Life With Horace

poetry & essays


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on approach to lighting a tree

The Whites are singing the morning awake today, as the dogs get fed, as I make some tea and watch things busy up out the window over the kitchen sink. Today I am grateful, as always, to see another sunrise, listening to music, in a place that I love deeply. Writing is on my mind this morning, I have had little time or energy for it this week, and it feels luxurious to anticipate the smooth feel of my pen on paper.

Day by day the house is looking a little more Christmas-ish. Favorite memory rich things bringing light and color to December’s squeezing down days. I am riding a wave of work that began the day after Thanksgiving and won’t quit until just before Christmas. It leaves my thoughts dim and cloudy in transition each night, muffled by tiredness., unless there is music to open my heart’s inner ear and let feelings out to air.

Happily this time of year is rich that way. Wednesday night found me singing with the Fitzwilliam Occasional Singers, rehearsing for Sunday afternoon’s tree lighting on the Common. Roughly fifteen of us, friends and fellow singers, gather every year to do this, and my city emigre heart is glad to sing again in a small village, and be part of a gift to the children and families of Fitzwilliam.

It will be full dark as we walk over from the church, just before five. The village windows glowing with candle lights. The tree waiting, unlit. Bustle. Portable lights get turned on. People begin to arrive, drifting into the glow from the recesses of the Common. Children sit on the ground in front, a wide crescent of small bundled up figures and smiling faces. It will be cold (but not as cold as last year, when Deb’s accordion froze up and we had to sing a cappella).

And then we will begin. Walden reading A Visit From St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas), Bill leading us through the carols we rehearsed, accompanied by Deb on her accordion. Then a carol sing for everyone (first verses only, and lots of laughter for Rudolph). At last Santa will roll in on the Fitzwilliam Fire Truck to light the tree, and talk to the children.

After there will be hot cocoa (so good in the cold) and home made cookies, while folks visit, then slowly disperse as the evening’s trappings are loaded into cars and trucks, along with us. Dark and quiet will settle on the Common again, except for the tree, its shining presence standing sentry until the new year.

 

Indian Pipes at Rhododendron State Park 2011


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learning to see

There is a place that draws my glances on the way into town.

A garden running along the road for two hundred yards or so, grass dotted with sumac, small trees, wildflowers and bird houses, dozens of hand made tin roofed bird houses. Simple, mostly unpainted wooden structures on poles, obviously one person’s brainchild and handiwork.

This morning a bright red car in front of the house caught my eye, and then a small boy of ten or so, mowing the grass around the first bird house. Looking up, really looking. His face under the brim of his baseball cap full of wonder as he took in the faded paint, the entry holes, the bits of grass and droppings.

Who taught that child to look so intently, I wondered. Was it his nature, and someone had nurtured it? Or simply let him be?

I feel very fortunate to have had some wonderful guides in my own journey.

My next to last year at school in England included a Biology Field Course that forever changed what I take in from a car or bus or train. It taught me to notice, pay attention and to link sometimes disparate sightings together. In the coach that took us out for the day to a bog, forest or open hillside and back, we were encouraged to keep track of what we could see of the natural world as we sped by. A blur taking shape in an instant’s focus.

A chance remark by an artist friend a few years ago about seeing light a certain way got me thinking. Seeing the light? What did that mean? Eventually the answers led to awareness of backlighting and shadows and stray rays. I honestly hadn’t thought about light before, at least not so specifically.

Hands down the most powerful lessons I had in how to see happened by example, gentle explanation, and repetition in walks with my Uncle Bruce over the years. He was a constant observer of plants, light, images, and animal happenings in the natural world. I began to remember plant names, look for the color of the setting sun against the rough bark of a Tupelo tree, discover migrant Indian Pipes in late summer, see what was new in familiar places.

Now I carry his awareness into every part of my life, and am thrilled to see his open eyes and curiosity live on in my children and theirs. I’m also positive he’d have noticed that upturned face too.


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the creative wars: staying true to your voice

In poetry writing years I’m not even a toddler, but almost 1 year out some truths surround me like giant bulls-eyes.

