LIFE: JUST ONE DAMNED PROCESS AFTER ANOTHER

Last year, I was working through a list of poetry prompts.  One of them was “A Process.”  I liked the word itself, with its varied pronunciations and meanings, its ability to function as a noun or a verb, the way it was changed by the addition of a prefix or a suffix and how it captured the whole of life as well as its many individual parts:

LIFE’S NEVER-ENDING PROCESS

Surviving the birth process
Processing language
Processed American cheese
grilled into sandwiches
Film processed into photos
Falling in love and
processing down the aisle
in a gown of ivory lace
Enduring the hiring process
Inprocessing a new job
Learning that my chosen field
follows its own process
Flow charts of our processes,
processed and reprocessed,
Process Improvement
the subject of every meeting
Queues to process
The mortgage process
Endless forms to be processed
Computers processing data
I don’t want processed
selling my information,
a global marketing process
A legal process once or twice
Outprocessing my job,
a daunting process
The retirement process,
and the adjustment process
Processing to the next phase,
a procession of words
in my brain just waiting to be
processed into poetry
A blissful, procreative process
so resolutely unsystematic,
it might not be a process at all
Pure unprocessed freedom
in such an overprocessed world
is, admittedly, a lot to process

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WHEN THE GEARS START SLIPPING…

I’m going to start this post by saying that my mom is fine, as sharp and independent as ever.  Because when I read this poem for people, they approach me afterward and tell me they’re sorry to hear that, or share stories about their own caregiving struggles.  These lines are a patch-work of tales told to me by my patients, family, friends and neighbors about the challenges and heartbreaks of looking after someone with dementia.  This poem (a triolet series) goes out to all the caregivers:

CAREGIVER’S SONG

Mom pulls on a ratty sweater,
the one she will not go without,
even in the hottest weather
Mom pulls on a ratty sweater
I save my breath and don’t upset her
unless her pants are inside-out
Mom pulls on a ratty sweater,
the one she will not go without

Oftentimes, Mom will not eat
She just stares blankly at her plate
Ignoring vegetables and meat
Oftentimes, Mom will not eat
But how her eyes light up for sweets,
a dish of ice cream, piece of cake
Oftentimes, Mom will not eat
She just stares blankly at her plate

Mom makes lively conversation
with an empty kitchen chair
Since her mind went on vacation,
Mom makes lively conversation
with her long-deceased relations
as if they were sitting there
Mom makes lively conversation
with an empty kitchen chair

Mom pores over family pictures,
staring at a toddler’s face
Who is this?  she points and whispers
Mom pores over family pictures
A childhood me with my big sister
Precious memories gone, erased
Mom pores over family pictures
staring at a toddler’s face

Mom can’t follow TV shows,
but ogles actors shamelessly,
certain they are men she knows
Mom can’t follow TV shows,
Bosses, neighbors, high school beaus,
not Hollywood celebrities
Mom can’t follow TV shows,
but ogles actors shamelessly

At night, Mom barely sleeps a wink
and wanders from her cozy bed
Unsure where she is, I think,
at night, Mom barely sleeps a wink
A spectre in pajamas pink
shuffles through the house instead
At night, Mom barely sleeps a wink
and wanders from her cozy bed

I care about Mom’s happiness
and sit with her around-the-clock
Despite exhaustion, tears, and stress
I care about Mom’s happiness
No time to breathe or decompress
or take a walk around the block
I care about Mom’s happiness
and sit with her around-the-clock

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READING BETWEEN THE LINES

If you’re a writer and you submit your work, rejection letters are a part of life.  They are generic and carefully worded, so as to let the rejectee down as gently as possible.  My poem is crafted out of sentences from actual rejection letters I have received (in bold).  Note: I obfuscated or changed proper names to protect the innocent.  Sandwiched between the sanitized lines are my own sarcastic additions (in italics).  If you’ve been snubbed, you might as well have some fun with it.


Dear WRITER,
and I use the term “writer” loosely

Greetings from the LALA-ZINE staff
tasked with drafting rejection letters
Thank you for allowing us to consider
how appalling poetry can be, owing to
your recent submission, WHATEVER
which, quite frankly, took the cake.

We recognize the effort you put into
ignoring the clearly stated guidelines for
submitting this piece, and regret that
because it is a complete waste of paper,
it doesn’t meet our needs at this time
or at any other time, for that matter.

Rest assured, it was read thoroughly
by a sleep-deprived, first-year intern
and given most careful consideration
as in, What the hell were you thinking?
before being returned to you by mail
in the SASE you so dutifully provided.

