Six months ago, I was invited to open my gardens as part of Historic Weeds Week in Virginia. Imagine my surprise and delight. I have been quietly, patiently cultivating weeds for many years but never thought that my clover and crabgrass would equal the great weeds flourishing in the fields and gardens of the finest estates across the Old Dominion. Frankly, I was humbled by the invitation, which came from a Mrs. Dan D. Lyon of Somerset, Va.

Now this very special time has begun, and even as I write this, a few people in galoshes and yellow slickers are wending their way across my yard. Yes, it is a raw and rainy day, just the kind one hopes for during Historic Weeds Week.

I have spent untold hours doing nothing to prepare: no tilling, no trimming, no pruning, no plucking. It took enormous restraint, but whenever I was tempted to gather up a handful of wild onion, henbit, and speedwell and fling everything over the back fence, I pulled out the gracious and complimentary letter from Mrs Lyon and read it yet again. Like this fine lady, I’m in it for the long game.

Ah, now there is a real crowd gathering, and I will have to sign off and go greet my guests. As much as I cherish weeds, I have to say I didn’t realize so many shared my passion.

My eyes are tearing up as I see affectionate couples marveling over the broadleaf plantain, ancient individuals exclaiming over the bittercress, apple-cheeked children stealing the dandelions, even a few merry teenagers peering down a groundhog hole.

They are all smiling and chatting, and now the teenagers and old folks have started a just-for-fun mud fight, and the rain has slacked off and the cardinals are singing and there is nothing quite so beautiful as a garden full of weeds and the people who love them.

buttercups

 

On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.

Who planted them, I wonder, and when?

I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.

“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.

She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.

The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.

When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.

But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.

One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.

It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.

The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.

She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.

The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.

daffodils

When I think about Nancy Reagan, who died this week at age 94, I remember the time I dressed up like her for a party. I was an undergraduate the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. One Halloween I glued a large magazine photo of Nancy’s face, all made up and mascaraed and smiling wide, to a piece of cardboard and attached it to a ruler. I wore a black skirt and fancy red blouse, and when ghosts and witches approached, I held Nancy’s face in front of my own. It was an easy costume to put together and nobody had any trouble figuring out who I was.

I had learned my lesson the previous Halloween. That year, I decked myself out in a pillowcase on which I had drawn a large clock face. I went around draping myself over chairs and sofas and asking people to guess what I was. The first few puzzled looks didn’t bode well for the evening. There was one person–an art history student, no doubt–who realized I was Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

For me, the Reagan years began in a hallway outside a closed door. A sign announced a Young Republicans meeting. I listened to the throbbing, pulsing sound coming from behind that door and then peeked inside. Hundreds of young white men in suits and ties were roaring their enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. In their teens and twenties, they were already rabid believers in wealth, power, and nationalism. All those guys might just as well have been waving shiny pictures of Ronald Reagan in front of their faces. I quickly shut the door and hurried away. I had glimpsed the future, and it was wearing a money belt and wingtip shoes.

Yesterday as I walked along Cambridge Street near Harvard Square, I saw the American flag flying at half mast in memory of Nancy Reagan. Not very far from that flag, a beggar squatted in front of the Old Burial Ground. His cardboard sign read, “Anything helps.” His cheeks grimy, his life at half mast, he held the sign up next to his face. Here was a living monument to a problem that loomed into public view during Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan used to say the want ads were full of jobs that homeless people could apply for. He was not interested in helping the poor, the sick, the vulnerable. Reagan was interested in helping the rich, the secure, the already powerful, and his wife was interested in helping him. They were by all accounts a very good match.

Nancy Reagan’s death makes me remember what the Reagan years were like. Undoing the positive impression of his agreeable face and pleasant voice, President Reagan cast a cold eye on human suffering. He didn’t leave a way for his party to take the high road. (At least Nixon resigned.)

As we stumble down the low road with the current Republican candidates for President, we have him to thank for their refusal to empathize with anyone who doesn’t think or act like they do. They all learned from his example. Like him, they rarely bother to hide their malfeasant agendas. In the trickle-down America that Reagan helped call into being, crocodile tears are optional.

