Funny Duchess

Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

August 6, 2018

Rare

“Benjamin, there’s something moving under that plastic bag!”

We were standing on the water’s edge of Tarrytown Lake. Wedged between the rocks was a crumpled, black plastic bag and something was poking its head against it, over and over.

Before Benjamin could take a look, I concluded that it was a turtle in need of rescue. Grabbing a nearby stick, I was just about to lift the bag to free the poor thing, when Benjamin said, “Love, that’s not a turtle.”

Suddenly, a beautiful, reddish-brown snake wiggled from the rocks, disappearing into the water as I giggled with delight.

I love snakes. Every time we’re on a bike ride or a walk, I make a silent wish to see one. I love everything about them- their intense eyes, long bodies, hundreds of vertebrae, soft scales, shine and color, how they shed their skin, and most of all, how they move, flying over dirt or through water, connected to the elements, moving with speed and flexibility.

Consulting our Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, we learned that our lovely creature was a Northern Water Snake. Because of her cross bands, she can be misidentified as a Cotton Mouth or a Copperhead, but she is longer, more slender, with a flatter head the same width as her body. Gorgeous.

I also like to research the symbolism of different animal encounters. Seeing a snake can be interpreted as: a need to balance your energies between impulsivity and calm, a call to practice diplomacy in speech and writing and a reminder that you are dynamically intuitive.

Thank you, Lady Snake. I am constantly trying to stay in one place while dreaming of jumping on a train to anywhere. I always feel like I need to be careful, thoughtful with what I say and especially with what I write, and I often wish I could temporarily “turn of” my intuition, because it gets crowded inside. My friend Kate would tell me not to wish this for a second. She firmly defines intuition as a collection of the senses, something we should never lose, so Kate, I don’t really mean this. It’s just that sometimes a little mental space, without humans, helps me recharge. Thankfully, I always find quiet in the mornings.

I work on my posts at 5 am, looking out my studio window. For the past couple of mornings, I’ve seen a bat flitting above the grass, in and out of the light, close enough to my window to make out the shape of his little hand-wings before he goes swift into the woods.

I am lucky for this view. The list of creatures with whom I have shared this space grows and grows. It has included: song birds, crows, vultures, ospreys, hawks, swallowtails, monarchs, wild bees, a groundhog mama and baby, bucks, does, fawns, a turtle, a husky dog, cats, and recently, two rare sights, a red fox and a mink.

I first saw the pretty red fox emerge from the creek bed to the right or Northwest of my window. At first I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. It’s not every day you see a fox in your backyard. It’s not every day that you see them at all. In fact, I can count the total number of times I’ve had the privilege:

1. In Wisconsin, at my friend’s cabin, one sashayed across the yard with a snake in her mouth.

2. In Delaware, at Cape Henlopen State Park, a pup skirted along the trail, found a safe spot in the scrub pines, sat down and scratched his ear with his back leg.

3. Running along a ridge near Rockefeller State Park, I saw the silhouette of a fox. This sweetie was way too close to the highway, so I closed my eyes and willed her to be safe.

4. From my car window along a back road between Delaware and Maryland, I saw a pup jauntily walking a straight row of corn, looking so peppy, I wanted to jump out and play with him.

5. And in my backyard, foxy jumped from the creek bed onto the rock wall, using it like a tight rope, tip toeing deftly, making her way past my window and up the hill into the woods.

Symbolically, a fox sighting can ask you to: think creatively, seeking different approaches to a problem, be aware of your habits, utilize all of your resources for your goals, avoid making waves, adapt, be mindful of your surroundings and be still for the teachings.

Thank you, Lovely Fox. As I explore the business part of being a writer, I need to remember all of the above. I have written several query letters that will hopefully catch the attention of agents. I have been meta-writing, describing my work, drafting several ways to pitch it. I have researched publications that might be a good fit for my blended genre and conferences where I might have opportunities to speak face-to-face with people in the industry. And I’ve been checking myself, trying to be more patient, balanced and vigilant.

Perhaps when you practice learning from nature, more nature shows up. It could be luck, being in the right place at the right time, but I like symbols and signs, making connections, philosophizing. I have a humanoid brain after all, and spotting a mink did feel extra-ordinary.

I was standing at my kitchen window when I saw a black animal, low in the grass along the chain link fence that divides our backyard with the neighbor’s. At first I thought it was a cat (I always think ‘cat’), but he was almost slithering, shuffling too smooth and swift for a cat’s hunting crouch. Then I thought maybe he was a skunk, but he was thinner, with no white stripe, and his fur was more sleek than fuzzy. Finally, he lifted his head, and I swear for a second I thought he was a meerkat, because he turned his head side-to-side like a periscope. Adorable!

I looked him up, and sure enough, he was an American mink. They burrow near creek beds, so the little brook that runs along the edge of the woods must be his water source. It’s reassuring to think that that small amount of water can support so many species.

To see a mink can mean you are: drawn to deep study of complex concepts, capable of holding multiple, contrasting opinions, willing to go to painful places for knowledge, desirable for what you produce not necessarily for who you are, in constant need of seclusion to find nourishment, and aware of your need for a reserve of surplus, internal energy.

Yes! Thank you, Sir Mink. I do like to study ideas, and I can’t help but think critically, seeing things from many points of view. I have used physical pain as a teacher of my limits of movement. Solitude is an absolute craving, and I am constantly aware of preserving my energy, especially when social events are near.

The one that confuses me is being desirable for what you produce, not who you are. This could refer to the killing of minks for their coats and not recognizing their value to the ecosystem (many humans are slow in understanding this), but maybe for me this refers to my careers. I was a good teacher, but it wasn’t all of me, and while students needed me, I needed quiet more. When I finally put my books out into the world, I know there will be the promotional, social part, and I’ll do this, because it’s part of the process.

