Thursday, December 4, 2014

Early December (whoosh)

A little piece from the vault was published last week in Fordham's paper. I think you can find it here ("We'll Always Have Sung Chu Mei"). Also last week one night I had to make pumpkin chocolate chip cookies after the kids went to bed for Wally's school and Alex helped me and we listened to music in the kitchen and I thought wow most every night we are cyborgs listening to separate music but that was so much fun to just be present in the kitchen together making something. It was one of those chop wood, carry water moments and I realized in some ways grad school has removed me even further from those kinds of experiences.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Early September

I wish I had taken a picture of our garden patch at the start. Before and after, or even better, during, to show the progression of it. The chilly, barren April day we first came here to turn the dirt, shrieks of delight from Wally, horror from me, each time we lifted up a worm. We found a little tiny shell once and wondered how it got there - this space was covered by ocean, once, wasn't it? Remembering a plaque from The Museum of Natural History, something about the last ice age, there is a mythic history to every place we are when we are still for even a second to consider it. 

Place-based education. I had been so interested in that a few years ago, when I started this blog, I researched degree programs even (even! As if that shows a major investment). Much further ago than that—my first year out of college—I interned for John Kerry's in Environmental Affairs, writing letters pleading with constituents to accept policy that favored the interests of the whole over the few. I saw how complicated idealism could be, when the rule of eminent domain forced coastal residents from their long-time family homes, when fishing protection acts cost poor working-class fisherman their jobs, the contradictions in every decision. Digital media is better for the environment than the printing press. Yet the loss of books and papers that meant the world to me and so many others, not just the book but the materiality of it too, the text object, it's hard not to mourn that they've gone the way of the beloved album now, leaving us longing for days when words and new albums were something you could hold. Those high school days when breathless almost, flush with excitement, you popped it in the minute you got home from school, with a friend who came over specifically to listen to that album, who could only hear it at your house because she didn't own it, probably would not buy it herself or at least not for a while. Nightswimming deserved a quiet night, music through the windows, nothing less than our lifeblood.

I'm sitting here now in a rare moment - first of its kind - Wally in Queens, Petra in daycare. My intention was to race home to work on an Evaluation Report, yet could not resist this gray day here at the garden, the emptiness of it, the promise.

There is a woman in the garden who used to seethe every time she saw us. Seethe. I could never get her to smile. I thought she must just hate kids running around too loud, always threatening to yank someone else's hard-earned plants. And then one day I saw her reading (a book, full of notes and marked pages and things falling out of it). I commented on it and she stood up, came over, and told me about the series of women writers. Turns out she herself is one, with a recent book published, which I haven't bought yet because it's only available at amazon and Book Culture and I want to buy it at the latter but of course haven't yet. And now I can't even remember the name. Or her name. She told me she writes about how the city as she knew it disappearing. Every day there is another great little store gone, another bank or nail salon in its place. And I worry too much about it, about New York becoming as my dad puts it a Long Island strip mall. But what she does it much better. Much better to write. 

Yet this new New York will one day be longed for. Who wrote this,  "What we mourn our conquerers will one day mourn"? It is from some ancient myth. Another citation I can only gesture at and not actually cite. You can't just reference stuff without saying what you're referencing. But it is that or not write at all. Here. When I say here (in the garden) I also mean, here, on this site. I am still tenuously holding on to whatever invisible lines held me to the imagined fertile ground of this story.

The garden is so different that it was even a month ago. All around us are sunflowers. For a time ours was the lowest garden, just isolated little patches of things: lavender, thyme, beets, cilantro. All so small. Surrounded by overgrown iris and tomato plants. Now it's out of control. We took 8 feet off our pumpkin vine and still it is greedy and everywhere strangling the pole beans and choking off collard green. Two giant sunflower stalks of our own - no flowers yet. Cilantro seeding, beyond the point of eating; Wally now collects the coriander balls. 

Nature is fecund, I keep thinking. It's not the beauty of it that strikes me today, in fact it's almost creepy, the giant pumpkin vines, our "pumpkin problem" as Wally calls it, that started with seeds from Mimi (my mom) which it turns out we should not have planted in July. The pole beans are knocking over the poles, the horrible Ivy in the neighbor's patch, the terrible growth, spreading out in every direction, unstoppable growth. Annie Dillard occurs to me again and again, stalks me, like she stalks the muskrat at Tinker Creek. 

“Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” 

Children, too. The growth. Just so fast, seeming to accelerate, popping through the knees in their pants, legs shooting out, lying so long in the bed at night...when did they get so long?

By wishing I'd taken pictures am I renouncing my duty to describe the garden? Writing is the task I've chosen, not photography, certainly not art. It was motherhood that gave me something I really wanted to write about, and there was a time a moment there when I thought I could write a mommy blog, when I fumed over the mommy blogs with their 1000s of hits a day. There is one in Oregon - I can't find it now, I deleted the bookmark, it drove me nuts- a woman who wrote about her four children in the most pedestrian, sentimental way, the tears at the birthdays, the view of the gorgeous pine trees from her window. She would just be sitting at her computer in such an overly confident way knowing 1000s were hanging on her every word, hoping she'd steal a moment from her incredibly fulfilling role as a mom making pinterest-worthy cake pops and—

But I realized somewhere along the way that even if I wanted to I couldn't pull it off. But I did want to write and learn to write better. And somehow I found myself now studying literature and craft, which leaves me with less time for motherhood, what is what lead me here. I have got to find the river, I tell myself. The verses are so unpleasant, which makes the chorus all the more gratifying.

One tiny block on 60th street between Central Park West and Columbus is this intersection of three totally different periods of my life, all from recent years, and each day when I get out of the subway I marvel at it. I am walking to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus for my Graduate Assistantship at Poets Out Loud. I pass Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall and I also pass, though unmarked, the sensory gym where I used to bring Wally Monday mornings so he could run and crash and fall into a pit of balls. I was so overwhelmed then. By what? Do we always say that looking back—"I was so overwhelmed then. By what?"

There is the coriander harvest to attend to but that's about it. I don't think we'll get any actual pumpkins this year. Three years ago I "found" the water near where we live. Twenty-two years ago I listened to Michael Stipe sing about how "strength and courage overrides the privileged and weary eyes of river poet search naivetĂ©". Tonight I will listen to "Find the River", on youtube, as I can't even imagine digging out the actual CD of Automatic For the People (so you're just as bad, it's not like you still listen to your own CDs). There was coriander in that song, remember? "There is nothing left to throw of Ginger, lemon, indigo, Coriander stem and rose of hay". I can still feel the song, and still feel the old impulse that drew me to the water and to the poetry set to melody that kept me from really writing in any other way for so many years. 

I should water the garden and get on my way. Late summer, everything is still pushing sideways and upward and around. Soon that will change. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Goodnight air

The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter

If you want go see this exhibit at the New York Public Library before it closes September 7th.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

From Bangkok to Calgary

At just about half past four today it already felt like the day was leaving and I don't know why. I mean, I do know why, because the light is leaving, has been since June, and our apartment faces East, and I keep replaying "I will follow you into the dark" even though I'm not a huge Death Cab fan but my cousin played that song Sunday when we spontaneously stopped by my aunt's house by the beach and it really is a hauntingly beautiful song, better when my cousin sings it than the original. And that means I can't hear the version that is going around in my head. It's there somewhere, but I can't grasp it. It feels spectral. So much felt spectral in August 1999 when I first moved to this city into the apartment on West 87th with no kitchen where Kristin and I spent the evenings awash in toxic fumes from her paints, vodka splashed and I tried to write, our duffel bags and mattresses on the floor in the other room. Just for a short while really until we moved out. So much felt packed--was packed--into those 7 months and now years fly by in the same amount of time.

Other years we have been on vacation toward the end of August, and I think that is the time to be on vacation, because then you still feel that it is summer.

It's okay though that the summer went by in a blink because this time I was awash in Joyce, crickets chirping in that oasis in the Bronx, the late rides home on the D-train, the feminist and post-colonial jargon, my final paper seeping its way into my vacation this year up in Vermont.

For years I've been accused of over-analyzing, thinking too much about what someone said, reading too much into...strange currencies...into a word, a signal, a nod, a little breath...and then I went to get my master's in English...and oh my God, of course, of course that's what all these years in the back of my mind I thought I had to do. 

