Here Behind the Golden Door

What does it take
to leave your home,
your land, all the people
who shared your heritage,
maybe even your name,
to step into the unknown?
Your destination may shine
like the golden door
the green lady lights
with her uplifted lamp.

What’s it like to line up
for the unknown darkness
with the tired and poor,
hell, the wretched refuse?
See how she invites
all of these, the homeless
and tempest-tossed, to join
in breathing the clear,
the fetid, the piney,
the prairie, the briny,
all of this air
redolent of freedom?

You don’t have to know,
my friend. A handful of
men and women, members
of those unintelligible
huddled masses, each
with your name, or
maybe something like it,
stood in the box and
answered them for you
so you could be born
there on second base,
think you hit a triple
and call this place Home.

Don’t know where this came from. Maybe it came across my creative ocean because I’m tracing my roots back to Ireland, Bavaria and Hesse and have run into the antithesis of a golden door, more a leaden wall.  We’re so lucky, ya know?

Cradles

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They each hold their positions
of conscious unconsciousness.
One on her side, her back, her side,
gently rolling in a sea of slumber
only a child floats upon.
The other, in his soft chair,
head back, closed eyelids a’twitch,
whispering the tender tuneN
of the chain saw’s lullaby.
The house is quiet, save for
the call and response of
the gentle snores of toddler,
grandparent and furnace,
all keeping harmony with
the breathing of nearby homes,
each suspended from the dreamy
winter afternoon sky by tendrils
of exhalation from their chimneys
swaying in the breeze
like a nursery of cradles.

Any similarities between this scene and mine and my granddaughter’s afternoon here in cold and sleepy upstate New York are completely coincidental. Yeah…sure.

Unlock the Doors and Throw Away the Keys

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“How long’s he been in there?”

“Really? I’m not sure anymore. Could be a couple of hours. Could just as easily be a couple of months.”

“He just sits in there? Doesn’t talk to anyone?”

“That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. I’ve been in there a few times today, but he just looks at you––or maybe through you––and grunts an ‘uh-huh’ or ‘nah-thanks’. And then goes back to reading or staring or maybe just staring at what he’s reading.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“I thought maybe you could go in there and try to bring him out. If not out of his room, then out of whatever shell or hole his hiding in. He’s always respected you, Ben. You’re always been Andy’s favorite coach, a mentor, a friend. I’m sure he’ll listen to you.”

“I don’t know. He’s been a little withdrawn for a bit. Still the hardest worker. Great pride and caring for his teammates. But he has been quieter and it’s really been noticeable since…you know.”

“But at least it’s worth a try. Please, see if you can get him to come out.”

“Okay, I’ll go in there and talk. But I can’t make any promises. We haven’t spoken with one another since the service.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Andy? It’s Coach Ben. May I come in?”

A pause.

“Andy?”

“Yeah, if you want to.”

“Hey. How you doing? I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by to say…”

“Could you close that door, please?”

“What? Oh, sure, sure. I’ll just leave it open a crack, okay?”

“Whatever.”

“So how you been? Your Mom says you’ve been kinda down in the dumps, though I can completely understand. What with..”

“Yeah, well, it is what it is. I’m okay. Just want to be alone for a while.”

“She says you haven’t left your room for a few days. Barely even eaten. That’s not good, man.”

“Not hungry. And I said I’m all right. Really. You don’t have to make nice and try making me feel ‘better.’ Okay?”

“Well, you don’t look okay. Jesus, can you at least open the blinds in here? It’s dark as the…oh, sorry.”

“The grave? Yeah, how ‘bout that?”

“I’m sorry, man. I should be more sensitive, think about what I’m saying. It’s just I didn’t expect to see you so…I don’t know.”

“Depressed?”

“Yeah, I guess I’d call it that. But, with your Dad and all, I can understand.”

“No, I don’t think so. But that’s okay. Look, you don’t have to stay. I’m all right. Just thinking. Trying to make sense. Figuring things out.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing, nothing really. Just…things.”

“C’mon, Andy, it’s me. Maybe if you just talked a little.”

“Okay, okay. I’m thinking about how I killed my father. You satisfied now? Now go away. Please.”

“What’re you talking about? You didn’t kill your dad. He, well, you know. For some reason he just wanted out. It’s a tragedy, man, but you can’t blame yourself for someone else’s decisions.”

