Saturday, March 26, 2016

Elegy Boxes

During times of loss, it's hard to find a way to express what is inexpressible - whether that's the end of a relationship, a wound from a betrayal, or a death.  Separations, partings, departures - in my own life, I've accumulated a lot of them, and in most cases, never got the chance to properly say good-bye, or make sense of the good-bye that I received from someone else.  

Poetry has served me well for many years, acting as a kind of container that I get to shape, in just the way I want to shape, my grief.

But sometimes - as much of a ceremony as writing, revising, and occasionally publishing that poetry can be, sometimes - I just need more.  

Right now I'm experiencing a kind of loss that, in the grand scheme of things, isn't the end of the world, but still acts as a catalyst for all those other doors into old pain to fly open.  It's one of the injustices of the Universe that for some of us, one loss can open up a can of grief-worms that just go flying all over, as if they own the place.  Unexpected losses, the kind you have no time to prepare for, are surprisingly fierce.  Saying goodbye to someone whose work has helped me process many a trauma has acted as a reminder to me that I still carry around a lot of baggage that pokes and stings me in ways I no longer find useful.  

Crafting something physical to hold these old pains has become a part of this farewell.  I've never been good at good-bye - a word I've experienced as more of a curse than the blessing ("God be with ye") of its original meaning.  This should come as no revelation to those who know me.  But maybe I can learn something from this particular goodbye; that is, how to say goodbye, how to do goodbye, so that it is not uncontrolled devastation.  And, looking back at some apocalyptic good-byes in my life, in some cases good-bye was good riddance; owning that, too, is something I've had difficulty admitting.

So I began this project, Elegy Boxes.  It isn't finished yet, but it's coming along.  It's been such a positive experience, though, that I want to share it with those who might also crave a construction project made from grief.

The basics are simple enough: start with about 500 written words, the core of a loss, written down.  Simple?  This part cost me some blood, sweat and tears; a little extra therapy time; and brutal (yet crucial) honesty.  In the end, I knew when I was finished with each piece; you will, too.  Mine are focused on individuals with whom I did not get to say good-bye, or with whom I did not "do" good-bye very well (I suck at good-byes; okay, okay, in all fairness, no one ever taught me!).  I call them "elegies" based loosely on the poetic form; nothing here is by-the-book, in case you haven't guessed yet.

Next, I typed the text into my computer, and printed it on the back of one-sided origami paper (you can play with font, size, colors ... right now, I am doing pretty basic stuff - triage, you might say).

The secret to printing on thin origami paper?  Print out your text on regular printer paper first, utilizing margin tools to create a "box" of text that will fit on the origami square.  I eyeballed it at first so I had someplace to start.  (People better at math than I am could probably figure out how to do this without a test print.)  As a test, hold the printing paper up to a light, and layer the piece of origami paper over it; you'll see immediately if the type would go off an edge).  Then, tape the piece of origami paper - plain side up - directly over the printed out text (I do this to make absolutely sure that the text fits).  Use tiny pieces of scotch tape, and don't press too hard.  I find that just two little pieces, at the top corners of the origami paper, is plenty.  Determine which side of a piece of paper your printer prints on; most ink-jets use the reverse side of the paper in your paper tray, so put the now-united two sheets of paper face down in the tray.

Hit "print."  The sheet feeds smoothly into your printer and out comes the poem, now printed on the back of your origami paper.

Gently, gently pull off the scotch tape.  It might take awhile to get the hang of this without tearing your origami paper, but it can be done; another good exercise in patience!

Now you've got the material for the outside of your box (or the inside, whichever you choose).  Follow the directions for a basic origami box.  I chose to put my text on the outside of the box.  Play with this; maybe you want your text on the inside, where no one else can see it.  Want a second, smaller box to fit inside the first, so that your text is completely enclosed, or so you can put mementos or sage inside?  For me, cutting off 1/4" of a second piece of origami on only two of the sides gives me a smaller square just the right size to make a second box that fits inside the first box.  

Now that I've started this project, it's become a mindful, yet intense, good-bye ceremony for me.  After walking around in a bit of a heart-broken daze for two weeks, now I feel focused and forward-thinking again.  Rather than sucking up my energy and time in formless mourning, my grief has found a way of making itself a home just far enough outside of my body to let it go ... a little bit at a time.

