Tag Archives: Texas

red

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The last place my Mom and Dad lived in before he died was out in the country, near Lake Fork, Texas. There was a big plate-glass window in front of which Dad had hung bird feeders. Among the many birds who winged in were cardinals, crimson feathers startling, vivid, unforgettable. Whenever I see cardinals, real or otherwise, I think of Dad, I think of that place, a home place for him, a vision he’d worked toward all his life. And I think of my mother, too, acquiescing to him, sharing his dream. What was hers?

In Pier One yesterday, caught like a magpie by all the Christmas glitter and glow, I saw LED candles with tiny red cardinals on them. I had to stop and touch the glass. My throat got tight as I thought of my father, but also of my mother, 13 years down with Alzheimer’s, bedridden, incontinent, unable to turn over or ask for what she wants, able only to croak sounds and smile her occasional but still lovely smile. I didn’t buy the candle. I bought five small, red clip-on cardinals, glitter on their tails and shaken like salt in among their color. Foolish, I thought as I checked out. She won’t see them.

But today I go to place them in her room, among the bits of holiday tinsel I put up even though she doesn’t know. My heart hurts, my throat is tight. I think I summoning Dad to bring her on home.

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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.

old soldier

flOne of my first posts on this blog, begun several years ago…….

I called an old soldier for Memorial Day. Elgin, I said, how are you? Karleen, he replied, it’s so good to hear from you.

Tell me about the war, I said. Oh, baby, he answered, I don’t like to talk about that. War is ugly, you know. And so we talked about his vegetables. In his mid-80s, hale and hearty, he’d just come in from the garden, which is full of squash and zucchini and tomatoes and onions and bell peppers.

He was stationed in the Philippines for two years in World War II. Old sepia-colored photographs show a lean, slouching, hawk-faced young man standing with a rifle slung over a shoulder near a pile of dead Japanese. A recent PBS documentary reminded that the battle for the Philippines was hard fought, often hand to hand, against a formidable and determined enemy who almost beat us.

I asked about Edward, his brother-in-law, whose old high school, senior year portrait, gently watercolored as was the style in those days, I have on my altar. Edward is handsome and young and smiling, seventeen, I think, in the portrait. He wears a suit and tie. His hair is neatly parted on one side. He too had been in the Philippines, but he was part of the three-month Battle of Bataan, which was lost. And he walked the long, hard, harsh, killing miles of the Bataan Death March, prosecuted as a war crime after the war ended. He survived and was on a prison ship on its way to Japan, when it was bombed by American forces. So he survived combat and a death march to die at sea. I think he was nineteen when he died. The baby of the family.

flThe news came to a little town in East Texas called Troupe. His mother lost her sanity for a time when the news came, and when she recovered she was never the same. That’s family legend anyway. Edward was my son’s great uncle. And Elgin is his grandfather.

summer writing retreat

I cried as I drove out of Alpine, Texas, nestled in the high desert of the Glass and Davis Mountains. I knew I would. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I die before I wake, feed Jake…he’s a good old dog played on the radio as vast vistas, burned by wildfires, spread out on either side of me. I was driving back to real life….what’s happening with my book, will the rosebush live, what are they doing about the debt crisis….

I came into Alpine on my broom…..part Nanny Mcphee, part tattered good fairy whose tutu is too tight, part secret wild-eyed, owl-faced shaman woman with sharp talons. There were 17 small eggs in the nest that was my class this time. All had cracked open their shells. A few nestlings were out, peeping, ready for food, ready to fly. But as always, too many had crawled back in their broken shells in discouragement, and some were already trying to peck themselves to death. I say, in the come-on of the class, that it’s about novel basics, some craft and technique you need to know. But I throw in one line, about wounded or stalled writers…that it will good for them, too. I know about being a wounded and stalled writer and am on a rescue mission.

My real work is to make them feel safe. My real work is to get them to spread their wings. My real work is to get them to believe in themselves again. I start by sitting on the nest and just warming things up. They break into small groups and start to know one another in an easy way that grows really large as they share, only with each other, the fast bits of writing they’re doing. I assign the writing in fast bits because they don’t have time to argue themselves out of it, and they’re always too polite to refuse to write at all. I eye-dropper facts and technique into their mouths just so they won’t leave and the really tough ones will shut up for awhile.

By midweek, some are flying around the room. I send them on a walkabout, out of class, to stretch and dream and play with creativity and writing. They’re beginning to share with the whole class. There is a lot of laughter. There is awed respect. There is no denying their gifts. They are hearing them. By Thursday, some of them are willing to read at the student open mic. Those who aren’t reading are there to cheer classmates on. Pin feathers are on all of them. Some of them are chirping, preening, clearly too confined by the classroom. They’re ready to be out soaring wind currents in their own skies.

Friday, it’s over. I stand before them, tugging my tutu, some of my owl feathers molting, and we do our last bit of business, which is to say goodbye to one another and to be reminded that we are writers whether we get published or not and to honor that need to write in each of us. One by one, I watch them fly away. My heart always hurts. While they’ve been doing character sketches from all that is around them, I’ve been doing character sketches on them, and I love them, each and every one of them, their protests and fussiness and impertinent questions….but mostly their trust. I love what they created during the week.

