Saturday, January 23, 2016

It's Where My Story Begins: short pieces on a theme

I asked a few friends I know from the haiku world to share short prose pieces with me, so I could share them with others. Here they are — on the theme "Childhood Homes"

The House at 2141 Eunice Street
former northern border of Berkeley, California
by Alan Bern

2141 Eunice was the second of three family houses in which we lived in Berkeley, all three within one square block. It is the house I remember best as a young child, with the scary basement where the beer my father was making blew up.

Decades after leaving the third house and living away from Berkeley, I returned and moved with my family next door to the third house, where my parents still lived. I have lived in that house for over 30 years.

The man who bought my parents’ second house had let it run down, to the point that the front steps were so worn and splintered they had to be roped off. When the man died, his family began to restore it — this process went on for years, and eventually the construction company gave up. Then the family tore it down and built a new house.

Passing by on my neighborhood walk, I noticed that it looked like the former second house. When this house went on the market, I went to an open house; very spiffy, yet it was as if I were back in my second childhood house, almost a replica. I told the realtor, and all the prospective buyers who would listen, of the similarities. No one cared. The realtor became antsy, fearing that I was taking energy away from her selling the house.

I told them it was a ghost house. In a good way, of course.


Second Block, Third House Down
Akron, Ohio

by Barbara Tate

An older replica of my younger self, I lock myself away filling the hours, rewinding memories of Flint Avenue, second block, third house down. The pungent smell of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, where Grandpa worked, hung heavy in the air if the breeze was right.

Through an archway from the living room was the large dining room where Grandpa's desk had its place and I was assigned the bottom drawer for my treasures. I remember Grandpa's pens, ink bottles, and the desk pad with a blotter where, once in a while, he would allow me to fill a pen. It was at this desk where I was encouraged to fill page after page of scribbles no one but me could read, and where I later practiced my letters when I began school.

There was a window seat where Grandma's canaries sang, and lace curtains hung on the windows. It was where Grandma kept her easel, oil paints, and canvasses, where I helped her make a braided rug, and where we put together a puzzle on the table. It was a room where Grandpa read me stories and Grandma recited poetry and read me the complete text of "The Song of Hiawatha."  It was a sunshine room.

Now I need a pause to take a breath, and return my heartbeat to normal as I recall Flint Ave., second block, third house down, and remember I was happy then.


Nowhere Zen New Jersey*
North Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

by Carole Herzog-Johnston

In the 1950s, Cleremont Avenue was white concrete with a line of tar running down the middle, tar that melted hot in summers. Our street was so safe; we could squat down in the middle, pull that tar like taffy and sculpt tiny animals from it. Maple trees and sycamores lined up like dancers along the avenue, swirling green, swaying rain, inviting us to climb.

Backyards, divided by yew hedges and rows of roses, were imaginary worlds inhabited by dragons and Davy Crocket. We chattered and bellowed from house to house, calling each other out into the day on chalk-covered sidewalks where we hopscotched, sailed paper boats in puddles, made mud pies. Kids skipped, skated, and cartwheeled on green lawns, shrieking like banshees, pilfering marigolds from gardens, catching fireflies in glass jars.

Names were like a ship’s manifest from Ellis Island: Herzog, Paladino, Szabadick, Busby. My father told me we were all equal and no one was better than anyone else. We mixed it up with innocent, joyful abandon.

* A line from Allen Ginsberg


Growing Up
Duluth, Minnesota

by Jo Balistreri

Growing up on the second floor of Grandma and Grandpa’s house at 1027 Lake Avenue South provided a childhood of wonder. Not only did I have the love of an extended family, but also a life of adventure.

Surrounded on three sides by Lake Superior, the only way to the mainland was to walk or drive over the famous Aerial Lift Bridge. The iron ore ships that required passage under the bridge signaled their approach with three guttural horn blasts. The bridge answered with a wailing siren. A slow process, this dialog permeated the air and gave us kids ample time to run to the harbor, climb up on the cement piers, and watch the steel girders rise into space, allowing the enormous ships to pass through. Because the harbor sat in a bowl of hills, thick fog often descended. The fog horn was another voice of our childhood, mysterious and lonely as it helped lost ships and visited our dreams.

