white sand beach shoreline

Poem: April

I’ve been writing and reading a lot of poetry over the past 10 weeks as I recover from surgery for a broken wrist. Marie Howe’s What The Living Do prompted this memory of my father’s last days. He died on April 18, 1995, in Vero Beach, FL.

 

April

I have arrived in this vivid spring: oleanders, hot Florida sun,
strong Atlantic breeze and cumulus towers in the blue-blue sky.

The small hospital is a tidy white concrete low-rise in a trimmed landscape
where shadows race and the wide doors open like airlocks.

Inside my father lies in a bed and I sit in a chair in my summer clothes.
Delirious, he says anything he thinks of and leers at my legs

licking his lips until something occurs to him
and he points at the door, looks me in the eye, and says,

Go to my office and get that book. I say, Maybe later.
Go now, he says and smiles like it’s a game.

He thinks he’s at home, not seeing the hospital around him.
What is it about, I ask, dangerously indulging the hallucination.

Go, he says, commanding. I say, I can’t, not right now.
A moment later he says, You’re having a hard time.

He sees me crying and his kindness breaks me in half.
The doctor and an intern enter and look at the two of us

How are you, the doctor asks me, but he can see perfectly well.
Prepare yourself, he says, and I begin.

I prepare by coming and going, abandoning plans for recovery
swapping vigils with my mother and sister

in the ICU that is a glass cage behind more airlocks
sitting with my father as he becomes quiet, struggles to breathe

watching the heart monitor leaping, the sound mercifully turned off
the oxygen mask pressing into the skin around his nose and mouth.

I prepare by taking an afternoon off as if cutting class or calling in sick
because he is unconscious, because I can’t take it, and that is when he dies

as I lie on the beach close to the restless, mumbling Atlantic
in the salty wind that peppers my skin with stinging sand.

Advertisements
3 young girls standing on a hay bale looking in a horse's stall

Poem: Riding Lessons

A writing challenge on the prompt “ritual.”

. . .

Riding Lessons

The boy pulls on each boot as his father watches
he grabs his helmet by the strap
lifts it from the dirt where he dropped it
trudges through the barn’s shadowed maw where the ponies stand in cross-ties
and a thousand girls in jodhpurs adore them.

I prompt him at every step of the ritual tacking-up as he
swipes at the pony’s legs with a brush
broods at its refusal to lift a hoof for the pick
forgets where its bridle, saddle, and the stained pad are stored
although he has been taking lessons all summer.

Here’s what he thinks about riding
and his father’s nostalgia for horses

He drops the saddle on the pony’s back
with the pommel facing backward.

. . .

© 2018 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten

flower

Essay: Bringing in the Hay

Bringing In The Hay

It’s late July, the grass is above average tall, and if it ever stops raining the farmers will get a lot of hay in.

My neighbors to the north have a small farm. They are a young family who’ve grown up in the life of farming here in Dryden. Dana and Carol were high school sweethearts and now they are in their early thirties with three small children. Dana wants to have steers on his 80 acres—in fact, he wants to buy some of the adjoining 600—but that’s still on the wish list. For now, Dana hays the open fields every summer like he did with his father growing up. This summer he has a couple of horses in the fenced pasture closest to his house, the one where he kept a steer a few years ago. They’re here because another neighbor’s horses ate all the grass at her place, plus she broke her arm, so Dana stepped in. He’s been hauling water for them in a 100-gallon utility tank tied to a small trailer behind his four-wheeler, pumping it by hand into a trough.

Nine days ago, three-and-a-half inches of rain fell in just 45 minutes. The deluge caused major flash flooding in parts of the county. I had water in my basement, not from creek overflow but because the sump pumps could not keep up and the ground was already saturated. Last year, we had a 100-year drought. Seven months of far below average rainfall, from late spring through the fall. This year, corn and soybean rotted in the fields. The horses drink from a new pond that has filled a low spot in their pasture.

Three days ago, Dana mowed the field closest to my house with his twenty-year-old tractor. That’s not a bad age for a John Deere, having replaced a truly ancient one the year before. But since then Dana has been struggling to get the hay in before another round of thunderstorms and flood warnings. He started baling yesterday but every few minutes I heard the tractor motor drop to an idle because of some problem. He didn’t get very far, and despite the near-perfect weather, the tractor went silent well before sunset. This morning help arrived.

With Dana driving and the helper walking behind the baler hitched behind the tractor, they got it all done. Dana’s bales were a bit wonky, a little crazy-shaped. Some were curved into wide letter Us. Others were twisted like square slinky toys. I listened to them work from the top of a ladder where I was cleaning the gutters until I was chased down by hornets. I was stung three times and ran around the side of the house where I examined the welts on my arm and legs and watched the heavy blue thunderheads piled in the western sky. The wind switched and turned cold as inflow rushed to meet them.

