Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year, Happy Reading!


Dear Friends,

As 2014 comes to an end, I've come up with a list of some favorite reading experiences from the past 12 months. Happy New Year to you all!

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I’ve had a crush on Ms. Patchett ever since a book club I used to belong to read The Magician’s Assistant in 2002. The next year we read her opus, Bel Canto, a story about a political mass-kidnapping that ends with all the tragic beauty and irony of an opera, and some of the lines from that book still shimmer in my mind.

What a pleasure, then, to get a glimpse inside the life of one of my literary idols. In this book of previously published essays, she writes, among other things, about her dog, a nun, the bookstore she started with another woman, and the South Carolina college that got itself into hot water when it selected her book Truth and Beauty as required summer reading.

My favorite piece was about the grueling physical tests required for admission to the Los Angeles Police Academy. I especially loved reading about how she trained for the tests herself, and in the process, learned to scale a six-foot wall. As the daughter of a retired LAPD detective, Ms. Patchett manages to tell us something about the bond she shares with her father without going overboard.

For me, that’s the greatest strength of this nonfiction collection. Whether she’s writing about her family, her husband or her late beloved friend, Lucy Grealy, Ms. Patchett’s aim is never to simply pluck our heart strings. She’s a master of elegant language, and her emotional revelations are mixed with a humor, intelligence and restraint that say much more than pages of damp confessions ever could. That’s why it means so much when she writes, “…[W]hen love calls out, ‘How far would you go for me?’ you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, ‘Farther than you would ever have thought possible.’”

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Part of a trilogy of novels (along with Gilead and Home), Lila is the story about a homeless woman and an aging preacher. Against all odds, they’re married, and for the first time in her life, Lila is warm and safe in the preacher’s plain, clean house in Iowa. Where she once traveled from town to town, finding shelter wherever she could, Lila now has an abundant garden, a caring husband and a child growing inside of her. But the past, with its violence and cruelty and love is always with her too, making her wonder if she can truly feel at home in this new, protected world.
 
Roots of Style by Isabel Toledo; illustrations by Ruben Toledo. This book is a passionate paean to personal style by Ms. Toledo, the Cuban-American woman who designed Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration suit. Her detailed description of the first lady’s ensemble left me a little breathless. For example, although some fashion experts thought the matching dress and coat were sewn with sequins, in reality that sparkle was the effect of sunlight on the layers of wool lace and silk, which its designer combined for warmth as well as beauty. Ms. Toledo may not use the polished written prose of Ann Patchett, but she communicates her love of fabric and movement and self-expression in a way that makes us admire her literary ability as well as her artistry as a designer.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. An evil uncle, a shipwreck and a life-and-death hide-and-seek through the heather-covered Scottish highlands. Combine this with a complex bro-mance (between our foolish but well-intentioned teen hero and his friend, a Scottish rebel on the run) with Stevenson’s ability to capture the old Scots language on the page, and hoot man, you have a recipe for fun.

Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life by Georgina Battiscombe. An exploration of the life and mind of the author of the bizarre and compelling poem “Goblin Market.” Battiscombe’s thesis is that there’s a “doubleness” about Rossetti, who was a dark beauty with a temper and penchant for sumptuous language, but who also adhered to her religious beliefs with a determination that bordered on fanaticism.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. In this third Penderwick tale, three of the sisters are on vacation in Maine with their Aunt Claire, who promptly sprains her ankle, leaving the girls somewhat free to pursue their own adventures. Complications cheerfully follow. Jane makes an idiot of herself over a boy named Dominic, and Skye, the cranky, soccer-loving sister is terrified of her new responsibilities as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). Meanwhile, the sisters’ beloved friend Jeffrey meets a man who shares his love of music and also bears a decided physical resemblance to him. Ms. Birdsall’s characters are fresh and modern, while reminding us of fictional friends from other eras, like Betsy and Tacy, Henry Huggins and even Laurie and Jo. Oh, how I wish the Penderwicks would take me along on their next vacation.

The Plover by Brian Doyle. Can you pick a favorite book that you read this year? As my son says, that might be like picking a favorite kind of pie. But if I absolutely had to narrow it down to one, I’d choose Mr. Doyle’s novel. As much as I loved his Mink River, The Plover moved me even more, as I sailed along with the ultimate loner, Declan O’Donnell, who sets off on a solitary voyage only to gradually collect a boatload of passengers, including – to name just a few – two rats, a politician, a singer, a pirate and an injured girl who can only speak to birds. Mr. Doyle’s poetic prose kept me turning the pages as much as the high seas adventure did. But this book is more than lyrical images, likable characters and a compelling premise. Underneath it all is the idea that we’re connected to everything and everybody, from the fish in the sea to a murderous villain to an 18th century philosophical writer. Perhaps Mr. Doyle is saying that the inhabitants and landscape of our world are like the drops of water that make up the ocean. Combined, they may drown us, or, one by one, they may be drawn up to the sky by the light of the sun.

 

 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hell's Teeth! The Magic of Mary Stewart


I discovered my first Mary Stewart book, Touch Not the Cat, in a 1976 Reader’s Digest Condensed Book of my dad’s. It was, I found, not Mrs. Stewart’s best work, but how I loved that mysterious tale of twins and telepathy, and I’ve been a passionate fan of hers ever since. After that, I saved up my babysitting money each month to buy her older novels, which all transported me to a world where well-read heroines quote Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson, and the handsome devils who fall in love them all know exactly what they mean.

