Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Hawk In the Trees

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As if to celebrate a morning bright with sunshine, the trees were full of birdsong. On the porch soft, warm breezes stirred my newspaper and set the newly budded hydrangea bushes dancing. The perfect beginning to a beautiful day…

Suddenly, the birdsong stopped. Not diminished, not lessened—stopped. The morning was so silent that even the breeze seemed to be holding its breath.

What on earth? I got up, scanned my garden and saw sitting on a branch just above the bird feeder, a handsome, golden-brown hawk… waiting. Waited with its wonderful, fierce head slightly bent and its talons gripping the branch with a deadly force that could snap a bird’s neck. Watching, holding my breath for its beauty and with fear that some young cardinal might cheep and give itself away, I stayed motionless until quite suddenly the great raptor spread wings and launched itself away from the branch.

One breath, two… and then the birdsong began again. Soft at first, tentative… has it gone? Are you sure it won’t come back? Did we escape this time?… and then bolder and even brighter than before. The danger had passed; all was well.

There is always a hawk in the trees—somewhere—for us all. Sometimes the threat is visible, a howl of black wind, a monstrous, moving wall of destruction that falls from the sky and screams across the ground to destroy everything in its path.

We have seen this happen to communities with names we recognize and often love and when the wind picks up and the sky darkens and the alert sounds for us to take cover, we cower in the safest place we can find and hope for deliverance.When we are spared, if we are spared, we wonder: has it gone? Did we escape this time?

Sometimes, the hawk in the tree is internal, an illness that sinks its claws deep into our bodies. Sometimes it is a fear that gnaws at us, a paralyzing anxiety that we just aren’t good enough as artists, or writers, or parents. Sometimes this fear has no name or face, just an ooze of unease that comes when we are most vulnerable.

Four in the morning seems to be the witching hour for me, a time between darkness and dawn when the mind races and sleep seems to be a million miles away. And when morning comes at last, I shake my head at my own foolishness and hush the thought that whispers, are you sure it won’t come back?

I can’t be sure—no one can, least of all the birds that now sing and scold their young and flock to the birdfeeders as if their world holds no threat or sorrow. Yet here they are and here they sing for the sun is golden in the arc of a pure-blue sky, the breeze is soft and warm, and the hydrangeas will soon burst into bloom.
And we can all believe that life is good.

In the warm stillness
It waits, watches, listens…
Hungry golden hawk.

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A review of YURI in Sunday’s Charlotte Observer…

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Poetry, prose and charming art will capture readers | CharlotteObserver.com & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper.

Poetry, prose and charming art will capture readers

Susie Wilde
Published in: Books

Lee Wardlaw revitalizes haiku with “Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku” (Holt, ages 4-8). Immediately, she gives a new perspective explaining that the book is actually composed of senryu, a haiku-like form focusing on behavior rather than nature.

Wardlaw uses a style known for its simplicity to convey the complexities of the cat hero. Won Ton is not an ever-so-grateful shy shelter Siamese, but instead a feisty feline full of feelings and a secret. When “chosen” – he’s not quite sure about leaving the shelter, questioning this transition during “The Car Ride,” a poem that begins: “letmeoutletme/outletmeoutletmeout…”

The 33 linked poems give a humorous cat’s-eye view of transitioning from shelter to home, completed only in the satisfying last poem when Won Ton reveals his true name. Warlaw’s poems are as sophisticated and broad in mood as are her main character’s reactions to his life changes. Eugene Yelchin’s illustrations stress emotions and the comedic, referring to Won Ton’s Asian heritage by picturing Katsushika Hokusai’s famous Great Wave print.

The oversized shape and Vicky White’s gripping illustrations clue readers into Martin Jenkins’ unique outlook on endangered animals in “Can We Save the Tiger?” (Candlewick, ages 7 and up). “The world’s a big place. But it’s not that big when you consider how much there is to squeeze into it,” he begins, and an extinct dodo dominates the facing page, staring into this distance as if longing for life.

Jenkins’ descriptions show the complications of conservation. For example, a tiger, though beautiful, has a different relationship with a poor farmer who seeks to protect his goats and knows he can make as much on one skin as he might earn in three months of farming. Jenkins portrays equally evocatively the plight of others like the partula snail and white-rumped vultures, as well as humans’ efforts to save animals.

His writing is conversational, thoughtful and made for reading aloud.

Durham’s recently launched children’s book press gives us a new look at endangered loggerheads with Maureen Wartski’s novel “Yuri’s Brush with Magic” (Sleepy Hollow, ages 8-11).

Nine-year-old Tammy is worried – her mother lies in a coma and her father is overwhelmed. Out of nowhere her great-aunt, Mean Yuri Hamada, appears to whisk Tammy and her older brother, Ken, off to Emerald Isle. Ken plots to return home by impeding Yuri’s resolve with acts of extreme brattiness.

But almost as if she has no free will, Tammy is captivated by Yuri’s storytelling, the way she brings old Japanese folktales to life. She is as concerned about a buried nest of loggerhead turtles that may not hatch.

