Sunday, April 9, 2017

Cherry-Burst Candy Lipstick

 (This is one of the first stories I posted on my blog, years and years ago. Here it is again!)

There's a goldfish in the bed. And a blue velvet pouch with a broken zipper, some marbles, a penny, a fake ruby ring, a couple loose bobby pins, wads of used tissues, an overdue library book, a #2 pencil, half of a pink eraser, a candy lipstick, a spiral notebook, crumbs of buttered toast, a spoon, a cough, a sneeze, a hiccup, and one sick little girl known as Needle.

The goldfish, Maxie, isn’t supposed to be in the bed, she’s supposed to be in her bowl, keeping company with her ceramic castle and her mermaid and her colored rocks — green, yellow, orange, turquoise.

The bed business was a big mistake. What you might call a fatal error. Somebody got careless. Let’s be honest, and also specific: it was Needle.

We could blame it on the fever. But it wasn’t necessarily the fever’s fault alone. There is the fact, not to be ignored, that Needle is absent-minded, self-absorbed, selfish, unaware, forgetful, indifferent, uncaring, neglectful, irritating, bossy, noisy, and whiny. Even without the fever.

We might feel sympathy for Needle, but we don’t have to like her. In fact, we don’t like her. We hold her responsible for Maxie’s death, even if she considers herself blameless.

Well, of course she would.

Now what is to be done with the ceramic castle? What is to be done with the mermaid, poor thing?

The library book stinks. It smells of fish. Don’t hold that against Maxie. It was Needle, flinging things around the bed, willy nilly, who created that most unholy of combinations: goldfish flattened within the pages of Little Women.

Needle is hungry. Famished. Starving. It’s been fifteen minutes since her mother brought in the lime jello. Fifteen minutes since her mother said "I—am—not—your—servant." Fifteen minutes since her mother said, “I’ll be back in one hour with your sandwich, not a second sooner, do not call me again, Nadine Weinstock, I mean it.” Forty-five minutes to go.
Needle doesn’t think she can make it. She reaches for her cherry-burst candy lipstick. She smears it all over her mouth. It cheers her up. She licks her lips. And licks them some more. More. She sticks out her tongue and licks the lipstick that peeks up out of the gold cardboard tube. It is delicious. Like a cherry coke. Better, even, than a cherry coke.

Another lick, and then a nibble and then a bite. And another. More. Again. It's heavenly.

And then she throws up.
We could say that wasn’t her fault, either. She was sick. Hungry. Tired. Bored. Lonely. We can always find some excuse if we want to. But do we want to? Do we?

Her mother comes in even though the hour is not yet up. "Oh Nadine, Nadine, Nadine," she says.

She goes to get a cold washcloth and then she changes the sheets. That’s when dead Maxie is discovered. What a hullabaloo. Maxie down the toilet. Flush. Flush again, just to be safe.
Needle weeps. But not for Maxie. She weeps for herself and the cherry-burst candy lipstick, which she knows she'll never be allowed to have again. Probably not until she's old and in high school, whenever that will be. Who knows about the future, anyway?

Just ask Maxie. Maxie expected to live at least until tomorrow and look how wrong she was.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Happiness Poem in 8 Parts: Flashes from my Ithaca Life

This was originally written a few years ago, in 18 parts. But yesterday I was invited to read a poem at tonight's meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature, as they celebrate the county's 200th birthday (which is officially on April 7). I said Yes, since I'm always looking for an excuse to share some happiness, but I figured 18 examples was just too much. So I did some quick revisions and read this version at the meeting. 


happiness is when you're moping around your apartment on a cold wet Sunday afternoon, bemoaning the fact that the only time the phone rings these days is when someone — usually just a recorded voice — is trying to get you to buy something you don't want, and so you're startled when the phone actually rings in the middle of these morose thoughts, and it turns out to be a dear friend who used to live here, but now she lives there, and she wants to hear all the local gossip, which you want to share, and you both laugh and talk, for more than an hour, and when you get off the phone you are in such a great mood

happiness is when you are out for an early morning walk around the neighborhood, and the sun is so bright in your eyes that you can't see a thing, and it's a surprise when a person passes you, and all you know about that other human being is that he, or she, smells very good


