Showing posts with label childhood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label childhood. Show all posts

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Staring at Emily

I am beginning this already with the thought -- this won't be a "real" entry. I will write -- I will try not to make it perfunctory, to give you more than simply the run-down on Wally's haircut today and the idea my mom had for pouring Crème de menthe over vanilla ice cream. She had mentioned that idea for dessert the first night we arrived, and we kept forgetting every night because we've all been working in the evenings for the most part, not hanging out drinking wine and eating m n' ms the way we usually do. But right before I go to bed each night I've gone down for a glass of water or something in the kitchen and I've been smacked in the face with the overwhelming smell of mint. I was like, wow, she's really going buck wild with the stuff--what is she doing shots and spilling it all over the place, or what? Turns out I was smelling the peppermint she sprinkles around to keep mice at bay. As of tonight, the bottle of Crème de menthe was still unopened.

On the way out to the grocery store today in the late afternoon, we stopped to get the mail. One card was a picture and beautiful letter from a girl named Caitlin. When my sister and I were little, after we moved from Virginia but before we moved to Acton, Massachusetts, we lived for a year on the Connecticut coast, down the street from my grandparents' cottage by the beach. I don't remember much, if anything, from that year (I was Wally's age now when we moved further north), but I grew up staying friends with the four other kids in what was that day's version of a "playgroup".

My mom befriended two nearby young moms, Angela and Barbara, and the three hung out together with their kids, trading kid-watching duties and getting together all 10 of us, too. Angela's family stayed close by for a while, and we stayed friends with her kids. We mostly lost touch with Barbara's, saw them only every now and again. My mom would still see Barbara; she came to my sister's wedding in 2000. But they faded. Those old, original friendships, those morning playgroups with muffins and oj, those family walks by the beach, those holiday reunions, the yearly surprise at how much everyone had grown, the sense of tracing over some authentic, familial pattern each time we hung out even if we didn't know each other all that well, the way old neighbors do, people whose parents go to the same church as your grandparents, know the same pizza place, remember things you used to do as a toddler--those friendships remained somewhere in the sepia-toned distance. It's been years now since I've seen any of them.

Caitlin's mom Barbara died 8 years ago. After we read Caitlin's recent letter, my mom unearthed a collection of newsletters Barbara used to send, the precursor to blogs, those once-a-year updates, not every night, more real, but not real-time. Here, at the start of one, she quotes Theodor Roethke in a Christmas poem. "There is a hush, a Holy Pause." I am reading the letters now, looking back through pictures, feeling that hush.

Throughout there are vivid scenes that catch you not necessarily for what they mean, but just for what they are. "The girls sat relatively demurely at a candlelit table nibbling on pizza til Aron strolled in wearing his Halloween gorilla mask." There are black and white photographs photocopied into the letter. I suppose people could be of two minds when it comes to a newsletter (or blog) update --maybe thinking, Why do I care? And for some reason, caring. What is their daily life like? Like Hemingway wrote about the "greatest difficulty" he found in writing--"to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced." That is what blogs and newsletters are full of--or at least aim to be. What really happened in action. What the actual things were. We care not just because we care about the people --but presumably we do -- but because a picture of someone's daily life is revealing, it lets us in on a little hint -- a two-inch picture frame -- of what it's like to be alive.

In Our Town, after her death, the main character Emily goes back to her daily life, and she is so heart-broken by how everyone's too busy to look at her. Her mom's making a birthday cake I think, her dad's working like crazy. She implores them to stop but they can't. “Please anybody," she says, "just look at me. I don’t need the cake or the money. Please look at me.”


One year Barbara sent a postcard with the apology, "The economy makes our message briefer, but know you are always in our heart, on our lips, in our thoughts." She wrote my mom after my grandfather died, she continued to send pictures and updates about her children--one a teacher, one in the Peace Corps. And then a few years later, she died. Now Caitlin, her daughter, seems to be carrying on her mom's tradition of at least yearly updates. In one--though this, I see is from long ago, 2003, she writes, "I am my mother's daughter and so it seems, fun is always near at hand. There is so much to do, see, read-experience. I am happy." That must have been just a year or so after her mom died. At her brother's wedding that year, the "pinnacle of her year", she felt that her mom "was in her way, there."

I see from the address on the card my mom received today, that Caitlin lives in Brooklyn with her baby girl. Funny, she's just between my sister and I, and has been in New York for quite some time--a decade?--yet we haven't run into her. My first instinct lately is not to keep reaching out to people, past and future, to resist my impulse to connect--to say, the problem is that you are already so scattered, already so disconnected, don't fall into the paradoxical trap of seeking more connection only to undermine the ones you already have. And yet I think it is just my nature. I am always searching for that sense of shared history, of memories from childhood that resonate at the same frequency as one's own, I am always picking up the paper cup, listening, as Morning wrote today, for that jumbled message back.

I may or may not send a letter to the actual Caitlin, to the actual Brooklyn street so close to my own. Maybe I'll be content to read through her and her mother's letters, to think about the group of friends my mom had when I was little, and the ones -- moms and otherwise -- I have now. Content to stop making the birthday cake or worrying about money. Content to stare Emily right in the face.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Almost out of time, but just for today

11:15 PM
Wally and Alex are both asleep now. It's raining here on this island of Manhattan, raining on the blue and white Empire State Building, on the skeleton trees. It felt like spring today, and yet it was kind of okay and I couldn't figure out why. Not a creepy, global warming kind of warm day. It's supposed to rain tomorrow, too, high near 50. I'm trying to type quietly. Alex and Wally went to a neighbor's this afternoon so I could work on collecting nauseating facts for my gross-o-pedia. The world of horrifying insects is endless, not surprising since insects make up, hmmm, what is it, I should know this, 2/3 of the number of different species of life on earth? An article from this September in The Times reviewed a book talking about how the study of insects has significant relevance to the study of human psychology and in particular the nature vs. nurture question, which is of course endlessly fascinating to any (relatively) new parent. Elizabeth Royte writes, "...because insects are rarely cared for by their parents and live mostly solitary lives, they make a handy tool for looking at the potential genetic basis for adult behaviors." I'm only now beginning to trace what my adult behaviors are, let alone where they came from.

