Sunday, November 30, 2008

Essence of Autumn

All this week my thoughts keep turning to a day last October which I remember largely, I am sure, because I wrote it down:

Oct 19, 2007 – Friday

Yesterday an interlude of sweet comfort. It had been a good day: workout, volunteer, phone calls, paper work. Then turned my attention to the grapes in boxes out on the covered porch.

In the background:  kitchen orderly,  laundry almost all done and folded, front room tidy, swept.  Sunlight shining on my made bed.

I set up the big mesh drainer over one side of the scrubbed sink, set juicer on the stove, the bottom pan filled with water beginning to heat. Washed the 5-gallon water cooler and set it on a stool beneath the out-spout of the juicer. Mom called and we talked, trading our best wisdom and laughing while I carried in the first box of grapes and set it on the kitchen chair near the sink and began picking over the grapes and cleaning them, plucking the good ones off the stem to fill the top pan of the juicer.

Our talk came to a natural and pleasant end, the water in the bottom pan came to a boil, ready for the filled top pan of grapes to be placed over it. I turned to filling a big metal bowl with more cleaned grapes. The kitchen filled with the smell of grapes—musky and golden and easeful. The wind blew hard outside. My boy ran across the yard, home from the bus. “Yay! You're doing grapes!” He got the last tray of pears out of the fruit dryer for me.

"I love that sound,” son said as the wind whistled in the chimney, and then went outside to play in the wind. I could see him running and jumping down from the rock terrace, talking to unseen companions.

The kitchen pleasantly warm. The cleaned grapes rounding up in the metal bowl. The sweet juice of cold grapes on my tongue. I propped up Dorothy Sayer’s The 9 Tailors in the kitchen window as I cleaned grapes—transporting myself back and forth between snowy fenland of East Anglia (land my people come from, land of Julian of Norwich) and then back again here—yellow leaves flying and the warm kitchen with the wind moaning in the chimney to make it cozier and the bowl of grapes mounding up and juice beginning to trickle into the 5-gal jug.

Then back to the clean writing, the cultured voices of Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter and the kindly fly-away pastor Mr. Venable and his sensible wife and the sound of bells ringing through their changes and then back to my boy racing with the wind outside and the first cup of warm juice—musky & complex, returning again to cleaning the grapes—a second box now and the delight of being at the same moment useless bookworm & provident housekeeper while my son ran down the rock steps to meet his oldest sister coming from her bus - both with their arms out for a big hug.

That’s happiness. . . Mind alive, fingers busy — the essence of autumn.

I could pour you out a glass of that grape juice. There are still some bottles in the basement. But I'm more grateful I preserved the day in writing.

I'm still sipping at that memory a year later. So that even when I'm spray painting the frame of the aluminum sliding glass door white, cleaning the bathroom, driving to collect Mom & Dad at the airport, staying up late to burn some more rolls, washing dishes, waiting at the stoplight - some part of me is still standing in that moment of happiness.

And when I'm chopping up carrots for Grandma's Thanksgiving Dressing, putting away sacks of fresh walnuts from the farmer's market and small fragrant satsumas still with their green leaves on them in readiness for Orange-Cranberry Relish, rolling out pie crust for Ginger Pear Pie (or Scandinavian Cherry or Ohio Lemon), or directing the setting of the table with the good plates and silverware, playing WhooNu afterwards with niece, nephew, son and daughter, admiring my brother's new baby, standing outside looking at the sky - that golden afternoon seems to cast a wider light, broadening gratitude's claim inside me: that no matter what the next days bring I've been given at least these days of peace and order and enough.

Monday, November 24, 2008

As Good as a Feast

week of November 16 – 22

I once had a professor who made us write our papers so they fit on one page. Is it giving away anything to admit what a challenge this brevity posed for me?

Yes, the tight word limit kept his paper-load down. Better, it clarified and distilled the thoughts I finally committed to writing. When there is only room for the right word, you don’t throw in several sloppier approximations. And just enough argument to convince, because

“Enough,” as Ms. Poppins says, “is as good as a feast.”
Hmm, and here we are back at that idea of what is sufficient?

