The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 6, 2013

I’ve taken a long break from writing here, and now we’re toward the end of summer with the Fair going full swing. I’ve given myself a break from writing in general, a strange thing to do when writing sustains and refreshes me as much as it does. But I had reached a point where the thought of sitting in front of a computer after a work day of teaching and running a department carried too much weight of obligation—and I didn’t want that to enter or underlie this blog.

That said, I’m enjoying the last few weeks of waking when I want to before returning to campus to move in to a new office and facing the plights and gripes of my colleagues. I have a school year to go before I can step back into the oblivion of just teaching—till then, my posts here may be sporadic.

We’ve had a lovely, if hot, summer here in the Interior. Spring dallied. It snowed on the day of the Preakness—mid May—and every gardener I know put their garden in late. The late cold was followed immediately by weeks of 80- and 90-degree weather, giving us no time to adjust, so the gardening that should have been done at that point was limited by our ability to tolerate sun and heat—our blood hadn’t thinned enough by then, and we fell into evenings debilitated as the sun lingered into our long white nights.

Now we have a few hours of darkness to counter our still hot days. The cycle is shifting, and with the slatey blue light that settles in around midnight comes cooler air—down to the upper 40s the other night. Instead of our typical fair-time rain, we are having smooth blue skies and 80s during the day, but the nights are giving us warning of what’s to come.

Today, I’ll load up Mattie and Sam for one more lesson before I ride Mattie in the Fair dressage classes on Friday. We are moving up a level to Training 1—after all these years, things are beginning to click. I can feel my right side when I ride, for example, a challenge for someone as left-sided as I am. And Mattie has learned to move at an even pace, not race around, pulling at the reins.

The garden is flourishing; the tomatoes are producing green ovals that may ripen before I close the greenhouse in fall—or later in the newspaper layers I store them in. Fireweed is blooming closer to the top, but isn’t all the way there yet. A few more weeks. I’m in summer brain, every moment. A few more moments, moment by moment, absorbing everything the sun brings, storing it up for the days I’m not ready to think about yet.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 20, 2013

Redpolls and Chickadees

Thanks to football (words I never thought I’d write), I’m having a pleasant day home alone, listening to From the Top on NPR, a classical music show featuring young musicians, this week focused on music honoring the life and ideals of Martin Luther King. And thanks to Dr. King, this pleasant Sunday will be followed by a day off from teaching, a day I hope to spend, in part, listening to Obama’s second inaugural address. Because we are in the farthest US time zone from the East Coast (other than Hawaii), the whole inaugural shebang will be over by 10am—plenty of time to longe horses or do a thorough cleaning of the corral and gather my wits for the long semester ahead.

Before I sat down to write, I was watching redpolls at our new yellow feeder. Pushy little birds, they chatter and flutter at each other, trying to get the best spot to peck at the sunflower and thistle mix we’ve put out for them. They seem to have driven the chickadees away by their sheer number and pushiness, though I know the chickadees are still out in the bare willows, because I hear their calls when I go out to visit the horses—“deee—dee—dee.” They are politer birds, perhaps, waiting till the plainer redpolls have glutted for the day to come and perch at the feeder. Or perhaps someone else in the neighborhood has food that they like better. Watching the redpolls, so active and plucky, I made a mental list for the day—writing this is item number one.

I suppose I could make analogies between the pushy birds and politics—but their energy is not a difference of opinion with chickadees, but the essential energy of living things: hungry, eager, joyful, crabby, soaring, and squabbling. As I walk up to the glass door to the deck, they sense my motion and blow away as abruptly as if caught by a sudden gust of wind. If I stand still, they venture back one at a time till they are again feeding chattily away. The cat sits at my feet, watching them, plotting her summer moves. In summer, much to her disappointment, I move the feeder and stop filling it, so she is forced to hunt voles in the hay barn instead.

