Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Next Frontier

Look, a metaphor!

Remember that on July 3rd we campers were treated here at Mt. Holyoke College to a fireworks display of stupendous proportions. Yesterday, on the 4th of July, it was quiet. I’m not kidding. After the reading I sat on an Adirondack chair in the dark sipping whiskey in the middle of the lawn and I watched some stars shoot across the sky in relative silence. Not a single explosion. Well, maybe one or two, intermittently, distantly. Whoever was in charge of the display from the night before must have wanted to get all the pyrotechnic ya yas out early. That’s fine. It seemed to have worked swimmingly. I’ve become kind of a grump about fireworks. They are beautiful to watch if you can forget that they are, after all, mostly a gussied up reenactment of warfare. Not to mention the expense. Someday, perhaps, in a perfect world, in a new frontier, people will celebrate the fourth of July by blowing soap bubbles.

At the end of a class yesterday that described the literary history of American frontier exploration, both literal and symbolic, Alison asked us what we believed would be the next frontier. It was a brilliant, thought provoking question. And our responses were revelatory. We began, as you would expect us to do, with some more literal predictions. Well, there’s space, still, the infinite expanses of the universe. There’s quantum physics. My understanding is that there’s a boat load of stuff we still don’t know about the ocean. The human brain remains mysterious territory. Medicine. There will be technological advances every bit as revolutionary as the one’s we’ve experienced over just a few short years. That kind of stuff. Then the discussion got darker. As Alison’s talk had culminated in a description of Dystopia as the most recent literary “frontier,” we began to discuss the bleak, depressing, backwards, and absurd state of affairs in our country in the age of a Trump presidency. The new frontier seems dark, indeed. It was inevitable that we should land here, our first writer’s camp since the election. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess is that as creatives, as artists, as makers, we are in this community nearly unanimous in our outrage over the current state of American politics. We are all still smarting and trying to figure out what role we have to play in these next months and years.

And then the conversation shifted.

Bookstores are inundated with readers looking for rigorous political satire. African women are writing science fiction novels. People like us are here, in this place, in this time, coming together to write, talk about writing, celebrate each other, learn from each other, lift each other up emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Literature matters still. Literature teaches us how to be human. Literature teaches us how to be more empathetic and compassionate. Literature teaches us how to love. It was decided: we have to keep writing. And there, in this conversation about the power our words might have to make substantive difference in the world, someone suggested that the new frontier is in relationship, deep understanding and connection, the way in which our behavior in the world and our way of relating might have a ripple effect louder and farther than any firepower ever could.

And then we moved from that wonderful, enlivening conversation to an experiment with receiving and giving feedback about writing. So accustomed, as we are, to “workshops” in which the writer cannot speak but must listen as others try to communicate, sometimes helpfully but often narcissistically, what the writer needs to do to improve their work, what if instead the writer spoke the entire time and in response to honest, open questions from peers and friends, the sole purpose of which would be to elicit inquiry, reflection, discernment, to inspire the writer’s inner teacher to speak?

We tried that. The results, I think, were stunning. I believe there is almost nothing in the world more affirming than to feel and be heard. I know from personal experience that almost every moment of conflict in my life with another human being was the result of my inability or unwillingness to listen or from the perception that someone I loved or cared about was not listening to me. But what’s especially phenomenal and important and potentially transformational about this idea, is that this same gift can be given to or received from relative strangers.

There were individuals who had never met before yesterday partnered up to have this kind of conversation around writing, where one writer described a dilemma in his or her practice and then the other asked only honest, open questions and allowed the writer to speak in response. No suggestions. No advice. No fixing. No judgement. We listen attentively to others, we listen to our own responses, later, we help each other hear  and see what we might not have been conscious of, and this listening then percolates its way into clarity–immediately in some cases, in a few hours sometimes, or after weeks or months of slow cooking.

So the new frontier might be a transformation that occurs when individuals, when groups, when cultures, when whole nations learn to listen. I’m no Polyanna. But I do sometimes tend toward rose-colored glasses, or glasses half full. I’m pretty disgusted with a lot of things, but I am also heartened and hopeful where I see sense, integrity, decency, kindness, compassion–and that stuff is all around us. Over the last four days I’ve been soaking in it, Palmolive-like. We start where we are. My friend Mark insisted that we begin with those in our immediate reach. It will ripple outward, like fireworks, only softer, like soap bubbles.

