Thursday, September 25, 2008

Poetry workshop at Kelly Writers' House

In a "Mad Poets Society" brochure I picked up during the summer, I found an announcement for a free poetry workshop at Penn's Kelly Writers' House, taught by Leonard Gontarek. (Click on his name for more information and some of his poetry.)

What an opportunity to have some writing companionship and feedback! How could I pass up the chance! And to have this for free was a special privilege, given that I have been strapped for funds.

I've thought I'd like to return to writing more poetry, and the workshop definitely helps me to do this.

Not only do the assignments generate creativity but I already have received some great feedback and encouragement from Leonard and the group for my writing. Last week's assignment was to write a poem with seven numbered stanzas, from an animal's point of view.

Here's my response to that assignment (with thanks to Leonard for the suggestions that I used in this revision):

From the covert

Interviewed live on TV
News, I soon found fame

Rumor (fueled, no doubt,
by Aesop, Fox
News, and other
media outlets) has it
that I am a serial killer
of chickens,
and can’t be trusted
with your spouse.

The grapes were, in fact,
sour. Witnesses
later confirmed.

The wine, however,
was worth the wait, a tart,
foxy vintage.

Guard duty at the henhouse today. News flash—
not our dream job—unless you find
Days of Our Lives thought

Our name grew
Out of our tails, or so
etymologists will say. “The bushy tail is also the source
of words for ‘fox’ in Welsh,” but they miss the misprint.

It was all about the tales, meaning
the stories,
some we told, some they told about us,
the latter gaining ground—

Which is why I lay low, throw you off
my scent, surprise you with disguises.
beguile you. That
and also to avoid the news-


I must admit I didn't feel confident about this poem when I brought it to the workshop. Trying to get inside of an animal's perspective was a challenge--and the seven numbered stanzas... would they be too arbitrary? What would be my rationale for the numbers and the sections? Finally, after much use of the delete key and many times answering "no" when prompted to save a file, I decided I didn't need to write a perfect poem. That had not been part of the assignment. And being a perfectionist was holding me back, so I decided to let the poem fly.

Foxes: I see them while out running and they intrigue me. They don't let me see them often. There is a sad history of fox hunting, and people, understandably, are not the most welcome sights for them. So when I see a fox, I am honored. They won't reveal their locations easily. They are secretive. They've had bad press. On occasion, I'll mention that I saw a fox and will be asked, "Weren't you afraid?" or "Aren't they dangerous?" This is because people believe the fairy tales and myths, but don't really try to find out about the animals themselves. Sad to say, I'm afraid the same thinking goes on in regard to the coming presidential election. But I'm not a political blogger, and I'll leave that discussion to those who are. As a poet, I had the responsibility this past week of giving an animal a voice, and I'm grateful to my vulpine friends for sharing their thoughts with me and giving me the chance to share them with readers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Philadelphia Distance Run, 9/21/08

Since the theme color for the Philly Distance Run this year is orange, I thought it appropriate, even though I'm not normally an "orange person," to write my report in orange, a citrus-y report, perhaps, fresh squeezed.

A few quick details:

Chip time was 2:07:20, age grade percentage, ~66%, and 33/182 among women 55-59

Temperature at the start 63, temp at finish 70 (oh, that's not my body temp, by the way)

About 17000 or so runners participated, and the times ranged from 1:01something to 4hrs/something. (As is clear, I am a stickler for accuracy.)

My best half marathon since turning 55 nearly 3 years ago. I've had a series of half marathons with slower times due to various factors: injuries and illnesses from which I hadn't fully recovered, a meltdown in 2005 when I started out too fast and became overheated and almost dropped out...a Caesar Rodney half in 2007 just on the heels of bronchitis, that, to my surprise, still netted me an award for second place in my age group despite my slowest ever time of 2:53ish... That actually was a fun half in its own odd way: I found a nice quality Nike headband on the course, and later, the Hash House Harriers made the slogging, trudging final mile bearable with a cup not just of water but of amber ale--after which any and all speeds were acceptable!