But I’ll be thinking about biking on a trail or being alone in my studio, writing my next book, waiting for the next fable of animals to teach me, just outside my window.

July 8, 2018

Thoughtless Walking, Playful Dancing

I am wandering trails again, long distances around lakes, beside marshes, under oaks and pines.

I am meandering streets in New York City, discovering coffee shops and used book stores.

There are no sharp jolts of pain or dull pulsing aches.

I do not need a cane.

I am free.

To return to movement is a gift- from my surgeon and his team, all the Physical Therapists who have guided me, my loved ones, and most of all, my own body. Every day, I have to get quiet enough to stretch and strengthen key muscles, and while this is an exercise in discipline, it’s a conversation worth having, because it leads to thoughtless walking and playful dancing.

My Mom was my first dance teacher. I was 5 years old, recently out of my first hip surgeries, when we danced in the living room to album after album of 1950s hits like The Diamonds “The Stroll” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I can still see her in her gingham bandana, taking a break from housework to dance with me, my small self beside her, trying to mimic her moves.

I danced the polka with all my relatives at church parties to songs like Frankie Yankovich’s “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Just Because You Think You’re So Pretty.” Every Christmas Eve, my Dad and I danced to Slim Whitman’s “Christmas Polka.” Now, when the snow falls in New York, and I can’t get to Florida, I sip creme de menthe and call him to listen to that song together.

My Grandpa taught me the box step as we watched Patti Page perform “The Tennessee Waltz” on The Lawrence Welk Show. I remember standing on his feet, marveling at his height, feeling lady-like and fancy. My Grandma played Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” on her organ. I watched her fascinated, thinking she was going to float right off the seat with that beautiful music. Thanks to Gene and Sylvia, I fell in love with Cajun waltzes, like The Magnolia Sisters’ “Valse amitie,” and my feet know what to do.

By middle school, I was taking disco lessons and practicing Mexican folk dancing.

Line dances like The Bus Stop and The Car Wash easily translated from days strolling with my Mom. I proudly wore my glittery outfits, even though others tried to convince me that “disco sucked.” I knew it didn’t, and I still love it, especially the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, and her song “Hot Stuff” as well as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate.”

My friends, Glenda and Mariela, taught me how to stomp my feet and swivel my hips for “The Mexican Hat Dance” and Ritchie Valen’s “La Bamba.” To this day, I can’t sit still when I listen to Latin music, and I am currently in love with the Columbian band, Monsieur Perine, especially their song “Mi Libertad.”

In the 80’s, I admittedly hid from the music that was popular at the time. Instead, I attached to 1960’s folk and 70’s rock. I have fond memories of dancing with my brother Matthew to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” and jamming to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” with my brother Michael.

The early 1990s were synonymous with two kinds of dance-swing, and what I will loosely call, alternative, or maybe Goth mixed with New Wave and 80’s pop.

I was working as a high school teacher when the resurgence of swing hit Tampa. My students begged me to be the faculty sponsor of our school’s Swing Dance Club, and we had such a good time, dressing up vintage and dancing to songs like Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive and Wail” and Jacob and Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” as well as the more contemporary bands like The Stray Cats and The Big Bad Voodoo Daddies.

While I was swinging at Tampa’s Sugar Palm Ballroom, I was also frequenting a club called The Castle, where I owe any graceful vampire moves I learned to my friend and fellow witchy poet-artist, Melissa Fair. Together she and I danced our asses off to Simple Minds, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Cure, Thrill Kill Cult, KMFDM, Social Distortion, and Sisters of Mercy to name just a few.

Melissa was a beautiful dancer who taught me to find my hips and root myself more into the bass and drums. Her charms must have worked some powerful magic, because here I am now, married to a bassist. Thanks to my beloved, I appreciate all things deep groove like James Brown, Bootsie Collins, and my favorite, The Meters.

I am still happily discovering more music. The silence and stillness that I lived for the last ten years has broken, filled once again with sound and movement.

I hear poems as I step.

I am turning and returning.

I am free.

May 21, 2018

Lilac Thank You Notes

It’s been 5 months since I had my hip replaced, and the gratitude I have felt calls for a long, thank you list…

Thank you most, Benjamin, for never leaving my side. From the beginning, back in November, when I made the decision to have surgery, through the scary moments when I looked ‘too small’ as nurses wrapped me in warm blankets and wheeled me away, the even scarier moments when I was shaking uncontrollably from a severe reaction to pain medication, to all my firsts—first walk into your arms without a cane, first stair climb, first painless hike at Rockefeller and stroll through the city, you were there. Thank you. I love you, and I am grateful for every moment with you, all the time.

Thank you, my dear friend, Miko, for coming to the hospital and sitting with Benjamin as he waited for me to get out of surgery, staying with him as he received the phone call that my surgery was a success, and coming to see me all groggy and goofy in post op. You joyfully saw my full recovery even before I did. Thank you for all your chanting, your beautiful friendship, and deepest well of positive shine. I love you.

Thank you, my dear friend, Kate, for flying here to help get me through the first two weeks of recovery and for celebrating all its craziness through our Art Camp. The circular breathing, foot massages, music (especially the illustrated, magic song lists and the silly ‘drug alarm’ with the accompanying tip-your-hat motion), doing PT together, end of day movies, and spontaneous poems, all of these were, as you would say, THE BEST! Thank you for your tireless keeping up with notes, dishes, cooking, and cleaning, and most of all, for your healing intuition, deep connection to nature, and our unspoken bond. I love you.

Thank you, Amy. Your calm and knowledgeable voice on the phone kept me focused, saved me like a life raft through moments of extreme fear, and soothed me like a lullaby so I could sleep. Your senses of both pragmatism and humor have always helped me to maintain strength and hope, see the logic in holistic healing and the weirdness (and sometimes the benefits) of Western medicine. My book buddy, mom-in-law, brilliant physical therapist, nutritionist healer, and friend, thank you. I love you.

