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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

“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