Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Toolsheds & Spiritual Nexuses

Behind the tool shed was a treasure trove of good junk. An old mattress. A large wooden electrical-cable spool. An equally large metal cube-like thing (I never did figure out what it was) that Dad had picked up somewhere. A couple of down-on-their-luck pink plastic flamingos. Assorted boards and some defunct lawnmowers that he probably had plans for – after all, he’d once welded a metal vegetable-bin drawer to the base of another lawnmower, creating a curious but perfectly functional little cart.

It was, to my ten-year-old eyes, heaven. I could make a place of my very own there. And did.

The metal cube was already perched up on the spool. A board across the top bar, another board placed a little lower down on the opposite side – and voila! -- I had a look-out post, a desk, and whatever else I wanted it to be. It didn’t exactly qualify for tree-fort status; but with six people in our family, space was hard to come by, and this was all mine.

Eventually, of course, it all got carted away to the dump. That was O. K. because by then I was a little older. I needed something more in keeping with my 5th- and 6th-grade aspirations.

The toolshed.

My father had built it along with the house back in the late 1940s. It had a brick floor and two big windows on either side. The cats lived out there (Dad had cut a cat-sized doorway right next to the people-sized door), and I saw no reason why I couldn’t as well. I’d go there after school and play with the cats, imagining how I’d fix it up. The wide junk-strewn shelves would hold my books and treasures. There was already some furniture – my grandfather’s old dented milking stool and a disabled pot-bellied stove that Dad had gotten off an antiques-dealer friend – and I figured that I could somehow squeeze my bed, my desk (really an old-fashioned dressing-table that had belonged to Mom when she’d been my age), and bookcase in, too.

In the meantime, it was my place to hang out and dream in. Many years later, I read Mirabel Cecil’s book Lottie’s Cats to my own child. I’d come to the part where Lottie was sitting with her seven cats in their shed, reading stories to them, and I'd sigh happily, remembering my toolshed with the afternoon sun sifting in through its dusty cracked windows…the cats peering down at me from the rafters, the air thick with their purring….

In time, our cats gained indoor status, so I didn’t have to go out to the shed to play with them. There were other out-of-doors places where I went to read and write my stories. But I never outgrew my affection for the little brick-floored building – which, thanks to Dad’s cat door, still provided shelter for various strays, including my much-loved Tikvah (whose story I have already told in my book Catsong.)

Fast-forward about thirty years. Dad was dead, Mom had just gone into a convalescent home with advanced dementia, and I was a widow with a teenager. I knew that I didn’t want to live in my parents’ house again, but I also wasn’t quite ready to let go. So I decided to rent it out.

The old toolshed needed replacing. It, like Mom, had been falling apart for some time. The only part of it still intact was the brick floor that my father had put in. Jaysen, the guy handling the project, built the new shed on top of it. So something of Dad’s work remained, even though nobody could see it. I liked that.

But it wasn’t my toolshed. The magic was gone – from the shed, from the field, and from the house itself. Within the year, I sold the property.

We need our magic places. They heal and renew us. Author Frances Hodgson Burnett knew that all too well: she spent a lot of time writing in an English rose garden following a very messy, very scandalous divorce back in the early 1900s. The Secret Garden, the story of an unhappy child who brings a once-loved garden back to life, was written a few years later; but the idea for it came to her as she was working in that other garden, trying to put her own life back together.

People talk about spiritual nexuses, places that that are inherently powerful. Are there such places? I don’t doubt it. But I also believe that with places, as with rituals and relationships, it’s what we bring to them that makes them magical. At least that’s how it was with those hideaways of mine.