Thank you, my dear friend, Loretta, for bringing me a photo of Isadora Duncan dancing by the ocean and a lilac -scented candle. You didn’t know about my photo montage/dream board that Kate encouraged me to make, but you brought the last piece of it. You didn’t know that I named my scar ‘lilac,’ but you channeled the image anyway. You are among my tribe of magic, poet witches. Thank you. I love you.

Thank you, dear friends, Allen and Nick, for the care package of homemade almond cookies and vodka (These are a few of my favorite things!) the vintage, and in excellent condition, Dorothy Parker book of short stories, the telegram (my first one!), and especially for coming up here to surprise me for Easter (Mary Magdalen’s Day) and indulging me with some dancing! I love you both with a big, big love.

Thank you, dear friend, editor, and co-conspirator-collaborator extraordinaire,  Athene, for being on the other side of the pond and still so close. Knowing that we’d get back to our chats after I healed was my light. You were (and have been) my light, my newest friend, one of the toughest, loveliest women I have had the pleasure to get close to…big virtual hugs and hopes for a face-to-face soon. I love you.

Thank you, my sister-in-law, Charleen, for coaching me on what to expect and making me laugh by saying, “Now, right before they put you under, they’ll say they’re going to give you a nice cocktail, and it’s not the kind you’re thinking.” You were right, they did, and I think I actually laughed as I went under. Thank you for helping me face this and know I am here for you too. I love you.

Thank you, my brothers, Michael and Matthew, for listening patiently on the phone and for always, since we were kids, making me feel like I could be brave. You both live your lives with courage, you’ve taught yourselves everything, and you’ve always been so in touch and connected to nature. You’ve led me by example. You’ve always been my heroes in the woods or on the water and your voices keep me strong. I love you.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for going through this with me all over again. You were 20 year old ‘kids’ the first time. Your baby girl had this major thing that needed fixing, so you fixed it. I can’t imagine what it must have taken to make that decision, but I am eternally grateful that you did. You and Dr. Rudy and his team gave me 40 years of walking and dancing, and now I am returning, remembering how good it felt to move. I wouldn’t be me without your selflessness, love, and sacrifice. To this day, you still act as caretakers for everyone, in whatever way you can. Thank you for being who you are. I love you.

Thank you, my sweet niece and nephew, Hannah and Blake. Hannah, your healing gift lives deeply in your voice. You are so powerful, smart, and clear that when I am most afraid, I see and hear you first. For this surgery, your confidence literally helped me walk into the hospital and know that I’d be fine.  And Blake, your promise that you’d take me to Flatwoods when it was all over was a rope I held onto. When I need hope, it’s you that I turn to. Thank you for giving me something to look forward to and for knowing that nature is truly our best medicine. Niece and Nephew, thank you. I love you both more than words.

Thank you, extended family for praying and lighting candles. Thank you, Uncle Tommy and Aunt Darlene for serenading me with songs and poems. Thank you, Aunt Barbie, for the cards and letters. I miss you and I love you.

Thank you, my surgeon, Dr. Cross. Sir, you are truly a sculptor, a miracle worker, my superhero. Your medium is titanium and you make bionic people, you made me Jamie Summers. You’ve given something back to me that I thought I’d never feel again. I am indebted for life. Thank you.

Thank you, entire team at HSS, especially the nurses with your senses of humor around less-than-delicate topics like catheters, passing gas, pee shyness, and power puking. All of you turned yourselves inside out for me. Thank you.

Thank you, my HSS physical therapist, Kavit, for teaching me little songs like “up goes to heaven, down goes to hell,” so I could remember my footing for stair climbs, and for making sure that my PT progress was not hindered by lack of sleep and a challenging roommate. You were fierce and compassionate. Thank you.

Thank you, my visiting nurse, Gina. Along with taking out my groovy staples and monitoring my vitals, you saw the terrible allergic reaction to the pain medication and promptly weaned me off of it. I was terrified and you helped me stay calm, prescribing the correct antihistamines and lotions to get my skin and body back to normal. You saved me. Thank you.

Thank you, my visiting physical therapist, Dan, for using the poetic phrase “thoughtless walking” and convincing me that this was something I would accomplish. Thank you for the counter top exercises, for patiently walking beside me, keeping Sam-Tux kitty from curling too much around my legs, and for your overall calm instruction. You rule. Thank you.

Thank you, my current physical therapist, Laurie, for being such a bad ass and showing me the best physical therapy “homework” exercises. I can feel results in both my strength and flexibility thanks to you. You rock.

Thank you, Emily Dickinson, my poet spirit, for reminding me during the long winter weeks of recovery that poems were right outside my window.

And thank you, animals, for showing up at all the right moments, like you always do…starlings, vultures, crows, my grand hawk, Sam-Tux cat, all the neighborhood puppies, the fox across the rock wall, and the snake who came later, I love you and I hold you in my poems.

Gracias a todos y felicita al movimiento en los meses y anos venideros!

 

April 10, 2018

Trenzas

I was biking on the trail that curves around Tarrytown Lakes when I saw a little girl in the distance.

She was on a pink bike with training wheels, tassels wispy in the breeze. Her mom stood next to her, steadying the bike, encouraging her to go. As I passed, the little girl looked up at me, nodded, and extended her arm with her palm open.

Let me rephrase that.

She nodded with confidence, a knowing code, an expression that said, “Hey, Bike Sister. I got this,” and her open palm was a clear invitation for me to tag her as I passed.

Yes, this really happened.

The little girl’s mom giggled, delighted and surprised that her daughter had engaged a stranger so playfully.

