Empowerment through Language...

Monday, December 14, 2015


It was a Friday night. I was at the Downtown Writers Center preparing for our weekly poetry reading. A flash on my screen announced that Paris was under siege. But the reading must go on...

Photo from L.A. Times article, Mon. 11/14/15
Later I watched the news, once again bereft, waiting for the faces of those who were slain. It was quickly determined that one American citizen was among the victims. Her name is Nohemi Gonzalez

Much was made of theories and perpetrators. Paris was under an oppressive, dreadful weight compared to that of the Nazi invasion. The world was slack-jawed once again. The pundits and politicians were in wait like buzzards.

The diatribe against immigration took a radical twist in direction but does not erase the vicious tone we have endured for the past few years. Let me restate the obvious: the only U.S. citizen to die in Paris is Nohemi Gonzalez, a first-generation American citizen of Mexican heritage, a first-generation college student who attended Cal State Long Beach with a major in industrial design. A young woman working her way through college and brightening the lives of others. She is one of those humans whose value is at the core of the intention of our national identity, generation after generation. Nohemi is  one of those who thrived in the opportunity her mother worked so hard to provide to her only daughter. Nohemi was having coffee with friends in a small cafe on a street in Paris where she was doing a foreign exchange program. Nohemi had every reason to believe that life is grand and she had a brilliant future ahead when she graduated next spring.

The politicos have bullied those who have fled from political and financial oppression of Central and South America, stirring the flames among paranoid citizens who believe the myth that "immigrants are destroying our economy...taking our jobs..." all the rest of the lies that get attention, air time, and often ill-advised votes at the polls.

The media gave small nods to Ms. Gonzalez but nothing was really made of her as a symbol, as a martyr. I bet those who perpetrated the massacre and subsequently were killed by law enforcement are lauded as martyrs by the radical Islamic networks. The spin must be something! But did our media counter the mean-spirited insults of several of the political candidates who are narcissistic enough to believe they are capable of being president of the United States? Why was there so little in the media after the first 48 hours about this young woman, who has worked against all odds to fulfill the mythic American dream? 

I have been asking people if they know that Nohemi is the only American who died that horrible Friday night. Almost none has even heard her name, much less her accomplishments and heritage. Nohemi is the face of so many college students on campuses throughout our nation, the next generation of dreamers, achievers, brilliance. She is not a moment between other news items; she is the daughter of Ms. Beatrez Gonzalez, who will mourn her through these holidays and for the remainder of her life. Nohemi died at 23, in Paris, trusting her future. She was a teaching assistant, a girlfriend, an employee, a neighbor, an American.

This will not stop the blowhards vying for a very important job. But please, let us remember: #HerNameIsNohemi. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

62 and still a 2015 birthday missive...

62, I wake to a zit…

At about 4:30 this morning, I woke the first time to the rain. I considered that there was a cleansing of the past year around the sun, preparing me for the solar-year journey ahead. 62 years I have made this move into another year of my life. I have life because my mother and father created me. Though our relationships were complicated, truncated, I am so grateful that they made me. I am grateful that my mother focused so hard on not believing the doctors’ predictions that her toxemia would mean I would not survive. In the words of the cherished Lucille Clifton:

             …so grateful

             to be alive. i am alive and furious.

             Blessed be even this.

2015 started horridly and I felt an internal shame for being so close to the edge financially, still. Somehow I had considered the precariousness of my income was the only gauge of my being and value. The previous year I had pneumonia, which pointed to other vulnerabilities. Aging and preparing to be elderly have been at the forefront of my consciousness. I have looked at the crepe-like quality of my skin, the ache when I stand up from a chair, the ways my eyes are goofing on me. I have felt lonely and curiously resigned to the fact that life is moving closer and closer to its own deadline. Yet every day I just put one foot in front of the other because I have work to do and I was gifted with the privilege of life, and human consciousness.

With the support of loving and generous friends, as usual, who believe in me and my capacity, my value, I got through the immediate need and I now am rebuilding. But I realized that I am not a failure or a screw-up, the little lie that lurks in the background of my psyche so often. I am highly successful when I take stock of my work, my efforts, my accomplishments. I am simply undercapitalized, and that is rectifiable. And I remembered that I will start claiming Social Security in 4 years. That will help, just as paying off the car this spring did. A step at a time. And now to draw on my true career as poet and pursue more opportunity to share my joy.