happiness is when you call Time Warner Cable customer service first thing in the morning, and in less than 2 minutes you are connected with a real person named Eric, and you explain your problem, and he understands immediately, and tells you to press one button, and then another button, and you do these things and your problem is solved, so you say Hurrah and Eric (a very young man) says "excuse me?" and you say it again — Hurrah — and then you thank him over and over because now you can watch the Inspector Morse DVD you rented from Netflix

happiness is when you bring 8 books to Autumn Leaves Used Books to trade for store credit, and after a quick look around you find something you want — "The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds," by Diane Ackerman — and even though you think it is possible that you already read this book when it was first published, you gladly take it home because you remember nothing about the short-tailed albatross or the golden lion tamarin — and you still have lots more store credit you can use on a future visit

happiness is when you go outside to sweep away the first gentle snowfall of the season, and when you say hello to a stranger walking by he tells you this is his first snow in 26 years, because right after graduating from Ithaca High School he moved to Atlanta, and today is his first day back in Ithaca

happiness is taking yourself out for lunch at New Delhi Diamond's Restaurant, for their amazing Saturday buffet that includes Bhindi Masala — okra and peppers and onions — and you are very proud of yourself: you avoid the white rice, and potato puffs, and even those golden pillows of fried dough, and when you leave you're feeling both full and healthy 

happiness is walking into Bramble, that collective of local herbalists, in Press Bay Alley, right around the corner from Diamond's  — the warm welcoming  atmosphere enveloping you the second you open the door, and you come home with a jar of coconut/lavender cream called "Cloud Butter," and also with a small bottle of Dandelion Flower Essence to aid in your efforts to Be More, and Do Less (it says that, right on the label)

happiness is when you wonder if a small poem will find you on this day, so you open a haiku book for inspiration, and your eyes land on the words "peace of mind," and right away you feel calmer, and you take a deep breath, and then another, and realize you are no longer anxious about a poem —  it will come or it won't come — so you lace up your sturdy shoes and head out the front door, walking toward the sun

Monday, April 3, 2017

Snow / No Hummingbirds (revisited)

{All winter I wanted to re-post this, written a couple years ago, but I couldn't find it in my computer files because I didn't remember what I had titled it! And today — a very spring-like day — I came across it, so I am sharing it here again. Just because.}

Finally, the refrigerator motor shuts off and the loudest sound is one I make myself by circling my thumbs around each other. I don’t realize I’m doing this until I try to identify the sound and, by the process of elimination — since there are no hummingbirds in the apartment, no rustling leaves — I figure it out.
It’s been snowing all day. The last car went by hours ago and the tire tracks are filled in. Only two people pass, a man and a woman, walking down the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk. I watch from the window: the woman, in a pale trench coat and high leather boots, holds a black umbrella over her head; the man wears a hooded jacket and lumbers beside her. They pass my house, then the fire station’s parking lot, the pretty house with the stained glass windows, the health club, and the abandoned storefront. They don’t appear to be talking to each other but I can’t be sure.
I go back to my chair, and the novel I don’t yet care about, and realize too late that I should have changed into warmer socks. I am too lazy to get up again. The refrigerator has started to hum again and the fire department’s generator just kicked in.

hour after hour
at the window —
yes . . . it is still snowing

Thursday, February 16, 2017

With Her Own Hands

from her new home
in her new town
my friend describes the fruit trees
in her back yard

when she's hungry
(she writes)
she picks an apple
or a pear
sometimes both —
with her own hands

i can hear the excitement in her head
as she puts these words on paper —
she underlines them

she imagines this makes the fruit sweeter
and for all i know
it does

i always thought anything my grandma made
with her own hands
was better than anything i made
better even than what
my mother made

a sandwich let's say
layer upon layer
of cheese tomato lettuce

or best of all
French toast
both sides dipped in milky egg
fried and flipped and fried some more

grandma's hands pat-patting the bread
here and here and here
as it browned

okay my friend has pear trees
and she loves the fruit
and i am happy to receive her letter

the envelope has
a postage stamp
i haven't seen before

no one in my entire city has used this stamp yet

and i like this friend
i really do
i like her so much

i'm happy to think of her
lifting her hands to
pull down fruit from trees
in her very own backyard

but now i have to
put on my boots
and my hat
and my gloves

(where is my scarf?

didn't i put it in my coat pocket?
why isn't it there?)

it's time to go out
with the yellow-handled shovel
and move snow from one side
of the sidewalk to the other

i don't want to think about my friend's
warm sun-speckled hands
picking fruit

but i do want to think about
my grandma
and the French toast

the way she cut it into squares
arranging them neatly on a small round plate

her right hand
moving everything closer to me

her left hand resting
just for a second
on top of my head

Saturday, January 21, 2017

January 21, 2017 .... 10,000 people march and gather in Ithaca, NY

Today I had the honor of marching in downtown Ithaca, with HORDES OF BEAUTIFUL HUMANS, followed by speaking/reading at the magnificent rally on the Commons. For all my friends who could not be there in person, if you want to know what I said . . . read on.

