Monday, April 11, 2016

Shadow of a Bird

This morning, there was a minute in my normal commute when my heart froze in my chest and my mouth went dry. 

I was on Canal Road, stopped in traffic, smiling at the wild lilacs that have started to dot the hillsides lining the road winding along the C&O towpath. The bright blue sky suddenly darkened with a form outstretched across the lanes of traffic. Wings. There were great wings above me. I remember thinking initially it was a trick of the light and just a huge turkey vulture circling carrion along the road. Deer, a fox, a raccoon... Canal Road isn't a friend to distracted wildlife. 

The shadow grew, and as it passed in front of me, I realized it was the shape of a plane far too low above the rush hour world. I could see the shape of the plane shadowed on the pavement and the roofs of the other cars. I saw the woman in the car next to me look up at the jet, too, her jaw dropped open. The path the jet took was unfamiliar. I watched the wings dip and rise, and I held my breath as I waited for it to make the turn along the Potomac to begin approach for Reagan National. I'm sure it was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like forever as the plane continued on a route that made me grip the steering wheel harder than I had in a very long time. Finally, it vanished from my view behind the office buildings of Rosslyn. I rolled down my windows and turned off the radio. There was a stiff breeze that hit my face. Still unmoving in traffic, I waited. I didn't try to catch the scent of lilac on the air. I just waited. 

And nothing happened. Not a damn thing.

A plane, probably buffeted by high winds far above my head, made a very awkward, low approach (way too damn low) to an airport. Happens every day. Maybe it was a young pilot. Maybe it was just the wind. Maybe both. Probably a hell of a lot of silent passengers up there, white-knuckling the approach right along with the crew. Probably a lot of relieved humans when the landing gear touched the tarmac by the river.

Down below, some commuters in little metal boxes on a congested strip of concretecommuters who remembered the days after 9/11had a momentary flashback to the days of chaos, the days of seeing smoke rise from the Pentagon, the days of fear and sadness.

And then we breathed. In. Out. In. Out. The light changed, and we flowed into lower Georgetown and to our destinations across the District. Just another day. Nothing to see here. Move along. It bothers me that such a simple thing can shatter your concentration and put you in state of alarm and worry so damn quickly. Humans are resilient... generally tougher than we give ourselves credit for. But our memories are long, and just as the scent of the wild lilacs on Canal Road can return me to childhood, the shadow of a metal bird can carry me back to things remembered with no happiness. I thought about it through my morning meetings.

Resilience. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Love. Loss. Hope. All the little pieces that make up the experience of a human soul. How quickly we move between those. Moment to moment, day to day.

Tomorrow, I will focus on hope. Hell, maybe I'll even take a different route to work. Today ushered in a time of change for me at work, and the promise of new and good experiences lies ahead. Over the weekend, a very dear friend told me to let go of some difficult and frustrating elements of my past. "Don't let people who've harmed you continue to rent space in your head," he said to me. Damn good advice. I need to take it. Hopeful day, no shadows, here I come!


Friday, April 01, 2016

I Suck at Poetry: the Cherry Blossom Edition


It's National Poetry Month, and readers of my blog know that I suck at poetry. That said, I will continue to produce sucky poems because I enjoy it. :) For the first day of this month, I offer some words about our local Japanese sakura superstars in all their fleeting glory.

The cherry blossoms were at peak bloom this past weekend here in DC. In my neighborhood, north of the city, the trees are on a delayed timer, only now kicking into full gear. On my way home from work, I sometimes take side streets to see trees off the beaten path. I came across one block recently 
that was loaded with my favorite variety of cherry tree: weeping cherry. SO cool. I grew up in a house with an enormous weeping willow out back, and seeing tiny cherry blossoms dot long graceful whips of branches is like seeing my childhood back yard dressed up for prom.

I was thinking of that earlier this week when I was stuck in some motorcade/police action/tourist traffic jam on 16th Street. I was outside the swanky St. Regis Hotel, singing along with the Hamilton cast album (don't get me started, it's a wonderful addiction, a musical sickness) when the wind started to whip up. The hotel (and the AFL-CIO building on the next block) has weeping cherries in full bloom lined up along the crescent drive outside the lobby. In the wind, the arched tree branches danced and they started to remind me of girls in wide skirts at Seven Oaks in "Gone with the Wind," waiting for their beaus to escort them out on the floor for a twirl. It made me wish I was skilled in animation. I could have filled a ballroom with sweet-petaled dancers.

The St. Regis Springtime Ball

The weeping cherry sisters
Sway and twirl
Outside the grand St. Regis

Good southern girls
In gowns of pink
And softest, purest white

Our hoop skirt debutantes
Bloom and swish at the
Wind Gust Cotillion.

