Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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Crossing the Bridge

I don’t love Ernest Hemingway. I need to start with that. But in his Nobel prize speech, Ernest Hemingway said, “if he is a good enough writer,” (it was always a he), “he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

For at least twenty-six years of my life, I had no idea what he meant. Hold that thought for a minute.

A small stretch of Montaño Road between Coors and Carlisle runs like a furrow through the middle of my life. I could say it runs like Marvle Valley Drive, or Clifton, or Irishtown Road, because it runs like those streets I spent my first twenty years walking and sled-riding and learning to drive on. Going east Montaño opens into mountain. Driving back home mesa dissolves in sky.

For a number of years now, it has seemed that if I am going anywhere, I am driving across the river on that stretch of Montaño. Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, I head across the bridge to St. Michael and All Angels. Saturday mornings, I turn right on Carlisle for violin lessons with my granddaughter. Sunday afternoons, I turn right on Fourth Street to play mandolin with Ken, Elizabeth, Katie, and Steve. I’ve ridden across this bridge on my bike and run across it training for a half marathon. One sad morning in 2011, I walked to the middle of the bridge with a group of teenagers and dropped flowers in the river. Monday afternoons after that sad morning, I drove across the bridge to a warm office just east of Carlisle to try to regain my footing in the world.

On those Monday afternoons, the bridge was full of breakthroughs. I’d be on my way home from my appointment; crossing the bridge, something would snap into place. I’d find clarity around a question, or a decision, or just a new ability to make sense of what I was feeling. It’s as though these roads we live on wear grooves in us, instead of the other way around.

Somewhere in those years, I decided I needed to write now. I was teaching teenagers, not fighting bulls or going on African safaris, but I was facing, for the first time, eternity, or the lack of it, every day.

In November, when the light grows shy, the cranes come. They stand in the fields on the north side of the road by Los Poblanos. Thanksgiving morning, four of them rise out of the cornfield just beyond the bike path and pedal into the air. I am on my way to meet my friend Martha for a hike. I am listening to Lori True singing “Go Now in Peace.” My heart is going all squinchy, as though those cranes are tugging at it and pulling me up into the air with them.

Thanksgiving morning is warm. When I meet Martha and her pug Saki at Elena Gallegos, I get Rusty on his leash, tug my sweatshirt off over my head in the sun, and head into Pino Canyon. The first part of the trail is relatively flat and exposed, and Rusty and Saki set a good pace. Soon we’re moving deeper into trees and climbing.

Part of my plan for this hike is for Martha to help me fix my life. “I’m not writing,” I had told her earlier in the week. “I’m spending every second working. I have to figure out how to change things.”

Martha is looking for change, too. A health scare in the middle of the night has left her with a sense of urgency. “I’m not waiting,” she told me. “If there is something to do, I need to do it now.” Our plan is to walk up the mountain and figure everything out.

About a mile or so in, a massive bolder flanks the trail. Sun-warmed and statuesque, it’s the sort of rock Tolkien could have turned into a hotel for hobbits. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we walked around the back and found a tiny door. Martha pauses by the rock as she always does, pats it, and says hello. We give the dogs some water and keep climbing.

In a little while, we reach the point on the trail where it feels as though the mountain has rotated; suddenly the highest ridge we can see is to the north rather than the east. I always find this spot disorienting. I’m looking out through the trees to the model train city far below when Martha tells me I should write about friendship. It’s unique, she says. It’s free of the obligations and expectations we get tangled in with every other kind of relationship. It’s profound, she says. Metaphysical. Holy.

I started writing today thinking I might have something to say about gratitude. I wanted to say that at this time of year, the leaves still hanging on the white plum in my front yard are the same color as the cranberries boiling on the stove. In late afternoon, the sun comes rushing through the window and transforms my office into a chapel.

