Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Books of 2011

The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom, Graham Farmelo.
Fascinating biography of a brilliant physicist and endearing human being, 539 pages.

Running for the Hills: growing up on my mother's sheep farm in Wales, Horatio Clare.
A story of brilliant and imperfect parents through the clear but loving eyes of a particularly bright child, 273 pages.

The Sabbath World: glimpses of a different order of time, Judith Shulevitz.
Beautiful, beautiful book, part personal memoir, part cultural history, a Jacob's wrestling with the idea and reality of the Day of Rest, 246 pages.

Olive Trees and Honey: a treasury of vegetarian recipes from Jewish communities around the world, Gil Marks.
History and geographical survey of the Jewish diaspora, by way of recipes.  Good, wholesome food, 454 pages.

A Blessing of Bread: the many rich traditions of Jewish bread baking around the world, Maggie Glezer.

Spotlights on individual bakers with professionally exact recipes and detailed techniques.  A treasure, 336 pages.

Understanding the Book of Mormon: a reader's guide, Grant Hardy.
A fluid and mountain-creek-clear structural analysis of this text as a text, how it functions as a text, how parts comment on neighboring parts.  Insightful, 346 pages.

The Great Angel: a Study of Israel's Second God, Margaret Barker.
Theology, unconventional and thought-provoking, 272 pages.

Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses, Claire Dederer.
Loved this contemporary memoir of an ordinary but extraordinarily attentive contemporary woman, 332 pages.

Subversive Sequels in the Bible: how Biblical stories mine and undermine each other, Judy Klitsner.
What the subtitle says is what this book does.  Interesting and insightful way of reading the stories of the Bible, relating stories together and weaving a whole cloth from  different episodes, 224 pages.

A Tour of the Calculus, David Berlinski.
A manic ode to math.  Required reading for all wordy mathophobes amonst us, 331 pages.

What the Nose Knows: the science of scent in everyday life, Avery Gilbert.
My personal obsession with understanding how scent works continues, 290 pages.

The Secret of Scent: adventures in perfume and the science of smell, Luca Turin.
My personal obsession with smell personified in one stubborn, unconventional, and charismatic man, 207 pages.

Creating a Forest Garden: working with nature to grow edible crops, Martin Crawford.
A blueprint for restoring Eden, with gorgeous photos and useful plant lists, 384 pages.

Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle.
Enter into the thought-chamber of a particularly intelligent researcher and survey alongside while she looks back over decades of her research about technology and what it means to be human.  Fresh and insightful, backed up with hard data and extensive familiarity with the topic.  Brilliant, 360 pages.

 The Winter of our Disconnect: how three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale, Susan Maushart.
Fun account of a family that goes technologically cold-turkey.  Enough to inspire emulation, 278 pages.

NurtureShock: new thinking about children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
Always satisfying to read convincing studies that back up your parenting intuitions.  Even more helpful to pick up more useful techniques and insightful approaches, 336 pages.

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, Jasper Fforde.
This audiobook took us many miles across country and played severely with our brains.  Waiting impatiently for the sequel, 390 pages.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Moving . . .

I've exceeded my photo quota for Blogger and am reduced to writing in just black and white.  Since this is no better than speaking without hand-movement, I've decided to switch over to WordPress.

In other words, I will be riding my Imaginary Bicycle now only over at, which used to be my all-biking blog ("Dream Cycle") but which will heretofrom be known simply as "Imaginary Bicycle" and will now, in these hard economic times, consolidate into an all-service, unreliable and highly random ramble through whichever cycles of life happen to have me in their toils.

And I tell you this so you can come, too.

Can you really deny yourself the sight of cows with pedicures?

Friday, March 4, 2011

FEBRUARY 32, 2011 - the end

How fitting, Thou drollest of Stage Directors, to call me out today for one more dove release.

why eye . . . must change my life

Okay, homing pigeon.

Not the sign of inspiration winging in, but that common bird, hardy and resilient with a useful trick of knowing how to come home - and yes, I get the significance there. (I am willing to be Thy pigeon, if Thou wilt plant in me a sure way home.)  Pigeon made dove  by word alone when I say the words:  To conclude this service, this pure white dove will be released as a symbol . . . 

"You and your symbols,"  my friend said recently, trying to rein me in.  Shaking her head at the way I had waxed ecstatic describing the shabby-but-graceful fox-trotting middle-aged couple who'd danced a private enactment of the lightness and forbearing unity that is one kind of marriage.  My friend was shaking her head at me like I made these "symbol" thingies up myself.

why eye . . . still dream of flying

But did I do this bird trick?  Did I arrange the plot so neatly?  Did I set out to begin and end this long, overlong, stretched-over-two-years-long, who-am-I-and-where-am-I-going scene like this?  I did not.

Pigeons and funerals?  Not my doing.  I never saw it coming until just now.

I'm just catching Thy joke.  Appreciating Thy sly wit.  

why eye . . . remember I have wings
Because Thou knowest it was that long-ago funeral-bird-fiasco that drove me to begin this blog in the first place. As an incident too perfectly apt to my situation then.  An outward picture of an inward truth. (i.e. SYMBOL and not of my making)

Only Thou and I remember how much I needed an Imaginary Bicycle, some un-ordinary vehicle, to help me to recover all those too-soon departing doves pigeons doves.  My fledgling chicks, my long-flown ambitions.  (i.e. more SYMBOLS, partly made but mostly found)

I nodded Thy direction last month, when in January (#12) I was called out of the blue, after two years, to once again release another "dove" at a funeral.  I acknowledged it as a sentence remitted, a curse undone, a silly but symbolic second cosmic chance.

why eye . . . am not my cage

When nothing went wrong -- the bird flew as birds should do and at the right spot in time --  I felt the holding pattern I've been stuck in -- for lo, these two too-many years -- was maybe breaking up at last.  That the filibuster was maybe hemming and hawing into his handkerchief, going hoarse at last.  (okay, this symbol I made up myself -- but see? nothing like so powerful and corporeal as Thine).