These women, though, do more than sit around and read the classics. Charity Selborne, the protagonist of Mrs. Stewart’s first novel, Madam, Will You Talk? not only throws herself into saving a young boy from his menacing father, but knows how to drive her car fast enough along the winding roads of Provence to elude the monstrous man. Lucy Waring, in This Rough Magic, crosses paths with a cold-blooded smuggler then escapes by swimming from a bay in Corfu to the Albanian coast. Created mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, these heroines are Every Women who generally hold low-status jobs, but there’s no doubt that they’re at least as clever as (if not more clever than) their counterparts in contemporary fiction.

Besides the thrill of seeing an ordinary woman outwit a host of dangerous foes (from a former Nazi to a madman obsessed with making human sacrifices to a mountain), Mrs. Stewart gives us the pleasure of travelling to such disparate places as Damascus, Corfu and Scotland’s Isle of Skye. I can still remember how she made me love these locales with her lengthy descriptions that seemed to caress every tree, every leaf, every bird’s wing. Here she is, in The Moon-Spinners, describing some scenery in Crete:

 “The track to Agios Georgios wound its way between high banks of maquis, the scented maquis of Greece. I could smell verbena, and lavender, and a kind of sage. Over the hot white rock and the deep green of the maquis, the Judas trees lifted their clouds of scented flowers the color of purple daphne, their branches reaching landwards, away from the African winds.”*

I confess that as a 13-year-old, I often skimmed over such passages, eager to plunge on through the plot and get to the good parts, where the heroine vexes the villain and kisses a handsome but oh-so-honorable man who just happens to fiercely return her affection. “My dear girl,” Nicholas Drury tells the heroine of Wildfire at Midnight, “my instincts work overtime where you’re concerned.” Sigh.

As much as I loved these romances, I was – and am – equally thrilled by Mrs. Stewart’s vocabulary. Besides beginning her chapters with lines from old ballads or plays or poems (“Nine coaches waiting—hurry, hurry, hurry—/Ay, to the devil….”), she has her characters all speak in classy sentences that are peppered with bursts of well-mannered British slang such as “hell’s teeth,” “damnable” and “beastly.” Her heroines are all unequivocally decent (at least four of them put themselves in danger to protect a child and one even goes all out to save a beached dolphin in the middle of the night), but their speech reveals a bit of an edge and more than a spark of humor. Charity Selborne hardly bats an eyelash when her friend dryly refers to an exciting man as “The Wolf of Orange” and Gianetta Brooke tells us after her brush with death in Wildfire at Midnight that “I had been fortified with whisky and a cigarette and was content, for a moment to rest there in the sun before attempting the tramp back to the hotel.”



If you go to a used bookstore, you’ll see that the women on the covers of Mrs. Stewart’s novels all have different looks, depending on the decade in which a particular volume was published. Today, the latest editions feature bright, retro-hip art that could be mistaken for 1950’s Dior fashion drawings. My favorites are the dark covers from the 60's, each depicting a heroine in lipstick, high heels and polished hairdo. I also own several crumbling 70’s editions that show full-hipped women in bell-bottom pants, their long, loose hair blowing in the breeze. Clearly, the publishers were trying to appeal to more modern audiences with those covers. But they had it all wrong. A Mary Stewart heroine is always as well-coifed as she is well-read.

Even in the midst of deadly encounters, Charity and company carry combs and mirrors in their hand bags and wear petticoats beneath their frocks. Mrs. Stewart may have been a serious, hard-working woman, but she also understood the importance of clothes, as we see in this exchange between Charity and her friend Louise in Madam, Will You Talk?:

“My dear,” I said gratefully, “don’t tell me you’ve brought my clothes! I knew you were the most wonderful woman in the world!”

She laughed. “No one can face a crisis unless they’re suitably clad.”

Sadly, Mary Stewart died this year. But the good news is she lived to be 97, and new generations of women are still being delighted by her books. Or maybe I should say new generations of women and men, because I’ve read a few of her novels aloud to my family, and my husband and my son are as captivated by them as my mother, my daughter and I have been. My husband likes Wildfire at Midnight and my son has a thing for The Ivy Tree. I couldn't possibly pick a favorite, but if you’ve never read a Mary Stewart book before, you can safely start with any of them. Hell’s teeth, I believe you’ll be damnably glad you did.




*Mary Stewart’s novels were originally published by Hodder & Stoughton in London. The Moon-Spinners came out in 1962, Wildfire at Midnight was published in 1956, and Madam, Will You Talk? was published in 1955.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

That's So Portland, Part 2: The Longest Running Show on Earth


In the fall of 2001, Portland’s Musical Theatre Company (“MTC”) put on a production of the musical No, No Nanette, and apparently it’s been playing ever since. At least that’s what the sign outside the historic brick building of the former Eastside Performance Center indicates. It’s October 2014 now, and the sign is still advertising the show. Or a version of the show – either one of the “No’s” got left off or it fell off sometime in the last 13 years. Now the sign simply reads “No Nanette.”