On Sunday evening Wally and I went to a candlelit church service with a choir. Went to part of it, I should say. We lasted for four songs, though the gummy-bear to song ratio was rather high. Sometimes in the mornings after I drop Wally at school, I duck into St. Michael's church around the corner. It's beautiful in there, dark but full of burning candles, flowers up by the alter, and quiet choir music (a recording). There's a little chapel to the side where I sometimes sit. I gather my thoughts there, try to set myself on the good course for the day, to begin by being grateful. On the steps to the entrance are the words, "The truth above all." Hard to argue with that, still most of disagree on what that might be.

It's almost midnight. I don't have much time now to get this post out, to keep up with the challenge I took from citibank's gauntlet. (Funny, the most valuable advice they gave came after I left them on Bank Transfer Day. Maybe you can only look at something objectively when you're no longer dependent on it. Or maybe their ad campaigns just really got a boost.) Write your story, the citibank sign said. 

I am taking that to mean, for some reason, write here everyday. Writing here everyday keeps me writing more everywhere. It means I can't let myself off the hook. It holds me accountable. Like my cousins and I say playing Taboo at Thanksgiving, it "keeps me honest". (In the game, someone looks over the player's shoulder to make sure you don't say any of the forbidden words. In this case you're looking over my shoulder to make sure I punch in every day). 

Why though? Other than being held accountable to write, which is inherently a good thing. What is the point of writing every day? I don't need to answer that all in one sweep. I can do it little by little. That's what I'm realizing now, finally. I can immerse myself in the process. Commit myself to a daily practice. I can start where I am. "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."* 

There’s a picture of me and my cousin Will from the early fall of 1999, at my grandmother’s birthday at the beautiful clubhouse we called the Casino in Laurel Beach, where our family had the cottage for so many years. I weaved in and out of the grand hall, alternating between adult conversations and playing with my young cousins. Will, the one who graduated from High School this past June, was just a tiny bit older than Wally is now. That’s how time works, Rach. You sound like you’re explaining the basics of time to someone who just arrived here from another galaxy. Where maybe time doesn’t exist. (The galaxy, I read today, may be losing energy. I can't blame it, really.)

Will, along with his sister Moira and brother Charlie, are the teenagers who play with my sister’s kids and Wally at holidays now, like Dara and I were the teenagers who used to play with them. (Again, you’re describing the basic nature of time. It moves forward. You get older or die trying. There really isn’t any other choice.) Still, like the Twin Towers appearing in the wrong place in my timeline Rorschach test of memory*, when I think of Will, my first thought, for a split second, is of the little boy sitting on the porch of the Casino, swinging his legs and drinking grape juice. 

There are certain people who are just landmarks of time, whose face, when they were born, you recognize immediately. Will is one of them. My older niece, Eliana, is another. They’re both the oldest in their families, and when I think about it, they each represented a major shift in family tradition. Will’s birth when I was 16 heralded the end to my sister and my reign as the kids in our extended family. Eliana’s birth, perhaps, signaled the end of young adult-hood. It is not surprising, then, that those two remain figures like in the Natalie Merchant song, “...frozen in my mind like the child that you never will be, will be again”. Who they are to me is who I am to myself. Their arrivals marked major turning points for me. To see them accurately, I have to first see myself that way. I think I’m beginning to. It feels like being free.
Major transition points. Maybe, like my rain-soaked graduation, my non-existent wedding, refusal to settle down or get a real job, or prepare for having a baby, they went by unacknowledged. It's Freud 101. If you don't say goodbye to certain periods of your life, they never become past.

There is a book I should read--The Season’s of a Man’s Life, Daniel Levinson. I have it here—how even across cultures (species?) we all go through roughly the same phases and transitions throughout our lives. I haven’t been able to plough through it. Yet I am recognizing now the importance of attending to transitions, even in the corny, overblown way our culture tends to perform the act of passing through the threshold. All of us—the ones who are hyperaware and actively engaged in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—and those who block out every chance for self-reflection with sarcasm, Sierra Nevada and a status update—are living both our lives, one reported in real time, and one distorted, re-imaged, re-imagined, tangential, full of free associative thought and dream imagery. The second one I would trust more than anything else. Yet I do wonder how much what I'm still imagining is obscuring the view. 

The truth above all. That's what I'm seeking. That's what I'm after, in writing every day.

There was yesterday, December 21, when the bricklayers outside were driving me crazy. For moments at a time I forgot to be grateful because they are searing into my brain with those horrid drills, making it hard to concentrate on the work I had to do and the work I wanted to do. Here’s something I want to do: finish rewriting my young adult novel. Reading over the beginning, one passage catches my attention. I used to think of this as the narrator leaving someone else behind, but today it is morphing into something else. Remember I wrote ages ago about how people in your dreams and real life are all the same things—extensions of yourself? Of course that’s obviously true for characters in stories you write. And here, both characters were me. The one moving forward and the one staying behind. Anyway, here's the passage from the novel. Thanks to citibank, my enemy, I have unearthed the manuscript again, 2 years after writing it for Nanowrimo (nothing like a meaningless deadline to motivate me). 
I was moving beyond her, the way you’d feel about a best friend when you get together one day and she just want to play the same old games the same old way, and doesn’t want to hear about any of the new music or books or people that you met at camp and you realized that you were just kind of moving forward, and that she’s not. That you’re waving goodbye from a bus window and she doesn’t really know you’re waving, just thinks that you’re in a funny mood that day. But she’s getting smaller and smaller to where you can hardly even see her, and eventually you’ll get carsick if you don’t turn your head around and focus on the road up ahead.

I have to begin where I am. It feels like I'm finally here. Once I find it, Carl Sagan's "worthy goal" will keep me looking forward, even when--behind the scenes, instead of sleeping--I'm sorting through the past. 

*(I would have supposed, if asked in a half-dream state, that the events of 9/11 would split in fairly equal parts my time in New York, when in truth there were only 2 years before and have been 10 years since
*Bertrand Russell again (this guy is amazing)
*Good advice from the Godfather, "Keep you friends close, but your enemies closer."