So I pack away my broom and medicine balls and moth-eaten tutu to drive home, listening to laying me down to sleep and feeding Jake. They must remember to feed themselves, I think.  But they’ve learned that. Time to move on. I’ve got a rosebush to water.

bittersweet

The neighborhood poet has pulled up stakes and moved to Alpine. All week, as I’ve driven past a certain intersection where I can see his house, I’ve watched his packing and bustling. He’s hardly  just the neighborhood poet; he was the poet laureate of Texas in 2008, and he’s more than acclaimed. But for me he’s one of the characters in my Houston world: big, burly, soft Texas accent, friendly as a puppy, wonderful old-world-Texas manners, wildly in love with words. He’s likely to arrive at one of his readings in shorts and an old T-shirt and sandals, his heft punctuating inbreaths, a big turquoise ring capturing one’s eye and the spirit of his words. His frame–large and laughing–– hides the subtle sinewy strength that can reside in his poetry.

We talked a little bit about the muse yesterday. I’m a man of ritual, he said, fretting about the leaving of his writing place, a small studio at the back of his house. I’m taking a chance moving away like this. She may desert me. I said I doubted that. I said I thought the wide open true Texas spaces of Alpine would likely deepen his work. What do you want to bet, sitting there, staring at the mountain, the landscape that has always informed my work, that I start to write about Houston, he said. We both laughed. That would be a good thing, I answered. Landscape makes solid bones in his poetry and can be quite startlingly metaphoric. We really never ran around together as neighbors, but our paths would cross at local spots. Now they won’t. When I see his house at that certain intersection, he won’t be in it. My psychic landscape already misses his place in it. And soon, this being Houston, the house, being old, will be razed, and a stunning, huge townhouse will sit on the spot. Houston does not celebrate landscape or anything old. It’s always moving, expanding, changing its face. Bittersweet, my neighborhood poet said, that’s what this move is, bittersweet.

Yes, I thought. When we’re young, moves are only sweet. It takes time to leaven them with some bitter, the knowledge that with every move, not only do we leave behind sometimes precious, irreplaceable things, we take ourselves, all our flaws and longings, strapped to our backs like invisible weights––or wings––wherever we go. What gold he’s made of his wings and weights…..And so, off he’s gone to where hawks/slingshot-flung,/scream in dazzling/Texas sun.

When you have a moment, hear him read here.

A ladybug update: Festival was held on Thursday. It was a success. There are some 1,000 ladybugs out there bearing blessings and our laughter. Hope one lands near you.

bye

Tonight, as I walked home in the dark, I saw a shooting star. A fitting farewell to my artist’s residency in Taos. I begin the drive home to Texas in a day or so. In my mind, I’ve been saying goodbye for days, goodbye to the mountain, goodbye to the cottonwoods and Dutch elms, goodbye to the alfalfa growing in the meadow by the casita I’ve claimed as mine for three months, goodbye to the dark, sturdy dining table that has been my desk, goodbye to the view from the window on my right, goodbye to the hummingbirds that fight over the feeder, goodbye to the other artists and writers who have shared this time, goodbye to the main (and only) drag, goodbye to the stop light everyone has to go through, goodbye to the old pickup trucks that make wide turns and have sun-darkened men at their steering wheels, goodbye to the brilliant night stars, goodbye to the homeless, the runaways, the tourists, the characters who people the streets, goodbye to the spirits that protect the Pueblo.

It’s been lovely. The director of the foundation says he thinks the residency, for its length and location, resonates long after on many levels. I don’t know precisely what I’m taking back, but I know I’ve met a stillness internally and externally that was precious and healing. I’m grateful.

sense of place

I’ve never had any kind of sense of place. I spent early years in a tiny town in Arkansas before we moved several times to end in Pasadena, Texas. The Houston Ship Channel runs along one side of town, and the structures which process oil and gas are miles of intricate metal piping and holding tanks. At night, they look like fairy palaces of lights. In the daylight, they look like some kind of monstrous ugly invention that overwhelms everything around.  I never bonded with any of it, never processed it even for bad memories, like writer Mary Karr. My real world was in books: fiction, history books, biographies, historicals. It was in England, which I imagined as green and grand. It was in some old house a Cavalier ancestor built. Now I’m in a place–Taos— where I understand what it means to bond with the ground under my feet, the trees over my head, the sky, the mountains. At twilight, I try to watch the sunset, its entire hour of departure, its drama changing each night, wild and colorful if there are clouds, quietly sensual if there are none. There are grand sweeps of pasture land to the mountains themselves. The air is clear and clean. There are adobes both new and crumbling with age. There are abandoned trucks in some yards. Horses or cattle still matter here. Cottonwoods green any creek bed or the river, even if the water is gone; otherwise there is the desert, with its grays and beiges and tough little turfs of sage and pinion. Off the main drag, main street, main highway, all rolled into one road, paved streets quickly give way to gravel or dirt ones. Today I went to a Pow Wow inside Pueblo land. The sun beat down fiercely on me and dancers from all the nations: Apache, Sioux, Navajo, Tiwas…others. They were feathered and belled and beaded into splendor. I loved their stomping, whirling dance….mirroring the heartbeat of the earth, the announcer said. This isn’t an easy place to make a living any more; small farms are a way of the past, though with all the exposure of the terrible practices of our food industry, that just may change. The sale of art and crafts and the service industry for tourists seem to be the two main props of employment. And yet, what beauty there is. But you can’t feed yourself solely on beauty. Beauty is food for the tourists, like me…..

What place is in your blood? If there isn’t one, do you feel a sense of loss, a sense of being a ghost? Are you always looking for home? Is home ever real?