My Black Hen

My Black Hen
My Black Hen

My latest artistic endeavor involved painting a chicken on a piece of wood. I was cradled in the timelessness of it—making folk art in the old Norse style, the old way. Imagine the chance to find a little corner and have four uninterrupted days. Add a best buddy of half a century and an excellent restaurant next door and Jo Sonya, the inimitable and renowned leader of the group we joined. I’d heard about her for years.  I found her warm, direct, a natural teacher, and fully aware of who she is—undoubtedly the best rosemaling painter in the country.

Those four days in Boise were bliss. Anne flew in from Houston; I flew in from Salt Lake City. When we found each other in the crowd of painters, we embraced, the women we are slipping into the girls we were. I knew she would be unchanged, as open and self-possessed as larkspur.

The first thing we did was look over the paints. Their names describe them: oak moss, smoked pearl, antique green, gold oxide, purple madder. I’m not one of those artists who likes to rename brown cinnamon, but I liked oak moss and smoked pearl, partly because the colors were so dreamy.

The present and the past seemed to exist side by side as we set up. Memories floated in of the California desert, El Camino Real, graduation, that crazy trip to Lake Esther (Lancaster recast). And then we’d be talking about our dogs. We got out our brushes—sable filberts, rounds, a liner, a Kolinsky detailer. I had my usual jar of kitty litter along to stand my brushes in—they stay put. Anne was amused and I realized I’ve always been  as comfortable with her as I am with summer.

Somewhere in the process I got thinking about my zany history of making things—the barometer in a coke bottle, the sled from a packing crate (that went badly), paintings on rocks stained with berry juice, and then my cabin and still lifes and landscapes of every view it afforded.

Our chicken tines (Norwegian for I suppose basket—pronounced teen-ahs) were beautifully made by hand of steamed and sveipped wood held together with wooden pegs. They would become our black hens, emerging a brush stroke at a time. An old nursery rhyme was the inspiration:

Hickety Pickety, my black hen,

She lays eggs for gentlemen:

Gentlemen come every day to see

What my black hen doth lay.

Whatever it is about making something, especially art, it takes over.  There is nothing else, no phone calls, no agenda, no giving in to interruptions. At some level you must know that you decorate yourself when you decorate a chicken on a piece of wood, painting yourself in peacock blue scrolls and red flowers and new-green leaves and yellow teardrops, painting yourself out of fatigue, of uncertainty, of overwhelm.

To make: Old English, an ancient word; to bring into being. And with a friend good for a lifetime: an ally, an enabler, a sympathizer; one who greatly influenced the being I became.

 

 

 

Maya Angelou

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The phrase “a force of nature” barely begins to describe Maya Angelou. To be in a conversation with her was to be lifted, really lifted out of yourself, by the width and depth and breadth of her spirit. The line that is coming back to all of us is, of course, “I rise.”

Squirrel Down!

squirrel down

SQUIRREL DOWN!

A squirrel nearly fell on me in the park the other day. He zoomed right past my face and lit with a shocking plop on the sidewalk. It had that awful something-is-terribly-wrong feeling.

“The first lesson of history is modesty,” *I leaned over and said to him. “This is no way to show off.” I was trying to calm myself. It is nature’s first lesson too, I went on in my mind. A squirrel plopping from at least thirty feet makes quite a sound so you’ve got both sight and sound as well as history to deal with. He lit splayed out, belly down, eyes as wide as sunflower seeds. He was staring in fear.

“You’re alive,” I said to him. “Take some breaths.” He began to pant. “A few,” I cautioned. He twitched his head, then again. Then he couldn’t stop twitching. “You’ve got a concussion at the very least,” I said. “Stay quiet.” A tiny twig had dropped beside him. “Look at that. You went too high.”  I looked up at the Scotch Pine. He’d probably dropped thirty feet.

“Velocity. I’ll call you that. I’ll take you home if you’re crippled and I’ll bury you if you die.” I hadn’t advanced into his space. The message from his was “Watch yourself. The second lesson is endurance.”

A beautiful morning in the park and there I stood. I wasn’t ready to make the sign of the cross over him. I didn’t know exactly how for one thing, but I was asking myself what his support network might be. You can see that I’m not a first-generation Facebooker (for want of the right phrase) or I’d have photographed him and saved myself the trouble of googling Fallen Squirrel.