“Oh, no? You didn’t know my dad, then. When I finally got the courage to tell Sergeant Clean Marine, Lieutenant Super-cop, he just stared at me with this look of…I don’t know what. Like I was some kind of repulsive criminal, a pedo or something.”

“That’s ridiculous. Your old man was proud of you. Super athlete, straight-A student, one of the most popular kids in your class, great son, true friend.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying. It’s all true.”

“Not you. Me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’m the liar. My whole life’s a lie and that’s what made my dad kill himself.”

“You’re freaking me out, Andy. What do you mean, your whole life’s a lie?”

“C’mon, man. You know. You of all people know.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I finally told him about who, what I am. And that I was in love.”

“Yeah,so…”

“With you.”

“What? I never… You never.. You came out to your dad?”

“Yeah. And now you.”

“Okay, one big fucking deal at a time. And you think that’s why?”

“Not a two weeks after, man. He didn’t speak to me but a handful of words from the day I told him. I’d look up and find him looking at me and then quick-like tear his eyes away, like I was malformed, a freak.”

“Man, I’m sorry. Did you tell your Mom?”

“No, I wanted to get the hard part over first, then I’d worry about Mom. That was my big mistake. Besides even telling him at all.”

“I can’t believe your father would take that news like that. He always seemed so open, so loosey-goosey about people, especially for a cop. It’s what made him such a great cop.”

“Well, then you’d be wrong, Coach. I told him, I broke his heart, he killed himself. It’s all on me. And now I’m been thinking I might…”

“Cut it out, man. Stop this crazy talk. You’re not going to. You’ve got too much to live for. Your old man made his own decision. He didn’t have to do what he did. He could just as easily blown up, punch you in the mouth, thrown you out, whatever. It was his decision. This was all on him.”

“Nah. He’d rather be dead than have a gay son. Of that I’m sure.”

“Andy, stop! You stop that right now.”

“Mom? Were you listening? Jesus Christ, this is great. Why don’t we invite the whole town in here? I’m sorry, Mom. It was me. It IS me…”

“Honey, your father didn’t kill himself over you. He loved you. You were his shining light, the greatest decoration he had. He was more proud of you, valued you a thousand times more than his Silver Star, all the medals of valor combined, more than even me.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. It’s all my fault. I drove him to it. Did you see his face? Did you?”

“Andy, that was pain, fear. He didn’t have the courage to tell you.”

“What? That I was an embarrassment to the marble man? The most perfect man ever?”

“Stop it.”

Ben back toward the bedroom door.

“The world would be better off if I was the one who killed himself. Then you’d still have Dad.”

“No, I wouldn’t. He was dying.”

“What?”

“Dying, Andy. Your father had an inoperable tumor. Remember those headaches?”
“No. I never… I mean, he never said…”

“He said he’d tell you when the time was right. But he decided to end it before it got started. He left it to me to tell you. You know cops. They just…”

“Don’t cry, Mom. I’m sorry. But when I told him..”

“Andy, we’d pretty much figured out something like that was going on with you a while ago. It was hard for your father, but he’d come around for the most part. He was even going to tell you we knew, wouldn’t let me. Said it was a man-to-man thing. I was so stupid. It’s just that men in his family never open up, don’t talk about what’s really on their minds. Macho bullshit. And you’re a true Miller, just like your father, your grandfather, your uncle Bobby. He’s gay, you know.”

“ Uncle Bobby, the freakin’ All-American? I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of this. Why..?”

“Because everyone kept their doors closed. All the time. That’s the real tragedy of your father’s passing.”

“I’ll see myself out, Mrs. Miller. Looks like you two have got some stuff you want to talk about. You want me to leave this door open?”

“Yes, Ben. And thank you for kicking this one open in the first place. Looks like we’re going to air things out in here, in this family, for the first time in a while. Maybe ever.”

“Aw, I didn’t do anything. I think you two just needed someone to help open that door you talked about. Hey, Andy, when you’re ready to get back to practice, just let me know. We can talk about all this. It’s all cool, okay? You’ve still got the most guts of any player I’ve… well you do. See you soon, okay?”

As Ben Tolliver stepped outside the Miller’s house, he gave a great sigh and tightly shut his right eye and gave it a rub with his finger. He pulled out his phone and clicked on a number he called often, but for nothing as big as this time.

