Spacers


On May 10, I trekked downtown to the Rayburn Building  to witness Allergy & Asthma Day Capitol Hill 2012, sponsored by AANMA (Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics). It was inspiring to see a room crowded to overflowing with doctors, concerned parents, and congressional staff, all talking through the FDA's proposed changes to how allergy medications are prescribed. To summarize the dilemma at hand: kiosk consultations and over-the-counter distribution of such medications as EpiPens would ease access for some, but could undermine the critical infrastructure of diagnosis and advice tailored to the patient.




I met Charles G. Thiel, who invented the metered dose inhaler in 1956, and the four amazing girls in the photo above. They were the under-18 finalists for this year's "Ultimate Inhaler Contest," in which the AANMA invited inhaler designs that were more attractive, efficient, and fun. My favorite was the "Unisaur," an "Inhaler/Holding Chamber Combo" designed by twelve-year-old Rachael Blaine, of Manchester, PA. (She says unisaur; I say narwhal.) Holding chambers, also caused spacers, were introduced to inhaler usage in the early '90s. Until then kids like me tended to jam the inhaler tightly in our mouths, depressing the spray in a way that coated the back of the throat rather than dispersing and reaching the airway it was designed to help. What can I say? That silver taste was comforting, especially when in the grip of an asthma attack. With a spacer, the metered dose has a chance to aerate post-expulsion and be breathed in, rather than pseudo-swallowed. 


This year's theme was celebrating "Innovations in Technology," so AANMA had set up a table display of outdated medical treatments for asthma and allergies. Dr. R. Schiffman's Asthmador Cigarettes, "to relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms." (Active ingredients: Stramonium and Belladonna.) Clima-maske, anyone? It all seems so surreal and awkward as to be a joke. 


But then, under glass, I saw it: first spacer I'd ever been given. A baby blue, collapsible canister that predates today's rigid aerochambers. I'd hated that thing. O how it wheezed like an accordion. O how spit crusted around its poorly-designed  mouthpiece.


If you'd have told me in MFA days that my career as an author would bring me down to Capitol Hill on a Wednesday morning, or have me posing for photos with kids, I'd have thought you were crazy. I never expected this part of my identity--the perils and hoop-jumping of asthma and allergy--to be on the pages of a book. For that matter, I never expected to be  memoirist; I thought I'd always have that veil of poetry, no matter how flimsy and artificial, protecting me from intrusive interpretations of my work. 


Now my creative life and my personal life are one. On a bad day, that leaves me feeling exposed, or in over my head--asked to counsel beyond my qualifications. On a good day I make incredible, insightful connections with people who are so excited to see sympathetic experiences on the page. And I find myself wondering where to go from here. These conversations, these meetings, these days of advocacy: they change lives. Including mine. But I have to let it all aerate before I breathe it in, and before I decide what the next book will be. This summer is my spacer. 

Ruth Stone



Things I Say to Myself While Hanging Laundry

If an ant, crossing on the clothesline
from apple tree to apple tree,
would think and think,
it probably could not dream up Albert Einstein.
Or even his sloppy moustache;
or the wrinkled skin bags under his eyes
that puffed out years later,
after he dreamed up that maddening relativity.
Even laundry is three-dimensional.
The ants cross its great fibrous forests
from clothespin to clothespin
carrying the very heart of life in their sacs or mandibles,
the very heart of the universe in their formic acid molecules.
And how refreshing the linens are,
lying in the clean sheets at night,
when you seem to be the only one on the mountain,
and your body feels the smooth touch of the bed
like love against your skin;
and the heavy sac of yourself relaxes into its embrace.
When you turn out the light,
you are blind in the dark
as perhaps the ants are blind,
with the same abstract leap out of this limiting dimension.
So that the very curve of light,
as it is pulled in the dimple of space,
is relative to your own blind pathway across the abyss.
And there in the dark is Albert Einstein
with his clever formula that looks like little mandibles
digging tunnels into the earth
and bringing it up, grain by grain,
the crystals of sand exploding
into white-hot radiant turbulence,
smiling at you, his shy bushy smile,
along an imaginary line from here to there.


