Katzel and Kinnell

Galway Kinnell’s slim poetry volume, When One has Lived a Long Time Alone was Printed by Knopf in 1990. Tracy L. Katzel—or someone else—tossed her copy in the dumpster behind my house over twenty years ago. Her signature slopes across the inside cover in faded blue ink. I found my first book of Kinnell’s poetry atop a pile of trash at a time in my life when I was a stay at home mom who didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I knew how privileged I was to have the option of delaying finding a paying job, but I was also afraid of claiming a more defined life of my own. Overwhelmed, I was lost in the tedium and the transcendence of raising three boys.

I soon memorized a poem by Kinnell titled “Prayer”: Whatever happens. Whatever/what is is is what/I want. Only that. But that. I journaled and read Kinnell in the bathroom. I went to therapy and scraped dried playdough off the cracked linoleum of the kitchen floor. Wait, Kinnell writes. You’re tired, we’re all tired, but no one is tired enough, and the need for new love is faithfulness to the old. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, what I loved besides my family life.

I worked part-time for a temp agency, then for a non-profit. I thought about divinity school, but instead chose a graduate program in counseling.

Jotted inside the back cover of my dumpster-found poetry book is a phone number I called to ask for an internship at a substance abuse agency. I was turned down, but called again a few months later and found someone willing to supervise me. That internship became a paid job. I’d gone from wondering what I wanted to stalking goal after goal—a degree, credentials, experience. I savored time with my clients, unwinding their stories together, listening as they engaged with their own heart-held wisdom. Within a few years, I was hired full-time at the university counseling center where I had trained. It was my dream job, with an incredible team. So much waiting, fulfilled.

Returning to work from a funeral to find flowers and love on my office desk.

And then. Then I learned in a different way that dreams come true and change shape and give way to other dreams. Almost five years ago, I stood by my desk with my cell phone pressed against my ear and my pulse racing—another family health crisis, out of the blue. At the same moment, a colleague appeared in the doorway, alerting me that it was time to help our new batch of counseling trainees with role plays. From the middle of my forehead down through my torso, I felt pulled apart. One arm reached toward my office door and the other kept the tearful voice of my loved one pressed to my ear. In that moment, I knew I was leaving that job. At 49, I resigned my position, and began the long round of goodbyes with clients.  

I had no plans to write, just a commitment to a more balanced and peaceful life. I savored open days of reading, of geriatric dog care and of waiting for my youngest, a high school senior, to walk in the door. One of my son’s teachers asked me, So, you’re just a housewife now?

Geriatric poodle of old.

I bought a used copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening at the Tattered Cover book store. I’d last read it as an undergraduate and had never forgotten the term “mother-woman,” Chopin’s phrase describing women who offer not just their lives, but their very selves to their children. Caught up in the story of Edna Pontellier coming to her senses, I turned a page and saw a speck of black between the pages, a hard crescent of sunflower seed husk. I smiled at the startling artifact of another reader’s concentration and pleasure.

Kinnell woke me to poetry when I was a mothering woman (if not the self-sacrificing “mother-woman” Chopin disparages). But the desire to write came to me slowly after I left the formal work world. It was consistently fed by those years of reading Galway Kinnell. He died in 2014. A few years later, a hefty tome of his complete works arrived at my door–a gift from a writer friend whom I had told about my dumpster-found treasure. As I wend my way through Kinnell’s body of work, my love for the healing power of words continues to grow.

Whatever what is is, is what I want. Thank you for that prayer, Galway Kinnell. And thank you Tracy L. Katzel, wherever you are.

The Barn Dog and the Show Girl

I was never, ever going to have two dogs. Two dogs is a pack of dogs, not a pair of dogs. And I was absolutely, positively never going to live with a shedding canine.  Of course, life being the unrelenting teacher that it is, I am now living with two dogs, one an epic shedder. Our grown son has been staying with us and brought his dog along. The idyllic retirement of our adored standard poodle–hypoallergenic, dignified, and mellow–has been disrupted by a border collie—hyper-driven, ill-mannered, and needy. The only things these two have in common are four legs and a water bowl.

Our poodle’s name is Nyx, in honor of the goddess of primordial mystery. The border collie is named Ptera, short for Pteradactyl, a flying reptile. When my son brought her home to Denver from the cattle ranch where she spent her first ten months, Ptera had to learn about glass doors: they are invisible things that hurt when you walk into them. Stairs also took some getting used to, as did leashes, men in hats, and magpies. In the early days of her new life, Ptera looked at us befuddled, as if to say, You people seem really nice, but where are the cows, and when do I start? In her eight years, Nyx has never slept in a barn or thought much about livestock. Her first language is play, not work, and if she spoke, she’d have a slightly patrician accent.

Post-bath, trying to figure out what she did wrong.

