Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dirty Little Secret

It’s the aprés more
than the ski that appeals to
me. But please don’t tell.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter Vista

Steam rising from an
aqua pool. Snowdrifts, trees. A
half-lit mountain peak.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Since I've been on the subject of ninjas and superheros:

I stop to rest,
skis angled to the mountain,
and look up.
Behind an orange mesh barrier
a crouched skier bursts into view
and streaks by, skidding closely around gates,
then disappears over a ridge.

Am I,
of the burning legs and aching lungs,
even made out of the same stuff
as this bionic being?
I think not.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Poetry and Snow

“People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.”
—a letter by Wallace Stevens

I read this quote last night in Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far, it is electrifying. I don’t know quite how else to describe it. Anyway, I love Karr’s perspective on poetry, and how writing and reading it has shaped her life.

Stevens’ quote is both humbling and inspiring. If poems are like snowflakes, I can’t help but think that mine are the smudgy, folded-paper cut-out variety, which all of us remember making as children. Even so, I love the idea that people can, and sometimes do, put words together in a way that elicits childlike wonder and delight from the reader—that is a beautiful possibility, and something that those of us who write aspire to.

Also a propos of snow: we’re driving to Mammoth Lakes today to take the kids snowboarding and skiing for the weekend. The boys just finished their midterm finals, checked the snow conditions, and are excited out of their minds to get there. A little haiku for the road:

Fresh and packed powder

All trails open, bluebird skies

Load the car and go!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Technical Difficulties

Duplicate emails,

lost documents, moved icons—
Mac gremlin, or kids?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tango by the Venetian Well

I was looking through some pictures of family trips we've taken and was reminded of a vivid experience we had in Greece a few years ago. This was one of those moments that will be burned in my memory forever. David and I were having dinner with the kids on the island of Corfu, at an outdoor restaurant called the Venetian Well. It's named for a lovely 17th century well that was built when Corfu was under Venetian rule. As we sat outside eating our dinner, this unassuming couple got up and danced the most beautiful tango. It's hard to describe, in that this dance was, as the ratings go these days, barely PG, yet at the same time it was the most truly erotic thing I've ever seen. The boys were, as the Brits might say, gobsmacked. In this poem, I've tried to describe what we saw:

One August evening,

in a plaza where people dined and drank
by a Venetian well,
the music changed.

A young man and woman,
both wearing jeans and t-shirts,
stood, embraced, and danced the tango.

touching, chest-to-chest,
they moved as one, stepping and
quickly then slowly
then quickly again.

As the couple danced,
diners put down their forks and wine glasses,
very carefully,
and fell silent.

The song ended, and the plaza was quiet
but for a soft textured shhhhh as the woman
dragged her foot, clad in a Converse sneaker,
up her partner’s leg in a final caress.

The dancers stepped apart
and sat back down at their table.
As if coming out of a trance, the people in the plaza
looked around them,
and then down at their plates,
and began to talk and eat again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Catalina After the Rain

It was sunny and clear today, and Catalina Island looked especially beautiful after all the rain. It was nice to have her back in view after a week of cloudy, stormy skies.

Catalina shows
her green curves and golden cliffs,
then fades into gray

Friday, January 22, 2010

While There is Time

Like most parents, probably, I often rush around trying to do "just one more thing," and find myself reminding the kids to do the same. But as my boys grow up, I realize that there's a certain amount of time I have to get things done in a day, and then there's a certain amount of time I have left before they will be off to college and out of the house. In all of my going out and coming home and trying to get everything done, I want to pay attention to things I love about being their mom.

Boys, quickly,
take out the trash before the garbage truck comes
while there is time

Add your jeans to the load of laundry I’ve just started,
while there is time

Let me quiz you on Spanish pronouns before school,
while there is time

While there is time,
Talk to me in the car about what you did at school

While there is time,
Sit and read with me by the fire

While there is time,
let me put my arms around you
and rest my chin on the top of your head

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Check Engine Light

This poem is not quite a fully formed thought. But what I was trying to express is that, while I'm a fairly careful, risk-averse person, I sometimes find myself inadvertently engaging in risky behavior. Not the hang-gliding or swimming-with-sharks kind of risky behavior, but stupid little things, like procrastinating about car repairs, or putting off those annual doctor's appointments that become more important as a person approaches certain ages, like 40 (sigh).
One of my new year's resolutions is to make these "fix-its" and preventive measures a priority.