Years ago, when I lived in Tampa, I had a similar, joyful biking exchange with a little boy.

I was riding on the right, hugging the sea wall on Bayshore Boulevard, and he was about to pass me on the left, or I thought he wanted to pass. Instead, he biked parallel and threw me a mischievous grin. Simultaneously, we shouted, “One, two, three…GO!” And we raced along Bayshore, laughing the entire time, yelling things like, “Never say die!” and “Winner takes all!”

I don’t know exactly what makes little kids feel comfortable with me, what makes them know I’m goofy and willing to play, but my guess is it’s my braids.

In the 1970’s, when I was a little girl, I idolized Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie.” If she wore her hair in this style, then so would I. Later, it was Farrah Faucet on “Charlie’s Angels,” and I spent hours with the blow dryer and curling iron aspiring to achieve her feathered look.  By the 1980’s, during my high school and early college years, my hair was down my back, I knew all the lyrics to every song from the musical “Hair,” and I dated guys who loved their hair too.

As I’ve aged with my long hair, more children have reacted…

One of the brightest muses of my life, my niece, Hannah, looked at me when she was about 3 or 4 and asked, “Are you old or new?”

I grinned and asked her back, “Which one do you think I am?”

She tilted her head, twisted her cute little lips, and said,“Well, you’re big, so you could be old, but you’re funny, so you could be new.”

I told her she was right, I was both.

Another time I was with my friend, Melissa. We were walking home from our favorite, neighborhood diner when I saw a boy kicking around a soccer ball. Playfully, I ran up to him and yelled, “Hey! Toss it here!”

He looked at me horrified, clutched his soccer ball to his chest, and ran back into his house. I felt deflated, but Melissa explained, “Michelle, you look like a giant girl who wants to take away his toy. What did you think he would do?”

Adults have reacted to my hair too. My ESL students have consistently loved my trenzas. Perhaps because long hair is part of many of cultures, and braids are a popular style, my plaits comfort them, giving them something they can relate to and talk about in English.

Hair is a personal thing, obviously. The love of my life had long hair, but he shaved his head in his early twenties for his own reasons. I’ve only had the urge to cut my hair two times in my life-once when I was 10, I wore it short and feathered, and once when I was 25, when I had a loose, layered bob. Both styles were fine, but neither really felt totally like me.

I still have moments when I think I need to look more tailored, that shorter hair might be more appropriate for my age, but lately, I’ve noticed a lot more older women flaunting their long, gray hair, and Emmylou Harris rocks it best. She’s my current hair idol, so maybe I’ll layer my locks like hers. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep my braids, stay the gentle witch that I am, and hope for more fairy tale encounters on the trail.

August 7, 2017

Faster Mo(n)sters

“Hey Shelley, watch this!” exclaimed my Aunt Margie as she twisted her hips all the way down to the floor and up again.

“Impressive!” I cheered back.

Margie and I were on the dance floor at my niece’s wedding, trading moves, showing off.

I love my Aunt Margie. She has always been a joyful, generous person, an entertaining storyteller, and someone deeply interested in our family history. She is the daughter of Martha, my Great Grandmother, and younger sister to my Grandmother, Sylvia.

I never knew Martha, because she passed away before I was born, but from all the stories, she was a woman I would have liked. She kept a fifth of “medicine” in the drawer of her dresser, grew herbs, and practiced cupping, a controversial and alternative healing practice. I have always been drawn to both the controversial and alternative, especially when it comes to health matters, so I believe I inherited these attractions from Martha.

I did know Sylvia, and I miss her. She loved to giggle, discuss politics, play the organ, and gather everyone around a table for coffee and cookies. She taught me to play “Greensleeves” and “Heart and Soul.” She encouraged me to keep my complexion clean with Noxema or Ivory soap. My grandma wore the most adorable pill box hats and cute little pumps. I know I inherited my love of coffee, political talk, music, vintage hats, and Mary Jane’s from Sylvia.

Throughout my life, my Aunt Margie has encouraged me to be to make healthy choices, be brave and giving, and laugh my way through life.

I had a special opportunity to visit her when I was thirteen. I flew from Wisconsin to her home in Florida. Back then, I was brave on planes but terrified of water. Margie encouraged me to get into her pool and try swimming, and I did it! I still remember how scary and thrilling it felt to let go, trust my body, and let the water hold me. Getting over this fear and embracing the weightlessness of water has proven to be a saving grace for me. When I’m swimming, my arthritis is less painful. I owe this to my Aunt.

She encouraged me not to chew gum. As a 13-year-old who attended Catholic school, where gum was strictly forbidden, I was hesitant to surrender my new freedom. Margie told me I needed to quit by the time I was eighteen, because it wasn’t good for my teeth and jaw, and I didn’t look lady like. I naturally resisted at first, but on my 18th birthday, I did think about it, and I cut down. I still chewed a bit of Big Red in my early 30s, (it was a party time for me and the flavor complemented the drinks), but by my mid 30s, I had quit completely. I owe this smart decision to Margie’s direct deadline. My teeth and jaw thank her.

On that same visit, true to her generous nature, Margie took me shopping. Among other things, she bought me two shirts- a red one and a multi-color striped one. I loved that both shirts had 3/4 length sleeves (still my favorite sleeve length) and boat neck collars (still one of my favorite necklines) and of course, I absolutely loved the little barefoot logo, on the left, just below my collarbone. Hang Ten! I was cool in those shirts, thanks to Margie.

I’m a storyteller thanks to her too. At a recent family dinner, of the most delicious Cuban food ever (yes, she’s a great cook), Margie shared a story from her mother. Martha was trying to warn her about sex.

“So she turns to me, looks me in the eyes, and says, ‘Margie, whatever you do, don’t thread the needle.’”

We all started laughing, and I asked my Aunt, “What do you think she meant?”

