One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day of the Dead

One of my favorite neighborhoods to wander is San Francisco’s Mission district, where Indie arts and hip offerings meet the thriving, vibrant Latino culture, creating a sense of energy and magic unlike any other place. This time of year I am especially drawn to the Mission where Day of the Dead is celebrated with a number of events from altar exhibits to a mole sauce contest, to the big candle light parade on All Souls Day.
(For a glimpse of a past year’s parade go to

So Saturday afternoon I headed out on my yearly pilgrimage to see the newly installed exhibit of Day of the Dead altars at The Mission Cultural Center. The main gallery space holds about a dozen altar installations created by local middle school and high school students and several contemporary Latino artists. The student altars vary from the traditional style, honoring ancestors with photos, dried marigolds, paper flowers, sugar skulls, and cheerful, dancing skeletons, to more specific statements as the one displaying 24 pairs of combat boots worn by soldiers killed in Iraq.

But the altar in the side gallery most caught my attention. Created by artist Brett Cook, the installation honors his deceased grandmother with a large, contemporary painted portrait as the background for layers of her personal items on display; an amazing collection of old (really old) cookbooks, jello molds, hotpads, jars of canned applesauce, cookie cutters, tubes of colored sugar sprinkles, handmade valentines, hundreds of bottles of pills, old lipsticks, bottles of perfume, costume jewelry, her Bingo hat, a shower cap and even an old girdle. The piece is called The Grandma Collaborative Altar Project and invites visitors to bring photos to this community altar to honor their deceased grandmothers. What a lovely idea.

That evening, I lit candles on my own small altar at home, where the faded photos of my grandmothers, great grandmothers and great aunts stand with pictures of my father, grandfather and a favorite great uncle, all seeming to whisper remember me. At this time of year, when the veil between worlds draws thin, let us all take time to honor our grandmothers and those who have gone before us by remembering them in some way; whether it is creating an altar, cooking a favorite dish or simply by speaking their names out loud.

Sharry Wright

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Snake in The Tree

There is a tree on the trail that runs along the Winooski River. (Yes, that trail. I promise I won’t always talk about it, but, boy, is it full of treasures…) There are many trees, of course, but this one catches my eye more than the others. It’s a Hackberry tree, and it seems to be the only one of its kind along the trail. It is a beautiful tree—tall and slender, with a cork-like bark and red-purple berries that stay on its branches through the winter. A haven for hungry cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and many other birds.
This is not why it catches my eye though.

The reason I stop and study it is because there is a snake in the tree. Long and thick, it winds its way from the dirt all the way up the trunk and into the branches high above my head. I can’t see its eyes or its tongue, but I imagine they are up there—watching me, sensing me—in the Hackberry’s tallest branches. It has a view of the river, and the road above the trail, and the sky above it all.

The snake is not a real snake, of course. It is a wild grapevine.

The woody vine begins in the ground, its roots just as dug into the earth. And then it climbs. For the first ten feet or so, it is parallel to the tree, and then it circles its way around the tree’s trunk. It is an old vine, so its bark is ragged and is shedding in long strips. The vine slithers further up the tree, around branches, and gets thinner the higher it gets. See how it could look like a snake?

And this morning, as I engaged in my ritual of stopping and studying it, I had the strongest feeling that I was standing beneath Grandmother Moccasin. The Grandmother Moccasin. Kathi Appelt’s mighty and eternal snake from The Underneath.

The muddy earth, the sound of the water rolling by the trail, the occasional splash by a fish or a bird, the deep green of the ferns, the sun filtered through the thick trees, the smell of wood decaying. It could be the Texas Bayou, couldn’t it?

Tam Smith

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Shakespeare on the Bay

Last Friday night, my husband, daughter and I, along with about 40 other sash-draped passengers, boarded a late afternoon ferry for Alcatraz to observe and participate in the We Players’ production of Hamlet on Alcatraz. (The sashes were our ‘tickets’) The performance is a collaboration between the theater troupe and the National Park Service, bringing interactive theater to public spaces. The troupe’s Alcatraz Residency aims to provoke “awareness and conversation around the issues of incarceration, isolation, justice, and redemption,” and what better play to exemplify these issues than Hamlet?

Even before the ferry touched dock, Francisco and Bernardo burst into our midst proclaiming the death of the King and the distress of his son, Hamlet. As we followed them onto the island, the ghost appeared at the top of the guard house as the sentinels tell Horatio what they have seen.

For the next 3 ½ hours, we followed the players and a group of musicians (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, percussion and stand-up bass) over winding paths, up narrow staircases, in and out of the crumbling prison. At one point, we were instructed to divide into four cell blocks, which I knew from a previous visit had once housed the most notorious of Alcatraz’s inmates, including the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. The damp, stark, claustrophobic surroundings served as evocative reminders of the fate of the incarcerated.

Hamlet was played with passion by Andrus Nichols, who lent the intensity of her strong features to convincing us that she was the melancholy, tormented prince. And the mercurial Jack Halton infused the character of Polonius with nuance and heart.

After we watched Ophelia buried in a shallow grave by Halton recast as a penitentiary inmate, the final scene was staged outside in the main prison yard, lit by bonfires and kerosene lamps. As all but Horatio lay dead on the lonely windswept stage, the city twinkled like a jewel box across the Bay, reminding us of the preciousness of freedom and how quickly all is lost.

For a glimpse from the pre-production rehearsals check out:

Sharry Wright 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Flood

This past week the sky ripped a seam and rain poured down on Richmond and its soggy 4000 residents. For almost two days straight we lived with a constant percussion accompaniment. Trrrrrrrrr on the roof tops and streets, ping ping ping ping  on the wood and pellet stove vent pipes, and the stamp stamp of wet boots on mudroom floors. At my house, Winn-Dixie and Fundy went out into the yard only when they absolutely had to, and in less than two minutes they were back in the house, shaking sheets of water onto the walls.

My street is parallel to the Winooski River--the river that Winn, Fundy and I run along. Between our house and the river is our neighborhood park. During the drum solo downpour, the river overflowed and flooded it. The baseball diamond disappeared. The jungle gym, half submerged in water, was an island in the middle of an ocean. Instead of playing soccer, my son went for a swim. The water was cold, he said, and he was joined by fish from the river. I thought about past floods. (We live in a flood plain after neighbors and I talk about this!) I looked them up. There was the great Vermont flood of 1927. And the Johnstown, PA flood of 1889, which fellow writer Jame Richards wrote about in her wonderful debut novel, Three Rivers Rising.

Even after the rain stopped falling, the fierce sound of the rushing water reverberated on our street. A reminder of the...ummmmm....aliveness of our landscape, perhaps. It moves even when we aren't looking. It speaks even when our ears are tuned elsewhere.

Tam Smith