Hello all you beautiful people. I'm Zee Zahava and I've been invited to read a poem to you, as the current Poet Laureate for Tompkins County.

First I'd like to share a quote by a woman who was known as the Warrior Poet, the lesbian activist Elsa Gidlow. She said: “We must envision the world we want, make it so real in our hearts that it already exists.... "

People all over the country are doing that today, right now, envisioning the world we want. A world where we stand with our sisters and brothers, with respect and compassion, with fire in our hearts and in our bellies. THIS is real.

When I came into the women's movement, the feminist movement, in the early 1970s, books were a life-line for us. Words we read on the page provided context, they shaped us. Over the years, poets like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Sonia Sanchez, and so many others, offered a new vocabulary, a way of thinking about ourselves in the world. And there was the book Our Bodies, Ourselves — life-affirming, life-changing. When women talk about our bodies, when we claim the right to own our own bodies …. that is radical.

A while ago I wrote a poem, it's really just a long list, a collection of associations that popped up at a particular time. If I wrote it today, it would have different words. If YOU wrote a poem like this, YOU would choose different words. It is a good thing, I think, to consider not only what our bodies are, but also what they are not.  

My Body, My Self

my body is not    a tree   an old sock   an accordion

it is not  a railroad track   a second-hand car
or a shiny new penny

my body is not    burnt toast   a splinter   a false alarm

it is not     a loose button   a loose tooth  or a loose cannon

it is not     a see-saw    a tornado    a thimble  

my body is not a lie

my body is not     a barbie doll   or   a heavy metal band 

it is not     a girl scout troop   a pocket knife   a silk kimono

my body is not X-rated

it is not    a puppet   a ripe melon   a map    or a metaphor

it does not  sky dive  play hide and seek  or jump rope

my body is not     pink, petite, polite, or punctual

it is not     on call    checked-out    over-due    assigned
resigned   or re-designed

my body is not     abandoned or under construction

my body is not     grammatical    it is not well-punctuated

my body is not     poetic

my body is not     over

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Coming to Ithaca

Yesterday, January 17, I had the great honor of being named the 2017 Tompkins County Poet Laureate, by the T. C. Board of Representatives. I read this poem at their meeting, and I want to share it here, but I must add this: as with much of my prose, this poem is true but not 100%. I do embellish a bit. I call this kind of writing Family Fiction. I say this now because I would never want to cause any pain to my parents!!!!!!!!!!! I love them so very very much. They have always been incredibly good to me. But I use them as "characters" and I put words in their mouths. So if you know my beloved Eve and Mort, forgive me my exaggerations. It probably only took us 8 hours to get to Ithaca, but 9 is a better number in a poem!

the first drive from the bronx to ithaca took 9 hours

dad was a nervous driver, stopped at every gas station
and scenic overlook

he needed to stretch   smoke   pee   worry

what he worried about was me
his oldest daughter leaving home

he never heard of the place
insisted on calling it "that ishtaka"

mile after mile   hour after hour   he fretted and fumed

every time he saw a peace sign on a bumper sticker
he said "damn it"

i was crammed into the back seat of the green dodge dart
surounded by suitcases   typewriter   stereo  my guitar

i couldn't move   i couldn't breathe

my father's fear and anger took up so much space

my mother, sitting beside him
kept turning around to look at me
her eyes asking  "honey, are you alright?"

my eyes asking "will we ever get there?"

at last we got there   we found quarry dorm
my father couldn't believe it

"where is the college? 
who do i have to see to get you
into a real dorm?"