Thinking of Dr. King and of Obama, I remember the flocking of people from around the country to hear each man speak, a couple generations apart. For us, the attractive food is hope, something that has been in short supply in recent years—certainly in many desperate spots around the world. Looking back over this blog, I found this paragraph from Inauguration Day four years ago:

“It’s been a long dark journey through a kind of national despair for the past eight years, when the public dialogue has been driven by fear and impulse rather than reflection and reason. Horses can be made dangerous and frightening by humans who react around them out of fear–perhaps that’s also true of a nation. And horses can be calmed and rehabilitated by a calmer, reasonable presence. Perhaps we all long for that, as well. It’s a lot to place on one human being, to calm and redirect the restless herd of our national psyche, but, as I’ve said to friends here, an election isn’t about one person, it’s about us and who we want ourselves collectively to be. So, as light progresses here, we’ll watch to see how light can be progressively shed on us all with the turn of the political season. I wish for Obama all the best tools of horse and dog training: to be calm, attentive, clear-headed, non-reactive, and to lead by reward and praise rather than by punishment and fear.”

How much has changed? Well, I suppose that depends on your world view. But what I had hoped for in Obama seems to be played out in who he has proved to be; he’s famously cool rather than reactive, and seems to be learning how to balance the carrot and the stick politically. Our nation seems to have divided, say, into redpolls and chickadees—but we are still one flock, and have our humanity in common with people everywhere. I wouldn’t trade places with Obama, but I’m glad he’s there, doing the difficult work of keeping us focused on what we have in common and living out the dream that King put forward all those years ago.

Today, I notice the light returning even more than I did last week. We are now a full month away from solstice, with as much light as we had in Thanksgiving. I’m already thinking of the garden and of my plans for Mattie and Sam this summer. We have months to go before we see the ground again, but we have hope.

Poetry Challenge 78

January 4, 2013

Being Mrs. Patmore

Over the holidays, I’ve found myself in the kitchen most days, cooking or cleaning up after a previous feast. It’s been good to feel the rhythms of cooking and cleaning, of preparing and serving food to friends and family, of being at the center of such a basic pleasure as cookies, pies, marmalade, a grand meal, or a simple curry. I mentioned to someone who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey that I felt like I was channeling Mrs. Patmore–that consummate professional cook–and they said, “Who?”

So, I’ve been reflecting on simple acts that create order in our lives, such as cooking, and how the act of cooking creates community, stability, and a deep sense of pleasure in life. In reflecting on my obsession with Downton, I think that the meals eaten (by all characters) are a unifying theme. Life can be good, Downton suggests, if we share simple pleasures, made with artistry and pride, and eaten with love and respect. More on this in a longer post.

For now, write about something you do that requires skill, that brings pleasure in the doing, and that you share with others. Be sure to include the sense of taste. Post this as a comment and I’ll add it to this post.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 1, 2013

Being Resolute

After a break of many months, I’ve decided to return to this blog. This isn’t a New Year’s resolution, exactly, but it something I’ve been holding in my mind for some time now, waiting for when it seemed right to start again. Now, with the New Year and with a bit more than a week of Winter Break behind me and a week more to go, it seems like a good time.

My goal is to shift the direction of the blog a bit. Over the last few years, I found myself writing too much about friends who had died, and part of my silence here has been to take a break from that element of the blog. More than that, I am at a point when I’m looking at a major change of life—still a couple of years out, but closing fast—and I needed some time to feel right about writing about that change—retirement from my long years of teaching developmental writing and beginning a new venture, which I hope includes all the elements of this blog: horses, gardens, dance, poetry, the psyche. To write about this, I need to be more willing than in the past to admit to a few facts about myself, including how I feel about reaching a “certain age.”

So, in this time of resolutions, here’s a new start for Mattie’s Pillow: an exploration of how to change one particular life (dragging a few others along in the process) in a way that what lies ahead draws on all the things I love to do and do well. This may include the purchase of land for enterprises involving horses and gardens; it may involve some retooling and reorienting towards a new profession; and it will definitely include musings on simplification of this complicated busy life into a more sustainable one. I look forward to hearing from those of you who read this blog about how you have approached the process of life changes at any age and about helpful hints along the way.

In the meantime, things putter along here at Mattie’s Pillow. Mattie and Sam and I came through the summer happy with weekly lessons with Colleen in her new facility, Drouin Springs. In spite of his trickster nature, I was able to get a full summer’s worth of riding on Sam, no lameness, and he never managed to buck me off—not for want of trying. Mattie has developed more looseness in her stifle joint—the equivalent of our knee joint in her hind leg—which means that her left hind leg twists as she walks. In June, Tom put shoes on her hind feet that extended out from the hoof on the outside to make her balance her stance better and had a jar caulk on the inside—a weapon of a bar welded to the bottom of the shoe to dig into the ground and keep her from sliding her hoof or twisting it on the ground. She seems more stable with the shoes, though she’s always been a barefoot girl and hates the process of nailing them on. By the end of summer, she seemed stronger than ever and far more stable in her gaits.

