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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dead Young

I am struggling right now with the death of my nephew. He was my first nephew; born when I was 10 years old. I was the youngest in my family, so when he was born it was my first chance to have a baby to love.  Derek grew up some; he was 31.

I feel the distance between my family and myself more sharply than usual. I am so glad they are together right now, but I miss them. I miss Derek. Selfishly, and without reason - I miss him.

I don't have any art about this yet. There are no words.  Derek was a bright spark... He was complicated- and beautiful.

Derek and I when we were younger...

Two years ago our neighbor died. My husband has a knack for befriending. He and Bill became close over the last year or two Bill was alive. Bill, like all of us, was lovable but not easy to love.

My Neighbor

He liked to flirt with me…
I’d rather give this cabinet to you than sell
Bill, with Joe and Georgia before our trip
it to a bunch of Mexicans. he’d say, My neighbor, he’s  a faggot,
but a helluva nice guy. Good

Bill had both hands gripped tight
to the wheel of the ‘89 Corvette
that he waxed two weeks
before. Thin, caved in chest –
out there in shorts, arms
moving in circles – making
her shine.

Sitting in his camp chair-
watching birds eat crumbs, sores
seeping – eyes and nose running. Slowly
smoking that Winston – bitter ash. Ruminating,
family won’t return his calls. Brother
won’t start his Corvette. He worries
about the battery.

His mom, Georgia, keeps him with her. She buys
him his favorite foods
He scared her when he was young.
Smoked pot and drank. Sold drugs –
one time she found a big black garbage bag
full of weed and –good Texas mama that she is-
threw it out. When he got home he came at her
like he was going to hit her
before running out the door. He didn’t
come back - except for his first wedding-
until Diabetes lost him his job
at the casino.

When Georgia shows me the picture
of the wedding she wonders why he kept
the framed photo of him looking 70’s
handsome with Georgia’s second husband
who he hated standing a little too close
behind him like he was holding a knife to his back.

Now he is kept…. by her. Out of love – but he
is 46- and living at home.

How should we mourn
this man. He walked
without a cane on brittle
legs falling over and again
he couldn’t allow the help he needed,
until gracefully and
without warning he would accept Joe’s arm
as he walked up the steep driveway.

Joe and I sitting next to him in his garage
watching the slow drift
as he falls asleep sitting up with the cigarette
and coffee still in his hand. At the last possible moment
Joe reaches out and touches his chest to keep him
from falling over. you’re so good to me Bill said smiling-

Joe visits him nearly every day,
on good days they talk cars, bikes, music. Joe
knows that Bill needs to be what he always
has been,
A man- a cussing spitting fast-car driving
hard-drinking man with time
to get soft and misty eyed

One morning, Bill is crying
and listening to the songs on the Sunday morning

Amazing Grace and a country
number about walking through a graveyard.
His crackling high
voice joining in, whispering then dropping away to nothing
while tears ran down his face
like he was a mourner
at his own Memorial. The one he forbids
us to have.

Now Joe and I sit vigil, in our garage
two doors down from Georgia’s. In folding
camp chairs, smoking cigarettes and trying
to dislodge our resentments, the ones
we haven’t managed to work into pearls yet.
Not wanting to end like Bill but also
wanting to snatch back for him what he couldn't get.

Two months later, Bill’s brother Bud rings
our doorbell. He has a gift bag in his hands. He says
It is from Bill. He bought it for you guys back when he
was watching your cats. Wow, I said
stupidly, It’s not every day you get presents from the dead.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Relationship with a Capital R

The ironic thing about the Relationship (with a capital R) is that it is the place where you are most likely to run up against your own limitations. No fair! Our culture sells romantic love as a kind of panacea for the aloneness that is inherent to the human condition. Maybe it is partially that, but its essential nature less straightforward.

It is in relationship that we see the exact ways that we are alone. This first poem is about the disillusionment that happens when you realize love - as you have known it so far - might not be enough.

Your Heart

When you give your
You pretend it beats
vibrant and full of blood- You say
take this, it will be a worthy companion
to you. Then little by little the hollowness
and the cracks are exposed
The way the thing skips a beat.
You patch it up Move along, nothing
to see here.
Then one day
broken crumpled moth wings
daub - stick, mud tape
The crowds gather stand around and gawk at the thing
wondering if it will ever fulfill its former promise.

Sometimes you wish for something less - no matter how flawed it might be. You want to know that you are separate, even from those you love. 

