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

Recent Poems: My Snapshot Life, and remember when…

miniature camera

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

 

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.”

killdeer

 

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.

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.

On the bus near Novato, CA.jpgIt 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 the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have 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.

 

Red-headed Morning: Pileated Woodpecker

It was a red letter morning, or perhaps a red-headed morning: I saw three Pileated Woodpeckers on the old willow behind my house, at least one male among them.

For the past few weeks I have heard and seen a female Pileated frequently in the neighborhood. Maybe the mild temperatures and weather of this winter have contributed to the activity and frequency. Maybe I’ve just been outside more as a result. I had assumed I was seeing just one, a female, visiting several “excavation” projects on nearby trees, in search of ants and other bugs. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male in the neighborhood. So this was exciting. Courtship, perhaps. Or a family group.

DSCN0619.JPG

I got just one photo of the male that is not too blurry. I have to face it — it’s very blurry.

But a bit later, a female returned to the hedgerow behind my house and resumed working on a hole near the base of a dead tree. I managed to get some video of her and made a little movie. It’s pretty shaky, so you might consider taking a dramamine before watching.

A Private Loss

Every morning this week there was a reason to weep. Of course, every week, every day, somewhere, there are a million reasons to weep. But this week we saw the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and a tragic, personal loss in my circle of friends.

I cried a lot for Bowie, for his boldness and thoughtfulness, recklessness and wisdom — such a rare combination. And for his music: more than a dozen of his songs are in the soundtrack of my life. I pored over videos of his performances and interviews, read articles, looked at photos from his remarkable career. I even dreamed about him. I shared eulogies, sad emojis, and videos on Facebook. Heroes and Let’s Dance shuffled on my inner radio, the one I can’t turn off.

Two days after Bowie there was news of actor Alan Rickman’s death. Another artist gone. Everyone was saying that both were “taken from us.” But as I became aware that a friend’s daughter had died on the same day as Rickman, all public mourning was eclipsed by a private tragedy.

Charlotte was the fifteen year-old daughter of my friend Barney Miller, a musician and film editor in NYC. Reading Barney’s initial Facebook posts, I didn’t immediately understand that her death was by suicide. It sent me, and all of Barney’s cyber friends, into despair.

There is a photo portrait of Charlotte that her mother, Caitlin, took last summer. She is dressed in a navy blue English riding show coat, a white show shirt, and a Charles Owen helmet. She is holding a red ribbon in her black-gloved right hand, in front of what I imagine is a happy smile. Maybe she is squeezing her smile behind her lips. Her dark eyes snap directly at the camera. I love this photo, I relate to it. I was that girl once. I’ve known many girls like that since, girls who bloom in the company of horses and become strong and sensitive like them.

Charlotte Miller

When Barney first posted the photo I commented, “Well she certainly has the equine ‘virus’. Good to see her wearing the Charles Owen. PS she may never recover!” I was confident in my long-held opinion that horses can teach us to cope, help us grow up, even save us. But now I want to take back my comment. Instead of never recovering from a love for horses, a love so much like a virus that stays in the blood for life, Charlotte will not recover at all. She will never bloom in that way, or maybe she never found enough solace in a horse’s warm breath, tempered strength and generosity, in anything, to spare herself. I see no hint in the photo of the distress that drove her but it seems no one could save her.

Public and private loss. I know that private loss happens all the time, everywhere. All the time. Every day there is a reason to weep. Death reaches in, overwhelms. No one escapes, no one is immune. My own losses compound as I age and I have to find a way to balance them with beauty, memory, and hope. It’s hard.

Years ago I had a personal loss in the midst of a public tragedy. On April 18, 1995, my father died one day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He succumbed ten days after being hospitalized for a head injury due to a fall. His health had been compromised from radiation and chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer metastasized to the brain. Like Bowie and Rickman, he was just sixty-nine years old. Meanwhile, the airwaves were flooded with video, photos, and interviews expressing outrage, grief, and analysis. One hundred sixty-eight died in the explosion in Oklahoma City, including nineteen children, and more than more than six hundred eighty were injured. This pre-9/11 tragedy, a homegrown terrorist attack, was inescapable and distracting, forcing my grieving family into a silent, altered universe of private grief set apart from the rest of our culture. I looked for connection and meaning everywhere, anywhere.

I found it in the hot summer of 2000 when I visited the memorial at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while I was playing gigs nearby. In some ways this was the most important event of that tour. As always, while I sang and played my songs, I felt the familiar longing for connection, and its partner, skepticism about ever finding it. But it wasn’t until I visited the memorial site that I made the connection. I spoke with one of the uniformed docents, who stood respectfully nearby as visitors walked the grounds. She was dark haired and trim, in her 20s, hands loosely clasped behind her back in a show of deference. I told her my story. We walked together a bit and stopped to look at the empty chairs. I wrote Sunny Day in Terre Haute after that experience.

Charlotte’s death only touches me on an angle, but it is so harsh, so loud, much louder than Bowie’s and Rickman’s, louder than whatever personal drama I was playing in the days before it. It stirs up the deaths of my husband Eric, my father, my cousin Billy (suicide), my beloved horse, Shady. I look at Charlotte in her show clothes, proudly holding her red ribbon. I grieve for Barney, Caitlin, and Charlotte’s sister, for Charlotte’s friends. I grieve for families who have lost teenaged children to suicide, children who were truly and unspeakably taken from them. I will admit that I grieve for myself. And for Charlotte, because inside me, what hurts the most is that nothing could save her. Not even horses.


Charlotte’s family have created a Suicide Prevention charity in her name.

Photo © Caitlin Felton

 

Alexi Murdoch – ‘Orange Sky’ music video

Music video: Alexi Murdoch’s lovely song ‘Orange Sky’ with my sunrise, sunset and moon photos.

http://sway2this.com/2011/12/13/alexi-murdoch-orange-sky/

Originally I posted it on sway2this.com, my photography blog – It’s also on YouTube.

sunrise 4/8/11