Seattle 169, or After Coming Home

On the walk home,
Seattle’s first snow drools
from the Craftsman roofs.
Their shingles sag
from so many winters
spent crying.

Seattle air tastes
like silt and silicon,
like city tap water.

I miss Boston. It too, is a city,
but of more bricks than concrete.
Its wind stabs the throat like icicles,
sharp enough to cut tongues,
to cherry your hollowed lips,
entice you to keep drinking.


Seattle 168, TDR

Transgender Day of Remembrance an annual ritual in the queer community. Each community marks it in a slightly different way, but there is one element in common: the reading of the names of every trans person who has been murdered in the last year. There is never a year without names. It is a sad time, always set in late November, when the days are short and the skies often gray.

But many of us in the queer community aren't content to stand around and grieve once a year, shivering and crying as the wind and rain extinguish our candles. We are the ones who work year-round to create safe spaces, legislation, support networks and options for queer and trans people. This is for us, and for everyone.

Trans Day of Remembrance

Let their names be counted.
Let them be remembered, let their stories
hang like myth and legend over our hearts.
Let’s pool the flames of each candlelight vigil,
and invite their ghosts to the bonfire.

Let this remind the world that we are here,
and we are watching, and when we lose family,
we throw them the kind of funeral that can’t
be swept into a closet. Let’s make public altars,
throw them concerts, write obituaries,
ink their names in our most naked places.
These are the duties of survivors.

But let it be more
than solemn recitation;
let it be revival.
Let banjo parties and casserole dinners
be born from their ashes.
Let's reach for the ones we fought with,
put seeds in one another's hands,
and hold tight. Let's coax joy from November skies
and dance like we’re headstone sober
but oh, so alive. Alive to speak
and cry and scream and scrape our knees

and go home together. Leave the park
for the kitchen, leave the graveyard
for the bar, grab your violins
and your drumsticks,
toss a toast to every
weary smile to
their lives, our lives.
To the ones who are still here –
let’s make it count.

(c) Dane Kuttler, 2011


Seattle 167, or Revisions and Rosh Hashanah

My brilliant editor and I have been doing some back-and-forth over my rewrites. It's largely been great, because I knew my first draft was really rough (I mean, come on, what first draft isn't?) and I was excited to have her rip it apart - I mean, gently nudge me in the right direction, so my second draft would be cohesive, exciting, and brilliant.

Last week, I sent her the first 25 pages of my rewrite. I was so excited. There were new poems! Old poems had been completely deleted! Timelines had been altered! Characters had been fleshed out! I was positive that she was going to send me a letter of utter kvelling, before maybe offering to fly me to Massachusetts so we could spend some time discussing the brilliance of my work over cappuccino, and then maybe she'd introduce me to her agent, who'd immediately send it to every major publisher to get the bidding war going.

And that's totally what happened. You believe me, right?

Here's some of the 15-page critique (for 25 pages of poems):

...it doesn't seem that this is a major rewrite. My previous questions are still unanswered...try to think about major rewrites of poems. Often a finished poem barely resembles the first, second, fifth, twelfth draft. See if you can dig deeper...

Well, if that doesn't just pop my balloons, Editor.

In all honesty, I'm not actually mad or all that frustrated - she's absolutely right, after all. It's old, well-worn advice, advice I've given many many times.

And now we're on break for the High Holidays (Editor herself being a fabulous Jew), and I won't send her anything until after next week. I've promised myself that I'm going to let go of the book for a few days, go to synagogue, visit the Kibbutz for dinner, blast shofar, and pray.

But this critique rings true for me in so many ways; I can't just let go of it.

Every Rosh Hashanah, which, let's face it, is not as much a holiday as it is a litany of the Things We Should Be Doing Better, I review every way in which I might've hurt people in the previous year. The list is long, and usually incomplete. In the last few years, I've started writing letters to some people on the list asking for their forgiveness. It's exhausting, to spend that much time with my worst self - to sift through the ugliest parts of me, figuring out what I can salvage, and what I really, really need to try and get rid of this year.

Sound like anything else I've been working on?

I'm really going to try to let my novel go, and instead focus on myself, instead of my novel-as-metaphor-for-self. I'll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, Shana Tovah, a Gut Yor, and may you all have sweet, contemplative New Years!


