Crossing Over

photograph by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges
photograph by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges

When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
“Nobody knows
but the old black crows.”

Crows know everything
because they eat everything.

Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.

I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me
to the other way.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1992

Farewell For Now to a Beautiful Mother

Kathryn

On 19 May 2013, my mother died, four days after her hundredth birthday.

She’d been living for weeks on ice chips and low-dose morphine, regularly leaving her body to walk and talk with my father, then returning to report to my brother at her bedside and to me via long-distance phone. No one knew when she would leave and not return, but everyone believed that her departure was imminent.

Five days before her centennial, however, she suddenly said to my brother, “It’s only a week away; maybe I can make it.” And she revived, sending the nursing-home staff into a frenzy of last-minute party planning. When the morning of her birthday dawned sunny and warm, they came to dress her for a convertible ride around the small town of Reinbeck, Iowa, and she said, “Hallelujah, I thought I’d never get out of this place alive.”

The convertible was a bright yellow muscle car with the top down, and the route had been planned so that town residents could come out on the curb to sing “happy birthday” to her at various stops along the way. It all worked like a charm, and she made the driver stop three times in addition, to listen to the birds singing and to watch squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. After a half-hour ride, they returned to her room, which had been transformed into a festival of balloons and cakes and flowers and visitors with cameras.

The next morning, she slipped into a coma and was gone three days later. And the morning following her death, I woke with the realization that there was no one left but me who knew the stories of her early life. In a rush to send something to my brother before her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered for her funeral, I wrote the following:

Some Things You May Not Know About the Young Kathryn Louise Truitt Ellenberger

When she was four years old, the family doctor told her parents that she would not live to grow up and all they could do was make sure that her childhood was happy. After that, her father stopped drowning the barn cats’ new litters, and soon she had over thirty kitten playmates.

She rode her own pony to school, trying to keep up with her older brother Keith’s horse.

When she was eight, her father died and their farm was sold, and her mother’s parents built a second story on their house in town to make room for their daughter and her children. The house was full of books, and there were large flowerbeds, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.

She was an avid tennis player. When she was thirteen, her mother became alarmed at the amount of time she was spending with older boys on the town’s tennis court, and sent her to work for the summer as a hired girl on a relative’s farm. Kathryn did not like working in the kitchen from dawn until the supper dishes were washed, followed by a pile of mending until 10 p.m.

Kathryn thought she might like to be an interior decorator, but everyone assumed she would become a country schoolteacher, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Mabel and Lucile. She did not do this. After high school graduation, Lucile gave her the money to go to business school in Des Moines.

When she graduated from business school, she was offered a job in the Des Moines Public Library system. She worked in the downtown library and lived in the Brown Hotel with several roommates.

One of her roommates, Bunny, wanted to take the civil-service exam and asked Kathryn to take it at the same time, as moral support. Within a few days, Kathryn received a telegram offering her a job in the Navy Building in Washington, DC. She immediately sent a telegram back, accepting the job. Only then did she tell family and friends, and soon she was boarding a train for the East Coast.

Her boyfriend Carl Ellenberger was classified 4-F because he had lost the thumb on his right hand in a corncob-crusher accident. Kathryn’s boss, an admiral, waived a few bureaucratic rules and soon Carl was in Naval Intelligence.

When Kathryn delivered certain materials to other government departments in DC, she was driven in a chauffeured limousine and carried a revolver in her purse.

Kathryn was well-dressed in wartime Washington because she cut out magazine photos of the clothes she wanted to wear, and mailed them to her mother in Iowa. Her mother designed the pattern, found the fabric, sewed the outfit, and mailed it back to her.

Carl Ellenberger had first asked Kathryn to marry him when they were both seventeen. In 1942, when they were both twenty-nine, he told her it was the last time he’d ask and she believed him. She said yes.

The specifics of what Carl and Kathryn were doing for the Navy during World War II are known only to them. Kathryn and my partner had a tacit telephone understanding: she knew that he knew that she knew that … But I remain clue-less.

Postscript, October 2013

Despite over sixty years of conversation with my mother, it’s not only her wartime activities I’m in the dark about. We had a meeting of the minds on two things: the allure of good food and the beauty of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor, op. 64, no. 2, which she liked me to play for her. With most everything else — politics, religion, the nature of reality — we tended to be stationed on opposite sides of the barricades.

I couldn’t fathom what drove my mother, and she had the same difficulty with me. But we kept on talking. And — judging by the evidence of my dreams — the conversation, in some mysterious way, continues.

note: This essay was published first in Return to Mago on 28 October 2013.

The Neighbours Send a Message

northern hawk owl
northern hawk owl

for Monica Casper

Moose, deer, lynx, coyote, bear,
skunk, porcupine, snowshoe hare,
hawk owl, ant, crow, honey bee,
all who live in the woods
behind the house I live in,
now formally address the human race:

We, aforementioned children of earth,
together with all our relations,
and by the power of spirit that moves in all things,
do hereby protest
vehemently
the destruction of our homes.

We have kept watch in silence
while you made war on each other,
but our time for surveillance
and fleeing is finished.

We will not watch
without intervening
while you mindlessly kill our mother.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger
April 2012

note: “The Neighbours Send a Message” was first published, with working notes, on Return to Mago 29 October 2012.

