Reading the times

By Catherine Keefe.

citizen

I’m reading Claudia Rankine‘s poetry book, Citizen: An American Lyric. I picked it up at the library because her play adaptation of the book is running in Los Angeles at The Fountain Theatre and I’ll be going to see it in September. Also, Claudia Rankine will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles in April; it’s the largest gathering of writers, editors, and literary journal publishers in the world. I’m going to listen to her speak and I’m going to pay attention.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because I once wrote:

I was Wonder Bread in a high school filled with pumpernickel…

I didn’t know black women had a monopoly on despising their reflections. I do know about the compulsion to try to look and act like the majority.

Many nights I braided my hair in stiff plaits, pulled so tight that my bedtime face wore a perpetual look of surprise. In the morning my hair stuck out all kinky and wild.

I tanned my body as dark as I could, so sun-fried that skin cancer has alread popped up on my top lip.

I told everybody I was black Irish, which I’d heard my grandfather say. I didn’t think it had anything to do with Negro blood, but that didn’t matter. I wanted wanted to be black. Of any kind.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because of #blacklivesmatter, and because of my new white grandson, and my old white hands, and because it’s exactly 20 years ago this month I that I wrote that article excerpted above. It came from an August 6, 1995 Orange County Register column titled, “Sometimes the issues aren’t black and white: A reporter asks a writer, ‘Does skin color make us different?”  The column was about my conversation with Iyanla Vanzant about her book, The Value in the Valley: The Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas. In that conversation I asked Iyanla, “why be racially exclusive in this era when colorblind is the buzzword?” At the time I really thought we were finished with racism and couldn’t understand why Iyanla didn’t know it.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because I know so little about my role – both real and perceived – in how our nation’s racial equality is still out of balance and I want to learn. I want to learn what I can bring to the table. I want to listen. I want to hear the hurt I didn’t cause and heal the hurt that I did. I want to realize that the struggle isn’t over just because I used to think it was.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because Claudia Rankine is a writer who grabs me by the throat and makes me believe she is an important canary and she doesn’t want to die, but oxygen levels in this mine of our country are nearly depleted. I first met her words when she wrote “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” for The New York Times in June, 2015 after the murder of three men and six women at a church in Charleston. She wrote:

Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.

The fact that I somehow missed Claudia Rankine’s important output of literature before this summer is a mystery, or a sign of my ignorance. Citizen: An American Lyric won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award. She’s written four other poetry books, edited several anthologies and written countless essays.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric because Claudia Rankine matters and I want to pay attention; because her National Book Award reading begins with this excerpt from her book: 

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

I’m reading Citizen: An American Lyric. Are you?
~Catherine

For more “Reading” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

“For art is perfect…”

By Catherine Keefe.

art

“…when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her. (Pseudo-Longinus, 300 CE).

I’m obsessed with foraging on my daily hikes. Feathers. Bark. Dried wild cucumber. One million years ago when my kids were toddlers, in that late afternoon witching hour when we were all were tired and hungry, we’d wander the neighborhood collecting fallen leaves and acorns, dried flowers, empty snail shells. I’d settle my daughter and son at the kitchen table with cardboard and glue, with crayons and colored pencils. They’d collage their finds while I made a quick dinner.

I thought I was doing this activity to entertain my kids, but now that they’re long grown, I still forage and collage. I write this way too, integrating evocative quotes, (you can read about my scribbling in books here); poetry lines, scientific facts, bits of history and cultural arcana in almost all of my work. I suppose it feels like the ultimate eco-friendly way to create: repurpose what exists and give it a new light. To me, this practice feels like a way of paying deep attention.

How do you pay deep attention? Today take a minute to sketch, to collect, to arrange, to make a note of something you find particularly unsettling or beautiful.
~Catherine

You can read the full classic text, “On the Sublime,” on the Poetry Foundation website link here. From the introduction:

“On the Sublime” examines the work of more than 50 ancient writers under the lens of the sublime, which Longinus defines as man’s ability, through feeling and words, to reach beyond the realm of the human condition into greater mystery.”

The quote I pulled out to title this post, “For art is perfect when it seems to be nature and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her,” is in the first paragraph of section XXII.

For more “Art” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

Last year I had a party for my mom

By Catherine Keefe.

