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Greatest Blog Hits: Notes on Contributors

July 4, 2007 Comments off

The blog form is now ten years old. How better to celebrate that anniversary, we thought, than with a “Greatest Blog Hits” issue? For this theme, we reversed our usual prohibition against previously blogged material and asked for nothing but previously blogged material. And because our interest was in exhuming great posts that otherwise would continue to languish deep in blog archives, we required all submissions to have been blogged at least one year ago. Read the editors’ complete description here.

Many of the following notes are excerpted from the About pages on the writers’ respective blogs. We hope you’ll follow the links, and treat this page as a portal to some of the best writing on the ‘net.

Ivy Alvarez (Ivy is here) is the author of Mortal. In 2006, she was awarded a grant by the Australia Council for the Arts to write poems for her second manuscript. Her poems appear in journals and anthologies worldwide and online, including once before at qarrtsiluni, in the Come Outside issue. She also contributed a couple of interviews for the Science as Poetry theme.

Amba (Annie Gottlieb, Ambivablog) is a longtime New Yorker and lifelong graphomane currently staying in Chapel Hill, NC, taking care of her neurologically ill husband, copyediting for a living, and getting out and about in the blogosphere.

Anne-Mieke was born in a small village in the Netherlands, but in writing she feels more comfortable with using English. She has found that it is easier for her to write on beauty and intimacy when there is a distance between her and the words. Currently blogless and working in the field of arts education, she aims to become a professional photographer.

Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi) is a student in the Aleph rabbinic program. Her most recent collection of poems is chaplainbook (laupe house press, 2006). The Tex-Mex food of her childhood, early music, and the television show Veronica Mars are a few of her favorite things. Rachel is qarrtsiluni’s most prolific contributor, with ten pieces in the magazine to date.

Will Buckingham (thinkBuddha.org; personal website) recently completed a PhD in philosophy at Staffordshire University, and is currently in Bulgaria, researching his second novel and reading Spinoza for pleasure. His first novel, Cargo Fever, was published earlier this year by Tindal Street Press.

Maciej Cegłowski’s long-running blog Idle Words carries the delightful inscription, “Brevity is for the weak.” Maciej describes himself as a painter and computer guy living in San Francisco, who emigrated from Poland to the United States at the age of six. Read more about him here.

Chris Clarke (Creek Running North): “Born of woman in a small town in New York State, near a lake smote into the earth by a Pleistocene glacier, and a couple miles from the largest buckwheat mill in the US.” Read the rest of his entertaining autobiographical sketch here.

Richard Lawrence Cohen (RLC) is an Austin, Texas-based fiction writer. He was raised in the Bronx and has also lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Last year, he published a collection of posts from the first incarnation of his blog entitled Only What Is.

Teju Cole is the author of Every Day is for the Thief, published by Cassava Republic Press. He lives in Brooklyn. His work also appeared in the Ekphrasis, Education and Short Shorts issues.

Dale (mole) has taught medieval English poetry, chopped vegetables, and written software for a living; currently he maintains a database for a non-profit, and is finishing his last quarter in massage school. He is a Buddhist, in the Tibetan tradition, and lives with his wife and his two nearly grown children in Portland, Oregon. Dale has been a frequent contributor to qarrtsiluni since its inception.

Natalie d’Arbeloff (Blaugustine) is a multi-national artist and writer living in London. Together with her cartoon alter ego Augustine she illustrates deep but not heavy thoughts, autobiographies, and interviews hard-to-get celebrities such as Van Gogh, George W. Bush and God. Her latest book is The God Interviews, which first appeared as a comic strip on her blog. Previous books and limited editions are shown on her website.

Lorianne DiSabato (Hoarded Ordinaries) often describes herself as “spiritually promiscuous.” Her PhD dissertation was on spirituality of place in 19th and 20th century nature writing, and she teaches literature and writing at Keene State College and Southern New Hampshire University. She’s also a Zen teacher and a creativity and dissertation coach. Her work has appeared in qarrtsiluni three times before, and she served as editor, with Tom Montag, of the Finding Home issue.

Jean (this too) lives in London where she works as a university administrator and freelance editor and translator. A couple of years ago she began to rediscover a long-lost creative impulse through the inspiration of writers and photographers met online. She is a qarrtsiluni regular, with previous contributions appearing in the Ekphrasis, Come Outside, First Time, and Short Shorts issues.

