Far Beyond the Blue

In memory of my mother, February 28, 1958–March 19, 2011.

Cotton fabric, lollipop design, your color purple, my color blue, straight pins in air, a pin cushion skirt around my waist. It is the 1st of February, it is sunny in Chicago, a winter day, Rogers Park, the aquamarine lake not far east from here. Lucinda Williams released a new album today, The Lost Ghosts of Highway 20, you appear in the second to last track: “If There’s a Heaven.”

It’s been a long time. I am eating too many clementines, as if ascorbic acid could kill me. I am learning about sewing and sewing machines and I want to tell you about fabric shears and tracing chalk and measurements for my body, how I am proud of my hip size, how much joy I find in the work you lived.

Your birthday is in 28 days, there are 29 days this year, an extra one for memory, a day for ghosts, a pleasant surprise. I wish you could give me advice on the proper thread, on the best type of fabric, on a shorter cut, a better way. I forgive you for not teaching me.

I imagine stitches mend old memories, black with grief, regret, and anger. I imagine they piece together a world that is whole and not wholly broken, the perfect time to embroider a heart in two pieces. I have so much of your fabric. I need to tailor the edges into placemats and cloth napkins. Wine purple, orange, lime green, and dark blue with white stars.

Maybe it’s not a life that dictates eternity, but those who loved you and reorganize memory to honor good qualities of character. You were such a strong, sassy woman. A feminist in the 80s, in the 90s, independent in the 00s, in the way you could be. A Pisces addict, in the most terrible way.

Darkness and trauma dig deep. They cloud the lens. Five years ago you plunged me into outer space and I am now beginning to find which center the sun resides. I am beginning to sew a garden, grow a compass, plant an heirloom. Tomatoes not quite ripe on my windowsill, the way you would. Wait for the sun to make them shine.

By Madeleine Barnes

A star drawn in my mother’s
dark blue planner
reminds me —
we need to be eased from place
to place. We need to be
eased from each other.

so when you go / you let me know / if there’s a heaven out there


On Feminism | On St. Patrick’s Day

I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus
by Adrienne Rich

I am walking rapidly through striations of light and dark thrown under an arcade.

I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers
and those powers severly limited
by authorities whose faces I rarely see.
I am a woman in the prime of life
driving her dead poet in a black Rolls-Royce
through a landscape of twilight and thorns.
A woman with a certain mission
which if obeyed to the letter will leave her intact.
A woman with nerves of a panther
a woman with contacts among Hell’s Angels
a woman feeling the fullness of her powers
at the precise moment when she must not use them
a woman sworn to lucidity
who sees through the mayhem, the smoky fires
of these underground streets
her dead poet learning to walk backward against the wind
on the wrong side of the mirror.


[from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001, W. W. Norton & Company, copyright © Adrienne Rich 2002]

Wind Chimes in Winter | 2014

Gifts in the New Year

Gifts in the New Year

In the spring time I will plant wind chimes. Dancers in the wind. In the Goblin King’s labyrinth on my back porch. They will swing and sway and bring fantasy and warmth to the sound of the ages. They will be small and large and made of turtles and stained glass. They will be dreams I had in memory, latching on to things that would solve so many pieces of last year’s puzzle: the regrets I left on the lake in the Adirondacks, so much I don’t ask for.

In 2014, January began with a vortex, it swallowed the whole year whole. Those first few dark days reading Fortunes of Feminismafraid to step outside. What great science fiction is this? What bubble of a world in which it would physically hurt to step into air? What force field I found myself in?

On day two, I was lonely. There was no one in the company of my home but the mice my landlord swears do not exist and the imaginary cat he tells me would be lazy, had I one. The guidance of so many others redirecting the guidance of myself.

By February, my mother. The days between then and March, darker and darker as the light grows longer, and I thought: I wish you would stop dying every year.

How I sent a love letter in the mail that month anyway.

By Mother’s Day I hated Hallmark, the sickening warm wishes of every person in the whole world who could buy a badly written holiday card to send to their mother, their grandmother. A pink and rose colored catastrophe in a CVS in downtown Evanston when all I wanted to was to buy my co-worker a birthday card. That storm blew me out onto the street, naked and raw in the May afternoon sun, though spring, still felt like winter. The trees not on the leaves. No one more grateful or blessed in the blinding grief of a daydream.

I worked to kill this daydream. I attended a 6-week grief support group that, by my birthday, brought daring back into my heart. By mid-August I met a new friend whose birthday shares my mother’s. How much hope and weight is placed on mechanics and new news. How much logic and magic and faith where the heart is always seeking. How even this sparkle, this warmth, can have seraded edges. How feminism is what I still fall back to:

“Do not be jealous of your sister. Know that diamonds and roses are as uncomfortable when they tumble from one’s lips as toads and frogs; colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.” —Instructions by Neil Gaiman

How, by October, I killed the need for a person in my life whose actions imposed it better I not be romantically in his. How this relationship broke my heart.

