Sparked by Words

Kind of Like Stars

Kind of like stars – only the ancient light of them remains

Not yesterday’s anger either, just the sticky path of our tears

What was it we argued about that now I can’t recall

Less the chores of our lives than slights that pierce our flesh

And make me bend as if holding my ribs will heal the pain

 

Kind of like rainbows – name their colors but never catch them

Not the wind either, just the toppled twigs, the skittering leaves

How did I not see you shiver, the confusion in your eyes

Why did you fail to ease the ache of my heart, my soul

Though one part of me is as tender as all parts of you

 

Kind of like water – without shape of its own, only a wild surge

Not the thirst for assent either, just the hungry plea that you see me

Will you call my name, touch my hand? I cannot swallow

Still we yearn to press beyond what we can’t hold in our palms

Love and acceptance, memory and future, all of all between

 

Kind of like fragrance – bereft of corpus, only a scent we inhale

Not the spices we measure either, just the smell of you against me

Even if you leave, I will still feel your breath on my cheek

Yet I run to gather flowers and seeds, as if they will thrive

You will always be a living presence in my life, today, tomorrow

 

 

Just a thought 56

 

Painting, Lovers, 1928, by Felix Nussbaum, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Most of All

Most of all, I

quiet to hear my sons’ laughter but snub the marching band

tongue spicy sweet cinnamon though disdain rare truffles

climb to sight the far sunset  and turn away from the road

yearn to listen to the poet but don’t hear any king

lean to smell the hyacinth though not costly perfume

reach to kiss my lover’s hand but ignore the silken gown

chant the trope of psalms but refute the tyrant’s rant

kneel to drink clear water but am not sated with Champagne

stretch to grasp my toes far longer than to hold a torch

pray for my grandchildren’s health rather than myself a longer life

seek my worth as a seashell more than all the gold in the world

 

Just a thought 55

 

Photo of seashell courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

My mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last years of her life. She lived in a residence with hundreds of other folks who had memory loss. One was a wonderful man I’ll call Ben. Ben had been an artist before he became ill with Alzheimer’s. An intelligent, talented man who worked in various media, he pursued art as a passionate avocation all his life. He continued to create beautiful watercolor paintings all the years he lived at the residence.

As an art teacher for many decades, I explained to my students that creating art was an experience of Head, Hand, Heart – our class motto.  The Head is what we know or see of our world, the Hand is the education about color, composition, and holding a paintbrush.

The Heart is the most important element. This is where a master artist transports the viewer beyond the canvas or marble into his vision, where his creative impact lifts an ordinary entity into something luminous. Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of Michelangelo’s Pieta, of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Oriental Poppies? The allure of the intuited essence of life emanating from these masterpieces resonates with viewers. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of a toddler’s first drawing of a person, a wobbly roundish shape with eyes and mouth, arms and legs sticking out from the face like misplaced star rays because the body is missing. It isn’t that the body is actually missing, but what’s most striking about people to the youngest child are the very features she’s drawn. She’s skipped the unessential – the corpus – and gotten right to the crux of what informs her world – a face with its multitude of expressions, the limbs with their ability to move. Her Head and Hand are still learning but her Heart is in full mastery of its skills. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

You must understand this in order to grasp the following story about an artist betrayed by mental infirmities.

My mom and I frequently participated in the art programs, where we often worked beside Ben. I especially enjoyed watching him paint as every move was deliberate. He contemplated each stroke, color, and detail. I wondered if he’d worked with such thoughtful resolve even before he became ill with Alzheimer’s, or if the disease imposed a handicap that was a new challenge to his creative outlet. Maybe when younger and healthier, he’d painted quickly, though I suspect a precise focus had always informed his art.

As Ben’s physical health declined and the Alzheimer’s tortured his brain, painting became more arduous for him. He had a harder time concentrating and sometimes couldn’t make a decision about what color to use or what area to paint next. Even choosing a brush and lifting his hand demanded attention his brain didn’t willingly allow. Each move became an exercise in willpower over limitation.

His very last painting was of Monument Valley, the iconic desert in Utah. He used a photo as a reference and started with realistic images of the familiar tall buttes and the flat topped mesas in burnished shades of gold, orange, and brown. Over the weeks, as he became more ill and confused, the layered sandstone structures mutated into city skyscrapers with windows, doorways, and rooftops. Even his colors changed to ruby, emerald, and sapphire. The painting looked like two disparate images randomly assembled: a sublime southwest desert vista on the left, a garish and frenetic eastern megalopolis on the right.