Ruth Stone
from What Love Comes To

Anna Myers (my mom) receives the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book


INTRODUCTION
           
            Near the beginning of her masterly novel, Fire in the Hills, Anna Myers gives us this exchange between young Hallie and her dying mother:
          “Ma,” said the girl, trying not to scream. “Ma, you can’t die.”
          “We all do, child. We all do. There is worst things. Sing to me, Hallie. 
            It  will rest us both.” (2)
This brief bit of dialogue sums up much that is great about my mother’s work. Her novels are rooted in the common human lot of suffering, in the ties that bind us together even in the hardest of times, and in the universal song that transcends the sorrow: “Sing to me, Hallie. It will rest us both.” Anna Myers comes from folks who know suffering and from folks who know how to tell a story, a long line of yarn-spinners and survivors. Thus, her books often begin with sadness, like the gut-wrenching first line of Red Dirt Jessie – “My sister Patsy is dead” – or the heart-rending execution scene with which she opens Spy, her account of the life and death of Nathan Hale. This story structure, this motion from pain to the pleasure of narrative, reminds us that the stories we tell are born from our sorrows and that our strength to face such sorrow is often born from the stories we tell.
          When these stories belong to all of us, we call them “history,” and much of my mother’s career has been dedicated to bringing history alive in narrative. Red Dirt Jessie, is set during the Great Depression, a stark backdrop to mirror the emotional depravation of its young protagonist and her father. In Assassin, the turmoil of the Civil War matches the inner turmoil of young adulthood as Bella wrestles with her identity, the possibilities of good and evil in her young soul a microcosm of the equally polar possibilities within her young country at a great moment of crisis. Anna Myers knows that the stories we call history are the stories of individual lives. In Rosie’s Tiger, Rosie herself says so:
                   I didn’t understand much of what the newsmen said. It took me the                      
                     longest time to get it straight that the United States was mad at   
                     North Korea and wanted to help South Korea.  But all along I 
                    understood that Ronny might not come home. When I set two  
                      plates out on the table for super, I’d look at his empty chair and                       
                      be so awful afraid it might stay empty, always.
My mother’s novels remind us that the stories we share as history are stories of empty chairs and of changed lives. Her work reminds us that the big events on the world stage matter most on the individual level: the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic matters to a boy most in the form of his lost family; the great Galveston Flood of 1900 matters to a little girl most in the form of her lost friend; even World War II matters most to a girl from Oklahoma in the form of her missing father. This humane understanding of history reminds us why it is so crucial to know where we have been; it instructs us on how to think most deeply about where we may be going.
          Such an approach to story-telling is a contribution to the sympathetic imagination of the reader. When we read about richly imagined characters facing challenges that, no matter how fantastic or unusual, have some element of the struggles of reality in them, then we become better at imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, great literature’s contribution to the moral good coming not in the form of maxims and rules but in the form of refined empathy. Like Homer’s Odysseus, my mother’s characters are shaped by the suffering that is common to humanity, that is shared among us all. In Fire in the Hills, Hallie’s own capacity for sympathy is expanded when she learns of the sorrows that shaped Mary Jones:
                   Hallie trembled as she passed the jar. She was over-whelmed. Mary,                   
                   even Mary Jones, had churnings inside her, feelings she had laid out                    
                   there in the lamplight. The ache in the girl was magnified. It was  
                    an  ache for Mary and her lost Lucy, for little Dovie who muttered 
                   ‘Ma’ in her sleep, and most of all for herself, mortally wounded,   
                    but unable to say so. Tentatively she laid her hand on the woman’s 
                   shoulder, and Mary patted it as she swigged down the yellow elixir.
The sort of connection my mother describes in these beautifully restrained words is the sort of connection forged again and again between her readers and her characters. It is a feeling that makes us all better equipped to love our neighbors as ourselves.
          My mother’s finely drawn characters have lived out their stories in various corners of this country – Memphis to Massachusetts – but her work has again and again returned to speak of the particularly Oklahoman brand of character and of suffering. Auden said of Yeats that “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” When I read, in Tulsa Burning, of the struggles of young Nobe Chase, I think a similar dynamic might explain my mother as an Oklahoman writer. But this place has done more than hurt my mother; it has also gifted her with a kind of emotional honesty that rejects sentimentality, a sense of optimism without a blindness to reality, and a belief in the existence of human goodness despite our history of violence. All of these characteristics are evident in Nobe’s words as he stands at the grave of his abusive father:
                   I started to think that maybe Pa was in heaven after all. It would 
                   sure take God to understand a man like him. I figured if Pa was up 
                   there, he’d   likely be able to look down and know the words that I 
                    wished I could say. (149)
If mad Oklahoma hurt my mother into poetry, it also touched her with its rugged beauty, gave her a prose as clear and strong as summer wind over the prairie. And lucky for us it did.
          Anna Myers’ accomplishments are too numerous to name here in their entirety. She is the author of 19 novels for young readers. She is a four time winner of the Oklahoma Book Award: for Spy in 2009, Assassin in 2006, Graveyard Girl in 1996, and Red Dirt Jessie in 1993. She is a finalist again this year, for her latest book, The Grave Robber’s Secret. She won the Parents' Choice Award in 1996, for Fire in the Hills andthe Gamma State Author's Award, 1997, for Graveyard Girl.  In 1998, she won the Children's Book of the Year Award from Bank Street College for The Keeping Room. Other honors include the Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 1999-2000, and Gamma State Author's Award, 2000, both for Ethan between Us; another Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 2001-02, for When the Bough Breaks; a Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People citation from the Children's Book Council/National Council for the Social Studies, 2003 for Tulsa Burning; and yet another Honor Book Award, along with the Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award, 2004-05, for Tulsa Burning. Her books have been named to such prestigious lists as “New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teenaged,” “New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books to Read and Share,” “Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books,” “ALA Quick Pick List” and “Independent Book Sellers Pick of the List.” She has been included more than twenty times on the children’s choice lists for various states. And, perhaps most importantly, has received innumerable letters from young readers, both avid and reluctant, praising her compelling stories and relatable protagonists. It is no surprise to me that she now joins Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo, S.E. Hinton, Bill Wallace, N. Scott Momaday, and so many other great writers in winning this prestigious award.
          My mother often tells me how proud she is of me; she’s that kind of mother. But tonight I want to say how proud I am of my mother, not just for the list of accomplishments I just read to you but also for what these accomplishments and her work itself, say about who she is. Like Hallie Horton, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She doesn’t give up, ever. I saw that over the years I was growing up and she was honing her craft, writing each night, watching the mailbox for news, continually starting again and working on. I saw it as she struggled alongside my father against cancer. I’ve seen it again as she has stood alongside my sisters and me in our own personal challenges. I’ve seen that look in her eye, a look I saw also in her mother’s eye, that says I can be hurt, I can be wounded and scarred, but I can’t be overcome. For as long as I can remember my mother has been reciting to me, in bits and pieces as appropriate, this poem by Langston Hughues:
                    MOTHER TO SON
                   Well, son, I'll tell you:
                    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
                    It's had tacks in it,
                    And splinters,
                    And boards torn up,
                    And places with no carpet on the floor—
                    Bare.
                    But all the time
                    I'se been a-climbin' on,
                    And reachin' landin's,
                    And turnin' corners,
                    And sometimes goin' in the dark
                    Where there ain't been no light.
                    So, boy, don't you turn back.
                    Don't you set down on the steps.
                    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
                    Don't you fall now—
                    For I'se still goin', honey,
                    I'se still climbin',
                    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
In her eighth grade English class, my mother had me memorize that poem, but what I really committed to memory, what I really got from my mother is that through art, through its transcendent beauty and infectious compassion, we make our suffering into something more. In our stories, we climb, even when the way is hard. Even as we celebrate a lifetime’s worth of achievement tonight, my mother is climbing still.
Two poems, "Odin" and "Trampoline," from the new book appear in the latest issue of the fantastic DMQ Review, along with some new poems by Robert Bly. Check out the issue here.