How the ghost of my sister’s kitten protected her dog during the month of hallows. How taking the back seat is something I am blessed and never good at doing.

How, by November, metaphors on first dates at Hungry Brains began to look like favorite childhood animals and favorite colors and dogs that are the same color and how all of this means everything and how delusion is so beautiful and how foxes on soxes brighten brown eyes in the morning and how crazy hearts leap out of bicycle bags and thereright thereis where beauty remains. How this looked a little bit like love.

How by December my friend Medicine Bear was teaching me how to use a sewing machine. How I have been terrified of them all of my life, a spool of purple thread tattooed on my back.

How in 2014 my friend eric said yes across the table at the Pick-Me-Up Diner when I asked a big question and how much weight lifted from my heart.

How sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose.

How, even though, those yeses turned out to be only slivers of what I wanted, I still asked.

So, for 2015, more asking.

On the first snowfall of the year followed by a sad rain and the sound of cars driving through slush on Damen Avenue, I no longer worry that I have left my bicycle outside. I know I have not left my bicycle outside.

To things I will choose to leave outside.

To planting wind chimes I wanted so badly last August and arrived on my doorstep the last days of December, small gifts from old friends who remember us as we are. Trusting that blessings we’d asked for, someone knows we need.

To those in our lives who will force us to remember that we are messengers of hope. Where once our spirit animal, the turtle, carried us along on their backs, now the snail’s swirling body whorl plots along our life in moral fortitude, leaving a trail of slime behind us.

We won’t go back that way.

To remembering the change has been made.

To being objective.

To learning to write in third person, eventually, better, and at all.

Happy 2015.
This Mama.

This Mama.

How the Sharing Economy Doesn’t Need Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The current generation of 20-somethings, 30-somethings, and 40-somethings—Millennials into Gen X—are stuck in the rotation of an old model of corporatism and systemic hierarchies that are progressively outdated.

In April 2013, just around tax season, James Surowiecki published in The New Yorker’s Financial Page that $2 trillion dollars is missing from the U.S. economy. In the article, he states that money represents a grey economy of under the table jobs: “nannies, barbers, Web-site designers, and construction workers….Ordinary Americans…”—ordinary Americans in a workforce that is both creatively and actively afloat. A grey economy that represents an act of creative ingenuity for the 10.5 million Americans who are currently unemployed, underemployed, or who have been laid off in the United States since 2008.

There would be an expectation that these lay off numbers would generate a mass cultural state of depression and despair—and in some demographics, it has—but what I think it has created also, more genuinely, is a shared economy. Because Americans have been told that the cubicle boxes they so snuggly fit into for years no longer need them (or want them), the American public have been forced to discover how to fit snuggly into an economy that they themselves had to create.

The executive head of a small nonprofit organization (NPO) in Massachusetts once referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to demonstrate where certain employees stood in that particular office environment (an office that had barely 8 full-time staff at the time). That sounds like trying force a square into circle and demanding output and efficiency. That model is not going to work for a generation who perpetually expects to be laid off.

Because stability is no longer found in those structures, most employees find, or are working toward, innovate economic escape routes. Perhaps survival of the fittest is a more accurate indicator, but I’m too much of an optimist for that. And that’s my point.

Whether or not the economy is sure-footed, the nebulous nature of its recovery is making a certain demographic of the population sure-footed, and it’s not the 1%.

Maslow’s Needs do not reflect the current nature of productivity and integration of people in the United States, or if it does, it is the middle section: “Love/belonging”. Maslow’s pyramid structure no longer exists, not really. His hierarchy, an outdated patriarchal paradigm, pushes against cooperative feminist structures of sustainability, compassion, humanity, and cultural collaboration. The idea that there are people—helpers and connectors—who will give a person a chance over and over again (for no apparent economic, corporate, or social gain) is a progressive, but by no means new, model to keep the economy moving and to keep the populace engaged with its community and world.

I have been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and had the brief privilege of working under the direction of Lois Weisberg, former Commissioner for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, before the office was shuttered in 2012. In that brief moment in gleaming Chicago history, I understood what it meant to be one of Gladwell’s connectors.

And since, more and more, women make up a significant portion of the workforce (and in honor of International Women’s Day) perhaps an act of feminism, then, in a shared economy would be to proactively work in opposition to those structures of hierarchy? To act with greater connectedness, love/belonging, compassion—even healing?

