Friday, December 7, 2012

Another Way to Celebrate....

Now that November, and my NaNoWriMo are over for this year, I have time and peace to resurrect this writing space. For December, I am turning these pages into an outpost of Atheist Advent, my own small contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the many holidays that traditionally hold this month in their cold, sparkly grip. This means songs of the season, from a decidedly different perspective than your average Bing Crosby croon-fest. I plan on no less than one per week, but if I'm on a roll, who knows?

 I celebrate a calm, ripely Wiccan Yule for myself, and attend a semi-Catholic (read: no church for most of us) standard Christmas with family. I have a bad history with Christmas, though, that started when I was a teen, and got worse for a decade, before it came back around. I'll spare you the details here and now, as they might appear in a song soon. 

What you may need to know to get these songs is this: I am an atheist, have been for decades now, and there is no conflict with my pagan/witchy tendencies. In fact, most of the Wiccans and pagans I've known, and there are many, are wise enough to understand that the "old gods and goddesses" are simply symbols of a nature-revering outlook; not to be worshipped, but used to the betterment of our relationship with our planet and all of its occupants, animal vegetable and mineral. I knew a pagan man once who had dedicated his life to Saint Brigid, for her ideals, not because he thought she needed a worshipper. It gave him the framework of meaning he needed in life, as most religion was meant, somewhere back at its inception, to do.

 All this is to tell you, I love the Solstice, and what the spirit of it brings to this month. I enjoy the trappings of the season, but detest how all the major holidays that shine in December have been  perverted by ever-increasing greed. And I'm here to tell you, there is no fucking war on Christmas. Christmas has as many secular traditions as it does god-inspired ones-- more, actually, but who cares? What is, is; and atheists aren't trying to keep you from putting up a tree, a creche, a star, an elf, or an angel on your own land or your church's.

 Just don't expect us, me, to bow to it. And I won't expect you to light a candle on the shortest day of the year, or spend the 25th  of December having dinner at an Indian restaurant because they're the only places that are open, as I have many a year.



Tuesday, October 9, 2012



Today's prompt, from P&W again, as I'm lazy from having only 4 hours sleep:


Disaster Revisited

Think about a time or incident from your past when you just barely averted disaster. Write a story about it, but change the circumstances so that the disaster actually happens.


 She almost didn't make it through the tree. Technically not all of her did make it through, or around, if you wanted to look at it that way; and likely you wouldn't, as parts of her did make it through, around, past, beyond. By 7:42 pm on the final Wednesday evening of her existence, Sheila Minkiewicz had forced the largest portion of her self, with the help of her 11 year-old Buick Regal, into and onto a half-rotted maple on her best friend's street, less than six blocks from her own apartment.

 She'd been on her way to band practice, running late. Running ten minutes late was on time, for her, but that Wednesday, she was running super-extra late, and had decided to take charge of it by not rushing anymore once she was out the door. Getting out the side door and into her car had been the hard part; getting out with her eye makeup cleaned up from crying, from another fight, from one of the fights that happened every time she and her live-in boyfriend had somewhere that they were supposed to go, together.

 What usually happened was, she was responsible for making sure that she was ready to leave, that the house was ready for them to leave it, that she had taken care of every possible problem and detail that he could have imagined (without telling her), and that she had not pissed him off in some way for a few days before they were meant to go. Which was impossible, since her least moment of contentment within their shitty life made him coldly angry. But all that was a cover for the real reasons.

 He hated obligatory social occasions but refused to avoid them. Traditional behavior, maintaining a middle-class standard, was more important to him than enjoyment, but he made up for it by making a scene just before they arrived wherever it was they were scheduled to be; or as on that Wednesday, while they were preparing to depart. Usually, by the time they had reached their destination, he would be calm, smiling when their host opened the door, or as they met their friends at the restaurant. He'd be collected, even charming, having vented his anger through her; and she'd be left crazed, upset, frustrated at having to shut off her emotion after he'd pried up the lid. She'd be a mess, embarrassed and vulnerable. She'd have a terrible time, and vow to herself not to accept another invitation or to do things differently, but it always happened again, the same way.

 Sheila was smart, well read, but she'd never heard the term "passive-aggressive." She didn't own the descriptives necessary to articulate their disintegration process, the pattern of Matt's control of their situation. She didn't have enough confidence in her instincts anymore to assert that somehow, through deliberately riling her up till she burst, his emotional needs were served. He used her to emote for him and she understood that, counter-intuitive as it seemed, but could not explain it clearly enough to avoid his rational decimations of her attempts to clarify. They'd get caught in a semantics battle, arguing about the details of their argument, caught up in a conflict that neither had the will to end. She wanted to understand, he wanted to negate her understanding of him-- there was no winning, and she was too optimistic to concede that unfortunate reality.

 That Wednesday, when she'd worked her waitress job, gone home and cooked dinner, then tried to warm up her voice while washing the dishes, the same fight started, as always, with him hinting about them being late well before it was a probability.

 He was tagging along to her band practice to hang out with the husband of one of the other girls in the trio. They'd go down to the basement to drink beer and talk Civil War strategies while the three women upstairs worked out a capella harmonies and wrote new songs.  It was a regular thing, and should have been pleasant for all concerned, except that Matt disliked any regular social schedule. He'd begun to resent the necessity of effort involved in maintaining any relationships. He resented Sheila's enjoyment as well, and so this, their one set social engagement, was beginning to pall for both of them.

 They went five or six rounds, a bout of meaningless anguish for Sheila, and then he'd stalked out, having decided to walk instead of wait for her, since she'd obviously be late in leaving. Now that he'd wasted her prep time and her throat was constricted from holding back sobs,  he was off to make sure that he, at least, wasn't going to be seen as rude. He'd be on time, if he hurried, and could blame her if he wasn't.

 When the door shut and she was left alone with her fizzing rageful grief, she let the serving bowl in her hands sink back into the bed of suds, and sat down at their round kitchen table to cry. A thought hit her then, a thought foreign to her basic premise of life, but she reached for it and held on long enough to see every edge clearly: he didn't love her anymore, really did not. And so she could leave him. She could float through tonight, and spend her day off tomorrow looking for a place to go. It didn't even matter when she found one, just that she start looking. He wouldn't be aware of any changes, because he spent all his time avoiding her company. All she had to do, was allow that. After nine years, she could let go, instantly, and feel better. There would be sadness at the loss, later. Now,  relief flowed up her arms, and neck, and back, relief and hope.

 She freshened her face makeup, thinking about a new apartment, a new roommate maybe, and changed into clothes that didn't smell of pizza grease and soda. Then she took up her tambourine and her song sheets, got into the car and drove, slowly, appreciating the cool of early Autumn, feeling huge pleasure at the sight of each tree and house she passed. Often she and Matt walked to Anna's place, since it was so close, but walking back home after a long rehearsal, after work, was too tiring. Matt would expect a ride, too, & be expecting her to act normal the minute he saw her-- and she would, right up till the day she walked out. So she drove, stopping at the corner convenience store to pick up a six-pack to loosen her throat, for singing. Her mood was high, now, and she drove faster, eager to get going on a song she'd just introduced to the group last rehearsal.

