In the Museum of Memory

Frogs skim the surface of the green pool in our São Paulo backyard. A different beggar knocks every morning on the heavy wooden door. Brown beans and rice simmer in a cast iron pot. A low dance of voices wind up the staircase. Socks slip and itch. A shoot of sun reaches through the sway of curtain. I sit on the floor and watch dust motes travel the bloom of light. An orange cat sits under the shade of a small white car.

Wool socks and boots and jackets with zippered pockets. Walks to the bus stop while snow falls like cherry blossom petals after a rain. The crunch and slick of a Pennsylvania winter underfoot. The cold finds its way between the fingers of my glove. Children sled past our house. Backyard runs into backyard, white hill becomes whiter sky. In the distance a black dog lifts its wet nose into the cold air. The neighborhood trees are trimmed in lace sharp ice.

Canyons give way to winding roads, houses perch like birds and then there is a sudden plunge of white cap and riptide. Miles of California sand. Wildfires in October, tumbleweeds and stucco on the ceilings. Suntan lotion and black plastic sunglasses. Sandy peanut butter sandwiches. Cut grass, fresh paint, sourdough toasting in an oven. Silverfish dart into unreachable corners. I fall asleep to coyotes singing a cold embrace of night.

On the corner there is a store filled with buttons of every color, shape and size. A mile away, dried fish sold from bins on the street. Pickles in barrels. A man plays drums made out of five gallon plastic buckets in front of my New York apartment. A percussion of heat comes up the pipes. Books and more books from floor to ceiling. Body sways with other bodies as the subway carries us through the dark underground tunnels. In the park a woman reaches up to meet a kiss. I look out the window of a high-rise and see the city return as though through the eye-hole of a kaleidoscope.

One hundred shades of green. Spindly trees, lush trees, white flowering and pink flowering trees. Grinding coffee beans. An insistence of rain. Dark puddles on asphalt pattered, mud softened, wet dog, yellow slicker rain. Children pour warm bubbly bath water over each other’s heads. A cat drinks from a glass filled with water on the kitchen table. I cut the figures of memory from the finest sheet of paper and pin them on the wall as the neighbor starts up his old blue truck.

Traveling always challenges my idea of home. Where is home? Am I in the right place?  Please share what home means to you.

Love Stories

Beyond the white closet door, hidden behind a green silk robe and covered with boxes of sandals and high heels is an old moving box. It has moved alongside other boxes to Philadelphia, Brazil, California, Florida and finally to Oregon.

The top flaps of the box are drawn together carefully, as one would tuck a hand within the fold of a lover’s familiar hand.

“Letters” is written in curving script along the side of the box in black ink. The handwriting is my mother’s. I have never seen this box before. Sitting on the closet floor on top of a pile of nightgowns sorted for donation, I pull the top flaps apart.

The aged papers and cards in the box have the early smell that correspondence gets when it has long rested back to back, secret to secret. Similar as lovers who have shared a bed for many years, crest of hip to hip, a hand on a curve of waist, breath matching breath.

What I find is a roadmap, in cards and letters, of my parents’ relationship as written by my father. Here is the first birthday card, the first Valentine’s card, the impossibly small card lined by a spray of flowers once tucked between the stems of a bunch of carnations.

It is easy to picture that young man looking through a stack of cards in a Philadelphia drugstore, deciding which one would make his girlfriend laugh. Easy to picture him sitting on a train, looking out the window and conjuring just the right words to write.

With each of the forty-eight years of my father’s handwritten notes to my mother his words grow more tender, funnier, always more passionate. It seems as if he always wanted her to be sure and surer of his affection.

Under the hundred or so cards is another stack of papers.

These are emails sent from me to my mom during the first year of my cross-country move to New York. All of the smallest details of my own love story with Manhattan are spread out before me.

It is a gift my mother has saved for me. It is a reminder to live with love and curiosity. To keep affection and appreciation alive.

Shortly before my mother passed, she sent me home with a note for the big kids. Her handwriting and spelling is changed but her spirit is clear, true, lasting.

I tuck the flaps of the box and stack the shoeboxes back on top. But my mother’s love letter goes up on the fridge held by magnets to help us remember to love each other a little more every day.

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Thoughts On Forming A Writer’s Group

Linking up with fabulous writing community: Yeah Write Me.

Yesterday I jumped into the car after writer’s group and looked in the rearview mirror. My cheeks were flushed. My eyes had a slightly maniacal gleam. I was under the influence of a creative high.

