When a door opens…

By Catherine Keefe

door

It was a time of slamming and silence and being shut out. It was when a white, solid wood four-panel face was more familiar than two eyes and a smile. It was me in the hall knocking. Waiting. Asking, “may I come in?”

It was a card for a special day I swore I’d never forget, but I have. Valentine’s Day? My birthday? It was a note, written in my teenage son’s hand that I’ll never forget.

My gift to you is my bedroom door. Open. For one month.

When someone says, “I don’t need anything,” when you ask what they want, they probably really do want something. It’s just not for sale at any store. If you ask what someone wants, you might already know the answer.

Open a door for someone today. It’s never too late to start again.
~Catherine

For more “Door” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 17,000 #augustbreak2015 posts 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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

Sweet freedom

By Catherine Keefe

“Freedom: to walk free and own no superior…”
           Walt Whitman

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Today’s a perfect day to play with Walt Whitman’s poetry. The Poetry Foundation says:

Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship.

Whitman’s legacy is as a poet of the people and his poetry reveals optimism in the great democratic experiment that is America, one that I think needs a little shaking up these days.

Here’s one Walt Whitman original.

America
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
And my new poem: 

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 ____________________________________________________

May your day be spent in the company of those who make you feel most free.
May your freedom be spent sweetly.

Happy 4th,
~Catherine

 

 

So much light lifting

Rise Festival, 2014. Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Rise Festival, 2014.                                                        Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

By Catherine Keefe

Much has been said in the past few days about how 29-year-old Brittany Maynard died. I’d like to tell you a little bit about how she lived.

Brittany, with a passel of other girls, came to my daughter’s 13th birthday party. We invited guests to attend in their most fabulous feathery, sparkly attire, turned our living room into a mock casino, and created an at-home Vegas Night. I hired a 16-year-old boy from down the street as a Blackjack dealer, and it was at the Blackjack table that Brittany spent most of the night. She flirted while most of the girls were so shy they wouldn’t even talk to the only boy in the room. Brittany bet all her chips and won, then fluttered her red paper prize-redemption tickets like confetti across the room because that was more fun than trading them in for a tube of bubblegum lip gloss. Brittany sashayed through the party like a starlet, trailing feathers from her black boa. She sipped Martinellis with her pinky raised, and laughed more loudly than any other girl at the party. She was, as the invitation requested, fabulous.

To know a girl on the cusp of emerging adulthood is to look through a kaleidoscope and slowly turn the lens. Who she might become is a fractal of who she already is.

Brittany was light years ahead of the other 13-year-olds in the most important way possible. She had a way of living without paying any attention to what anyone else thought about it. She was strong at an age when many girls become weak. For that reason Brittany was the kind of girl a mother loved that her daughter would befriend. My daughter and Brittany remained friends until some time in the middle of high school when their interests and activities slowly diverged.

A little over a year ago, I saw Brittany’s mom, Deb, at Trader Joes in Rancho Santa Margarita. Deb was my daughter’s middle school science teacher, my own particular hero for the way she passionately engaged students with basics of geology, biology, and chemistry. It had been years since we’d seen each other so we caught up in the apple aisle about our girls’ college choices and career paths, marriages and our own lives.

“Brittany always does things her own way,” I remember Deb saying.

“And that’s why we love her,” I answered back, knowing that not everyone likes that trait in a young woman.

In the moment when I knew the chance conversation was almost over, I wondered if someone I’d lost touch with would believe how much she’d impacted my life by no more valiant feat than being her one true self and standing by her daughter when she too was being her one true self.

When you say it’s so good to see you and you mean it, and you hug and move on, and next read about Brittany and Deb in People magazine, life takes a surreal twist. When I wrote in April about my daughter’s friend, recently diagnosed with Astrocytoma Glioma, a malignant brain tumor, I had no idea Brittany would become “the public face of the controversial right-to-die movement.”

Oh how I’d like to hug Deb now, to tell her how much strength and love our family is sending to her in Oregon. How I’d like to remind every mother to hug her daughter a little more tightly just now. How I want to insist that everyone who has followed and commented upon Brittany’s story to remember Deb, a mom called to be braver and stronger than she ever wanted to have to learn to be.

A woman whose spouse has died is a widow; the girl who loses both parents is an orphan. There isn’t a designated word for a mother who loses a child. It’s a black hole in the language.

Rise Festival, 2014   Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Rise Festival, 2014                                                                 Photo Credit: Lauren Sepulveda

Some die like a candle snuff. Others expire as a sonic boom. Brittany died the way she lived, a meteor lighting up the darkest desert night sky. She was an only child, but there was nothing “only” about her.

She was, and will always remain, fabulous.

Cheers Brittany, dah-ling. You impacted our lives for the better and for that we’ll always be grateful. Thank you Deb, for sharing your Brittany with us. We reflect back to you all the light and love your daughter spread.