 A block away from Anna's, Sheila noticed a group of cute college guys walking, talking-- they were a couple years younger, but what the hell? When they waved and called to her, she waved back, feeling saucy, smiling and watching them in the the rearview mirror as she went forward faster than she'd meant to, into her new life, into the tree.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Oktober Again... Oh So Promptly.

  Last year I began this blog as a way to prime my writing pump for November, with no intention of using it for other purposes. Since then I've come to enjoy the challenge and changing needs of a blog that takes up a new meaning each month, while remaining, at heart, a writer's space. I spent a month here writing daily poetry, a month with old and new songs, a month with true stories, and had a short month of fiction writing problems.

 This Oktober, I' ve decided to use a new writing prompt for each post. As always here, the work will be fresh, with little done in the way of editing (I can't avoid all editing). Expect about 3-5 posts per week only, as this will be an unusually busy Oktober for me. Join in if you get the urge, and share how the prompt worked for you. And we can all get ready for another NaNoWriMo!

 I'm excited about this year's NaNo project-- a character and setting that have been waiting their chance to be written, in a fiction novel that may crossover from mainstream to YA.

 And now, for today's prompt, taken from Poets & Writer's website:

Flash Nonfiction

Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.


The Biscotti Murders

 You know you've found a good recipe when men still fear it three years later.

A few years ago, for our family Christmas dinner, I brought a nice, creamy pumpkin lasagna as a main dish for the vegetarians among us, (three & counting!) and a plate of gingerbread biscotti for dessert. Note: I warned everyone that the cookies were quite spicy, and not safe for kids.
 My BIL John, being a tender tongue, took several bites of a biscotto, and has never forgotten the burning in his mouth, nor the upset to his delicate inner organs, which apparently went on for days afterwards, as he tells. He reminds me of this incident pretty often, and makes a big show of being terrified of all my cookies. Why, he asks me, should cookies kill? They aren’t even supposed to hurt or maim, and they shouldn’t have the same ingredients as a high-grade explosive, blah, blah blah.

 He admits, though, that the bisk-hotti, as he calls them, were delicious, and if only they hadn't burned out his lungs, he'd love more.
 I take his terrified attitude towards my baking as high compliment. John isn’t a wuss; he’s strong, capable, handy, discreet— a man’s man. He watches the Sabres religiously, can build a porch, was a volunteer member of the Fire Department for years, and sired five children. He’s got another creative side, too, as an award winning painter of military war machine models. The incredibly accurate but innovative details he uses add an energy that makes those plastic war birds or aircraft carriers come alive.

 So his praise, when given, means a great deal to me, as does his opprobrium. To know that one of my own, personal foodie creations struck a fearful memory so deep into his heart that it has lasted through over a dozen other family holidays and celebrations since, is a wicked satisfaction and a positive source of pride. Not to mention, it’s a neat piece of leverage to use against him— come help me fix my shower tiles, or I’ll make biscotti! Can we borrow your best hammer for a week, John— better say yes, I’m in baking mood. How could any woman not enjoy that kind of power? It’s the perfect threat to heave around, because I win either way; I get what I want, or I get cookies, my wonderful homemade gingerbread biscotti recipe.

 Now, if I had just written the damn thing down.

By Mari Kozlowski, 10/8/2012


Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Awful Truth

It takes balls to let truth win out when writing.

This is as true for fiction as for non-fiction-- people can become very upset by the true actions of a fictional character. Whether the character is doing something that they themselves did in the past and are ashamed of, saying something they don't want said because it may influence children, or doing something they are afraid someone will do to them, a character that behaves realistically can be scary.

I recall two incidents that impressed this on me, in a visceral way. The first occurred during the course of a semester-long fiction workshop in college. One of my classmates was a woman in her late 30's, early forties; good as far as the nuts & bolts of writing were concerned, but she spent the entire semester reworking the same piece, and it wasn't a compelling story even in the beginning, when the subject was fresh. It was essentially a story about a marriage in trouble-- the friend of the wife is trying to find out where the trouble has come from. In some versions, it was the wife herself, or sometimes a sister-in-law, but in all of them she doesn't understand why the husband in the marriage has cheated. Every rewrite, even when the author said it was a different story, had the same problems in the dialogue and the characters' motives, and in each discussion afterwards she was stymied by the comments, and looked for different reactions from us, towards the husband and his actions. It struck me that she was trying to reason away infidelity, make some kind of logical talisman against it. If she could make the husband in the story see that it was unnecessary, then it needn't have happened-- there, or more importantly, in reality.

 This is not to suggest that my classmate had been cheated on personally-- I have no idea, but she had clearly been shaken up by some case of infidelity, and in her stories, she was virtually trying to undo it, for good and all. And each of her story versions suffered from her inability to let the truth, unpleasant as it was, come through her character's actions. Yet she couldn't hide from herself that infidelity happens, and that it can cause hurt to good people. She just kept trying to figure out the logic of an act that she refused to approach from the perspective of those who might commit the act. I often wonder if my classmate ever learned to separate her own needs from her stories.

 You can't get away with writing only what you wish would happen in an ideal world, if you're going to write fiction that rings true now.

 The second incident also centers on infidelity. One day, chatting with the mother of the family I was working for, I mentioned that I had seen the movie Unfaithful, with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. She asked what I thought of it, and apart from the fatalistic ending, I felt it showed most of the sides of a certain type of extramarital affair pretty well-- the compulsion of illicit sex, and how it works on people. I've avoided being part of such an affair myself, but I won't say I've never been tempted, or approached for such; and I certainly have known many women, and men, that did have affairs. I've heard their stories, heard the lines used, seen the patterns. It's funny how standardized the pattern of conversations within those relationships tend to be.

 My boss, however, was horrified by the film, from her expression, and seemed to momentarily lose respect for me due to my opinion.  She thought it was completely unrealistic, or said that-- but as I questioned her to find out why, underneath her protest I detected again the fear of such a reality, and the need for a talisman to ward it away from her own life. If I had agreed with her, it might have been comforting enough to ease the fear. As I hadn't, it almost made the prospect of infidelity-- lush and ravenous infidelity-- more real, and therefore, more possible.

 In each of these incidents, there is an irrational impulse at work, that makes the person want to push away and reject the truthful use of infidelity in a fictional story.

 But you cannot rid the world of infidelity by refusing to imagine yourself or your husband giving in to it, by not understanding the unreasonable reasons for it, nor by forcing your cheating character to see how great his wife is, after he cheats on her. Infidelity happens despite good wives and good husbands, despite children, despite the damage to trust, despite the social or financial inconvenience or embarrassment it can cause. The only person you can absolutely stop from being unfaithful is yourself. That's all the control we're granted, and it's not equally easy for everyone.

 The truth, here, could be anything besides cheating: hunger, war, poverty-- or lovely things, such as the kindness of strangers, the beauty of young women, the taste of good tea. Doesn't matter. What matters is, if it's the true object or meal or action you character would have or take, let them take it. If it's what they want to say, let them say it-- don't hold back out of politeness, correctness, or fear. Don't force your morality onto a character like a saddle on a horse, and don't be afraid to let good things, or bad things happen, if they come from an honest place. There are readers that will reject your story for being too true, but the story will stand better, and you'll be able to tell how close you've gotten to reality, by the discomfort caused in some circles.

