In the distance

By Catherine Keefe

distance

“…far to the edge of desolation
suspicious of any poetry
even to exchange a hello…”

from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil
Translated from Indonesian by John H. McGlynn

In the distance, on the Bell Canyon Trail, are Santiago and Mojeska peaks. In the distance
of one week’s time two classrooms full of students will look up at me as if
I have something to teach them. In the distance of ancient geology I see
where oceans once covered this land, have now receded. In the distance
of imagination lies my chance to reseed hope, to teach how we might learn
to stop and listen to one another’s stories of our time together on this earth,
a blip. In the distance I see all of us working together as if we are not
each other’s enemy, but all the killing is. In the distance I see lands
without borders between
what it means to be human.

Ideas already freely cross borders. One of my favorite carefully curated online sites for international literature in translation is Words Without Borders, where I found the poem that contains the excerpt which opens this post. I’ll close with the last stanza of the poem

excerpt from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil

my palm resigned to resting
on desire still hopeful

can you only be felt
while taste is the experience of each of us
until you possess a range of understanding
untraceable by any and all senses
with no time limit however brief
then you intentionally slip longing
on each breeze converging
to then pit melancholy ’gainst action
time booked time and time again

Read something in translation today. You can read all of “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil by clicking the hyperlink.

Say hello to someone you don’t know.
In the distance I see us together. What do you see?
~Catherine

For more “In the distance” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 16,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Behind the curve

By Catherine Keefe.

arch

I traveled to St. Louis in June to marry two long-time friends. I arrived in a tempestous thunder and lightning storm so severe the airplane baggage workers weren’t allowed to offload luggage for more than an hour. The next day happened to be when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Same-Sex Marriage was a constitutional right. Rainbow lighting shone upon City Hall and rainbow flags flew and rainbow t-shirts adorned same-sex couples who held hands and popped champagne bottles thronging the downtown area, celebrating this landmark on a day which happened to coincide with the beginning of Pride St. Louis weekend.

Visiting the Gateway Arch is a more or less obligatory tourist thing to do, so I passed the Pride parade prelude with a smile and light heart and wandered under the arch’s great stainless steel expanse soaring 630 feet above ground with my husband, daughter and grandson. Gateway Arch is the tallest man-made national monument in the country, the tallest monument in all the Western Hemisphere, and the tallest arch in the world. That’s a lot of superlatives for a curved symbol right smack dab in the middle of our country.

Walking the grounds of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is the nationally funded and protected park where the arch’s feet are planted, we got to marveling at the momentous day we were experiencing for gay rights, and we began to guess what issue might next get national attention and change. Gun control, we hoped. Wealth distribution, we prayed. Racial equality. We shook our heads. We really couldn’t believe we were so far from something so fundamental, something that had started and been fought for and tried and denied for so long.  When?

It’s eight miles between downtown St. Louis to Ferguson, Missouri, eight miles from where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white policeman last August. Eight miles between Ferguson, Missouri and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds which include the Gateway Arch and the courthouse where the early trials of the Dred Scott case were held.

The Gateway Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. The park is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the West, to the pioneers who helped shape its history, and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse.

The Dred Scott Case, in case your US History memory is fuzzy, was opened by slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, who petitioned in Missouri for their freedom in 1846 on the grounds that they’d lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The case was lost in Missouri but was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although many slaves were freed under these grounds, according to Washington University’s Dred Scott archives, “Seven of the nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that not only was Dred Scott a slave, but that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in northern territories, was unconstitutional. Therefore, although Scott had lived in northern territories, he had never earned his freedom.”

You can read the original documents and the court’s ruling on the Our Documents historical archive here.

The ruling was one of the key events leading to Civil War.

The Old Courthouse where the early trials of that pivotal long drawn out Dred Scott case were held, are a national monument sharing space with Gateway Arch as a symbol of our pioneering spirit and expansion. Do you see the possibility here? Do you see how we might strive to rise and even when we fall, keep getting up again until we make a gate for all? Can we imagine the day this tallest arch in the world, which already stands in the middle of our country, can also stand for the end of our struggle over race?

I can imagine that day. I want to work toward that. I have to admit I have no idea how to be effective. But doubt isn’t reason enough not to try.

I wrote this post.
I’m reading Claudia Rankine’s, Citizen.
I ordered Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and I already like this smart author’s website because he offers ways to get involved in helping bring about equality for all.

