Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Canoe.jpg

We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

Homefortheholidays.jpg

A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

Book spine poetry for National Poetry Month

Stack of poetry books

What do we know

This present moment

Our only world

The wellspring.

You come too.

Cleveland was my home but I lost it

Go down and tell them what you’ve seen:

that the river burned and was not consumed.

“River on Fire” by David Lucas in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology

Rust Belt Chic cover photoI’ve been writing about the town where I grew up, how you can’t go home again and all that, and about my fraught relationship with Cleveland. This kind of ambivalence permeates Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, (published by the editors of the online magazine Belt) which I’ve been reading in between novels and book-length nonfiction. But all is not bleak – the collection includes a good share of essays by writers who unabashedly love Cleveland. The writing is excellent, the social commentary and history fascinating.

My childhood home just outside of Cleveland shared a driveway with our floral shop, where the locals bought their wedding and funeral flowers, Easter corsages and prom nosegays. We earned a good living in that small shop.

Those were prosperous times. I remember boarding a passenger ship docked on the dowtown shores of Lake Erie with my mother, some time in the late 1950s. We were going to visit my aunt, who lived in Michigan on the Detroit River, across from a mighty steel mill. This was no mere ferry we travelled on, but a big old steel ship; my memory of this seems outlandish to me now but, based on my cursory research, I presume we travelled on the SS Aquarama, a World War II troop carrier that was converted to a passenger ship after the war.

I loved going to my aunt’s house, where barges as big as factories floated past the backyard every day. Back then, Detroit and Cleveland were first-tier cities.

Today, Detroit is ranked first in the United States for poverty, and Cleveland is second.

As an adult, I moved to New York City, but eventually I settled and raised a family in another Rust Belt city on a lake (probably no coincidence). In Rochester, New York I worked for Kodak, for a time, but now the company is a shell of its former self. Rochester is ranked third in the US for poverty.

In 2008, my Ohio hometown was the epicenter of the mortgage crisis and still has not recovered. It has essentially become an extension of the blight that is East Cleveland. Homes have sold for as little as $1000 there. Other houses have been abandoned and stripped of their copper plumbing and aluminum siding. Many have been demolished.

Sometimes, I think about what it would be like to move back to Cleveland. I could host a book club for schoolchildren in the old flower shop. It would be a safe haven from the drugs in the vacant lot next door, the guns, the crime. We’d read poetry by Mary Oliver, who is from my hometown, and the novels of Toni Morrison, who is from Lorain. I’d give each child a book to take home.

But, of course, my life has long been elsewhere and I won’t move back. You can’t go home again and, besides, our house and the shop are (finally) about to be sold (fingers crossed).

Both optimists and pessimists write about Cleveland in this Rust Belt Chic anthology. (Rust Belt Chic anthologies of Detroit and Cincinnati have been published as well. Additional volumes are in the planning stages.) When it comes down to it, I’m essentially an optimist, because I don’t think things can get much worse, and I see a commitment to community and volunteerism among young people who choose to stay or settle in Rust Belt cities.

But I’m sad and bitter, too, when I think about what my childhood home has become. I feel shame, too, but I don’t mean I’m ashamed of where I’m from. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. Rather, I feel shame in the sense that we could have and should have done better in terms of taking care of our communities and each other.

What is the Rust Belt, and Rust Belt Chic? From the Cleveland Anthology

“What I’ve figured out, though, is that maybe I didn’t want baseball – I wanted Cleveland. I wanted to walk from the stadium past Tower City to my dad’s office parking lot at 11:34 pm after a Tribe game on a hot August night….ecstatic crowd walking outside the Gund, of guys in black sneakers and ladies with bra straps exposed and tans darker than the Cuyahoga in December….” Norene Malone

“I want to laugh when I hear that people are moving to Cleveland to practice their art. Then I want to spit in their faces….The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification. Developers show up, displaying all the sensitive charm of a multinational corporation….

