The World Is Blue & Brilliant!

My first look at the world with new lenses was startling in a wholly positive way. The yellow caste of cataracts had colored my world gradually and thus much more fully than I’d realized. With the cloudy lenses I’ve looked through for a year gone and clear implants in their place the world was suddenly much brighter and bluer than I knew.

I’d forgotten. Light has an edge  and over the lip of the edge is blue, like the underside of a snowdrift or the last slide of winter dusk indigo before it goes black.

I can see across a field like I could when I was twenty. The line of trees on the far side of the pasture out my study window is sharp, with distinct white trunks of birch scattered among the oaks and white pine. Without glasses.

It’s close to miraculous.

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Love Wins By A Lot

David and I went to a Stand Up Against Hate vigil today in Portsmouth, pulled together by Occupy New Hampshire. They hold a Civil Rights Sundays demonstration every week, and this week the focus was to condemn the violent bigotry of white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, VA this weekend, which led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

David and I have been talking a lot recently about how hard it is to hold people accountable for their actions when we don’t have effective ways of sanctioning bad behavior, a basic premise of reciprocal social exchange. For a long time I’ve thought humans probably function together best at the village level. If you have to look someone you’ve harmed in the eye, it’s harder to continue with hurtful behavior. Too many people in power in our country never have to see, in any way, the people harmed by their hateful and inhumane acts.

So today as I stood on the curb in Market Square, holding my sign that read “the Granite State Says NO to Hate,” I looked at people as they drove past. I made eye contact whenever I could. Many people in cars smiled and gave the demonstrators a thumbs up, some honked in solidarity, many ignored us, some were rude. I decided to gather some data.

I counted positive responses — a honk, a smile, a wave — while I counted the number of cars driving by. Ten out of 25, eight out of 25, eleven out of 25. The people who were supportive were young and old, alone and in groups, and included a couple in a truck on jacked up wheels with Virginia plates. The woman driver started honking and waving the moment she saw us and kept it up as she passed the demonstration.

The data is encouraging; almost 39% of passers-by openly supported our message of love and our condemnation of hate.

By counting the number of cars that passed in blocks of two to four minutes, I estimate that about 750 cars drove through Market Square in the hour of the vigil. From those, there were five people who shouted profanities, or make America great again (we agreed with that sentiment, with several signs declaring that hate will not make America great), including one man who calmly told us he voted for Trump. It sounded like a confession. At one point I watched a stern looking man drive towards the curb where we stood, then finally turn with the curve in the road as he gave us the finger. He was number three of the four who flipped us the bird. In total, that’s nine overtly negative responses out of 750 — just over 1%.

That leaves 60% of those who passed us not responding at all. I suspect many of them didn’t connect our presence and signs to the violence in Charlottesville. Many of them likely don’t pay nearly as much attention as I do to national news. Some of them may have felt too inhibited to respond, a theory supported by the phenomenon both David and I noticed. When there were a number of cars passing us at once, if one person honked, many others did too.

By the time we left, the knot of tears that had been in my throat all day was dissolving. The loving responses beat the hateful ones by a lot.

Where Is the Outrage?

Activists and coworkers of Jeffrey Pendleton protest outside the Hillsborough County House of Corrections Friday, March 25, 2016, in Manchester, N.H., where he died Sunday after he was unable to post $100 bail. Jeffrey Pendleton, 26, was being held on a marijuana possession charge when he died Sunday. The Manchester Police Department is investigating Pendleton's death, and the state medical examiner's office says it is awaiting toxicology reports to determine the cause of death. (AP Photo/Kathleen Ronayne)
Activists and coworkers of Jeffrey Pendleton protest outside the Hillsborough County House of Corrections Friday, March 25, 2016, in Manchester, N.H., where he died Sunday after he was unable to post $100 bail. Jeffrey Pendleton, 26, was being held on a marijuana possession charge when he died Sunday. The Manchester Police Department is investigating Pendleton’s death, and the state medical examiner’s office says it is awaiting toxicology reports to determine the cause of death. (AP Photo/Kathleen Ronayne)

Yesterday afternoon I sat on the porch and began a draft of a blog post about the writing I’ve been engaged in for the last couple of months.  “Deep In” to another revision of my memoir, I’m excited because the structure I’m using this time is working.  I’m making progress.