Our sweet poodle hates getting her feet wet—she steps delicately around water whenever possible.  But the energizer collie has never met a dank puddle that she didn’t want to jump into, then drink from. Ptera is a groupie, a black and white ball of let’s-be-friends. She loves the cool kids, and Nyx is not only a cool kid, she’s a goddess. When Ptera isn’t in over-achiever mode, neatly arranging extracted shoe insoles, she likes to snuggle close. Very, very close. Early on, this involved walking over and plopping down on top of Nyx.  Appalled, Nyx would stand up, shake her head, and move to another nap zone. Eventually, she tolerated a bit more togetherness—poodle and collie hindquarters almost touching. I might have taken a picture the first time that happened.

Post-groomer, expecting attention.

Nyx has taught Ptera the fine art of eating snow, grazing cold white crystals off the chairs in the back yard. Ptera has taught Nyx a few new wrestling moves, including what I call the “under-over”, in which the younger dog ducks under the older, then jumps up as high as possible. When they play together, Ptera bows and dances until Nyx decides to give chase for a moment. Then the dignified poodle watches as the collie leaps and twirls, then becomes momentarily distracted by the scent of squirrel.

A dog trainer told us, I had a border collie once. I’ll never have another border collie. She explained that they are bred to work, not to be social. Despite her sweet temper and eagerness to please, Ptera was anxious with strangers and almost impossible to tire out. The trainer said, Forget this idea of the more exercise, the better. Too much intense exercise just puts more cortisol in her system and makes her more reactive. The anxious over-exerciser in me could relate.

She recommended more intellectual stimulation, including puzzle feeding, which involves a few gadgets. There is the snuffle mat, a felt shag square that you tuck kibble into so the dogs can forage. A rolling plastic tube that drops one piece of food at a time also entertains while feeding. Finally, we have a wobble Kong, an eight-inch, rounded plastic pyramid with a hole in its side, like a food-dispensing bobble head. Border collies are technically smarter than standard poodles, but Nyx is more strategic, standing by to nibble food that Ptera puzzles free.

The little collie has come a long way, and taken me along for the ride. As I write, she is fast asleep on the living room couch, almost hip to hip with the show girl. Ptera is absolutely never allowed on the couch—it is a designated poodle sanctuary. But there she sleeps, shedding all over my never’s and my absolutes. The neurotic little love-ball is family now, curled up in her own messy corner of my baffled heart. When she’s back at my son’s place, we return to our quiet habits with relief. But after a couple of days, even Nyx starts to yearn for more barn girl shenanigans.

Love fest.

Winter Pelicans

Nanny and I sit together on a bench at the Dunedin Marina, watching pelicans. Sailboats tied to a wooden pier move slowly up and down as a metal hook clangs against a mast. I breathe in the fish and tar smells that the wind has mixed into something deep and full. I am four and don’t need a sweater. As we look out over St. Joseph’s Sound, Nanny’s loose dress flutters. She smiles at me, and I rest my head against the soft powder of her arm. I want to always, always be here with her where it is warm, where one whole person pays attention just to me.

All of us piled into the station wagon to drive to Florida for this winter visit, my sisters and I taking turns asking Daddy questions about the Spanish moss hanging from tree branches like heavy green tinsel. But my sisters are already home in Maryland and back in school–Mamma and I are staying extra nights to keep Nanny company. Nanny’s voice drips citrus honey when she talks to me about birds. We like to see ducks at the little pond near her house, or watch cardinals eat seeds from the feeder under the orange tree behind her house. Those blue jays are bullies, she tells me. They won’t let the other birds have anything!

I like watching the back-yard birds, but pelicans are my favorite, standing on the dock like wobbly clowns to beg fishermen for snacks. When they stretch themselves out to fly, their big heads are straight as arrows while their strong wings push them up. Look! They use their necks like a net to catch fish, Nanny tells me. We watch them climb, then dive straight into the shining water. They bobble on the surface with full pouches, then shrug wiggling fish down their throats.

How can they eat the fish without cooking them? I ask my Nanny, but she can’t explain it. I feel sorry for the fish in the darkness of the pelican’s tummy without room to swim around, and having to die to be someone’s food. I try to think about how hungry the pelicans are and how hard they work for their supper.

In a few days, I will get on a big grey bus painted with a running dog. I’ll hold my pretty Mamma’s hand, and sit next to her for hours and hours, dozing through stops as we ride north, back home to Hillcrest Heights and to me being the youngest again. We ride back  to waiting for the warmth of spring and for all the things I can’t have just yet.

59840924535__48059005-33e6-42ab-bd03-ddaea02fceb7Almost fifty years later, I will forego all my Christmas traditions and take a trip south with the family I’ve made. At a Mexican resort, I will drink coffee with the husband every morning while we watch light come up over Banderas Bay. A pair of pelicans will display their awkward beauty as they skim reflections over the water. With perfect grace, they dip their wing tips almost to the surface, then ride the sharp hill of wind cast up by the surf.

