Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Simple Gift

As I step over the metal guardrail that protects the crawling cars that cross the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The hint of a path pulls me down toward a boulder that overlooks a ribbon of water. Although it is summer, the air is cold. Glaciers glaze the distant mountains. But here near this boulder, the hillside is thick with bright blue Cornflower, deep yellow Yarrow, and red Indian Paint Brush.  
I arrange my pallet with the colorful spectrum of the wilderness. Then I close my eyes, splay my fingers, and stretch my arms out as far as they will reach. I do this every time I paint. When I suck in the smell of the river, and hemlocks fill my lungs.
Upon my panel, I sketch the geometry of the landscape. Like a midwife, I pull my river across the scene, until; at last, it begins to flow on its own. Tree shapes emerge at the water’s edge. An island of grass appears where the river bends right. I know now that I am ready.
My brush licks my favorite color, spreading a Cerulean sky as easily as my knife smoothed butter across this morning’s bread. Then Cobalt collides into a canopy of Ultramarine.  Ultramarine, born from lapis lazuli, embraces the top of my painting.
 Oh, let the river flow across the middle ground. Let the mountains anchor the horizon. Let the flowers bloom where I stand in the foreground, and let the sky frame it all. There is no separation. There is only sky, and river, and mountain, and I, I am the creator of it all. 


Friday, September 9, 2011

A Daughter’s Story

Shadows, like the ones that splatter a sidewalk in the late afternoon, trigger memories for me. I study them as I walk alone to the beach each day down Main Street in Southampton. Beneath the tall privet hedges that protect the estates from walkers, the shadows are warm. They pull you into their darkness. They make you feel younger. When I walk into the shadows, I am six or seven years old. Perhaps it is the height of the hedge that makes me feel dwarfed like a child. Perhaps it is because I have seen these shadows before.
I spent my summers with my grandparents in Lake City, Florida. I loved being there as a child. Like Southampton, the sidewalks were washed with sand and dappled with light. I would walk by myself to my summer friend’s house and play on her screened porch for hours. Walking alone as a child is exciting- an adult-like activity that makes you large. I would walk alone to the movie theater on Saturday mornings, purchase a ticket for myself, and settle in for a Buck Rogers film. I could pick up the only telephone in my grandparent’s home and call my grandfather at work without any assistance. The lone phone sat on the corner table in the front entrance hall. It had no buttons, no numbers, or even a dial. By picking up the receiver, the town operator would greet me with a bright, “Hello.” I would state, in my most adult voice, “I want to speak to Poppa Andy, please.”  And with no fuss, his voice would laugh from the other end of the line. Life was easy and fun, and I could not wait to step off the train in Jacksonville each summer, into the hefty hugs of Poppa Andy, and into a shower of kisses from my grandmother, Tutu, for whom I was named.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel, she longed for me to go back to Lake City and photograph the graves of her mother and father. I did. I went back to northern Florida to take pictures of my mother’s past, the last gift she had requested. I rented a car in Jacksonville and drove to Stetson University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude, before fleeing Florida to marry my father. I snapped photos of the campus for her to see. It was late in the day when I drove into Lake City. The shadows stretched across the flat highway. When I asked for directions to the old town cemetery, my faded southern drawl felt as awkward as a Yankee accent.  I had forgotten that there is not much difference between being in northern Florida and being in southern Georgia. I had forgotten that I was in the Deep South.
I drove down the sandy road that was the entrance to the cemetery, where the gravestones listed and ancient live oaks pointed their arthritic fingers to the ground. Mossy sea hag hair dripped from the fingertips of the branches and cast long shadows over the graves. I remember that the air that day was still, so still. There was no breeze to relieve the humidity of a Florida summer’s afternoon. I tried to ignore the hot air that stalled in my throat.
A low fence bordered the family plot. I snapped a photograph. “Williamson.” To the left was Andrew. To the right was Tula. Tutu and Poppa Andy. I snapped another picture. I was sweating from the heat and the oppressive stillness. There, behind my grandparents, was Mable, my mother’s estranged sister. Another photograph. I had no idea that she had died, nor her daughter, my cousin Julie, who lay there as well in the sandy soil. Spanish moss hung from their marble markers. Family secrets lying in the open. Another photograph.
I stood in the black shadow of that oak and remembered a story my mother had told many years before. As far as she could recall, there had been only one lynching in that town. When she was a child, an Armenian man had hung like drying laundry in the square across from my grandfather’s restaurant. It had happened just after Tutu and Poppa Andy had arrived from Greece, just after they had opened their restaurant in Lake City. Perhaps that is why they never spoke Greek. Perhaps that is why they served pot roast and steaks to diners, instead of Souvlaki or Baklava. Perhaps this is why I know so little of my family’s past.
Amid the cemetery shadows, moss dripping like rain on the sand beneath the oak, I snapped one last photograph, a photograph of the tree, my gift to my mother. I drove my rental car back to Jacksonville and never returned to Lake City. I never will.
And as I walked through Southampton, I quickened my pace to reach the end of Main Street, where I turned to the right and followed the beach road to the ocean. A cool breeze blew the shadows away.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Triggering Town and Richard Hugo

