You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2008.

Tomorrow we load up the car, the kids, the dog, the rabbit, and Christmas (at least on our end) and we head to Maryland for five days. When I turned on the Christmas tree this morning, and we lit the Christmas village on the buffet this evening, I thought about how when we next see all our wonderful decorations Christmas will be over. We’ll still keep everything up until after New Year’s, but decorations always lose a little of their magic after Christmas–some of the sparkle is diminished once the holiday is over.

I always have mixed feelings about traveling for Christmas. A part of me longs to wake up in our own house, and have the kids tumble downstairs to find their presents and stockings. I want to make a pan of cinnamon rolls, as I did that one Christmas when we spent it at home (the December right before T. was born. Being heavily pregnant grants you the right to stay home), and a pot of coffee–in my own kitchen. I want to craft the morning and the day for my kids the way I want it. But I am always torn; the one year we did stay here for the holiday I missed my family. It was sad to think about Christmas going on without us. If my family would revision the Christmas celebration, perhaps creating new traditions to replace or build on the old, then there would be a way for us to have the best of both worlds.

I think one of the best gifts you can give your children is to free them to revision their holidays. Teach them to preserve the importance of family traditions–ones handed down from great-grandparents to grandparents, to parents, to children, but free them to build their own new ones around the old, like the layers of a shell added to the central design, the core. I hope when I’m older, and my kids are out on their own, that they will want to come back to some of the traditions that have been important to our family of four, but that they will feel free to birth new ones, too, and that I will be proud and accepting of that.

I just spent about an hour tinkering with this new blog; making tags, and importing some of my favorite posts from the Other Place to this one. I thought it would make me sad, but I think I mourned the slow closure of that other blog over a period of months, so that now that the time has come, I feel excited about this new incarnation of the writing ME and no longer sad about the demise of the other one. All writing projects have their end, and knowing when to end is almost as important as knowing when to begin.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings and endings a lot today; coincidentally T. clamored all morning to watch Charlotte’s Web this afternoon and we did. I so sympathize with Wilbur, poor soft-hearted pig who just can’t stand how fleeting life is, and how everything must inevitably comes to a close, who mourned his unlikely friend Charlotte, and who so believes in the power of friendship. Oh but those beginnings and endings, they really got to Wilbur.

I love that pig–I forgot how teary the story makes me, though. Then I looked over and I saw T.’s lip trembling at the most poignant moment (when Charlotte bids farewell to Wilbur). My soft-hearted girl!

*********

And around this time of December I am always struck with a little melancholy. I think I can remember feeling like this when I was a child, too. I love Christmas so much but even as we gear up for the holiday I feel it coming to a close. When I was little I had so much anticipation for Christmas that it was a big let-down when the day was over, and the magic began to dissolve into the air and it was back to life as usual. There’s a quality of suspended animation almost to Christmas; time stands still, for weeks it’s all about the Christmas tree and the lights, the smell of cookies baking, the mystery of packages and wrapped boxes. Then in a flash almost it’s done and time clicks forward a notch, all the Christmas memories are swept away and packaged up with the artificial tree (or dragged to the curb with the poor dying one) and this year’s favorite ornaments, and the next year everyone will be a year older, and the cycle begins again.

I think the most writing I ever got done in my life was when I was in college.  I had an electric Smith/Corona word processing typewriter and I was working on a novel. There was something exciting about being in college and working on a novel. My roommates would tiptoe around me while I worked, not really understanding why I chose to spend my time at the typewriter instead of doing any number of other things. I didn’t let them read it. I didn’t let anyone read the novel until I was in graduate school and I joined a writing group. By then the book was done, but I didn’t do anything with it. I still haven’t done anything with it. The saddest part of all this is that I don’t think I have an electronic copy of it anymore. I wrote the book on an old Mac Classic and saved it to floppy disks (remember those?). I still have the disks, but I’m not sure how I would find a computer to read them, let alone get hard copies off of them.

I have one copy of the manuscript somewhere in our crawl space. Last I looked I was missing about twenty pages, and maybe they are there, just jumbled between other chapters. Sometimes I’ll lazily think: I really must dig that thing up and rework parts of it, but I never do. Still, I have such a soft spot for that book–and for the person I became as I wrote it. I think the book is good, actually; or maybe it’s not. Maybe I haven’t dug it up because I want to preserve some idealized impression of it.

Maybe.