In the flesh, last month, I held a laugh of release inside my chest (feeling inside something died, something about to be reborn) while I watched two old brothers trying to coordinate their swing-and-toss of a silly bird, symbolic of their father's soul, back into the air.  After saying my magic-symbolic words of transformation and putting the pigeon-now-dove into their hands, I tried to keep my face suitably sober as these two tear-softened gray-haired brothers together tossed their pigeon-dove into the air.

Being a mixed creature myself, I was jubilant standing amid the grievers to feel that maybe my cycle was grinding into action once again.

why eye . . . have flown
Today the grieving family couldn't decide who should release the bird.  After swinging back and forth, they tossed the action to me, as a neutral and unrelated and thus innocent bystander.

And so I held the bird in my own hands and felt beneath my own fingers the eager feathers, the certain strength of wing muscles. Feeling inside myself at the same time the eager heart, the greedy mind, the glowing prospects ahead of me. 

With mourners all around me, jubilant I swung my clasped hands up, jumping a little onto my toes the way you do, watching this feathered hopeful creature take to the sky.

I stood a long moment, with all the other upturned faces, witnessing that lovely bird wing her way unhesitatingly home.

And I just have to say, Nicely played, MaestroNicely played.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

FEBRUARY 31, 2011 - what I told them

What mi amiga said:  "You can just go and totally reinvent yourself.  Do not even look back."

What my dad said:  "It's about time."

What my mom said: "Don't you think this is what it's been about - not anyone else, just you not wanting to end up a querulous old lady?"

What YoungSon said, after laughing, his face making all its sweet crinkles, because I'm swooping around hoom-hooming a manic rendition of Phantom of the Opera - which has, I hope, very little to do with my news:  "That's cool, Mom.  Will you be gone when I come home from school?"

What Middlest said: "Yay!  I'm so happy for you!"

What Fritz said:  "So we can meet for lunches.  How long is it going to take?  Because we'll need to set that much aside."

Because this  is what I told them.

And now I'm telling you since - just now - the word came through that all the official prerequisite flotsam has been nailed down.  So when I come back in April I will be talking like this.  Or trying to.

(Now back to the swooping and hoom-hooming)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

FEBRUARY 30, 2011 - taking questions

Take One

What are you doing here?
I'm trying to write.  At home the phone rings, the piles of gravel mutter, the second coat of paint in the bathroom whines for attention.  Also the dog.  While the same sad array of disappointed books and obdurately unlucky rocks stare back at me. It is quiet here.  And I can let home go.  After all, dinner is already bubbling away: beans, fifteen varieties of.  The laundry: quelled.  The paperwork: up-to-date.  Everyone who needs to be fed or cheered - or fed and cheered - in my immediate purview has been seen to.

What are you doing here?

I'm watching sea gulls fly across a patch of blue sky.  And tons and tons of water flow west, north, northwest.  Dripping from the sky, dripping down out of local watersheds in hundreds of small cascades and flowing now together to empty themselves into the wide immensities that are Ocean.  And I'm watching an old lady in a crocheted cap - a black beanie with variegated neon seams - totter up to the rail overlooking the river.  She fusses about in her pocket, wipes her face with a kleenex, totters away.

What are you doing here?
I'm sipping orange mint tea from a thermos.  I'm eating a half-sandwich, one slice whole wheat: folded over, peanut butter: 100% and unadulterated.  And peapods.  And stunted carrots.  I have an apple waiting.  I am so very stuck in this age and place and socioeconomic profile, sitting here in my soccer-mom van at the water's edge.
What are you doing here?
I am trying to write something and crossing out lines like the heart of what really matters and the thread of light in this mazy murk and meanwhile my mind keeps wandering away to that article from Sunset (June 1993) in the waiting room at the DMV about braising/deglazing and now I'm thinking how a clutch of yellow onions in beef broth/with balsamic, respectively, would be rather divine if stirred (with a little garlic) into those 15 varieties of beans.  And then maybe some smoked paprika?  a bit of sage?  Crumbled bacon.  And collards cooked up in a bit of the grease to go along with.

What are you doing here?
I'm looking/ not looking at the young lovers who have wandered over to the gazebo down on the grassy shore.  Their hands in each other's pockets.  They lean into each other.  They read each other's faces like everything they'll ever need is written right there.  They ought to be in school this time of day.  Or working.  I'm trying not to remember what they look like.  I don't want to recognize them later - or more probably just her - months from now at the food bank, big-bellied and abandoned.
What are you doing here?
I'm trying to shape a life I can live with.  I'm trying to balance in and out, dark and water - which is so egregiously self-plagiarism, too utterly obscure and private metaphor that I might as well just say I'm aspiring to be the Telescope's Apprentice and have done with any wish to communicate clearly.

What are you doing here?
I don't know.

Take Two

I wrote a poem once.  So long ago, it seems like someone else wrote it.

What the Telescope Hears

You scan the void with such aplomb.
You gather light, reflect. I clown
around in borrowed clothing, goatskin

suitcase packed with worn-out
constellations. Spectator
pumps Andromeda

wore, Orion's studded belt,
the Virgo's wig and flowered caftan.
I am so broken down

into question-answer, mix-
and-match coordinates - still
hoping to be seen through,
yearning to be taken in,

absorbed by all that isn't there:
black holes, dark matter. O

you who see it all: help
me to the right ascension, the arc
of declination where I

will give up every mask to see
the room where stars dissolve and spin
themselves from dust. O deaf

and blind but filled with light,
heaven's laughter in particle waves —
show me the way between

in and out, dark and water,
sudden planet, white apple,
bright and fiery pomegranate

© by Emma Jay

What does it mean?
It means I'm still not there yet.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

FEBRUARY 29, 2011 - what? you didn't realize there was a Leap Day this year?