Though Rubio, Trump, and Cruz may not want to hark back to him, for fear of alienating the anti-establishment masses they have teased into a frenzy of foaming ignorance, they are his progeny as surely as night follows Reagan’s “morning in America.” I’ll bet you a pair of wingtip shoes that they have persistent memories of what worked for him.

Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo/Ira Schwarz)

 

The news is not good these days, yet I keep coming back for more. I live out in the country and can’t get a national newspaper delivered to my house. Nor can I get TV reception without one of those big ugly dishes planted in my yard–and I refuse to defile the property in that way. This means I depend on the web for news.

I could ignore the news sites and spare myself a daily dose of sorrow and anger and Schadenfreude. But I’m not there yet. I read the articles about the Presidential campaign and North Korea and global warming and then scroll down past the clickbait to the comments. With few exceptions, they are spiteful, repetitive, bullying, and staggeringly unoriginal. They are cowardly in their anonymity. They are the essence of frustration, hard little cubes of excrement put out there for fellow keyboard jockeys to sniff and kick.

The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten has compared a news story with a comments thread to a steak dinner with a side order of maggots. Just as one would be hard pressed to look at the steak without taking note of the maggots, I can’t read an online news story without peeking at the comments. This is a habit I need to break, for my own mental health.

Nobody ever said free speech would be pretty. And I understand that publications want readers to linger on their sites, commit their eyeballs to a commercially profitable experience, and maybe even read the pop-up ads. But I miss the days when I used to open my front door in the morning and find the newspaper hidden at the base of the azalea. I read it while eating breakfast and continued in the evening after work. I didn’t read it off and on throughout the day.

Sometimes I would read the letters to the editor, and occasionally those letters made me mad. But those writers had taken the time to organize their thoughts and compose a lucid letter with a beginning, middle, and end; they signed their names and gave their towns. Their submissions had been vetted by an editor and their publication was an honor, not a given.

Newspapers still print letters to the editor, of course. But the real action, such as it is, takes place in the comments threads. Those too-often vitriolic threads are ropes that strangle hope and goodwill and take the birdsong out of an early spring morning.

The candidates keep saying they get it, they know Americans are angry. I bet we’d all  feel less angry if we got off our computers and took a walk around the block or strolled around the yard. I think we all need to be quiet for a while so we can learn to listen to each other again.

What is the ideal way to sign an email to someone you’re not madly in love with? This is a question I have often pondered with little resolution. Here are my thoughts on email exit lines:

“Best,” Officious and ubiquitous. Best what? You, the email writer, are the best? I’m guilty of having used it–a long, long time ago–but honestly, “Best” is the worst.

“Best wishes,” My default. It is numbingly vacuous, but at least it answers the question of “best what?”

“Cheers,” This seems friendly and suggests a glass being lifted, yet I’m not a fan. I have long suspected that “Cheers” really means “Scram!”

“Ciao,” Cute and fun, and some people can pull this off–the same people who look good in polkadots and are always up for a game of Twister.

“Regards,” I’m warming to this one, which my CPA uses. It’s like an impartial nod of the head with eye contact. Not a whiff of false bonhomie.

“Sincerely,” This is a holdover from the days of actual letters. OK but a little fusty and quaint for email. Still, much better than “best.”

“xo,” I don’t mind receiving this one, but I rarely write it. I ask myself, “Given the chance, would I hug and kiss this person?” No? Then back to “Best wishes” it is.

“Yours,” I like this and have sometimes imagined affecting a jaunty “Yrs.” However, I worry that “Yours” makes promises it can’t keep. “Yours to the end of time”? Or are we really talking “Yours until a cutie-pie named Ciao comes along”?

“Yours truly,” This is another holdover from bygone days, the birther behind “Yours.” It belongs at the thrift shop among lid-less blenders and VCR tapes. I confess to having used it, but I have also inspected those blenders and read the titles of those tapes.

“Your friend,” I have an old friend who signs off with this one, and I have begun replying in kind. It’s the gentle and courteous closing that generations of schoolchildren were taught to use when writing letters to pen pals of their own age. It’s not right for every email, but it sure is nice when it’s true.

 

Unknown

 

 

As an audience member, I approach poetry readings with mingled feelings of hope and dread. These occasions can be truly marvelous or unspeakably awful.

