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Back in Texas

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

It was a better trip than my best dreams of what it could be. Ansie and Gallo and I had a great time exploring one little piece of Mexico and getting to know each other better, and while it is good to see my young adult daughter again, it’s hard to come back to the mundane world of laundry, grocery shopping, brushing the cat, opening the mail, etc. Driving home from the airport I was struck by how colorless all the buildings are–beige, gray, white. About the most colorful thing we have around here is red brick. Blah. But it’s a glorious spring day and the leaves are unfurling, so I can’t be too grouchy. I’ve posted my photos of Guanajuato on my photo site. I didn’t take many photos, and many of the ones I took were useless, but Gallo and Ansie outdid themselves. As soon as I get theirs, I’ll post the link on here so anyone who reads this can really see what it was like!

Life, Death, Hate, and Photographs

Monday, March 5th, 2007

An artist friend with whom I hope to work more in the future was here for a weekend rich in talk, plans, ideas, feelings, and even a little work: connection in this moment and possibilities for the future, as well as exploration of some web sites with remarkable work on them (more in a post to come). I attended a memorial service Saturday, a time of letting go and letting grief happen while also paying tribute. In the church were photographs of him, his family, his changes, his work; an oil portrait; one of his sculptures. The group that assembled to mark the passing of a remarkable man was as unconventional and various as he was, himself: his sister, his children and grandchildren, church ladies, bikers, artists, academics, hanging buddies, and his Honduran wife’s daughter and her extraordinarily beautiful family. Also on Saturday I got some virulent hate mail connected with something I had mentioned in the blog, which taught me that there are some people I cannot bring into the blog, no matter how important they are to me (about which more in a moment). And I spent a couple of hours at the Menil, looking at the surrealist collection I know so well, at Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard creations, and at an amazing photography exhibit. [read on]

More on Steve Richardson and Impermanence

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Today marks a week since Steve’s body was found dead. The memorial service isn’t till Saturday, March 3. This past week, no matter what I was doing, I was trying to take in the specific truth of Steve’s death, the fact that we won’t go dumpster-diving for materials for his art again, the fact that I won’t have a chance to watch him scanning for things to use in his work, things to give other people, things to love. It was a glorious weekend in south Texas: afternoons in the 70s F., bright sun, weeds breaking into flower, the redbud trees just about to burst into flame. Steve didn’t get to see this, I thought. I do. Don’t miss any of it. [read on]

“Look at that!”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Steve Richardson was a sculptor who made his living as a butcher. I have to say was. Two days ago is. Now, was. He was cremated today, but I don’t believe it. Can’t take it in. Not yet. Say it again. Steve Richardson was a sculptor who made his living as a butcher. He was about my age, and he loved being alive. His neighbor found him dead on his couch Monday morning, probably from a heart attack. Steve lived a working-class life in the working-class town of Rosenberg, Texas, and most of the people in Steve’s life couldn’t see the value of his work. He didn’t care. He made things because he had to. Because he loved making. [read on]

My day job: loving it!

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Great day in the classroom! One of the courses I teach is “Humanities”–a polyglot course created as an alternative for students who hate to read and can’t handle literature classes but have to get a “humanities” credit to satisfy the State of Texas that they’re educated. I send them out into the streets and public spaces of Houston to experience paintings and drawings, sculpture, music, architecture, dance, theatre, photography, and film. I challenge them to find “art,” and I give them some basic terms so they can talk about what they’ve seen. Today I left the classroom in a state very near levitation. Here’s why: [read on]

Raise More Hell, Molly Ivins

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Driving to work this morning, I heard that Molly Ivins has left the planet. Wherever she’s headed, that’s where I want to go when I die. She was an age-mate, and though I never met her, I grew up with her. I loved her motto, “Raise More Hell.” I loved her for being wise, funny, tough, and clear. I loved her for saying, “hearts gotta bleed…” and going public with unabashed, unsentimental compassion. Her article on not supporting Hillary Clinton and remembering Eugene McCarthy is an example of what I think she did best–and she wrote it while she was dying. How did she do that? This, I think, was her last column: “Enough is Enough: Stop It” (the surge, the war, the whole damn mess). Her instantly recognizable combination of humor, populism, and plain good sense was as vibrant as ever. I hope she died laughing.

Gratitude

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Putting aside all the world issues I cannot help, putting aside my griefs and questions, I walked this morning for a long time in the foggy dew, grateful for what passes for autumn in Texas. Not the spectacular leaf colors of the north; a more subtle shift of season, but beautiful to my eyes, smelling just the way autumn smells everywhere, and for many mild weeks. The sun came up among rosy clouds fading to golden yellow. The Chinaberry trees (as they are known here) are crimson and dotted with round white seeds that look like popcorn. Deciduous trees fade to rust and scatter yellow-brown leaves on the still-green grass. Migrating birds from the north take respite in our gentle mornings and gorge themselves on a plenitude of insects. I am grateful for this place. On the site where I stored my pictures of Portugal, I have uploaded pictures of this place and my family in it. All I feel is gratitude, intense gratitude, gratitude spilling over: for this place, for my little niche in it, for new and old friends, for a lifetime of memories, for the fact that my body and mind are still working well enough for what they need to do, and for the possibility that lies ahead. My son Chris called on Thanksgiving, wondering what lies ahead for me. I told him I’m going to retire from teaching in one more year, but after that I have no idea. He laughed, “That’s you, Mom. Everything is always a surprise. Nothing is ever planned or predictable.” Yes, I laughed, to my son who has lived in Tucson almost every day of his forty years; yes, I laughed, to my son who stayed married to his high school sweetheart for twenty years, till she was so severely addicted to methamphetamines that she endangered their children. Yes, I laughed, with real joy. Everything is always a surprise. He, too, is beginning to appreciate the delights of possibility, the wonder of the unpredictable. We are both grateful for our lives.

