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Liz Shoots the April Moon

Liz Shoots The April Moon, Minneapolis at night, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 2012, photo © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


It’s hard to get back into the practice of writing for red Ravine after two months away. Where have I been? The business of life. And love. Art and passion. Mr. Stripeypants was sick for a time, a bug he contracted during surgery. He’s fine now. I was sick for three weeks, then it was time for Art-A-Whirl. Liz and I spent hours in Casket Arts Studio 318, talking art and writing and authors. Explaining panoramas on brushed metal and the latest installment in the Writers Hands Series. After Art-A-Whirl, I am so energized by the people that stop by that I want to spend every waking moment in my studio.

My mother went to Georgia without me this year. I missed traveling with her; she continues to research the family tree. I take it up, too, in my spare time. I will never lose my passion for history — the people, places, and things that lived before us. While I was away, the seasons changed. Quickly and without apology. What would normally be Spring has bloomed as Summer. We lost a few limbs on the two cedars in an ice storm. An arborist is coming to give the oaks and cedars a trim on Monday.

Where have I been? I went to see Anne Lamott at a bookstore. And Leslie Marmon Silko at the downtown library. I photographed the clouds with my Droid. I stood on a bridge and shot the Moon with Liz. We are working on a business together. It’s slow and steady, like the Turtle I am. I am working on the project plan. Liz digs into business details. We will meet with a designer soon to begin work on our website. More to come.

I can say I missed you. I did. When I come back to this place, it is like coming home. I have a guest piece coming up soon. And a new Writing Topic. While I was away, red Ravine turned five. Five years and a million hits. I didn’t know when I started writing and posting my art here that years would fly by. That I would be exposed for the gaps in my practice. One year, I took a photograph every single day. Another, I wrote Writing Practices all day long. One year, there was a haiku a day. In 2012, I take time to breathe. And expand within my own absence. I have not lost my gratitude for you. There is no way to explain where the time goes. I always come back to the things Natalie taught me. Continue. Continue. Continue. Get up. Jump back in.



-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, May 31st, 2012

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The gift of time. Rocking in a white porch chair, drinking Stash Fusion Green & White tea. My stomach is full on residual Thanksgiving, a small feast for two (plus two cats). I am grateful for those who checked in on red Ravine while I took a break. It started as a short week away from the Internet, and turned into boots on the ground living—time for Liz, for my brother’s visit to Minnesota, for Mr. StripeyPants and Kiev. I checked in with my family on Facebook once in a while, but rarely fired up the laptop during the week. It was refreshing to take time to think, to sit, to be.


Unconnected.


I stopped all my practices for a month, including red Ravine. Since 2001, I have done at least two yearly practices, one writing, one visual, each beginning in January and ending in December. Writing practice, haiku, haiga, renga, BlackBerry 365, the Great Round mandala series; I stayed true to them. I honored them. This year it felt like all I was doing was trying to keep up with the many practices I had taken on, my agreements to others, my commitment to myself to keep going for a full year. I made it January through September. It was freeing to choose to take a break rather than force myself to continue.

But I miss this place, this creative space. Something I learned when I stopped doing my practices was that a part of me went into hiding. I am not happy when I am not taking photographs, writing, painting or drawing. Last night Liz and I watched A Very Gaga Thanksgiving. Lady opened up in a short interview. She said her song, “Marry The Night” was about the moment she made a choice to give her all to music. Right or wrong, up or down, her first relationship would be with the music; she would be true to herself.  It is another form of befriending the Black Dog, the dark shadowy side that comes with deep exploration of your writing or art.

When I listened to her, I knew she was right. It takes great sacrifice to marry the night. And part of the ritual is to know when you need a break. Near the end of the silent workshops with Natalie in Taos, there is a short meeting with her in the round. We sign up on a sheet of paper taped to the zendo wall. Five or six at a time, we slow walk to the cabin at Mabel Dodge Luhan, take our shoes off, sit in a semi-circle, candles lit, in silence, and Natalie goes around and checks in with each of us. Almost every time, there is one person who says they don’t want to write anymore. Natalie inevitably responds, “Then don’t write. Take a break. See if you come back to it.”


Those words are as important to me as the day at my first workshop when she told us to plan on at least two years of Writing Practice before stopping. Oh, and don’t quit your day job.

If you are listening to your teachers, good advice sticks in your craw, and rises to the surface when you need it. The list of things Natalie has taught me over the years would fill a notebook; I bring each one out as I need it, and practice those I believe will make me a better writer, a better artist, a better person. Sometimes I fail. And that is okay, too.


At the one month mark away from my practices, I started adding them back in, one at a time. I added Writing Practice first and continue to write with my online group. I am grateful they have stuck with me. After a little over two months away, the next thing I am adding back into my practices is red Ravine. I have noticed that I am happiest combining writing and art; red Ravine is a good venue for the collaboration and synthesis that happen between the two. I want to look at restructuring, infusing the past with a burst of new life.