Soundtrack: What are they doing in Heaven today? by Bernice, Reagon, Yasmeen, and Michele Lanchester on Wade in The Water: Vol. 3: African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We expelled ourselves from Eden

This was made for a Carl Sagan tribute series. The text is his. Is that him reading? I have to find out. Maybe someone who listens will recognize his voice. I came across the video on Immoral Minority--one of the few political blogs out there where I've ever been able been able to find anything vaguely resembling the truth (though I think re: Sarah Palin he may take the mocking a little too far. She's just not worth that kind of vitriol anymore, and I think everything she says and does is funny enough without anyone needing to add to it). Anyway, this blew me away. Please watch it. Not right now, not when you're already running late and feeling overwhelmed. Later, if you remember, when you have time.

"We couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Was everyone a tomboy back then, or did it have more to do with all the hand-me down clothes?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Life on Land (Part I)

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood.” Annie Dillard 

The Highline, 27th Street

I wanted to start where I am, but even that sounds wrong—should it be where I "was"? So then, how about both present tense. I want to start where I am. But I can't even do that. Heisenberg Principle: behavior changes under observation.

I am falling away from my blog, but only in practice, not in theory. (Yogi Berra “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”) Certain themes have emerged. The idea of how much control we have over our lives, a lot more than we want to admit. Realizing now that more than anything for me having an overpacked schedule is resistance to bigger life goals and life questions. Ignoring big life questions is not a problem I face, but making them so huge that they’re unanswerable and irrelevant is something I do on an hourly basis. (The problem of the earth being engulfed by the sun and vaporized into it, for example—this will happen, ask any physicist, but not for a while.) Start with small things. Start with—What did you do today? A blog is so accessible that way. That's the only question you're being asked to answer. And it's a huge one. For almost a decade now I've been hounded by an Annie Dillard line: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives". What did you do today? It's an essential question. Put them all together and that's how you spent your life.

When a friend asked me that on the playground recently he answered his own question, following up with, “Same thing as yesterday, same as tomorrow.” But the truth is, that’s how I want it to be, how I dream of it being. A sameness, a rhythm, a flowing tide coming in and then receding. Instead it just keeps changing. Here’s Annie Dillard again, this time from American Childhood, a book I felt compelled to read given the name of my blog: “Scenes drift across the screen from nowhere. ..These aren’t still shots. The camera is always moving. And the scene is always just slipping out of sight.”

I tried to capture some of those scenes from the moving camera last year on these virtual pages. Why write about playground dynamics? Why even sensory and sensibility stuff? Why the empty garden? The family reunion? The west village library? The seven days of mice? The pink trees? The Boy Choy? The time capsule? The slow, painful runs, the changing friendships, the hope for a return to Gowanus, taking things apart and carrying them away? Dillard answers, this time in Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, a far superior book to American Childhood in my opinion. “The first question—the crucial one—of the creation of the universe and the existence of something as a sign and an affront to nothing, is a blank one. I can’t think about it. So it is to the fringe of that question that I affix my attention, the fringe of the fish’s fin, the intricacy of the world’s spotted and speckled detail.”  

So we start very tiny. An hour in the park. A slight betrayal. An awkward conversation. A moment of forgiveness that we maybe did not deserve. And see what we can dig into, pull up or apart, expand upon, extrapolate, make meaning from, find a theme, a point, a glimmer, a hint.

My struggle over the past year—to pull away from others’ opinions and advice and to recognize my own shadow in those I imagine to be hounding me—has been undertaken largely because of the desire to document my time with Wally.

It’s been about a year since I started writing on a sort of steady basis. It’s natural to use a year as a marker, a measuring device, to ask: Where was I last year at this time? How are things different now? Are they what I expected them to be? Last spring, when I began these chronicles, I was writing about the despair of playground mingling, the bleakness of what my friend Hein called “the zombie mom scene”. I was beginning to read about sensory processing disorder, getting used to Wally’s therapy schedule, trying to reign in my frantic days, change my expectations, bring my life more in line with my priorities. I was flooded with unwritten years of my own life, Thoreau's unexamined years, questions about how I ended up where I ended up. (There's a great quote in Little Children about how adulthood is basically an accumulation of weak moments.) My days were all over the place.

I was beginning to get past the myths of my own childhood, culminating just recently the post about changing interpretations of utopian childhoods. When trying to answer what did I mean by last American childhood, it became apparent that our generation may have lived not only the last but one of the first. I don’t trust people looking backward or forward. I wouldn’t trust myself, had I not recorded it here, to reflect back accurately on "what did I do" each day of last year. And this is part of the resistance to writing too. The desire to maintain an artifice, a history continually revised in the retelling. But writing requires observation. And there’s that Heisenberg principle at work. Writing forces you to see more clearly. Reading back over past writing, even more so. When you write honestly, you’re almost forced to decide whether to make a change or not.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Cathedral Space of Childhood

A while ago -- three months! -- I wrote "When there's something you can't write, there's usually a reason why you can't write it." And then I went on to try to explain what I meant--still not writing about "it" -- and got lost in the whole life-as-film reel/cyborg post about the Jesse Eisenberg run-in. And it's still out there, something I want to write but can't. I didn’t think it was a loaded topic. Not an example of what May Sarton describes in Journal of a Solitude when she says, "…at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth.” It's simply a post about the street where my mom grew up that I began writing in February, when Wally and I were in Massachusetts visiting my parents. 

I had time that end-of-winter trip to pause in front of the woods where my parents live now, to remember the ones from my own childhood and contemplate briefly the tendency to hold onto memories of an idyllic past, string them together like rosary beads, turn them into a kind of devotional. Like fiction, the memories are emotionally true if not empirically so, subject to a mysterious process of transfiguration that attempts to recreate how something felt, not what it was. It is a constant, hounding specter, that cathedral space of childhood, open to endless visions and revisions.*

All in all the topic felt bigger, and led me to the misrepresentation of American childhood in general and to Steven Mintz’s attempt to see past the myths with his exhaustive account of its various epochs in: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, which I only finally read a few weeks ago.

I was interrupted writing that post about my mother’s childhood street, then we returned to New York and the preschool search and the abandoned winter playgrounds. What I had written that February day in Massachusetts fell out of sync with the day-to-day rhythm of a blog with its essential vow: this is what is happening in my life, now. So I left it behind. But it nags at me, and before I can get to what I want to say about what’s happening now, I have to first explain what happened then.

This is what I had started to write on one of the last days there while Wally was sleeping.

