I’ve had the pleasure of working with Editor Matt Potter at PureSlush, an Australian publisher intent on celebrating the whole human lifespan in several volumes. Each of the twelve planned volumes will feature stories from a specific phase of life.
My piece entitled Fire Extinguisher appears in Volume 2. It’s a fictional account of a Maine farm boy and his restricted upbringing.
Here’s the beginning of Fire Extinguisher:
Lying in bed, Relland recited New Testament verses over and over. Passages about sin and burning. At the age of fifteen, he felt scorched, ready to ignite, as if his entire body were a page of the Bangor Daily News held too close to the woodstove.
“No relations before marriage,” repeated Pastor Martin, both from the pulpit, and every week during Youth Group meetings. “Avoid even kissing until you are engaged.”
Relland was constantly being reminded of the sins of the flesh. Either the sins themselves, or just the nature of flesh. All the animals on the family farm seemed to spend their time rooting and licking and humping and thumping. Cows were inseminated. Sows and boars made piglets. Dogs fused together in the oddest places: next to the woodpile or behind the glider on the porch. The wettest, pinkest, fleshiest parts of all the beasts were on constant display, teasing the growing boy with examples of raw, sensual energy.
Relland felt weighed down by a heat that began in his throat and singed his groin like a red-hot poker.
(I hope you’re curious about what happens to poor, frustrated Relland….
The rights to the story have reverted to me, but the publisher has asked that writers wait a “courteous three months” from publication before re-printing. PureSlush folks have been a pleasure to work with careful editors and prompt communication. The least I can do is honor their request.
I’ve never liked walls or borders. Much of my work as a teacher, a “preacher”, and a writer focuses on ways to bring together people from different cultures, languages, and points of view.
I’m delighted that Résonance, a curated Franco-American literary journal from the University of Maine’s Digital Commons, published my poem Curling, Before. The theme of Volume 3 was Borderlands: North and South.
A special thanks to Judith Cassidy, a Canadian friend and enthusiastic curling coach. She is an inspiration.
Back then, folks living on each side of the border used to play the game together. One sheet of ice between them, a couple of brooms, eight spinning granite stones.
All along Lake Mephrémagog, neighbors would turn up on a Saturday night, coming from one town or another.
With their grippers and their sliders, their Anglo-Saxon curses and their tabernaques.
Side by side, they’d curl away the winter, bleak and long.
Inside the clubhouse, les éclats, les blagues, the gentle ribbings, the rise of steam from a thermos of shared coffee. Under the soft yellow lights, one couldn’t tell a maple leaf from a star, the fleur de lys from a stripe.
Back then, there were no checkpoints. Not really. A sleepy douanier, perhaps. A wave of the hand as Vermonters freely crossed the pines. A nod of the head as Quebeckers sauntered onto Main Street. Neighbors, emmitouflé or buttoned-up, just walked across the bridge to cheer each other on.
Maybe they still curl on the Quebec side, or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s cold and quiet there, dark, like it is here.
Three loves have come together once again: hiking, writing, and travel.
My non-fiction vignette entitled Roncevaux-Roncevalles appears in the anthology “Write to Move” edited by Sharon Chisvin, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Winnepeg, Canada and printed by Hignell Book.
The Covid pandemic is a strange time to publish an anthology of writing celebrating the freedom of movement, but current restrictions make the subject even more poignant. Obviously, the project was conceived long before the current global crisis.
You can purchase a copy of “Write to Move” to see all these inspiring stories. Read my piece below:
The snow came as a surprise. It was the first of May, and I was walking, alone, through the Pyrenees from France to Spain. I reached into my backpack and grabbed some thick Thorlo socks to use as gloves. They were thoroughly wet within half an hour as the snow fell faster and faster. The ground became soft and slippery, but I noticed a few local goats continued to leap confidently from rock to icy rock. Who owned those goats? Did they have a goatherd? Were they wild? I didn’t know.
There was a lot I didn’t know. For one thing, I thought it would be warmer at this time of year. Just before arriving in Saint Jean Pied de Port, the last big settlement before the border, I was already feeling the cold. I found my way to a second-hand shop run by volunteers from the Eglise de l’Assomption. For two Euros I bought a heavy, navy blue wool sweater which I could imagine a goatherd having the sense to wear while tending his goats through spring snowstorms. This one had a few moth holes, but was still serviceable.
