Ferocious Art

8/23/12 -- Cambridge, Massachusetts Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge.. Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

8/23/12 — Cambridge, Massachusetts
Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge..
Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

“Everything is one pen stroke away from being ugly, or being that which completes the universe.” — Sidewalk Sam

I first met Sidewalk Sam four years ago.  He was one of David’s many friends from an earlier period in his life, most of whom I’d met by then.  Sidewalk and his wife Tina were the last of that set I met, and what a treat it was.

By then Sidewalk Sam, or Bob Guillemin, had been living in a wheelchair for almost 20 years, having been paralyzed from the chest down after falling from his roof.  Being disabled hadn’t at all tempered Bob’s ferocious belief in art as a revolutionary act.  He was so articlate in telling his story and describing his path from a traditional gallery and museum fine art track into creating “art at the feet of the people,” literally on sidewalks, he made me want to interview him and write an article.  For decades in Boston, Sidewalk Sam organized chalk-drawing festivals and public art events that gave everyone a chance to help create large mosaics and murals on the sidewalks and plazas of the city.  I envisioned a piece in The Sun, because Sidewalk Sam, with his story and passion for accessible and experiential art, was exactly the kind of unique individual The Sun portrays.

Now I’m sorry I never got to that writing intention.  Sidewalk Sam died January 26 and his life was celebrated on Sunday during a memorial service.  The sun was high and hot and the yard of Sidewalk Sam’s home with Tina was in bloom, a thick vine of wisteria scenting the air and hanging a lavendar curtain over a corner of a porch.  As I sat on a folding chair in the grass, listening to stories of Bob’s exploits and enthusiams, I saw that the wisteria was also mingled with the leaves at the bottom of a large maple, and burst into a grand spray near the crown of the tree.

Sidewalk would have marveled at the beauty of it, I was sure, even though I didn’t know him well.  But listening to his family and friends speak, I kept hearing about a joyful embrace of the artist in each of us and an unshakable belief in the power of creation in the face of a difficult world.  One of Sidewalk Sam’s best known exhibits was Flush with the Walls, a protest exhibition he staged, along with five other artists, in a men’s restroom at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in June, 1971.  The exhibit drew a good crowd, and over the years Sidewalk drew more and more people to him.

I looked down at the program and Sidewalk Sam’s quote about that one pen stroke.  I vowed to carry away his message — dare to create, be ready to fail and be ready to succeed, witness the beauty in front of you, love your life, and make that next stroke of your pen.  

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Nine Years

photo (47)

This morning the yoga instructor began class with a quote from Sufi Master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan.  “It is our suffering, our broken heart, that gives us insight into the suffering of others.”

In other words, suffering gets you in the club, the club that no one wants to be in but once you’re in, your heart opens to others as they join.  Losing Eric transformed my response to people I knew who had a profound, close-to-the-heart loss.  There was a new understanding and compassion for the disorientation and searing pain of grief, an ability to be with people in their sadness without being afraid.

I’ve had the club conversation with everyone close to me who’s in the club.  A nodding of heads and a heart connection, “Yeah, I know . . . . .”  And we do know each other in that place of coming to grips with a dailiness that no longer includes the loved one and never can.  Death is so fucking irreversible.

Tomorrow, Eric will have been dead for nine years and I lit the yahrzeit candle today because tomorrow I’ll be traveling.  Nine years in the club and being able to understand and support others as they come in.  It’s so cliché to say broken hearts break open, but they do if you let them, and that openness is one of the gifts of grief, that you can turn to new members of the club and welcome them with deep insight.

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Maple Flowers


David and I spent the weekend in New York and the streets there are lined with flowering cherry trees, crab apples, forsythia, magnolias.  Some hardwoods had tiny leaves emerging from their buds, lighting up their crowns and making the world feel softer.  The splashs of color and blossom were delightful; the evidence of spring growth was reassuring and made me happy.