I don’t think it’s just this time of year – gathering in, providing for winter – nor is it the worsening economy that keeps leading my wild-pony thoughts back again into this ring of Sufficiency. Something in me powerfully wants to know – what is sufficient for me? Brevity, simplicity – is that sufficiency ?

Certainly brevity has a charm – this week on the advice of her younger, socially savvy sister, my elder daughter invited a friend-who-is-a-boy to January’s Winter Ball very simply, without a lot of froufrou or complication: a series of one word notes, printed large, backed with his favorite color (green), and delivered singly by other friends-who-are-boys (plus the calculus teacher): Will – you – go – to – Winter Ball – with – The last note (me?) she delivered herself. (How apt, for she did deliver herself, smiling certainly and most probably like a ripe apple rosy-cheeked.) Her friend thought it was “a very sweet way to ask” and he agreed. (“But of course,” say those of us to whom she is most dear.)

And simplicity can be definitively delicious. No delicate French custard can compare to a perfectly ripe pear simply baked (or microwaved even) until its golden juices first begin to exude, then sliced in half, the stem and core gently lifted away, and served on a plate in its own skin to be spooned irresistibly towards grateful mouth. In fact, I am convinced baking and confectionery began as a way to perk up, preserve, and finally approximate fruit at its peak of perfection. As for flavorings and seasonings, even that grande dame of cookbooks (Joy of) states:

while ~> we advocate a constant use of herbs, we don’t advise too many kinds at once or too much of any one kind.

This advice ran through my mind early this week while cooking up a pot of Creamy Cabbage and Potato Soup (Moosewood). When I first tried the recipe (almost decades ago now), I worried caraway would be too bland as the only seasoning – oughtn’t I add a little thyme, oregano maybe . . . Back then I couldn’t figure out why so much of my cooking tasted like everything else I cooked: garlicky and lots of Italian seasonings. I’ve been learning since the melodic brilliance of a single main herb (salt and pepper singing doo-wop, onions and garlic going shalalalala)

But brevity and simplicity are not enough. Friday I worked with a friend making pie crust for our coming, respective Thanksgiving Feasts, while our children were in school. We could have made more crust, more quickly, working alone, each in our own homes. Our time was not used efficiently and often we stood, leaning on one hand, taken up mostly with talk – easy meandering talk, a thousand words with side-trips and complicated backtracks – which all laid the foundation for one brilliant moment of clarity – the whole reason I love conversation - that moment when you both chime, both sensing at the edges the reverberations of Deeper and Higher Chords in sympathetic vibration.

But here I am at the end of my page and just beginning to say . . .

Monday, November 17, 2008

Community Pool

Week of November 9 - 15

The pool re-opened last week. At last!

The past two months the swimming pool doors have been closed to lessons and morning deep-water aerobics and dogged lap-swimmers (or lagging dog-paddlers) – while the pool was resurfaced, a changing room re-arranged. But now this month the pool again re-opens to our rough-edged-mill-town-morphing-into-commuter-community. And just in time.

Last year, I began the morning aerobics class as a reason to meet and talk with a dear friend when our natural paths no longer crossed often enough. But I hadn’t realized how dependent I’d become on the twice-weekly immersion itself.

The first day back last week - rainy gray and cold outside, balmy and bright inside the pool’s fogged-up greenhouse - I felt I’d stepped through into an alternate reality. Through the scratched-up glass I could still glimpse the dismal world I’d left behind, but here was warmth and light and laughing voices, voices softened by echoes re-echoing off the rippled water. Here were friendly faces I hadn’t seen since summer – grandmotherly many of them, or like myself, women of a certain age – but softened and clean, our bodies buoyed up not only by the water and our excess lipids, but by the matching light-blue foam belts strapped snugly around our waists, right over our navels. Here was, in fact, a return to the primal sea, maternal and cradling.

Malyssa, who leads us, made us work hard and at the end of the hour, we could feel it – muscles, blood in our veins, our lungs filled out with effort. Our cramped and tightly bound individualities relaxing and expanding in the safety of the community pool.