Music also played a major role in my life. My grandma was a concert pianist and Grandpa played violin with the symphony. At night we’d gather in the living room to hear them practice. My sister and I would color, and mother knit. Dad read the paper. When it was time for bed, Grandpa would play Träumerei, or a Brahms lullaby. Childhood, a medley of sound, is the golden thread that still runs through my life.


The Rosary, Lucerne Street
Kent, United Kingdom

by Joanna M. Weston

Set among the hop fields of Kent was a small village with a post office/general store, and a pub. From the single street, I would open the green painted wooden gate, go past pink rambler roses tangled with goldenrod, and walk up a path of worn red bricks to the black front door. It was an old house, built in Kentish style with a two-storey uncompromising front, and a roof that sloped down almost to the ground at the back. Red brick and red tiled, all faded.

The rooms were small, with a front parlor and a kitchen complete with a deep "copper" for washing sheets, an uneven brick floor, and scrubbed wooden table. Here Mother piled washing, did the ironing with old flat-irons, made meringues or bread. The shallow stone sink sat below the window, which gave a view through crowding winter jasmine of hop fields, pasture with sheep, and orchards.


Childhood Memories
Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil

by Rosa Clement

My story begins in an old wooden house that had three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen where most of the action happened. It was located in a small dead end street near downtown, where everybody was a friend of everybody. It was natural to borrow a cup of sugar from our neighbor and pay it back sometime later.

My mom raised chickens and ducks in our backyard, and we kids often pampered one of them in our lap. In those days we walked to go everywhere — to the supermarket, to the church, to school — because they were all close to home.

My sister and I spent long hours gardening and playing with the neighborhood boys and girls after returning from school. There were no cars in this small street and we had lots of space to play. It was a sweet time.


A Nest
Chillum, Maryland

by Theresa A. Cancro

It looks so small now, but the boxy 1950s house seemed big to me, encircled by a neat, white picket fence. There was a playhouse out back that Daddy had built for us kids, complete with a pot-bellied stove. On snowy days, we'd gather inside with friends and roast marshmallows or sip steamy cups of hot cocoa.

One spring, I watched in fascination from our living room window as three blue eggs hatched in a tidy nest deep within the pyracantha bush. Over the next two weeks, I was glued to that window to catch glimpses of the baby robins and their mother in nonstop feedings. Then one afternoon when I came home from school, I found they had fledged.


Plants and Planets
Ithaca, New York

by Tom Clausen

My father worked at Cornell University, studying and teaching about plants. As a young child I thought plants must be quite important since that was how he got money to allow our family to live. In a sense I thought my existence was at least in part due to plants. But I began to recognize that people at Cornell were interested in all sorts of things. Our neighbor worked there too and he studied atoms, apparently. I was amazed at all that was going on over there.

My parents took me to the Fuertes Observatory one night to look in a huge telescope to see the surface of the moon. It was incredible to go up the spiral staircase and put my eye to the eyepiece and see that far away that close up. They had glass photo slides of planets and nebulae and I was now able to look into the night sky to see constellations and planets. I even heard that there was no known end to space. In one science unit at school they talked about the Big Bang when the universe began.

To this day I do not understand it any better than I did then, but apparently that was when it all began.


I Believe in Miracles
Moldavia, Romania

by Virginia Popescu

I have my first clear memories from a very young age — I was about three years old back then. I still see my mother, under the old walnut tree, carefully holding a soft boiled egg in her left hand, and in her right hand she held a wooden spoon.

Under the walnut, there was a long table with two benches on each side. On one of them, we used to sit down, the three of us kids, waiting for the Holy Communion, with our mouths wide open and staring at the wonderful egg.

In the middle of the table, on a wooden platter, a yellow maize porridge was shining in all majesty, sliced with a thread.

“Did you get porridge?” Mom was asking us, standing. “Yes,” we were all answering in one shout.

That’s when the ritual started. With the spoon handle, Mom was taking a bit of the white of the egg and a bit of the yolk, carefully feeding her starving children.

This was all happening after the Second World War, which had brought, together with all the other disasters, a terrible famine to Moldavia. My mother told us that the people who had a few sacks of corn in their barns were considered wealthy.