In My Daylight

In the thick dark
of the front seat
of his dented Volvo
parked on a dry
nighttime riverbed
wrapped in Leonard Cohen’s voice

beside a man
I’ll never know
well. Talking
the kids
from the Elwha tribe
used to pull pranks
on that bridge. They would
make dummies that looked
real and  throw them
into the middle
of the narrow bridge
under front wheels, screeching
to a halt and almost
through that guardrail

one time.
I will never read
him in the dark. It will
be over after
our first fight. In the dark
of the places he grew
up, I am not required,
to fill any holes.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I have a relationship with the moon...


Lying in the back seat of the car. Watching the moon stand still while the rest of the scenery rushed by.

Other Night Lights

My dad (who always carried me in
 from the car even if I was fake-sleeping)
 and me on a road trip to Cali.

Driving highways late
at night sitting low in the back
seat. The slow arc of a spot-
light in the sky. Searching
for something really important – 
alien life or missing children. I didn't realize for
years that it might be prosaic. A huge
sale at a used car lot or the opening
of a new supermarket. Really, it was about
the beam slicing like a light saber
in slo mo. Me low in the back
seat, imagining infinity.


It is a hippie infestation...
When I was a teenager my friends and I held Full Moon Festivals. As a result the moon became our communion, our gathering point. We were a family; we frolicked, we watched the moon rise and set. Often we would still be there at dawn. I lived at the edge of the Puget Sound. The connection between the moon and the tides is science at its most magical.  Our low-lying driveway would flood with the highest of the tides. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent - happy, angry, thoughtful - at the beach.


I am going to the water
don’t follow me.

Lifting the hatch and riding
the current, you might see the other
side of madness – fishes and loaves
and crystalline shards of goblets ground
between our teeth melting
to slink between my toes. Where
they came from.

I am going to the water don’t
follow me.

In the foam my toes feel the earth
move beneath me standing at
the center of stillness. All of the turns
I have ever taken are putty
in foreign hands. Tiny sillicates drift
glistening from side to side, looking
for home. But not homing. What you
think I might be I have never been.

Through every ripple I will
hold you. I am going
to the water
do not follow me.


My relationship with the moon has become complicated, as is true for most things in adult life. Now that I live in a city I sometimes go months without noticing the moon. When we lived in New Mexico the moon was very present. The moon is both the upsurge of passion and the constancy of the tides. In this month of the blue moon - I want to call forth the passion.


Stand with me in this tilting lot
wet black cement of the just rained.
The sky is orange to the east and
deep purple to the west. Look up
at the trees and wires filled
with mewling Grackles. Barbed
wire against the darkening sky. The air
chill and damp; I wrap

The way the dark birds move together
squid ink sprayed across
the water. And the sound – Alien
earthy whispered screams.

We won’t go inside for ice cream. We
shouldn’t be placated by creamy sweetness. Stand here
with me. Rub the rosemary between your fingers. Look
back over your shoulder. It is just enough to be dangerous.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beauty of Women

Dedicated to my girlfriends.

Beauty and Advertising

The expectations we hold about how women should look and how much time, energy, and money it takes to get there are utterly ridiculous. This was true in our society prior to the practice of photoshopping models. Hell, make-up is very similar to Photoshop! Corsets and spanks perform the same function. Please, don't get me wrong, I support a woman's right to pluck, stuff and paint anything that she wants, but advertising is pervasive and insidious. Hats off to the Julia Bluhm for trying to get the editors of Seventeen to stop altering young women's bodies on their pages.

Article about Julia Bluhm

The following is a poem that I wrote that is in response to some of the craziness I see in the young women I know and what I remember from my own adolescence. I am afraid we are letting people who want us to buy things tell us what sexy is, and if you add to that the very human desire for love and attention it can be a toxic mix.

Rebellion is one way to fight society's expectations

It Needs a Fucking...

Feeling a little bit
little girl lost. I want
to be dream girl princess be-
love-ed. Take me under your wing and tell
me everything is going
to be ok – like ice cubes
plucked from a stainless
steel bucket clinking – chinking
their virgin squares-  into tumblers ready
to accept booze – long legs
up the side
of the glass.

Hoping the tiara will fit

a girl today
kissed on the side of her head in the
hall way.
Photo by Tom Van de Ven
-by a boy who she said
maybe, you know…

tell her, she could get in trouble. Plucked
pubic hairs – conversely get rid
of that plucked chicken look. What describes
when something is
the opposite of what
it should be? For most women

natural beauty is anything but. Hours

spent with glistening images, and the
sign on the door says Don’t clean
the stainless mirrors in the men’s
or women’s restroom. Steam expands
to fill available space.

Getting Older

I have always celebrated milestone birthdays with a flourish; taken pride in being a woman who welcomes age and wisdom. Forty was difficult though. Somehow, overnight, the quality of my skin changed, my hair thinned and I realized that no matter how much I denied my societies expectations of female beauty they were all within me - time bombs waiting to be set off by the big 4-0. Trite but true. How do you hold on to feeling lovely from the inside out in a world that tells you that all that matters is your outside?

