Thursday, May 26, 2011

Polaris Rising

I’ve lost touch with the stars. Like titles that have broken away from their stories, their names are familiar, but I can no longer connect them to their place in the sky.

Which way is north? he would say to me in the backyard at night.

And I’d feel so smart sneaking a peak before triumphantly pointing in the direction of the North Star.

Funny now, thinking back, I wonder why I had to look. It never changed. This was ritual, occurring always at the same time of night, ( right before bedtime) the same time of year ( summer) and always from the same place ( the swing set in our backyard.)

I am as constant as the Northern Star, Joni Mitchell sings a few years later and I nod in cynical agreement as she responds to herself, Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at, if you want me I’ll be in the bar.”

I was in the dark about so much during those years after he left, when the stars were swallowed by the night and I stopped believing in providence.

From then on, my eyes stopped drifting heavenward.

Last summer at Ghost Ranch, on the New Mexican mesa during a meteor shower, the wild women of AROHO shed their shirts and danced like goddesses. With their bodies swaying they leaned their heads back and stretched their necks like swans and kept their eyes peeled to the sky.

Here’s one on the right!

There’s another on the left.

And their eyes would snap west to east, east to west.

With the other women whirling around me, I stood perfectly still, bound to the earth, my eyes fixed only on the Big Dipper watching, waiting and hoping for that flash of light to tear through the darkness and illuminate the long forgotten Northern Sky.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Learning Geometry: Looking Again

Take a picture of someone you know
Or even of yourself and
Fold the picture in half
And hold a mirror along the
Line of the center crease.

Divide the face in half
Then multiply each half by itself.

I once saw this done
With an image of Richard Nixon -
1972, on the cover of Newsweek
A country as split
As the psyche of the man
Who led us.

Two right sides of his face
Comprise a cheerful, pleasant man-
Full faced, with upturned lips
Almost smiling with a confident
Warm gleam in his eyes.

Ah but the left,
Put those sides together and
There he is
Tricky Dick with a sinister face
A wary line of a mouth
And small uneasy eyes.

I want to see your face
In pieces.

I want to measure
The slope of your chin
The angle of your cheekbones
The square root of your mouth.

We are all made up of numbers
Dots to be connected and formed
Into lines on a graph;
Calculus and geometry.

The hypotenuse of your profile
Equals the sum of the distance
Between the bottom of your lips and
The length of your nose.

A squared plus B squared
Equals your face

Divided by two

Multiplied by itself.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where I'm From: Homage to George Ella Lyon

When I was teaching, I always made sure that I completed every writing assignment I ever gave my students. I would also share each piece with them when the time was right. This entry is my version of a very generative poem, written by George Ella Lyon, and used by thousands of English teachers around the country, to help students value what they know, what they bring with them and where they're from. The lesson was popularized in Reading, Writing and Risin' Up published by Rethinking Schools...

Where I'm From
Marsha Rosenzweig Pincus

I’m from secret recipes and bubbe meinses
Shared in ancient kitchens
While Fegele and Rivkah, Razel and Malka
Knead flour and eggs into
Kreplach and kanadalach
And watch them boil over in the iron pot
And rise up in wafts of steam
Like their girlhood dreams.

I’m from knit one purl two and
Metal needles ticking out a rhythm
Like a heartbeat as the women weave
Baby weight, four ply worsted or bulky novelty yarn
Into the fabric of their lives.
Somewhere I see my mother frantically
trying to stitch together
The pieces of her broken heart while
My grandmother holds her sanity taut
With the string she keeps knitting and unraveling,
knitting and unraveling
And knitting again like the stories of her life
She tells to anyone who will stop to listen

I’m from failed marriages and single parent households,
Divorce settlements and child custody agreements challenged and
Child support promises broken.
I’m from fists thrust through plastered walls
Voices raised till they bleed
And mirrors cracked to reflect the
wicked witches and ominous orgres
who populate childhood nightmares and
the fractured fairy tales of step children.

