The Walkaway

In the face of Covid 19, the United Nations Secretary-General, in one of his speeches,  declared that war is obsolete!  In these times of the pandemic, war seems to be a non-sequitur.  A virus is now “the enemy”.  Can we stop the nonsense and focus on what’s at hand, like the virus, global warming, overpopulation…and start addressing the real issues of a planet at risk?  Aren’t people experiencing enough trauma without having to contend with war?  We know which people are the first to be attacked during warfare–women and children.  Time for a serious time out!

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This painting and poem were first published on this blog in November of 2017.  This painting originated from a poem I wrote several years before.   He is walking away preparing to board a naval ship, shipping out to Vietnam.  Is he going to return?  If he does return, how is war going to change him…hence the refrain “Did anyone ever come back from Vietnam, I wondered.”

When I was eighteen years old, a girlfriend and I volunteered at the USO club on Market Street in San Francisco.  This was in 1967-1968, during the Vietnam War.  One night a week, we showed up to dance with the sailors and soldiers.  To sit and talk or play games like chess or checkers.  It was an intense time as these young men were either preparing to ship out overseas or had just returned from a stint overseas.  The poem tells the story of one young man who took a liking to me.

The poem:

Circulation
by Christine O’Brien

Don’t dance with just one boy,
make the rounds–
circulate.
Play chess and checkers
card games
no dating them outside of here.

The USO–
we’re here to
provide a home
away from home.
You are the girl next door
…a reputation to uphold
no loose behavior.

His name was Mickey
–from Mississippi.
He wanted a girl
more than anything.
He was being sent off to Vietnam.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

He claimed me;
threatened all the other soldiers
to stay away.
But I’m supposed to circulate,
I said.
He picked me up after work,
treated me to a soda,
rode home with me on the bus,
met my family,
even loaned my dad a book.
He was scheduled to ship out
in two weeks.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

His friend drove him to my house.
We kissed in the back seat of the car.
Hard kisses
from him who wanted
to know a kiss
before lips grew cold.
My lips were uncertain
but compliant.
Suddenly I pulled away,
fearful
withdrew into my house
tossing him a good night.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

He had been so cool
on the dance floor
smooth, sexy dancer.
In his dress blues
bell bottoms
swishing the slippery floor.
I could never attract
a guy like that
I thought.

He wanted to marry me NOW!
The urgency of youth
the uncertainty of undeclared war
leading one to declare love.
I cried all the way home on the bus.
He comforted me
not knowing that I was trying to
break up with him.
He threatened suicide
wasn’t going to Vietnam
suicide enough?

I wondered,
did anyone ever come back
from Vietnam?

the walkaway.

 

 

My Mother’s Hands

mom1

This mixed media piece was to be my entry in an upcoming art show.

It was also a challenge to myself to integrate poetry with paint.  In some way, it was a homage to my mother’s life.  The photo is of her at age seventeen.  She was a beauty.  My mother died in 2011 at age 91.  From my perspective, her life had been a long, hard road. I’ve written so much about her, about our relationship, about her relationship with my father.

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One of the layers of this painting is a poem, My Mother’s Hands.   After writing the poem  on the canvas, I remember feeling vulnerable.  I was revealing her story to an audience who might not understand the battered wife syndrome.

The poem begins:

I wonder if a palm reader back then would have foretold
–a long life
–an unloving marriage
–an abusive spouse…

…and then I smudged some of the words with gesso and paint.

In the last three years of their lives, my parents were in a care home, a house in a neighborhood with eight elderly residents.  Another sister and I alternated visiting them during the week.  Two other sisters orchestrated their care from afar.  The brothers remained aloof until the very end as they didn’t feel at ease with our father.

In her later years, my mother’s hands were contorted with arthritis.   Her fingers had trouble gripping a spoon and then navigating it to her mouth.  But she had lost so many of her abilities that I didn’t want to help her too much.  I watched as the spoon wobbled towards her mouth.  Her mouth like a quivering bird anticipating food.