“You’ve had enough?" She was asking us, with a voice that wouldn’t have accepted any comments, and we were all answering as in the army: “Yes!”

Then, her face was glowing with happiness.

I see her clearly, a sacred image. Thin, pale, with big black eyes, with her dark hair swept back. I wonder now, after all these years, what my mother and father were eating. Maybe the rest of maize porridge left on the wooden platter.

Later on I read in the New Testament the episode of the five loaves of bread and of the five fish, without being too surprised by this miracle.

I always thought the egg that my mother was using to feed her three children was more amazing.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Things We Like: a collective list, by 57 contributors

The idea for this list came from my dear friend Kathleen Thompson who shares her own Like List (and also her Dislike List) in her new book, The Project-Driven Life: How to Figure Out What You Want to be When You Grow Up.

I like . . . . saying the word aubergine; old photographs of my mom; my thick, wavy hair; forsythia blooming in December; trees, pictures of trees, sculptures of trees, thinking of trees; the sound of the singing bowl; hearing an "old" song, singing along, and knowing all the words; balancing my uncertainties against Neruda's The Book of Questions; dirt under my fingernails; the exhalations of whales and the acceptance of crows; my garden Buddha beside the black gnomes; taking my winter coat out of the closet; seeing the moon with a planet close by; wild turkeys outside the kitchen window; getting up in the morning with no aches and pains; a new ball of yarn, preferably a slightly variegated shade of blue or purple . . . or maybe red; a phone call from my kids, any time; the first snow of the season, and having someone else shovel it off the sidewalks; waterfalls!  — anywhere, any size — tiny to towering.

I like . . . . putting my face close to my horse's nostrils and breathing in his exhalations; telling my horse all about my day when I get to the barn after work; getting a letter in the mail from a beloved friend — even better when it has drawing on the envelope or dried flowers inside; telling people stories about my father; handmade art of almost any type; chamber music in 25-minute doses; warm boots on a cold day; long talks with a friend about everything and nothing; trying out new recipes; having a poem I've written accepted for publication; reading in bed; early morning bird song; late evenings with fire on the clouds; summer grass waving against a blue sky; ripe fruit from our orchard; deliberately mispronounciating words just to see if anyone is brave enough to correct me; holding a dying person's hand and marveling again: how is it possible to be that beautiful?; reading the poem "in Just-" by E. E. Cummings, because its perfection couldn't be more perfect and sometimes I need to remember that there are things in this world that are just exactly perfect.

I like . . . . my brown skin; my ass; making radical theatre; waking and baking; garlic; the way that building hip-hop beats feels both scientific and spiritual; watching dolphins cavort in the surf; the sign for "I love you" in American Sign Language; watching the dance of northern lights at dusk; the smell of a new book when I open its cover for the first time; the panoply of colors cast by the sun through stained glass; sleeping on boats, in a tent, on the couch with War and Peace fallen to my chest; surf-polished lettered-olive shells on the beach, in my pocket, by the basketful; turtles, marine and terrestrial, totemic and fetishistic; the smell of basements; wondering in whose houses my used books once lived; compasses that seem to be alive in my hand, my direction always changing; the curve of an open canoe; how a Thermos keeps my tea warm all day; feeling alone and in charge of my solitude; my mother's words on paper: for your birthday, the moon and stars . . . wish I could give you more.

I like . . . . strawberry jello mixed with vanilla ice cream; competitive Scrabble games; Gabrielle Münter's paintings; learning etymologies of English words; Wednesday's New York Times crossword puzzle; Leonard Cohen; playing poker; British New Wave films; a pixie haircut; Keuka Lake nights, the sky black with bats; roller skating freely in my dreams; the New York red-tailed hawk, Pale Male; smoked whitefish on a sesame bagel; any music written by George Gershwin; Gustav Klimt paintings; being up early enough to see a pink sky at sunrise; paddling a kayak alone on a river; purchasing what promises to be a great novel in a bookstore; putting on a cotton T-shirt fresh from the dryer; de-cluttering my home; the movie previews before the main feature; animal crackers before bed; the haiku path in Honey Run, Ohio; brass bells — of which I have many and of various sizes; ice skating; drafting pencils with no. 7 lead; daisies; walking through a mangrove forest.