“Hi, Dad? You got a few minutes this afternoon? There’s something I’ve got to tell you that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

“Yeah, see you in an hour. What? No, don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I’ll explain when I get there. Yeah. Yeah, keep the door open for me.”

Here’s the first draft of a story based upon the photo above and somewhat on this quote:

Happiness often sneaks in
through a door you didn’t
know you left open…
– John Barrymore

For whatever reason, I just started writing it as all dialogue. It’s my hope that the voices are distinct enough and the language helps express emotion. It’s kind of an ultimate experiment and exercise in  “Show-don’t-tell.” My friend Annie Fuller laid the photo and quote on me .

The Artist Awakens

okeefe-lake-young-painting

Last time I saw her was when she gave her Alfred back to the lake. By that time she was living out West. But she told me she’d always remember the poetry of the wind coming down the lake and the color of the water the first time she saw it back in ’08. But she was glad she’d never come back.

I was just a tot back then, tethered by a strap to my mother so I wouldn’t wander into the lake. The lake is Lake George, the so-called Queen of American Lakes. To Alfred’s family and mine it was home, though. Not so much to her.

First time I saw her was one day she walked into Dad’s store in the village after picking up their mail from New York City, where she and Alfred lived most of the year. Like a lot of New Yorkers of any means, and Alfred’s folks had means, they would escape the summer in the city for the wilds of upstate. For many, that meant the Catskills. For others it was Saratoga. But more than a few took the train all the way up into the Adirondacks to their great lodges. The Alfred’s family owned a farm on the lake in the Adirondack foothills. And that’s how I came to meet her.

“She looks like a goddamn man,” my dad would say whenever she came into our store. But that would be well after she left to go back to her studio shed on the farm. And it was kind of true. My big brother Bob said she had what he called a hatchet face. She did almost always wear this most stern and snotty look on it, kind of superior but with the threat of punching you in the mouth just because you looked at her with what she considered the wrong look.

“I think she smells like a barn,” my mom would laugh. “But a new barn, fresh painted with a whiff of turpentine.”

“She’s a painter, Mother,” I’d say. “I’ve seen her on the shore with an easel and paints. And I’ve seen her wandering around the farm then, all of sudden, crouch down and start drawing some flower and then dabbing on some watercolors like grandma taught me.”

My grandma, Mother’s mother, was from a once well-to-do Albany family, canal and railroad money. They lost almost everything in the Panic of ’73. As a privileged girl, she studied music and art, two things she never gave up even after having to move up to their summer place on Diamond Point. She played piano and taught me to draw and paint before she passed in 1913 after she heard about the Titanic. Something about a boy she was in love with as a girl.

I can understand that. You never know when and how love will strike you. Or to whom you’ll lose your heart the first time.

I happened to think this woman smelled just fine. Like an artist, just how I wanted to be. Not like her Alfred, who carried the aroma of rotten eggs around with him. She said it was the chemicals he used to make his pictures, photographs of people and buildings and life. He also made what the visitors to his family’s farm called “images” of people with no clothes on, including his wife. I never saw those until she invited me in one day when I came across her having trouble carrying her equipment from the lakeshore back to her shed studio.

It didn’t bother her one bit that I saw her naked there in shades of black and white. She even put on a little grin because she knew how scandalous it was to someone who didn’t understand art. But the photographs that captured my imagination were the ones Alfred took of her beautiful hands. He captured those long fingers in various poses, almost like ballet dancers, sometimes just against a dark piece of wood or canvas, others framing her somber face.

“Thank you for showing me what you and your mister do up here,” I said before I headed back down the lakeshore to the village. “It means a lot to me because I want to be an artist someday, myself.”

“What kind of artist, uhh… What did you say your name was?” her face took on a somewhat softer expression.

“A painter, just like you,” I replied. “And my name is Catherine.”

“Well, Catherine, the career of an artist isn’t for the faint of heart. In fact, your heart has to develop a skin as tough as the sole of your shoe because rejection and isolation is as much a part of it as an easel or even a camera,” she said.

“Well, that’s what I want to be,” I said.

“Then stop by Tuesday and meet some of the New York artists Alfred is having as guests for the week. They are a motley bunch of malcontents and zealots, but they all are, by definition ‘artists.’ They make art.”

I left the shed stumbling on my “Thank you, ma’am”s and “I’ll surely be heres.” But I didn’t tell Mother or Dad because if they found out, they’d lock me in the root cellar until school started again in September.