I take vitamins,
eat my greens, avoid hazards
like base-jumping and
gator-wrestling and going
to the ATM
after dark. So why do I
keep driving around
with the check engine light on
in my car, as if
daring the metal beast to
buck me off and leave me stranded
by the side of the road?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Summer in Seaside Heights

I recently stumbled upon an appalling, fascinating spectacle: the new MTV reality show “Jersey Shore. If you haven't watched it yet, don't. It's pretty awful. But what I find interesting about the show (for about five minutes, anyway) is the cadence and rhythm of the characters' speech, and their often startling choice of words. Pauly D, "The Situation," and the whole gang have a colorful way of speaking that their west-coast counterparts, on equally bad MTV reality shows, just don't have. This is a “found poem,” full of actual quotes from the show. With thanks (and apologies) to E.E. Cummings and the good people of New Jersey for the inspiration.

I’m beatin’ up the beat
that’s what we say
When we’re doin’ our fist pump
I mean this situation is gonna be indescribable
You can’t even describe the situation that you’re about to get

Don’t get the spins. Seriously.

I’m gonna break it down dancing
I love the beats
I got my creepy patent move
We’re bangin’ it as the beat builds

G.T.L., baby. Gym, tanning, laundry.

Listen let’s go back to the house and get some pizza

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

El Niño

El Niño, where did
you put my outdoor cushions?
I really liked those.

And the garbage cans?
You know it’s not nice to throw
other people’s stuff.

Hey! Put down that rain
right now. And the tornado?
Don’t you even dare.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sisters and Brothers

When I hear the line in Dr. King’s speech about his hope that one day in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” I can’t help but think of three of my favorite kids, who happen to be people of color, and happen to be adopted. My community is not very ethnically diverse—lots of shaggy-haired blond kids here—so the boys and girls of color really stand out and usually enjoy something like celebrity status. I don’t know if this is exactly what Dr. King had in mind, but I think it’s a good thing!

My friends Pamela and Andrew Herrick adopted their youngest daughter, Catherine, from China when she was a year old. For work-related reasons, the Herricks are living in Asolo, Italy, and Catherine and her older sister Caroline attend school there. What I find so amazing is that little Catherine was born in China, became a California kid, and now, as a five-year-old, speaks Italian, correcting her parents’ pronunciation or vocabulary when need be. She is a character.

Cora Metherell, who is of Latina and African-American descent, was adopted at birth by our friends Sarah and Mark. Cora is now almost three years old, and more beautiful by the day. She’s the little girl jumping off the boat to her mother in the picture I posted.

Vasco, ten years old, is from Malawi and is in the process of being adopted by Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley, also close friends of ours. How they found Vasco and the chain of events that brought the three of them to Laguna is too amazing for me to tell here. Plus, Cathi and Maury are famous writers who can tell the story much better than I ever could.
Anyway, I had some fun writing an ode of sorts to these three children, whom I love dearly:

Catherine, Caterina, China doll of the Veneto,

Smarty-pants mascot of Café Centrale:

May you eat your vegetables and grow,

so your stature matches your attitude.

May you never be far from your stuffed Kitty,
may you return to us soon so I can hear you say,
Gelato limone, per favore

Cora Cora from Bora Bora,

Miss Thing, precocious princess of Brooks Street,

the best two-year-old snorkeler there ever was,

the fastest-running little girl on two feet,

amazing eater of grown-up things like salad
and stinky French cheese:

May you always be fearless like your daddy
adventuresome like your mom

Vasco, Capital V, you own the letter V!
(I’m just glad I get to have a V in my name like you)
Mini-Jimi, micro-Spiderman, Chocolate Ninja,

super-striker for the almost-undefeated Fat Pandas:

It was really good of you to come all the way from Malawi

so we could be lucky enough to know and love you.

May you keep outgrowing your clothes and shoes

and may your strong, beautiful heart take you everywhere you want to go
(just remember to save a tickle-hug for me)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Open and Shut

Earlier today, I was playing tennis with my kids at Alta Laguna Park. Suddenly the weather changed, and I felt as if I were in some kind of time warp. We were only an hour or so into our Sunday recreation, when some rain clouds gathered, the temperature dropped, and the place just emptied out. (I know, I know: my friends and family in colder climes are rolling their eyes right now!) The afternoon had barely started when it was rolled up and packed away; the day, compressed.

