Coffee with Mamma

Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.

And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.

A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.

And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips.  But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.

I want her back, but she’s right here.

I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.

A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son.  And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.

edinburgh coffee

How Not to be Depressed

Don’t tell anyone. Smile through it and look okay. Put on mascara while wishing you were asleep again. To not be depressed, tell it to stop, even though you know that fighting only feeds the long shadows. To not be depressed, stop crying every day, just stop.

Or try this. Try telling it in words. Try writing it out as clearly as you read out a favorite poem, as slowly as you search a lover’s face. Try lacing up its shoes while it sits on the bottom step, late for school, again. Try telling it You don’t have to go. You can stay here, while remembering with every breath:  this is not me. This may not have me.

On Thanksgiving, try sitting up and letting a shaft of morning sun hover your pen over the page. With a lump in your throat, watch the light land on the coverlet. Trace its brilliance across the wrinkles of blue fabric heaped around your knees.

Try spinning in reverse up a hill you coasted down in summertime.

Try not caring. Then, tell the weight that heaves inside your chest and marbles onto your belly to be welcome, to have another cookie.

To not be depressed, do not see the fur of the cat standing needle bright in that same ray of sunshine. Slow your breath to the pace of the dog’s dark rib cage, and imagine inside its cave the pure beating of her heart. Accept that one day she will die, and you will die, and the planet will die. And today? Today. Today’s mug of coffee rests on the winter belly. Today’s fresh notebook sits wrapped in cellophane with her sisters, three sets of blank pages sealed together. Try cutting through the clear plastic, pulling one away, and beginning.

To not be depressed, think of calling the kind therapist of decades, but don’t. Think about sleeping through the afternoon dusk. But don’t. Think I understand why people give up. But don’t. Don’t give up.

IMG_9730Stand near a sunny window and look at the succulent jade. Think of your mother, and try shopping. See her lines on your face. Love them into deeper grooves.

Try remembering that you might miss this depression when it’s gone. You may long for this very morning, and crave the comfort of warm animals on your bed.

Night Heron

                       Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                 tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

         to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.

--Jake Adam York, from “Letter Already Broadcast into Space”

 

The more I write, the more I wish Jake York were still here. Jake died six years ago this December, felled by a stroke during a holiday party. He was 40, a phenomenal teacher, and a gifted poet.

About a decade before he died, the husband and I sat with Jake in our back yard as late summer dusk fell around our shoulders. While we talked about Jake’s new apartment and his fall classes, a large bird flew overhead. Its white wings darkened to gray at their tips, and its head and beak were inked in black.  What kind of bird is that? Jake asked.

It’s a night heron, I answered. They nest in City Park, just a few blocks away. Night herons are larger and more serious looking than seagulls, and, to my eye, they have some of the ferocity of a bald eagle. But their flight is unique–stillness in motion, a seamless defiance of night herongravity. Determined.

Jake loved jazz, and he loved barbecue. Once, after a brief conversation about music, he stopped by our house with a compact disc of “A Love Supreme,” along with a carefully typed document entitled “How to Listen to John Coltrane”.  Jake savored every meal we shared with him and was horrified by the husband’s rushed gustatory habits. He once offered an admonishment in his baritone drawl, almost preacher-like:  Brad, I do believe you don’t know how to pleasure yourself with food. In this week of feasting gratitude, read Jake’s beautiful poem, Grace, here, “because meals are memorials that teach us how to move.” And his poem, Abide, here, because we can never know how long love’s light has traveled to reach us.

Jake’s poem Letter Already Broadcast into Space, printed on one of his memorial fliers, is tucked in the back of my notebook. I keep a stanza from a Kahil Gibran poem in the same notebook. It asks:

What is it to work with love?

It is to change all things with a breath of your own spirit

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you

and watching.

Rejection, and Cursing the Drought

The more I write, the more rejection emails I receive. I feel a keen joy hearing back from editors who have read something I wrote closely enough to turn it down. My longest and most kindly-worded “no thanks” came from Brevity Magazine for the time-sensitive, thrice rejected piece below. (Four rejections for this one, if you count the deafening–and understandable–silence from a Colorado on-line newspaper that prints personal essays.)

