She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final installment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 17-18

She Is Still Burning 14

It’s easy to introduce this 2002 installment: everything in it is still perfectly relevant.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #14
12 July 2002

“‘From death to life’ I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.”   –Sara Wright

Dear Friends,

This installment has been delayed, owing to a recently developed addiction: reading through mountains of web-site news and analysis in an attempt to discern, through the fog of disinformation, what is being decided in Washington. They run the world, or try to; I want to know what they’re planning to hit us with next. A simple-enough desire, but you need your own intelligence agency to satisfy it …

In short, I have been ruining my eyesight in the pursuit of phantoms. I don’t know who they’re going to bomb next, and I’m not even clear who “they” are. The only certainty is that “they”—whoever the rotating cast of “they” is at the moment—will do whatever it takes to retain supremacy.

They may, however, have already bitten off more than they can chew. The U.S. currently has military personnel in 177 countries, and Bush is financing his “titanic war on terror” by signing IOUs and printing money. This is like using a credit card to pay the interest due on your other credit-card accounts. Not a sustainable maneuver.

I keep thinking about the fantasies of those in power and how fantasies lead to imperial over-reach and how over-reach can end in sudden collapse. More specifically, I think about how quickly the Soviet Union came apart when its economic machine could no longer support its military machine. One day the Soviet empire was a geopolitical fact, and the next day …

The U.S. government’s war machine may be a high-flying force straight out of science fiction, but it still sucks up resources like a giant vacuum cleaner. What happens when the American economy can no longer sustain the American military?

Nobody knows but the old black crows, she said mysteriously. (For more on crows, see below, an installment of SISB published in honour of black birds, the growing number of Women in Black with their peace vigils, and other perceptive and prescient beings.)

Bon courage and happy reading,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Crowmothers, Come Home” by Sara Wright
•”The Crowmother Thread” by Sara Wright
•”Crossing Over” by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Crow” by Lynn Martin
• letter and “A Conversation with Fear” by ilit rosenblum


Continue reading She Is Still Burning 14

War Babies

 

War babies are babies
who make war
without knowing what war is.

War babies make war
on nature,
on drugs,
on anyone who crosses them,
on each other.

War babies have guns
that are big and mean.
War babies have money
that won’t buy them more time.

War babies hit a telephone pole
at 100 miles an hour,
and expect to walk away.

War babies stay babies
because they don’t learn.

Oh look, they’re doing it again.

 

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 11 February 2016

 

In a Time of Storms

el-reno-oklahoma-may-31-2013_camille-seaman-for-mago-poem
El Reno, Oklahoma, 13 May 2013, photograph by Camille Seaman

 

IN A TIME OF STORMS

 

Purple clouds mass along the horizon.
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as an obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger

 


Note: I wrote this poem in 1989, and it was eventually published under the title “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” a phrase I’d stolen from a translation of the Gnostic Gospels. I loved those three words put together, but felt bad about being a thief—also, the poem had nothing to do with gospels, gnostic or otherwise.

When the poem was to appear in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, I came up with a new title, “Return of Earth.” Only problem was, the earth didn’t go away so how could she return? I ignored the illogic of that because I was desperate.

Years later, climate change so extreme that everyone noticed it gave me the good title, and “In a Time of Storms” appeared in Return to Mago on 24 July 2013.

The moral of this tale of titles may be that if you live long enough, you’re no longer a voice of Cassandra, you’re simply reporting the evening news.

 

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.