After Ice Cream

Dear Dad,

It has been eight years since you left on September 26, 2013. Not a day goes by that I do not think of you. You are always looking over my shoulder when I chop a carrot, fry an onion, or stir a pot of soup. I see you in every soaring bird and every incandescent sunset. I am sure that feathery clouds placed against a bright blue sky were put there by your hand, not just for me, but for all of us to enjoy.

I know it seems strange to say, but your personality was so large, your love of life so contagious, I sometimes think you are not actually dead. You are just in another state, making art, planning a new adventure, or preparing a delicious meal for a large group of friends. I have finally gotten to the place where I no longer grieve your departure, but rather acknowledge you as ever-present. I do things all the time and imagine that you are weighing in, letting me know that you are proud of me.

For a long time now, I feel like I have hit a wall with my writing. The words don’t flow like they used to. I’m not sure what I am doing wrong. If you were here, you would tell me not to judge myself so harshly. You would tell me to stick with it through the challenges. And I would listen.

You would say don’t give up, Lisa. You can do whatever you set your mind to doing.
You would say let’s go for a bike ride and get some ice cream. Things are always better after ice cream!

Let’s go get some ice cream, Dad. I’ll see you again tomorrow.

Love always,
Lisa

Radishes, Right Roads, and Butterflies

What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out come sighs, laughter, and dreams. -Nikos Kazantzakis, poet and novelist (18 Feb 1883-1957)

It is my father’s birthday today, so of course, I was happy to see the quote from the writer, Nikos Kazantzakis pop up on my Facebook feed. This writer was very near and dear to Georg’s heart. He saw in Kazantzakis a spiritual brother. They are both Greek, born on the same day. Dad especially liked The Last Temptation of Christ (which he advised me to read when I was still a teenager, if I remember correctly) and also St. Francis. I have two copies of that book on my book self. One he gave me, one I inherited after he passed. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever read it, despite the duplicate copies. It is yet another book in the overwhelmingly long list of “books I plan to read.”

I opened it up this morning in honor of Georg. It is a treat to read books that belonged to him because he was such an avid underliner. He usually used a red pen and would sometimes encase an entire line in a rectangle or put stars or squiggles next to a noteworthy sentence. For really important lines, he would use not only a red pen to underline, but also a pink highlighter to make a whole paragraph glow.

In Georg’s copy of St. Francis, in the early chapters, he was using just a black, fine point Sharpie. The first thing that jumps out at me is “There are many roads. Which is my road?” Then, much deeper into the story, he got his other underlining tools in gear. Here, there is a long passage about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This section got a lot of red lines and pink highlighting and stars and rectangles. “Suffer some more, struggle some more, transform yourself into a butterfly.” In the margin, Georg wrote in capital letters TRANSFORMATION.

I really appreciate seeing what things jumped out at my dad and must have informed the things he was struggling with in his art and in his life. The things he pointed to for himself also have meaning for me. I continue to find my way and look for ways to make this world a better place. I believe that somehow, my dad, gone now for nearly 8 years, is inextricably intwined in everything I do.

Recently, there is some movement afoot in the realm of Georg’s art. Potential buyers are stepping up. It is exciting and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time. On one hand, I know Georg’s art speaks for itself. On the other hand, I hope to be a good agent, a good advocate for his name. In the end, everything will happen just the way it needs to. The message I am getting from Georg and Nikos today is that there will always be an abundance of radishes and I will know my right road when I see it. And in the end, we all become butterflies.

Happy Birthday, Georg!

I miss you, still.

Watching the Bird Feeder

From my writing desk in the third bedroom, I look out upon my front lawn and the tatty old lamppost that was defunct when I bought this house three years ago. The post has a rung that sticks out of its side, and what this perch is intended for, I have no idea. But, after some pondering, I determined that the rung would provide an excellent place to hang a bird feeder. Other people feed the birds, I thought. Why can’t I?

One blazing autumn day, I bought a bird feeder at the local Meijer and filled it with a hearty mix of seeds, nuts, and dried fruit. Then, I sat back to wait for flocks of hungry birds to arrive, but none came. After reading the back of the seed bag, I realized that my location was totally wrong. The sidewalk and street are too close. There are no protective bushes in which to take refuge should predators arrive. All fall and into the winter, the feeder hung there, lonely and untouched.

But, one day in early January, I looked out to see that five or six birds were dancing around the feeder, landing on its pegs in quick succession. They would land, peck, jump, then shoot up into nearby trees. When they flew off, I was sure they were alerting their friends to the fact that they’d found a motherload of winter munchies. I felt the glow of success.