How about a Leap Week?

The end of the month is upon me.  In fact, we could say (thanks to a major power outage) that the End of the Month is been and gone, hit and run, abscondido.  That it is the First of the Month now squalling and mewling for attention out in a basket on the front step.

We could say that.  Or we could say February is far too short when among friends. We could, actually, consider today February 29th.  We could decide that for once, February gets its full complement of 30 days hath September . . . even an all the rest get thirty-one.  In fact, considering the amount of things I find I need to tell you before slipping back behind my vow of silence, we may need to stretch this month to a record thirty-two days.

Couldn't we?  Actually, we could. 

So, since the first of the month (which is still February remember?) I've been carrying around notes I wrote on the fly after one day at the Food Bank.

For weeks I've kept coming back to my little book and its quick scratches, trying to shape scribbles into something postable, trying to tease out some interesting angle, or shadow of insight - because something here mattered immensely to me.  I began: 
Last Monday I worked at the HELP Pantry - unless that stands for Hunger Eradication League Pantry in which case I worked at the HEL Pantry.  Which would be unfortunate.  But a good sight warmer.  However, it was achingly cold, so I suspect it stands for Help Everyone Live Properly Pantry.  Or the Higher Eating Levels Project Pantry.

Anyway, as I was saying . . .
Though I never actually did say.  I never actually got beyond playing around with what I wasn't saying, never put shape to the telegraphic notes I've carried around with me in the  little moleskine notebook that I carry everywhere so that I am never prevented from scribbling down recipes copied from magazines in waiting rooms or meditational maunderings or, shockingly often, taking dictation from the unsuspecting who speak interestingly in my presence.

I have from a child upwards  gathered small rocks.  Overlooked treasures.  And this habit of collecting the things that people say is the same habit.  Check the pockets of my coats, the side pockets of my car, my recipe box, window sills, inside the covers of my books - everywhere: pinecones, bizarrely shaped pebbles, little rocks with intriguing glitters, scraps of paper, 3x5 cards of sketchy monologue, torn-open envelopes with snatches of other people's conversation scribbled on the back. Small undervalued delights.

I wanted to tell them to you.  I was going to set the scene . . .

 . . . how I breezed in, in a hurry as I so often am.  How I greet the grim-faced helmet-haired lady and the pale young man beside her: his slicked-back 1920s poet's coiff and curly spurt of chin-hair, the heavy chain hanging out of his pocket.  How even before I say anything they are wary, watchful, on guard against me, anyone, everyone.  I won't know why until I hear the whole story later in the day of how the absentee I'm covering left in a huff in the middle of last week's shift.

"Hi," I introduced myself, brisk and bright, "Are you working the desk?" 

The old lady bristles, "I usually work desk,"  drawing herself up to do battle, "Unless you have some Reason you need to?  Really though it's much too heavy for me in the back room, filling the boxes -  "

"No, no, perfectly fine. Just wanted to know where I'm needed."  Other days there are some volunteers who find the alphabetizing a little onerous, and are glad for me to relieve them, though thankfully I do not suggest this might be the case with her.  But my tone is still too bustling, and I can see the feathers are not unruffling.

So I step back to the warehouse, catch my breath, stroll around the shelves - to all appearances checking supplies but really just getting quiet.  And then come back in.

And feel glee rising in me.  Because this is something I know how to do.  It's a pity (or maybe a blessing?) that I don't know how to make this knack, this whatever it is  - pay.

But what joy in watching the transformation! As faces lose their tightness, eyes relax, open wider, begin even to shine sometimes, and twinkle.  Those intriguing pebbles full of fool's gold.  And I'm the fool that gathers them up like best treasure.

I was going to tell you how the thaw took place.  How she at length reveals she's been a nurse - her nursing degree at Missoula whose campus we both admire for its clean, wide brightness.  While she talks, the crisp white nurse's cap almost shimmers into its place on her head and I can see how her clean silvery cut still curves up in expectation of that badge of hygiene and progress.  The young man, who it turns out is her grandson, asserts and I agree that nurses in his grandma's day were certainly lovely beings. 

He loves to talk, swoopingly, dramatizing as he tells it - airing the heat from his collar and fanning his slender face, "Grandma has showed me her yearbook. Oh oo-wee! yes, they don't make nurses like that any more.  Now they all look like they're from California."

His sad and scornful tone when he pronounces the name of our neighbor state makes me laugh out loud. Which you may not understand unless you've had to live too much in the neighboring shadow of that unreflecting, water-guzzling. self-proclaimed capital of the world.  . . . Or, I suppose,  if you happen to be Canada or Mexico . . . 
But that's another tangent. 

I wanted to tell you every utterly well-scripted, self-revelatory thing they said: trenchant commentary on the undeserving poor ("Drank his breakfast, he did.  Almost knocked me out.  Did you catch  whiff of him?") - which explains the grimness with which she faces off with some of the clients.

Even if she says nothing, I can tell which ones she has no use for even before her grandson tells me why.

Though he does tell me why -- and so gorgeously: "So he's leaning up against the fridge like he was the cat's tuxedo and hectoring Grandma . . .

(who says "hectoring" any more?  And I'm seeing the sleekest Cary Grant of cat-kind.) 

. . . but when they give Grandma a hard time I can't abide that.  I was about to give him a fat lip and would too if I wasn't working here.  Lucky for him he didn't just quite cross the line."