 I learned, again, not long ago, that writing the truth in non-fiction can be dicey, too. You can lose friends by speaking your mind, however tactfully, on a subject dear to a person's heart. You can be jailed for it, some places; and today, on International Blasphemy Rights Day, I'm here to tell you not to give in to that bullshit. We shouldn't make laws that constrict our free speech, and we shouldn't bow down to the false correctness that says tolerance means an absolute horror of giving offence.

 Offensive things need to said, sometimes, to keep more offensive things from happening. Lose a few chickenshit friends, if you have to, but write honestly, write bitingly, write so that it matters. Don't apologise for it, either-- you can be sure that I won't.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Perfect Scene Strikes Again

When you fall in love with a scene you've written and edited to perfection, a scene that supports the  plot afterwards, it's a deep pleasure and relief-- you know that point, at least, is covered. You know you'll never need to change a word of the limpid, tender moment between those complexly engaged characters. Every note of their connection is correct, emotion flows warmly across the page-- the dialogue shines, reactions ring true, your restraint and skill make each beat and syllable seem not just necessary, but the only possible way to have written them...

 Until you get a new idea. The juggernaut may happen earlier or later than that "finished" part, it may skim the sides of discontinuity or dive deep, but it makes an impact on work you thought was done, with a capital D.

 Now, your new idea sends a shimmer through the thin spots you didn't know how to fix before, and promises to make loose endings tight... except it will completely fuck up your best, sweetest, work so far, the part of your book that made you believe you were onto something here, the part that showed you just how good you were. But with the new changes you need need need to make, it will be confusing/unncessary/just plain stupid.

 You've heard that phrase, kill all your darlings, and thought you knew what it meant, and maybe even had done it easily before, wondering what the fuss was about. Till now. So-- do you try to salvage the best parts and use them elsewhere, cut it completely, or wait and hope you'll find a way to keep it?

 What do you do?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Green Plum Finally Ripens

  There's a big project going public today, that I could have been part of, but declined to join.

  A shining group of artists, poets, storytellers and musicians came together to create a super-duper care package for the hungry and disenfranchised of the Sahel region of Niger. It's a mulitplicity of events, really; an art auction, an anthology, a radio show, and more.

 It's called Song of Sahel, and it will, with your help, bring much-needed relief to people starved by both drought, and the painful effects of war. A great deal of beauty, easily available, awaits those who wish to partake, and in so doing, help. I urge you to check it out, for there is sure to be something that moves you-- a gorgeous print, a lovely phrase or sentiment, haunting music.

 I can't lay claim to any of that beauty, and I haven't been clearly sure why: I am an artist, a musician, a poet, songwriter, writer. I could have contributed somewhere, somehow, but never did. Thinking on it last night, I finally understood why.

 At first, I was left speechless by the plight of the people in Niger-- the starving children that had been born there, the refugees fleeing in fear of war, over the Malian border, placing stress on an already stressed area, not because they wanted to leave their homes and country; but because it was their only choice for even a slim hope of survival.

Unlike some in our bountiful country, I have been relatively poor most of my life, and as an adult, I have gone hungry. But not for days on end. Not without hope of getting through it and into a time of plenty, again. Not like these children and their parents, their communities-- whole communities, ransomed by nature and perhaps incompetent leadership, to a fate of constant aching emptiness.

Such huge and hollow realms of need do not inspire me to lyrical flights of melody-- they leave me in the silence of grief, the silence of frustrated helplessness. I have no financial resources to help assuage this great, grave ocean of loss deepening so far away from me. So I was struck dumb, and then lost the daily use of the internet, so that my understanding of the project faltered-- sort of disengaged.

 There were other issues, too. Unable to research the beginnings of the project, I feared to partner myself and my talents, however tenuously, with any organization that could be religiously affiliated: forcing your view of the universe on people so hungry that they have no choice but to take all you give them, food and foreign morality, is to me a foul and evil thing, and the basis for many a further evil along the way. I had never heard of Plan International before; I knew that someone working for them in Niger had provided the original inspiration for SOS. So there might be a connection, a slight one. The very possibility made me cautious, and I was afraid to find out it might be true.

 Now, at this last moment, I have been able to allay those worries, and to see fully why my mind and heart weren't ready to commit to Song of Sahel. I felt I had nothing to give. And I didn't, I don't, but for this... telling you that my reaction to the tragedy may have been quiet shock and useless dismay, but there are artists of the first water  that had a better reaction. People like Sue Lobo, Tonia Marie Houston, Shirani Rajapakse, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, and Giorgio Mostarda-- and so many more dedicated creative minds and hearts. They have given deeply of themselves, to end the hunger and celebrate the strength of Sahel. Go to the link on the title above, or to the Plum Tree, and you'll find those gifts of verse, line and tune.

 Peace, Mari

Sunday, September 2, 2012

August, You Bitch! I'm leaving you.

 July, August: these months were not fun without my laptop working, and hotly hot weather. Little family troubles piled onto that, a few biggies followed, and August refused to end or get better. I'd decided to skip right into September a week early, give the summer a rest, and it seemed September was obliging me, but no... the heat returned, as it did last summer's end, to twist my plans around one more time.

 Who, I ask, that is not in grade school or living on a beach, can enjoy summer anymore? If you like summer, I'm not sure we can still be friends. Okay, I'll try, but don't talk swimming, golfing or the glory of being outdoors to me, please. I gave my cat fleas by going outdoors this August.

 I gave my cat fleas!

 Now I'm in for three months of treatment tubes, plus all the extra cleaning we had to do. #@!% summer! Summer in Buffalo, the bitch goddess of Weather-That-Makes-You-Hate-the-Sun. I moved back to Buffalo for the cold, and what happens? Summer takes over and extends herself in all directions. Well, not on my watch, baby. I'm leaving you, and just to prove it, I'll turn on my oven tomorrow and BAKE AN APPLE PIE!!!! Crumb-topped, cinnamon rich, flaky fruited pie. How's that for Autumn-erotica?

 Okay, maybe Tuesday I'll bake; it's still too warm.

 As my carefully laid plans for that evil season just past were blown to hell,  I'm going to use this space, in September, for a purpose I normally wouldn't-- a writing blog about writing. Don't expect elegance, query techniques, or lofty meditations on the nature of art itself, unless I write a drunken post, one day.

 Let's get right into the shit, then.

 Say you're going along, getting things done, or at least moving your projects from stage to stage, when the clouds descend, and you can't go forwards, or backwards; in a ward, your stride has been broken. Could be something as annoying as a broken laptop (that was less than a year old, dammit!, so why did I have to have the motherboard replaced already?) or something personal/emotional, like having a friend/family member go off the deep end and drag you into their drama. Or, you approach the state of divorce, but pull back; or you could get sick.

 Whatever it is, it stops you for a time, and then resolves, leaving you in a state of dissaray. Maybe so scattered you can't properly spell disarray, even though you were a top speller in grade school without working at it.

 It's not a block, it's more a thorny mix of lethargy and panic. Panic, because all the work to do and ideas and hot excited stuff running through the veins in your head built up into crazy, impossible layers while you couldn't get to it, or use it; lethargy from not writing, not regularly pushing your idea meat through the ole grinder. More panic, because you're aware that you are stale, too stale to properly assemble the bright structures your luminous, mile-high ideas deserve; and you know that as soon as you try setting them down, they'll crumble into sharp, painful reminders of what should have been.