My mom turned 80, so my dad and three sisters, and our 10 children and their spouses, and our cousins and uncle and aunt threw a birthday bash in my backyard. We ate salads and sausage, turkey wraps and mountains of fruit on a warm summer afternoon, then gorged on chocolate cake and ice cream. We played Heads Up! because my mom loves to laugh and we danced because the entire family loves to shake it loose.

semper

Last year, when my mom turned 80, I wanted to give each guest a party favor to take home. So I bought small pots of semper vivum, a plant also known as hen and chicks. Semper is the Latin word for “always, or continuously.” Vivum means “that which is alive.” I can’t help myself. As a writer, when I throw a party I imbue meaning everywhere. I used the plants as centerpieces, then carefully pulled off the new growth shoots and sent each family member off with a piece of their own party semper vivum to grow at home.

Right before we ate lunch my dad said a prayer, blessing our party and expressing deep gratitude for my mom. Then two of our 10 children made a surprise announcement. “I’m pregnant!” my daughter said. “I’m pregnant too!” my niece blurted out.  Turns out hens and chicks were already happening! The moment dissolved into hugs and giggles and photos and congratulations and general giddiness. The family would be graced with two new babies within days of my father’s upcoming 80th birthday. Last year, we ended the party knowing that new life was on its way into our family.

This year, we celebrate the continued miracle of semper vivum.

mom

When we put out shoots of  green, we remain continually alive. What are you growing today?
~Catherine

For more “Last year” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

I love you yellow

By Catherine Keefe

Seven weeks ago, my kind and funny next door neighbor died, leaving behind his wife of more than 50 years. A few days after his funeral, two small green plant shoots burst through the dirt of an empty flower pot lining their driveway. “I don’t know what’s growing there,” his widow, Anne, told me when I pointed them out. “I’ll just let them grow and find out.” My neighbors were citrus and avocado ranchers, raising their family on an orchard. They had a reverence and delight for growing things.

sunfl

Today, two sunflowers face the sky, bobbing on stalks rising more than six feet high, petals carressing each other in the light morning breeze. “Now I know who planted them,” Anne says. And with a quiet smile she turns her face toward the sun.

Surprise someone today. Leave a small note or gift to be discovered when you’re not there.
~Catherine

For more “Yellow” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Question: The edge

By Catherine Keefe

hopper

“This one appeared to me
in a dream…”

A grey bird grasshopper rests on my deck and I remember the opening lines of Lawson Fusao Inada’s poem, “This One, That One.”

This one appeared to me
in a dream, was forgotten,
only to reveal itself
on the shower wall
this morning.
It must have been the water.

That one was on the full moon
last night, clear as a bell.
Someone projected it there.

I find the grasshopper and I wonder, where do you draw the line between this thing and that?

By color?

One grey grasshopper rests between two grey wooden boards.  All is grey. There is no color edge.

By whether or not it lives?

One living Schistocerca nitens pauses on a now-dead Tabebuia ipê hewn into lumber planks for a deck. Yet both grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens) and tree (Tabebuia ipê) had a moment of birth. Both are listed in the Catalogue of Life, “the most comprehensive and authoritative global index of species… essential information on the names, relationships and distributions of over 1.6 million species…information is compiled from diverse sources around the world.” There is no edge between things that live.

By borders?

This grey bird grasshopper is also known as a vagrant grasshopper and can be found, among other places in most of the Southwest US, Hawaii, and parts of Central America. The ipê is indigenous to many countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. Both ended up in my backyard.

How do we name the edge, the line between this thing and that?

That one speaks to me
of space, and negative space,
of open and filled spaces,
and the among
that comes between.

Today I want to dwell in the “among that comes between. If you’re inspired to consider liminal edges today, read the entire poem that this grasshopper moment called to mind. “This One, That One” by Lawson Fusao Inada is printed in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website here. The poem seems especially right for this conversation when you know that Lawson Fusao Inada was one of the youngest Japanese Americans sent to live in internment camps during WWII.

Here’s to trying to lose our edge
~Catherine

For more “Edge” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community project curated by Susannah Conway, a photographer, author and teacher we greatly admire over here at Backyard Sisters. You can follow the month-long photo challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

It’s all about me and you

By Catherine Keefe

me

I am rock and sand, green and growing, of the sea, an artful puzzle piece of family and friends, lit by a divine spark.

Today’s August Break prompt is “5 Facts About Me.” OK, fine. But what about us?

We are 7,358,343,528 bodies sharing this earth, a number ticking up every new second according to the World Population Clock.

We speak uncountable languages daily trying to communicate with one another, acording to the Linguistic Society of America.

We try to eat every day, and our spending varies greatly from $1.23 per week in Chad, to $500.07 in Germany, says Peter Menzel in his book, Hungry Planet.

