Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Jerusalem 1989


In memoriam of my beautiful son Samson
1979-2005

     Jerusalem felt lively, colorful, friendly. After many months of strikes, demonstrations, and desperation as the Arab populace found their income decreasing, the shops had opened and the atmosphere was relaxed. While my parents toured the religious sites, shrines, churches and tombs, the boys and I wandered through the Old City bazaar, looking at t-shirts, ceramic oil lamps, rugs, mezuzahs, candle-stick holders, and the whole potpourri of hand-made things. They loved to bargain, surprising shopkeepers with their fluency in Hebrew, stubbornly arguing the price down, proudly carrying off their treasures. They each picked a t-shirt with the inscription: The Army--a way to travel, meet interesting people and kill them. I bought sandals.   
     Shlomo, Orit, and Kobi were young Israelis who befriended us. When it came time to leave the apartment, Kobi convinced Shlomo and Orit to take us in. Now we were surrounded by Hebrew conversations and the boys became fluent. Kobi liked to make them laugh. We would go to a cafe to drink coffees and cokes for hours or to a bar and drink beer until late into the night. Kobi had indefatigable energy, driving us to the beach, to the cafes, to a party on Shabbat night. He asked Yoan what he wanted for Christmas, a holiday he didn't celebrate. When Yoan told him a Christmas tree, he went to the Arab quarter to purchase a plastic tree that we couldn't even afford to decorate. I had almost no money but Caren passed her cleaning job on to me while she took a babysitting position. I cleaned a tiny delicatessen from top to bottom for three hours every night. The woman who worked behind the counter resented me because the boss hadn't paid her for three months but paid me cash at the end of every evening. It had to be that way because I needed to buy food for the boys and school supplies and decent shoes.
      Winter was cold and we huddled around the electric heater in the evening. Someone had given me green corduroy pants and I had finally located the thrift shop, mostly a pile of clothes thrown in a heap, where shirts and pants could be purchased for a couple of shekels. I had a beautiful leather jacket that Jay had found in a trash can and given to me.
     Sholmo's parents wanted to sell their apartment. Since it was in the Orthodox neighborhood, they were worried that the presence of "Christians" would contaminate it. Whenever people who were not Sholmo's friends came over, we took the tree apart and hid the pieces under sheets.

--excerpt from Flowers in the Wind
© 2014 Wendy Brown-Baez






Friday, March 28, 2014

Coming Home to Joy

Eight years ago if you had told me that I would be able to survive, I would have looked at you in disbelief. If you had predicted that I would find ways to heal, I would have been astonished. After my son's death, I could only put one foot in front of the other, day by day. I had tremendous love from friends and family and support from colleagues and counseling and yet, I was in such a state of shock that I was operating on instincts, not rational, not able to foresee any future at all.

My instincts told me to go back to work, that it was better than the agony of my own turbulent guilt, and I did until the wheel of fortune took me to Mexico and Alejandro. My instincts told me to hold onto Alejandro, who was both a distraction and a refuge. He knew how to live on a pendulum between deep denial and enjoying life's sensual pleasures. I knew he would not pity me, but in fact, one of the last straws between us was the way he demanded I show up to work at the gallery when I had dengue fever and should have been in bed recuperating, with a kind hand bringing me cool drinks and Tylenol.

Seven years ago when I moved to Minneapolis, if you had told me that I would find ways to meld my gift with my passion to be of service, I would not have believed you, even though my hunger for poetry had come back. Coming to Minneapolis was another turn of the wheel of fortune: my son asked for my help with childcare. I used to claim I would never live in such a cold place. Here I still am, 7 years later.

That first winter, I attended a poetry reading at The Loft for the publication release of Songs Along the Way. I remember it because the temperature was 20 below and I asked my daughter-in-law to give me a ride. I assumed there would be a small turn out. I was still disoriented, in an altered state, and raw with grief that felt like my skin of my heart had peeled away. I was surprised to watch the auditorium fill up but despite standing room only, the seat next to me remained vacant. Was it Sam's spirit come to comfort me? I left that reading to go home and write my first poem since leaving Mexico.