Ultimately, simple editorial preference
for quality work over hackneyed refuse
guides our choices; it is not a comment
OK, you got us…  it actually is a comment
on the merit of your particular piece
one best suited for the recycling bin

Although we are unable to accept it,
(our congenial euphemism for rejection)
we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere
You are going to need it, in this situation
and in all your future writing endeavors
Take my advice, don’t quit your day job.

Sincerely,
Not really,
Mae B. Nextime
First Assistant to the Assistant Editor
and Voice of Your Harshest Inner Critic

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BLOCKED? RORY TO THE RESCUE!

I came upon Rory’s Story Cubes at Bed, Bath & Beyond on an end cap dedicated to cheap kiddie toys—yoyo’s and silly putty and Spirograph Junior.  My inner artist was begging for a set, so I obliged and forked over the $5.99.  It went in her Christmas stocking and ultimately ended up on a closet shelf.  I serendipitously rediscovered it during a recent bout of writer’s block.  Inside the orange pouch are nine dice.  Instead
of numbers, each face has a picture on it.  You roll the dice, then write or tell a story that includes all nine of the objects pictured.  A simple creativity generator.  So anyway, this was my first roll:

Dice
Magnet
House
Fountain
Fish
Tree
Bee
Apple
Telephone

And here is the story I came up with:

Ever since Peg’s eyes had been opened, she saw homeless folks, stray cats and dogs, hitchhikers, and drivers with dead batteries everywhere. In under a year, she had given away more dollars and shelter and rides and jump starts than she could begin to count. Even within the protect-tive walls of her house, Peg attracted charity cases like a magnet.  She rolled the dice and took her chances every time she answered the tele-phone, knowing she could not resist any plea to save the children, the trees, the bees, or whatever little-known fish was now endangered due to an oil spill.  Even though her cash flow was more of a trickle than a fountain, the fluttery rush of do-gooding had become quite addictive.  When the doorbell rang, Peg hurried to answer it, expecting to find a neighbor who was short a cup of sugar or in need of someone to sign for a package.  Peering through the peephole, she regarded a stout, cellophane-wrapped fruit basket sitting atop her welcome mat.  There was no sign of whoever had left it.  She hoisted it up by its handle and carried it to the kitchen table, admiring the trio of blushing Honeycrisp apples visible through the film—her favorite.  The card was unsigned;
it simply said, “For all you do.”  Peg undoubtedly deserved the gift, but had taken great care to remain anonymous and thus avoid any sort of repayment.  Someone knew her secret.  The question was, who?

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THE SCARLET LUDDITE*

I lost my self-check virginity at 43.  Five o’clock rush was in full swing at the grocery and the cashiered lanes were jammed.  At the far end, the self-check barker hollers, “Step right up, folks!  Noooooo waiting!”  My earnest desire to save ten minutes quickly devolves into an S&M night-mare, a threesome with Evil Siri and a hillbilly clerk who take turns verbally spanking me while I screw myself and turn fifty shades of red.

Self-checks are all business—no foreplay with the mints and gum, no perusing tabloid headlines.  I punch START, scan my reward card, and set my reusable bag on the carousel.  A smooth female voice scolds, “Please remove your item, scan it, and place it in the bag.”  The bag is empty, so I pay no mind.  I wave a can of pineapples over the scanner.  Nothing happens.  After several more (literally) fruitless attempts, the attendant scurries over.  “It’s your shopping bag,” she says.  “If you’re gonna use your own bag, you gotta say so before you start.”  She hits CANCEL.  When the screen resets, she demonstrates, as if to an idiot, how to press USE MY OWN BAG.

I scan the pineapples… beep.  Cat food… beep.  Cake mix… beep.  Frosting… beep.  Finding my groove at last.  Birthday card… beep.  I slide it into the bag. “Please place the item in the bag,” says the voice.  Ummm, it is.  I take it out and shove it in harder, but the voice drones on, unconvinced, until the attendant arrives and hits the bypass key.  She shrugs.  “Sometimes lightweight stuff don’t register.”

Organic bananas.  It wants the PLU number on the sticker.  94011…  ENTER.  “Weighing, please wait” says the voice.  I’m patient for fully twenty seconds before glowering at the attendant, who grudgingly grants the bananas passage into the bag.  Organic avocado.  94225…  ENTER.  The same screen reappears.  Figuring I must have keyed it in wrong, I re-enter the digits.  This time, it works.  Relieved, I place the avocado in the bag and hit FINISH“Do you have any coupons?”  NO.
I swipe my VISA and inexplicably, the transaction is declined.