 Then you try to jump in anyway, and the work is stiff, it's like running through molasses, and just as messy and cloying. You find yourself crazily hopping from metaphor to metaphor, in search of solidity, perhaps.

 What do you do now?

 It's a given that others will tell you to work through the rough patch, and I'd agree. However, I'd caution choosing your re-entry into imaginationland carefully. Pick a small piece to rewrite, or a very tight goal within your large work-in-progress. One that you don't have to worry about screwing up too bad, one you know you can go back to. Don't take on the glistening new idea just yet.

 Some may argue with this point, saying that the energy of newness will carry you through, and maybe it will. Or it could help you botch a promising new project in a way that drains you further, so that you curse the darkness while throwing out your last broken taper. Not what we're trying for, right?

 I think the safest, most comfortable project is the one to help you ease back in. Copying a final draft of a story, just to copy it, and giving yourself the opportunity to admire your past work. You might even see what needs improving-- you might get some of the juice back, taking it slow.

 For instance, I've been updating my blogs, and then stacking up posts for some of them in advance. Knowing I have even a half-finished draft of one of my weekly posts takes the pressure off. The feeling of relief is beginning to segue into excitement about a new book I had planned, before the onset of problems that put me off my daily writing habit. I can feel myself becoming ready-- not there yet, but closing in, getting to that hungry, happy state where I can't wait any longer to Start!

 Are you there?



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

July in Oktober: Old songs, New Songs-- 7/10

The second song of my first FAWM is important to me. It was also my first FAWMing collab, since Steffan Pitzel dug it so, he made a really great song of it.

The tune, a sort of jazzy snazzy thing, I wrote another song to, since Steffan's slow, bluesy melody had stuck in my mind. I cannot find the full lyric anywhere, so it may get posted later in the month.

The other song posted is older yet, from the summer of 1996. I'll explain when you get there.


A friend once told me that the last verse wasn't as strong as the others. I agreed, at first, and then after listening to some of my favorite songs by other artists, and this again, I realized that wasn't so: bringing it back to a personal level, makes it stronger, makes it not-preachy. And anyone that has fought for inclusion in a rigid, backward system knows just what it means. This may be the only song ever to get a compliment of: "You had me at 'bullet-proof bible'." In fact, it better be. I wrote that line!

Stronger Than Dogma

drinking my night down
in a local bar, heard a good friend saying,
"They've gone too far. Get yourself a rifle,
and a bulletproof bible.
It could be any day now, that They start the last war."

but i say, you've got to be
stronger than dogma
for the fear to fly--
deeper than the redness
in a kamikaze's eye
to keep afloat, you've got to note the light pollution in the sky,
and move on...

i don't hand out sunshine
but i was told
nastiness echoes in a
hollowed-out soul
if you'd stand for freedom,
please don't stand on my head;
if your faith could move mountains,
let it move your heart instead

you've got to be
stronger than dogma
for your fears to fly
you've got to be
deeper than the redness
in a kamikaze's eye
to keep afloat, you've got to note the evolution of the sky
and move on...

working through the classics
in my college groove
i squeezed on the Canon
but it wouldn't move
i heard, the Forms and Names are sacred
they'll never be dispersed
they may not be the only choice
but they stick because they're first...

you've got to be
stronger than dogma
for your fears to die
you've got to be
deeper than the redness in a drunken poet's eye
to keep afloat, you've got to tote up imperfections with a sigh, and move

© 2009 by Mari Kozlowski


 My oldest sister, Lynne, died of untreated cancer in April, 1996. I was living in Indianapolis at the time, and so did not have the support system of my family (or my band) here in Buffalo to help me get through. Grief was a slow-growth thing for me, then; it was easier at first, and got worse over the next few years. I had no idea that would happen; I was dealing with the death of a long love, also, living in the corpse of the relationship, in a strange new state.

 When I wrote this, I thought I had a good understanding of death, but I had no understanding of how it would soon overwhelm me. But I had some friendship, some will to heal, some hope. I was staying at a friend's wonderful, relaxing home in Buffalo in late June, early July; and it had stormed the night before. As I sat on my friend's white porch, looking out at the fresh, relieved morning, all my feelings came together and I quickly sang and wrote these words, refining them, paring away any excess.

An hour or two later, I sang them to bandmate Joe Todaro (we were called Diamond Tribe, then) on my way to our violinist's apt. for a rehearsal. Joe had set up over half a dozen gigs for the two week+ period of my visit, and we were rehearsing and/or performing just about everyday. In the car, he thought up the chords for the song. When we arrived at Mary Marciniak's place, he played it for us, and I loved it. It was perfect. Mary felt that strings might overpower the delicate tune, so she tried to come up with a flute part instead-- she could play about 10 instruments. I heard where the part should be, showed her, and she immediately played and expanded on it. We added a partial harmony, and performed it that night at our gig.

 My fondness for this song was such that I put it into a movie soundtrack, on a tape, and in two compilations. We still perform it, doing it with a little country shine here, pure and folk-choral there.

 Still one of my very favorite works.

The Blossom Song

Oh, come to me
When the summer is a storm
And the honey is ready
And the opening's warm

We'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green
Till the song calls us home

Will you come to me?
When the summer is a storm
And the honey is ready
And the opening's warm

We'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green
Till the song calls us home

We'll feed the blossoming
And blow our voices to the air
They'll catch our sweetness, then
They'll send it on and on, and on

And we'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green
We'll lay in the green

Till the song calls us home
Till the song calls us home
Till the song calls us home

© 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001 by Mari Kozlowski & Joe Todaro

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July in Oktober: Old Songs, New Songs-- 7/4

 Part of me wants to say, hey, I'll celebrate Independence Day when the friggin' Patriot Act is repealed. Part of me is a sucker for higher ideals... I was born a Pisces, but close to the cusp of Aquarius, those patrons of lofty cause (let's NOT say lost cause, here).

 I refuse to give it up, but I'm not grilling anything, you hear?

 As I eat my politcially incorrect, Monsanto-generated new Belvita breakfast cookies, (sustained energy!) I offer a pair of energetic songs I wrote during the same week a couple summers ago.


 Mostly I hate this sweaty, awful season. The warm weather in my area has changed, becoming too warm more of the time, and I moved back here, to Buffalo, for the coolness. Too late! But certain days take the edge off, with their ripe loveliness.This came from that experience. It's sung to a sprightly, quick guitar lick with bits of flute to "bird it up."