Extremes

Eleven days. Remember that. All in eleven days. 


It began with a drive from DC to Brooklyn, a reunion with my TRIP CITY crew in the Hang Dai office next door to BookCourt, where I'd be reading that evening to launch the paperback of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. Realization that the launch needed drinks-->frantic runaround to secure wine and cups-->Thai dinner with four writer friends (DC & NYC worlds collide)-->my reading-->a perfectly balanced scotch cocktail with another writer friend (from VCCA days)-->Rev Jen's Anti-Poetry Slam at the Bowery, where I saw not one but two naked men in the name of art. Unattractively naked men. Drove to my uncle's place up on West 85th, my first time ever driving in Manhattan, and pondered getting two suitcases up to a five-story walk-up. Chose to nap for an hour in the car instead. Woke up, got inside, set the alarm to move the car to a legal parking place at 7 AM.


Another day, another reading in Brooklyn: a launch for the gorgeous redesign of AMERICAN POET. But first a meeting at the New York Times offices (outside, playing it cool // inside, what?!? this building is so fancy! will I get to write for them? maybe?? pleasepleaseplease), sushi lunch with another food allergy memoirist, interview for Beatrice.com at Random House, bloody mary with a fellow freelancer at Bubby's. First time in DUMBO. I stuffed the month's bills & checks into a postal box; some of them would disappear forever. Yusef Komunyakaa stood us up, so Thomas Sayers Ellis (bless his crazy brilliant heart) did his best Yusef impression. Late-night with the TC crew, where we literally pooled nickels and dimes to cover the six-person bill. Got dropped off at a subway stop that turned out to be closed; lost and intimidated by the men hanging out in the park, called my friend to come back, pick me up, drive me...around the corner. Where there turned out to be a perfectly functional subway stop, albeit one where I walked nine blocks on the Manhattan end. Watered my uncle's plants, his one request. Set my alarm for 5 AM to drive to BWI.


Got to Baltimore and flew to Atlanta. Rented a car and drove to Birmingham, to crash on the couch of a friend from Oxford days. Laughed a lot. Gossiped a little. Slept hard.  


Drove to Mississippi to "Experience Poetry in Vicksburg" on a Saturday afternoon. If being practical, this would have been the reading to cancel once committed to being in NYC two days earlier. But you just don't do that.And there turned out to be a library auditorium full of good people, a great conversation, an honorarium I didn't know about, every copy in my stock of all three titles sold by Lorelei Books, and garlic-stuffed olives I scarfed down by the handful at a fun reception (I know, I know--never kiss me). I went from crashing on a 20-something's couch to sleeping in a 20-foot ceilinged room in a B&B built in 1860. 


Next day: realizing my B&B had no pantry I headed to Anchuca, built in 1830, where I sipped sweet tea & gave the Southern chef a panic attack with my allergies. ("So...is this lactose intolerance?" "No. This is severe, deadly, no cheese no butter no nothing." "Oh. Just checking.") BBQ breakfast? Whatever works. I stood on a balcony once occupied by Jefferson Davis. Toured National Military Park, realizing my comment from the reading the day before while reading "Antietam"--about the anticlimactic nature of field trips to Civil War battlefields--applies to every town BUT this one. I looked down cannon barrels. I peered up at domes. I stood in the body of the U.S.S. Cairo. Vicksburg ain't kidding around. 





Stopped off in Jackson for campari (with grown-ups) and playing kitties (with a little'un). Note to self: when breaking up a drive, don't clear a mere hour on the first end, leaving six hours on the other end. Ate an entire bag of apple chips while trying to stay awake. That's the equivalent of five apples. Napped in a McDonald's parking lot off I-40 E. Rolled into Atlanta's Highland Inn at 2 AM.