Are you doing something, anything, to get ahead of this curve?
~Catherine

For more “Curve” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 14,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Real life with ants and dirt

By Catherine Keefe

At first all I see is the trail. Chester is antsy this morning, fur ridged on his back, low growl rumbling deep as he walks beside me. Earlier, in the hazy blue hour between night and dawn, a chorus of coyote howls drifted in my open bedroom window. The neighbor we met a few minutes ago on the trail tells me he saw a coyote right there and it nipped at his golden retriever. I walk and scan and wonder why my usually calm dog is on high alert. 

Step by step though, we both slowly relax into the cadence of our hike and the gift of a foggy August morning. My attention turns from potential coyote ambush in the brush to keeping my eye on the trail to avoid rattlesnakes. Another neighbor’s dog was bit a few weeks ago and I don’t want to add to the yearly tally of snake bites. 

I notice a line in the sand, pause to examine a colony of ants stretched across the trail and silently marching off into the brush.

trailI wasn’t one of those Uncle Milton Ant Farm kids. I hate ants. Inside or outside, there are just too many of them, and not enough of me with any ability to reason with an insect about leaving the honey in my pantry alone. Unlike bees which pollinate, I have a hard time finding beauty or necessity in these beasts. They work tirelessly to find food and bring it back home, they work together in this endeavor, and defend their nest and when there’s danger they pack up their belongings and flee to new ground where they start all over again. Far as I can tell, they don’t complain, they just keep their heads down and get on with it.

ants

Hmmm. I stoop down closer to observe each individual. One ant has a stinger, another carries a large piece of something, and a third leads the way home for the food-bearing ant. Even the dirt, which looks like a monochromatic trail from eye-height, unfolds as a collection of tiny multi-colored, multi-shaped rocks upon closer inspection.

Real life, this. Quite ordinary. Quite extraordinary. Every day a gift to unwrap if you can pause and truly see.

After my hike, I searched to see what poets had written about ants.  It turns out, quite a lot. I also searched Google images to see if I could learn what kind of ants these are. Best I can discern, they’re either carpenter ants which are benign, or fire ants which sting with venom. There’s a lot of information about how to kill ants too, more about that than poems.

But for today, I’ll let the ants live. This morning’s encounter, and Gary Soto‘s poem,”Failing in the Presence of Ants,” have me feeling a little more kindly toward this small example of “Real Life,” today’s August Break 2015 prompt. Here are a few lines to inspire you.

Failing in the Presence of Ants
By Gary Soto

We live to some purpose, daughter.
Across the park, among
The trees that give the eye
Something to do, let’s spreak
A blanket on the ground
And examine the ants, loose
Thread to an old coat.
They’re more human than we are.
They live for the female,
Raise their hurt, and fall earthward
For their small cause…

You can read the entire poem here: “Failing in the Presence of Ants.”
Where did you observe real life today in all its ordinary splendor?

In the thick of summer,
~Catherine

For more “Real life” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 14,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

“A true friend is one soul in two bodies”

By Catherine Keefe.

pup

Aristotle may or may not have said those words exactly, or it might have been something like, “Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies,” or, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”

All I really need to know is that the exhilaration and miracle of that sensation when two bodies can feel like one spirit did not go unnoted by the ancient philsopher or contemporary poets.

And you can find expression of two-ness in simplicity or complexity.

For simplicity, look into the eyes of a friend or loved one today.

For complexity, consider how one poet, Karen An-hwei Lee launched from Aristotle’s words into her poem, “Theories of the Soul.” Read. Ponder. Repeat. You can find more of Karen’s poetry on the Poetry Foundation website link here.

Theories of the Soul
BY KAREN AN-HWEI LEE

A true friend is one soul in two bodies.
—Aristotle

Kant says, transcendental
idealism. In Aquinas,

we exist apart from bodies
but only on Thursdays

when his famous ox
flies by the window

wiser at Cologne
where Albertus Magnus,

his real name, appoints
Aquinas to magister studentium,

master of students. Aquinas
is petrified but says yes.

He feels his soul
sailing out of his head

floating near the roof
where a blue ox wings by.

On Wednesday, two bodies
are one soul

waking at sunrise
thanks to the pineal gland

of Descartes, who thinks
this node in the brain

is a tiny sugar cone
or salted peanut,

the seat of the soul
while Aristotle points

to the chopping
ax as a teleology

as if the ax were a living,
breathing person

which it isn’t.
Heraclitus, air and fire

while Aquinas objects, no
not an ax but ox.