This weekend my husband took our son to visit grandparents the next state over. And – while the cat’s away – my daughters and I went to a friend’s to make rolls for Thanksgiving. Though if that had truly been our only goal the afternoon and evening would not have been a success – yeast refusing to rise, the oven’s top element refusing to heat. In the middle of all our talking, laughing, grousing, and the kids (her teenage boys, my daughters) in the background playing board games like the cousins they were meant to be – we broke away – she and her boys to another friend’s for dinner, my older daughter splitting off for ice-skating with her group of girls and boys, my younger daughter and her friend with me to the Island to serve at a benefit dinner for a 9-year-old boy who’d just undergone open-heart surgery.

The dinner was held at the Island's community fire station. We stopped for our CSA share at the farm on our way, though no one was there and the barn was dark, the walk-in cooler stacked doubly, triply full with the gathering harvest – evidence of a good week’s work by many hands.

Turning out toward the main ring road, we noticed how dark the way and all the roads unlit. I realized I’d left the directions to the benefit dinner at home. But on a small island there are only so many places a fire station could be, so we drove out to merge onto the ring road. Lights from a few cars approached, passed, obviously traveling together. And further down the way, headlights converged from an intersecting road.

“Should we just follow them?”

“Sure, why not.”

And of course, another curve of the road and there was the sign for the fire station, dimly lit, and an impromptu parking lot already filling up in a neighboring field. Inside the barn-like station: tables and chairs ready for diners, longer tables full of donated pies, garden implements and other gifts for the coming raffle, and a kitchen of eager helpers. The girls with their friendly faces were set up with a roll of tickets and a cash box. I donned plastic apron and gloves and found my place behind mountainous bowls of potato salad, macaroni salad, green salad, jello salad and corn on the cob, chatting with the women on either side, joking with the people coming through the line.

Half the faces coming through the line I knew – my congregation shares our church building with another congregation taking in those who live out this way. But it became obvious as the dinner progressed, as the kitchen cleared out and my daughter and her friend and I paid for our own plates of food and found seats with neighbors of ours, that the community here on the Island was more neighborly, more tightly knit than our own small town. The auctioneer seemed to know all the other Island-people by first name. And then, the easiness and private jokes between passing Islanders, cheerily fighting their way through the crowd to their seats. Even many of their faces, rosy, round-cheeked, seemed to share a family resemblance. I wanted suddenly and deeply to live there and be part of that knittedness. Later, when we returned to my friend's house to finish up roll-making, I comment on the Island’s tight community. “Yes, and lots of cancer there, too. I think there’s something in the water.” I suppose she would know after her years on the watershed council.

Why do all our dreams of safety, snugness, coming home, have to break and wake this way? Because hasn’t everyone at some time toyed with the dream of living on an island – with a single bridge like a drawbridge over a moat? Or a ferry only. Or no ferry service, just your own boat, water dripping from the paddles and no other sound but the sudden flight of a white crane as you approach your island’s shore and your own familiar town waiting, all the houses of your friends. No longer strangers . . .

My schedule is certainly easier with husband and son gone this week. Nearly full-grown daughters are fully capable of dressing, feeding, transporting themselves, directing their own schedules. Meals are easy. 

From some fresh green beet tops another member of the CSA had trimmed away as so much refuse and left in the pass-along bin (even though beet greens are close kin to chard, sweet and green-and-red, and full of nutrients!) I play around and make up something new for dinner. Everything fresh from the farm: new carrots, fresh-grown celery, good hard onions. Well, almost everything – I had a half-used carton of beef broth in the fridge and I suppose if I were a full-cloth back-to-nature fiend I’d have made homemade noodles. But not when Mrs. Weiss' Kluski Noodles are to be found in the local Safeway. The girls and I dub this new creation Poverty Soup, made as it is from discarded vegees, though it is rich and filling. 

I love the freedom of these days, but then as evening draws on I feel unsettled coming back up to the house, knowing our menfolk are still away. I sleep in the middle of the bed with extra pillows piled up all around me and a stack of books and the light on.