Until last year I'd never visited the house where my mother grew up, but the name Buddington Road circulated around the blurry edges of the woods of my own childhood, like Citizen Kane’s rosebud, a kind of benchmark of what growing up should be. Up a hill from the little manufacturing river town of Derby, Connecticut my mom and her siblings lived in “the sticks” where once in a while cows poked their heads down the road a bit and only one other house was visible from their property, even then only in the winter, when the trees were bare. 

Based on the stories my mom and her siblings told us, Buddington Road meant children free to wander, to climb inside fallen trees, gather leaves, wade in swamps, make forts, dig up treasures, hide inside Concord Grape vines, pick apples, peaches, and cherries and happily eat them with abandon. An all-American childhood if ever I heard one. Even little Billy, the youngest, at Wally’s age now, happily bobbed around unsupervised at the edge of the woods while the older three kids disappeared for hours at a stretch, as long as he stayed where he could be heard yelling back when they called his name.

When I drove past the house with my aunt last spring I was amazed at just how much land there had actually been and how imposing the woods still appeared. One never knows how much to trust the Mercator projections of childhood geography. 

The current owners let us inside the house, which had been added onto in ramshackle ways. I stared out the back porch into the backyard. I could easily picture my mom, aunts and uncle hanging from tire swings, picking raspberries and chasing each other through the trees with red-stained hands.

By the time my sister and I were born my grandparents had moved to a bigger house with smaller woods and finally retired into what had been their summer place; “the cottage”, a little red house near the beach. That house was Riordan-family central, so for me, family holidays and folklore naturally centered on the sea. Our Christmases blended together in those years with verses from a Child’s Christmas in Wales (close enough) always on a shelf that I could reach. But for my mom and her siblings the defining feature of their personal mythology had been the woods of Buddington Road. And the rest of us believed what they told us about the close and holy darkness that they found in that wilderness cathedral.  

It was in the sun-drenched kitchen of the cottage a few Christmases ago when the Buddington Road utopia began to unravel. My mother’s voice rose above the usual intersecting conversations, leading the kids in a chorus of “Jack Miller, the killer must be found.” It’s a chant from an old Western. As a child, she’d gone around the neighborhood hollering it when a killer was on the loose there. He was never found. A killer on the loose? That doesn’t sound like what we pictured. Buddington Road morphed into Wisteria Lane as stories poured out about suicides, jilted lovers, strange hunched-over neighbors in dark kitchens who never ventured outside, a house a father built for his son as a wedding present that was never lived in and slowly collapsed beside the main house into a dilapidated testament to lost dreams. 

Those of us who hadn’t grown up there exaggerated its dark side, conjured up spooky voices to intone “The Horrors of Buddington Road”, making fun of the deceptive way the stories about it had always left out its David Lynch underbelly. Not that you can’t miss a place that isn’t perfect. And not that terrible things don’t happen everywhere. Perhaps it is even to my mom's and her siblings' credit that they focused on the good things. Yet I wondered, still, about the way we look back, both to our own childhoods and to some now out-of-reach (invented?) ideal of an authentically American one. 

As my aunt and I drove away from the house last year she reminisced about how much better things had been then, how much safer, how no one ever worried then about strangers (even killers on the loose) or about having to lock your door.


…there was the Cold War. The Korean War. The atomic bomb. Corporeal punishment in school. Weren’t there air raids? Polio outbreaks? The McCarthy witch hunts? Wasn’t there segregation and civil unrest? Better for whom? Safer for whom? Surely not for Japanese, Jews, blacks, gays, housewives drowning in vodka and valium, children living in poverty. Better for some people, yes. Which brings me to Steven Mintz’s book, to 400 exhaustive pages documenting the hardships children have always suffered in this country. There was, he says, in the middle of the last century, a time when enough progress had been made to grant children freedom from adult labor and more protection, which converged with peacetime, and the possibility of supporting a family on a single income, to create the arrival of the middle-class childhood. Yet toward the end of the book Mintz touches on the fact that we’ve now gone so far in removing children from the adult world that we’ve turned childhood into a “project” for adults. Hoping to protect children from being subsumed too quickly into the adult world of work, we’ve “created the polar opposite of the ideal embodied by Twain’s novel” which was childhood for its own sake, not “merely as preparation for adulthood.” The challenges facing children today are not the focus of his book. He skims over the achievement obsession, helicopter parenting, kids-getting-older-younger (in fashion and awareness), and marketing to children as an enormous part of the consumer base, hoping we can create alternative paths for development. His aim is primarily to debunk myths of an idealized past while highlighting the persistence of a certain kind of freedom lacking today. In his final line he admits to the ghastly truth of Huck Finn’s own existence, while emphasizing the one thing Huck had that children today largely miss out on: adventure.

“Huck Finn was an abused child, whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read. Who would envy Huck’s battered childhood? Yet he enjoyed something too many children are denied and which adults can provide: opportunities to undertake odysseys of self-discovery outside the goal-driven, over-structured realities of contemporary childhood.”  

Then Wally woke up. 

I had planned to take him to a nearby indoor play space in the afternoon. First I had to make a quick stop at the post office. As we walked back to the car the sun came out for just a second—the first and only glimpse of it that day. Yet it seemed so inviting. Maybe there will be sun. We should play outside.

So we drove instead to the nearest playground, but as we pulled up Wally remembered the train station was nearby and demanded to go “look some trains”. The sun had not reappeared and it didn’t matter one way or the other to me so I drove to the train station and walked around, lucky enough to see two that day, one in each direction.

Enough trainspotting. Too late, then, for the play space, too dark for the playground. Next plan—bring Wally to a library that was open late in a neighboring town, about a fifteen-minute drive from where we were. 

Meanwhile in the background all day was the slight anxiety of phone tag from the director of admissions at one of the preschools I was hoping to be able to tour. When I started calling these schools in the winter after we met with the Board of Ed many said it was too late to apply, that they’d call if a spot on the waiting list opened up. I had already missed a call that day from this woman—and you just don’t do that with these kinds of calls — so I had my phone there at the ready, in the car on the way to the library. And of course the phone rang as I was driving. It was her. I swerved to pull the car over and picked up. Just by chance I pulled into the street where my parents live.