I’m from Mt Airy and Pine Valley
Fayette Street and Grace Lane
Moving from concrete common driveways
And houses so close together you
Feel your neighbors breathe
To wide open lawns like spacious edens
Where children run free in shrouded innocence
Until fences, sowed by feuds
And watered by misunderstanding
Sub-divide our youth.

I’m from now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord to keep my parents together
Doomed from the start,
An only child married to the oldest of ten
Her silent upbringing offended by
His boisterous bounty of brothers
Dinnertime as survival of the fittest.
Family as an embarrassment of children.

When my father left us to lead his own life
He uprooted the family tree and transplanted it
In a faraway land I was barred from entering
Leaving me only the misremembered stories of
Lost legions of people who look like me, and share my name
But live somewhere only in my imagination.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pine Valley '62: A Summer Idyll

The summer the locusts came we made them our pets. The endless July days would begin the way they ended – with the resonant song of the cicadas. Jackie, Jennifer and I, then ten would capture the cicadas, carefully remove their wings then gently loop the colorful finger-knitted leashes around their necks. First we’d name them. Then we’d walk them like dogs and race them too. Soon we’d watch them die. They were so easily replaced by the millions of others who, like rainfall, landed daily upon our Pine Valley lawns. This memory of three girls playing together outside of our split level homes is one of my most vivid recollections from this time of wonder in the summer of 1962 – the last season of innocence in my soon to be tumultuous childhood.

My parents purchased their piece of the American Dream on a semi-suburban cul de sac in 1960 for $19,995.00, trading up from a brick and mortar post World War II rowhouse to a three bedroom two and a half bath aluminum sided shingle roofed split level. There were two models being marketed in this development of former farm land on the outer fringes of Northeast Philadelphia: the Debutante which sported a front to back design and the Suburban whose living room and dining room were placed side to side.

My parents selected a 3 bedroom Debutante with white siding and red shutters, situated on a quarter acre of gently rolling hills. The summer before we moved in, each Sunday, we would take a drive to this emerging neighborhood and watch the progress of our new home being erected. My sister, brother and I would lay claims to rooms or spots in the yard as my mother and father inspected the quality of the carpentry and the installation of their upgraded appliances.

Our house was on Grace Lane, a stretched out horseshoe of a street, which connected at each end to the more linear Darlington Road. The rear of the houses on both streets faced each other, their back yards blending one into the next. With newly minted cement patios, (perfect for roller skating and playing hop scotch), above ground swimming pools, basketball backboards, volley ball nets, sand boxes and swing sets, this expanse of land contained all of the equipment for a summer day camp with none of the supervision or regimen. We children who lived here were free to plan our own days, play with whom we pleased and make use of everyone else’s property.

Jackie lived directly across the back from me and sometimes at night we could talk to each other through our tin cup and string “telephones” that we ran from our bedrooms. Jennifer lived further down on Darlington and was often the first one outside in the morning, appearing on the side of Jackie’s house where we housed the locusts in jelly jars with holes drilled in the lids and leaves and water placed inside to keep our pets alive for as long as we could.

You can go back and visit the site of our summer idyll. But it’s really not there. You can look out the window of my mother’s house, the place where I grew up and see no further than the end of her property line. My mother never built a fence nor planted a single tree between her and her neighbors. Yet, her yard too became defined – surrounded on all sides by her neighbor’s border markers. This one stopped talking to that one, so the spruces went in. This one’s son hit that one’s daughter so wooden spikes were hammered into the ground. This one didn’t want that one coming to swim in their pool because she was wild and splashed the other children, so another and then another line of trees were planted until the world of my childhood was completely cleaved.

There is little in the lawn’s current landscape to recall its past sumptuousness. Nothing to suggest the fertile glory of the expanse of the Eden-like greenery that once comprised our collective playground. From the Weiss’ white shuttered house on the corner of Grace to the Polakoff’s house with the red roof on the other end of Darlington, our lawns, like our lives were connected, each to the other and adding up to something greater than all of us alone. The size of three football fields, this communal backyard made up our entire world. And in 1962, the season of the 17 year locusts, the summer before the British invasion, the end of Camelot and the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, it was all the world that we needed.