But it also feel crazy now, to be sorting out schedules constantly with two kids, my nonprofit work, my new poetry job, my new classes about to start. And I think with-- I don't know if it can accurately be called nostalgia? --I think back on days when I actually looked at cookbooks and thought about what I'd make for dinner that night, or clicked on mommypoppins and thought about where I'd take Wally that day. 

Somewhere I fell off where I was processing things though, and that's what I want to get back. I want to get back to where I am feeling and processing things enough and I did that that first year the sangria summer when I started this blog.

I remember nights at my dining room table with the air the perfect spring new air (I'm thinking about many many years ago now, high school) coming in through the window and my books and papers spread out in front of me overwhelming crushes all consuming and listening over and over and over again to "Half a World Away" - "This lonely world is wasted on pathetic eyes" after that I never understood what he said. You know how the chorus is not that satisfying, not very melodic, you just almost can't stand how perfect it is when it swoons back in turn to marigold I always thought, but it's miracle? I haven't watered the garden today we have a pumpkin problem we did not realize how long and greedy the vines were going to be. A pumpkin is not the thing to plant in July in a tiny NYC garden patch.

Back to the vacation timing. I think I didn't realize that by this time even just half way through August everyone is in back-to-school mode. I know stores are, because they want to sell college-ruled paper and compasses. But was everyone always like this so early on? I thought August was legit full summer, but I swear everyone for a good week now has been moaning bemoaning the end of summer. And I think because we were usually up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire at this time or at least the back porch in Massachusetts I never until now thought of it that way. 

Last year on this exact day I believe we were visiting my friend Heather and her family, the boys roasting marshmallows maybe at this very minute, Alex and Heather's husband drinking the choc au vin we'd gotten at a roadside store. I got a voicemail on August 21 from a school downtown saying they had a seat for Wally and my stomach was in knots for the entire night trying to figure out if I should keep him at our local school -- community was so important, I'd been talking about it for months, trying to help improve prospects for under privileged students (the majority of the student population there) for nearly my entire adult life -- or send him downtown. It created this haze of the next few days. 

He's in Queens now, where he is king. The house is quiet. I have a chance to work. But the quiet means that my mind stirs. Calgary, that's Canada, right, not a holy place outside Jerusalem where Christ died. 

In all these songs, it's what you think they say or mean that matters. Once you find out the actual words, that can't change the way the song was imprinted in your memory. August was always the hottest month, the longest playing outside after dinner firefly evenings, the lambent, swelling, dog days of our green and crazy summers, even if for days now for all these years we've been slowly tilting away from the sun.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

I don't think I am that good at catching people up on what I've been doing. Not keeping people caught up, that elusive covenant of the blog, that I've clearly been terrible at lately, but, after a break, letting them know in broad terms what I've been up to. Like a recap. It feels overly committed and final. My sister has joked for years that she can talk to me for an hour hang up the phone and have no idea that I got laid off from my job or applied to grad school. I am too invested in what's going through my head right now. That's all I usually want to talk about. Not that it doesn't often refer to the past or become completely swallowed up by it but it's all based on what I'm feeling at any given moment.

This morning was madness...bubble solution spilling in the hall, mashed corn muffins, babies wailing, water buckets dumping out, my friend M. leaving with her one and a half year old to go back to Chicago and I just wanted to talk to her for like five minutes, or even just one, but I had to keep chasing Petra and then realized at one point feeling this frustration like there I am out there on the mug in hand...with M. back at my parents' house and then it hit me that, wow, there I was out in the morning sun drinking coffee, that is what I'd wanted so long during vacation that little tiny thing, coffee in the sun, and there in the midst of the chaos and Petra-chasing I couldn't escape from, I escaped.

Four years ago I remember writing in a dark hotel room about the unbelievably sober family reunion going on right that moment. Writing here had an energy and urgency then a feeling like I had (created) some responsibility to report on the goings on in my life - the mystery weddings the unspoken grandmother's unveiling was coming up and after that up to New Hampshire but I'm getting away from what I meant to write about. We just had the same reunion, the same crowd I should say, this time up in Vermont, same crazily hydrated seltzer-drinking Jews but Wally is such a different person it's hard for me to wrap my mind around, not just that he's calmer but I mean he is a person to talk to and relate to and it's like - where did you come from? It's just amazing all these experiences that I remember and he does not but now here he is inside every moment and understanding things in such an intuitive way. 