So I had the slightly anxious conversation in their neighborhood, with Wally in the back now demanding to see Mimi (my mom) because we were just a few houses away. Trains and Mimi. His two favorite things. You can’t be within a stones throw of either one and not say hi. I had wanted to give my mom a little more of a break, to bring Wally home a little more worn out before dinner, but I myself was too worn out to keep pushing and schlepping, this time against his will. So we pulled into their driveway. Mimi was cheerful in the kitchen window and totally fine with us being back earlier than expected. 

She took Wally outside to feed the birds. I could see them from the basement window, scattering birdseed like confetti, my mom’s white coat blending in with the remaining snow. Wally was a little blue elf beside her, skipping around. Periodically he’d put one foot out over a little stream, looking back and waiting to be told, “Be careful”. It’s the same thing he does when he’s standing on high places, one foot over the edge, laughing. “Be careful”. He’ll say it if no one else does. This is progress. Now it’s usually done for show.

July 7, 2011
Up until recently these little outdoor scenes couldn’t happen. Wally would just drive my mom crazy by tugging at other people’s car doors or running into their gardens or pulling at stakes in the ground. It was like taking a cat for a walk without a leash. Hopeless. Now here they were side by side. It’s a new thing to see. My mom can watch Wally, without simply watching him run off. She can show him a cardinal, take him over to see the crocuses that have already popped up. She’s at home in the woods and Wally is too; children are naturalists by nature. 

I decided to take the chance then to run, now that I could actually leave him with her. I shot in the opposite direction, around to the Arbor Glen path. It was a perfect cold that day, the kind that might bother you when you don’t have enough layers on but as soon as you face it you start to defy it, rise above it. I ran past the fields and the stonewall, up toward the outer edge of the apple farm, out to the street then back to the edge of the woods, down a stretch from where my mom and Wally had been playing. I didn’t see them. They must have already gone inside. I felt alone in that wonderful way that the woods allow you to feel, alone but surrounded, listening to the wind in trees like vespers in that last blue stained-glass light of a winter evening. 

I like the silent connection I feel after each run to my physics professor friend, the one training in Chicago for the half marathon we’ll run together in the fall in Vermont. The next day Heather and her two boys were coming to visit. The older one, as Heather points out, is nearly the age we were when we met in first grade. The world felt connected, like someone had carefully joined the dots on a dot-to-dot drawing, those friendships from childhood had somehow persisted along with those other ineffable things we remember, Cynthia Ozick’s “permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.”

Yes—I thought, catching my breath by those woods so close to the woods Thoreau wrote about in Walden—Yes, Wally needs to spend a lot of time out in nature, near the ocean, and in the woods, listening in the near-spring to Thoreau’s “cheerful music of the tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter.”

But which woods? I asked myself, making a weary half-circle back to the house. The ones at Buddington Road where paint cans were dumped out in the swamp where my mom and her siblings played? 

Those paint cans--that is what is scary, really. Not Jack Miller, not the jilted lover, the brooding neighbors, the rotting house— “I always wondered if those would come back to haunt me,” my mom said about the cans later that night. The ones someone had carelessly left, in those lovely woods, those cathedral woods; who knows what other toxins were already leaking? What thousand other resources other neighbors felt it was their right to destroy in tiny, insidious, invisible ways?

Or to which ocean should Wally grow attached? To the one down the street from the little red house we called the cottage, where my Dad and I coughed up our lungs when I was 11? Where the next day it was closed off with a skull and crossbones signs propped up just in case you didn’t get the hint that it wasn't safe to swim there? The one often full of parasites because of changing tide patterns? Damaged ecosystems? Rising sea levels? Remember slowly, nearly invisibly, the most pernicious and persistent kind of change. There is, of course, the Grand Canyon to remind us of what infinitesimal accumulated change can do. Is it true that mighty Colorado River, the one that made that canyon, no longer reaches the sea? Could Cortés have ever imagined that? I just read this in Robert J. Kennedy Jr.’s foreword to Not a Drop to Drink and I can hardly stand to believe it. 

What ocean and what woods, I kept asking myself—the woods from your childhood? That you like to gaze at in memory, where you dreamed of craters and crocodiles, where you built forts and buried your cat? Where you ran along train tracks and gathered sticks and jumped in canopy leaves? But you were just steps away from Grace Company—you could see it from the trees that you climbed. That horrible barren land surrounding the nefarious company that forced the town to close two aquifers forever? It was a Superfund Sight, for Godsake, a patch of land so poisonous the Federal government put it on a National Priority List for hazardous waste. Don’t you remember there were apples in the backyard—the communal backyard, the one you shared with your neighbors—but you weren’t allowed to eat anything that grew on that land. You would have sooner put your mouth around a razor. 

July 8, 2011
Clearly sacred spaces are not immune to contamination. The fairy-tale spaces of childhood are as dark and full of undercurrents as most childhood pasts. I remember walking into a lecture given by Professor Pease who later became my thesis adviser. I was just visiting and missed most of what he said, but what stayed with me was the paradox of our canonical stories of an idyllic American Childhood—those of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn—being full of violence, abuse, blood, death, slavery, dead men floating, and even murder. 

And now, immersed in children's literature, it occurs to me that the fairy-tale space of childhood is as dark as the nursery rhymes and fairy tales we grow up hearing in the hours before we sleep. 

Not just spiders appearing during picnics but the collapsing bridge, the falling baby, (cradle and all), the wolf that eats the grandmother, the mice tails cut off with a carving knife, that ill-fated humpty dumpty, the maid's nose snapped off by a blackbird, the ladybird whose house is on fire, the bells of St. Clement's that ring in the chopper to chop off your head, the glass coffin, the Queen who thinks she’s eating Snow White’s liver, the suicidal Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel about to be cooked, the village teeming with rats, the children who follow the pied piper and drown. In both truth and fiction, childhood for most children has always been more of a horror show than a fairy tale. Like the nature channel showing lions tearing through the necks of hyenas. You'll find very few baby cubs frolicking together in the sun. Not to mention our real-life cathedrals. A dominant religion with a promise of everlasting life that holds up as its central the image of savior dying the most gruesome, horrible death? With its sacrament that invites worshipers to eat his body and drink his blood? Forget the Twilight saga. We are our own vampires. The shadows are everywhere. 

July 11, 2011
I am thinking now about that moment at the woods, about what it's calling me to do. With children—even just one—it’s  harder to stumble upon those solitary moments where past and present seem to converge and your the task ahead of you becomes clear.