The Big Cahuna: I have to write for myself, at my own pace.

Try writing because you promised you would. Try writing from a prompt, or for x number of days in a row. I did all that in April for the poetry challenge, and it was an agony by the end.

I think about writing every day, but don’t sit down to write until a poem begins in my head.

1st Runner Up: the absolute necessity of following a poem’s true path, and believing in it.

Don’t know about y’all, but I battle with the desire for approval. Childhood leftover crap that I wish would leave me the hell alone. Not talking about quiet satisfaction or even delight that folks appreciate my poems. Different animal entirely. Writing for “them” is one way of putting it, and it turns my easy creative flow into a flat mill pond.

Important Also Ran: respecting my creative process and nurturing it.

A word or phrase prompted by something seen or felt will pop unbidden into my head and that’s it. The title (rarely changed) of the next poem. First draft always in longhand. Messy. Exciting. And like the beginning, I feel certain when it is done. Once the poem is “set” then I add an image.

Postscript: it is ok to edit and rework later on. The poem will let me know.

OK, so why the dissertation you ask? Because while writing yesterday’s poem I took a detour onto Ought-To Road, once again, and the misery flat out wasn’t worth it. After this morning’s rewrite (https://lifewithhorace.com/2014/06/08/brilliance/) I thought I’d share what got me there.

Now to find a photo.


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mother nature’s version of make up sex

Chill, okay? No gag-me stuff. Just some observations about the marvelous Spring we’re having.

It’s safe to say we all had a crappy, long, drawn out winter, weather-wise. So imagine my surprise that when the new season finally arrived, it wasn’t one of those slam-bam slots wedged in between freezing and roasting.

Up here, at the foot of Monadnock, there has been a delicate progression, a slow introduction of green at our feet, buds ripening, canada mayflowers carpeting our path through the woods.

Fiddleheads thrusting up and unfurling, daffies and tulips bringing the first color in months.

Daylily leaves are curving gently, rambling roses sending out new shoots, flower beds repopulating. The rhubarb bed is lush. The weeping cherry and plum tree are full of color.

[I didn’t know that plum blossoms smell, well, plummy, but they most certainly do.]

The apple tree outside our kitchen door is now in flower, and the lilacs have just emerged.

Many years this all happens like a collapsing telescope, but not right now. The temperature has crept slowly, slowly upwards. What a gift.

Added to all this largesse there are the new birds. Brand new. To this place. At least since I’ve been here.

Indigo Buntings, Pine Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles have joined the line-up this year. Wonderful flashes of color, especially the Indigo Buntings.

We live at the junction of piney woods, the mountain’s lower reach, Fassett Brook delta, and Perkins Pond, so we see some nice birds year round. Lots of Ravens. Bears too. Ahem.

The slate colored juncoes and cowbirds have moved north for the summer.

The usual suspects have all turned up to join the winter jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves, titmice and chickadees — American Goldfinches, Purple Finches, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, 6-plus varieties of sparrows, Catbirds, Ruby Throated Hummingbirds, Bluebirds, Red Wing Blackbirds, Tricolor Blackbirds and Evening Grosbeaks. Grackles too.

Great blue herons cruise by, with their unmistakable wing beat and are all over the wetlands. Thrushes are singing in the woods at twilight.

The butterflies and moths are making their entrance too.

So I’m feeling pretty flush right now. Livened and renewed by MN’s wonderful Spring, after the fight this winter proved to be.

Grateful too.

Most certainly.


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the piano duo

My godmother, Anne Hull (left) and grandmother, Mary Howe, about 1920. They were both pianists and composers, and performed together as a piano duo from 1912 until 1935. They met at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1905, when my grandmother was studying piano with Ernest Hutchinson. She later returned to the Peabody (with the full support of her husband) to study composition with Gustav Strube, gaining her diploma in 1922. She was active musically until the early 1960s, an internationally recognized composer, and a founder of the National Symphony.

Anne was studying for an Artist’s Diploma and Teaching Certificate. She had a rich musical life, never married, teaching first at The Institute of Musical Art in New York, and later The Juilliard Graduate School, retiring in 1968 at the age of 80!