At about four that afternoon, Dana and his two older kids worked fast to bring in the bales before the evening thunderstorms. They buzzed around the field loading 6-8 bales in the 4-wheeler’s trailer (minus water tank), ran them to the hay wagon, loaded the bales on the hay wagon, then rushed back to the field for more bales — wash, rinse, repeat. According to the weather radar, the storms heading our way were slow moving but intense, running in a line from southwest to northeast, from Corning to Ithaca. At 7 p.m. the dark sky was pierced by lightning and frequent thunder. The four-wheeler buzzed and voices shouted until the rain began.

My stomach was a twist of anxiety about these approaching storms, for a different reason. On my weather app, I looked at the huge clots of orange and red rain cores, trying to gauge if/when the deluge would hit. I had to do some talking to myself and slow breathing to calm down. I thought about the recent flood, knowing all too well that if we lost power the sump pump would not run. To prepare, I moved the cat’s litter box and the dehumidifier to what passes for high ground down there. There wasn’t anything else to move that hadn’t already been ruined in the previous flood. I ran the worst case scenario and felt my gut twist.

So I thought instead about Dana and his family. About the bales of hay in danger of being soaked and ruined, become worthless due to mold, making all that work for nothing. What must it be like to desire a farming life these days, even if it’s just a small place to raise your kids and keep goats and chickens? Maybe a few steers? Day jobs must fill the void. Everything must be deferred in favor of the farm and equipment, including needed renovations to the house, vacations away, new vehicles. Three kids under 12, the youngest less than a year old.

The storm caught up to us but fortunately just a glancing blow. No prolonged, drenching rain, no flood, no loss of power. Other people had flooded basements, ruined hay, no power, and stress. But not me, not this time.

Now it is near dusk and a cool breeze is pushing the storm south and east, away to other towns, other farms. I hope they got the hay in and under cover. I hope there won’t be more storms tonight. I hope we can adjust to the new normal of weather extremes and enjoy this beautiful part of the world while it still resembles what we grew up with.

Meanwhile, I’m watching the next line of storms heading this way in a line stretching from Detroit to Toronto. Sunset is lighting up the back of that storm line in the east with a diffuse, pink glow that slides into orange and golden yellow as I watch. A rainbow stretches up to the base of the cloud and receding rain so that all you see are two curved pillars touching the earth and a dome of color suspended between. Lightning arcs beneath it.

Sometimes the drama is behind you. Sometimes it is ahead.

© 2017 Patti Witten
Photos © Patti Witten | more photos at sway2this.com

Lyric: How Can It Help to Speak of the Heart

How can it help to speak of the heart?
Tell me about the horses
Their language of meaningful gestures
Hooves stirring the hay
At night in the dark silent barn

How can it help to speak of the world?
Tell me about the sunrise
The adorable wars of sparrows
Their street-fair circus reunions
Vise-like grip in the thunderstorm

How can it help to speak of the truth?
Tell me about the river
through forest, plain, and desert
to the salty mouth of the sea
over the silty tongues of giants

How can it help to speak of love?
Tell me about the garden
Blooms that nod or stretch or crawl
Arrived for the attention of sunshine
Stoic or showy, brave or discreet
In the brief heat of summer before the rain

How can it help to speak anymore?
Tell me about your drawing
A monster, a building, a hand-holding child
My head is a hostel for metaphors
And faithless memories, like as like not

So a bird is a baby, a touch is a star
Bits of the whole are ciphers for all
Arrayed in a brilliant expanding web
Connecting the beginning with what
Has no end

©2017 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten

miniature camera

Recent Poems: My Snapshot Life, and remember when…

I’ve been participating in a writing circle with Zee Zahava. She kindly posted one of my dashed-off poems on her blog, PaintedParrott.

Read My Snapshot Life, inspired by the poem “Curriculum Vitae,” by Lisel Meuller.

 

Here is another from the workshop, from a prompt that starts, “remember when…”

Remember the fallout shelter in the basement?
Remember we thought we were getting a pool?
Remember Dad telling us no, in the living room, with the machines just outside digging up the lawn?
Remember the disappointment?
Remember the fear?
Remember the bomb?
Remember the questions about WHO would be allowed inside?
WHAT would happen above ground?
WHEN the world would end?
Remember the canned food? The cold, clammy, concrete?
The dark? The dim, buzzing electric bulbs?
Remember the generator?
Remember we were not allowed to play in there?
Remember the padlock?
Remember the life-sized poster of Frankenstein that we hung over the door?

 

© 2017 Patti Witten

photo / Patti Witten

 

Eassay: Killdeer

The house across the street is deserted. A modern attractive home set back from the road, it’s on a large, open lot in a neighborhood of modest homes that have nearly all been built over the past fifteen years on what used to be farmland. The home is always dark, always empty, except for one or two weeks every summer.

