Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Someone Else's Life--On (My) Memoir

I've spent the last two days frantically looking for a photo I set aside months ago (note to self, when you find something, put it back where you found it--especially since I have a photographic memory). After 2-3 hrs of searching I found the photo that will start the book. Of course, along the way I rediscovered other photos and letters to / from my grandmother, notes, news clippings, gifts, a record in low german. Things I would have yawned over like some giant yak not even a decade ago. Now I hold on to each speck as if they were bits of my soul, smatterings of unlived memory (someone else's life) like a fog I reach for but that dissipates in my eager embrace. I need to live my own life now--and I wonder if writing a memoir about another time and place really counts. 
Me (tube socks), Grandma, Sister on Corn, OK Homestead

I'd like to think the above image was taken before we moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota in 1986, but I suspect it may be a year or two later. In any case, it's an act of desperation and love--there's such earnestness behind it. "Please," it seems to say, "please remember what I remember, even though we both know it's impossible. Story is all we have, even if that story is a fragile ghost itself that's more fiction than truth."

Homestead Around 1930
And the above is a clipping from Corn, OK's paper in 2003 celebrating the centennial (click to read). My great aunt contributed the facts, though my research has shown some are wrong--for example, Elizabeth's first husband, Peter, and her daughter died in Kansas in the early 1880s. I wonder how much is true, how much is false, and if it matters any more. It's my job to accept the mix of the two, to then mix them up even more with my own memory and research, and make some sort of greater truth that supersedes it all. That's what we call memoir, folks. 
If you want to know more about Turkey Red, my 6th book in progress, link here why don't you.  You can read about Custer and oil wells and windmills.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Certain Uncertainty

Over the last six months I've been feeling an overwhelming pressure on my bones, muscle, and blood. I think I've felt this before--in periods of my life of stagnation and fear. I've let it go too far this time and it's hell getting back. Usually, the way to overcome such invisible weight is to do something, but I feel like I don't know what to do. But I also feel like I do, and that's what scares me the most. The older we get, the higher the stakes it seems, the more we have to risk, the more we have to lose and we forget what it is we can gain by risking everything. And I'm talking in vague abstractions, something I tell my students to never do. This was an introduction to upheaval.

Yesterday my last grandparent, my grandmother, was moved into assisted living. The only idea I have of what this place looks like is the one my other grandmother died in nearly 6 years ago in Oklahoma, a woman who would be 90 tomorrow (2/22/22). The physical distance I've had from both events, both places--nursing homes in Oklahoma and now Minnesota--are reliefs and forms of torture. There is nothing any of us can do about tomorrow, it's true, and I've been a poor example of carpe diem. But to me, in the face of such changes in my family, and at 35 and unsecure in employment or even place, the only real answer to living in the present seems like a giving up and cashing in. That is, thinking seriously about risking everything--home, car, everything we are taught we need to be happy, and that, of course, do bring real joy and necessity. I do like having air conditioning and reliable transportation. I am blessed and fortunate.

See, I'm rambling. I feel like I've been in a coma for a year, maybe years. In that time I've surfaced for gulps of air--write a poem or essay, finish a book, host a garden tour. But these events are like the aftertaste of good chocolate in your mouth, and you want more. I want more. More than whatever this is. Purgatory? No man's land? I need a kick in the butt.

I'm nearing the realization that, at least in this point of my life, I won't be a college teacher. And this is maybe an essential step to my evolution as a person, that might, someday, make me an even better college teacher--or simply lead to something else just as or more rewarding. Maybe I've dumped too much energy into a machine I can't be a part of. See, I don't know. I wish I could do this on television (bad joke at the wrong time?) and make some money off of it, get myself that acreage and prairie. But maybe that's too much. I'm not ready for that kind happiness if I can't find it in my 1,500 foot paradise.

I look at my grandmother who was so happy, seemingly, with so little. A small apartment, but near family. She walked and lived (walks and lives, why the past tense) with rose-colored glasses both to be admired and concerned with. But as Alzheimers slips over her I feel with great urgency, a great restlessness pushing against my skin from somewhere deep inside, the need for a massive change. A change I might not be prepared for. I don't want to forget who I am, and I think over the last year or so I have begun to forget, lost some wonder, lost some carpe diem. I am a mirage to myself.

I don't know what such rambling posts mean to this blog. Both I and the blog seem to be in some pre mid life crisis. I can see it in the sedum and bluestem, too, in the garden. We need dividing.