Then home, to tighter buds, grayer days and temperatures that have me wearing wool again when I sit at my desk.  But from that desk I also look out the west window to some branches of the maple tree in our front yard, and every day I notice how much bigger the buds are on the tree, how the balls of red brighten the landscape.

Two days ago I went out to examine those buds and realized what I’ve been looking at are flowers, not buds.  Really gorgeous and even trippy flowers.  Balls of fuzz puzzling enough that David and I spent a good bit of time reading online about maple buds and blossoms.   We learned a lot.

Maples have both male and female flowers on the same tree, the male with the sperm needed to pollinate the female.  As the leaves start to emerge so do the seeds, wrapped in the papery-winged helicopters I stuck on my nose as a kid, peeling open the seed pocket and using the bit of juiciness to make it stick.  The seed pods — samaras — are shaped so they spin in wind and can travel, sometimes a long way.

Yesterday we were in Portland and there were no flowering trees, though the magnolias looked ready, long flutes of bud with just a slip of blossom showing on a few.  I missed the clouds of blossoms we’d seen lining the streets in New York.  Spring in cities can be so pretty, I wanted to see it again.

We went down to the waterfront and in the parking lot saw some maples flowering.  I went to get a closer look, these flowers tamer and less flamboyant than those on my tree, fewer stamens, less fuzz.  Today it’s gray again and not particularly warm, but the maple flowers are still popping and pollinating and getting the whole spring thing going.  Here it comes.



Posted in Flowers, Seasons, Trees | 2 Comments

Quantifying Spring



Yes, April can be a cruel month, with its tease of warm, sunny days followed by raw rain and wind that whips away any heat I manage to absorb from the sun.  But there’s steady evidence that the season is, indeed, changing.

A week ago I looked out the kitchen window and saw that the garlic was up, four faint lines of green in the garden bed, shoots rising from the cloves I nestled in to the soil last fall. Also a week ago my sister Chris and her husband Jon came for an unexpected visit.  It was a clear day, but the wind was strong and chilly, and when the sun shifted so the back deck was in shadow, we moved to the front porch.  The porch was too windy. We tried the bit of lawn below the stone terraces, a low spot where the wind is blocked and the sun is strong.

Sitting in a circle chatting, I noticed how much taller the chives were.  I’d raked last year’s dried foliage off the clumps on Saturday, hoping to use some snippings for the dinner I was making that night for friends.  But the shoots were too small.  Now they were tall enough to cut and I wondered how fast they were growing; it seemed like they’d sprouted inches in just days.

So I measured both the chives and the garlic, two days apart.  The garlic grew an inch and the chives grew two.  An inch a day.  Solid evidence that summer is coming.  A few gray days, a raw day, a day of hard rain, doesn’t stop the seasons from following their course. When I feel a bit off course, I look out at my bed of garlic, green growing every day. Growth I can measure.

Posted in Gardening, Seasons | 1 Comment

The Grind

writing image

Grind:  To crush or pulverize; to polish, sharpen or refine by friction; to rub or bear down on harshly; to oppress or weaken gradually; to operate by turning a crank; to produce mechanically and without inspiration; to instill or teach by persistent repitition.

Or, to write every day.  I’m Grinding this month for the fourth time.  The Grind is a commitment to writing something every day for a month and sending whatever you’ve written to your co-Grinders.  You can only get into the Grind via invitation, and you can only be invited by someone who has successfully done a full month of the Grind without missing a day.

Created by poet Ross White, the Grind creates a virtual writing accountability community. You get sent a link to a website where you sign up for the coming month and choose the category of writing you want to do:  new or revised poetry, new or revised prose, or manic mix, which means write whatever you want.

But you must write!  Ross organizes writers into groups of 10 or so according to genre, then emails out the group assignments.  There are only two rules: you must write something everyday and email it to the others in your group by midnight of whatever time zone you’re in, and you must not share any writing that’s sent to you without permission. This is not a feedback group.  You don’t critique what’s sent to you, you don’t even have to read it.  It’s just about writing and sending.