As for my body, I have been body-shaming since I was a child and the other day, as I stepped out of the shower and looked at the image in the mirror, all wet and no barrier. I claimed this body as it is as God’s work, as the work of my parents to present me to the world. Now to care so I get another 40 years out of it in wellness and ability.

Everything I do in my life and for my income is anchored in my truth of being a poet. I am so blessed. My start in publishing was with Mary Russo Demetrick’s Hale Mary Press with Coaxing Nectar from Longing and I have been grateful every day. I now have four books in the world and a contract for another as coeditor. I had the honor and joy of a third collection of poems published by Tiger Bark Press this June, Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities. This has been my greatest achievement thus far in my work as a writer. For those of you who do not know, Tiger Bark was founded by Steve Huff, former publisher at BOA Editions, Ltd., and he is a marvel and a friend. Steve has published the best of American poetry in his esteemed career and he does it because he loves poetry, language, writing, and writers. I still shiver with the knowledge that he has published so many poets who I admire and learn from with each poem I read, and that Steve chose me to be among that community. I was determined to live up to his confidence in me and give him the best book of poetry I was capable of offering, to give my readers the same. Every word was deliberated, every placement, all of it was a lesson I will carry forward in all the work to come. I will never accept complacency from myself in my art. I also view Psalter as the validation of the choice I make in living the way I do, even if it is on the margin. I need this flexibility to create and be my art.

The other pleasure of this book was that Psalter owes its visual grace to my dear friend Phil Memmer, who is Tiger Bark’s Associate Editor and designer of most of the books in the catalog. Phil knows me well and we work together to give our Central New York community a vibrant and supportive place for writers of all ages to convene, learn, create, the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center. He captu­­­­­red the elegance I was envisioning perfectly, the simple beauty of a vintage prayer book. He has much talent, a great eye, a skill in administration, and a keen sense of making a great poem, as evidenced in his four books. And he has been my friend for 15 years. What more could I ask?

Psalter taught me much over the 8 years it took to bring to the world and I am so grateful. Recently, I sat with the folders and piles of drafts I have stashed while I put my primary focus on Psalter and I have 58 pages of my next collection, Psychometry, and a clear sense of what I need to finish that in the year ahead. The conjoined twin series is a third complete and they are whispering to me that they would like me to visit. A memoir that has been languishing is starting to tickle my attention as well. And my second book, The Doom Weaver, is still alive and available from Main Street Rag Publishers, led by the relentless and wonderful Scott Douglas.

And my teaching is still a complete delight. In fact, even that is yielding new work, as I now write to the prompts that my Young Authors Academy poets bring to our circle on Saturdays. At the beginning of the year, I pointed out that they have agency in the process of our workshops and they take turns bringing inspiration that I also can glean new work from and we are all creating wonderful poems together, me and the next generation.

In late June I had the honor of facilitating a very intimate workshop at the No√ępe Center for Literary Arts in Edgartown, MA, on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard. I would love to return to teach and write in that wonderful, nurturing space. I am hoping to book readings and workshops, I am hoping to be more visible with my work beyond my immediate (and cherished) community. I am loving the conversations with Bob Herz, Steve Kuusisto, Phil Memmer, and often Jasmine Bailey that have yielded the podcast series, Talk about Poetry. I have posted videos of me reading poems from Psalter on You Tube. I worked another summer for the Syracuse University College of Arts and Sciences, I got to write for Hendricks Chapel, and teach in the Honors Program once again. And my dear Keith Flynn included both a review and reprint of a poem in the 20th anniversary issue of the Asheville Poetry Review. I continued my work with the Comstock Review and presided over a great panel of Massachusetts poets we have published at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. I continue to be a part of the 90-year legacy of the Central New York Branch of the American Pen Women and share with my friends and colleagues in that circle. If nothing else, I get a lot of things done in the midst of my flurry.

I have many projects in the pipeline too. Working with my friends of Syracuse Stories, we are expanding our mission and opportunities to capture stories that contribute to Know Your Neighbour, Know Your World. I am sculpting a plan for an excursion to Cuba for collaborative art-making. I teach in numerous locations, each class giving me ways to support other writers and further my own growth as I teach what I want to learn. And I started a new part-time job at the Syracuse University Bookstore, which I am loving. I get to play with books, talk with people about their interests and passions, and enjoy my colleagues…and it is just 20-minute walk from home.

