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


Hard At Work On Handmade Capes

I will be reading this Sunday at 7 p.m. at Center Portion as part of the Two With Water Rx Reading Series and the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. The theme of the reading is Ten Years Gone, and I will be reading a short memoir that maps the movement of time wherein a series masquerades as a lifetime. 
If you happen to be at the Festival during the day on Saturday, be sure to stop by the CHIRP Radio table and say hello. I will be there from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. promoting independent Low Power FM Radio, because that’s important, too.

Oh, you will also find me here come August.

The Women I Like Best

The women I like best host large kitchen tables spread with cookies, cakes, pies, jams, coffees and teas, sugar bowls, ceramic milk jugs, and an invitation to indulge, so long as we are polite. They are thick-skinned, Irish and French-Canadian, and grew up on farms-turned-golf-courses, or in huddled, tipsy New England houses. They bore a child each year for eight years, kept milk farms, worked in factories, and married weather-worn men with drinking problems.

They died early from post-rheumatic fever aortic failure, sold acreage to Massachusetts Highway Departments, and baked minced meat pie on holidays. They have sharp tongues, quick wits, kind eyes, and quiet determination.

They are my mothers and grandmothers, and it takes them twenty-seven years to tell me anything. They smoke like chimneys, say never to marry, light wood stoves in winter, let hunting dogs curl around their feet, and finish crossword puzzles quickly. They have oxygen tanks trailing their movement and visit gravestones on anniversaries of weak hearts.

For my grandmother, Helen Mary Corey, who died thirty-two years ago today:

Small Talk

Unveiling the Tofu Curtain

I have memories of a summer in 2000, the Republican National Convention Unity March, the only time I’ve ever been to Philly. Traveling eight hours by bus with strangers to protest what would become the Bush Administration, the streets were littered with trash and homeless men and women. Their heads rested on arms curled around thick hardcover books. Evenly divided squares of concrete and the sparkle of mosaics panned as the sun danced around our bright yellow school bus.

Maybe I felt small, but for me, this was the first time I’d seen a person sleeping on a sidewalk, and the first urban art I’d admired.

I spent so much of that spring and summer traveling and protesting, that I can’t quite remember where we stayed, or if we drove down for just the day. The march appeared smaller and less organized than the IMF/World Bank protest I attended the previous April. Or maybe it was the infiltration of police into organizers’ offices during the days leading up to the convention, an attempt to break communications and stall the march. Perhaps to some degree it worked, because it was hard to remember why we were there, cracks in the infrastructure on every city block.

For some reason, before our bus made it to the city center, we stopped near a baseball field for an early lunch. We ate in the grass on a hazy Philadelphia morning. One of our fellow travelers brought rice cakes, void of nutrition and sustenance. Cardboard wafers that mocked the city we were in. Maybe there was a little league game going on behind us, and maybe I watched that.

Or maybe it was a vacant lot, yellow grass blanched by the oppressive heat, an unforgiving summer sun, and low budget landscaping. Maybe we were in the ghetto, and the bus driver didn’t know where he was going. Maybe we were running out of gas. Maybe there was litter along the first base line, steel trash cans tipped by rats rummaging. Maybe I don’t remember any of this, except for the lawn chairs and the rice cakes. 

Who were we? With our Zone Bars and vegetarian diets? The thick hardcover books we curled our arms around were written by Howard Zinn, and we carried them in an idealism of entitlement.

We were young, mostly white, mostly middle-class, high school and college students who had no intention of addressing a city we knew little about, or hardly expected to find. We were there because we were going to vote for Nader in the fall, because we were from a Democratic state that could. We didn’t know anything about rubber bullets or revolutions. We were thinkers, poli-sci majors and amateur academics, some of us witnessing urban poverty for the first time.

And we didn’t even share our rice cakes.


It seems November has been a low productivity month for writing, but really, it’s been a month for re-creation and planning, a removal from the spatial tendencies of my attention and a step toward a more linear, logical mind.

July through October has been, for the most part, some weird adult phase of self reflection and development. It also marks the first time in my life that I live alone. Not necessarily “on my own” but singly, without the distractions and warmth of roommates, friends, or romantic partners.

I have wanted my own apartment for two years, but it wasn’t until this past July that I secured a gorgeous studio (almost a one-bedroom) in Chicago’s Ravenswood Neighborhood, overlooking Winnemac Park.

I am reminded of recurring themes as I type this, of walking through Colonial Village in Amherst, Massachusetts six years ago with Pomerantz, saying I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, dabbling with the idea of grad school for arts administration. What I didn’t realize is that somewhere in the not too distant future, I would be working at The Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in arts administration. I no longer work there, but I bring this up because it represents the tangibility of a dream, a simple idea expressed one sunny morning over coffee.