Friends for the rest of their lives, they did extraordinary things in a world that sometimes considered them dilettantes (they weren’t) and not to be taken seriously (they were).

My grandmother’s unequivocal take on being a woman composer, circa 1950:

“Women composers should be played more than they are. I don’t think conductors have a prejudice against women composers now. But no one puts women writers or women painters in a class any more and they still do with women composers. I know I considered it a handicap to be a woman when I started composing. I’m not a feminist. But I think I would have gotten along faster if I’d been a man.”

I generally admire her pieces, and think her art songs were her strongest. She knew many poets, and read poetry voraciously. Her friendship with the poet Elinor Wylie, whom she met at the MacDowell Colony, is a story in itself. A particular favorite of mine is her setting of Wylie’s poem “When I Died in Berners Street”. I have been working on it with my voice teacher, and like to think she would appreciate the effort, if not the result!


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thoughts about writing, and a surfeit of color

The urge to write comes in fits and starts, but lately haiku has drawn me in and I respond to its economies of length, of expression. Wonder if it is about not pressuring myself to do more. Probably.

I’ve also been working on a blog piece about cleaning my family’s place out, which was a mammoth undertaking. The importance of that piece to me lies in the loss of place and identity, the clearing out of things that don’t matter and the taking in of things that do, like relationships.

A writer I greatly respect posted recently that writing is hard work. Yes, I agree with that, having been through that process with my drawings over the years. Simply having the creative urge is all well and good ~we’d be nowhere without it~ but taking that urge and channeling it through one’s own prism is quite a process, and not done lightly.

Photography is an area where I’ve discovered that emotion cannot carry me all the way. Many times I’ll want to shoot something because I have a visceral reaction to its beauty, a color, a circumstance. It took quite a while for me to stop and think about composition, for instance. The surprise has been that the emotion remains after I stop to consider how to capture what I’m seeing.

Right now it is High Fall up here in New Hampshire. The colors are intense and still haven’t peaked, an amazing year for color. I’ve been making the rounds of favorite places to shoot, many on a daily basis. The dogs don’t quite know what to make of these last few days. We get out at Rockwood Pond, they swim, I shoot, back in the car and off to the wetland. Repeat. The other day they were ready to go home before I was!

That’s pretty much where I am too, sated, filled up with all of the color and glow and glory around me. Not that I won’t take some pictures, or feel the colors in my gut. Just going to walk, look, and enjoy. The dogs will be happy.


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archibald and the last watch

Thanks to Pop, a good part of my family has the funny bone chromosome.

We’re talking full spectrum mutations ranging from slapstick to suave joke telling. As far as I can tell, it started with my dad who went to college at 16 and discovered the sweet spot in the City College Assembly Hall for delivering hilarious whispered naughtiness that only the speaker at the lectern could hear.

So, when my son and youngest brother get together, there’s always a point where I’ll have to leave the room. They’re not nasty, they don’t fart, spit or scratch unattractively. They are punsters, inveterate, I’ll-one-up-you, let’s see how long we can keep this one going funny guys. Leaving the room is easy. Try walking down a city street with them when they’re on a roll! Oy.

When our family gathers the jokes come out. Riffs on the early greats we listened to with Pop (Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer or Shelley Berman, and yes, Lenny Bruce) topped only by Mel Brooks or better yet Mel teamed up with Carl Reiner. To this day my take on longevity and grand feats of daring has a lot to do with the nectarine.

Ah, the nectarine you say? An off the cuff bit from The 2000 Year Old Man. Interviewed by Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks’ alter ego gives credit to the nectarine, “half a peach, half a plum” for his longevity, or at least 164 years of it.

Pop also had a thing for watches.

The backstory is that he had an institutional supply business in upstate New York and much of New England, all of it with Catholic parishes and schools. You name the town, he knew the local parish priest or Mother Superior. This meant that Pop could get just about anything wholesale, including watches, which he loved and gave to us at the drop of a hat.

Eight years ago at age 89, Pop’s (internal) ticker gave out.