Waves will crash on the crescent beach, then sigh their way back home again as my grown boys feast on onion rings and hot peppers from the buffet. I won’t miss shopping or decorating or meal planning. I will float on my back as the solstice sun hangs in the sky. I’ll open my arms wide, winging gratitude to the pelicans over my head. I will bask in thankfulness for having everyone and everything I need, right here.

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Cha Cha Cha

On this drab December day, heavy patches of snow shrink to reveal brown grass and gray pavement. I look away from the window and contemplate a photo of my oldest brother Issi’s wedding in Iceland in 1969. The bride’s parents stand in dark clothes with serious faces angled slightly down and away from the camera. My new sister in law, Arndis, wears a Cheshire grin and a lacy white dress hemmed well above her knees. My brother’s face is eager and thoughtful, hair cut short around his broad forehead. The buttons of his dark suit nearly burst with contained energy. My mother alone wears color—an emerald green dress and matching satin shoes. Her brunette hair is swirled into a luxurious bouffant, and a half smile plays on her lips. Tense beauty and unpredictable fire shine from this photo.

What was she thinking that day? At 43, she was mother to seven children and lived far from her island home. She traveled from Washington D.C. with only her youngest children–me and my four-year old sister—to attend two weddings. Just a few weeks after Issi’s small ceremony, my brother Finn had a big wedding. My sister and I gazed at this other bride, all elegance and grace in her satin gown. Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected, that she was everything. She hugged us and spoke to us with a clipped accent. During the reception, my sister and I drank our very own bottles of coca cola and ran shrieking down long hallways. These brides and my grown-up brothers were almost mythical beings to us, wild creatures living in the distant land that was my mother’s first home.

As clouds hang in the winter sky, I contemplate the stillness in Issi’s wedding photo, the retrained movement. Arndis wears a white veil, a soft fold of lace over her dark hair. Mamma’s green dress has a faint checkerboard sheen and long sleeves that widen, kimono-like, around her arms. Shining earrings dangle half way to her shoulders. A hint of tension in my mother’s fingertips suggests a delayed impulse to reach up and smooth her hair.

Was it on that trip, and in that green dress, that she taught me to cha cha? Did she kick off her shoes to dance in full, fluid motion?  Her hips swayed as she counted for me, one-two, cha cha cha. I glued my eyes to her until my ears and feet started to work together in imitation. She swiveled toward me, then away again. Leaning over, she tugged my fingertips to the music until my feet began to listen. Then she dropped my hands and danced by herself in a cloud of perfumed happiness.

Forty-five years later, under the fairy lights at Denver’s Mercury Café dance floor, a partner asked me, do you cha cha?  I don’t know, I replied.  I do know that I was taught once. He led me in the cha cha, and I followed without thought or effort, my mother’s lesson still alive in the bottom of my feet. And though her ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico years earlier, there was Mamma, sitting alone and resting her elbows on a small round table. Her lips were tinted mauve, and her eyebrows penciled into supple surprise. She looked at her bubbling diet coke, then back at me. In the music, I heard her tinkling laugh, the erupting happiness that sometimes made her cover her mouth with the back of her hand to hide her imperfect teeth. Soon, I was laughing, too, as I danced and danced.

Stealing

Shoplifting is danger. Shoplifting is defiance. Shoplifting is compulsion, and it is satisfaction. You steal without thinking or feeling, but you wonder later if you might have been angry, if there was some sign you missed, something you shouldn’t have been feeling that made you do what you did. You hate yourself after, not for the peppermint flavor of theft on your tongue, but for the privileged certainty that you won’t be caught.

A therapist might think that you steal to manage anxiety or as a quirk of disordered neurology. But you think you are clever, putting one over on the system. You get a bad flu along with half of the city and suffer because your opiate cough suppressant is out of stock. You spend three days sleeping in half-hour dozes, propped on pillows as a humidifier puffs steam into the cold living room. Your upper lungs ache with every inhale then erupt like miniature fireworks.

You go back to the pharmacy and give your name to a woman in a white smock over tangerine leggings. Blank-faced behind her name tag, she tells you that your prescription is ready, but their network is down. She announces with a shrug, You can wait if you want to.  You don’t want to. You crave solitude and rest, not this ugly florescent display of knee braces and chew-able calcium.  Keys in hand, you pace outside under the leafless trees as cars skim down Broadway, then step back in, under the shining corporate logo. You wander the aisles and pick up a small tube of Red Dahlia lip balm, its weight like a talisman in your palm. A hazelnut chocolate bar makes it way to your jacket pocket. Sitting on a plastic chair, you listen to other sick people complain. After a wheezing cough, you tint your lips and feed yourself soothing squares of dark chocolate. You press hazelnut crumbs slowly between your teeth until the system comes online again, and you can go home and sleep.

