Before the Blight

The elms stretched themselves in indolent joy,
arching over the street that lay in green shadow
under their loose tent.
And the roses in Mrs. Mix’s yard pretzeled up her trellis
with pink Limoges cabbage blooms like Rubens’ nudes.
My lips whispered over the names of things
in the meadows, in the orchard, in the woods,
where I sometimes stood for long moments
listening to some bird telling me of the strangeness of myself;
rocked in the sinewy arms of summer.

“Before the Blight” by Ruth Stone from What

Her Kind

Sometimes I get such a monumental headache from being lectured and obeying all the rules which I have heard all my life while now trying to build a different one. At 62 I realize I do not have a lot of time to build it.

The other day I went to a documentary about New York City. I liked looking at the movie, but I found it very labored. Part of it seemed to want to shock, but shock has become banal.  I read somewhere that the emphasis on violence and pornography in western culture is because of the disconnection with the visceral.

In the discussion period after the film (movie was part of a film festival) an academic type said we have so many freedoms people in other parts of the world do not have. These are cultural beliefs, that we possess what is lacking for others and unlimited freedom is a social good. In some senses these are true but other cultures encompass histories, cultural richness, community and a sense of spiritual meaning that we increasingly lack.

In American culture, it is thought we are free, and yet I wonder. We are privileged, we are wealthy, but we are conformist. We are lonely, we worship the psychological, we study our ills, we medicate ourselves. We know little of history, of the world we live in. We hold the banner of the latest psychological diagnoses while ignoring the real pain of of many around the world. We do not know their value. We are increasingly aggressive and we are taught that busyness, consumerism and obeying the rules of work make a life. And now we are addicted to machines in a sheep-like fashion, though of course I count myself as one of the flock. Although, after reading about AI the other day, I may resign from technology. I’m increasingly uninterested in the utilitarian; I am interested in beauty and the spirit. I also have little interest in the designs of 25 year old geeks who have not lived in a  real life. I note their prognostications about robots, for example, taking care of old people.

Old people need love, the touch of the real, and we have abandoned them.  There is a tremendous sentimentality in thinking machines will solve out problems, or protect us from our despair. We need truth and the human.

If there is one thing I am grateful for, it is growing up with older people who had a nineteenth century sensibility about the world. They were not sentimental. They worked too hard and had little time for distraction even had it existed. Their world was infused with harshness as well as a profound sense of the sacred and all that was imparted to me. They had profound dignity–another quality that seems to have gone by the boards.

To rebel, you must have an object against which to rebel, not the sea of banality we have created for ourselves.

For rebellion I turn to the past, Anne Sexton, a magnificent poet and incredibly brave person.

By Anne Sexton, 1928 – 1974

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.



Yesterday I fell on the sidewalk.

The breath was knocked out of me.

It’s the third time since moving here.

The sidewalks are terrible, and I was looking at a dogwood’s

Perfect stars.

There was no one around to rescue me.

I didn’t have the phone I’ve stopped carrying.

Walking home I thought of my boomer pals.

Him with his patterned days laid out.

Her with the new game preserve.

They think not falling is the way.

My tongue feels around a chipped tooth.

I don’t think that.

In an Iridescent Time

by Ruth Stone

from the Writer’s Almanac

My mother, when young, scrubbed laundry in a tub,
She and her sisters on an old brick walk
Under the apple trees, sweet rub-a-dub.
The bees came round their heads, the wrens made talk.
Four young ladies each with a rainbow board
Honed their knuckles, wrung their wrists to red,
Tossed back their braids and wiped their aprons wet.
The Jersey calf beyond the back fence roared;
And all the soft day, swarms about their pet
Buzzed at his big brown eyes and bullish head.
Four times they rinsed, they said. Some things they
Then shook them from the baskets two by two,
And pinned the fluttering intimacies of life
Between the lilac bushes and the yew:
Brown gingham, pink, and skirts of Alice blue.

Maine to Pittsburgh, Beauty

Went to Maine for a lightning fast trip. It was great.   Part of it was re entering the northern New England Survival Gestalt. I got in at midnight at Manchester NH. It had been 87 (unseasonable thank God) in Pittsburgh the day before. In NH, it was 40 degrees,  very dark and pouring rain at the airport.

Wearing only a light jacket I trudged over in the rain also sans umbrella (I’ve become a very light packer) to the rental car company.  But, I thought, this is good. Good to be challenged when you’re older. Otherwise you fall into decrepitude.

I have always been quite courageous; I grew up in a very tough environment and I was forced to rely on myself. There are bad parts to this but also a lot of good.  In addition, in New England there is a suffering and redemption philosophy to the weather and life in general. So I was proud to endure an exhausting trip and push myself to pick  up the car as I had to in order to accomplish my work.

At the Thrifty counter I  had a nice chat with the lady who was about to close up. She was an immigrant and told me I was courageous.

The next day I drove 3+ hours to western  Maine to a meeting. It was beautiful. Clear and sunny, the rivers overflowing.  The hills looked like fall—all the colors. I would venture that Maine’s bloom is 2 weeks behind Pittsburgh. The lilacs, which I always associate with New England, are just out. (In PGH they and the azaleas—it’s all very lush—are long gone).