Try this at home.

 

 

 

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Resurrection of the Contest in Order to Exacerbate Feelings of Rejection, a Dongle Dilemma, When a Poem is Not a Poem, One Bad Dream, and More Blessedness.

 

This campus has a Hogwarts thing going on, don’t you think? I feel like I’m at Hogwarts.

Things started out kind of rowdy here at Mt. Holyoke. The microphone was wonky. There’s nothing worse than a wonky microphone. Better no microphone than a wonky one. One of our attendees was trapped in his room by tables of books. But he’s got the only refrigerator in the entire building in his room for some reason, so people keep going in there to refrigerate things or to steal ice cubes. Last night, July 3rd, a massive fireworks display lit up the sky and we had to yell at each other over the thunder.

We’ve been mixing it up. At reading number 2, the glorious, lovely and talented MC Thornburg resurrected the daily writing contest for silly prizes, despite controversies surrounding the last time this was done, concluding that the only way writers might thicken their skin against rejection would be to experience more rejection.  That’s not true. MC T actually suggested a kinder, gentler writing contest, one in which the winner would be randomly drawn from a hat, ultimately making sure that, like they do in California, every kid gets a trophy. No one was buying that. We require, as a group, more rejection, more suffering.

I had a question about dongles and many people misunderstood. Having arrived on campus with a computer that requires a unique kind of plumbing, I was just hoping to be able to make an appropriate and functional connection between the one thing and another thing in order to project some images on the screen during my class. People laughed and one of our Annies (we have three of them) thought I was being vulgar. She googled the word “dongle” and was satisfied. She still thinks it’s a dirty word, though, dictionary be damned.

The question has come up: just what exactly is a poem? It’s a relevant question for me, as I am writing poems now and have a manuscript on the cooker. Sheepish about my own poetry prowess, I think of my poems as extremely short prose pieces that I have broken into lines. But I call them poems. Because I can. Is a poem a poem because the person writing it says it’s a poem? Is it a poem when an audience that’s listening can’t “hear” the line breaks? Is it a poem if it’s not about pain and suffering and death and love? Is it a poem if it has no “music” in it? Is there a difference between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction? If so, what is it? If it’s narrative, but it’s not a narrative poem, and it’s not an narrative essay, and it’s broken into lines, is it a poem? My friend Dave says that he spent his entire MFA program experience at Warren Wilson trying to define the poem. And when he graduated and they gave him a big stick he realized that the answer was not really all that interesting or important. The question is interesting, I think, but I’m with Dave: the answer is not. Rilke said: Learn to love the questions themselves.

I have lots of questions about the dream I had this morning, which was really more like a nightmare. I dreamt I was being anesthetized for a surgery just as my sleeping self was trying to wake up. I was afraid I would be awake during whatever it was they were about to do to me. Then my sleeping body woke and I was shivering. It was icky. Then I went to morning meditation. All better.

The short stay conference attendees arrive today. Some of them arrived yesterday. That’s exciting, partly because their presence adds to this sometimes overwhelming abundance, one of the hallmarks or gifts of Writer’s Camp. I’ve said this before, but I always walk around at these things feeling this incredible lightness, a palpable fish of gratitude just swimming around in my system–all the time. It could be the caffeine–but I don’t think so; it never wears off. And I’m just giddy when new friends arrive. When the short stay people show up, things get noisier, more rambunctious–and judging from the rowdy quality of our first three nights of consistently exquisite readings from alumni, it’s gonna get crazy ’round here. Crazy in the best, most blessed, sermon-on-the-Mount-Holyoke kind of way.

Dear Wally friends: if you are not here, know that you are missed.

 

 

 

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Sermon on the Mount Holyoke

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Blessed are the writers who have arrived at Mount Holyoke College to participate in the 2017 Warren Wilson MFA Program Alumni Conference, for they are lucky bastards, and I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here among them.

