Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Praise of the Unsung Artists


       Two weeks ago I was looking at Istanbul from our rooftop terrace, celebrating my husband's birthday, my daughter's graduation from high school, my son's finishing his master's and moving on to a real job in the real world.  And me, of course, in the unreal world, as always, startled by the beauty of a city I'd not really wanted to visit.  Twenty million people live there now and I didn't really know it existed.  Not like Rome, or Paris.  Not even like Paris, Texas, which was the name of a boutique around the corner from our rental flat.  Twenty million now, but it was also the birthplace of so many things, so many centuries ago, built by the anonymous artisans of days gone by.  

        Somehow, the glorious view of the tip of Asia brought me to think of all those artists who labor, not for fame or money, but simply because it's what they do.  It's not easy, but it's something they give to the world.   One of the things I treasure, every day, when I start my work, is a painting my sister, Teresa Maria, sent me several years back.  She doesn't call herself an artist, she wouldn't dare.  Painting is hard work, it's angst-ridden, but it's something she does, and then dismisses as not worthy.
I beg to differ.

And then there is a dear friend, whose name is Jane Ulrich.  She is a poet, but like my sister, wouldn't call herself that unless horsewhipped into it by fans like me.  She is a mom, first and foremost, she is  a wife, a gardener, and a brilliant cook.  But it's her poetry that I treasure, over and over, and present to you, just a small sample.  These two poems wrestle with the difficult business that is this creative life, whether it's art or writing, or making a mosaic ceiling that years later tourists will squint to see.


The laundry is soaking upstairs, down here the dishes need to be washed 
and the piles on the tables weigh on me like wet snow on the pool cover outside
just like this so-called poem demanding I put all that aside

But on this desk I can’t help but see
papers are heaped high  
a bag next to me half filled with trash 
practically screams to be fattened

Meanwhile my fingers on this keyboard (which also needs to be dusted) 
are quivering with desire
to clean even the toilets, anything but this sitting here
staring at the blank incriminating screen
AH! my husband is stirring upstairs, perhaps coming down
to eat lunch, to chat 
despite the fact that I so obviously have nothing to say
warranting the words Poet or Wife

 Failed like the dinner party with too many people
all talking about work, not one of them
unveiling scars covered by party clothes

And just like them I am afraid to remember even the act of remembering
my son’s four inch long feet in sheepskin slippers
or the way his father said 
“I’d have a million if they were all just like him”

Jane Ulrich

          Jane and I have been friends since before our first born sons were born, just a month apart, and now these boys are 24 year old men.  Still, our conversations are peppered with worry and the sense we have, as mothers, of constantly failing to do it perfectly, as though such a thing were possible.  Like poetry, motherhood is filled with uncertainty.  Like housework, it's  never finished, or when it is, an impermanent feast. 

Spring vegetables, laid out, still warm.  

 It is these small triumphs that we don't remember, the accomplishments that won't boost anyone's resume, that often are the most satisfying, if only because no one expects them to be more than that.

Perhaps it is the knowledge of so much impermanence that leads us to try for something beyond the moment, that something that if we are lucky, someone else will call 'art.'  Right here, right now, I am calling my dear friend's poetry just that.

Some Housewife

The cavernous hole in the wall  
my son put his foot through 
much to his surprise and mine
yawns blackly
covered by a poster of smiles
taped poorly and falling down

On the counter and table and floor
are worksheets of verb tenses 
in a language I do not know
fourth grade math problems
too difficult to solve at 10 or 50
maps of Turkey and Afghanistan
elaborate explanations 
of earth’s tectonic plates

Upstairs the clothes and linens
are  tossed in corners and in the hallway
leading to the laundry room
needing cleaning
or perhaps not needing cleaning 

and tiles in the bathrooms crack 
and crinkle underfoot
the house itself shifting in ways
 I do not understand
requiring a beam 
or  some other massive support
in the cellar I do not wish to enter
an underworld of mess
I cannot dwell upon

Disorder drips from the very ceiling 
of this house   tiny footsteps
amplified in aluminum air shafts
echo hugely at 4 in the morning, 
reminding me of all the critters in the house 
I have lost control of
all the contractors I have not called
all the towels that have leapt
so unaccountably  out 
 from the closet where I crammed them
 no more than a day ago

Someone must DO something  I think

This can’t go on

So I write it all down
wad the clothes into the closet of this poem
file the pictures of volcanoes between the lines on this page
fill the hole in the wall with the spackle of my mind
create my own universe 
like God 
and only when the paper runs out 
do my hands touch anything real.