I was confident that I couldn't be the first person to think of using origami for something like this, or for poetry in general, and sure enough, I've found a few other like-minded projects online.  I especially like "Poetry Boxes" by poet Amy Miller, which is a different kind of box altogether; and Origami Poems Project, which uses a form of one-page book that I learned 25 years ago in my daughter's kindergarten classroom, taken to a whole new level!

I'm sure there's more out there; letter-press printers, especially, are good at thinking this stuff up.  If you try your own Elegy Box, send me a picture.  The innovations possible are infinite.

What to do with Elegy Boxes?  I have my own little ceremony planned.  Let's just say it involves sage, flame, and a certain fire pit in the center of four great oaks.  Use your imagination!  

Certainly, good-byes are all unique, and saying good-bye is much more of an art form than I ever imagined.  The important thing is to say it: say goodbye in your own good time, in your own way, so that good-bye is a blessing for both you, and the person or event to whom you want to bid a heart-felt fare-well.

Monday, March 21, 2016

After the Anti-Racism Rally

Last week, recruitment fliers from the KKK turned up in the nicer neighborhoods around our little town, Lexington Virginia.  WHITE POWER.  WHITE PRIDE.

For people of color, Jews, LGBTQ folks, and others targeted by the KKK, this was an ugly reminder of what we face as we walk around the world in our very human bodies.  But for many of our white neighbors and colleagues, these fliers were a shock - even though we've testified time and time again about how POC or other targeted groups often feel unsafe, our energies spent negotiating microaggressions or outright oppressions, our time spent jumping hurdles other people don't seem to see.  The shock was, as one speaker noted, a wake-up call.

Taking this kind of shock and molding it into action is not easy, but in less than a week, a new group formed - CARE - Community Anti-Racism Education initiative, and this group took the lead in making today's anti-racism rally happen.  Pastor Lyndon Sayers spoke eloquently about the need for white people to educate and take action against racism without depending on POC, LGBTQ and others to call out racism and shoulder most of the work.  This was a wonderful moment for Lexington; a claiming of responsibility and solidarity.  I'm very glad my wife, Margo Solod, and I were there to witness speaker after speaker - white, Black, Jew - stand before a microphone in a public park at "rush hour" (with looky-loo traffic just yards away and one screaming white man on the corner making his beliefs known), and loudly denounce racism, accept the burden of dealing with it, and affirm the work to be done.  I heard (not just once but twice) the history of genocide and land theft brought up in the name of Indigenous peoples who have suffered colonization - something rarely, if ever, heard at a non-Native anti-racist gathering.

I saw my colleagues, students, and neighbors brought together, and it was good.  

It was good.  Not perfect, but good.  One speaker quoted George Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, which has long been cited as the founding father's commitment to religious freedom.  The line “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”  made me physically wince.  Ouch.  Maybe, not such a great person to quote from at this gathering, as I'm sure that vine and fig were planted, watered, trimmed and watched over by enslaved Africans, whose very lives were owned by Washington; people who had no vine and fig of their own, and never would.

Still, I am heartened that the KKK fliers have been met not by silence and ennui, but by voice and action.  Thank you, Lexington.  

And thank you, those who came before us - you're still lighting the way.

After the Anti-Racism Rally

“every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” – George Washington, Letter to the Jews of Newport

We walk home arm-in-arm, chilled
by March winds. You heat up homemade

tamales – pork, butternut squash, queso –
and we eat with our fingers, scrape

our teeth along corn husk ridges and valleys
filled with masa tender as marrow. 

Before darkness falls, before the moon rises,
I go outside, stir steamy compost with a pitchfork,

pick up dog shit in the grass.
You want this to be a metaphor,

don’t you?  Or some apt allegory
for how cleaning up racism is a lot like

scooping dog shit so you don’t
step in it while weeding the Cosmos?

Maybe it’s the rich black compost
that appeals to you:

how we make beauty out of rotten
hulks of onions, green pepper cores.

Sorry to disappoint. This is merely a report
on my daily life.  Rebellious?  Radical?

Hell no: a small-town lesbian enjoying
ties to her indigenous roots, relishing her fig

and vine, dinner with her wife, all 
without permission or license

from the KKK – folks, that’s nothing less
than a fucking miracle,

a miracle built on bodies, blood, bones -
on dreams too tough to decompose.

Deborah A. Miranda