We finished most of the Christmas shopping today, and I definitely feel pretty accomplished in getting that done. Yesterday we took L. to get his eyes examined, since according to the school nurse he’s outgrown his current prescription. Scott took T. off to the next-door toy store to keep her out of trouble, and I read magazines while L. looked through a Where’s Waldo book. Those books give me a headache, but kids seem to love them. A man rushed in, apparently 35 minutes late for his eye exam. The beltway had been backed up and traffic diverted because of a man who had tried to throw himself off the overpass bridge.

“We’ll be seeing more of that type of thing, mark my words,” the man said to the lady at the front desk. She hmmmmd some response.

“You know, because of the economy.” He really didn’t need to add that last part, because everyone in that waiting room knew exactly what he was talking about. Exactly. And even if I don’t know why that man wanted to end his life in so dramatic and tragic a way, I felt sad for him the rest of the day. I thought about George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, trying to take the plunge in almost the same way. He was saved by that  bumbling angel, of course. I wonder if that man from yesterday will look back on his own life and imagine what would have been if he hadn’t existed, or whether he’ll be able to see his way out of whatever it is that’s got him so backed into a corner.

After the appointment we finished some shopping and everywhere there were other shoppers, all carrying their own private secrets–sorrows and joys–around with them as they shopped. I suppose we were, too. And I felt that old superstitious fear I used to have when I was little when things were going too well–that breath holding, where you worry that any second now it will all shift.

I used to do my writing on an old Mac classic. When we first started graduate school, my office was in a sunroom in our frst apartment. There was a black, slightly dusty papasan chair to the right of my computer desk; a rabbit cage on the floor, and a litter box next to the cage. It wasn’t the most elegant environment for working, but it did force us to stay on top of the rabbit cage cleaning, and the litterbox emptying. The room had an interior window, so I could sit and see into the dining room from over the small square of the computer monitor. We were so proud of that first apartment, the first place we moved all our wedding gifts into, and squeezed out king-sized bed into the small main bedroom (no room on either side of the bed, we had to get out from the foot of the bed). But I think I was most proud of having that space of my own, a small sunlit room where my thoughts could settle, into the slices of light coming through the metal blinds, onto the papasan cushion where the black and white cat slept,  and out into the air around me, until they found a place to settle on my fingertips, and I could type, tap-tap, and make some magic of my own.

I traveled far from that sunlit room in the years between then and now. I became a mother of two kids, a boy and girl. we moved four times since then, the rabbit died, the cat, too. I moved from that writing room, to a large closet, to a desk in a guest room, to nowhere at all, to an office again–a shared one, but a room with a view nonetheless. The desk sits in front of a window again–a necessity, I think. Through the panes I can see the tops of the holly trees, and the trunks of pines taller than the house, taller than two of these houses put together. Somehow I have found myself sharing the space again with another rabbit, a brown-haired quiet fellow, and the dog sleeps behind me, on a soft brown bed. She’s black and white too, like the cat. Last night, when I sat here to check e-mail, I heard one of the huge barn owls that live in the neighborhood hooting out into the night, an intense, purposeful sound, cutting through the too-warm night air.

I am happy; the road from then to now hasn’t been straight or predictable, but I’m happy with where I find myself today, on this day, in this space.

I woke up around 4:00 a.m. this morning with that line in my head.  One moment I was asleep, it seemed, the next moment my mind was surfacing–groggily, and to the sound of a strange noise and that line was just there, in my head, like something you see out of the corner of your eye, no matter where you turn. The noise I heard was the “whirr-whirr” of the bread machine, which we had set on timer mode. It had cleverly switched itself on sometime before 4:00 a.m. to start its business of kneading the dough and baking a perfect square loaf of bread for us. I did manage to go back to sleep, but I woke again at 6:00 to the almost overwhelming smell of baked bread.  The line from the poem sprang into my head again, almost immediately.

It’s been at least seven or eight years since I last read that particular poem by T.S. Eliot.  I had no idea why I woke up with that line in my head; I haven’t been thinking about that poem, or about Eliot at all. I know the brain does strange things when sleeping, but I wondered why my subconscious had chosen to pull out that line from the dusty recesses of my brain (it is feeling pretty dusty in there these days) and move it to the forefront of my brain, where it rattled about over and over again all morning long.

I grow old…I grow old…

Was I worried about growing older?  Wearing my trousers rolled? Measuring out my life with coffee spoons?

It wasn’t until I was cutting up the newly baked loaf of bread for L. this morning and my knife crackled into the crust that the connection was made clear. I was amazed, then, by how memory can be so triggered by something as simple as the sound of a bread machine in a quiet house and the smell of freshly baking bread.

