Monday, December 19, 2016

For the Babies

Since mid-November it has been pretty difficult to feel optimistic about the immediate future of the country, something exacerbated by the realization that the electoral college will be voting to day, making real what seemed a bad dream.
Not withstanding that,  there is something that still gives me a great deal of optimism - our children.  Counting extended family, we have been able to welcome in five new members this year and watched a couple more grow into their first year:  Daisie, Ari, Cooper, June, Mila, Gabriel and Caroline. 

They literally come from the corners of the country Seattle, Buffalo, Tennessee, California, Illinois.  Facebook certainly has it downsides, but being able to look at their faces coming from all of these different directions and seeing the joy that they have brought into so many lives gives me hope that when they adults, they’ll be able to break down barriers and see themselves not as fans of particular football team, cheerleaders for  a certain state or inhabitants of a particular country but as members of the world.  I’d love to think that by the time they are grown Daisie, June or Caroline could actually be elected president of the United States, that gender, race, ethnicity, class and religious belief will no longer be barriers to equality, neither legally nor in our minds.  Of course, John Lennon thought the same thing back when he wrote “Imagine” 45 years ago, but having been brought up in the 60’s I still have some residual idealism left in me.  We all hope that our children will be better people than we are, or perhaps more accurately, take what is best from us.  I have to laugh every time I read the first few lines of Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse:”

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they have
And add some extra, just for you.

It’s basically true.   Still, as we are about to head into another year, I am hoping that “the angels of our better nature” can still prevail.  It may not be through us, but through our children.  We are so lucky to have these seven fledglings to our family with us as we turn the last page of this year’s calendar and head into the future.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Elvera - at the Milennium

A few minutes ago, I was looking in my computer down the corridors of old files I had forgotten about and came upon a poem about Mom apparently written on the eve of Pat's wedding, that I'd abandoned and forgotten about.  It is not a great poem, but something about it rang true.  I'm just posting it on an impulse.

Elvera - at the Milenium

At fourteen she was lent out to an uncle to pay a debt
Scrubbing floors, cooking, ironing clothes.
At sixteen after the flood and the failed farm
She was made to quit school to support her family
Her dreams of being a teacher washed away
Like everything else the flood had taken
And in its wake came seven children and ill health
Months waiting for her husband’s ship to come home…

The night before her grandson’s wedding we play dominoes
Son, granddaughters, daughter-in- law, friends
Their fingers soft with wealth, no match
For her stubborn persistance.
She laughs at a bad hand,
Saying no one should win every game.
But waits until we gain our confidence
Then coming from behind, plays the winning score.

No one beats her.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Halloween Costume Match

Just for fun, can you match each grandchild from the Northen clan with their costume.

Amelia                                   Ninja
Jack                                      Ladybug
Andrew                                  Peter Pan
Liam                                      Cheetah
Maggie                                  Chupacabra
Owen                                     Michael Phelps
Daisie                                    Dinosaur

Additional question – Can you figure out the missing grandchild (hint – it isn’t Grace).

 * * *

Look at the picture below for the answers.

In case you could not tell, from the picture, here are the answers.

 Daisie (ladybug), Owen (dinosaur), Maggie (cheetah), Liam (Michael Phelps), Andrew (ninja), Jack (chupacabra), Amelia (Peter Pan).  Missing: Connor.   

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Even Harder Family History Quiz

1. The first few generations of Northens in this country were planters. What did they raise?
(a) tobacco, (b)rice, (c)cotton, (d)indigo            

2. Which of these was not a war that members of the Northen family in Virginia fought in?
(a) Revolutionary War, (b) War of 1812, (c) Civil War, (d) World War I

3.  Our ancestor Edmund Northen was noted for taking people to court and being taken to court in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. How did he pay his court fines?
(a) in shillings, (b) in dollars, (c0) in Virginia currency, (d) in tobacco

4. Mattie’s family, the Lewis family, came to this country in the 1650’s. To which famous Lewis in our family related?
(a) Sinclair Lewis, (b) Lewis Carrol, (c) Merriweather Lewis, (d) John L. Lewis

5. Ed Wilkins parents are unknown, but his wife Katie came from an extensive family.  What was Katie’s last  name?
(a)Sitzman, (b) Ryman, (c) Zell, (d) Bossley

6. Everyone knows that Elvera Northen had a sister who was a nun – Sr. Karen. What was Sr. Karen’s real name?
(a) Mary, (b) Elaine, (c) Laverna, (d) Alice

7. The language that the Ryman family spoke when they came to the United States from Switzerland was______?
(a) English, (b) Italian, (c) German, (d) Swiss

8. The Ryman family originally came over from Switzerland and ended up in South Dakota, but where did they live first?
(a) Massachusetts, (b) Missouri, (c) Minnesota, (d) New York

9.  The Sitzman family came over from Germany and ended up in Iowa,  but what state did they live in first?
(a) Pennsylvania, (b) Wisconsin, (c) Virginia, (d)Texas

10. Members of the Northen family were involved in what historical body?
(a) First Continental Congress, (b) Sons of Liberty, (c) House of Burgesses, (d) NAACP

Answers are below.