The author skillfully blends all these subplots with themes of renewal and transformation. In the final pages, the hatchlings make their way to the sea, “their flippers make tracks like tiny bulldozers” and Tammy, who has plowed through her despair, sees their lack of fear, their relentless pursuit of home and is changed.

Ordinary Treasures

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This morning during my walk I noticed a slash of green which swayed with the wind. A blade of grass? But no, there he was, a very small lizard, as green as a shamrock and motionless except for his swaying tail. We watched each other for a moment, he with wary golden eyes and I with admiration. Then I went on with my walk and he returned to measuring the wind.

That green lizard’s tail

Waves along with brisk, warm air…

Testing speed of wind.


The green lizard is one of many treasures to be found in a morning’s outing. Most of these are easily overlooked, like buttercups growing in a neighbor’s grass or one fragile star-shaped white flower, doubtless a weed but lovely anyway. Other marvels move so quickly that I can barely see them, a bluebird on wing, perhaps, or a yellow finch that flies by in a flash of gold. I’ve tried to capture these moments in haiku—not always successfully, I’m afraid.

Flash of swift bird’s wings

Against cloudless spring sky…

Bright blue against blue.

 

By no means am I expert or even adept at haiku, but I love this poetry form. At best, haiku has a spare elegance that relies on eye, mind and spirit to observe something, capture its essence, record it, and move on. Like an artist’s sketch that is swiftly done but which holds everything worthwhile, the haiku says little but tells all.

While growing up, writing haiku was a game. The familiar 5-7-5 syllable count was easy to master, even for a child. Later, I learned that there were rules and season words, but even that didn’t take away from the enjoyment. I was hooked.

A friend who is a haiku master has told me of retreats where poets gather to observe nature and write on a selected topic. This process must produce fine poetry and create an atmosphere for sharing and inspiration, but I have never tried it. My own efforts are ordinary and simple and are mostly about ordinary things.

Like my green lizard, like raindrops on pine needles, like the swirl of monarch butterflies flying above while of their members lies, wings torn, on the sidewalk—the life force is full of movement, triumph, grief, joy and… frogs.

Frogs?

Yes, surely. The little green frogs that make such a powerful racket are haiku-worthy, too. The other day I found a determined specimen crawling up a weed stem, too focused on its purpose to notice me crouching beside it. Who knows what that purpose was, but to the frog it had to be incredibly important, and so, of course, needed recording:

Tiny frog works hard

To reach source of light and food…

Even frogs have dreams.


Inspiration

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about inspiration.

Inspiration seems to me to be a hunger in the heart, an urge that forces us to leave whatever we have been doing and put all the force of our minds and souls into creating something.

The only problem is that this urge doesn’t come when needed. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. We all have had times when ideas flow easily, bringing wave after wave of wit and wonderment. At such times, the creative light burn with incandescent fire, and ideas are readily transformed into art. But there are other times when any worthwhile thought is absent, times when I have looked into my mind and found… nothing.

Mind you, this is not the elegant nashi of zen but a desert. A  bleak wilderness.

Not wanting to dwell in any wilderness, I try to cudgel my brain into movement. I pull out boxes of fabric and spill them on the floor. Surely, these bright colors…? I reach for watercolors and a new sheet of paper. I sit in front of the computer, turn on a bach cantata and… nothing. Zip. Nada.

The sad truth is that nothing can keep these moments of emptiness at bay, and my gray hairs have taught me that if we want the force of yang, we also need the quiet darkness of yin. So, on fallow days I let the emptiness alone.  Many a closet have I cleaned during these times of eclipse. And eventually? well, yes, eventually the light begins to flicker once again.

All very well for you to ramble on, you might say, but where DO we gather inspiration? Probably there are a thousand ways, each way unique to the mind of the artist. A photographer is bedazzled with light falling on a stone wall. An artist looks through a rain-spattered window and is amazed by movement and color. A writer hears a snatch of conversation.  For myself, I have been told that my mind resembles a whale that lets plankton lazily drift in and out. Sometimes a bit of information slides in and remains dormant until something else nudges it into wakefulness. Disparate experiences hang about and then, quite suddenly, take on form and substance.

It would be lovely if this procedure could be hurried along, but instantaneous connection between an idea and inspiration doesn’t oblige us very often. Sometimes we need to experience that idea with all our senses. Once, long ago, while on a pleasure trip on the seas near Bangkok, Thailand, we were caught in a terrible thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning sizzled down; the sea turned inky and began to buck and heave; rain fell like bullets from a coal-black sky which, I swear, hung two feet above our heads. I  had been reading about boat people escaping from Vietnam, but not until that moment did I know what real fear was. Not until then did I know I was going to write A Boat To Nowhere.


Light of passing car

Illuminates for moments

This cold, dark roadway.

