Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Luck of the (Not) Irish

At precisely midnight last night my AOL page turned green, with little shamrocks all over the place! It was kind of alarming. I’d spent the evening with my fellow residents at Ragdale, first touring the artists’ studios, then listening to the writers read—and eventually having one of those great conversations about...everything that you can only have with other artists. I was tired, but not sleepy, so I sat down at my computer thinking maybe I could get something done, opened my e-mail page, and—Yikes! Green! Clovers! It annoyed me the way my car doors lock about three minutes after I start up the engine annoys me. Who said I wanted that?

This made me think of my English mom, possibly the most mild-mannered person who ever lived, except for the fact that she loathed the Irish—and refused to allow us to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day when we were kids. She wouldn’t give any reason for this and, really, what acceptable reason could there have been, anyway?

Which made me think about how amused we all were when her grandson (my fabulous nephew), Sam, was born on St. Patrick’s Day and it became a day of celebration that she couldn’t possibly ignore.

Which then made me get over being aggravated with AOL for messing around with my screen because I decided to regard it as something they did especially for Sam’s birthday.

The weird thing is, it’s been green and shamrocky all day—but now, suddenly, it’s not. It’s still St. Patrick’s Day, as far as I know. So what’s that about?

In any case, this is the quality of thinking I am reduced to after two very happy and productive weeks of making stuff up at Ragdale. I meant to have one last happy and productive day today—but I pretty quickly saw that productive just wasn’t going to part of the mix. So I settled for happy, and allowed myself the pleasure of spending most of the afternoon reading Jane Hamilton’s When Madeline Was Young. (More on this in another post!) Then there was our Last Supper (corned beef & cabbage) and last conversation—extended, thanks to the balmy weather, to a walk to Starbucks, which was just closing. Undaunted, we headed for the Lantern for drinks among the St. Patrick’s Day revelers.

I always hate to leave Ragdale—such a lovely place, such amazing people. But,at the same time, wherever I am, wherever I’ve been, I’m also always glad to be heading home to my “real” life. How lucky is that?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Monet Refuses the Operation

I love this poem for the surprise of its premise. I love the intensity with which Mueller describes argues for the unexpected benefits that age and experience bring and how we only have to stop and look hard at the world find some balance for what we have lost


Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end

Lisel Mueller

Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924 and immigrated to America at the age of 15. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Alive Together: New & Selected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996. Other awards include the Lamont Poetry Prize (1975), the National Book Award (1981), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2002). She lives in Chicago.


Using strong imagery and a strong, idiosyncratic voice, write a poem that makes a compelling argument for something that, at first glance, seems illogical—without naming what the narrator is arguing for or against. You may choose a famous person, as Mueller did, or an ordinary person, perhaps someone you know

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ragdale, Winter

I’ve been at Ragdale a week now, and just now getting back into the rhythm of my Jack Kerouac novel—yet again having not taken my own advice to write something, anything every day if you want to avoid what I think of as The Muddle. When you write something every day, the door to the novel stays open. Of course, you have moments of frustration, but you're inside the novel solving whatever problem you have, as opposed to being locked out, feeling like whatever you’ve written so far was written by someone else who actually knew what the book was about. When you get in a muddle, like I’ve been for the last week, all you can do is keep nudging at the door, kicking if necessary, until it decides to re-open. Then, suddenly, finally, you’re back in that world again—familiar,yours.

Getting into The Muddle, as always, was my own damn fault. I went to South Bend, Chicago, L.A. I was home for little over a week, but when Louise woke me up at the usual ungodly hour, I did not take her out, feed her, make a cup of coffee, and go directly to my cozy little writing room—the one with nothing but an outdated laptop that has no internet access—and write. No. I told myself I was too busy for that; I needed to catch up on The List of Things To Do before I left for Ragdale. And went directly to my funky, but very distracting office with internet access and farted around answering e-mails, reading the NY Times online, organizing (i.e. neatly re-copying) the List of Things to Do, getting overwhelmed by said list, and accomplishing squat. Totally predictable.

