305 N. Main St.
June 2, 2006
Friday 3-5 p.m.
Listen to this phrase with your poet’s ears: “Clean up your room.” Memories come up, no? Since we are in Northern California, metaphysical correspondences come up too, no doubt. What is cleaning? Which room? The room of our house? Of our body? Of our lives? When we struggle with domestic order and sorting in our outer environment, it has inside benefits, too.
Glenn Wallis in his commentary on the Dhammapada: Verses on The Way—A New Translation of the Teachings of the Buddha says, “An important dimension of religion is a multi-layered system of ritual practices to assure purity and cleanliness” (p. 166). He cites:
Initiation rites, such as baptism, sprinkle water or fully immerse the body in water.
The water itself is ritually purified by saying special words over it—prayers or mantras—while making special gestures—the sign of the cross or mudras.
The initiate cleanses her body according to dietary rules of the community.
In many traditions, ablutions of some sort must be performed before daily ritual obligations can be fulfilled.
Ritual utensils, icons, and clothing are carefully washed.
The places where rituals are practiced—whether home altars or specially designated buildings—must be kept meticulously purified of both actual dirt and intrusive invisible forces.
As you listen to the poems from Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary I’m reading and commenting on today, I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind this question. Again, I pose it to you at the poetic, metaphorical level: Where are the places where your rituals are practiced? I mean this in the broader sense. What you do every day. The counter in your kitchen. Your desk at work. Where you make love at night. At what home altars and specially designated buildings are your rituals practiced? Are they kept meticulously purified? How do you need to clean up your room? What do you need to sort and clear out to make room for the new in your life?
For me, writing Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary became a way to clean up my room and move with the flow of sickness, old age and death that came into the forefront of my life in the summer of 2004.
“Clean up your room!” These words are enough to strike terror into the heart of most well-trained children. At least in my generation, raised in the 1950s when TV first came into being and waxing vinyl floors became all the rage.
TV aside, my childhood was somewhat anachronistic—I think of it as sharing characteristics of Victorian childhoods. I grew up on top of the bluffs above the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois on our homeplace, Evergreen Heights, pioneered by my great grandfather in the 1860s.
Before you can clean up your room, you have to have a room of your own to clean. Up until the time I went into school, I shared a room and a bed with my older sister, Julia, in the White Cottage. But, when our great aunties died, we moved a stone’s throw down to the Big Brown House where my father was raised and started a several-decades-long process of making it our own.
I want to credit my father for the quotation in this poem from my younger self. In the draft version I showed my father, the line read, “Daddy, doesn’t it make you sick that we have to start all over again?” When I read this to Pop, he said, [drop voice] “You’re misquoting yourself. I remember what you said exactly, because I thought at the time it was a large word for a little girl.” I also credit him for remembering the exact spot in the house where this conversation between us took place.
In “My Girl’s Life in My Pink Room” I tell you everything you really need to know to lay a vinyl floor—step by step instructions. We could probably publish it as a How-To article in Home Projects Magazine. When I was a child, I was inseparable from my father and followed him about everywhere he worked—always his little helper—sitting on the board to steady it while he sawed, or fishing electrical wiring. Because I was his side-kick, always trailing behind him, he gave me the nickname “Trailer.”
“My Girl’s Life in My Pink Room” also tells how to create and tend altars. This must have been the beginning of my connection to shrines. As an adult I became affectionately known as Shrine Mama for five years as I worked on Tibetan Buddhist shrines in California and in France. “My Girl’s Life in My Pink Room” was also the beginning of my life as an installation artist.
My girlhood room gave me my first sense of what, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, it meant to have a room of my own—and, what creative acts I might perform within its walls.
MY GIRL’S LIFE IN MY PINK ROOM
We’d fixed up the White Cottage really nice.
When I had the mumps, Daddy stayed home,
read to me and put in an indoor bathroom.
Our family moved a few paces down to the Big Brown House
from the White Cottage when the Great-Aunties died.
When we first moved in, he and I sat on one of the floors together.
Daddy, isn’t it disgusting that we have to start all over again?
Slowly each of the fourteen rooms, five porches, and eight rooms in the basement
bent to fit our family of five.
Among Big Brown House mysteries
was a $100 bill in a safe in Gary’s Cowboy Room closet.