My coauthor and cherished friend, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I are collaborating again as coeditors of The Whiskey of Our Discontent, an anthology of essays to honor Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, due out in spring 2017 from Haymarket Books as the nation plans to celebrate her centennial year. This will also give me much opportunity to be in communication with many poets and scholars as well as immerse in Ms. Brooks’ work and example.

I am ready for it all. I have so much to do. And I need to remember that I have this moment in time to make the most of and to relish. I have watched my night-blooming cereus finally give its spectacular performance and the blood moon eclipse. I have grown a vegetable garden with my neighbor. I have lost several dear ones, most poignant and recent was the transition of my friend, my big brother of 50 years, Joe Leonard, who cares for me even from beyond his body in this life. And yesterday, I celebrated the third anniversary of the deepest love who is my dear puppywhuppy, Enza. Nuff said…

I have a huge Venn Diagram of beloveds. I cannot name you all but I know that the success and value of my life is measured in each of your faces and hearts. You know who you are and why I love you. Thank you for choosing me. And let me tell you, there is something timeless in the moment, the 19-year old in me, the 5-year old, the 30-year old, the 50-year old, and now today, when I woke with a zit and a bounce to my step, a flutter in my heart, and the showers stopped, the sun poured its honey everywhere, the clouds drifted through in wispy laughter, and the drops fell from the thick fall leaves in the backyard like gold rain. Know that you are cherished. I am profoundly grateful to you all…and perhaps I will take up the action of Ms. Clifton, and from now on sign each of my books, JOY…after all, she said to me, “I choose joy because I am capable of it, and there are those who are not…”


Friday, June 19, 2015

Launch Day for Psalter Is Here!

Today is the day that I officially launch my newest book, Psalter: The Agnostic's Book of Common Curiosities," published by Tiger Bark Press ( at the Downtown Writers Center of the Syracuse YMCA, 340 Montgomery Street, at 7 p.m. After the reading and signing, we will join at Flame, 713 E. Fayette Street, to continue the celebration. 

I am delighted for the honor of Steve Huff's choice of this book and for the elegant ways Phil Memmer captured my intention in his design. Also, I am so grateful for all the peer review and the wonderful consideration I have received from colleagues and friends. Kindnesses such as this: 

“Psalter” is an intimate and generous invitation into a poet’s heart.  With consummate artistry, Popoff creates haunting images that convey with aching tenderness and ruefully humorous insights what it is to be human, with all the attendant turbulence of desire, despair, and the wrenching epiphanies of seeing clearly.  Using the moniker “Joy,” the poet refuses the self-help bromides, the doctrines and dogmas of any institution, whether religious, academic, or societal. Her keen awareness of impermanence finds an ironical solace in nature, with its relentless cycles of birth and death, as in the poem “Anonymous”: “An insect crusade/ conquers a sturdy coffin/Winter petrifies tree roots/and stills the water table….” 
—Sherry Chayat, Abbot, Zen Studies Society and Zen Center of Syracuse

And thank you to all who supported the book in advance. I am so very grateful.

Now to party...


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Loosing Letterman

Dave at the desk is what I wait for, Monday - Friday nights. Not the monologue so much, or the interviews. It is the 5 minutes of desk time when Dave addresses concerns. This is the essence of the most outrageous, sublime, sardonic, ridiculous, touching, agitating.

For most of the past 35 years, I have fallen asleep with Dave being the last human influence of the day. Dave is more than a funny guy, although he is certainly that, and I believe there is almost no one with more influence on comedy, much less the entire entertainment business than David Letterman. And in at least the past 2-3 years, he has been the best in his own game, a master of his craft. 

In 1982, Dave and I were both young. If I had an older brother, he probably would have been like Dave. He was brash and bold. He was confrontational and often completely absurd. One night my friend John asked me if I had caught any of the new Letterman show. We watched together and belly laughed. There was nothing like him. Guys popped up in the stairs. One night Dave rode a horse through some town in New Jersey. Another, Paul did his first Cher imitation. Dave was cutting edge and edgy. Dave could insult and impress.