The bird feeder that hangs from my dead lamppost has become an avian gathering place. The only ones I can identify are the chickadees. For me, it is not so important to track what kinds of birds are coming to dine. I’m content just to know that my winged friends are finding sustenance here. I’m content just to know that my offering to these dear, fragile creatures has been received.

Not my actual bird feeder, but a very lovely image of how the birds flutter.

Seven Years

How can it be seven years since Georg left? But here it is. I remember that week of his death like it was yesterday. He died very late in the evening of September 26, 2013 at Memorial Hospital in Shebogyan. He had been disintegrating physically for about a week or so prior. He could no longer swallow water without choking, his bones were crumbling and coming unhinged inside his body. Pain was everywhere.

I remember that my friend Brenda suggested to me that instead of saying to him, “Hang on, Dad, we’ll get through this,” I might consider telling him, “It’s okay, Dad, you can let go.” So I did. Later that night, he died. I hate the thought that mom and I had left him in his hospital bed, looking a little bit more cheerful since the doctor had come in at 8:30 and asked us all if Georg wanted to sign a “do not resuscitate order,” just in case. He smiled and nodded yes. So, he signed. Now he had double permission. Mine and the medical profession’s. He was free to go. Mom and I were happy to see him smile, so we went and got root beer floats in his honor. A few hours later, the nurse called me. Root beer floats have never been the same.

I’ve been thinking about Georg a lot lately, especially while I’m driving. It’s as though he often joins me in the car. I wonder why that is. He is suddenly there with me and I just start crying because I miss him. I want him to really be there with me. And he always says, I am really here. In fact, he is saying it right now as I type.

I was down at the lake at sunrise the other morning, and I wrote a poem in his honor. On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of his death, I will share it here.

Memory of My Father at the Lake

We were nearing the end of you
You knew it, I knew it
but it was not something
we talked about.

We came down to this very shore
with sandwiches and a couple beers.
Looking out at the lake,
you said, Let’s make one more road trip.

Knowing this would never happen,
I said, Yes! Let’s do it!

Now it is sunrise and you,
seven years gone.
The lake calls me to remember,
gently undulates on and on.

An immense liquid mirror of the sky,
delivering a bridge to the sun,
reflecting you and me
and all of creation
in the wave of its hand.

No words can even begin to sum up all that Georg was to me, all the doors that he opened through his art. I introduced Dad to my therapist, Dan, that summer when Death was lurking. Dad was languishing at Morningside Rehab Center and we met in the drab little common room with the couches and the big color TV. Months and months later, after Georg was long gone, Dan told me that it had seemed to him that summer that Georg’s spirit was already gone. That was in May of 2013. Dan also said that Georg had a strong connection to other realms and you could see them peeking through his art. His paintings were glimpses into other dimensions of light, sound, and vibration. Yup. I believe it.

When he left this plane of existence, Georg knew full well where he was going.

Poet Laureate 101

Well this is exciting, to be the first poet laureate of my lovely Midwestern city, Sheboygan, WI. I may have been born in Chicago, grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, attended college in Poughkeepsie, NY, lived for fifteen years in Los Angeles as an adult, but Sheboygan is where I have settled. I am not sure if I will ever live any place else.

This city of 49,288 people grows on a person. It is something about the proximity to the lake, to farmland, to beautiful city parks and state parks, to great restaurants, to bike paths, to an amazing Arts Center, and to the ever-more diverse, creative, kind-hearted, wonderful people who live and work here. I moved here with my family in 2002 and so I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere else in my life. Can I say I am a Sheboyganite yet? I think so. And now, I have been appointed as the bard for this fair city. What an honor! What a task! And what does a poet laureate do, anyway?laurel wreathAccording to Wikipedia, a poet laureate is a poet who is officially appointed by a government or conferring institution, typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions. I could do that. During her or his term, a poet laureate seeks to raise the national (or in my case, municipal) consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. That task is also right up my alley, in my wheelhouse, and a primary feature of my natural habitat.

I have long been a poet who organizes happenings and spaces in which people can find their own voice, or at least their own personal connection to poetry. Through events like Poetic Pairings: How Poetry Speaks, the world-wide movement known as 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and my 10-year dedication to Stoneboat Literary Journal, much has been accomplished. People have learned new things about themselves and others. I have learned new things about myself and others. And the best part about all this is that there is still more to learn!

