C is for Canoe



In a canoe at night

my grown-up daughter

takes the stern

her J-stroke confident.


In the middle

we rest our paddles.

The quiet fills with crickets

and the small lapping of waves.


We crane at the stars till

our necks won’t let us.


She sighs.

I hear smiling

in her breath.


I want to say something

about the stars, lovely

and too close for June.


I point to a corner of sky.

A shooting star

skims a shower down

and we gasp together.


We drift.

The canoe rotates

back to the house.


Over our shoulders

we feel the shimmery

fall of a dying star.

Pausacaco2013 029


*This is a rewrite of a poem I posted a few posts back, July 2018.

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B2 Backwards

The theme of this month’s blogging challenge is Backwards and Forwards, because I like to look back and make sense of things, and I want to push myself to look ahead with hope instead of dread.  Hard to do in a pandemic, sure, but I do see lots of lovely side benefits, people making masks all day long (unlike me), friendly waves to and from strangers on my daily dog walks, a reassurance from a Craig’s List person that when he comes to pick up our refrigerator, he will be wearing a mask and gloves.  All these deaths are awful, but disaster also shows us what we are capable of.

It seems I am talking about now, not the past or the future.  Maybe by forward I mean having the will to keep going.  Thinking about the future is so abstract.  I lose interest quickly.  Toni Morrison said in an interview once that the past is infinite, and the future—she just shrugged and gave her knowing laugh.

Back words.

Take back words.  Sometimes we want to do this when we say something awful.  Even if they’re not written down, if someone heard them and understood them, we can’t take them back.  I have a notebook from sixth grade with several pages erased.  It was a story I wrote about a new girl at school.  I was a new girl at school that year, and I was supposed to be moving things forward in school integration:  I was bussed from my predominantly white school to a predominantly black school.  But it wasn’t going well.  I felt guilty for not making this experiment smooth and easy.  Guilty enough to erase my story, and then I wrote over some of it.  But I mean to look again at the erased words, take them back, see that story I was ashamed of telling, and see what I couldn’t face that hard year.

For words.

I am all for words.  My profession and my pleasure are all bound up in words.  How lovely that we can keep playing with words and find new configurations in which to use them, to give nuance to a familiar idea and make it a little less familiar, and little more new.  To move forward.  For words.

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B1 Alice Backwards

Excerpt from my memoir Look Her in the Eye

I am sitting at my typewriter in an empty theatre, on the edge of the playing area.  This building was once a gymnasium, and I can barely see the ceiling, the warm brown rafters blurring beyond the stage lights.  It is 5 a.m.  I have been typing all night, and I have come to an ending for my play, which will be performed in this makeshift theatre-in-the-round space in a few weeks.  The acoustics are terrible, but a certain intimacy is possible within the four sets of risers set in a square to delineate the stage.  I feel a lifting up as my typewriter clicks out my last line and I come to the end of my story.

I am writing about my best friend, far away in Japan with her new baby, and how we became close over time and distance.  I don’t really understand how long distance phone calls work.  This is pre-internet and I imagine miles and miles of telephone poles, circling the globe across oceans and mountains, from Iowa to Kyoto, our voices chiming together on steel thin as thread.  I am enamored of this image, steel thin as thread, and use it for the title of this draft of the play, the third title and fifth or sixth draft so far.  I think of my friend, late afternoon in Japan, wearing her baby on her front as she chops scallions for miso soup.

I imprint this blissful moment on my memory:  the satisfaction of coming to the end of a story, the feeling that I’ve captured something delicate with a lovely metaphor.  All night I have been alone in this theatre, shooting out page after page of dialogue, my typewriter perched on a prop table, plugged into an extension cord winding down the aisle between two sets of risers.  I stare at the last page in my hands, fresh from the typewriter, and smile to myself.  I believe in my story.  Even in that moment of belief, I know that I will inevitably waver and doubt, but for now, I love my characters and my metaphor.

I make copies of my new draft and distribute them at rehearsal the next day, giddy from lack of sleep and from that delicious feeling of completion.  My director, Keiko, is enthusiastic and gets right to work putting the actors into new configurations around my words.  I see slight frowns on the faces of some of the actors as they consider the revised story.  I slump against the wall in exhaustion, leaving it to Keiko to guide the actors through.

A few days later, I sit in the basement office of the director of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, Bob.  He stares down at my draft, doesn’t speak or look at me, and my anxiety mounts.  I feel a churning inside, rising sour heat.  From the future, I want to reach in and grab my 24-year-old self and get her out of there.

Bob finally speaks.  “What is happening in this play?  Two girls make friends, and one of them moves to Japan.  That isn’t a story.”