Now watch them curtsy
See them blush
At every tourist walking by.




Monday, March 28, 2016

In Your Hand



My parents learned to write in the 1920s. Their handwriting bore the distinctive characteristics of those educated in the Palmer Methodprecise, graceful, and easy to read. My mother's handwriting was always better than my fathers. Her lines and loops swooped in a lyrical manner, while my father's was harder edged, with tiny spikes from a tremor in his hand that reminded me of a seismograph charting little earthquakes. His hand shook more as he aged, as had his mother's before him. I can still picture him spilling a cup of coffee like a sprinkler head as he brought it to his lips. I have the same tremor developing in my right handanother legacy I didn't need, like my wide nose, high blood pressure, astigmatism, or my ridiculously thick Irish peasant legs.

For now, my handwriting has not been afflicted, although I know it's only a matter of time. I have a measure of vanity about my writing, which I think is fairly graceful when I'm not in a hurry. (My Cyrillic penmanship is pretty darn nicenicer than my English script, honestly. Just not much call for it these days.) For now, I'm grateful to retain what I have. And, while I have the flaws of my father's side of the family, I echo my mom's side, too. As I agemuch like catching a glimpse of my mother's face as I pass by a mirrormy script looks more and more like mom's handwriting.


Pусский язык самый богатый в мире!

All of my siblings have beautiful cursive and equally cool printing. My late brother Ed had that same spiky cursive that marked our father's writing. I can't remember if he had our father's "architect style" printing, too. It always looked like he was marking blueprints with each letter. I don't think any of us inherited that style. My sister Elizabeth is an artist by nature, and her writing style radiates a very unique creative vibe. I was always envious of that. Her script is half cursive, half print, and unmistakably her own. I am envious.

Back in the dark ages of technology, I was fascinated by the "make your own font in your own handwriting" offers you found in in-flight magazines. Wow! Your handwriting appears on your computer screen! Of course, back then, it was an expensive novelty for executives, and it cost about a hundred bucks. A pipe dream for youngsters with shallow pockets. Now, you can get your font for five bucks (or, hell, for free) in a couple of minutes. Print out a template, draw your letters and numbers, scan them in, and boom - five minutes later, you have your own chicken scratch alphabet to use in Word. It's true. I've done it. I wasn't satisfied with that I created because I couldn't manage the right level of consistency in what I inked into each block. That said, when I use that font, I know it's me.

That's one of the things I love about handwritten letters. I know which one of my friends or family has sent me card or letter just by seeing a few letters on the address. The angles, the curves... how they formed my name or theirs... Who uses cursive? Who prints? Is it in big, bold letters? Is it in the slanted lines of a southpaw? Is it elegant, rounded, and utterly European?

I love that, even though we may have learned with the same techniquein some cases, in the same classroomour letters flow from our hands in forms as unique as the fingerprints on our pens. It is you. Simply you.

And you sent yourself to me.

I feel increasingly like every postcard, every letter, every greeting card written in someone's own hand is an expression of love and appreciation. It may be the lasting love of friendship, the family update, a platonic dialogue that lasts a lifetime, the words of passion between far-flung lovers... it's all pretty damn cool. It's also a piece of art you chose to make and give away. It's not a throwaway text typed carelessly into your phone and autocorrected into nonsense or condensed into 140 characters of abrupt one-liners.

A handwritten missive requires time and attention. Each stroke, each dot, each line, each misspelling you try to cover up with a smudge of ink carries some of youyour creative DNAto the recipient.

A few months ago, I found a massive stockpile of postcardsmany from the 1980sin a box in my closet. At one point, I'd decorated a whole wall in my first Moscow apartment with them, blu-tacked in untidy rows from floor to ceiling. Now, they needed new homes. With the postcards, I found a heap of old, unused postage stamps in various denominations. I had to look them all up on the USPS website, year by year, to see how many I needed to mail a postcard now.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and just asked who would like a postcard, complete with genuine handwritten message. I wasn't sure if anyone would take me up on the offer, but, in the end, I sent out nearly 100 postcards, each with a personalized message in my own scrawl. After a couple of weeks, I started getting postcards in returnsome in familiar hands I'd known for 20, 30, 40 years, while others were new to me. These new "voices" were friends I'd only ever known online, their words typed on screens in the same bland fonts we all use online. It was a revelation to see a lovely piece of these individuals that was hidden in the noise of social media. It was, in a way, like meeting them face-to-face. In delicate letters, bold prints, and even in the goofy script that made me squint, there was a warm, intimate moment that was sweet, kind, graceful, and exciting. Each postcard was a gift. And I was grateful.