Dick Jones (Patteran Pages), a drama teacher and musician, has been writing seriously for the past 20 years. His poems and short stories have been published in a wide range of magazines, both on- and offline, and he is currently preparing a selection of poetry for submission to publishers. This was his fifth appearance in qarrtsiluni.

Leslee (3rd House Journal) is a Boston-area writer and instructional designer in the medical and high tech industries. She writes poetry only sporadically, but posts journal snippets and photos to her blog regularly, as a compulsive twitch. Her work also appeared in the Change and Continuity and Short Shorts issues.

Tom Montag (The Middlewesterner) has been a regular qarrtsiluni contributor from the beginning, and has twice volunteered to guest-edit (Finding Home and First Time). His newest nonfiction titles are Peter’s Story, a memoir co-authored with Peter Pizzino, and The Idea of the Local, which includes an essay first published at qarrtsiluni, as well as his complete account of “Riding with the Local Used Cow Dealer,” from which we published an excerpt in this issue.

Edith Oberly blogs at Bitterroot and Bergamot, named for “wildflowers native to my two homes, Montana and Wisconsin.” Since she began blogging in April 2005, her focus has been on communicating the value of “heart-places,” as she calls them: natural areas in need of protection. A photo of hers appeared earlier, in the First Time issue.

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah (Koranteng’s Toli) hails from Ghana, by way of France and England, and describes himself as a technologist, omnivorous reader, sometime writer and music lover. He has collected the best from his first year and a half of blogging in an online Book of Toli (see here for a definition of “toli”).

Parmanu (Parmanu) is an Indian who has been living in Germany for the past six years. Through writing and photography, he likes to explore the expatriate experience, among other themes.

Finnish-Canadian artist Marja-Leena Rathje (website) has been contributing to qarrtsiluni since the first issue. Her printworks have been exhibited throughout Canada and internationally. She lives and works in Vancouver.

SJ (I, Asshole) lives in Seattle. “My degree, with my name misspelled on it and everything, says that I am a librarian. I am a stay-at-home tyrant to my minions right now, but I am also looking for freelance writing work,” she writes. The rest of her online bio is a fairly gripping story in its own right.

Jarrett Walker (Creature of the Shade) writes, “I’m a consultant in city planning (public transportation mainly) but also have a PhD in a humanities field. … For five years, I was the men’s fiction editor at Blithe House Quarterly, an online magazine of literary gay and lesbian fiction. … I moved from North America to Australia in 2006 but retain a foot on both sides of the Pond, despite the obvious strain to the thigh muscles involved.” A piece by Walker also appeared in the Change and Continuity issue.

zeladoniac (Drawing the Motmot) is the nom de blog of Debbie Cotter Kaspari, a professional wildlife artist based in Oklahoma.

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Lost Treasure

June 28, 2007 3 comments

From Blaugustine, January 17, 2006 (now included in the Autobiography archive)

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The old house on the Rio Paraguay as it looked when my family first arrived there

So when and why did I decide to bury Mickey?

I’ve tried but can’t get back into the state of mind I was in when on a certain day of that happy childhood I went walking (was it by the river or in the orange grove or in the wide open flat expanse of thorny palms?) and at some point, bent down and started digging (with my fingers?), laid my beloved little Mouse in the hole and covered him with dry red soil.

Didn’t I even leave a marker on the grave, some stones or sticks? Why would I want to bury my favourite toy? All I know is that I was sure I’d find him again and when I couldn’t, some time later (how much later?) I was devastated.

And why is it that after all these years I still feel desolate about this loss? Taking the Mickey means making fun of – what does losing the Mickey mean?

When we were still living at the old stone house on the river bank, before the big house was built, we heard stories about the treasure that Madame Lynch was supposed to have buried in 1860-something, right there at that spot in the Quinta Recalde. One night when we were all asleep, there was a lot of shouting and clattering and men on horses. We were told it was the police chasing robbers who were looking for the treasure, which had never been found. Maybe Eliza Lynch did bury her stash of gold and jewels, thinking she’d come back and dig it up one day. But never did, and it’s still there. Like my Mickey.

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“Mbaeveraguazu”. NdA. Gouache & watercolour.

There was a Guarani belief that Mbaeveraguazu, the legendary El Dorado or mythical golden city, was hidden in the Paraguayan jungle. Another never-found treasure. This is a painting I did as I imagined it, years later when I came back as a grown-up artist (I don’t have a colour photo. The painting is in a private collection in Italy).