At first, I sit in shock.  What is he saying?  I struggle to keep my voice calm.  “I’m exploring different kinds of relationships.  The two friends travel together and meet the Somali woman and her Irish boyfriend.  Ellie talks to a Geisha in Japan about pleasing men.  It’s about women—“

“It isn’t about anything.  This isn’t a play, it’s a journal entry.”

“I don’t think you understand my aesthetic—“

“You have to give them some conflict.  Why aren’t they lovers?  Then the Japan one, Elaine or whatever, her moving away will have some bite.”

“I’m writing about friendship, not a love relationship.”

“That’s just not a very dramatic premise.  Take all those international characters they meet and do something with them.  A coup or something.  Your poetic language won’t work on the stage.  You don’t seem to get it.”

Tears come to my eyes, to my horror.  I shouldn’t speak, but I do anyway.  “You don’t seem to get it.  You aren’t even trying to understand what I’m trying to do.”  My voice breaks, and the tears escape.  I can feel my eyes swelling, which makes me furious, which makes me cry more.  Bob still hasn’t made eye contact with me.  He sits at his desk, leafing through the pages of my manuscript, waving them in the air.

“This isn’t a play.  There’s no action.  You can’t rely on these sweet, intimate feelings between these two girls to keep your audience interested.”

I long ago gave up correcting him when he called my characters “girls” instead of “women.”  I choke on my sobs, intent only on getting out of Bob’s office as soon as possible. Bob continues his critique, his slight begrudging tone the only acknowledgment that I am crying in his presence.  I murmur something and am finally released.  In the hallway, I sob freely.

After a while, I wipe my eyes and prepare to leave.  One of my fellow playwrights, a British man named Gordon, comes by.  He says sympathetically, “Crying in Bob’s office, eh.”

“He’s such a dick.”


“He doesn’t understand my work at all.”  I sniff, embarrassed.

“No.”  Gordon considers.  He’d praised the play I’d had staged the previous semester.  He is an adult, in his 30’s, married with three children.  He says, “I think your work might be better accepted in England.”


“Yah.  This focus on realism here in the states—well, it’s got its merits, but there are a lot of ways a play can be a play.”

“Thanks for saying that.”  I wipe my face.  “I wish he didn’t get to me so much.”

Gordon shrugs.  “He’s a bully.  I’m next!”

“Good luck,” I say.  Gordon will be fine.  His plays are Monty Python-esque, over-the-top farces with policemen named P.C. Butts and Corporal Cunt.  But it’s nice to have his support.

Later that week, at a party at Bob’s house, I drink fast.  I scowl at the raucous scene, growing more and more morose.  Bob sits in a winged chair, acolytes at his feet, holding forth.

Another playwright, one of Bob’s favorites, approaches me and asks, “Did you write in your diary today?”

I start.  “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”  I turn away from him and pour myself another drink.

He chortles.  “Nothing, nothing.  It’s just—Alice.  Your play.”

My hand shakes and I grip my glass, restraining myself from tossing its contents into his face.  “I don’t want to talk about my play.”

“It’s like scenes from your diary.  It’s so sweet.”  He pauses.  “It’s just not dramatic.”

“Did you fucking talk to BOB about my fucking PLAY?  Who the fuck do you think you ARE?”  I scream at him, shredding my vocal chords.  “BOB is talking to you about my PLAY?”  I storm away, but Bob’s house is small.  I am dimly aware of him looking sideways from his chair.  I go outside.

I don’t want to write a play with a gun in it.  All the other playwrights, even the only other woman, have guns in their plays.  Violence is easy.

An actor named Phil comes out, an undergraduate, a strapping Iowa farm boy.  He has a small part in my play, and has heard me talk with Keiko about my struggles.  He exudes health and good will.  “You okay?”

“No.  I’m not.”  My voice is hoarse.

“He’s an idiot.”

“It’s true.  And I am very drunk.”  I down the rest of my drink.  “Ha!  Fuck them all.”

“Let me drive you home.”

“Sure.  Whatever.  Could you get my coat?  It’s green, on Bob’s bed.”

“I’ll be right back.”  I hand him my empty glass and he returns to the house.

I wait in the cold.  I long for a hot toddy to soothe my throat.  Phil walks me to my car, takes my keys.  His girlfriend Kira comes too.  She plays the main character in my play, Lisa.  Alice backwards.

“We can walk home from your house,” she says.  They are too nice.  I don’t want to cry.  At my apartment, they park my car and walk me to my door.  I give them a weak wave.  “Thanks, guys.”  They have already turned away.  They snuggle against each other in the crisp Iowa night and head to their dorm.