The last time we used the machine on timer mode was about eight years ago.  We had just acquired the bread maker and in the summer of 1998 we were living in our funky apartment in upstate New York.  Bread machines seemed all the rage among our group of graduate students–everybody had one; everybody was making bread–why, it was the Summer of the Bread Machine.  Scott and I would toss the ingredients in about dinnertime and by 11:00 we’d have a new loaf ready to eat.  Sometimes on the weekend friends would stop by on their way back from a bar outing and we’d invite them in and have wine, fresh bread and cheese and talk into the night. Coincidentally, at around the same time we were whipping up batches of fresh bread while we slept, I was also studying for my qualifying exams. I read constantly.  The Summer of the Bread Machine was also the Summer of Books. I would take the bus into school, arrive there around 9:30, shut myself into my little office, and read and read until about noon.  Then I would take a break, head to the gym, and swim laps for about 1/2 an hour. Back to my office for lunch (a packed sandwich and a soda from the machine in the hall), and then more reading and notetaking until about 4:00 in the afternoon. It was also the Summer of T.S. Eliot and his other Modernist pals.  I must have read just about everything by and about Eliot that summer.  By the time August came I felt as if he and I were kindred spirits–I knew him so well I could have walked into a room and started discussing any number of literary topics with him and known exactly what his responses would be.

And it was also probably one of the more personally and selfishly fulfilling summers I’ve ever spent.  We didn’t have kids, so my time on campus was entirely mine and entirely guilt-free.  By the time 4:00 p.m. rolled around I had put in a full day’s work, so I could enjoy my evenings without feeling as if I should be doing something else.

So when that bread machine cranked on at 4:00 a.m., in an entirely different context and about 8 years later, my mind must have kicked up that line from Eliot’s Love Song; almost a reflexive action, perhaps. It’s amazing to me how powerful unconscious memories can be: a smell, a remembered line from a once-loved poem–like a time capsule opened, spilling out its contents into a different time.

A few weeks ago I heard what I once heard termed a terrible story–one which stayed with me for many hours after hearing it.  A woman, a neighbor and friend of one of Scott’s family members, had forgotten to put the handbrake on when parking her car and, in her attempts to stop it from rolling away, had somehow been run over by her very own car.  She was, at the time of the telling of this terrible story, in dire straits in the hospital, leaving a confused and sad little girl and husband to teeter on the brink of irrevocable loss.

Tragic, or potentially-tragic stories involving parents and children hit me hard ever since I became a mother myself, as once did tragic stories involving young college-aged people when I was a young college-aged person.  For those hours when I carried around that story, I thought too much about how brutal it would be for a young child to lose her mother’s body, forevermore; to crave so instinctively the touch, the smells, the contours and sheer physical presence so representative of safety and emotional and physical rightness. How could a child comprehend a mother’s empty, or failing body?  See the tease of them there, so familiar, and yet so unreachable?  Or, worse yet, how tragic it would be to have a mother disappear altogether, whisked away in a flash, leaving behind a confused and primeval ache in her wake.

Then, yesterday, at a family birthday party for Scott’s niece, we found ourselves at a farm on a cold November afternoon.  L. was happily lost in a hay maze, and T. was in and out of the barn, waiting so eagerly for the chance to ride a pony.  I struck up a conversation with an interesting and vibrant woman, the kind of woman who makes you feel you’ve known her all your life when, in fact, you have only just met.  The wind whipped around us, horses blew out steam, the chickens scattered and regrouped, and her own daughter raced back and forth from mother to father and back again, content in the presence of both her parents; bookends, home bases, rightness embodied.

Well into conversation with this engaging person, I found out suddenly that this was the same woman from the terrible story–the one who only a few weeks ago had been in such a tenuous state. And here she was, in flesh and blood, on a windy slope, her curly hair waving around her face, and her daughter running crazy circles in the wind. I reached out to touch her arm when I found out, and felt just so amazed and happy that she was there, on the other side of it all, on a day probably just as ordinary as that other day, the one that was so terrible.

And by and by her daughter clamored to be held.  She bent and scooped her up with one fluid movement, so practiced and commonplace–I must do it with T. fifty times a day.  At once the little girl folded her body in close, her legs and arms settling just right into all the familiar places, her head leaning in against the curves of woman’s chest, the softness of her shirt, the body–her world–she had almost lost for good.

I thought to myself, how could anything seem more important ever again to that mother and child, there on that slope, in the wind, than all of that?

For Students D. and N.