My father in the background would say “These are not the golden years.”  I could see that.

One sunny day, we were sitting outdoors under fruit-laden orange trees.  My mother said “I wonder where we go from here.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I asked.

“After we die.” she said.

“I thought you believed in heaven,” I said, trying to offer comforting words.

My father said “There’s nothing.”

“Dad,” I said, “I thought you had a dream of heaven.  You said it was beautiful.”

My father said, “It was lonely.  I was the only one there.”

In slow motion, my mother reached for my hand and held it–an unfamiliar gesture.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I’m sure thoughts of my mother weave through my mind on any given day.  For one reason or another.

I wonder what she’d be thinking about the state of the world today.  She once asked me to write her story…I’m not sure which one…the one of the devoted wife who stood by her husband no matter what abuse.  Or the possible woman who hid herself away and didn’t have an opportunity to blossom.

The Dreamcatcher

Years ago, I wove hundreds of dreamcatchers.  It was a very challenging time in my life.  I don’t remember how I discovered the dreamcatcher…but when I did, I found that designing and weaving them was healing and engaging in a way that I hadn’t expected.  I gathered supplies, hoops, twigs, willow, waxed threads, leather strips, feathers and beads.  Each dream catcher was a unique creation.  For me, this indigenous craft held deep meaning…and they were to be shared.  I gave one to each of my family members.  A man I met had a booth at a local flea market.  He sold them, keeping a profit for himself.  What they provided for me in the moment was without price.

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Tracy Verdugo taught a class on painting dream catchers.  And then invited us to write a poem.  This poem is written around the outside circle of the dreamcatcher.

Destiny

Lace and ribbons
decorate the frock.
“Forget the dreams.
Get back to the kitchen
and bake me a pie!”
Banish your fantasy of
happy couples and
floral bouquet apologies.

Re-enter the Goddess–
no partial woman is she!
So, you are somebody
after all.
Tell us what you know.
Emergence is what you requested–
sit down and let’s talk over tea.

A wedge of lemon?  Honey?
Ah, the bitter with the sweet.
This you must experience
for yourself.

Lace and ribbons,
wedding day vows–
disguise your sovereign destiny.

 

 

dreamcatcher

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A dreamcatcher is an indigenous symbol–a web, often with a hole in the center.  It is intended to let the bad dreams pass through and to catch the good dreams.  The dreams that guide you towards your highest visions.

There is both power and presence when we create.  What is the dream of the future that you’d like to paint, color, draw, sculpt or weave?  Make your own dream catcher using collage and paint.  Are there words or poetry that go with it?  Write them on your work of art.  Get lost in this process.  Invite others to participate in making their own dreamcatchers.  Share in ways that are available to you at this time.

Stay healthy and safe.

Haiku in Turbulent Times

What I’ve appreciated about Haiku is the command to be present.  It is in the observation of the present moment that makes Haiku timely now.

Four years ago,I wanted to paint a piece that integrated Haiku.  I found this Haiku from Gyodai, an early Japanese poet…I couldn’t find his time period.  I let the Haiku inspire the painting.  It’s a busy painting, but in the moment, it felt right.

“Snow is melting
Far in the Misted Mountain
A Cawing Crow”

Gyodai

 

crow

Here’s the thing about Haiku…it’s accessible to everyone.  You could be anywhere, for instance sheltering at home.  Grab a pen, pencil, piece of charcoal, crayon, whatever…and follow the formula.  Here it is:

A brief introduction to haiku.  So far as we know, haiku originated in Japan.  Short poems, usually three lines long, haiku has a total of 17 syllables…5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line and 5 syllables in the third line.  Traditional haiku usually contained a season word that indicated in which season the haiku was set.  The season word isn’t always obvious.  Haiku are little philosophical gems, sometimes with humor.  They can describe almost anything.  Often, they describe daily situations in a refreshing way–creating a new experience of something familiar.  It is always amazing to me that some poetic forms, such as haiku, endure.