My plan was to put up that post this morning, and I was in my study early, ready for many hours at my desk today.  I went downstairs to make a cup of tea and noticed Jonathan Baird’s OpEd in today’s Concord Monitor. Waiting for my water to boil and tea to seep, I read the article.

I’d read the Monitor editorial last Sunday about Jeffrey Pendleton and thought, what, a black man died in the Valley Street Jail and this is all the coverage there’s been?  Then I forgot about it and spent the week absorbed in my very privileged and very rich life.  I spent days in my study working on the memoir and making collages.  I did some volunteer board work.  I sat on my porch when the sun was warm enough and the wind still enough. I listened to the birds nesting in the blue spruce and yews, chattering songs all day.

When I read Baird’s piece today I thought, okay, enough about me.  Spread the story.

Where is the outrage for Jeffrey Pendleton?

By JONATHAN P. BAIRD
For the Monitor
Thursday, April 14, 2016

Over the last couple years, these names have come into our collective lives: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. There are quite a few others who experienced the same fate I am not naming. All were African-American and all died in police custody or at the hands of the police in circumstances that could best be described as questionable.

The deaths contributed to the creation of the national movement known as Black Lives Matter. The people who died lived in places all over the United States. None, however, were from New Hampshire – until now.

Now we have the little-known, terrible story of a New Hampshire man, Jeffrey Pendleton, which has received scant local media attention. Pendleton’s story is New Hampshire’s version of Sandra Bland, the black woman who was pulled over by a policeman in Texas for a lane change and who inexplicably died in jail a few days later. Like Bland, Pendleton was wrongly jailed and he died mysteriously in his jail cell. No credible explanation for his death has yet been offered.

The question has to be asked: Where is the outrage? Why so little reaction to Pendleton’s death?

Found In His Cell
On March 13, Pendleton, a 26-year-old, homeless, African-American man from Nashua was found dead in a cell at the Valley Street jail in Manchester. Pendleton had been in jail for five days when he died. He had been arrested March 8 on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The Nashua District Court had set Pendleton’s bail at $100 cash, an amount he could not afford to pay. As a result, he went to jail.
No one seems to have any explanation for why he died. State and prison officials have had precious little to say. A Union Leader article quotes a Nashua police captain who says the Nashua police did everything correctly in the case.

Dr. Jenny Duval, deputy chief medical examiner for New Hampshire, performed an autopsy and said from her examination there was no evidence of any natural disease or physical trauma. The exam found no needle marks. Dr. Duval looked into Pendleton’s medical history and she said that he had appeared to be in good health.

Dr. Duval ordered additional tests and hoped that test results will determine the cause and manner of death.

Why was he jailed?
While for me the Pendleton case prompts many reactions, I would begin by asking: Why was he in jail? And why would an apparently healthy young man suddenly die there?

The jailing of Pendleton for failing to pay $100 bail on the pot charge is all too typical of the callous and uncaring way poor people are treated in New Hampshire. No way would most people be going to jail for that. They would come up with $100. Pendleton was jailed for being too poor to pay $100. Why is the state using such a harsh penalty, jail time, for such a minimal charge? The cost of incarceration, housing and feeding, far exceeds the charged offense.

Pendleton’s case is a good example of the criminalization of poverty. He was not a flight risk nor did he pose a danger to others, the reasons typically invoked for bail. I would also point out that pot is now legal in multiple states and when our state decides to enter the 21st century, it will be legal here. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana possession. It’s only a matter of time.

It is both sad and wrong that Pendleton was jailed for a non-violent activity that would not have been punished at all in multiple jurisdictions.

One prominent New Hampshire defense attorney told me that he thought if Pendleton had not died he would have served 30 days. Then, when he appeared in court, he would have been released on time served, and the case would have gone away.