Systemic office culture under Maslow’s hierarchy is classism. And in the current state of U.S. affairs and privatization, too many workers are still marching and climbing and racing to the top of a ladder toward some dream of corporate success, yet somehow never got the memo that there is no longer a top to get to.

And that’s the American dream.

Doing It Ourselves: What the Economic Crisis Really Means and What We Can Do About It

Transcription From the U.S. Department of Labor

I am 29 and stepped out of the Illinois Department of Human Services office this morning. I lost my second job in the nonprofit sector in June. This time in the arts. I applied for a Link Card. I felt like Lucinda Williams, my mother, and one version of the woman I want to be. I do not have children. I want to have children, but NPR’s segment “Call Me Maybe When Your School Loan is Paid in Full” tells me I will never get married. 

I have a high credit rating. I know how to manage money, but at a deficit. When my mother died last year, I found approximately fifteen credit cards in a file drawer. Most of them were for clothing catalogs from the 80’s. My debt is mainly from bereavement travel, flowers for funerals, a joint credit account that maxed, education, and medical costs.  

I am a writer. I have applied to 8 MFA programs in 2 years. I have been wait-listed to one of the top writing programs in the country and offered residency to the school’s low-res pilot program at an annual cost of $22,000. There is no funding for this program.

When I researched grants for artists, I was kindly notified by the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program that the previously distributed national grant for low-income artists is no longer available. The fellowship may never be available again.

This is the country in which we live. 

Every two weeks I certify for unemployment benefits. I have no medical insurance. I have appeared twice on American Public Media’s Marketplace as a commentator for my generation’s search for jobs in this economy.

There are no jobs in this economy. Or, if there are jobs, there are 12.7 million peoplewho need them. This does not include undocumented persons or the homeless.

I live in a three-bedroom apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago with two talented ladies and a four-year-old Shih-Tzu named Harvey. We are in our late 20’s and early 30’s. Our landlady is a retired teaching artist and our yard is like a New England faery forest or something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are fiddlehead ferns painted on my bedroom wall.

My friendships are my trusted accompaniments, my family is my foundation–my memory and my reminder–and the modest attention I receive for my writing is my indicator.

What I want is the freedom of feminism and the domestic luxury of rearing children. I want the debt ceiling to reverse roles with my dreams.  

I have been listening to Josh Ritter. There is a line in the song “Galahad” that goes, “I gotta carry you to heaven and despite what you’d imagine I have trouble bearing heavy things aloft.” 

If this is the way I feel about my student loans and my credit card debt, I can’t imagine how it feels for those of us who are in more debt than I. Those of us who have children. Those of us who have homes foreclosed or soaring medical bills and pre-existing conditions.

Don’t take out a loan for an MFA. Don’t be one of 12.7 million people crumpling under the weight of what they owe. 

Dream bigger. Dream of being a mother-woman. Dream of the serene landscape of a Midwestern sunrise, of writing hours, and a soft life.

And don’t raise the debt ceiling for your dreams.

Turn up your speakers, play the saddest Lucinda Williams song you know, wear your highest heels, and blast open a skylight.  

Take Up Your Arms

When I dream of my future, I dream of a cottage and kin. I dream of a matriachy, a community of family and women and children. I don’t dream of a husband. I dream the way this writer does. I out-intuit myself. I love openly and freely. I will tell you where you stand. I will ask you to leave when I need to. I will take care of those I love and recognize those who love me. I will not fault them for it, but commend their bravery. Women, take up your arms.


the trick is to use a primer of crushed pearls for a spectacular under-sheen

Yesterday, my friend Sarah sent me this poem. It is disarming and reminiscent of Anne Sexton. It is a reminder that to be strong does not mean to harden the heart, but to learn how to pry it unapologetically open.
The Tired Mermaid
The Tired Mermaid wishes for once her horoscope would just read: hungover today, stay in bed. Instead it feeds her false futures and she starts each new day expecting to finally shine up her trident or compose a ship-sinking shanty. Too much Chianti and none of these things get done. The sun is a blade in the eye that hurts her seaweedy head and doesn’t help her stomach, roiling with bits of broken reef. While she’s contemplating brushing her teeth, the other mermaids go swishing off to Watercolor Class. The trick is to use a primer of crushed pearls for a spectacular under-sheen when the drawing’s dry. Later they’ll hold the paintings underwater and see which one fish try to swim into. Fish are efficient judges that way and no one holds it against them. If they’re fooled, they’re fooled. There’s always another day. The Tired Mermaid grimaces, then sneezes. Another day is precisely the problem. It’s time to get up. For a jolt of caffeine, she bites an electric eel, and the chill in her molars isn’t much, but it’s something.

Anne Sexton