On Tuesday, back at the pool, I find myself exclaiming how great it is to be back in the water, working out together, how I can feel the pieces of my life falling back into their places. We drift around in the water, working against our own currents, trying to stay out of each other’s way. Dressing afterwards – actually, blow-drying my feet before putting on my second (dry) set of socks before going back out to bike around my errands in the pouring rain – I fall into conversation with a woman coming in all swaddled up in coat and hat and gloves.

I don't think I've ever spoken to her before, but soon I know her husband's also gone this week. He’s in the fishery, often and regularly gone. While I don items of attire and she doffs, we talk about the freedom of being alone, the chance to divest ourselves of routines, schedules, other people’s clutter. We talk about owning things, how they get to own us. There is complete agreement between us and as I stand there, zipping up my raingear and buckling on my helmet, it strikes me that there aren’t many places you can have a serious philosophical discussion with someone dressed only in a fur cap and a bra.

Maybe only at the community pool.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I’ve been slowly learning by heart a long poem called alphabet by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. I’m up to the eighth section, the letter h:

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
harvest, history and Halley’s

comet exist; hosts exist, hordes
high commanders, hollows, and within the hollows,
half-shadows, within the half-shadows occasional

hares, occasional hanging leaves where . . .

The poem is based on the Fibonacci sequence – a mathematical pattern that describes the spiral of a Nautilus shell, numbers of leaves, branching patterns in trees and bronchioles.  Proportions found over and over in nature. 

It’s a simple and infinite pattern beginning with zero, then 1.  To produce the pattern you take the last number and add it to the number right before it: 1 + 0 = 1, then that second 1 + the 1 right before = 2 , then 2 + 1 = 3.  So that soon you have a self-propelled sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 . . .)  

You can think of the originating 1 as a gift.

And you can imagine, in a poem patterned after the Fibonacci sequence, how quickly sections which begin very short may become very long. For example, in alphabet, the first section (a) is one line:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

The second section (b) is two lines:

bracken exists and blackberries, blackberries
bromine exists, and hydrogen, hydrogen

By the eighth section (h), I’m looking at 34 lines, and what began as a simple feat of memory – a matter of minutes – has now become more of a challenge.

But the work of committing something to memory centers me. And this poem (which contemplates – as it pleads against – the possible destruction of the world) especially helps me to quiet my mind. The word that is repeated over and over is “exists”:

doves exist, dreamers and dolls;
killers exist, and doves and doves . . .

I find it incredibly settling to recite and to start in my mind a measured procession of all that exists – horrors taking their place beside hopes and comforts, ugliness another entry in the encyclopedia that contains beauties as well.

I find myself noting that not only:

seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists, memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists, oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist,
eider ducks, spiders, vinegar
exist, and the future, the future

But also, here at our house:

Daylight savings time exists and then does not, real time exists, our own internal clocks that perversely wake us at three-thirty or four in the morning exist.

Laundry exists, warm from the dryer.

Pumpkins exist and the seeds inside them.

Swimming exists, buoyancy, wavering rings of light reflected in the moving surface of the water exist.

Bike helmets exist, forgotten on the kitchen table. The softness of the air moving through uncovered hair exists.

At the food bank, cans of corn, cans of tomato soup, cans of tuna exist, even when there are no cans of chili, no bags of bread for worried parents to make school lunches. Bags of raisin bagels exist and stale cake. The last frozen packet of ground pork exists. People living in cars exist. People who have lost their jobs just today exist. Children who do not recognize a pear exist.

Courthouses exist along the river, ballots exist and the mailbox to receive them. Cars on the road beside me exist, the risk of slipping, swerving, injury exist, but only as possibility. Arriving safely exists as well.

Empty churches exist, friends filling them exist, quilt squares and quilt frames exist, needles and yarn exist, even when they are forgotten up the hill at home, left on the table beside the bike helmet. Cars that quickly, easily climb the hills home exist and people who lend them and laughter exists.