I knew the words of several songs in Guarani, I still do. A young girl called Delia taught them to me; she was my friend – at least I thought so. Suddenly she’d be sullen and distant and I didn’t know why. You could never be sure that a Paraguayan would be the same from one moment to the next. Delia’s favourite phrase was “No me importa, la vida es corta, la morte segura” (I don’t care, life is short, death is certain).

That time I went back to Paraguay on my own, I painted portraits of the local people, some of whom had known me as a child and remembered my family with affection. On the right is my portrait of Annuncia holding an unknown child. On the left is Annuncia with Adela: both of them had cooked and cleaned for all of us, way back then. Below is a reflection of myself as I saw it in the glass doors of the big house, on the same terrace where I stood as a child, looking out towards the Rio Paraguay.

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“Annuncia and Child” NdA. Oil on board.

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“Self-portrait, San Antonio, Paraguay” NdA. Oil on board.

by Natalie d’Arbeloff

Texts for Today’s Sermon

June 25, 2007 Comments off

From The Middlewesterner, May 14, April 30, and March 19, 2006

If you
would be

holy,
carry

what
carries

you.

****

Rich friend,
you think

you have
so much

and I
so little?

I have
the world

and you
the sadness

of things.

****

Blow me down, Lord.
Push me back.

I am almost home.

by Tom Montag

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Therapy

June 22, 2007 Comments off

From Under a Bell (no longer online), May 22, 2004

Low sun through window panes. Sharply reflected by my paleness, back to the badly cleaned glass to stay and form miniature rainbows. The wooden spoon in my right hand swirls in courgette chunks and a ready-made Thai stir fry mix from the grocery store. Always his eyes and his fingers on the pink, transforming the shape.

I can smell the oil and the spices, which I added merely because I love the sound of their names – basil, thyme, rosemary. A tablespoon of sweet and sour sauce. While it is slightly too late for the shrimp, I decide to give their rosy flesh a chance to gain a little more than a hint of the flavour I created, before I throw in the noodles in an attempt to make the meal hearty enough for my hungry man.

His voice and his sparkling warm eyes when I place the steaming bowl on the table and sit down with my arms crossed over my shoulders: “Who are you hiding for?”

One noodle lands on the skin, in a perfect half-circle.

by Anne-Mieke

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Chuck

June 20, 2007 Comments off

From I, Asshole, October 1, 2001

Once, I had a friend named Chuck. I met him in my psych class because he immediately began talking to me, the very first day.

He decided inside of ten minutes that we should start dating; after twenty he knew that we were meant to be together forever.

Despite this, Chuck’s intensity was one of the things I appreciated about him.

A few weeks after I met him (and a week before the Homecoming dance), my boyfriend unceremoniously dumped me. I was now fair game, right? Chuck asked me to the dance and I accepted, and even went out and bought a new dress for the occasion. Conveniently, my best friend was asked along by Chuck’s friend, so I had someone with me that I knew. The group we were going with were pretty cool kids in a marginal way – we were all flamboyant weirdos but everyone knew us, so we were all a good fit.

The new dress was a mistake; we never even made it to the dance.

After a nice (to the boys’ credit) Italian dinner we were taken to Chuck’s, where a house devoid of parental authority awaited us.

So we could be alone for a few minutes, Chuck took me out to pick up a couple of cases of beer. He was sincere in his romantic intentions; we had a nice moment listening to “Nightswimming,” after which he tried to kiss me. I ducked him since I was still smarting over recently being dumped by my ex.

As soon as we arrived, Chuck and his friends went into a sudden death drinking match. To make up for his recently damaged ego, Chuck rapid-fire drank six beers, and promptly vomited into his kitchen trashcan. Sexy! He was instantly drunk, despite his system’s rejection of most of the beer. My friend and I sat on the couch, watching, while we timidly sipped our single beers. A few minutes later my friend left to go make-out with her date, so I was left alone with Chuck. We went into his room.

There wasn’t much to it; just a bed without a frame and some scattered belongings. What I noticed right away, however, was his nunchuku.

“Wow! Where did you get these?”

“My Dad got them for me in Chicago. Watch this.” Chuck proceeded to give me a display with his nunchuku that I had previously only seen in bad kung-fu movies on late-night cable.

“Gosh, you’re good at that.”

“Yep. Thanks.” Chuck thought for a moment. “You know, every time I look at these things it makes me think of something.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

Chuck did not ever mince words.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to see one end of these inside a girl’s vagina.”

Oh dear.

“And I’ve got twenty bucks that says you won’t do it.”