Seattle 166, or poem

Most of what I've been writing lately has been Raizl/Rachel, but I had the opportunity to go to a workshop led by one of my very favorite poets. She told us to write a poem in which you, the writer, the person, are in someone else's dream; in fact, the other person doesn't know it's a dream, because they cannot see you. Your job is to make them a very, very good dream by doing magical things.

As soon as we began to write, I began to cry. There are very few things in the world that have that effect on me, to be honest, but my grandparents - and, frankly, old people in general - seem to sit on my tear ducts more than most things. I can hear horrific stories about the evils of the world without letting it touch me too hard - but if I see an older person being mocked, ignored, or somehow stripped of any dignity, I turn into an angry bull. Hearing old people talk about being old often makes me cry, in a sweet way. Anyway, this poem is about an older woman. In her dream, I get to return her young body to her.

When you see
your sweet young feet
come out
from under the covers
like a pair of prairie dogs,

don't be afraid.

I promise,
you will not Medusa them back
into cicada husks.
I traded eight years
and my name
for this,
these are your feet.

Your skin has returned
from Lizard Land,
your are your husband's
doe-eyed teacher again,
the one from which
he learned everything about love.

The bed will be too soft, now.
Rise in one motion,
gazelle yourself out the door.

The lake is there,
and a sparrow is calling you Grandma
and you don't know why.

You don't answer,
because the lake is made of goulash,
and you are hungry
for the first time
since you realized
you would never be perfect.

When you are full,
a choir of strangers
who call you Mom
will come with their
soup bowls and sing all the water
back into your flesh.

You will be so pink again,
baby-tongue pink.

There is no loneliness.
You trade your afternoon television
to an owl
for passage up a snowy mountain.
He leaves you at the top,
where a mariachi band
blesses you over and over
with roses.

You will hear his voice, then,
on another mountaintop,
and know,
from the first step,
that you can walk there.


Seattle 165, or Dive

Guess what? I'm writing a book! For real this time. Not that my first book wasn't real, but let's be honest: it was a collection of the Very Best Poems I Ever Wrote. Not exactly cohesive, unless you know me.

But this book? It's a Real Book. It's still poems, but it's a STORY. Told in POEMS. Not like an epic, but like a novel. I mean, I think it's pretty epic. But Joseph Campbell would vehemently disagree, so I'll stick to novel.

Anyway, some of you have seen some of the poems in this novel - I started writing it when I was doing 365/365 last year. They're the Raizl/Rachel poems, about the Polish woman who fights with the Resistance during the war, and then gets married to an American GI and basically discovers over the course of her life that a) the war never leaves, and b) it's okay to trust people again.

I decided to invest a lot in this book by hiring an editor - a writer I respect and admire (and has some 50+ books to her credit), who has quickly started identifying many bad writing habits I have. She's basically done the literary equivalent of painting my fingernails with hot sauce - every time I start to write a poem, she snaps in my head, "Oh, watch your first stanzas, will you?! They're always so expository, and you really don't need them."

But truthfully, I'm thrilled. After taking the manuscript as far as I thought I could go by myself, her commentary has invigorated me. I've already rewritten a quarter of the poems, and I can feel myself striding through them with more confidence, and a clearer sense of what I want to say. I've changed things I was afraid to change and I'm even on the verge of deleting a character and merging her with another one (eek!).

Basically, after a few months of post-tour lagging and blues, I've picked up again. I'm writing with a much greater sense of purpose, I'm inviting people over for dinner again, and I've stopped feeling (for now) like I completely suck at being a grownup. I even feel a bit like a real writer.

The only problem? This book has completely eaten my desire to slam and compete, and I'm registered for a major competition in October. I know it's important that I keep going to national slams - they are a vital, necessary way I connect with my community - but right now, my head is somewhere else. Poland. Westchester. Forhenwald DP Camp. Oberlangen POW Camp. And inside the heads of some fascinating, smart, bitter people.

I'm writing a book! It sneaks up on me every so often, like really good news. I'm writing a book!


Seattle 164, or Fiction

(Sometimes, the Fiction Monster takes little bites out of my heels until I figure out something to do with her.)