It makes me sad to know that some kids don't learn cursive at all anymore. Who needs it? Ugh. Yeah, I've heard the argument. Just time wasted on a dead skill. I hear Obi-Wan Kenobi in my head referring to a lightsaber as "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," and I think of a pen in that same way. A weapon for the sharpest words, an arrow to the heart of the sweetest love... who will read the letters of an earlier age if no one can read the text? Are we in such a hurry that we cannot stop to express thoughts with our unique marks on the page? Truth is, I don't care if someone uses the finest calligraphy, a scrawl, or block letters, if they send something handwritten. Share yourself. You have no idea how much impact a card or letter can have on someone going through tough times.

You are loved. You are remembered. You are not just a birthday reminder on a Facebook calendar. You mean something to me, and I wanted you to have something more than a catalog and an insurance ad in your mailbox.



Old news: life is uncertain. None of us has any idea when the smile or word we share with someone we love is the last one. I'm not trying to be morbid, but there have been momentsmoments that increase as the clock hands spin the dial and I flip pages on my wall calendarwhen I've wished I had one more time for all sorts of things. A call with my mother. A trip with my sister. A discussion about pop culture with my brother. All gone now. But I still have cards and letters they wrote. I can feel them through impressions made in ball point ink on paper. I can hear them through those curves and angles. I know who they are, and they are not forgotten. Voices in blue and black on white and beige. All precious to me now.

I know we're all busy. I know carving out time to sit quietly and write a few words can seem like the bottom of the priority barrel. But we can all do it. Get some paper, grab some cards (I highly recommend handmade letterpress cards from Model Citizen Press and I admit to being 100% happily biased on that count), dig out the old postcards you never sent on vacation. Go to the library, sit outside on a sunny day, or hit your local Starbucks and get yourself a coffee. Pull out a pen, and write a few lines. Hand cramps from lack of use? Write one a day, or one a week, or a couple each month. You are a storyteller. We all are storytellers. Surprise someone. Tell someone something funny, something mysterious, just something about your day, or what they mean to you. Write your life. Indelible, uncommon, rare... because it's you, and there is no other you out there. Leave a little bit of your heart in a mailbox. Leave a little bit of your soul with a friend. I swear, you'll feel a rush when you let it out in the wild with a letter carrier. Just don't forget the stamp. 





Sunday, March 20, 2016

P.S....

;)

Random Thoughts at the Coffee Shop

9 p.m.

I'm looking through a coffee shop window out into the darkness and a wet, short March snowfall.The snow won't stick. It's not cold enough. But, in the brightness thrown by light poles across the parking lot, the white stuff is beautifulbig flakes that swirl and rain down in a snow globe shaker shower.

The coffee shop is humming with conversations in Spanish and Korean. Ringtones annoy. A baby burbles, counteracting the cellphones. A barista is aggressively squeezing the trigger on a container of kitchen cleaner. There can't be any left in the bottle by the time she's done. Despite the overdose of chemical freshness, I smell coffee brewing, and I know in the wet cold of the evening, I will carry that scent home with me, soaked into the knit loops of my scarf and the fabric of my shirt. I'm fine with that. I love it when I carry the smell of memory with me.

When I lived in Moscow, I loved arriving home after a weekend at the dacha, my clothes infused with wood smoke from the potbelly stove in the corner of the little living room. I would hold up shirts to my nose for days after returning to my apartment, breathing in the sweet, heady remnants of a good adventure. I closed my eyes and could hear a friend playing guitar, doing his best Vysotsky impression, and the sound of laughter from the small deck out back overlooking the river that separated us from the Young Pioneer camp on the other bank. The camp came alive and fell to sleep again every day with a bugle call we heard through the birch and pine trees. We would listen and stoke the fire in our cabin and curl up together in the dying lighta pile of friends disconnected from the chaos of the city just a few kilometers away, but deeply connected together for a moment before the week began again. I wish I had something saturated with that lovely smoke right now.

It's different here. No smoke. Just coffee. Not a bucolic and quiet setting like the dacha at Serebryany Bor. Yet I am with my friend, and that is good.

Traffic hisses on wet pavement outside. A chill rises each time the door opens with people arriving to buy overpriced lattes and Cherry Blossom frappuccinos. There is a red glow outside from the neon signs lining the strip mall. Clearly management wanted something uniform, and nearly every business has red neon signage to lure in customers. There is a large Asian community here, from Korea and China, and the signs remind me of a brief visit to Seoul many years ago, en route to Vladivostok. At night the city was dotted in crimson illumination, with red crosses rising into the darkness above the city's numerous Christian churches. I wonder if the red neon was chosen specifically for our local community, but I never ask. I don't want to appear rude or culturally ignorant. The signs are big and bright. They provide a constant light show, obscuring the stars in the sky with manmade glare.