It is Thanksgiving weekend and I have much to be grateful for. I will take time to make my yearly gratitude list and begin work on another mandala. I have not been tossed away. The work continues. Positive effort for the good is the best practical response to a hungry world. I am grateful to be back on the page, thankful you are still here. The silence doesn’t scare me anymore; it is filled with light. The wind bristles and becomes her own wingman, sailing to the next stop. The best I can hope for is a gentle landing.


-posted on red Ravine Friday, November 25th, 2011, Thanksgiving weekend, an edited Writing Practice

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My first bicycle. Royal blue, silver fenders, metal training wheels bolted on to the frame. Practicing, practicing, practicing until I got it right. Riding a bicycle, my first taste of freedom. My second bicycle, a 26 inch with a wire basket in the front to hold my text books. Books covered in brown paper that was once a bag, drawn on, colored on, with stickers and awkward handwriting. I never had good handwriting. I remember learning to ride a bicycle. The scariest part was the space between the wobble from one training wheel hitting the ground, then the other. Or maybe the scariest part was when the rubber actually hit the sidewalk and it felt off balance, like I was going to tip over, fall to the pavement, scrape my knee.

What I remember about my first bicycle isn’t as much about the object as the person who cared enough to hold the back of the seat until I got my balance, the person who ran along beside me when I teetered, who knew when it was safe to let go after the training wheels were unbolted—let go and let me fly. It’s the memories more than the objects. The objects are triggers. When we moved to Pennsylvania, our breezeway was always full of bicycles. Kids and bicycles. There was always one kid learning to ride a bike. It was the way my brothers roamed the streets with their friends.

I don’t remember riding in a group. It was more of a solitary effort for me. A way to get away and be alone. I clearly remember one ride to elementary school. I was so entranced with the ride, with the process, with looking down and viewing my feet turn the pedals, that I forgot to look up, and ran smack dab into a parked car. It jolted me, my text books flew out of the basket and on to the ground. I caught myself before I fell over but that jolt! when the tire hit the chrome fender, I will never forget it. I was embarrassed and looked around to see if anyone saw me fall. Which matters most? The fall or those who witness the fall.

Now that I think about it, my first bicycle taught me to trust. The second taught me how to fly solo, to be faster than anyone else, to not be afraid. My bicycles taught me independence, to trust myself, how to balance when things were careening out of control, how to stop on a dime right before the pothole swallowed me. My first bike was more than a bicycle. It was the beginning of learning to hold the world in the soles of my feet and the handlebar underneath my palms. It was a way to get away from the crowd, time to think, the feeling I’d later experience again when I learned to ride a motorcycle. There is no freedom like being on a two-wheeler, running under the power of your own two feet.


-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — MY FIRST BICYCLE

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An Open Letter To My Father

An Open Letter To My Father, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2009, photo © 2009-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I haven’t seen my father since I was six years old. He reached out to me that day for the first time since I was a toddler. But I was scared and didn’t want to come out of my room. I was only a child; he had become a stranger. I never saw him again.

I keep a pack of letters tied with red string in a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet. What is important comes in small packages. Snippets of correspondence become family heirlooms; letters are reminders of people whose memories and handwriting I want to remember.

One letter is from my mother, dated August of 2000. I had a hard time that year and (in an extroverted moment) reached out to 7 people in my inner circle. I asked if they would write a letter and tell me what my good qualities were; at the time, I just couldn’t remember. My mother wrote a beautiful letter to me from Pennsylvania, a story about the day I was born.

In the same shoebox is a letter from my father’s two sisters. Several years ago, by an act of grace, I reconnected with my aunts after 50 years, and stood with my mother and Aunt Annette under the Georgia pine over my Grandmother Estelle’s grave (the back story and photographs in Georgia Pine Over My Grandmother’s Grave.) It was a few months later, New Year’s Day 2009, when my aunts sent the letter from South Carolina, and something more:


I feel so badly our family never got to see or know you before now. I know Mother would be so pleased about our reunion. Mother left this ring to me and I would very much like you to have it. She had it a long time and wore it as a pinky ring. This is not much, but I never want you to be left out of our lives. I hope you feel the same about us. Maybe you could try to come for Christmas one year while Annette and I are still here. We are all very much family oriented and want our kids to know you. I’m proud to pass your grandmother’s ring to you, her granddaughter.


It’s as if all that time between us never happened. My trips to the South with Mom to research and explore family history have paid off in unexpected and miraculous ways. During our brief visit, my aunts showed me old family photographs and filled me in on the paternal side of my family. They told me my father had been estranged for 10 years; a dispute had erupted after my grandmother died. I don’t take serendipitous events lightly. I believe we are reunited with the past for reasons beyond our understanding.