I invite you to write haiku.  You choose the time of day.  Sit in your most comfortable chair or go out into the forest, up a mountain or by an ocean or lake.  Whatever is permissible where you live.  Take a few deep breaths and settle in.  Deeply notice something in your surroundings.  Honor it by writing a haiku.  Truly–nature, the things we use and take for granted, animals, other people, everything, everyone likes to be noticed and honored.

In writing your own haiku, strive to “give a new
experience of something familiar”.  Try to adhere
to the 5-7-5 syllables (or as close as you can get to
it).

Blessed day to you.

Alone Doesn’t Have to be Lonely

I don’t remember exactly what inspired this mixed media painting.  Except that it was another intuitive journey and continued to shift over time.  Putting down colors that I was drawn to, seeing images within the evolving piece, deciding which ones to elaborate on and which ones to let go.

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It was a cold, winter’s night in the mountains where I live.  There was the early dark of winter and a blizzard outside.  There was nowhere to go and no friend to meet.  An existential loneliness settled in around me.  Resistance is the first response when an uncomfortable feeling presents.  Feet dug in…”I don’t want to go there.”  But it persisted and I needed to be with it.  I’d been working on a painting of a polar bear in the Arctic.  I’d been trying to paint the aurora borealis.  Good luck with that!  That sky went through so many changes.

aurora

What prompted me to paint a polar bear in the Arctic, that I can’t really say except that as I created the background, his image hovered in the painting.  I brought him forward.

polarbear1

That night of extreme loneliness, staring at this painting in process, imagining the polar bear as his world disappears, I wrote the poem that I’ve already shared in this blog earlier.  It begins like this…

It’s cold and I’m alone again at night
The stars so far away, no comfort there
Is the polar bear aware of his plight?
Ice floes are melting, does anyone care?

Painting this piece, writing the poem, helped to shift my energy.  The poem and painting connected me to something outside of myself, bigger than my small life and this moment of loneliness.

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To be human is to feel loneliness at times.  In this time of the pandemic, social isolation and uncertainty, find a way to either write, draw or paint or any other creative activity.
One exploration could involve color.  Color crayons, watercolors, acrylics, colored pencils…any of these work.  On a piece of paper, put down colors that you feel particularly attracted to.  Place them side by side, at different angles to each other.  If you are using paints, notice which colors make other colors “pop” forward and which colors recede.  Let yourself play with color.

 

 

Poetry in Perilous Times (3)

We have not had very much precipitation in the mountains this winter.  We’ve had three big storms that deposited a lot of snow in the city proper and on the mountain.  However, it was quickly washed away with rain at the lower elevations.  February brought idyllic spring-like weather.  While we enjoyed it, we also felt some trepidation.  The summer and fall of 2018 were frightening to us living in this highly forested area.  Fires sprung up in every direction around us.  We were told to be packed and ready to evacuate…but where to, we wondered.  Some of us stashed non-perishable food staples in the car, packed a suitcase, a tent, sleeping bag, bottled water, clothing, important papers, etc.

The smoky skies extended throughout the summer months starting in early July through October.  It was an intense panorama of smoke-filled days and nights.  We wore masks when we ventured out.  Typically, summer is a time to appreciate the lakes and hiking trails, to walk briskly, climb, swim and breathe deeply the fresh mountain air.  Not then.  Honestly, there is a certain dread of the coming summer.  Without a winter of sufficient rain and snow, we pray for our own safety and that of our forests and forest creatures.

I wrote this poem in September of 2018…

When the not-so-far ridges have been obscured
by smoke for months…
When your mind is clouded with confusing thoughts…
When what you once perceived proves to be false
or limiting…
When you sip your morning
cup of tea and place one foot
in front of the other
and say yes to this new day,
you have learned faith.