All that beautiful decay, they seemed to say. Look at how wonderful this place used to be. Look how terrible it all was.”   Eric Anderson

“I was in love with Little Italy the moment I laid eyes on it, and still am, though it’s a long-distance thing now, with me pining away from the East Coast.”   Clare Malone

“But as Iraq fell apart on sectarian lines, Cleveland’s little Iraq fused closer together. I wasn’t authentic enough to intuit from last names and cities of origin which of our friends were Sunni and which were Shia, and for our purposes, the distinction was irrelevant.”   Huda Al-Marashi

“I have never, ever, met any single person of color with any great passion for this city.”   Jimi Izrael

“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James.”     Jim Russell

“The lips are gone. For years, they floated on an abutment at the base of the Detroit-Superior bridge in the Flats: a big pair of shiny red-enamel lips framing a mouthful of teeth….The lips first appeared sometime in the late 1970s, covering up an obscene tag someone had scrawled on the wall with an aerosol paint can. Below the lips was an equally mysterious signature announcing that this graffiti was the work of some so-called “Regional Art Terrorists.”    David C. Barnett

“Decades ago, Pekar’s work was already refuting the idea of the Rust Belt as a non-culture. Like today’s Rust Belt artists, he was fascinated by the city’s ethnic heritage, fluent in the history recorded in their grand architecture, obsessed with a sense of loss and ruin. But there’s one very important difference between him and his enthusiastic Rust Belt chic successors: Pekar’s view of Cleveland and the Rust Belt was almost entirely devoid of optimism.”  Erick Trickey

Mother and daughter in front of flower shop

Our flower shop, opening day

 

Note: The title for this post was inspired by a photograph on NewGeography.com.

Summer day meditation, week 3

pergola, hummingbird feeder

Under the pergola

A moment of pleasure: Sitting under the pergola at my brother’s house outside of Cleveland. Taking in the Cleveland-ness of being here.

I can’t really explain this. Something in the air has a distinctive quality, maybe the humidity and the heat of Ohio, and it takes me back to summers growing up here: listening to the Beatles on my transistor radio (WIXY 1260), swimming with my friend, Nena, at Stafford Park, play-by-play of the Indians’ baseball game always in the background….

In meditation class this week, our teacher read Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, who is from my hometown.

Summer evening meditation, week 1

Tonight I attended the first of five mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, which include instruction in meditation. Four years ago, I took a similar series of classes; this summer I hope to renew and re-commit to my meditation practice.

We followed our breath for several minutes. We ate a raisin, mindfully. We practiced the body scan (progressive relaxation of each part of the body, preferably while lying down.) I thought I was totally relaxed, lying on my yoga mat on the hardwood floor. But when our instructor read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” I found myself lying in a field of grass, giving myself up to it as if I were a kid.

That was my second encounter with Mary Oliver today. The first occurred in my wanderings around the Internet, where I found out she will publish a new book of poems this fall, “A Thousand Mornings.”

When I came home from class, my son had just arrived with fresh-picked raspberries. I ate some with whipped cream. Mindfully, of course.

A girl in the woods reading poetry

For my first post on Books Can Save a Life, I’ll tell a story.

In my hometown near Cleveland, there once was a girl who liked to play hooky from school. She’d walk in the woods and read poetry. Back then, my town still had a rural flavor, with creeks, farmland, and forest where neighborhood kids could play for hours. Poetry and nature were the two things in the world the girl loved most.

When she was seventeen, she got in her car and drove to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York. The poet had died, but her sister, Norma, lived there. The girl stayed for a time, writing poetry and helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and manuscripts.

Years later, when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems in the 1980s, I didn’t pay much attention, even though I’d been an English major in college. I was working in New York City and had left my poetry reading days behind.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and beginning to do some of my own writing that I thought I’d take a closer look at Mary Oliver to see what she was all about.

I hadn’t expected to be stunned. I mean, really. Why had I never read her before?

I could try to describe her poetry with words like “powerful” and “transcendent” and “life-changing,” but I wouldn’t do her work justice.  Let’s just say it was exactly the right time for Mary Oliver’s poems to enter my life.  A lot of it had to do with my novice efforts as a creative writer and with believing in myself.

I believe Mary Oliver used to live in a house just around the corner from where I grew up, though she left home around the time I was born. Our hometown, Maple Heights, has been going through hard times lately, especially since the economic meltdown.  In fact, a Cleveland neighborhood nearby has been called ground zero in the mortgage disaster.

Many homes have been abandoned. Some have been torn down. Wildflowers and weeds are taking over what used to be carefully tended lawns. Much of the wooded areas are gone, but occasionally people spot a deer or two, usually at dusk.

When I go back home to visit, I remember how it used to be. Sometimes I think of a girl skipping school, sitting cross-legged under a big, friendly tree in the woods, reading.

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New and Selected PoemsNew and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver, published in 1992, includes poems from 1963 – 1991. That happens to be the volume I have, but since then there have been additional collected poems by Oliver. “Wild Geese” is another very well known poem by her. It is included in this collection.

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