G-d and I meet for lunch at a place neither of us have ever been to, but the Yelp reviews are fantastic, and it’s halfway between our houses. The paparazzi arrive just after we do, and I thank my stylist, Melanie, who agreed to a short-notice appointment this morning and managed to get rid of my split ends. Not that I thought G-d would care, but this is New York City and some things just matter. G-d looks at the menu miserably and says,

“Would you keep it a secret if I ordered the veal? I’ve gotten eight thousand emails from every kind of vegetarian, Hindu to hippie in the last hour alone, and my inbox really can’t handle that kind of publicity.”

I nod, and G-d asks for some drinks with our meal. The waiter starts to make a joke about holy water, but his tongue turns into a snake that then bites him on the ass and he shuts up.

“I hate that line,” G-d mutters. “The tap water’s bad enough in this town without stale prayers floating around in it.” I nod with extra sympathy, as if I know something about holy water. G-d kicks off her flip-flops and runs her fingers through her beard and asks,

“So, why me?”

I want to say something about Krishna being booked solid till next October, or the way Horus never returns my phone calls, or how the Flying Spaghetti Monster has turned into a complete diva since the website launched, but instead, I start inhaling my osso buco, and spill a spoonful of wine sauce down the front of my shirt. I reach for my water glass, but G-d points to my chest and, following a sudden burst of warmth, my shirt is completely clean.

“Thanks,” I say. “Really, I just wanted to pick your brain about some things, see if I could find some answers.”

“7,” says G-d.

“Excuse me?”

“Well, you were looking for answers. 3+4, days of the week, last digit of Pi…”

“Really? Pi has a last digit?”

“Yes, but don’t tell the mathematicians. They’d lose faith, and that’s way more fun than answers.”

“I guess I wanted to know if you were planning to cut my grandmother a break any time soon. Like, either let her die or ease up on her body. She’s in a lot of pain.”

“That’s really what you want?” says G-d, who would be raising an eyebrow, if she had eyebrows. “I offered you the answer to one of your people’s greatest mathematical mysteries and you instead ask me if a human is going to die?”

“At least I didn’t ask you to end any wars,” I shoot back.

“And I’m glad you didn’t,” G-d says with a huff. “I’m not IN the war department. There’s a reason Death exists, you know. He’s a fabulous secretary, and what’s more, he handles all the war and medical research, which leaves me much freer in the afternoons.”

“Medical research?”

“Absolutely. Doesn’t it make sense, to pair up the things that try to control mortality?”

“Fair enough. Can I have a bite of your veal?”

“Of course,” says G-d, pushing the plate towards me. “Listen, darling, this was a fabulous choice of restaurant. I’m glad we had time to catch up. Last time I saw you, you were too busy fighting Death to really pay attention. Tell your grandmother I said hello, and I’m sorry about the inconvenience.”

“I will, but I doubt that’ll make her feel any better.”

“Right,” says G-d, floating towards the door. “Right.”


Paradox 1, or Family

The first dive into the lake is a homecoming - she's so gentle right now, two feet of warm before the cold undercurrent, glassy surface, easy swimming. All the trees survived winter, and the house is sound, cool. I'm here, and things feel almost right. I wish SALM was here. He loves the woods, even though he's a city boy.

Saturday night, and there are cousins and friends, and all the young'uns have decided to make dinner, and I'm in charge. And here, too, is home - not the one I grew up with, but I love bossing everyone around the kitchen, seeing the meal take shape under five different knives. The parents stand back, mix drinks, offer advice to the younger ones. Allie and I share the stove with our easy dance, seasoning each others' dishes without asking, because we trust each other like that. She grates lime zest into the beans until they shimmer in my mouth. The peppers, onions, cukes, chard, potatoes and tomatoes are all from Tom, the grizzled gardener who owns a plumbing parts store and grows magic in his yard.

After the cousins go home, the house is quiet with just five. Allie, Jake, my mother and I play word games and curl up on the couch, singing - ballads and pirate songs, 70s folk-pop and college standards. I haven't sung in so long.

I hop up on the water skis for just twelve seconds - long enough to prove I can still do it (I'm not chicken!), but I still really, really hate water skiing. The cousins go after that, zipping around the lake like pros.

Today, there is enough rain to justify a trip into town - to the farmer's market, the library, maybe the pottery shed.

Always, always, there's promises whispering - you will come back here. This is where you belong, girl, in our sticky heat and snowstorms. You're welcome.


Seattle 163, or Food

In the middle of July, I wake up early one Saturday morning. SALM snores softly next to me, but I am more restless than I've been in months. I feel excited, and I don't know why. Maybe it's the sunshine, finally getting to me.