Blessed is the writer who takes the red-eye flight out of Portland at midnight, sleeps through most of that four hour flight, is fortunate enough not to get completely lost in the chaos that is the Newark Liberty International Airport as he finds and takes a bus, yes, an actual bus, from one terminal to the next to catch a connecting flight, sleeps through most of that short little jumper, and lands safely at Bradley International at Hartford, Connecticut, where, unsure about which shuttle company he hired last time he was here, and loathe to pay almost $300 for a private shuttle, hires a damn taxi and sleeps through most of that ride and arrives safely but still wiped out on this beautiful 19th century campus of Mt. Holyoke College, home of Emily Dickinson, who may have been epileptic, some people say.

Blessed is the writer who takes what seems like the fourth and deepest nap over the course of a single ten hour stretch of clock-time in his dungeon-like dorm room, tucked away under a stairwell into the basement, where he will serve out his week as the resident conference troll.

Blessed is the writer who opens his suitcase to discover it’s full of a mysterious pile of black plastic shards, who, for many moments is in a panic about what he packed with him that is now utterly destroyed: glasses okay, cd jewel boxes okay, books bent somewhat but not alarmingly so, clothes okay but full of plastic shards. Everything must be shaken out, the suitcase overturned, and finally a pile of this debris accumulates on the second dorm bed. Blessed is this WTF moment that culminates finally with the conclusion that, holy crap, the plastic shell that allows one’s suitcase to maintain its general boxiness was somehow completely shattered into hundreds of pieces in the journey. Blessed is the writer who comes to Mount Holyoke with a hard case and will venture home in six days with a soft one.

Blessed is the writer who thought several months ago to start storing all of his creative work on an external hard drive, because, blessing of blessings, his computer dies a quite sudden death two days before coming to a writer’s conference.

Blessed was the first night of readings, morning meditation, and a first day free and clear of responsibilities. Blessed is the writer who reads tonight sporting his disco bowtie, who chose poetry this time, a first for this fiction writer, but following in the footsteps of dozens of fiction writers and poets who have chosen to cross that invisible genre boundary and did not die from it, but, on the contrary, were met by their readers and listeners with much rejoicing.

That’s my dorm room back there!

Another view of the dungeon.

The Holyoke Troll

Looks kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test

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In Memoriam: Papa Glen

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Just to make sure readers don’t jump to conclusions upon reading two memorial essays side-by-side: no, my parents did not die within a week of each other, but seven years apart. I decided it would be appropriate and right to include this memorial essay for my father as a companion piece to the one I wrote for my mom. I had not published it here before, in large part because I wrote it almost a year before I started blogging, but perhaps also because I knew there would come a day not so far into the future when I would write one for Mother as well, and that there might be an occasion to publish both of them together.

It’s a profound thing to find yourself at some stage in your life without parents. I feel fortunate to have had them in my life for so long, but I think it’s true that losing your parents is difficult at any age. I suspected I would feel suddenly unmoored and alone, sourceless. I worried about losing touch with my brothers and my sister. I don’t feel that way, and I’m no longer worried. Even though it’s not always possible, I know that the declining health of parents has the capacity to bring families together, to act as a spark toward stronger family cohesion. That’s what happened for us and I’m confident that our newly discovered cohesion will continue. And the deaths of our parents can also be an inspiration to reflect more deeply than ever about our source, our origins, our histories. As it turns out, what I ended up saying about both my mother and my father in their respective eulogies is that their deaths on this earth, the ending of their corporeal form does not even begin to finish or complete their work in our lives. They are with us, now and always. And these two essays, one for Mama Shirley and this one for Papa Glen, have helped me to realize that fact and to proclaim it.

So I offer up the following remembrance, written and spoken in October of 2010, as a celebration of my father’s life alongside my mother’s, as a window into the life of my family for whoever might be interested, and as a comfort, perhaps, for people in grief for a lost father.

 

Dad: a eulogy for Louis Glen Jarmer
Delivered Saturday, October 23, 2010 at St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church

First of all I’d like to say what an honor it is to have been asked by my family to speak at this service. It is truly an honor. As ludicrous as it is to sum up a life, to describe a man in less than ten minutes, here is my best shot, out of my own head, but with a little help from my friends, at a description of Dad, a portrait of Louis Glen Jarmer.

He was a tolerant man.

He put up with 10 plus years of my drumming—it must have been bad drumming at first, and even when it wasn’t bad—it was always loud—one or two rooms away. He never told me to stop playing.

He was supportive.

