Saturday, December 29, 2007

beach cartoon

"We should probably think about heading back to the city."
--favorite New Yorker cartoon, crinkled carefully by living on our refrigerator door

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I'm down with the flu, after a lovely Christmas-- the bug held off until after dinner on December 25th, thanks be to God. I found this in my draft file, though, from a few weeks ago.

The narcissus begin to open. I purchased a small basket at the beginning of Advent, maybe six bulbs total, but the stems are prolific, more than ten bunches and only the first two pungent sets stretching out today. The advent calendars came out late, after my papers were turned in for the quarter, but flower bulbs are all about waiting, watching, stretching upward.

I haven’t tended my neighbors for a long time, disappearing in plain sight for the past few months, but when I pull my minivan into its space, Wayne pops out of his door to offer “lemon-chicken soup—I have too much.” (The last time he spoke to me was to taunt me about my car maintenance again, because I could’ve prevented that rust, tsk, tsk… Soup gifts, now that’s more like ‘neighborly’.)

I open the container, hungry, to find it’s avgolemono, not merely lemon-chicken soup but something really hard to do well, a taste I’ve not enjoyed for more than a decade, and still I remember it. I warm it gently, to not curdle the frothy layer on top. As it warms I think of the Greek restaurant in Vancouver, the window view on the busy street where I’d wait for my friends to finish with classes so we could visit, 1989 I believe, the place to finish with rose-petal jam on ice cream.

I pour the bowl too full and slurp it from the rim, my bowl of luxury this day.

I planned—really planned—an excursion to the outlets, an hour north, for underwear and pajamas, for my children who insist they truly want underwear and pajamas for Christmas, along with toys. The weather report seemed daunting, but it’s never to be trusted, honestly. I found myself oddly resistant to leaving the house, and sure enough, the snow is pummeling, now, beauty dropping from the sky, my reward for sluggishness today. While a sluggish homebody, I’ve begun to read three books for the next quarter—it begins in January, but ten books in ten weeks is too much of a challenge, so I’d best get a head start. Besides, this stack of books is irresistible.

I am counting blessings, reading email, glad for no looming deadline, when a bitter, bitter taste fills my mouth—and I spit out the hull of a genuine lemon seed. I need to eat other people’s cooking more often. Even the bitter is a delight: real. This soup is real.

The snow builds—I’d best find layers and boots and all the acoutrements. Scraper? Hmmm. Shovel? Adventure. The bowl goes to the sink and I’m off to find the wool socks.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

this world is wild as an old wive's tale...

I memorized the last stanza of this poem from a Christmas card from 1985 or so... each year I swear I will look up the rest. Here you go.

The House of Christmas

G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Monday, December 17, 2007

winter sunrise

the winter window by morning and night

The arc of the sun is so small these days—I watched the sunrise at 7:20, while I hustled children into snow pants and checked for lunches, admonished children to finish breakfast. By seven-forty I needed to turn off the heat, the morning sun blazing in for my morning cup of coffee.

Children left for school and I headed north for The Big Shopping Trip: I make one trek per year to the Hanna Anderssen Outlet, a little more than an hour away, just past the border of Maine. No traffic, beautiful snow-lined highways, a gorgeous day for driving. While a minivan on the highway is not the best way to take in sunlight and sky, some days it will do. I arrived today to find everything I touched listed as “an additional 50% off,” so I doubled the quantities of children’s underwear, socks, tights. I meant to buy pajamas but the clothes were actually cheaper than pjs, and likely as comfortable.

I looked up from the parking lot of The Gap Outlet and gasped—I come here once a year, maybe twice, and I’ve never noticed the town is located alongside a beautiful tidal river. What a sad waste of beauty, this world of parking lots. My two shopping hours were over, though, so I left the river and the parking lot with my stash of practical goods.

Of course, I have a parking lot, too, and it’s useful. My kids are sliding on the ice below, now dragging the sleds up the stairs. I just dropped three cups of navy beans into the pressure cooker with a half a gallon of ham stock, frozen from last Easter. When the whole pot is cooked I’ll see if I need onions and carrots, cloves and orange zest—or if I put in good flavors long ago, in which case it will need nothing but cornbread. We’ve eaten luxuriously over the weekend, and I’d like nothing better than this simple soup. Others may hold different opinions.

The last of the winter-pink sky is nearly gone—it’s five p.m. The moon shines brighter than the last remnants of sunlight, still glowing to the right of my window perch. The pressure cooker hisses and the window steams. Time to call them up, to begin the daily rounds of drying out boots, mittens, snowpants, socks. Tomorrow when they leave for school I will see how my stuff stacks up, what treasures I've collected through the year. Treasures from my Santa Fe trip for each child, from August. Other treasures hidden from view while I shopped in Indiana, right beneath their noses, in October. I need to learn to tune a ukelele for a girl who likes to sing (shhhhhhh! Don’t tell!), and how to hide the paucity of gifts for mama and daddy, always a challenge.

