Writing Poetry As Memoir

Dziadzio My father's father

My father’s father

I’m in the process of recovering poems that I  have written over the years. I thought that I had lost them when I transferred all of my data from my old computer to the most recent one.  But with the help of the folks at our new Peach Mac Store, I was able to find them again and now am saving them as word documents.

Some of the poems fit into the genre of memoir.  The one I’m sharing with you in this post, is what Sundays were like when I was ten or eleven years old, when we would go to my grandparents home for Sunday dinner. Sometimes we arrived early enough to help with all of the preparations. My grandparents were from Poland and they did things the way they would have done in the old country.

The word Babcia is Polish for grandmother and Dziadzio is Polish for grandfather.

Babchia My father's mother

My father’s mother



(pozhí-veech), is the Polish verb to nourish, feed, refresh

Babcia rises early   kneads loaves
foaming with yeast set with amber jewels
scrubs spent trousers  socks and sheets
feeds them between clenched wringer jaws

She holds a squawking hen
against the block   the body flies
searching for its own lost head and then
hanging upside down from the apple tree
paints the grass below  I pull fists full of feathers
watch with sickened awe her hand disappearing
pulling ribbons of yellowblue guts  unsown seed

My brothers and I gather baskets of beans  lettuce
she collects dried shirts  socks
punches dough  pressing pockets
for mashed potatoes  farmer’s cheese
sauerkraut with caraway  stuffs sliver
of garlic beneath fat blanketing the roast

The chicken swims with carrots
onions  parsley  filling the kitchen
wisth Sunday smells  I stand
on the table under the arbor
picking grapes  then in the garden
where rhubarb hides me
fill on gooseberries and currants

This feast takes all day  we gallop
in and out playing Lone Ranger and Tonto
waiting for Dziadzio to carve the roast
share crackled fat  crusty rye dipped in pan juices

Joan Z. Rough

Not The End Of The World

DSCF0267It’s been one of those times ( you know them, I’m sure) when the unexpected happens and you’re left in the dust as the world moves forward and you’re left wondering how you’ll ever get back on your feet.  Emails and blogs I’m subscribed to are piling up and it seems like the only thing to do is hit erase and pretend I never got them.  And my writing?  Forget about it.

Two weeks ago I was hit with a pinched nerve in my left shoulder area.  The pain was sharp and intense in my neck, and shoulder. It ran all the way down my arm into my elbow and hand. The first two days I was here alone. Walking the dogs, getting a meal prepared for myself and driving were a nightmare. I went back to see my chiropractor, whom I’d seen just hours before the pain hit.  She readjusted me but nothing changed. The following day I had a two hour massage with one of the best world’s best. It felt better for a few minutes but went right back to feeling horrible. The day after that, a Sunday, Bill was home again. He drove me to Med-Express, one of those places that is open all the time with doctors who are available to help those who are ailing.  The funny doctor there took x-rays, noted that it wasn’t my rotator-cuff, four or five other things, and said, “Yeah, It’s probably a pinched nerve.” He called me “Poor Miss Joan,” and told me I’m not getting any younger but added that I look terrific for my age. He sent me to the pharmacy for a muscle relaxant and prednisone in a pack that you take for six days. Each day you take one less until they are gone.

Nothing much changed.  My stomach became a mess. I was bloated, had indigestion, and worse. I began to wonder if I had some fatal disease. I felt helpless and hopeless. I wanted to write but couldn’t bear the pain. I spent most days in bed. Moving around was just too painful.

I had silly, mini panic attacks. I worried the endometrial cancer I’ve been free of for three years was eating it’s way through my body, similar to the 17 year locusts that invaded the area this summer devouring oak leaves. They made love, laid eggs, and then died. Yikes! Being one with a wild imagination, I worried about what would happen if I did die. Would Bill feed the dogs on time and walk them as I always did the first thing each and every morning?  Would I be able to somehow finish the first draft of my book before I went, if I dictated it to a stenographer?  And would Bill know that I had taken several sweaters to the cleaners last week? And would he remember to pick them up?

If I wasn’t crying, I was trying to laugh.  Sort of.  Monday after seeing the doctor at Med-Express, I called to make an appointment with my own doctor.  She had a full schedule, couldn’t see me and was going out of town for the rest of the week. I made an appointment with her Nurse Practitioner for Wednesday. I called another doctor I’d seen over ten years ago for a rotator cuff problem and is considered the best in town.  He was booked ahead for months. But his associate could see me on the 28th of August.  I said, “No, if I wait tow weeks to see someone about this problem, I’ll probably be long gone to another world. “

On Wednesday with the pain worsening, I saw Nurse Practitioner, Alycia.  She is lovely and young. I felt like an old, worn out hag, getting ready to sit in my rocking chair for the next ten years, drooling and staring into space.   She told me the stomach problems were caused by the prednisone, that it is very unlikely that the cancer had spread to my shoulder, and no, I wasn’t dying.  She also told me that I had so much inflammation in my shoulder and arm that I needed to go back on the prednisone once I’d finished the pack I already had.  She also gave me a prescription for a stomach soother, told me to enhance the Prednisone with Naproxen, rest, and don’t do anything that hurts.