Hid out at the Highland Inn. Had a very affirming phone call regarding the New York Times. Had a very alarming phone call regarding the New York Times. Couldn't absorb having something fall through before I'd even laid in my own bed to daydream about it. Bought myself a ring. Bought a Father's Day gift. Went to dinner at Doc Chey's with a poet friend. Restless, wandered out to hear stand-up in Little Five Points. Was asked by a man on the street: "Do you think you know poetry? Because I can show you poetry." 


The next morning I migrated from the boho charms of the Highland Inn (burned out light bulbs) (scavenging Folger's coffee and an unripe banana every morning) to the luminous beauty of SCAD's Ivy Hall (chandelier) (fridge stocked with juice and San Pellegrino). Turned on computer; demoralized by number of unread emails; turned off computer. Led a workshop on "Projecting Your Voice on the Page." Tried to look pretty for the photographer despite having only had two baths in a week. Reading. Dinner ambush: a salad in which the squash I'd okayed did its finest cucumber impression. Beers at Manuel's Tavern with three poets. Arguing over the Decatur Book Festival, bluffing about the future of bookselling, commiserating over the job market.


Got up, flew home to BWI, discovered my car battery had gone dead in the airport parking lot. Got a jump. Needed to drive home, fast, and work. Drove home, ate an entire bag of roasted peanuts, and watched three episodes of Gossip Girl


Thursday. Had to be in Vienna, Virginia, by 10 AM to lead a discussion for the "Writing Your Personal History" symposium. Made it by 10:03. Was so busy signing books at the lunch break that I ate my embarrassingly fragrant basil-chicken with a plastic fork while hunkered down against a wall during the next presenter's talk. Dashed to my folks' house nearby so I could take a 3 PM conference call for being a judge at this year's Poetry Out Loud semifinals. Alice Quinn recited her office number over the line and I resisted the urge to jot it down. Another phone call that resurrected my hope in the New York Times gig. Sat on the deck with my mom and tried, helplessly and haphazardly, to catch up. Drove on to DC just in time to catch Philip Levine give his closing address as Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Waved to Ron Charles of the Washington Post. He didn't recognize me until I teased him about it over Twitter the next day. 


On Friday, May 4, it turns out I won the Larry Neal Writers' Award from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I wasn't there to accept, to my eternal regret. Where I was--and where I know I needed to be--was in Great Falls, at my mother's first open studio for a solo art show in over two decades. 




























That's my mom. She is amazing. 


So I didn't even know I'd won. I didn't know until I got an email from one of the other finalists that arrived Saturday night. May 5. My birthday--and the unholy extravaganza known as Cinco de Sandra. I had woken to an entire day spent shopping for beer, bottles of water, chips, pretzel goldfish, gummi worms, tablecloths, flowers...and a fancy dress because damn it, I haven't bought a single item of clothing in over a year. I got out the construction paper and the rubber cement, made five small signs and one big one. At 7 PM we got access to a space that had to be ready by 8 PM. A man came up and said "I love your work," and I asked him if he could help assemble a table. A man walked up and said "Happy Birthday," handed me a mini bottle of Knob Creek, and walked away without ever telling me his name. 


We came. We hustled. We jimmied tech hook-ups and poured chips and crammed flowers into water. We mingled (well, everyone else did; I dervished). There was an amazing DJ. We read. We projected comix. We laughed. My sister bartended with style. Eric ran a half-mile to get five extra bags of ice. I saw students, old friends, writers, strangers. I said to my sister "I'm going to read a dirty poem, don't listen." And by midnight we had to be packed up and cleared out. 








This life moves so fast. I say that with neither pride nor self-pity; I know better than to think it will always be this way. I say that with wonderment. Some days, I worry that a life moving so fast won't allow anyone to get close enough to love me. Then comes a day when I stand in a room with 70 people singing "Happy Birthday," and my heart is filled to bursting. 



Brooklyn
Manhattan
Birmingham
Vicksburg
Jackson
Atlanta
Washington, DC


Eleven days. Six readings. That's what I've been up to lately.