Another year goes by. At the hardware store, you eye wilted yellow pansies so leggy and forlorn that they are on sale for fifty cents each.You pay for three sets, and see yourself taking more. You are not thinking about the sadness on your son’s pale face as he looks out at the world. You are not feeling tired for him, for everyone. In the sunshine, you lift flower packs into the back seat of your station wagon, counting one, two, three, four. At five, you smile your mother’s smile and drive away.

Her stealing smile is mine. Her flowers and her hands are mine.

In her late sixties, my mother’s thieving was done with remorselessness and with grandmotherly confidence. 5 foot 2 and a hundred pounds with her coat on, she embodied a sweet charm and a don’t-mess-with me toughness.  She flew from Florida to Denver to help when each of my three babies was born. Sober and happy, she cooked dinner every night and caught us up on laundry. Once when I thanked her for all of her help, I added, And thanks to Dad for letting you come!

Her face clouded over, eyes dark as night. Then she snapped: Nobody lets me do anything. Truer words were never spoken.

Mom was never questioned when we left the checkout line at King Soopers and picked up sun-loving petunias on tall racks outside the door. As we placed flower after flower after flower in the warm dirt, she said, Aren’t they pretty? And I only paid for two of them!  She laughed the shiny laugh of a girl. Her eyes sparkled.

Mom! You stole! I was terrified that she could have been arrested. I was barely thirty and still getting used to being people’s mother.

Mom and me at stove

They can afford it, don’t worry, she replied, her smile impish and satisfied. There has to be a “they,” who can be outwitted. The thief in us knows this and feels satisfied.

Nobody lets me do anything.

The pansies I stole this year would have been thrown away by now, tossed in a dumpster with that first early snow. Instead, I’ll plant them in my fall garden over daffodil bulbs. They will survive the winter, content under a blanket of mulch. Their yellow and purple blooms will glow in the spring sun. Again and again, they will fill me with surprise.

Pow

I sit on the sturdy kitchen chair, waiting for my breakfast while Mamma stands at the stove. My big sister Kristin walks in quietly and doesn’t look at me at all. I must have heard her get into trouble the day before, but calm has lingered overnight, and I’ve forgotten this morning to be scared. I don’t even tense as she strides into the room. As I daydream, Kristin walks up behind me, inches from our mother’s back, perfectly between the two of us. She pauses. At fourteen, she is twice my height and more than twice my age. Her fist flies up, high and fast, then smashes down on top of my head. Somehow, her hit doesn’t make a sound except in my skull, which echoes with a metallic clang.

Mamma keeps cooking. It was a silent POW, like in the batman show with the volume knob turned all the way to the left. White lights sparkle in front of my filling eyes. I am back to my senses and back to watching out for the unpredictable.  If I make a sound or if I cry, it will only be worse for me later. Shame settles into my empty belly. I look at the white table, at the circle of clock on the wall. The red second hand moves fast enough that I can sit very still and watch it go all the way around, across the small black lines that mean minutes, past each of the big numbers that tell hours. Kristin sits down and takes a sip of orange juice.

I earned my head bash by being a tattle. Like the chimp spy Mata Hairi, sidekick to Lancelot Link on Saturday morning TV, I was recruited to watch my sister. Kristin had wanted to go for a walk, but mom knew she wanted to smoke, to escape rules and control, so she ushered me along. I was excited to walk all the way around the block with this tall, powerful sister. I loved the after-dinner walks I’d sometimes take with my dad. He would smoke a cigar and point out interesting things about the bark on trees or the short summer lives of insects. So, a walk around the block was an adventure.

As soon as Kristin and I turned the second corner, though, just out of sight of our house, she retrieved her cigarette and matches from their hiding place in her sock. She lit up and looked hard at me. You can’t tell, she announced. I took her statement at face value–not just that I shouldn’t tell, but that in fact, I couldn’t. I was unable to tell on her. Her blond hair hung in straight lines next to her face, her expression a blend of defiance and determination.  I walked under the umbrella of her authority and in the plume of her cigarette smoke all the way around the block.

Later that day, mom sat me down and looked at me hard.  Did your sister Kristin smoke with you today?  Telling me as she stared into my eyes, Don’t lie.  I can tell by your eyes if you are lying.  Of course, I lied the first time she asked, and probably the second time, too.  I was aware of the treachery of telling on my sister.  But Mamma could read my eyes and my mind. I can see you are lying. Did she smoke?

I looked at my mother’s face and realized I was caught.  I crumbled and started to cry hard. I did see Kristin smoke! I’m sorry I lied. I wasn’t supposed to tell.

And then a quiet day. I had forgotten all about it before Kristin walked into the kitchen the next morning.  Pow.

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Kristin’s hands on my shoulders on a holiday morning.

 

 

Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.