Jane Ulrich

  What I love about Jane's work is how clearly she roots the words in the experience we all live, in the domestic life that is so often disdained by the literary establishment.  This, I would claim, is the curse and the blessing of being a woman writer.  It might be a ghetto, or is it a gated community? 

Comment in the section below to win a copy of my first book,  Diana Lively is Falling Down.  I will pick two numbers at random,and then post winners names in the comments section tomorrow, with instructions on how to contact me so I can mail you the book.


  1. What a great blog! Enjoyed reading about your trip, seeing Tere' painting and reading the poems! Your blog only gets better and better!

  2. so glad you made the trip!
    the painting is lush and beautiful and I love how both of these poems have what's hidden -- the hole in the wall, the scars. the unseen, not spoken of, being revealed. wonderful work.
    thanks for sharing.

  3. Disorder drips from my ceiling, and I am desperate to escape from this work that I also feel compelled to do. Our gated community loves paradoxes. Kudos to Tere, and Jane--and to you, of course.

  4. thanks all of you...and to the lovely disorder of a life well lived, if not spoken

  5. Absolutely love this blog, especially the two poems, Thank you, Jane, and the painting is one of my favorites (along with my rooster!). God bless ALL the artists who spend their days so we may enjoy the fruit of their labor ~

  6. Enjoyed your generosity as much as anything here.

  7. Oh Sheila, Thank you so much for posting Jane's poems. I'm sitting here, Kleenex in hand, reading her poems to my 89 y/o mother, frequently dabbing my eyes. Not that they are sad, but moving and wonderful and what many of us probably feel, but I for one, couldn't put in such beautifully descriptive words. If she is unable to get published, she must self publish- I must read more!!! I have your autographed book, so don't need to win, just to read more from you and Jane!!! Pat

  8. I love this post. It so clearly articulates my day to day struggle as a wife, mother, writer, and professional. There is always so much to do and so little time in which to do it. Plus the burden of most assured imperfection on all fronts. I would, however not change this life. Even with the wreck of a house, the fleeting moments, the attempt to do too much with too little. I stretch and because of it I grow.

    Thank you for sharing the poetry.


  9. I might be biased because Sheila's my daughter, but I have gotten such pleasure from all her writing. Today's my 91st birthday. Sheila often writes about family on our special occasions, both happy and sad, and the words say so much of what the rest of us were thinking but didn't express. I loved reading Jane's poems, which expressed so much of the frustration I felt raising my ten children. None of them seemed to put things away, or notice the wet towels on the furniture. I stumbled over so many shoes I'm not sure why I'm lucky enough to be standing here today, spending the day with several of my kids. Cheers!

  10. Thanks all of you for your comments. What fun to see people's responses to the lovely work of so many unsung heroes.

  11. Great post, Sheila! And thank you for introducing us to Jane's work!!

  12. Jane, the words on the paper are worth more - to those of us who get to read them - than the laundry done. That will just have to be done again, and again. (It's probably selfish to encourage you to ignore it.)
    Thanks Sheila.

  13. Terrific post, Sheila. Jane's work is such a reflection of what I've felt so many times...

  14. Just beautiful--the poems are tender and yet bracing. And your praise of the unsung, Sheila, is just right. The whole post is encouraging and honest.

  15. And the winners are PBarnwell Collins and Melissa Clark! Please send me your mailing address at 1945 Chatsworth Way, Tallahassee, FL 32309

  16. oops, I meant my email addy ...
    and I am so lucky to have so many generous friends...who are also so talented...Paul Shepherd, I miss you!