Monthly Archives: January 2010

5th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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I had to go back to this post to find the earliest reference (Reya’s original blog post is lost in the mists) to the now Jan28moonannual Silent Poetry Reading in honor of Brigid (Saint or Goddess, as you prefer). And while the first invitation was for a single day’s blogging event, watching the misty full moon tonight got me thinking of a favorite line from a poem that I want to offer, so I will simply declare that this year’s event has begun!

Life is hard enough; why shouldn’t we take all the full moon weekend leading up to February 2nd to celebrate this patroness of the arts and healing, and read her a poem or two?

For those of you with dormant blogs (ahem, Oak and Pandora!), now would be a great time to dust them off and offer up a poem. And for those of you who are more web-savvy (I’m looking at you, Yvonne and Cat), perhaps there is a way to aggregate everyone’s contributions, so that it is easier to have a glass of wine on Brigid’s feast day and browse through all the great poems.

Update: Yvonne has set up a system: if you post a poem this weekend, go to delicious.com and enter your post url with the tag brighid2010. (Or get a geeky friend to do it for you; it’s not super intuitive.) If you just want to read all the poetry, search for the brighid2010 tag at delicious and all our posts will show up together. Magic!

This is a poem I wrote back in 1990. I remembered it because the last line came back to me tonight, and I still really like it. Here it is.

The Basket
(after John Berryman)

What should I do, evenings, cobwebs
swaying in the rafters and three finely
printed invitations nailed to the

message board? (they quote Neruda, say
Bring the Children, or Softball at the
Reception) But marriage? Why flower

the hair or slip new diamonds through ears,
when the chapels are emptying: vessels
thrown with relief into rivers, small

silver placed in the notches of trees and
bells over arms of sky? The bride’s demure
look is not modesty but ambivalence—notice

the primrose which holds her gaze as he
leads her out of the valley. The day I
ate caviar from your navel and we pulled

each other through the brush to gather
the sweetest berries, I thought you were
a finely feathered basket, serpent-coiled

and watertight. We have been each others’
alibis, laughing as the caterers filled our
plates, saying we were too young to know

better, with the happy couple making the
evil eye behind our backs. Now, three-fingered,
I sit nights mending coil, sedge soaking

in the dish pan. I will make them one with
blue feathers, tell them marriage is not bells
but the basket, and we its constant gleaners.

Viva Haiti

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I have just spent an hour watching the excellent Rachel Maddow interview people about the public health disaster unfolding in Port au Prince. Once the visual shock of some of the images registered—the wounded lined up in the hallways and parking lots of barely functioning hospitals, the man lying on the ground whose IV had run dry and who was slowly dying while family members held his hands—I began to realize that my personal connection to this scene felt like more than that of a casual viewer.

I have in my home a couple pieces of furniture made from fine Haitian mahogany. The story behind them goes that my grandfather, a Naval doctor, was stationed in Haiti during the U.S. occupation. His job was to oversee construction and be officer in charge of one of the many rural hospitals the U.S. built. Unfortunately, I do not know the exact area. Roads were quite scarce in Haiti at the time, so my grandfather rode out every day on horseback to oversee his hospital.

One morning after a great storm, he rode through the woods to work and came upon two giant mahogany trees that had been felled by lightning the night before. He had his men go out and bring the trees back to the compound, and later had a local carpenter make a whole set of furniture to his specifications.

I am quite sure that as a Naval officer my grandfather perpetuated our racist, destructive governance of Haiti in many ways. I also know that he was a good man and a strong leader, and that he probably ran an efficient hospital. It breaks my heart to read that, of all the ill that was done to Haiti during the occupation, one good thing that did endure were the hospitals we built—many of the buildings were still functional well into the 1990s.

My father was conceived in Haiti, and in the latter part of 1926 my grandmother sailed to Washington D.C. so that Dad wouldn’t be born on the island. (Her standard joke: “I didn’t want to have a black baby!” As a child, this really confused me.) My grandfather joined her later and ended up doing the delivery himself, when her regular doctor was out at a D.C. New Year’s Eve party.

Pop-pop (as we called him) returned to his post shortly after my dad was born, but my grandmother stayed with family in New Jersey for another couple months before travelling with the baby back to Haiti. During her absence my father’s older brother, not yet 2, stayed in the care of Haitian nuns.

Haiti needs our help long-term. After this crisis has passed, we need to figure out how to help the people of Haiti without repeating the missteps of our ill-begotten occupation a century ago. Can we do it? Can we aid the infrastructure, literacy, health care and survival needs of the country, while making sure that the system we help build is what Haiti wants and is capable of sustaining in our absence?