Gaza, Iraq, and Americans go shopping

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

Over the American Thanksgiving weekend there has been news: another cease-fire in Gaza, after a sixty-eight-year-old suicide-bomber martyred herself and gave new meaning to the world’s image of grandmotherly. I deplore her attempt to do harm to others, but I respect her nerve. Suicide-bombers, whatever they may be, are not cowards. A BBC news reporter observes that Palestinian women are “taking a more active role” in the conflict. Every time I see the news, I cry. More deaths by the minute in Iraq: parades of people beat their chests in grief, holding coffins aloft against a background of bombed-out buildings and burnt-out cars. Starvation and rape in Darfur, former Russian KGB-man murdered by radioactive material smaller than a sesame seed, more tension in Beirut, quick-stop adoptions of malnourished children in Ethiopia. But lest we despair, there is football, the Macy’s parade, the national dog show. Through it all, Americans celebrate the national day of thanks-giving by shopping and worshipping their gods: one woman who waited in line for thirty-two hours kisses her Playstation 3, sobs for joy, and whispers, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, God, for letting me get my Playstation 3.” A young man who camped for two days on the sidewalk next to an electronic discount store tells the news camera, “It was worth missing Thanksgiving dinner. I got a plasma TV for 50% off!” In a bizarre twist of cultural juxtaposition, a major network plays the movie Family Man, in which viewers are manipulated to “feel good” when a brilliant, promising man and woman sacrifice education, culture, material wealth, exciting careers, and the power to create authentic lives for a conventional life in New Jersey, complete with 2-story house, mini-van, bowling, cocktail parties, and two children: this film interrupted by ads for a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to help people sleep, calm their “restless legs,” and overcome depression and plaque in their arteries. We are exhorted subliminally to be like everybody else, turn off our minds, go bowling, get drunk, sing karaoke, buy new toys, and take drugs. This afternoon I went to the park and walked off my grief, listening to the rustle of squirrels in fallen leaves, the whirr of insects in the grass, the movement of clouds against the clear blue sky. A line from Whitman which I taught on Monday surfaced in my mind as I walked: “demented with the mania of owning things.” What is the anti-dote to this mania?

Death Row in Texas

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

Today John and I got a letter from one of the prisoners who was in our writing workshop for two years. That prisoner has served many years and is due to be released soon, but he was recently moved to the prison where death row is located, in Huntsville. From his cell, he can see the protesters who gather with signs every time there’s an execution. He says there’s a Subway Sandwich shop right behind where the protesters gather, and he notices both the protesters and the people buying sandwiches, going on with their lives. He’s on the “grounds keeping crew.” He says their job is to cut the grass, move furniture, plant flowers, and dig graves and bury prisoners who die in custody–both those who are executed and those who die of what the state calls “natural causes.” He writes, “We bury on average three or four a week. At the cemetery sometimes there are family members who show up. I used to think myself hard, not moved by other people‚Äôs feelings. Now I look at those family members and feel tight in the throat. Worse, sometimes we go out there and drop three or four coffins in the holes. No family to say goodbye, nothing.” Others in the workshop have talked or written about what it’s like when someone dies in prison. Within minutes the body disappears, and before a day has passed another prisoner is assigned to that bed. Death doesn’t scare us; invisibility does. Being ignored, forgotten, treated like a disposable thing, instantly replaceable: that chills us, makes us feel “tight in the throat.” We want our passing to be noticed. Yesterday I saw the film Paradise Now, a work of genius that takes us into the minds and spirits of two young men who decide to become suicide bombers. When one of the “martyrs” makes his final video, delivering his speech to the world and his farewell to his family, the camera doesn’t function properly, so he has to say his farewell speech all over again; the second time he delivers his speech, it comes off just short of absurd, and two of the “crew” stand by, calmly watching and munching on the lunch his mother prepared for him that morning.

Reasons to Live

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

The assignment for the writing workshop Thursday night is to write about what we love, using the “toys” of poetry: line-breaks, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme. I’m ready:

Reasons to Live

wet loam and waist-high weeds breathe
on a Texas morning after a hard rain

turnip greens and pot likker soak into cornbread,
cream splays out over hot peach cobbler

aging lovers spoon to Cleo Laine and a sax
while leaf shadows dance on the bedroom wall

Carolina snow-melt tumbles over stream beds
in a shower of shell-pink mountain laurel blossoms

intense yellow dandelions fleck a lush green meadow
loud with crickets in the south of France

bougainvillea flings a spray of super-saturated
crimson over a blue tile wall in Guanajuato

a tabby cat in Georgia rolls on his back and arches
against the red earth, purring for a belly-rub

in wool socks and plaid pajamas, she strokes her
pregnant belly as snowflakes float past a street light

fat brown toes sink into the sand caressed by
the foam on a beach by the Indian Ocean

in an autumn fog, five silver geese
honk for the dawn in New Orleans

an old woman, arms aloft, dances to the beat
of a base drum in the ancient city of Braga [read on]