Methods & Muses Vol. 4
Points of Interest, Points of View
Beaded Travel Charm by Deb Laier
To decide if a house would be her home, author Alice Walker followed her name. She walked into every room, looking out each window. She needed to know where she would write.
I have never owned a house, but I have followed Alice’s advice each time I’ve moved into a new rental, or in some cases, each time I’ve stayed somewhere temporarily. I’m laughing at that last clause, because everywhere has felt temporary, whether I’ve stayed for 4-5 years, only a few months or just an hour.
I’ve always needed a window, like Alice, like many writers.
My friend Rita worked as a journalist, her desk in the center of a wide, open staff room. One day, Rita’s boss called her into his office. He scolded her for ‘getting up too much and walking around, walking to the window and just standing there.’ He didn’t understand.
My poet friend Melissa understood. She said, “A lot of writing is this,” and then she stared out the window, seemingly doing nothing, but I knew she was hearing lines. I knew she needed to look into the distance, feel the blurry to write.
I have been in my current house since March. As the calendar year draws to a close, as I look out this window and wait, I am thinking about all of my windows. I have the privilege of this space and time, so I want to thank the windows where I have written, the fauna and flora outside them, the birth places of my writing.
1. My childhood bedroom window in Wisconsin…Thank you, maple, for supporting my swing, chokecherry for your berries, fieldstone for marking my dog’s grave, cornfield for being a maze for my brothers and me and meadow for the dirt to bury wild birds. Thank you, forests for being both playground and shelter, for supporting me as I wrote my first poems. Open window, you were wide enough to let me sneak my cat in, so she could have her kittens under my bed. You allowed soft sounds through- whippoorwills, geese, wind, snow, dog and cat voices, informing me then, weaving now through the pages of my poems.
2. My teenage window in suburban Florida… Thank you, tiny lizards for scampering and sticking out your bright orange throats, ibis for the sound of your grazing and black racer snakes for gliding beneath my window, making me fall in love with you. Open window, a lot of restless poems came through you, and while they were not my best, they were foundations, and as I grew, learning to revise and edit (and revise and edit) those foundations became more relatable, workable themes and tones within my work.
3. Bedroom window of my first apartment in Minneapolis… Thank you, kids in the park for giggling and playing on the swings and merry-go-round. Open window, you were where I wrote my poem, “Vase” and read Carolyn Kizer’s poem, “Semele Recycled.” Because of you and her work, I wrote cathartic, body poems, performing them, letting go, until they landed in my novella, A Thousand Howls in Silver Air.
4. Cabin in New Mexico with only three walls…Thank you, fourth “window” of mountain air for the scent of pinons and campfire, for inspiring my poem, “Girl Scout Camp.” I would later make this into a handmade book, submit it as part of my portfolio for grad school, and revise it, until it graced Howls, becoming a poem about a girl and the desert she needed.
5. First solo apartment in Tampa, studio window off the kitchen…Thank you, palm trees and neighbor’s small orange grove. Thank you, afternoon light, always green and glistening. Forgive me, bees inside the wall for telling my landlord about you. I want to believe that all of you found a better place for your hive, but I don’t know this for sure. I am sorry for any pain or disorientation I caused you. I know it’s not much, but please accept my poem-song, “Flower Dust, Orchard Light.” It is music now, for you. Thank you, window, for being the first place where I found courage to heal my broken heart.
6. My garage apartments/ studio windows of central Tampa…Thank you, palm, lemon and avocado trees. Thank you, neighborhood cats, especially my loves, Magic and Tramp. Thank you, opossums and snakes. Thank you, Florida skies for your thunderclouds and pastel sunsets that go on forever. Open studio windows, you were the quiet places where I could sip my wine, let go of my students’ voices and hear my own. Thank you, Branch Avenue garage apartment, for being the place where I heard the first line of Howls.
7. First solo Chicago apartment…Thank you, single oak tree for keeping Tramp and me connected to nature in the middle of a big city. Thank you, neighbors from Mexico for your lovely language and music. Brownstone window, you helped me get through my first semester of grad school. You helped me create all the art, writing and music, especially “Pale Blue Dress,” a central image that became a chapter within Howls. Thank you, most of all, for being part of the building where I met my love, my art partner for life.