He squares his slender shoulders.  Translucent skin and an utterly refined profile, twisting his beardlet as he talks until it curls up like a pale candle flame.  Grandma looks at him purringly, pleased to be defended retrospectively.

Though it doesn't keep him from comparing haggis favorably to Grandma's Lenten fish. 

Her only recourse is to counter with blood sausage:  "My dad used to butcher a couple of hogs and hang them whole.  Then he'd send word to the Austrian ladies who'd come and catch up every last bit of the blood. They'd work it and work it - with their hands! - while it was cooling down so it wouldn't coagulate.  It would surely make our stomachs turn, my brother's and mine, watching them." 

I love it all - the disgusted expressions of the pigtailed girl she once was fleeting across her wrinkled face, the nurse's easy and precise pronunciation of "coagulate."

They know the stories of most everyone who comes through the door. And do not generally approve of any of them.

"And so crabby!" they comment as one old grump approaches our door.

They tell me about the regular scams and outrageous demands of the ungrateful and indigent.  I make myself remember they are choosing to volunteer here, faithfully week after week, not the erratic pinch-hitting I do these days.  But I notice when I shake my head with her and then sigh, "Lots of sad stories come through that door, don't they?" that her face softens.

I wanted to tell you how he described sitting down at dinner at one of his friends': "it's like Asgard - " (I'm nodding, thinking that sounds familiar?  Famous restaurant? Or is that the Astoria?)  " - like sitting down with Thor and Freya," he finishes with complete unself-consciousness, as if everyone is on first names with the Norse gods.  And his love of all things bike - both motor and pedaled.  "Don't you ride an old school cruiser?"  he asks me.

"I do."

"I thought I'd seen you around town.  I love those old school rides."  He waxes eloquent on the lost values incarnated in Vintage.  How it's more human, more full of sweat and courage.  His close-set green eyes are freshly clear.

He starts to trash-talk the yuppie-riders who clog the roads on organized rides in their skintight Lycra - though, when I laughingly  admit I might be one of them, with a gracious wave of his hand absolves me of any guilt by association.

By the end of our four hour shift, she's confiding that this is a hard town to make friends in.

"It can be," I say.  Because I can see how it could be.

And she tells me, a little shyly, how she hopes we end up working together again.  "Oh me, too." And I tell her what a pleasure it has been for me, too, talking with her and her grandson.

Because this is one of my deepest pleasures -- this connection that can be made. And that's what I wanted to tell you.

But I never did

Instead, throughout all this month it was to my own marginal questions I kept coming back: " . . . it's a pity I don't know how to make this knack, this whatever it is, pay" because I realize what I really want to do with the rest of my life is wander around getting people to talk to me.  That's it. 

But do what with it?

And also, the exhilaration I  feel - which is unlike the deadened and damped down way I feel after a day . . . doing other things. 

How I feel incredibly alive (filled, fed - despite/because of this grey little town we live in, because of/despite this cold rainy day - bright and vivid and deeply dear) but also chagrined - who is this easy, open,  laughing, helpful stranger and what is she doing in my body?  And why won't she come home and talk with Fritz and my other beloveds this way for me?

It's these questions I keep turning back to whenever I mean to write up these notes. 

Instead of shaping this post, I keep writing something else for somewhere else or getting up and leaving without writing, asking myself - why can't I make it pay? 

Until I begin to ask instead - Well, why can't I? 

And instead of  - Who is this person and why won't she come home and talk to my loved ones for me?,  I ask at last - Well, why doesn't she?

I keep asking myself that.

Until I think that I can.  Until she does. 

Which is, my dears, something else I wanted to tell you.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

in different lights


Finally the weather has turned cold and we are promised snow . . . maybe.  But no one has been complaining at this stretch of unusual sunshine.

I never valued sunshine all that much, growing up in its relentless brightness, insistent clarity, bossy cheer.   No scope for the imagination.  Gray days - when they came, which was rarely - were full of heavy clouds and a kind of plummy moistness in every breath.  Gray days tingled with repressed lightning and promised -- by withholding and obscuring behind fog and bluster -- so many mysterious (read: superior) possibilities.

It's only now, at the rainy northwestern edge of my life, that I can welcome sunny days.  I still love gray days, charged as they are with portent and urgency.  But I have sense in me now to feel glad for the dumb goodness of sunshine when it comes.


Did you hear what Z was saying? Middlest asks me, Z being a friend of hers who's been over lately, regularly, as he makes his way through.

- No, sorry.  What was he saying?

- He was telling me how sweet you and Dad were together.

- We are very sweet of course.

- He said you were watching that thing about families and both got teary-eyed and then you leaned over and kissed Dad on the top of his head.

- I suppose we did do that.

- He says he's always wanted that.  The way you are together.  He loves watching you.  He's always been afraid he'll never have that.

- You'll have to reassure him that if we can have it, probably almost anybody can. 


If we made a talking action-figure of Fritz, it would
  1. be permanently crouched in bike-position
  2. come with non-removable helmet
  3. say, "The hills are your friends!  The hills are your friends!"
So many times has Fritz said this that we've all found ourselves building our lives around the saying.

Calculus, said Eldest when it threatened to do her in, it's difficult, but it's being hard?
That isn't a reason to quit. 
It's just a hill.  And I know what to do with hills.



I made Fritz laugh during prayers the other day.  This is my gift, making him laugh when he's decided to be sadly serious.  We were praying together, just the two of us.  When I gave thanks for our "supple marriage," he let out a startled snort-cough.

And afterwards, gleamed at me over the top of his glasses, grinning still reluctantly, Supple?

- Yes.  Don't you think so?  Isn't it amazing when you think of all we put it through and still it's strong. Supple, not brittle.  Aren't we lucky?

