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By Teri Blair



Lawrence Welk’s Boyhood Home, Strasburg, North Dakota, July 2011, all photos © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


The Lawrence Welk Show was a Saturday night staple when I was growing up. My favorite acts were Cissy and Bobby, tap-dancing Arthur Duncan, and the guy on clarinet with big glasses. I didn’t pay much attention to the show’s host, though I wondered about his accent. I had a vague sense he came from the state just west of mine, but he mainly seemed tan and Hollywood and Californian. Not like the people I knew.

I’d seen his birthplace marked on my North Dakota map for years, and then one day, just like that, my mom and I decided to go. We checked out library copies of Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. Mom read it first and told me she couldn’t put it down. I figured that was because she still watched his reruns on public television. Then I started reading it, and I couldn’t put it down either. That’s when I found out Lawrence Welk wasn’t just a tan and smiling Hollywood face. Far from it.

We took two-lane roads to get to Strasburg, ones where you can tell where you’re heading. Mom reread the first chapter out loud to us, the one about Lawrence’s childhood in North Dakota and his passion to play music and get off the farm. We wanted everything fresh in our minds.

Lawrence was born in North Dakota in 1903, one of eight children of immigrant parents. The ten of them lived in a tiny sod house, milked cows, and spoke German. Lawrence had four years of schooling before he begged his parents to let him quit. Since he knew how to read and write, they let him. A farmer wouldn’t need more than that, they figured. But Lawrence’s father had carried an accordion all the way from Europe, and that one musical box lit a fire under the third Welk son. He had an affinity for music, an insatiable appetite for chords and melodies and rhythm. He tinkered with homemade instruments, and learned everything his father would teach him about music.

Though his family assumed his future as a North Dakota farmer, Lawrence knew he had to live a different life. He didn’t know how he could, only that he must. Then when he was 11 his appendix burst. By the time his parents found someone with a car and he was driven to the hospital in Bismarck, he was almost dead. He lived on the edge of life and death while his poisoned blood was treated. Though only a child, he determined if he survived he would make his living as a musician. No matter what.

He spent the rest of his childhood hiring himself out to play accordion at every event he could find around Strasburg. Every nickel he made went to pay off the $400 accordion he bought through a mail-order catalog. A deep satisfaction stirred in him to watch the joy his playing brought to people, an intrinsic reward that would fuel him for decades.

The View From Lawrence Welk’s Bedroom, Strasburg, North Dakota,
July 2011, all photos © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


When he left the farm on his 21st birthday, his father predicted his ruin as a musician. He told Lawrence he’d be back in six weeks looking for a meal. What followed were years of small gains and huge setbacks—trying to find work as a musician during The Depression wasn’t easy. Lawrence often went hungry. One time his band quit on him, embarrassed by his broken English and the way he tapped his toe to find the beat. He was naïve and trusting, taken advantage of more than once. He had to start over again and again with nothing but his accordion. But his internal compass was undeniable. His wife said years later that he was like a cork. When one plan failed, he’d be momentarily submerged before he’d pop up in a different place with a new strategy. By the time he landed the television program, he had paid his dues and then some. He had already spent 30 years on the road playing ballrooms.

After our tour of the homestead, I slow-walked around Lawrence’s childhood farm. I stood in the places he talked about in the book: the spot by the barn where he asked his dad for the $400 loan, the upstairs loft where his appendix burst, the tiny living room where he listened to polka music. I went to Mass on Sunday at the German Catholic church and sat where he had. I looked at the stained glass windows, the same ones Lawrence had looked at when he was a little German boy. He didn’t know how his story would end, but sitting there, I did.

Lawrence knew who he was, who he wasn’t, and he stuck with himself. And from that, I take great inspiration. By the time of his death in 1992, he had had the longest-running television program in history, and had helped launch the careers of dozens of musicians.

What is possible when we don’t deny our true selves?




_________________________




About Teri: Teri Blair is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her first piece for red Ravine, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and published a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time. Since then, she has written Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group, Discovering The Big Read, a piece about the largest reading program in American history, and Does Poetry Matter?, an essay about the Great American Think-Off.

Earlier this year, Teri was a writing resident at Vermont Studio Center in the heart of the Green Mountains. She finds inspiration on the road. Her writing pilgrimage to the Amherst, Massachusetts home of poet Emily Dickinson inspired the essay, Emily’s Freedom. At the end of September, Teri will be flying into Atlanta, Georgia to embark on her latest writing adventure — a two-week road trip in a compact Cruise America rolling along the Southern Literary Trail.


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Labyrinth Mandala At The Aquarius Full Moon – 30/52, based on a Yantra from 18th Century India, BlackBerry 52 – WEEK 30, July 25th, 2011, photo © 2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Medium: Drawn by hand with a black Staedtler archival pigment ink Fineliner on Canson Mix Media XL Series 98lb drawing paper. Colored & collaged with Caran D’Ache NeoColor II Water Soluble Wax Crayons, Sharpie Medium Point Oil-Based Opaque Paint Markers, Sharpie Fine Point Marker, archival photo corners. Photograph taken with a Samsung DROID.


I am sitting still with the Full August Moon at my back. She is high in the sky and refuses to yield to darkness for the the annual Perseid meteor shower. I am undaunted. I know the light from these stars, guessed to be fragments of Swift’s Comet from 1862, will shoot across the heavens, even if I can’t see them in the night sky. As above, so below.

Aquarius the Waterbearer seems like a good sign for a Full Moon (progressive and objective with a crystal clear antenna-like reception of universal intelligence). When I opened the Boundary Waters calendar I bought at the LilyPad Picnic this year, it said that the August Moon was called Miinike-Giizis by the Ojibway — the BlueBerry Moon. The August Full Moon is also known as the Drying Up Moon, the Grain Moon, the Green Corn Moon, and the Yellow Flower Moon, depending on what part of the world you may live.

The Sabbats Almanac claims that the seasonal Lammas Full Moon in Aquarius reflects back to us our relationship with the collective. It is a good time to focus on community, groups, and our hopes and wishes for the future. Aquarius is also the sign of the rebel or iconoclast, so themes may arise that focus attention on unusual issues or people. At the individual level, it’s an auspicious time to notice what we have to offer to our communities and what we might release in order to fully participate.


Two good questions to ask at this time:

1) How do we allow our own need for space and independence
to not hold us back from connecting more with the group?

2) What can we do to create more space and independence
for ourselves so we aren't sacrificing too much of our
individuality for the sake of the collective?


The Full Moon shines the light of awareness on the answers and helps us to understand patterns and dynamics that we may need to release during the dark Moon cycle to come. To celebrate the individual within the group, it is a time to show gratitude for the qualities that each member brings to the table. How does each person in your community shine? Maybe they have a generous heart, excellent communication skills, clear boundaries, or a good sense of humor. Tell them in an email. Call them and leave a voice mail. Mail them a card. The three-day window around the Full Aquarian Moon creates space to show gratitude for the intricate pieces that make up the circle’s whole.

Circles within circles. I created this mandala last weekend after a full and busy month of July. Some days were filled with joy; others pushed me to the limit. All are necessary to grow beyond who I am. I have been studying the circle archetypes of the labyrinth and the mandala for years. A few weeks ago, Liz bought me a birthday present, a book of Sacred Symbols edited by Robert Adkinson. I was immediately drawn to the chapter on the Mysteries and a mandala from 18th century India, a Yantra for the cosmic form Vishnu.  The script around the circle is from the Dhammapada and states:




In the light of her vision
she has found her freedom:
her thoughts are peace,
her words are peace,
and her work is peace.




Peace. It’s right there, yet just beyond our reach. On a final note, if you follow skylore, there is a tidbit about Perseus at EarthSky: the Perseid shower commemorates the time when the god Zeus visited the mortal maiden Danae in the form of a shower of gold. Zeus and Danae became the parents of Perseus the Hero – from whose constellation the Perseid meteors radiate. Perseus, you are beyond sky worthy, a flying, not fallen hero — I’m counting on you.



-posted on red Ravine at the Full August Blueberry Moon, Saturday, August 13th, 2011, with gratitude to Lotus for her labyrinthian inspiration

Lotus and I will continue to respond to each other’s BlackBerry Jump-Off photos with text, photography, poetry (however we are inspired) for the 52 weeks of 2011. You can read more at BlackBerry 52 Collaboration. If you are inspired to join us, send us a link to your images, poetry, or prose and we’ll add them to our posts.

Labyrinth Mandala At The Aquarius Full Moon (Detail) -related to posts: Ears Still To The Lonely Wind — Mandala For RabbitFlying Solo — Dragonfly In Yellow Rain, Shadow Of A Dragonfly, Dragonfly Wings — It Is Written In The Wind, Dragon Fight — June Mandalas, EarthHealer — Mandala For The Tortoise, ode to a crab (haiku & mandala), Eye Of The Dragon Tattoo

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By Teri Blair



The Poets, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 2011, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.



On June 11, 2011, four people will stand on a stage in rural America to debate one question: Does poetry matter?


19 years ago, a man named John Davis started an amateur philosophy contest called the Great American Think-Off. He wanted to give ordinary people a chance to voice their opinions on serious issues. Each year a question is announced in January. People have three months to submit a 750-word essay speaking in favor or opposition to the topic. Four finalists are selected to debate their views before a live audience, an audience who determines the winner. Each of the four receive a $500 cash prize, travel expenses, a medal, and the winner is declared “America’s Greatest Thinker.” John’s two-decade-old idea has flourished. In 2010 (Do the rich have an obligation to the poor?) there were hundreds of entries representing nearly every state.


I was barely awake on January 1st when MPR’s Cathy Wurzer announced this year’s question. I was listening to my bedside clock radio when I heard her say Does poetry matter? My eyes opened in a shot.

I’ve spent a lot of time since that day thinking about the question. Before I started a poetry group, poems didn’t matter that much to me. I admired poets, was in awe of poetry, but it wasn’t until I started reading poetry in earnest that it began to penetrate my life in any meaningful way.

