A tribute to Pat Schneider

I’ve been grappling with the death on August 10th of Pat Schneider, founder of The Amherst Method of leading writing workshops. She was my workshop mentor, and taught me everything I know and love about facilitating groups for generative writing. But she taught me so much more than how to be an empathetic leader. She forever changed my life and how I thought about writing, including my own words. This poem is for Pat.

All Pat Schneider Taught Me

by Lana Hechtman Ayers

You never know at the time,
or at least I never have,
when a chance encounter
will change the course of your life,
and in my case, the flow of generosity,
not only away from the heart to others,
but back toward.

Having been writing since
I could manage a crayon between
my chunky thumb and index finger,
those words rushed and sloppy
were my life raft, a way of testifying
that was surviving daily assault
and still breathing, still willing
to keep breathing, but barely so.

Until I discovered the Amherst Method
casually perusing ads at the back of
a writer’s magazine, I was certain
my words had no use to others,
artless and overwhelming,
without value, and beyond that,
a waste of precious trees.

In that training circle
in the Amherst Writers Method
Pat Schneider’s living room,
I learned how to listen deeply,
not only to others, but to my own soul.
How its voice could raise a bell
in celebration with and for others.
How its lonely distant train whistle
on the night breeze could help
relieve others’ suffering.

In that sacred Amherst circle,
the voices around the room,
were as much my own as their own.
I learned listening is
the most active verb
and speaking is an act of generosity.
I learned forgiveness
of self and others
begins with the words written
on the page, then breathed out
by the lungs, flowing liquid oxygen
into the veins and every organ.
My life with words transformed
from despair to joy,
becoming charged with vitality,
with a soul-renewing energy.

In those precious days with Pat
in her cozy home,
my breath changed,
my heart changed.
I became a writer welcomed into
the family of writers,
as grand and myriad
as every human who has ever
spoken a syllable of their own truth.
And I learned to believe
my own truth could be art
as well as power.

Saturday Breakfasts, a tribute to my dad

My dad died nearly 30 years ago, but if he were still here, he’d turn 96 this week. Happy birthday in heaven, Dad.

Saturday Breakfasts

by Lana Ayers

My dad woke before the 5:30 AM alarm weekdays to ready himself for his hourlong commute to work as a maintenance man. Weekends too, he rose that early out of habit. On Saturdays he would trim the yew bush shrubberies, weed the garden, prune the leggy roses, sweep the driveway and the path leading to the house, all before starting the loud brassy gas lawnmower at 9:00 AM. The delay in mowing not so much to avoid waking the rest of us lazy lay-ins—my mother, my older brother, and me—but to remind us a Saturday is not to be wasted.

Upon hearing the grinding roar, my brother and I would throw off our covers and rush into the living room. Being six years older than me, it was understood my brother got to choose what we watched on TV. Dial on and channel clicked, monsters from outer space would fill the monochromatic screen. Though I would have preferred Bugs Bunny cartoons, I learned to love those science fiction B movies as much as my brother did.

After a half hour of mowing the small front lawn and driveway median strip of grass outside our 1955 brick ranch house, my dad would come in by the side door of the house that looked into the living room and peak at us. My brother and I sat cross-legged on the orange shag carpet, slurping sugary cereal from bright plastic bowls. Dad would shrug out of his grass- clipping-covered shoes which brought such a rich smell of life into the dark, dusty house. Then he’d step over to us in his socked feet to pat us each on the head. Often, there was a kiss instead of a pat. Sometimes both.

“That’s not a real breakfast,” Dad would say.

Sometimes I broke away from watching swamp monsters or crazed robots and followed my dad into small square kitchen made darker by brown cabinets in a single East facing window. Dad would begin his Saturday morning routine of removing all the ingredients for a cheese and egg scramble from the refrigerator—the only appliance that seemed to be changed out over the years: first a short stocky Norge that looked more like a bank safe, then an avocado green number, and finally the brown fridge with a darker frame of black—and set them on three-foot length of counter between the stove top and sink.