The play opened on Broadway in 1925 and features blackmail, a millionaire Bible publisher, and, of course, Nanette herself, a fun-loving heiress who runs off to Atlantic City after telling everyone she’s visiting her grandmother in Trenton, New Jersey. The hit songs of the show were "I Want to Be Happy" and "Tea for Two."
I never went to see MTC’s production of Nanette, but I used to spend a lot of time in the Eastside Performance Center building, back when its basement was an indoor park. On rainy days, my toddler son and I would go down a long flight of stairs and into a gym that had been turned into a sort of kid heaven with baskets of blocks and puppets and games. It also had a climbing structure and a toy kitchen outfitted with all kinds of cooking utensils and pretend food, but my son’s favorite thing to do there was to drive around in an orange plastic car with a yellow roof.

With his hands holding the steering wheel, he would push his feet along the floor Flinstone-style to make the car move, and I wonder now if the look of concentration on his face meant he'd transported himself to a place where he was on the road, in charge of his destination, and happy. Whatever he was feeling, he never wanted to get out of the car when it was time to leave. Inevitably, we’d play out a little drama of our own that featured coaxing (mine) and tears (his). Sometimes, to take our minds off of this tragedy, I’d say, “Let’s count the stairs on our way out.” It seemed to help both of us to have something concrete to focus on beyond the sadness of parting with the wonders of the indoor park.

Before the building housed this basement play area or the theater company, it was Washington High School, which was decorated with columns and lions’ heads and terracotta trim. The school’s notable alumni include the world-famous chef James Beard; the civic leader and businessman Bill Naito; the former governor of Oregon Vic Atiyeh and the Nobel-prize-winning Linus Pauling.

My dad went to Washington High School too and graduated in 1949 at the age of 17. Even though I drive past there at least a few times every week, I can’t picture him there at all. When he was living, it never occurred to me to ask him about his life back then, and when he passed away in 1995, his stories from that time died too. If I could go back in time about 20 years, I’d ask him, Did you have a favorite book? Did you watch the clock during math? Who did you eat lunch with? What made you laugh?

A developer bought the old high school from the City of Portland last year, and soon the building will be open for business. Maybe the new tenants and patrons alike will hear the echo of a locker door slamming down the hall or the tire of a toy car rolling over the floor or a madcap heiress tapping and trilling across the stage that she wants to be happy but she won’t be happy till you’re happy too.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Some Conversation


I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t really think of myself as a poet until after my father died.
 
That summer I watched a Bill Moyers program on PBS that featured poets like the ex-con Jimmy Santiago Baca and the jazz musician Sekou Sundiata and the children’s author Lucille Clifton. For the first time I fully understood that poetry isn’t covered in dust that makes you sneeze and that you don’t need a PhD or a magic decoder ring to understand its hidden meanings. And poetry (or “The Language of Life,” as Moyers called it) is a vocabulary we can all use to say things we don't say in ordinary conversation. It can be about everything from the birth of a baby to the death of a friend, and everything in between. What's it like to be sent to prison at the age of 17? To hear your grandmother sing? To feel your depression lifting when you see a bee landing on a lily? There are no limits to what poetry can tell us.

The spring after I saw the Bill Moyers show, I took a writing class taught by the Portland poet Donna Prinzmetal. Donna’s first assignment was for us to write about our birth. I wrote a little piece about how my brothers weren’t allowed to see our mother in the hospital after I was born, so she held me by a window and waved to them. I also wrote about my beloved 6th grade friend who introduced me to the wonders of Shakespeare and ballet – a whole new world for a girl who spent all her free time reading and watching TV. For the last class with Donna, we met on a warm June evening and sat in a circle on the lawn, where I shared a poem I'd written about my dad, telling my classmates things I hadn't said to anyone except my husband.

I continued to study with Donna for almost three years. Along the way, I fell in love with a form of poetry called pantoums, which follow a pattern of repeating lines. The really beautiful thing about a pantoum is that it ends with the same line you began with, bringing the piece full circle, while giving the words a whole new meaning the second time around. The repetition also gives the poem a rhythm that’s as satisfying on a physical level as holding a baby in your arms and swaying from side to side.  

Ever since I learned about pantoums, I’ve been experimenting with using repetition in my prose too. I’ll be reading one of those experiments on Thursday, October 23, at Rain or Shine Coffee House. Five other VoiceCatcher Journal authors, including the incomparable Donna Prinzmetal, will be also be reading their work. I can't wait to hear what they have to say.

Join VoiceCatcher for the Last Reading of 2014
Thursday, October 23, 2014
6:30-8:00 p.m.
Rain or Shine Coffee House
5941 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97206
Come early to grab a drink or bite to eat from
Rain or Shine’s special menu for the event.


Top row: Helen Sinoradzki, Donna Prinzmetal, Linda Ferguson Bottom:   Kate Comings, Jennifer Foreman, Tanya Jarvik
Top row: Helen Sinoradzki, Donna Prinzmetal, Linda Ferguson
Bottom: Kate Comings, Jennifer Foreman, Tanya Jarvik

 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Baila Conmigo!

I'm so happy that my first chapbook, Baila Conmigo, was just published by Dancing Girl Press. A few weeks ago, Kristy Bowen, the artist/magician who created the cover asked me for a list of things I liked, and then poof! she came up with this gorgeous design that somehow captures everything on my rather lengthy list. Thanks to her for turning my little stack of poems into a work of art!