The grey-haired woman who sold me the goatherd’s sweater was a walker herself. She’d done the Camino de Santiago, the Camino del Norte, and the Via de la Plata trail too. She told me that the famous pass at Roncevaux might be closed.
“Passez la nuit à Orisson,” she cautioned. “There’s a little auberge there.”
I welcomed her advice. Besides, I figured that by the time I reached Orisson, I would be more than ready for some hot soup, a boule of warm bread, and a tidy bunk with feather quilts.
There’s something about starting a long walk, even one where you’re not perfectly well-outfitted. I always feel powerful. Alive. My body in sync with my soul. As if every step were bringing me closer to an understanding of the planet, of its history, of my own place in it.
I already knew a little bit about this mystical shoulder of Europe, the point where the Iberian peninsula hangs off the rest of the continent. As a schoolgirl, I read about the Battle of Roncevaux where Basques ambushed Charlemagne’s army after the Franks attacked Pamplona. In French class, I had suffered through readings of La Chanson de Roland, but I always struggled to keep straight who won or lost, what was fact and what was fiction. I knew, too, that there was another Battle of Roncevalles during the Napoleonic era, but I can’t say as battles have ever really interested me.
As I walked, I kept thinking about how much bloodshed has unfortunately taken place as people have fought over territory, or because of differences of god or tongue, custom or culture. I much prefer to think of the world as borderless, a place where everyone is free to live, work, and wander.
When I arrived at Orisson, my hair a tangle of wet knots, my quick-dry hiking pants soaked through, the innkeepers took me under their wing. Perhaps they could tell that I was a bit of a dreamer. No longer young. Fueled by enthusiasm. Full of sweet memories of a youth spent hiking, climbing trees, and idly looking at clouds.
“Will the path be like this the whole way?” I asked.
“You mean with the snow? Mais non, it will be clear. You’ll see,” they said.
In the middle of the night I woke up to pee, to ponder, and to look out the window. The snow had stopped and thousands of stars were piercing the dark sky.
By morning, the innkeepers said that the pass was open.
“Just follow the arrows and you’ll get to Ronceveau,” they said. “But by then, they’ll call it Roncevalles, You’ll be in Spain.”
After a fat bowl of warm milk, some crusty bread with jam, and a slice of hard cheese, I set out again, my boots crunching in the sun-spackled snow.
But I kept wondering….how would I know that I’d made it across to Spain? And would it matter?
I climbed and climbed, first hugged by the trees, then by boulders. I kept looking for markers. Surely there’s a stone monument acknowledging the border. Perhaps a memorial to slain Moors, or Basques or Franks.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, but I felt buoyed simply by the walk itself. The magical effect of “shinrin yoku” or what the Japanese call forest bathing was giving me a natural high. At times I passed other hikers or pilgrims and I exchanged greetings. I was delighted to be in motion, my walking stick lightly touching the earth with each step.
After a half an hour or so, I came upon a dazed young man leaning against a rock. His eyes looked hollow and he asked me for water. I noticed that his lips were so parched that little bits of skin flaked off when he spoke. He didn’t know a word of French or Spanish, but his English was perfect, even though he was a bit disoriented and clearly thirsty.
I poured some of my canteen water into this stranger’s open mouth and handed him a squished pear and a plastic baggie filled with dried apricots. I sat with him for a short time while he perked up. We began to chat. He was Dutch, which explained his mastery of English. He’d been hiking for a few days, got a bit lost, and had used up his water and food the night before.
“Do you think we’re in France or Spain?” he asked.
“We must still be in France,” I said, “Because we’re not yet at the pass.”
“I’ll follow you”, he said, as if I knew where I was going. As if anyone could tell where one country starts and another one ends.
He continued behind me, half my age, but half my speed. Now and then I looked back and saw him carefully putting one foot in front of the other on the rocky path.
At last I reach what had to be the highest point, no doubt the natural border. There was a little chapel and signs in Basque and Spanish. From there, I began a long descent, waiting first for the hapless Dutch boy to appear from behind.