Later: talking with our biking friends, a couple married a dozen or so years longer, also juggling mostly grown children and diminished parents.  When I tell how Fritz laughed at supple, the husband lets out a shout of laughter, Sounds like a tough old piece of leather gnawed down into subjection!  While she laughs, risingly. They turn to each other and begin to nod. 

He says, Isn't that the truth?

She says, I'm sure it's been me.

He says, My fair share. 

They laugh, looking into each other's faces, touching each other's shoulder, ear, tip of the hair, sleeve.  Very tenderly. 


This post is done though I'm not through.
I don't intend to ever finish up . . . 

(more tulips here)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Things I Will Stop Doing Sometime Soon

#1.  I will stop disrespecting myself.

Yeah.  And I guess that's enough of a list for now.

Maybe we could even break it down into tinier steps ~
  1. I - as in me, remember me? loyal sidekick all these years of mortality? That friendly girl in the mirror with the sturdy-looking hands?  Bridge-person. Honeybee-person.  Pearly snail-soul so steadily treading the rain-gemmed grass, fine-tuned antennae reading the air.  Bright little boat bobbing along.  Remember me, my soul? 
  2. will - which means "can" which means "may" which means "you have permission" which means "why not"?
  3. stop - as in leave off, cease from persisting, let go of the kite string, no longer hold the line, no longer hold the lie, shrug off, surge past . . . maybe there are even more verbs waiting out there once we get past these?
  4. disrespecting - This is the tricky part.  We don't mean stop caring, but do stop carrying burdens, can't you?  Stop crouching. Stop cutting down to size.  (Whose size are you aiming for anyway?)  Stop apologizing to the world at large for who you are and what your life is - haven't you over and over done what you did with the best you had in you at the time?  Or nearly so.  And when you haven't - well, you haven't.  But you  know where to turn to turn back to the path, how to learn how to mend what's worth mending, how to carry forward what will carry you through.  That's good enough to be going on with.  And while we're at it, do stop apologizing to your younger self - she didn't know what life was bringing, she likes you anyway,  she's still here holding your hand.  Start talking to that wise old woman you're going to be.  Let go and turn away from the things you do that offend your soul - latch on to the graces and blisses that make you feel alive - which is what repentance is meant to mean.  Live in this body:  respect its needs for the hill-work, for early sleep and early rise, feed yourself as you would a cherished recuperating guest.  Grant this mind access to the work it needs.  We mean something like that. We think. It's anyway a place to start.   
  5. myself - Or just move the period over one word, eh?  Just stop disrespecting. Loose myself to run in the meadow and enjoy the promises with all the other children.
So what's so hard about that?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

tongues of love, the lettered heart, and other bad translations

Yesterday, Valentine's Day, Fritz brought me white tulips - unos tulipanes blancos.  They are even prettier pronounced in Spanish.  New sounds to mean the same old thing, tongue and teeth shaping themselves around the unfamiliar words until throat and mouth themselves become the flower - la flor.

This flower-giving is uncharacteristic of Fritz, though not out of character.  Especially as no words were offered, just flowers, with a silence which is a corrective, I believe, to the too many words said lately. 

(When I am an expert in eldercare, I will write a chapter with a useful chart of all the words that ought not to be said.  Especially by those who should be taking care.  I will know what they are, because I will have said them all.)  

Without opening his lips, Fritz handed me white tulips.  And I was touched, moved even, though our hands barely brushed.  It was, if you like, I like to think, a kind of speaking in tongues.  A purer kind of language. 

Or at least, less open to bad translations.

A mother, driving the car, says to her daughter :

- I'm sorry.  I'm interrupting you, 
but I just can't stop feeling this anger at everything.

- So scream.

And so she did.  The mother did. 
Suddenly.  And for several seconds.
A sound frightening, bereft, and furious.

Studying Spanish, I find something is happening to my inner brain.  It's like I'm closing in on some deeper definition to words I thought I already knew.  As if another word for the same things allows a triangulation of the meaning. 

She hadn't known she could make that sound.
Though still she kept a steady hand on the steering wheel.

Then cried into her free hand,
little huffing, breathless, exhausted sobs.

The daughter said nothing,
made short soft pats on the mother's back.

- Thank you for making it safe for me to do that.

- Glad to be there.

- I don't feel so angry anymore.

- That's good.

- Am I going crazy?

- Not at all.

- If anyone had been driving past they would have thought so.

- They would have thought you were singing.
Very energetically singing.

Which sets them off, mother and daughter,
into whoops of gulping laughter.

There are tears in their eyes.
The daughter so wise, the mother so confused.

But isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

Or as if translating from one language to a second to a third helps to plot out the actual dimensions of the truth.  Truth being what our words can only ever approach as approximations.  Like playing that addictive Minesweeper.  Where you click-click-click on empty squares around the hidden target - which is a bomb that will blow you up and out of the game.   Each safe click turns the empty square over, reveals a number: how many bombs border that safe square.  Eight is the maximum number of potential bombs bordering any one square, because a square has only that many sides and corners.  It's simple.  Lucky clicks will sweep out whole areas that are safe and free of bombs.  And bordering those open areas:  more safe squares that helpfully give you the number of bombs nearby - so that you can avoid them - after you flag them as dangerous.

A man and a woman stand at the head of the stairs:

- So let's get rid of the dog then.

-Oh, yes. Why don't we, that's a great solution.

And the next day, standing in the same spot,
locked in the same unspeakable question:

- I've called the animal shelter and for fifty dollars
they're prepared to look at taking the dog.

- What? That's not what I need.
You're not listening to me.
You haven't been listening to me.

The man makes his way down the stairs, and in the background
their son begins to drip silent tears
squeezing out of his tightly folded face:

The son says:
-No, it's okay. If you have to take her away,it's okay.
If it's too hard to take care of everything.

