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.

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.

 

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.

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.