Category Archives: Karleen Koen

commands

k6160536Le Notre has come to visit again. I am so grateful, for his sternness comforts me as I grapple with the middle of the novel whose ending is still vague. Prune here, he announces. Plant there. Lift and carry and work. It’s physical labor, and I need it. October is a grace month in Houston, when humidity lifts and temperatures drop.

I plant violets, not the proud African ones of my girlhood, with their large heart-shaped leaves and deep purple faces, but Australian ones, the only ones I can find, with smaller, less deep emerald leaves and faces that show both white and purple. I love violets, have tried to start them any number of times in my shady yard, which they should love, without success. Le Notre points to where he thinks they might thrive. If you water, he sniffs. His face is lined with age and knowledge and Louis XIV‘s confidence in him. He’s fashionable for his time, a wig, a satin coat, shoes with buckles, a long, long staff like the one Lully used to direct the king’s orchestra. I like this stern taskmaster who tells me what to do in the garden and bears with no excuses.

k6160536I know my garden is symbolic of something, as is my choice of Le Notre as its muse, but I don’t want to probe the symbolism. There are violets to plant. There’s a woman in the novel with a heart-shaped face, who was called a shy violet by history, when it bothered with her at all. She was scorned because she wasn’t ambitious. She turned to God in her pain. Perhaps I plant for her.

scales

indexLast week, I listened to Houston’s Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. Among its bright attributes are its necessary place in joy, creativity, adventure, joy, belonging, authenticity, and love, which I hadn’t thought of. Among its shadows are feelings of fear, shame, and uncertainty.

Certain behavior of mine—around the reluctance to write, around days when I can’t force myself to sit down in the chair because fear jumping-beans in my pulse—came into clearer focus.

I am vulnerable when I write. I am vulnerable when I am published. I am vulnerable when my work is read and people comment upon it. The dread I carry inside is the dread of being vulnerable.

Brown also quoted  Teddy Roosevelt about daring greatly–that the man or woman who attempts something in the arena of life, even if he or she fails, will have dared greatly. So I balance these on unseen scales inside myself each day that I write fiction: vulnerability and daring.

Interesting. I wonder if having defined the feeling will ease anything. And then I am reminded of some redneck advice that I like: The world ain’t even honking at you. You just think it is……….

index

 

welcome

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Alpine: July I’m on the wrong side of the tracks, where the hotel and saloons were when Big Bend’s cattle were herded to railroad tracks where trains took them north. The hotel has gone to ruin, two walls left. The saloons have moved across the tracks to the gringo side of town and are called bars. Here houses are weatherbeaten. Blocks have empty spaces where mesquite and desert petunias grow and sheds and barns fall in. We face a hill. Sounds travel. The train. Music.

It’s late twilight. I hear singing. I follow the sound. Valensuela Reunion 2014 a handmade sign taped to metal carport says, and beyond is the band. Mariachi, the accordion, the guitar, the fiddle, and the nasal, heartfelt singing. Someone is grilling. A woman sits in one of a row of empty folding chairs listening. The man grilling sees me, waves me forward. No. The woman turns and waves for me to come in, also.

IMG_1006Why not? I think. I go in and sit down beside Tina, who explains the band is practicing for the party tomorrow night. You need to come, she tells me. The man grilling shakes my hand and tells me his name is Jaime. Come to our party tomorrow, he says. I sit in the long summer twilight listening to Mexican love songs, their wistfulness rising to the hill. It’s neither lonely nor strange to be sitting in this back yard with people I don’t know. It’s Alpine.

nellie

indexI can’t cry for Mother anymore. I can’t remember her when she wasn’t this shell. I can’t remember her when she loved clothes and shopping, always kept chocolate somewhere, would go off with me if I needed a partner, was a natural engineer at repairing just about anything, loaned her money without a backward look to her loved ones.

She has a friend from forever. Their fathers were best friends. Nellie has always called Mom several times a year and always sent cards. She calls on Mom’s birthday, and this year, my mother can’t even parrot hello into the phone, doesn’t recognize what the phone is, or realize I am asking her to speak into it.

