Stupid human bodies

Look at the god, good-looking,
how he looks at the ground,
willing it real, willing himself
to love where he hardly lives,

in his stupid human body,
an always ailing thing.

The good editors at SWWIM published my poem “Energize” this week and I’ve been thinking about late fall 2015, when I composed it. A couple of months into my sabbatical, my mother became very ill with what turned out to be non-Hodgkins lymphoma, so I was flying up and down highways, trying to see her and help with her care. I was also grieving other transitions–my son had just started high school and my daughter had left for college–and working on various manuscripts with the desperation of a half-crazed person, plus perimenopause symptoms were tormenting me. This particular poem arrived during a trip to a Modernist Studies Association meeting in November; it occurred in Boston and I missed the first day because I squeezed in a visit with my mother on the way north (she lives near Philadelphia and I’m in Virginia). After things wound down on Sunday, but before I hit the road to Pennsylvania and then Virginia again, I ducked into a church for shelter during some rain and ended up captivated by the Tiffany stained glass, which seemed bright and alive despite the dark weather. So there’s a little Jesus in this poem, a little Star Trek (I was really, really longing for transporter technology), and a bunch of mid-life angst.

I’m still working on many of the mss I was trying to bring into being that season. This summer been largely devoted to revision and submission. But my mother, after that terrible year, entered remission and is doing fine. And while I’m just as much of a seeker as I was then–open to random encounters with gods, fundamentally uncertain about what’s real–my sense of personal crisis is less urgent. (Maybe politics crowded it out?)

However, I received sobering lab results yesterday. I haven’t been feeling great and the numbers make sense of my malaise, but probably not in a take-a-pill-and-fix-it way. I still have to talk to my doctor and figure it out, but I think the diagnosis will be prediabetes and I’ll lose all my comfort foods right as I head into a stressy September. I feel upset about it but also annoyed at myself for that useless emotion, because I’d generally rather skip to acceptance than wade through messiness first.

More transformations ahead; time to grab the steering wheel (transporter controls?) and pay attention. I guess we never stand still.

jesus tiffany


There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take


We just returned from the last of a summer of endless road-trips. This one was definitely the saddest: my husband and his sister buried their mother’s ashes this weekend in her family plot in Pittsburgh. That’s Judy, above. Her obituary gives you the basics of her impressive career: after she and my father-in-law divorced in the early 70s, she earned a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics and her work was funded for years by the NIH. The research she talked about most when I knew her concerned alcoholic beverages as a source of estrogen. What her official bio does NOT tell you is that some of this work got picked up by the National Enquirer with the headline “Bourbon Turns Men Into Women.” (Apparently long-time male bourbon drinkers accumulate breast tissue. Beware, or drink up, as you please.)

The obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also tells how Judy helped found the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination in the late 60s. She, Chris’ father, and a few other people got together to make noise about, and eventually sue, the Penn Hills police department for its failure to integrate the force after a brilliantly-qualified African American candidate was shut out (and then accepted to the state troopers). Judy and her fellow activists won, but it was a costly battle, with angry locals spray-painting slurs on their house. (Not expert spellers, the white supremacist vandals accused the Gavaler family of being especially fond of Niger.) One of Judy’s great friends from that struggle came to the funeral and the brunch afterwards; he eventually had to move out of the neighborhood. It’s a more involved saga with some astonishing details but I don’t want to get them wrong. It’s just worth saying that she was a smart, brave woman with a fierce sense of justice, and I give her a lot of credit for who my husband became and, less directly, who my children are becoming.

By “less directly” I’m referring to literal and metaphorical distance between Judy and my children. Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, and she was in undiagnosed and partially-hidden decline for years before that, so while my eldest child got to know her, my youngest really didn’t. Even before that complication, Judy suffered many bouts of severe depression which medications could never quite keep up with. She was utterly loving and extremely generous but she basically had few boundaries. While Chris was in frequent touch with her all his adult life, and visited her monthly for the last five years in a facility three hours away, he had to draw some lines between her life and his, from childhood on, just to keep his own life together.

I’m at an age when a lot of friends are losing their parents, and it’s always an intensely emotional experience. Whether love or struggle is in the ascendancy, there’s just so much to grieve. My job this time, though, has been to keep to the passenger seat and help Chris and my daughter get through it. My own relationship to Judy wasn’t all that complicated. She was kind to me and adoring of my husband and kids; I loved her for that and admired her immensely, even though I kept a distance from some of her intensities, too. The dementia was awful and seemed to cause her suffering, so I imagined she was relieved to be released from her broken body. At least, I had a sense of her around the house for a day or two after she died in January, emanating joy. Maybe that’s just what I want to believe, but Judy, if you’re out there, I’m wishing you peace and wholeness and all the empowered freedom you craved and deserve.

Judy gave me a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems in 1991, so I read “Travel,” the poem below, at the brief service. Below the poem are pictures of my spouse and kids at the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. We often went there with Judy and the kids when we visited town, so we spent a couple of hours with the dinosaurs after the funeral lunch. They’re such grand creatures who have traveled so long to meet us; it was good to remember their company.