Next, he got out a mixing bowl from one cupboard, a frying pan from another, and finally a butter knife, spatula and whisk from the drawer below the mustard-yellow corded wall phone. My dad would whistle as he cracked eggs and stirred, not tunes I recognized, but always cheerful. He switched on the gas flame under the frying pan, which came on with a puff, like a teeny explosion. He flipped half a stick of butter off the knife and swirled the pan around, before pouring in the egg, milk, and American cheese mixture.

Dad whistled and stirred with the spatula for a few moments. When he stopped stirring, he went and removed four slices of bread from the wooden bread box on the counter next to the fridge, set those in the toaster beside it and pushed the plunger down. By this time, he’d call out “Plates” loudly if I were still in front of the TV; softly if I were there with him in the kitchen watching his nimble movements .

I would reach into the cabinet under the window and get out a stack of three dinner-sized plates, setting them on the counter next to the stove. My dad gathered clean forks from the green dish drainer next to the sink and handed them to me. A round Formica-topped table was shoved into the corner of the kitchen. Along with forks, I set out  a napkin for each of us from the vertical orange holder. Then, I got two glasses out of the dish drain and filled them with milk from the half-gallon carton in the fridge. Then I set butter dish in the center of the table. Dad reached for the percolator next to the toaster and poured a cup of coffee into his favorite mug–a translucent white glass Pyrex cup he’d gotten for free for filling his tank with gas at the Esso station.

“Hot and hearty, come and get it,” my dad would call to my brother.

Finally, when my brother and I were seated, my dad doled out the meal and presented the two of us each with a steaming plate of eggs and a slice of toast. Dad’s only reward to himself for cooking us breakfast was an extra piece of toast to go with his eggs.

Mother never woke early enough to be treated to the scramble feast. I always wondered if she somehow resented Dad usurping her kitchen. But my brother and I were delighted to partake in his generosity—a warm breakfast one day a week. Saturday breakfast was a meal that perfumed the house with eggy, cheesy, buttery aroma. I probably could have filled my belly up on the scent alone.

And my brother and I never minded missing a few minutes of the movies, reruns we’d seen dozens of times anyway. Dad never talked while we ate, busy buttering toast and chomping away, though he sometimes hummed between bites of cheesy, buttery eggs. The comfortable silence on these Saturday mornings of warm, satisfying breakfasts was one of the deepest expressions of love I experienced growing up. 

Tales from Shelter in Place: Mice

Lana Ayers  

Tales from Our Shelter in Place: Mice  

I worry over the squeaking sounds the come from the walls between the kitchen and the laundry room. At nights, our cat Silvia, the former feral one from the hoarder house with fifty-nine cats, stations herself in front of the dishwasher, feet tucked under so that she resembles a roast. And one morning we wake to find a quarter-sized daub of blood on the linoleum. Nearby rests something resembling a four-inch long leather shoelace. My husband tells me it’s a mouse tail and I feel faint. We can’t locate the rest of the mouse and hope it made a quick snack for Silvia.  

I consider myself lucky that I’ve never experienced rodents inside my home before this. Back when I was young and single in New York City I lived among cockroaches like an alien invading their apartments. Despite the diligence of  landlords calling in exterminators, time and time again, to spray deadly poisons, nothing ever truly did them in. Though I wished then it had.  

But here and now in rural Oregon, it feels wrong to interfere with the mice. Their ancestors likely claimed the spot where our house is built long before my husband and I ever arrived. The crawlspace under the house is a place of warmth and dryness away from the constant damp. Who am I to fault the mice for wanting respite?  

The mouse traps my husband ordered arrived weeks ago and remain unopened in boxes on the floor of our mudroom. I have not nagged him to set up the traps. Us killing the mice feels wrong. We are thousands of years past our hunter-gatherer days. Why not just let our cat Silvia follow her instincts as she is closer to her formerly wilder nature?  

Though I can’t put it into words, something about this whole situation nags at me. Maybe a deeper question about the environment and ecosystems and human disruption? Or perhaps, it’s just that this mice issue feels like one of privilege? We humans hold the power of life and death over beings no less worthy of prosperity than ourselves. All species of life are sacred. This was true of those darned cockroaches as well.  