It’s not that I don’t know a lot about squirrels or harbor a great fondness for them. I grew up in the forest. My grandfather had a pet squirrel he named Croppy and he baked that squirrel cakie-bread—that’s what he called it—and Croppy came to the kitchen window every morning at 10:00 for his cakie-bread.

Suddenly Velocity was up—a few more shakes of the head, a size-up of the tree and four feet on it. Slowly, with long stops, he made it up to the first branch and a place from which to properly contemplate the other lessons of history.

*Will and Ariel Durant

HOMAGE

IMG_0833We had several rules in our family about pie. Never order it at a diner. Don’t worry about the run-down pie signs, a letter missing: Jesse’s Pies were the best in northeastern Utah. Be quite a few miles from a major highway.

In fact, better not to even eat pie it if it isn’t your mother’s. Or grandmother’s. They’re who taught me. “Put some flour in this bowl, about a cup and a half. Now you can get in the dough and pounce it up with your fingers or with this pastry deal—where is it? The trick is don’t handle it too much, although actually you’re all right until you add your moisture. That’s it. Just mix it up until you’ve got a whole bunch of little chips in there the size of hazel nuts.”

I made a pie for my mother this morning. I pounced up the dough and peeled the apples. I’d come home to be with her after she’d sustained a severe injury. We talked about pies as it baked. “We’ll be smelling it in fifteen minutes,” I say to her.

“That huckleberry pie we used to make when you kids would go out on the logging roads at the mill and pick berries.”

“Two million, eight hundred berries would make a pie. And that gooseberry pie when we had the house on Dunne Street.”

“We got good rhubarb there too.”

“And when we were in California, you crazy guys would bring dried apricots in off the trays and we’d make dried apricot pie that your Grandma Oldham liked. Except you’d bring the filthiest apricots in.”

“You told us not to bring anything unless it had fallen off the trays so if we were short, we’d kick them off and scrounge them around in the dirt.”

We laugh. Pies. They’ve marked our history. And this might be the last apple pie I’ll make with my mother, I know that. The mantle of ritual falls over the afternoon. It gives an elegance to what has always been rambunctious joy. Our own hearts are full of the history of apples, the fruit of the earth—Winesap, Cortland, Jonathan, Granny Smith—the orchards of the country tying labor and celebration together as it binds our generations. Grandmother teaching mother teaching granddaughter. Handle the dough very gently now.

I can see that pies are the framework through which I’ll remember. It is the custom of our family, and beyond us our neighborhood, our village, our country and countries before it back to meat pies and mead in some ancient castle.

And I have one of those transforming moments that lifts, that assures me how it will be. If this is our last piece of pie together, just the two of us saying, “Hell, this is good pie—let’s eat the whole thing—or hide it in the microwave if anybody comes,” the next one I make will be different. It will be homage, this long dialogue between us, and when I take it out of the oven, I’ll be the only daughter who could have made my mother’s pie.

RadioWest Interview

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As-it-happens update ⋅ April 11, 2014

NEWS

A Thousand Voices

RadioWest

Friday, at 11:00 and again at 7:00, Doug is joined by Utah author Jeri Parker for a conversation about her memoir “A Thousand Voices.” Parker taught high school and university …

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Kirkus Interview March 20, 2014

                              Jeri Parker                     

            Author of A THOUSAND VOICES  by   Sarah Rettger  on March 20, 2014Parker_Jeri_Kent6color0367-b
                    Jeri Parker photographed by Kent Miles.
Jeri Parker knows how to maintain a sense of patience and wonder: When a bear wandered into her Idaho cabin one morning, for instance, she refused to panic, instead telling herself, “He’ll only be here once, so take it in.” She observed the bear instead of chasing it away—it eventually departed peacefully—and now cherishes the memory.With a similar sense of purpose, Parker waited until the time was right to publish her first book. “I seem to want to have a highly refined, thought-through piece,” she says, which is why she went through multiple revisions, considered and decided against working with several traditional publishers, and finally joined with friends to form a publishing company, Winter Beach Press, before sharing her memoir, A Thousand Voices, with the public.What Parker calls “a long gestation period in the refining stage” seems to have worked for the book, which has gained both local and national attention. Kirkus Reviews calls A Thousand Voices “a loving tribute to friendship that proves how one person can influence the life of another,” noting that it “transcends the ubiquitous ‘me’ and ‘I’ of memoir and hovers on the brink of being a compassionate cautionary tale.”The book tells the story of Parker’s relationship with a deaf boy who both charmed her and expanded the limits of her world. “I was teaching high school. I was about 28,” Parker says, when a friend told her, “I have a boy you must meet” and introduced her to Carlos Salazar. The teacher and the student quickly formed a bond, although Parker makes it clear that they educated each other: “He taught me to hear, essentially,” she says, and she learned to understand the variety and importance of nonverbal methods of communication.