Emily Dickinson, April 2011, photo © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.

Now I see poetry everywhere: imprinted on the sidewalks of St. Paul, recited in films like Invictus, and incorporated into presidential inaugurations. Poetry distills events of our common human experience into a few words. I’m informed, assured I’m not alone, and given direction. I’ve read Bill Holm’s “Letting Go of What Cannot Be Held Back” dozens of times since my dad died. It gives me permission to set down the pressure to do something about death. I’ve committed May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself” to memory, saying it over and over as I swim laps at the YWCA, continually calling myself to authenticity.

I knew the day I heard the question that I’d enter the contest. Not to win, but to document what happened in our poetry group. The words fell onto the page, and I felt closure for the group that had been so hard to disband the previous year.

On May 1st I’ll find out if I’m one of the four finalists. I hope I’m chosen, and I really hope I’m not. I want to share what my poetry group discovered, and can’t stand the thought of standing on a stage trying to think on my feet. I wasn’t on the high school debate team for good reason.


I want to hear from you: Does poetry matter? If it doesn’t, were you subjected to obscure passages in high school English class that left you with a bad taste in your mouth? Does poetry seem a lofty and inaccessible pursuit for snobs?

If poetry does matter to you, how come? Do you have a favorite poet?

Whether I’m nervous on the stage (or at ease in the audience), I plan to be at the Think-Off on June 11th. Maybe I’ll see you there.


To read more about the Great American Think-Off: www.think-off.org.



Ted Kooser’s Studio, Dwight, Nebraska (pop. 259), January 2010,
all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


________________________________


About Teri: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey has fondly and frequently written. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the last post on the group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)

Teri’s first red Ravine guest post, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and published a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time . In March 2010, she wrote Discovering The Big Read , a piece about the largest reading program in American history. Its mission is simple: to restore reading to the center of American culture.

Teri spent February 2011 with visiting writers and artists at the Vermont Studio Center, walking, writing, and finding inspiration by the Gihon River in the heart of the Green Mountains. Her last piece for red Ravine, Emily’s Freedom, is a photo essay about what she learned on a writing pilgrimage to Amherst, Massachusetts to visit the home of poet Emily Dickinson.

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Web & Dew: The Space Between, BlackBerry Shots, July 2010, photo © 2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Over 90 inches of snow have disappeared from our lawn in temperatures that reach the 50′s by day, drop down to freezing at night. Winter is dying a slow death. Seasons change, transitions in temperament and landscape. The snowmelt runs into rivers and streams, the salt leaves potholes. But soon, tiny shoots of emerald will erupt through the dank, dead, chestnut grass. Winter must die to usher in Spring.

There is power in recognizing impending death. I remember the year my mother told me that when her time came, she was ready to die. We were visiting the South, walking down the cemetery hill from my grandmother’s grave in Georgia. I burst out crying; she hugged me and held me close. I thought the tears inside would never stop. “Honey, don’t worry,” she said. “I’m ready.”

Frankenbelly 3's Birthday - 321/365 Last year, my brother nearly died, before receiving a liver transplant at the 11th hour. It’s an experience that pulled our family together, one we share with countless others. If a person who loses their spouse is a widow, what’s the name for a child who loses a parent? Or a parent who loses a child? There should be a formal naming. For children, it should not be the word “orphan.” That implies that you never held the person close, lived with or loved your parent. There should be another word.

I think of what it must be like to be the one left behind. When I saw writer Joyce Carol Oates in Minneapolis at Talk of the Stacks last week, I bought her new memoir, A Widow’s Story. Her husband Raymond died unexpectedly late one winter night in 2008; the next morning Joyce was supposed to have gone to the hospital, picked him up, and brought him home to recover. It’s the story of loss, grief, and pain; of giant gift baskets, grieving cats, and mounds of trash; of how no one really understood. Yet in the end, she realized that everyone understood. Because Death is a universal experience. It’s just that we don’t talk about it anymore or know how to incorporate it into our lives.

Porkys Since 1953 There is more to Death than the loss of loved ones. Sometimes whole cultures die, like the Anasazi who inhabited the Four Corners country of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300, and then disappeared. Cultural traditions die, too, like Porky’s Drive-In in St. Paul. It was owned by the same family since 1953, and closed its doors last Sunday, April 3rd, 2011. Animals die, and it is certain that we will probably outlive many of our beloved pets (our cat Chaco died a few years ago, June 25th, 2009).

Groups we are in community with have life spans, too. Circles of intimacy change and grow; sometimes we end up leaving people behind. Or they leave us. During one session of a year-long Intensive with Natalie Goldberg, one of the participants was killed in a car crash. The group was stunned. These were people we thought we would sit and write with for an entire year. It was not to be. I remember we chanted the Heart Sutra. I remember finding comfort in the ritual.

Cemetery Fog At Workmens Circle - 70/365 Ah, I feel a heaviness this Spring. But it’s a collective heaviness. Like something is shifting in the Universe. There’s too much going on in the world, too many catastrophes, too many unexpected deaths, too many aging and dying people, too many widows and widowers, for there not to be something going on at the Spiritual level. But that’s just my belief. I know there are people who say this occurred at every period in history. But there are certain paradigm shifts that happen and change the planet as a whole. We can either learn our lessons and get on board the train that moves forward. Or stay stuck in the past, not doing the work that’s required of us.

It’s the New Moon. New beginnings. There is value in what has come before, in the history we have with other people we were close to at one time. It’s good to honor and remember. All of that follows us, and I believe we transform it. All energy is creative energy. Even the energy of Death. It cycles back around into new life. Death can be a release of suffering. It also creates a giant abyss of loss. Maybe we’d be wise to befriend the Grim Reaper. Maybe it is others who are dying or have passed over who teach us the courage and strength to face our own death. Maybe the space between death and dying…is life.


_______________________


Transitions - Catch & Release Though many of our ancestors accepted and honored the process of Death through rituals, sitting, slowing down, it feels like our fast-paced modern world doesn’t know how to stop moving, how to have a conversation about death and dying, or where to put it in the flow of our day-to-day lives. It makes for a good Writing Topic, a good topic for discussion on red Ravine. Why can’t we talk face to face about death? Maybe it’s easier to write about it.

Take out a fast writing pen and notebook, or fire up your computer and write Death & Dying at the top of your page. Then 15 minutes, Go! Or do a Writing Practice on everything you know about any aspect of death and dying. Please feel free to share any insights in the comments below.


-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, April 5th, 2011. Parts of the piece were taken from several Writing Practices written last weekend, April 2nd & 3rd.

-related to posts: WRITING TOPIC — 3 QUESTIONS, Reflection — Through The Looking Glass, Make Positive Effort For The Good, The Uses Of Sorrow — What Is It About Obituaries?, Reading The Obits, and a great interview with Joyce Carol Oates on MPR Midmorning with Kerri Miller – A Widow’s Story — The Story Of Joyce Carol Oates

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by Teri Blair



Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Massachusetts, October 2010, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.



On October 30th, 2010, I stood in a room I had wanted to be in for years. It had a bed, a desk, a dresser, a lantern, a basket, and huge windows. From this second story perch Emily Dickinson composed her wonderful, strange, profound poetry.

IMG_0656 window

Emily was born in the same house where she died. And with the exception of a few trips and a little schooling, she never ventured from her hometown. Ever. She lived for 55 years, becoming increasingly reclusive the older she got. She published seven poems under pseudonyms while she was alive, poetry that went practically unnoticed. It wasn’t until she died that the big discovery was made. Emily’s sister was cleaning out her bedroom dresser and found nearly 1800 poems in the bottom drawer. They were written in handmade booklets and on scraps of paper.

Four years after her death, Emily’s first volume of poetry came out and she was famous. Now, 124 years later, she is considered one of the most influential American poets; her work has never been out of print.


IMG_0658 ANNA

I drove to Amherst, Massachusetts with my niece, Anna. We pulled up to Emily’s house on Main Street, an impressive yellow brick surrounded on two sides by massive gardens. The moment we stepped onto this National Historic Site, I was looking for clues of how Emily did it. Was she simply brilliant, or was there some evidence of influence? Our tour guide told us that as soon as Emily’s first book came out, speculation about her largely private life began, speculation that has never stopped.

They honor Emily by sticking with the facts, only the things that are authenticated. I am compelled to do the same, simply observing some habits that made up part of her writing life.





A Period of Woolgathering


When Emily was 10, her family moved temporarily to a different house in Amherst. Her bedroom faced the town graveyard, and during those next impressionable years, she watched hundreds of horse-drawn funeral processions.

When she was 19, her father gave her a puppy she named Carlo. For the sixteen years of her dog’s life, they explored the woods and fields of Amherst together. Emily made extensive collections from what she found outside on these long hikes.

Contemplating death and observations of nature run heavily through Emily’s poetry.


IMG_0651 porch


Writing Practices


Emily was a voracious reader. Her family received daily newspapers and several magazines, all of which Emily read cover-to-cover. She read poets; Keats and Browning were two of her favorites.

She wrote at night by lamplight. Moonlight walkers consistently saw a light burning in Emily’s window. They didn’t know what she was doing. Though there were virtually no external rewards for her work, she kept writing. An internal force propelled her.


Simplicity


Emily’s life was very simple; there were few distractions.

She had only a handful of family and friends, and kept in touch with most of them through letter writing.

She baked. She read. She wandered through her gardens. She lowered baskets of gingerbread to her nephews and niece from her window. And at night…she wrote in her bedroom by lamplight.


♦     ♦     ♦


After the 90-minute tour, we were allowed to wander through the house alone at our own pace. Anna and I both gravitated back to Emily’s room. We sat on the floor, stood by the windows; we looked at each other across the room.

Can you believe we’re standing here, I asked Anna. She smiled and shook her head no. We kept looking at each other, smiling and shaking our heads because we knew. There was nothing more to say; and we could both feel the pulse of what had happened within those four walls.


