Tucson Festival a Writer’s Dream

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Books, books, book. Miles and miles of books. That was the Tucson Festival of Books, held at the University of Arizona campus March 12 and 13. Sun so bright we grabbed hand lotion and free visors at a dermatology booth. I never saw so many booths dedicated to books and authors. It was like a state fair that was all books instead of cows, quilts, corn dogs, and food processors. Oh, there were booths for community organizations and lots of food you could eat in a big tent where a woman with boots and a cowboy hat and frilly dress sang Patsy Cline songs and yodeled. But it was mostly books. Readings here, talks there, services for authors and books to buy everywhere. Nothing I’ve seen in Oregon is that big.

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Workshop leaders David Gessner, Luis Alberto Urrea, Bryn Chancellor, Joshua Mohr, and Lynn Cullen

I was in Arizona last week because an essay I entered in a contest won me a place in the master’s workshop attached to the festival. Two full days of lectures, workshops and readings, of bonding with my little nonfiction group and our leader, author David Gessner. It was held in a place on campus called the Poetry Center. A poetry center? Yes. A whole library full of poetry books and books about poetry and poets, a breezeway where we ate the most delicious sandwiches at lunchtime, a comfortable auditorium where we heard readings and talks, and classrooms where we hashed over each others’ manuscripts.

The University of Arizona Poetry Center, housed in the Helen S. Schaefer Building, includes a rare book room, a children’s program called Poetry Joeys, a collection of recordings made by visiting poets, and a Poet’s Cottage where visiting writers can stay. The center hosts readings and lectures, poetry discussions, workshops, and more. When I walked into that place, I thought, “If I could work here, I would gladly live in Tucson.” I’m not moving, but wow. I found a place where everybody speaks my language.

Most people I meet don’t “get” poetry. If it doesn’t rhyme, it isn’t poetry, right? Read poetry for fun? Are you crazy? You’re a poet? What does that mean? Bookstores and libraries rarely allot more than a shelf or two to poetry, but there is so much more.

Why is my MFA in creative nonfiction if I’m so fond of poetry? I wrote poetry first, but a girl has to make a living. I think essays and poetry live on the same spectrum of storytelling. Some essays are poetic and some poems feel like little essays. They’re all magic to me.

IMG_20160316_121740352It wasn’t all words this trip. I was blessed to be able to stay at the home of my late husband’s cousin Adrienne and her husband John, both delightful people I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. They volunteer at the symphony store in the lobby at the Tucson Music Hall. The night I arrived, they took me with them. I helped sell CDs and music-related items such as earrings shaped like treble clefs and mugs, bags, scarfs, etc. We also got to hear the music, which included the Tucson Symphony and guest artists The Mambo Kings. Fun! The day after the workshop, Adrienne and I toured the marvelous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which was loaded with cactus, critters and kids on spring break. And in the warm evenings, we dined in the patio and had great talks.

Then it was time to come home. It was 80 degrees in Tucson. When the captain on the plane announced that it was 43 degrees in Portland, Oregon, people groaned. The Oregonians laughed. Back to hoodies and raincoats with new books to read while the rain pours down outside.

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Lawnmower one, widow lady zero

I keep looking in the mirror, expecting to see the skin around my right eye turning colors and my right cheek puffing up. That’s where the defeating blow landed. That’s how my glasses got bent so they hung half off and half on my face. That’s what led me to sit on the grass and cry, hugging my dog like a giant teddy bear. You’d think I was 4 instead of almost 64.

What am I talking about? One of the joys of being widowed is inheriting all the home and yard care, unless you have the money to hire someone. I’m thinking that guy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be great. For those who haven’t read the D.H. Lawrence book, Lady Chatterley’s husband was paralyzed from the waist down and could not make love. They were rich and had a large estate, cared for by the “Gamekeeper,” Oliver Mellors. Although a man of few words, Mellors was very expressive in other ways, including keeping Lady C very happy. It was quite a racy book for 1928. Now, I don’t have any game to keep, just lots of trees, unmowed grass and a house that’s too big for me, but I wouldn’t mind having a Mellors to take care of the property–and me, too. Or a woman who knew her way around a tool belt.

Anyway, back to the lawn. The rain had finally stopped for a couple of days. All the neighbors were off to work. It was just me and the pooch. After several winter months in the shed, the lawnmower was not working properly. It coughed, smoked, cut a stripe or two in the grass and quit. Over and over. God, how I wished some burly man would come striding up to the fence and say, “Hey, little lady, what seems to be the trouble?” And then he’d come in and fix the damn thing and mow the whole lawn while he was at it. But no.

My mechanical knowledge is limited. I know how to cook, write, play music, and sew. That’s pretty much it. If the tire light comes on in my car, I take it to Les Schwab. If the toilet leaks, I call a plumber. When the cord on the old lawnmower broke a year or two ago, I bought a new lawnmower. Know what I mean? Now I’m not saying this is true of all women. I know lots of women who could wrestle that lawnmower into submission. But not me.

I tried what I knew with the lawnmower. Oil? Check. Gas? Check. Spark plug? Still there. I flipped the lawnmower over, looking for obstructions underneath. I poked around with a screwdriver. Nothing. I pulled the cord. Nothing. I did that about 10 times with the same results. It sputtered and worked for a minute, gushing out smoke and coughing until it died.