Thanks, as always, for reading! Please do subscribe via email, post a comment, or just go on quietly with your day. I’ll be here writing and submitting and writing some more.

Cursing the Drought

Summer solstice wind rushes over the roof of our South Park cabin as the husband sleeps. I lie in bed and worry; there will be a fire soon, and it will be bad. On the carpet, our poodle Nyx has a bad dream—she whines and twitches. The wind calms, but before I can drift off to sleep, I suddenly overheat. The searing sensation moves through my lower back and climbs the knobs of my spine until it reaches the base of my skull. A florescent light flicks on in my head. Nighttime hot flashes are like sleeping on a soft electric skillet with a broken switch.

I curse the drought and demand rain.

In the morning, sunlight pounds the field where wildflower buds have hardened into dismal husks. So goes my mood. Seething wind chases me from room to room and chair to chair. Writing outside is impossible—the paper words blow away. I re-latch windows and sit on the bed, my jaw clenched, willing the gusts to stop and water to fall from the sky. But the rain won’t land. Stingy clouds drop only enough moisture to dampen dust into tiny mud balls. Brown splotches land on the deck and windows.

I curse the drought. I demand rain. I glower at the heavens.

June 29th, a spire of white smoke lifts straight into the sky just south of our place. I call 911. The operator tells me that if the fire is up toward Weston Pass, it’s been burning since yesterday. She sounds relaxed. We watch as helicopter-wasps buzz over the fire, fire for blog 2dropping mammoth buckets of liquid. Soon, hot air moves fast from the west, and the smoke darkens and reddens. I put down my binoculars and step out the back door, determined not to watch, not to worry. Nyx sniffs the air and refuses to walk with me, panting in the shade as a gust rattles dry aspen leaves. I go watch again:  the smoke has become its own swirling black hillside as desiccated conifers combust. We throw our bags into the car and drive back to Denver.

Rain, dammit, rain! I curse. I complain.

The internet offers a photo of the Weston Pass Fire, red flames licking through doomed trees as Jones Hill is consumed.  The fire took two hours to grow from a 50-acre lightning strike to a 1500-acre inferno. Two days later, it triples in size. It doubles yet again the following week, topping out at over 13,000 acres. Our cabin is just outside the mandatory evacuation zone, in a defensible field without evergreen. But I am obsessed with worry. I check the website hourly, day after day. I hate my privileged self-absorption, and I hate my helplessness. I don’t sleep. I can’t cry.

Here’s what happens when your prayer for rain becomes a profane demand: a bit of helpful moisture lands on the fire, but it brings with it a rare high-country tornado. Your peaceful retreat becomes a news video of a funnel cloud touching down in the middle of a raging wildfire.

Here’s the other thing that happens when the afternoon monsoons finally return:  the rain falls in torrents, and rocky mudslides block recently re-opened roads. But the fire is contained—we return in time to see the firefighters’ trailer-camp being towed away. The helicopters fly off into a wet afternoon sky. All summer, the air holds a gauzy curtain of haze from hundreds of western fires. Thirteen thousand acres burned in the local forest I love; a million and a half acres are scorched in California.

Walking near our cabin in August, I am startled by the sight of a white mushroom the size of a bowling ball. I sleep again, and I wake one morning to watch a herd of elk grazing green shoots. A burst of yellow appears at the top of an aspen. In September, more hot wind chases the rains away. Taking in our view on the fall equinox, I see the burn scar without flinching. I want it to snow this winter, but I request it gently, without cursing or demands. I know the heating planet will outlive me. Today, I’ll write in peace and hope to leave something good behind.

 

God Bless You, Lester Bagus, Jr.!

Just when I start to lose my optimism about our democracy, a miracle happens.