IMG_0654 From The Garden Large

View of Emily’s From The Garden, Amherst, Massachusetts, October 2010, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


When Emily died, the funeral was held in the library of her house. At her request, six Irish immigrants carried her casket from the house to her grave. She asked her sister to burn the thousands of letters she had amassed.

But she didn’t say a word about the poems in the bottom drawer.

Emily’s brother and his family lived in the house on the far edge of her garden. One time Emily’s niece, Martha, came into her room with her, and Emily pretended to lock the door so no one could get in.  She looked around the room—at the writing desk, lamp, and paper. “Martha,” she said, “this is freedom.”



“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.


-Emily Dickinson c. 1861 from The Pocket Emily Dickinson,
Edited by Brenda Hillman, Shambhala Publications, 2009.



IMG_0670 in memoriam



About Teri: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey has fondly and frequently written. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the last post on the group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)

 

Teri’s first red Ravine guest post, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and wrote a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time. Her last piece for red Ravine, Discovering The Big Read, is about the largest reading program in American history. Its mission is simple: to restore reading to the center of American culture.

Teri will be spending the month of February at the Vermont Studio Center, writing, walking, and finding inspiration by the Gihon River in the heart of the Green Mountains.

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Centipede Dreams, scar from a benign tumor taken out when I was 12 (37 years ago), September 2010, photo © 2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





Most people no longer ask about the large blemish I have in the center of my throat, down where my larynx meets my chest. It’s a tracheotomy scar that must be getting lighter the longer I have it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for perfect strangers to approach me in public places and ask, “What happened there?”

I had the tracheotomy at age 18 months after a croup turned to pneumonia. It was an emergency operation, part of my childhood mythology, the small Mexican doctor with wild hair who stabbed open a hole in my trachea so I could breathe. She had a frantic look in her eye, her hair loose and Bride-of-Frankenstein-like, and she held the sharp instrument up in the air before bringing it down to pierce my throat.

That’s the image I hold of her anyway, an image formed out of the seemingly hundreds of times I heard my parents tell the story. It was the kind of improbable drama — the dying child whose life is saved by a small doctor who is both Mexican and a woman — with a happy ending that held friends and relatives rapt year after year. I loved the attention, standing near my parents, Mom nudging me to lift my chin so everyone could see the scar. A few gentle strokes of her fingers on the chamois-soft skin, rubbing as if to say, “See, it’s permanent.”

In each telling I embellished the imagery. When my parents described the moment they decided to rush me to the hospital, how my lips had turned blue and I’d stopped breathing, my mind’s eye pictured the veins and blood from my body shimmering purple through translucent skin. Or when Mom and Dad said that my hair went from straight to curly “just like that” as I lay in the oxygen tent in ICU, I saw it happening as if in time lapse photography. Like the stockinged feet of the Wicked Witch of the West curling after Dorothy removes the ruby slippers, so went my hair, forming into tiny ringlets all over my head.

It must be natural, I think, for a young kid to turn her childhood stories into morbid scenes, but what strikes me is how much staying power those scenes have. I don’t replace them with more reasonable pictures — a modest Mexican woman with hair pulled back in a bun, a ride on the gurney into a stark emergency room at the hospital. No, my scenes involve my parents bursting through a set of double doors, my limp blue body draped across Dad’s arms, them watching in horror as the doctor plunges a knife — or better, a pair of sharp scissors — into my throat. Or my parents watching in awe as my hair springs up in a bouquet of curl all around my head, like an angel’s.

I don’t have such vivid imagery when it comes to the scar on my knee, although being that I got it at the impressionable age of 12, I did manage to fabricate a mythology around that one, too. I developed a crush on the orthopedic surgeon who did the procedure — my parents said he looked like a hippie, which made him all the more intriguing. In my mind, his golden hair flows out from under a light blue surgeon’s cap and he dons a small silver hoop in his ear. I clearly recall him coming to visit me after the operation, carrying the kind of Bell jar used for canning fruit. Inside is my white globular tumor floating in a yellowish brine. I’m surprised it isn’t perfectly round, like a golf ball.

The scar from that procedure resembles a centipede on the inside of my right knee, and once after a real centipede crawled across my leg while I played hide-and-seek in the coat closet, I decided to tell any kid who asked me how I got the scar that it was left there by a centipede that seared itself into my skin. “That’s how centipedes bite,” I told them, “they burn themselves right into you.”

Kids looked at me with respect after that, but my story fell apart once they began asking all the questions that come with the idea of centipede-as-branding-iron. “What happened to the centipede?” “Well, it dried up and fell off,” I said one time, and then another time, “It dissolved right into the skin, see?, you can still see parts of it here.” Soon I became tired of the technicality of it all, I couldn’t keep the story straight and over time I left behind the centipede saga and kept only the image of my long-haired doctor.

My latest epic scar involves two puncture wounds on the outer bridge of my nose, close to my eyes, that our rooster Lindo gave me when he tried blinding me with his spurs. Lindo and I shared a mutual animosity, he was a beautiful cocky bird who had such an intense hatred that the moment he spied me coming out the door he would strut my way with the intent to fight. I took to carrying a bundle of dried bamboo stalks, which I used to whack him as I made my way to whatever part of the yard I needed to go. He’d come after me again and again until my stalks splintered into pieces, at which point I took off at a full out run.

Ultimately he got the better of me, one evening when I let down my guard. I had gone armed only with a bowl of compost into the bird pen. I bent down to throw a piece of lettuce to the bunny who lived there with the roosters, turkeys, and ducks, and Lindo saw his opening. He flew up at my face, spurs aimed at my eyes. He almost got them, too, and I’m not embellishing when I say that I traumatized my youngest daughter when I stood up screaming, blood streaming like tears down my cheeks.

The strange thing is that no one notices the scars unless I point them out. One time, at a luncheon in China, I sat next to a German man who had the exact same two puncture wound scars near his eyes. All through lunch, I wanted to ask if he, too, had been attacked by a rooster. But I barely knew the man. I tried to imagine every other possible reason he might have carried scars identical to mine. Maybe he’d suffered terrible acne that resulted in two pimples near his eyes. Or perhaps as a teen he wore black leather and sported a purple Mohawk and a piece of bone pierced through the bridge of his nose.

In the end, I couldn’t think of a way to broach the subject without embarrassing us both or drawing attention from the six other European men at the table. However, in my mind, I am certain that the very thing that happened to me also happened to him. Anything is possible.


________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Postscript: This essay is based on a 15-minute Writing Practice in response to WRITING TOPIC – SCARS. The details that emerged from my Writing Practice were similar to other times when I’ve done timed writing that led to stories about my tracheotomy (specifically here and here) so I figured it was time to polish the narrative. Plus, since it contains important elements of my life story, especially my earliest years, I wanted to go with the energy, hoping it might turn into something I can weave later into memoir.

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Most people no longer recognize the patch I have in the center of my throat, down where my larynx meets my chest. It is a tracheotomy scar that must be getting lighter the longer I have it. When I was a kid, it was not uncommon for a perfect stranger would approach me in some store where I was buying sunflower seeds or Jolly Rancher apple sticks and ask, What happened there?

I had the tracheotomy at age 18 months after a respiratory virus turned to pneumonia. It was an emergency operation, part of my childhood mythology, the small Mexican doctor with wild hair who stabbed open the hole in my trachea so I wouldn’t die. She had a frantic look in her eye, her hair loose and Bride-of-Frankenstein-like, and she held the sharp instrument up in the air before bringing it down to pierce my throat.

That is the image that came out of those many times I heard my parents tell the story, it was the kind of story they would repeat to relatives and friends, even after we’d heard it for years, and in each telling I would embellish the imagery. Just like when they said that in the oxygen tent in the ICU, where I stayed for days afterward, my hair went from straight to curly, just like that and I can see it happening, in time lapse photography. Like the stocking feet of the Wicked Witch of the West curling and shrinking away under the house after Dorothy removes the ruby slippers, so goes my hair, forming into tiny ringlets all over my head.

It must be natural, I think, for a young kid to turn their childhood stories into morbid scenes, but what strikes me is how much those scenes have stuck with me through the years. I don’t replace them with more reasonable pictures, a modest Mexican woman with hair pulled back in a bun, a ride on the gurney into a stark but clean emergency room at the hospital. No, my scenes involve my parents watching on in horror as they see the doctor plunge the knife into my throat, or watching in awe as my hair springs up in a bouquet of curl all around my head, like an angel’s.

The scar on my knee came at an impressionable age, around 12 years old, and I fabricated a mythology around that one, too. I developed a huge crush on the orthopedic surgeon who did the procedure, my folks said he looked like a hippie, which made him all the more intriguing. Even though this seems unlikely, I clearly recall him coming to visit me after the operation, carrying the kind of Bell jar used for canning fruit, and inside was my white globular tumor floating in a yellowish liquid.

The scar from that procedure resembles a centipede crawling on the inside of my right knee, and once after a real centipede zipped across my leg while I was playing hide-and-seek in the coat closet, I decided to tell any kid who asked me how I got the scar on my knee that it was left there by a centipede that burned itself into my skin. That’s how centipedes bite, I told them, they sear themselves right into you.

Kids looked at me with respect after that, but my story fell apart once they began to ask all the questions that came with the idea of centipede-as-branding-iron. What happened to the centipede itself? It dried up and fell off, I said one time, and then another time, It dissolved right into the skin, see, you can still see parts of it here. Soon I became tired of the technicality of it all, I couldn’t keep the story going and over time I left behind the centipede and kept only the image of my long-haired doctor.

I have two puncture wounds on the outer bridge of my nose, close to my eyes, that our rooster Lindo gave me when he tried blinding me with his spurs. One time, at a luncheon in China, I sat next to a German man who had the exact same two puncture wounds near his eyes. All through lunch, I kept wanting to ask him if he, too, had been attacked by a rooster, but I couldn’t think of a way to broach the subject without coming off sounding like a whacked out American.