Margie laughed and shrugged, “To this day, I have no idea. I mean, was I supposed to be the needle or the thread?”

And we all laughed again. Martha is my personal Mary Magdalen, a strong woman with many mysteries attached to her story. I love that I get to learn more about her through my Aunt.

Margie has always been an active person, a golfer, a walker-along-the-beach, a-walker-for-charity, and a dancer. On many occasions, she’s inspired me to shake it, so when the music started at Hannah’s wedding, I knew we would have a good time. Margie’s skill at The Twist prompted a younger groomsman to slide over and dance with her. My mom was shaking it, along with her good friend, Mary, and my cousin, Susan. We were a circle of dancing fools! Susan was adorable as she danced too. Right before Whitney Houston was about to belt the chorus to her infamous song, my cousin yelled, “Get ready, Ladies!” and we all belted out “I wanna dance with somebody! I wanna feel the heat with somebody!” This love of dancing has also proven to be helpful with arthritis, so I keep my dancing shoes close. When I move, I feel better. Curtsy and a bow to you, Aunt Margie.

All of my aunts have played special roles in my life and each of them deserves their own post or poem. I intend to write these individualized pieces, but for now, I’ll include a quick thank you list:

Aunt Barbie, thank you for turning me on to the joys of rummage sales, inspiring me to drink English breakfast tea. Thank you for your children, my beautiful cousins, and for keeping me aware of the antics of your little grandchildren, my second cousins. Most of all, thank you for your letters that still come to my mailbox. Honoring this art form of handwritten thoughts on paper is very important to me…thank you.

Aunt Mary (Nighbor), thank you for teaching me how make homemade donuts and at the same time encouraging me to brush my teeth. Thank you for your children, my beautiful cousins, and for telling me secrets about my mom and her car named Bowser. Most of all, thank you for sharing your research on our extended family. Hearing these stories and understanding our connections to Europe means everything to me…thank you.

Aunt Darlene, thank you for teaching me about strength and patience through all the love you’ve quietly and selflessly given to my Poet Uncle and all of my beautiful cousins. Thank you for being an example of a woman who can fish (and possibly “out fish” all the boys). Most of all, thank you for also being at the bottom of the stairs smiling when I jumped…you were there too, I remember…thank you.

Aunt Sue, thank you for taking me out for good ol’ Wisconsin fried fish and soft serve ice cream, offering me wine coolers on a hot, summer day, and most of all, for loving my Uncle David as deeply as you do…thank you.

Aunt Linda, thank you for sharing our country home, loving my beautiful cousins, especially in times of scary illnesses, and most of all, thank you loving my harmonica-playing, fish-story-telling Uncle Paul…thank you.

Aunt Deb, thank you for your sense of humor and honesty. I don’t know if you’ll remember this or not, but years ago, you and I had a conversation at your kitchen table about family, and your thoughts were a bit controversial. I immediately respected you at that moment. Thank you for my beautiful cousins, and most of all, for loving my guitar-strumming, made- mud pies- with- me-while-I-was-in-my-cast, Uncle Chuck…thank you.

Aunt Mary (Seaman), thank you for sharing your intelligence and political views with Benjamin and me over meals in D.C. and for caring about international students as deeply as I do. Thank you for having the focus to get your Masters and Doctorate degrees, and inspiring me to reach for higher goals. Thank you for my beautiful cousin, Luke, and most of all, for loving my crazy, show-me-how-to-shake-my-tail feather Uncle Godfather Chuck…thank you.

And to my Aunts who have passed away:

Aunt Beatsie, thank you for your generosity, your home, where playing with all of my beautiful cousins was like being in a fun house. There were so many toys and games, volleyball in the backyard, always something fun to do! Your house was filled with music and joy, and most of all, kittens, kittens, kittens! Thank you for the love you showed Uncle Marty and your entire family. You always made me feel welcome… thank you.

Aunt Jude, thank you for supporting me when I said I wanted to be a horticulturalist by giving me my first potted plant. Thank you for giving me the book Heidi, so I could dream of the Swiss Alps and what it would be like to have a goat. Most of all, thank you for encouraging me to play the organ in church. Even though I was terrified of messing up, and the organ wasn’t as fun as the piano, I learned about musical performance, and now I know that those nervous jitters are normal…thank you.

Aunt Ruth, thank you for checking out my apartment for me before I moved to Chicago, especially for taking pictures of the tree outside my window. Thank you for the time we spent in Chicago together, the visits to meet you students were precious and being at the convent was funny, mostly because I was in heels and one of your fellow sisters said I was a skyscraper. Thank you for sneaking my friend Dan into the convent and not making a big deal about it. Most of all, thank you for the gorgeous Lady of Czestochowa palm leaf collage. You understood my love of Polish art, my need to connect to it as part of my heritage…thank you.

I looked up the word aunt. Along with the traditional definition, I discovered some funny associations. Apparently, we are gossips, (ok, I’ll accept this because everybody is a gossip) procuresses, (neither my aunts nor I have ever run a brothel, so I reject this one) and benevolent women (this one I accept as 100% true).

I’ve been an Aunty for 23 years, and I think I’ve been a pretty good one, at least I hope this is how my niece and nephew think of me. When I think about Hannah and Blake, I tear up joyfully, because they’ve changed my life for the better.

Being an Aunt is an honor. It’s mystical.

The Swedes have two words for Aunt- Moster (for the mother’s side) and Faster (for the father’s side). These words make me think of a witchy woman running through the woods, playing hide-and-seek or tag with her nieces and nephews. In a way, all aunts are a faster mo(n)sters, running after kids, helping mothers and fathers with the job of raising children.

So pat yourselves on the back, witches! Well done! Oh, and Aunt Matriarch Margie, don’t tell anyone, but you’re my favorite monster.