I fled to Ragdale when the time came, hoping it wouldn’t take too long to get out of it. Like I said, it took awhile. But muddle or no muddle, Ragdale is a wonderful place to be. I am typing this in my favorite place: the sunroom, lined with lush geraniums that always seem like a small miracle to me in winter. I love this room with its green tables and chairs, its red tiled floor, its big windows overlooking the prairie.

Sometimes I think I’d like to come to here in the summer, when everything’s green and the garden is in bloom. When I could actually sleep in the bed on the screened in sleeping porch or lounge away an afternoon in the hammock, reading. Maybe bike over to Lake Michigan and spend some time on the beach. But the geraniums would be outside, where geraniums are supposed to be. Not magic, like they are on the sun porch in winter.

So as long as I’m lucky enough to have the gift of two weeks at Ragdale every year, I’m pretty sure I’ll choose winter every time.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I just found out by accident that the time changed at midnight. Thus, it is 3:46 p.m. instead of 2:46 p.m. Which means I have been cheated out of an hour.

I know, I know. I get that hour back in the fall. But I am blissfully ensconced in the Room at the Top of the Stairs at Ragdale, where I have to do nothing but write for two weeks, and I want that hour now.

Seriously. In the fall, I’ll probably have to use it to rake leaves or something.

I really don't like Daylight Savings Time. Like a lot of Hoosiers, I used to make fun of the fact that the Indiana legislature voted it down year after year. The rumor was that farmers didn’t want it because it confused the cows. “And cows need to know what time it is because--?” we’d say. “Jeez. What a bunch of hicks. It’s embarrassing.”

When they finally voted in a few years ago, it seemed like progress--until I realized that those long, light evenings came at the cost of what I loved most about early summer mornings. I usually get up between five and six, and in summer there was a quality of light and silence that could be experienced at no other time of the day. The houses around mine were all still fast asleep, there was no sound at all but birds just beginning to come awake in the trees above me and, sometimes, a little breeze rustling in the leaves. The air was clean and fresh, the grass sparkling with dew. The whole world seemed to belong just to me—and Louise, who, bless her, is the one who (quite insistently) wakes me up every morning.

But with Daylight Savings Time, first light comes later. What used to be five in the morning is now six—and, though the light is still beautiful, the particular quality of silence has vanished.

We’re not going back. I know that. But turning the clock forward or backward always makes me feel melancholy about the lost light of early summer mornings. Worse, it pitches me into what I think of as “That Time Thing.”

As in, What is time, anyway? If we can just decree that it’s 2:40 instead of 1:40, why can’t we just decree that its, say, 1965 instead of 2009?

Or, can we? Just typing “1965,” I am suddenly, as real as anything, in my friend Madeleine’s car with a bunch of girls on a summer evening.

We’ve chipped in to send one person into the dance at the Armory up the street so we can see what mark they’re putting on people’s hands. We have a kit with markers and various kinds of stamps, including a purloined library stamp, that allow us to duplicate almost anything—and we’ve marked our hands accordingly. Now, “Satisfaction” blaring on the radio, we roll up the windows, light cigarettes (even though none of us actually smokes) and sit-down-dance, singing along with the Stones as aloud as we can—the goal being to get sweaty and smelly enough to trick the bouncer into believing that the bogus mark is real and that we’re coming back to the dance after a pass-out.

Did it work? Can’t remember. But, boy, for just one instant I was right there in that other time.

Which, naturally, leads to the question, am I really almost 62? Where is that person I was on that long ago night? And countless others better left at rest.

I doubt this is the particular kind of confusion suffered by the cows. Still, I am considerably more sympathetic toward them than I used to be.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Took Myself Out

First, I have to say that I cannot figure out how to format this poem the way it's supposed to be formatted. So it actually looks more interesting on the page. But I decided to go with it the way it is because it's a favorite of mine, so smart and funny. It always makes me laugh--and reminds me of how, when I'd get in a muddle, my husband would say, "Go with your gut reaction," and I'd answer, "Which one!?!" Eventually, he stopped giving me that particular piece of advice.