“Make it forty, motherfucker, and I’ll swing ’em around.”

*************

I didn’t see Chuck much after that. I hooked up with another guy who didn’t have an orifice fetish. But I still heard about the many fantastic doings of Chuck.

For instance, my best friend had a science class with him; the teacher asked if anyone would be willing to volunteer various secretions (such as saliva) for viewing under the microscope. According to my friend, the next day Chuck brought in a sample of semen in an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” tub.

“It was really crazy! He put it on the slide, and they were so fresh they were still wiggling around. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

For a moment I felt a pang that I hadn’t assented to becoming the girlfriend of the gutsiest person I knew.

We went out as friends a few times after that. He told me about his life. He told me that he really regretted his relationship with his last girlfriend because he had always faked orgasms with her. I found this revelation perplexing; Chuck was an admitted chronic masturbator and had even brought some of his spoils into school. Until this point, I hadn’t realized that men could fake orgasms.

Once when we went out he showed me his penis, which surprisingly I hadn’t seen yet. Chuck was having an insecure moment while we were talking in his car. Suddenly, he whipped it out. Chuck had the weirdest penis I had ever seen; he made it get hard and it was only about a couple inches long, and looked like it was about three inches wide. The closest I can come to describing it is to say it looked like a potato.

“What do you think? Is it too small?”

“No,” I lied. “It looks fine to me.”

About a month later, Chuck disappeared.

We knew he dropped out. Some people heard he had moved to France; others heard he was in Alaska.

I didn’t think about him much after that, until I had a party at my house. The parents were in Las Vegas, and I had a mellow soirée with about 12 people including my current boyfriend.

After several bong hits, around about 11:30, the doorbell rang. It was Chuck.

“Hey, how ya been?”

He had lost about 100 pounds and looked like he had gained about five years.

“Come in! Where have you been?”

“Well, I became a Zen monk in New Orleans. Now I’m back.”

“Great. I’m having a party. Do you want a beer?”

Chuck informed me that he was going by the kinder, gentler moniker ‘Charlie’ now. He was after a friend of mine all evening and ended up with her in the ‘rents Jacuzzi.

Good old Chuck.

by SJ

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Notes of Thanksgiving

June 18, 2007 4 comments

From Creature of the Shade, October 11, 2005

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If you allow yourself to fantasize about your ideal country, I bet you’ll think of one that’s defended by nature. Perhaps you’ll think of a mountain valley walled off from invaders and influence: Switzerland or Bhutan or the Shangri-la of legend. Or maybe you’ll think of an island-state, like the England of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt:

This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
— Richard II, ii.1

Today some of us dream of Iceland or New Zealand in search of the same security, that sense (however illusory) that in such a place, the complexity and danger of the world is far away.

Secure in such boundaries, whether mountain or water, you can spin out the culture and values of your ideal country with ease. Culture will change, of course, but slowly enough, and around-the-edges enough, that it will still be your ideal country’s culture.

But what if you didn’t have natural boundaries? What if your country was a few people spread across a vast distance? What if your border was a long, straight imaginary line, so that your people lived closer to foreigners than to each other? Then, inventing your ideal country would be like trying to paint on a surface where paint turns to droplets and rolls away, while droplets from other paintings are rolling in. You couldn’t even begin.

Such is the challenge of imagining Canada. It’s hopeless, but Canada is here, unimagined. And because the harvest is earlier here, today is Canada’s Thanksgiving.

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Thanks for the worst kind of border, impossible to defend, easier to cross than to work within. Thanks for the 49th Parallel, a mathematical thread stretched east-west where everything else — mountains, rivers, energy infrastructure — runs north-south. Thanks for the 141st Meridian, between the Yukon and Alaska, which runs north-south where everything else runs east-west. Thanks for a border that is not only unnatural, but perpendicular to nature.

Thanks, as a result, for the odd sensation that the two sides of the border are the same place in every way that matters: the same high valley, the same alpine plateau, the same cliff-face, the same coastal boglands, the same rainforest, the same Point Roberts peninsula. And the same culture: the same dying prairie towns, the same wild west, the same rainy urban cappucinos, even the same Mormon polygamists. Thanks for a border that you can hike across by accident, high in the mountains, often without a sign.