It was July, and very hot. We all converged on my sister Annie’s house and hugged and cried and told Pop Stories, fanned ourselves and took care of the obit, cleaned out his apartment, planned a memorial to be held in the fall, the nuts and bolts stuff.

Someone mentioned the watches.

At which point my nephew Jason told us Pop had sent him a watch on his trip east from Chicago. He flew out very late, so O’Hare was almost deserted. When he got through Security, there, in a plastic bin ahead of the one with his stuff in it, was a watch. Sitting there all by itself.

The TSA guys had no idea where it came from, said it had to be his, no one had been through for over an hour. Jason got the weirdest feeling about that watch. It was from Grandpa, he was certain. So the watch came along, as I guess it was meant to. More laughter and tears, as we looked at the Last Watch.

Well this has been fun but who the heck is Archibald you ask?

He, or more accurately, it, is an honorary member of our family. For the uninitiated, Archibald Essselbrook is a tour de force joke, a supremely racy tongue twister that Pop mastered many years ago. He always told it perfectly, at breakneck speed. It never failed to leave his listeners helpless with laughter.

So, old Archie was listed in Pop’s obituary as his dear friend Archibald Esselbrook of Hudson, NY. I kid you not. It made perfect sense to all of us, our private In Joke for Pop.

Its delivery seems to be a guy thing, and that’s cool with me. My brothers all know it, and I guess my son will too eventually. That’s one I’ll stick around for.


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a creative mother, or how I learned to love dance again

Mom once said that one of Martha Graham’s dancers was awful to her husband and little boy, but when one saw her on stage none of that mattered any more. Of course my teenage psyche salted that one away to use later and say “see?”.

Sitting down I was all set to do a “meaningful”, plaintive post about my mother, and life with a parent whose art was in many ways more important to her than her children.

TURNS OUT it doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
Because, along with having a self-absorbed modern dancer mom, I also had an artist mom who painted zoo animals, including a never-forgotten giraffe, all over our Colorado Springs bathroom walls.

I had a mom who continued to learn and grow and create well into her eighties. I had a mom who regained a love life in her sixties after a long drought, meeting a wonderful man who was her partner for almost twenty years, who took photos while she sketched, was her personal “sag wagon” driver on the many Cross Minnesota MS Bike Rides she did, and who showed her she could trust again, open up again.

I had a mom who morphed from a modern dance teacher and choreographer into a fitness visionary and advocate for homebound seniors in the Twin Cities. I had a mom who loved me, but couldn’t always show it.

NO TURNAROUND happens all at once.
There was my culture writer friend Susan who got tickets to everything cultural (and I mean everything) in Washington, DC. She loved to take friends with her for birthday presents. One year she took me to the Trocks, aka Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

We watched this all male dance troupe perform technically brilliant and hilarious parodies of ballet and modern dance. Re-imagining Pavlova’s “dying Swan” with molting feathers. A hysterical Dance of The Little Swans. Side-splitting send ups of Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey.

I also realized that I knew what I was watching, understood the parody, appreciated the incredible technique and elegance of those men en pointe. All of it a gift from my mom. Life changing.

I ALSO began to grow up.
Not to the point of losing the wonder and delight I cherish in myself. More along the lines of figuring things out, coming to terms with a parent’s humanity and limitations, acknowledging her often ill-expressed love. And simply moving on, putting things I now understood better and no longer feared behind me.

BUT WAIT, there’s more!
With gobs of emotional dreck hoovered away, the closet cleaner and tidier, some shelves empty (isn’t that a lovely thought), I’m busy filling things up again. I had no clue until very recently that I needed to do this. That the best new stuff(ing) would be my own. That I would go on a creative bender of sorts that shows no sign of slowing down.

IT HELPS to be ready to be open. There’s an understatement.
Four years ago life took a powerful turn. A favorite author decided to form a virtual creative group. I jumped in, pretty much cannonballed into the deep end with little idea of what I was doing.

I still find myself zooming about, trying things that look interesting or challenging. At first I wasn’t sure I could do more than one thing at a time. Now I know the answer is Yes. Of course. In the encouraging and intense “biosphere” of this group, it was all good.