I tried pushing the lawnmower up vertically to look underneath, and that’s when it happened. Bam! I lost my grip and the handle crashed down on my face.

Four days later, I don’t even have the satisfaction of a good black eye, although my cheek still hurts and I do have a giant bruise on my upper arm where the handle hit on the way down. Some part of me wants to have a visible injury so people ask about it and admire this poor brave little widow. Yeah, right.

But that’s not the end of the story. On Friday, I was about to load the lawnmower into the car to take it to Sears for repairs. I decided to yank the cord one more time. And guess what? The lawnmower roared into action. As I shouted hallelujahs, I decided I’d better mow the front lawn before the mower changed its mind. Forget Sears. Yes, I was overdressed for lawn-mowing, and I couldn’t see because I wasn’t wearing my mangled glasses, but I mowed it.

The drama wasn’t over yet. On the far side of the driveway, water had been standing dog-knee deep for several days. I thought we had just had more rain than the ground could absorb. But post lawn-mow, my neighbor wandered over and we both ended up staring at that water. It was flowing. This was not rainwater. We had a leak. Pat called the water company while I dashed into town to get my glasses fixed. The optometrist told me I needed to think about buying new ones. They were getting old and brittle and could not take much more bending before they broke. You see, this was about my fifth time having it done. Great. New glasses. No vision insurance.

Back home, I found the street blocked with Seal Rock Water Company trucks and machinery and a half dozen water company guys, including one chest deep in a hole in my front yard, a hole that didn’t used to be there. The only good news was the problem was the connection to my neighbor’s water, not mine. Since I couldn’t get to my house anyway, I went off to my weekly jam in Waldport for a couple hours of music. When I came home, the hole was filled with rocks, and the men were gone.

End of story? Not quite. Last night, I discovered the toilet was leaking. Stop!

Also, my glasses hurt my sore face.

I’m still waiting for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He was handy.

 

Can I Get an Amen?

The priest pounded the podium as he shouted, “They did it on Sunday morning! On Sunday morning!” He pounded so hard we flinched and a few people covered their ears.

Father David, visiting while our regular priest was dealing with the death of his father, is what you might call colorful. Sitting at the piano as choir director, I had to be alert every second because the Mass would not follow the usual patterns. Oh no. But I could sympathize with his rant about Sundays because I’m constantly dealing with people who expect me to do things on Sunday mornings, not considering that I might possibly be at church. That very day I was missing an important meeting because it was Sunday. Sometimes I want to pound wood, too.

But let’s get back to Father David. He’s a missionary who lives in Warrenton, up the coast near Astoria, Oregon. He has been to Sacred Heart several times now. His Masses are always a wild ride. Father Palmer, bless his heart, has a hard act to follow.

You know it’s going to be different when you walk in and the priest kisses your hand and tells you you’re beautiful. When you tell him your name is Sue, he bursts into song: “Suzanne takes your hand to a place by the river . . .” He knows all the words. Not knowing what else to do, you sing along. When my friend Georgia arrives, he sings, “Georgia, Georgia . . .”

You know it’s going to be different when every door and cupboard in the sacristy is open, and there’s this guy who looks like one of our many homeless visitors who turns out to Father’s assistant and ends up in a white cassock serving communion. And there’s this other young guy named Travis with a tiny tuft of beard who also shows up on the altar in a white cassock and reads the announcements. You wonder what gives with these assistants, but they’re friendly and you suspect Father needs their help.

You know it’s going to be different when you walk in at five minutes before Mass time, and Father is already on the altar talking and leading a prayer. Then he goes back to the vestibule and processes in. Wait? Are we late?

You know it’s going to be different when he finishes the opening prayers and suddenly looks at you expectantly. You’re thinking: We don’t have a song here. He softly says, “The Kyrie,” which is something the priest usually leads, but he’s not going to. So you stand up at the piano, take a deep breath, and belt out “Kyrie eleison!” and hope the choir and the congregation echo you. Thank God they do. The notes vary, but it’s loud.

You know it’s going to be different when out of nowhere Fr. David shouts, “Amen!” and invites you to say Amen back. And he does it again and again until you’re all laughing and shouting and thinking: Is this really a Catholic church?

You know it’s going to be different when he gives a 10-minute sermon before the readings, when he has his assistants stand on either side of him holding candles while he reads the gospel, when he strolls down the aisle during the homily and challenges people with questions and comments, and when he points a finger at you and asks if you have been redeemed. Startled, you nod yes because what else can you do.

You know it’s going to be different when he starts speaking during the offertory song, when he tosses out a new prayer in the middle of the Preparation of Gifts and adds little asides during the Eucharistic Prayer, when during Communion he bends down to hug and talk to the little kids, and when he sips throughout the mass from a little black wine goblet. He says it’s water.

You know it’s going to be different when he scoops handfuls of water from the baptismal font and flings it with his hands at the people on the altar, the choir and you, so that drops of water are running down your face and beading up on the piano keys as he tells you to “tickle those ivories” for the closing song. He sings along. Afterward, he tells you the choir is “awesome.”

You also know that he did it differently last week and if he comes back in the future, it will be different again. All you know is that you don’t know what will happen next and that the Holy Spirit is dancing a jig because the Catholics are finally livening up.

You know you hope Father David comes back soon.