Five years ago if you had predicted that I would create a life I love, I would have seen a small glimmer through the fog. I would have considered the Twin Cities writer's community as a place to begin. I created brochures and sent out proposals, showed up for open mics and asked questions, attended every reading I could get to. Won a McKnight grant, published a book of poetry.

Three years ago if you had told me that I would feel joy, astounding joy that permeates my entire being, the joy of doing what I am meant to do, of  using my gift and my desire and my vision, that I would heal, I would have been astonished. I would not have been able to imagine it. But joy has been gifted me, I feel blessed.

Sam's death is not something I got over or ever forget. If I choose to hold the moment of getting the phone call in my mind, or seeing his body at the funeral home, or the afternoon at the Chama where we scattered his ashes, the visceral reaction is as potent as ever. Sharp unbearable pain shoots through my heart. In the poem I wrote a description of my grandson, "When he smiles, it is enough to crack the scotch-taped fissures of my heart back into shards. It is your smile, carbon copy family trait." These memories are enough to crack all the fissures back into shards. The fissures that I have spent the last seven years filling in with gold lacquer, painstakingly matching each surface to the other to resemble the whole.

Poetry performances for Dia de los Muertos where I shared my anguish, poetry performance at Patrick's Cabaret where I told the story also healed me as I realized that death comes for all, death is part of the cycle of life. Death is natural. Sam's death was a choice he made and I can choose the way I mourn, publically and privately.

What I learned as a writing instructor/facilitator is that when I write, there are two paths. One will take me deeper and deeper into the story: what happened to me and what I feel about it. There is no end to that branch of the story. I can tell it over and over, because the emotional pull is powerful. Or I can choose another branch: what it means, what patterns I see, where it leads me, what has been the lesson, and how I can change and transform because of it. And as the writer responsible for the circle, I deliberately choose that branch. That is what I write about and share. When I led workshops under the funding of the grant, writing with battered women and homeless youth and heart patients and care-givers, I was writing weekly or twice weekly and choosing that path over and over again. What does it mean to me, what did I learn, where do I find inner courage and strength, what do I still have, what are my blessings? And I began to heal, not only enough to keep going, not only enough to be engaged with laughter and friendship and love and curiosity and pleasure, but real joy. An inner knowing that I am where I am meant to be, that I am living my dreams, that I am connected to others in deep ways and that I love my life. I am blessed. I am grateful.

If you had told me even last year, that I would be overwhelmed with ecstatic bliss, that I would dance again under the Mexican moon, that I would be filled with Presence of Spirit and that I would be overcome with love, I would have been incredulous. This joy is beyond any previous experience I have ever had. Beyond when I fell in love, when I gave birth, when I sat in a Spanish cafe and listened to flamenco, when I celebrated with friends, when I held my first book in my hands, when I spoke my truth on stage and was held in the arms of my audience. This joy is a state of being. I have come home to myself after long years of wandering. Like Dorothy clicking together her ruby slippers and saying No place like home. It is the center towards which I have been traveling all my life. While I am here, I know I can always return. Whenever grief or disappointment or frustration or longing knock me off-kilter, I know it is here, waiting for me, invincible, mine.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Safe

“Keep in touch,” were his last words as he kissed her good-bye and she vanished through the security checkpoint. Of course, she would. She depended on that exchange of emails, especially ever since that one when he confided to her that he wanted to swim out to sea. She had panicked, emailing four times a day until he responded. 

After she arrived in Mexico, she thought she would not have to worry any longer. They would move on, together, leave the past. But that day on the beach had scarred her. When he had swum out into the bay until she lost sight of him, her heart pounded so hard, she felt faint. How long should she wait before she summoned help? Maybe he had hit his head on a boat, maybe there was a treacherous tide out there in the aquamarine sparkle, how would she explain in her faltering Spanish, how many seconds before he drowned? She stood up and waded into the shallows, hand over her eyes against the vibrant sun. The few minutes until she saw his head emerge, his strong strokes guiding him back to her, were an eternity. It left her weak and dazed, brought back the sense of disorientation, an aftermath of losing her son. He had only laughed. “I am a strong swimmer, Gretel,” he told her, as he toweled off, ready to order another micheleda. But it wasn't his ability that worried her.