Like Those Women

The wind is warm                                                                                          
here, but even on lake-days
where I am from
you shiver inside your towel, the snakes
soft and green, surprising your bare
toes in the grass.

Women here go for long walks in the hot
air, growing brown and lean. Where I am
from the women are plump and pink
spending days cozy with books. Snakes here
are sandy brown and rattle
like seed pods. I am easier alone here.

The summer the rains flash
suddenly, drenching one hill
and leaving another chalky with dust. Where           
I am from it mists on firs and stony
beaches and swamps for ten months.
the days are short

the sun never shows. Here
there are days the sun never leaves completely,
long hot nights I wear cut-offs
and tank tops watch the lightning
flash on dark hills. Bare my feet on warm rocks in the dark to feel the sun.
Desert Sunset 

Here the plants flower
when they can, leaf when possible. In a dry year
the ocotillo flower early - then wait
months – for the rain
to leaf, verdant
alien pipe-cleaners arc from the ground.

Where I am from green
round the edge of every square of pavement
slinks from dank basements –
junk cars in fields.

I walk dry hills and like those women
I am growing lean and brown

Friday, July 6, 2012

Love and Choice

I met my husband, Joe, years before we started dating; we ran in the same circles. I remember the exact moment when I started falling for him. I worked at The Country Aire, a natural grocery in Port Angeles, Washington. Joe had just returned from a trip to Thailand and at one glance I could see and feel the electricity he brought back with him from that trip. My feelings for him were further confirmed by the twinge I got when a mutual friend talked of setting him up with someone else. The poem below is our wedding poem and tells the story of that 'first meeting'. Perhaps more importantly it tells the story of us choosing one another.

Joseph Elvis Vastano of the Intrepid Heart

When you leaned in
toward me, across the counter
and told me
you were glad
to see
me and I knew
as you walked away, the tips of your curls red-sunshine-gold
that you were.

That we keep choosing
to face one another’s walls-
instead of walking out
onto the open plains of life lived alone.

When I turn around and you are still there, and again, and again- still there.

It is not easy,
it is not clean,
it is gloriously messy.
Like Saguaro. Like rocks on the hillside. Like flood waters in the desert

I imagine
adventures before us- sorrows and joy.
Trips across continents and waters. Worlds from
the inside-out.
Really though- it is all imagined.

We cannot know what faces us.

As I face the unknown it is you I want at my side, Joseph
of the Intrepid Heart.


Of all of the things I think I know about marriage, it is choice that impresses me the most. While we don't choose to fall in love, or when and certainly not with whom - we do choose to keep love, to do the things that sustain it, and we keep expecting to fall into love yet again.

Many of my favorite couples (you know who you are!) are people you wouldn't think would work well together. It is my guess that from the outside Joe and I were an odd match.  This man I keep choosing to spend my life with is as willful as I am. The poem that follows is a rant, a declaration. We choose to use our powers for good.

We will not be torn apart by Wrath or Zest or Zeal.


We will not be torn apart
by passion, rather we will be joined
by it. Your water to my fire
we make steam – and power the gears
and pistons of our own valiant
new world. Our machines will fly
like eagles no matter how improbable
they seem. Your fish and my lion
will splash in the sunlight. We will accelerate
into hairpin turns. Your stories will dance the tarantella
around my poems then lean in close
for whispered truths.

We will not be torn apart by resentments,
rather we will hike up our trousers and wade
in and part the waters of them. In their wake
we will discover sand dollars, snail
houses and moon stones. We may not hike
to the top of the ridge hand in hand, but surely
we will stand there together. Look out at high-
country lakes, the ocotillo, the golden eagle hefting
from the boulder, the tiny glittering cities.

We will not be torn apart by passions, rather
we will uncover them. You bring the dynamite
and the blasting caps. I will bring the earplugs
and a nice picnic lunch. After the sediment
settles we’ll eat bread and cheese and sort
our treasure.
Joe in the tent by a lake in Arizona, with our trusty steed standing by.

Our Future

While we cannot know our futures -to paraphrase a poet I know- but it is fun to hatch schemes. In an earlier post I talked about my sadness that our son is growing up and moving on. That sadness is truly counter-balanced by the places Joe and I will go and the treasures we will sort.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Personal Teaching

This is a video I use to introduce myself to students at the beginning of the year. 

"I am From" 

I never thought that I would be a teacher. I wanted to be an actress, on a stage in New York - trying on other people's lives. Or I thought that I might be a psychologist - another empathetic profession. Or, for a while, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was the lawyer of my family, arguing every point, angling for a lighter sentence for the accused. I thought for a while I wanted to be president, however my dad kindly informed me (when I was a mere pup of 14 or so) that I had already done things that might preclude a run for president. Thanks, Dad.