Now, in my mind, I am certain that the same thing that happened to me happened to him. Anything is possible.




-Related to Topic post WRITING TOPIC – SCARS and Guest practice, PRACTICE – SCARS – 15min by Louis Robertson

NOTE: Scars is a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Guest writer Louis Robertson was inspired to join QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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Exactly three weeks have passed since the girls (my daughters and my nieces) and I made the journey back from Vietnam. It feels like a dream, those days walking through Saigon and feeling the energy of the city. The beach city of Nha Trang is my new favorite spot, and I’ve been to many wonderful places in the country.

One of the things I noticed about the trip was that I didn’t have much time alone, and yet I was not torn between solitude or not solitude. I relished the hours spent with my family. We traveled together well. We shared a similar sense of adventure.

I would love to share in this blog post a story or two about our trip, but I’m in the middle of writing a print publication essay about exactly that. So I’m at a loss of what to say. Unfortunately, I need to save all my best words for the essay.
 
I can share this screen shot below from the last essay of mine that was published, this in SAGE, a monthly magazine for women that appears as part of the Albuquerque Journal. It came out while we were in Vietnam, which was fun timing since the writing happened to be about one of my previous trips to the country. You might recognize the photo from one of my previous blog posts. It was especially cool that three of my photos got published along with my writing.

The country has become as much a muse for my writing as my art. That’s a recent shift. I wonder, when I sit down and think about it, how many essays about my travels there I have in me. Maybe quite a few.



Let there be Pampering (from SAGE)
Let there be Pampering, by Roma Arellano, screen shot from SAGE, The Albuquerque Journal, July 2010, © 2010 by The Albuquerque Journal.

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By Bob Chrisman



Allen Cemetery on the outskirts of Gower, Missouri serves as the final resting place for my mother’s parents and some of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. Names like Patton, Divelbiss, Pogue, and Williams mark the plots of family members. Every Memorial Day we decorated those graves. As time passed and more relatives took up residence among the tombstones, we didn’t attend to as many of the graves. After my father’s stroke in 1969, which left him bedridden, and my sister’s departure to teach a distance away, we decorated fewer graves because my mother didn’t like to leave my father alone for long.

After my father died in 1984, Aunt Vera, my mother’s younger sister, and her husband, Uncle Howard, joined us for the annual, grave-decorating trip. Neither one of them drove anymore so they gladly came along for the outing and the lunch that followed. I would swing by their house, just up the street a few blocks from where my mother lived, and pick them up.

Uncle Howard had a great sense of humor despite the hardships of his life. He managed to find something funny about most everything. Going to the cemetery provided him with an opportunity and a captive audience. Much to my mother and aunt’s chagrin, my uncle always told me the same story on the way there.

“Bob, did I ever tell you about buying those cemetery plots?”

Although I had heard the story many times in the past, I would say, “No, Uncle Howard. What happened?” With that question he launched into the story.

“Your mom and dad and Vera and I made an appointment with Eldon Lee. You know Eldon Lee, don’t you? He was the funeral director and caretaker of the cemetery. We drove out to Gower one evening. We picked four spaces right in a row. The girls decided that we would be buried boy-girl-boy-girl.

“Eldon Lee put your father’s name down first, then your mom’s, and then he started to write my name. I said, ‘Eldon Lee, hold on. I’m not happy with this arrangement.’ They all looked at me like I’d lost a marble or two, but Eldon Lee put down his pen to hear me out.

“I said, ‘When you die, you lay down for your eternal rest to get some peace, don’t you?’ Eldon Lee nodded his head. ‘Well, how much rest and peace do you think I’d get planted between Lucile and Vera? Not much. I can tell you that right now. You better put the girls together between Len and I so all that chatter between the girls won’t disturb us in our graves.’

“That’s why your mom and Vera have places next to each other.”

He laughed in that mischievous way of his. My mother and Aunt Vera sighed. Aunt Vera said, “Oh, Howard.” No matter how many times I heard the story, I laughed. I could imagine my mother and her sister gossiping in the grave while my father snored on one side and Uncle Howard tossed and turned on the other end.

Uncle Howard had another routine that he started when we pulled up the gravel road into the cemetery. He never failed me in doing this one, which irritated my mother and aunt beyond words. That made it all the funnier because they should have known it was coming, but it always appeared to take them by surprise.

My mother and her sister decided which set of graves we would visit and in what order. My Uncle Howard pointed at new graves we passed.

“Look, Bob, see that one? Hey, you girls, would you pipe down? All your talking drives the ground squirrels away. I’m trying to see how fat they are. Looks like we’ve added lots of new dishes to the graveyard buffet lately.” He laughed.

That stopped the women’s conversation. Aunt Vera usually said, “Howard, that’s no way to talk about the dead.”

“I guess you’re right.” He paused for effect. “But, they’re dead and they don’t care about my little joke.”

Mom said, “Howard, someday you’ll be lying here in the ground and you won’t want someone talking about you like that?”

“You’re right, Lucile, but I’ll be dead and I won’t care. I’m so little and skinny the ground squirrels will be very disappointed when they lift the lid on my coffin. They’ll probably look at one another and say, ‘Ain’t much meat here. Let’s move on.’” Then he’d laugh and I’d join him.


Uncle Howard and Aunt Vera's headstone, photo © 2010 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.




Uncle Howard hit the buffet line in April, 1990. Aunt Vera followed in December, 1993. In February 2008, my mother joined them. My family won’t add any more people because we have scattered all over the country.

On January 1, 2009, I drove up to the cemetery to pay my respects and to remember the stories of my childhood. When I entered the cemetery I found myself looking for the new graves and the ground squirrels. I stood at the graves of my parents and my aunt and uncle. I listened as the cold wind blew through the place. I didn’t hear Mom and Aunt Vera talking. Maybe Uncle Howard’s plan worked. I hope he enjoys his eternal rest in peace.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Bob Chrisman



After my father died in 1984, my mother made semi-annual trips to Southern California to stay with her step-sister-in-law, Aunt Gladys. Uncle Roy had died a couple of years before my dad did. I would fly out to spend some time with them and then accompany my mother home.

During my first visit, Mom and Aunt Gladys announced their desire to decorate Uncle Roy’s grave at the VA cemetery in Westminster, California, near the Pacific Coast. At 90 my aunt had stopped going. “I’m not as quick on the highway anymore. I’ll leave that to you.”

We loaded the car with grass trimmers, scissors, throw rugs, plastic buckets, dishwashing liquid, sponges, old rags, and rolls of paper towels. My aunt directed my driving.

“Take that exit. Now be careful, Bob. A lot of these people aren’t paying attention. Lucile, look. Honey, did you see those mums in front of that grocery store? Weren’t they beautiful? Roy loved mums.”

I moved into the right lane to head back to the store. Aunt Gladys wanted mums. And my mother would want to make Aunt Gladys happy. One right turn, three left turns, and 15 minutes later we pulled up to the store. They climbed out while I parked.

When I caught up with them in the store, they had removed all the pots of deep red mums from the rack and lined them up for inspection. My mother and my aunt handed me the mums they eliminated as possible choices.

“Here, put this back where it belongs.” While I redecorated the mum display, they narrowed the choice down to three.

“Bob, you pick the one you think is the best one.”

I chose, but my choice wasn’t the best one so they bought the one they had already agreed on.

That done, we headed toward the cemetery.


A sign greeted us at the entrance:

The level of the cemetery has been raised by several inches. If you have trouble finding the gravesite of a veteran, please contact the manager located on the property.


We drove to the spot closest to Uncle Roy’s grave. My aunt and my mother tottered across the grass. I, the beast of burden, unloaded the trunk and followed.

“Now, he’s here somewhere. Lucile, you don’t think they’ve moved him, do you? That sign said something…”

“No, Gladys, they only put more dirt on top of him.”

I found the spot. “Here it is.” I dropped all of the grave decorating equipment and took the bucket to get water.

As they spread out the throw rugs, Aunt Gladys said, “Lucile, I don’t remember the grave being this far from the road.”

“Gladys, it’s always been here.” Mom yelled at me. “Don’t fill the bucket too full. We don’t need that much water.”

They had donned their gardening gloves and hats and set to work. They trimmed the grass around the stone. They scrubbed the marker with old rags and dried it with the paper towels.

“Roy and I bought an in-ground vase. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I’ll find it.”

She pulled out a knife with a long slender blade and stabbed the ground like Anthony Perkins slashed at Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Aunt Gladys, please stop.” Mom didn’t say a word. Stab, stab, stab.

“I need to find that vase. It’s buried here. They better not have removed it. We paid good money for it.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Wait. Put the knife down. I’ll go to the office and find out where the vase is.” Stab, stab, stab.

My aunt worked up quite a sweat. “Okay. I’m tired. Why don’t you go to the office. We’ll keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

I ran to the car. I knew they wouldn’t wait long to do whatever they wanted to.

I drove to the office. As I entered the building, the air-conditioning hit me in the face like a block of ice. The hot and humid outside air vanished in a room where you could have hung meat without it spoiling.

A cheery young woman asked, “Hello. May I help you find your loved one?”

I smiled. “My aunt is stabbing her husband’s grave with a knife to find the in-ground vase. To avoid injury to her, can you tell me where the buried vase is located?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Let me speak to the manager.”

She disappeared only to return with a rotund man dressed in a robin’s-egg blue polyester, double-knit suit. The exertion of walking from his office to the desk had turned his face beet red and he mopped his brow with a white handkerchief.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

I asked, “Do you want me to drive?” I wasn’t sure he would fit in the rental car.

“No, I’ll take my car. Suits me better.”

He climbed in a huge car, exactly the same color as his suit and rolled down his window.

“Lead the way.”


When we arrived at the gravesite, I pointed to my aunt and mother busily working.