The book can be ordered online at http://dulcetshop.ecrater.com/p/20633392/baila-conmigo-linda-ferguson, and I'll have copies at my classes and other events this fall.

Speaking of classes, both the Monday and Thursday sessions of Creative Writing for Adults and Teens are starting up again soon. As always, all experience levels are welcome to join these warm, friendly groups as we write from prompts for creative inspiration.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Card Tricks


When I was a kid I had two favorite card games: “Old Maid” and “Authors.” The appeal of “Old Maid” was obvious, with its brightly colored characters like Tumbledown Tess in her red ski sweater and Fifi Fluff in her movie-star sunglasses and high-heeled pumps.

I’m not sure, though, why I liked “Authors,” so much. The portraits on the cards were, after all, either extremely grim or just plain bizarre. Why, for example, was Nathaniel Hawthorne painted with long, bright yellow locks (I secretly thought of him as “Banana Head”), and why was Robert Louis Stevenson’s face and hair tinged with purple shadows? Fitting in neatly with these unappealing pictures was a scowling Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who, with his balding head and big scraggily beard didn’t look like anything special to my six-year-old self.

How wrong I was. Alfred Tennyson, in fact, was a big, popular success in his own lifetime. So big, in fact, that Queen Victoria made him England’s poet laureate, which meant he got to represent his country at all sorts of official celebrations and got paid for the position too. His writing was so remunerative that by 1850 he’d finally made enough money to marry his sweetheart and was eventually able to buy a house in the country where he could let his crinkled beard grow while he wrote more spectacular poems.

And spectacular they were. Today people are still in awe of the music of his work as well as the vivid pictures he created with words. Take these snippets from “The Eagle”: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands” and “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.”

Try saying these lines out loud, or better yet, go outside and recite them while you’re walking. I guarantee the words will be some of the most delicious things you’ve ever had in your mouth.

In the 1880’s, Tennyson was made a baron, which meant he got to add “Lord” to his name and had a seat in the House of Lords. When he died he was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, which includes memorials to Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron and George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans).

Despite this success, Alfred’s life was not all flowers and rainbows. His childhood, for one thing, was as grim as anything Charles Dickens could have dreamt up. His father was a bitter man who’d been disinherited by his own dad and was forced to get a job as a cleric to support his family. Fueling his unhappiness with alcohol, Reverend Tennyson was such an abusive father that he once reportedly threatened to stab one of Alfred’s brothers in the throat.

Needless to say, the reverend’s 12 children didn’t thrive in such an environment. One brother was put in an insane asylum and another was addicted to opium. Tennyson, however, found some happiness when he left home for Cambridge, where he made friends with other people who recognized his poetic gifts and encouraged him to keep writing. I suspect it was like finding the magic key that let him out of a dungeon. By writing beautiful and powerful verse, he not only rose above his miserable childhood, but he also found love and admiration and connection with people outside the grim walls of his family home.

Due to some financial woes, Tennyson had to leave Cambridge without earning his degree, and more hard times came when his early works were attacked by critics. Worst of all, his beloved school friend, Arthur Hallam, suddenly died in 1833. Once again, Tennyson used language to deal with his loss. The poem he wrote for Hallam, “In Memoriam,” is still considered to be one of his greatest achievements. In this piece, Tennyson struggles with the big questions about the fragility of life:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, are more than they.

But he also asserts:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most,
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

After Hallam’s death, much of Tennyson’s work had an elegiac theme. He wrote of the dead Lady of Shallot floating on a barge toward Camelot (“A gleaming shape she floated by,/A corse between the houses high”) and of the death of King Arthur (“So like a shatter’d column lay the king”).

You’d think a poet who dwelt on death so much would make for a gloomy companion. But Tennyson also weaves a note of hopefulness within his work, a suggestion that good things are still ahead. Take, for example, the end of “Ulysses,” a poem about the hero’s restlessness after returning safely home. “Tho’ much is taken, much abides,” Tennyson writes. After all Ulysses has suffered – the brutal battles of the Trojan War and the terror of facing everything from the gargantuan Cyclops to the wily sirens – the old hero still wants more action:

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield.

Today, writing probably isn’t the quickest way to make money or win points with the public. But as a means of creating order or beauty out of chaos or grief, it’s no card trick. Whether you pen formal poems or scribble in a journal now and then, putting your thoughts on paper can still work wonders.

Monday, August 11, 2014

You Complete Me


I came up with what I thought was a clever idea the other day.

Since my husband and I are about to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I decided to write about some of my favorite romantic moments from movies. I began scribbling away, and within a few minutes I had a list of almost 20 scenes. Among them were Aidan Quinn watching Rosanna Arquette’s dopey magic act in Desperately Seeking Susan, Julian Sands striding towards Helena Bonham Carter across a field of barley in A Room with a View, and Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam sparring their way through The Winslow Boy.

I thought this list would make me happy, but as it grew, so did my unease. With just three exceptions, all of the films I thought of feature characters who are white and heterosexual, a fact that brought home to me the sad truth that huge numbers of people (whether that means you, your neighbor, your doctor, your co-worker or your partner) aren’t represented on our movie screens.