Similarly, three years ago I played a softball game in Winnemac Park with the amazing staff and friends of Early to Bed, the best sex toy store in Chicago. My hair was pulled back in pig tails, excited my batter’s stance remained as strong as it did when I was 12, probably the last time I hit a line drive to second base, and scored. While playing, I realized that I loved the area, loved the park, and imagined living in one of the surrounding buildings overlooking it. In this dreaming, my windows faced west; where I live now, the three main windows of my apartment face north, I have a back porch, and roller skate on clear days through the labyrinth of trails weaving through green space.

It’s refreshing.

This is an exercise on the actualization of dreaming, or maybe even a microcosm of an American Dream as I figure out what I need to keep, and what I need to lose, to get to where I want to be, or the importance of honoring the opposite:

“that we can’t always choose
what we keep and what we
lose” (Adam Grabowski, friend & poet, from ‘Borrowing Books’ in mid-moment).

I have heard many poets and mentors and teachers talk about balance, and I think as we, contemporary America, get older and move from the blinding excitement of our early twenties into our late twenties (and later, into our thirties and forties), our values become more defined, or should, and what we forgive and accept become a necessary defense of who we are, or who we would like to become.

My hope is that the economy comes with me on this one, or that I learn to actualize the creativity and innovation that would enable me to own up to the progressive, feminist, creative person I am.

This might be an early discourse for a new year resolution, but it’s a good place to start.

Because right now, on the verge of winter and Nikki McClure’s November instruction to Generate, living alone means more time to organize, and more time to play with dream cartography.

but most of all the world is a place where parts of wholes are combined

The city never feels more urban than it does today, soft summer hum in the beginning of November, ruffled lace shirts and honey colored naked trees along side streets by highways. Gated stoops to doorways, floral blankets and my body rises to the warmth of exhibitionism, a solid place. Eyeliner pressed to natural creases, the dabble of friendship, charcoal pen damp to the touch of sleepy eyelids.
Women sip tea and coffee on Sunday in ceramic cups, the ones our grandmothers gave us, red berries and stained glass, sea glass.
Katie and I overlook Avondale, one of those city neighborhoods someone might live, but nobody ever goes. The day moves slowly, like the great molasses massacre, a tragedy so beautiful one can only reflect under the weight of something so sweet, so suffering. 
We talk about personal defects, the ones we expect to find. The regrets that seep through our pores, the architecture of our mouths when we find the right words, settling, this time, on no reinvention or pussyfooting, we are clear.
We are the daughters our mothers never told us they would have, our hair the temporary color of auburn. Today we blend, beauty recognized not for its uniqueness, but for its ephemera, my grandmother as she lets me crawl into bed with her on rare November days.

Especially In a Dress

Written in the summer or fall of 2007:

I fell off my bike on Saturday.  It was a nose dive onto the pavement where Elston and Damen Avenues intersect.  Nothing was broken except for maybe my ego, my bike, and the outfit I was wearing. 

I learned how to ride a bike when I was six-years-old. 
The first bike I owned was purple, and I won it at a Christmas party, unable to ride it until the snow melted in spring. It had training wheels and purple and white tassels hanging from handlebars.  At age 25, sometimes I think it’d be fun to have tassels on my bike again (and after last week’s fall, I also have to wonder if maybe training wheels might be a good idea as well…).

As an adult, I’ve been commuter bicycling for nine years.  In fact, I had begun doing so regularly since college.  The semester I graduated, my car’s transmission died,  and knowing that I was moving to Chicago the following fall, I opted to save money and bike around Western Massachusetts instead of buying a new car.  It was great way to prepare myself for biking in a city. Sort of.
Certainly nervous about getting around Chicago and being unfamiliar with, not so much the train systems, but the bus routes (labyrinths I wasn’t ready to tackle), biking was the next best option.  Before I found a job in the city, I would hop on my bike and take random rides down random streets, hoping to find new neighborhoods and fun places and parks.  I quickly learned, however, that Boystown stopped at Belmont Avenue, and that riding the bike lane south down Halsted soon landed me in the Industrial West Loop, and at the first 6-way intersection I’d ever seen.
Needless to say, I was lost for an afternoon trying to figure out where the hell Haslted went, what the hell Milwaukee lead to, and if I even needed to bother with Chicago Avenue at all.
Since those first few fateful months as a bicyclist in a big city, I’ve learned my lesson more than a few times (falling off of my bike, having my bike run-over, getting hit by an SUV, finding myself biking in parts of the city unfamiliar and uninviting, or having my bike stolen), but I still somehow manage to maintain a passion and love for hopping on two wheels once the weather gets warm.  There is nothing like the satisfaction of canceling my Chicago Transit Card every April, saving energy, the environment, and money.
The city of Chicago has encouraged and endorsed bicycling since the late 19th century, and stands as a beacon in the American bicycling industry.  Today, many amateur and commuter bicyclists can be seen cycling the city streets on predominant Schwinn models, a brand built and marketed in Chicago by German inventor, Ignaz Schwinn, in 1895. 
The use of bicycles as public transportation fell during the rise and boom of the automobile (which Ignaz Schwinn took as an opportunity to manufacture motorcycles) but it regained demand during the great depression when the sale of motorbikes plummeted. 
The Schwinn has been called “The Cadillac of American Bicycles”*, and often these are the bicycles you’ll see rebuilt and sold at many of Chicago’s used bicycle shops. Most notably, they can be found at the Working Bike Cooperative located near Roosevelt and Western Avenue, or Nearly New on North Broadway, just south of Uptown.
The Working Bikes Cooperative is a non profit organization that “diverts bicycles from the waste stream in Chicago by repairing them for sale and charity [to the]… Gulf Coast, Cuba, Guatemala, Ecuador, and many other places of need.”
A few years ago, during  the city’s annual Bike to Work Week (BWW), a city-wide event sponsored by the Chicago Bicycle Federation, my bike got run over.  Two years ago,  during BWW, my tire skid on wet pavement and I walked away from the fall with a skinned elbow and bruised knees. One year ago, I was knocked off my bicycle by an SUV.