8. North Carolina bungalow and Blam Studio…Thank you, front porch “window,” for the view of pines, dogwoods and crepe myrtle trees, for being the place where I could hang petunias and invite neighborhood cats to sleep on my sofa. Front porch, my symbol of tenderness and welcome, versions of you inspired some of the settings in my novella. Garden of many tomatoes, thank you, for helping me write the first of what would become a book full of minute poems. Blam studio, you were the place where Hannah and I played, where I wrote poetry on abaca eggs, and where I typed pages from Howls, hanging them up and seeing, for the first time, how the poetry and the prose could connect. Thank you.
9. Apartments in Maryland and D.C…Thank you, #1022, for being the place where my neighbors were my best friends, witty writers and readers who knew how to cook, tell stories, dance, belly laugh, and offer feedback on Howls. Thank you, #706, for the views of red tile roofs, glorious sunsets with the National Cathedral in the distance, and yes, for the consistent airplanes, because seeing them every dusk gave me just enough courage to fly over the Atlantic.
10. Dunkerstrasse apartment in Berlin…Thank you, my balcony “window”, for the views of Hemholtz Platz, the apothecary, the shops and cafes, warm lights of other apartments at night, and for being the place where I celebrated Rosh Hashana with Laurel, toasting life and the art of conversation. Thank you, Ursa Major for being so close and clear, lavender and cosmos for inviting the bees. Thank you, naked neighbor, for waving and bidding me, Guten Morgen, as you watered your flowers. Thank you, balkons, most of all, for being in the city where I could devote more hours to Howls than ever before, where I would learn some of my ancestral history, and where I could meet three brilliant writers who would become life-long friends.
11. First New York apartment, treehouse windows…Thank you, rock walls, for providing a structure for animals to run and jump. Thank you, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, mink, turtle, cats (especially Tux), Husky dog, deer and fox, all who crossed here. Thank you bats, always, for surviving. I love the way you fly. Thank you, blossoms of the Rose of Sharon, for inviting the butterflies and bees. Thank you, snag, for providing a perch for the ospreys, hawks and vultures. Thank you tree that fell and purring screech owl in the night. I heard you. Thank you, all the trees in the little back woods, maple in the front for inviting the starlings. Treehouse, you were a place of music, dancing, laughter and healing. You housed the digital space where I met my editor-poet and cherished friend, Athene, a place where we could work, making structural and line edits to Howls. You were the place where I learned to walk again. Thank you.
12. Current New York studio window and witchy closet window…Thank you, cedars for providing places for the squirrels, hawks, songbirds and neighborhood cats to perch. Thank you, black cherry trees for inviting the hummingbirds and clover for calling the bees. Maples, thank you for your summer green and autumn yellow. Thank you, deer and foxes and dogs for all of your visits. Thank you, little woods, just for being here. Windows, thanks to you, The Dwindlers have completed a new album of music and poetry. Thanks to you, I am learning how best to share my writing, how to sing and how to be still.
13. Matthew’s Studio Shed picture window…If it weren’t for this sacred place, and my brother, Matthew, I may have never had the courage to sing in front of anyone else. Thank you, Matthew, for all the songs, especially, “Red River Valley” and “Down on the Corner.” Thank you for turning me on to Vingie E. Roe, and her story, “Shadows of Granite Ridge: At Kunman's Bend.” Howls needed this influence, the protective nature of canines, for a stronger ending. Thank you for being my dance partner for all the Skipper’s gigs, especially Nervous Turkey. Thank you for every early morning conversation, Marcy listening party, the kittens, the badminton, the fire. I love you, brother-best friend.
Briefer Windows - Cars, Trains, Bicycles
I’ve only owned two cars, both Pontiacs- a 1989 named Cory and a 1999 named Ruby.
When I traveled by car in my 20’s and 30’s, I used a paper map. I liked pulling over, unfolding it on a picnic table, touching it with my fingers. With paper, I could easily see the colors- red line highways, dots for points of interest, grey lines for back roads, blue line rivers, yellow city shapes, green splashes for parks. I don’t travel as much by car now, but I have fond memories of my trips. Those hours on the road, with the world passing by the car windows, shaped my work and me.
