a year to pay attention

This is the year for me to really start paying attention.

Creativity emerges from paying attention. Problem solving requires paying attention. Connections thrive on paying attention.

Until the middle of November, my mother’s fatal dementia, by necessity, was the focus of my attention for the past decade. It feels strange, in a way, not to feel that pull any more — to have no excuse for not paying attention.

Writing well depends upon paying attention.

And so I begin here, tomorrow, participating in a month long project, A River of Stones.

A small stone is a polished moment of paying proper attention, and the challenge of the project is to write a small stone every day.

I will start tomorrow. One small stone. And, stone upon stone, I will try to set a solid path out of the stress and sorrow of the last decade and into a more focused future.


I was starting to feel guilty about not posting frequently enough on this blog. Then I read what my son wrote on Twitter about his blog:

I write for me, and then stop writing for me. Anyone who reads in the meantime? Cool.

too soon old, too late smart?

Under his white cassock, the good-looking young priest is wearing sneakers and jeans. I can see them peeking out from underneath the garment’s neat hem. The inside of the 110 year-old ornate church of my childhood is colder than this winter morning in the urban outside. The seat of the wooden pew is freezing my butt.

The church’s boiler has stopped working, and all through the service periodic clangings continue to irreverently punctuate the “words of the Lord.”

I am sitting in the exact spot in which I sat almost exactly a month ago. That was for my mother’s funeral service. This time it’s for my aunt’s (the wife of my father’s brother). They say that death comes in threes. I wonder if my 87 year-old aunt sitting to my left will be the third. I hope, instead, what will count is my dead desktop computer, which, at the moment is awaiting a possible resurrection on the repair desk of my most trusted geek. These are things over which I have no control.

I only go back to my home town for weddings and funerals, all of which include rituals celebrated in this spectacularly vaulted nave that is bordered by detailed mosaic depictions of the Stations of the Cross, above which large elaborate stained glass windows tell the rest of the story. The aesthetics of the church inspires awe, even without the faith that sustains it.

Neither my cousin nor I join in the line to receive Holy Communion. It has been decades since either one of us believed and practiced what we had been so carefully taught during our 13 years of Catholic schooling. When we sit around the table hours after her mother’s burial, my cousin and I and dredge up shared memories of some of our more innocent times — the May processions in which we tossed rose petals as we walked down the aisle (“one, two, three, this is for you, Baby Jesus…”) My mind slips away to the less innocent scenes from the movie “The Polish Wedding.”

We spend hours sitting around that table — my cousin and I and our remaining paternal aunt and uncle — sharing family stories and attitudes that had somehow eluded me during the 17 years I lived in the bosom of a clan that had, apparently, quickly separated into two camps — the “laws” and the “in-laws,” although which was which depended on whose perspective one adopted.

The story that surprises me most is one associated with the version my mother told of a seminal event in my life about which I once wrote a poem. In my mother’s version, her mother saved my young life; in the “in-law” version, my other grandmother believed that my mother was withholding medical treatment for me in favor of “leeches.” I see now that it became a stand-off between two matriarchs, and family relationships through the generations suffered as a result.

While it was my mother’s side of the family that I came to know best, it was an aunt on my father’s side who most impressed me, even though I only knew her for a very short while in my pre-teens.

Eleanor married my Uncle John, to the chagrin of my paternal grandmother. Eleanor was a free spirit, odd and artsy and strikingly beautiful. She had her kitchen ceiling painted red, she started to teach me how to sketch faces, and she sewed me a lavish ruffled robe that I wore until I could no longer button it across my chest. Suddenly (or so it seemed to me) she and my uncle were gone — moved out of state, out of touch.

And, in our post-funeral table conversation with my relatives from that side of the family, I learn just how strict my paternal grandmother was, refusing to accept her non-conformist daughter-in-law and leaving the couple with little alternative but to create a life for themselves apart from family expectations. I begin to understand the difficulties that my mother had in fulfilling her daughter-in-law role.

Eleanor and John had children — five, I think. I have never met them or been in touch with them. My cousin has but lost track of their lives long ago.

We have been a family burdened with expectations, and both my cousin and I acknowledge (with some private pride) that we opted not to meet a select number of them.