Today I notice the snow receding from the garden through the window. It is very much like a bed sheet, exposing warmth to cold. The cloud line has moved east, the sun is out, I feel entombed and fenced in by the nearby stand of trees. This is why I could never live anywhere but on the plains--if I lived in the mountains or forest I'd feel breathless and afraid. Hunted. Stalked. Our species' primal memory is of emerging from the jungle into a savanna where we could see danger coming and escape.

There are two incredibly important tasks at hand for me: writing a book on the Plains and Oklahoma and family, and whatever this thing is behind the fog that lays over me. I can sense it. Hear its breath. Feel its eyes centered on me. Is it predator or prey? Strange, but I believe that until I write a memoir I won't know. How can writing a book set you free? Physically free, not just emotionally or spiritually. And how afraid I am of it--this big experiment, this leap of faith which in the end will be only a small step, yet one that will deplete me. The real leap is beyond and unimaginable. We tend to call it faith.

We leave memories. Moments. Feelings in walls some people pick up on and call ghosts. We are echos the moment we speak or move, even before we are physically gone. We trail off in our thinking and passions, our love is a conditional uncertainty that is certain. I love the prairie that is now only an echo in our landscapes. I love my family in the remnants of barns and stories, memories of warm 7up in plastic cups and sweet juniper after a rainfall. I think that if I leave only one thing behind, my marker, my echo, I want it to be a piece of writing. And yet writing is in everything--a garden, a child, a wife. Not just a book. Writing is that red-winged blackbird perched on the fence eying the feeder, the flash of its body, the ricochet sound of its warning call and its wings in the air like a pebble in a pond. Slowly, our rippled presence blends into the world around us if we remain still enough to settle our spirits into one moment that can be forever. I think, right now, it is a prayer.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nebraska Blooms

Did I miss GBBD? Well, here ya go.

Is that the first hummingbird?

Actually, it's quite lovely outside. Low 40s and sunny. Our 12" of snow is now about 2-4", and will be gone this weekend. I no longer order plants--growing my old, from wild seedlings to cuttings to divisions to closet propagation. Still, shouldn't plant catalogs have seeds embedded in their pages?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sketch the Shadows

My family has grown up on the prairie, in the Midwest, on land that, according to author Kathleen Norris, rubs off on us to make us feel that we don’t need to connect. Norris, who grew up and lives in North Dakota, frequently stays at upper Midwest monasteries for reflection and to continue her monastic-influenced spiritual education. These monasteries, according to Norris, often “follow silence at certain hours, but I had never before immersed myself in the kind of silence that sinks into your bones…. To live communally in silence is to admit a new power into your life. In a sense, you are merely giving silence its due. But this silence is not passive, and soon you realize that it has the power to change you.”

There are places for silence, moments in our days that we require, not that we want, but that we absolutely need. And the more we have them, the closer we get to ourselves and the world. I know that when I am dusting or cooking, the world drops to the side, but not completely away, and I am absorbed in the focus of my work, just as those monks who are finding praise and glory in their silent prayers of work. But most of all, I find the kind of silence Norris speaks of so deeply and transformatively right here, in this moment, writing out these words. I suppose that I have mini moments where I allow myself to daydream on the garden bench or on the porch, but they are soon interrupted by other thoughts. Here, the focus is intense, onrushing, consuming, it sinks into my bones to the point that every part of me is aerated and I breathe deeply some fresh, new life—as one might do on a cool summer’s evening after a hard rain.
In these silences, these deep breaths, there is a necessary mystery I follow, sometimes discovering new roads, new ideas, sometimes ending up in a place I’d never dreamed of, sitting back, and feeling blessed for having had that moment. It is an intense shuddering through my body, it reverberates, it’s like a limb warmed up after coming inside form the winter cold, tingly, pulsating, coming alive again. 

I get in trouble all the time for being silent. Even after nine years of grad school and being silent in classrooms, and being chastised by peers and teachers alike, no one has ever suggested—and me neither until just right now—that my silence wasn’t ever so much about shyness (though certainly it played a part) as it was about respect for language and the search for belonging and understanding in this chaotic world. In my personal relationships I’ve noticed a tension of silence in my refusal to chit chat with those closest to me about things that seem to be already implied or said. Words can fail when there are too many of them, and frankly, there are too many of them. They confuse the issue of being alive, of being alive not “with” but “in” the world.