Nellie tells me she has breast cancer and that she is going to the doctor. Later I find out from her son she has 4 to 6 months and is refusing chemo. A fair choice, I think, cool in my analysis like autumn rain, and wishing my Mother’s end was as clear. I go about my day the day I learn the news, and I feel sadness gathering in some far distance in me. It’s pushing zinnatears up. I sit in the car after some errand and weep for a long time. Hard tears. Ones that tear. For Nellie. For life. For its inevitable end. But also for Mom. Somehow I can weep for her through Nellie.

amends

IMG_1007_2When I drive I like to listen to country music. It catches me up on what is emotionally current for a key segment of this country. I happened to hear an old Johnny Cash tune called Country Bumpkin. It was about a country bumpkin who walks into a bar, of course, and is laughed at by a hard-eyed woman. Hello, country bumpkin, she sneers. A year later, she has just delivered a baby and her eyes are soft, and she says to the baby, hello, country bumpkin. On her deathbed, she looks at loved ones and says, goodbye country bumpkins, it was a fine life. Well, I just cried like a baby. She was redeemed, you see, from cynicism and hopelessness. I find that touching.

Redemption is part of why I adore grandparenting, that second chance to love and protect small beings  in a finer way than perhaps was done the first time. And it’s what makes the 12 IMG_1007_2steps work in a very special way for the lost. Amends are made. We amend our mistakes and make a fruitful life in spite of our sins, our despair, our meanness, our small heartedness. And why are we small hearted? Because we’re afraid life really is ugly. Hello country bumpkin….

birthday

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I hostessed a birthday today. I’ve put together a birthday for Mom for more years than I can remember. I even used to fly to Reno, when she lived there, to do it. Today, the flame on the candle burned brighter than she did. She’s in her 10th year of Alzheimer’s. We woke her from her morning rest to have lunch and birthday. She started to go back to sleep as we sang the song.

DSC_1854night,lt. exp_3462So I packed away candles and food and the table cloth I brought to the place where she resides now. And I watched the aide put her down for a nap, having to diaper her like a child. And my daughter climbed into bed with her to soothe her, for she’s brittle now, must be moved by others.

Her oldest friend called, a quaver in her voice, as she wished Mom happy birthday on the speaker phone and told her she loved her. My son-in-law said, you still have best friends. She didn’t answer. I’m not certain what of the conversation she heard or if she realized it was for her.

What is the meaning of a life? How small it burns at the last. How small we become, feeble ghosts in our own bodies. I do not complain of this. I simply DSC_1854night,lt. exp_3462observe. I’m glad my daughter climbed into bed with her. That’s a meaning of a life, isn’t it?

Happy Birthday, Mom.

trust

DSC_0132I love it when a historian echoes one of my hunches. I read a lot of history: biographies, memoir, overviews, always have since I was a girl and became intrigued with the Plantagenets and Elizabeth I. I think I’m looking for tone, the shading I’ll paint under the story I write. I really don’t know; I just absorb and let the vapor appear filtered through whatever it is that makes up me.

So, I’ve read dozens of biographies about Louis XIV, and only this one—by a woman—and just read this week said what my gut told me as I wrote a piece of Louis’s personal story in Before Versailles. “The young King, entranced by the sincerity and intensity of Louise’s feelings towards him, loved her as he had never loved before, and was never to love again.” (Therese Louis Latour 1924) As I read other biographies, in which Louise de la Valliere is a footnote, glanced at and abandoned by the writers, I always felt there was a unique tenderness in the love affair. And that’s what I wrote.

DSC_0132It’s nice to have my hunch validated, even if the writer isn’t current or well known. I think much of what I do has to do with subtlety. And I must trust subtlety.

Grace notes: Saw a dove sitting in her nest in one of my trees. Nests used to mean much to me; they were a symbol of my own task in this younger life I was living.