I’m not saying that those squeaks between the walls don’t freak me out a little. They do. They activate some hind brain fear, I suppose. But in this chaotic time in America where racism is finally at the forefront all across the nation, and vital protests are taking place, this is the time for rampant compassion. No doubt the setting right of years of injustice is complicated and will take time. But it must be accomplished beginning now.  

We humans have erected all sorts of us and them boundaries—barriers to empathy—from the small like bugs, to the exceptionally large like entire continents and the peoples who inhabit them. Our little mice dilemma amounts to not much in the scheme of possible problems. There are greater goods I should worry over and find ways to contribute to solutions. And here in my house, surely, my own compassion can extend to the beings between the walls.  

Those traps need to disappear from view so my husband will forget they even exist. His attention span for all things domestic, that I normally curse for being short, can come in handy this time. As summer blooms warmth and dryer days, the mice, too, will take advantage of outdoor beauty. And so will we. Perhaps the mice between the walls will redouble in the fall when the rains return. But as we shelter in place in this beautiful slice of the world, I do my best to focus on and appreciate each day as its own gift of breath and bounty—even if some of that breath and bounty squeaks with joy.   

My lost loved ones are with me ever more now…

In this chaotic time of battling racism, illegal and immoral government actions, and the coronavirus pandemic, we hope to defeat them once and for all with as few lives harmed or lost as possible. And yet within the daily of strife of these, I feel my lost loved ones still with me somehow. The memory of their love helps get me through the darker days. This short piece below is about my dad, lost to me on this side of breath nearly three decades ago.

~ ~ ~

A Man of Few Words, But Good Ones

Lana Ayers

My father was a man of few words. He never started conversations. He left for work weekdays before I woke. But his absence made a deeper silence in the house than the quiet when he was at home. Back at 5:30 each workday night, he liked to change out of his coveralls uniform with lace-up boots, take a quick shower, and put on casual slacks in black or brown, with a plain tee shirt, his hairy toes wiggling out of the front of his beach-thong slippers.

Then he’d read the newspaper before supper, his cigarette sending untranslatable smoke signals up to the ceiling. Mother told my brother and me not to disturb him. He needed to unwind, but he never seemed like a ball of string to me.

At supper, we kids weren’t allowed to speak except to say pass the ketchup or are there more potatoes? But after our meal was finished, and after I swore I’d gotten all my homework done for the next day, my father was fair game.

Parked in his well-worn striped armchair, the black & white television tuned to a Knicks basketball game or a Cassius Clay boxing bout or to Bonanza, full of big hats and horses, my father sighed heavily and rooted for the good guys. C’mon, you can do it! It was then, without my mother or brother around, I asked him one the thousands of questions that floated around in my head day and night. The kind that drove my kindergarten and early grade teachers to tell me shut up and sit quietly—we’ve had enough out of you. But my father didn’t seem to mind.

“Daddy, why is the grass green?” I’d say.

“Because it sets such a nice backdrop for the yellow dandelions.” He mimed picking a flower and placing it behind his ear.

“Daddy, why do birds sing all the time?”

“Because they want to make Dean Martin jealous,” Daddy said, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx’s.

“Daddy, why do I have to eat peas? They taste like mush.”

“Peas are a secret weapon against sadness,” Daddy said, leaning over to where I sat at his feet to brush my forehead with his calloused hand. Rough as it was, nothing was ever so tender.

“Daddy, what is God?”

Daddy got up and clicked off the television knob. Back in the striped chair, he patted his thighs. I went to him and he pulled me up into his lap with ease, even though I was a chubby thing. I liked being so close to him I could count the hairs growing in each nostril, like dense, secret forests.

“God is the sky,” Daddy said, one arm hugging my back. “When you see the stars at night, that’s god. And in the daytime, the fluffy white clouds, those are god, too.”

“I thought God was like a person, only giant or something,” I said.

“The great thing about God is that each person can see God the way they want to. I look up at the sky and feel peaceful,” Daddy said.