The day unfurls,
yielding tentative winter sunshine
Tennis players shed layers as they warm up and start to sweat
A child’s birthday party is set up, a riot of shiny balloons
against a milky sky

Mountain bikers speed out on the trails,
then disappear into sagebrush

Then, a change
It looks like rain
Jackets go back on as the tennis players catch a chill
A silvery balloon escapes the remains of the birthday party
and drifts away

The mountain bike riders return in a hurry,
glancing up at the darkening sky
A cold breeze blows
It feels like rain
The day snaps shut

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday Disarray

There are Saturdays like the ones you see in commercials on TV, gloriously full of things like family outings to the farmer's market, soccer games in which your child's team wins in a shut-out, and maybe a walk on the beach with the dog, whose coat is especially lustrous in the late afternoon sun. And then there are what I think of as "maintenance Saturdays," in which the house is such a disaster and the laundry pile so high that you don't know where to start, and as soon as you finish your coffee you wonder if it's too early to have a Bloody Mary. Today, for me, is the latter. Here's the haiku I wrote:

my desk is a mess
dishes clutter the counter
mirroring my mind?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cowboy, Rest in Peace

I learned this week that Cowboy, the most colorful of Laguna Beach's homeless population, had died. I didn't know him personally, but I was saddened to hear of his death, and kept thinking about him. Cowboy was a Laguna icon, and I feel that his passing marks the end of an era.

I wrote this poem as a tribute to Cowboy, a complicated, troubled soul, which I guess we all are in some way. The photo, and quotes that appear in the poem, are courtesy of Stu Saffer's online local newspaper, Stu News Laguna.

“The most recognized of our city’s homeless for the past 15 years is dead. ‘Cowboy,’ Charles Reginald Conwell, 58, was struck and killed in the 1700 block of Laguna Canyon Road at 6:34 Saturday evening.”

The icon of Heisler Park,
The skinny, jangly, boot-wearing standard-bearer
of the way things used to be:
Cowboy, rest in peace.

Cowboy and his kind, “hobos,”
my children call them romantically,
were model vagrants then, their only crime:
public intoxication
again and again and again.

Summer’s sad, urgent wave of squatters—
younger, more violent—made him a relic.
Memories of Frisbee games on the boardwalk
with Cowboy had to be set aside.
It was serious now.
Time was short, people afraid.

Did Cowboy sense that his kind was obsolete?
That the days of hobos jumping trains,
of benign town drunks receiving the blessing of the locals,
were no more?
Did he feel a push—
changing times, fallen economies, shifting populations
—and surrender?
Cowboy, rest in peace.

“Police said he was hit by a mini-van heading west on Laguna Canyon Road as he walked across and into the path of the van. He was not in a crosswalk, police said. It was unknown if he was en route to the homeless sleeping facility located close by.

Conwell was knocked off the roadway and the police log indicated that he was ‘…bleeding, breathing and unconscious.…’ Paramedics took him to Mission Hospital Laguna Beach where he was pronounced dead a short time after his arrival.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

West Swell

One of the things I love most about where I live is the way our community is attuned to the tides and the surf forecasts. There’s a distinct buzz in the air—even among the non-surfing population—when a sizable swell is on its way. And when the waves actually show up, it almost feels like a holiday. I was in North Laguna this morning and stopped to look at Rockpile; here’s the poem I wrote afterward:

Last night I opened
the bedroom windows to better hear
the west swell announcing its arrival.
In the dark, the building surf sounded like
the thunderous steps of an ill-tempered giant.

This morning, the swell
had filled in and taken on
a different sound, a brisk and friendly crashing.
Under a clear blue sky, the mood at Heisler Park was festive:
surfers hastily parked their cars to check the conditions at Rockpile;
runners slowed their steps to look at the break;
a dog-walker stopped and stared
at a surfer tracing lines across a big set wave.
The giant was nowhere in sight.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

As Night Fell in Port-au-Prince

I came home on a Tuesday
and found out that the earth had moved
and Haiti, already cracked and tattered,
had split apart.

I sat and stared at the computer screen,
mouth dry, clicking through images of broken buildings
and people crushed in body and spirit;
accounts of an un-creation or apocalypse:

—As night fell in Port-au-Prince, fires burned near the shoreline downtown, but otherwise the city fell into darkness—There is a blanket of dust rising from the valley south of the Capital—We can hear people calling for help from every corner—

I went through the motions,
made donations to aid organizations,
but this doesn’t bring back the dead
or make any of this make any sense.

Again, I scanned the day’s stories;
a final paragraph caught my eye:

Then the singing began. Those gathered outside tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Laguna Noir

Today was a strange and eventful day in Laguna Beach, like something out of a Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy novel. It started normally enough. David and Schuyler left early to surf Thalia Street with the high school surf team. They had just gotten out of the water and were loading the boards into the back of the car when they heard a horrific series of collisions and then gunfire. Apparently the police had to shoot a suspect who had sped up Pacific Coast Highway on the wrong side of the road, crashing into multiple cars, and then tried to flee the scene of the crime. Amazingly enough, no one was killed, and in true L.A. noir fiction style, the sun came out later and shone brightly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I've written a haiku about today's events.