In the middle of the day I brought W and P to the Acton Library playground and was disappointed to see it had completely changed since the last time I brought Wally there...I was caught in my usual loop, "I can't believe they changed it" (even though even the one I am now attached to is not the one from my childhood) and Wally said, "Change is good" as he scampered off.

I found out yesterday that Sky our (former - don't like to call her that) dog is not doing well and had a series of tests today. I had expected to hear something like this for a few years now maybe she is after all 13. Today I went with W and P to say goodbye to her. It could be that we'll see her again, but I prepared Wally for the high probability that we will not - he is super-attached to her even though he can't possibly remember the 6 months they lived and napped and walked together every day but maybe it was stored somewhere, imprinted. The new owner said she'd let us know tomorrow (about the test results).

Saying goodbye to Sky was so sad. She kept staring at us as we left and I waited and waited because I wanted her to be the one to leave, not watch us, and finally the new owner took her and they went through the door and it closed behind them. Wally looked up at me voice shaking a little at first. "It's okay," he said, "We'll hear about her tomorrow". It was such a hopeful thing to say.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One of the -- if not the -- hardest books ever written in the English language (topped sometimes by Finnegans Wake but many don't consider that to be written in English and thereby discount it). The hardest (I'm told? I hope?) professor at Fordham for this condensed summer course. Kids with stomach viruses home when supposed to be not home. Late nights, early mornings, lots of time to read and write and so luxurious the green quiet of the campus enchants me a throwback to many many years ago or even just three years ago the idealist fair asking - what do I want to do with my life (held, I believe it was, at the Lincoln Center Fordham campus) and the now cliche aphorism (you don't say cliche and aphorism, one or the other, too late, too many words, too much post-structuralist post feminist marxist jargon--maybe apophthem?) Henry David Thoreau was it or Emerson the high-school yearbook quote I saw yesterday on the side of a bookbag in the store where one day I used to work (not in the store itself but in the publishing house that supplied the store with its material texts): it was really a slightly edited version to be fair "Go confidently in the direction of your the life you imagined" and I thought--that always sounded so exhilarating but really it can be so - wow - tiring and kind of awkward and hard - but exhilarating, yes, even though but day to day it's trudging home on the D train swarmed to overflowing at Yankee Stadium at 10:30 carrying far too many books and wondering if there will be anything left at home to eat for dinner and how early I'll wake up to those loud, energetic voices and thinking - what? what? Signature of all things I am here to read...for how much longer, tonight.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Recycling Bin Split-Second Symphony

When I dropped the recycling into the bin downstairs the bottles made the sound of the opening drums of “Just like Heaven. So I came upstairs and put on The Cure and that to me is so senior spring from High School, fresh cut grass, our parents' cars, slipping out during study hall to Philip's Coffee even though we didn't drink coffee, blasting The Cure out the car windows, so many promises at the end of high school, in love on Fridays, alone above the raging sea.

That's what made me come here to write, a recycling bin split-second symphony, the only way back into the fantasy world of my blog, a one-time-record of the interrupted life, madly, wildly interrupted in a different way from when I started writing it. Now I am entrenched more seriously in my freelance work, preparing to start grad school in two weeks with a James Joyce summer course, wading through the River Liffey, slipping into Viconian cycles. I have gotten away from writing and reading and thinking about parenting. It’s a topic that I realized sometimes drains me. It means that when you’re not actively taking care of your kids, you are reading about how to do a better job at taking care of your kids. It’s like you’re constantly putting out for others, with nothing filling you back up.

Just over a month ago I put Petra in three day a week daycare, which makes getting into this other stuff somewhat possible if still a bit implausible. I have even been able to wake up before the kids some days and turn to Dublin mid June 1904 with a text that cannot be rushed, cannot be skimmed, summarized, shrunk or scanned in any way. There is no way to condense it, no reward for an attempt to read through and “get the gist of” the single unremarkable day in an unremarkable man’s life that takes up nearly 900 pages in the Modern Library edition my parents sent me. There is only one way to read it and possibly enjoy it: line by inscrutable line.  

The garden too—so much to update, I’m sorry I didn’t record the events of it here because a little garden patch in the city has fulfilled some deep-seated Last American Childhood-like desire held since I first wished here for a patch of dirt and shovel for Wally—has proven unyielding to efforts to hurry it along.

