The New Dress

Recently published in Ponder Review, Vol II, Issue 1.

 

My grandmother’s hands tore helplessly at the tissue paper surrounding the new dress in its box.  I leaned in and folded back one leaf of the paper, so she could better see what she was doing.

I had bought her the dress, a dark green knit, because in the nursing home all her dresses that hadn’t been stolen were covered with food stains, pilled and frayed. I had taken her to lunch at Peddler’s village, to the Cock ‘n Bull, where she sipped her frozen daiquiri through a straw and ate a ball of butter whole, perhaps thinking it was cheese. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t cheese.

Trying on the dresses after lunch – none of them like she used to wear; the styles had changed, and this was a long way from the dress shop she had patronized in Albany for 27 years – I noticed that her slip was gray and wanted mending. There was an unclean smell about my grandmother, an old, sour smell. I knew they bathed her regularly in the nursing home, or at least I hoped they did. The smell must have been coming from the dirty slip, but I remember hearing that death has a smell, and for many hours, even after many cigarettes, I couldn’t get that smell out of my memory’s nose.

And now, a week later, I was collecting her to take her back to Philadelphia for her 90th birthday party, packing up her meager things so that she could overnight in my grownup house, trying to find her toothbrush, the bed jacket, clean underwear – all jumbled together in the several drawers of the antique dresser we had moved into her room.

I knew that she didn’t know where she was going, or why, but I hoped her mind, long past complete utterances, was also beyond worry. She followed my instructions meekly, like a guilty child.

When she pulled off the sweater and trousers, neither of which belonged to her, I was surprised to find her naked below, the small pale V sandwiched between loose thighs and the hanging flesh of her abdomen – gray, wrinkled, vulnerable. In our great old age, almost 90, we step backwards, I thought, stripped of our minds, our memories, even our dignifying pubic hair.  Why wasn’t she wearing panties? Her bra was in place – someone must have to help her into that; her arthritic hands, once pianist’s hands, could never fasten the hooks of that bra.

There was the faint smell of urine hanging in the air of her room like an acrid fog. And, as I turned away to hide my sadness, fumbling through the few possessions I had gathered for our trip, it occurred to me that she must finally be incontinent. I found some panties – not her style; she had always worn open-leg panties, and these had elastic around the thighs – and held them out for her to step into.

First the mind, and then the body goes, the bare little wedge of pubis now hiding a urethra that betrays her. I helped her into the panties, her swollen hand supporting her weight on my shoulder, and then I made her sit down on the edge of the bed to stretch on the pantyhose. She never used to wear those either, always a girdle with garters. Even if she were staying at home all day with no one coming to visit, Grandma would pull her girdle over her plump hips, slip into her all-in-one, fasten up the nylon stockings, put on a nice dress and the single-strand pearl necklace that was her signature.

She never put a worn garment back into the closet, so that everything there smelled fresh and new.

While she was struggling to get the pantyhose straightened around her hips, I looked in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom she shared with the occupant of the room next door and found a box of disposable diapers. I packed it to into the bag for home, not certain if I could ever insist she put one on.

Next, I helped her into the slip I had washed and mended, and finally I gathered up the dress and held it over her head. She lifted her arms up straight like an expectant child, and a small uncertain smile touched the corners of her mouth. A new dress. This much she understood. I guided her arms into the sleeves and pulled the dark green knit around her, straightening the shoulders over the narrow bones. I led her to the mirror above the dresser, fished my own comb out of my purse and arranged her fine, pale hair. The eyes reflected back at me were expressionless. Did she know whom she was looking at? Did she remember the music?

I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, putting my cheek next to hers in the mirror, trying to smile through the constriction of my heart. “You look beautiful,” I said. And, for just the flicker of an instant, the distant memory of a smile in her eyes, I thought she recognized me.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo by Roberta Ward Smiley

Poetry is a Presence

From John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out. Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are presence before they are a means of communication.

Yet poetry uses the same words, and more or less the same syntax as, say, the Annual General Report of a multinational corporation. (Corporations that prepare for their profit some of the most terrible battlefields of the modern world.) How then can poetry so transform language that, instead of simply communicating information, it listens and promises and fulfills the role of God?