The owner, Monica, is a thin, tough woman in her forties or early fifties. She lived there with two or three Australian Shepherd dogs until 4 years ago. Her dogs always barked at me as I left the house, and when I returned. They barked when I mowed the lawn, or puttered around the garden. They barked until Monica hollered at them, her voice cracking with strain. The barking always resumed a few minutes later and continued until she hollered again. When she left her house in her pickup truck, they barked in their kennel behind the house.

I have spoken to Monica on just two occasions. The first was six years ago shortly after I moved here and introduced myself. She wasn’t particularly interested in me, but made up for it with surprising admissions about herself. She seemed careworn, even old for someone whose hair was still brown. She was slight and wiry, dressed in men’s faded jeans, boots, and a tan work shirt. She wore no jewelry, and her long hair was pulled into a loose ponytail under a faded baseball cap.

She talked about herself eagerly, without looking at me, describing how she built the house herself and was building another house on a parallel road a mile or two away. She told me she was not happy here, on our road. Although hers was one of the first houses on her side of the road, now there were three in close proximity — certainly close enough for the neighbors to hear the barking and to be barked at, I thought. And right on cue, Monica told me her nearest neighbors had called the sheriff about her dogs. She also said she used to train horses, but not anymore. I thought: poor dogs, poor horses. She went on to say that her parents were ailing and she was called away a lot to care for them. Poor parents, maybe. She had decided to move to the new house even though it was unfinished.

She seemed annoyed by and resentful of just about everything. She said, “I won’t have a mailbox here, are you kidding? They’ll just knock it down and steal my mail.” (This has not happened to me and my mailbox.) She said she and her building crew would be at the bar most nights if I wanted to join. Lightbulb moment.

Last summer Monica returned in her pickup truck and trailer. The dogs barked while she moved things into the house, and a sign appeared at the end of the driveway announcing a yard sale. Curious, I walked over and reminded her that I was her neighbor from across the street. She said the furniture she was selling was from the rental unit in her other house, and some of the other items had belonged to her parents. It was all junk. She invited me inside to see some more junk. I was very curious to see the inside of the house, but there was nothing personal inside, just junk. The walls were a graying shade of off-white. Dingy carpet had not been vacuumed in ages. Empty kennel crates appeared to be the only permanent furniture. Two dogs shadowed the edges of the room, low to the ground, borderline aggressive. I deliberately ignored them. But one of them stared at me, advancing slowly, as Monica talked about her parents’ crappy stuff. Noticing her dog, she suddenly screamed at it with a tremendous display of anger, “Wolf! Get back! Get down!” Time to go, I thought.

Monica disappeared within a week, and the house went dark again.

So, the house is deserted almost year round. I like it this way. No barking dogs and no inarticulate yelling, no headlights careening into my front windows at night. A guy comes every week during the summer and mows long, curving swathes of grass on a riding mower. Otherwise, the place is quiet. The long driveway is directly opposite mine, giving me a clear view of Monica’s unchanging house at the other end. Grass invades the gravel and blurs the edges. It’s a path for deer and night marsupials, an airstrip for meadowlarks, woodcock, robins, red winged blackbirds and sparrows. On rainy nights it’s a trysting place for frogs, salamanders and toads, and it’s a cafeteria for ferrets and owls. Tree swallows swoop above it and chirp all summer long, fishing for insects in the sky, undisturbed.

Every year in early spring, a pair of killdeer returns to nest. They are some of the earliest migratory birds to return. One day there is silence, the next day (and evening) the sky is alive with their short repertoire of piercing cries, “kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer.”

Peace is fragile and life is short. I worry about the killdeer, about their open nest on the gravel. Some years I see their young scurrying along behind the parents, looking just like the sandpipers I saw as a child on Long Island Sound. Sometimes a parent bird will play decoy if it perceives danger, faking a broken wing to lure a predator away from the chicks. Some years the killdeer fail to raise a brood. Perhaps Monica’s truck destroys the nest when she returns, or her dogs raid it, or the guy who mows the yard runs them over. We humans are usually thoughtless beasts busily building our lives and resenting our kind, and mostly oblivious to everything else. I can only hope the killdeer will be all right this year, and the next, however many years they return to the silent driveway of the deserted house across the street.

Essay: Green, Gone

It’s February and Northern California has turned green again, as green as the Emerald Isle. Only four months ago in October, the hills and ditches were a crisped brown in the fifth year of severe drought. Small animals like birds and squirrels seemed to move quietly, conserving their energy. I imagined them in the hot summer, tense with thirst and stoic with resignation, staying close to water sources until they went dry.