In 1982, I was still mourning the lost of my father and a relationship, trying to figure out what to do next with my life. One thing I knew, I could get a laugh for the end of my day watching Dave and falling asleep to the music that ends his show every night. I was soon to give up my dream of being a poet and enter into a decade-long quiet time.

Dave and I have both morphed and evolved. We have both had challenges and had to admit to foibles. Dave has done this in public, I have done it with a much smaller audience. Dave had the power to order a parade of Easter bunnies into a H&R Block or shower steamy New Yorkers with a water cannon and get away with it. I don't know that I need to be quite that bold but I live that boldness vicariously in the late-night time slot.

Eventually I came out of the quiet and stepped deliberately back onto the path of poet. My third collection of poems is just weeks away from showing up on my doorstep. I am 61 and wondering what this all will be, still wondering how to make ends meet as well, but eager for the next steps in life. For years, I wanted to tell Dave of every achievement and how he is such an inspiration and relief.  

Some of the most touching moments of my friend Dave include his return after his heart attack (and the many acknowledgments of his healthcare team thereafter), the first night of broadcast after the fall of the Towers, announcing the birth of his son, Harry (and every birthday greeting since), his apology for indiscretions, and so many friends he has eulogized. The night he spoke of the death of Paul Newman, he was eloquent and heart-rending. Dave announces weddings and births among his staff. Dave notes big acts and small achievements of countless people we would never know otherwise. Dave has become a generous and clever spirit.

There is no younger man behind the desk of a late-night talk show who has not learned something from Dave. Some of their schtick is directly from Dave. But Dave is the master. The way he has grown gentle and generous, as well as more and more subtle in the brilliance of his humor, is the maturity of an artist in action. Sometimes Dave gives me a flattop for a minute; I say, "Wait a minute..." And then I laugh so hard my belly hurts. And Dave certainly has a fascination with gravity.

Dave understands two things that I would really appreciate his younger colleagues pay attention to; they could benefit from internalizing these very simple lessons: 

1) It is not about them, it is about us (the viewers) and their guests. The hosts are there to bring out the best in the guests and entertain the audience, as well as keep things going. The hosts are not the center of attention but central to the success of every 60 minutes on air. There is a really important difference here that Dave has mastered. 

2) It really is not necessary to shout all the time.

Dave has also been an elemental commentator in the national political/social dialogue. There was the night he called John McCain out for a bad decision in grandstanding, the times he challenged both sides of any argument, the clarity of his vision of the world around us and the state of our politics must also be recognized, and the periodic visits from Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, Rachel Maddow, even O'Reilly, to run it down for us all. 

About a year ago, after Dave was readying us for the fact that his time to step down was not too far in the future, the Monday after the Emmys and the self congratulatory presence of the his younger colleagues, Dave quietly expressed his disappointment that not one word was offered to honor him for being the pillar of this business. There was a fist around my own heart at that time. He was right to be disappointed. That was a serious slight and I stopped ever watching the others, particularly the newest on the block, whose schtick is most beholding to the legacy of Dave (if you leave off the shouting and the self-conscious need to be the center of attention).

What will Pat Farmer do? Are there rooftops just yearning to have televisions and watermelons dropped from them? What will the newest bands do to get to the forefront? How many rimshots will Anton Fig be spared? Will Paul start the Schaffer Severson Museum of Sartorial Splendor? Will Felicia finally tour and let us hear her do a whole marvelous set?! I can stop thinking that I have to train my 10-year old Lab to do something silly and let her resume nap time. But Darlene Love's holiday serenade, Jay Thomas and the Lone Ranger story, visits to Rupert G.'s counter are all over. And what about Biff? Can he exist without headphones? And Dave's mom can relax now. The camera crew won't show up again but weren't the Olympics just great?! And Regis, now you really do have to retire, right?! 

I have become a mature artist myself and am ready to understand the sublime elements of both my art form, poetry, and life itself. Dave has been my buddy all this time and I am struggling. Who will keep me grounded? Who will show me the musicians I should pay attention to now? Who will synthesize the news in tangible ways? And how will I fall asleep now?

Take note, Stephen Colbert: don't try to top Dave. Just do your best to honor Dave and take us forward. We trust you will know what to do.