Five-ten p.m. and the sky is pure night, now. Kids moved to the snow in the backyard, unwilling to let the day go. The soup smells like perfection to me, though it needs another twenty minutes or so. If my nose is any judge, I added the good flavors at stock-making time. My mother would laugh at me asking "what kind of wine goes with ham and bean soup and cornbread?" (My mother would say, there's no such thing. My answer is, the bottle that is open...) Time to preheat the oven and set out ingredients for kids to make cornbread. Time to set up things for the evening routine of baths, violin practice, homework, and construction of Christmas gifts.

I’m unwilling to let the day go, too, it seems, sitting here typing into the dark. Red wine, shiraz, that is the bottle that is open, and a good choice to go with winter dark and smells of home.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

the window that frames the view

THE window.

Madeleine sketched our windowsill, with all the fun details: dried orange pomander on the upper right, solar-spinning prisms on the pane itself, and the terracotta pot of rosemary, spearmint, parsley. Soon it will be strung across the top with red yarn to hold Christmas cards, and already the pane is edged with paper snowflakes crafted by Brendan.

On the other side of the window, I see below, I see all ten buildings in my neighborhood. I see businesses to the sides, savory and unsavory, and I see Main Street. Through the open window I hear the hiss of tires on wet pavement, half a block away. Beyond the street is a boat lot, and beyond the lot is Gloucester Harbor, alive with boats at all hours of the day. Seals, sea gulls, lobstermen in bright orange waders on their green boats...

I watched children from my window this morning, sledding down the front terrace and hurtling into the parking lot-- the third "two-hour snow delay" in two weeks. The house is filled with drying snowpants, coats and mittens, while they wear "the other set" of snow clothes to school. I've used up all the milk for rounds of hot cocoa, all the bread for cinnamon toast to go with the hot cocoa. I love how it makes them happy. And now I love the quiet, the break from watchfulness for a few hours.

I love snow. Which is good, because the policeman said we are no longer allowed to park our minivan in front of our house when it snows-- some local ordinance about car size and street corners. I'm fond of my parking space. It'll work out. But for now I better go watch for the snowplow and make sure he doesn't have me towed...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

the writing group: a glimpse

We gather to write, every other Tuesday for two hours. But we hem and haw over the coffee, over our coats, over the weather. You’d think we were performance artists suddenly gone shy: do we want to write, or don’t we? Why does it take so long to get settled? Where are these nerves from? We start other topics of conversation until the silence becomes embarrassing. We refill coffee.

The timer is set. A prompt is read aloud and five women write furiously until the bell rings—usually five minutes. We read our writing aloud, each writer taking notes on the other. What emerges is not usually “finished” work but interesting beginnings. The highest compliment is to be forced to read the same few paragraphs a second time.

My writing group consists of one MFA graduate, one MFA wanna-be, one woman who mysteriously writes crime scenes, though she is mother to three young children and has an MDiv from Harvard. And one other writer, and me. All are amazing, funny.

Here is a slice of five-minute writing from last week. The prompt was a line from Seamus Heany, “on one side under me, the concrete road.”

My friend Linda graduated from MIT, a fact she needs to reiterate on any possible occasion, not to show off but to apologize for the scars of anal-retentiveness rewarded far too well. We are driving to a nice dinner, for a break from lengthy seminars. She wears a pleated skirt and silk blouse and her mad desire, when the rear tire blows, is to fix it herself. Because she is from MIT, she is an engineer, and if she can fix it then by God she should fix it, pearl necklace be damned.

Unfortunately, Linda is fast, exiting the car by the side of Topsfield Road at dusk, and I find her emptying the trunk of my Jetta, to find the jack. The two women in the back seat are equally mortified, but it’s my car, and she’s my passenger, and it’s me who must go challenge the merry glint in her eye. I lean down onto the shoulder and whisper firmly, “Linda. Get up.”

I stalled, stalled, stalled right here, distracted by banana bread and gloves on the table and a curl of metal, by the name “Fred” mentioned earlier and all the Freds I have ever known, by the shadow of my writing hand on the page, cast by the angled sun from the French doors. The shadow is blurred because I’m ignoring my eyes as they call for my glasses.

Distraction is my love. Eliot complained of it, but I rejoice. Bread (warm). Coffee (strong, good). A ball of yarn. The scratch of five pens on five sets of paper.