The wonderful thing about open thought and its life partner creativity, is that they take up so. much. less. room. They feed the spirit instead of diminishing it.

Best of all, they are infinitely renewable.


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no goodbyes, really

This weekend almost didn’t happen for me because my Newfie was barfing. Fearful of leaving her with some malady that might not turn out well, I stuck around, even unpacked a bit, convinced that she was in a bad way. My very practical husband called, once back in cell phone range (up here that’s an iffy thing) and basically booted me out the door. Go, he said. I’m coming home and will keep an eye on Aggie, he said. No news… he said. Yeah, so I threw everything together again and bolted, muttering thankful prayers for common sense.

The drive to the other side of the Green Mountains from here is always beautiful, even with end of summer tourists milling about in the rain. Coming down into Manchester, Mount Equinox loomed in the mist. I love the immediacy of those mountains. Boom, there they are, looming up right away in your face. I live at the foot of a mountain, a big rocky much climbed hulk, but the outward slope of its arms give it some visual distance.

Once through Dorset, with its Inn and history and everything painted white, the road comes out in a valley that I love because it’s “not”. It’s not fancy, it feels like Columbia County, NY. There are working farms, ramshackle barns, unpruned trees, beautiful old houses.

Of course I’m looking at all this wonderful stuff whizzing by as I’m trying not to go 80 miles an hour, to get to meet friends and kindred spirits I’ve mostly never met. The word lemming comes to mind and I dismiss it. This will be a gathering of a clan. Really. A clan of creative, gifted group of wannabe pirates with a wacky sense of humor who have come together because of the opportunity given us by a man with a vision.

Before you start hearing music from the Outer Limits (although if we were to form a rock group that would be a great name), no brain washing, no personal freedoms were harmed in the making of this story. Jon Katz is an author with a huge following, both in print and in the cyber world. He had the idea to form a creative group using the framework of facebook three months ago. A simple enough concept.

The result (after some necessary growing pains and identity consolidation) has been a miracle. That’s how I think of it. Like he came along and opened up a worm hole into a new place, a safe place to create and express and fall flat on your face, and get wonderful feedback from the rest of the Ministry of Encouragement, as he calls it. Or Jon and the Pirates.

So I got to the weekend’s “opener”, at the home of one of the Group, a beautiful place on a hill with sloping fields and horses, a couple of hours late but not too late. Getting out of the car I felt like jumping up and down with excitement with a good dose of bashful thrown in. You gotta realize that I skipped my 50th high school reunion this summer because, hell, I hadn’t managed to lose the 50 pounds of f*-you weight I was convinced was necessary to show up. Not this time! This was about who we are, everything that makes us the talented, caring members of something unique. I had brought Me there. That’s what mattered,

The rest of the time on the other side of the mountains was all I hoped it would be, from the cookout on Saturday night, to staying with a group member and her wonderful family, to the Open House at Jon and Maria’s farm yesterday. We all gradually met each other (are you an Open Grouper?) and passed each new acquaintance along to the rest. Names turned into people who were as interesting and open in person they were in the ether. Conversation flowed, more stories told, hugs exchanged, delight in one another’s company was evident. As we shared the day’s experiences, I was aware of a strong spiritual current flowing. The Farm is a special place, created by the love and energy of two remarkable people.

By the time we gathered in front of the barn for group shots, the connection was pretty palpable. Standing there I had the strongest feeling of linkage to everyone. While I joked about this feeling like the group shot at the end of A League of Their Own, and “there’s no crying in baseball” was bandied about, I felt replete, peaceful, my soul satisfied. What Jon had started was the real deal.

On the way home, guzzling down as much seltzer as I could after the day’s heat, I felt tired and jubilant and exhilarated. Taking a more southerly route back over the mountains, following some powerful rain storms as I went, it did not surprise me to see multiple rainbows over the valley mists and green of the mountain tops. Only fitting I thought, to mark our day. Sitting here this morning letting the words flow and telling my story, it hits me that I felt no great sense of parting, of regretful goodbyes yesterday. I’m pretty certain that’s because I know everyone is right here, in the group, flowing on. And Aggie is just fine.