It was coldish in the north country, which was great.  Above the hills a fine mist floated.

I listened to classical music on the fine radio. It was entrancing and my pleasure evidenced a basic life truth: when you do not have something and then you have it you appreciate it more. This has been a truism my entire life, but especially since I left my nightmarish family at 18.  I have always appreciated my life although there has been a lot of suffering and in my younger years drama.

My car radio has not worked in some years so the SUV stereo—yowzah!–was a delight. I loved hearing classic rock and wonderful Chopin, Haydn, etc. All of which I have an enhanced interest in since leaving Maine nine months ago and beginning to go to concerts at Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center.

Heinz Hall , home of the Pittsburgh Symphony (one of the best in the country), is just a treasure.  Wonderful acoustics. I dress up and sit in nosebleed seats. Below are galleries and lounges and exquisite halls and grand staircases. It’s just lovely.  They are great musicians. The sense of civilization is entrancing—that all these people are there, intent on beauty, something seemingly worthless in this age of the utilitarian, but  priceless and true.

Again that sense of coming into an oasis in the desert. I know nothing really about music. I had no childhood lessons, my family had no interest in music or the arts except literature. That was only my mother, who read, but was too depressed to be active in the world. She was not much of a mother.

I’ve always liked classical music but to hear it in a lovely old hall…it’s magnificent. How I wish my mother could be with me. In this life she would not be deaf as she grew in older age, and she would be happy.  We would be happy sitting together and she would be a girl again, alight.

The opera, which I also attend, brings tears to my eyes, tears of joy.  Mostly I attend the Met broadcasts in movie theaters, but I went to the Pittsburgh opera once, for “Turandot”.  It was just lovely. Opera is so sumptuous.  More, it is elemental with its great storylines, deep emotion, eternal truths which we seem to be losing.  But maybe I’m just an old bag saying this, as older people say this in every generation.

Anyway, what a gift. I have such a sense of that about my whole life these days and it is because I was so brave in making this transition. In my old life in Maine–which has many gifts– I did not have much access to the greater world, the new, and I now realize its lack was difficult.

It is not that I now dislike nature, because I am much at tune with the natural world. I still notice a lot. At night I listen to the birds’ night chorus and look at the new leaves on the trees in amazement. Behind the seemingly omnipresent police helicopters I see the stars.

I do miss the sea, wildness. That New England landscape is absolutely my native country, I now know. In some ways I even miss spending much of my life on surviving, as I did in Maine—on maintenance, preparation against the elements, gathering wood, carting things back and forth.  Even the culture—when I heard those harsh New England voices barking on radio commercials–my heart sung.

However, to be in city that is so vibrant, diverse, full of energy and the new…God it’s wonderful. A city which is much kinder than many New England cities, like Providence, where I grew up, and Boston, where I lived in young adulthood.

Pittsburgh is not boring at all. While I frequently visit Maine, I’m also very happy here. Grateful for coming in courage 10 months ago. I came back to my apartment and opened Pittsburgh magazine. I bought tickets for a number of things, was in touch with friends. I’m delirious at 62, almost 63.

Pent up demand

I received my passport in the mail the other day, which was delightful. In part because my photo turned out to be not as bad as I had thought.
Then I made a decision to reorder my life in a certain way, which will give me more funding than I anticipated to travel.
I started research on where to go. I know what my first choice is and I am resisting the temptation to go to several places in one trip. ..the American buffet approach.
I investigated the how, thus mainly looked at solo traveler sites because I am very independent and like nothing better than to wander around cities without a destination (lately I’ve been thinking about the hidden life of cities, or the life of a city as told through its monuments—Pittsburgh has incredible monumental statuary everywhere.
Somewhat nervous about going to places I have never been to, but I have pulled myself through myriad travel nightmares in the US.
In my search process I found some…deals. I was agog with possibilities at this point.
One was round trip airfare to London via Iceland air, very inexpensive. Although you had to visit Iceland pre or post London. I’m somewhat interested in London but no offense Iceland there are many places I’d rather go before you. After years in Maine, I am temporarily sick to death of natural beauty.
Nevertheless I found myself on the brink, on the edge of booking but managed to teeter back to sanity.
It’s all very fun and I am excited. It feels like a lot of the pieces in my life are coming together ever since I made the great decision to leave small town life.

Campo di Fiori

I don’t know about setting out to deliberately write in the cause of justice. This kind of approach shuts me up…it’s similar to the reaction I had last year when I went to a writing group run by an inexperienced teacher here in Pittsburgh. We were to write about 9/11 and my immediate reaction that I felt nothing at all. I felt this way because I felt I was being told what to do and writing is release from that. I’m not saying it is wrong to write about justice, but for me, creativity is unbiddable, wild, beyond agendas. Not to say that the plea for justice does not emerge, as in Heaney or here, Milosz.

By Czeslaw Milosz

In Rome on the Campo di Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors’ shoulders.

I thought of the Campo di Fiori
in Warsaw by a carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in mid-air.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
their tongue becomes for us
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed
on a new Campo di Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s fire.
(Warsaw, 1943)