This was a tough one. If you got five or more right congratulate yourself.

1. a
2. d
3. d
4. c
5. a
6. d
7.  c
8.  d
9.  b

10. c

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Family History Quiz 2 - Slightly Harder

I was delighted that so many of you who took the “The Easiest Family History Quiz Ever” got a perfect score.  (Though as Maura pointed out, given available information, question #7 could have had several correct answers.)  In view of the fact that so many of you did so well, here is one that is a big more challenging – but not ridiculously so. 

1. James Northen’s father  was M. C. Northen. What did the M.C. stand for?
(a) Michael Connor, (b) Marcellus Crocker, (c) Martin Chuzzlewick, (d) Melchior Christian.

2. Elvera Northen’s father Victor Wilkins had an unusual middle name.  What was it?
(a) Valentine,  (b) Hannibal, (c) Johann, (d) Cleveland.

3. Victor Wilkins’ father, Ed Wilkins, ran a store in Kingsley, Iowa.  What did he sell?
(a) insurance,  (b)  home goods,     (c) real estate,      (d) farm implements

4. James Northen’s mother Mattie died when he was eleven years old.  How did she die?
(a) heart attach,  (b) trampled by a horse,  (c) in childbirth,  (d) drowning

5. Mattie Northen’s last name before marriage was (a) Wilkins,  (b) Lewis, (c) Cook, (d) Northern

6.From the time that the first man in the Northen family came to Virginia in 1636, most of the men in the Northen family have made their living by ________________.
(a) fishing and crabbing, (b) raising chickens, (c) tobacco farming,  (d) selling moonshine

7.  The Wilkins family moved from South Dakota to California during which historical event?
(a) Civil War reconstruction, (b) World War I, (c) the great depression,  (d) World War II

8.  Elvera Northen had a sister, Elaine, two years older than her, who died at age 16.  What was the cause of her death?
(a) diabetes,  (b) typhoid fever,  (c) polio,  (d) food poisoning

9.  When Elvera Northen’s great grandfather Melchior Ryman arrived in the United States from Switzerland, he Americanized his first name.  What did he call himself?
(a) Melvin,  (b) Marcellus,  (c) Michael, (d) Mathew

10.  Believe it or not, one of Elvera Northen’s grandchildren was named after her and has Elvera for a middle name.  Who is it?
(a) Brandi, (b) Lindsey, (c) Maya, (d) Molly

Answers are below.  A score of 7 or higher means you have a pretty good handle on Northen family history.



1. b
2. a
3. d
4. d
5. b
6. c
7. c
8. a
9. c
10. d

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Easiest Family History Quiz Ever

1.   James Northen was born in ___________.
(a) Washington, D. C. ,  (b) Virginia,  (c) North Carolina,  (d) California

2. Elvera Northen was born in  ___________.
(a) Iowa,  (b) California,  (c) Virginia,  (d) South Dakota

3. In James E. Northen’s name, the E. stands for ___________.
(a) Evans,  (b) Edward,  (c) Elvis,  (d) Ernest

4.  Everyone knows that Elvera Northen hated her first name, but what was her middle name ____________.
(a) Ann,  (b) Catherine,  (c) Lucille,  (d) Odelia

5. What branch of the military was James Northen in?
(a) Army,  (b) Marines, (c) Air Force, (d) Navy

6. What was Elvera Northen’s last name at birth?
(a) Lewis,  (b) Sitzman, (c) Wilkins,  (d) Ryman

7.  Most of Elvera Northen’s ancestors came from __________
(a) England, (b) Switzerland, (c) Ireland, (d) Germany

8. What famous World War II event did James Northen witness?
(a) the bombing of Pearl Harbor
(b) the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima
(c ) the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima
(d) the Normandy D-day invasion

9.  What was the occupation of most of Elvera Northen’s ancestors?
(a) sharecroppers, (b) coal miners, (c) farmers, (d) soldiers

10.  For generations, Northen family men have been plagued by _________
(a) obesity,  (b) poverty, (c) pre-mature baldness, (d) alcoholism

Answers below.


1.  b
2. d
3. b
4. b
5. d
6. c
7. d
8. a
9. c
10. d

If you got 9-10 correct, you are ready for something tougher. If you got less than 6 correct, you don’t know a lot about the family yet.  Maybe reading the Northen History blog would help.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

10 Objects

Recently I was sitting at my computer lacking in creativity, but with the urge to write when I started thinking about the recent influx of books with titles such as A History of the United States in 100 Objects that substitute collage for traditional linear narrative.  The idea is that looking at a number of objects or events allows a writer to convey the flavor of an era without actually having to come up with any kind of actual analysis.  Given that imagination had abandoned me, it seemed like the perfect scaffolding that I needed.  I looked around the room in which I work, colloquially known as “the library” in my family, and thought that, indeed, the objects that one surrounds one with (assuming they are not just for show) taken as a collage, does give a pretty good flavor of the person who occupies it.  As an exercise for myself, I have come up with the following piece, “Ten Objects in My Library.”