Grass exists and rain; dry sidewalks exist, especially when they are pointed out to you. Doors exist, doorbells exist. Visiting exists, small talk, the usual questions and answers. And better questions exist, my clear-eyed friend with her gentle voice, "Tell me about how you first started coming to church," and the quiet, thoughtful answers.

And news exists. Elections exist. Differences of opinion exist, and mutual respect in spite of everything. This nation exists.

A son exists who meets his mother at the door near tears because losing candidates exist.

In the kitchen, older sisters exist, listening to the official news of the count. Their jubilation exists (for winning candidates exist as well), though subdued out of respect for a brother's distress. Listening and nodding and putting arms around exist. Democracy exists. In some places, candidates who won’t concede, presidents who won't step down, fighting in the streets exists, one neighbor against another the next street over. But not here in this country, not now. Gratitude exists.

The radio exists. Stirring speeches exist. Hope exists and worry.

Dads exist and political allies. A son asking, "Are you mad that McCain didn't win, Dad?" exists. Fatherly words about being one nation and praying for the new president exist. Paper and pen exist and a son asking to borrow them.  And then a new thing exists - a boy's letter introducing himself to the new president, inviting him to come visit our house and his school, "Hi, President Obama. Good luck!," ending, "P.S. - if you come to our house my sister will make cookies." And "You are welcome any time."

And the next day and always laundry still exists. Haircuts exist; the cut hair swept up in a dustpan exists.

Elementary schools exist, copy machines exist and teachers and papers and backpacks.

Bikes still exist, cars still exist, choices always exist.

Grocery stores exist, aisles of food exist, and for me, money exists to pay for the milk and the fruit in my basket. Panniers exist to carry food home on the bike. Hills exist, hard breathing exists, thoughts about prayer as a complete exhaling exist. Gray days exist and cold.

Potatoes with the dirt still on them exist. New carrots exist, chopped into coins; fresh-grown celery. Local beef exists, raised by a friend of a friend. Tomatoes exist, a row of them bottled last autumn. Bay leaf and its fragrance. Blue and white stoneware bowls filled with soup I've eaten every winter (every winter?) of my life exist. Parent-teacher conferences exist, husbands who take the day off to attend exist. Sewing machines exist and daughters who are making and remaking dresses.

Artists’ receptions at the community center exist and a son’s painting of a single huge leaf sprouting out of a trunk against a black sky with a small faraway moon like a pearl. 

Nearby, a painting called Hope exists, first-graders’ lovingly detailed paintings of identifiable species of birds exist and Emily Dickinson’s words lettered in gold paint:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without the words,
And never stops at all . . .

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Cat Dad

Son has found a baby cat in the barn.

This is not the first time.

Earlier this summer he found three kittens, at first so tiny they barely had their eyes open. He waited until he thought they would be old enough and then caught them and brought them into the house. I did say "into the house," though I am firmly averse to animals in the house. What can I say? - he convinced me.

Plus we'd be doing the neighborhood a favor. Their mamma is a feral cat, a very fertile feral cat. Our half-hearted attempts to catch her and take her in to be spayed had not met with any success, but we could at least neutralize her progeny. And they were adorable - a black tuxedo he named Peridot, an orange creamsicle named Tansy, and Aspen, a black-and-white stripey.

They didn’t last.

It’s not just that their adoption coincided with the start of our building project, which began with tearing open the wall in the downstairs bathroom to fix a non-functioning shower. (And why exactly was I surprised to find kittens climbing all over inside the basement walls?)

Keeping the kittens outside on the porch in a big computer box worked about three days. We could handle their newfound skill at jumping out with a weighted screen over the top. But we were no match for the mamma cat, Feral Fertile, who mer-yowed around our house all night every night and finally even brought a big burly tom with her, whom I can only suppose was their father.

I cannot oppose a dedicated mother (and a father to boot! there is hope in the animal world!)  Out of maternal solidarity and despite my son's most pathetic pleas, I decreed the kittens let free and watched them scamper to reunite with their family. May the same be measured out again to me.