I think it was that day I fell in love for the first time.

Even though I’d watch her work from hiding every day, it was Tuesday I wandered up to the farm and heard a commotion like a meeting in the village hall about raising taxes.

There were a couple of painters, a dancer named Isadora, a newspaper lady named Agnes Meyer, a writer named Kerfoot and in the middle of it all was Alfred, like he was a conductor——railroad or orchestra, it didn’t matter——keeping the conversation, or argument, going. She sat on the outside, taking it all in.

“Come on over, Catherine,” she said over the clamor of the artists. She beckoned me forward, leaving my fear down by the lakeshore, with a balletic wave of her alluring left hand, something I doubt Miss Duncan could manage.

She patted a spot on the porch step next to her and I sat there, eyes wide and dry mouth agape, I’m sure, at the sight and sound of what I would later learn were some of the movers and shakers of modern American Capital A Art.

“This is Catherine, a schoolgirl from the village. She wants to be an artist someday. I thought she might learn something about ‘Art’ from listening to you birds,” she said.

The group gave me a nod and sideways look and continued their chatter. It was intoxicating and I’m certain I looked every bit the country schoolgirl they considered me. I began to feel out of place and was about to slide off the step and head back down to the village and my pencils and books when she put her hand atop mine and gave me a knowing look. I do believe I melted in that August shade.

“Alfred,” she sternly said, piercing and taking the air from the palaver like a sewing needle a balloon, “before we potentially lose this girl to the drudgery of a humdrum existence here on your beloved Lake George, would you please address her question of a life in art?”

Alfred, even then not a young man, his silver mustache bristling, seemed knocked back by the strength of her order. It definitely wasn’t a request and even he, a giant in modern art, seemed to quail in her power. He then gathered his own shattered power off the porch floor and directed his attention upon me with his whole being as any artist, or wolf, might a lamb.

“Young lady, the people you see here today are artists, but not because they are deemed such by a society who may never fully accept us. Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings…”

I’m sure he could here me gulp as a stony silence came over not only his guests, but seemingly the entire lakeside.

“You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today. Probably better than anyone you see before you right now,” he said.

“Yessir,” I said and got up to run home armed with knowledge I wouldn’t appreciate for more than a few years as a failed painter and a reporter for various New York newspapers. But I couldn’t run. Her strong hand clutched mine and I was her prisoner.

“Come with me Catherine,” she said, leading me to her shed, which had taken on a golden glow as the sunlight sifted down below the pines atop Prospect Mountain.

“Ah, the Golden Hour,” Georgia said. “Light, illumination, is everything to an artist, Catherine. I hope you’ve learned a lesson, been illuminated, today.”

“I…I…think so,” I said, and I didn’t mean strictly about my future as an artist, but my future, period. I was totally smitten with her, her piercing eyes, her confidence, those beautiful fingers that now held mine.

“Look, I’m not sure I’ll be back here next year. No offense, but I think I need to open my horizons and head back west, both for my art and myself.”

“But you can’t,” I said, suddenly panicking that I’d never see her again.

“I see a lot of me as a girl in you,” she said. “I see a seriousness, an inquisitiveness, a certain kind of yearning about art and life that instinctively puts on a new trail each day, like a wolf maybe, while we hunt for and take a big bite out of the objects of our desire.”

And then I kissed her.

Her face took on that hatchet hardness, but her eyes a sadness I’d never seen her show.

“You’re young, Catherine. Spread your wings, never settle for the first sketch, the first draft. Obey your mind as well as your heart. And always, always listen closely to the sound of this earth, so closely you can hear its poetry, even hear its colors. Tell the world its story however you decide to make your art.”

She pressed a wooden case into my hands and nudged me toward the barn-like door of her studio shed.

“I’m leaving for New York with some these people you met today, but I want you to have this. Maybe it can help you can find your true calling as an artist. Now, I think you’d better get moving along before night falls all together,” she said, closing the big doors behind me.

I cried all the way home and for the next two days when I didn’t see her by the lake or in her studio. It wasn’t until after I graduated from Skidmore College, where I met and fell in love with my Betty, that Alfred finally died and she came back to Lake George with his ashes that I found her while I was visiting my parents and walking along the shore by what was once the Stieglitz farm.

She looked up quickly, with a dark and suspicious expression on her sun-burnished face, but it softened as I drew closer.

