The Whining of Autumn Lawns

Autumn, Leaves, Golden Autumn, Leaves In The AutumnAs I write this, the leaf blowers are out in full force in the neighborhood, filling the air with complaint.  From this observation you might assume this post is about noise pollution.  Well it is, but not in the way you may think. The air – in particular the media airwaves and the atmosphere surrounding our private conversations this past week – has been filled to overflowing with a complaint of a far more serious and toxic nature.

I am not a political writer.  But I cannot let the events of the past week and the alarming unfolding of their consequences go without comment.  The noise of negativity that has blared so deafeningly this autumn (and summer and spring) electoral season feels almost like a physical burden. The weight and volume of its decibels have piled along the curb of reason so deep that it is hard to see any sign of a familiar or a safe path ahead.

It is hard to know what to think.  Impossible to know what to do.

Friends have forwarded links and essays that either raise the level of alarm and despair, or suggest a kind of urge toward ‘wait and see’ that threatens a descent into complacency – the first step toward capitulation.

I was sitting in a meeting the other day and I overheard the person behind me say he was quite satisfied with how the election had come out.  Suddenly, I did not want him breathing on me. I didn’t want to share the same air space. And although I was ashamed of this reaction, I did not know how to overcome it.

I do not do well with confrontation.  I know my default impulse, in the heat of the moment, is to lash out, hit back, insult and belittle.  Or (what I usually do) say nothing in fear of letting loose my impulses. Neither reaction is useful. But even if I could muster a reasoned response, a calm, nuanced argument, would it make a difference?  Can we even hear each other anymore? And if we can’t, do we now face a future where the angry whine of the engine of fear will always drown out the quieter hum of civil and truthful discourse?Withered Leaf, Dry, Autumn, Branch

It is early, I know.  But it feels like an ending.

I attach again the poem I wrote at the start of it all – an ekphrastic poem in response to Gray and Gold, a painting by John Rogers Cox, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  His 1942 painting was  a response to the United States entering World War II. Crossroad

Gray and Gold

 

 

Now what do we do?

The common denominator of America’s humanity has been diminishing.  That commonality now feels like a negative number.

A Noisy Solstice

solstice and hands

“Gimme the vice grips.  Pliers ain’t gonna work for this.”

“I need the three-eighths bit, the hammer and a Phillips.”

“We can frame this thing on the ground, then screw it in place.”

“It’s five and seven sixteenths, like I said.  I measured twice.”

——————————————————————————–

The day of the Solstice dawned windless and clear.  The moon, even through its partly lidded eye, cast a bright square through the skylight before making its sleepy way west in the paling sky. Tiny Mercury winked out a little before 6 am. It was a calm and quiet start to the third season of the year.

The old roof comes down!

The old roof comes down!

That peaceful beginning is hard to recall right now.  As I write, generators (two of them) buzz and growl ferociously on and off. Compressors spit angrily, releasing their pent-up tension. Nail guns slap rhythmic rim shots that echo off the face of the houses across the street; a syncopated beat from the slight delay of their bounced-back sound waves. On the lawn, the portable DeWalt rips through plywood like an angry seamstress tearing out the hem of a poorly sewn dress, while inside a battery-powered jig saw chatters through sheetrock, opening up space for a new furnace duct.  It is Grand Central Station inside and out the day I get a new roof and air conditioning the same day!

Despite the noise and mounting detritus, there’s something comforting about being in the presence of skilled workmen, doing well what they know how to do.  I’m feeling taken care of by these strangers who scramble over and through the house, calling back and forth in their ritualized language, improving and customizing my world with their specialized tools.

Measure twice, cut once.

Measure twice, cut once.

I spent 30 years of my life as a craftsperson myself and appreciate deeply the hand-made thing.  Whether it’s a cup that sits cleanly in the palm, a teapot spout that doesn’t drip, or a roof that shelters securely from the storm, there is great satisfaction in living with things that serve well their intended purpose.DSC00938

When the dust clears, the equipment is packed away in the workmens’ vans and the house is quiet again, I will be left with a new soffit to paint and a small pile of sawdust to add to the compost. There will be the odd roofing nail to fish out of the garden next spring, I’m sure.  But I’ll also be the beneficiary of a little thrill each time I push the button to turn the air conditioning on, pull up to the house with the warm autumn tones of its new sheltering crown.