The railroad track is miles away, 
    And the day is loud with voices speaking, 
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day 
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by, 
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, 
But I see its cinders red on the sky, 
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make, 
    And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
    No matter where it’s going.


Same old love

clinton and beinecke 2018 032

The picture above is of a Christmas postcard from Anne Spencer to Langston Hughes, postmarked 1943. Of course, I’m thinking about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville a year ago; I’m also sick about the escalating damage the current administration is doing to people and the planet. But I don’t have anything fresh or wise to say on those subjects, so here’s a little out-of-season love instead.

As of this past Tuesday, my husband and I have been married twenty-five years. I’d say “happily married,” which is true, but cliches mute the ups and downs. Figuring out, in our twenties, how to be good to each other while being good to ourselves was hard, and the math on that is always evolving. Raising kids is hard. Finding good employment in the same region for two ambitious people is really, really hard. Illness, dying parents, house floods, a host of other crises–well, you get the idea. Now one kid is twenty-one and the other nearly eighteen, so Chris and I celebrated our milestone on a July trip, while both children were away. We forgot on the actual day until my mother texted congratulations. In the middle of a mixed college-visit/ research trip, Chris and our son were doing a tour in Massachusetts when my mother reminded me of the date. I was reading Anne Spencer’s correspondence, some of which is archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

There were a couple of specific research questions I would have liked answers to, but I didn’t find them. Instead I enjoyed watching Spencer’s friendship with James Weldon Johnson unfold and deepen over many years. He encourages her to write and submit her work, staving off discouragement. They recommend books and articles to each other: Johnson suggests, for example, that Spencer read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and she responds with enthusiasm about what she’s found. Spencer encourages Johnson and his wife to visit for spring flowers and Christmas festivities, noting she feels more alive when she can look forward to their conversation. There’s plenty of politics in the letters but also ordinary stuff, like worry about Spencer’s children. It was especially sweet to notice how the salutations evolved over time: from the relatively formal “My dear Mrs. Spencer/ Mr. Johnson” to “Dear Anne” and “darling Grace-‘n’-Gem.”

The surviving correspondence between Spencer and Langston Hughes adds up to a much slimmer folder, but there’s also a lot of warmth and play in it. Spencer tells Hughes, for instance, about naming birds in her garden after distant literary figures. There’s “one named Langston–quite too proud of his black and gold-bronze plumage…and Mencken so yclept because of a certain spurious bitterness–mostly pose.” What a lonely world she lived in, and yet so populated. It’s not totally unlike writer-friends in far-off places now, messaging in ways that will be difficult to archive.

For all the violence in Spencer’s time and ours, there was and is a lot of love zinging around. I hope we can keep protecting it from the general heat. Write from the saving coolness of it. But it’s so, so hard.

clinton and beinecke 2018 024

Bad girl, with rainbows


It’s so easy to veer off the path your mother sent you down, with cake and wine for grandma. Neglect to whiten your teeth or pluck your eyebrows; be less than completely self-abnegating in a meeting; show anger on your own behalf; gain weight and fail to express shame. And I’m the stereotypical eldest daughter: dutiful, punctual, reliable, and afraid of breaking any rule ever, EXCEPT on the page, where I am almost, not quite, but relatively free.

Part of my life’s work is learning to cut myself some slack already, because the wolves are exaggerated, so it seemed particularly funny when an older man bagging my groceries on Thursday morning whispered, “Be a good girl today.” First, sir, I am fifty years old. Second, there I was obeying the gender script, holding off on all calories until noon because limiting the food window to eight hours a day is supposed to help weight loss even though when I’m that hungry I can’t think straight, buying cookies I wouldn’t eat for my son while my husband mowed the lawn. How often am I bad by anyone’s lights, really? I joked about it on Facebook and my friends’ “bad” suggestions included letting a bra strap show and sprinkling chili flakes on my organic avocado toast. A few got really crazy and proposed a glass of rosé with lunch. Yep, me and my pals, we’re pretty wild.

I ended up skipping the rosé, doing a little work on the article I’d planned to focus on, then allowing myself to play around with a new project that seems to be forming. I’m writing micro-memoirs and loving it, although it’s too new to know yet if the work is any good. Maybe I can get a batch ready for when the magazines open up again next month, but I’m also telling myself: no imaginary deadlines, please. There’s no rush.

One piece of recent productive procrastination went live this week, a sort of feminist theory bingo card which may or may not also be a poem. There are some Mina Loy-ish squares in response to the very cool web site that put out this call for digital postcards. Others describe my choices, good and bad, and things I aspire to do. All of them feel connected to being a good bad woman, a feminist, someone trying but often failing to claim a fair portion of the cake and wine while sharing the rest with wolves, mothers, woodcutters, and whoever else is a little hungry and doing their best. Aagh, clearly the diet is killing me.

In other news, I’m packing up now for a whirlwind college tour with the aforementioned son and husband, which will include a quick family visit and a day at the Beinecke Library. When we get back, my daughter will be here and we’ll be a foursome again for a few weeks, which I’m very much looking forward to. Put THAT in my reusable grocery sack and smoke it, Mr. Patriarchy.en dehors garde bingo