Sick from alcohol, I drink long glasses of water, then the thing I’d been avoiding all night makes me breathless:  maybe Bob is right.  Maybe I am not really a playwright.  I jump up and down and shake my hands, muttering “Nooooo!”  Bob has all the power.  Not only is he the only playwriting professor, he is the chair of the Theatre Department.  His criticism makes me lose sight of my vision for the play.  I go to bed and worry.   Sleep isn’t happening, so I fling my sheets aside and get out of bed, poring over my manuscript.  My own language melts me a little.

Keiko believes in my play, and we pull off a decent performance.  Phil and Kira and the other actors commit themselves gamely to my poetic monologues.  As the semester is winding down, Bob mentions casually that I might not be invited back for my second year at Iowa.  I go into a tizzy, bouncing back and forth between wanting to leave for my own sanity and wanting to stay, to show Bob.  When a letter arrives saying I can come back on a probationary status, I am relieved.  But I don’t want to go back.  I write a letter to Bob, a manifesto of my theatre aesthetic.  I explain that Iowa is not a place that can nurture my artistic goals, and I resign from the program.  I send copies of the letter to two other professors in the theatre program, so that Bob’s handling of my status is documented beyond my file in his office.

Then I move to New York City.


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A is for Alice

I turned 60 last year, 10 months ago in fact, to the day in fact, but I am still in shock.  Zooming more often makes me see that I have the face of an older version of the Alice I think I still am, but who is really, long gone, at least facewise.  I still think I have a young face with these odd aged parts to it—and Zoom is making me notice my neck, which is scary.  But I don’t feel down on myself.  I look fine for 60.  I just can’t believe I feel as young and anxious and excited and perplexed by the world as I always have.  I feel old in my poor old knees but not in the me-ness of me, my soul I suppose you could call it.

A few months ago, I saw that someone I had once been close to had died.  I saw this on Facebook, of course.  We had only been friends for about a year, and our main activity was getting high together.  I was in ninth grade, she was in tenth, and she was a very sweet but rather messed up person at the time.  I pulled back from my druggie ways the next year while she dropped out of school and went to court and did those kinds of things, but I always remembered her as a sweet, loving person.  So I was sad to see that she died, at only 61, and I got curious and went back to my diary from 1973 when we were friends.  This was the second year of my years-long consecutive-year diary-keeping (I started calling them journals in college, but they were definitely diaries in high school), and it was one of those Page-a-Day ones with a lock and a key, lost long ago.  Anyway, the little locking strap had broken because of all the scraps of paper I shoved in there, mostly drawings of my pants.  I began the pants inventory on the back pages, but because girls had only recently been allowed to wear pants to school (starting in 1970), pants were an exciting new area of fashion for all of us.  It was also the years of very low hip huggers and enormous bell bottoms.  So I drew pictures of all my pants, noting date of acquisition (new, second-hand, castoff) and color, and put them in my diary.  That’s what 13- and 14-year-olds do, duh.


Anyway, this friend, Mary, who I got high with as many days of the week as I could, died, and I wanted to read about our friendship.  My diary was not illuminating on that topic, however.  I catalogued every time I saw her, and the various boys I had crushes on (one guy looked like the picture of Romeo on my school copy of Romeo and Juliet that year), and a few other friends, and what we got high on (pot, hash, No Doz, but mostly pot).  And I found that the first time I mentioned Mary I called her the biggest slut at Woodbury, our junior high school.  Within a week I retracted this because I began getting high with Mary and our other friends and found that she was a very sweet person and all the people we hung out with had lots of pot.  Getting high every day became my goal and my priority.  It was a great escape from the tensions in my home.  But my diary did not say much more than “Mary is so nice,” or, “Mary finally got her period” (pregnancy scare), so I didn’t find anything illuminating about Mary.

I did find, to my delight, that the voice in this diary, which was orange with a silhouette of a knock-kneed girl walking on the beach, very eighth grade, was alive and immediate and immediately recognizable as me.  This felt profound.  I am the same person I was in eighth and ninth grade!  And I was funny as hell.  A sample, which was partly tongue in cheek, but not entirely:

“The establishment is getting me down (parents, teachers, cops).”

It was 1973, remember.  My favorite outfit was a tiny beige top that stopped above my navel with the glittery words Rock n’ Roll across the chest, which I thought camouflaged my lack of a bustline quite nicely, and a pair of very lowcut plush corduroy bell bottoms, bright magenta that picked up the purplish pink glitter on my shirt.  A full 3 ½ inches of flesh between my navel and the top of my pants showed, and I wore this outfit in dead winter in northern Ohio.  I mean, with a coat outside, but at school I felt the chill and I felt I looked amazing for once and I felt cute.