Which brings me to another question: Why is it that publishers of the printed word seem to have more faith in the idea that diversity can sell than the mainstream film industry does? The people who produce books understand that someone like me (white, female, married to a man) might pay money to read about the adventures of Armistead Maupin’s Michael Tolliver or the rise of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At a recent writing conference, my son, a filmmaker/film critic, was told that any script featuring gay characters would be “a hard sell.” Why is that? How do we know for sure when we’ve had such limited access to such films? Couldn’t mainstream movies bring a greater variety of characters to life and move us all in some way? Americans were enthralled by Chiwetel Ejiofar's performance in 12 Years a Slave but what about seeing more characters like Don Cheadle’s depiction of a dentist/dad in Reign Over Me?

What about the connection we naturally feel for our fellow human beings? Isn’t it possible that it could flourish in a darkened movie theater?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The White Rose


When I stand at my kitchen sink washing dishes I look out the window and see the grapevine growing on our fence. Beyond the fence is the backyard of the house where we used to live and in the yard is a white rose that blooms through all of spring and into fall.

I gave the rose to my husband for our 10th wedding anniversary and also because his mother had died just five days before. That was 20 years ago, but I can still hear her voice, the rhythmic, soft tones of a woman who’d come here from the Scottish highlands, where she lived on a farm and milked cows and cooked dinner over a peat fire. 


She tried working and living in the town of Aberdeen for a while, but then her older sister died and she had to come back to help her dad and three brothers on the farm. She was in her early 30’s before she could make her escape to Toronto, where she met her husband, a printer who’d just emigrated from Glasgow. My daughter looks a little like her, and my son has the red hair of his Scottish forebears.

Last year our next door neighbors built a pergola in their backyard. On one side of the pergola is a trellis and on the trellis the white rose, which once grew low to the ground, has gone wild, growing taller, reaching wider than I thought possible.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Round Round Get Around

Confession: I’m a bit embarrassed by our newest car. Not because it pollutes the air with rude noises or billowing black smoke. No, our car, a Passat, makes me blush because it’s just a little too nice. Not that it’s particularly luxurious. At the age of 12, it has a cracked windshield and is decorated with a collection of dings acquired by its previous owners.

Still, the Passat is kind of fancy (plush seats, a Frenchy sounding name and an air conditioner that actually works) in a way that’s a little foreign to me. Not to mention that in the year since we bought it, the car has yet to break down at some inopportune time (e.g., on the way to work or to an appointment), which seems like a rare luxury indeed – like eating a gourmet brownie when a bowl of potato soup would suffice.


Consider some of the vehicles my husband I have owned in the past, like the ’63 midnight blue Chevy Impala that went kaput about a month after we bought it from a bearded folk singer. Although our time together was brief, the long, sleek Impala with the chrome trim was my first car, and I still get a little tingly when I think of steering it down a curving, tree-lined road.
We bought our next car, a ’68 Buick Skylark, after our son was born. I suppose it was a beauty when it was new, with pristine upholstery and pale olive paint that shimmered in the sunlight. But when we acquired it, the Skylark was already over 20 years old, and its paint had dulled to a flat khaki. Inside, its seats were damp and cracked and half of the automatic windows no longer went up and down (well, they did go down).

Working as a freelance writer, I’d tuck my son into his car seat and together we’d drive all over town, picking up new work and dropping off completed projects between trips to grocery stores, playgroups and parks. As my son got a little older, we played tapes in the Skylark too, and we’d sing together. We sang “Let’s Take It Nice and Easy” with Frank Sinatra and we sang “A Fine Romance” with Fred Astaire and we sang “It’s Love, It’s Love” with Lena Horne. Besides getting us where we wanted to go, the giant, rust-flecked car made me want to laugh over the incongruity of a small-boned mother with a penchant for poetry driving such a big lunky thing. Of course the Skylark had a poetry of its own as its V-8 engine carried my son and I up and over hills as easily as a sled gliding through the snow.

When our daughter was born, we brought her home from the hospital in the Skylark, with me sitting beside her in the back seat and murmuring words of comfort to help ease the shock of being taken via C-Section from my womb only to be tucked inside a musty old Buick. By the time our girl was four, though, the Skylark was acting up. When it started dying in the middle of intersections, we felt compelled to replace it with a shiny Ford Escort, which was reliable enough, although we soon learned this new vehicle was a poor little tin can of a car that strained to make its way up roads with a slight incline.

Perhaps the Escort was an ill-conceived purchase, but it was light and easy to drive, and now, 15 years later, it has acquired a weathered look that’s as comfortable as an old chambray shirt, and I still enjoy driving it now and then just to prove that my tastes haven’t become too posh.
  
Now, just a block away from our house, a light rail line is being constructed. In the process, our once-gritty, industrial neighborhood has been graced with smooth white sidewalks, tasteful landscaping and a series of canoe sculptures that seem to be floating up a stream of tall waving grasses. When the new train is up and running, I just may be ready to turn in my keys for both the smooth-running Passat and my old friend the Escort. After all, I’d love to let someone else do the driving while I sit and people-watch or read or write.

Then again, I’ve always had a little yen to own a Ford Falcon. Maybe a ’63 convertible, red, two doors. If you know of one that’s for sale, let me know.




Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sleepless in Summer


The other night I couldn’t sleep so I turned on my light and opened my beat-up copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, which I keep by the bed for such occasions.

Although I’ve read this last “Little House” book at least 20 times (that’s a conservative estimate), I was still surprised when I got to chapter 19, “The Brown Poplin,” which struck me, on this reading, as being an inordinately long and loving paean to a piece of clothing.

Laura has earned the money for some new clothes by working as a teacher and as a seamstress, and now Ma has finished sewing her a dress. The next day, Laura rises early and begins to prepare for church, brushing her “shimmering brown” hair until it’s “satin-smooth” and then pinning it all into a “mass of braids” and taking the curlers out of her bangs.* Next comes the arduous process of putting on all her underthings, including various petticoats (I lost track of how many there were) and her new hoops, which were “the very latest style in the East.” After a page and a half of this description, we finally get to learn about the titular brown poplin itself, which we read, isn’t “plain poplin, but striped with an openwork silk stripe” and has long smooth sleeves, small brown buttons and a band of silk around the bottom.

Once Laura is ready for church, Carrie, her younger sister, says in awe, “When I’m a young lady, I’m going to earn me a dress just exactly like that.” Now this is where the story really gets interesting because when Laura hears those words, she’s surprised. “She had not thought that she was a young lady,” we’re told. “She was not sure she liked being a young lady.”

By this point, we realize that all those previous pages of description were not just details about material things – they tell us about Laura’s feelings about leaving childhood, and how she’s both daunted by and eager for her transformation into womanhood. In fact, as we read on, Laura can’t stand to take off the new dress when she gets home from church even though it’s time for everyone to put their old clothes back on and get on their chores. She’s restless too, looking out at the sky with its floating clouds and then at the new trees that Pa has planted, which are now “spreading their slender branches and rustling leaves.”
At the peak of her restlessness, she looks across the prairie toward the little town, and when she sees a buggy approaching, we know darn well just what she’s been waiting for and why she wanted to keep on that splendid dress. As a narrator, Laura doesn’t use many adjectives to describe Almanzo Wilder, the buggy driver and the man who would become her husband. She does, however, describe his buggy here, which is so new that the “sun flashed and sparkled from its wheels and top,” confirming for us that Almanzo is pretty dashing too.

Almanzo, who once helped saved the townspeople from starvation during a blizzard and who has a fine pair of horses, has been courting Laura for more than a year, but this is the first time we can see that she is also courting his attention. When he drives up, Carrie’s eyes are shining. She whispers to Laura, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t change your dress?” and Laura responds by whispering back, “I am.” Laura, we now know, is not just interested in Almanzo’s wonderful horses; she wants to be with the man himself.

The day after I read this chapter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and how Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her younger self getting dressed in a way that almost sounds like a holy ritual. To me, the loving details she relates – the flounce, the ribbon, the shiny trim – are all expressions of reverence, almost as if Laura is dressing herself for a rite of passage, which will take her into the arms of Almanzo and away from cheery life of helping Ma in the kitchen and singing to the music of Pa’s fiddle-playing.

One of my adult students has said that creative writing classes aren’t just exercises in writing. They also, he says, challenge us to become better listeners as we take turns reading our work aloud. I agree. I have to pay close attention if I’m going to fully appreciate all the little bits of information in a student’s piece. Is that the sun shining on a character’s palm or a cloud hovering so close that he or she can almost cup it? When we’re wide awake, we can follow the clues to the heart of a story. We can understand that a dress is more than a dress. We can get that a character is conflicted without an author coming out and telling us that. At the end of “The Brown Poplin,” Laura, the character, says, “I like buggy rides.” Laura, the writer adds, “Then suddenly she felt shy, and hurried into the house.”


*Wilder, Laura Ingalls. These Happy Golden Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1943.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Moonlight and Money


When my husband and I were first married in 1984, we were a cliché-come-to-life: happy but poor, with our student loans (microscopic by today’s standards) and a desire to replace our hand-me-down furniture with nicer things.

This was before I began my famed love affair with thrift shops, where for about a dollar I can find a piece of fabric that instantly transforms an ugly chair into a thing of beauty. No, back in the early years of our marriage, we'd haunt an antique store in Northwest Portland, where we'd admire a long elegant table and imagine ourselves serving a holiday dinner set amongst flowers and candles. Or we’d pass the carved doors of a French wardrobe and picture our own clothes hanging inside, amidst the mingled scents of fresh paint and musty wood.

Another imaginary amusement of ours was to drive to a small furniture shop in the suburbs and sigh over the long cool white curves of an ultra-modern couch. The first time we entered the store, a sales woman, neatly dressed in a business skirt and blouse, greeted us with warmth. On our second visit, the same woman smiled and said to let her know if she could help. The third time we walked through the doors, she glanced in our direction with a dismissive look that clearly said, “You again?”

Feeling embarrassed, we resolved to make at least one small purchase, a difficult endeavor since we couldn’t afford so much as a lamp. Eventually, though, we did find something in our price range – a calendar of poster-sized paintings. Among the stylized still lifes, the pictures also included a portrait of a peach-toned man and boy (“Tell Pere” and “Tell Fils,” the son with an apple atop his head) and a strange scene featuring a woman, a hunter and some moonlit water.