Who cares about my friend Linda, the anal-retentive one?

Me, me, me, cried my friends as I read the last line. They demanded to know more, just when I thought I was very boring. I still think it’s very boring. Writers! One claimed she “was not crying, that’s just banana bread in my eye.” She liked the part about distraction. Writers. We are a strange lot.

We do this three or four rounds, the writing, the reading around the circle, and then we leave, caffeinated and exhausted.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

a shard of a letter

this is the beginning of a letter to a writing friend-- I decided to write a different letter to that friend, and this one hates to be abandoned.

Writing from my other writing paradise: home when no one is awake, when the coffee is brewing in the French press, the sun is about ten minutes from tipping over the horizon—the most brilliant colors have just passed, while I wrestled to get an internet connection (sigh—still have not figured out that “wireless” box over there, on the list of problems to solve, along with the loosened dryer vent hose…) Regardless of how many broken things need attention in our little treehouse, this is the best light on earth, and I’m ready for the morning blast of sunlight, when it comes.

Karen's funeral was the fruit of long preparation-- seventeen years after the diagnosis of some terrible illness, after strokes and near-blindness and crumbling bones and suffering, her family was eager to have her released from pain. Adult nieces and nephews transformed to their ten-year-old selves to marvel again at their crazy auntie, and I could see again her sadness about having no children: they adore her. One nephew has been her attorney for years, and her impractical dreaming charms him despite harrowing details. They recount the time Karen let them overflow the bathtub, nearly destroying the house, and how no one could stay mad at her, nor could she stay apologetic for long.

No one was surprised when I mentioned Karen's insistence on applying for dual citizenship in Ireland, from the hospital bed she left only to shower and to go to the bathroom. "That's our Kaz!" they laughed. Her dreams, kept alive by sheer will and dreams.

When I met her, she was extraordinary, but slowed by the limitations of illness and recovery. I've always wondered what she was like before. "She was like you. Vibrant, like you," her niece said. I wondered the same, a year ago, if she saw herself in me, in some ways. But I'd never heard it spoken.

I was wrong about the bright color being passed-- magenta and periwinkle clouds blooming all colors outside my window, gulls and starlings wheeling.

It's a different day, overcast but still winter-beautiful. The lady at the 1-800 number was helpful and my new wireless router is set up-- one more box to the attic, one more chore done and my administrative work for writing will be just a bit easier to manage.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

the quarter is finished

... and I promise some writing, soon, when my brain is a little fresher. I need a walk, some sun, anything but this keyboard and desk.

I'm plotting a trajectory of non-master's level reading, pulling the spinning wheel and fiber out of the closet, assessing holiday needs (wow, is it late! but I'm mostly done...). And sighing. Breakfast next, sitting in the sunny window without a book, maybe.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

next chapter in the Karen story

My friend Karen, the partially-blind woman I worked for from April 2006 to May 2007, died yesterday morning. I was spending the morning working on yet another chapter of the story of my work with her-- about her insight, her perception, her vision, and her support of my writing.

Many of you have mentioned that my stories about working with Karen have been your favorite pieces of my writing. Many of these stories are filed under the category "All in a Day's Work," though I've continued to write pieces for my graduate work, and I've not posted the newer ones.

I'm still learning from her.

the waiting room

What I love about the low-residency masters program is that my work written from the waiting room of the dentist’s office—the hygienist interrupts me to say she doesn’t think we need to worry about my daughter needing braces just yet—looks exactly as 8 ½ x 11 double-spaced scripted as my writing from a desk with a stack of books nearby.

I fight through layers of essays, like leaves of paper, back to the surface to meet the eyes of the dark-skinned woman speaking to me. Was I supposed to be worrying about braces? Why should she need braces? Did I miss the memo about parents worrying about braces? Am I a bad parent that I never considered this? She told me not to worry. Didn’t she know I was already not-worrying? And now I worry. When she tells me not to.

I don’t think that’s what she intended. Are her parents Pakistani? Central American? Her dark glossy hair is pulled back in a practical barrette, a ponytail that falls straight down the back of her scrubs in spring green. The other hygienists wear spring green, too—do they plan this? I nod and say thank you, and yes it doesn’t surprise me that Madeleine is behaving perfectly in the dentist’s chair. In the fog of leaves of paper I remember her first visit to this dentist, how panicked she was, how I brought the camera and told her Daddy wished he could be here for her first appointment, too, and could she please smile from that tipped back chair? Her blonde ponytails, her yellow flowered dress, her nervousness fading away with the animated conversation of the calm and sweet man who is our dentist.

Thank you for the information about the cavities in her baby teeth, which do not need filled. I nod.

