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, much like the childhood she herself had experienced as the daughter of a composer. Years on the memories don’t have the power to hurt the way 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. I had a mother 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 Bike Rides she did, and with whom she could open up again. I had a mother 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 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 my life began to change.

I became more settled into adulthood, though not to the point of losing wonder and delight as daily companions. More along the lines of coming to terms with a parent’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 fill up again. Clueless until it began to happen, it became obvious that the best new stuff would be things of my own, 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 do whatever shows up. The wonderful thing about an opened up mind, and its natural partner creativity, is that they take up so much less room, feeding the spirit instead of diminishing it.


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afterbirth: seeing with new eyes

The light was different this morning. Early sunlight was streaming through my neighbor’s woods across the road, and I could see the shape of her hill through the trees, glowing with its blanket of leaves and humus.

I wondered if I’d have seen it a year ago. Probably not. Last July I started to morph yet again, not really aware of what was happening at first. Whatever you want to call it: morphing, shape shifting, rebirth, I’ve been through it before. A simple event can lead to profound change.

Encouraged by a wonderful illustrator friend, in 1973 I picked up a dip pen to draw a Christmas card. A connection to the creative part of me that I had ignored for way too long. That card led to other drawings, a calendar, a series of notecards, spot illustrations in the Washington Post, some editorial illustration, house and building drawings all over the DC area, illustrations for the Guide to the Smithsonian, book illustrations.

After ten years in the graphics department of the international organization I worked for I volunteered to take over the fledgling corporate website from the engineer who started it. Those were the early days of html and hand coding websites (1996), and I had to learn everything. Fast. Two euphoric, exhausting months later the new site was up, and I was off to the races.

By the time I took early retirement in 2005 I was running all three of the corporate websites, with one foot in marketing, one in IT, both sides of my brain firing at warp speed. I thought of my work as the perfect melding of technology and design, and could literally “see” how the code that we wrote functioned and fitted together.

Oh, and the engineer, a deceptively mild former South African Recce who left his country for the US rather than use force against his own countrymen, became a good friend, along with his girlfriend.

He encouraged me to go back to skydiving (after a single static line jump in college). For one wonderful, summer weekend boogie in 1997 I jumped out of planes again, out of my mind with excitement, and passed the first two freefall levels. Then I stopped, cold, when he had a near-fatal parachute failure the next summer. I had a family that needed me alive. No question.

Rebirth hasn’t always been about creativity, or work. Two years ago next month, after a lifetime of wanting proof that a higher power truly existed before I could believe, I went to church one Sunday and God more or less said “shazaam!”. Not to be flip about it, but it was that sudden, and that obvious. I hold this precious gift close, amazed and grateful.

So last summer. Morphing. Again. It started when I joined a creative group on Facebook started by the author Jon Katz. As I wrote last September:

The result …. has been a miracle. That’s how I think of it. Like this 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 inhabitants.

Yes. I love the group, and the folks in it. I see something like my neighbor’s woods and think about photo shoots, or drawings, or poems.

Especially poems. That completely blindsided me. Writing poetry. I never expected it, sort of like the Spanish Inquisition, happy edition. It feels good, really really good.

I’d like to think that Fordy, dear long suffering Miss Ford, who took me through Hardy, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats et al with great patience at school in England, is probably not surprised.


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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!

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.

In 2005 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. 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.