We give more than 28 billion hugs every day, if we abide by Virginia Satir‘s advice: “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

We are more than the sum of our parts, less than our greatest desires. We are humans. Alive. Sharing the planet.

 

 

 

Book notes

By Catherine Keefe

Thankfully I’ve never been a rule follower. “Don’t write in books” means nothing to me when reading rattles a new thought. I read with book in one hand, pencil in the other.

bookI go to books to the way a diver explores the shipwreck: to swim out of my element into something deep and unknown. The very best encounters leaves me breathless.

I mine for words I don’t yet know, like mendacious (Hour of the Star pg. 36).
I note new questions like, “Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”(pg. 15).
I retrace lines that reaffirm something I always secretly thought but rarely read, “…for we are all one and the same person,” (pg. 12).

This photo captures the inside of my copy of Clarice Lispector’s classic novel, Hour of the StarIf you’re not familiar with Lispector’s literature, maybe reading “Why You Should Know Clarice Lispector” by Benjamin Moser will entice you to seek out her work and create your own book notes.

“This great figure is duly celebrated in Brazil and throughout Latin America. Her arresting face adorns postage stamps. Her name lends class to luxury condominiums. Her works are sold in subway vending machines. One Spanish admirer wrote that educated Brazilians of a certain age all knew her, had been to her house and have some anecdote to tell about her, much in the way Argentines do with Borges. At the very least they went to her funeral in 1977…readers might, as I did, find in her expressive genius a mirror of their own souls.”

Although Clarice died in 1977, her work is enjoying a recent renaissance. Complete Stories was just released August 1, 2015. You can read the Publisher’s Weekly review of it here. Turns out, according to the Slate Book Review by Jeff VanderMeer, Clarice and I have something in common.

Sometimes when you don’t care about how many writing rules you break, you wind up somewhere sublime and subversive and original. Reading Lispector, you see this happen with startling regularity.

Isn’t to be alive to learn something new every day? Maybe that happens when you break a few rules. What do you do to inspire new perspectives? Make note. Take note.
~Catherine

For more “notebook” images and interpretations from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

 

Citrus and Sizzle

Today’s August Break 2015 prompt is “citrus” and the photo comes courtesy of Susan Greene, the other original Backyard Sisters. _MG_0380One stifling afternoon, Susan’s daughter wondered what would happen if you added jalapeño to lemonade. Her kitchen curiousity inspired this refreshing and slightly spicy, hot yet cold, beverage. It’s a wonderful anomaly, so delicious it earned a spot in the Backyard Sisters family cookbook. 

For the complete recipe, check out Susan’s post: The Weekend Dish, Jalapeño Lemonade.  For more “citrus” images from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

Cheers!

“I like the generosity of numbers…”

By Catherine Keefe

I always hated numbers, despised their precision, their insistence on creating a definitive right answer or wrong guess. How many jellybeans in the jar? How much money in the bank? How many hours in a day?

I’d rather live in the ‘ish, a realm my body understand better than calculators.

DSC00296A clatter of red lacquer shutters.
Firework bursts of flower petals.
A cacophony of tilted bicycles.
This means more to me than the single number 4 plastered onto one black lamppost in Delft.

I hated the constriction of numbers until I reconsidered them through poetry. When I started The August Break project I didn’t define the number of hours I’d spend on the project, or establish the number of posts I’d participate in. Rather I promised myself fluid time to investigate concepts through images and poetry.

Today that exploration led me to discover poet Mary Cornish, a poet whose words I never would have met if I hadn’t ignored the definitive number of days left in summer before I must return to teaching with a prepared syllabus. According to Mary Cornish’s official biography at Poetry Foundation, she “came to poetry late in life.” (There’s that number thinking again.) Her poetry is, “Known for its thoughtful investigations of domestic scenes…explores the relationships between art, artifice, and the past.” Here’s an excerpt:

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

Today, I reconsider my relationship to numbers. Maybe you’ll open yourself up to a new possibility too as you remember to count your blessings and number your gifts.

You can read the entire text of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers” poem here, or take a 2-minute video break and watch the poem here:


For more “Numbers” images from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

~Catherine

Slip me some skin

By Catherine Keefe

Skin is the sole
thin veil between
where I stop
and you begin

baby

This sole thin skin is all
that keeps me
from melting into you

Slip me some –
Give me some –
You are under
my skin.

Be soft today.

My grandchild’s face is the inspiration for Day #3 of The August Break photography challenge prompt, “Skin.” Follow #augustbreak15 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr for more images.

~ Catherine