What I Kept

I love standing at my new desk, stroking a brush with long dark bristles across a collage of dried leaves, spreading acrylic varnish that’s both protective and adhesive.  The motion is methodic and fluid, comforting.  I’m making something, a physical object, following a non-speaking muse when choosing the placement of the leaves and ferns, the colors, moving shapes around until it looks right.

I’ve gone through many of the piles of paper and old magazines and cards in my study this week, organizing them by type, maybe some day by color or theme.  For now the old DoubleTake magazines (who remembers that incredible journal from the late 90’s and early 00’s of top-tier writing and photography, and what a blessing I kept them and then David wanted them in his studio and now they’re back with me), Lapham’s Quarterly (outstanding illustrations and graphics) and art advertising books from Santa Fe and the coast of Maine, are together on a shelf, along with other random magazines.  Postcards are sorted in cubby holes of a shelving unit I built in an adult education woodworking class 25 years ago, both new cards and antiques, including souvenir folders of cards from the 40’s, sets Eric’s father was mailing home when he was in the army during WWII.  Eric collected the antique Squam postcards.  I have decades of Mother’s Day and birthday cards from Adrienne and Sam.  Those I’m saving to save, not to collage.

“Where did these come from?” David asked when I made my first collage with the dried leaves earlier this week.  Our trip to Rockport, Maine in the fall of 2008, when we were only months in love and reeling from the death of David’s wife two months before, a quick cancer death like Eric’s. David and his wife were in the midst of a divorce when he and I met, but once she was sick he disappeared from my life to go back home and help.  It had been a hard summer, a terrible time for David’s family.  By the fall his back had given out and he could hardly walk.  That he and I were away together, alone, with trees full of red leaves in every imaginable shape of maple, had seemed miraculous.  I walked around the neighborhood where we were staying, carefully picked leaves and folded them in paper towels.  I needed to hold on to something beautiful.  Tucked in books I had with me, I brought the leaves home and somehow kept track of the pile of preserved fall and then there they were, in my study.

Or, my studio.  It’s been a very satisfying week.


The Last Time You Cried and Why

Image courtesy of The Reluctant Grandmother
Image courtesy of The Reluctant Grandmother

I send writing prompts to three friends every Monday.  It started as a way to help a friend who wants to be writing more in order to remember things about her husband who died last year.  Then a writer friend talked about not writing right now and wanting to, so I offered to include her in the prompts.  When another friend saw the result of a prompt I’d sent the second friend, she wanted in too.  So, I’m up to three.

But today has been an off one for me.  A nagging dread has kept me from falling into mindful/mindless absorption in making a collage, or reorganizing my study or fiddling with poems. Is it that I’m working on my memoir, writing about a particularly difficult patch in the months after Eric died, a part of the story I haven’t told yet, which means reading those journals again and living with some of that pain present?  Not that it isn’t present on some level anyway.

I was having trouble coming up with a prompt for my friends until I got in the shower late this afternoon and started scrubbing at the nasty scrape I got on my knee when I tripped running last week.  It hurt, I started to cry, and I thought, ah, the prompt.  Write about the last time you cried and why.

I remembered the side of Chris’s face swollen with scrapes last spring and I cried more.  I’d talked to Chris the day before and she’d told me, “I’m not having a very good day.”  She’d fallen that weekend out walking with her family and was sore and discouraged.  The next day she and Jon came to visit unexpectedly, arriving while I was at an appointment.  When I got home and went out on the back deck to greet them I had to suck in my shock.  Chris looked so banged up and battered, with red scratches covering one side of her face. Battered by cancer.

In the shower I thought about how much physical limitation Chris had to live with, and then she still died.  I cried.  I cried because I’m close to a lot of people who have a serious illness, love someone with a serious illness, or have lost someone to illness.  I cried because the list of people I include in my healing meditation every day mostly die rather than get better and then I include on the list those left grieving.  I cried because my knee hurts and is taking a long time to heal and interferes with much of what I want to do.

Then I turned off the shower, dried off, dressed my knee and sat down to write.  To myself and to my friends.



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Announcing a New Son
SCHAIN — a son, Eric Hiram, to Mr. and Mrs. Raphael Schain (Natalie Cohen, formerly of this city) of 911 Cooke Street, Waterbury, on January 2.

On the back of the thickly laminated clipping, “Thank you for giving a cerebral palsy child the chance
to walk –
to talk –
to play.
Clipped from New Haven Conn Register”

I found it in an old hutch that I moved out of my study to make way for the new desk.  The cupboard was full of VHS tapes — Adrienne’s dance recitals, Eisner Camp summers, professional trainings.  The top drawer was stuffed with napkins (Eric often ate while he watched TV in this room), paperwork and power cords from long forgotten small electronics, two ancient, fancy calculators the kids needed for high school math, one gutted to its plastic shell.

The birth announcement was in the drawer, along with a child’s tooth wrapped in a note with handwriting I’m almost positive is mine.

Dear Tooth Fairy,
Mat would like a gemstone rather than money for his tooth. Thank you.

Was my nephew Matt staying with me when he lost a tooth?  I don’t remember that but it’s certainly possible.  But why didn’t I know how to spell his name?  Do I know a Mat?  I put the tooth, wrapped back in the note paper, in the box on my bureau with my kids’ teeth. What else could I do with it?