I am only on day three of my new tenure, but I am chomping at the bit to start doing SOMETHING. I have a multitude of ideas, and all of them involve working with the community. But let me not forget that along with organizing, it is very important to keep writing. As my friend and mentor, poet Karl Elder of Lakeland University said to me, “I know I don’t need to urge you to keep writing, which is the most important thing a laureate ought to do.”

Agreed. But while I am writing poetry and sharing it, I want everyone to start thinking more like a poet. What does that mean? I think I will address that in my next blog post. So please come back. I will meet you here. There is so much to do in this world at this time. We must speak up in every way we can to end racism in America and also make sure we change the administration of our country. Oh, and protect the planet from global warming, ensure health care for all, make sure no one in America goes hungry…wow. The list of things that needs changing is long. I know it would be naive to say that poetry can do any of this alone, but I will continue to contend that poetry can help. Then, there is COVID-19. That needs a vaccine, not a poem. But, again, poetry can help us process all the anguish, grief, and uncertainty. Together, we’ll make a plan for how poetry can change the world, one poem at a time.

As the poet Jane Yolen wrote:
it’s not what we stand against,
but what we stand for
‘cause the arc of justice
doesn’t just bend itself, you know.

The End of the World as We Know It

Here I am, there you are. Each and every one of us is in hibernation mode with different challenges to face. On this day, I am in relatively good shape. My fridge, pantry, and freezer are full. I have never had so many boxes of pasta on my shelf all at once. And yes, I did buy one more 12-pack of toilet paper this morning. I don’t know what’s coming. None of us does.

I have a job I can do from remote. Not all of us do. This worries me. I am worried for everyone on the planet, the food service workers, the bar owners and bar tenders, restaurant owners, small business owners, the farm workers, the tourist industry workers, the airline workers, the uninsured, the undocumented, the homeless, anyone who was already on the edge of any given precipice now being pushed over into the void. Will there be help? Yes, I think so. Will it come fast enough? Hopefully. How long will help last? My worried voice says, we have no idea. My faith-in-humanity voice says as long as we need it to.

I don’t have young children who need to be home-schooled and are soon-to-be bouncing off the walls, if they aren’t already. I do however have a son at UW-Oshkosh. I trust he will be all right, working on his music degree from remote for the rest of his junior year. All the percussion majors at his school were told to go back to campus briefly and pick up a couple assigned instruments to work with. Owen got steelpan (the metallic drum played in Trinidad and Tobago) and a glockenspiel. Will there be pleasant sounds of music coming from the basement of his dad’s house? Yes, there will. Still, I worry. When will this end? When will he be able to continue with his schooling?

The other day, I said to him, “I can’t stand all the uncertainty.” He said, “Nothing has ever been certain. mom. You have never been in control. Give it up.” Wow.

With that in mind, I am doing the things I can do. I spent the day yesterday cleaning and disinfecting my house. I mean, I never imagined my house to be infected before. I just wanted to make sure every surface was wiped clean. The scent of lemony Lysol is in the air. Somehow, that is bringing me comfort. I organized my spice cabinet. I need to know where my spices are for all the cooking I will be doing. I want to believe that we will get through this and we will do a major reset on priorities and how the world operates. I keep thinking of the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” That song was released in 1987. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start my first job. Owen would not be born for 11 more years. It was another world. The lyrics continue, “and I feel fine.” Do I?

No, not yet. Not until we get to the other side of all this and I can see that we really have made a leap, that we really have evolved away from focusing on differences to focusing instead on connectedness. Mother Earth could see we would not make the leap without a major, immediate threat. The dire predictions of global warming just weren’t getting through our thick heads. It hurts to think we needed a fast-spreading virus that is going to kill a lot of the most vulnerable people. I have to stay on track with, but the helpers will help. Good will be victorious in the end. I pray this is true.

Yesterday I made a donation to Project Hope Foundation. It’s the least I can do. If you feel so inclined, please do that too. Usually, the crisis is somewhere else. We can help and send thoughts and prayers and then get on with our lives. With Covid-19, this is not the case. The crisis is everywhere. I don’t need to tell you that, do I?

I guess I am reminding myself. For the first time ever, the notion that “we are all one” is really being driven home. We are connected. To each other, to the plants, to the animals, to the oceans. Let’s work together to do it right going forward. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Let’s work on how we can make it not just fine, but much, much better. What else can we possibly do?

