Thursday, October 6, 2011

A particular clear shade of blue

My grandmother died on Wednesday morning. She was 93 and it was good that she finally went. She was ready; had been ready for a while, but her puritan sense of duty probably kept her going even when the rest of her wanted to lay down the burden. Mary Tyrrell Ritchie Thayer was a complicated woman, not without contradictions and difficult angles. Her influence on my life has been enormous, incalculable really.

The work I do in my day job now, for reproductive justice, was directly influenced by her own commitment to women's health and intentional motherhood. I will keep analyzing all the ways she shaped me for years to come. I have a feeling there is a book in it. But her influence on me was perhaps most strongly felt in the simple gifts she brought to my topsy turvy childhood.

The following is something I wrote for a memory book my aunt made when Mary turned 90. It was intended for a family audience, so references may be obscure. Don't be too alarmed by the joint. It was the early 70s after all; I was raised among hippies.

I am told that I once rolled Grandma a toilet-paper joint. I don't remember this myself. She probably said, "Oh, why thank you," and raised her eyebrows. I do recall walking down Broadway with her while in New York for Jonathan and Linda's wedding and seeing a man energetically gesturing and talking to himself. I was very young. I must have stared. Grandma leaned down and told me, "That, Beedie, is what we call a character." 
Matter-of-fact, drily funny, and kind, Grandma was a great friend in my childhood. The house on Roosevelt Drive was a soothing and orderly oasis for me; it seemed then to be eternal. These are some of the things I remember.
- Finger games and knee bounces on the couch under Van Gogh's room in Arles and the somber gaze of his postmaster.
- A particular clear shade of blue.
- The smell of Dial soap and Norwegian hand lotion.
- Milk in a Wedgwood pitcher (not unlike the one that served half-and-half for my Kix cereal when I met Great Grandma Ritchie in Kansas City).
- Warm chunky applesauce full of cinnamon, 'cots up in the cupboard, and Swiss cheese with butter on homemade white bread.
- Sardines and lettuce on the same. (Orson, recently obsessed with the eating of "fish that dieded," prompted a purchase of sardines, and I pass on my sentimental fondness to my own children.)
- Handwrittern menus for my personal "Hilltop Restaurant" passed through the phone nook along with a short pencil so I could mark my choices in the little boxes drawn along the left margin.
- Creamy, white TicTacs in a little box beside the blue rocking chair.
- The whole series of Robert Coles' Children of Crisis. I don't know why, but these made a strong impression.
- The cool, quiet darkness of the playroom.
- Flower bulbs sleeping in pots on the floor of the closet that also contained my shelf of board games.
- Chutes and Ladders, and later the Miss America Pageant game, which I adored, played on the floor despite how it made Grandma complain of stiff knees.
- Tiddly Winks and Pick-up Sticks!
- Draping myself like a bobby-sox infanta in black lace mantillas and Aunt Nell's old petticoats.
- Sometimes getting to add a string of millefiori beads from her dresser top to the costume. 
- Sitting on the basement stairs and waiting for her to be done with the laundry. (I picture an old washing machine with rollers, but I'm not sure she used it.)
- We ventured out, too, for rambles at Stroud's Run, where we monitored the progress of a giant crawdad that lived in the shade under a footbridge 
- The footbridge was on the path to the "pioneer cemetery," which I thought we must have discovered all on our own.
I think it is because of her that I notice the small details of the world. I am a writer because of that as much as I am because of Grandpa's literary influence. There is more than one kind of character. I am so grateful for all the time I spent in the company of this one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Waking the magpie

Wake up! Bring shiny things!
I am remiss.

And also busy.

A recent Facebook conversation reminded me that I should return here. Shiny Things was conceived as something quick and random, a collection of things that interest me. I vow to wake the magpie.

In the meantime, here is a link to something I wrote somewhere else recently.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Quick note to say I just put the essay I read at Arts Collinwood last Sunday in the mail. (Yes, I should have made an announcement about the reading here, on my blog, for cripessake. I told you, I am still, slowly, getting the hang of this.)

Please send it loving thoughts as it tries to make its way in the world.

The Sent heading will, I hope, become more frequent on this blog.

More soonish.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Celebration of Crazy Hybrid Postmodern Beauty, and Black History Month.