Well then, what could I do? Every time I moved it hurt. I’ve found that most things require arm motion of some kind.I decided I’d finish the two books I was in the middle of reading, watch something stupid on television, and take advantage of the time by having long afternoon naps. After a while the last two activities got boring.  I wanted to write, go for a walk, and stop hurting.

Very slowly, the pain is moving on.  Today I worked on the computer without my hand getting numb.  My shoulder and neck are still a bit tight, but hopefully that’s coming to an end. Yesterday, I baked banana bread and puttered around with laundry and all the stuff that sits undone as I spend my days not doing much.

Today, I’m reading the blogs I subscribe to, and emails, too. I still can’t go to Pilates, Yoga, run around the block, walk the dogs because they pull, or work in the garden.  But it’s coming. This whole little side-tracking adventure has given me something to cry, giggle and write about. I’ll start work again on my book tomorrow, if I haven’t burned out my arm and fingers writing this little jingle. And I’ll continue feeling grateful that my problems are no worse than they are.

As I send out love, healing light and prayers for my pain to go away, I also send them to all sentient beings every where. And especially to a friend who recently found out she has a brain tumor.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you live in peace.

Beautifully Blue

Beautifully Blue © Joan Z. Rough, 2002

Beautifully Blue © Joan Z. Rough, 2002

“This is the way I feel inside. Turmoil in twisted knots. Beautifully blue. And Black. And Purple. A bruise. But one that will heal to be more like the smaller, green outer pages,  Still somewhat chaotic but fresh and very much alive. Still breathing. “

I made this collage in my journal and wrote those words on July 18, 2002.  I was a year into taking care of my mother as her health declined. I invited her to come to live in my house. I thought I could help her through her final years. Bill thought it was a good idea, too.

On a day when Bill was leaving for a week in New York, Mom fell and broke her wrist. I was left alone with her to deal with her pain, her depression, and her growing neediness. It was not a life threatening situation. But it was an inconvenience. I felt overwhelmed and abandoned. I wasn’t ready to be a caretaker. I had no idea what I was doing. I had panic attacks, slept only a few hours each night, worrying about my mother.  I was angry about the disturbance in my life, about Bill being gone. I wanted Mom to go away. I didn’t think about what she was feeling.

It was the beginning of a steep learning curve that brought me to my knees on many occasions. I was constantly confused and wanted out. But at the same time I wanted to take care of her. There were moments when I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. And times when taking care of her meant the world to me.

In the car one day as I was driving Mom to see her doctor, she sighed and said, “If those old trees could talk it would be interesting.”  I was deeply moved by what she said. She never talked about her emotional state during her last few years. I wasn’t ever sure that she was processing what was happening to her. But when she spoke those words, I knew that she was thinking about life and death and the passage of time. Later that evening I took her words and wrote the following poem.

 She Said

“If those old trees could talk it would be interesting.”
And so we sat and listened.
She began to tell her own story
And when she was finished
The trees bowed to her in the wind.
The river never slowed its pace.

Looking back and rereading what I’ve written in my journals, I often feel guilt and heartbreak. But also very grateful. There is beauty in pain as well as healing.

Time Enough

DSCF0195I began the process of writing my memoir a few years ago. Among my friends are those who have been working on their books for years. But they’re all a lot younger than I am. I might not have “years” to work on mine, so why even start? Approaching my seventieth year, I figured I’d be dead long before I finished it and thought I’d be wasting my time. Afraid that it might be too big a commitment, I worried that I would have to leave behind the other things that I need and enjoy doing. Like gardening, slapping paint onto canvas and watching it magically become a finished painting. Cooking delicious healthy meals, or traveling to places I’d like to revisit or go to for the first time.

But some told me I must do it anyway. They said I have many things to share that would benefit others … especially women.  And there was that voice in my head that I often shut out. It told me that I really didn’t have anything to lose. I kept seeing the word memoir, everywhere. When in bookstores, I’d find myself in the memoir section. Reading newspapers and magazines I often found references to memoir and their growing popularity.  I took all of that to mean that I must proceed.

I started by simply writing down memorable stories from my life. I posted many on them on my blog. Some, I filed away for a rainy day when I planned to haul them out and rework them into something I could share. It was the beginning of scratching that spot on my back that was bugging me.

I kept at it and the irritation went away. I enjoyed the process and found healing for myself as I wrote down stories that I had never shared with anyone except my therapist, my husband, or a few very close friends. I joined a life-writing class and found support and encouragement there. I finally decided that maybe I did have stories that other people  would want to read and made the commitment to write a book.