I spent a full morning at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, puzzling over the past and editing the post I had planned for tomorrow. As I ride my bike to the gym, fuzzy-brained and tired, I see signs exhorting me to vote. And I hear myself think with a sigh, Not this again. It all feels like too much right now, like too hard a push for good things to happen this mid-term election.

I lock my bike and step into the Carla Madison Recreation Center, a colorful four-story building erected less than a year ago at the bustling corner of Colfax and Josephine. Behind me, a man enters the building and approaches the desk. He’s holding a small plastic bag carefully in his left hand. He wears a cap embroidered with insignia, and a gold cross shines around his neck.

Where did you say that thing is? he asks the young woman behind the desk.

See those orange pillars there? she replies. Just behind them and then to the left. She points through the glass doors. He looks perplexed, and I see that his plastic bag contains a ballot.

I’ll show you where it is, I offer. I just dropped mine off yesterday.

He smiles at me, broad relief in his brown face. His voice holds some southern gravel as he thanks me. Oh, I almost asked you outside. You look like you work here. We step back into the November sunshine and walk together between orange pillars and toward the drop-box, a squat white rectangle not easy to see. You know, he tells me, I never voted before. This is my first time.

ballot boxI stop walking and erupt: God bless you! I see his face shining, full as a Thanksgiving platter. I can’t believe I get to be here with you casting your first ballot! I say.

God bless you, too. I’m glad you’re here with me. You know, I volunteered for Vietnam when I was sixteen years old, and this is my first time voting.

My skin tingles as I watch him drop his signed ballot in the slot. As his envelop lands on top of others, my temptation to cynicism falls away.

We look at each other and grin. I’m sixty-seven years old, and I’m finally voting! He gives me a big hug. I breathe in the scent of his aftershave, and I soak up the warmth of his satisfaction and of his hope.

Before we say goodbye, he introduces himself to me and shakes my hand. Thank you, Lester Bagus, Jr.

Nothing Bad Happens

Martha and I are asleep in our room with yellow curtains the night that Mamma wakes us up to meet her new friends. Dreams may be happening when I start to hear talking and music, but I don’t always know the difference between dreams and daytime. I know how old I am and can show you on my fingers–this many:  four. I don’t know what the sixties are or that they just ended. And I don’t know where my Daddy is tonight.

I am the baby of the family. My other big sisters are sleeping in their own rooms downstairs, but I share with Martha. She is five. Sometimes she will sing to me at night and I will feel myself float up up up in the air with her pretty voice.

Before bedtime, if I stand on my tippy toes, I can look out my window and down into the shadowy back yard. When I am twice as old, when I know what the 1970’s are, and that I am in them, I will jump out of that window to show that I am big and that I won’t break my leg. On that day, I will perch on the narrow window sash and my mind will freeze, stuck like the tip of a knife in bone. Martha and the bigger neighborhood kids will have gotten bored looking up and watching me be scared. They will be gone when I finally bend my shaking knees and stop looking down at the grass. So no one will see me when I push off into space and land with my thighs shoved into my chest. No one but me will hear my teeth clack together as I hit the ground. Everything will hurt when I land. But I won’t break my leg.

And, with no audience, I will practice how to not to let fear stop me. My sweaty hands will will grip the window frame just long enough to prepare for landing by bending my body into the leathery shape of a bird’s feet. I will leap and land, then walk through the back yard and into the house through the dining room’s shining glass doors. I will saunter through the kitchen, wishing, as always, to be seen. I will want Mamma to notice what I have done and to say, Jenny Lynn! I thought you were in your room! How did you get here? But that day, the kitchen will be empty.

Tonight, when Mamma comes to wake us up, I’m still little. She opens the door, sending a crooked line of light across the floor. I roll onto my side, away from the brightness. Voices I don’t know creep in from the hall.

I feel my bed tilt as Mamma sits down beside me and touches my shoulder. My nose wrinkles at the smell of grown-up drinks and smoke on her skin. Jenny Lynn, wake up! Come and meet my friends! I push my eyes half-way open and see her hair loose around her face. My eye lids fall closed again.