I have a lot of stuff weighing me down right now. A beloved cat has gone missing, and despite everyone's kind reassurances that cats are good survivors, I have very little hope. I am wrestling with my worklife - I am working way too much and trying to decide what to put down, coming once again to the conclusion that adjuncting isn't worth it, even if I do love teaching. Oh, and I just found out that three of my second grade daughter's peers are leaving the school in the next month. And the Republicans have officially gone woman/child-hating insane all over this country, not to mention poor people-hating, public employee-hating, art-hating, and so forth. I may blog about some of these topics. I have so many thoughts gnawing at my skull, I had better write them down somewhere, here or elsewhere.

Oh, and my beloved grandmother is declining, and I can only watch from afar as my mother is sucked into caretaker overload. I am feeling very, extraordinarily not shiny.

Then in the middle of the night, I find in the glow of the intertubes that a friend in another city (who I've actually only met in person once) has sent to a friend in my city (who I don't see nearly enough, or really even know well enough, because of my so busy, not-balanced work life) a video of "Tightrope" by Janelle Monae.

[Embedding of her videos is not allowed (!), so you can see it here. Really, go watch it. You'll be glad you did.]

OK, so I guess people who know things already know who she is - she was nominated for a couple Grammy's - but I don't actively follow music these days (except the tween pop Z is getting into) and had never heard of her before. Now I am obsessed and a little bit in love - with the music, with the dancing, with the self that she presents on her website. She is a total expression of what kind of beauty is possible in this fucked up country, a crazy hybrid postmodern flying in the face of all conventional wisdom beauty. A fiercely optimistic kind of beauty.

And watching her video - with all its references and allusions - I think to myself, "This country wouldn't be shit without African-American culture." I mean, think about it, people! I'm not the first to point it out (,, I could go on) but c'mon.


(Ok, and Jewish culture has been a major influence, and ... but you get my point, I hope.)


Black people were slaves and then they were a segregated minority, and now they are the bulk of the underclass, and yet again and again and again and again, black people create whole cultural movements ... out of fucking nothing ... and still all we can manage to do, collectively as a country, is scorn and fear the inner city and all those dark skinned children struggling in schools that are not serving them - for reasons way too complex for me to diagnose right here.

Yet out of those inner city neighborhoods, out of those schools, will come amazing strength, truth & beauty DESPITE all the fucking shit this country heaps on them. (We could analyze why this point is of particular relevance to me, a boho-class white lady with kids in inner-ring suburban public school whose blonde son has said things like, "I can talk like a rapper, but my face doesn't look like one," but that's another post. And really, people, this point is relevant to ALL of us.)

In parting I will you leave with the words of a couple more amazing black women:

A few days ago (2/18) was Audre Lorde's birthday ("black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,"). She wrote:

Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth's inside.
There are many kinds of open.
How a diamond comes into a knot of flame   
How a sound comes into a word, coloured   
By who pays what for speaking. [more]

Might we all agree ... Every month is Black history month.

OK. I'm still feeling weighted down, but a little more shiny underneath it all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

You need to read these people! (Lists from AWP 2011 - ep. 1)

Some people engage in live blogging. I blog 10 days after the fact. That's just the way I roll up in here.

In my first 3 hours at the AWP conference, I discovered 8 writers that I (and by extension, you) need to read.

First I went to a session on "Short Story into Novel." There I encountered these six people (books, and bitly-ed amazon listings included):

Alan Heathcock – VOLT - (In his words, 2 failed novels became the bulk of this collection. He is a funny self-deprecating guy in a porkpie hat. I have the impression his stories are bigger than that.)
Heidi Durrow – The Girl Who Fell from the Sky - (Girl was rejected 48 times before it landed a publisher, and now is on the bestseller list. Of particular interest to me: it has “three beginnings” because of multiple perspectives, which is something I am struggling with in my BiP, too.)
Alexi Zentner – Touch - (Zentner has such lovely sensitivity to language just when speaking off the top of his head, I expect his prose to be luminous ... and his book has monsters … Tops the must list for me.)
Tea Obreht – The Tiger's Wife - (This one has gigantic big buzz … she's been on a couple best young writer lists and gots the big name blurbs. Croation magical realism?)
Marie Mockett – Picking Bones from Ash - (“I just wanted to write a ghost story.” But it turned into something more complicate. I can relate.)
Eugenia Kim – The Calligrapher's Daughter - (well-regarded debut novel by a woman too old to be on any "best under" young-writer lists, always encouraging, plus it sounds like a really interesting historical fiction about early 20th century Korea.)

Then I went to a Words and Music session (WAMFest from Farleigh Dickinson U.)

Went for Rosanne Cash, came away with a major love for John Wesley Harding – my new hero. (Cash was out sick, btw, and Kristin Hersh was detained by weather or some such … it was plenty OK, Harding (who writes as Wesley Stace, which I gather is his given name) and young, strange Josh Ritter were both fascinating … their music and their words.)