We are the matriarchs, now — much different in attitudes and expectations from our foremothers.

At least we hope so.

the lesson of comic books: The 99

I got interested in reading and in mythology by reading comic books. Particularly Wonder Woman. And that was back in the 1940s, before the whole superhero thing really took off. My two kids grew up with comics. In the 1970s, my son had the expected monumental comic book collection, which I made him sell off when he went off to college. (Argh. Not very smart of me, since he had some first printing editions which became very valuable to collectors.)

Comic book heroes like Superman touted good ol’ American values: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Other cultures have similar values, however, and the time has come to create heroes that can demonstrate values that are common to all humane cultures.

And someone just did.

The 99 is the brainchild of Naif al-Mutawa, and he recently gave a talk at TED about the origin of the idea. The gist of it is that he was inspired by the positive values imparted by the heroes of Marvel and DC comics. He wanted to create a more multicultural team of heroes who would extend those positive messages to people outside of the U.S., and expose American audiences to a more culturally diverse team of heroes. So here is a New Yorker—inspired by an American art form, who sees no difference between his Muslim and his American values—being vilified by the conservative noise machine for wanting to export those values around the world.

President Obama made a special mention about THE 99 superheroes and its creator, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, in his speech given recently at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship held in Washington. The President commended THE 99 for capturing the imaginations of young people through the message of tolerance. Entrepreneurs from all over the globe are attending the summit, including Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of THE 99 superheroes.

Go to the The 99 website to see an animated preview of the series and learn about the diverse group of 99 heroes whose combined adventures just might do more for multicultural tolerance and understanding among young people than any textbook on the subject.

You can also download a comic book that tells of their origins. How cool is that!

no contest

Well, actually, there was a contest — or, more accurately, a virtual exhibit/contest.

Only it turns out that there were no contestants. Well, actually, there was one. Me.

I follow Vicki Howell on Facebook, own a couple of her books, and submitted my profile for her book Craft Corps: celebrating the creative community one story at a time — in which it appeared, along with dozens of other amateur as well as professional crafters.

Vicki Howell is a young, entrepreneurial, funky, gutsy, energetic, inspirational, and well-known craftsperson. I am pretty much none of those. But I do dabble in various crafts, so when I saw her announcement requesting submissions for “an art piece that reflects your creative passion,” I embraced it as a challenge for me to explore just what that means to me.

Recognizing the breadth and depth of Vicki’s craft community (which includes ceramicists and jewelry designers, as well as fabric and yarn crafters), I began to imagine the kinds of submissions the contest might attract — multi-media, multi-dimensional cutting-edge craft-as-art. Way out of my league, I figured. But I also felt motivated by the challenge to create something that represented my version of “dabbling-as-craft.”

And so this is my three-dimensional wall hanging — featuring, of course, a calla lily.

It includes various quilting techniques, machine embroidery, knitting, crocheting, weaving, and applique — with some button embellishments because I had them on hand.

Since I was the only crafter to submit something before the deadline of August 1, Vicki says that she’s going to put my piece on display at the Creative Connection event, where she is on a panel of entrepreneurial crafters. I could live with that.

torn by craft

I’m a writer. I’m a writer. That’s what I am. I’m also a cutter and sewer and looper. I want to do it all. I’ve always wanted to do it all.

So I’m writing. Mapgie Tales for one (a new one in the works). Entered an essay contest about death for another.

Pinned on my wall are pieces of what eventually will be a wall hanging for an online craft exhibit.

Maybe it’s because I started in therapy again, and that always gets my juices going.

Or maybe it’s because I’m cutting down on my anti-depressant.

Or maybe I’m getting manic in my old age.

Or maybe I’m avoiding thinking too much about the awful state my mother is in.

Or maybe all of the above.

So much to create. So little time.

so, I won this book


The book, which contains free verse and reprints of prayers and bits of prose, features lots of Corita’s collage art, which contains lots of cut-up words from ads and headlines, sometimes reconfigured, sometimes not.

The description above is from a post on the site from which I won the book — Killing the Buddha. It’s a site that I find always stimulating.

I never win anything. I mean it. I think that this is the first thing I every won. Well, I came in second in a Swing Dance contest once. Even got a trophy. Usually I don’t even make an effort to enter any kind of contest. Never play the lottery. Because I never win anything.