“That’s them.”

He nodded and waddled off, wiping his head and neck as he went.

When I arrived at the throw rugs, grass trimmings and dirt covered both women. The manager stared at the ground, his jaw agape.

Aunt Gladys said. “Honey, we don’t need him. When we couldn’t find the vase I paid for…” she looked up at the manager. “…we simply dug a little hole and planted the mums on top of Roy.” She looked very happy. They both did, but the manager didn’t.

“You…you can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what, young man?”

“Can’t go around digging holes in the cemetery. It’s…well, it’s grave desecration.” His color had grown much redder. Sweat poured off his face. His handkerchief looked sopping wet. “It’s against the law to dig holes here.”

“If we had been able to find the vase, which, I will remind you again, we paid for, my sister-in-law and I wouldn’t have dug this hole.”

He took out a pocket knife. My aunt grabbed her knife, prepared to fight.

He stepped next to the stone. He jabbed in the ground and dug out some grass.

“Here. Right here.” He stood up with a smug smile on his face.

My aunt ignored him. “Lucile, look. It was right there all the time…under a foot of grass and dirt.”

“Next time, ladies, please don’t dig a hole.” He snapped his knife shut and waddled back to his car.

“I think I’ll report him. Grave desecration? What a bad attitude these young people have.” She extended her hand to me. “Help me up.”

With both of them on their feet, I brushed off their clothes. I gathered everything, wrapped the knife in an old rag and dropped it in the bucket. I packed the stuff in the trunk.

When I went back to help them to the car, I heard my aunt ask, “I think we did a lovely job, don’t you? Roy would be pleased.” My mother agreed.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. Desecration Day is about his Aunt Gladys and his mother. Other pieces about his aunts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

He also wrote a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Teri Blair



Clutter Memorial Monument, photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.





The town of Holcomb has been on my front burner for years. It began when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, built momentum when I read In Cold Blood, and culminated with a road trip to Kansas to see the spot on the map that writer Truman Capote made famous. I was pulled into the 1959 story with everyone else—the lonely farmhouse, the two ex-cons who drove through the night to a place they’d never been, the murdered family. Truman’s stellar writing made me want to see it all—the Clutter Farm, the courthouse where the death sentence was pronounced, and the hotel where Truman stayed while he wrote.

The first time I drove the 850 miles I was a just a sightseer, a tourist. It was a one-time thing. I couldn’t have predicted the story would keep going, that months later I would find some long-lost relatives in Holcomb who had known the Clutters, that I would interview some of the same people Capote had, that I would make the long trip through the relentless wind several times.



Windmills of Kansas, grain elevator towering over Garden City
(seven miles from Holcomb and the site of the trial), Chinese elms
leading to the Clutter farmhouse, and the Clutter farmhouse.
Photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.





Fifty years ago Perry Smith and Richard Hickock drove across Kansas on a false tip that there was a rich farmer who had thousands of dollars hidden in a safe. Their botched robbery turned into carnage. The two were captured six weeks later, tried, convicted, and hung at a federal penitentiary. The crime was horrific, but everyone agrees, the story would have faded in time—if not for Capote. Though life would have been forever altered in Finney County, it would have returned to normal.

But it didn’t work that way. Truman wrote his book, it became a best seller, and he was catapulted to the top of the literary world. Then Hollywood got on board with a string of successful movies based on the book. Because of one author, there has been a constant, unending stream of people like me in Holcomb. Curious. Prying. Asking. Looking. Bringing it up. Over and over and over. When I interviewed Duane West a few years ago (the local lawyer who got the murderers convicted), he asked why people like me don’t think of something else to do. He’s been pestered for so many interviews since 1959 that he won’t talk to anyone unless they make a donation to the Boy Scouts of Finney County.




         

                             

Finney County Courthouse and stairs Capote climbed during the trial to
the courtroom. Photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.





In September, Holcomb dedicated a monument to the Clutters. It’s intent is to honor the four people who died: Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon. They were upstanding, involved members of their community. That’s what the monument focuses on, not what garnished the attention: their brutal deaths described in the book In Cold Blood. It was a solid community step to take the Clutters back from Truman and Hollywood and bring them home to their people.

The last time I was in Kansas, I went to the annual Ground Hog Supper held at the Methodist Church. It was the Clutters’ church, the one where the four-family funeral was held in 1959. I sat in the same Fellowship Hall where the mourners would have eaten their post-burial lunch. The room was packed. Just like in 1959. And the people were the same as then—farmers, insurance salesmen, clerks. I liked them. They reminded me of people I grew up around. And I didn’t want them to be bothered with gawkers like me any longer.



Park sign leading to Clutter Memorial Monument,
photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.





Was Truman right or wrong to tell their story? I loved the book and what it did for American writing. But was it worth the price Holcomb had to pay? Though I won’t pass judgment, one thing is clear: a good writer’s work leaves results. When Capote left New York to set up shop in Kansas, he pulled us in. The pull has lasted five decades. His book kept a wound open. And Truman suffered, too. Researching and publishing In Cold Blood punctuated his dramatic descent into alcoholism.

So for me, for this one writer, I’ve decided to set it down. If I go back to Holcomb someday to visit my cousins, I’ll enjoy the Arkansas River that flows through the town, and I’ll buy a Cherry Limeade because I can’t get them where I live. But that’s it. No more questions.

I’ll just let the people be. It’s time.



Wheatlands Hotel, where Truman Capote stayed,
photo © 2010 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.






About Teri Blair: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey fondly and frequently writes. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the latest post on that group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)

Teri has written many posts on red Ravine, but this current piece is a follow-up and closure of sorts to her first guest post here, Continue Under All Circumstances, which she wrote on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas.

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pig on a scooter

pig on a scooter, pen and marker on graph paper, doodle and
photos © 2009-2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





This is my seventh visit to Vietnam. Seven trips, back and forth across the great expanse. If I added up all the hours spent on just one leg of the trip—San Francisco to Hong Kong and back—it would be 182 hours in the sky. Over one week on just these seven trips.

That’s a lot of time to spend in a vehicle that I liken to an empty toilet paper tube with wings. A lot of time spent sitting, eating, and sleeping in the company of strangers. As someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in such close proximity to people I don’t know who sniffle, snore, and sweat, it is noteworthy, then, that I can muster the mental fortitude to make the slog again and again. The reason I do it, the reason anyone does it, of course, is for what waits on the other side.

My first trip to Vietnam, I wandered the streets of Saigon, lost but unafraid, except perhaps any time I stepped off a curb and into the onslaught of motorbikes, which parted and flowed around me as if I were a boulder in a rushing river. That and my second trip were spent solely in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, which is a sensual feast and assault all at once.

The roads are clogged with motor scooters, and not just one person per scooter but entire families and small businesses transported on two small tires. There are rickshaws, bicycles, small cars, SUVs, tourist vans with sleeping Japanese or Koreans, and the ubiquitous container trucks, what we call semis, reminding us that this place is being rebuilt before our very eyes.

But traffic and congestion you can see in any big city in the world, and Saigon holds not a candle to many of the largest. Still, where else can you witness the harmony of millions of people and their wheels in synchronous motion, as if this is something they’ve practiced all their lives—driving motorbikes loaded down with baskets, glass panes, multigenerational families, televisions—and are now performing in the symphony of daily life.

There is a Zen quality to the way traffic flows in Vietnam. School girls dressed in white Áo Dàis, the traditional attire for women, stroll in pairs down a busy thoroughfare, impervious to the crazy tourist vans and containers that roar by, spewing their black exhaust. I peer at the chatting girls with both fear and admiration. How do they manage to stay so calm when I am reciting Hail Mary’s and praying that I will return home in one piece?

As I have traveled from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, through the center part of the country in Da Nang and Hoi An, then north to Hanoi and Halong Bay, I’ve seen more than I can ever recall. A naked man walking along the cement divider on a narrow and packed two-lane highway. Cows grazing in the grassy medium. Women bent harvesting rice. Raised graves that look like small cottages. Buddhist statues as tall as skyscrapers.

On my morning commute to work, colleagues on the shuttle bus doze off or talk to one another. Not me. I keep my eyes glued to the passing scenery. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen a bus pass so close that I could touch it or the tangle of rivers we seem to always cross, or the row of shops that sell marble statues in the likeness of any spiritual figure—Buddhas, goddesses, Jesus and Mary—I am still drawn in as if seeing it all for the first time.

On my last trip I went in a minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. I’m now accustomed to seeing animals transported on the backs of scooters. Chickens in cages or ducks with their bills and legs tied with twine for the trip. But I had never seen an adult pig, five or six hundred pounds of pink jello-y flesh, roped onto a motorbike. As the young man carrying the pig passed our van and I stared with mouth open, he seemed nonchalant, so at ease bumping along the dirt road with his jiggling sow in tow.

There is no way, really, to describe how exotic, how absolutely delectable Vietnam is to my senses. Roads are torn up, rice paddy fields relocated, new business parks and high rises rise overnight. It is a country in transition, moving to claim its place among economic powerhouses. I am in the midst of it, working with government, industry, and education to prepare for what is to come.

On one of my early trips, I walked with two Vietnamese colleagues down an alley near the coffee house where we’d just been. I looked up at the tangle of communications and electrical cables, signs of growth unplanned. Before us motorbikes surged six rows thick, mixed with taxis, cars, and bicycles. I turned to my friend and said, “I hope Vietnam never changes. I hope I can always see this,” and I motioned with my hand at the chaos before us. She looked me in the eye and said, “Ah, Roma, I hope very much that my country does change. I hope we someday have roads to fit the cars, safe roads and infrastructure for all the people who live here.”

It was then that I realized how unfair of me it was to want Vietnam to remain the same, as if it were a curiosity put here for my own pleasure. The people of any country should be able to determine their own destiny. And especially Vietnam, ravaged by war and poverty, a legacy of imperialism.