Cribbage board – The cribbage board sitting in front of me was given to me by my daughter Maura. It has a wooden bear carved into the side that recalls its origin in the state of Washington.  Cribbage is one of those games that takes me back to childhood.  I can’t remember when I learned but it was at least as far back as when I was in sixth grade because my parents definitely played then.  Though it is generally a two person game and I could play with either my Mom or Dad, when my brother Steve got old enough we would play doubles. Cribbage was one of those games that always brought joy to my mother.  Even when she was old and could barely see, she would still say that she could beat the pants off of me. And she was right.  If I want to smile, I just think of Mom playing cribbage.  At one time I think that all of my kids new how to play but now my only partner is Maya, and, of course, she has her own life.  When she comes to stay for a couple of days, though, we will get out the cribbage board early in the morning. With are both competitive card plays, so our games never fail to make us laugh as we talk about how all of our various strategies failed.  I’m glad that she is carrying on the tradition.

Sculpture – On a shelf eye-level with me between the end of the bookshelf and a bookend that holds the books I used for my doctoral dissertation is a ceramic sculpture of a woman from the shoulders up.  Her skin is the color of cream, her hair back in a bun and she wears a necklace like a choker.  The sculpture was made for me by my daughter Melissa. It has a vague resemblance to her and I am reminded of her whenever I turn to look at it.  It reminds me that Melissa, in addition to being talented in music has tried her hands at all kinds of artistic endeavors.  Like me, she is a bit of a short distance runner. She gets fired up about a new endeavor and it occupies her thoughts non-stops, then at some point a new interest grabs her and she moves on to something else.

World Map – Behind me on the wall is a large World Map given to me by Pat and his family for Christmas over a decade ago.  It reads “The World Travels of Mike and Lora Northen.”  It is dotted with red pushpins that stand for all the places that we have visited together and a blue flag for our next destination, which right now is stuck in Puerto Rico for our upcoming family trip this summer.  There are options for “dream travel destinations” (yellow pins) and favorite destination.  Neither of these latter are marked – and for a similar reason.  I can not really decide which are best or where my dream destinations would be.  I loved Botswana, Jordan and Peru but there have been many wonderful times in other places.  I think for example of on our trip to Prague when Melissa and I went in to see an Mozart’s Opera “Don Juan” in its original venue or when I saw Pearl Harbor and where my father’s boat had been on the day of the attack. As for dream destinations, there are many places that I would like to go.  I think of Australia but also simply of being able to go to Idaho and spend time with my brother Ed.  In a certain sense, it does not really matter since despite all of the pins in the map, very few (if any) are from places that I decided that I wanted to go to.  Many are trips that Lora and I were fortunate enough to be able to go to because of Maya’s travel conferences. Still others are tied to trips that Lora was able to take through her work and bring me along on.  A few were family vacations, but they were all (as is the one in Puerto Rico), vacations where Lora took the lead and planned them. That is not to say that I did not have input, but it was pretty much embroidery.  Most of the red pins are in the United States or Europe, but there are a few in South America, Africa and the Middle East. Asia is bare, though. Maybe that should be the dream trip.

Picture of Mom – On my right on the bottom row of the book shelf next two ten years forth of Wordgathering is a framed black and white picture of my mom as a one year old. She is naked other than a diaper which can’t be seen from the position in which she is sitting.  She has a round face topped with very blond hair that seems to be blown by the wind to her right side.  She is seated on towel or blanket in a large prairie-like field of dry grass.  Her tongue is sticking out and in her hand she is holding the handle of an object that she is pressing against her tongue with a mischievous expression or an expression of daring on her face.  She is squinting from the sun which shines on her face and her round Buddha belly.  The picture is actually an enlargement that my Eli made for me as a gift from an older print.  It keeps me grounded, letting me realize something of where Mom came from that she, too, was a child at one time.  (In the room - it is actually set in counterpoint to a pencil drawing that Eli made of Mom in her twenties from a black white photo.)

Plants – To the left, on the window sill, sitting above the radiators is a plastic box divided into 32 spaces (4 x 8) with a lid that will close over it and snap.  The individual boxes are filled with potting soil and from some of them, plant seedlings stick up.  I call this box my seed box.  One of the uses, the more practical one, is to be able to start seeds inside before the weather outside is ready for me to do so, but the more exciting one is the experimental uses to which I put it.  I test out seeds.  The bulk of the seeds are seeds that I have collected from food or flowers grown the previous year, as well old seeds purchased in various places in the past.  I chart the seeds to see if they are still viable or not and which ones I should grow next year.  Even more exciting to me, though is testing out any new seeds that I have collected from various places that I have traveled during the year.  It is a case of where native curiosity trumps environmental concerns.  While I know that plants should be left in the environment in which they grow best and don’t do any damage to a new environment they are put into, I am fascinated to see what will grow and just how it will look as it is growing.  It is also a nostalgic endeavor since when things do grow, it reminds me of places that I have been and trips that I taken to see family.  Many don’t last, but some do, such as the red swamp mallow from a trip down to Roanoke Island many years ago.