I don’t understand people who jog or garden with headphones on, and I certainly don’t understand and even despise the construction workers with loud stereos fixing the siding on the house down the street. There is so much language around us everyday that there’s an overload of perception in place before we wake up, and I’m not talking about human language at all. Here’s Thomas Merton, talking about his arrival at a hermitage in a rain storm. “All that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”

When I’m in the garden I learn the names of birds without having to turn my back, or shutter with the seemingly large shadow moving over me. I don’t jump back (as much as I used to) when I’m dive bombed by a bee. I’ve learned to comfort myself outside by the presence of the wildness around me. I know the call of the red wing blackbird, the cardinal and blue jay, house finch and grackle and yellow finch and mourning dove and so many more. The other day a  streaking black and yellow mass buzzed me and I thought for sure I’d stumbled across a hornet’s nest, but it was just a dragonfly come to perch atop a penstemon. How beautiful it was, clear shoji screen wings, pencil like abdomen and tail. And how beautiful they are at dusk, plastered along the west side of the fence in the fading sunlight, a full warmed silence until the crickets and frogs take over at dusk. Yes, language is all around us, and so much of the time we tune it out and call it silence when in fact it’s not even a fraction of true silence—it’s an echo or afterimage only. 

Moments like these remind me of a high school art teacher who once told me that in drawing and painting you should first sketch the shadows, and then the forms of what you intended to draw would reveal themselves more truthfully on their own.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What 12" of Snow Looks Like

Biggest snow in 3 years. Heavy and wet, equal to 1.25" of rain. It's absolutely gorgeous outside--warm ski weather.

Have a seat

This is not a weeper--it's an althea in dire straits

Garden entrance

Not much "interest" left, let alone bird cover

Cool elm trunk

Snow took down a feeder

Click and expand

Rotate upside down to see through

Off the rain chain

Friday, February 3, 2012

1870s Advertising

I've finished looking over some archives of the Herald of Truth, a 19th century Mennonite newspaper based in Indiana and devoted to aiding Mennonites on their way from Europe. There are reports from those preparing to come over, lists of collections taken by American citizens to help pay for passage, warnings to immigrants about scam artists at the NYC docks, updates about new communities in the Plains, and climate reports. And then there are the ads:

Gray’s Special Medicine
The Great English Remedy. An unfailing cure for Seminal Weakness, 
Spermatorrhea, Impotency, and all Diseases that follow as a sequence of self–abuse: 
as Loss of Memory, Universal Lassitude, Pain in the Back, Dimness of Vision, 
Premature Old Age, and many other diseases that lead to 
Insanity of Consumption and a Premature Grave.

Full particulars in our pamphlet, which we desire to send free by mail to every one. 
The Specific Medicine is sold by all druggists at $1 per package, or six packages for $5, 
or will be sent free by mail on receipt of the money, by addressing 
The Gray Medicine Co, Sold in Topeka.


[a variant of the below is still sold in Walgreens and CVS]

Lydia E. Pinkham’s
Vegetable Compound.
Is a Positive Cure
for all those Painful Complaints and Weakness
so common to our best female populations.
It will cure entirely the worst forms of Female Complaints, all ovarian troubles, 
Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent Spinal Weakness, 
and is particularly adapted to the Change of Life
 It will dissolve and expel tumors from the uterus in an early stage of development. 
The tendency to cancerous humors is checked very speedily by its use.
It removes faintness, flatulency, destroys all craving for stimulants, and relieves 
weakness of the stomach. It cures Bloating, Headaches, Nervous Prostration, 
General Debility, Sleeplessness, Depression, and Indigestion.
            That feeling of bearing down, causing pain, weight and backache, 
is always permanently cured by its use.
It will at all times and under all circumstances act in harmony with the laws 
that govern the female system. For the cure of Kidney Complaints 
of either sex this Compound is unsurpassed.

[$1, six bottles for $5. Pills or lozenges. Mrs. Pinkham freely answers all letters of inquiry.

            No family should be without Lydia T. Pinkham’s Liver Pills. 
They cure constipation, billousness, and torpidity of the liver. 23 cents per box.


A Preventive for Chills, Fever and Ague.
a sure cure for
Dyspepsia, Indigestion, Liver Complaint,
Headache, Dizziness, Loss of Appetite,
Languor, Sour Stomach, etc.
Especially adapted for Kidney Disease
and all Female Weaknesses.

The Dandelion Tonic is principally composed
of fresh Dandelion Root, Juniper Berries,
Red Peruvian Bark, Prickly Ash Bark, Iron and
Alteratives; also an antacid, which will remove
all belching sensations that are produced from
sour stomach.

Price, $1.00 per Bottle, or Six for $5.00

For Sale by all Druggists and Dealers in Medicines.
If your dealers do not keep it, sens direct to
the proprietors with money enclosed

Sole Proprieters,
Leis Chemical Manufacturing Co.
Lawrence, Kas

Aren't they fascinating? Clearly the first one is for teenaged boys. I'd like to see contemporary ads try this style on for a change, especially when discussing female weaknesses and how the tonic works in harmony with the laws of health.