For years, those posters graced the walls of our various abodes before taking up permanent residence in the damp basement of our current house. Last winter, though, when I was making plans for the last session of an adult writing class, I suddenly remembered the posters. Bringing up both the William Tell painting and the moonlit scene, I asked my son which one he would find more inspiring as a writing prompt and he instantly chose the latter.

How right he was. When I asked my students to look at the poster and write whatever came to mind, every one of them created pieces that were filled with life. While my husband and I are not quite so poor as we were 30 years ago, I can’t imagine buying anything now that could bring me more pleasure than the poems and stories – including some dark beauties as well as one comic piece – that my students read aloud that night.

Here is one of those pieces:

 

Freewrite from a Poster by R. Smith

 

            There is something about the moon, tonight
 
(though I’ve danced before)

            Now I dance with the moon

when I move, it follows

            The moon (because it is light-footed)

twirls me like a top – lead, follow, lead, follow

 

            I dance beside the waters whose ripples tango, whose silence

restrains (the waters reflect the moon)

            The earth beneath my feet waits for the rhythm of the trees

to cut in on the moon

            And

the earth beneath my feet has no sound but is my orchestra

            I dance like the wind

 

            I dance with the moon

the trees cut in, I sail with the trees

            I dip with the clouds – Hey

Mr. Huntsman: Put down the bow and let that creature breathe

            another day (put down your bow and join me)

No

            Bring bow and pluck the string to set the slope in motion

set the trees spinning, send the moon into pirouette

 

 

 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh, Yoko

What could I possibly have in common with the controversial Yoko Ono? You can find out in my article at http://www.voicecatcher.org/archives/category/writers-craft.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Sincerest Form of Flattery


Here’s an old family story: Once my cousin and her family visited us. I was 7 to her more worldly 9. She wore her long blond hair pulled off to the side in a ponytail and a navy blue beret tilted near one eye. She hadn't been at our house for more than an hour when I pulled my long blond hair into a side ponytail too and dug through the box of dress-ups in my closet until I found a brown velvet beret, which I wore at an angle on my head. I confess my imitation didn't stop there. To complete my ensemble, I donned a sleeveless mock turtleneck t-shirt that looked a lot like the one my cousin was wearing.
Despite my young age at the time, I think I sensed even then that my older cousin might have felt a little smothered by my onslaught of adoration throughout her visit.
Not only did she have to sleep in my room, with its pink walls and rows of dolls with painted-on smiles, but she also had to endure my following her, happy-puppy style, throughout the small one-level house. Alas, there was no stopping me. In my cousin's presence, I was like a small white flower leaning toward the radiant light of her style and verve.
While I'm no longer such a sad imitator, I still enjoy being inspired by someone else's spark - especially when it comes to my work. Some of my writing influences include the ironic parentheticals of Kate Atkinson, the musical wit of Jane Austen's long winding sentences, and the colloquial poetry of Billy Collins. For writers - or anyone - the trick is to relish all the different voices we hear and then try to create a new one that is ours alone, to find a new path. After all, no one wants to spend their whole life following someone else around the house. 








Monday, March 3, 2014

The Year of the Horse

On President's Day I went for a brisk walk through my neighborhood and noticed all the Christmas decorations still on display -- a withered wreath hanging on a front door, a poinsettia flanked by two tall red candles in a window, and even a miniature tree all a-twinkle with tiny lights.

One good thing about getting older is I'm not so quick to scoff at other people as I once was. So what if the time to haul off the holly has long since past? I confess I was a little sad myself when I put my own decorations away on New Year's Day. As my fingers plucked each ornament off the tree (my son's paper fish with the glitter glue smile, my daughter's ballerina figurine, and the pale elf my grandmother once gave to me), I felt some tugs in the vicinity of my heart strings. After all, by officially saying the holidays were over and that 2014 had begun, I had to face the fact that my son who was once happy to sit at a table and do art projects with me is now 23 and my daughter will be starting college in the fall.

Now it's the beginning of March already. I've put the relics of the past away, and I'm grasping the mane of this year of the horse as it gallops off into undiscovered territory.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cyrano's Plume

With Cyrano de Bergerac’s dying breath, he proclaims he’s lost all but one thing: his panache. By this he means even death can’t rob him of his style, swagger, verve, dash. At the end of the play, who cares about his big nose? His spirit and pizzazz take precedence over any so-called physical flaws.

Here’s a question to ponder while you’re sitting in traffic or waiting for your coffee to brew: Does the sweeping white plume Cyrano wears atop his hat solely serve as a symbol of his flair or does its flamboyance actually fuel his inner panache?

I wrote the haiku below about a pair of shoes (big, scuffed, used) that have been adding a little spring to my step lately.
My new shoes – maroon! –
found in the Goodwill bins. No
one else wanted them!

OK, so haiku are supposed to be about nature – raindrops and cicadas and whatnot. But hey, I’m a creative writing teacher and feel obligated to model what fun it is to take a literary rule and bend it to my own purposes.

Next month, we’ll continue bending the rules in my Saturday creative writing class.