Woman Rambles Through Time

For my 59th birthday last September, I traveled to Italy to do research for the historical novel I am writing about a woman artist of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola. My journey began in Amsterdam because I had planned to see a show there called Van Gogh Dreams. This title matched the name of a poetry anthology I had put together in 2018 with one of my father’s collages on the cover. But silly me! I had mistaken the closing date of the show and missed seeing it by four days. Thankfully, the Van Gogh Museum had plenty of  other delights to offer. And, it was the show that put the idea in my head in the first place to get myself across the ocean. I think that Vincent and my father were in cahoots to get me to Italy to focus on this novel. In the end, it all turned out well.

IMG_6293

I began in Sofi’s birthplace, Cremona, a picturesque town in northern Italy that felt to me like a medieval version of the place I live now, Sheboygan, WI. I sped through all the Italian cities in which Sofonisba worked including Milan, Rome, (where she studied with Michelangelo for a year and a half in her early twenties. Can you imagine?) Genoa, and Palermo. That last stop, on the island of Sicily, is where Sofonisba died at age 93. I found her tomb in the Church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi and I just sat there in the stifling September heat and cried. I couldn’t believe I had brought myself all the way to her resting place. And Palermo blew my mind. I had no idea there was a strong Arab influence there, incredible puppet artistry, and cactus. Did you know there is cactus in Italy?

The one place Sofi had lived that I did not visit was Madrid, where she spent nearly 20 years in the middle of her life, painting at the Spanish court and befriending the young queen, Isabel (born Elisabeth de Valois). That will require another trip entirely, perhaps at some future time. I was in Madrid once about 30 years ago, (30 years? That is insane to think that I have lived long enough to have memories that are so old) on my way to Portugal. I spent two days wandering around the Prado, in a jet-lagged daze. I remember Las Meninas by Velazquez. I remember the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Like large parts of my life, the rest is a blur.

But I digress. I need to complete this book without a return trip to Spain. I have more than enough material spanning 93 years of her life. Sofonisba was a woman ahead of her time, a woman outside of time. And in Latin, her family name, Anguissola means, “the lone snake.” I think that is what she was. Someone who was moving about on her own, who occasionally shed her skin (metaphorically speaking), and who slipped in and out of many situations over time. I have been thinking about her life for over twenty years and now I am coming to the end of this first journey. Soon the book will be done and then we’ll see what happens next.

You know, today is Georg’s birthday. He would have been 83 today. Sofonisba outlived him by seventeen years, 400 years ago. Wow. That is a long time no matter how you measure it. I guess I just had to ramble a bit through time today and write. Happy birthday, Dad. I have other images from the trip I want to share. Other stories  I want to tell. Stay tuned, for more rambles are coming.

The Year of Clear Vision

IMG_6334Here we are a month into 2020. This is a big year. In this year, I will turn 60, which is a little hard to fathom, because my grandmothers are 60, not me. Let me try that again. My grandmothers are both long gone. If they were alive, they would both be over 100. But, in my mind, they will always be 60. That is a grandma age, not a Lisa age. Ha! Think again, little child.

This is an election year. Let us pray that we get our country back from the narcissists and  the oligarchs and the idiots. We can do this. Let us do the work that needs to be done so that everyone has a living wage, affordable health care, and a roof over their heads.

Let’s make it be that children feel safe in their schools. Let’s wake up and protect our Mother Earth. She needs us! Like the wall art in Palermo, Sicily says,  Basta Plastica in Mare (Enough Plastic in the Sea.)

2020. This is going to be the year of clear, sharp vision and also coming full circle, back around to the things we were always meant to do. For me, this has to do with my writing. I think there are good things in store, not just for poet-Lisa, but story-writer-Lisa, and blogger-Lisa, and essayist-Lisa I’m not saying it’s ALL going to happen all at once, I’m saying I am suddenly very aware that I have limited time on this planet and I need to get everything done that I came here to do. I’m starting now.

I wish for you that whatever you have been dreaming of for years will come to pass, that you will make a pledge to yourself to get things done, and to be your very best self. The time is now. It’s 2020! Clear vision. Full circle. Go!

The Story of the Letter

Earlier this fall, I learned about an exhibition coming up at the Van Gogh Museum in the summer of 2020 called Jouw Mooiste Brief, or Your Most Beautiful Letter. The organizers plan to celebrate the slowing dying art of the handwritten letter, honoring the many letters that Van Gogh wrote to this brother, Theo. Their call for letters read as follows:

 VanGogh’s letters are world-famous. He wrote about love, inspiration and brotherhood. We would now like to put a letter you cherish on display at the Van Gogh Museum. Have you received a special letter that touched your heart, made you angry or made you laugh out loud?