I had no idea where I was headed but I figured sooner or later I’d find the thread that was lost in my tangle of stories. Conflict grew. I wanted to spend time on writing and finishing my book before my “deathday” came along. But just a year earlier I had decided a new lifestyle was in order. I was exhausted. I needed to slow down, to be present in each moment. I was looking for a more fulfilling life. Could I do both at the same time?

I had spent too many years following the rat race, trying to do too much, too fast, in too little time. My lifelong belief that “when you choose to do something, you do it well or not at all,” was left in the dust by the side of the road. Every now and then I’d stop and ask myself, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I never had an answer.

When my mother said, “Your life is a train wreck,” I denied it. But as I took on her care when her health deteriorated, I began to think that perhaps she was right. There was never enough time for anything I wanted to do. I grew more and more anxious. I was unhappy and angry. I blamed Mom for taking all of my time. I moved faster and faster so that I could take her to the doctor and expand my garden from a quarter an acre of flower beds to a half an acre. I longed for time to read, paint, take naps, and stare into space. The faster I went, the more angry and exhausted I became. That pattern pretty much continued until my mother died and I no longer had her to look after.

The first months were long and hard and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t find anything satisfying to do. I was still moving too fast and beginning to hate the things I once loved doing. When the row of potato plants in the garden were ready to be harvested, it took all of the energy I could muster. All I wanted to do was cry. I knew something was terribly wrong. I felt like I was killing myself. Consumed in grief and anger, it took a few years for me to find myself again and begin to heal the losses I had endured.

I came to understand that throughout my life, I had given much of my power and energy to other people. Of course, I had a family. I wanted to be there for my growing children and to spend time with my husband. I had parents and two brothers I also cared about. I gave them all of myself, saving very little for me.

When my kids left home and I had more time, the pace of my life got faster. I had to make up for the time I’d lost. I had too many things I wanted to do. But mostly I still put others first. My worries about time took on a life of their own.

I brought it all to halt two years ago. No more. Finished. I decided to live each day as if it were my last. No more running around not knowing where I was going. I do only what calls to me. If it doesn’t, I don’t do it. “No” is a very important word. So is “Yes,” under the right circumstances.

I won’t be talked out of what I want unless there is a good reason and it makes sense. Those who are used to my giving way to them, may have a problem with all the above, but I feel much better. I’m learning to make choices that leave me satisfied rather than frustrated and resentful. Sometimes I choose the garden over my book.  Sometimes I take a few days off to play or rest. It’s a balancing act.

My book can’t be rushed. If I don’t finish it before I die, it’s still been a marvelous ride. I’m feeling the passion for living, loving, and writing. There is time enough for it all.


Yay, I Did It!

DSC01475I thought that by the time I turned seventy years old, I’d have it all pretty much together. But last November when I hit the big seven-oh, I was still fumbling my lines and couldn’t remember where on the stage I’m supposed to stand. Let’s just say I’m still rehearsing my act.

When I was a kid my parents often told me that I took life and myself too seriously. I was supposed to laugh more … have fun … quit being so sensitive. I believed every word they spoke and started building what I thought my worth was … in their eyes.

I grew up, got married, had my own kids, and still hadn’t figured out that what I did was really good  and important. Whenever I thought I was doing something wrong, which was most of the time, I’d say, “I’m sorry.” I still say it, but not as much as I used to. I recognize those words as just a misguided belief and an old habit that may take a long time to find its way into the trash can.

A few days ago, in the midst of making an appointment, I was confounded when I tried to schedule a time that would be convenient for me.  In the past I always found it much easier to schedule things whenever it was best for the other person. Even if I had something else to do, I’d somehow find a way to work around it, never wanting to inconvenience anyone else. I was constantly frustrated and anxious about my own work and how I was supposed to get it done.  And I often blamed the other person for being uncooperative.  No more.

The other day when I told the receptionist what time I could be there, she told me that it wouldn’t work; that they don’t take appointments between noon and two.  But this time, without a second thought, I told her that 1 PM was the only time I could meet.  I told her that I work from 9 AM till noon, and my chosen time was the only one that would work for me, as the rest of the day was filled to the brim.

I felt annoyed; prepared to argue it out. But there was no need.  She smilingly said, “Oh, okay. We can do that,” and quickly wrote my name down in my chosen time slot.

For days I’ve been stunned that I said what I had and that the receptionist was so willing to help me out. I’m flabbergasted and embarrassed that it’s taken me so damned long to take my work and myself seriously enough to just say, “No, I can’t do that.” I’m proud of myself for the commitment I’ve made to the work of writing my book. In the past my thoughts would have been something like, “I’m just writing a book.  What’s the big deal?”

Tonight join me as I toast myself for finally beginning to learn my lines.

How about you?  Do you take your dreams seriously or just dismiss them as unimportant?