Penalized for poverty
Across the country, people are increasingly penalized because they are poor. Money-based bail regularly means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court. Probably poor people end up doing more time than if they had a court hearing and were convicted immediately. Imposing high bail on a poor person who faces a minimal charge is equivalent to a conviction.

The consequences of this form of pre-trial detention can also be dire. Going to jail can mean job loss, eviction from an apartment and possible loss of child custody. And those things can happen before a hearing on the merits of a case.

The day after Jeffrey Pendleton died, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter to state chief justices and court administrators across the country suggesting they change their practices on fees and fines. The letter explicitly stated:

“Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”

The letter came a day too late for Jeffrey Pendleton. How does the state plan to make amends to a dead man? I don’t see anybody jumping up to take responsibility.

Ever since the events in Ferguson, Mo., awareness has increased about the broader problem that many courts in America have been imposing exorbitant fees and fines on people who have committed relatively petty offenses. It is and remains modern-day debtors’ prison.

Too many cities and towns are relying on court fines and fees to pay down municipal debt. In a report released by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail, the authors note the increasing municipal reliance on these fines in America. The report states that in 1986, 12 percent of those incarcerated nationally were also fined. In 2004, the number had climbed to 37 percent.

Plaintiff in suits
Prior to his death, Jeffrey Pendleton was not some marginal, unknown homeless person. He had been a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. In the first case, in March 2015, the court forced the town of Hudson to pay damages for the unconstitutional and illegal way they treated people who were peaceful panhandlers. In the second case, Pendleton spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua Public Library. The police charged him with criminal trespassing for walking through the park after he allegedly violated a verbal “no trespass” order. Nashua had to pay Pendleton and his attorneys for violation of his constitutional rights.

At this point, it is impossible to know if Pendleton’s activism played any role in what happened to him. I would hope that a thorough and fair investigation will get to the bottom of Pendleton’s tragic death. It is hard to fathom how and why a 26-year-old man spontaneously dies – if that is what happened.

The New York Times reported that Pendleton had arrived in Nashua in 2009. He had worked low-wage jobs in fast food restaurants. After a divorce in 2013, he became homeless and he started sleeping in the woods. He spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent.

$8.50 an hour
Pendleton worked at a Burger King in Nashua. In the press, a co-worker was quoted saying he made $8.50 an hour at most. That money is a little above New Hampshire’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, far and away the lowest in New England. The money Pendleton earned was not enough for him to rent an apartment or to pay bail.

In February, Pendleton had participated in the Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage. He had demonstrated outside the Burger King where he worked. Maybe if Pendleton had been making a higher wage, none of these events would have happened.

In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire and Pendleton’s lawyer, described Pendleton as a “really sweet” and “kind” person, whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty. Attorney Bissonnette also said the following:

“(Pendleton) got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement. He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future.”

I must say I remain puzzled by how little coverage Pendleton’s death has received in New Hampshire media since March 13. Most of the stories that have been done come from outside news outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. I did hear one story on New Hampshire Public Radio and the Monitor did an editorial. When I have asked friends and acquaintances about Pendleton’s death, they have invariably not heard about it.

There have been a lot of stories about bobcats and also about the St. Paul’s preppy and the tragedy of his temporary detour from Harvard, but almost nothing about a dead young black man. Based on the coverage, maybe poor and black lives don’t matter.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)

Godhuli

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In Hindi, godhuli is when the cows come home, or more literally, when the cows raise dust heading home after a day of grazing: go means cow and dhuli means dust.  Villagers in India who had no other way to tell time would often use godhuli as a way to mark time.  “It was last week at godhuli when I saw him.”

India is overwhelming — people, food, trash, cows, temples, shops, crazy playing-chicken-like driving (seriously, how is there not an accident every two seconds?), fragrance, slums, dozens of fishermen on the beach pulling in boats and nets with long ropes, silky wind cooling the evenings, more temples, some over a thousand years old, mehendi (henna tatoos), raucously loud singing, karaoke, dancing, drumming at a banquet, five people ready to help you do anything at a resort, hawkers showing you the same set of postcards over and over and over no matter how many times you say no, heat, sun, and now, sleep.