Why is it so hard to take care of everything?

For example, take la escoba.  In Spanish it means broom.  Since learning it, the word will not sit still in my mind.  What? what? I keep asking it - there's a word it reminds me of, what is it?  Rushes, reeds, scouring - escoriating - that's not a word - what?  Excoriate, excoriating - as in "The candidates have publicly excoriated each other throughout the campaign" - is that it?

Probably that's what I was thinking of.

Though excoriate is from the Latin ex (off) + corium (skin, hide) - in other words, "to flay," "to strip the skin from."  And escoba is from the Latin scopa (which means, unsurprisingly, "broom") and enters English only as the scientific term scopa from the Latin scopae (plural, 'twigs, branches/sprigs tied together, i.e. broom') and refers to
  • a small brush-like tuft of hairs on some insects, especially that on which pollen collects on the leg of a bee

Not so much scouring out, after all, as gathering up and carrying in to nourish the hive. 

I'm chagrined to recognize a familiar pattern in my characteristically dire mistranslation.


A mother and a daughter are walking out of the local WartMall:

-You know how Aunt M says people always  smile and talk to you
more than she's ever seen.

- I guess.

-Well, that's why.  How you asked the check-out clerk if she had a dog
and what she did to keep them calm after being spayed.
Because your dog had you at your wits' end.
How you really wanted advice from her.

- Hmmph.

- You talk to everyone like they're real people.
I think most checkers have people treat them like they're servants.
But you really care what they have to say.

- I don't know.  I just don't think.
I open my mouth no matter where I am.
Or who I'm talking to.   I have no appropriate filters.

- You don't see differences.
You take the world with an open heart.
I think it's good to be so open-hearted.

- But better probably to be more close-mouthed.

Silence is golden.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  How would you translate that into, say, Spanish? A buen ententedor pocas palabras bastan.  One word to the wise is sufficient? 

Do you know what that dog means to him
right now?

- You said it was too much for you.

- I said I was overwhelmed.

- You agreed it was a good idea.

- ! I was being ironic.

Or take the Spanish phrase la carta amatoria.  I know this means "love letter" but how can it be just that?  Isn't Magna Carta booming in the background?  I want la carta amatoria to mean Love's Charter, declaring the open ways and rights of love, spelled out in sections and articles.  With room for amendments.

I want la carta amatoria to be an Anatomy of Love, a doctor's chart with every vein and muscle fibre of the heart labeled in unquestionable Latin.

- You had too much to do.
I found you a solution.

- Look, we could just as well say,
Let's put your mother in a nursing home
as, Let's dump the dog off at the pound.

Translating, see? 
into terms he'd understand?

Isn't carta a word for map? I want la carta amatoria to mean a kind of Map of Love - the kind sailors make once they're safe returned, with all the hazards they've escaped inked in carefully:  the squally reefs where they weathered storms, where their ship's helm was splashed but never swamped. The places where monsters be and kraken writhe -- thoroughly charted.  Tight corners they managed nonetheless to sail past, the rocks where they did not founder after all -- everything noted.  And all the peaceful harbors clearly marked.

Something so clear, it doesn't need translation. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

guest post: Temple Grandin

posted by YoungSon

    To be a hero I think you need some special qualities.  First,  I think you should have a want to do the thing you're doing.  Second, I think you should not be bothered by your looks overly much. Third, to be a hero you should be able to work hard.  Last of all, you shouldn't give up if people think your invention is useless and never going to work.

     My hero, or at least one of them, is Temple Grandin.  She had autism but was a born genius.  The great thing she did was rebuild the whole structure of slaughterhouses making it much more comforting for the animals.  She paid attention to what cows naturally did.  She loved cows and said that we were responsible for being as gentle as possible to them if we were going to raise them.  If we didn't raise cattle then they would just be rare species kept in zoos. 

     Many people had faith in her project from the very beginning, but others didn't.  People made fun of her and taunted her.  She kept on working hard though enduring all the insults and found great success.  About when she was finished, people started changing their attitude and saw that her plan worked and they could make a profit.  They started supporting her and when she finished, most slaughterhouses changed their models and redid their whole factory.

     I think Temple Grandin has encouraged me to work harder at the things I like to do. She taught me not to give up as easily as I might have otherwise.  I think that helps me to think about my future and get the best life possible.  Temple Grandin's mentor was her science teacher.  He helped her think about ideas in a different way that led to a more constructive pattern of thinking which helped her to figure out what to do in life.  Her teacher helped her until he died.  She is my hero because she overcame the challenges of autism and helped our world.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

the unexamined life

Because it was a happy month, last month was, in its privacy and busy-ness.  All those quiet early mornings, all those unreported meals, thoughts that came and went like breezes, every step up and down the hill, things done and said that didn't even get a photo, much less a mention, things that were allowed to flow away and be forgotten.

And maybe what makes me unhappy now is that I've grasped after that flow, paraded its disconnected elements, moments yanked  out of their place in the midst of movement into a static and uncomfortable prominence. Maybe it is exactly the killing freeze-frame of reflection, interiority, consciousness that makes me unhappy.  Maybe by writing I stand too much in my own sunshine, blocking my own view.

If I'm to continue writing here, in some way that feeds the soul, is the secret to erase myself?  Step aside.  Or just ride and cut the commentary?  I love, for example, the almost daily posts of Spirit Cloth, a textile artist - mostly visual, glancingly philosophical, focused on her work - with the merest self-referential asides.  I love how what she sees shapes what she makes.  What she sees is so blessedly outside herself.

I think it is my coiled upon coils of self-reference that I'm wanting to shed.  The me in all this.