I’ve come around to embracing the change that is inevitable. These days I simply observe everything I can, take it in as if I were a recorder. Ten years from now, I vow to come back and see how different it is.



stop light (ho chi minh city) waiting to cross (ho chi minh city)
sharing the road (ho chi minh city) in transition (ho chi minh city)
going for a ride (ho chi minh city)

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By Lita Sandoval


Let’s just say that 2009 has not been my best year. I was laid off from my job in January. I accepted a position for another job soon after I was laid off and it turned out to be a terrible situation. I quit within three months. To add to the stress of finding a job, I got kidney stones twice, caught two teenage girls trying to steal my car from the driveway, and even had my garbage can stolen!

I am fortunate I have a temporary part-time job, which basically has saved my life. I make just enough money to pay bills and only have enough left over for a few extras. I’ve been thinking about how I am going to afford Christmas gifts for my family. I cut my list way back to gifts for immediate family only. My daughter also wants to give gifts to her friends—six of them.

I decided that I would make gifts for everyone. And I wanted my daughter to make gifts for her friends, too. Together we made jewelry for her friends. It was fun spending time together picking out beads and deciding which friends would like certain beads and colors. The whole idea of making gifts together was definitely cost effective, but what came out of that experience was a great bonding opportunity. It was also fun watching my daughter’s creativity explode. We can now check six people off the Christmas list!

My father helped me to decide on very special gifts I will be making for my sister, niece, and daughter. My father is always heavy on my mind during the holidays. He passed away seven years ago. The man was a fabulous cook. Family and friends still salivate when they talk about his amazing marinated steaks or his incredible paella. I thought it would be cool to gather all of his recipes, re-type them, put them in a beautiful box and give them to my sister, niece, and daughter for Christmas.

It has been an incredible experience going through those recipes! It was like going back through a time machine. I can look at a recipe and associate a special occasion with the meal my dad prepared. On many of his recipe cards, he wrote little notes that made me remember his wicked sense of humor. He named dishes after himself or altered the name of something that would incorporate his name.

Some of his notes were just cool, like the one on his paella recipe. He named it Paella Al Al. My dad’s name was Al and if you speak Spanish, you get the humor in the title. At the bottom of the recipe card it says:

Recipe from a restaurant at La Carihuela – a fishing village on the Mediterranean outside Torremolinos. 1984


While going through the recipes, I found one of my favorites: my dad’s Tequila Shrimp. I had never attempted to make this particular dish. I decided I would make the Tequila Shrimp and take it to a party I was invited to.

I used to love going to the grocery store with my dad and helping him find just the right ingredients for his meals. Going to the store and picking out ingredients for the shrimp dish with my dad’s very particular eye was important. I was excited to put it all together. I took out the special cazuela my dad gave me and took care to make sure the tequila shrimp not only tasted good, but looked good. I think I succeeded.

I hope my sister, niece, and daughter will think of my dad when they try out one of his famous dishes. It really is a wonderful legacy that he has left all of us. What better way is there to connect with family and friends than to sit around a table with a wonderful meal? And because I saw that my mom had her own little box of recipes, I’ve decided I must put hers in with my dad’s. Most of her best recipes aren’t written down, so we made a date to sit down and write them all out.

Needless to say, my stress of holiday gift giving has gone by the wayside. Jewelry has been made, recipes have been written out and precious time has been spent being with, thinking of and enjoying time with family. It seems as though my year has ended so much better than it started out.





Dad Grilling, photo of Al Sandoval (Lita’s father) grilling
steaks at home circa 1966, photo © 1966-2009
by Olga Sandoval. All rights reserved.







Tequila Shrimp

  • 2 lbs. cooked shrimp
  • 2 oz. Tequila
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 3 garlic cloves crushed
  • 1 bay leaf broken up
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • Dash black pepper
  • Garlic salt to taste

Mix well and add to shrimp. Coat well. Add:

  • 1 lemon and 1 lime thin sliced
  • 4 pearl onions thin sliced
  • 1 cup black olives sliced
  • 2 Tbs. chopped pimiento
  • 2 roasted, peeled, chopped green chilies

Marinade in refrigerator for at least three hours.






Lita Sandoval is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a local blogger (currently on hiatus) known as Adelita—she made the top five “Best Bloggers” in Albuquerque the Magazine’s Best of City 2009, and for the past two years she’s been in the top three bloggers in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque—who writes about the funky hometown she affectionately calls “Burque” (pronounced boor-keh, extra roll on the “r”). She’s also a jewelry artist (check out her work at her Etsy shop, although she warns that she hasn’t had time to add much to it lately but will in the new year) and collector of many unusual things. Her teenage daughter keeps her on her toes, as do her rowdy dogs, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Etta James. Her favorite saying is, “Oh sí liar!”

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By Charis Fleming

 



I watch from across the room as the tow headed boy climbs into her lap and snuggles next to her chest. Absentmindedly she reaches into her blouse to loosen a bulging breast, the liquid already spilling from the nipple onto the back of her hand. He quickly latches on and suckles and grins as he gulps down his nourishment, already a boy in love with a boob.

She wipes the back of her hand and inner wrist against the cotton T-shirt and turns the page on her Parenting magazine. I supposed I nursed her as casually once upon a time, but I can’t quite remember the joy I know I must have felt each time she came to me for sustenance. My current feeling of neglect crowds out that piece of history.

I do remember gazing into her cherubic face as she pigged out for the first 14 months of her life, the last couple of months of which I spent wincing each time she utilized my elongated nipples as teething toys. She’s all grown up now and doesn’t need me for anything anymore.

When she was just a toddler she’d stand between me and her daddy, her little head halfway up my thigh, her arms pushing against me and him, the strength of her need to be center stage forcing us to step back from each other and notice her presence there between us as we tried to embrace. She never tired to separate him from his second wife and often boasted of her step-parents as being wonderful additions to her resources for learning life lessons. I felt inferior next to the perfect step-mother.

Now, 35 years later, I gaze at the duo, daughter and grandson, and I want more than anything to tell them both how left out I am feeling. I want them to know if it wasn’t for me, neither of them would exist as they are. I wanted to claim all the credit for her intelligence, poise, grace and beauty. I wanted her to recall the carefully selected man I’d married whose genetics mixed so well with my own that she could not have avoided becoming a magnificent being if she had tired to in some way. I wish her father could have survived his bout with pancreatic cancer to see the beautiful boy named in his honor.

I wanted to scream at her to pay attention to every minute detail unfolding before her. My head longed to urge her to enjoy the sensations her body was experiencing, to wallow in the amazing act of producing milk and then feeding a child, giving a little human life then sustaining that life with nothing but her body as the sustenance manufacturing facility. How could she take these precious moments so nonchalantly? I watched as the fine dining of baby at the breast continued. I wanted to tell them both I was still in the room, beg them to find a way to include me at feeding time.

The boy, sated and re-energized climbs down from her lap while she fumbles to latch the nursing bra. He crawls a beeline to my feet, raises his body against my shin and beams me a special smile as I pick him up and snuggle my face into the fresh milk smell of a perfect baby’s neck.

“Hey, Rat-boy,” my daughter chides, “I do all the work and Grandma gets all the lovin’? What about this old cow over here? I’m sacrificing mammary perkiness here and you scoot over to hang with Grandma? Thanks a lot, ingrate!” I feel her eyes lock on mine as we both cling tightly to the vast well of love we want to claim from this child.

Perfect off-spring of my perfect off-spring. Her green eyes subtly smile into my hazel orbs causing my face to split wide with a loving grin. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
 





_______________________________________________________________________________________

Charis Fleming received honorable mention in the Out of The Blue Films, Inc. ENVY Contest at red Ravine for her untitled essay.


Congratulations, Charis, from Out of The Blue Films, Inc. and red Ravine!




__________________________________________________________________________________________

red Ravine is not liable for any actions by Out of The Blue Films, Inc., nor the Film. red Ravine has no legal responsibility for any outcomes from the contest.

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By Barbara Rick

 
 
Envy*, THE DOCUMENTARY (the movie you wish you made)

 
 
 
We at Out of The Blue Films, Inc. want to spread our appreciation around, nice and thick, for ALL those who have in some way contributed to The Out of The Blue Films ENVY Contest at red Ravine. Whether you sent in work, considered it, or even just envied the idea from afar (you know who you are), thank you!!

To you who scraped your souls and held a magnifying glass up to your hidden agendas—brava!
 
We received inspired works of fiction, essays, haiku, poetry, drawings, photographs—even a comic sketch script that we think would make a really funny short film—from writers and artists around the world.

We are all 21st century pioneers in the wild west of social networking, in particular, using technology to not only create a conversation about new work but to help create the work itself! This is the hot topic at the flurry of film panels I’ve been attending the past couple of weeks up at The Toronto International Film Festival, here in NYC at Independent Film Week, and at pre-launch parties and screenings at the venerable New York Film Festival.

Michael Moore was even talking about it onstage a few nights ago at Lincoln Center in a Q&A following his new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. No ENVY on my part, by the way, nosiree. (Me: lying like rug.)
 
 
 
 

∞ ∞ ∞

 
 
 
And, now, the winner:
 
Jill L. Ferguson of San Carlos, California for her poem/prose Like Paul, a painterly snapshot of the disastrous effects of ENVY on a young and talented violinist. Jill receives 1st Prize in The Out of The Blue Films, Inc. ENVY Contest at red Ravine: an Amazon Kindle.
 
We fell in love with this line:
 

He held and released each tone picturing it hover like a bird in flight, closing his eyes into the sound.

 
You can find out more about Jill at her website and review books she has authored and co-authored at this Amazon link.

On Thursday, October 2, red Ravine will post Like Paul in its entirety, so please come back and read this winning entry.
 
 
 
 

∞ ∞ ∞

 
 
 
 
Our judges found much to love in all the entries; it was tough to narrow it down to a single winner.