He came to all of my school plays and concerts once he was retired. He didn’t make it to as many of Rick’s football games while he was working—but Rick remembers one in particular where Dad’s unflinching support for his son was evidenced by a wager with Uncle Jerry for a bottle of Scotch.

More recently, Dad’s support for Rick was demonstrated by an enthusiastic greeting at the airport as Rick and Laurie welcomed two lovely Russian children into the family.

And many, many years ago, he took a week off work to stay with Jan when Tim, her third child, was born.

Dad was generous and thoughtful.

Rick remembers as a kid being able to rummage through Dad’s lunch bag for goodies at the end of his work day.

She was in the 7th grade, and Dad surprised Jan with a beautiful aqua dress, nylons and patent leather shoes for her confirmation ceremony, apparently after Mom had said no.

Dad brought home fancy Valentine’s Day Gifts from See’s Candy downtown. And the Easter baskets, hidden in one of four closets in the house, were legendary—not the hiding, but the baskets.

He let me order records from his record club—the first records in my collection, the ones I hadn’t stolen from my brothers and sister, were gifts from Dad.

He volunteered countless hours at Providence Hospital—was, in fact, for a time, the President of the Ladies Auxiliary! He also spent countless hours volunteering, with Mom, for this church—collecting money, countless hours counting money—I don’t think he took any of it.

He was honest

To a fault, he was honest. Wouldn’t let himself shortchange anybody a nickel—would probably drive back to the store if he realized he had accidentally taken such advantage—he never took advantage.

He was just.

I have not a single memory of being treated unfairly by my father—not even in that mistaken sense that children sometimes have about the discipline or judgment meted out by parents. I never felt slighted by the man in the least bit. Even when things were tough in my life and I was making poor decisions, his reactions were measured and thoughtful. He spanked me once and I think I deserved it.

And my brother Rick recalls being fired for being drunk on the job and Dad having to come pick him up—the consequences spoke for themselves: Dad didn’t say a word. No criticism. No judgment.

He was adventurous

In his 70’s, no less, camping with Dave and Tina, Cecil and Marion and their family, the report is that he went on a kind of unsupervised joyride on Dave’s ATV. He had the time of his life, apparently, but it made Dave and Tina so nervous they had to ban him from the vehicle for the rest of his days unless he had proper supervision.

He was a trickster: the first time he played chess with me—he said he didn’t know how to play—let me teach him the game, and then proceeded to kick my ass.

Glen Jarmer was a sober man—meaning he was very serious. Stoic, we say about this kind of man. Never complained. Was pretty tight-lipped. Not very emotional. Not a sentimental man—although I found once a love poem to mom in a hope chest. Outside of these occasional bursts of feeling, yes, indeed, he was a sober man, except when he wasn’t.

He was a good drinker: To my knowledge he never got sick and he always drank responsibly. And he was funny and lively and silly—and this is not a pro-drinking eulogy—I know there are some young people in the church today—but I have to say that we saw in Dad, on a couple of Martinis, endearing and positive traits that his normal inhibitions prevented us from seeing on a day-to-day basis. So we got to know him a little better: Dad with a drink in his hand was a man that you wanted to be with—just as Dad without a drink in his hand was a man you wanted to be with.

He was a learner. I think he did much more than look at the pictures in National Geographic—and just a few years ago, he tackled five or six hundred pages of a book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything—a kind of crash course in every field of science known to man. Dad was curious. He wanted to know things.

Louis Glen Jarmer was loyal—to wife, to children, to friends, to right-action, and to church. I think maybe this last year was the first year in his life he missed a mass. He was loyal to the Corp of Engineers—but that must not have been as important to him—to this day, none of us can really say what it was Dad did for a living!

What have I forgotten? It’s so important not to forget anything.

Here are some things that he loved. He loved the night sky. And he loved the moon, in fact he claimed it as his own. Routinely, family members would say either, there’s “Daddy’s moon” or there’s “Glenny’s moon” in reference to it, especially when it was in the full.

He loved candy.

He loved good food. And he loved to cook—I have more memories of my dad in the kitchen than in any other room of the house.

He loved his home. He did not want to leave it.

He loved his country. He served it honorably, twice. He wasn’t out there waving flags—his patriotism was quiet and purposeful; he cared deeply about what happened in the United States of America and he took his responsibilities as a citizen very seriously.