If a poetry reading has any hope of success, certain rules must be observed. The introduction must be brief and free of blather. The poet must be sober and mindful of the clock. The audience, too, must do its part: it should be unplugged, properly fed and caffeinated, and savvy enough not to clap after every darned poem.

If a reading is awful, it is, of course, the poet’s fault. The poet has talked too long between poems, used the ridiculous, sing-song “poet voice,” or announced at the beginning, “You can hear me without the microphone, right?” The people in the back want to scream: Use it! Use it! Use it! It’s not there just to look pretty! But there’s always some knucklehead in the second row who nods obligingly, and the dumb-show begins.

A good reading remains a tantalizing possibility. It’s sort of like birdwatching: when you see and hear an actual fire-veined poet in the flesh, your heart does backflips. You thank the stars you showed up. You are not blinking, and when you get home, you pace around for a while before you can settle down.

Of the countless readings I’ve attended over the years, these three poets stand out as the real deal:

  • Lucille Clifton, reading in her adopted hometown of Columbia, Md., in the early 2000s. Clifton, who died in 2010, was the rare poet who left audiences wanting more. On this occasion, she was on stage for no longer than 30 minutes, her half of a two-poet reading. Her poem based on the molestation she experienced as a young girl elicited gasps from the audience. It was not a slam poet’s self-indulgent shock poem; it was “moonchild,” a heartrending study in restraint, published in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. When she closed with “won’t you celebrate with me,” she changed the pronouns so her signature poem about an individual woman’s survival against the odds became a communal celebration of endurance. I was not the only one who wept. Clifton had that much grace, that much power.
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Lucille Clifton

  • Louise Glück, reading at the University of Virginia in 1980 or 1981. The packed auditorium fell into rapt silence as soon as Glück opened her mouth. Slim and elegant in a black dress, she read her poems, many from The House on Marshland, without a word of commentary. You didn’t have to be Helen Vendler to know this was a poet headed toward greatness. Glück, whose very cool umlauted name means “luck” in German, is a brilliant presence on stage.
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Louise Glück

  • Gwendolyn Brooks, reading at the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, in the late 1990s. The reading took place in a cramped space with not enough folding chairs for all the people who wanted to hear the eighty-year-old poet and leading voice in the Black Arts Movement. Tall and commanding and wearing a colorful turban, Brooks read beneath the glaring light of a local community-access TV station. She read old poems and newer ones, some in sonnet form and some in free verse. With perspiration trickling down her face, she was as fully alive and present in the moment as anyone I’ve ever seen. She died in 2000. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the applause rocking the Cambridge library as she took her final bow.
brooks-g

Gwendolyn Brooks

If you look closely at Donald Trump’s hair, you will see a line of fleas holding up a small handmade sign: “Made in the U.S.A.”

And it’s true, damn it, Trump is all American. He is the deformed product of free enterprise and our country’s freakish love of fame. Because he had a TV show, he has name recognition. Because he’s wealthy, he has a platform. Because he’s an American narcissist whose lust for himself will never be satisfied, he’s running for President.

Put another way, he is a derivative of Allen Ginsberg’s Moloch. In his 1956 poem “Howl,” which quite rightly caused a ruckus, Ginsberg graphically and lengthily describes all the suffering souls of his generation. He then asks a very pertinent question, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”

His answer is, in part:

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

 

And so on. The name Moloch first shows up in the Old Testament as a pagan god to whom children are sacrificed. In Ginsberg’s hands, Moloch becomes a projection of all that is coldly, crudely, viciously American.  It is a horrifying vision.

But read Ginsberg’s lines again. They have a flickering quality like a hologram. Read in the right frame of mind, the tumbling hyperbole is very funny. Get a load of all the exclamation points. Moloch is absurd!

Now take note of the word choices: loveless, soulless, smoking tomb. This section of “Howl” is a mock dirge for a … thing that is and always was inhuman and lifeless. The power that Moloch holds over us is a figment of our own worst imaginings. Take a deep breath, exhale, and let Moloch go.

As for Trump, he too is horrifying, absurd, and powerful only if we pay him any mind. Let him go. Laugh at him and his fleas.

