor boy. Mother gave me castor oil.”

“For a broken arm?”

“I wouldn’t stop crying.”

My dad shook his head and laughed. That was my grandma. What do you do on a dirt farm with ten kids, no car, no phone, two Percherons, a 7-year-old with a broken arm? From where I sit now, castor oil doesn’t seem that crazy.

“Well, it ruins our vacation,” said my mom.

“Why?” asked my dad.

“Kirk won’t be able to do anything. He has to be in a cast for three months!”

That did not turn out to be the case. Kirk did everything a two-armed kid would do except play Little League which he hated, anyway.

At the end of the summer, we went to Montana on the train as usual. The days were long, hot, sweet and filled with family. There were sunset games of Red Rover and lots of running in the tall grass of the pasture between grandma’s house and Aunt Jo’s. There were backyard picnics with fried chicken, red Jell-o mixed with fruit cocktail, potato salad and pie. The grownups sat in lawn chairs smoking in the darkness while we played monsters with flashlights.

One afternoon our cousins came over to stay with grandma and play with us. My brother  was playing in the ditch (not supposed to because of the cast) with the two youngest cousins, girls, while I tried watercolor painting with out a brush — I was trying to use the bristly ends of some wild grass. It didn’t work. Kirk and my cousins came screeching in through the backdoor. Kirk had caught a sucker with his bare hands. This was a marvel, a feat previously only accomplished by my mom.

“Mom! Look what I caught!” He held the fish carefully in both hands.

“Where’s your cast?” asked my mom, turning pale.

“I don’t know,” said my brother, suddenly realizing how seriously he’d messed up. It turned out he’d been slipping that thing off for weeks when he didn’t want to wear it.

I still have an image in my mind of that tow-headed kid in the Hawaiian shirt my mom had made him during the months she and my dad were living in Honolulu and we were living with Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank in Montana. We’re in a doctor’s waiting room. The chairs are Chartreuse, the tile floor black and white. Kirk and my mom are called into the examining room. They get up and Kirk leaves the cast on the chair.