I’m sure the songbirds -- threatened now by a thriving tribe of predators -- will forgive my sloppy, shortsighted, anthropomorphic sentimentality.

Son was heartbroken - or more accurately, all the more determined.

The rest of the summer he was on constant lookout for cats he could tame. And every other week he’d go back out to the barn to see if “his” cats had seen the light and given up Life with Mother to come back and live with him.

“I'm going to go look for my cats in the barn," he said last week.

"They're not there anymore. You're not going to find anything out in the barn, except mice maybe." 

But of course I was wrong. He came floating back from the barn, his face like May morning, cradling a tiny baby cat: “He just walked right up to me and put his foot on my foot and said meow.”

Ugh. Now there is a faint whiff of cat whenever I come in the front door.

But Son cuddles the cat around with him everywhere, cooing over it cuteness.

"It's almost as good as having a brother," says he.  "Do you think it might be like this when I'm a Dad?"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Trouble with MOM

with apologies to Brian Kershisnik - his unadulterated picture may be seen here

Son, on his way out the door in the morning: "Bye! You're the best mom in the world - no matter what anyone else says!"

What exactly is it that anyone else says? And who are they? His sisters? His dad? The neighbors, his teachers? The word on the street? How far exactly has the rot spread and how much damage control am I in for this morning?

Okay, so maybe I'm not the best mom. A truth unpalatable, but especially so when my hair's still sleep-matted on one side and fuzzed-up in back and when breathing my own morning breath, wearing rubber garden clogs with stylish flannel and scraping out the burnt-oatmeal pan.

Lighten up. It’s a joke, says the voice inside my head that speaks in my husband's tones.

Right. I know that.

The trouble is, it’s not just the twist at the end - even the first part chafes me, that part about best. Because best I’m not, not right now, not ever, certainly not when I’m battling the inner spider so hard.

Let him have “the best mom in the world.” Allow him that. Doesn't every child deserve to have the best mom in the world?, says that other voice, the one that sounds an awful lot like my mom in WiseWoman mode.

Oh, yeah, Inner Child puts her two-cents in, like how whenever I said "Mommy, you are so pretty," how you’d say, “Pretty ugly and pretty apt to stay that way”?

The inner spider, of course, has no voice because it has nothing to say because there is nothing to say because there is nothing to do but throw out filament, filament, filament out of itself, wrapping up the world in absence and paralysis.

The best I can do is sometimes forestall my son.

"Best mom in - " he begins.

"Best mom you'll ever have. Have you got your lunch? Your backpack?”

Or on the better mornings, "Best son in the world. Now run, your dad's waiting."

But I know it's coming, the morning I'm too slow - the morning I'm the best mom in the world - no matter what anyone else says.

And I'm having too many of these days lately. Days when I have to flog myself to get up, get dressed. Days when getting a dinner on the table is cause for celebration.

Part of this is just the darkening weather. Part of it the accumulated craziness of the girls' marching band schedule (which will be over after the first of November!).

And part my anachronistic need to grieve for my grandpa who died hardly a month ago. I think it would do me good to live in a society where subdued behavior after the death of a close connection was expected.  I'd feel protected and guided up out of sadness by the wearing of black, then gray, then finally lightening into lavender. Here, though, and now, it's as unmannerly to keep grieving once the funeral is over, as hot pink flounces at a funeral used to be a hundred years back.

Maybe I should move to Spain. I was reading this week the intro to a book on Spanish poetry:

The Spaniard, says Julian Marias, constantly thinks in terms of final things . . . he broods in a way that the humanist or rationalist would not, on the insult of death.
I don’t think it’s the insult of death that drags me down. It’s not even that I’m sad, really. I don’t feel sad. I laugh. I smile. I make my way through the day. It’s just that having the people I love die, makes an emptiness in me. Like the best guests leaving a party that falls flat suddenly and pointless. Or like the silence that meets a vapid remark, echoing, re-echoing how stupid, how vain . . . Okay, maybe it is the insult of death.