Play money? No. Real enough.
We turned it in. . . for his college education.
How do you spell “modernity”?
With his seven-year-old apprentice,
he set about transforming the Big Brown House.
By the time we came to the room that would be mine,
I knew how to do it by heart.
Nail down a plywood sub floor.
Strip the joints where the plywood comes together.
Spread black goop.
Roll-out tarpaper with its silver ghost markings.
Nail it down. Watch though!
That black goop easily sticks to skin and under nails.
It only comes off with an oily spirit.
We set up lines of string, using plumb line.
Anchored the string with small nails to make straight rows.
Then spread tan goop with a serrated-toothed trowel.
Finally, the pink-and-grey colored tiles laid in our own pattern.
We began in one corner and worked outward.
Checked the get-away path.
Tamped-down the finished floor with a heavy metal roller, my favorite part.
The roller creaked and little bubbles pressed out.
Modern floors to sport the antiques mother refinished.
I was crazy about pink then, as little girls are.
Pop didn’t care much for pink.
Okay, he hated pink.
But, he did care for me, and so pink it was.
Even the wallpaper bloomed little pink flowers.
I slept underneath a double wedding-ring quilt, part of my trousseau.
The carved walnut headboard loomed above my head.
Marble-topped dressers and, in the middle,
a round table of the sort heroines in the old-fashioned books
I read might have taken tea.
Against one wall, a white china pitcher
and washbasin on a dresser with a false top and secret drawer.
The weekly ritual of changing the tabletop tableaus.
I took ribbons from funeral biers from the potting shed
and twisted these into little nests
filled with wee baskets and figurines
I scoured the house for.
Treasure abounded in our house.
Scraps of lace.
A wasps nests.
Tiny vases filled with lilies of the valley.
Altars I tended as devoted handmaiden.
Arranging tiny worlds that I controlled.
Door closed as I worked,
brow furrowed in fierce concentration.
Hummed hymns of my girl’s life in a pink room.
Where do all these things come from that we bring into our rooms once we have one? My family to a person collects things. Some of these things are valuable and some are in the trash to treasure category. We are all skilled scavengers and fixers and rescuers of things others discard. My mother was the queen of collectors and loved to give gifts, even things most other people would never even think of as giving. “Mama’s Suitcase” tells about my mother’s relationship with things—both cultural and natural objects.
When I grew up and moved away,
Mama’s talent for finding treasures
amplified to transporting treasures.
She showed up on my doorstep,
and opened her suitcase.
The great unveiling.
My Mama’s suitcase, a magician’s trunk.
She peeled back the brown tweed flap of her suitcase
as carefully as a bandage off a skinned knee.
Instead of the yelp of pain, a moment of startled pleasure.
Still-damp iris newly dug from the ground.
On top of a pantry’s worth of dishes:
thick blue glasses,
blue mugs with woodpecker handles,
and tiny Delftware saucers.
Square-dance dresses cushioned just-ripe tomatoes
that peeked up from gingham ruffles.
Complete with frozen goose.
A Christmas tree from our woods
with sap still on it.
A collection of heirloom ornaments.
Treasure left behind
left room for taking treasure back.
Dimpled rocks, cuttings from plants.
from roadside stands,
regional recipe books.
with exact history of each place she visited.
Get those details right for the trip reports to follow—
There will be a quiz.
Some of our trash to treasure projects never made it to treasure. After my sister died and I started to spend so much time again in the big brown house taking care of my mother, I discovered that many of the treasures she had collected all over the world had devolved into trash.
“Knick-knack, paddy-wack give-a-dog-a-bone.
This old man came rolling home.”
The house is filled with them.
They are driving me crazy.
Why didn’t Mom know that the more stuff
crammed into the room, the less you see?
Wherever they roamed, they collected them.
As soon as she came home, she hung them,
stacked them, and packed them.
The house is decorated in late Victorian revival.
All over the house, I find them.
Covered in dust and mold.
Eaten by mice and moths and weevils.
My favorite things ruined.
This morning, I’ve had enough!
I declare this a Knick-Knack Free Zone!