“Even when it’s raining?”

“Even then. Rain makes everything grow. And quenches thirst.”

“Even when the clouds look like elephants or crazy clowns?” I said.

“Especially then,” Daddy said. “God is always up there for me. And for you, too. Like an upside-down ocean of goodness.”

“So why doesn’t god do anything when everything hurts so much?” I said.

“I know that’s hard to understand, Baby” Daddy said. “The universe is good, but some people in it aren’t always so good. You just have to keep believing in the good, that life can be good, even when things hurt.”

“I don’t know if I can do that, Daddy,” I said, hot tears dripping down my face.

He brushed my cheeks. “Well, until you can believe it for yourself, I’ll believe for you. When you look up at the sky, I’ll be a cloud, or fog, or the clearest blue, or the reddest star, radiating my love for you,” Daddy said. “Just remember to look up.”

We Are the Germans, a poem

In Portland, Oregon,  a city much criticized by the president, 
protesters were abducted by Federal officers acting without jurisdiction. 
Here's a link to see read more about this: https://tinyurl.com/y2mu85b2
With these men behaving like Hitler's brown shirts of Nazi Germany, 
the poem I wrote after Trump's inauguration feels even more like prophecy. 
I'm re-posting it here. 
 
WE ARE THE GERMANS
       America January 27, 2017 & beyond
  
 Terror, anger, shame.
 I wonder If this is how
 the German people felt—
 the ones who cobbled shoes,
 the ones who rose early
 to bake bread,
 the ones who rocked
 babies in their arms
 and sang guten Morgen—
  
 I wonder if this is how
 the German people felt
 when they saw
 what they had done,
 chosen a monster
 to lead their country.
  
 Instead of yards full of chickens,
 and pockets full of deutsche marks,
 the German people were treated to
 streets swept clean of their unclean
 neighbors, and courtyards
 full of dust and darkness,
 uniformed men with brutal
 hands to patrol the land with pride.
  
 I wonder if those Germans
 who tended their gardens,
 or who kept books
 for the mom and pop markets,
 or who constructed those fine
 Mercedes Benz limousines
 piece by elegant piece—
  
 I wonder if this is how
 those Germans felt,
 the way Americans do now
 only a few days after our
 new leader has assumed office
 and signed the proclamation
 stating Muslims aren’t welcome
 on our American soil.
  
 Terror, anger, shame.
 I wonder if those Germans
 bit their tongues to blood,
 or worried their knuckles raw.
 Did they feel any sorrow at all,
 or did they simply lay
 their heads on pillows
 and wind the alarm clocks
 for another day?

Threads, a pandemic poem

My emotions have been all over the place in these last couple of weeks. It’s been so difficult to stay optimistic and motivated. I’m trying to focus as much as possible on blessings. Of which there are so many–clean water, fresh food, my pups and kitties, my husband, family, friends, the beauty of the natural world, the beauty of all the arts, that I am still here. Here’s a poem that I hope you’ll find uplifting.

Lana Hechtman Ayers
  
 Threads
  
 Threads hang loose from
 the ties of my too robustly 
 laundered mask.
  
 Any day could be my last.
 This was true even before
 the coronavirus.
  
 But the sky distracts us
 with its palette of blues,
 its permanent drift.
  
 There’s a Buddhist rift
 in autonomy now,
 how probability
  
 shifts destiny as if
 fate was ever 
 more than poetry.
  
 The stars are themselves
 at last, clearer now
 without excess exhaust.
  
 Despite all human losses,
 summer blooms & blooms, 
 fragrances brighter.
  
 My personal regrets grow lighter,
 float off. Only what I can do 
 this moment matters.
  
 Old misgivings scatter 
 like dust motes in a breeze.
 I remember to breathe deeply,
  
 though breath is the way in
 for this unstoppable death,
 it’s also the only way to live. 

Dark Injustice

 Lana Hechtman Ayers

 Dark Injustice
  
 There are black men dangling 
 from the trees of California
 and New York 
 like some new species of bird
 that hangs by its neck
 from the high branches,
 a Corvid perhaps
 given the fact the Jim Crow
 has never ended in earnest.
  