Thanks for the arctic pressure that compresses the population against the border, so that the nation is the border, as arbitrary as the border itself. Thanks for the national intellectuals who worry about this for us, e.g. for John Ralston Saul, who can begin a chapter with the words: “The natural flow of Canada is east-west.” Thanks for the perfect emptiness of the word “natural” in this sentence, the creative archeology of it, as though we are picking out geologic strata as glimpsed through a waterfall.

Thanks, back east, for the cradle of Canada, the one place where cities can get back from the border and invent unbordered selves. Thanks that this center is also the center of the great division, the “two solitudes” of French and English. Thanks that however often a political leader declares that “the time of the two solitudes … is past,” the twoness will linger as long as there are two languages, and will multiply as Punjabi and Cantonese and many others find new and honored homes. Thanks for a century of practice at truly multilingual democracy, long before it was the fashion.

Thanks, still, for the special status of the French language even in the furthest corners of Canada. Thanks that a friend of mine is paid to produce French translations of the laws of the Yukon Territory. Thanks that when Japanese- and Chinese-language focus groups were asked what languages other than English should be on the signs in Vancouver’s new subway, French was their top priority.

A special thanks for South Asia’s superpower status among immigrant cultures. Thanks to people who left home countries whose low-temperatures exceed Vancouver’s highs, and who brought food and color that erupt against the prevailing northern grays. Thanks for elegant women wearing saris whose color and texture seem like windows to another planet. Thanks for the fact that conversations in the halls of power often occur in Punjabi, and that nobody minds. Thanks for the clearwater simplicity of Sikh ethics, among the many spiritual traditions arriving on this wave. Thanks for the fact that any national politician must not only speak at least two languages fluently, but must also look not-too-silly in the simple head-covering one wears to Sikh events.

Thanks for the Arctic, the otherness that presses Canadians into the border, a frontier that a century of global warming will not close. Thanks for the world’s highest per-capita supply of barren arctic islands. Thanks, as a result, for the almost tongue-in-cheek attitude that prevails over Hans Island, a rock near Greenland that is claimed by both Canada and Denmark. Thanks for the Swiftian absurdity of this dispute, plainly evident to most Canadians. Thanks for the polite editorials on both sides, suffused with such equanimity that the whole matter will probably be resolved with a game of chess, or the flip of a coin.

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Boundless, passionate thanks for the dying leaf, for the permanent autumn of Canadian patriotism. Thanks for the way the flag, rippling in uneven breeze, can fold to suggest the shapes of a leaf further gone toward mulch, the leaf already part-decayed or stepped on. Thanks for the red leaf painted on faces — whether at hockey games or on Canada Day in midsummer — a symbolic gesture of pride that is also a literal welcoming of decay: the Fourth of July and Ash Wednesday rolled into one. Thanks for all of the insecurity, mortification, and anxiety that can be spun from this image. Thanks for the serenity that lives these contradictions.

Thanks for a country that didn’t need the Buddhists to explain the “wisdom of insecurity,” because it has known nothing else.

Finally, thanks for the big noisy neighbors, so big and so noisy that Canada is all but invisible to them. When national identity becomes too shaky, Canadians can always complain about the neighbors. They can even say rude things about them, confident the neighbors will never hear. Saying rude things is good exercise sometimes; perhaps it should be a holiday tradition.

From Canada, and to Canada, happy Thanksgiving.

creature4.jpg

by Jarrett Walker

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That Long Grey Corridor

June 15, 2007 4 comments

From Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages, June 3, 2004

Judi Benson, in her introduction to the poetry of bereavement anthology The Long Pale Corridor, writes of poets dealing with death in their work as ‘daring to give expression to the unthinkable in an effort to make sense of it.’ Certainly if poets have a task to perform in the service of all it is to engage with the unfathomable, the ineffable, & to try to distill from them some sort of lingua franca that will enable meaning. And from the earliest of writings to the contemporary, that function has produced some of the finest & most enduring of utterances. From the solemn, beautiful but ultimately didactic pronouncements from Ecclesiastes (All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again) to Dylan Thomas’s angry & desperate invocation to his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light, some articulation of the inconceivable is being attempted.

For my part, I have no belief in a divine being who is our author at the beginning, our custodian during the journey & our ferryman at the end. What lies beyond death for me is a mystery. I assume extinction but, of course, the force that drives me, my sense of self, revolts against the assumption. However, I seem to retain, at least to some degree, the child’s conviction of personal immortality. A combination maybe of immaturity & self-centredness preserves me against any active apprehension of the notion of my own non-existence. When I imagine the death of my partner or my children I am appalled, but ruthless analysis of what I believe I would feel in a world without them tells me more about my perception of myself than of them as independent souls. To be is to be perceived: with their passing there would pass also the greater part of what I am now, such is my absorption into who & what they are. Thus their deaths would involve processes of extinction for me too. But beyond some inchoate sense of the theoretical plausibility of such an eventuality – through a car accident, sudden illness, murder – their deaths have no developed reality or meaning for me.