PT_Flea

 

A torn flag hangs
From the balcony of a two-story
Shack; fields of corn give way

To huge piles of trees, abandoned
Bulldozers. The prison looks
Magnificently calm.

At nightfall my heart goes
With the Crescent trundling souls
South to New Orleans.

My breath goes with
The deer filling my windshield.
We live live live live

What greater news than survival
On this road or any road
Taking each of us past

A few small graveyards
The smell of fertilizer
The shriek of a train.

–Hilary Holladay
Rt. 615 toward Culpeper

Earlier this year I interviewed a very talented artist, Jessie Meehan, who told me that she gets much of her inspiration in the moments right before she falls asleep. In that soupy space between waking and sleeping, she sees geometric shapes that eventually find their way into her magical, brightly colored paintings.

Jessie smiled as she told me about this. She didn’t mind talking about such things, and you can bet I was taking notes like crazy.

Her disarming revelation got me thinking about the mishmash of people who sometimes show up in my bedroom late at night. There I am, nearly asleep, when suddenly–behind my closed eyelids–a bunch of strangers begins shifting and moving toward me. Their faces are very clear and distinct. They are not speaking, just gliding around and coming ever closer. The sight of them can wake me up, but they don’t scare me. Not much anyway.

Sometimes, when I’m really relaxed, a thought seeps into my mind: “They are here, so I must be falling asleep. That’s good.” Then poof, it’s the next morning, and the cat is batting at my eyelashes and I’m awake again.

Who the heck are they? 

My guess is they’re strangers I’ve encountered somewhere or another–on the sidewalk, in a store, hurrying through an airport. My brain took a sort of screen shot of each one of them and filed it away. Now there are hundreds of thousands of them, and they slide into view when I’m very briefly able to observe the workings of my own mind.

Just to make things spookier, I suspect that some of them, maybe many, are people from other eras, other lifetimes.

Why? Because when I try to think about them–and it’s hard to concentrate and really think about them–I get glimpses of old-fashioned attire, long-ago faces.

They’re not from here, one might say.

Are they ghosts? Ancestors? A kind samaritan who gave a begging, sixteenth-century version of me a crust of bread? A Prussian soldier who lowered his bayonet and waved me away?

And so I live with them, my strangers in the night. Maybe someday I will paint them in shades of red and orange and green. Or maybe one of them will paint me.

Through the Trees

Through the Trees I Watched the Night Pass By-acryllic on canvas by Jessie Meehan

 

I have been to Heaven, and now I’m back. Most people talk about what they found there and all the sweet relatives they ran into while taking their first morning’s jog. But have you ever wondered what you won’t find in Heaven? If so, the following revelations may be of interest:

There’s no email in Heaven. Or texting. No one seems to miss either one. A tech-savvy angel told me, “If you get a chance, tell your friends to log off before they expire.” Also, be advised that “Hit Send” means something different in Heaven than it does down here.

No one in Heaven has Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Acid Reflux. Talk about blessings!

You can’t get Snickers bars in Heaven. But you can special-order Cheetos. I saw a bunch of angels with telltale orange fingers. They were really happy, and not in a “hey, let’s go play our harps” kind of way.

No one in Heaven has heard of Donald Trump. The question drew blank looks. Then I started asking about various other celebrities and political figures. One angel claimed to know Ronald Reagan, but then it turned out he was thinking of the airport.

There are no Casual Fridays in Heaven. This came as a relief, since who, really, has the right jeans for this? However, the philosopher-angels observe “Causal Wednesdays.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what this means, but it sounded dire. If and when I go back, I may try to hang with the Cheeto angels instead.

No one in Heaven uses acronyms. In my eleven seconds there (or years, depending on how you count), there was nary a mention of BO or TMI or TMJ or LMAO or YOLO. Suffice it to say, there’s time to spell things out.

Finally, there is no ear wax in Heaven. This turns out to be a real point of pride. Angels have the cleanest ears in and beyond the universe.

Just as I was leaving, I yelled out, “Do you have nose hairs?” But before I could divine an answer, I was back home, staring up at an enigmatically clear blue sky above the trampoline. I heard a “ding!” as a text came in, and then an EMT was running toward me, her outstretched hand proffering just the sustenance one needs upon returning from Heaven.

Snickers bar

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