My family had a hand in the meddling—and also did some good in the country. I have an old gateleg table, in need of some repair but well-built out of beautiful wide mahogany boards, that reminds me of my connection to the country every day. May all go well, may relief get to those in need, may Haiti emerge stronger and more vibrant than ever. Viva Haiti.

How To Survive a Divorce

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I did not buy my home on my own. It was bought several years ago by my then-husband and me, as we looked to the future and decided that we wanted a house on the California coast to retire to. We got a fixer for a great price, and spent the next couple of years working on it so we could rent it out as we waited for those golden years of retirement to roll around.

As you can probably guess, that’s not what happened. Well before the housing market sprung a leak, our marriage did. And what was going to be a dream vacation home waiting for our habitation became a half-finished crash pad that I moved into when it was clear I needed to leave.

In the years since, I have learned a thing or two about surviving the breakup of a long-term marriage. Not from reading books on the subject — I stay away from most self-help books like the plague. My friends were the ones I turned to, kvetched to, and leaned on throughout the seemingly endless divorce process.

The principles I learned and practiced got me through those four years, and continue to serve me well in my new, post-divorce life. So on the off-chance that someone else is in the same predicament, here are the five most important principles I learned for surviving a divorce.

1. Know what you are in for. Because many of my close friends had also been through bad breakups, I learned a surprising amount from them about what to expect. But the best road map came from a therapist who said, “it takes four years to get through a break-up.” I protested when she said this — who wants to hear after two months of sheer agony that there are 46 more to go?

She continued: “The first year is awful. But the second year is worse, because while things are just as hard, you’re exhausted from doing this for a year already. By year three the drama has calmed down a bit, and you start getting your new bearings. And the fourth year is the clean-up year, taking care of details you let go, and moving on with your life.”

I have to say, she was right. Like it or not, it does take about four years to get through the whole thing. (Not including co-parenting, of course, which is a lifetime gig.)

2. Always face the dragon. During a divorce, there are so many days when you just want to do nothing. And of course, you need lots of down time. But often you want to do nothing because there is one thing you really need to do that you just dread. Maybe it’s talking to a financial adviser, or filling out a complicated form. Maybe it’s having a difficult conversation with your ex. Whatever that one dreaded thing is, you have to do it. I call this “facing the dragon.”

Whenever I felt miserable, I went over in my mind all the things that were feeding my misery. Usually there was one task I really didn’t want to do, and my rule was that I had to do it. I could avoid everything else on the list, but that one thing I had to attend to. And you know what? It saved my ass. It was grueling and painful, but I showed up prepared when I needed to be prepared, and handled important things in a timely manner. I am thankful every day for all the effort I put in when I really didn’t want to get off the couch.

3. Hunker down. When you’re not facing the dragon, you do get to collapse sometimes. Do things that give you pleasure, or at least take the edge off, and bow out of anything you’re doing that isn’t helping you survive. Social events that you’ve lost interest in? Let them go. Friends that leave you feeling drained? Take a raincheck.

Be responsible, especially if you’ve got kids to take care of, but aside from that take stock of the things you no longer want to do, and drop them. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to re-shape your life by staying focused on what is important and letting the rest fall away.

4. Sometimes, it’s good to watch The Godfather. That was the advice of a trusted friend who listened to me complain one day about the injustices I was dealing with. I laughed, but she repeated herself: “No really, go and watch it. I can’t explain it, but you’ll feel much better.”

I decided to humor her and rent the movie, though I didn’t think it would help. But once I hit the video store I ended up in a near-trance walking down the aisles, and I left the store with not one but three DVDs tucked under my arm: I’d rented The Godfather, but I also got V for Vendetta and The Corpse Bride. When I emerged from the next two days of cathartic movie-watching I realized my friend was right: I did feel much better.

5. Give yourself room to grow. My half-finished crash pad had the beginnings of a lovely garden, and after a few months of neglect I realized that if I let it all die, it would very quickly be the most depressing-looking house to come home to. I resolved to replace the dead plants right away, and make sure all of them were hooked up to water.

As I was planting them, I followed the instructions and left what seemed like a ridiculously large amount of room around each plant. Apparently those little starts would grow quite big someday. I doubted it, but gave them room anyway.

Meanwhile, I had a house with a cavernous bedroom to furnish, and I had to decide what size bed to get. Should I be frugal and get a double or (shudder) a single? Or should I buy a large bed that was the right size for the room, and that said rather strongly that I planned to stay here and did not intend to sleep alone forever? Maybe because I had been so optimistic with the plants, I decided to get a big bed, with the best quality mattress. Every night for a long time I went to sleep alone, but in the most comfortable bed I had ever slept in.

The next year, my little plantings filled out in the garden and were very happy I’d given them the room they needed. And after all those difficult years, I am so very grateful now that I chose to be optimistic about my bed and other things, and gave myself enough room to grow.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.