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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.

 

Winter?

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The birches and hardwood saplings are bowed again, weighted by another load of ice that slim trees can’t hold up.  Along Canterbury Road, the route we walk most and often our way into the woods, there were trees still hanging over the gravel a week after the heavy wet storm in November and many of them finally broke, young trunks snapped to expose white wood. There is debris all over the old roads we walk in the woods and we’re using the broken branches of maple and lilac we picked up in the yard as kindling. The world falling apart in sticks.

IMG_3447Today it’s ice-bowing time even more so.  The snow last night, overlaid with sleet then freezing rain then rain coated the world with up to a quarter inch of ice and now the birches aren’t just bowed over the road, they’re blocking it.  Our neighbors that live further down Canterbury Road have created a woven path to drive around the ice-laden crowns of the trees now bent all the way to the road.

I’ve just finished reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a book I wouldn’t have read except it’s for my book club, and isn’t that what book clubs are for, to cause you to read books you otherwise might not?  Aside from The Poisonwood Bible, a novel I remember as exceptionally good, I’ve never cared for Kingsolver’s heavy messaging in her novels, how her stories and characters serve a larger statement about some sorry state of the world rather than trusting that describing the trajectory of one life will resonant for others who’ve been on wholly different paths.

IMG_3457And Flight Behavior is no different.  The story of Dellarobia, accidentally named after a cheesy crafting product when the name could have come from an Italian sculptor or scripture, which says plenty about the hardscrabble circumstances of Dellarobia’s life that land her dissatisfied to the point of desperation until she finds a mountainside of monarch butterflies displaced from their usual Mexico winter habitat due to weather shifts caused by global warming.  As heavy as the story could have come off, it works as a novel.  Yes, the warnings about climate change are a bit much, and Kingsolver lays on the symbolism pretty heavily, but I recognized Dellarobia as an interesting person I wouldn’t otherwise know, so I stayed with her story and was not dissatisfied with how it was handled.

IMG_3462On this miserable day of icy snow, which ruined the ponds and lakes for skating (my skating friends and I have been on a pond, the lakes would have been perfect in another day) and doesn’t leave nearly enough snow for skiing, it’s easy to feel the hard reality of climate change.  There seem to be fewer and fewer good years for skating and skiing. Didn’t we used to reliably skate by Thanksgiving, the lakes freezing before the heavy mid-winter snows came?  Snow that when it came always seemed ripe for skiing?

I don’t think I have it wrong.  Something definitely has changed.  That doesn’t keep the ice-encased world from being beautiful, and so today it was a walk, weaving under small trees bent over every road we walked, looking at buds encased in ice, inching our eyes up trunks to  where a tree had broken, immersed in the new world, which is the world every day.

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Happy Birthday, Jesus!

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Was I supposed to get Jesus a gift for Christmas?  Because it’s his birthday?

As I pulled up to our mail box last night, returning home from family holiday celebrations in Massachusetts, the headlights caught something with the ubiquitous late December red and green wrapped around the base of the pole.  Positioning the car so I could snag whatever was coloring the ground underneath the mailbox, I pulled up a bright piece of cloth, printed with a birthday salutation to Jesus and a fancy gift box.  

Where did this small flag come from?  My house is in a very windy place, sitting on the eastern edge of acres of open pasture and hay fields, so it’s not unusual to find something in my yard that started out west of here.  But this was a find of a whole different kind.

Looks like Jesus had a good year this holiday season based on the gift depicted on the flag, though I have no idea what’s in the box.  But it’s nicely wrapped and ribboned and could pass for either a holiday or birthday gift.  It guess it needs to be both.

I don’t think it’s just that I’m Jewish that made me miss getting Jesus a gift.  Did you get him one?