In the early afternoon, in Roncevalles, I stopped at a monastery albergue where plump monks, speaking softly with Castilian lisps, showed me to my room.
“Dinner will be served late,señora” they said, “as in the Spanish manner.”
With time on my hands, I decided to go exploring. Although I had been walking all morning, I couldn’t resist a saunter around the tiny town, thinking about battles and borders, stones and blood, all the lines we constantly draw between ourselves and our neighbors.
Later, at dinner, across the wide wooden tables of the monastery refectory, I met up with my young Dutch companion. He had recuperated fully from his bout of dehydration and he ate a hearty dinner, as did I.
For dessert, we stuffed ourselves with creamy Spanish flan, as thick and soft as yesterday’s snow.
I appreciate that the goal of A Moment of Your Time is to create a sense of community when so much of the world is feeling isolated and cut-off because of the ravages of COVID19. Take a minute to be part of this endeavor!
During this time of confinement and Covid, the folks at Poetry Spoken Here – Charlie Rossiter and Jack Rossiter-Munley – a father/son duo – started a project called Open Mic of the Air. Writers from around the world present their work as if we were all together at a Poetry Reading. I’m delighted to be reading one of my poems at the 8:40 mark below. Tune in!
My new piece entitled “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” appears in Aromatica Poetica. This literary forum focuses on work which appeals to the senses – olfactory, auditory etc. “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” details my relationship,as a language teacher, with a very special student.
The summer language classes are free, but Rabka insists on leaving payments on my desk. Slippery eggplants—aubergines--swaddled in a dish towel like purple babies. Ripe tomatoes cradled in a woven bag. Cookies, sweet and wheaty, pregnant with raisins. Moist, glistening farmer’s cheese, twisted like a rune.
I try to return the towels and the tidy bags, carefully stitched from recycled nightgowns or a baby’s shirt, a towel from Canadian Tire.
“This is a useful bag,” I say. “You should take it back.”
Rabka shakes her head. The bags, like the foods, are a gift. She beams when she gives them to me.
I can’t tell how old she is. Some days she looks twenty, with naturally red lips and dark black hair that curls with the humidity and frames her cheek like a hijab. The Muslim women from Syria cover their heads, but Rabka is Syriac Christian. She can walk around the town bare-headed and wear whatever she wants. Sometimes she comes in bright red toreador pants. I wonder if the men look at her at the bus-stop.
She told me that her oldest daughter is fourteen so I know she can’t just be twenty years old herself. Her youngest is six. And there are twin boys who are nine.
I’m big mother, she boasts.
I think she means she has a lot of children. She’s certainly not big in stature. She comes up to my shoulder. Even when she’s wearing those little green sandals with the heel that she found at the friperie, the second-hand clothing store on Rue Belvedere.
If she misses the bus and has to walk across town, the green heeled sandals are not very practical. She arrives out of breath, wrapped in sweat, her feet bony and aching. At those times, when she sits down on the metal folding chair, even if she’s wearing the red toreador pants, she looks like a fifty-year old, maybe older. A grandmother, even.
We always sit face to face, close enough so we don’t disturb any other students. I can smell anise on her breath and the faux- flower scent of cheap deodorant. She smiles at me and calls me Professeur Madame, or sometimes, Madame Professeur.
I apologize for the sweltering church basement. Not my church. Just a church.. A neighborhood congregation which allows us volunteers to teach French to immigrants, refugees, people off the street, no questions asked.
“I’m sorry it’s so hot in here, “ I say.
Syria is much hotter, she says.
She arrived in Quebec, three years ago, during a February snowstorm. Alone, with her four children. No one had told her about Canadian winters.. The shock of ice underneath her feet, the numbness of her fingers in the cold. Her children, jet-lagged, but giddy, dared to touch the snow, roll in it. They shrieked and laughed and learned the word “neige” from the refugee coordinator. And soon they acquired the French words for “snowball” and “melt” and “hot chocolate”. This was the new life their mother had promised.
I am very lucky, she says. No complaints. Hot or cold.