Dave, have a great time and thanks for it all. I never got to the studio and I never wrote you any of the letters I wanted to over the years, but you are a foundational element of my adult life and daily trod of getting through all of this. I love you, Dave, and you have taught me a lot. You are a great friend.

Thank you. It will be canned ham for dinner tonight... 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Teaching as Legacy

The magic that transpires in a classroom, no matter the age of the student, is the fuel that pushes all teachers through to satisfaction in their chosen profession. As we see the fruit of our sharing come forth in our students, even students who are adults, the knowledge that we have done good work soothes our souls and brings smiles to our faces.

As the workshops coordinator at the Syracuse YMCA's Downtown Writers Center, I have experienced the joy of curating a program for tween and teen writers called the Young Authors Academy. Having passed our third anniversary this winter, we are growing and serving the needs of talented young writers in the genres of poetry, fiction, and dramatic writing. We started with six teens who were eager to meet every Saturday morning and share work, create new work, and learn about the fundamental aspects of creative writing beyond what they could receive in school. All six of those students are now in college, two of them majoring in creative writing.

In our winter session, we enrolled 28 students, grades 6 - 11. Some of these students have been with us for nearly our entire history, week after week, when SAT prep, school musicals, marching band, track, all-county chorus or orchestra, family vacations, or the flu do not intercede. The students requested for longer seasonal sessions, expanding from four 8-week sessions to as many 10-week sessions we can fit into a calendar year. When the group grew larger, the students asked for the classes to lengthen from 90 minutes to 2 hours so they could work together longer. On Saturdays!

These are eager young talents. They are also really good to each other, for each other. They have developed keen eyes for critique and understand the distinct difference in connotation between critique and criticism

YAA is an inclusive environment, with the students being the first to say, "You belong here." There are young people who are home schooled, from suburban schools, and from the Syracuse City School District. We have had students from Viet Nam, Liberia, Jordan, the burbs, the inner city, students who are on the Autism spectrum. We have high achievers and those who are bored and/or disinterested in school. They are multi-talented and remarkable. And they are, in my most often stated mantra, on fire to write. This is the program that I wish I had when I was in high school. We are able to support the voices and imaginations of the next generation of writers, and so much more. It is more than writing, although we are very serious about that and they have to work hard.

We have created an anthology of their work as a fundraiser, The Library of Lost Thoughts. The funds supported the poetry award for the 2014 Central New York Book Awards, and so inspiring that they embraced the mission. We have students whose parents have studied (or do so currently) at the DWC. We have started an internship program for juniors and seniors to meet their community service component of their graduation requirements. And this summer we will welcome back one of our graduates, who will be a rising sophomore in college as our program summer intern.

Recently, two of our YAA participants, twin sisters, announced in our sharing circle that they would be moving and no longer able to join us on Saturdays. Each of their colleagues offered words of encouragement, statements of value to the whole that the young women offer, and general kindnesses as a send-off into what would be their new phase of life. It was lovely and authentic. Then we split up to go to our respective classrooms, genre-specific. The poets,  including one of the twins, followed me.

Since it was going to be the young poet's last day with us, or so we all thought, I asked her to choose the writing prompt for the day. After a brief consultation with two of her friends, she assigned, "Let's write our wills."

At first everyone was a bit surprised but this led to a short, meaningful discussion on death and impermanence, how important now, the moment is, how precious.

And then we all got busy. There was little more than the sound of pens and pencils pressing the page, tapping keys, and the chorus of seven poets breathing.

About 20 minutes later, we had each drafted our poetic last wills and testaments. One of the poets, among several who are skilled in both fiction and verse, chose a fictional persona who also had a most deft turn in the lyric tale. The others were more from the self but none was anything but heartfelt, stunning, and well-crafted. And the emotion rose, as did my pride for these wonderful beings with whom I am privileged to share what I know of writing.

I was the last to share my draft. After listening to each of these bright lights, as I always name them in my thoughts, I was just full of their language, authenticity, heart. As soon as I started the title, I was whimpering. I continued with falters and tears but got through the poem. All of us were overcome with emotion that had built through the near 2 hours together. We cried and we huddled in a hug. We declared how much we all love each other and then we sat down to breathe deeply, led by one of the marvelous young women. 

Then we told sick, stupid jokes for 10 minutes to be ready to walk back into the world. It worked.