I like . . . . sparrows in the honeysuckle; Grandma's crocheted tablecloth; icicles in sunlight; a good tomato; finishing a poem; watching the sky at my feet, in a puddle, after rainfall; red nailpolish; listening to the radio while in a taxi; learning about Japanese traditions; sleeping in a train at night, in the upper bed; the sound of a chickadee tapping a seed; how bumblebees stir the purple wisteria; candling duck eggs on a rainy day; the play of sunlight on a hummingbird’s throat; first sight of the shrimp boats coming home; the clucking of chickens going to roost; eating someone else's cooking; a cat's judgment; a hug from a kind stranger; root beer delivered by a carhop; thrift-store treasures that no one else noticed; passionate kisses in my mind; the word puce; rain-kissed hair; bright red wool socks.

I like . . . . the wind on my neck after a haircut; strolling through the streets of London; getting to the bus stop just as the right bus arrives; hotel bedrooms, hotel breakfast rooms, and hotel bars; the last blackbird song before nightfall; a winter’s morning, when hoar frost has subtly changed the shape of the world; flower meadows full of butterflies that don’t mind being photographed; the gentle grip of a rock-wallaby's hands; singing the very low notes; Noel Coward’s arch, clever, vivisecting lyrics; the small thrill when the car starts right up on a cold morning, and another when the heater kicks in; the fiddle and banjo music for a square dance, and the giggles of little kids trying to keep up with the caller’s cues; near-monochromatic frosty mornings, orchard and lawn sugar-coated in sparkling silvery grey, punctuated by the few hold-out yellow winter-banana apples and the brilliant-red cardinal pecking under the icy feeder; friends — some are lost, some are found.

I like . . . . having my 75-year-old mother do my hair; knowing that I made a really good decision even if it does hurt sometimes; the sound of my cat snoring; anything that makes me laugh out loud; working a jigsaw puzzle in front of a crackling fire while sipping a glass of pinot noir; reading bedtime stories to my grandkids; that sinking feeling that happens when waves lap over your feet and the warm sand washes away beneath them; the infinite possibilities when I am starting to write a new novel; beautifully illustrated children's books; doll-sized tea sets; watching my dog's tail twirl like a cheerleader's pom pom as she runs toward me; singing in a group; whistling while recalling my grandmother whistling; independent bookstores, used bookstores, big bookstores, little bookstores, knowing there are still bookstores; going for a walk when the sky is dropping lace doilies.

I like . . . . the smell of particular crabapple blossoms; the stories shadows tell; tapioca on the tongue; having my hair stroked absentmindedly; friendly comments from strangers; artichoke hearts; walking on carpets of pine needles in the woods; the hiss of a lantern at night in a lakeside cabin; Grandpa and Grandma; gospel songs; looking at old photos, remembering; knowing that an abandoned dog has been rescued; watching the fire grow after spending a lot of time lighting it; stepping onto solid ground after being on a plane; taking off a pair of tight shoes and walking barefoot; singing in the shower; going to certain shows alone, sitting in the darkened theatre, and not having to talk to anyone; doing historical research; Shakespeare; driving really fast and a little bit recklessly; staying at home in my nightshirt all day long; wearing black clothes, all the time.

I like . . . . my grandson's smile, his red hair, his blue eyes, his laugh; telling jokes; my dead people — I remember them in my heart; cooking for friends; creating art, all sorts; exercising at the gym and breathing more deeply when I'm finished; singing full volume in the car, alone and out-of-tune; writing limericks during a dull meeting; chocolate cake for breakfast; the cat purring on my desk while I write a poem; a hot bath at the end of a long day; moonrise in the desert; two out, bottom of the ninth, the game on the line; a Turner seascape — the swirling dark of it; the coast of Cornwall; the breathless rush of mountain streams; calculations that go one hundred percent right; winning a bet on myself, against myself; free books; landscapes through my camera's eye; new notebooks to write in; my job, which allows me to laugh with people every day; the sound of siblings giggling together.