So in respect of my own mortality &, by extension, the mortality of those intimately close, I seem to ‘cast a cold eye’ as I engage with day-to-day life. The death of my father six years ago, however, did produce in me a completely different dynamic. He died at the age of 88 after a short illness, moving rapidly from complete alertness to his condition through brief unconsciousness to death. What struck me forcibly during the few months of the inception & advancement of the cancer was his curious compound of calmness & phlegmatism coupled with fascinated absorption with the mechanisms of what he recognised from the start as the process of dying. Lacking religious faith too – although pretending open-minded agnosticism to my believing mother – he adopted towards dying the same Zen-like detachment that had characterised his living. As he awaited death the sense of excitement & joy in nature that so energised him throughout his life, moved into a state of equilibrium with an acute awareness of oncoming extinction. I asked him a couple of weeks before he died whether, even at the very end, he would still be asking questions that he knew would never be answered. He smiled & said, “Oh, I should think so.” I thought then, as I think now, of Jung’s declaration – a favourite of Dad’s – in Sermons to the Dead:

In all times and in all places is Creation.
In all times and in all places is Death.
Man is a Gateway.

He saw what few steps of his mortality were left as taking him up to that gateway. And that’s the closest that either of us got, or are likely to get, to a sense of death within a spiritual dimension.

What of poetry in relation to these contemplations of death? Firstly, a general proposition. Throughout time by far the most enduring poetic preoccupation has been with solemn, ritualistic considerations of death within the context of religious belief, & these largely concerned with death as a conduit to a better place. With the passing of fundamentalism & the emergence of a more humanistic existential view, the poet’s concern overlapped the spiritual & the personal apprehension of death – as, for example, in Tennyson’s synthesis in In Memoriam of personal agony & a sense of the immanence of God in the wake of the death of Arthur Hallam. Subsequently the 20th century poet – notably in the aftermath of the First World War – focused acutely on bereavement, seeking through verse, if not answers to mighty questions, at least some accommodation of unspeakable loss.

Secondly, my most focused reflections on the death of my father emerged not in the form of emotional reaction or rational analysis but as a poem. I conclude with it now, not with any great notions as to its artistic value but as a statement of personal accommodation that attempts some sort of inclusiveness. It comments principally on the characteristic nature of my father’s recording of his passage through illness. It also considers the manner of his passing & the peace that it brought him & his family, who were with him near to the end. For me a poem best marshalled, organised & codified my reactions to bereavement.

CLEAR BLUE SKY

My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.

When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well,” “Insomnia,” “Coughing still.”

For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky,’ and we turned to see.

My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky,’ floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night
and, one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.

by Dick Jones

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Red Umbrella

June 13, 2007 5 comments

From 3rd House Journal, July 25, 2005

Red umbrella

Bright spot of shade
sanguine against the blue –
What does it hide?

My mother licks her dripping cone
blissfully oblivious.
Soon she’ll be whisked
from her beloved shores
carried away
as under a red balloon
kicking wildly, angry as Mars.

Meanwhile I veil myself
in vacant smiles
hold my breath, submersed
in blue, cold as Sedna
beneath an upended
red canoe.

by Leslee

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Facing Impermanence

June 11, 2007 3 comments

From Velveteen Rabbi, April 13, 2005

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone — I’ll call her D — is a fellow congregant at CBI. We’re both poets, both interested in midrash, so we’ve moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn’t call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They’re always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I’m comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it’s difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies? What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn’t offer my assistance. I wasn’t sure I was ready. I wasn’t sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I’ve never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I’d meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?

***

We’re in the middle of a pair of Torah portions which focus on questions of taharah and tumah. After D called I wondered whether God was chuckling at my earnest attempt to come to grips with these issues. “Nu, you want to delve into the nature of purity and impurity?” S/He seemed to be asking. “I’ll give you some taharah to wrestle with!” It’s one thing to contemplate why the Torah tells us that touching a corpse makes one tamei but the act of preparing a dead body for burial is the ultimate act of taharah; it’s another thing to face that reality in an embodied way.