Poetry, all writing, is the same. You have to give it time. Nothing meaningful will come from it otherwise.

Today, returned to the apartment after dropping off both kids to the smell of coffee and fresh cut grass. I am reading Alicia Ostriker who was born in 1937 in Brooklyn the birds are chirping and I think I could spend all day slipping into her dream of springtime.

There are many mornings like this, where I rush in with a surge of energy, newly light, sun poring in and the voices in my head not drowned out by any other demands at least for the walk home. It feels like the hint of another time, another life, where a morning could be spent indulging in whatever that smell of fresh-cut grass and coffee conjures up…a cafĂ©, a journal open on the table, years before I ever drank coffee. Now I run to pull out a book of Billy Collin poems as I find myself:

"buzzing around the house on espresso— 
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,"

But then eventually I go to the computer to confront the daily massive reality of real life in all its bite-size minutiae. Within an instant I’m sunk. Sunk into PTA staff appreciation day, whether Alex can leave work early Thursday to get Wally, health forms I need to send, photos for an ID I need to upload, a rental car I need to reserve, birthday presents I have to buy, a glance at “Fan of Whitney Houston buys her ‘80s mansion” which had “long been vacant”. And then there is the guy who randomly called EvalPros (one of the many names my dad and I have used for our nonprofit consulting work). He is a disabled vet involved in a court case. It has been bobbing around on my to do list, to call him back, but what can we do? That’s not what we do? How can we help him?

But that’s not even accurate, to suggest I am only lost by going into that outer world, because the inner is equally labyrinthine, more so. For example today, four hours after waking up, three train rides and many, many stairs, (both “schools” are at the top of steep flights of them) many head nods and little bits of small talk on the walk back home, wondering about “Tanya” the name on coffee cup in the garbage can on 26th street, whooshing home full of energy, songs or poetry, even a chance rhythm of glass bottles falling into the recycling bin, the voices harmonious, and telling myself I can have just a half hour to write. Okay, here I am, reminding myself of Natalie Goldberg. At my desk, keeping the internet closed, just taking in the smell of fresh cut grass and coffee.

First I think of Edie, a young woman who worked at Wally’s school last year who was suddenly not there for months. In her absence I neglected even to ask about her only half noticing if at all that day after day she wasn’t there. She was not in his classroom, just one of many kind people who worked there. She always said hi and often swooped Wally up in her arms when she saw him. When I did see her again after months of not realizing I hadn’t seen her, she said she’d been in a horrible car crash and almost died now she could not smell or taste. By that time I guess the brush with death had receded far enough into the past that this relatively minor concern had risen to the surface; that was what she focused on. That is what I think first today, when I do even allow myself the luxury of the blank page. Edie, whom I hardly know, with shining black eyes and I think a niece Wally’s age, who cannot smell coffee or freshly cut grass. She is not usually on my mind. But recently someone mentioned Gray Gardens. There is an Edie there, I think the daughter?

Now the sound of the lawnmower outside …which barely registers above the din of the city…din, a word hanging on the wall in Mr. McInerney’s 5th grade class. The lawnmower drove me nuts that sound when I lived in Drummer Farms and otherwise all was quiet on a summer morning. After school was over it seemed to me early and reasonable to get up at 9 and I resented being woken any earlier by that horrible sound.

I want to stay in that spell of "Just Like Heaven", thinking about spring mornings 20 years ago. It's I guess obvious why. I’m setting off once again for immersion in academia, or at least as much immersion as is possible with the school supply list already for next year, the demanding neighbors, the laundry scattered on the floor. I’m not going anywhere, except into my own magic treehouse full to overflowing with books to jump into, no car to blast music out of, but about to disconnect from one world and rush headlong into another.

It was cutting edge for Dartmouth in the fall of 1994, twenty years ago, to require all incoming freshmen to purchase a computer. Here I sit at mine, critical of all the virtual connection it has to offer, yet continuing to find something of value in it, engaged now in a practical search of the most mundane kind, not to read the dour (someone called him that, perfect) but insightful Stuart Gilbert’s thoughts on cosmology and the esoteric in the Proteus episode of Ulysses, but for dinner tonight. I am pleased to see someone in Irvine, California once had the same question as me: Can you peel and cut potatoes and get them ready ahead of time?