Cory and I drove all over the United States- from Florida to Minneapolis and back twice, from Minneapolis to New Mexico, and then New Mexico across Texas back to Florida. On that last trip, my friend Laura and I stopped in Houston where we saw an exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s work. Her paintings stayed with me for years, teaching me to think of the body as a place, a home that defines. Frida’s work brought forth poems and a chapter in Howls. Also on that trip, Laura and I experienced the generosity of a stranger in Georgia who took us in during a storm. We called her our angel. Her name was Debbie, and a chapter to her kindness and wisdom also landed in Howls. Thank you, Laura, Debbie and Frida. Thank you, Cory.
Road trips wouldn’t be road trips without music, so I must thank the songwriters who carried me across the miles and then dropped in to support Howls. Thank you for riding along (on cassette): Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, The Aquanettas, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Filé, Dire Straits, Tammy Wynette, Queen Latifah, Miles Davis, Concrete Blonde, The Feelies, The Gear Daddies, The Silos, T Rex, John Prine, Kate Bush, Rikki Lee Jones, Soul Asylum and Nick Drake.
Ruby carried me from Florida back out to New Mexico and Arizona. I needed to camp in the Painted Desert and cry at the beauty of the Grand Canyon. Ruby also carried me to work and back, to pub or performance venue and back. Through her windows, I heard too many poems to count. One night, I drove Ruby to a favorite pub where my friend and I saw a band called Homer Erotic. She and I danced for the last time, and an ending chapter in Howls marks this night. When it was time to leave Florida, and move to cities where cars weren’t as necessary, I let Ruby go to a student of mine who took care of her until it was her time to rest. Thank you, Ruby.
I used to ride trains, city trains and Amtraks with names like the California Zephyr, Capital Limited, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Lakeshore Limited and Silver Meteor. A poem where I describe these experiences, and what I learned of train history, landed in Howls, so thank you, train windows. Thank you, Northeast Corridor, for being the train where I read Marilyne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and EuroCity train from Berlin to Prague, where I heard the first lines to The Dwindlers’ song, “Dekuji Praha.”
Now, I ride bicycles. Counting my childhood Huffy, also named Ruby, I have had six bikes. Of my adult bikes, two were stolen, one fell apart, and I sold one to a good friend when we moved to Germany. My current is a mountain bike named Addy. I love her. As someone with fragile hips, I know biking is a gift. Thank you, Ruby for inspiring a poem of healing within Howls. Thank you, Addy for supporting me on every trail in Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. Thank you for accepting your current position as a stationary bike, for letting me cry as I pedal, dreaming of the people and trails I still want to see.
Briefer Windows - Parks and Cafes
As I was journaling toward this volume of M&M, my early morning writing unveiled new ideas, as it thankfully always does. I was writing about outside spaces, specifically forest floors, beaches, picnic tables and park benches. I considered inside spaces, writing about my vintage table, how I left it North Carolina, how I hope it’s still being put to good use in Blam Studio. I wrote about how much I love my current desk, because it has hairpin legs and looks like a mid-century Herman Miller, and how before this, how much I loved my little school desk.
My little school desk was beautiful. It had a polished surface with a dip to keep pens in place and a pocket cubby to store my notebooks. As an homage to my students, my life as a teacher, I decorated it with jacks and toy wooden blocks, and it fit perfectly under the living room window of our apartment in D.C. Now, it overlooks a train track in Virginia. My good friend, Allen, uses it, and I’m happy to say, it is still playfully graced with Winnie the Pooh and Count von Count.
I’m also happy to say that I currently cherish another school desk. It is tiny and solid, and I love it! The legs are dark metal, and the heavy oak top lifts with a squeak. It has a dip for pencils, an actual inkwell and a matching tiny chair. When we were living in Maryland, my good friend (and next-door neighbor) Nick, told me that his mom was cleaning out some things, getting rid of a few antiques. Like me, Kim had attended Catholic school. Somehow, she was able to inherit the very desk where she had studied for years, and she wanted it to have a new home. Nick and Allen carried Kim’s desk and chair from their apartment to ours. I still smile, thinking of them walking with the tiny desk and chair in their arms.