I nudge SALM. "Hey, I'm going to get a head start on the market today. I want to make sure I get a chicken from the Ranch of Happy Meat."

He burrows deeper into the covers and mumbles, "Have fun with that." I bounce out of bed and steal one of his grandmother's giant shopping bags (formerly used for quilting supplies).

The market is almost quivering with abundance. So many things are making their way into the stands - basil, tomatoes and baby beets and carrots are saying hello, while scapes and asparagus have their farewell signs up. I find a good little chicken from the Ranch of Happy Meat, some scapes, greens, a few jewel-like tomatoes, a bunch of palm-sized onions, two small bags of basil.

I consider buying an olive-and-herb fougasse for SALM, but as I'm deciding, my phone buzzes. SALM is on his way, and wants fish and milk. I stop by the fish guys to make sure there's plenty of SALM's favorite sockeye lox, make a mental note to pick up their fresh salmon roe next week, and reserve a bottle of milk from the Farm Across The Water. Then I stop by the Apple Guys for a treat - a big glass of fresh cider blended with nothing but ice. I park myself in the shade and wait for SALM.

And this, my darlings, is what happened to all of it:

Pesto, enough for four meals. I never freeze pesto; it's just not worth the loss of flavor. I'd rather savor it when it's in season and eat all I can.

Fingerling potatoes, garlic scapes, and those little onions go under the chicken. See my pretty new pot?

The finished chicken - trussed with dental floss, for lack of anything else!

And with the leftovers - chicken salad, of course, using the green tops of the baby onions!


Seattle 162, or Maybe I Do Belong In the Shtetl, After All (rough draft)

Since I returned to Seattle, I've been grappling with the loss of the Kibbutz. I've been living among, and making community with large groups of Jews since high school. For the first time, I'm living in a house where people are friendly, but not interested in doing things together, and none of them are Jews. Without a synagogue, or a desire to go to the "post-college Jewish networking and fun" events put on by the local university, I find myself working on Friday nights, which I find less depressing than Shabbat by myself. When one of my extended family died last week, I said Kaddish by myself, and instead talked about her for a few minutes before eating some dates (a food I will always associate with her) with some non-Jewish friends.

Does it sound sad? It is. It's not overwhelmingly awful, but it does hurt.

When an acquaintance of mine posted a link to a Commentary (a well-renowned Jewish publication) article by Daniel Gordis titled "Are Young Rabbis Turning On Israel?" I expected a political rant - which, to some extent, it is. Gordis opens with a long description of Yom HaZikaron - an Israeli version of Memorial Day that is far more about mourning than barbecues and shopping. On Yom HaZikaron, Gordis explains, air raid sirens blast twice during the day, filling the entire country with alarm. When Israelis hear the siren, they stop whatever they're doing - driving, talking, haggling, walking - and stand at attention until the siren ends. It sounds visceral, and it is. We Jews have always been good at mourning, good at remembering. I walk with ghosts, and I know it.

Gordis, who emigrated to Israel after founding a rabbinical school in Los Angeles, contrasts this picture of Yom HaZikaron with an email sent around Boston's Hebrew Union College:

“For Yom Ha-Zikaron, our kavanah [intention] is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. In this spirit, our framing question for Yom Ha-Zikaron is this: On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?”

It is the rare e-mail that leaves me speechless. Here, at a reputable institution training future rabbis who will shape a generation of American Jews and their attitudes to Israel, the parties were treated with equal weight and honor in the run-up to Yom Ha-Zikaron. What the students were essentially being asked was whether the losses on Israel’s side touched them any more deeply than the losses on the side of Israel’s enemies.

Gordis's flaw, as far as I'm concerned, is equating Israel with Jews. Jews are not the only citizens and inhabitants of Israel, and Israelis constitute neither the entirety, nor the pinnacle of Jewishness. Gordis would argue that I merely illustrate the problem; I have a far-too-American slant on things.

Or, maybe, he argues, it's about formative experience.

It was June 1967, and I was almost eight years old. As on almost every night at dinner, our little black-and-white television was tuned to Walter Cronkite. But on this night, my parents didn’t eat. They didn’t even sit at the table. All they did was feed us, watch TV, and pace across the kitchen as the news of the
Six Day War unfolded.