If you turn left out of my housing development and head down the hill in the direction of the Puget Sound, drive under the freeway where the trucks and cars whiz toward Seattle to the north or the commercial airport to the south, in less than two miles, you will come to the famous Boeing Plant. It is so close that you don’t need a car. You could walk. You could stand by the tall chain link fence that guards the runways where strange spy planes land for repairs. You could see the enormous hangers where aircraft from around the globe are repainted, refurbished, and sent flying away. If you were the president, you could land there. If you were Richard Hugo, this is where you would have worked.
This is also where Hugo’s character, the Admiral, lived, in a makeshift home adjacent to the Boeing Plant, in what is now a field littered with plastic bags. For Hugo, the Admiral was a trigger, a muse for his imagination. When the Admiral screamed against the Boeing Corporation, Richard Hugo retold the story as poetry and raged in his poem against the injustices borne by society’s weakest. The poets and writers, who crouch over their computers, tap away on keys in an attempt to bear into life their thoughts. Triggered by something as simple as a derelict that lived within walking distance, the writer preserves the stories that others cannot tell.
Hugo was specific about the tools of his craft. He used a pencil, a sexy number two pencil, and a notebook lined in green to soothe his eyes. As teacher, he dissected poems for us, and demonstrated the need to eliminate words like like, the, and and. As storyteller, he shared his important triggers, such as the field in Italy, where as a young soldier he longed to be done with war.
This is all well and good, but what of the magic, Mr. Hugo? How did you get those words, those specifically chosen, beautiful words with their musical rhythms to appear on that green lined page? How does that birth process happen? Once the trigger begins to push its way out and onto the paper, what guarantees that it lives as a thing of beauty?  Can anyone learn this craft of creation? Is it a matter of DNA? Do you have to be born a mother of imagination; with one side of your brain more dominate than the other?  What makes us the ones who need to write it all down, to be the ones who “scream back at the fates”? You say that “we are all going into the dark” like the Admiral. Why then don’t we go there quietly?
Did you know, Mr. Hugo, that I made a stop on a journey, just to raise a beer to you? Traveling through the west, I detoured onto Montana Highway 200, in order to spend the afternoon at the Dixon Bar. You made that bar famous with your poem. It is the “Only Bar in Dixon,”[1] and I wanted to drink with you there. I became friends with Joanne, the bartender, and gave her my glasses so that something of me would be left behind. I listened to her boyfriend, Bud, the owner, tell the stories of his family, his horse, life in that dying town, and of course, you. This was your trigger, Mr. Hugo. As I drank a cold beer in that dark empty bar by the road, I laughed with your two friends at how you put this place on the map for people like me. We lifted our cans to you before swigging down our toasts. Poets and Hells Angels now seek out this place where magic occurred in your life, where the trigger landed in your brain, and you were pulled to create and give form to thoughts that were missed by others. And I was there with you, Mr. Hugo.
You couldn’t exactly explain to me how it happened. You couldn’t specifically tell me how to take that trigger and let it work its magic. But it did. Somehow, it seized hold of a portion of my brain and cried to be born at the very counter where, long before I arrived, you sat and mused about life in a forgotten town. It crept into my body without my knowing, while I was drinking to you.
I wrote a play about your bar. Mine was a parody, a laugh at a would-be-poet who was looking for inspiration in one of the most famous triggering towns. One day my play will be a musical romp with dancing Hells Angels and singing poets. I will move the Rock Creek Testicle Festival to Dixon, and could you think of a better trigger for a musical comedy? How odd that you, who cared about the fates and how they brutalize the poorest among us, inspired me to write a silly play about Hells Angels, testicles, and poets. But this was how the trigger laid hostage to my brain, took control, and without my ability to say no, formed itself into its own creation.
Thank you, Mr. Hugo. Thank you for drinking in Dixon and taking me along for the ride. Here are my toasts to you- May we all scream against the fates, in whatever form our triggers take, and May we raise our glass to you, and to the Admiral, before we leave to disappear into the dark.

[1] Hugo, Richard. “The Only Bar in Dixon.” GotPoetry.com. 4 September 2011.