We also wanted to include excerpts from a few honorable mentions:
 
 
 
Charis Fleming’s searing essay on a mother’s flash of ENVY at her breast-feeding adult daughter and grandchild.

I gaze at the duo, daughter and grandson, and I want more than anything to tell them both how left out I am feeling. I want them to know if it wasn’t for me, neither of them would exist as they are.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
Eileen Malone’s poem Beloved Rival.

on and on we went, an abbreviation
of small black-winged envies
drunkenly sucking each other’s blood

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
By a fourth writer, who wishes to remain Anonymous, a short story about WWEM or the Woman Who Envies Me.

The woman in question is a known screenwriter and actor, a mother, a wife, the author of two successful books, a person of financial means and connections, and enjoys excellent health. Except for her ENVY. The beauty of this story, the lesson for me, lies in its mystery. It is quite clear that she envies me desperately (the symptoms are all there; I recognize them from my own inner life). If I could find her in a moment of quiescent spirit, I could try to ask her why. There is no doubt in my mind that the answer would educate me deeply. No doubt whatsoever.

 





Last but not least, Patricia Anders in Calabasas, California submitted an evocative drawing depicting ENVY.

This and each of the honorable mentions will be published wholly in separate posts next week.



∞ ∞ ∞





Please work with us at Out of The Blue Films, Inc. to broaden and deepen the connection seeded here on red Ravine.

Here are three things you can do to keep the conversation growing:

  1. “Fan” us at facebook.com/Outofthebluefilms and tinyurl.com/ENVYonfacebook and tell us how you’d like to get involved with Team ENVY.
  2. Follow us and bring your friends (!) to our pages on twitter: ENVYthedoc, brickdoc, OuttaTheBlu.
  3. Meet us at our new blog.envydoc.com.


There, and here at red Ravine, we’ll discuss some of the ways we might use some of the entries in the film, flash you glimpses of the film and our creative process, behind-the-scenes action (and procrastination), funding dramas and successes, as we march ever forward in the making of this multi-disciplinary mega-platform documentary film project which will tell the true story of ENVY. Asking you for input, ideas, and to share in the exhilaration of it, all along the way.

Thank you to ybonesy and QuoinMonkey for an amazing experiment in creative collaboration! Remember to check back later this week to see the full winning entry, and next week for the honorable mentions.

Gratitude to all!

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________________________

red Ravine is not liable for any actions by Out of The Blue Films, Inc., nor the Film. red Ravine has no legal responsibility for any outcomes from the contest.

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Me, By Pham Luc, portrait of Roma, 26×36 inches, August 2009, image
© 2009 by Pham Luc, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
In a small travel agency that sits just around the corner from the Hanoi Cathedral, I wait as the owner, Tony Pham, fills out paperwork for my weekend tour. It is hot, unbearably hot in August in Hanoi, and in spite of the fan, I mop sweat from my neck.
 
On the wall behind Tony I see a painting of a red horse against a black background. It’s a small painting but it stands out. The horse wears a cinch around its barrel chest and sloping neck. It is regal, a dancing, prancing stallion.
 
“Who painted the horse,” I want to know.

Tony looks up from his papers. “Ah, he is a famous painter, mentor to my painting teacher.”

“You paint?” I interrupt.

“No, not really.”
 
He brushes off my question and points to the artist’s several other paintings hanging in the office. They are bold. Thick black lines contrast with deep, sometimes bright colors. Each piece moves with energy.

Tony tells me he has many more paintings in his home, that he’ll take me to meet the artist.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” he says.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” I repeat, and as I walk through the crowded streets back to my hotel, it dawns on me that Tony is an artist living as a businessman. No wonder his tours are so beautiful and magical.
 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
Pham Luc’s home is built in the typical Vietnamese style. Narrow and tall, like a shoebox turned on its end. The bottom floor is a one-car garage, then three floors of living space above. It is the first Vietnamese home I’ve been in that hasn’t been converted to a restaurant or shop. I have a feeling it’s a lot nicer than most Vietnamese homes, yet it’s also simple. Some furniture and a lot of art. Besides the bed and sitting area, plus a kitchen and bathroom, the rest of the house, it seems, is dedicated to Pham Luc’s paintings. Making them and storing them.
 
Pham Luc is having tea when we arrive. He is a compact man, not so much small as solid, as if he is accustomed to physical labor. His hair is black-black, just a hint of gray at the temples, and he has thick eyebrows and a thick mustache that seem to go together. I have no idea how old he is. Later, when asked to guess, I put him at about 55. I am way off.

A Vietnamese collector of his works is also there, drinking tea with Pham Luc. After introductions, Tony and I walk up the two flights of stairs to rooms filled with paintings. One small room holds nothing but works on framed canvas. Tony flips through them, occasionally pulling out ones he especially admires. A young Vietnamese woman who speaks no English appears at the door. She helps Tony move the paintings around so we can get a better look.

Another room is filled with even bigger pieces, some almost as tall and wide as the walls themselves. These are painted with lacquer on black board. They seem massive and wet, as if dripping still with layers of gold and red and black.

We spend a good amount of time upstairs, looking at the paintings, talking about themes. Pham Luc paints rural scenes, festivals, women and babies, old women, nudes reclining. There is no air-conditioning and by now I am sweating so much that I have used up the tissues I brought with me. Pham Luc’s assistant notices that my face and neck are wet; she leaves and returns with a napkin. Her skin is dry. The Vietnamese, I have concluded, do not sweat.
 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
I could have spent a century in those rooms, looking from one painting to the next, trying to see how they change. If not for the heat, I could have spent forever trying to guess what his emotional state was when he went from yellows, pinks, and lime greens (elated) to browns and grays and navy blue (depressed).

I gather that he paints his moods, that, yes, he has a fundamental style (in fact, the book he gave me of pieces spanning three decades of his work shows as much) but that nothing about him is static.
 
We drink green tea, strong and bitter, and I try to keep up with the men, as if the tea were bourbon. Pham Luc mentions that he does not drink beer, and I get the feeling that it was a decision he was forced to make—beer or art?, art or beer?—at some point in his career.

But hot tea comes in pot-fulls, brought out by the assistant who doesn’t sweat, always in the same small teapot that looks like it’s made of jade.
 
Somewhere along the line, Pham Luc tells me he would like to paint me. Tony translates: “He wants to paint you and give you the painting to take home.” A small photo album is produced, and in it I see images of beaming Westerners standing next to their Pham Luc portraits. It is something he sometimes does, I later learn from watching a CD he sends home with me, in order to delight his visitors.

I’m game. (Isn’t it game, after all, that got me here?) I stay where I’m sitting, still dressed in the black blouse and white linen slacks that I wore to my day’s appointments. I look away from Tony and the collector, towards a flat screen TV and more paintings leaning against walls. The assistant comes in with paints and a large canvas stapled to a wooden easel, which Pham Luc props against a chair. He squats in front of the canvas, paints by his side, and he works quietly and quickly.

I don’t look at what he’s doing, partly for the same reason I hate looking at photos of myself and partly to not break the pose. Every now and then I turn to Tony and the collector so that I can ask them questions. They speak in Vietnamese, but Tony translates.

I learn that there is a Pham Luc Collectors Club, that some collectors have thousands of Pham Luc paintings, that his works are owned by ambassadors and dignitaries and people all over the world, and that he has had exhibitions in France, Italy, The Netherlands, Canada. They tell me he will come to Boston in 2010 and, maybe could I go?

If I stay facing Tony and the collector too long, Pham Luc asks me to turn my head back the other way.
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
My lips are fuller, cheekbones higher. I look French. I look beautiful, and it makes me feel beautiful to know he saw that in me. And for that I immediately love this compact man with the black mustache, and I love Vietnam even more than before, the North especially—erudite, intellectual, lovers of art.

He completed the painting in maybe 30 minutes, although now I can’t be sure. Looking back, time passed and I lost track of time. For example, I have no recollection of him smoking, although I have a photo of his pack of Camel cigarettes, the words SMOKING KILLS in block letters on the front. He must have lit up while I was there, I am sure of it, but I don’t recall being bothered by the smoke.

I do remember that after he finished the portrait and turned the canvas for us to see, we let out a collective gasp. Then Pham Luc walked to us, pointing to his arms and gesturing excitedly. The hair on his forearms stood on end; confused, I looked to Tony for translation.

“It’s good, it’s good,” Tony assured me, “it means the painting is great.”

For the moment, Pham Luc is pure energy.
 
Later, when I ask Tony in the taxi why Pham Luc would give me a painting, even after I pleaded to purchase it instead, he says it is because of the gift that I gave to Pham Luc. “He knows that now, after his visitors are gone, he will be able to paint.”
 
 
 

Pham Luc paints at night, during daytime, when awake at night, or even if he has just recovered between sicknesses and can sit up. The motivation behind his creation is like a karma, a curse of fate. If he can’t paint he will get sick and will be like a flu-infested chicken. Many times I saw him grubby in a mess of colors and lacquer as if haunted.
 
                    ~Dr. Nguyen Si Dung, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
It takes an hour, maybe two, for the painting to dry. We continue to sit and talk. At one point I look across to Pham Luc; he is holding a large white envelope close to his face, sketching a doodle of me. When he is done, he shows it to me. Another gift to take home. 

Later still, he walks over to a dresser and picks up a small piece of art done in lacquer on wood. I admire it, hand it back, and then Tony translates. “No, it’s for you.”

Then Pham Luc goes and gets two more and asks me to choose from among the three. They are nudes done in simple black lines on gold leaf. I like them all, but Tony and the collector have a strong opinion that I take one in particular, so I choose it.
 
We talk, drink more tea. Pham Luc gets up and again rummages around the room, notices behind one of the larger paintings a small, colorful portrait of himself on canvas. In the painting, he wears no shirt and holds a cigarette between his fingers. Again, he hands me the painting. A gift.

“Please,” I tell him, “please, it’s too much.”