By any intelligent measure, the ones I describe were the landscapes of ideal childhoods, settings for experiences so peaceful and full of privilege less than one percent of all the humans who live or ever lived could hope to enjoy anything resembling them. City or country, days packed with activities or full of time to wander,  playgrounds teeming or empty—there is little more one could ever ask for. 

So it is really my duty, given that, to insist on the continued cathedral space of childhood for other children. It can be inside or out, but it has to be expansive. It can be in books or journals or real-life journeys. But it has to give what Steven Mintz says we are largely denying children today—the voyage downriver, without us. It has to offer time to dream, to wander, to explore, ask questions, to imagine. 

What variables converged to give me that moment alone at the woods that day, the moment that felt so entangled it has taken me all these months to entangle it, to unravel the beauty and horrors of Buddington Road, to expose the environmental dystopia of my own utopias? It was that single sliver of sun that changed my plans from indoor play space to outdoor playground. Then being near trains—for this three year old who was “born on trains”—naturally led to trainspotting instead. Next, the odd timing of the phone call that led to the swerve into my parents’ neighborhood. 

The hint of sun had been on the walk to the post office to the car. What had I been mailing anyway? A package to a friend of mine from college. I had tried twice before to send it out. Once it was returned because the packaging fell apart (so much for trying to be green—using only a paper bag instead of a padded envelope). The second time for the wrong address—the wrong state even, the one she’d lived a few years ago. 

In the intervening time this friend had lived in another continent. You think I would have gotten that straight. Now she’s in Virginia. How do you forget that? Land of your birth. And even your father’s. But both those births—their location—were sort of by chance. No one ever lived in Virginia very long. Yet we were both born in Virginia, my mother in Georgia, my sister in California. Pieces of a narrative that point to such a different story from the truth. We were all raised, born from parents born and raised, all of us blood-tied the Northeast. It is home, in feeling and in fact. It is a great place to grow up, to return to, to try to restore. In her Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton asks, after a visit to New York, one that wears her out immeasurably: “What is essential?” She believes the source of whatever it is is in childhood. So we have to go back there, no matter how contaminated the landscape. Maybe what’s calling out to me is not only the memory but the mandate to help address that real contamination that will undermine childhood for those setting out on their adventures today. That is what I had set out from home so many years ago, to do.

*Virginia Woolf, “That great cathedral space which was childhood”
**T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Time for you and time for me/And time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions/Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
***Thoreau, Walden
****How my friend Vince describes Wally, referencing Magnetic Fields

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Suburban Birthdays

Just remembered to write a message to a friend saying “Sorry I forgot your birthday”. Man that sounds like something that would be on this website some e cards Don't forget to say Sorry I Forgot Your Birthday this year! I should at least call him up, shouldn't I? This is one of my close friends. I'm always kinda happy when people forget my birthday. Not in a Sixteen Candles way--where everyone forgets--but I like the sense that I am off the hook for other people, which reminds me of a non-acknowledgement clause a few friends and I once signed saying we agreed not to be offended if our birthdays were forgotten. 

Do people with anniversaries expect acknowledgment from friends on that date? I can't imagine that anyone would, but maybe I'm just a real jerk when it comes to that stuff. Do people send other people cards for their anniversaries or are those only something you buy for your partner? My ignorance doesn’t simply stem from the fact that I’m not married myself. It really goes back to my parents’ lack of emphasis on occasions. We mostly just trade “IOUs” back and forth, year after year. It’s more environmentally and financially sustainable than real gift-giving. And the person usually gets (an IOU for) something he or she really wants. I recently found a pile of money IOUs in my little cash drawer from when I was a kid. These weren't gifts, but just my parents borrowing money. They owe me several hundred dollars at least. Then again, they can always say it's sort of a wash compared to the $100,000 they had to shell out for Dartmouth. (A former boss of mine used to say that it was okay to underpay British vendors for books because they came here and bought nice clothes on 5th Avenue since the pound was stronger than the dollar. He'd do this thing where he'd wave his arms back and forth, one over the other, and say, "It all washes out".) 

Maybe part of my problem is I'm just not remembering things anymore.  I used to have a fantastic memory for dates. It surprised people at first and I think aggravated them after a while. Not every day has to be related back to what happened on that day last year and the year before that like a weather forecast. Outside the possibility that weather patterns are being influenced by human activity– global warming, the whole fact of the ozone layer wasting away– the record high temperature on this exact date last year is not particularly interesting to other people, has no real place in conversation.
The dates that stand out for me are generally not tied to universal turning points like birthdays, New Years, or the end of the school year. Nor are those seared into memory usually the record of high drama. They are usually instead the moments when circumstances converged to create an almost deliriously strong sense of looming possibility. So I can remember the weather really precisely. I can remember how it felt.

That same friend, whose birthday I missed, came to visit New York recently. He talked about it being the center. That he feels outside where he is (Hanover, New Hampshire), that life is passing him by. That is a comfort, here, in New York. I do feel here always at the center of things. Like even if you don't really go to all the Spanish New Wave rooftop film festivals and bamboo exhibits, you still feel you are a part of things. I really don't know how you ever leave New York, no matter how much you may grow to hate it. I don't know how you get over every other place on earth just about, save London or Hong Kong, feeling like a ghost town. 

In that adorable New Hampshire town we went to for Halloween we discussed dinner options for after the corn maze: there was one pizza place we could go to. The other restaurant was closed, it being a Sunday. Otherwise we could buy things at the supermarket and cook back at the house. We chose the latter. I always forget about the down side of small towns. Back in Massachusetts the following week my dad and I went out to eat one night while my mom stayed with Wally. We had to call around to see what restaurant would be open past 9 and decided on Lotus Blossom, a beautiful, popular place that feels like a country inn. We were the only ones there. Too late at night (9:30). Ghost town. Not to mention going out for Chinese in the burbs feels borderline irresponsible. (But the place is really good.)