Now, they’re on break and shaggy and bored. The last few days, the temperatures have risen to near freezing, and I’ve been able to spend time with them, longeing and grooming, and having their feet trimmed. As spring comes and the light returns, I’ll be getting them ready for another summer. Can’t wait!

The days are short now. We have several hours of lingering sunrise and sunset with three hours of sun above the horizon. It sounds so dreary to write this, but it’s actually lovely—the light on the snow reflects in shades of blue. The sky is streaked with orange and purple morning and night. The snow sits in puffs along the branches of the spruce and birch and willows, and redpolls and chickadees flit here and there. A deep peace settles in the woods here on the ridge, and I wouldn’t trade it for a night in Times Square, New Year’s or no.

To all of you who read this, may you go forward into the new year with confidence and hope of joy. We’ve survived an election, some storms, an apocalypse, and that cliff thing. Some sorrow, some joy. We continue on.

Poetry Challenge 77

March 8, 2012

Reading Aloud

On Friday night, I’ll be reading with poet Derick Burleson and fiction writer Geri Brightwell in the UAF Wood Center Ballroom (7pm). That’s the shameless plug.

Now the challenge–listen to what you or others say and notice how compressed and poetic everyday speech really is. Eavesdrop, write it all down. Then go outside somewhere quiet and say the words and phrases you like best to the trees or the street or the sky. What sounds good to the ear? What feels good to say? What sounds do you hear in response?

Now write the poem.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 15, 2012

The Ides of February

Just past Valentine’s Day, and we’re still relishing mild temperatures, sometimes in the thirties. We now have eight hours and some odd minutes of daylight and it’s beginning to feel like spring; n fact, we were warmer than Orlando over the weekend. After the long weeks of below twenty below weather—with a string of days where it hit fifty below in the lower spots in the Interior—we’re all a bit giddy and, groundhog of not, ready for spring.

I just read an entry I wrote last year at this time, though, and the temperatures had dipped to thirty below again. I am forewarned.

It’s a time of year when we are all a bit groundhoggish, sticking our figurative noses up out of our hibernation of spirit to test the air and see if we can really hope for warmer days—even summer—ahead. Last weekend a group of us came out of hibernation to gather at a the Four Winds Foundation for a day of writing and sharing, guided by poet, and my long-time mentor, John Morgan. I don’t usually go to these retreats, but I went because John and my friend Jean Anderson, who writes marvelous stories of the inner life, were going to be there. It was delightful and comforting to be in their presence, to be writing after this season of not much writing, and to be hearing the work of other writers, some of whom I didn’t know. At the first prompt, I wrote three drafts of poems, then continued to write several more, some of which I’ll keep. It was a good start to the weekend which ended with an afternoon of intense corral cleaning, making up for weeks of neglect when it was just too cold at thirty below to grip a rake and shovel.

I’m feeling my energy returning, but it will take a while—sticking with my dance schedule and starting riding lessons again—for my sluggish body to shed the deep lethargy it’s sunk into this winter. As I talk to people around campus, I hear the same story—a sleepy inertia bordering, for some, on depression, set in during the time between Thanksgiving when we had the first bout of deep cold, and, well about a week ago when the cold broke. This may have something to do with the lack of entries here, come to think about it.

Mattie and Sam made it through the cold well, with their thick coats and the warm quilted blankets I’ve collected for them over the years. We went through a bit of hay, but mostly I supplemented their night feeding with brome pellets soaked in warm water to add to their hay intake. They are still on a bit of lay off till my schedule settles down and the light lingers a bit longer in the evening. By next week I should be able to get home and still have enough light to groom and longe them in the afternoon.

Today, as I pulled into the driveway, I heard what sounded like gunshots, but was really someone shooting off rocket fireworks nearby. Sam and Mattie began trotting around their sides of the corral; I could see the colored sparks rise and fall in the air above the corral. Even after the noise stopped, the horses kept trotting, cantering, generally larking around as if the noise were merely a convenient excuse for a bit of play.

We’re all ready for the spark of an excuse; spring is somewhere at the end of another month or two (or three) of winter, but we can feel the first nudgings of it now.