 

July 13, 2017

Love Letter to Benjamin

I can’t say it enough.

Thank you, Benjamin.

Thank you for giving me these years of writing, these years of working peacefully at my own pace, this long opportunity of staying inside my head, listening to my voice.

Thank you for freeing me from the cacophony of student chatter. As lovely as teaching often was, it wasn’t writing, and you understood. You knew I needed quiet, alone time. I needed to be with my art.

Before you, I was tired, tired of giving my creative energy to others. Whether it was for my job or for a partner, I had allowed myself to be the more supportive one. I’m not saying that lovers didn’t give back, or that it wasn’t rewarding to see the lights of learning flicker over my students’ heads. Of course they did, and of course it was, but I felt this need to give like a strange addiction, and in this habit, I forgot myself.

Thankfully, my desire to write started pushing teaching out of the way, and I paid attention. I made a huge change, leaving my job, family, and friends to move to Chicago and focus on getting my Master’s in Interdisciplinary Art.

At that time, I also thought that I needed to push relationships out of my way. I didn’t like the idea of being alone, but I couldn’t see how it would work. How could I be with someone and have my space and time? How could I be with someone and say, “Please don’t talk to me in the mornings, because this is when I hear poetry. Oh, and don’t speak to me from about 3pm through sundown, because I also use the falling of the light for poetry.”

I thought it would be impossible to ask this of anyone.

I thought I couldn’t have both love and art.

And then I met you.

I was at the washing machine in the laundry room of our brownstone when you came down the steps. I saw your eyes, and I was startled, in a good way, a very good way. You had the sexiest, most playful eyes I’d ever seen.

I wanted to trust your eyes, believe that you were honest, because you had those sweet, long lashes like my nephew’s. Oh, I saw all of this right away, and I was startled. I wanted to trust you, but my claws were up. I was a defensive, fed up kitty cat.

But we struck up a conversation. I asked you a typical, American question. “So, what do you do?”

“I’m a musician,” you answered, beaming.

“Oh,” I replied with sarcasm, “everyone’s a musician in Chicago.”

You jolted back a little. “I’m sorry. Do you have a problem with musicians?”

“No, not really, it’s just that, well, do you have a real job?” At this point, I couldn’t believe how snotty I was behaving, but like I said, I was tired. I had been with musicians, and I had had it with them.

You were unfazed, even amused. “As a matter of fact,” you said, “I work for the City of Chicago Cultural Center. Here’s my card. Why don’t you call me when you’re a little less bitter?”

That’s how we started. You scolded me and asked me out at the same time. Smoothest, sexiest move ever.

And I fell hard.

Early on, we put cards on the table.

You said you’d never want kids. Never, ever. I said my poems were my children, and I would never, ever want human ones. You wanted to believe me, but your previous girlfriend had made the same promise, only to feel the tick of her biological clock and change her mind. I assured you that I had smashed my clock long ago. Well, I didn’t say those words, but you understood.

We’ve kept this promise. Our art, our songs have been the only children we’ve birthed, the only compass we’ve ever followed. We’ve even jumped the pond in the name of following artistic dreams, and you made this possible.

You said, “Do you want to move to Europe, take a break from teaching, and focus on writing your novel?”

And I said, “Hell yes, I do!”

So we moved, and the experience changed me forever, like I knew it would. Berlin was the perfect place to start my novel, the perfect city to work as a writer. I wrote every day in the cafes. I was part of an amazing writer’s group. I felt at home.

Unforeseen circumstances made us return to the States. While it may be some time before we can return to Europe, I want you to know, (again) that I am grateful for the time we did spend abroad. I became a writer, and you made this happen.

I can’t say it enough.

Thank you, Benjamin.

It’s five or six relocations later, and my book is almost finished. You’ve continued to support me, even though in the States, it’s been more challenging. You’ve reassured, encouraged, and inspired. Essentially, you’ve made me feel that it’s ok to be a stay-at-home poet. Ha ha

And sometimes, when I need to get out of my head and give the creative process a breath, you’ve taken me out on some incredible dates. Thank you, Benjamin, for sharing these recent, Romantic experiences:

eating tapas in the city

taking the train to Cold Spring for fried catfish tacos

shopping for an antique box to hold our love letters

perusing record stores

seeing films at Jacob Burns

bike riding by the lakes, looking for our snapping turtle

eating grilled cod tacos, chips and guacamole

discovering local BBQ

wandering among cedar trees while bells sounded/appreciating the gorgeous sound installation by Taylor Dupree

going to see live music/appreciating singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane and the yMusic blends of violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute, and trumpet ( Here I send a special thank you to our friend, Loretta, for gifting us with the amazing tickets!)

passionately defending the rights of frogs

AND

continuously making music with me, your Dwindler partner

Benjamin, I didn’t think it was possible to continuously fall in love in someone, but you’ve proven to me that it is. Thank you. I promise, I will work hard to get this baby published,  and make a little money, so you can focus more on your music. I promise, my P.Y.T, I promise.

 

 

July 7, 2017

Mariposas

A shadow passed over the Rose of Sharon and disappeared.

I waited.

I knew how to daydream out my studio window. I’ve waited for bees in the morning and bats at twilight. The only thing different now was that this was the middle of the day, high noon, or as I like to think of it, prime viewing time for butterflies.

So I waited.

And the Cloudless Sulfur fluttered back into view.

I held my breath, admiring the yellow wings tipped in black. I watched it dip into the blossoms, take a quick sip, and teeter, drunk on pollen into the neighbors’ yard and out of view.

It was a good moment, seeing my papery friend.