So although I had fallen out of contact with that glorious sub-2:10 realm that I used to inhabit, never mind the sub-2 hour realm--that is a long-gone vestige of my forties--I had my fun, but it was time for a concerted effort to speed up some. Not superwoman stuff, even though a team-mate teases me about visualizing 1:45--which would take a lot of visualizing, possibly even LSD or some such hallucinogen. But the only LSD I can handle now is Lydiard's version--Long Slow Distance. And even at that--like the hallucinogenic LSD trip, this running version has me awakening the next day somewhat stiff and sore, my aging body vaguely remembering being put through a wringer, inhabited by that younger, more innocent self who sneaks in and takes my body for a joy ride.

I like my younger, irrepressible self, though, like her enough to keep her around a while, especially after seeing the results of her recklessness, her joy rides on the roads and the track, her love for the chase. Even if, like your crazy young niece or nephew who comes to visit, she double dog dares you to try things you know you'll regret and leaves you a little hung over. You think, "the kid's too much for me" even while you think "when's she coming back?"

Oh yeah, the race itself....

I lined up in my "zip code corral," no. 11 (appropriate, as 11 is my birthday month), with my zip code race number 11104, prepared to shuffle to the start before taking off at a blistering 11:30 pace as I worked my way through the throngs. But following the start, the shuffle soon deteriorated into a standstill, and even if chip timing was in effect, I kind of wanted a little less distance between chip and clock time than, let's say, 2 hours or so. Thinking that even for the most saintly-patient runner, a standstill is a little too slow of a pace, I decided to work my way up to a walk, then finally, when I reached the chip mat, something approaching a jog.

Once on the way, I found my way to the side of the road, where the runner traffic seemed a little more negotiable (following the tangents, as experienced runners advise, might have been good if that didn't require tangential back-and-forths to weave one's way past the crowds). .At times, continuous movement required a jump onto the sidewalk alongside the course--although this strategy required some thought too, as occasionally some startled coffee-carrying pedestrian would look up from her reverie to be confronted by a wild-eyed runner. The city portion of the PDR course is pure street theatre with participants and spectators becoming interchangeable parts of the show.

Somehow, though, I managed to get myself into a sub-10 minute mile pace, not by much but enough for the time being, hitting 5k in ~30 mins. and soon enough, with much relief, turning on (I think) 16th Street to head for the river drives.

Once on Martin Luther King or as it's still sometimes called, West River Drive, I have reached my favorite section of this race--past the street theatre, past the whoops and shouts, I am among the trees, near the river, the site of so many long runs, and I am home... well, on this day, with about 17,000 of my closest friends.... but the time along the river helps me keep focused, and of course I know that once I've reached the river, it's the home stretch--even if the race is less than half over.

Such is my focus, in fact, that when I see a $5 bill lying on the ground several feet away, although the thought crosses my mind to sidestep over and grab it, I decide not to--thinking I could cause a pile-up of oncoming runners, and (here's where that competitive nature mentioned a couple of posts ago rears its head) I think of the time it could cost me. I'll pay an extra five dollars if it will help my race time... and who knows, maybe someone else will find it who desperately needs bus fare home or coffee at Starbuck's.

But never mind the five dollars... I have my eyes on the road ahead, and the Falls Bridge. The PDR offers runners entertainment with a wonderfully diverse variety of bands, but none of them can compete with my favorite performer of all: the Bagpipe Man! When I hear the notes of the bagpipe waft toward me on the bridge, my pace quickens. The bagpipe player has been a faithful PDR performer long before the bands, serenading many thousands of runners who might have begun to flag. At the Falls Bridge, we once again encounter a gauntlet of cheering spectators who, together with the Bagpipe Man, offer a shot of adrenaline.

The park sections of the race, though, for the most part, are where runners are down to business, and the chatter, although still present, seems more muted, replaced by collective breathing and the drumbeat of footfalls, and somehow too this moving body of collective energy sustains me.