 

Walking on the Beach

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Beach walking is special. No matter the season or weather, walking on damp sand nearest the curl of waves spells magic. Come to it in early summer and see the sea turtle nests numbered and marked. Arrive in August and watch the children cavort like fish in the surf. Marvel as the moon swinging low over an October horizon or trudge against a brisk winter wind, alone except for sea-birds that skim an icy sea.

I’ve tried so many times to capture the many moods of the ocean. Mumbling haiku, I’ve stopped to watch the dolphins leap, or snapped photographs or attempted water colors… not with much success, mind you, for the ocean has many moods. Kind and playful one moment, it can morph into a ferocious force that topples buildings and devours lives and dreams.

For me beaches are most wonderful when I can shuck the sneakers and socks and go wading. I’ve done this even in February when the water stings and numb, but I much prefer April, when wading is pure heaven. This morning I stood shin-deep in water and felt a thousand tiny coquinas, all intent on riding the waves, flow between my toes.

Busy coquinas

ride even the highest wave…

brave  adventurers!

I felt for those coquinas. I mean, there they were, digging themselves furiously into the sand, all business as usual, while a few feet away sandpipers were waiting to use their long, sharp beaks to get breakfast. At the beach, the circle of life often rests on the timing of a wave!

Have you listened to waves? I have, and it seems as if each one has a different story or a song to sing that is as old as time itself. Doubtless this is magic, for that magic  draws me back, time and again, to walk along the beach.

Afternoon’s high tide

Fans waves across still-cool sands…

Age-old ritual.

Springtime

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Now that it’s springtime, I’m finding that my morning walk is much more enjoyable. Not only do the muscles and joints appreciate warmer air, but that air is full of the commotion of new beginnings. Birds sing cantatas to the accompaniment of new-leafed trees interpreting the wind’s melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost hear the worms burrowing deep to escape robins.

On spring walks, haiku come with joyous ease. Sometimes, these small, compact poems are just about ordinary things having fun… and what can be more ordinary than grass? So:

“Each sharp blade of grass

is sporting glittering dew…

show-offs wearing bling.”

Other times, when the skies are gray or when a knee is giving grief, or when a melancholy comes suddenly out of nowhere and settles about the heart like gray smoke, my haiku tend to reflect another mood. A few morning ago I glanced idly at a house that has lain untenanted for several months. In the neglected yard stood a gloriously blossoming Kwanzan cherry tree and under it a worn down wooden bench.  Then, this haiku:

“Who now sits on bench

under Kwanzan cherry tree?

That abandoned house.”

All of us, I think, ‘write’ moments and impressions into our daily lives. That snatch of music heard as we pass makes us hum or smile or give greeting more cheerfully than usual. The flash of a golden finch’s wings or the wriggle of a puppy eager to play lightens the spirit. No wonder that if we look we can find inspiration for our art everywhere.  Some time ago, I found a visitor resting on our door… a luminous, jade-green Luna Moth.

Where had she been, what had she experienced, to weary her enough that she south refuge on a stranger’s door? I watched at a respectful distance, eyes tracing the elegant curve of her spread wings, the markings to fool night predators, the flat gold of her body and her feathery antennae. Later, when she had flown away, I sketched out the pattern for a quilted picture.

‘Clair de Luna’ is finished, now. When I look at it, I hope that my visitor is spreading her wings in the dark and sampling the nectar of night flowers under a silver moon!

Welcome to my blog!

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I’m Maureen Wartski, writer, artist, wife, mother, grandmother; you can see that I have many of the bases covered.

I was born in Ashiya, Japan,  a (then) small town which lay cradled between sea and mountains. In the evenings, we would walk along the road that ran past Osaka Bay, and a great  moon would rise out of the water to turn the world to silver.

I’m told that my first words were, “Big moon!”

All my life I have felt the tug to write something, draw something, put together something with fabric, string and color, and the urge to create has grown through the years. I suppose, then, that it’s a natural thing that this blog be full of  the things that so many of you enjoy doing…drawing, making something with fabric, and writing.

I was very young when I fell in love with words. My Uncle Harry is to blame for this… he who taught me to read out of a well-worn book of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (with illustrations!) and who read aloud from Stevenson and Poe and Tennyson and Mallory in a lovely, mellifluous voice that kept me spellbound even before I understood everything he said.

Words. They are magic, you know? You can take a handful of them… common words that hang about the hedges like weeds… and toss them onto paper and create a universe far, far away. Pull a few of them out and the universe falls, but then great castles rise with knights and fair ladies and dragons. Brush them aside and the scene is clear for a story about a boy and girl who have a mother who’s very sick, and an aunt with whom they have to spend the summer, an aunt that they hate. My latest book, Yuri’s Brush With Magic is about such a brother and sister and about a magic brush and the magic of words and the incredible magic of the natural world.

I know that you have felt the pull of this magic, too, especially in dogwood season. This morning when I was taking my morning walk I realized that the woods around our house were full of dogwood, cultivated and wild. It was  almost—but not quite—beyond words to describe:

A froth of white lace

Embroiders gardens, pathways…

Dogwoods are awake.