High speed chase, shots fired
damp veil hides the horizon
then, afternoon sun


Dear friends and family,

The new decade, the new year, the imminence of a big birthday ending in zero, the shocking realization that the little boys I toted around on my hip are now giants!—all of these things have brought me to a place of gratitude and some amazement. They have also caused me to examine, to borrow a few words from the Book of Common Prayer, the things I have left undone—not in the sense of “sins” of omission, but rather the things I thought I would have accomplished by now and just haven’t.

Foremost of these is writing regularly, both for publication and personal satisfaction. I thought I would have been a “real” writer by now. But several years of off-and-on (more off than on) journaling, and half-hearted freewriting have left me with a pile unfinished, neglected stories and essays. The arrival of a shiny new year, a round number and all, prompted me to take action and actually finish some of the projects I’ve started.

I decided that in order to do this, I needed to take on a daily discipline that would force me to write. I also needed to defeat, or at least write my way around, my harsh inner editor, so to speak. I could blame my lack of initiative to write on the busy-ness of life, but most often, the truth is I didn’t want to write badly, so I just didn’t write. So, I’ve hogtied my inner perfectionist and stuffed her in the utility room, behind the cat litter box and HVAC equipment. Ha!

But what to do for a daily practice, a commitment that would help me become a better writer and serve as a springboard for new projects? I remembered my sister Jeannie once telling me about a writing course she took in college, in which the students were required to write a poem a day for a month. I seized upon this as a way to practice writing every day, like journaling, but with more structure. I decided to start by writing a poem a day, for the month of January. It could be a terrible poem; a homely, unpolished poem; an unoriginal poem. But I just had to write one every day.

I ran the idea by my dear friend Jennifer Anderson, a gifted writer whose work I admire. She was encouraging, as she always is, and told me via email that she thought the exercise would be a great one, and had I seen Julie & Julia? I should write a poem a day for a year, taking it on as a transformative discipline, and blog about it! I thought, wow. That sounds really hard. But it would be good for me. The blog would require accountability on my part, and even if I had only one reader following my progress (Hi Dad!) or maybe two (hey Mom!), I would have to do what I said I would.

Jennifer’s final note on the poem-a-day discipline helped me make up my mind:

“Hi Sarah--Can you imagine if you did that and had 365 poems--or pages--after a year? I can't advise you about blogging, though. Imagine if you did it and hated the pressure or the lack of privacy? But I am captivated by your idea of transformative disciplines! Love, Jen”

I decided I really wanted those 365 poems—or pages—and the pressure and lack of privacy are probably what I need to get them. So here I am.

One more thing: beside using this daily poetry discipline as a warm-up for other writing projects, I’m hoping that it gives me a way to pay closer attention to my life, to heighten my awareness that every day—even the ones in which not much seems to happen—is a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and therefore, valuable.

I picked up Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs—which really isn’t just for men. I was particularly moved by his essays on fatherhood. In his chapter “The Memory Hole,” he talks about all the drawings and art projects his four children bring home from school, and how they are so numerous that he and his wife don’t know what to do with them, other than throw them away. He goes on to say, “The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life. It’s not that I don’t take enough pictures, though I don’t, or that I don’t keep a diary, though iCal and my monthly Visa bill are the closest I come to a thoughtful prose record of events. Every day is like a kid’s drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.”

I have balled up and thrown away so many days. Too often I have failed to see the poetry in the rhythms of my life; the beauty in the “rich, complicated days” as well as the “stray gray marks.” Chabon’s essay made me wish for a meaningful way to document these days, a way to recognize and receive the time I’ve been given with more awareness and appreciation. How is it that I failed to write something on the day I married David? The days on which Schuyler and Willem were born? Or even the day I spent two hours combing through the boys’ hair, seeking and destroying lice and nits, when there was an outbreak at school? I realize that even the most mundane days in which I’m cleaning up explosions in the microwave, repeatedly driving across town to retrieve forgotten lunch money or P.E. clothes, replacing small broken parts of things that I probably don’t need in the first place, nagging my kids about leaving enough room on the math homework page to show their work-—even each of those days is an absolute miracle: there is a start and a finish, a sunrise and a sunset, and in between are the people and places I love the most.

After considering Chabon’s words, I turned to a favorite devotional, a compilation of writings by Frederick Buechner. In a meditation titled, “Life Itself is Grace,” he says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Beyond a writing exercise, I hope that my poem-a-day practice teaches me to listen to my life. To frame my days instead of balling them up and throwing them away. And to remember that all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.