Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autumn Leaves and Football Fever

I love weather, all kinds of weather, but my favorite seems to happen when the seasons change, one into another.  Which is just what happened last Sunday, when  all the warm weather we've been having finally got blown away and autumn arrived.  Yes, autumn, with its falling leaves, scary movies, and of course football.   

(For those of you who may not know, those x’s and o’s do not stand for kisses and hugs.)
Last Sunday was the big game around here – the one between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys and I wanted to be home to watch the opening kickoff, but first, I had to run errands.  I had asked two of my sisters to meet me so I could give them copies of my manuscript, Rude Awakening.    

In addition, my older sister had agreed to accompany me to an all-alumni open house at the elementary school I graduated from way back when.  We got there early and almost no one else had arrived.  While my sister was otherwise occupied, I noticed a group of men who seemed to be about my age and, despite lifetime aversions to initiating conversations and approaching strangers, I approached them only to discover they were not strangers after all.  Two of them had been in my class. 

We introduced ourselves – or re-introduced ourselves – and started talking.  I remembered them although they did not remember me, which didn’t matter because once we started talking, it felt as though I had known them forever.  We talked about the nuns who taught us and about the classmates we remembered - where they all went and where they are now. 

Together, the three of us looked at old black and white photos taken of May processions and First Holy Communions.  We examined the picture of all seventy-four members of our class taken early in June of 1956.  I could almost remember that day.

“There’s Silvio,” Alphonse said.  I remembered Silvio.  He was the boy with the long eyelashes and eyes you could drown in.  I used to go out of my way to go to the football games just to watch Silvio play.  “And there’s Charlie,” Alphonse said, pointing to another boy in the picture.  I remembered Charlie, too. He was the boy who was always in trouble, the boy who got me in trouble once with the nun who taught us in eighth grade, which is an event I wrote about in Rude Awakening.  

Alphonse, Francis and I talked at lot.  We laughed a lot too, at ourselves, our memories and at the clothing and hairstyles we wore in the Fifties.  For someone who had grown up too shy to initiate conversations, I was having a really good time.

I had to leave early however, since I had another sister to meet and I was already running late.  By the time I got to my youngest sister’s house, it was already after one and the football game had begun.  She graciously turned it on and I stole glances at it as I watched her cook, realizing she was cooking the way my mother used to cook – from scratch.  There were homemade meatballs simmering slowly on the stove in olive oil and garlic while she prepared the batter to make crepes for manicotti.  Like my mother, my sister makes her own pasta. 
Now if you have never tasted homemade pasta, you don’t know what you are missing - so I’ll tell you.  The difference between homemade pasta and store bought is like the difference between French pastry and a Tastykake.  Not that I don’t appreciate a good chocolate cupcake every once in a while – especially the ones the Tastykake bakers fill with cream.  I’m just saying…

I watched my sister pour the batter into a pan.  “I made those once,” I told her.  “It was back when I was living with Jessi (my youngest daughter), her husband and four kids.  I made the batter and poured tablespoons full into a frying pan, turning the pan quickly so the batter would spread evenly.  Like yours, my crepes came out as thin as loose-leaf paper.
“Then I made the filling.  To the ricotta, I added raw eggs, chopped garlic, basil, parsley, Italian seasonings, shredded mozzarella and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Then I filled each crepe and placed it, seam down, into a 9 x 12 pan, and topped each with homemade sauce and more mozzarella.  I baked the crepes in a 350 degree oven and when they were ready, I removed the pan from the oven and ate every one of them.”  My sister, from whom I had been estranged too long,  laughed and we continued talking. 

For the first cool, crisp day of autumn, it turned out to be a warm day filled with hugs and kisses after all, except for the Eagles who, like the leaves, were blown away, 17 to 3.     

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Meant to Tell You This -

This week in poetry class, we learned about the ‘letter’ poem, of which there are several types.  One example we were given was a poem written about famous people.  It was a letter from Persephone to Demeter, written by Rachel Zucker.  

Now picture this.  It was seven o’clock in the evening.  Not late, right? But because I get up for work every day at five a.m. - three or four when I’m really feeling inspired to write, which hasn’t happened in quite a while -  I was dog-tired by the time class began.  So when Kristina gave us Zucker’s poem, it was all Greek to me. 

Kristina explained to my fatigue that some letter poems are written about famous people while others can be written about someone known to us.  “You can write about someone present in our life but currently absent.”  What?   “Pull out your cell phone,” she said, “and look at your contacts.  Find someone you haven’t talked to in awhile.  Then write about how you feel about the silence between you.”

I looked at my phone.  There were more than a half dozen people – all of them close to me, - that  I had not talked to or heard from in a while, except via Facebook, which sometimes feels like The  Idiots Guide to Communication. “Write it in the first person,” she continued, “to someone who cannot respond.”  

Kristina went back to talking about the first example.  “If you choose this one, you’ll have to do research.”  As she spoke, an idea popped into my head from nowhere and I found myself thinking about two famous people:  Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, was the memory of a letter Hepburn had written to Tracy.  I decided to do the research – but not that night.  I was too tired.  I wanted to go home, get into  bed and go to sleep. 

I went home, got into bed and remained awake.  Sentences and phrases from the poem I had yet to write kept running through my head. Sentences like “I would have died for you. (Hepburn actually said that.)  “Why did you have to leave?” (I said that.)  And even more awful sentences like “What I felt for you was unshakable, unbreakable and at times, unbearable.”