If you’re a bird or soul
I am only one mile

from the sea. If you
are a soul in two bodies

life is more complex
and we must labor

twice the field of sorrow
after sleep, bath, and a glass

as Aquinas whispers, the things
we love tell us who we are.

Wishing you enough “two” today.
~Catherine

This post is for “two” today’s August Break 2015 prompt. For more takes on “two,” check out #augustbreak2015 on Instagram and Facebook.

 

 

 

I’ll wait for you my sweet

By Catherine Keefe.

peach

“It’s alright, a farmer’s market is for learning,” says the tall, lean, tan farmer from Fresno.

He is dicing ripe peaches into tasting pieces and smiles at the mother who we both just overheard tell her barely-tall-enough-to-reach-the-top-of-the-table toddler daughter not to grab samples with her hand. The mom returns his smile and offers her daughter a toothpick to grab sections of the juicy yellow fruit.

“So if the farmer’s market is for learning,” I say to the farmer, “can you please tell me something?”

“Sure.”

“These samples are ripe, fragrant and juicy, but the fruit you’re offering for sale doesn’t even smell like fruit.”

The patient farmer explains about having to perfectly time his picking date to take into account his driving time and how you never want to refrigerate stone fruit that’s waiting to ripen or it will become mealy, but how he needs to be able to offer fruit for sale that isn’t past its prime.

“If I picked it perfectly ripe, it would be spoiled by market day. But here’s what you do. Store stone fruit stem down, maybe for a day or two, until it gives slightly when you gently squeeze. Then it’s ripe.”

I bought peaches and plums on faith on Sunday. By Wednesday, I learned that I can trust this farmer and wonder how I’ve lived through so many summers without knowing how to perfectly ripen a peach, a nectarine, or a plum.

What are you waiting for? What art and knowledge are you bringing to the ticks of time separating now from then?

As you wait for whatever it is, here’s a delicious peach poem by Lee Sharkey, one of my favorite quietly strong poets. This poem, “”Its roundness curving to a cleft” is found in Lee’s full-length book, Calendars of Fire, although it was first published, in a different version, in dirtcakesa beautiful literary journal I founded in 2010 and am patiently waiting to figure out how to revive. Poems too, need to ripen. The edits Lee made between the dirtcakes version and the poem in Calendars of Fire, published three years later, show that one of the greatest bounties of wait time is knowing how to use it well.

Its roundness curving to a cleft by Lee Sharkey

I offer a child a perfect peach
pulled from the shadows nesting in a bin of peaches

Mourning dolls hold crosses fashioned of twigs and string
their cheks pinked, kohl eyes veiled by fishnet

A golden morning     long-winged wasp approaching
from the amber mountain            Que vergüenza la guerra!

A peach, then, without blemish when ripeness is upon it
for her to memorize and tear its velvet cheek  (for him to memorize and tear its
     velvet cheek)

When someone in the future makes an offering to the heart
its ever-moment passes, hand to hand

Reticence the shell, joy the nutmeat
The skin reluctance, joy the open mouth

With peach juice on my chin,
~Catherine

This post is my “sweet delight,” today’s August Break 2015 prompt. For more takes on sweet delights, check out #augustbreak2015 on Instagram and Facebook.

Looking (it) up

By Catherine Keefe.

pretty books

A dinner around my childhood home wasn’t complete with at least one round of this fun conversation:

Me: What does _______ mean?
Fill in the blank with words like inertia, relegate, codicil, potable.

Dad: Look it up.

Me: Can’t you just tell me?

Dad: I could, but then you’d forget.

The family dictionary was a frequent guest at the table.

These days, my students, and truthfully even I mostly, use an online dictionary. It’s swift, easy, and direct. Sometimes though I miss the old bound paper word book. There’s something humbling and exhilarating about holding the heft of Webster’s Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, a volume that weighs in at five pounds and has a spine wider than open palm. When I pull that book down from the shelf to “look it up,” I realize there really is a wealth of words at my fingertips. How few I use. When I look up a word online, I learn one new term, but I can forget that there are thousands more to explore.

inside books

It’s funny, when I finally went off to college, I didn’t realize the simple things I’d miss from. But my dad made sure I wouldn’t forget one of the best habits he taught me.

look it up

My parent’s going-away gift was my own bright red Random House College Dictionary.

Can you learn one new word today?
~Catherine

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

 

 

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.