He loved nature. He loved the natural world, mountains, trees, the desert, the ocean. He loved to hunt; thankfully, he only killed a couple of things. He loved animals—the majestic, beautiful, strange, dangerous ones—interestingly enough he was never really fond of household pets—but tolerated them for the sake of his family and maybe showed some affection from time to time, when no one was looking, for a dog or a cat.

He loved to camp and taught all of his children this. I bought an Airstream, because it’s an Airstream, but mostly because I wanted to share with my son what Daddy shared with me: his love of the outdoors and his love of camping.

And he loved us. As far as I can tell, his last words in this life, before going into surgery the last time to repair that havoc in his body, were “I love you guys,” and then later, when it was becoming clear to all of us that he would not be getting better this time, he said “I love you” to Mom. His last words—maybe his last coherent thoughts: an expression of love.

I knew him imperfectly, I know. And I knew him differently than my brothers and my sister and my mother and all of you knew him. I wish I could have known him better and in all of the ways that we know him collectively—and I wish I could have said thank you. Thank you for being such a great father. I love him. And I miss him already. But he is always here. He is not gone, really. Every time I look in the mirror, or in the faces of my family or in the face of my son, I will see him.

Dad chose to die on a beautiful day; it was sunny and warm on that day. Dad chose kind of a yucky day for his funeral. I think there’s something to that.

I want to close with a poem by Mary Oliver that expresses in the finest way that I have ever seen what I hope my father may have felt about dying, and what I would hope all of us feel about it, when our time comes.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in Autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measel-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

Louis Glen Jarmer was no mere visitor to this world. He really lived here. His legacy is lasting and positive. He changed the world in his way. We are forever grateful for the gift of his life.

 

 

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In Memoriam: Mama Shirley

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A Eulogy for Shirley Elaine Jarmer, Delivered Saturday, June 10, 2017 at St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church:

Friends, Jarmers, and Kidds. On behalf of our family, I thank you all for being here today. But we need to stop meeting like this.

Once again, I have the great honor and responsibility of sharing with you remembrances of a dearly beloved parent, family member, and friend on her passing. What I tried to do seven years ago for my Daddy I will try now to do for Mama, Shirley Elaine Jarmer.

She was a remarkable woman. Although, sadly, I know little about my mother’s childhood, I know she was a dedicated daughter, loved her parents deeply. She was a high school dropout who nevertheless had beautiful penmanship and serious skills in writing and math. She was a loving and super young mother of three. The fourth child came late—that would be me, not a mistake, she said, but a surprise. Pregnant with me, I heard a story recently that Mom just couldn’t believe it—“How did this happen to me?” she said.

She became, perhaps before it was acceptable to do so, a working mother. But that’s a dumb thing to say, after all, because what mother is not hard at work all the time. No, I mean she was employed outside the home in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. She worked at Berg’s department store, she took receptionist jobs at an insurance company and for Jarmer Electric, she did a stint in textiles for a division of the White Stag brand, and she was a checker in Fred Meyer apparel. I think Mom worked so she could have an independent income all her own—to raise what she might call FUNNY MONEY. Because Dad was kind of a penny pincher. In her retirement she worked less for herself and more for others: she did volunteer work with the Providence Hospital Lady’s Auxiliary, worked the gift shop, and later she counted money every Sunday for this sacred institution, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Earlier, I called Shirley a loving mother—kind of a cliché suitable for probably any mother who loves her kids, but I remember Mom as going the extra mile in the love department. She was kind, gentle, comforting, welcoming, and caring. I knew my father loved me, but mama’s love was huge and expressed with freedom and tenderness, with kisses, hugs, pets, and food. I think a general and all-capital SWEETNESS was a trait she shared with her sister Beverly and one that I see reflected in Beverly’s daughter Suzanne. Shirley was sweetness embodied and she loved her children, but she loved her grandchildren and her extended family; she loved her friends as well, and she shared her sweetness with all.

And she was an adoring wife to Dad. She took such good, loving care of him. I remember Mom washing his hair in the kitchen sink—which must have been difficult for a woman of her stature—massaging his head and shoulders in the evening as he sat on the floor in front of her in a chair before the fire or listening to music together. She took good care of him in his final difficult year. She treasured him. “My Daddy”—she called him this—she lovingly referred to him chiefly as the father of her children, and even though I know she loved him in lots of other ways, perhaps she cherished him most because of this.