I drive by my mother’s house frequently. And sometimes I get kinda wistful as I glance at it. Paradise lost. But I have new places now, places where insights and stories come to me: my gardens on summer evenings; by the brook and the clearing where I love to walk in the mornings; and the little hillside by my old cat-buddy Zorro’s grave. You see, magic is a fluid thing, and it travels with us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing from Grief

(From The Not-So-Way-Back Files -- The Best American Poetry blog, June 2014)


Many years ago, when Tim and I were first dating, I wrote a poem called “Dulcimer.” In it, I tried to capture how the “muted mauve&gray sky” of a winter’s afternoon, the dulcimer music on the radio, and our lovemaking all came together to create a beautiful outside-of-time moment.

Tim always liked that poem and not just because it was sexual. “That’s the way it really was,” he’d say.

We married and had a child, Zeke. We were not a picture-perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, and we both had pretty good ones. But we got each other. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest supporter. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be supportive of your writing….I believe you have what it takes to be a great writer.”

So, when he was killed in a car accident, I was lost and not just because I suddenly found myself a 34-year-old widow with a three-and-a-half-year-old child. My best friend, my cheering section, was gone. And for what seemed like a long time afterwards, I could not write. Then a poem came to me. It wasn’t a very good one. But it let me know that there was a survivor in the wreckage.

More poems began to appear. One of them was “The Wild Things”: it deals with the weeks after the tragedy and two “small good things” that happened, bringing me out of the fog….

One muggy afternoon, I walked listlessly out into the backyard. There, at the edge of Tim’s vegetable garden, stood a doe. I stopped. Time stopped. In that space, only the deer and I existed. I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without fear. Never had a deer – or any other wild animal, for that matter – looked at me like that. I felt oddly comforted despite my grief.

Not long afterwards, I was going out to the shed when a hummingbird flew by, drawn to the red bee balm alongside it. We’d never had hummingbirds before despite all the fancy feeders I’d hung to lure them into the yard. And, once again, the pain inside me loosened its hold for a bit.

Both deer and hummingbirds have a rep as messengers, symbolically speaking. Tim and I had both loved animals, birds, and just being out in nature. Among the many things he had given me over the years were a river otter sculpture, a book – America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife – and a beaver-chewed stick that he’d picked up by the river, knowing that I’d like it. And once, during the holidays, I’d picked out a wildlife calendar for my mom to give him. He’d thanked her, then said, “I suspect Tammy had something to do with this.”

So, when the deer and the hummingbird appeared so soon after his death, I couldn’t help suspecting that Tim had something to do with it. That it was his way of letting me that he was O. K. Both creatures lifted my spirits – made me feel as though, yes, he was out there somewhere – and then they went into my poem.

Writing that poem – and the Tim poems that followed – gave me a way of processing all that grief that I didn’t know what to do with. But doing so also gave me a life-line. Slowly, I drew myself up out of the sad, dark place his death had sent me to.

I haven’t had a lot of contact with the other contributors to The Widows’ Handbook, but I get the sense that their poems have worked in much the same way for them. Patricia Savage speaks in “How Could I” of “turn[ing] toward the light, the children in the kitchen, bound to the care of the living, choosing alchemy to create cold sense out of the molten lead of your passing.” In “Wonderland,” Gail Braune Cormorat writes about being “shaken, transformed” and then “stepp[ing] through the door once again.”

Because it is a transformation, a going through the looking-glass into a world where nothing makes sense. And we use – we need -- the alchemy of poetry to make something transcendent out of our wanderings there. That is what characterizes the poems in The Widows’ Handbook for me and why it’s ultimately an inspiring and not a depressing book.

The landscape of grief is an ever-shifting one, and no two people experience it quite the same way. Those moments out in the yard – the doe greeting me from the garden, the hummingbird whirring about like a tiny jeweled miracle in a world gone gray – have stayed with me. At a time when I hurt too much to cry, they were a connection with Tim and more. They took me out of myself and brought a kind of healing with them.

When I read “The Wild Things” now, I find that I tend to skip over the opening, which deals with Tim’s death. Instead, I focus on that last section…on the deer, the hummingbird, and the messages they brought me. On the gifts that came to me when my hands felt hopelessly empty. I read those lines, and it all comes back to me in a rush. Because that’s the way it really was.