The Waldhaus Balance

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Our trip to the Swiss Alps was inspired by my sister Jeanne and her husband John. They’ve been coming here for over 10 years to hike, most years staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in the Engadin Valley.  An independently owned hotel, it’s been operated by the same family for five generations.  It’s comfortable and gracious, without being too luxurious (though it is an incredible luxury to be able to stay here) and the stellar location is matched by the bountiful and delicious food.  We’re so happy we finally got here to spend time with Jeanne and John and understand why it’s a place they come back to again and again.

But there needs to be a balance when staying in a hotel with an enormous breakfast buffet (including plenty of food to take back to your room and pack for your hiking lunch) and a five course dinner every night.  That balance for us is hiking — working off some of the excess eating while relishing the grandeur of the Alps.

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Today’s hike was to an alpine lake, a direct 2,000 foot climb up from Maloja to Lunghinsee, then a long walk back along the descending ridge to the Waldhaus.  Much of today’s hike looked like England, with open slopes colored by heather and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed asking the hiking guide Cecile and Uda, a woman from Germany, what the German names were for the many flowers I recognized.

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The valley where the movie Heidi was filmed.

So hopefully today’s walk helped worked off some of what I ate for dinner, all delicious.

Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum

 

Stillness and Adventure

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Yesterday morning, as David and I were packing for our 5+ weeks of adventure in Europe, I noticed a praying mantis on a chair in the kitchen.  Wondering about the symbolism of such an appearance, I looked it up.  Yes, it’s a symbol of good fortune, but good fortune found through stilling the mind, seeking peace and calmness.  One website says, “Overwhelmingly in most cultures the mantis is a symbol of stillness. As such, she is an ambassador from the animal kingdom giving testimony to the benefits of meditation, and calming our minds. An appearance from the mantis is a message to be still, go within, meditate, get quiet and reach a place of calm.”

I’ve been meditating regularly, as in every day, since January.  But recently, with the busyness of lots of family visits and getting ready for a long trip, I’ve found myself not getting to meditation at least several days in the last few weeks.  That’s after 8 months of no-fail daily meditation.

We’re in Normandy today, staying tonight in the lovely village of Saint-Germer-de-Fly, on our way to a week with our friend Anny at her summer house in Lisores.  It’s been a packed day, and after a night on an airplane, and landing in a time zone 6 hours ahead of the one I left, my body isn’t entirely sure what day it is.  Tuesday, right?

Which means I haven’t meditated yet today.  I’ve been busy being stunned by beautiful villages and old abbeys and sun chasing rain showers chasing sun across a rolling green landscape of hay fields and pasture.

So, time to meditate.  In the meantime, here’s a taste of the first day of our adventure.

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Word Count

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The memoir manuscript is currently at 101,800 words, though I already know a lot of those will be coming out once I get to the serious editing phase.  My word count of new writing each day over the past weeks, on days I’ve written rather than cutting and pasting what I’d already written before I came to Vermont Studio Center, and taking notes on that writing and then coloring those notes, has been 1,510, 2,508, 1,555, 1,017, 2,561, 2,034, 1,606, and 1,657.  I’m already at 2,153 today and there’s more to come. There’s a particularly painful passage in this story that I’ve been reading about in my journals and saved emails for several days now, and I want it out of my head and on to the page.  Today I care more about getting past this part of the book than I do about the word count.  But I’ll still record it.

Does this seem a bit obsessive, to be counting how many words I write a day?  I’m not alone, and that’s one of the wonderful things about being at a writing residency.  Over lunch yesterday I talked with another writer about how much we both like boxes.  She’s writing a novel in boxes.  I told her about the boxes of poems in The Truth About Death, my obsession with shaping the poems on the page to look like containers for the grief and disorientation I was pouring into them.

Then at dinner I sat with two other writers and we started sharing word counts.  One is writing a novel, another a nonfiction book.  Could we all cram another 500 words in during the hour we had between dinner and the poetry reading last night?  We did, and in fact we all went over.

Besides counting words, I’m counting the days I have left here.  Two after today. We’re all counting in some way, and we know we’re among others who count and keep track or let go and lose track.  Wherever our creative process takes us, we follow.  At least while we’re here.  That’s why we came.