As I gather my wits, the attendant struts over.  Apparently, that second screen was asking how many avocadoes I had.  I’ve exceeded her void limit; she’s got to page the manager.  I’m mortified, but the expression on the guy’s face when he sees the total, $94,235.56, is almost worth it.  He voids and re-rings.  I pay and slink off to the parking lot in shame.  Oblivious to his frantic shouts, I make it halfway to my car before he catches me, proffering, with a saccharine smile, a familiar-looking reusable bag.  “Forget something?”

Oops, better make that fifty-one shades of red.

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*This true story made it to the final round in the 2018 Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Contest.

DAFFO-DILIGENCE

I love every spring flower, but daffodils most of all.  Crocus are low to the ground, built to withstand the weather’s vacillations.  Tulips wait until they know it’s safe.  According to local legend, winter is not over until snow has fallen three times on the daffodils.  Surely, they know this.  Yet they stick their necks out, risking it all to brighten the dreary landscape.  Grouped together in our flower bed, they are the trumpet section of a marching band, bravely tooting Spring’s Reveille, making joyful music for the eyes and renewing the spirit:

FLOWER POWER
(Monotetra)

On the heels of winter’s chill
emerge audacious daffodils
trumpeting from yellow frills
soprano trills, soprano trills

Intrepid Marchers, heads bent low
in bracing wind and fickle snow
Brassy bright on spring’s tableau,
they fairly glow, they fairly glow

With blaring, daring confidence
born of a faith in Providence
that resonates, pure and intense,
inside my chest, inside my chest

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I’VE GOT A LEGO BY THE TAIL…

For Christmas, my husband got me a Lego set.  Yes, I’m a kid at heart, but that’s not why.  This set makes, like, the grooviest model 1960’s Volkswagen Bus ever.  We’ve owned three of them, a 1973 Bus, 1984 Vanagon, and a 1966 Splittie with a rare Freedom America snow cap. I’ve been known to collect VW Bus memorabilia like t-shirts, magnets, die cast models, bird houses, Christmas lights, etc, and I could hardly believe my luck when this beauty popped up on Amazon.com, just in time for Santa to deliver it.  One tiny caveat: Legos require assembly.

I grew up making things, with blocks, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, erector sets.  There were no Legos yet, but building is building, right?  The box said “Expert, for ages 16 and up.” I wasn’t intimidated until I opened it.  This particular set contains 1,334 pieces in twelve different colors and 235 different shapes.  Many of them are smaller than my pinky finger-nail.  There were two instruction manuals.  I figured one was English, the other, Spanish.  Nope.  You need both.  There were no words, just diagrams of its 115 complex steps.  I shoved it all back in the box and it took me a month to work up the nerve to open it again.  You build a Lego Bus the way you eat an elephant… one bite at a time.  Now that it’s done, I feel like it should be displayed in a glass trophy case, right next to my Olympic gold medal for Endurance Lego Construction.

LEGOS, LEGOS

Legos, Legos, a thousand plus
in the kit for the Volkswagen Bus
What mere mortal hand and eye
would dare attempt its assembly?

I dump the contents of the box:
thirteen bags of plastic blocks,
instruction books marked “1” and “2”
with diagrams out the wazoo

This potpourri, I organize
first by color, then shape and size
Special parts in their own piles:
headlights, hinges, bumpers, tires

I build each module, step by step,
awed at how the parts connect
Frame and axles, checkered floor,
engine, cockpit, windows, doors

Splittie windshield, louvered vents,
a roof equipped with a pop-up tent
Ensconced inside, a small homestead
cupboards, table, fold-down bed

When the final page I reach
and snap in place the crowning piece,
Do I smile, my work to see?
Take photos for posterity?

(You betcha!)

Legos, Legos, a thousand plus
behold, transformed into a Bus
and due to the level of difficulty,
they’ll remain a Bus eternally

  front view

 with splittie windows open

 in the driver’s seat

 rear view

 back hatch open

 engine compartment

 side view

with side doors open

 pop-up tent

 living area

 Z-bed down

 my favorite piece

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THE POWER OF ENOUGH

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, the football event known for its multi-million dollar commercials.  In my mind, commercials are best avoided; they are designed to make us want things, to plant seeds of discontent.  If you’re like me, your closets and cupboards and garage shelves are overflowing with items you used once or twice, then wondered what possessed you to buy them.  True liberation lies in freeing yourself from “thneeds.”