I share many characteristics and habits of my mother’s. Collecting articles from magazines and newspapers for redistribution is one of them. After all the clearing I did at my parents’ home in Evergreen Heights in Illinois, I could see clearly what I needed to do in my own home. Last summer I cleared out my studio and donated about 16 car-loads to the crisis center and other places. Here’s a maxim: To make space for your life, make space for yourself in your space. And here’s a definition of clutter—anything unfinished, unused, unresolved, tolerated, or disorganized. “Paper” is another poetry how-to article. Maybe we need to start a new kind of magazine? A poet how-to journal, perhaps?
What is it about you, paper?
You’ve really gotta hold on me.
Pictures, pretty, or meaningful.
Pictures, to send to others.
Cards. Things that could become cards.
Just pictures and little booklets and things I like, or, could like.
Newspaper clippings on topics of interest to me, to friends, and family.
Mother did this.
Sent envelopes stuffed with well-chosen clippings.
A message all on their own.
When I was traveling alone across Africa,
clippings warned me of danger ahead:
revolutions, rapes, and white slavery.
She didn’t need to say a word.
The clippings spoke for her.
Now, it’s “Have scissors, will travel.”
Though, they have to be checked-through.
Even my plastic scissors raised the panic bar.
They weren’t impressed that I was a collage artist.
Blues and jazz clippings,
Quirky community Art.
Paper, how do I categorize you?
Let me count the ways.
Have you ever tried to clean out a drawer only to find yourself traveling down memory lane and ending up in a new place? Here’s a poem about sorting out a sewing box and having that experience. “Crazy Sewing Box, Sorting” is a reflection upon sorting out an amalgamated box of pretty little things, saved by a friend’s mother who suffered from mental illness. I yearned to decode their messages.
This poem was written in 1998 when I first came to the lake—during the time of the hundred-year floods. It was published in the International Poetry Review in 2001, the year of my mother’s first major stroke, resulting in dementia. Since her death this May, it takes on added meaning for me.
CRAZY SEWING BOX, SORTING
As if the sewing box were your mind, jumbled yet ordered units.
As if brain cells wanted to retain a memory—then transposed it.
Depression-era string-saver, you rescued tail ends of thread.
Bunches wrapped tight in tiny packets.
Other thread all in a tangle,
a mass of undisciplined neurons,
transmitting random images.
You collected dainty boxes, threw categories to the wind,
watched grommets, needles, paperclips rub together.
Fasteners must have fascinated you.
Hooks and eyes, buttons, snaps, and zippers
pressed into service to mend scattered synapses.
A clamp for an absent nametag
searched for the identity of the lost wearer.
The last phone list ever used on crumbling soft paper
in the same gangly hand as your son’s, only jerky.
Numbers for police, doctor, children.
Help only a call away.
Among crazy daisies you spun I found your wedding ring
snuggled next to your obituary—from the Sunday paper.
When you graduate from rooms, traveling suitcase collections, and tumbled treasure boxes, you arrive at houses. My Aunt Grace is 80 years old now—10 years younger than my mother. She has always been close to my mother and visited her every day in the mornings during her last illness. When you look at my Aunt Grace’s house, you can see that it’s ready to be torn down. The roof is separating from the top of the house.
Aunt Grace is now working at closing the sale of her house as soon as the plans for the miniature development that would replace it go through the village of Godfrey. She has consolidated her living space now into one room downstairs plus kitchen and bathroom. It’s like camping out to go visit her, especially in winter. She saved some things for me out of her treasures that I collected after my mother’s death this spring. Aunt Grace gives the best hugs of anyone in the family—or, anyone I ever met, for that matter. My middle name is a nod to my aunt.
AUNT GRACE’S HOUSE
Aunt Grace’s house greeted me with pies
ready to pop into homemade carriers
destined for diners and coffee shops.
Those lucky devils.
Cooling fruit cobblers
beckoned from her kitchen table
She set a slice on my plate,
blackberries oozing out from the tender cake.
What a welcome treat from childhood weight watching.
Aunt Grace’s place was a playground haven.
A rope swing soared from the white pine tree.
Uncle Bill’s homemade jungle gym
so homemade, in fact, that I once got splinters
in my butt when I slid down the slide.
Aunt Grace’s hugs.
Held close to her curves.
Stopped the world outside her arms.
Aunt Grace’s sewing machine
whipped up green saddle bags
with our initials outlined in tooled leather.