But this time I did. And I did because I remember the 60s. I didn’t remember Sister Corita, who created the book, published in 1967. But I did remember the Berrigan Brothers, and I remembered that Daniel Berrigan was a Jesuit.

I recently read online somewhere (can’t find it again) that the story was that Daniel Berrigan kept a photo of Sister Corita in his shower with a note that said “no one should shower alone.”

Thinking of Berrigan, I am remembering another activist ex-priest who was a good friend at one point in my life. He has grown immensely as an artist in those past 25 years, although he was good even back then. His paintings, as he is, are larger than life. I just love his new stuff.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had some closeness with some truly unique men, who have inspired me and moved on and left me with the kinds of memories that will keep me smiling someday as I retire to a rocking chair in the sun.

(And I’ve been just as fortunate to continue to have a group of close women friends whose constancy and candor, humor and heart, help to keep me smiling — well, most of the time.)

So, now I wait for my prize, a book by a creative woman, to arrive.

It’s a good day.

Living Life Spherically

Second draft:

still life with lunch

I indulge my tongue with baguette and brie
and contemplate a miniature collection
of my life’s best metaphors,
captured in small wooden squares
framed, off-center, in an expanse of
off-white kitchen wall–
spiny shells and chunks of stone
bought or stolen from gritty beaches
and hallowed hillsides;
two miniature totem poles,
stacks of toothy masks eternally
divining and defying;
a ceramic face of serene Kwan Yin,
open hands inserted
in stiff maternal blessing;
a pious, pewter St. Anthony,
haloed, holding the sad Child, and
on the lookout for misplaced keys;
a feather, probably a duck?s
because the wild turkey’s didn’t fit,
and every altar needs a feather;
a brass double dorje, the mate
to the Tibetan bell I ring
in moments of turning
toward thoughts of a box-less future;
and, finally, a crumbling wine bottle cork
on which someone I can?t
remember had printed
in balky blue ballpoint:

Elaine Frankonis 3/04

My life and my poetry — striving for art, settling for whatever it is.

“Live life spherically” is a line from Mona Lisa Smile — a movie a rather liked because it harkened back to my life as it was in the 50s (although I was a couple of years younger than those characters) and I felt good about not having made the assumptions that those girls made about being a successful female. And I really like that one line: Live Life Spherically.

Back in the 50s, being a helper, taking care of others, was not part of my life’s plan. Now it’s one of my primary functions.

But that doesn’t stop me from writing. At the moment, I’m wrestling with the first exercise for the NY State Writers Institute Advanced Poetry Workshop led by poet Eamon Grennon — to write three different 11-line (9 to 13 syllables per line) stanzas based on a assigned Vermeer painting.
A Google search located poems about paintings written by a variety of well-known poets. I find that I like this exercise.

I particularly like this poem by Wislawa Szymborska, “Two Monkeys by Brueghel”:

I keep dreaming of my graduation exam:
in a window sit two chained monkeys,
beyond the window floats the sky,
and the sea splashes.
I am taking an exam on the history of mankind:
I stammer and flounder.
One monkey, eyes fixed upon me, listens ironically,
the other seems to be dozing–
and when silence follows a question,
he prompts me
with a soft jingling of the chain.

Actually, years ago, I wrote a short poem about Renoir’s Peonies.

There are no blossoms real as Renoir’s Peonies.
No rose as red. No red as real.
I would have them for my lover’s table,
to bloom red
and real
as a heart
to the palette knife.

In the meanwhile, I’m also helping to make arrangements for a reunion of a dozen or so of my old Beta Zeta sorority sisters. Most of us haven’t seen each other in more than forty years. I know for a fact that one of them will be participating in the Republican Convention in NYC this summer. We shared an apartment with four other BZers the summer of 1958. That was after my freshman year in college and I didn’t want to go home so I took some courses over the summer. I was 18 and we were all politically liberal. I guess I’d better not talk politics at the reunion. Man, that’s going to be hard!!!

And also, meanwhile, I watch my mother grasp for words, sleep away afternoons, and fret over losing control of everything she fought so hard to hold onto.

Live life spherically. But don’t hold on too tight.