 

Summer, Sudden: Now and Later:

Just a late afternoon observation.DSC00931

It’s 5:15 pm and the sky just cracked and let itself loose.  Downtown, the day’s just ended for the workforce and I imagine the consternation: “Should we try to make it for the car, or stay and see if it lets up?”  “Where’s my umbrella?”

I’m sitting, snug and dry on my deep front porch, Jameson chilling (just one cube) in a heavy crystal glass, a thick curtain of water sheeting down all around me.  The sky complains mightily at some unknown offense, and the old, old maples and oaks throughout the neighborhood bend and brush the undersides of the lowering clouds.  Suddenly, the wind dies.  The rain drops straight and hard as a tropical deluge.

In the last five minutes the temperature has fallen ten degrees.  The cars passing in the street arc tsunamis of fresh water across the tree lawns along the way.

Five minutes more and the drama has settled into the humdrum routine of a summer storm.  The sky still complains, but at a distance, like a chastised child massaging its wounded ego after a well-deserved reprimand.

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

The rain has all but stopped, now, and the neighborhood droops like a Charles Burchfield* painting, the trees, eaves, even the parked cars dripping in a syncopated liquid patter.

A gnat has fallen into my whiskey, but I continue to sip it anyway, the alcohol having provided its antiseptic benefit.  One should not waste good Irish.

Bug in the Jameson

Bug in the Jameson

Tonight is supposed to be the height of the Perseid meteor showers. Not a chance for a view with this cloud cover.  I’m a little disappointed, but it’s been a sweet summer shower and there’s always next year.

A few ghosts of mist, rising from the cool rain silvering the hot earth, float across my lawn.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Here’s a poem I wrote some years ago, inspired by a line from a poem by Denise Levertov.  At the Window

  • * This Charles Burchfield painting is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Meandering into Balance

sprinkler rainbowI’ve been assessing the arc and scope of my days, now that I am nearly 11 months into my retirement. I’ve kept busy with this blog, working on renovating my house, and with a few volunteer commitments that require a focus outside of myself. Early on I felt this last was important so as not to fall into navel-gazing self-indulgence or ennui, things I feared could take over my days ahead. But just this morning I was struck by a sense of lovely balance that comes as close as I have ever imagined to what an ideal retirement – a productive retirement – might be like.

Tomorrow I go to meet with my new part-time employer – one who has offered an opportunity for me to continue to contribute to the arts in a new way that will keep me growing in new ways as well. For the past several days I have been preparing for this meeting as well as finishing some volunteer work.

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One tomato gone, another tasted.

But this morning, I woke early and, with nothing on the schedule after feeding the cats, I had, before 9:00, read the headlines and finished the N.Y. Times Crossword, chased two deer out of the garden (after losing a perfect, ripe tomato), painted the columns on my front porch, and set up the sprinkler to water the treatment applied to my lawn yesterday.  All the while the cicadas whirred and the birds looped through the yard to the feeder, the fence and the branches of the trees.  The sun sprinkled rainbows on my parched lawn and the deer kept watch on me from behind the neighbor’s fence.

The day felt both full and open.  I had time—and I had useful tasks, at different levels of personal challenge and satisfaction, both accomplished and ahead. I don’t think there’s a better example of what retirement should be.

Nothing for it but to be grateful.DSC00886-001

Here’s a beautiful poem about a deer from an unexpected source. The Visitation by Marge Piercy

Consumption

cartoonI’ve been worried about my consumption. No, not like Camille, Satine, Violetta, Mimi. Although the choking sensation of those tragic female figures is an apt metaphor for the feeling I’ve been having about the vast amount of stuff I consume, the leavings from which I throw away each week.

Tuesday is trash day in my neighborhood, so every Monday night I go about emptying the wastebaskets, consolidating the recyclables, bagging up the garbage and trash to put out on the curb to feed the next morning’s ravenous caravan of city trash trucks. And I am increasingly appalled at the size and weight of those trash bags. Trash

It’s just me.  Not a family of five.