When, many years later, she decided to write about Salazar’s story, Parker found that beneath the tale of a boy who, despite his inability to hear, was “preternaturally quick” and “central to any group he was in,” she was writing on a more universal theme. “Little by little, what emerged was the story beneath the story,” she says. Eventually she realized the book was “a love song to language,” an appropriate theme for a writer whose style tends toward the poetic.

Parker, who has roots in Idaho and now lives much of the time in Salt Lake City, finds that her association with the West is a key part of both her identity as a writer and her more recent work as a book publisher. She read A Thousand Voices at The King’s English, a landmark bookstore in Salt Lake City, and has found that promoting an independently published book works best in “a region you have command of.”

Although she has found an enthusiastic audience in Salt Lake City, Parker does much of her writing in a cabin in rural Idaho, which she calls “the ideal circumstance for writing.” She built the cabin slowly, treating her Idaho property as a summer refuge during her years of teaching. “I lived there for 12 summers, three or four of them in a tent,” she says, until the house was finished. The building process reflected the same patient and deliberate approach she takes to crafting a narrative, and, in fact, she linked the construction process to her writing aspirations, telling herself, “When I get this finished, I’m going to be a writer.”parker_cover

The rural setting also provides a link to Parker’s youth, where she first developed a love of storytelling, inventing new identities for herself, her sister and a cousin. The three looked so alike “we could pretend to be triplets,” she says, which inspired their role-playing and offered their imaginations free rein. “I guess you could say we came out of the oral tradition of an earlier time,” Parker says. “I cried when we got electricity.”

Parker continued to develop her writing in college, where she “fell in love with Willa Cather” and found that her teachers appreciated her writing style and offered support. “When your cover is blown, people begin to mentor you” as a writer, she says.

By now, of course, Parker has adapted to telling her stories within an electricity-driven world, but the traditions and forms of oral storytelling still shape her writing habits. Although she primarily relies on human colleagues for feedback during the revision process, there are times when she reads her work aloud to a more unconventional audience: her flock of chickens. “They’ll tell you what your good passages are and walk off at your bad passages,” she says.

After many sessions with the chickens, A Thousand Voices made its way to a human audience through Parker’s Winter Beach Press. Parker hopes to use the press to publish the work of other writers as well: “I didn’t want it to exist as a vehicle for just my endeavors,” she says, and she continues to look for other venues to publish her own work. She currently has agent representation for her first novel, which is on submission to traditional publishers.

But there are no immediate plans to invite submissions to Winter Beach Press, since Parker, who is also part-owner of a bed-and-breakfast, wants to make sure she does not take on more than she can handle in the literary world. “We’re quoting E.B. White right now, saying ‘don’t buy 300 chicks if you only need eight eggs,’ ” she explains.

Parker’s first priority is making time for her own art—she is also a painter, and her works have sold throughout the United States, as well as internationally—and for writing. Although writing is a late-in-life career for Parker, who spent years working as a teacher and then as a corporate writing consultant, she has no concerns about waiting to publish until her poet’s ear was satisfied with A Thousand Voices. “It’s never too late, until you don’t recognize the words on the page,” she says.

Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.

Roadkill Fable

owl“If you find a really nice roadkill on the highway, grab it and I’ll tell you how to stuff it,” my brother-in-law (one of many) said to me a few decades ago. I was interested in any form of art at the time, although roadkill wasn’t high on my list. Shortly thereafter I did come upon an owl who had been nicked—you wonder how—and I pulled over and jumped between cars to retrieve him. He was in perfect condition. He might have dropped from a heart attack.