The Freshness of the Morning

The morning sun makes me forget

What I’m supposed to do today

The morning sun makes me forget

That I don’t much like Summer

The morning sun in early Autumn

Green-gold waving blue-eyed baby

The morning sun makes me feel fuller

With a tiny breeze across my chin

Winter is moving up the queue

Low skies and shortened afternoons

But out here in my slice of blue

I cannot see it coming

The days have been too hot and tense

The air too moist, the heat immense

The crows were sliding off the fence

But I forgive it all

(instrumental with turtle flute)

The morning sun makes me think 

Hopeful dippy thoughts about world peace

The morning sun makes me think I

Could really write that one great novel

The morning sun in early Autumn

Softly tuning up the sky

The morning sun has songs

In passing glints along the shifting leaves

The days have been too hot and tense

The air too moist, the heat immense

The crows were sliding off the fence

But I forgive it all

The morning sun makes me embrace

What I’m supposed to do today

The morning sun is in my face

 And I am fresher for it 

© 2010 by Mari Kozlowski


I'm not sure what this song was even called, (might have been The Whole Thing) and can't find the archived notes. But it speaks for itself; my answer to that short-term patriotism that says love it or leave it, and means, pretend there's no flaw or get out.

And of course, this does so in a bang-end country guitar anthem style-- what else? It's got a great hooky chorus that rings.

Some say there’s only one kind of patriot here

Some are saying there’s only one way to believe

Some scorn the hopefuls who been scraping at the doors

That always used to be open

Some say if you see a flaw, you oughta leave

But those people got it wrong, ‘cause

I believe in America, oh yeah

In her sickness and in health

I believe in America, oh yeah

As strong as I believe in myself

I was made in America, and I bear the mark of my maker for sure

I believe in America-- her mind’s a little scattered but her heart is pure

I was raised to accept a new idea, if it made sense

I was raised to accept another’s needs

I was raised in a place where people weren’t afraid to help a stranger

At the side of the road

I was raised in a land of word as deed

I won’t concede that

I believe in America, oh yeah

In her sickness and in health

I believe in America, oh yeah

As strong as I believe in myself

I was made in America, and I bear the mark of my maker for sure

I believe in America-- her body may be tattered but her thoughts are pure


I won’t lie, I don’t love to watch a burning flag

But I’ll defend with every breath the principle that symbol embodies

As it falls to ash

I can’t hide my pride at the true freedom the act implies

Without that trust, the fabric is just a body bag

So let the smoke fill the sky

I believe in America, oh yeah

In her sickness and in health

I believe in America, oh yeah

As strong as I believe in myself

I was made in America, and I bear the mark of my maker for sure

I believe in America-- her body may be tattered but her thoughts are pure

And I believe that the founding parents put in words

Truths they couldn’t fit into their lives

I believe that interpretation is good

And a judgment looks better through compassionate eyes

I believe we can own our mistakes and it won’t destroy our might

What good is a strong arm

If it doesn’t help us separate our wrong from our right?

I believe in America, oh yeah

In her sickness and in health

I believe in America, oh yeah

As strong as I believe in myself

I was made in America, and I bear the mark of my maker for sure

With a natural taste for personal responsibility; the acts may be imperfect but the ideals


I believe in America, oh yeah

Not ashamed in her sickness or her health

I believe in America, oh yeah

As strong as I believe in myself

You can come to America, and still belong, wherever you’re from

If you believe in America, oh yeah

Well, the work of true freedom has just begun…

© 2010 by Mari Kozlowski

July in Oktober: Old Songs, New Songs-- 7/3

Here's the first new song of the season. I've written about weather disasters before, but from a different POV. Here's hoping our friends in Colorado, and other afflicted areas, are all safe, and suffer little loss.

The Next Hot Day

grey-green scent of rain
drifting from the pane
slides over my shoulder
moves in curious waves
relief is coming
hear the twitching in the breeze
relief is coming
in motes of some lost sea
tense and eager stems
slurry down crude streams
peeling off the messages
baked onto their skin
relief is coming
see the scorched and haggard smile
relief is coming
for too short a while
relief is coming
hear the twitching of the breeze
relief is coming
but not for free

© 2012 by Mari Kozlowski


Written in FAWM 2010, this was influenced by the experience of my next door neighbors-- inspired by, but not truly about them. Tough moments most of us will have to live through. I can't find the recording I made, though....


for the fourth time
she had seen him
steal a hard breath
when he thought her head was turned away

they were only in their 60's
time to travel
time to explore the world
they'd been too busy for

their 3 children lived in cities
far from the village
they were born in

and the call to hear
their father's final word
was a solid inconvenience

she stood outside
watching the oldest try
a pretense of cheer
covering impatience

the idea was put forth at the funeral
You know, Mom, someone really should

take care of you
this place is clean and nice, i stopped

there on the way in
we should take a guided tour, soon

her memory is a mirror now
she sees just what she did
and wishes she could
take some back

but she moves along
as he urged her
in the moment
when they separated

© 2010 by Mari Kozlowski

Monday, July 2, 2012

July in Oktober: Old Songs, New Songs, 7/ 2

Sometimes you can write a song that makes you wonder how you ever gathered the fine, golden threads together: it feels like divine inspiration when it comes, and yet if you know yourself well, you can trace the footprints of your weird mind backwards (or sideways) to the source/s.

These two songs are like that, in their different ways. The first came in a burst of inspiration during a rehearsal with my long-time songwriting partner less than a month after my first FAWM, the second during a prolonged stretch of songwriting in the airy summer challenge of the 50/90.

I hope one, or both, speak to you.


 This song was written soon after President Obama took office. J. and I, who've worked together musically since the early 90's, were having a band rehearsal that March, when he showed me one of his new guitar riffs. I asked him to play it again, over and over, and in a short stint of frenetic transcribing, the lyric was done. We refined it that very week, and have performed it here and there since; but it's still fresh for us, and barely exposed. Let's face it, songs by Transcendental Folk bands in Buffalo, NY, rarely make it past our own suburbs.

 It's called Soldier Song, and reflects my complicated feelings about armed forces-- grateful for what they give, unhappy with them being called to give it. It is topical, but still relevant, I hope. It was a call to better action, and to thought, and a lashing out against idiocies like The Patriot Act. My ambivalence about the war itself, too, is caught here.

 It doesn't just mean standard soldiers, either. Does that come through? I was thinking, in the back bedrooms of my mind, of the mother who had demonstrated against the war in front of the White House after her son was killed in action. Her bold, passionate actions moved me. So did the young soldier that left the war, refusing to go back due to matters of conscience.

With all of these ingredients bubbling around below the surface, the song could have become a mess, scattered in focus; instead the flow was there, right on. It's a song I love to sing around Independence Day.

As in many songs, the impressions cast from the imagery are as important as the rational details of each line-- parts that don't make logical sense, you know?

Soldier Song

The dirt beneath your eyes

In the melting of your life

Gathers in the desert

Of freedoms left behind--

We are trying

To stand and fight

For the prevailing

Of cooler, clearer minds

The shadow of the child

Her dead son used to be

Plays among the ruins

Of cracked democracy--

We are trying

To set it right

In the unveiling

Of cooler, clearer minds

The dirt beneath your eyes

Doesn’t shade you from the blast

Of high ideals that couldn’t last--

You are dying

In generosity

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

© 2009 by Joe Todaro & Mari Kozlowski


12 years or so ago, I took a lit/writing class called Poetry of the Occult. Great class, sort of co-taught by Blakean scholar Jim Watt and the amazing poetry teacher and poet Fran Quinn. It was a night class, near the end of the week, which I found made for more serious classmates; and when you're in college during your thirties, you want to be in class with other people that are dying to be there, too.

 We focused heavily on Blake, and at some point, the whole class was told we would each have to pick one of the Songs of Innocence & Experience, that were we working through then, and sing it that night, acapella, in front of the rest. Not my cup of jasmine tea!