Oddly enough, most distressing are the recyclables. A full grocery bag of paper; newspaper, advertising mailers, throwaway computer printouts, junk mail, deflated cardboard boxes from cereal, chips, pasta, etc. So much. Then there’s the plastic; shameful numbers of clamshell containers from fruits and vegetables, empty milk, juice, lemonade containers, yogurt, hummus, shredded cheese tubs, lethal-edged packaging cut and ripped off purchases at the hardware store, Target, elsewhere. Then glass; wine and salad dressing bottles, empty pasta sauce and jelly jars.  Cans from coffee, soup, stewed tomatoes, cat food.  And dozens of miscellaneous plastic tabs, fasteners and other petroleum-based detritus.  Not to mention Styrofoam! Again, it’s just me.  Every week.

I read somewhere that organic produce actually creates more plastic wrapping trash than non-organic food.  It seems that because organics are more costly to grow, and generate a greater loss when they spoil, the producers try to extend their shelf life with more substantial packaging.  Even trying to live a more sustainable life, it seems, you just can’t win the consumption battle.

DSC00557

Refrigerator note to myself.

I’ve moved twice in recent years, downsizing each time. I’ve gotten to a place where I am happy living with ‘just enough’ in many categories of existence. I don’t need multiple place settings for eight – or twelve, or every fancy kitchen appliance I may use once a year – or less. But after several trips to the Salvation Army, I still have more clothes than I can wear in a season.

So, what’s the answer?  I could buy all my fruit and veggies by the piece, rather than pre-packaged, get my nuts and gains and even coffee in bulk – but not cat food or milk. I suppose I can make my own salad dressings, pasta sauce, soups. I do some of that already.  I bring my own bags to the grocery, use both sides of paper for printing.  I think most of us do these things these days.  But still, there is so much to throw away each week.

We live our busy lives ordered in large measure by convenience as well as the structure of our disposable economy – and not a little bit of greed. We want and, can have, so much more than we will ever need. See my blog about the cereal aisle.

I am increasingly aware – and concerned – that our social order and our capitalist economy are both driven by a sense that unlimited commercial choice is inherently good.  Each trash day comes, and I’m not so sure.consumption diagram

Nothing New Under the Sun

DSC00819

4th of July in my neighborhood

Cleveland is preparing to host the Republican Presidential Convention in just a few days.  This opportunity has given the city the impetus to complete a number of infrastructure projects so Cleveland will shine in the eyes of all the out-of-towners.  Our brand spanking new Public Square is a hit, by all accounts.  But I’m not sure the re-designed bridges into the city will be done in time.  The Cavaliers’ championship got in the way a little when game six came back to the “Q” where the convention will be held, holding up the schedule for preparing the arena for the promised “show.”  The security zone for the convention will make it very hard for ordinary folks to get close to the action – not just protesters, but the locals who just recently fell in love with the splashy, family-friendly Public Square.

But down the road about five miles, in University Circle, the Art Museum recently put on a show that was as open as any kind of public event could possibly be.  Starting with Parade the Circle and ending a week later, the Museum’s Centennial Festival Weekend was filled, hour by hour, with open access to a dizzying schedule of creative performances and interactive events, topped off  by a grand, perfect-weather Solstice celebration and an outdoor Cleveland Orchestra performance.

I was pleased to be part of this Centennial Weekend  and, as I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, participated as a member of Literary Cleveland, writing ekphrastic poems inspired by works of art in the Museum’s collection.  One of the works I chose was a painting by American artist John Rogers Cox, titled Gray and Gold.

Gray and Gold It is a work that has fascinated me for decades, with its surreal juxtaposition of nostalgic Americana against the menace of a pending storm.  In researching the work I learned that Cox was a member of both the Regionalist School of American scene painting (he was from Indiana), like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper, and worked in the Magic Realist Landscape tradition. The painting was done in 1942, shortly after America entered WW II, a time of great patriotism and great uncertainty and fear.

As much as I thought I knew this painting by heart – I’d kept a very large framed poster of it for many years – I now had the chance, with this ekphrastic assignment, to study it in greater depth in the Museum itself.  And a detail that had escaped me previously created the impetus and inspiration for the poem I eventually wrote.  Two tiny white squares of paper on a telephone pole at the bottom of the painting spoke to me of how everything comes around again, and how the emotions and the polarization of this political season, while alarming, are not new.

You can read the poem, Crossroad, here.

 

 

 

 

 

All In, June 19, 2016

‘Tis the season of gifts.  Summer starts today.  Last night was the first ‘strawberry moon’ in 70 years – in my lifetime; full moon on the solstice.  And the Cavs are the NBA champs.