As she waited in the gangway to the plane, she wondered how it was possible to leave. The what ifs haunted her, she had hardly slept all night. The conversation between the couple in front of her felt like glass shards that could slice her skin. She had no reassurances, no promises, only a trail of deaths behind her.


Suddenly it flashed into her mind that it was she herself that needed to be held safe. It was her own life that teetered on the edge. She was already out to sea and did not know if her arms were strong enough to resist the tide. But once she knew this, her fear subsided. She smiled at the stewardess, found her seat, lifted her carry on into the overhead bin, settled her white cotton skirt carefully around her knees, pulled a book out of her bag before stowing it in front of her feet. Ordinary tasks that she had performed dozens of times. Her first flight to look at colleges, the visits back home, the return from overseas. After the memorial, on her way south.

She would make it because she had no choice. The story wasn't over yet and no one knew the ending. She took a long deep breath and let go. She would be back. The trip was a temporary departure. She knew how to text him now as well as email and texts were immediate, in real time. She changed her focus from fear of losing him to the anticipation of coming home--to Mexico, to Minnesota where she had never lived before but where her family now lived, to her own inner sanctuary--she did not yet know.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Solstice Greetings 2014



Greetings of the Season!
As I approach 60, I have learned enough to be qualified to give advice so here it is:

Don’t wait to go after what you want.
Be determined, endure through the disappointments, the losses, the rejections. Learn from them, then let them go. The pruned tree yields more fruit.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. Be bold. Don’t wait to speak up until you must. Misunderstandings happen, they come and go but the courage of your willingness to say what is on your mind will linger.

Be gentle with all living things. If the truth might hurt, be kind.

Be sweet with praise. Be generous with celebration, whenever the chance rolls your way.
Be lit up with gratitude.

Honor the beauty and imperfection of this world. Practice the art of kintsugi: a Japanese art form of mending broken ceramic by filling the cracks with gold lacquer, illuminating the damage and rendering the piece even more beautiful.

Celebrate not only the fire that lights our souls but the dark nights where we wander, when we stumble into the arms of a friend, the way we finally see that the light was in us all along.

Dear Friends ,
This year has brought me the joy of spending time with my grandson Oliver, who loves books. He has Go, Dog, Go memorized and he loves to play games such as Candyland. He’s 2 so you can imagine….  I attended my first semi-pro soccer game (July 4th) and listened to my grandsons’ excitement about their soccer, football and hockey games. All is fine at the Wetzel household and my grandson Jason (Sam’s son) and his bros seem all to be doing well.  A small miracle. And yes, grandma is not above bribery.

The grant finished up with teaching at The Wellstone Center, Cornerstone, The Lenox Center, The Central Library and the Heart Institute at Abbot Northwestern Hospital. I curated a multi-media art exhibition with: Julian Coffman, metaphorical digital prints; Ashley Dull, gorgeous oil landscapes of light; Amy Sabrina performing sacred dance opening night; and Athena Kildegaard and myself displayed poetry as art and had a poetry reading. We had workshops and a panel with Julian, Amy, Michael Kiesow Moore and myself, and I learned more about their inspiring paths to healing through art.

I also took a part-time job as coordinator of the youth program for children 3- 11 years old at Unity Christ Church. It has been a joy and a challenge, using creative ways to explore Unity principles and working with a gifted and wonderful Youth & Family Ministry Director Nancy Maiello.  She just finished coordinating the Christmas show: omg, laughter and tears and watching those wee ones on stage. (What exactly was Ryan doing up there as he marched in circles? Apparently his mom told him he would get cookies if he stayed on stage for the entire song.)