Anyway. You really should hear Aaren Yeatts Perry read it aloud--or, better yet, recite it. (He knows most of his own poems and about a million others by heart.)

In fact, just to get a little plug in for a friend, if you're ever looking for someone who's guaranteed to make kids love fall in love with poetry--hire him! I remember watching him mesmerize about a hundred hard-core kids jammed in a hot, over-crowded classroom at the end of the school day. One kid, in particular, very bright, but who'd recently been so determinedly self-destructive that he was failing most of his classes, got totally sucked in and not only did the writing exercise Aaren asked them to do, but was the first to raise his hand to read what he'd written. It totally made my day!

Here's the poem, with apologies to Aaren for its incorrect format. You can see the correct version in his book, Open Fire. (Whirlwind Press, Camden NJ, 2004)


Aloof and coy, always other lovers, never time to talk, I
was shy about asking. But as soon as I got myself alone
in a room, I invited myself out,
And i accepted!
I’m thinking New York strip steak, I say to myself
And i say, uh, i feel more like a Cajun catfish.
We went to all-you-can-eat and I had rib eye, bloody,
heavy on the A-1, mashed potatoes, double chocolate shake.
but i also ordered a Seitan burger, seaweed, brown rice,
seven-grain bread, tofu butter, and a fruit smoothy.
I insisted on paying but we split the check. Fair enough.
Then I wanted to go out, get drunk, dance.
But i wanted to see a movie, take a walk, talk philosophy.
We had a good chemistry but little in common.
We met halfway and walked to a bar where we
Chatted, watched music videos on big screen TV.
People whispered when we talked, stared when we danced.
i’m just trying to get to know you i say,
Talking too much to myself
And I say, yea, well, I’m just trying to watch…
i kept interrupting.
I told myself to shut up.
But i didn’t
So we got in a big fight.
i threw a drink in my face.
That really pissed me off. So I jabbed myself in the stomach
with a left,
pulled myself to the bar floor with a right,
stuffed pretzels in my face.
I couldn’t tear myself away. I was biting my own ear off/
And i started pulling my hair out
when they dragged us out onto the sidewalk.
I chased myself down the street, hid behind a corner,
Tripped me when I ran past.
that really took me out, i say.
And I say, to hell with you. You’re gonna get us both killed.
no, to hell with you!
Someone stopped to save me from myself.
It’s alright, I say. I can take care of this.
yea, I say, he’s with me.
Oh I am, am I, I say. And turn away
while i stand there giving myself the finger and mumbling
but traffic was so loud i couldn’t hear myself think.
I’d really gotten myself mad, so I caught up with myself, put an
arm around me, helped me back to a park bench, reminded me I
meant something to someone. Look, I say, there’s a ball over
there. How about a little one-on-one?
And i say, uh, i don’t want to embarrass you.
I did have all the moves and the base line drive.
but i had the smoke hanging jumper and the three.
We were about the same height
but i was kicking my ass so bad
I had to take myself out of the game.
Good game, i say. And i patted myself on the ass.
Don’t patronize me.
why take everything so personally, i say.
And i called myself a sore loser.
Hand in hand, steps in sync, we went home to
my apartment.
i had prepared everything: candles, wine, music.
We get to the door and
I’ve locked myself out.
i forgot the keys, i say.
And I say, well, then climb through the window and let us in
fine, i say, but don’t be surprised if i leave you out here.
i was still taking off my coat in the other room
when I saw myself undressing in the bedroom mirror. My hands
went wild. I was all over myself. I came into the bedroom and
asked if I could watch.
No, i said, just lie down and relax.
We sipped two glasses of wine, danced in the
dark together.
i gave myself a massage,
then we took a bath, got turned on, let the sex steep
up and boil over.
I wanted to do it again.
but i was too tired.
It’s all in your head, I say. And I went on about “being one”
with your body.
but I fell asleep
While I was still talking about us.
Dreams wrapped us so tightly we woke at
Inside, I am held by a mother and father in a way
i never knew i was held and i hold a child
in a way I never knew I could.
I asked and yes, I’d had the same dream
i’d had. i was beside myself.
i gotta go now, i say.
And I say, yea, I gotta leave myself.
but i couldn’t let myself go.
And we couldn’t sleep.
So I took myself out to an all-night diner
stared into my eyes
in a window seat.