I am not a basketball fan.  My preferred sport is baseball – its timelessness, the absence of do-overs, letting the moment stand, the beauty and rarity of an unassisted triple play, the green of the grass in that bowl of space …  I could go on.

But I am a Clevelander and how can I not be a fan of the Cavs at this moment when they gave this city a spectacular, redeeming gift.

I have always championed my city – even in its darkest days.  I have defended it on airplanes when the guy behind me got vocal about ‘having’ to come to Cleveland for a meeting.  Smiled smugly when staff from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations left Severance Hall after a Cleveland Orchestra performance shaking their heads in admiration and saying “I’ll never hear Schubert played like that again in my life.”

And though I have not been a follower of basketball, I have been keenly aware of the community impact of this game at this moment in my city’s life cycle.  We are on the rise – this time, I believe, for real. So the promise – the hope – of finally putting our 50 year long sports disappointment to rest was important to me.  And so I watched the game.  Rather, I flipped back and forth between the game and whatever was on PBS, because I am a wimp when it comes to being a witness to potential disaster.  (I can’t watch figure skating or gymnastics in the Olympics for this reason  either.) But I watched the final moments of Game 7.  I felt I owed it to this amazing team – and in a way, to LeBron, to stick with them to the end, no matter the outcome.

I will make no attempt to comment on the game itself – that would be foolish, because, so many others have done such a beautiful job of it. In fact, I have always been impressed with how stunningly beautiful and moving much sports writing is.  Take the essay “Is this Heaven?”  in this morning’s Times by John Hyduk. As a rabid fan of just plain, good writing, I must say that there’s a lot of sports writing that touches the human in us as profoundly as that of any other genre. Roger Angell, of course, Jonathan Schwartz, Roger Kahn and John Updike as well, to name a few on the national/international level.  But local writers have their day too; Bill Livingston and Bud Shaw often write stunningly evocative columns.

And if you are a fan of baseball and beautiful poetry, I recommend Steve Brightman’s chapbook, ‘In Brilliant Explosions Alone’ published by Night Ballet Press.  From the Press’ website; It is a “breakdown of the 2008 season of former Cleveland Indians pitcher Jeremy Sowers…it is a chapbook about individual struggle with expectation, the desire for success in the field in which you show talent, and about how others perceive you in that struggle.”

Well, this is more than I intended to write this second day after the glow of our Cav’s great gift to my city.  I couldn’t restrain myself from adding my kudos and my excitement to this moment though.  I’ll just end this brief post with two baseball poems I’ve written – one a haiku. Read them here: Aria  and Benediction.

 

Ekphrastic Celebration

balloonsMilestones should be celebrated.  Graduations  – ‘tis the season, Solstice – coming up, and birthdays.  For art lovers in Cleveland there’s a big one of those happening right now. Our illustrious Art Museum is 100 years old this month.

I don’t normally use this blog to promote things, but since I get to be a teeny, tiny part of this great celebration, I am taking a liberty. And my part has a lot to do with the ‘paying attention’ focus of this blog. During the Museum’s Summer Solstice weekend coming up (June 25 and 26), the good folks there have invited local artists of all disciplines to come and showcase their work for the public – inside and outside the Museum.

I will be there Saturday as both a local poet/artist and representing Literary Cleveland, a new organization dedicated to “serving writers and readers through a collaborative network of services that inform, advance and elevate the literary arts for the benefit of all in Northeast Ohio” according to the mission statement.

My task will be to compose ekphrastic poems, inspired by favorite works of art in the Museum. If ‘ekphrastic poetry’ is not a familiar term, I will tell you that ekphrasis is from the Greek.  It is a form of rhetoric that attempts to bring the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing.  Ekphrastic poetry is as old as Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in The Iliad.  It has become an established poetic undertaking, with poets responding in verse to their experience of a work of art (usually) in another medium and most often a work of visual art.

For this event I will be paying close attention to some of my favorite works in the Museum and to my own experience of them.  I’ll try to translate my experience into poems which I hope will honor the artwork and resonate successfully as creative efforts of their own.

So, I will be at the Museum, in a tent somewhere around the lovely Wade Lagoon, Saturday, June 25 from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, working on my poems.  So far I’ve chosen two pieces to write about; a painting, Gray and Gold, 1942  by John Rogers Cox (American, 1950 -1990) and an ancient, ‘flame style’ Japanese cooking pot from the Middle Jomon period – about 3,000 BC.  Here’s the images.  Gray and Gold

CMA Jomon Pot

If they turn out well, I’ll post the poems after they are done.  Come visit if you can.  It’s free.