Picture of Maya – Up near the top of the bookshelf is a 5 x 7 picture of  Maya, that is sliding slightly downward in an old cardboard frame.  In the picture Maya is probably about ten years old. She is wearing a purple coat with her long hair flowing over her shoulders. She appears to be leaning sideways against a mirror because to her left is a perfect reflection of her to which she seems almost attached.  In reality, the picture was taken up at the top of the Empire State Building in New York and she is leaning against the glass barrier between the inside of the building and the viewing deck beyond.  It was the first time I had ever been to the top of the Empire State Building, many years before any of us traveled abroad.  Only a year or so later, I used this picture for the cover of a chapbook that I put out when I was editing Chimera.  I think that almost everyone in the family has forgotten but in the early 1990’s, prior to ever getting involved with Inglis House or Wordgathering, I founded and edited a quarterly magazine for young poets called Chimera that lasted two or three years.  In addition to the magazine itself, I printed a summer chapbook that featured the work of four teenage writers who seemed to show a lot of promise.  The first one was called The Girl in the Glass.

Puzzle – On the large wooded work table behind me is a jigsaw puzzle that I am in the midst of working.  It is called Northen Family Puzzle #2 and is a 1000 piece puzzle that I had created from a collage of about twenty five family photographs that I put together.  To at least as far back as when I was in the fifth grade my family had puzzles in the house.  By the time that we moved to the family’s eventual final home in Orange, we would frequently have a card table set up in the dining room with a puzzle on it.  As various family members walked by they would stop and try to find a piece of the puzzle and, addictive personality that I am, a quick stop to find one piece could easily turn into half an hours.  Just a few years ago, for some reason I picked up a puzzle in a store and the addition was renewed.  It was taken to great heights, however, when I realized that I could create my own and have it made.  I am not in the least creative, but what I am good at is organizing.  I love taking material and reshaping it, forming into something new, especially if it helps to being out new associations or relationships.  I started by creating puzzles for some of my children by searching through old photographs (research and archiving are other passions of mine) to try to create a visual impression of their lives.  Then I went on to creating some for myself about family vacations or just the family in general.  In this last one, I tried to include all of my children and grandchildren as well as Lora and my mom, getting in at least two pictures of each and, by in large, showing amusing or interesting situations.  In working them, I love looking at the faces of each person in the puzzle, remembering the times that we spent in the particularly situation that that photograph depicts. 

Frame of BIAV Flyer – Directly behind my right shoulder on the wall is a framed picture of a promotional flyer for Beauty is a Verb, complete with book cover, blurbs and my name as one of the authors.  Lora printed it out and had it framed for me.  Of all the objects around the room, it is probably the one that reflects more than any other something that I have personally accomplished.  I think that everyone knows the story.  I was on a conference panel – my first ever – for AWAP called Beauty is a Verb.  I’d been invited by Sheila Black to be on the panel because of my work on Wordgathering.  I was the only male member of the panel. Just prior to the panel itself we went out to breakfast (Maya was there with me) and in passing mentioned the possibility of an anthology.  Shortly after returning home from the conference, I found out that I needed to have heart surgery.  I delayed the surgery for a couple of weeks while we had our family trip to Spain.  After having the surgery on my return, I came home from the hospital to a message that Sheila and Jennifer Bartlett had started on an anthology and wanted me to join them.  A year later in 2011, the book came out.  In many ways, it has validated muc of the work I have done over the past years.  Having a book that I could walk into a book store and be able to see on the shelf finally made me feel like a real writer.  Since then, according to World Cat, the book has been included in over 430 libraries around the world.  

iPod – To my left on the bottom shelf is a small, black round iPod station.  It is empty now which means that the iPod itself (an old one) is up in the kitchen where I was probably listening to music while cooking.  I have had this one forever – I think that Lora originally got it for me for a Christmas gift – and it no longer even sync’s with my computer nor and the devise that plugged it into the cigarette lighter of my car and allowed me to listen to the songs there is broken.  Nevertheless it still continues to serve me well. I’m completely unsophisticated in music and my tastes run to sentimental; nevertheless, the mixture of music on the iPod might have some scratching their heads: blues, classical, zydeco, pop, world, rock, jazz, opera, art songs, country, R & B, alternative, show tunes, even old school rap.  I have my favorites, of course, but I never know what will connect with me on any given day. Though, I’ll never be one of those people walking around with ear buds stuck in their ears – there is too much of the world to see and pay attention too -  music is able to unlock and free something in me that nothing else can touch.  There are times when they kick up memories or emotions in which I become completely lost.