I spent a while surfing the internet, reading the surprising number of essays written about performing taharah. My favorite was by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, published in Reform Judaism in 2001. It’s called Final Touches, and it’s by turns funny and poignant. (Also excellent, though less personal and more intellectual, is Catherine Madsen’s Love Songs to the Dead, which uses the psalms and prayers recited during taharah as a jumping-off-point for exploring liturgy’s power and what it derives from.)

More than once, during the day, I felt glad that I had woken up early to davven the morning service. I began yesterday wrapped in my prayer shawl and tefillin, asserting my intention to spend the day mindful and thankful, awake and alive. It seemed likely that I would need that grounding as evening approached.

For a woman of thirty, I’m absurdly fortunate. I’ve lost grandparents, but I’ve never had to deal directly with death that came as a shock or seemed profoundly unfair. And until last fall, when my husband’s grandmother passed away, I had never actually seen a dead body. Jewish tradition teaches that the body of someone who has died must be treated like the sacred vessel that it has been, and pre-funeral practices grow out of the principle of kavod ha-meit, honoring the dead. The neshama, the soul, is believed to linger near the body until interment, and our process of taharah would prepare the body for burial and reassure the soul that its work here is done. Would I be able to face the shell which had once housed a human being?

***

When evening came, four volunteers were present. All of us are on the synagogue’s religion committee, so we’ve worked together before. We began in the funeral home parlor, perched on a pair of sofas, reading psalms to center ourselves. We prayed that we might see God reflected in the face of the meit, the person whose body we were about to prepare, and also in each others’ faces as we joined in this work. “I’m glad you’re here,” D said as we headed down the stairs to the workroom, and I felt a wash of gladness, too.

The steps of the process are simple. Wash hands (thrice each, as in any ritual hand-washing) and don gloves and aprons. Say a prayer asking the meit to forgive you for any inadvertant offenses or missteps committed during the taharah. Wash the body lovingly with warm cloths. De-glove. Ritually wash hands again, glove up again, and (since we have no mikveh to immerse her in) wash the body with a constant stream of poured water (nine kavim, or three buckets full), repeating, “tehorah hee” (“She is pure”) together. Dry her. Dress her in handstitched white linen: trousers, an undershirt, an overshirt, a tie around the waist. Sprinkle sand from the Mount of Olives on her eyes, then don the facecloth and bonnet. Tie every set of strings so that the loops form a letter shin, representing Shaddai, a name of God. Place her in a simple pine box, on a white linen sheet, and wrap the sheet over her before closing the box.

I felt strangely calm throughout. It was strange, seeing a body with no soul in it; stranger still to wash her, an act that seemed impossibly intimate; but I was okay. I felt an outpouring of tenderness, occasionally giving in to the impulse to stroke her hair or her arm, thinking, “it’s okay, dear. We’re here. You’re okay.” Now and again my mind supplied me with moments of irreverence, as when I glanced into the coffin (which must contain nothing artificial, so it was lined with fine curly wood shavings) and thought of the straw nests in which etrogim
are shipped from Israel. The four of us moved around the steel gurney like a team of surgeons, handing each other washcloths and towels, turning her body to wash and dry what we couldn’t easily reach. Her hands were clenched but her feet were beautiful, and her round belly. I wondered if she had borne children.

Jewish burial garments are the same for everyone, a reflection of our fundamental equality in the eyes of God. The trousers are sewn shut at the bottom, so they concealed her feet; the sleeves of the shirts were long enough to wrap over the tips of her fingers. The sand we trickled onto her eyelids was pale and golden, and somehow that was the moment when the irreversibility of the process hit me. It reminded me of the morning blessing praising God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Some say the Jerusalem sand is used so that the first thing she “sees” in the World to Come will be the soil of the holy land, but to me it felt like we were providing the flipside to that morning blessing. In this embodied life we thank God for opening our eyes; now we were marking the closing of her physical eyes. Maybe her neshama no longer needed eyes to see.

We placed a linen cloth over her face, and tied the bonnet on, and then she was a bundled white human-shaped figure: no features, no distinguishing marks, only legs and arms, a torso and a head, a small still white figure. A little awkwardly we lifted her and placed her atop the white sheet we had laid over the plain pine box, and wrapped the sheet over her, and then, suddenly, out of the blue, I was shaking with silent tears. I leaned on the edge of the coffin of a woman I had never known, and understood what we had done for her, and wept and wept.