On Kelly Drive, it isn't just the official race mile markers that tell me I'm getting closer. It's also the appearance of those familiar landmarks--St. Joe's boathouse, the grandstand, the dancing angels, finally, Boathouse Row, and I know.... it's a turn around the Art Museum... Under my breath, I encourage my now rebelling body... "Come on, you're almost there... this is IT... you have it. Keep going, keep going! Confidence!" And then, at last, the sharp turn into the finish area, the last chip mat... stopping the watch... and I'm there!

Looking at the watch, I see that second digit-- a zero for the first time since 2004, 2:07:22, not 2:17 like last year. (Later, I learn that the chip time is two seconds faster than my watch time... I'll take whatever boost the race gives me!)

I have a special satisfaction in my time improvement. I followed a kind of hybridized schedule stitched together from the Tuesday night workouts, Matt Fitzgerald's Brain Training for Runners, a snippet of "Summer of Malmo" (which contributed the idea of doubling on Tuesday), and the marathon schedule that Dave Thomas set up for the training group he had planned for this fall--plus some advice from Dave and several others in person and online.

Overall, I raised my mileage higher than I've had it in a while, and thanks be to God, managed not to get hurt or sick before the race. Thanks to Dave for that too--he advised me to taper, rather than train through.

I sometimes look at the faster runners with envy, but I also feel grateful to God that I can stay in this game, challenge myself, and sometimes still surprise myself. At times, during the race, I thought of Catherine Ndrereba's appearance at the expo, and what she said about running being a gift and her way of glorifying God. As I ran in this race, wearing the number she autographed, I thought of the gift that this race was to me as well, even though I was much further back in the pack than she was. I was running, healthy, pursuing a goal, as all the others around me were, and it was glorious to be there! And I also thank my younger, crazy, irrepressible, double-dog-daring-me self, who won't take no for an answer.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Reunion in Saltaire (NY)

All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know.

--Richard Wilbur, "For Dudley"

Clea once asked him: "Do you not miss the sea, Scobie?" and the old man replied simply, without hesitation, "Every night I put to sea in my dreams."
--Lawrence Durrell,

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

--Matthew Arnold, "The Buried Life"


I spent the weekend in Saltaire for the "
Great Saltaire Reunion and Photo Exchange"

This was Jim O'Hare's inspiration--a gathering of families past and present with connections to this windblown, weatherbeaten, vibrant, seagull and redwing blackbird and mosquito and butterfly and deer and dog and cat and sometimes-more-sometimes-less people populated village.

We come back with memories, some etched more deeply than cameras can penetrate.

We remember variously ... swimming and sailing lessons ... the ping of tennis balls on Marine Walk (I'd wake up to the sound of them as I slept in the McManus house. This was reassuring in an odd way, as were the sounds of motorboats on the bay.)

We remember variously ... hoping this would be the year our legs would carry us faster than we dreamed and we'd win a ribbon or even one of the coveted medals in the Labor Day races.


I was not gifted with sprint speed (or, as I'm learning now, long distance speed--although at least long-term fitness), so these ribbons and medals always eluded me, as did athletic prowess generally. However, there was a blessed exception: One day, we were taken to what I think was a dual "track meet" (and we are not talking about those Olympic ovals and the 200 or 400, but rather fenced in playing fields and at most the 50 yard dash) against Ocean Beach on their home turf. The event was the "three-legged race," involving two people running yoked together by one person's right leg, the other's left. Since I found it a challenge simply to run by myself, the three-legged race was not one that ever interested me. But for some reason, this sentiment seemed to be shared by too many people on that day, and thus they didn't have enough participants in either my age group or the one younger than mine. So they put the two age groups together in one event and drafted my cousin Janet and me to be partners. Oddly, I found this freeing. As I hadn't volunteered for the event, there was no pressure. We were, in fact, coming through in a pinch to help swell the ranks of participants. So we owed nothing except to give it a try. The rest was gravy.