Great Books – Behind the desk where I am sitting is a small shelf with a collection of fifty-four books called The Great Books of the Western World.  The set is pretty well beaten up but I am never likely to get rid of them.  I’ve told the story of how I got them often. It was just after the summer of ninth great and I was looking through a magazine and saw an add for a set of books that include Darwin, Homer and the other classics of the western canon.  A card was included that said I could send away for more information, so I dropped it in the mail.  To my complete mortification, several days later a salesman showed up at the door. This was when we were still living with my grandparents and my Dad had just returned home after a long absence.  They had almost no money.  They listened patiently, with me being a typical teenager talking about how much I wanted them, and to their everlasting credit, they bought them for me. Around $500 – a king’s ransom in those days.  They’ve stood me in good stead, as a resource through all kinds of high school and college projects and as a surrogate social life when I switch high schools in eleventh grade.  They have traveled with me through the many places that I have moved in my adult life.  I have to admit, I still have not read them all.

Of course, no one’s life can be summed up in ten objects or a hundred, and the resulting picture might have been a bit more objective it I had randomly thrown ten darts and used the objects in which they stuck as my base rather than picking some that I’m more emotionally connected too, but it has been an interesting exercise. Should I throw down the gauntlet and ask, what ten objects you’d pick from your room?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mom: Portrait

It is a little late for her birthday, but I have written a poem for Mom.  That is nothing new. I often have that inclination when those times of the year come around that make us reflect upon things past.  This poem is a bit different from others, though.   It is written in the style of a wonderful  poet named Brian Teare in his last book The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven.   What is different about it – for reasons I don’t need to go into here – is that it can be read in more than one way.  It can either be read down as poems usually are or it can be read across.   The interesting thing to me in Teare’s poems is that if you read them both ways, first as a poem going down, and then as a poem going across, you really end up with two very different poems.  I don’t have Teare’s  skill so I’m sure how affective it is in this case, but I think it kind of works.  I also find it helpful in poems like this once I have read it silently to read it out loud (or at least out loud in my head).  In any case, here is the poem.  Let me know what you think.

Portrait: Mom

the ice-covered gate posts                                                 frozen in her memory
long gone                                                                         the South Dakota farm
will always be a part                                                         of her  youth
of her          but                                                                now instead of ice
she dreams of                                                                  the sunny California skies and
the days with children                                                       gathering gladiolas in the garden
singing in the car                                                              fill her head
on the way to church                                                        she remembers
when her hands were not                                                   lying motionless
wrinkled                                                                           soft gray sand on the beach
and the place she called home                                          so warm and welcoming
really was                                                                        full of life

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mom's 95th

“If you lived in town in the 1930’s, your house probably had electricity.  In town, families started using electric stoves, coffee makers, waffle irons, hot plates, electric roasters and Waring Blenders.  But if you lived in a farmhouse in the country, you did not have electricity.
 Before the government hooked up farmhouse to electricity, farm life was very different and much more work. There were not electric lights, radios, air conditioners, washers and dryers, electric irons. Of course, there were no computers, televisions, microwave ovens, or video games.  In farm houses and barns, light came from kerosene lamps that were so dim you almost had to use a flashlight to see if they were on.
On the farm, men and women, boys and girls did work by hand: hauling water, milking cows, pitching hay, picking corn, and cranking the cream separator or corn shelling machines by hand. Farm women cooked meals on a stove that burned wood or corncobs. Families heated water on the stove to take baths and wash clothes. The family’s bathroom was outdoors, an unheated shack over a deep pit.”
                   -“Farming in the 1930’s”     (