That a poem may use the same words as a Company Report means no more than the fact that a lighthouse and a prison cell may be built with stones from the same quarry, joined by the same mortar. Everything depends upon the relation between the words. And the sum total of all these possible relations depends upon how the writer relates to language, not as vocabulary, not as syntax, not even as structure, but as a principal and a presence.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

If poetry sometimes speaks of its own immortality, the claim is more far-reaching than that of the genius of a particular poet in a particular cultural history. Immortality here should be distinguished from posthumous fame. Poetry can speak of mortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present, and future.

To speak of the promise of poetry would be misleading, for a promise projects into the future, and it is precisely the coexistence of future, present, and past that poetry proposes. A promise that applies to the present and past as well as to the future can better be called an assurance.

During the 18th and 19th centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality. All this means that the resolution – the coming to terms with the sense to be given to life – cannot be deferred. The future cannot be trusted. The moment of truth is now. And more and more it will be poetry, rather than prose, that receives this truth. Prose is far more trusting than poetry; poetry speaks to the immediate wound.

The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity, even a term of endearment; the word is impartial: the usage is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience – everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. For prose this home is a vast territory, a country which it crosses through a network of tracks, paths, highways; for poetry this home is concentrated on a single center, a single voice, and this voice is simultaneously that of an announcement and the response to it.

One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god. Yet it’s very openness can signify indifference (the indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiques, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and to incite this caring. How does poetry incite this caring? What is the labor of poetry?

By this I do not mean the work involved in writing a poem, but the work of the written poem itself. Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of this unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be lessened or stopped only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of asuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered. Three thousand five hundred years ago an Egyptian poet was writing:

O my beloved

how sweet it is

to go down

and bathe in the pool

before your eyes

letting you see how

my drenched linen dress

marries

the beauty of my body

Come look at me.

Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not to make comparisons (all comparisons as such are hierarchical) or to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the individual totality of existence. To this totality poetry appeals, and its appeal is the opposite of a sentimental one; sentimentality always pleads for an exemption, for something which is divisible.

Apart from reassembling by metaphor, poetry reunites by its reach. It equates the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe; after a certain point the type of extremity involved becomes unimportant and all that matters is its degree; by their degree alone extremities are joined. Anna Akhmatova:

I bear equally with you

the black permanent separation.

Why are you crying? Rather give me your hand,

promise to come again in a dream.

You and I are a mountain of grief.

You and I will never meet on this earth.

If only you could send me at midnight

a greeting through the stars.

To argue here that the subjective and objective are confused is to return to an empirical view which the extent of present suffering challenges; strangely enough it is to claim an unjustified privilege.

Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.

From where does Pain come to us?

From where does he come?

He has been the brother of our visions

From time immemorial

And the guide of our rhymes.

. . . writes the poet Nazuj ak Nak’-ika.

To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer, and prayer – as well as labor – was probably at the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.

Every poem that works as a poem is original and original has two meanings: it means a return to the origin, the first which engendered everything that followed; and it means that which has never occurred before. In poetry, and in poetry alone, the two senses are united in such a way that they are no longer contradictory.

Nevertheless poems are not simple prayers. Even a religious poem is not exclusively and uniquely addressed to God. Poetry is addressed to language itself. In a lamentation, words lament loss to their language. Poetry is addressed to language in a comparable but wider way.

To put into words is to find the hope that the words will be heard and the events they describe judged. Judged by God or judged by history. Either way the judgment is distant yet the language, which is immediate and which is sometimes wrongly thought of as being only a means, the language offers obstinately and mysteriously, its own judgment when it is addressed as poetry. This judgment is distinct from that of any moral code, yet it promises, within its acknowledgment of what it has heard, a distinction between good and evil – as though language itself had been created to preserve just that distinction!

Photo by SSH

 

 

 

 

A Little Night Music

Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Sky Island Journal, this is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica. 

Now, in the still, moonlit nights, insomnia has company.

Wup, wup, whoo, whoooo.

An owl challenges the jungle of the quebrada by the house.  Everyone marvels at how tranquil our place is, but they’re used to the noises of cities and towns.  Out here the sounds drop into the night silence like thunder.

It begins with the owl.  From our quebrada he calls to another in the quebrada to the south.  A small echo coming back, saying what?

Crickets playing a triad – two tones perfectly spaced at a third – offer a metallic accompaniment.

The cicadas who screamed at sunset have already exploded and left their empty shells in the crannies of the trees.

A distant dog barks.