I have an infatuation with neon. They are the carnival midway show of suburbia here, radiating warmth, but also tossing visual chaos and clutter at passers-by. Tonight, I'm fascinated with the one exception to the red neonan enormous green frog lighting up a yogurt shop across the lot. Framed by beer and sub shop signs on either side, the frog seems ridiculously out of place, yet refreshing against the monotony of the rest of the stores and cafes. It has bulbous eyes and reminds me of a mid-century kit-cat clock. I keep expecting his eyes to swing back and forth, tick tock, tick tock.

via GIPHY

Before the night is out, I will snag his picture. My hand is shaky, and I am an increasingly awful cellphone photographer. I'll have to take a heap of photos in the hopes of getting one non-blurry needle in my camera haystack. No matter. It will amuse me. The same ten people who like all my Instagram photos will hopefully enjoy froggie in the window. Who could ask for anything more?

My vision is eroding. It's been encroached upon by a flaw in my design that first appeared when I was a teenager. Now it's eating my peripheral vision in nibbles and, sometimes, mouthfuls. I hate it when people walk down hallways at work with me and they are just a smidge too far away for me to keep them in my sight. It makes me feel awkward and uneasy. My vision loss is progressing, and I think of the bites missing as being eaten up by some little Pac-Man in my head. Waka, waka, screw you, buddy!

I take more photos now and draw all the time. Increased practice has not really improved the quality of my efforts, honestly. Doesn't matter. I snap away. I scribble. What I produce is distinctly mine. Not exactly a legacy to leave behindjust stuff I enjoy making and something by which my friends can identify me. "Yeah, that's her. Kinda blurry..."

Life is a blur. I just have to either speed up to see more of it or grow accustomed to life being a hum in my ears as it rushes by, unseen in my periphery.

Best speed it up, sister. Get with the program.  Don't let anything rush by. Don't miss out. Advice for us all, really.

10 p.m. Time to go.

They turned the frog light off.

Dammit.

Tomorrow, Scarlett. Yes, tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day, and that damn frog isn't going anywhere.



Yes, I looked up "Scarlett O'Hara + frog" on Google.
God bless Google. I knew you wouldn't fail me. ;)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Snapshots of December

I remember

the Betty Crocker Cookbook
open to the cookie section
binder pages
dusted with flour
sticky with sugar
the smell of dough clinging
to preheated air
my sisters twisting strands
of candy cane cookies
fingers glistening with
peppermint extract.

Laurel and Hardy
bump and run in
black and white
the March of the Tin Soldiers
all pop and hiss
across the decades on
a tiny kitchen TV tucked
between dusty volumes of
the Art of French Cooking
never opened
just displayed.

The tall and the stout
set loose the soldiers to
save the maiden
and the day.

I stop and watch despite
knowing the outcome
never changes.

A dial stuck on Channel 9
WGN from Chicago
constant kitchen friend
Sherlock Holmes
Family Classics with
Frazier Thomas while
the holidays baked in
our crowded kitchen.

I remember Mary
my sister eight years gone
making a turkey dance before
it was buttered in a pan.

And later
Mary sneaking crispy bits of
salty turkey skin from the
steaming bird's back.

And who stole
the bread slice from the
bird's butt?
Soaked with stock
that loaf heel
gateway to the
stuffing kingdom.

There was the year of
the Great Turkey Drop
when the bird tumbled
to
the
floor
.
.
.
and my father's ruddy face
turned fifty shades of fury.

Pick it up.
Wash it off.
Continue. As. Normal.

I still can smell the falling snow
and taste it on my tongue
particular to my memory
no snow since then is
the same.

The crunch under
fearless, nimble
children's feet --
a love of ice now gone
from fragile, weary
grown-up bones.

The smell
the taste
the sound of
Midwestern winter.

The echoes of the trains
rolling Rock Island Lines
chuckle and roar on
tracks near the river
my head tilted up
swirling flakes coating my
eyelashes in the falling light
of coming dusk.

A real fire
throws heat across
those younger years
a warmth
a pop and hiss
a comfort to
cold bones
a place to taste
the bitter waters of a
failed
winter romance.

Better remembered
for cocoa and
caroling with
musically inclined friends
loud and joyful
choir kids
a little prideful --
just a bit -- of
talent and sweet harmony.

And it was good.

I wonder now
in later years
how much my mother did
enjoy it all or if she
just endured it for
a selfish child who spent
her days largely in
her own small world.