But because of the history, because it’s environmentally friendly, because of the exhilaration and freedom of getting to where you need to go on your own time, and because it’s always fun to get up after a fall, I continue to ride.

Every year.
Even in winter.
In a city.
Especially in a dress.

 *Schwinn history from Wikipedia.

Unspoken Hollows

The furniture swelled like a knee hit on impact. Everything in the room a red balloon, imposing space. Nothing on the shelves ever asked permission to be there. Trinkets would just show up, brush some other, smaller object aside, set up shop, and bulldoze concern for any intentional placement. A snow bank regardless of meaning.

This is how the arrangement began, two battles: one of ease; one tactic. The fluidity between objects seemed unquestionable, even negotiable, until at night the kitchen cabinets would conspire against the vitamins; the vitamins would crouch in fear, doe-eyed.

They’d never find a home. One day they were in the basket, the next day sitting next to it, replaced by a hammock of bananas and oat bread. How were they supposed to know where they belonged? What right had they to maintain clout, let alone settle in a basket? Times were tough, and it took months before they settled on top of the fridge, unmoved unless popped open and swallowed, Vitamin A-Zinc for breakfast.

Finally, they knew their role.

Things were different in the entryway. The tapestry hung like a post-colonial British jacket, just so and ethnic enough to be cleansing: it claimed the entire region and was rumored to be Armenian. The coat rack had its doubts.

The Turkish icon in the dining hall was a gatekeeper, placed above an archway or door for protection. But it was strategically plotted without symbolism, hung on the wall to the left of the bookcase, alone, eye level, just an object. Its military assignment bent to fail. No one had the heart to tell it how awkward it looked, beady, helpless in the storm. Little did it know it had an army to back it. If only it could communicate freely, the little blue icon would find friends of variant sizes just outside the entry door, pinching pennies in a Mediterranean market.

Sadly, it never got the chance.

The candles in the bathroom were a whole other continent. Burned, rotated, moved, lit, spent, dropped, replaced, declined, forlorn, small flames of translucent orange and blue waning in the dimmed light of a drawn bath. They were comfort to no one, let alone themselves, pensive in every step beyond the door, a brisk movement swept them out.

Toilet paper became a backup plan, a gage of what wasn’t being done. Rolled, replaced, rolled, replaced, cardboard skeleton set on the back of the toilet, interrupting dialogue between hand lotion and exfoliant. “What the fuck are they doing here?” would be discussed by a waft of lavender. Sometimes it took weeks before the rolls found themselves moved to recycling, uncertain of the future, always treated as trash.

This is not to say these items were forgotten, more neglected. A pineapple could sit on the counter for more than a week before slaughter, squared and angled, thick skin like an armadillo’s shell, the frightened glisten of a blade. These were the afternoons, unforgivable, transitions objects never asked for, or prepared to face.

Picture frames drew such animosity on the walls, straight lined, trimmed with a modern frailty, a contemporary compliance. Nothing was to be guild. Shawls draped on reading chairs in the parlor scolded for being comfortable, for daring to intrude on the solitude of scarcity. After all, these were minimalist times, no matter how antique the furniture.

The radiators screeched all winter, pitying their immobility, suffocated the rooms with their stubbornness, their diligence – the only entities with history, omniscient as narrators come. They told nothing of their stories, but railed and banged when left quiet, the chill of frozen pangs unbearable.

They had no say in anything.