So of course, the establishment was getting me down.

Anyway, prompted by the death of someone I had not spoken to or seen in 45 years, I looked at my old diary, and it led me to other old diaries and journals.  I abandoned the Page-a-Day format on January 1, 1976, and began filling notebooks with page after page of profundities.  I thought I’d be bored, but I was not, not at all.  I thought, what a gift I have given myself, this record of my life.  And that voice!  I’d know it anywhere.  It is the me-est thing about me, my voice.  My uninhibited, unfiltered voice, there on the page.

I didn’t read these volumes in order.  I picked at random from the pile of 38 numbered volumes, which I filled with near daily entries for about 15 years, and at least weekly or biweekly entries for another 9 or 10.  Then I had a kid, so the writing slowed, but it did not stop.  And the voice of the writer writing about her new daughter’s warm damp body on her chest is the same as the voice of the angsty college student wondering if she has any talent, the same as the 17-year-old worrying that being an artist won’t save the world.

I had been in a bit of a funk about turning 60, but for a few weeks during winter break, I dipped into different parts of my life and the things I chose to record and somehow, being 60 became a lighter load.  Because there I was, on those pages, witty, hilarious, tortured, in love, in lust, drunk, sober, floundering, directed, but always the same person.  Alice.  The Aliceness of Alice.  Me.


Posted in Adolescence, Being an artist, Childhood, creative nonfiction, Memoir, writing | 5 Comments

Backwards and Forwards

I haven’t written here in a while, and my writing has languished a bit without a regular writing group and because of life and because my book is out at contests and one publisher being reviewed, so I decided to commit to the A to Z blogging challenge this year.  My first post will be on April 1.  A lot will happen between then and now, and I’ve chosen this theme to talk about the past and the future, but the present may end up being the most pressing, in this time of Corona.

Also, I am moving this week from Easthampton to Holyoke, and there are boxes everywhere.  Life is rather crazy.


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Lizards and melancholy

There’s a lizard loose in my house.  His name is Rufus.  He’s Liza’s lizard, Liza who is about to go off to college on Wednesday.  We got Rufus two years ago after she wore me down and convinced me that he’d be good company for her.  She took good care of him, and I got a little attached to his quirky head movements and big eyes.  A few weeks ago, she decided to turn his home on its side so that he’d have more room to run around.  Well, he found more room.

It’s been six days, and the internet tells me he can live without food for up to three weeks.  Plus, the worms we are putting out in his dish are disappearing, but we have a mouse problem, so I am not sure it’s Rufus eating the worms.  He is messing with me.

I am a bit obsessed with finding Rufus.  Whenever I come home, I check the dish to see if the worms are there.  I check the warm spot we made to entice him back.  I look over and over under the heaters and the stove and the fridge to see if he’s hiding there.  I even dream about him.

I realize that focusing on Rufus is a way to avoid thinking about the fact that Liza is leaving in four days.  It’s a problem with a potential solution.  I don’t really want a lizard to starve to death in my house either.  But really, it’s easier to think about Rufus than about life without Liza.

I mean, she’ll only be an hour away.  That helps a little.  Her sister Lena went to college four years ago and I survived.  I see Lena pretty often, it seems.  So I tell myself maybe it won’t be a big deal.

But I find myself feeling very melancholy, and I wonder why, and then I remember.

My baby is leaving.

She’s a thoroughly awesome person.  She is signed up for amazing courses at Wesleyan with titles like “Thinking Animals” and “Social Norms and Social Power.”  She is ready to apply her brain to ideas that matter to her.  She’s going to do great.

But she’s my baby.

Does she know how to do laundry?

If Rufus reappears, he just won’t be enough.

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In a canoe

In a canoe at

night, we crane at the stars till

our necks won’t let us.


Lena sterns the canoe

her J-stroke confident.

I rest my paddle.


“You can help,” she says.

A hint of irritation.

I dip in my tip


and sluice it back like

the Indians did, keeping

it in the water.


I try to be silent

let my firstborn boss me

let her be in charge.


I am afraid to

comment on the stars, lovely

and too close for June.


She lets out air, half

a sigh, and I hear

smiling in her breath.


We don’t have to fight

out here, it’s okay to talk,

she seems to tell me.


“Look” is all I want

to say, so “Look” I say, “Look.”

I point to a corner of sky


and a shooting star

skims a shower down and we

gasp together, and laugh.