My Care for the Care-giver writing group continues at Pathways; my third workshop at Stillwater prison was on fiction; and I am editing an anthology for Vision Loss Resources with Pamela Fletcher and Patricia Kirkpatrick as co-editors. What a joy it has been to work with them! It has been astonishing to read the work from those who are blind or sight-impaired, their sense of humor, courage to try new things and resiliency as they learn to navigate in a sight-oriented world. As for the work in the prisons, it is heart-breaking and powerful, and we know we are having an impact. One of our students says that now his family reads poetry to him over the phone. Can you imagine that? What a gift!

What’s next, you may ask? Senior center, Rush City prison facility and I won a Saint Louis Park Arts & Culture grant called Treasure Hunt: Where our hearts are, there is our treasure. I will teach writing workshops and with the guidance of Chrisma McIntyre, the work will be transformed into art to be exhibited in various locations. The community editors will finish editing submissions for the 2015 Saint Paul Almanac and Oliver turns 3.

But the most exciting news is that I will be traveling to San Miguel de Allende to the writer’s conference in February. Besides getting to hear Pat Conroy, Laura Esquivel, Ellen Bass, David Whyte (I am taking his workshop) and others, I have appointments with two literary agents. I had decided to put aside my travel- to-Santa-Fe-money this year in order to attend a writer’s conference, never dreaming it would be in Mexico. I need to put some effort into getting my prose published and so, wish me luck, send me your good thoughts for fulfilling my dream of publication and look for good news.

This year horizons have opened up that I never expected and yet dreamed of: being part of the circle and getting to know the writers of the MN Prison Writing Workshop; community editors, advisors, interns, and movers and shakers of Saint Paul Almanac; and connecting with the TC Daily Planet. We serve the cause of social justice by listening, amplifying, encouraging the voices of diverse cultures and neighborhoods, the invisible, the forgotten. I am seeing my idealism of the 60’s finally coming into fruition and I am able to be part of it.  I am following my dream. And many grass roots organizations here are starting the Revolution by collective action, storytelling circles, alternative transportation, presses, and art.  Yayyyy!!! We SHALL overcome…The torch is getting passed to the young and what a flame it is!

I am a late bloomer. The performance poetry was something I began to do when I turned 48! but I am thankful that the arthritis doesn’t hold me back. Traveling by bus gets harder, more nights I end up taking Tylenol than I used to, but I am determined to not let anything hold me back from the satisfaction of living my heart’s calling.

Recently Rev. Pat asked me if I am happy. “Why, yes,” I answered, surprised at myself. “I am.” I used to say how could I be happy when so many in the world are suffering? But I feel I am answering the world’s need by doing something I love to do.

Bless you. You have been part of my journey, my healing, my gold lacquer.
Peace and joy,
Wendy

We must sit on the rim of the well of darkness
and fish for fallen light
with patience.    —Pablo Neruda

If you wish to contribute  a $  gift
towards the organizations I am part of:


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Home


Home is a theme that I have been writing about for years. I am a pilgrim on this amazing planet and I have traveled and moved far more often than most. The yearning for home and finding community, refuge, and sanctuary is the sound track to my adult years. In the excerpt below you'll see why. I believe that home is in the center of our being and in the Arms of the Divine, a breath apart from meaning the same thing. 

Holy Cow! Press has just published an anthology on this topic: The Heart of All That Is. This beautiful collection  includes poetry and prose from local writers that I know personally such as Margarette Hasse, Cary Waterman, Ethna McKiernan, Jill Breckenridge,  Mary Kay Rummel, and writers I have yet to meet: Karen Herseth Wee, Miriam Weinstein, James Cihlar, Alice Owen Duggan, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Linda Kantner, Julie Landsman, Amy Nash, and Ellen Shriner, and writers that I admire such as Marge Piercy and Naomi Shihab Nye. 

Available at www.holycowpress.org and through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, this collection makes an excellent Christmas present. The work ranges from nostalgia to escape, from roots to homelessness, from where we feel a sense of belonging to where we can spread our wings and fly. 
I hope if you live in the Twin Cities, you'll join us for the book launch on Nov 9 at Subtext Books. 