Where was I? Oh yes, I was writing my evaluation of my first quarter of graduate school, some 8 ½ x 11 form, and for just one last minute I wasn’t worrying about if my daughter would ever need braces. I wasn’t worrying, when she interrupted my homework session and suddenly I knew I’d also need to be thinking about dinner, about the sleet falling outside the window and if I still remember how to drive this enormous minivan on icy roads.

This will now mark the last moment in which I did not worry, at all, about whether my daughter needs braces. I’m so glad the woman in green was pretty and calm and her intentions were so apparently kind-hearted. I shake my head at her youth. She clearly does not have children, and doesn’t understand the scars of worry, and the psychology of writers is not her business. The oath says to do no harm, and I’m sure she meant none.

What I appreciate most? I write through everything. There are deadlines, and the writing continues despite moods, despite interruptions, despite weather setbacks and driving conditions and growling stomachs. I do my 8 ½ x 11 best, and bury myself beneath the leaves again when the spring green young woman retreats back through the swinging door.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

doppelgangers of Diana and Katherine

I think I saw us today—three women crossed the footbridge to Good Harbor Beach, two dark-haired and one red-head, and two of them wore baby front-packs, while a third pushed a sleeping child in a jogging stroller. The sand had washed out from the ramp, so all three moms stopped to engineer the careful drop of the stroller to the beach.

“She’s not turning over as well as she should,” said the red-haired mom. “I’m concerned that she’s not where she should be, developmentally.” I looked at the infant sleeping in her front carrier, who seemed like any other baby girl.

“Have you spoken with your pediatrician?” the stroller mom asked, focusing hard on her task and on the question.

The third mom frowned in concentration. “Are you sure? There’s such a wide range of normal, you know.”

Turning over! Remember when the big worry was the baby turning over? I know it was all-consuming, and I know we were all so sleep-deprived and exhausted from nursing, but doesn’t it now seem dreamy to be worried of when a baby turns over? She’s not mean to her classmates, she doesn’t claim to hate math, she does not battle over what she will not eat for breakfast. You don’t need to demand that she brush her hair.

I almost said hello to them, needing to pass along the same footbridge they were maneuvering, then I realized they didn’t see me at all, as if they were blind to anyone without a newborn attached. I smiled to myself, instead. I was passing us, after all, or our trio of doppelgangers, ten years younger. So earnest—so absorbed. As I’m sure we were.

I miss you, Katherine and Diana. Congratulations on our children’s tenth year. I’ll be thinking of those two New Year’s parties, the night before at Katherine’s place overlooking The Headlands, and the day after potlucking at Martha’s house: the line of three infant carriers, and Brent turning green over Maxine’s diaper. There’s a lot NOT to miss about those days—but there is also a lot to miss. I’m glad we’re all off to other adventures but I want to pause a moment to honor us, as we were.

drop by

In my professional life, some nearly-lifetime ago, each day swarmed with people, with energy, with playfulness and the unexpected pleasures and needs of living with college students. Their age meant most of them were purely beautiful creatures, their souls transparent, their faces alight with possibility. My life on college campuses required planning ahead—a five minute walk across campus could only be executed in five minutes if I saw no one, spoke no greetings, hugged no students, avoided the temptation to dive for falling pine cones crashing through the limbs. The tall pines were prone to hoarfrost in winter, fog in summer, startling beauty that slowed my hurried feet. Always and everywhere there were students with affection aimed in my direction, hearts open.

My job was to make room for them, as many of them as possible, to connect with the shy ones prone to hide their hearts away, to tempt with dorm programs and cookies until they opened dorm room doors and came out to socialize. I exhausted myself with the hostilities of a few, true, but mostly I exhausted myself with love of them all. I thought that was the way life was supposed to be—all while craving a little quiet.

I’ve not experienced anything like that social peak again. Instead of a little quiet I find myself nearly alone, most of my working days.

When my neighbor locked himself out and needed to phone his roommate, I found myself wishing for twenty neighbors to do the same—not to need me, but to sit in my life for ten minutes, to talk about coffee. He needed mental quiet, it seems, and to look out the window at my diamond-view. I needed to type to give him space to be alone—surprising how good an arrangement it was, merely the solace of existing on the same planet. Remarkable how pathetic I am, or at least how tuned to “company,” as we used to say when guests were expected.

Ramone’s roommate arrived and honked, and I waved goodbye as he walked out the door. We agreed on a cup of coffee, some other time when he needs to visit my window view, when I’m not working on homework. Then I went right back to work and forgot the whole incident. Here it is, under “drop by” on my laptop, hmmmmm, right next to the essay I was working on...