Ben died only a few days after he’d completed the painting. His family disliked it and nearly didn’t take it with them. I explained how Ben had struggled to interpret the desert photo and finally decided he was looking at modern city skyscrapers. Advanced Alzheimer’s made a mockery of the man but the artist fought back with his will to create. They realized that the painting was less an anomaly of artistic expression and more a visual demonstration of how the brain declines but also re-imagines the corporeal world. With tears dampening their cheeks, they took home the painting that graphically displayed Ben’s deteriorated brain, knowing his Heart had been intact until the end.

We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

 

Monument Valley photo courtesy of Pixabay

My thanks to Peggy Bright of Australia who writes Where to next? blog, for the memory and inspiration for this article.

 

 

 

 

 

Sailor

A story isn’t a steel railroad track transporting the reader from Chapter One to The End, but an ocean with currents in constant movement below the surface. Readers sail on words that drift according to the force of the currents, not the lapping surface tension.

So do we writers adjust the sails of our ships to write the story of the essential journey lodged in the bowels of our hearts, the one hidden below the waves. The rudder thrusts through the sea of scenes, the keel maintains an upright status of the plot, the sun glints off the crests of conflicts, the words flow over and under the characters. Sometimes the boats capsize and sometimes they save us from the storm.

I am not a sailor but I’ve learned to command the ocean.

Still I know metaphors can only take you so far. There must be a story to the story or you drown in a sea of words.

 

 

Just a thought 54

 

Painting: Through Sea and Air, 1910, by Charles Napier Henry courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.

(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

No one steps into the world of Alzheimer’s with aplomb and grace, knowing just what to do. We lurch into the minefield of a war without possibility of victory or truce, pleading for an advocate to help us avoid stepping on bombs. Then we find that only surrender is possible, only blood on the sleeve. Yet on the battlefield of this disease there is a way to dismantle the bombs.

 

We who are the family of those who suffer try to placate and offer solace, but we are also victims. There is no manual with step by step procedures. Yes, there is information, and you should avail yourself of all you can find. But it is likely to show a huge blank in just the area where you need advice, because the person we love is not a perfectly fitting cube in a bin.

 

If we are very, very lucky, one person steps up and says, “Let me help you find a safe way forward.” I had the comfort of that person’s presence, someone who showed me strategies for dealing with behaviors I didn’t understand and a parent I didn’t recognize, one who didn’t recognize me. Now I strive to be that person for others. I am no expert, not a professional in the field, but am good at directing. If you have questions, ask, please. I can show you the way.

 

You will still sob and raise your fists, you still won’t sleep at night. But you will bring joy to the person you love and sometimes you will both laugh. It will be those moments you live for.

The end is tragically assured but the journey is everything.

 

 

Just a thought 53

 

 

Image of aged woman courtesy Max Pixel

Image of aged man courtesy of Pixabay

 

We’re all just one small step from disaster.

Four years ago I attended Astronomy Night at my grandchildren’s elementary school. The outside lights were left off so the Orange County Astronomers who graciously set up their scopes in a field could count on enough darkness to view the constellated sky.

And see we did – our cratered moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, and constellations even I could name. Through telescopes big as sewer pipes (but clean and shiny) and hooked up to computers, we peered at the glitter of the night, wondering which of the stars still beamed and which had already burned out. What a thrill to see the Milky Way in such radiance.

I decided to return to the activity room where most of the kids had gone to make planet mobiles and glitter paintings of Saturn’s rings. Across the campus, the lit room directed where I wanted to go but not how to get there. So I trod in the dark and stepped onto the lunch quad. But the elevation of the quad was two inches lower than the sidewalk, a change I couldn’t see. I moved out, the expected tarmac wasn’t there, my body continued forward, my foot resisted. I heard a snap. A crack. I knew – I’d sprained my ankle.

Someone helped me hobble into the activity room, someone else got an ice pack. I sat in a chair as my leg swelled and hurt. The next day, Kaiser told me the good news – my ankle wasn’t sprained. It was broken, both bones in fact – tibia and fibula. A hairline fracture in one, a fingernail sized chip in the other, and the reason that my ankle now looked as big as a fish bowl, and I hurt.

The orthopedic physician offered me a choice: a cast (ugh!) or a clunky brace from toes to knees (OK) Three weeks of galumphing around with my brace and taking Advil on a regular schedule, then another six months or so of aches, and I was ready to go back to the gymnastics team. (Oh sure.) Note of comfort: a big brace with internal metal reinforcement gets you through a special airport security entrance and early boarding on the plane. (Yay!)

Two years later I walked out of the building where my mom lived. Late afternoon the parking lot was shady – until I stepped off a shallow curb and the sun, hiding behind a hill only milliseconds before, now played peek a boo and shined right in my eyes – as I was mid-step.