The smoke hangs on the ridge waiting for
directions from the wind.
The firefighters are out there
day and night manning
bulldozers, helicopters, heavy machinery–
we trust them to do their jobs–
to be wisely directed by those
who understand the nature
of fighting fire in a heavily forested area
with up and down rugged terrain.  We
have to trust them.  We have to trust
and to hold onto faith that everything is
going to be alright…
and until then,
that we can bear it–
be strong
be patient
and live our lives truly
and boldly.

We have to trust that we have
sufficient courage,
to share our gifts and
to proceed
into this new day.
We go forward into the uncertainty
on wings of prayer, hope and trust
and faith
and whatever love looks like today.

Then, I go into the garden to harvest tomatillos.

tomatillos

As of this moment, it is snowing and accumulating.  Yay!  And the rest of March might bring more precipitation.  We hope so.

 

Poetry Today (in Perilous Times) 2

Poets, writers, artists have a three-fold purpose as I see it:
1) the task of witnessing.  2) the task of writing it down or rendering it in some creative way.  3) sharing what they’ve written or created as a result of witnessing.  They’ve then come full circle with their particular art.

Within it, poetry has the imperative to share a message.  That message is intended to be evocative.  To awaken in the reader some of the same emotions that the witness/writer has experienced in putting pen to page.  A writer or painter can never be guaranteed that her audience is going to feel the exact same emotion.”  They can’t be attached to the outcome or response to their piece once it is released.  Fly away little bird.  But they must release it and allow it to affect and influence whoever it might, however it may.

Poets write about anything.  Poetry can express everything.  It is rare that the reader is privy to what precisely preceded the poet writing a particular poem.

I painted a piece with fish as the theme.  I don’t remember why I chose to paint these fish.  As I stood back from it and studied it, I felt tranquility.  It was exploratory.  But it didn’t have pop!  Not enough value contrast.  Or cohesion.  It prompted this poem, regardless.

A Quiet Wonder
© by Christine O’Brien

Underwater Kingdoms
Civilizations that we can’t comprehend
the sheen of scales
glint of colors
that stun in light’s glory
the silver trails through
unimaginable depths
the flash of a tail–
fish or mermaid
who is to say
for certain things
happen in depths
where humans
dare not go
we can’t all be Cousteau
though at times
if you’re at all
contemplative
you dive deep
into the dark waters
into what you’ve not known
beyond fears that taunt
and perhaps discover
another side
a way through
a quiet wonder

If this poem causes the reader to pause and contemplate something beyond their norm, then it has succeeded.
fish6aa

Poetry Today (in Perilous Times)…1

Wouldn’t every previous generation say that they lived in “perilous times” or as in the Tao, “interesting times” at the very least?  So many of us have a connotation of poetry as  an archaic (if not boring) language and irrelevant to “modern life.”

How do we get potential readers to cross that chasm of calcified thinking regarding poetry to a reinvigorated and revalued view of poetry?  Is there a place in a relatively newly minted culture where poets and poetry are elevated, revered?  That poetry activates both one’s emotions and values could be one reason that it isn’t welcomed in a society that wants to control its constituents.  There isn’t often comfort in living outside the box.  However, there is power in it.

How does anyone realize that within him/herself, perhaps a dormant inner poet or artist lives?  Sometimes the inner poet comes to life out of despair.  Nothing else seems to suffice.  Nothing else calms or soothes.  Sometimes, she is revived through love.  Sometimes, it is when change is forced and the hand you’ve been dealt doesn’t seem to have an open door–poetry can provide the doorway.

Poetry is not only a bolster for the faint of heart.  In fact, poetry is for everyone and especially in these times.

Consider Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, an earth-connected poet of our times.  I love his bit of a poem about salad

“Wash your hands, get them good and clean,
Hurry and find a basket
Let us gather a salad, and so unite
To our passing lives this seasons fruit.”

How relevant is this four line stanza to your daily experience of life?  These days, you better be sure to wash your hands!  Of course, too many of us don’t have a garden to gather lettuce leaves for a salad.  Perhaps there is a farmer’s market nearby or at least a marketplace that gives you that feeling.  However, you gather your salad fixings, to pause and remember our unity to the food that we consume is like a prayer.  Our lives are fleeting and the food we eat to sustain us lends quality to our lives (or it doesn’t)…well, it’s all expressed in this stanza.