Peace,
~Catherine

Many thanks to photographer Lauren Sepulveda, another one of the passel of girls, who shared her images of The Rise Festival for this post. You can find more of Lauren’s images at Voz Collective.

Does this voice make my thoughts look big?

By Catherine Keefe
I’m waiting for the call that I’ve been accepted as a voice surrogate to create a custom synthetic vocalization for a female “target talker,” one of the 2.5 million Americans with a speech impediment so severe she must rely upon a computer voice.

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Right now, if you want a mechanical voice, there are about 60 to choose from, the most popular being “Perfect Paul.”  You’ve heard “Perfect Paul” if you’ve listened to Stephen Hawking speak. You don’t have to be a math wizard to quickly figure that a choice of 60 voices for 2.5 million speakers constructs an incredible long shot that a person will sound distinct, which is one basic human characteristic. Each being’s voice creates an utterance so individual that voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Life takes odd twists and turns when you wonder what to write about on a Thursday and a Google search for “human voice as unique as a fingerprint” turns up a TED talk by a speech scientist named Rupal Patel who’s developed the VocaliD project to “create unique voices for the voiceless.”

I register as a donor.

If I’m needed, my voice will be recorded for about 3-4 hours, then a computer will chop it into vowel and consonant bits that can be blended with the range of sounds the target talker is able to make.  Most likely it will be for a woman roughly my age as voices develop different pitch and tonal characteristics as we age.  The “target talker” will create the prosody with utterances like “ahhhhhhhh.”  I’ll provide the sound for word pieces.  Together we’ll create a voice, that for the first time will sound like her.

Giving voice to the voiceless.

I’m thinking of this because “voice” is the Backyard Sisters theme this month and also because my students are drafting their first formal projects and the distinct sound of their writing when I first met their voices in informal exercises has taken on a more constricted, stilted tone.

“I’m worried about my grade,” the young man in the front row tells me when I present this observation to the class and wonder aloud what has caused them to change.

Another student ventures, “We don’t know how you want us to sound. ”

Like yourselves?

I introduce a game developed by one of my philosophy and rhetoric heroes, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.  As an example of the impact that language can have, Erasmus famously wrote 150 variations on the sentence, “Your letter delighted me greatly.”

Your pages suffused me with unspeakable joy.

Your lines were as sweet to me as the sweetest of all things.

May I die if anything more delightful than your letter has ever happened.

Your letter to me was pure honey.

honey

My students and I laugh, then I challenge them to write, in one sentence, the primary idea they are trying to express.  It seems extreme to suggest they rephrase 150 times, so I suggest they come up with 10 ways to say the same thing.

While they infuse their ideas with new language, I perform a twist on that exercise, using quotes I find on voice which utter similar ideas.

“A powerful and fundamental aspect of who we are: our voice.” – Rupal Patel (TED talk).

 …a voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature.” – Seamus Heaney (from a 1974 lecture).

“Oh how wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul!” Flemming, the protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s novel, Hyperion: A Romance.

Now I’ve slightly misled you with that last quote as I didn’t easily find it, although a variation of it appears in Patel’s TED talk, is easily found on Brainy Quote and Goodreads and ThinkExist in a cleaned up, simplified, edited version of the above, stripped of its two exclamation marks, devoid of its sounding like a man falling in love which is exactly what’s happening to Flemming in Hyperion: A Romance, a thinly disguised Longfellow at the time.

Time has been kind and replaced Longfellow’s romantic exuberance with a more mature sound.

“The human voice is the organ of the soul.” – Longfellow

In that revision I hear a restrained baritone utterance with a genteel New England accent.  It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the original from Hyperion: A Romance.  

It can be difficult to find your voice, I tell my students. But if you don’t, someone will speak for you, or paraphrase you, or give you “Perfect Paul” when you’re really Perfect Cath.

They nod and we begin anew the effort to sound like no one but our selves.

With fingers crossed I’ll be a surrogate,
~Catherine

You can watch Rupal Patel explain her VocaliD project in this video:

 

O Come, All Ye Fearful

This may sound like a story of faith, but mostly it’s about mistrust and fear.  Not the kind of fear big enough to scream over, more the slow-moving variety that makes me squeeze my soul and lips tight like the clasp on a granny’s purse until I don’t recognize me anymore.

To the beginning, 16 days before Christmas.

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I pull into my driveway.  It’s raining. Night. No one is home.  No light is on.

I have a trunk load of groceries.  Four and a half minutes separate my ranking as either good mom or bad.  I lose if I’m late to pick up my daughter from ballet class across town.

A rustling on the wall that divides my home from my neighbor’s startles me as I open the trunk.

“Hey!” says a young man, jumping out of the shadows.  He hops over the wall and drops two feet from my toes.

“Hey,” he repeats as if maybe I didn’t hear him, see him, already have time to wonder what he’s doing materializing from the storm like this at 8:30 at night. He talks fast.