I wish I could recall every single butterfly I have ever seen. I do remember:

Monarchs on milkweed by the side the road in Wisconsin

Southern Hairstreaks along the Withalacoochie in Florida

Tiger Swallowtails in my backyard in North Carolina

Buckeyes along the C&O in Maryland

I wish butterflies had the power to quiet all human noise.

For a moment, I imagine a butterfly heroine. Her wings have super strength. She can lift all the leaf blowers and the guns and send them back into the guts of the earth, back into fire, where they are melted, burned down to ash. Then she flies back up, and all we hear is the flutter of wings.

I know how to daydream out my studio window.

I can fill my brain with butterflies.

 

June 28, 2017

Diane and Bill and Nick and Nora

My Mom and Dad are generous people.

It would take a full novel to describe everything they’ve done for me, but during the week of their 51st anniversary, I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the most important gifts. Because of Diane and William, my parents, I am grateful for the following:

  1. My ability to walk…I was their first child, and they were young when I came into their lives with the birth defect of a dislocated hip. While they were in their 20’s, an age where my biggest concerns were college and my social life, they had to make the decision to put their baby girl through two major surgeries, so I could have a normal life. The surgeries were successful. I flourished into an active person, who could not only walk, but also run, bike, play volleyball, and dance. If not for the courage of my Mom and Dad, I would have never been able to do these things. I am grateful for the risk they took.
  2. My freedom and fearlessness in nature…I am afraid of a lot of things, but being alone in the woods isn’t one of them. My brothers and I were raised with the freedom to take our dog into the woods and stay out in the trees, playing there for hours. I return to nature whenever I need peace of mind, whenever I need to feel a certain freedom in my head. I owe this to my parents, who again had the courage to take a risk and trust us on our own. Side note: I know they trusted Duke too. Golden Labs are very protective babysitters.
  3. My education…From kindergarten at the lovely Cottage School, to St. Mary’s Catholic, through two high schools, and then both undergrad and grad school, my parents have always supported my education. They’ve literally paid for some of it, and they’ve always encouraged my nerdy nature.

They didn’t laugh when I lied and said I had “homework” on my first day of kindergarten. I wanted time to practice my letters. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, feeling serious as I drew those shapes between the lines, careful to observe the dotted line in the middle. I can still smell that paper. I knew I was doing something important, and my Mom treated this act with the same respect. She didn’t disturb me as I “studied,” and when my Dad came home from his day of teaching, I showed them both my finished work. They were proud and hung my writing on the fridge.

Throughout grammar school and high school, I continued to focus as a serious student. I knew what I was good at (English and Art) and I accepted that certain subjects would be a struggle (Gym and Math). As I grew into a critical thinker, I challenged my teachers, namely certain nuns. I got kicked out of Religion Class for lots of things, mostly for my obsessive questions about Mary Magdalen, my insisting she was not “bad girl” (I knew this then and defend it still). Thought they’ve never explicitly said so, I think Mom and Dad were pretty rebellious too. My aunts and uncles have ratted them out a few times, so they weren’t particularly hard on me for the Religion Class shenanigans. They accepted my “failures” and celebrated my successes. I think they just knew that if they let me be myself, a kid who really liked school, I’d turn out ok.

So, although they probably hoped I’d major in something that would make a little more money, my parents weren’t surprised when I chose education for my Bachelor’s. They were supportive. And while they may have secretly wrung their hands when I said I would study art for my Master’s, they outwardly understood. They helped me pack my car as I left sunny Florida for wintery Chicago to pursue my crazy dream.

  1. My sense of wanderlust…They have actually always encouraged any kind of travel or move, accepting that I am a restless soul. Whenever I told them I was moving again, they told me to have a fun adventure. I was especially grateful for their support when Benjamin and I moved to Europe. They let us store our stuff at their house, and they threw us a bon voyage party, toasting us with expressions like, “We gave you roots and wings. Fly and have a good time. You can always come home” and hugging us with a “Vaya con Dios!” Most Mama and Papa birds want to keep their chicks close, and I know they’d like us in Florida more often, but I deeply appreciate how they have let us go.
  2. Most of all, my parents’ acceptance of my husband… They have embraced Benjamin as their fun, smart son-in-law. They like his sense of humor and playfulness. They try to understand his work as a Digital Product Designer, doing their best, as I often do, to understand the rapidly shifting field of technology. They like how close he is with Hannah and Blake and how easily he can talk with my brothers, my sister-in-law, and my extended family members. They trust Benjamin, and I am grateful for how generous they’ve been with him too.

During our recent visit to Florida, we had some great moments with my parents.

They hosted a little dinner party for us where my brother Matthew made the best kebabs with shrimp, scallops, and pineapples. He went all out with grilled salmon and deviled crabs as well. The crabs were a collaborative effort. My brother Michael had made them from scratch, and Matthew deep-fried them for us. It was a fish feast! At the party, we got to know two of their dear friends, Joe and Mary, and their daughter, Sarah, and we chatted and laughed and had a really nice time!

My Mom also offered her shopping magic, and we went on our usual spree. We scored big time-blouses, skirts, and capris-all at consignment prices! Even in the bigger department stores, we found bargains, most notably the dress I needed for my niece’s wedding. I swear if there were a patron saint of thrift stores and sales (you never know), she would be perched on my Mom’s shoulder. My Mom is the luckiest woman when it comes to treasure hunting for quality clothes. Her generous spirit summons that saint to make sure anyone she shops with is lucky.

My Dad and I shared many moments on the back porch by the pool, talking about our favorite thing… language. We enjoy this topic in many forms—challenging each other with crossword clues (He usually wins), discussing regional idioms, pronunciations, and personal, vocal fillers (He likes that I use the word, “indeed,” and I like his youthful use of the word “whatever”), talking about Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Latin, and strategizing lessons for my English as a Second Language job. He hunted and found Dr. Seuss books for me to use for phonics, and now he’s on the search for songbooks I can use for fluency.