i loved it at first sight   an outpost refuge 
far from the campus

i said "this is perfect for me, daddy"
mom said "this is perfect for her, morty"

my room was large   there was a window
and outside the window   there was a tree

a tree!
it felt like i was in paradise

mom went down the hall to the bathroom
when she returned she was beaming
"there are 6 stalls," she said, "you will never have to wait"

my parents sat on my bed watching me unpack
we were waiting for my roommate to arrive
she was coming from winnetka, illinois

my father didn't like the sound of that
"oh morty," mom sighed "the girl can't help it,
she didn't ask to be born in the midwest, you know"

inside my head a silent chant
leave leave leave leave please will you just leave

finally   they did   they left

and i stayed

that was september, 1968

i am still here

Friday, January 6, 2017

My Yetta

(I was thinking about my Grandma Yetta today and decided to share this again, even though it appeared on the blog once before)

There is always a wooden bowl on the kitchen table, filled with bananas, apples, oranges, walnuts. There is a nut cracker in the bowl as well. I never see anyone use the nut cracker or eat a nut, we are not that kind of family. Grandma must have read somewhere that nuts and fruits go well together. Sometimes the bananas remain in the bowl too long and they get soft and stinky.

She smells like books borrowed from the small public library down the block, and inexpensive tablets of writing paper for making lists and writing letters to her sisters. The sisters live nearby in the Bronx, except Anna-from-Elizabeth who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Helen is a five minute walk away and Pauline can be reached with a short bus ride. And also, there is the telephone. But the sisters enjoy writing letters and they all have the same handwriting. Yes, she smells faintly of ink. If I lick her, her skin  will release a sweet glueyness left over from envelope flaps and postage stamps.

She has the softest skin. I can sit beside her and rub that tender flap between her thumb and pointer finger and never get tired of it, and she goes into a little trance herself and doesn't shoo me away. One time she catches me staring at the folds of skin hanging loosely from her upper arms and she gets shy and says "don't look" but then she says okay, I can touch, and it feels like warm buttery velvet.

If I am ever sitting on a chair with my legs spread far apart she will catch my eye and then I remember to put my knees together and cross my legs at the ankles and she doesn't have to say a word, I just know.

This is a story she likes to tell: Long ago there was a famous Russian stage actress who was being interviewed for a newspaper and the rude reporter said "Excuse me —— " (insert name of famous Russian actress here) "but do you know your mouth is open?" And the famous Russian actress said "Of course I do, I opened it." I don't understand why this is such a good story but every time she tells it she laughs long and hard.

She has a wonderful laugh.

Our favorite famous American actress is Loretta Young.

When I am reading My Antonia for tenth grade English class she goes to the library and checks out a copy for herself and we read it out loud to each other. She likes Willa Cather but mostly she prefers the writers from her early years: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Tolstoy. She recites long passages of Tolstoy in Russian, from memory, and it sounds like she is singing. 

We go together to hear Odetta perform in a high school auditorium in another neighborhood where we don't know anybody. She loves the name Odetta, maybe it reminds her of Odessa, a word/place/memory from her past. At the end of every song she claps, and on the bus ride home she says she especially liked how Odetta's voice is low and deep, like a man's voice.

She has a deep voice and strangers on the telephone often call her Sir.

We go to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and another time we see The Pawnbroker. We cry at the end of both movies. We always have at least one handkerchief within easy reach. We are always prepared.

She keeps two large boxes of tissues on the dressing table: a full, new one on top of an empty old one. After she uses a tissue she puts it into the bottom box, to keep everything sanitary, and I think this is a very smart thing to do.

She has a haphazard collection of silver hair clips but she does not call it a collection. Some are ordinary bobby pins and some are more complicated than that. She wants her hair to be "neat and manageable" which is something she heard on a television commercial. There is always a tube of Alberto VO5 on her dressing table. In her later years she gets her hair cut by a barber because it's more convenient than going to a women's beauty parlor, but she doesn't like the style, it's too short, too blunt. "I don't want to fuss," she says, "a woman my age has no business being vain." (I know it bothers her a lot to get such bad haircuts.)

There is a sound, one sound, an important sound: it is the sound of Grandma in the kitchen, chopping. There is a wooden bowl, much like the fruit and nut bowl, but larger and heavier. She uses a sharp blade with a red handle to make gefilte fish, which doesn't taste very good and requires a lot of hard, noisy work with little reward. She is busy chopping, every Friday afternoon, because what is Friday night dinner without homemade gefilte fish on the table?

There is another sound, a softer sound, a more beautiful sound. It's  the sound of Grandma humming, always humming, every minute humming. Her wordless songs, her never-ending prayer to God, though she never says the word God, not even God bless you if I sneeze. Gesundheit, she says, interrupting her humming and then, in the next breath, returning to it again.