Poetry Challenge 76

January 22, 2012

The long cold drags on.  We were warned.  I read in the paper last summer that we were in a La Nina cycle, which would mean long cold spells and little snow.  Here in the Interior, we’ve missed the 18 feet of snow they’ve had in Cordova on the coast.  What we get is the fine, dry stuff, the moisture freezing out of the air and falling in a thick mist over the backs of horses, fenceposts, car windshields and anything else that’s out there.

But it’s warmed a bit and today I spent a couple of hours raking and shoveling manure out of the corral, stockpiling for the summer’s compost.  And the light lingers longer, too, well past 4pm; after all, we’re a month past solstice, the darkest day of the year.  And I’ve already looked at seed catalogs online–tomatoes so plump and red, the lovely ruffles of mesclun lettuce–and I’m studying plans for swallow boxes to go up on the hill behind the house.  A little fantasy vacation to the summer to come.

It will be cold again this week–40 below at night–and the blankets are airing out, ready to go back on the horses.  We have plenty of chocolate and split birch wood.

So here’s the challenge: write about the days ahead, referring to the details of the day you’re in.  What is in flux?  What red tomato image holds you steady through this post-solstice time.  Use a vegetable in the poem.

————————

Karen from KD’s Bookblog sent this:

Trimming Leeks

Goodness lies
in cutting away
leathery greens,
lopping off rootlets
like idle talk.

What’s left recalls
a roll of white paper.
The leek master
chops it, wilts it
in sizzling butter. Adds
broth, slivered potato, cream.
Purees, seasons, serves
her soup with thick slices
of sourdough.

The empty bowl
cradles the spoon and
a whisper of lost parts.
In the dark kitchen
discarded stems
decay like new bones
in an old casket.

Poetry Challenge 75

January 10, 2012

Deep cold lingers here–our second long bout of it since November.  Coming out of the drowsy holiday season, we’re restless and sluggish, both.  Heading down the dark morning road, fine snow and exhaust swirling behind the cars ahead of us, obscuring the red of tail lights, it feels like we’re tunneling out of a cozy winter den into a rougher outer world.

But then there’s the light, a dusky blue that hangs in the air and lightens gradually as the earth rotates toward the sun.  We’re tilted away from it here in the sub-arctic, as if shy of it and the intensity it brings us at other times of the year.  But we long for it and turn daily toward the spot it dipped below yesterday, hoping that it will linger longer above the Alaska Range, and that we will be alert enough to be outside to see it when it does.  It always stays a bit longer now–three more minutes–and soon we’ll have an hour more of light than we did at solstice.

But we don’t feel it yet, half hibernating in our layers of clothes, still sleepy from the dark.  So write about what hibernates within or what you hibernate within.  What draws you out of your winter cocoon?

Post your poem in the comments here and I’ll add it to this post.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 6, 2012

The New Year

I had great plans for the winter break.

After the mad scramble to pull Christmas together—cutting the spruce tree from beside the horse trailer, baking three types of pie and marinating and roasting a fresh ham, decorating the tree, and wrapping then opening presents—we had a delightful dinner and sat around playing Apples to Apples till midnight Christmas night.

My plan was to spend the daylight part of each day, between 11:30 and 3, working with the horses, a reminder to them and to me that we had a partnership, that they weren’t just going feral for the rest of the winter.  But, instead, a mass of cold air descended on the Interior and we hunkered down under 30 to 40 below temperatures, stoking the woodstove, eating leftover pie, watching movies, and sleeping a lot.  Out in the corral, Mattie and Sam hung out in their run-in shed, snug in their heavyweight blankets and fresh shavings.  We brought them extra hay during the day, and I added brome pellets soaked in warm water to their usual dinner of soaked beet pellets and supplements.