But death’s insult is that I’m left back in the mortal eddies while others swirl out into a wider eternity. Like the way it feels when my children go off to school each September, with their new books and new clothes, ready for new friends and teachers. I feel left behind.

I’m trying not to brood. I’ve been through this process enough times now that I know the arc, the downwards rainbow through dark water. It seems to take me about 9 months to a year. I always come out again into the sunlight, once again a citizen of day. Which is a good thing for – as I was reminded in that Spanish poetry introdution –

But death, to use the ironic phrase of Marias, has never been granted citizenship in the United States.

This isn’t the entry I was planning to write this week. This writing is meant as a way of charting my way up and out of the cave, constructing a scaffold over what sometimes feels like misery, though it is shallow of me to call it so.

When I was young, my family moved from Ohio to the Bay Area, California. “I bet you’re glad you moved here,” were the first words I heard from a Californian. And heard over and over, in every possible permutation.

Everyone I met was sure as could be that I was basking in the sunny California glow, reprieved from Midwestern propriety and the certainty of winter, glad to trade flaming maple and sweet gum, buckeyes and Osage orange, hot chocolate at Friendly’s after football games, ice skating, snow days, snow-topped mailboxes, and the first green mist hovering over rich, black, new-plowed fields, for this sullen sky, this bland barrenness crowded over with identical suburban houses.  They were sure.  And I was sure that glad is what I was not.

And so, to get me through, I made myself find and see, each day, one thing worth seeing.

Those images are still strong in me - small, safe clearings of peace in my mind - even now I can bring them sharply to my inner eye: a willow tree in rain, the curve of a gingko leaf against the sidewalk, the muscular hand of an oak tree’s branches standing alone, the sun twinkling faraway on Sausalito Bay from our tiny kitchen window.

It’s become a lifetime habit of observation and meditation and salvation.

Trouble is I’ve lost the little notebook I’d been carrying around with me, full of daily notes of stories and scenes and, this week especially, notes from something Dieter Uchtdorf said very insightful and inspiring about being willing to something and how it would open us to “inconvenient, but life-changing” something.

I did try this week. When the phone call came I pushed back my half-valid excuses and gave up other busy-ness, made re-arrangements to my Wednesday schedule so I could drive an older friend of ours into the City for a full day of doctor’s appointments. The trouble is, like everything this week, even that good intent came to naught – our friend called and cancelled her appointments. So no extra life-changing inconvenience - and I’m stuck still with the same old life.

Let’s see what else this week . . . no, let’s not . . . my memory of Friday, for example, so blank I had to ask my daughter.

"Harvest party?” she offered.

Oh, right. How could I forget? I spent the whole day trying to figure out how to make an Alaskan Indian costume out of some pale brown burlap for the son who was rashly counting on me.  This is not what I spent several years of graduate school preparing for.

At the Harvest Carnival that evening, I sat, supervising my young women's class run their doughnut booth, still pulling out threads to make the fringe so he could wear his costume at least for trunk-or-treating later on in the parking lot.

The dullness and domesticity. Where are the roaring motors and cavalcade?

The trouble is what I do remember is a litany of things I forgot, meetings I was late for, meals I didn’t make, times I felt like an interloper, stupid things I said, silences and emptinesses.

Here’s something else: Cleaning off some extra papers, I found a note from my eldest daughter written some years back on the eve of Girls’ Camp (when I was sick with panic, dreading a week of babysitting teenagers as Camp Mom).

Daughter Dear had written, “MOM upside down is WOW” – a nice thought and then the kicker: “Think how awesome she would be right side up!”

Amen to that.

Trouble is, which way is up?  and how do I get there from here?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

My Sorrow when she's here with me

"Surprise" by Henri Rousseau, detail
"My November Guest"
by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

(week of November 2 - 8)

Sail On, O Ship of State! (from The Building of the Ship)
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all its hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
‘Tis of the wave and not the rock;
‘Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by a gale!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith, triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, —are all with thee!

(week of November 9-15)

First Lesson
by Philip Booth

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

(weeks of November 17 - 30)

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke(translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
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