Cleaning up clutter can be an archeological experience.  Mother’s Day cards back to the 90’s, diaries and journals that go back to 1964.  I must have taken my 1967 diary from my sister Jeanne.  Her name is written in the front and there’s a bunch of torn out pages between March 20 and April 20.  I take over on April 24th.

April 26:  Wed.  Dear Diary, Boy, am I depressed.  Paul never pays any attention to me anymore.  I was president today.  I think David likes me.  I’m sure Morse hates me. Today at play rehearsal a kid commented on my weight.  I wish I weren’t so ugly.  Oh well, I’m miserable.  Luv, Gracie

I was president?  Hot shit.  But of what?

I still had a crush on Paul in my 1968 diary.






The wind was gusting over 30 mph when I pulled in to the driveway late yesterday afternoon. Drifted snow, blown off the fields to the west, covered the path to the porch, I had a full car to unload after a long weekend in New York and I was late for a conference call.

I tromped into the house through the snow, sneakers covered in white and leaving wet footprints on the kitchen floor. Earbuds in place and the conference call on mute, I put on my thick down jacket and Winnie-the-Pooh hat that wraps down around my cheeks and chin, pulled on windproof fleece mittens, and shoveled a path to the car as I listened to the meeting. Unloaded. Hurried out to the woodpile before it got dark to throw a day’s worth of wood into the barn because our stock got depleted last week. It was a night for a fire.

Later, dinner done, sitting by the fully throttled wood stove and catching up on email, I realized I’d yet to do my Grind small poem collage for the day. All I could think of was the wind, whipping away any heat the house managed to collect, especially in our bedroom, which faces north-west, directly into the battering gusts. I could feel the house shake and listened to the wind beast trying to break into the house, a constant roar accented with long howls

I sent off a quick, tiny poem to my Grinder group, then went upstairs to make a collage. It was just barely warm enough in my study to work. The images emerged, the words changed, and David and I gave up on the bedroom and slept in one of the beds at the back of the house, under double down comforters, as far from the wind as we could get.


Another Week


Another week, another seven small poem collages.  I’ve managed to fit in enough textual/visual — visual/text art work in the last week to have created something every day.

The interplay of what happens between the poem I write and the collage I make, editing the poem, moving images around the page, adding and subtracting shapes and colors, faces and symbols, getting the poem on the page, is shaped in part by a right brain that doesn’t always get to talk when I’m straight ahead writing.

David and I are in Brooklyn for a long weekend, spending time with the grandkids and some time in the city.  Yesterday we had breakfast in a cafe around the corner from the BedStuy Brownstone where we’re staying, and I was finishing the drawing and writing on the collage I’d started the day before.

“Is she an artist,” the waitress asked David.  Ah.  Yes.  Just like a writer is someone who writes, an artist is someone who makes art.

wind breaks against the front of the house
where we sleep
I wake
to the growl and whistle slapped back
a path

Big white in flight
stops in a tall pine
at the edge of a graveyard
bald vision
bald view
still white.

White overnight enough
to hold dawn’s peach.

Orange & black
arcs from high
above the road
bounces at the front
of the car.
Quick check
for the child. No, only
a wall that contains
the game
unseen, unheard, unhidden.

A Week Of Doing It

Text with images has been brewing in my creative imagination for a long time.  I want to make visual art, I’ve wanted to for years, and having worked with words for so long any visual art that incorporates words attracts me.  Maybe I could do that.  Touring museums I’m drawn to paintings and collages that incorporate text.  Graffiti tags intrigue me, with their interlocking and mostly indecipherable letters, an alphabet more visual than textual, a signature that’s image.

It’s not that I’ve never worked on a visual level.  When I was much younger I did small watercolor paintings copied from children’s books but haven’t painted since.  I’ve cross-stitched samplers that I designed myself, transformed a denim skirt into a tapestry of crewel work, and knit countless sweaters, hats and mittens, creating designs with different color yarns as I go.  When Emilio was younger and obsessed with animals I drew horses and cows for him, which I was able to do by carefully looking at the plastic animals he played with.  If I’m at a meeting without knitting my doodling fills whatever margins are available.

But moving in to intentional visual art work as a legitimate use of my creative energy has been hard.  Who am I to paint or draw or make collages?  A question that makes no sense, because who am I to write poems or a memoir or a novel?  Does having been published make writing more legitimate?  What about all the writing I do in my journal, the novel I wrote and have never looked at since, the boxes and boxes of writing stored in my barn and my new file drawers that I’ve never tried to get published, much of it never taken past a quick first draft?

So I’m pushing the questions aside and finally giving myself permission to be visual.  The transformation of my study to incorporate an art desk is well underway, and I’m not waiting for that to be done to get working.

I’ve been faithfully Grinding for over a week and each day I’ve made a collage to hold the words I’ve written. In fact, for the last two days the image has come first because I’ve been writing erasure poems, a process of crossing out words on a page of text and making a poem from what’s left.  The erasure itself is part of the image.

How absorbing this is!  Absorbing enough I’m not worrying about what it’s for, who am I to do it, what it means, what it is.  I’m just doing it.




Tide fractured by wind
infinite ripples except
the river does end, flat
marsh then ocean.