“Is that you Catherine? Have you become one of those reporters who sneak up on people to catch them in moments of weakness or sin?” she said with a grin that I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years. She turned and dumped something into the lake.

“No. Sorry to hear about Alfred. I’ll never forget the day he, and you, ‘illuminated’ me about being a true artist. I wish I could thank him,” I said.

“You just did. Walk with me and tell me about the artful life you’ve created for yourself.” With that, Georgia took my right hand in her still beautiful left and we listened as the poetry of the morning breeze combed the trees and turned the surface of the lake to blue-green corduroy.

The photograph that accompanied the original prompt (as seen illustrating the poem The Uncertain Certainty of Eternity) reminded me of some of the paintings made by Georgia O’Keeffe while she summered with Alfred Stieglitz up in nearby Lake George. That and the quote from Keats moved my imagination for a couple of hours to come up with this first draft.

The Greatest Gifts

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The visitors arrive like Magi, some bringing gifts that likely have as little practical use to the recipient than something he or she might wear to their own funeral. The living room buzzes with conversations, small talk about universal themes: family, health, weather, the ghosts of Christmases past. You busy yourself in the kitchen, preparing the too-big meal for the too-anxious crowd that sits on your mismatched batch of chairs, wondering at the boxes beneath the tree. After dinner, their hunger sated but not their appetites, each family member, in turn, receives his or her share of the under-tree giftscape, leaving behind the debris of the season’s here-and-gone tornado of emotions and memories. You scan the scene, moving from one rosy-cheeked child of God to the next, each resting within their nest of torn wrapping paper, a display of joy and excess that’s often confused you, dipped you in anxiety and guilt, burned your fingers and laid waste to purse and parlor. That’s when you realize the gifts given and received tonight weren’t wrapped in paper and bows, maybe weren’t so practical but always will be the most essential. The greatest gifts have always been the giving and the givers.

With Christmas only a week away, these thoughts dawned upon me in another pre-sunup wake up call. 

So The Poets Tell Me

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He asked me how I do this,
lacing words like macaroni
on a string of some thread
of a thought, like it’s
a Mother’s Day gift necklace
you dutifully made in second Grade.
Sometimes it’s that easy,
and it looks it, wonky doggerel
with broken mini penne sticking out
like a the the in the third line.
Other times, when you want to weave
something special,
like a fine Navajo blanket in verse,
it comes out looking like
one of those potholders you’d make
from stretchy bands on
a comb-toothed frame in Cub Scouts.
But when the right thought,
the right words,
the right secret sauce
of frantic inspiration
comes along,
thirty minutes staring into
the pale blue haze
of a laptop screen
just before dawn
can feel like only
a heartbeat, and look like
a poetic sundown sky scape
from the pages
of Arizona Highways.
Or so The Poets tell me.

Sorta, kinda inspired by my brother. Thanks, Mike. This probably doesn’t answer your question, but to think about the How usually ends up with me asking myself Why. And that’s a question I don’t think I can answer in one of my pieces of pasta jewelry like the word one above.

Abandoned

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At dinner, as Allie chattered about her kindergarten class, Ben would mumble, “Um-hmm,” or “Really?” between glances at his phone or the second hour of the same local TV news as the first.

“C’mon, Ben. Let’s take a walk,” Allie said.

“Aww, Al,“ he said, but checked his phone and saw he had a free hour. “Okay, let’s go.”

Tonight, Allie didn’t lead them past the park. Instead, they silently ambled through their old neighborhood.

Allie stopped and stared at their first rental. Ben kept walking.

“It’s still empty,” Allie said.

“What?” Ben said, looking up and not finding Allie at his side.

“This place. Since we left, it always was for sale and still looks vacant, practically abandoned.”

“Hmmph, guess so. C’mpn, let’s get back before dark.”

All the way, Allie conducted a dinner-style conversation with Ben, only in her mind.

You walked past our house like you do the homeless guys in the park, just part of the scenery, colorless, ignorable.

What’d happen if you looked into its face, its vacant window eyes veiled with webs and secrets. Afraid it’d feel haunted looking back at you?

If you stopped to consider this shell full of lonely, would you see its lively times of youth, of family, stolen by time and disinterest? Nah. That’d require recalling yesterday when you barely can grasp today.

Yeah, move along, Ben. After all, just another part of the scenery.

Breakfast was silent next morning. As the news repeated, Ben barely noticed.