The Dowry–Part One

Have you done it?  Have you had your DNA tested to see the percentages of your ancestry?  If so, were there any surprises?

My biggest percentage was Italian on my mother’s side.  Followed by Irish on my father’s side.  Then there are the lesser percentages of surprising origins.  And the curiosity around how did that get in there.

All of this to say that a few years ago, I wrote a short story for an assignment in a Creative Writing class.  One can’t always know where their inspiration comes from or how it is going to express through words or art.  Perhaps it is rooted in the DNA and that cellular memory.  Perhaps I channeled one of my Irish ancestors.    There is some historical significance.  It is presented here in two parts.  I hope you enjoy it.

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The Dowry
©by Christine O’Brien

“Cursed we is,” Mum says, “to have so many survivin’ daughters…seven girls and one blessed boy.  If not for young William, we’d have no one to leave the farm to.”

Mum’s voice scratches like grainy sand across a washboard.

My older sister, Kathleen, is getting married in a month.  Mum has saved and put together a dowry for her and one for my second sister, Louise.  The chances of a girl getting a match are next to zero unless she has a dowry.  Kathleen says she loves James Flynn, but love isn’t what’s important.

“A girl has to have something to offer besides what’s under her petticoat,” Mum says often enough.

With a good dowry, she’s more likely to get a decent home.  She should be strong of leg too, not sickly, like my youngest sister, Patticake.  She’s got to be able to get out in the field and work beside her mate when times are tough, which times normally are.

Mum just started putting away for my dowry.  I’m three years from being 18–the marrying age around here.  Mum says she doesn’t see how she’s going to save enough to attract a mate for me.

“Chances are,” she says, “you’re going to have to go into the convent.  Father Cullen says he’ll kindly take you and your younger sisters if I can save ten pounds for the lot of you.  You’ll be provided for then and you can pray for all of us.”

“I don’t want to go to no convent!  I don’t want my head shaved!  I won’t wear those ugly black dresses and stupid veils!” I blubbered.

When I first stood up and said this to Mum, she slapped me hard.

“Be grateful you’re going to have a home and God’s own priests to look after you.  You get to do good works.”

“It’s nothin’ but slavin’,” I said, my nose red and running, a fresh welt on my cheek.

“Who’d want a red-faced girl like you anyway?”  Mum yelled.

Yelling is Mum’s forte.  Forte is my new word this week.  I’ve taught myself to read.  Mum knows I read but it’s a secret from my pap.

“A girl readin’ can make a man feel small,” says Mum.

Mum sticks the bible under my nose and points to the tiny print,
“What’s it say?” she crows.

“And why be anxious about a garment?  Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not nor spin, but I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these,” I read.

“Ah,” she says, “the lilies.  Ah well they do not have ten mouths to feed, now do they?  Get back to your work,” she says slamming the book closed and dropping it heavily on the splintered wooden bible stand.

I gather my mending from the willow basket.  I’m the third eldest girl with my share of chores.  The five younger children leave me with a pile of well-worn skirts and knickers.  My brother, Willy, is the worst on socks.  Every day I stitch up the holes in a pair of his socks and every day, there’s two more socks to mend!

“Willy,” I say sounding a bit like Mum, “Willy, can’t you for once keep your shoes on and stay out of the brambles?”

Willy looks at me with a crooked grin and long-lashed blue eyes.  He slowly shakes his towhead “no.”

(To be continued)

 

Truthbound

Sometimes a quote stays with you.  This one is from the 1956 film, Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman:

“Truth serves only a world who lives by it.”

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In their later years, when things were so difficult with my aging parents, I was taking a creative writing class.  The instructor, a wise woman, witnessed my turmoil.  One day at the end of class, she took me aside.  She knew some of the challenges I was facing with my parents and family.  She challenged me to write a type of sonnet called a Sestina.  I didn’t know what a Sestina was.  I asked her for a timeline.  She said I should write it that evening.  I went home, studied the form and this poem virtually flowed out of me.  It was the perfect vehicle for what was happening in my life.  As art, poetry and writing can do, it shifted the energy for me.

Truthbound
© by Christine O’Brien

Truth lies in a shallow grave

while perspectives hang out everywhere.

Semantics argue with the unwary

as he admonishes “feelings aren’t facts.”

She remonstrates that mine is not the only opinion!

I inquire “How does one unearth truth?”

 

A sly animal is truth;

in its lair as silent as the grave.

Taunted by every brand of opinion,

each certain that his truth binds everyone, everywhere.

Scientists are burdened with facts.

Buying facts carte blanche is for the unwary.

 

My mother has been unwary,

living my father’s lies, denying truth.

Out in the cold, the stranded facts;

a story of lies they take to the grave.

Wounded healers, their children lay everywhere.

On unalterable facts I do base this sad opinion.

 

Really, what is there to opinion?

What warning can I give to the unwary?

The pain from his misdeeds is everywhere;

his forked tongue can’t speak the truth.

“Oh Dad, set yourself free before the grave

takes you and the unspoken, faltering facts.”

 

Weakening into old age, do they matter less, the facts?

That my mother be separated from him was my opinion.

Yet, there they are growing fragile together, headlong to the grave.

His rage bursts her peaceful ending, she the constant unwary.

In this sad scenario, can one find the concealed truth?

Fragments of perspectives and hurt feelings lay everywhere.

 

When division and broken hearts are everywhere,

are they less important now, the historical facts?

Is forgiveness the elixir of truth?

It seems opposition only supports an opinion

as egos argue in the territory of the unwary.

Let’s bury our perspectives in a grave.

 

Though facts, feelings and opinions are strewn everywhere

is it only the unwary who bind them to truth?

The grave is the end for all; is it wiser to pave the path with love?

