November Lights

Yesterday was a weird day.  I spent too much time in my head, trying to finish up my memoir contest entry.  The laptop was on the dining room table while the stock for the turkey soup simmered.  Going from writing to cooking gave me a respite from my growing headache, and I managed to get a meal on the table and a satisfactory rewrite done by the end of the day.  But the best part was taking a walk after dinner.  After the sun set, there was a silver sliver stuck in the bare branches.  My favorite decoration.  We muttered and grumbled about Christmas stuff already set out and spewing neon, and ached to have a fireplace of our own so that we could keep the passing woodsmoke high going.  “When are we going to move out to a rural homestead?” Steve asked.  It’ll happen.  Someday.  Meanwhile, I am practicing my skills.  I won’t get any contest results until March, but here are the results of the turkey soup and the chocolate chip bread pudding.

I’m going to take a break from writing today.  The sun is shining.  I want to be outside.  So grateful not to be working in a cubicle any more.


For some reason, I kept this word in my head all night as a blog idea.  ‘Proximity’.  And now, I’m not sure what I was thinking about.  Keeping ideas close by seems to be more and more difficult as I age.  I am working on re-writing a piece for a magazine memoirs contest.  I have bits of a puzzle, snippets and scenes and questions from the past that I’m trying to work together in 1200 words or less.  How do I keep an idea near at hand in this maze?  I started humming a song while doing the breakfast dishes.  My mind is fixed on a video of Mandy Patinkin in Sunday in the Park with George singing “Putting It Together” — Having just the vision’s no solution/everything depends on execution/the art of making art/ is putting it together.

Here in proximity floats my past, visions of Jim and the kids, emotions of fear and sadness, questions of destiny and salvation.  I have to escape to the present occasionally, get into my body, do something ordinary like make a meal.  I am making turkey stock right now.  The bare bones simmer away with chunks of onion and carrot and herbs.  Is this how I will write my book?

Too bad I don't have an aroma camera!

Margins, edges where things come together, are rich places of biodiversity on the earth.  Wendell Berry writes in Home Economics:

“The human eye itself seems drawn to such margins, hungering for the difference made in the countryside by a hedgy fencerow, a stream, or a grove of trees.”

I suppose I am hungering for the differences in life, longing to live in proximity to those places where life happens in all its majesty and danger, and aching to observe and record some epiphanies.   Not that the recording matters.  The living is what matters.

So Many Books…

…and so many writers.  I was preparing shipments for our online book business (Scholar & Poet Books – available on Amazon, Alibris, ABE and books; pardon the Christmas season advert, but it might help!) this morning and thinking about “being a writer”.  I am planning to enter a Memoir/Personal Essay contest at the suggestion of my teacher.  I had a dream that probably relates to this idea a few nights ago.  I dreamed that I was in a dance studio with gym mats on the floor and a wall of mirrors.  I was in line to attempt a splits leap.  I had a press photo of David Hallberg in mind, and I wanted to see if I could look like that.  Of course, I know I can’t, but I wanted to try.  So I got to the front of the line, and all the others are turned to watch me go, and they totally blocked the runway.  I kept asking them to move, but they were still in the way.  And then some of them started pulling up the mats.  “Hey!  I still haven’t had my turn yet!”  I was trying to put the mats back and move the people and all chaos was breaking loose, and I woke up.  So I told Steve about my frustrating dream and how I just wanted a chance to try, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it well.  He responded, “You know who those people are in your way, don’t you?”  Of course.  Everyone in your dream is you.  The people getting in the way of me attempting my big leap are…me.

David Hallberg (photo by Gene Schiavone)

So I’m going to submit an entry, and I’m going to call myself a writer in my mind because that’s what I’ve been doing since my last birthday: writing.  And I’m aware that I may never make any money doing this.  I look at the book jacket photos of writers and handle their wares on a daily basis almost.  I read blogs by published writers.  I still have a feeling that they are a different breed.  They have degrees in writing; they have ambition.  I have thoughts.  I am dreamy and lazy and I don’t “work”.  And I’ve never lived in New York.  It seems like any “real” writer must have lived in New York at some point.  Too bad.  At least I can get out of the way of my own runway and give it a shot.   I am old and not too flexible and I’ve never been able to do the splits.  But it might be fun to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I go leaping by.  It’ll probably end with me having a good laugh.

Flak Friday

I hate shopping.  It’s eerie to come home from a cozy, loving holiday weekend and find news that the larger world has sunk into madness.  While I was enjoying a two hour Swedish massage in the comfort of my daughter’s home, others were dying to obtain merchandise.  Fighting, heart attacks, assault with weapons and overnight exposure to the elements remind me of wartime conditions.  Are we at war as consumers?  Where’s my flak jacket?