I took him home and put him in my mother’s freezer, where he stayed for seven years. Before she started calling him Rachel (we sometimes called him her), I borrowed the necessary materials, mainly borax powder, from my brother-in-law who told me to go to a taxidermy shop and ask for eyes for an eagle. “Don’t mention an owl,” he said. “They’re protected.” I took him to my grandmother’s, where I intended to spend the weekend in my act of preservation. It was Thanksgiving and everyone was asking me what I was going to do.

“Stuff an owl,” I said.

“Stuff an owl!” There was real shock. Eventually I realized they were seeing him go into the oven full of herbs and mushrooms and bread crumbs.

He lasted a long time and then one day he fluttered a feather down on me and I looked in his eyes a long time, wondering about the nature of mercy.

David Kranes

blog images“David was magic.” That was the comment from one of the women in my Carriage House book group when he recently read and discussed his short stories, The Legend’s Daughter. To hear him, especially in a private setting, is an absorbing experience. He’s a big man–in many ways, and he can command a room in a voice barely audible, everyone learning to hear what he’s saying. When he shifts into boisterous, everyone does a little jump. In discussion or rendition, he is careful, thoughtful, committed, and vulnerable–an unexpected gift. You see the real pulls and conflicts and struggles of a full-time writer.

Don’t miss these new stories. There are a lot of rivers, Idaho rivers, and a lot of fishing. David says that when he’s walking waters (how glad I am I’ve walked them with him) he’s “not as shy, as retiring, as speechless  . . . there’s a huge freeing of what I didn’t understand.” The stories in The Legend’s Daughter lead you into worlds you don’t understand–he writes of people “unsure of themselves, unsure of protocols.” And he raises questions: “What if someone unsure travels with someone too daring, too free.” You’ll get every kind of intersection, of searching, and of discovering.

When I think about David, it is always with gratitude. My life as a writer would have been vastly different without him.  A Thousand Voices: a Memoir and plenty else might still be a collection of notes in a bottom drawer if he hadn’t said, “You write. Bring me what you’re working on.”  Ron Carlson, Jeff Metcalf, Pam Houston–there is a big basket of us he took under his wing.  That he cares about the success of others enough to leave his own endeavors for our sake  is perhaps the most elegant thing about him. He has discovered along the road of writing seven or eight novels, three or four collections of short stories and over a hundred plays that what we do for others is likely to outlast all the rest.

David Kranes. How lucky we are that he drifted west and made it his own.

The Sundance Film Festival

sundanceCill and I grabbed a few precious rays of sun in Park City yesterday at the Sundance Film Festival. Of course we took in a pre-matinee. Hell, I’m a tiresome old timer. All I could do was think about the festival’s early, intimate days when a handful of us sat around with the guests, maybe Cicely Tyson or Molly Haskell or the poet Henry Taylor, talking for hours in little thrown-together corners. There were no 500-seat venues, and you didn’t hear anyone on a shuttle (which hadn’t been thought of) saying half of New York is here. I looked down the aisle of the bus yesterday. Yes, and the other side was Los Angeles and you could tell just when it crossed into Hollywood.

Fairly good film. What is it about the hand of the amateur that announces itself so early? But that’s the fun of it. Next year, the director might have the timing, the story-line figured out and his new film will take its place beside the memorables: “Napoleon Dynamite” or a “Trip to Bountiful,”  “sex, lies and videotape,” “The Blair Witch Project.”

Learning—all of us.

Remembering

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Standing here in the Navajo Sandstone canyons formed of tiny grains of quartzite 180 million years ago, you get a little perspective. Anasazi stood here. And Paiute. And Brigham Young’s pioneers, looking for lost sheep.

The daily things fall away in this grandeur. It won’t matter if the walks get shoveled at home; if the door to the chicken coop is loose; if the letters don’t get written. Maybe not even if the books don’t get finished.

These red formations spread for hundreds of miles–elegant and commanding. I feel like a bird. I put my head back and expect I’ll be able to trill. In the way that I can, I’m celebrating a life that enriched mine and has now returned to the red dust, the grains of sand, to time. Jennifer was as exuberant as these red canyons and what she represented is as lasting. One of her close friends said to me, “I have this idea about life. There are angels among us and they don’t stay long. They come to teach us things and then they’re gone.” I’m not much on angels, but that was Jennifer for me.

The immensity of the earth, of life. Ken went on to say, “Jennifer could only see the good in people.” It’s what I’ll most remember of her, and of this warm day, standing in these ancient formations extending time out of mind.