Today is Mom’s 95th birthday.  It is hard to believe that she was born almost 100 years ago.  As time inserts itself between her death and the present, the memories that I have of her become increasing dimmer, but the earliest years of her life are something that I have almost no knowledge of at all.  The quote above gives a sense of what some aspects of  basic rural life were like in the 1930’s, and Mom’s childhood took place even a decade before that.  Rural South Dakota in the 1920’s was hardly in the forefront of cutting edge technology. 
            Rather than trying to remember what I no longer can, I am trying, sitting in my room here, to re-imagine what it might have been like for Mom when she was young.  In a certain sense, this might be a somewhat easier task for me than others since the house in which I am sitting was built in the late 1800’s.  The doors, window frames, old wooden flooring, basement walls made of slate from the river, and the remains of old fireplaces making stripping away some of the modern conveniences a little easier, but still, life would be radically different.
            First of all, there would have been no electricity.  Mom would have been doing school homework by kerosene lamp.  She would have had to use the same lamp to do chores in the mornings and evenings when it was still dark for long periods of the year. Bedtimes would have been earlier.  She would have also needed the lamp to make her way out to the outhouse at night – not a particularly pleasant prospect for those who are up and down to the bathroom during the nights.  This would include those nights in the winter when the temperatures got down to 0°. No padded toilet seats in rural South Dakota! Then, as Mom used to say, they used corn cobs for toilet paper.
            In fact, our whole modern heightened hygienic sensibility would have taken a hit.  Having to heat water up on the stove just to take a bath, not to mention having to take turns at the tub with at least half a dozen siblings would certainly have required a different concept of cleanliness.  Finding a proper skin softener or lip gloss was probably no high on Mom’s lit.  More the fact that with clothes being washed by hand, most of the family wore the same clothing for several days in a row and if, as Mom used to say, during winter they brought the baby pigs in the house to keep warm by the stove, the family was probably a great deal more tolerant of bodily odors. 
            Mom used to say that she and her oldest sister Lucille were hardier so did more of the outdoor chores whereas the sister between them, Elaine was more delicate and more of the inside work. Even so, Mom probably took part in the cooking.  With wood burning stoves, making meals were something that took up a much greater part of the day.  The variety of food available to them was probably fairly small in comparison with today. Particularly in winter.  The closest city to them was Aberdeen, but in winter probably not much variety was available even there.  The fruits and vegetables Mom ate during those times were likely from what the family had been able to can in fall and probably had just a few staple meals that they rotated.  
            Of course, this is all imagination constructed from the few things that Mom did say about the day to day life of her childhood.  Still, I think it is remarkable to think of how much changed during the span of Mom’s life.  She never got into using computers, but she definitely made use of microwaves.  I think there is a lot of  truth to  St. Augustine’s saying “Give me a child until he is seven and he is mine for life.”  Those early experiences of Mom’s probably did a lot to form her in ways that we can never really understand.  

Monday, March 21, 2016

What's Up With Me

March has been a very busy month.  In fact, this whole year has been a time of changes.  Maya has just made her move into her Green St. house in Philadelphia, Eli is finishing up on the house that he is “flipping” in Baltimore, Maura is awaiting word about her upcoming surgery and getting her first taste of motherhood with Daisie, Melissa is settling in to life in University Place, and Pat’s family has recently returned from a winter vacation at Kalahari in the Poconos.  Given all of these changes in the family, it has taken no effort for me to fly under the radar, particularly when any mention of poetry tends to make everyone’s eyes glaze over.  I do have a few things coming up, though, and events that aren’t heard about much tend to congeal into one indistinguishable lump, I thought that I would just mention what I’m up to in the next month or so as a point of reference.

As a matter of fact, things began for me this past weekend when I attended the neMLA conference in Hartford, Connecticut.  NeMLA stands for the Northeast branch of the Modern Language Association.  It is an organization for teachers and scholars who are involved with language, English and literature.  The conference went from Thursday to Sunday, but I was part of a panel on Disability and Poetry that took place on Saturday afternoon, so I drove up Friday and then came back Saturday after the presentation. There were four people on the panel and we each had to present a paper.  Mine was on the new forms that disability poetry can take.  I believe that I was the only one in the whole convention not attached to a college or university, but despite that I think it went pretty well.  The only downside was that our audience was small because, rather unbelievably, they split up the possible audience of those interested in disability studies by scheduling another event on disability literature at the same time. 

The next event that I am involved in is the AWP or Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles that runs from March 30-April 2.  It is a huge organization, probably the biggest writers’ conference in the country.  I have been parts of panels several times before, but I have a different role this year.  The conference has a huge room dedicated solely to vendors selling books.  One of the problems is that there has not been a big representation of work by writers with disabilities. In fact, trying to find work by a writer with a disability is a needle in a haystack process. As a result, this year I joined in with several other editors of small literary magazines to form the Disabilities Literature Consortium.  We were able to raise the funds to have a booth at AWP that exhibits and sells nothing but the work of writers with disabilities or disability-related writing.  Naturally, we will all have out some information about our journals as well. So rather than actually attending the panels, I will be behind the booth most of the time. It has been exciting to collect the books of all the various writers. As part of the Dis Lit Booth, we will also be holding a reading of disability literature at a nearby venue off site. I've been trying to help promote everything through the Dis Lit website and blog. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

I’ve also gotten pulled into another role at AWP.  For some unfathomable reason, all of the panels that had anything to do with disability were rejected this year by AWP.  As you can image, that did not over well in the disabilities community. What happened was the formation of something called the Disabilities Caucus, which was able to get on to the AWP schedule.  This was not something I was originally part of but kind of got pulled into and ended up on the advisory board, so one night we will be holding the caucus. Not having a disability myself, though, I’m more or less staying in the background.

One of the most exciting things about going out for AWP is that I get to see my family in California.  I will be staying with Pat and Rose the night that I come in and hope to see Dave and Mary, too. I'm (hopefully) hitching a ride up to the conference with another member of the consortium who lives in Santa Ana. Since I will be up in LA, I won’t have much time to visit family as 'd like, but some time is definitely better than none.