Last but not least, my parents gifted us with some very cool glasses. Diane and Bill were once avid cocktail party hosts. Without incriminating them too much, I will just say that I have great memories of sneaking in my PJ’s with my brothers to “steal” appetizers from the coffee table as the adults sipped in the kitchen, and waking up to adults who were, for some reason, “sleeping” on top of record albums. Yes, I remember those soirees! Now that Benjamin and I host our own parties, we are delighted by this gift. We’ve even named them ‘Nick and Nora’ after the characters from “The Thin Man” movies.

So I raise my glass to my parents in gratitude for all they’ve given me. Thank you, Mom, y Gracias Papa! You two are the best!

June 21, 2017

Brendan and Julie Plus One!

I am in love.

My latest crush has a quick smile, sweet brown eyes, and the best, expressive eyebrows in the world. He sings, loves the sound of buzzing bees, and when he wiggles his toes, well, I can’t get enough. I melt.

Don’t worry. Benjamin is not jealous. He’s in love with him too. Our little love is eleven months old, and he’s the newest member of the Brendan and Julie family.

I’ve written about our dear friends before. We met Brendan and Julie in Berlin. They were our Fruhstuck, dinner, and cocktail partners. They made us laugh and think. They were touchstones in our expat world.

As fate would have it, we all ended up back in New York. As love would make it, they had their sweet baby boy last year, and we met him a few weekends ago.*

The family trio strolled into the cafe, and we exchanged quiet hugs as little one was napping. It’s always good to see Brendan and Julie, and this time, I swear, they looked radiant. Yeah, yeah, I’m biased when it comes to my friends. I do think all of them are beautiful, but there was an extra glow to J&B. Because they are humble, they would most likely say that the glow is actually well-earned sweat for what it takes to be a good parent, but regardless, parenthood looked good on them. And their son looked so sweet! Yeah, yeah, all babies look sweet when they sleep, but again, I’m bragging specifically about my friends here.

Baby boy woke up calmly, which later prompted Benjamin to say, “He was so cute! He woke up like a human!”

It’s true that we don’t have a lot of contact with babies, so I did have to remind Benjamin that our friends’ baby was indeed human. He retorted, “You know what I mean. He woke up in a new place, with new people, new sights and sounds, and he was chill about it. I thought all babies woke up crying.”

“Well,” I said, “consider the sources. He does have two of the nicest people we know as parents, so it’s in his genes.”

Truthfully, I was amazed too, not only by how happy he woke up, but by how happy he stayed, even though he was teething, and even when the fire horn from next door jolted everyone else in the cafe. At the sound the horn, little one raised his eyebrows in wonder, looked at his Dad, who looked back at him and shrugged, and deciding that this cue meant it was no big deal, went back to smiling and hanging out. Most adaptable kid ever.

It was a pleasure to meet Baby BrendanJulie. It was beautiful to see Julie touch his head while he sipped his drink and ate his Cheerios. It was endearing to see Brendan read Dr. Suess to him and watch his little face respond to different sounds. And I loved it when he giggled at me and mimicked my tongue as we sang “la la la” to each other.

Oh, I will miss my little boyfriend! But speaking as an auntie who has witnessed her niece and nephew grow into pretty cool young adults, I know I will enjoy his changes too. Until we see each other again!

 

*I am withholding baby’s name out of privacy. Someday this kid will be famous, and I’ll be able to say I knew him when he gripped my fingers with his little toes and giggled.

 

June 14, 2017

Japanese Pancakes

Okonomiyaki is one of the cutest words I’ve ever heard.

Japanese has a lot of beautiful words, but this is my new favorite, because it means something delicious! An okonomiyaki is a Japanese, savory pancake. Benjamin and I were lucky enough to taste these when our friend, Yusuke, prepared them for us.

What a perfect night!

We stepped out of our car, and we could hear classical music coming from Miko and Yusuke’s apartment. Our friend was playing his piano to welcome us. How nice!

Miko greeted us at the door and escorted us to our seats where our glasses were filled with Asahi, a lovely, bright Japanese beer. Along with our first sips, we were treated to an appetizer of egg-tofu and crunchy vegetables. Miko, Benjamin, and I chatted, while chef Yusuke was busy heating up the grill. When it was piping hot, he spread the batter into two giant cakes.

The batter had the consistency of German kugel or potato pancakes, but the main ingredients here were cabbage and pork.
We watched and licked our lips as the cakes began to turn golden brown. Yusuke sprinkled some fish flakes on them and then ‘decorated’ them with two sauces, first a darker, soy based sauce, and then a creamy layer of Japanese mayonnaise.

They looked beautiful and everything smelled so good!

Our chef gathered our plates and evenly distributed the pancakes. Oh my god, they were delicious! According to Japanese tradition, our glasses had to remain full, so this was extra fun! AND the beer was a perfect compliment to the okonomiyaki.

Satisfied, content, and delightfully buzzy, we moved to the living room. Once again, I felt grateful to be with our dear friends sharing conversation and laughing.

Miko showed me some of her favorite books. I opened them like precious artifacts. She showed me how they would be read in Japanese, vertically, from the left side of the page inward towards the right. Whenever I hear a language I don’t understand, it sounds like music, and whenever I look at a language I can’t read, it looks like art. Beautiful, beautiful art!

Yusuke was so sweet too. He helped Miko and me with one of our Calyx and Parlance projects. I was having trouble making our Cricut cut a poem correctly, and I showed this half finished piece to Yuskue. With infinite patience, he used some of his leather tools to successfully cut out the delicate poem. I felt grateful, happy, and inspired!

The whole evening was happy and inspiring. I love my friends, and I can’t wait for our next adventure! Thank you, Yusuke and Miko. Here’s to more dinners and drinks to come!

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