Sunrise Over the USA

for Barbara Mor

In place of the old dream
and the old lies,
I wish for my country of origin
a new story,
one that goes like this:

We rode roughshod,
we drove pedal to the metal,
we blew our own cylinders.
We squeezed the life from all
we could lay hands on,
converted our kill into currency,
bowed low before the greenback god we made.

Then — an inch from extinction —
in the midst of brawling, bawling,
blowing each other away,
we woke from our nightmares.
Watched the sun rise.
Said this is a good day to live.

We started to share food
and keep house.

It was astonishing
how quickly the tall-grass prairie,
intricate forest that bends with the wind,
grew back.
Astonishing how quickly the milkweed pods shot up
and the monarchs laid ever more eggs on them
and the great butterfly migration strengthened.
Astonishing when legions of Canada geese flew south again,
barking and writing long flat V’s in the sky.

We woke,
and the earth under our feet
decided to live.

It was that definitive,
that clear a turning.

− Harriet Ann Ellenberger, February 2012

Note: “Sunrise Over the USA” was first published, with working notes, on Return to Mago, 1 October 2012.

Never Underestimate a Fox

Nine-Tailed Fox
Nine-Tailed Fox

for the man who gave himself
the street-name “Tonto”
 

At a loss for everything
but words,
I’m writing in the sunlight
of a sidewalk cafe
when someone falls
over an empty chair and
lands on the table
in front of me.

I’m as drunk on language
as he is on booze.

A foxtail hangs from a leather cord
at his throat, like a necktie
over his T-shirt,
and when I ask him about it,
he tells me his story.

He killed the fox,
and then his mother said to him,
You took the life
of a free and beautiful animal
so you could feel like a bigger man.
Now the spirit of the fox
will make you pay.

He believed his mother.

I believe her too.
And beneath her words,
I hear the soft, alluring
voice of earth:

I dreamt each one of you,
you are just as I wish —
Go now,
walk your path,
breathe
and live.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, January 2012

  Continue reading Never Underestimate a Fox

The Watcher and the Watched

for Susan Robinson aka Susan Wood-Thompson

I send a poem to my friend,
asking her, Do you think it is finished?
My poem speeds off to join internet traffic,
passing through the super-computers of US intelligence
before it reaches her.

If I call long-distance to read her my poem,
each word I say,
each word she says,
travels through the same computers.

This gives me an idea.

What do these super-computers do?
They scan for keywords selected by humans
following the daily threat assessment.
And what do poems do?
They tell the truth of human feeling.

What if the world of poets
scanned the news for probable keywords?
What if we scattered them liberally
throughout our poems and shared our poems
prodigally, far and wide—
would humans who answer to no one
be forced, by the exigencies of their job,
to read poetry?

Poets too assess the real behind the rumour,
and should our keywords catch their ear,
what then—spy to spy—shall we say
to the boys and girls at the NSA?

We’ll say that humans are become
a single suffering tribe,
wandering far from the tree of life,
moving into unmarked territory,
hungry and hallucinating.

We’ll say, here’s a truth of human feeling:
it hurts to be awake out here.

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger
21 May 2012

“The Watcher and the Watched” was first published in “Counterpunch” on 23 November 2012, and later, with working notes, in “Return to Mago” on 12 December 2012. The image is from Tech Week Europe.

Rising to the Occasion

On the June 2015 solstice (summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, winter solstice in the southern hemisphere), She Rises, the first offering from Mago Books, will be published. What began as a collective writing project on Facebook’s “Mago Circle” two years ago has transformed into an anthology of monumental proportions—470 pages of writing and artwork by 90 contributors from different continents and backgrounds.

To help celebrate the book launch, I’m posting the link to the new Mago Books website and reprinting below a slightly finessed version of my initial (quick & dirty & inflammatory) contribution to that first writing project.

A Personal Story

I got involved with women’s liberation in the early 1970s, so involved that it became my life for many years. During those beginnings of what is now called “the second wave of feminism,” everything was new to us and everything was mushed together—the political, the economic, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual. I liked that a lot; It felt as if all the parts of myself were coming together.

During that time, I learned something crucial: the imagery and concepts of patriarchal religion justify and are embedded in the material structures of oppression. I don’t know which came first, institutionalized oppression (of almost everyone; I’m not speaking here only of women) or the religious expression of that oppression. All I’m certain of is that patriarchal religion permeates, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary, which I use all the time in conjunction with Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an especially spiritual person; I don’t practice any spiritual discipline, unless you can call reading and writing spiritual. And I agree with Marx that religion is “the opium of the people,” “the heart of a heartless world,” that which keeps people alive within the iron cage of oppressive systems while it also discourages them from collectively opening the door of their prison.

Although I reject the rebellion-squashing function of father-god religions, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, I look to the new Goddess writers, re-discovering and re-inventing the early religions of humankind, for inspiration. The earliest religions seem to have worked to bring people together, rather than to tread on some while lifting up others. That is attractive to me. The love of the earth and the stars and the mysterious invisible worlds that permeate Goddess spirituality also attracts me. Plus, the old and new Goddess images are beautiful, and there is something enticingly poetic about the ceremonies being created and re-created in the name of Goddess spirituality.

What’s not to like about all this?