     While spending a month in Oaxaca, I brought along Neruda's book of poems called Isla Negra. In the foreword, Alastair Reid says that it was not a systematic autobiography in poem form "but a set of assembled meditations on the presence of the past in the present." It followed the chronology of his life. "This is cool!" I thought. "I could do that. I could write poems about the places where I have lived." I made up a list, starting with the first sub-let when I moved out of my parent's home in Pennsylvania after high school. I was stunned to count forty-two places, not including the casita I was currently renting in Oaxaca. The locations started on the East Coast, went to the Southwest, zigzagged all over the West, from Colorado to Seattle, from Montana to California. My travels culminated in an exodus out of the country to Belize and Mexico, over to Spain, the Canary Islands, Greece, and Israel.
    No wonder I related to the Jewish people! When I arrived off the boat in Haifa, I felt as though I had finally come home, returning from exile to sanctuary. This traveling was with a group of people and never felt like homelessness because we lived the same lifestyle. We owned one set of clothes, following our mantra, "Travel light.” We lived a life of self-discipline, ignoring personal comfort, having few material possessions.
    But did I live this nomadic lifestyle simply as an imposition of the dictates of our “guru" or was it the natural result of my yearning to travel as a child? I day-dreamed of hitch-hiking to exotic places, of being a Gypsy and a wanderer. I had an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people in it, a desire to be “footloose and fancy-free.” When I stuck my thumb out on the side of the road, slept on Spanish beaches, or hiked up curving forested roads, I was not aware that here was my day dream come to life. I never thought to myself, “Gee, this is exactly what I asked for when I was young.” 
--excerpt Seeking Sanctuary from The Heart of All That Is, Wendy Brown-Baez


           



Saturday, October 12, 2013

Guest Blogger Michael Kiesow Moore: Writing Fantasy

I’d like to begin by talking about how writing fantasy is not different from writing any other genre. Whether you are writing fantasy, romance, mystery, or literary fiction you work with the same writing tools to meet virtually identical goals. Foremost, you have to tell a story. Proust may very well be one of the sole authors who got away without one, but most everyone else has to have one. If you don’t have a story to tell, the reader is going to close the book on you. Under the umbrella of “the story”, you also need to develop your characters, maintain point of view (be it singular or many), attend to the right balance of narration and dramatization, use appropriate tense(s), consciously employ the best chronology for the story, and so on. For the writers of most genres, this would be enough balls to have in the air.

And then there is fantasy. The very connotation of that word holds infinite worlds, limited only by the imagination of the author. Think of the worlds wrought by J.R.R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling. Middlearth and Hogwarts are but singular side trips to the vast realms. What this means for the fantasy writer is that work unique to this genre is mastery of “world building.” The fantasy writer builds up the world the story takes place in from the ground up. But it is much more than simply imagining a different landscape.

A proper world built from scratch needs a full history, spanning not only centuries but millennia. Does your world have magic? If so, what are the rules? In most fantasies, there are often consequences for using magic, and it is not always simply done. What kind of technology does your world have? Has gun powder been invented? What metals are used? What are the social customs, forms of greeting, clothing fashions? What is taboo in your world, the rituals around death? What religion or gods are believed? Do the gods themselves appear? What forms of government are followed, the politics? What are the curses people use? (This can be a surprisingly interesting question, as the answer can incorporate religious beliefs and speaking what is forbidden.)  This is only the short list of questions that need to be answered as the fantasy world gets built.

Is it surprising to say that many a writer has gotten lost in world building and forgotten that they started out telling a story?  The successful fantasy writer uses world building to advance the story and develop character and not make it an end to itself.

I would argue that the non-fantasy writer also must successful world build. A realistic story set in the Minneapolis of right now has to consciously put that world on the page. Many writers neglect this, and weak writing results. Perhaps what sets fantasy writers apart from writers of other genres is that we take nothing for granted.