Good grief.  I’ve never celebrated Christmas in a very commercial way.  As an Episcopalian, I tried to focus on the sacramental aspect of the holiday.  I spent a lot of time in church, singing in the choir, rehearsing the Christmas pageant and taking my kids caroling to shut-ins.  We made Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, wrote Advent letters to friends and family and donated money and gifts to charity in each others’ names.  It was never about Stuff.  As a kid, I made presents for my family.  My kids made presents for each other.  One year, Becca just wrapped stuff we already had.  My toaster, with crumbs, surprised me into a fit of laughter.  I could get sore about not being appreciated with a gift, but I took it as a joke on the whole scene.

Perhaps this is just my personality.  I am gift-challenged.  I’m not very good at giving or receiving them.  It’s not one of my Love Languages.  My husband truly enjoyed giving gifts.  My eldest daughter is a very creative, inspirational gift-giver.  They have a knack for finding grace and meaning in Things.  I have trouble with that.  I probably have an aversion to Things, actually, and definitely an aversion to shopping.  When I was about 9 years old, my mother took me Back to School shopping at a huge discount department store called Zayre’s.  It was August.  It was hot and humid.  Our station wagon had no air conditioning.  The store was not in our village.  It must have been somewhere in the Sahara.  It took forever to get there, forever to get the job done, forever to get home.  I was sick with heat stroke.  I remember my mother putting me in the bathtub and bringing me bananas to eat.  Sitting in the cool water, eating bananas was like heaven to me at that point.  I couldn’t imagine why I had been made to endure the ordeal that brought me to that state.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Christmas this year.  I don’t go to church anymore.  I don’t think about Jesus in the way I used to.  I do love to celebrate with food and family and lots of love.  I like appreciating others and being appreciated.  I’m not sure how I want to embody that, though.  I always write a letter to my children for them to read on Christmas morning, a letter of hope and pride and blessing, I guess.  There are ideas I want to give, but not things.  However, William Carlos Williams keeps whispering “No ideas but in things” and I keep trying to understand.  Shall I give everyone trees this Christmas?  Or soil?  Or double helix shaped jewelry?  The sun?  Words?

A shelf full of ideas

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you….The Universe!  Applause, appreciation, celebration, Holiday.  Think I can pull it off?

As Time Goes By

My daughter is a certified massage therapist.  This makes visiting her an extra special occasion. Not only do I get the pleasure of her company and hospitality, I get a 2 hour massage as well.  As I lay there thinking about my body, my cells, and the amazing things going on just under my skin, it occurred to me that the whole process that I call my biological life began exactly half a century ago.  Yup, I figure I was conceived Thanksgiving weekend, as my parents celebrated with joy their gratitude for life.   Not that they ever divulged so private a story to me, mind you.

I marvel at how life is sustained over time.  I mentioned this to my kids as I was sipping my post-therapy water.  My youngest piped up, “Yeah, well, half a century is nothing when you think about how mountains grow and change.”  Touche.  I have to get better at taking a longer view, getting a bigger perspective.  I look at my kids bustling around in the kitchen preparing food together, all grown up, and a second later, they are playing a patty-cake game from their childhood.

We are all still so young on this earth; we are such a blink.  What kind of impact will we have on the bigger picture?  What will be the most lasting legacy of this family whom I love so intensely?  The trees that we’ve planted?  The children we beget?  The words we pen? The votes we cast?  The ashes we give back to the soil?  I can’t say for sure.  It could be the love that we circulate, although it would be impossible to document.  I am just grateful to have been a part of it, a crinoid in the limestone, among thousands of others.

Giving Thanks, Part II

Today I go down to Illinois to visit with my 4 children.  I am looking forward to seeing them and having some serious conversations about how we want to live on this planet.  They’re all in their 20s now, ripe for pointing their canoes toward the dreams and goals on their horizon and spending the rest of their lives paddling away in the directions of their choice.  I am also at a juncture of my life where I get to decide how to live out the rest of it.  So, what will we make of it?  Will we have some goals in common toward which we can paddle together?  I hope so.  We’ll see.  Family Summit Meeting 2011, here we come.

Oh, yeah.  More food and fun and cuddles all around as well!