Saturday, March 15, 2014
10-11:30am
100th Monkey Studio, 1600 SE Ankeny St.
Cost: $20 per class


Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Certain Fame


Some of my creative writing students have gone pantoum crazy, writing powerful poems with a pattern of repeating lines. As for me, I’m on a little haiku kick.


After seeing an apartment called "Casa Linda," I came up with this poem:

My name, not on a
book cover, but published on
an apartment sign.

According to our former poet laureate Robert Hass, the haiku form started out as an improvisational game that Japanese writers used to play at parties. Apparently, a group of them would make poems by adding to each other's lines and riffing like jazz musicians.

In keeping with that tradition, my Saturday creative writing students will meet next week to socialize and play around with words.

If you feel like joining us, bring a pen...or maybe your saxophone.


Saturday, February 15, 2014
10-11:30am
100th Monkey Studio, 1600 SE Ankeny St.
Cost: $20 per class

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"That's So Portland"

Before our fair city became known for its beards, microbrews and baristas, my grandmother, Myrtle L. Drahn, moved here in the 1960's. A middle-aged wife from Newberg, Oregon, she suddenly found herself single and in need of an income. She got a job at Jones Photo, rented a series of apartments in Portland and spent her free time riding the bus to Montgomery Ward (a department store) and chatting with her favorite waitresses and busboys at Roses Restaurant, which was famous for its bazillion-layer chocolate cakes and donuts the size of truck tires.


Two of the apartments she lived in when I was a kid still stand on Vista Avenue. I see them now every time our family heads to Washington Park, our picnic basket filled with a quinoa salad, some Dogfish Head Ale and maybe a plate of cookies topped with hazelnuts, which my grandmother would have known as "filberts."


Friday, January 24, 2014

Comin' Thro' the Rye


Long before Holden Caulfield ever imagined himself on a cliff catching children, Robert Burns (that sexy, self-educated Scotsman) wrote his song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.”

Gin a body meet a body
Comin’ thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin’ thro' the glen
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl' ken?

Ilka lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, ha’e I
Yet all the lads they smile on me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

Burns was born 255 years ago on January 25. If you feel like giving it a try, enjoy the rolling rhythms of  his “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” by reading it aloud -- or even sing it, if you know the tune. Then light a candle and kiss someone in celebration of the life of this poet who continues to urge us all to relish our own lives.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ground Control to Major Tom

My daughter recently got into David Bowie, and I’ve had the first line of his song “Space Oddity” going through my head for the last few weeks. I find myself singing it (in my best pre-Ziggy-Stardust voice) at random times throughout the day – while I’m driving to work or cooking a carrot soup or checking my email.

I suppose that’s what happens when you hang around other people – their habits and hobbies and interests tend to rub off on you. During my sixth grade Gone With the Wind kick, I addressed my mother as “Miss Barbara” (in a Southern drawl, of course), and she returned the favor by calling me “Miss Linda” for many years to come. I started researching the life of Emily Roebling when our son, at age eight, got obsessed with the Brooklyn Bridge, which Emily's husband built, and I immersed myself in John Lennon lore during our family’s Beatlemania phase. Thanks to that obsession, I even ended up writing a short story, “The People v. Hiroko Uno,” which was published by Imitation Fruit a few years ago. (http://www.imitationfruit.com/Issue_9/people_hiroko/people_hiroko.html)

That’s one of the many things I love about teaching creative writing classes – all the participants inspire each other. We hear someone read a story that cracks everyone up, and we all know we want to try our hands at humor too. Or another writer will share an elegiac piece that’s so moving the room is silent for a moment after she’s done reading, and we feel the call to tiptoe into new territory.

Luckily for me, I reap armloads of creative inspiration through all the students I teach each week. This Saturday I get to meet with yet another small group at 100th Monkey Studio, and you’re welcome to join us too. Besides leaving with some new material of your own, I guarantee your unique voice will serve as inspiration for someone else.

Creative Writing Saturdays
100th Monkey Studio, 1600 SE Ankeny
Saturday, January 18, 10 – 11:30am
Cost: $20

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Read On, Macduff!

Dear Friends,

My daughter spent her winter break composing college essays. One question asked her to write about a piece of art that expanded her world view. Here are some books that did that for me in 2013.

Margaret Fuller: A Life. Megan Marshall takes her meticulous research about the famous feminist icon and spins a spellbinding story of a living, breathing woman.

Nine Horses by Billy Collins. The plain-speaking former poet laureate reflects on a chess piece found in the park and a song looping through his head and somehow touches on our need for transcendence.

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. A call for us all to work and love and learn and rise.

Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton. An odd, newly discovered novel about a young depression-era teacher who yearns to live a larger life. Jetta Carleton’s words are like rare jewels catching light.

Mink River by Brian Doyle. A lyric novel peopled with a cast of colorful characters singing a mischievous, healing song.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. A woman keeps dying and getting a chance to live her life again. No, that’s not it. I’m too in awe of Kate Atkinson, the Empress of Dark Wit who also has the humanism of E.M. Forster, to attempt to describe her newest book in a few sentences. Let me just say that reading her work is a little like listening to Mozart or seeing one of Shakespeare’s plays or watching the sun rise over Mt. Hood. How can it be that this world of ours, which has produced internment camps and juntas, has also graced us with such art?

Wishing you all a happy new year full of your own reading adventures!