Unlike my classmates, I was a trained vocalist, and a performing songwriter at the time; but I also had a policy of not performing unless prepared. It can make you look bad.

But there was no choice, that night. I picked a song at random, went through the phrasing in my head, and when my turn came, shocked the shit out of the entire class (and probably the surrounding classrooms, due to my volume) by singing a nearly operatic, pretty and high melody to Ah, Sunflower:

Ah Sunflower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun:

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the traveller's journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,

And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow

Arise from their graves and aspire

Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

--William Blake

 I'd been nervous, but it was an easy melody to write, and came out perfectly. The class was stone silent for a minute, staring at me, and then Jim said something like "Well, that raises the ante," or some such. Then, "Who's next?" A brave girl with not much vocal ability plowed through hers, and got a good response. After the class, people surrounded me, asking questions and giving compliments and so on.

 I always loved that song of Blake's, and one soft afternoon during a songwriting marathon, I accidentally began paying tribute to it. It expanded, the meanings shifted, and instead of a rumination on life eternal, it became more of meditation on lost youth and beauty, framed in a sort of fairy-tale, ripe with garden metaphor. It's full of memories, for me, and no one else has ever heard it, yet.


Ahh, Sunflower, why you bother reaching?

Don't you know the squirrel prince is stalking you?
He seeks your tender middle
Your seeds will never harden--
Your children will be squirrels that eat your cousins

Lemon petals gild the grass, now
Your bright face is bowed beneath the weight
Afternoon is your last moment
To count out steps to the sun

Ahh, Sunflower, the bee and bird did love you
In their flittered ways to rile you
Turning your flushed virgin looks towards the ground
Was almost done without violence

Lemon petals gild the grass, now
Your face is bowed to share the guilt
This afternoon is your last moment
To count steps to the sun
To count out steps to the sun

Ahh, Sunflower, have pity on your suitors
The pale youth in his watered down morality
Small and scratching wanderers who never asked your name
The rushing breeze that took your scent for his own consolation

All they wanted was your freshness
And your budded smile

You wished
You wished for
Sweet gold-kissed air
Dropping lamentations while the sun was in your hair

Ahh, Sunflower, why you bother reaching?
All that made you beautiful is gone
Spilled into the bed you made soft with expectation
By friends and strangers

Ahh, Sunflower
Don't linger out of your season

© 2010 by Mari Kozlowski 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July in Oktober: Old Songs, New Songs, 7/1

 Working on true stories here last month was both liberating, and harrowing. I came to it from a place of having many stressful incidents happen in a row, in my personal and family life. It seemed as if everyone around me was having their lives explode at the same time, and coping with it all put me in the odd mood to spill private truths I've never written about as openly before. I had no idea they would be interesting to others, but as some stories were, I worked to put more out. Only, the weirdness continued, and a few tales are left unfinished, in draft on Blogger. They may appear next June, or another time, but for now I'm done with true stories.

 For several years, July has been a period of increased songwriting for me, as I habitually attempt to nail the challenge of the 50/90-- that is, 50 songs in 90 days, an offshoot of February Album Writing Month, (FAWM) when the challenge is 14 songs in (the usual) 28 days of February.  (Which was an offshoot of NaNoWriMo, of course, and a great one). For a couple years, I've done the challenge twice simulaneously, on two author pages.

 The 50/90 begins on July 4th, and the energy at the official website is pulsing right now. People have talked about what they'll be trying for, style or genre-wise, or with new instruments. Pre-challenge challenges get thrown down and met, but mostly we are all simmering, waiting for the time to let flow our bottled up energy and write some new songs as fast as we can.

After that initial spurt, the feeling in the forums calms down, and people settle in. There's less pressure than February, although it's a greater undertaking. There's also less listening to other people as the months go by-- well, most of us check out just as many or more songs, but as each musician is building a list of fifty, you can't expect your entire catalog of songs to get equal attention.

 And I don't, especially as, for technical reasons mostly, I have posted only lyrics to any of my songs. You have to read them, not hear them, unless another musician takes a fancy to some of them and puts up a collaboration with me. That happens frequently, but still-- most of my songs must be read, even though they are always, always written with a full melody line, (and usually get a quick vocal sketch recorded, so I won't forget the heart of my songs). The upshot of this is, most of my favorite songs, the best songs I feel I have ever written, haven't often been seen or heard by more than one or two people, max. And because my singing and writing skills far outclass my instrumental powers, they may never be properly heard.

 It kills me.

 I understand that my personal favorites may be too esoteric, wordy or poetic for the average reader. I've heard that some feel they don't scan well-- that they wouldn't fit in a proper musical phrase. But most people that write songs are more creative and fluid as musicians than they are as singers. They have a wider, more complex grasp of styles with a guitar or piano, than with their voice. They are usually guitarists first, writing from a different place. And I will never be able to play that well, play the deep layering of notes I hear when I write.

 My lyrics sing perfectly, if you have at least my level of vocal skill, and don't think in 4/4 rhythm. They are sometimes challenging to sing. But they work. I know, I sing as I write them. It shapes the phrases, the chorus, the bridge, the verse. If you don't think it works, you're not hearing it right.

 So for July, at least, I'll be sharing old and newer lyrics, all previously published and copywritten, all recorded somewhere, if not as well as they deserve; they definitely deserve to be seen.

 I'll include tidbits of the original intros, where I have them, that explain part of where the songs come from. I can add on a bit about the process that led to a particular song. But intros and such never explain as much as people take from them. You have to let lyrics explain themselves like poetry; they have internal references, they use metaphor, they may swim around the main subject, or use a red herring before springing out to surprise you. They are never straight up, even when they are.

 Here are a couple of 2, 3 year old songs to start with. I hope you'll enjoy them, however they sound to you.


21. The Secret Life of Snow**

2009-08-18 @ 05:09pm
tags: choral cold-thought confessional canticle

"It's been a loathesome level of hot-n-humid for days so this is where my mind went today. Sort of a wish, or a self-induced trance toward a cooler mental place. Getting it from inside the myth of no-two-alike."

--Note: written years before Kate's 50 Words for Snow.

**This was a popular enough lyric that two musical friends put up differing collabs of it-- one, by Tim Fatchen, was intrumental (thus far) and is on his wonderful CD, Dark Sparkles. I would love to have him meld his version, and my version, sometime. The other, by my Irish bud Flav, was a lovely guitar version sung with his typical, understated, gravely merry approach.
The thing is-- it's a good song, still.


As the mask of cold begins
To cover anxious cheeks and chins
The startled hearts of snowflakes
Lose their homes...