 Look, mama, says a small
 white boy walking past 
 a special tree, that birdy’s
 giving me a dirty look.
 Mama drags him along,
 murmuring more's the pity
 in this city. 
  
 Do we know how life
 imitates death
 in the guise of suicide,
 someone’s vile idea of irony?
  
 Here’s the news of yesteryear:
 Lynching.
 Here’s the news of yesterday:
 Lynching.
  
 Some claim a tree is just a tree
 and the noose is a clever device
 for black men to say farewell.
  
 Hell is paved with trees
 like the streets of America.
  
 More protests do not equal 
 more progress.
 The egress from racism is
 no safe passage.
  
 This is not a cause
 but a call for conscience.
  
 This is not about law
 but morality.
  
 This is not a subject
 for neutrality.
  
 Transforming human 
 into humane 
 is no simple addition of ‘e’.
  
 e = energy in physics equations
  
 Hanging is all about 
 force and gravity,
 about tension and torque.
  
 Lynching is hanging
 with a capital ‘H’
 for hate, 
 with the silent, sinister 
 addition of ‘e’
 as in evil.
 
 Injustice is a white man’s noose,
 from the trees of California 
 to the New York island.
  
 Our voices must chant, lifting
 the fog of dark injustice—
 no lives matter 
 until black lives matter.
  
 In this land made for you and me,
 let justice truly stand
 for the end of racism,
 from the Redwood forest
 to the Gulf stream waters, and beyond. 
   

Disappear This White Woman’s Ink, Burn This Poem

I feel great trepidation posting this poem. 
It is not my intention to shame or accuse anyone
just because they are white.  
This post is about how ashamed I feel.
Most of the time, I am perceived as white, 
and my birth certificate indicates "Caucasian." 
The truth is much more complicated, 
but that’s a discussion for another time. 
The irony is that this is a poem where 
I state that my white privilege means 
it’s time for me to shut up, listen, 
and let black people speak and lead. 
Yet, here I am posting my white woman poem. 
I am trying to be the best ally I can. 
I’ve found some resources to help me with this. 
Here are a few: 
 https://www.greatbigstory.com/guides/how-to-become-a-better-black-lives-matter-ally 
and
 http://www.scn.org/friends/ally.html 
and
 https://reflections.yale.edu/article/future-race/becoming-trustworthy-white-allies 
 Lana Hechtman

 Disappear This White Woman’s Ink,
 Burn This Poem
  
 A white woman’s pen
 means nothing.
  
 Even when she means 
 to write as ally,
 she betrays otherwise,
 saying stupid shit
 about a best friend
 or a maid who helped raise her.
  
 Too bad her ink isn’t white,
 invisible as her skin 
 is to the police.
  
 Let her ink leak,
 sink a pool of black
 onto the page 
 so that it no longer
 reflects her privileged face.
  
 When she stares 
 into the depths of inequality,
 and says she cares, still,
 all she sees is color.
  
 Let the white woman’s thoughts
 be unknown, 
 let her action show
 her true feelings.
  
 If she’s really an ally,
 racism, injustice, 
 civil unrest will force her
 to do her best,
 attend the protests 
 holding signs inked with
 a black person’s words
 instead of her own.
  
 Let her body be 
 one in a crowd,
 where instead of proud,
 she’s ashamed
 of her skin,
 the violence and sin
 it has always represented 
 in America.
  
 Let her return from the rally 
 and burn her diaries,
 her poems, 
 all her writings.
  
 Let her instead
 be led by voices
 of the disempowered,
 with their history
 of malicious slaughter
 so red it’s black.
  
 Let this white woman’s pen
 no longer be a weapon,
 intentional or inadvertent.
  
 Let my pen become a window
 cleared of my well-meaning ink,
 so that I may look though
 and see the truth 
 as it’s always been—
  
 my voice is nothing 
 but more injustice,
 more drops
 in a pool of black blood 
 so dark, so wide,
 so oft renewed,
 it never dries.