Another aspect perhaps unique to fantasy writing is that most stories in one way or another tell the Hero’s journey. In my classes on writing fantasy, I have described the Hero’s journey like this:

The all purpose hero is someone set apart from ordinary humanity through miraculous birth or other special qualities, and undergoes a test in the form of a quest or journey. The quest takes the hero out of the ordinary sphere of human life, often into a new land where different rules apply. Passing through a series of challenges, the hero is helped in the quest by the magic or wisdom of some, and hindered by others. Although the quest seems difficult, when the end is achieved, the challenge is resolved with surprising ease. The hero acquires a boon – something valued, such as new knowledge – which he or she brings back to the human community for its benefit.

You can find examples of this hero template in Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, the Finnish epic Kalevala, the Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars (the original trilogy). Throughout the history of humanity we have always seemed to have a need for a hero. It could even be said that each one of us is the hero in our own personal story.

I am right now finishing the first novel of a fantasy series. Because I am writing for a young audience, I have been conscious of one other aspect that writers of children literature attend to – as if there wasn’t enough to think about already. Much of children’s literature investigate the idea of justice. As Dickens’ Pip put it, “[i]n the little world in which children have their existence there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.” Whether it is rebellion against an injustice, or a goal to set things right, social justice is the flame that ignites the story, and turns what began as mere characters into heroes.


--Michael Kiesow Moore

Michael Kiesow Moore is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in several books and journals, including Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience, Water~Stone Review, Talking Stick, Evergreen Chronicles, The James White Review, and A Loving Testimony: Losing Loved Ones Lost to AIDS. His awards have included a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, a Loft Mentor Series Award, and poetry nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and curates the Birchbark Books Reading Series at the Birchbark Bookstore. For more information visit www.michaelkiesowmoore.com.



Monday, September 23, 2013

The Yellow Dress

I inherited the yellow dress from my mom, probably because after the fourth pregnancy, she could no longer fit into it, or maybe she just thought it would look cute on me. It was made of a soft, sheer cotton with white rick-rack on the sleeveless arm holes and hem and the waist was cinched with a cloth belt. I was about twelve when it was hung in my closet for wearing to church.

When I heard the news that my uncle had died, my instant reaction was to rebel against attending his funeral. I announced that I would not go. I didn’t want to be in a room full of weeping relatives. I don’t believe in funerals, I protested. You either love someone while they are alive or you don’t. I didn’t feel close to my dad’s large family and I couldn’t imagine my uncle any other way than handsome, funny and charming. He had the same black wavy hair and blue eyes as my dad but he wasn’t married nor did he he have children of his own. He made all of us feel special. In fact, out of all the aunts, uncles and cousins on my dad’s side, he was the only relative I liked. The Brown family was made up of hard-working, beer drinking, gossiping German blue collar workers and Grandpa was a drunk. He always smelled like beer and being next to him made me feel sick. I was an intellectual bohemian artist with my nose in a book and my head in the clouds. Uncle Tom had made me feel comfortable in an acutely uncomfortable situation. I thought to have a funeral was the wrong way to honor his passing but I didn’t have the concept of “celebration of life” at that time. It was my first encounter with death and my response was to refuse. The refusal was a facade to hide my shock and sorrow.


I argued and tried to resist but my parents insisted that I show my respect and accompany them. There was no way that they were going to let me stay home while they all went to the funeral. It was unthinkable.  I knew the casket was to be closed due to way the body had been damaged in the car accident. This fact was another reason I thought a memorial was stupid. You couldn’t even view his body, anyway, he was no longer there. If I had to go, though, I would wear the yellow dress.

My parents were trying to get my three siblings dressed and ready and didn’t have time or energy to fight with me any longer. I can’t remember their reaction but I wore that dress to the funeral. I don’t remember anything about the service or the gathering afterwards, although I’m sure there was one, with plenty of beer. The only thing I remember is that I knew Uncle Tom could see me in that light-reflecting yellow dress. I knew it would make him smile. I knew I would never wear black to a memorial if I could help it. I would go as myself, my dynamic, feisty, alive self.