He says something in Vietnamese, which Tony translates. “You are my friend, and I am his friend, so now you are his friend.”
 
I glance at the beautiful Roma on the large canvas that is still drying, and I marvel at my luck. Yes, luck! Karma, good fortune, call it whatever you want, but here I am sitting, talking, laughing, drinking tea, being painted, being feted with generosity and brilliance. I am a small thing basking in the light of a huge thing. Someone ordinary touched by someone extraordinary.
 
 
 

I am disabled but crazy about Pham Luc’s paintings. Many Vietnamese and foreign friends coming to my home to see my collection were amazed at the creations of Pham Luc. Many asked me why I collected so many paintings. I replied, “Each painting is a support for me to overcome handicap and integrate into life. His paintings give me confidence in life and aspiration to rise up. In my difficult times and in pain, I come to his paintings to seek consolation, sympathy and often find in them peace amidst the storms of life.”
 
                    ~Ngo Quang Tuan, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
Pham Luc was born in 1943 in the village of Hue. He was a soldier and painter in Vietnam’s People’s Army, documenting the scenes he saw. From the books and brochures I have about him, I understand he became a major in the army, but always he was a painter. He told me that the reason he is not married—he’s been divorced twice—is that his wives did not understand his need to constantly paint.
 
There is a painting upstairs in one of the rooms, of a woman with a rifle, behind her a water buffalo. The colors are muted but the overall effect is of activism. Pham Luc painted the piece in 1986, and Tony and I found it behind other, more recent works. Before I leave Pham Luc’s home, I ask the assistant to bring it down so that I might look at it again. There are many beautiful paintings here, but always my eyes go back to the woman with the rifle.

I buy the painting from Pham Luc. For a song.
 
 
 

He doesn’t need money. He spends all his money on charities, his children, and buying gold, silver, lacquer and colors. So what does he need? To build his fame? May be, but may be not. In fact, he is already very famous. Many people know him and admire him. Ambassadors in Hanoi buy his paintings and make friends with him. So the answer to his efforts lies in his passion. Because he can’t do otherwise.
 
                     ~Dr. Nguyen Si Dung, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 

Sòn d âù, (I hope that spelling is correct), 32×24 inches, 1986, image © 1986-2009
by Pham Luc, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
I am deeply grateful to Tony Pham and to Pham Luc. The three hours I spent with the two of them that day in early August are among the best memories I have of Vietnam, of travel abroad, and of life experiences, period. In Tony, I found a kindred spirit, an artist inside his heart, and someone whose love of art infuses his daily work. In Pham Luc, I found kindness, happiness, and what it means to give of oneself.
 
 
 

He was born in a poor countryside in a deprived village in the Central region of Vietnam and used to be a soldier fighting in the wars. He lives and paints with qualities of a farmer and Uncle Ho soldier. These qualities have become his humane belongings. No wonder many people sympathize with, love, and are crazy for his art. He is so happy!
 
                    ~An Chuong, from Painter Fạm Lực

 
 
 
 

* * *

 
 
 
 

GALLERY 

 
These are works that I photographed during my visit. They are my favorites among the many that I saw that day. I do not have names, dates, nor sizes for any of the paintings. They all appear to be oil on canvas, and almost all of them are fairly large. They are reprinted here with the artist’s permission.

 
 
 
 
     
 
 
                                     
 
 
   
 
 
                                                           


                    


                            
 
 
 

LINKS




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Howling Reporter newsletter, Memorial to Raven, image reprinted with permission from Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo of Raven © 2009 by Jan Ravenwolf, all rights reserved

Raven, Howling Reporter (Summer 2009), image reprinted with permission from Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo © 2009 by Jan Ravenwolf. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
There on the cover of the new issue of the Howling Reporter was a giant close-up of Raven, his muzzle tinged with silver, eyes piercing, posture regal. My eyes drifted down to the right-hand corner, RAVEN 04-04-95 – 04-12-09, and I called to Jim. “Oh no! Raven died.”
 
We have Ms. Kimball to thank for the fact that we got to known Raven. Dee’s 4th grade teacher assigned her students and their families to take a field trip somewhere they’d never been in New Mexico. We picked the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, west of Albuquerque, through the Navajo village of Ramah and down a long gravel road, in the isolated mountain community of Candy Kitchen.

It was a Friday in January, 2006. We stopped for breakfast at a mission-turned-art-gallery in Grants, then hit the Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave in the Zuni Mountains. We marvelled over Inscription Rock—at the El Morro National Monument—where travelers have been leaving writings in the soft sandstone for centuries. But the best treat of all was seeing the wolves.

We arrived late in the day, and as we scrambled out of the Subaru into the winter air we heard a chorus of howls coming from what seemed like all directions. Thrilled by the eerie wailing, we rushed the front door of the hogan that housed the visitor information and gift shop.

Next tour was at 4p. We wandered the warm cave-like space, letting the girls each pick out one item. Dee chose a small pouch of wolf hair, Em a frog fetish.

A young woman named Angel was our guide. We were the only people on the tour. We started with the oldest wolves, in the earliest enclosures, the ones that went in when the sanctuary was young and could afford only to set aside small areas for the wolves. Over time, as the sanctuary grew the enclosures began to encompass the natural surroundings. Raven’s area was expansive and incorporated trees, brush, and rocks that were already in the spot where the enclosure was built.

Angel told us how each animal was characterized by how much wolf content it contained. Some were pure wolf; high-content wolf-dogs were mostly wolf and low-content wolf-dogs mostly dog. We even met a pure dog that a previous owner had mistakenly identified as a wolf-dog and abandoned. Raven was a black Timber wolf, ebony in his youth but increasingly silver around his face as he aged.

A lanky man with disheveled brown hair, I think his name was Ian, joined us as we admired Raven. Raven was imposing yet friendly; he came to the fence to see us. “Want to howl with Raven,” Ian asked. “Yes, yes,” we chimed. “OK, on the count of three.” Ian started howling, then Raven, then we joined in, the steam from our breath rising like smoke above us.

Ian asked if Jim wanted to formally greet Raven. “Sure,” Jim said. Ian walked along the fence line with the black wolf, so closely that Raven’s fur touched Ian’s leg and hand and vice versa. “See, we’re rubbing fur,” he told Jim, “You try it.”

Jim walked to the fence and stood waiting. Raven, understanding what was happening, walked to Jim and rubbed his fur along Jim’s leg, then circled back and did it again. “Cool.” Jim was grinning when he turned in our direction.

We left the sanctuary reluctantly, as the light was leaving the day. Driving home in darkness, we said hardly a word. Raven, the other wolves, the entire field trip left us full and content. 

 

Raven and Sanctuary Director Leyton Cougar, image reprinted with permission from Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo © 2009 by Phil Sonier, all rights reservedThe next day, Saturday, Jim went to Western Warehouse to buy a new pair of work boots. He saw a crowd near the entrance to the Sunflower Market next door. As he approached he suddenly noticed a big black wolf on a lead, straining through the crowd in his direction. People moved aside to let the wolf stare, like a pointing spaniel, at the thing grabbing its attention. Raven, recognizing Jim’s scent from the day before, wanted to say Hello.
 
“Raven’s at the Sunflower. Hurry, they’re leaving soon.” It was Jim, calling on the cell phone. Em and I arrived just as Raven’s handler and director of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Leyton Cougar, was loading Raven into a white van. We pulled up next to the van and jumped out of the car, explaining that we’d met the wolf almost exactly 24 hours before. Leyton let us pet Raven while he finished loading the van. Raven licked Em’s face.

We saw Raven a few other times during his ambassador trips to Albuquerque. The last time I saw him was at Whole Foods. By then he had retired from big engagements. Someone said that he’d become sensitive to loud noise and crowds. I came back to the house gushing in dreamy tones about Raven. He had the power to make you fall in love every time you saw him.

We all cried as we read Leyton’s tribute to Raven in the Howling Reporter. Angel also wrote a moving piece, as did others who had the honor to live and work with this amazing creature. We learned that Raven came within days of being euthanized at the age of two, after his owner suffered a heart attack and couldn’t pay the cost to transport Raven to the sanctuary. A visitor to Candy Kitchen, hearing the plight of a wolf that would be put down if someone didn’t intervene, wrote a check for her last $400. Because of her, Raven was able to live twelve more years and teach young and old about the true nature of wolves.

Jim and I will make a donation to the sanctuary in Raven’s memory. We hope you’ll learn as much as possible about this incredible place and consider visiting it some day if you ever get a chance.
 
 
 
 

Raven, image reprinted from website with permission from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo © 2009 by Angie Albrecht, all rights reserved

 


He was almost two years old when we met. He had midnight black fur with silver tips and a white flash on his chest. His presence was commanding. His eyes, like amber fire, reflected his energetic, electric personality.

I will never forget our first encounter and the shiver of fear that ripped through my body as he grabbed me by my right arm—the same arm that just three years prior, had been ripped open by an angry wolf-dog, who put me in the hospital for eleven days.

Raven didn’t hurt me that first day. He gave me something…or perhaps he flipped a switch inside of me. Whatever it was, it began something beautiful, a unique relationship between a man and a beast. Raven was born an ambassador for the wolf world. He was the go-between, sent to teach humans the truth about wolves. He dispelled the myth that wolves are the big bad beast that will run amuck and eat your children. They are family oriented social creatures who love and respect each member of their pack. He told the world that wolves are not a threat to man and are a necessary, intrinsic and intricate part of nature and our ecosystem.

~Leyton Cougar, Director of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, excerpted from the Howling Reporter newsletter, with permission




Raven & Leyton's Last Day, image reprinted with permission from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo © 2009 by Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, all rights reserved

Raven & Leyton’s Last Day, image reprinted with
permission from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, photo
© 2009 by Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. All rights reserved.





To read the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary memorial to Raven, click here. To meet the sanctuary’s wolves, click here, and here to meet the wolf-dogs. If you’re interested in making a donation in support of wolf rescue and care, please click here.

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