Simple, and profound.  I’ve never known anyone in my Grind groups, though I do read their bios, which come with the group assignments.  But I’m responsible to them — they are expecting something from me in their inbox every day, as I expect something from them.  Someone is paying attention to whether or not I write.  Or more importantly, I’m paying attention to whether or not I write every day, because I’ve made that commitment to a group of strangers.

I don’t think Grinding is producing “mechanically and without inspiration.”  I think it’s more teaching “by persistent repitition.”  Mostly it’s “to polish, sharpen or refine by friction.”  The friction of making sure I get some words on to the screen and out in to the world everyday.  Friends I’ve invited in to the Grind talk about the value of paying attention to language and creativity for at least a tiny part of each busy day.  One friend hasn’t missed a day of Grinding since January and talks about how it’s fundamentally changed her relationship to her practice of writing.

Grinding is practice and practice is essential to any craft.  So I polish, sharpen, refine, Grind.


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Artwork by Kenneth Rougeau

Artwork by Kenneth Rougeau

The first spring thing I notice is the birdsong when I step outside in the morning, going to bring in the newspaper. Sometime in late February there start to be chitters here and there.  In March, if I get up right at dawn, it starts as a single cheet, then escalates into trills and melodies and chatter.  Now the yard is wide awake and singing by the time I go out in the morning, and I listen to the background songs as I meditate, a constant chorus behind my mantra.

Because the rise in birdsong coincided with the rise in Eric’s cancer, though we were long in to spring before we realized why Eric was in so much pain and feeling so lousy, for the last nine years there’s been a tug of grief in the sound, another reminder.  But it’s also a reminder of the whole glorious mess that life is, with its cycles and renewals, pain and joy, gain and loss, despair and celebration.  “Life is so damn yin yang,” I said to David last night, as we drove home from visiting friends grappling with new grief.

All of which brings me to this poem, which opens The Truth About Death, as it should.


Now the song varies, mocking chains of notes,
the catbird flying from maple branch to fence post.
All spring I noticed the rise in birdsong
as we went out each morning, stronger chatter,
the brakes off, cells dividing and dooming themselves.
I sit in your chair, I wear your clothes, your ring.
I talk to your photographs. I watch the sky,
watch birds in the yard and realize how many flocks
I’d missed. For weeks I washed you, watched you,
lay next to you, all we could do was touch hands,
all you could do was whisper, your eyes black
morphine disks. Yet you turned back for me.

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Photo from Downgraf.com

Photo from Downgraf.com

Two of my sisters and my niece, Amelia, and I email each other, on a rotating basis, a word of the week, every Sunday.  It was Amelia’s turn this week and her word — petrichor — was a revelation to me, a word for what I’ve been I’ve been trying to describe for years, the pleasant smell of rain after a long, dry spell.

A citrus tang layered over an earthy sigh of musk, a release of heat you can smell.  More than a dozen words to describe what can be said in a word. Petrichor.  

As the word sunk in I remembered I had two poems published in the Petrichor Review a year ago.  How did I not notice the meaning then?  I always study journals I submit to, carefully looking for a fit between my poems and what they publish.  I looked again and saw I hadn’t read past the etymology of the word on the website “about” tab:  “Petrichor (pronounced /ˈpɛtrɨkər/; from Greek petra “stone” + ichor the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology)”

I missed “the scent of rain on dry earth.”  No wonder, after reading about a stone fluid in the veins of Greek gods.

The editors of the journal sent me the nicest acceptance email I’ve ever received, saying my poems are “an excellent exercise in poetic restraint; they’re succinct, unpretentious, and casually deep.”  (Okay, yes, a bit of brag there.)  And they’ve known all along about petrichor, a word I needed and didn’t know exists.  No wonder my poems fit in the Petrichor Review.

Posted in Outdoors, Poetry | 1 Comment