But now the bare hills are green, green. Ditches and flat valleys brim with water, buoying trash and breeding bugs. House cats stalk the tall grass at the verge of new ponds, between the hotels and fenced neighborhoods, poaching frogs and mice. Crows and robins are plentiful. Frequent rains have turned the surface cracks in all the paved roads dark with moisture, and many trees are bright with new leaves.

It is 8am, Thursday before Super Bowl 50, and I’m on the airport express bus from Sonoma County to San Francisco, at the start of a travel day heading home. This route has become familiar to me from visits over the past two years. Off the 101 between Petaluma and Novato, cattle meander bright pastures, relaxed in a world of plenty. The sun rises through blurred cirrus clouds, and white birds crowd a distant, shallow lake. The morning traffic becomes dense near San Rafael, where we make a stop before crossing the Golden Gate and threading our way through the city to the airport in South SF.

I think of all the repetitive roads and airports that have led to family over the years, strung behind me like beads on a string. The 250 miles of highway and 2-lane roads between Ithaca and Fairfield County, the college town that became my home and the place I grew up. Later, Ithaca to several towns in Florida: Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Pete. More recently, the complex itinerary of flights and taxis booked to get to Boquete, Panama, where my mother, sister, and brother-in-law lived for 2 years: SYR to MIA, then, not one but two airports in Panama City (arrive at Tocumen International and get a connecting flight from Albrook International), finally arriving at Enrique Malek International in the city of David on Panama’s Pacific coast, not far from the Costa Rican border.

Closer to home, I think often of the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have spent a week with a tribe of musicians. And I think of all the domestic air travel done over the years requiring transit through US hubs, mainly Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Detroit. And ATL, the grandmother of them all — Atlanta, my mother’s birthplace, where some of our family still live. I wonder how many more times will I travel this particular route between Ithaca and Santa Rosa, the scene of my mother’s decline.

Dorothy is a resident the senior facility that my mother lives in. She is white-haired, thin, and sharp-eyed. She was a Rockette during the second world war, hired in 1942 at just 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement, but, as she says, “It was war.” She has a smile that is both devilish and sad, and, in case I mistake her for an old woman, she is quick to offer me a profile of who she really is, inside — young, adventurous and risk-taking, at one time a mother and matriarch of a country house full of dogs and children. Now she’s a widow like all of the women on the assisted living wing, carefully walking the well-lit halls of invisibility. My mother walks here, too, but she is quiet, reserved, inward-looking, and seldom offers any insights into her feelings or thoughts. Perhaps this is her advancing memory loss, or perhaps it is her true nature.

Traffic is heavy on the 101, and the ride to SFO will take two-and-a-half hours this morning. But I’m not anxious about missing my flight. I will have time to get something to eat before boarding the long flight to DTO on a 737. After a one hour in layover Detroit, I’ll take the one-hour-plus flight to ITH on a Canadair jet, arriving about 10pm. Home.

I’m obsessed with my travel details: times, distances, signage, countdowns, gate numbers, terminal letters. Every fifteen minutes I check the contents of my large, heavy purse: iPhone, iPad Mini, wallet, passport, lip balm, liquids in a quart size ziplock, handkerchief, hand lotion. I read every highway sign overhead on the 101, hearing the words inside my head: Lucky Drive, right lane closed, Tiburon Blvd. The big names of myth and magic: Blithedale, Tamalpais, Alcatraz. But there is so much monotony, too. Miles of big box stores, car dealerships, generic houses crowded into every available bit of real estate. Cars, cars, cars. Whatever is beautiful and fine must be shared by so many. There are no private experiences, everything is reduced to a common denominator, from affluence to working class to poverty.

My travel OCD is more pronounced as I age. I repeat these numbers and names to myself, over and over. Delta. Gate 41. One dollar tip for the bus driver in my right pocket. Passport. Boarding Pass. The unbelievably blue ocean and bay under the Golden Gate distract me briefly. The unimaginable breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean bordering this coast threatens to unmoor my travel thoughts. It almost knocks them from the top spot. Almost.

I could never live here. It’s too dense. The green is too thin, too transient. There are too many people, too many cars, too many houses. I feel that my mind could not survive the constant onslaught of stimulation. There are too many numbers, names, and times to track and memorize. Street names, addresses, amounts, garbage pick up days, new routes to necessary places, intersections, mental maps, instructions. People’s names: doctors, neighbors, instructors, caregivers. Too many homeless, panhandlers, crazies, drug addicts. Perhaps I would adapt, if I chose to or was forced to. Necessity is the mother of adaptability. But for now, I’m gone. Just a visitor anxious to leave, conveyed passively with the conviction of deliverance. I visit California as the green only visits. We make our long arrivals, recessions, and departures. And then we fly away, again.