Her last request: I want to be with my Daddy.

Mom demonstrated to me every single day Dad was alive, and even after, what a strong marriage could look like.

Mom was full of personality. Everybody loved Shirley. She lit up a room—or a campground. She was the life of the party. She was super funny, could be very silly and she had a penchant for baby talk, one she kept up until the very end, speaking to her favorite nurses in a childlike, playful way, even in the last days of her life. She had a seriously dominant cuteness gene, a gene she passed on, I must admit, to at least one of her children. You’d never know it looking at me—but I can baby talk with the best of them.

Part of her dynamic personality included her way with words, or at least, with particular words or phrases used often and to great effect. She had, for example, several alternatives for swearing.

“For crying out loud,” she’d say. A more extreme variation and therefore my favorite: “For crying in a bucket!”

And here’s an odd one: When frustrated or angry she’d say: “Manischewitz!” (I only just recently, like within the last few weeks, learned the origin of this word. Did you know this? It’s the last name of a Rabbi who at the end of the 19th century founded a company that would produce kosher food and wine. Who knows why she picked up the habit of using this poor Rabbi’s name in vain; we’ll never know).

When things were wrong or went badly: “This is the pits! This is just the pits!” I heard Aunt Marian say this as she visited mom the night before Shirley died. Marian speculated that maybe she picked up the habit of that phrase from our mom).

Another one of my favorite Mom expressions along these same lines: “This is for the birds!”—This particular idiom is a puzzler—I’m not sure what it means: whatever bad thing that just happened, I guess, is good for birds somehow? It’s certainly not good for us but might be fitting for birds, because, you know, birds are okay with almost everything?

And last but not least: “I can’t believe it.” Like when she was pregnant with me: “How did this happen? I can’t believe it.” This one fascinates me. It’s probably the phrase she used more than any other. And I think it represents this part of her personality—she was just always mystified by the unexpected, both the good and the bad, puzzled when people did great or stupid or terrible things or when things went horribly wrong in her circle or in the world. “I just can’t believe it.” She preferred things in order. And she liked it when one thing followed the next in a logical reasoned sequence. She liked things, people, and events to be neat and tidy. Consequently, because things, people, and events are rarely neat and tidy, she said she couldn’t believe it a lot. “I just can’t believe it.”

Finally, her choice of nicknames for people, most frequent of which was the mutation of the family name: Jama! If you were a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief, she’d playfully call you Jama. If you weren’t a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief you were still a Jama. Everybody was a Jama. And if you weren’t a Jarmer or a Jama, you were a farmer, and if you weren’t a farmer, you were a Charley. I have no idea where this came from. For a time she was calling everybody Charley.

She had a special nickname for her son-in-law Kevin. He was her “favorite son-in-law.” Quite an honor—a coveted, highly competitive post. (Just in case the joke is lost on you: Kevin was Mom’s only son-in-law).

But, in keeping with her general sweetness, she also called EVERYONE honey, dear, sweetheart, or punkin (my phonetic spelling of mama’s “pumpkin”).  Everybody was a honey or a punkin. And everyone, no matter what size, was little. A little punkin. A little honey. That little doctor. My little daddy. My little David. And not wanting to offend anyone, she would always think of some gentle way to describe what a person might be sensitive about. Her last doctor, a bald guy, she described as being “short of hair.”

She loved playing games with her family, mostly cards, gin rummy, progressive rummy, Uno, or Crazy 8’s. The story goes that she stayed up until 1:00 a.m. playing Crazy 8’s with her niece Kate, yelling “Wild Baby” every time an 8 was played, keeping everybody else in the house awake. She loved a moderate and conservative round of gambling. She loved a good meal and hated a bad one. Like Dad, she loved her martinis. She loved camping. She loved animals, was probably the sole reason why we ever had a pet in the house—and we always did. She loved “swimming” or rather, floating in the pool that mom and dad built. She loved to look good. Loved a good hairdo. She loved beauty—from her fancy jewelry to her funny little dancing solar windowsill toys of which she had acquired quite a collection, and flowers. As far as I can tell, as she looked at the bouquet we had brought from the hospital to her room in hospice, her last coherent words were “they’re so pretty.”