It has become almost a commonplace, this comment I keep getting -

. . . what you write is so sad.  I never realized before you were so sad?
. . . couldn't help but keep reading, it just sucked me in . . . writing is almost haunting, and so full of emotion. Whoa.
. . . it is quite emotional.  
 . . . the emotions your writing unlocks in me. I've lived a lot of my life being so guarded and little by little I've been able to let go and just feel...although sometimes that's not so convenient - this ability to feel.

. . . Dude, lighten up.
Until I ask myself,  Emotional?  What are they on about? Is this sad?  Am I unduly sad? Doesn't everyone ride this same sea? Isn't it what we all know but don't talk about?  What better to talk about than this unspoken depth that connects us? 

But exhausting on the reader, yes?

Overconscious interiority, over-wrought emotionality ~ is that what I find irksome myself in these posts?  The way my own sad-nosed shadow keeps overshadowing whatever I look at.  The way working on these posts compels me to turn every rock over to see what squirmy thing is hiding on the underside.  And how that squirming makes me feel.

But more irksome still is writing emptily, more lightly and brightly than humanly warranted.  And even more irksome than that is writing and writing and never getting anywhere new.    Never getting beyond myself.

This is after all a vehicle, this Imaginary Bicycle, meant for going somewhere.  But where?

And how?

Or is this just February and too many months of not long enough hours of sunshine? Sunshine?  Haven't seen that since the chinook.  I should say, not long enough hours of that skywide gray luminence we call Day here in this corner of the woods. 

Enough perhaps to make anyone a little too interiorized.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

and that was january . . .

(with footnotes*)
(and endnote**)