I will give them each a copy of the poem when I see them in another week when the spring session starts. They will be ready for more work and I will be ready to shepherd them through the hills and valleys of being a poet. What more could one ask for, anyway?

So here I give you the poem. You will know the next generation of voice:

Last Will and Testament
      (as it stands today)

To my brightest lights, my brilliant young poets, 
I leave whisper phones to deliver the majesty 
of your own words directly into your own ears.

I offer the jasmine perfume of the Santa Cruz mountains 
and July’s insistent stargazer lilies as inspiration, 
the hum of wood bees searching for weakness in the rafters,

and the sway of mature maples new with leaf in May. 
I gift you with all of the language that has held me captive 
and astounded, frustrated, and empowered throughout this life.

To you, the next generation infected with this necessary 
and crucial craft, I offer every thesaurus, dictionary, 
and repository of words to heal and hound, reveal and belie

the evidence of folly and foible, wonder and confusion. 
I place the power of the pen in your nimble hands 
to blare and blaze, to confront and console, to ring

as Quasimoto’s bells of love and longing, outrage 
and remorse, laughter and sorrows, the truths 
that we, as poets, behold as self-evident

and are compelled to grace to the unseen and unknown 
among those with whom and away from we walk. 
I give you all I love, all I believe, and all I hope

to learn for you will be the ones to continue 
this ancient and immediate are. You are then stars 
the sun, the pulse of all that is true and urgent.

Keep each other whole and ready to face the world. 
Shine each other’s armor and fuel each other’s lamps. 
It is you trust and who keep me breathing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Satisfaction is a Renewable Resource

Satisfaction is an elusive emotion. Yet it truly takes so little to have the warm wave wash over the body and soothe tension and longing. Instead of striving for "happiness"  in my endeavors, of late, I have been seeking satisfaction and contentment. It is so much more definable and attainable, at least as I see it, live it.

One of the greatest satisfactions in my life is constantly harvested from teaching. I love to teach. Although I did not follow the traditional path of this profession, I actively engage in teaching regularly and there is such a reward every time I lead a class to discover new thoughts, new ways of looking at the world, and new ways to engage in themselves.

Teaching is not just instruction; it is performance art. Teaching is an endeavor that requires full investment in one's own knowledge and confidence, but also in the full implementation of listening and intuition. A good teacher also becomes the master of improvisation, known in the field as "embracing the teachable moment."

Yesterday, I taught two very different classes, one in the Honors Program at Syracuse University and the other at the Syracuse YMCA's Downtown Writers Center. The morning class is a small group of vibrant young women who join me on an investigation of arts in society titled Viewing the World through Changing Lenses. Although we started this week's class furthering our views on dance, media glitches (I love the modern classroom!!) drove the discussion and videos to watch to the incomparable Lily Yeh, a personal hero. After sharing what I know of Lily, who I believe should be honored with a Nobel Peace Prize, we looked at images of her beautiful face and some of her public art. Then we watched a video of a project in which Lily worked with a community in Rwanda to create a memorial to replace a bleak, impersonal mass grave. At the end of the video, I was tearful and nearly speechless. My students were moved, of course. We were experiencing the proof that art affects change. We were witnessing that the clear intention of one determined human can change lives and communities. This is the kind of human I want to be and I keep my eyes on those who are so much more able to meet the goal so I keep myself moving forward. Click to see for yourself: Lily Yeh in Rwanda.

In the evening, I was with a class of adults pursuing the craft of writing in my DWC Foundations of Poetry class. We had an active conversation centered on questions the students had as a result of the first 4 weeks of class and all that I have thrown at them in rapid fire. We talked about the endless choices a poet faces in molding a poem from the original intention to the revision that finally satisfies the poet well enough to let the poem rest. We barely had enough time to get through five of the key questions and still hear new work from members at the table. The fact that one of the students was chomping at the bit to share a poem she had been revising since the summer course she took with me washed me in a warm wave of satisfaction. She is really excited about poetry and it is joyous to see this wonderful woman discover something new in herself.