I will never forget pitching forward, knowing exactly how awkwardly my body leaned, knowing there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to catch my fall but the street. Which it finally did. I landed on my right elbow. I realized I could wait splayed on the ground in that long driveway, that someone would eventually come along and help. I could also tell I was going into shock, and I’d better help myself. It’s possible to lift yourself from supine to standing with only one good arm, the other one screaming in distress. I know because I did it, then struggled to stay upright to get to the door.

As soon as I entered I knew – I was in big trouble. I was soaked with sweat, trembling, near to fainting, and in pain, the kind that sends tsunami crests of agony surging through your body. I knew it wasn’t serious – not like a heart attack or a stroke. It wasn’t enough of an injury to let me go to the head of the emergency line at the hospital once I got there. But I scared everyone at the facility – I could tell by the anxiety on their faces that I looked like I’d been dragged off the pavement after an accident. Well, yes.

They called an ambulance – no, I couldn’t drive myself. Lucky for me (I’m such a lucky girl even if I am a klutz,) Kaiser has a first rate hospital only twenty minutes from where I was. The ambulance ride, however, took me over unpaved outback to get there, and every bump and jiggle, every damned bump and jiggle, reminded me that I hurt. Even though we drove on the newly paved freeway. Poor ambulance attendant kept apologizing. (BTW, is it a rule that paramedics must be adorably handsome?)

Once in emergency, my arm swelled to the size of a football. No, this part I’m not exaggerating. A slew of X-rays, me just about landing on the floor – good grief, how could I stand and hold my arm in so many positions when it was broken and the only position I could hold it in was OWIE? – proved what everyone suspected. I’d dislocated my elbow. It was supposed to hang by my side but it was poking out to Nevada in a million little pieces and one giant hump. A camel’s back on my arm.

My sweet nurse told me she didn’t believe anyone should suffer with pain no matter how much of a klutz she’d been. Along with a flu shot (how handy!) and enough pain meds to make me mumble word fluff, everything began to get woozy. Suddenly my little emergency bay was full of smiling folks who gathered around and grabbed me from every limb and held me down. They popped the elbow back into place. Sorta close, anyway. Remember the smiling faces? And the sweet nurse with her pain meds? I didn’t feel them pop it back so I smiled too. Loose-mouthed goofily, I’m sure.

They wrapped me in gauze from fingers to shoulder and sent me home with my son (my husband was out of town.) They gave me lots of narcotics, (took fewer than I should have) antibiotics, and pain meds. I struggled to bathe, wash my hair (went every three days to a salon) to do all the things we should do – but I mostly didn’t. For months I couldn’t sleep lying down, so my husband thrust two enormous sofa pillows under the bed and I slept half sitting up.

Exactly one week later, a hand surgeon (Dr. Lee is an amazing orthopedic surgeon) spent four hours, first slicing my arm open seven inches to reach the damage: humerus, radius, ulna, all of them crushed, some bits floating, as well as two torn ligaments, don’t know how many tendons, and a torn nerve. (Good grief!)  Dr. Lee put this Humpty egg back together –and popped in a three-inch-long stainless steel plate butting up to my elbow and a titanium plug to hold me altogether. Still there. You can see them poking under my skin. Dr. Lee told me I would regain about 90% of my arm use.

He didn’t know me.

I was diligent about the physical therapy, started two weeks after my surgery. Every single day for the next three months I did three rounds of specific exercises followed by ice packs and then warm wraps. One round took one and a half or two hours. Physical therapy is all I did – and watched The Golden Girls as I worked out. (Lost fourteen pounds – yay!)

After six weeks when Dr. Lee saw me again, he exclaimed about where my cast was  because I hadn’t brought it. I still couldn’t drive but I’d ditched the cast for a thick removable brace to support my arm. And then I showed him what a truly outstanding surgeon he is – I had about 97% use of my arm and only a dull ache. Today, I have 99% arm use.

It was more than a year before I could sleep without being cradled by five pillows or function without any pain. I’ve regained nearly all of my flexibility, can paint and type again. At neither slip off the curbs did I hit my head, suffer a back or neck injury, lose consciousness (came close, though) or knock out my teeth. I don’t have a chronic debilitating condition or a terminal illness. I don’t walk with a limp or write left handed anymore (had to do that for about eight weeks) even though I’m a righty.

I succumbed to the dark, then was blinded by the light. The moment of blackness that should have explained the mysteries of the universe, the instance of illumination that should have let me see everything in my path, caused two injuries. I have been just one small step from disaster but now I am fine – and very, very lucky.

Today I watch very carefully where I walk.

 

Detail of The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Creative Commons