Yesterday's table before guests arrived

Giving Thanks

One year ago, my house had been up for sale with no offers for 8 months, despite making huge drops in the listing price.  We celebrated our last Thanksgiving in the home we had occupied for 20 years with two of my daughters, my eldest’s First Mate, and two college friends of my youngest.  We filled the place with warmth, laughter, good smells and love.  Two days later, I got the offer.  Closing date was January11.  Without hiring professional movers, except for the baby grand piano, Steve and I moved out everything in the house, basement, patio and 3-car garage.  Numerous trips in the van distributed the contents to Madison, Chicago, Harvard, charities, storage and Milwaukee.  We had help from the First Mate’s dad and fireman friend for the couch and a super-heavy TV, but the rest we managed ourselves.  I remember trying to corral the cat after everything else was gone.  She had nowhere to hide, poor thing, and she refused to get into a cat carrier.  Steve agreed to drive the van with her in the passenger seat in the bottom portion of the carrier, top removed.  He petted her and talked to her soothingly as he drove the two hours here.  I drove Jim’s car, grateful not to be distracted by her.

Steve’s place was stuffed to the gills with boxes, furniture, books, and cat.  I marvel at how he made room for us.  He’d been living alone for about a dozen years, five years in this place.  We lived, worked, played, loved and engaged in our relationship intensely, doing the dance of supporting, caring, giving and taking.  There were many tearful times, there was a 4-week adventure on the road, there were late-night Summit Meetings and many long walks through the countryside.  I woke this morning and began to think of giving thanks.  I looked at him sleeping next to me, and my nose prickled.  A quiet stream leaked down my cheeks.  I am so lucky to have a best friend, someone who truly loves me.  I am so grateful to be here, to have a life I love, to be at home again.

For all of you, whatever your situation, I wish you Godspeed to your home.  Welcome.

Table Talk

What will you talk about around the table tomorrow?  Politics, religion, people, emotions, the minutiae of your daily life?  Do you talk about ideas with your family or do you avoid certain subjects because of differing opinions?  Do you stick to sports or music or family history?  Do you feel that honesty is the best part of conversation or that getting along is more important?  Do you provide conversation starters or verbal games to focus your group?

When my kids were in high school, I would often try to prime the pump at family gatherings to get them to talk about their values.  I knew their personalities were forming and changing rapidly, and I think I was a bit terrified that I didn’t know them at all.  I would have everyone list things they were thankful for on Thanksgiving and share favorite memories at birthdays.  I even had a book of conversation starters that I set on the table.  I admit that I was also keen on steering them away from pop culture references that they all shared that left out my husband and me.  How many times can you listen to the dialogue to “Anchor Man” at the dinner table before you lose brain cells?

I grew up in a family that talked about many subjects at the table.  An entire wall of reference books stood behind the dining room table.  My father would nip quarreling in the bud by saying, “It’s no use arguing about facts.”  Then he’d look up whatever piece of information was in dispute.  This was before you could Google everything in seconds.  I don’t remember feeling very comfortable talking about my opinions, though.  My father was a very strong authoritarian with a definition of “right” and “wrong” for everything.  I feared his disappointment and his wrath, and I didn’t feel smart enough to legitimize any of my own thoughts.  I would let my older sister or my younger brother engage in differences of opinion while I listened.  I would also look for an opportunity to tell an amusing story and make everyone laugh.  I just wanted to be liked.

Ideas are important.  We live in interesting times.  Values are important, emotions are important, knowing who your children are is important, appreciating your loved ones is important, challenge is important, peace is important, connecting is important.  I usually put in a lot of effort in the kitchen before a holiday meal, and I suppose the payoff is having people be willing to sit down together for a couple of hours minimum.  I’m really glad my kids are all in their 20s now so that is not too much to expect.  But I won’t see them until Friday.  Tomorrow, I’ll have Steve’s family at my table.  I am looking forward to getting to know them better.  I’m hoping we’ll share ideas and opinions and sharpen each other as well as appreciate and love on each other.  I also hope that I will be able to speak honestly about myself and let them get to know me.  And I’ll probably try to make them all laugh.  I can’t help it; I do that.

Ready so far: pecan pie and cranberry-orange relish. More to come.

If Music Be the Food…Play On!

Steve purchased 32 CDs through an e-Bay auction last week.  Beethoven, Bruckner, Handel, Haydn and Schubert, mostly.  I think he’s trying to collect at least one recording of every Schubert piece…and there are more than 900 compositions cataloged.   Last night, he put on Beethoven’s first symphony when I got home from class.  I poured myself a glass of Cupcake Red Velvet and settled in under the blanket on the squishy couch with him.  Closing my eyes, I got an immediate visual memory of my father in his brown chair with the matching ottoman sitting next to the stereo cabinet, reading glasses and a glass of Kirigin Cellars Vino de Mocha in a wooden coaster beside him on the redwood burl table.   My mother is in the red rocking chair, knitting away on another warm pastel hat for a preemie at the hospital.  There’s a fire in the fireplace, and I imagine myself and Steve lying in front of it on the oriental rug.  We are all enjoying early Beethoven together, eyes closing in pleasure, warm and satisfied against the chill of a dark November.