Then in mid-April comes the final event that I am involved in. This one will be a reading at Split this Rock Festival  in Washington, DC.  STR is a large multi-cultural festival composed of writers who are advocating for social change.  I am one of four on the panel and will probably be reading some of the work from Wordgathering, but have not had the chance to give  a lot of thought yet.  The festival goes on for several days, but I will just drive down for the day.

That is the last of my “poetry month” events, but I did just get an email from Cinco Puntos Press, that the galleys for the new anthology of disability short stories that I am editing with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayse is ready for us to review.  The book will be called The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked and is a really great collection of work. Technically, it is not due to be out until fall, but Cinco Puntos just sent me a picture of the cover and I am going to have post cards of it to put out at AWP.  The cover is great.  I’ll send everyone in the family a copy when it does.  It may be a little more interesting to you than Beauty is a Verb was since this is fiction rather than poetry.

Naturally, I am still working on Wordgathering as well. Last week I got the news that one of the poetry editors who works with me on the journal died unexpectedly. It was a bit of a shock.  I will read a couple of her poems as a tribute when we do the reading at AWP, and also do something about her writing when the next issue comes out in June.  Putting out Wordgathering is pretty time and labor intensive and there is no monetary support, so don’t know how long I will continue, but I am keeping it up for now.

Well, that’s enough me.  I know that when I have referred to something that I am doing in an email or conversation that it is kind of meaningless out of context, so just thought I would list what is going on with me so that if you hear me mention anything it makes a bit more sense.  My intention when I began Northen News was to help keep up on anything that was going on in the family. I haven’teen too good on keeping up with it lately but if anyone out there wants to post their own pieces on the blog, please do or send them to me and I will post them for you.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Newest Family Member

My newest granddaughter Daisie Elisabeth Madden is finally here.  She was born on January 27; weighing in at 9 lbs. 1 oz. and 20 inches long. As Maura put it, “She’s a chunker!”  Obviously, Maura and Dan are thrilled, and it was thrill that rippled throughout the entire family. They probably hold the family record for long waits and it is wonderful that Daisie is now on the scene.

Maura and Dan traveled down to Portland for the birth a week ago yesterday and were able to hold Daisie shortly after birth.  The birth parents signed all of the papers for the adoption right away but Dan and Maura had to wait until Monday to be able to take her out of state.  In the mean time, they got to experience what it was like for two people who love to sleep in to have a newborn with them.  Of course, it was love at first sight all around.

Now the upgraded version of the family is all together at their home in Seattle. Dan and Maura have officially joined the group that gets to swap stories and complain about their kids. I’d say congratulations are due all around.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Experience and Identity

Several weeks ago at our local library’s book sale, I picked up an audio book by Umberto Ecco called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  Normally, Ecco’s books are way over my head and I usually make it through about the first chapter, then admit defeat.  As it turns out, the premise of the novel is quite fascinating.  It is about a man who had been an antique book dealer that wakes up from a coma.  His eidetic memory is totally in place.  That is he can remember virtually everything that he has ever read and every map or picture he has ever seen.  So he can quote lines from Shakespeare, tell you where all of the best restaurants in Paris are or tell you about Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo, but he can not remember anything that he has personally experienced.  He does not know his own name or recognize himself or family members in a picture.  He can not even tell you what a hamburger tastes like or what it feels like for something to be hot (like a cup of coffee) because those are all things that you learn through experience. In other words, his personal life is a total blank for him.

The remainder of the book concerns the protagonist’s trying to get back the memories of his life.  To do this, he returns to the house that his parents owned when he was a child (his parents are dead), and looks through the attic at all of boxes of books and magazine he read as a boy, toys that he played with and notebooks that he kept from school trying to recreate his life.  The main concept of the book is that you are your experiences and it is your experiences that have created you, so that without them, you would have no identity.

The more I thought about it, the more the idea fascinated me.  It is not that the idea is a new one, but that thinking of one’s self as a blank slate on which experiences are imprinted is a visual image that makes the concept vivid.  I thought that it would be an interesting exercise for anyone to sit down and try to list those things that contributed to creating who they are.  I don’t mean just a list, but a list in which you tried to grasp just what that might have contributed to your personality. Obviously, the list is potentially infinite, but I thought it would be fun to try half a dozen things that stuck out.  In the book, Ecco’s list was largely limited to printed materials, so in mine I’ve leaned rather heavily in that direction.

So here goes.
1. Being raised Roman Catholic.  I grew up at a time when the Catholic Mass was still in Latin, the priest faced away from the people and kids attended weekly Catechism classes to memorize the correct answers to religious questions.  What that taught me was the need for structure: hierarchy, ritual, and following rules. The Latin Mass kept mystery in religion, so that while everything had an answer it wasn’t always one we could rationally understand.  The Latin hymns gave me an introductory feel for what another language was like.  I learned that guilt is a strong motivator and was endowed with a belief that at some level, everything fits together and makes sense, that everything is connected.