With that in mind, we took our place at the start, and at the sound of the whistle (or whatever way "go" was signaled), set off. At the finish, which couldn't have been more than 50 yards away, if that, we were still on our feet, which we counted as a victory in itself. But even better than that, we were the third of three pairs who managed to reach the finish without being tangled up and falling. It was a race of attrition, one might say, and we survived. So we both received white third-place ribbons. I have no idea where mine is now, but it lives in my memory as my only "track meet" award in those days.


We remember both the endless sun and salt water and days spent in swimsuits, barefoot, being pulled in or pulling wagons to and from the ferries, to and from the playground, to and from the market and "candy store" (and the ice cream cones ... these, for me, always tasted best on the dock where I'd sit on one of the benches and watch the sailing races).


We remember storms--windows rattling, wind howling. One of these storms kept Liz and me awake in the Bentley house one night, wondering if we'd have to get up and flee the island in the middle of the night. Night storms had an edginess to them that multiplied their fear power. But daytime storms could rattle nerves as well as window.

There was the storm that brewed as we made our way back from a sailing picnic. The route there was riddled with lack of wind and constant running aground, aggravating us all, especially our skipper, Rich. But the sail back to our starting point (I have dim memories of eating hot dogs or some such during the picnic itself) tried not our patience but our courage. The boat heeled sometimes to the point where a capsize seemed imminent. The sky darkened, the wind velocity increased, and we reached anchor as the rain began in earnest. We would all have tied for awards in our sprint back to the house.

Then we watched as boats were shaken by waves, some of theme capsizing or breaking--somehow the Mercury survived unscathed, but the little "Flitefish" Dad had won in the Our Lady Star of the Sea bazaar didn't fare as well. It deteriorated into styrofoam pieces, some of which found new lives as mini surfboards to take to the ocean.


We remember heartbreak ... 1965 ... Vietnam heating up ... our last full August in Saltaire ... the loss of our Dad that winter ... the loss of so many McManus relatives: Grandma McManus, Uncle Charlie, Stephen, Frank; cousin Maria. Grandpa McManus.

A run this past weekend took me past Our Lady Star of the Sea Church. While there was no mass due to threats of Hurricane Hannah and ferry cancellations, I stopped for some quiet prayer/meditation time. The shrine of Mary, the sign said, was the only remnant from the old church swept away by the hurricane of 1938. Mary's hand was missing, and the sign stated that it was not restored so people would remember the victims of the tragedy.

A reminder of the permanence of grief and loss--and also the permanence of memory and the lives that inhabit memories. A reminder that people are irreplaceable. A reminder to remember this during the "din of strife" that somehow overpowers us in darker moments--a reminder to stop, listen, look into the eyes of those we love who are present now and who also are irreplaceable.


The weekend in Saltaire embraced storm and sun. Plans were made, only to be revised, remade--an impromptu party on Saturday night when the official reunion had to be postponed until Sunday due to the storm. The island has always listened more to nature than to people. Maybe this is what draws us all here and maybe this is why it lives so vibrantly in our memories--the sound of the wind, sometimes a demanding howl, sometimes a gentle rustle, when we least expect it, as we wait in line at the ATM or commute to work or worry about a deadline. My niece Becca, Rich tells me, chose to bring Madeleines to Saltaire, those pastries that sparked an author's memory of a magic moment from his past--and a seven-volume novel about memory. The strains of old songs from the 1950s and 1960s--the Kingston Trio that Dad loved--reverberate through the reunion. I remember....


Each time I go to Fire Island, I find something new: a visit to the Fire Island branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club during one trip, a run to the inlet that inspired the memorial book my family and I created for my father ... my first time running the Saltaire 10k (will they resurrect that race?) ... climbing to the top of the lighthouse ... swimming across the bay ... And this time sleeping at the O'Shea house for the first time. And as I add these to the bank of memories, Fire Island lives in my present and future as well as my past. Fire Island isn't just a place a GPS can find. The dances go on--the dances of joy and loss, of conflict and forgiveness. The people we loved and sometimes hated and loved again continue to talk to us--but they and we live, and the storms and sunlight co-exist and dance together.