I like . . . . my sister's loyalty; Dave Brubeck's Take Five; sliced mango; the yip of a coyote; wearing my grandma's amethyst ring, grateful that we have the same finger size; wearing 10-year-old shoes to walk with my 10-year-old dog; finding letters, while cleaning the attic, that were sent to me by my first love; swimming in brackish water; remembering to take out the recycling; injera bread; listening to my loved ones play music; peeling clementines; biking down a well-trodden path; the word trodden; sweaters so cozy you want to sleep in them; the interior of a living room reflected in a window at night, light and darkness coexisting inside the same rectangle; kneading clay; flying kites; watching an old movie with new friends; laughing too hard for it to be good for your ribs; climbing onto roofs; anything Scandinavian.

I like . . . . getting up before everyone else and going to bed before everyone else; arriving at a place of insight when life is difficult; anything I can wear on my feet; knowing I have wonderful friends who love me; the sound of wind chimes when the wind is from the east; fine-point pens; sheets that have dried in the sun; organizing the piles of papers on my desk; arriving home from a trip and settling into my regular routine; hearing my sister's voice on my answering machine; seeing the red-bellied woodpecker come to our feeder; accompanying “golden oldies” for the Senior Community Chorus when they sing at area retirement and nursing homes; rough-sorting books in preparation for the Friends of the Library booksale; the first cigar of the day; knowing that every day is a blessing. 

I like . . . planning menus with elaborate dishes that I will never prepare since I reject recipes with more than ten ingredients, but that I love to consider when I am lying awake at 3:21 in the morning; staying in the shower too long even though I know I should conserve water, but I am so caught up in the enveloping cascade, I have trouble persuading myself to get on with it and get out; drawing cats (because I'm good at that); doing karate; writing, and dancing, and spending time with my family; learning all sorts of new things; playing the guitar; doing algebra; napping; Brian Wilson's falsetto; my brother's imitation of Neil Diamond; the novel To Make Others Happy, by Patrick Robbins; the joy of simple things; daydreaming; feeling the strong and steady beat of my own heart; manual typewriters; slow dancing to the old tunes, cheek to cheek with my beloved; conspiratorial whispering.

I like . . . . having clocks from the Lab of Ornithology, in every room, announcing the hour with genuine birdsong; hearing the Western Meadowlark, the state bird of Kansas, every day at 5 p.m. sharp; talking to animals without using any words; being retired and not always having to know what day of the week it is; getting my sister to laugh about something silly; watching my mother's home movies from the 1950s; admiring my collection of 18 watches, deciding which one to wear or carry in my pocket today; pulling money out of the ATM machine — it is so warm; recalling one of my first memories (peeling the bark off a sycamore tree and revealing tiny red ants); eating crèmes brûlée; having inspired conversation with good friends while sharing food and drink; intellectual stimulation; positive people who spread their good energy around; reading the last chapter of a novel first; finding hopscotch grids chalked on the sidewalk; writing with purple ink; anything that was written by Grace Paley; my mother's nearly illegible handwriting; being alive; making lists of favorite things.

With gratitude to all the contributors:

Alan Catlin
Alice Damp
Ana Drobot 
Barbara Cartwright
Barbara Hay
Barbara Tate
Beal St. George
Carol Kammen
Caroline Gates-Lupton
Catherine Rigutto
David J. Kelly
Deanalís Resto
Edith Gallagher
Edna S. Brown
Ferris Gilli
Gabrielle Vehar
Garima Behal
Jan Benson
Jo Balistreri
Joan Corr
Joan McNerney
Joann Grisetti
Joanna M. Weston
Josh Gates-Lupton
Judith Sornberger
Judy Cogan
June Wolfman
Karen O'Leary
Karla Linn Merrifield
Kathleen Thompson
Lance Robertson
Laura Gates-Lupton
Margaret Jones
Marty Blue Waters
Maureen Sudlow
Michael Lakin
Mihal Ronen
Mort Levinson
Nancy Osborn
Olivier Schopfer
Pat Geyer
Patrick Robbins
Peggy Haine
Phyllis Lee
Rebecca Gates-Lupton
Rosa Clement
Roxanne VanWormer
Sara Robbins
Saskya van Nouhuys
Sherron Brown
Siouxsie Easter
Sue Norvell
Susan Lesser
Theresa A. Cancro
Tricia Knoll
Weiwei Luo
Zee Zahava