For they must freeze out on their own, each one
Divided and alone
Gone from
The cool lake of air that bore them
To change and make the crystal
Solitary art that is
The secret life of snow

A quiet, purist freefall jump
They cannot choose
Or slow

The prism-layered secret life of snow

As they lay in wind-moved hills
Building on soft strength of will
And learning they are
Sisters of the skies

Comes the surprise; of giving up the flight
The grounding of their lightness, they must begin
To meld and lose solitude
Shapely singles dripping to a coarsely molded form
Hardened from their own
A glancing masterpiece that is
The secret life of snow

Insensible persuasive union falls
Beneath the shovel, pick and plow
A bitter glinting beauty's end
They cannot help but know

The finely brutal secret life of snow

© 2009 by Mari Kozlowski

**This was a popular enough lyric that two musical friends put up differeing versions of it-- one, by Tim Fatchen, was intrumental (thus far) and is on his wonderful CD, Dark Sparkles. I would love to have him meld his version, and my version, sometime. The other, by my Irish bud Flav, was a lovely guitar version sung with his typical, understated, gravely merry approach.
The thing is-- it's a good song, still.


From my first-ever FAWM, written while I was still giddily grinding out the longform of my first novel. I was writing at least 12 hours aday, then. Good times. Below are the liner notes I included during that FAWM.

Toads and Diamonds

Tagged As:
grimm whiny fairy-tale folk

"Was watching (again) an old Brit 80's show, Robin of Sherwood (get it on Netflix, people, do) and thought of some furry-tiles. I'm a devotee of all types of fairy-tales, more so the old, un-Disneyfied versions. And thought of this, taking a little bit different perspective. After all, getting married by someone who wants to use your disability to keep them rich probably doesn't ensure much of a happily-ever-after quotient."  (And like the Mary Magdalene/Virgin Mary thing, I decided these sisters were possibly two sides of the same goddess/woman/daughter.)

The man of the house told me to add; this title is from a fairy-tale in the Grimm's Blue Fairy book, if ya don't already know. He didn't.
Also-- a little inspired by FLAV, whose tunes you should listen to, or be cursed forever for your lack of Brigidity.


you fall into my dense forest
like a man who's lost to green;
then curse me for a harlot
so i'll loose those precious tears
that prove you king...

you collect them, and gift them back to me
so we live, and so we misconstrue
it's always toads and diamonds, with you

when you first came to this leaf-blown place
you saw a path, shone, to my face
what e'er i said,
you clearly heard
and listened closely
to each jeweled word

but time has grimed our gleam, now all you read
are the vip'rous tones you drag from me
it's always toads and diamonds, lately

you say they're coarse and shun my kin
their care is poison on your skin
my response drops
in petals to my knees

you don't understand, you echo
how they love me
it's always toads and diamonds, in my family
toads and diamonds with you and me...

once all i expressed of love
was pearls upon your hands
now you only feel the stony cold
as my demands

an affliction you cannot bear to own
but i speak toads and diamonds
you've always known....

© 2009 by Mari Kozlowski

Saturday, June 30, 2012

True Stories-- June in Oktoberland, Con't.

 In a darkened back bedroom, I break from sleep at the sound of soft clicking movements-- the slight scrape of nails or claws against the wood floor. I raise my head from the pillow, fogged in mind and sight, to look for the reason I've woken; to find the disturbance. In that second, it grows quiet.

 A slip of muted light from a hidden source casts the room into a Rembrandt-murky scene of purest chiaroscuro. Our closets have come unclosed; the doors open onto hollowed depths of velvet dark. Subtle motions inside the patchy black there could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. I try hard to focus, searching for the comfort of clarity. Then I see him, terrifyingly real again.

 The robin.

He hobbles towards me, broken-winged,  flapping and menacing, with such an accusatory look that it seems his tiny beak and eyes have been drawn by Friz Freleng for the specific purpose of inducing guilt and horror. And they do...

Because I killed him, and he knows it. It's been years that I've been having this dream-- this recurring nightmare born of remorse. Every year or two since the incident, which happened when I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana, only a ten minute drive from the famous Speedway.

 It was during a bad month sometime after the hubby-man and I had made a full-length feature film together, but before we had financially recovered from the expense to any great degree, (unless you've made a movie, you have no idea how expensive even B&W 16mm film is-- not to mention the developing, promoting, etc.) and I was sick at home with bronchitis again. I'd called in sick to my second job, and wouldn't have to go in to work again for two days. But I had no medical insurance, no cash reserves, no money for a second doctor's appointment to obtain antibiotics-- they always made me come back again, two weeks later, before they'd accept that I had needed antibiotics all along. The fact that it happened annually made no impression on anyone but myself.

 I got bronchitis every year, just like my mother, whose exact body shape, and fertility, I inherited. We both still get bronchitis every year, but we each also suffer from having doctors ignore our understanding of our own body's patterns, and so we both end up spending a minimum of a month sick, which leaves our lives and finances perpetually in catch-up mode. Being sick for a solid month is expensive, in dozens of little ways.

 The month I killed the robin, I had been to the doctor once already, and had him tell me that to be sure I needed drugs they'd have to do a chest x-ray, which I couldn't afford.  I went on with my life, coughing up bloody green chunks when no one was looking and trying not to be physically close enough to the children I took care of to infect them too-- which is impossible. Children from birth to age five own you, when you take care of them regularly. They don't allow boundaries on what they can grab onto-- your arms, your breast, your hair, your tongue, your eyelashes. It all belongs to them, and they will jump into your face or your lap with equal abandon, unstoppable. They want you when then want you.

 It is sweet, in that you're constantly aware how they trust and need you; it's problematic, in that it can put you in odd situations in public or around their parents; and you can't help sharing germs, just like a family. Unlike a family member, you will get some sharp and questioning looks when you hang around the living room pale and coughing, and you may get more than concern when it appears, to the fully insured people whose homes you spend your days working in, that you have not made an effort to secure the health care necessary to maintain your professional lack of contagion.

 Because the class system in America is/was semi-fluid in the middle, it is perfectly possible to be a well spoken, highly trained, well educated pauper. It's easy to mistake yourself for someone that will be able pay back the college loans that the wily admissions department of your chosen university assures you everyone has, only to find (when it's too late to avoid a state of default) that you'd have to be making thrice your current market value to do that and still eat, no matter how much money per hour or day your generous bosses pay you, no matter how big and luscious your Christmas bonuses.

 You can work for upright, socially conscious folks that cannot and will not realize that multiple doctor visits in a month, along with refills of high cost prescriptions, could make you homeless while you're still in their employ. They may be ready to suggest that you find a different doctor or medical group, but not ready to understand that a new patient fee on top of what you've spent before would mean that you could starve, or have to forgo vital brake work on the car, or have your heat shut off.

 Let me admit that I have a great fault, here. It's important for full disclosure, and to set up the situation of this story. I lived then, and somewhat less now, on the Bohemian fringe of an adult life, paying as I went, avoiding both credit debt and savings; consuming what I earned and using it to make art or joy for myself & others, rather than future security. For one, I'm not a materialist by nature. For another, financial security is a tale I can't quite believe in, a myth spun from secret rites I've never learned, entailing a lifestyle I have no blueprint for.

 Growing up poor is a condition you carry with you, that can hamper your ability to become not poor. It's a mindset, which others have written of eloquently; I'll add that it obscures and aggrandizes some possibilities, the life opportunities others might approach calmly. It can puncture determination as easily as spur it on. It creates a relationship with money that is sicker and more co-dependent than a love triangle between abused meth addicted parrots. Some survivors respond by becoming either miserly, or brash with any wealth they can find, some by becoming uber-responsible; some find themselves leery of financial commitments that seemingly everyone else takes for granted, takes on and fulfills.

