Life With Horace

poetry & essays

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

My mother 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. My teenage psyche salted that one away as ammunition for the future.

Originally this was going to be a plaintive piece about my mother, life with a parent whose art was in many ways more important to her than her children, something like the childhood she herself had experienced as the daughter of the composer Mary Howe. Years on the memories don’t have the power they used to, because along with having a fairly self-absorbed modern dancer mother, I’ve come to appreciate an artist mother who painted zoo animals, including a never-forgotten giraffe, all over our Colorado Springs bathroom walls.

I had a mother who continued to learn and grow and create well into her eighties, 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, and was her personal “sag wagon” driver on the many Cross Minnesota Bike Rides she did. I had a mother who morphed from a modern dance teacher and choreographer into a fitness visionary and advocate for home-bound seniors in the Twin Cities. I had a mother who loved me, but couldn’t always show it.

No turnaround happens all at once. My friend Susan was a magazine culture writer in Washington, whose perk was tickets to everything, and she loved to take friends along on their birthdays. 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.

Enjoying dance without resentment for the first time in years, I knew exactly what I was watching, understood the finer points of the parody, appreciated the incredible technique and elegance of those men en pointe, all of it a gift from my mother. That night proved to be a small but steady turning point.

I’ve come to terms with my mother’s humanity and limitations, acknowledging her often ill-expressed love, and eventually moving on, setting aside things I now understood better and for the most part no longer mourned.

With emotional dreck hoovered away, my brain cleaner and tidier, it began to imagine again, eventually leading to a creative bender of sorts that shows no sign of slowing down.

A few years ago life took a powerful turn. I joined a virtual creative group, and cannonballed into the deep end with little idea of what direction to take. I still find myself zooming about, trying things that look interesting or challenging. At first it was easy to hang back. Now I know the answer is to acknowledge whatever shows up, look it straight in the eye — and give it a shot. The way she used to.



In song, music puts its hands around my heart and my words think tears are a puddle to splash through, shoeless. Color often stops my breath, and I am its willing prisoner. A sudden memory coming on fast might need release. Any of these call up joy or tears, and it is all wonderful. To me.  When the signal comes they might glide to me in a waltz, or whirl up on the skirts of a wild mazurka. Better yet, ride in on the smoothness of an alto sax.


the flow

I dream of deconstructing beaver weirs
layered dams of branch and mud

fiendish things set up by stealth
to drown my woods

and work to draw up plans,
a personal peninsular campaign

fought in the boots of wellington
besetting toothy bonapartes,

guerilla skirmishes to win release
of chokepoint water pools

allowed to stream again towards
the pond beyond its sapling fringe

growing up we know some barriers too,
thrown up to block our childhood path
casual injected freeze,
anti action dollops of impatient noise
thoughtless shards from adult tongues
that carry all the power
of their world, and leave us
with no voice to tell them no
unconscious joy leaching from
young porous souls, replaced by dust
to render us no longer fully vested
in our birthright gifts

oh we will feel creative pull
and try to move toward its warmth

each with our signature routine
to step around the wall,

with time and luck that sidestep waltz
will lose appeal, prompting us

to search out understanding,
mighty antidote to doubt

and let it heal our hearts
armored with new energy and joy

thoughts free to wander where they will
we ride the flow

there is a vast difference between thoughtful words to guide and tossed off criticism. as adults we often forget the power of what we say to a child.

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the thrum

chords reach in with certainty
fingering my waiting bones

sometimes as undulating touch,
wispy fog that knows no barriers

gently casual hands on shoulders
arms outstretched announcing their intentions
patient for response.

then there are other passages of notes
roaring by on chariots of glory,

powerful as basso lama horns
thrumming from dharamsala
straight to the chambers of my soul,

until waves of tears
escape to fold me into beauty,

ebbing only slowly,
limpet companions to the day

she sent a shower of stars

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journey to my tribe

the sky’s first star night’s scout
piercing the scrim of fading light
that hides the spirit dome of heaven
once seen it must be wished on
our lore never for ourselves
to make the magic work

my heart stored its wishes where it could
in the beams of other stars
under the wings of catbirds
in the warmth of sleepy dark
deep in thrush song
or layered in the lamp hung blue of early night
all forgotten over time
in the flow of life away from wonder
wearing down the prickly instincts
of a younger self

walking in my wake unseen
there was a dream gatherer
Ninhan my ancestor of the Mohawk people
taking wishes to her heart
against a future need she knew would come

some years ago my heart connected
with the force of messy life
in a nearby marshland
talisman and refuge
where my feet felt rooted
its spirit cloaked my shoulders
settling on my skin and filling my eyes
the very heart of life

seeing this she knew the time had come
and sowed the air with a wish become a dream
and so I sang again
another as a glowing drop to open up my eyes
rejoice once more in line and color

my deepest wish was to create without restraint
to find the headwaters of my soul
almost buried by the dark paned windows of an early time
faces of blank fear following me from age to age
until I went there in a dream
to vanquish them and bring back light

her answer was
to shower me with stars
a million wishes worth
that set me sparking
whirling to catch words
and once more find my voice
to shout aloud with joy

the dogs on the ferny path 9-17-14

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the presence of gifts

my list is long today
and gratitude a living thing,
with thanks this morning
I begin again,
and marvel at the magic of
this year so richly lived.
strong arms of love
encircling the night,
to hold my spirit close and safe.
the gift of children,
essence of my soul alive
in generations made from love.
sisters, brothers, cousins
now become the elders
drawing closer, wisdom’s harvest.
friends of many years
and those more newly met
all precious links
to memory and heart

a time of growth,
and unexpected joy
tapped from an unseen well,
welcome, cherished, fed
by wonder, Open eyes,
encouragement and friendship,
kindred links though loose,
their potency holds true.
connection with
things seen and not,
humbled by belief at last,
feeling nature’s voice
run through my blood,
trying for acceptance
of the path I follow,
learning from the way behind,
with kinder eyes
and gentler thought
for my mis-steps.
facing out to grasp
with ready hands
this miracle
that is my life

birthdays have always held magic for me. today is no exception. while not a lover of new year’s resolutions, I do believe in taking stock and giving thanks.

A swamp lobelia?


the dowser

he worked, still unaware
there was a gift
beyond his certain talents
waiting for a moment’s spark
to see and use.
then reaching out in love
still cloaked by friendship,
recognizing shuttered light
so long denied, abandoned,
the door was opened
to a warm, lit space
free of expectation or of limit,
safe haven for them both
although not recognized
at first, that’s what it was.
she was reborn before his eyes,
her art and life renewed,
and seeing, knew
this was no random thing,
a path for him to follow, work to do.
he was and is a dowser,
spirit drawing spirit
from the clutches of oblivion.

posting in her blog, Maria Wulf described her life and thoughts before she found her art again. A year ago her husband Jon Katz formed an online community to foster the creative spirit in people willing to open up to new possibilities. Fortunate to be a member of this wonderful group, I’ve been thinking about the road we have traveled together, and how far we all have come. For Jon and Maria.

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warrior (for the light)

fist raised to the sun
in soft salute,
a signal presence
with intent to grow,
unfold from chrysalis
to full formed frond,
radiating energy
at every bladed tip,
proof that light
will foster growth,
atoms racing out,
stronger when they
touch and ping
their fellows,
moving, nurtured
on the journey
of creation

for The Open Group at Bedlam Farm and for Jon Katz who saw the light, and told us it existed.

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The piano duo

The photo shows my godmother, Anne Hull (left) and my grandmother, Mary Howe, circa 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 with high marks 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, and not to be taken seriously.

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 during an early stay 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!