I finally managed to get some ‘shuteye’ – if not sleep – and was outside the library when it opened in the morning.   Wild horses - and out of control sandmen - could not have kept me away.  There were more than half a dozen books in the library on Hepburn and only one about Tracy, although it could probably be counted as two or three since it was just a smidgeon shy of a thousand pages.  There were however no books about the two of them together. 

Finally, I found Katharine’s own autobiography.  In it, she talks about her love for Spencer Tracy almost as a postscript.   She says, “I loved Spencer Tracy. (By the way, so did I.  I loved his passion.  Who could ever forget him in Judgment at Nuremberg or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner)? “He, his interests, and his demands were first,” Hepburn said. “That wasn’t easy for me because I was definitely a me me me person.”  (The title of her book was Me.)

In the autobiography, she wrote about meeting Tracy for the first time on the set of the picture they were about to make together.  “I’m afraid I’m a bit too tall for Mr. Tracy,” she told the director.  “Don’t worry,” he responded, “Mr. Tracy will cut you down to size.” (And cut he did.)

She wrote about the day Tracy died. “I heard you walk down the hall,” she wrote.  “I heard you go into the kitchen… there was a sound… a cup falling …then a loud clump…it was you falling to the floor...Yes - it was you.  You were – just -  dead.  Suddenly stopped.  All at once…The End.” 

Finally, I found the letter she wrote after he died.  The last two sentences broke my heart.  I closed the book.  I can’t do this, I thought.  I can’t hide behind Tracy and Hepburn.  Leave them alone, I told myself.  Let them rest.  Write your own poem.  Write from your own experiences, your own feelings. 
Ten minutes later it was done.  I wrote:
I meant to tell you this-                 
The last time I saw you.
Do you remember?
You were in that club,
The one you loved so.
I saw your car.
I had not seen you in –
How long?
I could not even remember.

I went inside.
You were sitting there
alone,  a little hunched over,
eyes fixed on the screen across the room.
What are you doing here? you asked,
when you saw me.
I smiled.  Stood too close to you,
Stayed too close to you.

I wanted to see you, I said, smiling 
and after a moment, you smiled too.  
We talked.  Caught up.  Talked a little more.
I never moved.  Stood too close to you –
stayed too close to you.
I meant to tell you
the last time I saw you.
That day.  Do you remember?
I meant to tell you -

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Perfect Place to do Research

On a whim, I decided to sign up for a poetry writing class.  Our teacher, Kristina, named the course A Perfect Place to Write a Poem – the perfect place being the free library in Abington.  Kristina thinks the library is the perfect place to write a poem because it is the perfect place to do research.

Research?  I use a computer for that!  

There was a time however, when I was young and energetic enough to take the subway or “C” bus into the city to the Free Library of Philadelphia to do research. I used to spend hours in the basement of that library doing research for papers I had to write for high school and college.  

Once, while in high school I read Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. After learning that it was based on a true story, I headed for the library where all the old newspapers were kept on rolls of microfiche in huge metal drawers in huge metal cabinets in the basement.  Now, that was the perfect place to do research!  Kind of amazing and creepy all at once.

Back in poetry class, Kristinia was telling us we were going to write “a found poem.”  A found poem is one created by taking words and/or phrases from books (thus, the research) to create a poem.  (For those interested there is an amazing example in the wikipedia - (I can't stay away from that computer!)

Since I happened to be re-reading The Great Gatsby just before class, I decided to use it and Tender is the Night, which I found at the library.  Like many, I am intrigued by Fitzgerald’s lyricism.  In Tender, I found two phrases which crept into my mind and would not leave. The phrases were “she did understand” and “she understood well.” They made me think of Zelda, Fitzgerald’s beautiful and mentally fragile wife.
The words made me wonder if Zelda knew how precarious her mental health was.  I wanted to get into her head and write about Zelda.  Talk about doing research!  Inside Zelda’s head is not the perfect place.  But once the idea came to me, it would not go away.  

    I got up early on Saturday morning and wrote my poem,  which was short and sweet and used words like rigamarole (one of Fitzgeralds's words) to describe Zelda's mind.  But leaving Zelda’s head proved much more difficult than entering it.  Fortunately, I finished the poem just minutes before I had to leave for another class - a course in Mindfulness.  

    The mindfulness class is being held on the campus of the Bucks County Community College in Newtown and, in my disarranged state of mind, I was in a hurry to get there.  The first thing I noticed when I did was its tall trees and old stone buildings.  Walking among them took me far away from Zelda's mind and back to a time when, just out of high school, I worked for an insurance company located across the street from the Art Museum in Philadelphia. 

I used to take the subway to City Hall and walk along the Ben Franklin Parkway, examining the way the sunlight fell on the leaves or the sound my feet made as they hit the pavement or the way the rain reflected the streetlights.  Over time, I spent hours on that parkway examining the world around me or the thoughts inside me.  Sometimes I would stop by the Cathedral for a minute or two to pray or I would stare at a sculpture outside the Rodin Museum.  

   Research, I've learned as I've aged, does not have to be heady or boring.  It can also be light and entertaining the way walking down a street and noticing everything is. Now that is research.  As authentic and enlightening as any.