 I got a little of each. It's been a long struggle, to cast off the confining outlook that poverty engraved on my childhood. Taking out student loans, for instance, had been a bold strike for freedom, one I'd never imagined I'd make. I took the chance and gradually envisioned the amazing idea of a life in Academia, a life where my plethora of talents might be an asset, not a downfall. A life, it turns out, that I became separated from by a sharp scalpel of grief and loss.

 That's another story, though. It's a story that took me out of the race to catch up with the many smart, kind people I used to work for, who hadn't grown up quite as poor, or not poor at all. They could imagine and create lives based on reasonable risks, with reasonable credit. Unlike myself, they could create children without a true worry those children would ever go hungry. They could be sure of their ability to keep those commitments. So the world has different rules for them.

 They may be too consciously and conscientiously trying not to be unaware, to see the small ways that they are, already. So when you're sick, you skip work days, and piss them off, losing more of your income, that way instead. And you know, all the time, that it's your own fault for being irresponsible to normal standards, and a little unconscious of your own societal shortcomings; for not living the way real people live.

 That's how it was on an early autumn morning-- it was cooler than usual, pouring buckets, windy as hell. I moved from the couch in our tiny living room out front into the kitchen to make a pot of tea, hoping to loosen the gunk in my lungs over the steam. Our kitchen was not large, but the back wall was half windows looking out into the double lot yard, with a ramshackle shed to the left and a giant maple in the middle. This gave a wide view and a feeling of openness to the small space. I often looked out the side windows, or the one in the back door, as I worked in there at table, stove or sink. It was my favorite room in the house, a place to gather peace and reconnect with homey pleasures.

 I set a few tea bags into the glass pot, looking out as usual, and saw an animal moving oddly by the roots of the maple. The kettle boiled, got turned off and poured out, and I went to the window in the door to investigate. A variety of wildlife passed through our yard regularly-- raccoons, possums, bluejays, woodpeckers, red-tailed squirrels, chipmunks, a mated pair of mallards that liked to sit and sun themselves in the grass, and once or twice, a hawk. But this was something smaller.

 Some bird was twisting, almost dancing, against the ground, unable to right itself. I watched for a minute, hoping it would rise and fly away, but it kept up the same strange, fitful pattern of flopping, and I had to go help.
 Once outside, I saw clearly that it was a robin. Something had happened to its neck, and the head was thrust back into an unnatural arch. Possibly the work of a cat, but there were no visible scratches, no blood, no ruffled feathers even. It may have been poisoned by some horrible chemical lawn treatment: my neighbors on either side avoided such ridiculous evil, as did we, but some in our neighborhood did not. Or the poor bird may have flown into a windowpane and gotten hurt that way, or been blown into a branch by the high winds.  
 The rain slashed coldly at both of us, and the bird's struggle grew more frantic. His shining small eyes showed terror. I was afraid to touch him, but would have to, I knew. He made not a single sound from his throat as he tossed wildly from side to side, trying to get up, to get his head to go forward. He was not going to live, probably, but I didn't want to let him die like this, cold and soaking and desperate. I set a chair over the area he lay in, for a little shelter, and went in to find a box.

If I brought him inside, warmed him up, maybe he would stop struggling, which could be hurting him more. At least he wouldn't die of exposure. I spent a moment first to call the ASPCA, and ask for help, or a clue. They had no help to give but a phone number-- they didn't take birds, not wild ones.
 It began to thunder, and lightning. I put on a jacket and leather gloves and went out with the box. It was hard to figure out how to approach the patient, though. Each time I reached for him he rolled away, his wings active, feet scratching the air. It made his struggle more horrible. His chest was heaving rapidly in fear, and after a few minutes of trying to get him into the towel-lined box without hurting him, I gave up and went back inside to look for some real help.

 No could help me, it seemed. I called the county Wildlife & Forestry office, and they gave me the number of the Humane Society, who gave me the number of another local animal shelter, who told me they couldn't help. I called an exotic animal place, Wild Birds Unlimited, and spitballed ideas with them. I called the Audubon Society, who didn't deal with robins. I called five vets/animal hospitals, and finally found one who would give the bird a kill-shot for 35 dollars, if I could get it to them within the hour before they closed. They were a forty-five minute drive away, and I had no money, plus my car was low on gas. They wouldn't bill me later, either. It had to be upfront. No one could help me help the robin... it was a wild animal, yes, but a common one, not covered by laws of preservation or mercy. It had fallen through the cracks of our mish-mash attempts at control and coexistence with the natural world. Unlike a cormorant heron or a spotted owl, bobins were everywhere, and no one gave a crap.

 I was getting desperate, now. I called my mother, my sister, my friends, for ideas. Someone suggested I wring the bird's neck, or step on it with a heavy boot, to put it out of its misery. I just didn't have the courage for the first, and the second suggestion would have been absurd. Stomping a bird to death! Every vegetarian's dream sport.

 I realized that I would have to kill it, out of kindness, or watch it die slowly and painfully under my maple tree. While I dealt with that, it got colder outside, and nastier.
 In between calls and silly or brutal suggestions, like backing my car over it (when I couldn't even lift it into a box), or hitting it with a shovel, I braved the storm again to try to bring the dying bird into the warm garage, with no success. We were both getting weaker, and we were both full of despair. We'd been pushed into a bad situation together, a set of shitty circumstances that I would have to resolve, and I felt the lack of preparedness I lived with as a weight around my neck, now.
 Inside again, shivering and much sicker than I'd been a few hours before, I got a return call from a friend that had grown up on a farm, and still lived on one, though not a fully functioning one now. They did keep chickens and a couple of horses, and about eight acres full of mulberry trees. He asked detailed questions about the robin, agreed it was unsavable, and then told me to do what they did with unwanted kittens and the like-- drown the bird in a bucket.

 I was horrified, but as I considered the impossibility of trying to deliberately run over a robin in my driveway (what would my neighbors think of me, then?), it seemed worth a try. We talked about how to do it, and then I hung up and drank a quick shot of my cooled tea, to steel my nerves.
 The biggest bucket I had would do-- it was a forty gallon white tub of food grade plastic, bought for a buck from a donut place I'd worked long ago. They sold the tubs the donut fillings came in, since they couldn't be recycled and took up lots of space in the dumpster. I had two or three, and used them for hauling my homemade compost out to the vegetable garden. I set one in the yard near the tree and filled it from the hose. It was more than wide enough at the top, thankfully. I didn't want to break the wings while killing the bird.

 Today, at this moment, I can't quite recall exactly how I got it into the water-- I believe I lifted it, squirming and shaking, onto a wide shovel, and dropped it into the water from that, where it flapped and tried to swim. I didn't have the heart to hold and push its head under the water, but my friend had assured me it would not take long for it to drown, and he was right. After a minute or so of tortured scrabbling, it stopped moving.

 I left it in the bucket, to make sure it would not revive, and went in the house to shower off the cold, evil feeling that soaked me. When I was clean and warm, I had lost the will to face the rest of the mess-- throwing out the water, putting the corpse in the trash, along with the bucket, which I'd have to toss as well, since it carried a taint I couldn't scour out, mentally. I left the whole thing undone overnight, feeling awful in every possible way.

 In the morning, the body was gone.