{click on pic to embiggen}
*footnotes(or just skip to the end for **endnote)
  1. Blissy sunshine on bedside books (Rumi, Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, and A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell, each miraculous in their own way).  Because I am the birthday girl: a whole morning reading in bed, not these, but Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, both miracles of literary clarity and human confusion.
  2. While daughters bend over books and keyboards readying themselves for re-entry into what is now their real life, I contemplate the comforting shapes of containment.  As if I could.  As if I would really want to.  By contrast, the image that stays with me the next day is Eldest, striding into the airport, hair swinging, scarf flung back, laughing over her shoulder at the young man, my friend's son, who happens to be travelling with her.  Watching her I am suddenly joyous.  And the rest of the day, buoyantly and curiously light and free myself.  As if a world were opening up for me somewhere, beyond my expectations.  I am in fact immeasurably happy - filled up and overflowing.  Happy in a way I haven't been for a long time.  Maybe it is the prospect of a whole month ahead of the Unexamined Life? 
  3. Tonight we open the last pomegranate of the season - no more until next autumn - Persephone's fruit.  Gma W used to send these to me when I was a little girl.  She grew them, my mother's mother.  It made Demeter's story resonate strangely with me when I read it - knowing pomegranates only as a private fruit no one else ever ate in my 1970's suburb -  the well-taped cardboard box that showed up around the end of October.
  4. I do not actually bike (this picture from last week) but I consciously mourn the biking, shivering all day at the unheatable HELP pantry, missing the fine inner fire that warms me for hours afterward when I do put rubber to the road.
  5. Among other things, seeking recipes for galette des rois - Kings' Cake - for tomorrow's last possible day of Christmas  - the traditional 12th Night - and the final excuse for leaving up tree and lights to shine as long as possible into these long northern winter nights.  I settle on sliced pears and frangipane in a rough puff pastry crust.
  6. Twelfth Night: Whoever gets the fava bean in their piece of cake is king for the evening - YoungSon was sure it would be him.
  7. Reading The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo - at last I can make some kind of rudimentary sense of string-theory and begin to wonder why I am reading lately so many stories of sons and mothers.  Not wonder why - notice that
  8. A long wet walk today - hills for six and a half miles - pain only at the very end.  Dog loves the long hilly miles.  I am beyond glad to be more and more back on my feet again.
  9. Before family prayers - Fritz will leave the next  morning for a half-week away in Arizona for work and already the children begin to miss him.
  10. The Chinook - that weirdly wonderful sudden warmth that comes for a week or two most Januaries. I shovel gravel, mud, and wood chips all day - re-imagining order out of this void and formless while sweating behind the wheel-barrow.  YoungSon comes home on his bright yellow school bus and helps rake gravel smooth.  We see small improvements.  We take a breather, he plays with Dog, I watch them in the sunshine.
  11. Spanish, the study thereof, for beginners.
  12. I have come full circle - Perils with Pigeons Redux- but like most sequels nothing happens except the expected. Dove released, on schedule, and I'm $20 to the good for an hour's standing in the rain at a stranger's graveside.  Maybe the curse that set off this bout of blogging in the first place is finally wearing off?
  13. After months (a year? really?) of workmen in the innermost chambers of my house, my domestic powers are returned to me.  I would have shuddered to have foreseen how much that matters to me: Ham, Mashed Potatoes with Garden Confetti, Baked Pears.
  14. Police procession for slain chief of police Ralph Painter of Rainier - we stand and watch the cars pass  for 45 minutes before making our way to Portland's Union Station to meet a friend who had ridden in on the train.
  15. Winter Ball.  The girls cook dinner here, floating candles and flowers in small glass bowls, everything and everyone looks, behaves beautifully.
  16. Our good old Cat takes a turn for the worse.  I hear him outside, a pained and horrible mwror, but when I open the door he is lying on his side at the threshold and responds not at all even when we pick him up and carry him to his bed.  We bury him a day later up on the hill, by the wild cherry.
  17. To celebrate MLK Day: we Take a Buddy to the Beach.  Rain on the way, and we peer anxiously through wet windows, but sunshine (dampish but determined) triumphs at the coast.  We see a hang-glider dismount with the setting sun.  We climb on the wreck of the Peter Iredale.  Son walks Dog. Daughter walks Giraffe (kite) as well as Friend.  I walk with Camera.  We  eat a picnic in the car - pita, hummus,  tangerines, peapods.  We talk loudly, laughing with the neo-wannabee-hippies in the VW bus parked next to us.  We are all happy.
  18. Running for the Hills: growing up on my mother's sheep farm in Wales by Horatio Clare.  Another son and his mother, but this mother is not the central spider of Strangest Man but more like the immoderate and tardy mother in Lee's autobiographical Cider with Rosie. (And so I want to identify with her more?)  Such a gift to a mother to be seen like this - unsentimentally and yet still with utter fondness.
  19. And at midweek, at the midmost of the month, I step out one morning and realize I am at the other side of the fairy tale's East of the Sun,West of the Moon - that nursery geography for Dreamland.  With day and night at either shoulder - moon setting on one side, sun rising on the other side - east of the setting moon, west of the rising sun - going into Day, not Night.  So the fairytale is finally set on its head, completed, worked through?  Maybe I've finally mastered all the impossible tasks, washed the blood from the shirt, maybe I've worked my way  through the troll-queen's castle, have faced her and her machinations down, have cried and sung loud enough to be heard, maybe I've finally saved the prince from his encasing ice and now we can go home? Maybe it's a day newer than ever before.
  20. And so I decide, now that my life is beginning again, to tackle the things that keep me from doing what I want to do, the things I can do something about - such as the weight gain since taking on the caretaking. 
  21. Domestic disorder. But this is just the messy part of making progress - in particular, paint remover for the front door.
  22. Also - Training the dog - who is the son's dog in the morning and the evening, but mine in the meantime - the hope is she'll be a nice foot-warmer for the Writer as well as deer-discourager - slash - daily personal trainer with an insatiable enthusiasm for hard hill walks - slash - egregiously ADD pre-schooler frighteningly fixated on unattended wool gloves.  We practice heeling - at least one of us does.
  23. I will fix my entire life in fact!  I revisit the schedules and schemes from that time of my life when I ran the house instead of it running me - readjust, reassign responsibilities so that I'm not trying to lift this piano alone. Minimal though unavoidable groaning from the crew. 
  24. In celebration of their return to regular, scheduled chores, I reprise my role as Breakfast Queen - blueberry pancakes and no one sleeps in this morning.  Even oatmeal is not despised when there are apples and raisins and plenty of cinnamon.  The minutiae of the mundane  - but  it is almost frightening to realize how a week of good breakfasts changes all of us.  Maybe the secret to happiness really is this small? - solid breakfasts day after day, exercise in the fresh air, a regular eight hours of sleep.
  25. Endorphins!! Ooo! I feel so good! Just like I knew I would!  Yes, she went swimming.  Yes, she knows she needs this in her life. 
  26. Early morning gravel and the start of the restoration of a provisional Eden.
  27. Vegetable dreams - Japanese Black Trifele tomatoes, Rubine brussels sprouts, Veronica castellated broccoli, purple carrots, yard-long red beans, Nero di Toscana kale, Alvaro Charentias melons, winter squash - Sweet Meat, Red Kuri, Marina di Chioggia   - and lettuce . . . Dazzle, Montecito, Devil's Tongue, De Morges Braun, Flashy Trout's Back, Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed, Merveille des Quatres Saisons . . .
  28. The utter peace of a day well-spent. Rise wth sunrise. Mid has no school.  Together we clean here, cook and clean at Gma's, make copies and grade at Young's classroom, then take Young early from school for basketball practice, teach Mid to drive stick-shift - whiplash!! laughter! - then all of us to Portland for library, look for a Spanish New Testament, and Trader Joe's has unsulphured dried apricots to restock our supply! Singing in the car. Home again, evening, watching Young's choice, swashbuckler Prince of Persia, with a picnic of bread, cheese, steamed broccoli on a blanket on the floor. Private study and early to bed.
  29. Eight miles with the dog - she does well - tongue flapping from her toothy grin as she looks up for approval when she puts herself back in her place at my heel. And then Son's basketball games where he does well - his secret smile while his dad recounts his victories. Joy in their own motion afterwards.
  30. This picture should have been a white crane  - my favorite local tutelary being  of the air - beating its wings against a background of faded grasses. I saw one, in passing, while in a hurry -  and then further down the road the whole flock, feeding amid the blond winter reeds, there were so many they looked at first like snow lying on the marsh - and meant to return and wander the paths there on foot later in the afternoon on my way home.  But when I passed again it was dark. I am struck how the camera, while it reveals, also limits not only what we see , but what we will remember.  Like writing too.
  31. Success!  Dog comes every time I call her throughout the morning - when I let her in, she returns over and over to her Place when reminded,finally settling and sleeping by the side of my desk, then walks the home hill with slack leash all the way down and most of the way up.   
This is, of course, a whole month's worth of the kind of status update/ personal trivia that is and is not my daily life.

And yes, these short photographed moments are no doubt the ideal form (when posted each day, not dumped like this en masse) for this particular media - a daily log of small events. Isn't that what a blog is "supposed" to be (if we were at all interested in doing what we were supposed to)?  It can be an appealing form.  My Eldest, for example, publishes a picture a day with minimal blurbage.  The window on her world while away at college is priceless to me.   I was curious to see what it would look like if I shaped my site this way.

I don't dislike this kind of day-to-day exclamation ~ when others do it. But it makes me feel despairing when I come to post like this myself - day after day of ephemera.   It was a happy month - with little reflection, much action, almost no writing.  But looking at it now, as a whole, in this form, it feels like a mask, this calendar of photogenic moments - an oppressive display of the costume that already threatens to muffle and suffocate the living body beneath.

No living soul, no wider world to move out into.  This is not what I want to be doing.
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