Thursday, September 2, 2010

Meet Ann Emerson

(I wrote this article for the La Honda Voice newspaper.  Oddly, some people on this planet don't subscribe to the Voice, so I thought I'd repost an expanded version here with some additional comments.)

Not the Last
by Ann Emerson
-- with gratitude to Jane Hirshfield

In this story I am an old animal
and not sad in the way people think

about horses vanishing in the West.
Stanford Cancer Center.  The hills behind the

research lab are stitched tight with barbed wire.
Things now are just as they said it would be:

steel devices and PKC412.
End-stage: I am a feral horse untouched

by human hands, lithe as grasses on
high plains.  Pink gasps of lungs for air.

This isn’t the last poem I will write about
orchids on the desks of doctors from grateful

families of the dead.  Here, in this closed
room, I grow restless pricked with silver

hooks and tools.  I am not sad no one
has figured me out and I do not wonder why things

turn out as they do: my sky pouring gold through
the window, the crack of wind setting me free.

Meet Ann Emerson
by Joe Cottonwood

Ann Emerson self-portrait
You may not have met Ann Emerson, though she's been living in La Honda for a couple of years.  "I'm kind of a hermit," she says. 

Four and a half years ago, Ann learned that she has a rare form of cancer called malignant mastocytosis.  She was given 3 to 5 years to live.  "This prognosis was very good," she says, "because now I know there's an end in sight.  I'm at heart very lazy.  I need to evolve.  Now there's a compression of time, an intensity.  I'm more selective about who I spend my time with." 

Mostly, she spends her time with two old cats at her little cabin in the redwoods in a chair overlooking San Gregorio Creek, where she writes poetry.  She calls her home Lazy Eye Ranch in honor of a lazy-eyed cat.

Besides writing poetry, Ann runs something of a hospice for old cats, usually blind ones.  "I've always worked with dying animals," she says.  Currently she cares for two of them, Blinky (one-eyed) and Babar.  In boxes by the window are the ashes of 3 cats who have passed on: Wabisabi, Flossy, and Piccola.  "When I die," Ann says, "I want my ashes mixed with theirs."

Morbid?  Depressing?  Not at all.  Spending time with Ann is to be embraced by the clarity of her life, her spirit, all of which shines through her poems.

Born in Oakland in 1954, Ann grew up in a not-so-good neighborhood in Richmond until 1968 when it was destroyed in the rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King.  Her father was a professor of medieval musicology; her mother was a child prodigy concert pianist who at age 8 appeared in Steinway ads, but who gave it all up, as was expected in the 1950's, to raise Ann.  Her mother became a reference librarian in the Richmond Library, where Ann would hang out and read everything, first children's books and then moving to the adult section.

Ann in 1976
Ann majored in Physiology at U.C. Berkeley and wanted to be a veterinarian, but the Dean of the Vet School at U.C. Davis "chewed me out, called me a hippie (I had hair down to my butt) and told me he wouldn't admit me because I was only going to drop out and have babies."  This was 1975.

So instead of veterinary science, Ann studied literature in graduate school but only as an academic pursuit, never as a creative writer.  In those days (and perhaps still) there was a strict boundary: You were either academic or creative, never combined.

At age 27 Ann worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.  "She was a pistol," Ann says.  "A tough cookie.  A down to earth, gritty woman.  She took no personal interest.  To her, all that matters is your service to others."   On a wall of Ann’s cabin hang the words:
Three things in human life
are important;
The first is to be kind.
The second is to be kind.
The third is to be kind.
  --Mother Teresa

Ann worked for 20 years in the California Employment Training Panel, an agency started by Governor Jerry Brown to retrain workers.  For 15 of those years Ann visited employers, meeting CEO's, helping workers from the cubicles of Silicon Valley to the hot fields of broccoli farmers.  What she learned, she says, is that "American workers work really hard."
Finally, with her illness, Ann had to quit.  She can't go more than a few hours without sleep.  With the clarity coming of a life-threatening illness (Ann, in her Buddhist group, doesn't use the word "terminal"), Ann came to see many of her acquaintances as shallow, concerned with shopping and shoes.  She gave up her life in San Carlos and moved to a little cabin in the redwoods.  Meanwhile, she joined an experimental writing class offered to cancer patients at Stanford.  Under teacher Sharon Bray, she discovered she had a calling as a poet.  At last she is a creator, not an academic.  And she is blossoming.  Now she meets with Ellen Bass, a Santa Cruz poet, and had an inspiring encounter with the poet Jane Hirshfield.

Ann has turned to poetry with a passion.  "You go for broke," she says.  Her lessons from Mother Teresa ("All that matters is your service to others"), from broccoli farmers ("American workers work really hard"), and from her own trials with chemo and blood transfusions and all the medical technology that Stanford can bring to bear, have taught her this: "It's not what you do but how you do it.  You do it with all your heart and all your passion."

And this: "Getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me."
 After posting this article, Jane Hirshfield commented:
The finished poem is perfect, more than perfect--it is devastating and gorgeous and true.
Thank you for this story--and Ann, thank you, for your presence, your words, and your teaching--
Ann keeps a journal at the wonderful website CaringBridge.

There's more about Ann Emerson here:
Ann Emerson, continued...

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