I ended up as a teacher largely by accident, and like most of us I hated middle school. Now for nine months of every year I go to middle school five days a week. Crazy. Unexpected. I struggle with the ways that being a middle school teacher shapes me, maybe even changes me. Sometimes I feel like it makes me someone who isn't a lot of fun. Someone who is constantly saying things like, "Pull-up-your-pants. Nobody wants to see that." and, "What should you be doing right now?" I also am a confiscator of "I <3 Booby" bracelets. Wow! How did I get here?

I know teachers who find ways to integrate themselves and their teaching more fully than I seem to be able to. My husband, Joe, teaches college composition and does great job of bringing himself into the classroom. It allows his students the license to do the same, and to be as engaged as he is in the world of the heart and ideas. The Joe I know and the one that teaches those kids are the same person, excited and exciting - no holds barred. My brother-in-law Scott teaches high school. He and I had an engrossing conversation last summer during a car ride from Seattle to Salem (Scott - Please forgive me if I get some of the details wrong). He teaches at a school that is project based. I had asked him how he prepares for the upcoming year. He described his immersion in the culture of India for the upcoming year's theme. He checked out every book he could find and took out the desks so that students could sit on the floor on cushions. Class started every day with a quiet meditation time. The thing that struck me is that Scott's learning is integral to his teaching. His process makes him more Scott, not less.

It is summer now and I am reveling in the time I have. I read, I write, I am cooking gorgeous food. I have plenty of time for swimming with my friends, taking care of my physical person... Hell, I have plenty of time to sleep and no alarm clock! I know for those of you who don't have an academic schedule this sounds like an embarrassment of riches... It is and maybe I should just take my lumps; be less me for part of the year and then wallow in my freedom for a few months every summer. Somehow, I think that I am cheating myself and my students if I am content with half measures.

One career I did want when I was a child was to make a school; one that fosters students' innate curiosity and helps them grow to their best selves.  

Secret Spaces 2 Ordrup
School in Denmark with 'private spaces' for children
I went to a conference last week and one of the presentations gave me a bit of school envy. It was about the design of places of learning. My experience working in public schools in the U.S. reveals that it is difficult to change the paint color; imagine what superintendents would say to a hallway like the one below or to private spaces similar to the cubbies above. Our answer to school reform is testing and 'accountability'. Sigh... There  is a lot more that we could and should be doing to re-form our schools.
Big net play structure
Yuyu-no-mori Nursery School in Japan uses a giant net for their  3rd floor hallway
What would the school look like that would allow teachers and students to be their authentic selves? What can I do to make my classroom that place for me and my students?

...and a poem to close. Students who have disabilities struggle valiantly to fit into the mold of industrialized education. 

Dominic’s hair

looks sweaty. When I see him
in the hall He says Feel my head. We do not
touch students, his hair looks greasy
and damp, like the man in the rubber room
his eyes are mad and shift. I don’t want to
touch him
but I do. His hair is soft,
downy, dry. Carefully, my fingers
touch – There is a small bump, an egg.

Dominic was breaking pencils
on his head,
in Seventh Grade Life Science. Nobody
noticed, except his friends – who
thought it was funny.

in the morning before
school, three weeks ago
– the superglue
Dominic brought to affix the head of his bacteriophage
proved too enticing – again to his friends. They glued
together their thumbs and forefingers. In the end
Joel got it in the eye. I told the principal

Dominic has Tourette’s. He is a good kid.
He is just like the rest of the boys,

skittering toward lunch detention,
jail or an early grave.

Today I took Dominic
to meet the tech teacher. On his way out
Nice to meet you. He said,
shaking her hand.
Odd, from the mouth of a thirteen-
year-old. Stilted, formal. Just
like the rest of us.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mothering my Boy

Parenting is not static. It is a trip you are taken on. From the moment I brought my boy home I knew I was in over my head, but I have never before or since been so happy to be out of my depth.

This first poem was written when my son was growing out of the toddler years. It was my attempt to claim our trials as triumph. It is also a rallying cry for parents, an ode to the important work we do.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What am I doing?

I write poems, arguably the most esoteric form of the written word (though code might have poetry beat). Writing is communication. When you write in your journal you are communicating with your own soul - or whatever you call it. As soon as you leave that format writing is meant to communicate to the souls of others.

My fingers are crossed, I hope that this place will help me communicate.

I am a teacher. I teach middle school. I like middle school kids. They are funny and interested in the world. They also have poor impulse control. It makes for interesting days... I am a mother, I have learned and grown more from raising one child than I have from any other undertaking.

In every beginning there is a hope. I hope...