“I’m not looking for charity, see, I’m just trying to make a better life for myself, see, all’s I’ve got to do is sell magazines, get to 15,000 points and I’ve earned my way, see, I only need 300 more points and your neighbor, Ron, he just asked me in for cinnamon rolls and bought a magazine and all I need is 300 more points and I’ve earned my way do you want to buy some magazines?  Say, is that McDonald’s in there?   Something sure smells good for dinner.  Did you go to McDonald’s?”

He pauses for air, flashes big, clean white teeth at me.

I lean in, trying to smell cinnamon on his breath.  I search for crumbs or icing smudges on his lips.  He’s dressed in a well-knit sweater, navy blue pants, heavy boots.  He has that wide, wide smile.

I turn away.  Walk up the steps to the porch, to the shelter.  It’s still dark. He follows.

I never buy anything from doorway solicitors I prepare to tell him.  I already have six subscriptions to magazines I don’t read.  They were bought from my children as school fund-raisers.

The children.  It’s a good thing they’re not here to see their mother so foolish as to lead a man who jumped out of the night onto the porch. I pause, keys clutched in my hand, ready to use as a weapon.

“Sure, I’ll help you out,” I say.

This startles both of us.

He smiles again.  I see no cinnamon streaks.  I look into his deep brown eyes and catch a straight gaze.

“Here, let me just give you $20,” I say, glancing down at my purse.  I am not following those eyes into any sort of trust.

“Oh no ma’am,” he says, shaking his head.  “They won’t let us take money.  No cash.  You have to buy a magazine subscription.  You can pay by check.  Boy, that food smells good.”

I blink.  I’ve already leapt off my cliff of prudence, talking to this man alone on the porch in the dark and now I’m feeling guilty because I’m not giving him my dinner and I don’t want to give him a check.  There’s a lot of information on a check.  My name.  Phone number.  Address.  Signature.

My credit information was stolen once.  Some lady was charging up jewelry at JC Penney and televisions and calling herself me.  I didn’t find out until I went to buy a new house and discovered my credit report was marred with dozens of delinquent accounts for tens of thousands of dollars.  The police traced the theft to a ring of credit pirates working at a car dealership where I’d written a check as down payment.  It took two years to clear my name.

No, I can’t give this stranger a check. Tomorrow I’ll start to be a more trusting person.

“Let me see what magazines you’ve got,” I say, surprising us both again.  He replies with that wide smile, all teeth.  I wonder if it’s the good fortune of not being turned away, or the thrill of having duped me.

I open the front door and turn on the porch light.  We stand like moths, hovering in the circle of light, not in, not out.

“I am really late now,” I say, flipping through a phone book size listing of magazines and prices all written in tiny script. I say I’m in a hurry because I have to pick up my daughter and then he asks where she is and I imagine he’s gauging how long I’ll be gone so he can steal all the presents piled under the tree.

“Man, your neighbor, Ron sure is nice.  Man, those cinnamon rolls were sure good,” he says rubbing his navy blue sweater with his big hand.  Grinning.  Again, I lean closer trying to smell cinnamon.  I size him up.  Me versus him.  I’m not sure who would win.

I try to pretend he’s the Messiah and I’m the old innkeeper who would like to invite him in this time to prove that 2,000 years have brought changes, that my faith is bigger than my fear. I can’t do it.  I tell myself it’s because I don’t have time.  What I don’t have is faith in strangers.

I order Catholic Digest, partly because it’s the cheapest magazine, but mostly it’s my personal challenge to God. You’ve given me faith to trust a stranger now don’t let me down.

I get a yellow receipt.  The stranger gets my signature, address, phone number, bank account.

I lock the door, leave the porch light on and roar out the driveway, windshield wipers flapping.  I slow to wave goodbye to this stranger, to get one more good look at him.  He’s gone.  Not in my yard.  Not on the porch next door.  Not across the street.

I think about calling Ron and asking him about those cinnamon rolls. I think about calling the police. I veto any action that involves telling a soul how foolish I was.

My bank statement shows the check cashed on December 24.

I wait.

Then one ordinary day, Baby Jesus arrives in my mailbox disguised as a magazine. Tucked between bulky campaign literature and my new Crate & Barrel catalog is the January issue of Catholic Digest.  I don’t think I’ve made a mistake with this selection because it has a nativity scene on the front even though the cover says January. The lasting gift.  I see this as a private joke and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” my daughter and son wonder, pawing through the pile of mail.

I tell them how I was just thinking that the world is mostly a beautiful place and they better remember that always.

Two days later, the February and March issues arrive together.  I suppose that too is some sort of private joke.  Make no mistake now, they seem to say, you are caught up on promises made by strangers.

I suppose that means it’s my move again.

treeWith an eye toward the light of the season,
~Catherine

p.s. This story, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 3, 2000.