My friend and fellow poet Shawna had written a gorgeous poem that I couldn’t get out of my head. It was so elegant, evocative, fully realized. It seemed as though the moment her fingers struck the keys magic happened.

Sometimes writing happens in a green flash. But more often than not, writing needs the eyes of other writers, it takes revision, tweaking, voodoo, rain dances, sweat and tears to produce something really great.

I run a poetry reading series at a wonderful independent bookstore in Portland called Annie Bloom’s Books. Many of the people who attend the readings are writers and I’ve heard several ask the readers: How do you get into a writer’s group?

When I first moved to Portland I was on the hunt for a writer’s group, and after a while I realized that sometimes you just need to start one for yourself. I started taking local workshops at places like The Attic Institute, Crow Arts Manor, Mountain Writers Series and The Writer’s Dojo.

I started looking for literary happenings around Portland. Keep an eye out for excellent local writing resources such as Write in Portland (created by accomplished writer and teacher Liz Prato). Literary calendars are a great place to scope out readings, workshops and writer’s events.

Workshops are the perfect place to meet other writers and make lasting connections. During one particular workshop led by gifted writer Dave JareckiI noticed that there were three other writers in the group who had very insightful comments.These writers challenged my work in an intelligent, supportive way. My gut told me that we would work well as a group. I swallowed my fear and sent out an email. A writer’s group was born.

If you don’t take workshops, another place to network with writers is at readings. If you go to a few readings of work in your genre you are bound to start seeing familiar faces. You can also go the route of posting an interest sheet at your local library or bookstore, or an ad on Craigslist or your local university. Be sure to screen people with care.

It’s important to keep in mind the purpose of your writing group. Do you want it to be a time to write together? Do you want writers to bring work to the group to discuss together? How will it be organized? Will you lead the group or will writers take turns leading? What are the expectations of the group’s participants?

If you want some tips on Non-Crappy Writing groups and writing a novel, I urge you to visit Yuvi Zalkow’s blog. He’s a great writer, hilarious & in the final (agonal?) stages of having his first book published.

Writers, how did your writing partnerships form? Please share your experiences and ideas.

Poem in Switchback

I’m very happy to have a poem in the issue 15, volume 8 edition of Switchback, a publication of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program of the University of San Francisco. 

This poem was written in Matthew Dickman’s poetry workshop at The Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon. The main focus of this particular workshop was The Ode. This assignment was to write an ode about a childhood place that was significant to the poet. I chose to write about being a child in a Southern California neighborhood, and more specifically about the life of/lives contained in the backyard.

The poem can be read here.

Strike the Steel Strings

Another day is passing.

I drive along, singing to the kids in the car, watching an old man in a brown checkered vest make his way across the street.

It is not a special day, but somehow someone has pressed a key on the piano and caused the felt covered hammer to strike the steel strings.

The hammers have rebound, strings vibrating, enabling energy to become voice.

And so I speak. The words show up, miraculously.

The words show up like immigrants on my doorstep. I open the door, though I find I’m in a stranger’s house. Somehow we must be related. We must get acquainted. 

It is another day in the list of all the days I will ever have.

The blue office of sky outside the window is busy with leaves nodding up and down on a hint of wind, a garbage truck extending its arm and scooping bottles up and away. 

I eat cake, kiss my husband’s lips, there are silver ribbons around small, wrapped gestures of kindness.

There is fighting and silence, laughter and talk, dictionaries and guitars. I mix in the olive oil, touch a warm forehead with the back of my hand, stand on the porch in the dark renaming stars.

I say goodbye today as I do every day.

I wake and say goodbye, pour the coffee, set down the cup, say goodbye. Dried mud crunches under my boots. I push the swing, answer the phone, point out the ducks in the smallest pond. The crashing cymbals, the terrible percussion of goodbye.

Hello is a diaphanous bubble I balance on the tip of my index finger.

There will come the next day. And the next. The days insist on coming.

They are days in the list of all the days I will ever have.

Goodbye, goodbye, hello, hello, hello, my love.