ENOUGH

The work-n-spend treadmill
can make it quite tough
to decide for oneself
just how much is enough

Some extra square footage,
a big SUV,
a fancier cell phone,
each touted as key

to a blissful existence,
a short-lived reaction
when this or that thing
doesn’t bring satisfaction

Less really is more,
like freedom from worry
Coffee at sunrise
with no need to hurry

Homegrown tomatoes
red-ripe from the vine
The fresh smell of laundry
dried on the clothesline

Meals made from scratch
Time for reading and play
Communing in silence
with nature each day

The treadmill can’t offer
what money can’t buy;
she’ll tease and she’ll tempt
but you needn’t comply

Turn off her commercials
Stop buying her stuff
Instead, count your blessings;
they’re more than enough

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ENTERTAINING ANGELS UNAWARE

‘Tis the season of charitable giving.  The most cheerful givers tend to
be those who’ve been on the receiving end, often quite recently.  This week, I would like to share a Christmas story that’s near and dear to my heart.  They say you cannot spread joy to others without some spilling back on yourself.  Luckily, joy won’t stain your shirt, like turkey gravy or cherry pie.  So feel free to spread and spill as much as you want:

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a young couple who lived in a drafty rental house in upstate New York with their five cats, three of which were not sanctioned by the landlord and had to be kept hidden. They dreamed of owning a home and taking in all the strays they wanted. When they learned the Air Force was moving them to Dayton, Ohio, they contacted a realtor in Yellow Springs, a liberal village that felt right to them.  There were only a couple homes in their price range.  They trekked across I-90 three times that autumn to check out the possibilities and made an offer on the best one, a small, sturdy brick ranch with a fenced backyard, located on a quiet cul-de-sac.

The bank required a thick stack of paperwork, their finances laid bare on the loan officer’s desk.  They had overextended themselves in the past:  a new car, a motorcycle, a vacation to Europe, vet bills for the cats.  They had gone through credit counseling and reined in their spending, but they were still a long way from paying off their debts.  The loan officer reviewed their forms and shook her head.  But if they were willing to jump through some hoops and obtain a VA guarantee, maybe she could swing it.  The VA packet was thicker and even more daunting, but they persevered and the guarantee was granted.  Even so, their application was iffy.  The loan officer issued strict instructions not to touch their credit cards or deplete their accounts for anything frivolous.  Just rent, utilities, food, and existing loans.  Nothing else.  Every dollar counted and the approval of their mortgage hung in the balance.  This meant there would be no tree, no presents, no trip home, no Christmas.  They sighed heavily; the thought of it was almost too depressing to contemplate.

The next morning, they took stock of their assets.  A trunk of lights and Christmas decorations.  Flour, sugar, and cookie cutters.  Miscellaneous craft supplies.  Paper, envelopes, and a book of postage stamps.  They pooled the cash from their wallets and added the change from the big Mason jar, a grand total of $64.  They obviously couldn’t buy and mail gifts to everyone, so they devised a plan.  They would fulfill one wish from the Angel Tree, spending fifty of their precious dollars on a fancy dollhouse for an underprivileged child.  The wife sent a letter to their closest family and friends explaining their circumstances.  Inside each, she enclosed a handmade angel ornament crafted from white felt and lace and buttons, a reminder that however little one might have, there is always someone who has less.  They baked sugar cookies to munch on.  There wasn’t enough left over for a tree or a holiday dinner with all the trimmings, but it didn’t matter.  All they really wanted was good news about their house.

Two evenings before Christmas, they heard a knock at their front door.  On the porch was their neighbor, Tim, wanting to know if they needed help putting up their lights.  He could lend them a ladder.  Tim peered into the living room, wondering aloud why they had no tree or decora-tions, and the whole sad story came pouring out.  He invited the couple to join his family for Christmas dinner, assuring them there would be plenty of food.  Having nowhere else to go, they gratefully accepted.

The following night, Tim dropped by again, this time dragging a lush evergreen he’d gotten for a song from a tree dealer eager to clear his lot and head home.  They retrieved their decorations from the attic.  Tim steadied the tree while they secured it in the stand.  They finished stringing up the lights and arranging the ornaments just in time for Midnight Mass.  On Christmas day, Tim and his family welcomed them, inviting them to fill their plates and grab a seat by the tree.  Little did they know, there were gifts for them, too.  Overcome, eyes glistening, they opened up packages of slippers, a throw blanket, hot cocoa mix, cashews, popcorn, and candy.  It was one of their most memorable and joyous Christmases ever.  Tim smiled ear to ear, accepting nothing but their gratitude and the promise that when they were able, they would pass it on.  He could not have imagined what he set in motion that day.

Soon after, their mortgage was approved and they moved into their very own home.  By the following Christmas, they had added a pound puppy to their menagerie and saved up enough to make good on their promise.  For twenty-three years now, they’ve been paying it forward, largely under the radar.  They’d like to keep it that way, so I’m not at liberty to say who they are or exactly what they do, but rest assured, they are real people, just like you.

There are still eight days until Christmas… it’s not too late to spill some joy.  Keep your eyes and ears and heart open; you’ll know what to do.

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