Letter From My Mother

A Letter From My Mother, BlackBerry Shots,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2009, photo
© 2009-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


That’s why when I called my aunts on Christmas Day 2010, they told me my father had called them out of the blue; he has cancer. He found out in September 2009, a few months before they mailed the letter with my grandmother’s ring. He didn’t contact them until a year later. During their visit, they told him they had seen me and my mother on a recent trip to Georgia. He did not jump at the chance to reconnect. Maybe for him, the past is the past.

My father was 17 years old when I was born, my mother 16. They divorced two years later—still teenagers. My mother went to work and provided for us. She eventually remarried a wonderful man who became my step-father.  After the age of 6, I never saw my blood father again. And now I find I may never get another chance. Should I write him a letter? What would I say?


Dear ______,

A few years ago on a visit to Georgia, I reconnected with your sisters, my aunts, after 50 years apart. They briefly filled me in on the family history; it made me think of you. I live in Minnesota now, have lived in the West and Midwest for most of my adult life. I try to get home once a year to visit family — for me, home is both Pennsylvania and Georgia. I may be visiting the South again this year and thought it might be a chance to touch base. Maybe we could meet for coffee or dinner.

Your daughter,

__________


I start the letter, I stop the letter. The drafts seem to fall short. What would you say? Should the salutation use his proper name? Or Father. Would you ask him to meet for dinner? Or talk on the phone. What if he doesn’t want to have contact with me? Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation where you haven’t talked to a close family member in many years. In reconnecting with my father’s sisters, it’s as if we were never apart. With parents, no matter how old you are, they are still your parents. Should I send a letter to my father?


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, February 6th, 2010

-related to posts: The Dying Art Of Letter Writing (Postcards From The Edge), You Can’t Go Back, WRITING TOPIC — MEMORIES OF CARS, WRITING TOPIC — 3 QUESTIONS

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Joy Is, Joy Is Not, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, December 2010, photo © 2010 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


The days are dark, the nights long. Five days until Winter Solstice. Holidays draw us to friends and family, gift giving, service work. I want to go inside. Reflective heat, ambient light. Darkroom blues. I have spent hours under red safelights in black and white darkrooms. What color is Joy?

At times when there is the least light, we need to find ways to tap more joy. I look to the small things. Sunrise, Tuesday morning. Snowstorm, Friday night. Digging out. Digging deep. An old recipe. A new flame. Joy takes many forms. Clay dangling from red string. One new liver. Two hibernating black bears. Three things I am grateful for.

Some are afraid to feel the full strength of Joy. The intensity makes them fearful. What if Joy leaves in the middle of the night. How will I fill the hole.

What brings you joy?

Joy is a giant taproot of swirling lava at the center of the Earth. Joy is a burning ember in the middle of an indigo night. Behind every Black Dog, Joy sits like the mountain.

Write I feel joy at the top of your Writing Practice notebook. Or sink into the underbelly — I don’t feel joy

Joy is, Joy is not. Ten minutes, Go!


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

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shadow auto 2

Moon Over Taos Mountain, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, Tri-X black & white film print, photo © 2003-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


December marks a time of darkness and silent reflection leading up to the Winter Solstice. Most Decembers, Natalie holds a writing retreat around the time of December 1st through 8th. In Zen, this time is called Rohatsu Sesshin and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. For those heading to Taos to write, it’s a time of community solitude, an opportunity to go within.

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Slow Walking, Natalie Goldberg, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, Tri-X B&W film print, photo © 2003-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

This week ybonesy and several other writing friends will be making the jouney to Taos to sit in silence. I find comfort in knowing they will be there under Taos Mountain. When they sit, they sit for all of us. The zendo casts a wide circle. Everything is connected. We can sit and write in solidarity.

There will be long nights under Mabel’s lights and slow walks into Taos. Some will walk the morada, visit the graves of Mabel and Frieda, soak up places that Georgia walked on her first visits to New Mexico. Notebooks will be filled with Writing Practices, later to be reread.

Whatever’s at the surface will fall away. What’s important is what is underneath.  Underbelly.


Sit, Walk, Write. With Gratitude to a long lineage of mentors and teachers. For all that has come before. And all that will be.


Note: ybonesy and I met in Taos at a Writing Retreat. We’ll be forever connected by that thread. And the practice that became red Ravine. We’ve written many pieces on our time spent in Taos. To learn more about Sit, Walk, Write or our experience of studying with Natalie Goldberg at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, check out the links in this post. Or click on any of the posts under Taos. With Gratitude to our readers, those at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Natalie, and all the writers and artists who keep showing up to brave the silence. We are all in this together.


–posted on red Ravine, Sunday, December 5th, 2010

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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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