Who cared if they were vinyl?
She loved to tell the story of how I crawled up to the brown cottage
to pat powder on Cousin Court’s bottom.
How great to have a living baby doll.
Myself forever the family baby after mother miscarried
when she slipped and fell down the basement steps
on her way to do the laundry.
Aunt Grace’s house five decades later.
Walls stripped back to lath.
An Italian villa in Godfrey, Illinois.
She waits and watches; wants it to fall down
just before she dies.
That would save buyers the trouble of wrecking it.
She follows the news.
Bundles up in her 50-degree house.
She pulls out a chair from her kitchen table
to serve tea and cobbler.
But stops, first,
to give me a world-stopping hug.
One of the time-honored tools for cleaning our rooms is prayer. Here’s a good one from Psalm 19: Clean thou me from hidden faults. And, pray for grace. My poem, Grace” is written for four generations of Graces in our family—Grandma Grace Johnston, Aunt Grace Barker (Grace Lavonne—also known in childhood as Bonnie because she was so pretty), Janet Grace, and my great niece, Amelia Grace. I’ve always loved my middle name and have started to include it for all my creative work. It’s a good reminder.
for four generations of Graces
Amazing, isn’t it, grace?
Hearts lifted in thanks
How sweet the sound
The Greeks named three Graces.
Grace, a Lost & Found Department
Finding our ground
Within the surround sound
Searches out the heart of the other.
The smallest loaf
The least fishes
The blinding flash of a moment
Myself to ourselves
A due date that crept up
Lifts the veil
Finds our hiding places
We were blind,
but now we see.
Some folks go straight beyond cleaning up their rooms and decide to build a new house. That’s what they were doing on the lot next door August 16, 2004 the day my sister Julia was killed in a car accident. I want to close my reflections by reading the last portion of “Anniversary,” written a year after Julia’s death. The quote from the Glimpse of the Day is taken from Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the last section of Chapter 19: “Helping After Death”—Ending Grief and Learning Through Grief (Pp. 317-318).
Last year and this, my electronic Glimpse of the Day tells me:
“Bereavement can force you to look at your life directly,
compelling you to find a purpose in it
where there may not have been one before.
When suddenly you find yourself alone
after the death of someone you love,
it can feel as if you are being given a new life
and are being asked:
What will you do with this life?
And why do you wish to continue living?
Pray for help and strength and grace.
Pray that you will survive and discover
the richest possible meaning
to the new life you now find yourself in.
Be vulnerable and receptive.
Be courageous and patient.
Above all, look into your life to find ways
of sharing your love more deeply with others now.”
There are many layers of grief,
and each of us grieves in our own way.
Bereft—shorn, torn open, last year.
Three gigantic earth-moving machines on the property next door.
They growled and grumbled all day long
as they dug further and further into the side of the hill,
leaving a mountain of earth in their wake.
I felt they were digging a gigantic grave for Julia.
But no grave could ever hold her.
And, now, this year?
The house is for sale.
It’s butt ugly.
So, be careful of the house you build.
Julia’s house needed painting, but was structurally sound.
As Dave, her husband, said,
“Hers was a gallant, hopeful, helpful, effective life.
The ripples from it reach astonishing numbers of people.
It seems reasonable to hope that the ripples will continue onward
through generations and circumstances at which we can only guess.
But surely some of that is visible among you now.”
I still find myself alone after the death of someone I love,
I still feel as if I have been given a new life
and am being asked:
What will I do with this life?
And why do I wish to continue living?
What of the house that I will build, now that the earth has been moved?
My journey and my family’s journey of bereavement continues
as the moon waxes towards fullness.
Thank heavens the stars are up there in the sky,
“all secret and wise twinkling down,” as Melissa says,
as we—breathing—look up at the moon.
Copyright 2006 by Janet Grace Riehl
This talk may be printed from the file on my website HYPERLINK “http://www.sightlinesbook.com” www.sightlinesbook.com for your personal use only. You may also share it with your friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this talk nor any of the individual poems may be reprinted or published without written permission of the author—except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.
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Poems in this talk
My Girl’s Life in My Pink Room
Crazy Sewing Box, Sorting
Aunt Grace’s House
How You Can Help
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