I hear Mamma’s crooked, late night way of walking as she goes over to Martha’s bed. Wake up and come see my friends! My beautiful girls. Come on, get up for Mamma! Her voice is sticky like pink candy.

She pulls us to our feet, wrapping a warm arm around each of us. We lean into her sides and stagger together down the hallway. Two men sit on our long, gold-colored couch. They look fuzzy in their blue jeans and straight brown hair. There wasn’t a dinner party, so I don’t know why there are ashtrays and drinks and strangers. Martha and I stand next to each other in our nightgowns, blinking at the bright lamps Mamma has turned on. Light from the kitchen ceiling bends over our heads to the top of the dark basement stairs. See? These are my little girls!

We start to smile at Mamma’s new friends. I know I am supposed to be cute and sweet.

Aw, Ragna, you didn’t need to get them out of bed! one of the men says. His smile to us is real.

The other man says, Look how sleepy they are! What cutie pies!  He looks from us back to Mamma, who tilts her head and grins.

Say hi to my friends! We obey her and give a little wave. She tells us to go back to bed.

Those two are my babies, we hear her say as she turns back to the party that came out of nowhere. But you know, I have seven children! The words of the men melt away as we close our bedroom door.

Martha and I go back to our beds and our dreams. I don’t remember anything about the next day, but my mornings were joyful–I woke up happy, and I woke up knowing I was loved. Only decades later did I paint that night in dark colors. I write the story and recoil at my old certainty that my mother had been so horribly wrong, when nothing bad happened. I loved her and loved that she was proud of us. I jumped at the chances she gave me to be seen.

Writing Encouragements

The more I write, the more I enjoy asking for encouragement in my notebook and seeing what words drop onto the page. A few (edited) examples:

Please, can I have some inspiration?

To inspire is so simple, just breathe in. In-spire. You just made something new, from oxygen to carbon dioxide. You created something. You can’t help yourself. You’re always making something, so why not make it on purpose? Draft the poem, polish the essay, spin the story. You can disdain those self-absorbed creative types from afar, but you want some of that chocolate donut they’re reaching for, don’t you? You want to dunk that donut into terrible coffee and melt those black crumbs on your tongue until your eyes water with relief that you’re one of them, after all.

So, go ahead:  inhale deeply and exhale words from your fingertips. The more you do this, the more inspiration you will have.

I want to love everyone, but these people are really getting on my nerves!

Squirrels are good vehicles for loving the annoying, the takers and the screechers. They are soft furry things just like us, in temporary shape, hungry and easily frightened. Love squirrels. They haven’t done any real harm, and it can’t be easy to sleep in trees.

And remember:  writing is like resentment, but the opposite.  It doesn’t eat at you, but it doesn’t want you to leave it alone, either.  Instead of that angry scab of corn skin in your teeth, just under the gum line, writing is the salty-sweet taste of summer on your tongue.

I’m sure I’m doing this all wrong.

Well, the only way to find out for sure is to keep doing it. Make mistakes! Get messy!  Don’t pull back out of fear of being wrong. Be wrong in a big way. Screw up enough that it’s honest and visible and worthy of an edit. Forget about hiding yourself away so nobody can criticize you. Somebody will criticize you for something else anyway. Let them. Be yourself, your neurotic, frightened, messy self. It’s your only responsibility.

Forget about striving for self-improvement—to strive is to paint the rosebud, keeping it closed.  Watch writing bloom in its own time and way. Sit in the sun, soak up the rain, and let creation happen.

I can’t think of what to write next.

You definitely should stop thinking, then. Thinking is the enemy of writing!  Thinking is linear and puny and time-bound. Writing is time-travel magic carpet riding. Writing is the post-nap contemplative mind wander, considering the arc of creation.

Writing is friendly to thought, but thinking is the enemy of creativity. So write! Dance around with your pen in the air. Dream the days away! That’s what they’re there for, after all.

Mary Oliver Mug
Serendipitous reminder from a favorite poet