The adage is true: teach what you want to learn. The more I have to articulate my views and intention, my patterns and habits, the better I am at exercising them in my own expression as a poet, writer, artist, human. Teaching requires lots of time to prepare, buckets full of both energy and patience, compassion for others, and enthusiasm for the responsibility. When I was a child, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I have discovered that the traditional path to that dream, that goal, was not my path. But I have been actively teaching for nearly 20 years and I can say that I love it more now than I did when I started. It is never static, always inspiring, and it is good service to the world. 

Today, I delare: I am satisfied... 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Solace in the Kitchen

There are times when the best therapy is found in my kitchen. Not in stuffing my face with unneeded food but in preparing food, concocting amazing and satisfying flavors and textures, meals that soothe, dishes that garner compliments and heal. 

Sunday it was bitter cold. There was no reason to leave the house. I decided I would try making gnocchi again to see if I could manage it better than my previous, infrequent attempts. The evening before, I took one of Nonna's cookbooks off the shelf and started flipping through. The largest bookmark was nestled into the page for gnocchi, very telling. That was the moment I decided I was ready to figure it out.

I thought I would have to spend a good portion of the day involved in the process. Silly me. I had everything I needed, not that you need much to make gnocchi. I baked the potatoes Saturday night. I even have a potato ricer. In spite of the periodic comments from folks that I should pare down the kitchen gadgets, I always have what I need, even if it is only once in 5 years that I will utilize the tool.

I mashed the potatoes with one of Nonna's forks, added the flour, egg, and salt, kneaded the dough, rolled it out with my  fingers, cut the little nubs. Then to figure out the best technique of rolling the nubs into nuggets of potato pasta to go with the sauce in the fridge. It was all about the curve of the tines, the slight pressure and release.

It was slow at first, each oddly sized and a bit ragtag. But I got my stride and they just took form quicker and quicker. I could feel Nonna's breath guiding me until I could say, "I've got this!" In less than 90 minutes, I had mixed and divvied up all the raw dough while developing another skill that will last me the rest of this incarnation. The test was going to be in the cooking and eating later that afternoon.

There is a family history that comforts me constantly in my kitchen. There are ancestors talking softly. I have my Grandfather Popoff's cast iron skillets and oval restaurant sandwich plates, Grandma Popoff's five surviving Fiestaware dishes and one well-worn tea ball. I have Nana McConnell's apron, Nonna Laurey's sauce pot and flatware, the salt shaker and pepper grinder that my mother used daily. There is a 1920s era electric toaster from my paternal great-grandmother. Hand-painted plates by my dear friend, Lilyan Hoare, who made me earn my place as helper in her Denton, MD, kitchen. It is a legacy that I will pass along someday, I hope. 

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to fuss and flutter to create a meal for those I love, parties when I am sweating over the stove mixing something up for the next course while there is chatter and laughter from the front of the house. Some people think it is an imposition, that I am being taxed. I am actually being fed. It is how I was raised. It is my mother's open door policy and busy kitchen tattooed on me. It is the echo of the dining room table in Sandy Creek when I was a toddler, the conversation at Aunt Barbara's table with the endless stream of kids and neighbors stopping by, the gleaming copper bottoms of Revereware hanging on pegboard hooks in Grandma Sechrengost's Levittown kitchen, or the Sunday dinner extravaganzas at Grandma Irenze's in Huntington. It is the resounding ripple of all the years that I have turned out amazing meals from skimpy pickings in the cupboards before payday. Just the other day as I put the final touches on a Caesar salad, my friend Jill exclaimed, "Really, you just happen to have homemade croutons in the cupboard?!" Of course! What else does one do with stale bread, other than let it crisp to the point that it will be rendered crumbs in my sister-in-law's mother's Cuisinart that Susan gave me a couple of years ago? 

I am changing my relationship with food, naturally and organically. I will likely reflect on this more in the near future once I see the fullness of my transition. But the kitchen is the first room I saw when I was considering this house for purchase. I walked in the back door, took one look, and declared internally, "This is my house." It is where I dance and dream. The kitchen is where I fashion wellness and love for others and commune with those who have gone before me into the void. It is where I honor myself. The kitchen is the heart of my home and where my heart feels healthy and vibrant. Today, in spite of arctic cold, my kitchen is full of sun and safety. And now it is time for lunch...

Nonna with my nephew Joe, who is now in middle school. This photo hangs on the side of my refrigerator so I can see her as I cook and wash my dishes.