I grew up in the suburbs and honestly can't imagine anything I like better. (Then why don't you move back there? The problem of how to leave New York. You sound insane. I know.) I think I'm the only person on earth who idealizes strip malls and boredom to such a degree. Yet my parents didn't mean to be there and I think always thought they'd leave. That, like in the song, they'd go back to New York City when they believed they'd had enough. During the summer after high school my friends and I often sat on the back porch of my condo listening to Visions of Johanna through the windows and sometimes slipping down in the dark to jump in the neighborhood pool after hours. Sometimes my next door neighbor Leslie would catch us there and tell us we had to get out. She was the town's Driver's Ed teacher so she had a bit of small-town clout. "Rules is rules" she'd say. "The pool is closed." It closed at 9. By 11 all the houses in the neighborhood would be dark. We'd go back to my porch and turn the stereo on again or drive down to Dunkin' Donuts or the Pool Hall. Where else was there to go? Nowhere. And that's how I liked it. In the Dylan song, Johanna is a lost lover. For us it was childhood. Some of my friends were excited for the next phase of life. To me it all seemed so cruel.


One evening in June after college ended I was sitting on the back porch at home and asked my dad if he ever imagined he’d end up in a place like that where people sat there stranded and all did their best to deny it. At night he says he still dreams of Coney Island in the 50’s when even if you walked the boardwalk the whole five-miles from Seagate to the far end of Brighton Beach, you couldn't find a place among the crowds to put your towel down on the sand. Talk about being in the center of things.

"Never, never thought I'd end up here." I caught the momentary disappointment, surprise undone by years of resignation, but also the wonder.  He had been twenty-two once as well, set adrift after college, eyes wide and swollen, with no direction home.  He’d had grand ambitions that could never take their place among the exigencies of the everyday.  He looked at the plain backyard that had mesmerized me so many summer evenings, but looked further than the houses as well, beyond it, into the past, and past it.


New York feels more hopeful these days. The amazing things and infuriating things balance each other, equally as strong. They're all awash sometimes, canceling each other and converging into another chance to begin. A new blank page, no matter how many terrible rough drafts. We always live here in that sense of possibility, that anticipatory moment. Almost, not really, but sort of like a muted version of the way birthday mornings used to feel as a kid. 

Birthdays weren't always traded IOUs that cancelled each other out. Sometimes they were cranberry-walnut muffins waiting on the table just for me, my orange cat in the windowsill, me creeping down the stairs alone in pajamas, the smell of fresh-cut grass, that brand-new-world feeling of the earth finally tilting back toward the sun. A ten-speed bike on my 10th birthday propped up in the dining room. That overflowing, overjoyful, unbearable sense of adventure. Just screaming, "I can't believe it, I can't believe it, I can't believe it" over and over again until you do. And even then, you still don't. Yet once I jumped on that bike--where did I go? Looping around that little neighborhood. And that itself was way more than I could ever have asked for. Magical birthdays like that--sometimes it's easier to forget them, too.  It just makes it all too concise and too clear.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You should be airborne

Today we reverse our roles. Alex has just rushed off with Wally to the sensory gym up by the park and then they'll meet the speech therapist outside. In the afternoon Alex has ambitious plans of taking Wally to the Bronx Zoo or to the Hall of Science in Queens. I hope they follow through on one of those or something else that will leave me here alone with books and lots of tea and coffee, banana muffins my friend Kristin brought over yesterday and apples we picked last week in Massachusetts. I love having the apartment to myself to play whatever music I want, wear pajamas, rush to find a certain line of poetry (right now I am thinking of reading books and taking down “useless notes” from Elizabeth Bishop, The End of March). It's so different from being alone outside the apartment. When I do get a day to work I usually take the laptop and go to a library. It's fun, but nothing like getting lost in the Baker stacks. Instead I'm lucky if I find a seat anywhere without people coughing on me and striking up nonsensical conversations. I feel bad saying this, but the vibe in the library near us isn't that great because it's sort of a homeless hangout. And I always tell myself that it's really bourgeois and terrible to be bothered by that, but it's not the halcyon scene one envisions in spending the day at the library. You have to be prepared for anything (Alex had a chair thrown at him once) and you share the table with people who are literally camped out. When I have enough time, I go to a different branch. Meanwhile the work I'm doing is to help people who, in Fitzgerald's words from a post a while back, "haven't had the advantages I've had." Yet sit side by side and do work with them? I’ll pass. There’s got to be some irony there, or at least hypocrisy.

I was annoyed just now with Alex as he went tumbling out the door with Wally fifteen minutes late. He was at the tail end of his signature departure: “Has anyone seen my keys?” (repeated with escalating degrees of hysteria – see earlier posts on Alex as Zen master). I can’t possibly be surprised anymore that he will go on this frantic search for his keys every morning. Yet I am. I’m in the kitchen pouring coffee thinking, “Seriously? Again?” When the question should perhaps be directed at myself. Seriously? You’re surprised again? (Once more Bishop creeps up, different poem, "Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.")

I was annoyed that Alex was rushing and late when meanwhile I’d gotten Wally dressed and changed him twice and packed up his water and a snack and written down the therapists’ numbers and info. I think – if you can’t even leave on time with all that help, how could you manage if I wasn’t here? I guess what I mean is, how do I manage, every day? Or really, just wanting him to say: this is not that easy. Though he’s never implied otherwise. And for a much harder year he did manage Wally on his own while I was free and easy over at Barnes & Noble picking out which Obama speeches I liked best to include in our Words that Inspired a Nation book and DVD. When I write this, now, it makes me think of my mom’s mom Eleanor, who never felt appreciated and always started fights because of it. The underlying point seemed to be, “Look at all I’m doing for everybody and no one is the least bit grateful.” But the fight never got to the underlying point, of course. Instead it spiraled out into irrelevant minor and unrelated aggravations. Sometimes screaming and tears. That was different than the screaming here at Miriam’s, that none of the Jacobson sisters ever registered as more than a stern tone. 

At the Riordans, in the little red house by the beach we called “the cottage” because it had been their summer home before my grandparents renovated it and moved in full-time, the screaming rang in the halls, poisoned the air for at least another hour. Maybe all that would have been required to avoid it would have been one person saying, “Thank you Eleanor for getting up at 5 in the morning to boil the potatoes so that mashed potatoes would be fresh today and not simply reheated" (surely a sin in an Irish household). Or maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the sins of the fathers just had to be visited on the sons. Centuries of inherited guilt over not suffering enough meant holidays and other happy occasions would always exact some kind of ancient revenge.