1950’s bulbs kept watch over the bedroom, held their shields with dignity and elegance, swore allegiance to the eastern wall. When the war broke out in the kitchen, they kept their post. Nothing would knock down their barrier, crush their spirit. They protected the shimmer of canvas, the ruby dress of a nightingale. Held strong against the bitterest of seasons, tasted the sweet caress of moisture and song. The light made love to the navy, silk blue of summer, flirtation of wind, dance of petals from the flesh of an orchid in the heart of a vulva, the heated pulse of a flower.

The day the rains came the spices were unruly. Packed and organized in baked goods and savory. They spilled themselves all over the counter and begged for mercy. Cabinet doors flew open and slammed shut, demanding attention, a tantrum fit for kings. The L’s were the worst. No one had anticipated their cunning, never mind their existence. Even the saffron had trouble keeping up with their tactics, a passive herb frailer than a vanilla bean.

The L’s had been quiet, laying in wait for a year, a human emblem possessing a species, claiming what vigilant anthropomorphists had been fighting to free for years – the angles of personality and perception, each object it’s own vision.

When the tensions erupted between the cinnamon, the sticks acted as bystanders – they wanted nothing to do with being ground. Still, the fury amounted when the pink container full of fresh cinnamon screamed it was for breast cancer, putting the room at a standstill.

“What did she say?” whispered the rosemary.

Everyone in the room was in disbelief. Even the mirrors had trouble reflecting what had just occurred. That’s when it happened. The pink strip label on the jar raising awareness for breast cancer pulled up its skirt and bared its undergarments, its curved bottom exposed to the air and there, in the middle of its base was scrawled a tiny symbol in permanent marker, scarred and claimed forever.

The shape was that of the aforementioned L, or flipped upside down, the western unit 7. When more of the spices began to expose themselves in a similar fashion, bare ass in the early morning, surrendering their tails as a pitiful last ditch effort of defense, the unmarked objects knew they had won. The war was over, and at last the hostages were able to secede to calmer the regions of generosity. The bolted door breezed open, and for the first time in a year, repression lifted and materialism ended.

None of the objects in any adjacent room knew quite what the horrible symbol stood for, or why it attacked the cinnamon first, then spread to the baking powder, basil, nutmeg, tarragon, lemon pepper, and oregano. The vitamins on the fridge counted their blessings the disgruntled cabinets had been such disagreeable hosts, lest they be marred by the tracking symbol themselves, “Thank Goodness!” they cried.

There was little talk of the human branding incident for years, till finally, when it was safe to tell the story as lore, variants of the tale traveled through pipes of old homes, scaring containers of discontented powders, keeping peace between apartment buildings as warning. No object ever thought it would happen to them, but then, there might be a reason radiators in aged buildings squeal louder than they used to, fearing the rivals of forced air so alarmingly, unable to keep their secrets much longer, wary of their own extinction, bracing corners, waiting.

The Confines of an Orbit

The flood of azul against the core of the sun, a filtration system for calm. Miranda paints the gate, now mucked by mud at the bottom where splinters are most wet. Where here, a little dog lifts its leg to piss into a post that sinks into the crust. The grass is not tended, the earth trodden where heavy boots step. Where here, there is no relief, she carries baskets, plants roses, paces the confines of an orbit, the agitation of small space.


I like the way the days form structure around the weather. The lift and breath of weekends long awaiting late night conversations next to camp fires or Sherman’s Grillin’ Beans (since 1908). Waking up to Wilco and songs that orchestrate memory and good freedom. Last night Pressure Drop picked up a broken wing and I danced alone along the brick patio, quietly for awhile till the air shift and everyone shuffled inside to darts, poker, and baseball. I rode home slowly, empty cookie tin and change of clothes in my backpack, taking routes through the city that have become my backyard.

A month ago I demanded summer, wanted the fresh expulsion of lawn mowers and people in parks. People talk on subways and say hello on sidewalks and dance on subway platforms when the train takes so long. The good things about the quadruple seasons: there’s always room to change, always room to recede and progress. The months in the Midwest are longer, the politics structured, breakable, but home. I miss being cupped by the rolling hills and open pleasure of the east, the easy going nature of anger: forgivable. But I like the yellow grains of the prairie, the flat lands that express outward space. There’s too much room to grow, but so much room to maintain open. I am distracted by the city, by an inability to close up shop. Socialization that bridges networks like high tension wires that don’t cause headaches, or sever the ones that do.

It is May, near June rolling into July. I plaster a stamp on the month that says middle, listen to the yellow finches that hide in the trees when I look for them. It it summer, it is four weeks away. It is the best time to fly east, to camp out with family in backyards missed since Christmas, or the fourth of July.

I cry for the calm rest of the Atlantic, the breaking waves against the Norther Maine bays. The carriage of routes and rocks and conifers and the highways you know without a compass, the directions you close your eyes to find. Travel blindfold through the tops of mountain ridges, hawks circle the clouds around you.

When you look out you see no houses, just trees like cushions ready to catch you if you fall.