The Turtle or How I Fell In Love With New York City

This afternoon I was laying in bed nursing Theo when I had one of those Talking Heads “how did I get here? my god, what have I done?” moments. That loop of song somehow led me to think about my love affair with New York City. This particular affair was a case of fast and furious infatuation. One moment I was working in Los Angeles as an assistant media buyer, fresh out of college, and the next I was on an airplane to JFK. Or at least it felt that speedy. If I rewind a bit, to just three weeks before that plane ride, I’d find myself arriving super early to work at the ad agency on a Friday morning. Lo and behold, there was one of my favorite colleagues furtively faxing resumes. “Around town?” I asked. No, she was faxing resumes across the country. Faxing resumes to New York, to be exact. Ding, ding, ding! Something within me sparked. A small fire began to burn. (Cue Rod Roddy: Jennifer Liberts, come on down! You’re the next contestant on Change Your Life!“) My brain started going a mile a minute. Like some oddly costumed contestant I was suddenly running down the game show ramp, resume in hand, ready to lay it all on the line for a chance to spin the big wheel.

I went home that evening and told my parents I would be moving to New York City. Soon. And I already had a roommate! (My mother was eerily calm.) The next day, in the early morning hours at the ad agency, I started sneakily faxing off my resume to New York. It didn’t take long before I started hearing back from employers and booking interviews. Back then everyone wanted to hire a kid fresh out of college who didn’t care how much money she made as long as it landed her right in front of the big wheel of New York City. I booked my flight. It was on. I had never before been so resolute about anything in my life. By God, I was moving.

I flew to New York by myself, sublet an apartment for a week, ate greasy food from a little Bodega, cried a little on the phone to my mom (“how did I get here? my god, what have I done?”)(she was eerily calm), and landed a job as an editorial assistant to Sean Frawley (you must say his name with a brogue) the president and publisher of Howell Book House, which was part of Macmillan Publishing and Simon & Schuster.

On my first day of work I took the subway, and as I made my way up Broadway, some guy grabbed my umbrella from out of my backpack. I think he was probably aiming for the backpack but accidentally grabbed the umbrella. Well, the umbrella got caught in the backpack. Being young, and stupid, I held onto the backpack for dear life and started yelling obscenities at the guy. After much pulling and tugging the umbrella came loose, he got it and promptly wacked me on the head with it and ran in the other direction. All for an umbrella. It wasn’t even raining. I walked into my new cubicle stunned and a bit shaken. Before I could even put said backpack down, Mr. Frawley bellowed from his office, “GIRL!” (I looked left. Looked right. Was his granddaughter visiting?) “GIRL! Get me a coffee, light and sweet. And a bagel, toasted with butter.” And down the elevator I went again, into the newly mean streets of New York City. This would be the daily ritual, but after a few days I learned to just pick up his snack on the way to work. Many mornings he would say, “Shut the door. We have business to attend to,” and then pull out a copy of the Irish Times. He would then quiz me on Irish history for twenty minutes.

Sean Frawley truly had a twinkle in his eye. Not only was he brilliant, he was kind (if not a bit stuck in traditional 40′s ways of thinking about women), funny, quick to laugh (the kind of laugh that made the office walls shake), and very invested in the success of his editorial assistants. After a few weeks he called me into his office. “THE TURTLE,” he said, with a grave tone. “What do you know about the turtle?” I think I launched into a story about how when I was a kid my family had rescued a turtle from a two lane highway in Pennsylvania and named it Langhorne. Before I could finish he handed me a manuscript: “The Turtle: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pet.” I pretty much floated back to my little cubicle. My very first manuscript. To edit. By myself. I could develop a relationship with an author! I could work with photographers. Turtles! Weren’t they all the rage? I recall a couple of weeks of passing the manuscript back and forth to Mr. Frawley before he proclaimed, “Mizzzzz Libertzzzzz, you aren’t half bad.” Elation! Joy! Turtles! I was on my way to being an editor! Months passed and turtles led way to hedgehogs, then hedgehogs led way to lizards, rabbits, pugs, birds, and even hamsters!

All the while I was exploring New York City, making new friends, eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s and smoking cigarettes with my roommate. Every street seemed to have something more fascinating than the next to behold. Every apartment was lit up at night with the lives of strangers. Interesting strangers! Weird strangers with their own stories unfolding. There were bus rides, subways, the fish gut streets of Chinatown, the always-having-a-festival streets of Little Italy (where my roommate and I first lived), lions in front of the New York Public Library. And on and on and on. All thanks to a fax, a friend, a chance, and a touch of bravery. And so began my love story with New York City, one that continues to this day. Now if I could just convince my sweet husband to move back…