Later, no matter what the moon, a pack of coyotes hurls its protest at the stars.  Little Flor – separated by millennia from her sisters – still remembers to howl in tune.

In the ceiling, all night long, the bats are chirping fussily over their busy comings and goings.  There is the muffled beating of wings against the small, dusty spaces.

A gecko rustles across the skylight, and I hear the flat-footed thump of the cat’s paws on the kitchen counter, a better vantage point for contemplating the gecko’s tempting silhouette in the moonlight.

Even later, a small but insistent mew from the cat: she wants out.

The pump decides to gurgle, even though no one is drawing any water.

The breeze, blowing from the volcano, sighs back and forth like the ocean, and the great crossed limbs of the guanacaste tree groan against each other like two quarrelsome lovers in their sleep.

A lamp burns in my tiny room as my pen scratches across the page.  It attracts an abejón that buzzes his frustration against the screen. There’s a hole in the screen, but he hasn’t found it yet.

In the small hours a far-off rooster crows.

Later, at five – right on time – the King of the howler monkeys roars in the dawn.  He knows when the sun is about to rise.  The rooster hasn’t figured it out.

Night sounds in the campo.  I never feel alone.  As I look out the window above my bed, lights out at last, I see the pale moon and constellations swinging through the bowl of blue and, distantly, ever so faintly, I can hear – beyond all the chirping and chatter of nearby things – the music of the planet tilting toward the sun.

(An earlier version appeared on this blog in the series on the use of our senses in writing.)

 

Another Five Stars for Dr. Wao

March 6, 2018

Format: Kindle Edition

Writing Prompt: Green

Writing prompts can produce some surprising prose:  stream of consciousness, things previously unknown to us or felt before, anecdotes, even poetry.  One such prompt in a workshop I attended turned into a flash fiction piece that eventually found a home in a literary journal.  Besides, prompts are super practice: we should try to do one every day.  If we can’t come up with one on our own, there are websites full of prompts.  Here’s one that cropped up in a workshop for two.

Green

The music of the river adds a sense of continuity to our stories.  We are all one, but accidentally separate – thus our reaching out to connect, to feel part of one another.  Green – a thousand shades of green all blending into one forest on the banks of this musical river: magical river, swollen with the rains, tumbling into the lake that binds us.

It is a geography of one-ness, and through it I feel God singing, inviting our spirits into the cosmic dance.

I have found heaven here – in this country, among these people – in this endless green that fills me up.  There are other beautiful places on this blue planet, but none for me like this, none that has reached inside to pull out my small gifts – the gift of connection most of all, connection to the earth, the green, the eternal river and, finally, the fearless connection to myself.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the question, always full of exciting possibilities.  But I knew, always, that I wanted to write my way into the one-ness, the connection to others, my own human truth.

The green is so soothing, the deep-throated river hypnotizes me under the synchronous songs of the cicadas, the howls of the monkeys.  This is the color of the music that I must share.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo by Marten Jager

Writing Advice from John McPhee

From one of my all-time favorite writers of nonfiction, here are some excellent tips for all writers:

  • “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
  • “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
  • “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
  • “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.  A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
  • “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
  • “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
  • “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
  • “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
  • “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
  • “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
  • “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
  • “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
  • “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
  • “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
  • “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
  • “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
  • “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

 

 

I’m going to recommend his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, before I’ve even read it!

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH

Ah, Panama

Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

A journey without suspense would be boring.  Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown.  All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning.  At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers.  Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient.  And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave.  This little suspense is completely expected.  (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port.  The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)

The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica.  As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.”  Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.

This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund.  I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65.  That’s the lesson for today.

It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me.  First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too).  So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama.  In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon.  This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it.  He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”

Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family.  I have put myself in your shoes.  I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.”  I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel.  I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.

The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up.  He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out.  I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.”  Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness.  He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen.  I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach.  He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.

It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions.  He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there.  This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly.  When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.

Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic.  And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port.  His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands.  As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.

But, ah Panama!  First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.

©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer

 

 

 

 

Letters from the Pacific Earns Another Great Review

By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017

I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!

Photo by SSH

 

From a Child’s Point of View

I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view.  I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine.  See below for the link.

“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead.  I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up.  I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming.  Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick.  That’s where Grandma came to pick me up.  I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along.  I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ”  Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017