How To Sweep A Garden Path

garden pathPerhaps you know the story about the Zen master and the student, whose task was to sweep the garden path. Again and again the student washed and swept only to have the Master say it was not done properly. Finally, when the student was sufficiently confounded – and the path totally sanitized – the Master reached up and shook a branch and let a few leaves fall where they may on the stones.  The task was not to erase nature from the path, but to appreciate and make room for its contributions to our lives.

* * *

This morning, the hollow-reed plaint of a mourning dove, rusted trill of a redwing blackbird and the high, chittering glissando of finches quilt their calls in a syncopated patchwork of sound. Cardinals, robins, jays and wrens race along the invisible highways in the air above the lawn while the squirrels flex their bodies like furred muscles around the trunk of the tall cedar behind the house.

I’m sitting on my backyard deck in the hot-sun, cool air of an early May morning, watching spring arrive; everything pushing up, leafing out, letting go with abandon. Almost perfect. Almost.

Beneath the lively scene, underpinning the warm embrace of the sun and breeze, the faint odor of my resident skunk persists.  It’s gone, now, but not as I’d expected it would go – trapped and removed, to be released elsewhere, or humanely (I hoped) euthanized.

I thought I was being so clever – dusting the deck with flour for several days to track its coming and going so I could block the gaps after he – or she – had departed for the evening (see previous post). I thought I was being so clever.

DSC00639An urban critter-trapper laid baited ‘have-a-heart’ traps around the deck and reinforced the blocked entrances, except one where he affixed another cage. If the skunk was still under the deck, this would be its escape route where it would surely be trapped, he said, though he warned it might take a few days “if it’s trap-savvy.”

For weeks there persisted a mild, skunky odor around the deck. But we caught nothing. The odor faded then for a few days until one morning – 3 AM – I woke to a powerful and sickening smell. I knew instantly what had happened.

The deck was already part of the house when I bought it, so I had no idea how it was constructed. Although we’d left the skunk an escape route, it had settled in a section under the deck that was blocked from that exit.  We had trapped it in and it had died. Its fur was still glossy and soft when the trapper removed it from its nest under the deck.

If I am honest, I must admit having a descending order of tolerance for my yard’s co-habitants, with skunks at the bottom of the list. Still, I have remorse over my actions, however unknowing, that caused this painful end to a small life. It reminds me of a beautiful poem, Snake, by D. H. Lawrence in which the narrator regrets the pettiness of his reaction to a creature which, upon reflection, he recognizes as having its own beauty and nobility within the realm of its ‘otherness.’

* * *

finchesTwo days ago my resident house finches left me. It was a Saturday morning and I was in my customary seat in the living room watching the male and female busily feeding their chick in the nest they’d constructed in the wreath on my front door (previous post). But they kept hopping away to perch, chirping loudly, on the chairs on my porch.  Back and forth, nest to chair, while the chick stretched and flapped its tiny wings, chirping back.  This exciting display went on for a good quarter of an hour. Needing another cup of coffee, I left my post for a few minutes, and when I returned – no chick.  It had found its way out into the world.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

I confess to feeling a bit bereft.  The finches had become part of my everyday.  I felt privileged to be a small part of their lives and to be so close to this little bit of nature, even though it meant giving up access to my front door for a few months.

I left the wreath with its nest in place through the week-end – just in case anyone came back, but there were no visitors. When I finally removed the wreath,  one tiny, unhatched egg lay at the bottom – pale blue, with a touch of fuzzy down stuck on. I’d read that house finches often use the same nest and can have up to three clutches a season, So I found a high, protected spot for the wreath  out of the human traffic pattern – again, just in case. 

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Finch egg, dime and Cheerio.

* * *

The trick, I think, is to figure out how to live with nature – not against it. So hard to do both at the global level but also on the small stage of a suburban back yard. Last week I put in two small raised beds for herbs. I put up a fence and attached mylar ribbons to float in the breeze. Whether these measures will discourage deer, rabbits, chipmunks and birds I cannot now say. But I am preparing to accept that one morning I will look out my kitchen window and be greeted by a bed of headless herbs. If so, I may re-plant – or not, and try to remember to accept letting the leaves  fall on the swept path however they will.

 

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