Poetry can bring awareness and value to the things we take for granted.  It provides the pause we need in our overly busy lives.  Giving attention to such things makes for a more conscious society.

 

 

Who Is Your Mother?

Last week, I viewed the film…Never Cry Wolf once again.  It had been awhile since I’ve seen this film.  The main character, a Canadian biologist named Tyler, is flown on a small bush plane and dropped off in the vast, wild and white unknown of  the Canadian Arctic wilderness.  His job is to discover why the caribou population is declining.  It is believed that the wolf packs are eliminating the caribou and so he is there to study the feeding habits of the wolves.

This time, a few things struck me as I watched this film.  The vastness of the wilderness contrasted the minuteness of man.  There was the wild beauty of the scenery.  Then, when a nomadic Inuit man rescues Tyler, I got a sense of the land as experienced by its native inhabitants.  They are in a deep, daily conversation with their environment .  They have to be!  Growing up there, steeped in the traditions of their people, their own interactions with the climate, geography and the animals upon which they directly depend for their clothing, food and shelter…this added another dimension to the story for me.

In his book, Earth in Balance, Al Gore, politician and environmentalist, discusses how we have been taught “to live so separately from nature that we feel so utterly dependent upon our civilization, which has seemingly taken nature’s place in meeting all  our needs.”   Gore elaborates:

“The food on the supermarket shelves, the water in the faucets in our homes, the shelter and sustenance, the clothing and purposeful work, our entertainment, even our identity–all these our civilization provides, and we dare not even think about separating ourselves from such beneficence.”

Yet, there are natural laws that supersede government provisions.  We are disconnected from the natural environment and because of this, we don’t have a real understanding of our place within nature…as John Muir has said “Nature includes us.”

An excerpt from a metaphorical
poem I wrote concerning this vital relationship:

If I don’t know my mother,
how will I care for her
when she is ill and nearly used up?
Why would I sing her sweet lullabies
or hold unrecognizable her in my lap,
rock her into recovery?
If I don’t see that she’s ailing,
or that we’re even related,
why would I pause in my hectic life,
seek her out and say
I love you, I’ll look after you now.
Why would I care if she is a stranger
and I don’t talk to strangers?

Reinvention

When things aren’t working…when they haven’t been working for awhile…what do you do?  When I get quiet and take an overview of my life, I can sometimes see the patterns.  There are patterns that I am at peace with and then, there are patterns that I am undone by every single time.  Recognizing that, what can I do to change a pattern?

  • One key is recognition:  When I am able to identify a pattern and name it, that is the doorway to changing it.  Sometimes, I write it down in detail, the elements that make up this rerun pattern.  Then I gain a clearer understanding of myself and how and perhaps why I recycle this unhelpful pattern.
  • Recognizing the facets of the pattern, I might be able to see “choice points.”  Within the pattern, there are split seconds when I can decide to do something differently.  That is, catch the pattern at work and detour myself away from it.  No, don’t go that way–again!
  • The doing something differently can be placing my attention elsewhere, i.e. doing jumping jacks, dancing, going for a walk in nature, picking up a book, getting out the paints and painting.  Any number of possibilities.  You choose.
  • Another helpful tool is writing poetry about your dilemma.  Because poetry accesses another part of the brain, it can offer up a solution that you might not have logically considered.
  • If you feel safe enough to share your process with a trustworthy friend, you might ask them for support in your mission.
  • Also, if you believe in a higher power, prayer for assistance as you implement something new can assist you.

They say that it takes twenty-one days to solidify a new pattern or habit. Considering that there is the real possibility of falling into the same old, same old, you can remember that Alcoholics Anonymous slogan “Just for today…” I can do this differently.  Then it feels manageable.

Years ago, I read a quote by Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist.  It goes like this:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

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I appreciate the wisdom in this quote.