2. The Little Golden Books.  From as early as I can remember, Mom read to us from books and for the most part it was from The Little Golden Books that were prevalent in the 50’s.  On one level, it endowed me with an appreciation of reading.  Being read to by Mom made reading a positive personal experience.  It taught me before going to school what books and words were all about, that they could open up interesting personal experiences and that it was something my parents valued.  On another level, it taught ethics.  All of the children’s books of those times were morality driven. For example, Peter Rabbit got into trouble because he did not listen to his mother and ended up paying for it.  The Little Red Hen – a classic – taught the Protestant work ethic, that hard work pays off and if you don’t work, you don’t deserve to eat. 

3. Sharing a Room. My bed when I was first born was a dresser drawer and for as far back as I can remember, I shared a room with my brother Steve. No one in our family had their own room and kids who did were rich and privileged.  Sharing your room literally meant that you had to learn to share - whether it was a bed, a closet or your possessions. By the same token, it also meant that you really had no space and that if you wanted time to yourself, you had to seek it outside of the house.  I don’t doubt that it really created a real need for privacy in me. On the other hand, sharing a room was just normal –what everyone did.

4. Moving. Less obviously, moving every year or two and changing schools also seemed normal.  It never really occurred to me until I was almost an adult that everyone did not move as we did.  It taught me that instability is a fact of life. Since my childhood was mostly in the fifties, it also reinforced the patriarchal values of society: the family follows the father wherever his work leads him and that the wife’s duties are to accompany him, raise the children, and be the primary caretaker.  I also learned that friendship is a tenuous thing that rarely comes and always goes.

5. Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia.  My parents had always had an old bargain basement set of encyclopedias with tiny print, big words and no pictures. At some point during my childhood, they bought a brand new set of Encyclopedias.  The exiting thing about them was the colored pictures. The pictures were grouped together by topic and my favorites were about animals.  I would sit down for hours looking at the pictures of all of the various breeds of dogs or diagrams of the body and memorizing what they looked like and the facts about them. It created a life long curiosity and interest in the biological sciences and fascination about how the natural world works. I learned how to look for information. Ironically, like the catechism, it reinforced belief in the opinion of authority.

6. Great Books of the Western World. The summer after ninth grade, I found a post card about a set of books that contained many of the classic books from Homer to Freud and, being interested in evolution, was excited that it contained Darwin’s Origin of Species. I mailed in the card for more information and a salesman showed up at the door. I was embarrassed, but my parents, who could barely afford rent, laid out hundreds of dollars for the books for me. I learned how much my parents value both my education and me by their willingness to sacrifice. Driven by Catholic guilt, whenever it was time for a book report or project I drew from those books, which gave me a nodding acquaintance with Dante, Chaucer and Plato that most kids my age did not have and forced me to look at authors I would never have read otherwise.  On another level, though, the Great Books were the product of an extremely conservative view of liberal arts education, steeped in the concept of a western cannon that completely ignored work not written by white European or American males.

I think that is enough to make the point. 

I have not finished reading  The Mysterious Flame, so I don’t yet know if Ecco’s protagonist discovers enough about himself to add up to a whole human being. It is not easy to step outside oneself or one’s view of oneself and try to look at the accumulating list objectively.  There are many contradictory forces at work.  Looking at my list and comments I ask myself, what do these things add up to?  How many of  my day to day actions are rooted in what I learned before I was old enough to have a paper route (another values-forming experience that I could add to the list)?  I think it is a humbling experience and one that definitely complications the notion of who we think we are.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Of Dogs and Shoes

     As those of you have met her know, Maya’s new dog Grace can be a handful.  She is a beautiful mixed breed, either Australian shepherd or border collie but extremely smart and full of energy.  Among other things, she likes to climb up on my bed and look out the back window where she can see squirrels, birds, etc. during parts of the day.  I’m fine with that since she is curious and constantly needs things to occupy her.  Naturally , when we leave, we lock up certain rooms so that she cannot get at food (last night she ended up eating half a loaf of bread that we left on the kitchen table just before dinner) or other things she might ruin when we go out, but leave other rooms open so she is not feeling caged in.  Sunday, we were out and she had taken a number of slippers that Lora had gotten me over the years, and chewed them up.  I took the ones that survived and put them into a duffel back to keep her out.  Yesterday when I returned home from being out for a few minutes, I saw that she had taken all of my shoes out of the closet, put them up on the bed and totally chewed up a pair of sandals.  Though I hated to close her out of my room since she enjoys being there, I thought enough is enough, so this morning (since the door to my room won’t  completely close), I put a doorstop under the door and was working on the computer.  A short while later, she was lying beside me and I saw that she was chewing on one of Maya’s tennis shoes.  I took it away from her and then when I went around the corner to my room, I found that she had pulled out the doorstop and Maya’s other tennis shoe was sitting on my bed with one of the laces eaten off!   

       I’m still looking for the doorstop.