No one is paddling.

We drift, the canoe rotates

back to the house.


Over our shoulders

we still feel the shimmery

fall of a dying star


and we paddle home.

Pausacaco2013 029.JPG


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A Little Bird

Leontyne Price is amazing.  Sally feels herself rising out of her seat on the balcony at the Met, her heart lifting, pumping strangely in counterpoint to the sublime crescendo of Price’s song.  Art is physical, Sally thinks, and yet she has not moved, other than the rhythm of her breathing and a strange clutching in her chest.  Rowland smiles and sways next to her, holds her hand, with her, yet pulled towards the robed beauty on the stage below.  Price’s voice fills the entire hall, the story of Aida’s imminent death tearing at the souls of all in attendance, the listeners borne up, then easing down as her soprano fades to a reedy silence.

Sally’s heart keeps skipping wildly, and she clutches the chair in front of her.  The night is over but she can’t get up.  “Let’s sit a minute,” she thinks.  Rowland seems to hear.  He watches with a bemused expression as the operagoers file out.  Their row empties out on either side of them.  She does not have to squinch into her seat, or God forbid, stand up, to let anyone pass.

She feels light again and Rowland leads her to the bar, where they take two martinis to the bench by the long lit windows.  He downs his quickly, then goes for the car, saying some words which Sally nods to.  She sips her martini and distinctly feels she must not have a cigarette.  Her heart has forbidden it.  A little bird in the center of her chest has asked for reprieve.

She does not remember the ride home, finds herself in bed, staring at the ceiling, Rowland breathing softly next to her.  The little bird is breathing too, with barely a flutter.  She does not remember closing her eyes, and in the morning she forgets the night, the flurry, the crescendo.


Sally lies facedown in the surf.  That was not a dive.  Sally does not dive.  The water is shallow, the beach is steep, the tide pulls back, she is in sand now, her face—“Sally!” Rowland cries out.  “Dear God, Sally!”  He runs to her, feeling sloppy, and joins some strangers turning her over.  She never wets her hair and here she is, sand and salt water clinging to half her face and head.  Her bad ear stayed dry, thank goodness.  Is she conscious?  Why is he thinking about her ear?  Someone has brought over a lifeguard.  “Sally, Sally, wake up.”  Her head rests on his thigh, he is kneeling in the sand, she opens her eyes and looks up at him.

“My heart—”


The next time she opens her eyes, she is in a hospital bed.  Her lungs crave nicotine, but she knows that is all over.  A doctor comes in with Rowland, who looks both sheepish and determined.  She doesn’t like doctors making decisions for her, he knows that.  She isn’t any good at self-treatment, but she already knows the diagnosis.


A little box inside her chest, not tin as one might imagine in an old cuckoo clock, but utilitarian plastic, with gears that remind one of elaborate sea creatures.  The little bird of her heart is getting help.  Her father had had a pacemaker, but not until his eighties—she is barely 62.  What a nuisance.  The incision is small and neat and will stop aching soon.  She must cut back on martinis and no more smoking.  She saw it all coming; she was just confused by Leontyne Price.  The heart soars, and nearly breaks, the little bird barely lands upright.  How strange it will be to go to the opera with a well-regulated heart.Sally65th


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The magic of time

It is Thursday, my third day of a five and a half day writing retreat.  In the first two days, I revamped the memoir I have been working on for nine years, and I have the draft I have been trying to get to for a long time.  I discovered that I had to start with what I had on page 50, and moving that scene to the front made everything else fall into place (or out of the book–I wish I could keep the anecdote about my uncle’s passive aggressive smoking when my aunt had to quit cold turkey after heart attack, but it just doesn’t fit).

So now I am going to do what I said I would do this summer:  create a social media platform.  I welcome advice, particular advice on Instagram hashtags.  I don’t want to go on Twitter.  Maybe I could be convinced.  A writer I respect swears by it, and she doesn’t seem like what I think of as what seems toxic about Twitter.

I am going to type up some work for this blog.  Ironically, I can’t post excerpts from my book manuscript, but hey, there are plenty of good deleted scenes I could post!  So much chaff!

Four days ago I didn’t think I could budge my memoir into shape.  Now I have the best draft of its long journey.  Just because I got to come here, and focus just on this.  Amazing.

Patchwork Farm Writing Retreat, Westhampton, Massachusetts


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Revival of the blog

It’s been nearly three years since I posted on this blog.  I am reviving it because I want to increase my internet presence and let people know I have a book manuscript.  It’s true!  The new title of the book is Look Her in the Eye, and I am sending it to agents and contests and publishers.  Wish me luck!

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