“We’re not hungry,” my parents said the next evening when they did not eat once again, and I asked them why. But how could they not be hungry at dinner time? And two days in a row? My Zionist commitments have some innate root in the simple fact that with Israel seemingly on the very precipice of destruction, my parents couldn’t eat.
But when the students with whom I was speaking shared their formative memories of the Jewish state, the differences were profound. One said that his earliest memory was of the day that all the students in his Orthodox day school were summoned together for an assembly, and they watched as Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. For another, it was the intifada of the mid-1980s, and the images (again, on television) of helmeted IDF soldiers with rifles chasing young boys who’d thrown rocks.

My formative Israel experience, at least, as far as media goes, is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995 - the shock, the mourning, but most particularly, the reaction of one Hebrew school teacher.

"Watch carefully, boys and girls," she told us, sitting on the edge of her desk after explaining what happened. "He was one of the very last who really wanted peace. I'm afraid we're going to have more war. But don't worry; Israel has the best army in the world, and we continue to prove it, time and time again."

This sentiment about Israel's military might has echoed through my childhood. When, in third grade, I learned about the Minutemen in the Revolutionary War, I also learned that the Israeli army was designed to mobilize just as quickly. When my grandfather showed me how to use my first Swiss Army knife, he told me that the Swiss and Israeli armies were among the best-disciplined and best-trained in the world.

Is it any wonder, then, that I've grown up to sympathize with people who've been subject to this army?

Gordis would scoff at me. "Where's your pride?" he might ask. "These are YOUR PEOPLE, and they are the BEST." I think I'd point back to his own article to answer his question.

Gordis makes a distinction between what he calls the particular and the universal. Simply put, people who were raised particularly Jewish feel that they belong to a tribe, a different people. They identify with their tribe, practice rituals unique to it, and interact with the rest of the world through that lens. That lens includes the concept of enemies. Universalists, on the other hand, are raised to believe that Jewishness is a part of them; not that they are part of the Jews. They are raised to value the lives of every human being equally.

Of my generation of rabbinical students, Gordis writes:

The right of these rabbinical students to criticize Israel is not in question. What is lacking in their view and their approach is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people—our own people....what is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging—the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to create the state of Israel is their blood and their loss....

Now, let's consider my upbringing for a moment. I believe I was raised straddling the line between particularist and universalist. I was raised in a mildly observant household; we were pulled out of school for the first days of Passover, lit Shabbat candles, made our own challah, received part-time Jewish educations. I have always believed that being Jewish makes me different, but not better than (okay, maybe sometimes better than) my Gentile neighbors. I proudly explain different Jewish customs and traditions to anyone who asks (and even a few who don't.) I seek out other Jews at national poetry events, and believe that something rich and filling happens when we gather for the "12 tribes reading."

My family also believes in gay rights, are largely pro-choice, feminist, and vote mostly Democrat, but only for politicians who openly support Israel. My mother is Israeli; her family lived in Israel during its formative years (1948-1957), and a good number of our relatives remain there. When I think of the Israeli army, I can't help but think of my cousins, aunts and uncles. Of course I want them to live. Of course I want them to succeed.

But I, too, was raised to value all lives. Maybe it's the influence of growing up around Unitarian Universalists. Maybe my childhood synagogue just wasn't particular enough. Maybe it's my fancy-liberal-college indoctrination. Who knows?

Here's what I do know: here, in Seattle, I miss the easy presence of Jews. I even miss fighting about this exact issue with an old particular housemate of mine. Can I be a universalist and still feel lost and lonely without this community? Can I value all lives equally and still feel like a part of the Jewish people, instead of a person who happens to have Jewishness (like she happens to have brown hair, or a Socialist bent?)

I suspect Gordis would say no. What do you think?


Portland 1, or When We Were Happy

In the year I turned 25, I took my first-ever non-family-or-work-related vacation. Secret Agent Lover Man and I have descended on our fair sister to the south: Portland. (Not that one, family - the West Coast Portland.)

Portland seems determined to charm us, from the markets to the food carts to the four-story City of Books. Let me also mention here: the free hotel breakfast, that included bacon-braised greens. The homemade gnocchi from the collection of food carts, dressed simply with fresh tomato and basil. The carnival foods, glistening, crispy and so many shades of brown. I feel full - stuffed on books and food and the ever-delightful company of SALM.

Tomorrow: food pictures, I promise. Today: just two pictures of the market's bounty.