We study vocabulary. At the doctor’s. At the dentist’s. In an emergency.
911, she says and pretends to dial a phone. Then she gives her address slowly and clearly, as if she is reciting a prayer. Maybe it is a prayer.
She often tells me how happy she is to be here. In North America. In Quebec At this table in the church basement right now. She brings a little paper dictionary with her and consults it throughout the lesson, searching for the words she needs. She writes down idiomatic expressions in a little notebook, like a schoolgirl.
The grammar is hard. The words don’t roll off her tongue. But she knows she needs to learn French in order to get a job, go to conferences at her children’s school, to speak to the neighbors who water their geraniums on the shared balcony. Rabka herself grows tomatoes in buckets, tying the lusty vines with string to the wrought-iron railing. She tries not to encroach on the neighbor’s side of the space. The refugee coordinator has reminded her several times.
For a reading lesson, I show her a newspaper article about a woman whose shed was struck by lightening.
That’s very sad? How can we help her? Should I bring her aubergines? Tomates?
I explain that the story is old. The shed is probably rebuilt by now. We don’t know the woman. It’s just a lesson.
Rabka looks as if she wants to tell me something else, but she doesn’t.
We role-play going to the pharmacy.
Rabka pretends to have a rash, a headache, a broken foot. She’s a good actress, When she acts out a bout with poison ivy, scratching her arm like a kitten, she looks twenty years old again. She pretends to buy some antiseptic, Tylenol, cough drops.
“Do you need anything else? “I ask, as if there were really attentive salespeople in the local Pharmaprix.
We both know that the drugstores are self-service.
I am sick, she says, here, pointing to her heart.
I give her specialized words: heart attack, nitroglycerin, crise cardiaque and things like that.
She shakes her head. Not that kind of heart, she says.
She lowers her eyes, lets out a sigh. I don’t have all the words I need, she says.
“I know, but you will someday,” I say.
During our sessions, there’s always the hum of the dehumidifier, the whirling of a small fan. The weeks pass; the summer is exceptionally hot. Sweat seeps across my neck, trickles down my back. After an hour, I start to stick to the folding chair. When I sit forward, my tee-shirt stays attached to the metal for a second and makes a little sound when it comes undone, like a wet towel thrown against a tile wall. Rabka wipes her forehead with a handkerchief, but she never complains about the heat.
She does her homework. She tries to speak. If she can’t think of something to say, she runs her index finger in and around the dents in the wooden table, rubs the film of grease left over from the fried chicken suppers at the church.
No matter how much I protest, she never arrives empty-handed. When her tomatoes ripen, she brings two full cotton bags onto the bus, all the way to the church basement. A few of the tomatoes crack open and ooze in the heat, bleeding seeds into my hands.
Keep the bags, she says. You can wash out the stains.
Then one day, we’re both feeling faint from the heat. It’s too hot to study. Her hair has curled in massive waves across her shoulders. Her eye make-up is smeared so it looks as if someone has taken a crayon and melted it across her eyelids. My tee shirt is sticking to me, front and back. I abandon the idea of a lesson.
I end up just showing her personal photos on my phone: a tree swing, the day lilies growing in my yard, one of my children sitting in a wheel barrow, my husband at the barbeque grill.
Rabka stares hard at the photos. And something seems to burst inside her. Her memory explodes, grenade-like, and words tumble out as well.
In Syria, I had a house too.. With flowers and a terrace. Just like you. Before the war.
I give her the word “rubble.” She makes a note in her notebook.
And then she keeps talking. Asking for words for civil war, bombs, loss, horror, burial.
She cries, but keeps looking for words. She tells me about a day in Damascus when she was a little girl, remembering the sound of her grandfather speaking French.
He’d been a child when Syria was a French colony, she says.
Is that why you chose to come to Quebec? I asked.
I didn’t chose. It just happened. From the agency. It could have been Ontario. That other place, even. I can’t pronounce. Sasaska ….Saskachutan? I didn’t know about French. I thought all Canada was English.
I stare at her. She no longer looks twenty. She looks decades older. There are tiny black hairs on her cheeks like a cat. I notice small double nicks on her chin, as if she once fell against a fork. Her dark eyes are wet and brined like olives.