He is of average build, broad shouldered, dark skinned, with hair so closely shaved you can see the creases in his skull, where the skin folds around his ears and neck, like a newborn’s.  When he wears his military khakis he is the picture of order, pants tucked perfectly into his black laced-up boots, every inch of him washed and pressed and buttoned, not a stitch out of place.  He wears two oblong disks around his neck–dog tags, of course.  On one is etched his mother’s name, on the other his military identification numbers. His mother passed away seven years ago from cancer, but he wears her name close to his chest.  When he runs during training days, boots thudding into the dry ground, he feels the dog tags thump against his chest, like twin heartbeats, reminding him of what he has to live for, to do, to achieve, all in her name.

He is, like so many others, serving his country so he may serve himself; so he may one day walk across a stage and receive his diploma, and keep on walking, into his future, lying before him so glorious and filled with possibilities.  Everything he does, he does for his mother.  He misses seeing her face every day, and hearing her call his name; when she first passed he couldn’t imagine not having her in the world.  He is respectful, and motivated, and determined.  He will set his jaw and head off and fight in a war he says he doesn’t really understand.  He talks of his mother watching him, and feeling proud.  I think: please keep him safe, bring him back home again.

************

She is the type of tall, tall woman who seems almost ashamed of her own height.  She must be 6″2 or 6″3 and she hunches her shoulders to hide herself.  But she’s beautiful, long legs and arms, big eyes, and soft, curving lips.  She has come here all the way from a small town in Africa, to run track, but her heart is back in the country she left and, when she speaks about it, her voice quiets, and grows small and shy, trying to hide itself in her words.  She was raised entirely by her grandfather, after her mother abandoned her and her two small brothers.  Her grandfather was all anger and scolding one minute, and then gentle, rough hands smoothing away tears the next.  He had a low voice, and skin like leather.

When she was a young teenager she awoke one night to smoke and fire.  Everything was burning: the house, the things inside of it, the bushes outside.  She grabbed some things and ran, with her brothers, to the outside, where it was safe.  They hadn’t thought to find their grandfather–or they couldn’t get to him, she doesn’t remember exactly the way it happened.  But later, when help arrived and the smoke hung thick in the air and rose in gray columns from the charred remains of their house, they discovered that he had died in the fire.  No one had saved him; no one could have saved him.  She lives with the guilt, and has only one small picture of him left, this man who raised her and her spirited brothers, who was all hard words on the outside, but gentle heart inside, where it counts.

I’ve been thinking about love lately–love and marriage.  Partly because I’ve been writing about this topic in some of my other creative work, and partly because yesterday was not only Liam’s medieval birthday party, but our 11th wedding anniversary as well.

We don’t have much of a history as far as anniversary celebrations go.  One was obviously spent in the hospital recovering from childbirth, another was spent in heightened anxiety and sadness over T.’s impending surgery, only days away, and many were spent–sometimes disastrously but always in memorable fashion–at favorite restaurants with the kids in tow.  We have never celebrated an anniversary alone, actually, but I think this was the first year that we didn’t celebrate at all–we’re both fighting colds, exhaustion, stress, and general grumpiness has been in the air.

Eleven is a funny anniversary year, too.  Ten is such a big deal–a decade, and all the years leading up to that milestone seem big, too.  But eleven has a flat tone to it, those strange matchstick numbers standing side by side, with no roundness to them, no pleasing curves.

*************

I had some solitary time today to think about these things.  I walked back from the pool a little early this afternoon, leaving Scott with the kids, so I could get a head start on grading the stack of midterms waiting on our kitchen table. I passed by our neighbor’s house, as I always do.  For weeks now since the tragedy next door his brand-new white sneakers have been sitting, perfectly lined up together, under the stool outside his front door, exactly as he left them.  I walk by each day with Willa   and look at them and wonder when someone will come and take them away, clean house, box up those shoes and do–I don’t know what–but something with them. Today–finally–our neighbor’s son and a friend brought a silver trailer and carted away furniture and boxloads of things all afternoon.  Later, after they left, I walked past the house again but the shoes were still there.  Someone had kicked them aside in the process of moving out the furniture and one of them was flipped over.  I wondered why no one had set them straight again, or why they were even still there, and why those shoes bothered me so very much. It was jarring to see that one shoe there, at a right angle to its partner, askew, still white and hardly-used.

But it made me think about love.  Their love.  His love.