Check out Harding/Stace at
His new book, about a Victorian composer whose life perhaps parallels the folk ballads he is collecting, is Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. I found it so inspiring to hear Harding talk about the ballad tradition, because I have almost unconsciously brought so much of that into the BiP. I also want to study him more to consider the questions of how to render the experience of music in words.

Josh Ritter, an Oberlin grad and folkie singer-songwriter has released 6 albums (including last year's So Runs the World Away), and has a book coming out this summer. He read from the book, Bright's Passage – his first public reading ever, it seems – and it was mesmerizing. His music was good, too, if a little self-conscious about its dark humor.

More bookish AWP lists and random impressions coming, you know, soonish.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We All Have to Wear Clothes

Clothes are very important to me, though not as important as shoes, and not as important as they are to the woman who writes What I Wore Today (or the many other blogs with similar titles) ... or even as they are to guys over at Fuck Yeah Menswear (which is brilliantly funny).

In my freshman year of high school, I prided myself on never wearing the same outfit twice, and I could tell you the story behind every one of them. (I might have been given to calling them "ensembles" then ... a few years ago at my brother-in-law's wedding in Minnesota I ran into a woman I'd gone to high school with in Athens, OH, who still recalled my influential lecture on the critical difference between outfits and ensembles. I blush.)  I managed to do this by thrifting (bargain bag day at Volunteers of America, oh yeah!) and frequenting the local vintage shop so much that they finally hired me to dress their windows.

When I was 17 and temporarily living in Atlanta, Dick Hebdige's book on the semiotics of punk style jumped out at me from a used bookstore shelf and made me feel validated in my conviction that clothes mattered. (My friend Andrea, who actually was a punk in the 70s, instead of a kid in the 80s wishing to have been born 10 years earlier, tells a funny story that upends Hebdige to a degree. Dressed head to toe in secondhand menswear, tie and all, she was asked by her therapist, "What does your outfit mean?" Andrea scoffed. "It doesn't mean anything. It's just clothes. We all have to wear them.")

I read recently that Kate McGarrigle's children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, thought their mother always wore couture until they cleaned out her closet after she died and saw all the discount labels. No one will probably ever suspect me of dressing in couture, but I like to imagine that I still retain an aura of thrift store chic, despite not really having the time to properly thrift anymore. This is partly because at the clinic I work at we have a staff "freecycle" table -- you bring in what you are ready to get rid of and take what you like -- and because I rarely shun a handmedown that has aesthetic appeal. (Now if someone would just freecycle me a house with bigger closets.)

So all this sprang from my pleasure in the ... ensemble ... I wore on Monday. Everything I wore that day had meaning to me in some way. The boots on my feet were the flowered Doc Martens I got in Toronto, city of shoes, many years ago. My jeans, though admittedly bootcut (which is a look past its prime, I know), fit really well and didn't cost a cent (thank you, freecycle). My belt was my husband's. The shirt I wore was a thin plummy purple long sleeve thing. I strangely have no idea where I got this shirt, so it is the exception to prove the rule. Over it, I wore this awesome chunky plum cardigan with 3/4 sleeves and one big button at the top that I just snagged out of my mother's giveaway pile at Christmastime (it pays to have a young mother with a good sense of style).

I wore two necklaces: One, a gift from my aunt, has a faceted grey crystal, a little silver peace symbol, and a small plaque of silver with the words "create peace" embossed on it. It is from a lovely jewelry store in Norman, OK, the town where my mother was born. My aunt gave variations of this to my sister and my brother's girlfriend too (theirs had different messages). The other necklace was a simple strand of opalescent paperclips fashioned for me by Z and place around my neck with utmost care. Like my aunt, Z gave several of these creations to the women in our family for Christmas (I bought the box of paperclips at Marshall's because I saw it and I knew we needed paperclips, but as soon as Z saw it, she claimed the majority of them for her own creative purposes).

And finally, I wore on my hands multicolored (with plenty of plum) fingerless gloves knit for me by two most important babysitters' mother last winter to pamper my poor cold writerly claws. They have ribbed cuffs that go over the wrist a couple of inches and have a cable pattern up the middle. I love them passionately. (She made me a second pair in brighter colors with ruffled wrists, with which I am equally enamored.)

If I were a good blogger, I would taken pictures of my whole ensemble to post for you, but alas ... I am not a good blogger. I do, however have this:

May the clothes you have to wear make you happy and tell a story about who you are.