 

Choices–When Two Roads Diverge…

It’s been my experience that whatever I’m working on, including this blog, the universe is supplying continual content.  When I’m in that flow with my writing and I come up against a choice…that Robert Frost dilemma of “two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both…”  I can either figuratively pound my head trying to choose one over the other OR walk away and let the answer drift to me over the course of the day…or week or as long as it takes.  That’s being in the flow even when you’re away from your writing desk or artist easel. Sometimes, a whole other choice presents itself.

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Example.  When I’m crafting a creative writing workshop and I feel at at a loss about how to proceed, I go out in the world. I might go to Barnes and Noble. Sometimes,  a line leaps out at me from a book cover or as I randomly flip through the pages.  Or, I might be sipping tea in a cafe and overhear something spoken that is precisely what I need to hear to move my work forward.  Often, the next step inwardly presents itself to me as I walk beside the lake.  Ah, the surprising synchronicity of it all!

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The other day, standing in line at the local health food store, a bedraggled young woman stood opposite me in another line.  I had passed her, her partner and child earlier in the summer-crowded store.  Their odor was ripe. Later on, seeing her in the line across the way, she dropped the left flap of her dress exposing a flat tanned breast.  Her child, its arms and legs wrapped around her like-a-monkey-it’s-mother, latched onto the nipple and began to nurse.  The child was skinny, around two years old, hair matted, dirty and sad-faced, seemingly timid. The mother’s eyes had a vacant quality and it seemed likely that her breast was milkless, only for the child’s comfort in a strange place.

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I chose to include an unpolished rendition of this experience in today’s blog because when we witness something notable, we might not find a use for it in what we’re currently writing.  However, I suggest writing it down while it’s fresh in your mind. Then file it. You might find this recorded & filed memory useful at some future date.

We live in an abundant universe which continuously supplies prompts and content. How open are we to receiving them?

WRITING PROMPT:
What bit of inspiration crossed your path over this past day or week?  Was there something heard, smelled or seen (or tasted or touched) that could be used in what you are working on today?  Regardless of whether or not it is useful to what you are currently writing, do write it down in descriptive detail.

Writing down an experience is not a wasted effort–it’s practice.

The Fear & Dread of Poetry

I didn’t fall in love with poetry in high school.  Recently, I found “A Second Book of Poetry” from that period of my life.  The cover has doodles, appointments and names scribbled on it.  I must have had a teacher who encouraged us to write in our poetry books. Inside, I’ve taken notes and scrawled an ongoing commentary on many of the pages.

My formal education lapsed after high school as my father required that I get a job immediately to help support my younger siblings.  With an early marriage, life’s course was redirected once again.  In my thirties, I returned to college studying English and Creative Writing.  When we began the module on poetry, the instructor emphasized that within poetry you have total freedom; something inside of me sighed in deep relief. Never before in my life had I been told I had “total freedom”!  That was the moment that inner walls crumbled and I discovered a medium in which I could express my true self. POETRY!

I couldn’t have imagined how much my soul craved this expression!  I ran with it.  Every feeling and wayward thought found a home in free verse.  I didn’t bother with rhyming or other poetic forms in those days.  I wrote short or rambling, unpunctuated lines, upper or lower case letters, whatever flowed through me and demanded a voice.  Prior to this, journal writing had worked its own cathartic magic.  With poetry, feeling-imbued thoughts were given free rein and I was off and running…daily.  I remember times when I slipped from the bed to the floor with my pen and poetry journal in hand, writing poem after poem.  It was as if a long-muzzled creature had suddenly been freed and given voice–there was this and that and this and then that!

Writing Prompt:
Have you experienced a fear and dread of poetry? Did you have a coming of age where you finally began to appreciate poetry? Have you found and released your inner poet? Write about your poetic roots or initiation into poetry.

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Remember, you have total freedom in poetry.

Portals

Any writer, poet or artist seeks a portal, an opening, a place to begin.

Some mornings, I randomly pile books on my bed.  And I leaf through them, hoping for something to leap out at me.  When I crafted creative writing workshops, there was a certain magic that happened.  I had an idea that I was exploring and I’d open a book and the exact poem, quote or passage would find me!  That’s the thing, we never know where there might be an opening, a place to begin.  Yesterday, receiving news of a long-time friend’s serious illness, I was reminded that–ah, yes, sorrow and grief are portals.

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Following are a few quotes, stanzas from poems and excerpts from various books:

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“The body is the starting place for what we know,”  from Sheila Bender.

“While I did watch, Brave Horatius did come and stand by my side.  He looked up at me. In his eyes were askings.  I made explainings.  I told him, The sky is filled with clouds, which look like ships”  from Opal Whiteley.

and then:  from Denise Levertov,
“The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer…”

or Allen Ginsberg:
“All afternoon cutting bramble blackberries
off a tottering brown fence…”

and then, Wayne Dodd:
“All day I have been closed up
inside rooms, speaking of trivial matters.
Now at last I have come out
into the night, myself a center
of darkness.”

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The thing is that any of these excerpts, stanzas or quotes could be a portal that leads you or me into whatever we’re going to write about next.  (Noting, also, the privilege that is ours by tuning into these various writers’ voices and getting a sense of who they are and what they value.)

Are you curious?  That is one of a writer’s greatest gifts–curiosity.  You discover a portal, you enter, courageous once again, asking your questions, finding your answers while staying open for the unexpected.  Do you feel, at times, like the solo journeyer, the seeker, out in the universe on this great writer’s quest?

WRITING PROMPT:
Look for portals today.  Carry your pocket notebook or handheld recorder to archive anything that comes to your attention as a possible portal for your writing. Choose from one of these possibilities and write for thirty minutes. OR, borrow one of the excerpts above as your portal to today’s writing.

Are you surprised by where you went in your writing today?