******************

When I think about love I think about my grandparents, married for so long.  I think about how I woke up one morning in their apartment, lying on the hard fold-out couch bed in their living room.  I heard their voices from the veranda outside the room, mixed in with the scraping of a knife on toast as someone–my grandmother perhaps–spread jam on her bread.  They talked, quietly, but intently, in a way I’d never heard them speak before.  I thought then about how that was love: the rise and fall of their voices, the companionable sipping of coffee, the things that didn’t need to be said hanging between them like light.

*******************

Last night Scott and I exchanged cards briefly, quietly, on the futon in our family room.  It was the first chance we’d had to talk in days.  Our trip to visit our friends had been stressful; we’d spent Wednesday running interference for L., who literally bounced off the walls all day, non-stop. And I really mean non-stop all the way through the morning, through the 40 minute car ride into the Shenadoah mountains, the 30 minute hike, the 40 minute ride down, lunch (which he refused to eat), the afternoon “rest” time, the walk we went on because things were so out of control, the party, and the fireworks.  When he finally went to bed at 10:15 our nerves were stretched taut, our tempers frayed; it’s taken days to mend them.

I realized then, and today too that marriage isn’t always years of rounded pleasant curves and loops and soaring times.  Sometimes it’s about being staid and stalwart; being the two walls side by side that hold up and protect what you love the most: each other, your children, all those moments of understanding hanging between you like light.

When I came out of T.’s room tonight, after leaving her fast asleep in the dark, I found Scott helping L. into his pajamas. L. was jumping up and down on his bed, his hair wet from his bath and Scott was in the middle of telling him a story about the last apartment we had lived in before we moved away from upstate New York.

The story is a good one: about how we had decided our original digs in a trendy and quaint neighborhood were getting too pricey, so we had found a lovely apartment on the second floor of an old Victorian home on Amherst Street in a slightly dodgy–but terribly funky–part of the downtown. We had signed the lease only two days before and had decided to do a “drive-by” past what was to be our new home. As we turned down the street we spied our future home again and our hearts did a giddy leap. But something was wrong with the picture. The half of the street right in front of our house was cordoned off; there was a police bus parked in front of the house next door to ours, and the front porch of that next-door house was crawling with black-clothed men wearing jackets with the initials S.W.A.T. emblazoned across the backs in white letters. Before long they led several handcuffed men out of the house and into the awaiting bus. Scott and I sat open-mouthed for awhile in our silver Toyota and then drove off. When we watched the news later we found out that the police had mounted a massive drug bust on the house next to our new apartment. Well, we told ourselves, it’s probably unlikely that drug dealers will move in next door again. So we moved in and didn’t think much about it again.

That particular block off of Monroe Avenue, in downtown Rochester, NY was made up of old 19th century Victorian homes turned into apartments. In the bottom apartment of the house to our right (not the abode of the former drug lords) lived an eighty-something year-old woman named Grace. Her son, a portly man in his late thirties, came to see her every weekend but, other than that, she had no visitors. She confessed to me one day that she spent endless amounts of time watching the birds that came to the feeder I had installed in our backyard. And sure enough, one spring, I saw her face watching eagerly through her back window while I filled up the feeder with seed. I waved to her and she waved back–I can still see her hand raised in that pane of fogged-up glass. In the winter she would stand right outside the back door, the snow up to her thin ankles and her wool cardigan pulled around her tightly, just getting air. She told me that she had to get some air every day, or she didn’t know what she would do. One day in the summer of 1999, shortly after John F. Kennedy Jr.’s airplane had crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, I was weeding the garden. I looked up suddenly and noticed Grace standing silently by the fence which separated our yards. Her eyes were glistening with tears and her nose was red. When I asked her what was wrong she looked at me with wide eyes and raised one hand to her lips: Oh John-John, she said, her voice breaking into a sob. Why couldn’t I have died instead of you?

*********************

Shortly after we moved into the Amherst Street apartment the landlord of the next-door house did some renovations in an attempt to make it look less like a former drug den and more like a regular house regular people might rent apartments in. An older black woman named Carol moved in a few months after we moved in. She was in her fifties and worked as a private night nurse somewhere–but no place that paid her very much. Every Friday a man friend of hers, a stooped-looking man who always seemed to wear plaid shirts, would come over to her house carrying a plastic grocery bag filled with beer. In the summer they would sip beer on their front porch and we would sit on our front porch–sometimes sipping beer ourselves–and their conversation was entirely audible to us as ours was, I’m sure, to them, yet there was no question of eavesdropping. When L. was born Carol peered into his infant carrier one morning and said Oh God bless him and gave me a few flowers she had snipped from the hanging pot of petunias on her front porch. When we moved I gave her my petunias and a potted fern and she was just about as happy as anyone could be that I had done that.