Aaren Yeatts Perry

Write a poem in which two sides of yourself are in conflict with each other. Don't name or describe the conflict, but let the reader come to his/her own conclusions based on your use of voice and detail. voice and detail.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Speaking of Bibliovores...

My dog, Louise, also devours books. Literally. Last night we got home from our travels to find that she'd feasted on Lemony Snickett's The Bad Beginning: Orphans.

Can she read? Was she trying to tell us that she was feeling miffed because we've been gone so much lately? Honestly. Sometimes I wonder.

Whenever Louise eats a book, she deposits the remains on the carpet runner directly in front of the door so it's the first thing we see. When we come in, she doesn't jump off the couch to greet us like she usually does, but lies there, head between her paws, gazing at us with a half-guilty/half-accusing expression. Her tail thumps slowly, hopefully.

"Bad dog," we say. "Bad, bad dog."

She keeps thumping her tail and looking at us until we cave in, go over, pet her, and tell her we really didn't mean it, she's really the best dog in the whole world. Really. She is.

I have to say, her taste in books is eclectic. She's eaten everything from detective novels to very expensive art books. She's eaten a few of mine, which I think shows considerable good taste (pun intended) on her part. She's particularly fond of library books. I don't even want to know how much I've paid for wrecked books over the years. She's eaten so many that I'm embarrassed to take the remains back to my branch library. I take them to a branch where nobody knows me.

Still, I find Louise's appetite for books endearing. She is my dog, after all.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I love having friends of all ages, and one of them is Bella. She is 10 years old, the niece of my good friends Emily and Noreen. My first memory of Bella is when she was a very curious and talkative two-year old, cruising around Em and Nor's house getting into everything she could reach. On a later visit, I got to go to her fourth birthday party, which was awesome. She let Em and me jump in the bouncy castle and gave us lots of helpful directions when we weren't doing it exactly right. That made us laugh, which made jumping even more fun. I remember that one of her presents was a Bratz doll that said things like, "I'm bored. I want to go shopping." That also made us laugh. Especially when Bella, looking alarmed, asked Emily, "How do you turn her off?"

A few years ago, when Bella was maybe 8, we escaped to the guest room and made up stories while all the adults talked about real life in the living room--and I'm pretty sure we had more fun than they did.

One of the high points of my visit a few weeks ago to attend Emily and Noreen's wedding celebration dinner was catching up with Bella. Yikes! She is so grown up! She was wearing a way cool outfit, including a peace scarf that I was tempted to ask if I could borrow. She has these very stylish glasses that make her look beautiful and smart!

We had a high old time cheating on the test about Em and Nor. (I know, I am a bad influence. But we didn't win, so maybe it was okay. Plus, her grandma helped--for whatever that's worth. Note: the picture was taken right after we finished the test, before we knew we hadn't won. Don't we look so happy with ourselves!)

Anyway, my favorite thing about Bella is how much she loves books. Like all serious book-lovers, she had a book on hand at the dinner...just in case. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which she highly recommended.

She is at that great "tweener" age, just starting to discover some of the really good upper middle-grade and YA novels, so it was fun to visit Vroman's Books together and chat about all the books we'd read and loved--and add a bunch of books we saw there to the long list of books that we still want to read.

We wholeheartedly agree that there is just not enough time in the world to read all the books we want to read! But we're both dedicated to giving it our best shot!

So, I'm just thinking. How cool would it be to have some young reader book reviews on my blog?

Hey, Bella! How about doing the first one?