My great plans melted into a dozy, slow time, interrupted by visits with friends and the occasional fiddling with cars to be sure they kept running.  When we ventured to town, everything seemed quiet except the coffee shop, filled with the people who hadn’t left town for the holidays, all a bit overheated from their layers of clothes, and talking rapidly from the caffeine.   Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, we went to the University fireworks display and stood in the 35 below air, watching the sparks boom and spray above our heads.  In the deep cold, the sound is magnified by the density of the air and the loud rocket bursts tingled our cheeks—all that was exposed—and vibrated the snow beneath us.  We stood, but some well-bundled folks lay back against a snow berm and watched the fireworks blossom in the dark sky above them.  Later, standing around a bonfire, we set off fire balloons or fire lanterns, and I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Armadillo,” which has the lines:

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars –
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars…

Something in this dark, cold time keeps turning my mind back to old familiar poems.  Later, when a fine light snow fell through the cold, drifting onto the horses’ blankets, and catching the porch light, speckling the night, I thought of Frost’s “Desert Places,” which starts with the lines “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast, ” and ends with

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars–on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

 I’m not usually one who makes a list of New Year resolutions.  As usual, I’ll make an effort to get back to my dance classes and winter indoor riding—what passes for an exercise routine—to work off the after effects of two weeks of pie eating.  And, in the weeks to come, as the afternoon lengthens and we have the promise of above zero temperatures, I’ll make the usual plans to get Mattie and Sam fit for summer riding.  The first day of class for the semester is still two weeks away, but I’ve taken on a new responsibility in my department—my resolution there is not to let it overpower the things I love about my life—and to do what I can to solve problems along the way.  And, for the most part, to keep that part of my life out of these posts—which are, after all, about the things that sustain me—horses, poetry, dance, gardening, and the things of the psyche.

Today it warmed up a bit.  It was only 10 below when I fed the horses tonight and we all—me, the horses, the poodle—felt a bit lighter-spirited because of it.  The forecast is for 40 below by the weekend, so I’m keeping the horses’ blankets on for now, keeping the fire going in the stove, getting a little more hunkering down done.   We’ve turned the year.

Nutcracker Season

December 3, 2011

There are three more chances to see the North Star Ballet’s Nutcracker this weekend.  Today at 2 and 8 and tomorrow (Sunday) at 2 in Hering Auditorium.

 

I have been watching the dancers of North Star Ballet for twenty-five years, since the afternoon my son, then seven, insisted that he go to the audition, and Norman, then and still artistic director, looked at him and said, “Well, you’re kind of small but we can find a place for you,” and assigned him the role of boy cherub, trailing behind the Sugar Plum Fairy as she made her entrance onstage.

 

I’ll be going tonight and tomorrow afternoon, watching another set of girls swoop through the beautiful snow scene or dance crisply through the Marzipan.  Nutcracker season is when those who follow our ballet can see the developing potential in the North Star dancers.  A girl who was a gawky soldier one year becomes a graceful snowflake the next.  The girls in Marzipan sparkle their way to Snow Fairy or Dew Drop.  And always, there’s the dazzling Sugar Plum, the one whose dance characterizes the ballet and forms an apotheosis in her pas de deux with her Cavalier.

 

We’ve been having Nutcracker weather, too, the past few days—a warming trend bringing fat flakes of snow falling like pillow down through the dark light.  We’re heading to the darkest days: sunrise at 10:19 and sunset at 3:01 yesterday, the morning and afternoon a long twilight, tinged with pinks and oranges, and a slaty light in the evening sky.   We’re eating more chocolate and oranges now, and driving at slower speeds.  If it weren’t for the toad, work, as Phillip Larkin once said, we’d all be sleeping most of the time, or sitting in a comfy chair curled around warm coffee or tea.

 

Except for small community that forms around the ballet every fall—a hundred parents and volunteers bustling backstage painting on Mouse and Soldier makeup, tying Cherub pinafores and Party Boy ties.  The older dancers are lining up on stage for warmup as I write this, stretching on the barre, getting ready for plies and tendus, stripping away sweats and leg warmers as their muscles begin to loosen under the stage lights.  There will be notes after warmup, then they will bustle off to the crowded dressing room to be ready to be Party Parents, or Snowflakes in the first act.

 

I never get enough of it.  Sitting in the dark auditorium with my neighbors and friends and all the four-year-olds with tiaras on their heads and dazzled eyes and all that luscious music filling the space around us, I can feel the year turn and a sweet nostalgia for each minute that passes. The dancers are so beautiful on stage, so mature in the gesture and posture of the dance; the moments are so fleeting, like Clara’s childhood entering the Land of Sweets.  I don’t even try to fight the tears that always come.

 

After this weekend, I’ll be ready for the season, the deep dark, the warmth that endures through friendships and holiday meals shared, the slowly returning light, just a few weeks away.

 

 


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