In closing out this remembrance, this portrait of mama Shirley, I’d like to conclude by saying that mom was a woman of values:

One of her chief values I’ve already discussed: Loving kindness. And acceptance, tolerance—she welcomed all into her home—and I think she evolved a great deal as our family diversified; she evolved way beyond the intolerance of the culture in which she grew up.

She valued honesty and responsibility—even if it takes a long, long time, 50 years maybe, one must be truthful and accountable. She was forgiving and forgiven in bountiful measure.

She valued gratitude. She exuded gratitude; she was appreciative, always thankful for what other people gave to her or did for her: She didn’t want to trouble anyone. To a fault, she didn’t want her issues, whether physical, emotional, or moral, to be anybody else’s burden, so she was often tight lipped when it came to describing her own pain or sorrow, but she was always grateful when someone helped her out—and said so. “Thank you,” she’d say.

Last, she valued family.

Even if we have no right to do so, it makes sense that we do it: we try to make meaning—we interpret the behaviors of our loved ones—especially in these crucial last moments, to help us make sense of, to add meaning to the ends of their lives. And this is what I noticed about Mom —Mama waited to die until she could spend a full night with each of her children in succession; Rick, Jan, Dave, and I were all able to be with her for an entire night over the last four nights of her life—and she waited to die until she could spend the last moments with her only surviving immediate family member, her brother Bill.

Among all the tremendous gifts of life and love she gave to us all, what a gift she gave to us here—giving each of us in turn an opportunity to say goodbye in our own way. Thoughtful, considerate, and selfless to the very last. That was our mama, your grandma, your auntie Shirley, your sister, your friend, your parishioner.

From Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic poet: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

Godspeed, mama Shirley. You will always be with us in every moment of every waking day, in our memory, in our hearts and souls, and even in the sweetest of our dreams.

Postscript: Tremendous gratitude from us, Shirley’s children, to Aunt Marian, Suzanne and Gene, Uncle Bill and Aunt Leslie for being with us and with mom steadfastly through the last few weeks. You have been a tremendous help and comfort.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Family, Parenting, Remembrances

#283: I Dream of a Song

dreaming

It was crazy.
I dreamed
I had written
a song
fully formed
and recorded
about my mom
and then my dead
friend called me
on the phone
and wondered
about copyright
permissions because
I think she wanted
to use it for some
other purpose.
I wish I could
remember the song,
the lyrics, the tune,
why my dead
friend wanted it.
All I know is that
I felt it was a
very good song,
maybe my best,
and it was about
my mom who is
very ill and it reached
my friend on the other
side and she called me
on the phone.

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As a Result of Maintaining a Regular Blog…

mandala-tree-of-life

I have found a book.  It just appeared there. I wasn’t intentionally writing a book. I was just blogging. One day I decided to look closely at a pattern I saw emerging (among many patterns), and there I found a book! I found a book of poems, needing revision, sure, but almost fully formed, a book of poems about teaching, written in partially shitty rough drafts over a four year stint of keeping up a regular blog and publishing those shitty rough drafts during the course of National Poetry Writing Month and beyond.

It strikes me as a bit unorthodox. Maybe I’ve mentioned this conundrum before, but I’m a fiction writer, a fiction writer who does not write fiction on his blog site, but instead, writes poems and essays. I know most serious poets, or at least, most serious poets that I know, do not write poems on their blog sites, do not publish poems in that realm as they occur to them. That’s just not what serious poets do (whatever that means). I guess it means that serious poets typically draft and revise and revise and revise until they are happy enough to send out a poem. They keep doing this. Eventually, a number of their poems are published in lit mags, and maybe simultaneously or concurrently or subsequently they discover they have enough poetry for a manuscript. They assemble a book and ship that baby off to poetry presses. Or they go through a similar process while knowing ahead of the game that they are working toward some conceptual continuity. I just kept writing and posting poems, and four years later, I look back and find this cache of poems about teaching, most of which I kind of like, and most of which form a nice little arch that will neatly work in collection together as a bonafide book!

One could read all of those poems here. But my feeling about this is that when they are together in sequence, and after they’ve been polished up, they’ll be better. I’m going to immediately go out and try to find homes for some of them, compile my favorites, and make a manuscript. Maybe by the time fall rolls around they will have found their way out into the world. I’ll see what bites. Wish me luck.

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