I grab her hand and she keeps talking.
I listen. It’s so hard, she says. Losing all that.
I put my arms out and Rabka falls into them, like a young child, soft and fragile. I imagine I can smell cinders in her hair, sulfur, smoke.
For the rest of the summer, Rabka keeps bringing me tomatoes. And I keep feeding her new words and expressions, snippets of grammar, all the small seeds of language to grow a new life.
I usually write free verse, but during this tumultuous period of Covid19 and politics and strangeness, I am taking comfort from traditional forms of poetry. When stressed, I turn to iambic pentameter, I guess.
I am intrigued by the complexity and simplicity of the villanelle form. Famous ones include Roethke’s “Waking” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Repeated lines, repeated rhymes….it’s a kind of haunting form. Tercets and a quatrain and all that good stuff.
The new publication GRAND LITTLE THINGS just published my latest villanelle. Many thanks to Patrick Fey, the editor.
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
It's not just sadness, but a form of prayer:
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
A plague marauding, silent like a thief,
The cities stilled, a waiting in the air
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
Autumn comes,the grain encased in sheaf
I don't remember harvest quite so rare
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
Things falls apart, renew,and test belief
I search for hope, and dance against despair
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
Because I know that permanence is brief
And filaments are fragile, prone to wear
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf
I ride the breeze, the stars, to find relief
Acknowledge kindness when I see it there
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
Every week NewVerse News publishes poetry that is related to current events. Most publications takes months to read, decide and publish submitted work. But New Verse News shares writer’s immediate reactions. They just published my poem entitled “The Supreme Court Justices Go to the Garage”, which I wrote upon hearing of the recent legal decision to uphold the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was inspired by a courageous and talented friend named Erica P.
A multi-media issue of Rockvale Review features two of my poems: Friend: Submerged and Talking Not in Turkish. The theme of the issue is communication….right up my alley! Artist Henry Jones paired his artwork with each poem. In addition, Friend: Submerged was selected for a musical response. Musician Jeff Byers composed original music inspired by the poem. I am deeply honored.
When Ayse’s mother comes from Turkey, we speak to each other with our eyes, iris to iris, lens to lens. Sometimes Ayse translates, but mostly she’s busy with other guests, passing out baklava, pouring tea. The Pearl and I sit side by side, no language between us. Mostly we grin. Or we link arms, or hug, or pat each other on the shoulder. Her cheeks smell of rose water, minarets, the sea. She wears long skirts and a silky hijab that ripples when she prays. I wonder what she thinks of my tight black leggings, my skeptical faith. We’re both former teachers, confident in our voices, older matriarchs who can’t help seeing the big picture yet each hides worries from her grown children, each mutters hopes that they may be safe from harm. How do I know this? Because I know. We often spend the evening without a word, just breathing in each other’s presence. Once we tried using one of those apps that translate from one tongue to another, each of us pecking away on Ayse’s Ipad, spelling out our points of view, tidbits of opinion, but after the novelty wore off, we went back to our beloved silence, the squeeze of the palm, and the quiet veil of friendship.
After her stroke, all droop and slack, her words came out in a gurgle of drowning, as if she were under water. Her grey head, barely visible above the hospital pillows, tended to bob a bit, like a gull on the waves. “You’re looking well,” I’d lie. Then I’d lean in and kiss her moist forehead. Her face would lopside into smile. I’d sit by her bed and listen as best I could. She’d mouth vowels like a fish, the puck of her lips pulled down over the consonants. Her voice would rise and fall, tide-like, but I’d understand almost nothing. Straining my ears, I’d search for familiar sounds buoys of sense, fog horns in a dark cove. Once, I think, she admired my scarf She reached out for the aubergine silk. with her good arm, her blood-shot eye drawn to color Whenever I visited, I couldn’t help feeling as if the two of us were scuba divers, floating like jelly fish, thirty meters under the sea. She’d try to speak, and I’d grab her hands, and we’d submerge deeper, far from the surface of conversation, down, down, to the place where life is purely love and fluid, where survival depends on gesture, the tug of the hose, the fingers talking, oxygen flowing, an unspoken trust.