I wish that this were possible.  I even imagine Jim lying on the tan sofa opposite the fireplace and wish I could picture Steve’s dad there as well.  It comforts me to think that music bringing us all together.  Music has been at the foundation of all of our lives in different ways.  My father and mother courted by going to concerts in college.  Jim’s mother, my mother-in-law, was a concert pianist.  Steve and his dad would listen to records in their den, shutting out all distractions.  My dad, Steve’s dad, and Jim are dead, but they seem to keep resonating music nevertheless.  We listen to music intently, we feel it and breathe it.  There is no TV in the room.  We haven’t got headphones or ear buds.  We let the music fill the space available.   In this way, we live with music and it nourishes us.  That is something we share in common, something sacred, I think.

Of course, there are other ways to relate and other kinds of music.  My kids and I crank up Beetles tunes and sing along or belt out show tunes together.   I’m introducing my youngest to opera now, and wondering how much they choose to listen to “Classical” music on their own.   I know that my oldest cherishes the music she sang with her father when they were in Chicago Master Singers together.  Now, she’s the lead vocalist in a punk band.

But it’s all good.  If we’d lived 150 years ago before recorded music was available, I’m sure we’d be picking up instruments and singing to ourselves all the live long day.  It’s impossible for me to imagine our life without music.  And something about the darkness of the season makes the music seem all the more life-giving.

So, I think I’ll turn off this computer and go downstairs where Steve is playing his CDs.  I’m as thankful for this abundance as I am for food.

Lord Have Mercy

Gospodi pomiluj.  That’s Church Slavonic for “God have mercy”, same as the Greek Kyrie eleison.  I remember learning a setting of those words in High School choir.  The entire text of the piece was just those two words, repeated over and over at increasing dynamic levels.  The suffering of the world thrown high to the ears of God.  There were moments in the opera last night (Boris Godunov) where this poignant plea rang out and reached my heart high in the upper balcony, but unlike a Puccini moment, it didn’t take full hold.  Why not?  Well, I could bicker about the staging, pointing out that the chorus milling about in the background distracted from the Holy Fool’s aria downstage left in front of the floodlight.   I could point out that the composer wasn’t really a professional and didn’t provide enough scene change music to set off these important highlights.  Others came in later (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) and tried to make Boris a bit more theater-ready, but the Lyric staged the original version.  But perhaps the more intriguing discussion is about the way Russian suffering compares to Italian – or Buddhist – suffering.

photo credit Dan Rest

This iconic Russian opera includes a large chorus of peasants, children, boyars (advisers), soldiers and priests.  Russia’s suffering is peopled.  By contrast, Puccini’s operas often concentrate on the suffering of one or two lovers.  You feel the depths of their grief in soaring melodies, cry with them, and feel cleansed.  (Think Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme.)  Russia’s suffering would never be so finite.  It’s pervasive.  The czar embodies this and its relentlessness drives him mad.  Well, that and hallucinations of a child he supposedly murdered.  But he cares about his people; he tries to feed them, and they still blame him for every want.  How do you find peace?

Buddhism addresses peace from the inside out.  It isn’t a peace that you could pass on to a population as their leader.  The best you could do is find it for yourself and try to be a role model.  It would be quite a challenge to maintain it as the head of a huge, suffering nation.  Would that be the Emperor of Japan’s story? Or China’s and India’s story?  Actually, the Met is currently showing Phillip Glass’s opera about Ghandi (Satyagraha).  It was simulcast in theaters this past Saturday.  Missed it, but hoping to see the encore screening December 7th.

Here’s another thought about nationalism and identity: there’s Mother Russia and the German Fatherland; what parental figure do we have connecting us to American land?  Uncle Sam?  Does that mean we are orphans?

I have to say that exploring and addressing my personal grief and suffering through Art is like taking a bitter pill with a large spoonful of glittering sugar.  Costumes, twinkly lights, gorgeously rich bass voices and sympathetic violins really take the edge off.  I appreciate the genius and consider myself enormously fortunate.   Thanks for the grace and mercy.  Oh, and I hope Erik Nelson Werner wasn’t badly hurt when he fell off the set in a hasty exit.