Over the years, I’ve scribbled and typed on many different surfaces, and I’ve read in various places. I owe a lot to picnic benches and coffee shop tables. So, thank you…
Hillsborough State Park, where I read Sula. Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for the poetry of your voice, your characters, Sula and Nell, and for having Nell say, ‘We was girls together.’ Thank you, palmettos, moss, and olive-green light of Florida autumn.
Three Birds Bookstore and Café, where I read Lost in Translation. Thank you, Ms. Hoffman, for sharing your experience of living with two countries, two languages inside you and for using my favorite word, deliquesce. Thank you, Cindy and Val for providing the coffee and the supportive atmosphere, so I could read for my first open mic.
Lettuce Lake Park, where I read The Color Purple. Thank you, Ms. Walker, for writing a book of letters that alternate between the voices of women, women who are tender with each other. Thank you, alligators and cotton mouths for being close as I read.
Lake Harriet, where I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Thank you, Ms. Flagg, for writing the characters, Idgy and Ruth, for finding a voice for their love story. Thank you, Minnesota winter sunsets for sending me colors through the gray.
Loring Park, where I read Love Medicine. Thank you, Ms. Erdrich, for holding and honoring so many voices, for the stories you heard and retold, for exposing wounds and healing them again. Thank you, ducklings and goslings for being fuzzy and staying close.
Café Wyrd, where I read House on Mango Street. Thank you, Ms. Cisneros, for your character Esperanza, for introducing me to her through vignettes. Thank you, Kim, for the coffee and the most welcoming hangout.
Perfect Cup, where I read Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems 1956-1958. Thank you, Mr. Cohen, for “Suzanne Takes You Down.” Thank you, Ann, for the coffee, for showing my art work, for being the place where Kelly and I wrote and giggled for hours and where Benjamin and I had our first date.
Tryst, where I read Bitter in the Mouth. Thank you, Ms. Truong, for writing the relationship between your narrator, Linda, and her friend, Kelly, for the sacred trust between them. Thank you, Tryst, for the frozen Dirty Chai’s, animal crackers and for staying open during the snow storm.
Shakespeare and Sons, where I read Just Kids. Thank you, Ms. Smith, for your poetry and voice, for writing a complex, honest, delicate love story between artists. Thank you, Laurel and Roman, for the flat whites and rugelach, for providing a haven for me to write and for The Raumerstrasse Writers to meet.
Think Coffee, where I finished the first draft of Howls. Thank you, baristas, for the cortados and the perfect music, perfect atmosphere. Thank you, fashionable New Yorkers. I loved watching you, especially your shoes. Your flurry energy will stay with me, no matter where I go next.
Most of all, in this list of cafes, thank you, my vital, Muddy Water. I wrote at the beloved red table for hours every week, before the world turned upside down. You were where I wrote the longest poem within Howls, where I met my lucky cherry poet, Loretta, my avocado juggling poet friend, George, and my attentive, philosophical friend, Linton.
Thank you, Linton, for conversations by the fire at Loretta’s salons, for pondering the human and post-human condition, for mourning the loss of Leonard Cohen, and for asking me, in regards to the poem I wrote for my dancer friend, “Has she read it yet?”
Thank you, George, for all of the Sundays at the JCC, for supporting Benjamin and me, giving us a space to perform, for every poet you introduced me to and for every stimulating salon conversation after the readings.
Thank you, Loretta for your deep and generous heart, for supporting my work as writer and performer, both solo and with Born in Snow, for reading the early draft of Howls and giving me feedback, for performing with me (Your voice is buttery too), for your salons, and for all of our lunch conversations.
I don’t know where I am going next, where my next windows will be. I don’t have it figured out, but I am trying to stay open. I am trying to learn, to help and heal.
My environmentalist poet friend, Mary Silwace, feels this. Drawing inspiration from poet, Mary Oliver, she writes in her blog, “I write poetry and essays and garden and try to allow the world to break my heart enough so I can be useful.”
Thank you, Mary.
May you all see the world outside your windows and let it break your heart.