My three chevre clustered around me and hugged me. We maintained the silence we had held throughout (we spoke only when we needed cues for lifting or moving her, and when we were taking turns pouring the unceasing stream of water that sufficed in place of mikvah immersion), and after a few minutes I stood straight and peeled off my gloves and apron, and we closed the box, and we hugged again, and then we walked away.

Tying the special shin-shaped knot was tricky (only one of we four had any facility with it). As we left the funeral home, one of my fellow chevra members — a young great-grandmother, but older than me by a long shot — turned to me and said, “When it’s me on that table, don’t worry about the knots!” We laughed, then, all four of us, and even though my face was still wet I felt good. Amazingly it was still light out when we left the funeral home (only an hour and a half had passed) and I felt dazed, a little giddy, as I headed towards my car. The evening was still and luminous, just barely warm enough for birdsong.

***

I can’t say I came away understanding life and death. I can’t say it was easy. But it seems right that we do this for one another. At Jewish funerals, mourners cast at least a symbolic handful of dirt onto the coffin: a final task we can perform for each other, a way of showing that we take care of our own, a way of reaching closure. Being a part of the chevra kadisha is like that, just a lot more intense. We rely on each other, in the end.

Incarnation is a mystery. What we are, how we can be simultaneously holy-and-embodied (I thank God every morning for the miracle of my body) and holy-beyond-our-bodies (I thank God every morning for my neshama, my soul, calling it pure in the exact same words the members of a chevra kadisha will someday use to sanctify my body), is not something I can intellectually understand. But I know that I want to honor the whole journey, and that birth and death are points of contact with this great thing I cannot entirely grasp.

Death scares me. Not that I will someday die, but that those I love will die, that I will lose access to the people who shape my world. And I will. We all do. And that’s okay, it’s the rules of the game. Even now people mourn the woman whose body I washed and dressed and blessed last night, and in performing this mitzvah I connected myself with all of her mourners. With everyone doing those tasks all around the world. With the people who washed and shrouded the bodies of my ancestors, and the people who will sanctify the bodies of my children.

As a poet I fear the lapse from sentiment into sentimentality, and I’m not sure how to talk about this without sliding into cliché. Clearly this had a strong impact on me; I dreamed last night that I was back in the basement room of the funeral home again today, preparing to do this duty again. (The dream depicted an impossible situation: a mixed-gender chevra, which included a young male Buddhist monk in burgundy and saffron robes. Make of that what you will.) But here’s what I know: there is nothing scary about touching a dead body. Doing so is human, and comforting, and sad.

It’s good that D’s call came out of the blue. I didn’t have time to dream up excuses, or to second-guess my assent. I was needed, and I stepped up, and the experience was deep enough that it kept me in the moment. And now I know that I can do this. It’s strange and difficult, but it’s also powerful. We’re a small community; we celebrate a lot more simchas than we do losses. But I’m a part of my synagogue’s chevra kadisha now. It’s like being on a volunteer fire department. I don’t have to be there every week, it’s not a regular part of my life. But next time the need arises, they can call on me. And now when I pray the words of the amidah which praise God Who keeps faith with us beyond life and beyond death, they’ll mean something new to me. I’m not sure I understand them, but that’s okay.

by Rachel Barenblat

Scanning

June 9, 2007 2 comments

From Marja-Leena Rathje, January 25, 2006

marjaleena_1.jpg

Yesterday I had the urge for some creative play so I gathered several small objects – a piece of ammonite, a dried piece of root or lichen, curled bark, shells, dried flowers, and dried pomegranates. I placed an object on my scanner and covered it with either a black or cream cloth, selected a high resolution and magnification and scanned away. The results were very exciting, with good depth of field and great detail. The ones with dark cloth remind me of old Dutch paintings.

Above is one with a piece of root or lichen, a bit smaller than the palm of my hand, that I’d picked off a beach long ago. Isn’t it amazing? Of course you can’t see it here very well in this low resolution and small size, but when I looked at it full screen size, guess what I discovered there: a tiny dead but fully intact insect with its wings spread out. I’ve cut out that portion and blown it up some more. Can you see it in the image below?

marjaleena_2.jpg

I had fun and felt a surge of creative energy – and even learned some new scanning tricks. Sometime I may post some more of these scans. I may never use these images in my art work, but you never know. The mind processes these experiences and images over a long time and they may appear much later, perhaps incorporated in a new way in new work. What was that saying by Picasso about being open to everything one sees and feels and that may become a painting… or something like that?

by Marja-Leena Rathje