This morning I am going to work on an evaluation for a leadership conference for minority students. They are just about ready to start out, dreaming big dreams, taking the first steps necessary to reach their full potential.  My friends and I--more than a decade after graduation--are tired and less optimistic, more tolerant of compromise, happier in some ways, less so in others, re-evaluating what a statement like reaching one's full potential might mean. Fewer binaries, more gray. One friend recently said she had such grand plans for her life but would be happy now if she can be an okay mom. The last year has taught me what a grand plan that is, what a huge thing to reach for, how important it would be to achieve. I'll be happy if I can be an okay mom. I have to pause on that for a while. Set my sights on it.

Here are the lines from Bishop: she is talking about her "proto-crypto dream house" on the beach, which is how I always refer to the cottage our family sold two years after my grandmother died.

"I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."

Whenever I read that poem I just sink into that feeling of solitude and space and empty surroundings that allow one's life to feel full. Today the Zen master is frantic and scattered. This morning I'm trying to help disadvantaged people and refusing to sit next to them. I’ll be glad, for the next eight hours or so, not to be tested as a good or an okay or a terrible mom. I'm glad not to be in that role at all, even though it's my favorite. In the poem, the proto-crypto dream house was boarded up. Our cottage was sold to another family. The house that was absolutely essential, at the center of our lives. Yet Wally was not even born the last time I stepped foot inside there, desperately searching not for keys but for something far more important – my mother’s wedding ring. Behind the curtains, in the heating grates, under the beds, in the closet, in the tea cups, carefully setting them back in their places on the shelf even though weeks later they would be packed up and taken away. 

I knew, in my sober and rational moments, that as cozy and lovely as our cottage was, with the fireplace and wooden walls and the porches and big eat-in kitchen, that other than the view, it was a modest 2-bedroom house, from an outside perspective an unremarkable place. But there was a time and an hour when it radiated like a cathedral in the late afternoon of clear winter days when the sun went down behind the river. With so little foliage to block the sun it came streaming in through the kitchen windows up through the hallway into the living-room,  melancholy and majestic. That luminous view, that light, " heavy with light"---with the sale of the Cottage that would have to be given up too. 

On the last afternoon I spent in that little red house there was this inexorable sense of doom fighting against that radiant light, this by-degrees-turning of hope into hopelessness with each new search for the ring, each new, "I know! It must be here..." that turned up empty. That wedding ring--that thing you cannot lose (“practice losing further, losing faster”)--would stay in the cottage, would remain there after we were gone, an offering. We left and went to get dinner. My mom tried to feel okay about it. We drank margaritas and enjoyed the marina. She wondered how to tell my dad.

Later that year my mom received a package in the mail from my cousin Katie. The ring had ended up in a bureau and been shipped down inside it to South Carolina, to the sister of the cousin whose wedding I missed just a month ago. On that long day in Newark Airport I read The More I Owe You, a novel about Elizabeth Bishop's time in Brazil--where Alex is from--waiting first through a 5-hour delay and then for an hour and a half out on the tarmac. The the entire time on the tarmac we were right about to leave, hearing the engines of all the other planes revving right by our windows. We watched the day vanish minute by minute, waiting the entire length of the time it would have taken to get to Charleston in silence with no word from the flight crew thinking--any minute now--only to be told finally that the flight plan had been lost but now they found it. 

Could we go? It was dark by then. I had missed the beach and the day with cousins and the rehearsal dinner but could I order a glass of wine, try to relax and not be too aggravated. No, it turns out, we had missed our opportunity. In the time it had taken to search for the flight plan (under the chairs? in the heating grate?) the captain had timed out and could no longer legally fly. We were heading back to the gate. "You should be airborne in just a few minutes" -- one of the greatest things anyone can ever say--turned out not to be true. Or rather, didn't happen. It was still true. The flight attendant had been careful to say "should" not "will". You should be airborne. At the time it had sounded so hopeful.

That whole day I spent reading The More I Owe You, which isn't a bad way to spend a day. I had thought I’d love the book, but it was slow and distant, passive and impassive, in some excruciating way like certain of Bishop’s more restrained poetry, but without the emotional pulsing underneath, being so carefully restrained. But I do wonder also if I disliked the book for the stupidest reason – because I read it on an annoying and disappointing day.

Fewer binaries, more gray. But the day--today--is not gray at all, it's beautiful bright sun. It’s open. It’s waiting.

Not too many hours from now, I will remark surprised --yes, still, after 34 years--at how dark it is out already. I will think about in the summer at this time we might just be making plans for the day. Someone might suggest we go to the pool, bring magazines and lemonade. We could take a hike, go to the beach, take a dinner picnic with us to the river in the evening where there are outdoor grills and lots of trees. In the summer there would still be the obligation to do things, to make the day worthwhile. The sense that you can’t have a glass of wine yet, you can’t take off your shoes yet, you can’t rub your eyes and enjoy that requiem moment of having made it through the day. In winter, the darkness relieves us. It tells us we have come a long way from that bright morning and we deserve to rest. We want someone to tell us that. I want someone to tell me that. To say, you have done everything you could today, you have tried as hard as you could to do your best work, to be an okay mom, to make connections, to speak honestly, to run faster than yesterday, to look at the sun—that tiny little star that it is--and say thank you.

View from upstairs at the cottage
On one of the last afternoons I spent with my grandmother Eleanor before she had to move to more intensive care, on a bright October day five years ago, I sat on the bed with her, reading poetry aloud. She was one of the few people I have ever met who could just be, who could be still, listen and gaze out the window, even long before she was sick, even when moments later she'd be furious over poorly-skinned potatoes. In her belief system she still had eternity, yet she got the most pleasure from the tiniest things. Maybe tiny pleasures were the only kind she allowed herself. For whatever reason, her guilt did not attend those moments of peace -- tea in the afternoon or watching a cardinal perched on the table outside. 

Tonight there will be my little niece Eliana writing poetry of her own. Rushing to the window shouting, “Look at the beautiful glowing crescent!” Telling others, "You don’t always want what you want". Saying, two years ago now, "The day was end and now I’m asleep again". There will be Alex, tossing his keys under junk mail. There will be some readers saying to themselves -- this post is too long, too long even to skim. They won't get all the way to the end. They won't get here, or be here, with me. What I think I owe you might not be what you think you want. "Retire now and do nothing, or nothing much, forever." Maybe infinity isn't such a bad fate.