As soon as I read this, I knew exactly the letter I would send. It was a letter that my dad had written to me in 1994 on the eve of my going to Stanford University Art Museum for a job interview (a job I was eventually offered but ended up not accepting. Long story). The letter reads as follows:

Dear Lisa,

The very best Light for your adventure going to Stanford. Remember if it is Right, it will come to you Right. Don’t be afraid you will be all good. And I love you! I am taking care of myself and I like my life very much!  It may seem strange from the outside yet I am perfectly happy!  

Here are some things for you to read on the plane. May God Bless You always in your life and on your way. 

Love you,
Dad

What made the letter so memorable was not the first receipt of it back in 1994. It was that on the night Georg died, September 26, 2013, I went into my closet to look for his will. I pulled out a box and my eye was drawn to a blue-colored file folder. I opened the folder and right there in front of me was Georg’s handwriting, and this letter. Keep in mind, the man had JUST DIED a couple hours earlier. The portion of the letter that begins “I am taking care of myself…” took my breath away. Still does. His blessing at the end is with me every day.

The organizers at the Van Gogh museum asked us not only to send a photo of the letter, but also the reason why it was meaningful. I am honored and excited that they will include this letter in their show. Georg loved Van Gogh and I think he must be happy to know that his words will be on display in the museum.

And, because I had shared the call for letters on Facebook, I learned yesterday that one of oldest and dearest friends from grade school, Galia Peled, also had her letter accepted. She told me that it was my dad who inspired her to read Dear Theo back in high school. Galia grew up in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and has lived her entire adult life in Israel. I asked her who her letter was from and she wrote:

It was a letter my husband sent me shortly after the outbreak of the first Lebanese war where he was fighting on the Syrian front, and I was pregnant with our first daughter.

Clearly, Jouw Mooiste Brief is going to be an incredibly diverse and thoughtful exhibition. I hope I will be able to return to Amsterdam to see it for myself.

georg letter

Your 82nd Birthday

dad in his art
You in your art.

Good morning, Dad!

Happy 82nd birthday!! I really wish I could call you today and tell you about all the cool things going on in my life right now. I’m working at the Arts Center again, not in Education any more, but as a grant writer. If you knew that, you would be asking me to help write a grant for you. I would do it!

I’ve had all sorts of good stuff happening with poetry. The Van Gogh Dreams anthology is out in the world, with one of your works of art on the cover. We’ll be doing a reading from the book on March 19 at Mead Library in Sheboygan, and then a second reading in Milwaukee at Boswell Book Company on March 30. Did you know that is Van Gogh’s birthday? Oh man, if you were still here, I know you’d try really hard to come to the readings. I will have to make due with you being there in spirit. I know you will be.

On top of that cool accomplishment–which by the way, took 3 years from start to finish to make happen–I am proud to say that a new anthology, From Everywhere a Little: A Migration Anthology, is also just about to come out. Thanks to the amazing energy and publishing know-how of my friend, Dawn Hogue, this book only took six months from idea to reality. How’s that for some fast-tracking? You would be so proud to see this book, yourself being one of the first “Dreamers,” born in 1937 to Anthony and Irene, Greek parents who were not yet officially citizens of this country when they had you. You know what it means to be from a different place and to learn to speak English in kindergarten. Lest you think I am only doing anthologies, rest assured I’m also doing a lot of my own writing too. The ground is fertile. Good things are going to happen!

I’ll tell you one thing, Dad, you were glad to get out of here before all the craziness really set in, as far as our government. Our country is being run by a madman. You would have found this extremely upsetting. I know you would have been very excited about new people in government like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (who went to Wayne State! Maybe she saw your art there!) I’m sure you would have made some good art about all this. I am doing my best to carry on in your footsteps.

I know I keep saying that I’m going to turn this blog into something that is not just about you. But somehow, I am only inspired to write here when there is something about you I want to honor, like the day you arrived on the planet, or the day you left for good. Well, I will ponder all this and more in the days to come. I will listen to you in my heart, because I am pretty sure you are still in the game with me, still inspiring me to be my best self, whether I’m writing poetry, cooking, helping family and friends with projects, or just plain dreaming. You are always right next to me.

Thank you for all that and more.
Your loving daughter,
Lisa

dad in front of his art
You looking at your art.