Chaos, even happy
chaos had to be
exhausting.

And I was selfish.

I didn't know
how much
until much later
in my life
that I was oblivious
and so obtuse
and my mother was so tired.

Christmas now is
a quiet thing
for me
no cookies
no chaos
no dancing bird or
tin soldier march.

There is the quiet and
there is me
and sometimes
I wish there was
some chaos
happy chaos --
even if it exhausts me --
in the silent space
brightened by faux fire
of the Netflix hearth.

I told my sister
I was pondering
where I am
what I want to be
where I want to go
as the old year crumbles
and a new year grows.

I just don't know.

But

I want a future with
less fear and a
fair measure of joy
and please
someone to laugh with
who actually wants to laugh
with me
and possibilities
more vibrant
than any memories
I hold.

May it be so for you, too.

Peace.





Wednesday, December 31, 2014

С Новым годом!

Today I was watching the live feed of anti-Putin protests in the cold, 0° F Moscow night. While I watched people mill near the Kremlin, I thought back to a cold December night in the same spot. I only spent one New Year's Eve on Red Square with friends from the embassy and thousands of other revelers—a sea of mostly strangers drenched in cheap champagne, waiting for the fireworks to erupt at midnight. As crowded and chaotic as it was, it was definitely better than just watching the big blue clock face on Soviet TV as the old year died. In those years, the clock face ticked away the last minutes to the sound of Europe's "The Final Countdown." Cracked me up every time.



Some of you already know the following story, but hell, I've never been one to tell a story only once. So, here we go again. Heh.

I remember my first New Year's Eve in Moscow in 1989, spent in the tiny embassy bar across the street from my first apartment. I had on a slinky black dress (if you can believe that) and heels (even more unbelievable considering my current taste in comfy footwear), all completely inappropriate for the icy, cold evening, but second nature for a youngin' who had to walk about five steps from her front door to the bar on compound. I spent most of the night chatting and singing with a sweet young chick, one of the embassy's many nannies. Turned out both she and I knew our share of ABBA songs, including "Happy New Year," the 1979 tune that asked "what lies waiting down the line/in the end of '89..." 


Well, there we were in '89, in a tiny bar on a secure compound, drinking god knows what, eating Thai spring rolls made by the wife of one of the security guys. In the middle of our profoundly loud rendition of the ABBA tune, sweet nanny and I got it in our heads that the mili-men (the Soviet police/uniformed KGB) who were on duty at the security post nearest the bar (opposite the Russian White House) needed champagne and cookies to ring in the new year. We went out into the frigid night with plastic flutes, a plate of cookies and half a bottle of champagne. Teeth chattering, we slipped and skated our way to the hilltop leading down to their post. In retrospect, this is crazy, but we both took off our heels and slid down the snowy hill in our good dresses to bring treats to the mili-men. They thought we were nuts. They laughed and howled, but after checking to see if anyone was watching them, they gladly took our offerings and wished us a happy new year in return.

We then used our heels like ice axes and climbed back up to the little street that ran through the compound. It was weird, it was fun, it was the kind of dumb thing you do when you're young and unafraid of cracking your tailbone on ice or coming down with pneumonia. 

Man, that was a million years ago.

So, here I am now. It's New Year's Eve 2014. I'll turn 50 in this new year. So much done. So much yet to do. But for now, I'm just thinking about 1980s Moscow, 1990s Moscow—my old home—and the fireworks that lit up the sky from all directions on New Year's Eve. Bottle after bottle of cheap champagne chilling on my balcony... the neighborhood children shouting "URA!" with each burst of bright color that filled the darkness... the mili-men on security detail, smoking cigarettes to stay warm as the rest of the city celebrated... I made up care packages for the mili-men at my second apartment for New Year's my last year there. It was just things like dry milk, canned vegetables, and tinned tuna—a little like a food bank giveaway for them to take home to their families. (Side note: this did not ensure any additional attention to safety or security, says the woman whose car was broken into at that location shortly before she departed Russia.) As I thought about the mili-men and New Year's Eve and that first year, sliding down the hill with snow in my tights and a bottle clutched to my chest, this drawing formed in my head and fingers:



First it was just a guy in uniform, in that grey wool great coat, then, the fireworks rising into the sky, and finally, an explosion of color to welcome the new year.

I have many hopes and dreams for 2015. I hope you do, too. May you welcome it with optimism and an open heart.


Peace.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

And to all, a good night!

Things have kept me from sharing words here for a bit. Lots of pondering going on.

For tonight, as we settle in for a Christmas night snooze, I simply wish you all well for whatever holiday you celebrate and for the coming new year. Be back here soon with fresh words!