A few weeks ago I thought I was writing a different essay. I was trying to figure out if I live in a body or as a body. Which part is me? Today, hiking up a mountain with a friend, it doesn’t feel like the right question. Something has been changing in me. It’s as though my edges are dissolving: the boulder, the cranes stepping into air, the light in my plum tree, the spots of snow by the side of the trail, lately it’s been feeling like all one thing. There’s not so much here and not here, less wondering about what’s me and what’s not-me.

In I and Thou, one of those books I read in college that bobs up into my consciousness now and then, Martin Buber says, The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou: All real living is meeting.

So I am thinking about friendship, and the holy way in which we are connected to our friends, and the fact that all real living is meeting. Martha is laughing and remembering another hike where I fell dramatically into cactus when I remember that matter is neither created nor destroyed in this universe. I must have learned that phrase in ninth grade physical science, along with Bernoulli’s Law, “the faster a fluid moves the lesser is its pressure.” I remember those words devoid of any scientific understanding; I just like the way they sound.

Recently, though, I started wondering what it means that matter is neither created nor destroyed. I googled E=mc2 and read about the law of the conservation of mass-energy. I looked at pictures of people on space ships bouncing light off of mirrors and read that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing. I read about Einstein and Newton and Lavoisier and clicked through a web site that claims the First Law of Thermodynamics proves the existence of God. I read Martin Buber, who describes God as “the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.”

I don’t understand any of it. It’s Thanksgiving morning and Martha and I have climbed as high as we can for today so we turn around. I’m heading down a mountain with my dear friend, and Rusty is in a hurry. I’m trying not to fall as his energy tugs on my matter and light splashes down on us through branches and leaves. Martha keeps her camera close in case I cartwheel into another cactus.

There were a lot of years when I never thought about dying or loss or even really let myself fully feel the loss of people I loved. And then there were years when loss shook me like an earthquake, and I had to relearn to trust the ground to hold. For a while now, I think I’ve been in this other space: I get it. I face eternity or the lack of it every day. I know loss throws you to the ground like lightning, and at some point, I decided to love anyway.

That’s an empowering choice, maybe even a brave and ordinary one, but it didn’t take away the fear. I hate flying. I won’t ride roller coasters. Sometimes I can’t shake a huge sadness at the thought that someday everything will go on without me. It seems too much, really, to ask of a species: to hold in our minds at one time the knowledge that life is meaningful and that life ends.

Martha and I stop again by the boulder that either rose up or crashed down to this spot millions or billions of years ago. I’m thinking that matter and energy are just different forms of the same thing, and that they are neither created nor destroyed in this universe. Everything, it occurs to me, is transformation.

Maybe all I’m trying to say is that lately I don’t feel quite so temporary. Thanksgiving morning I walked up a mountain and I walked down a mountain and I drove across a bridge. I talked to a friend and I said hello to a boulder. Light kept hurrying to the earth. I am guessing the sun will come up again in the morning and streak gray and blue across this desert sky. Crows and geese and cranes will settle on the pond and the river will keep sidling south. Martin Buber says, “The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring.”

Some mornings, I believe.

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“Who made the grasshopper?”

I have graded my last papers, taken the posters off my walls, sorted my old files, and gone to bed the past few nights without setting my alarm. If that doesn’t clinch it, I just woke up on the couch from a nap, I’m writing a new blog post at last, and I’m quoting Mary Oliver in the title. It’s summer!

I ended this school year in love with my students, in love with my profession, and thinking about some of the things I learned in high school. When I was a junior at Bethel Park Senior High, I served as the school district’s first (non-voting) “Student on the School Board.” It was something like 1981, and the district had decided to implement “activity fees” for extracurricular activities. All of them—think National Honor Society, Concert Choir, Key Club–no one was exempt, and I was outraged. I led the student revolt against the fees, which culminated in presenting a sixteen-page report at a public board meeting.

It was big news. We filmed a “speak-out” message with the local public television station, and one Saturday morning my mother handed me the phone (you know, those ones that were attached to the wall in the kitchen with a long curly cord) so I could talk to a reporter from the Associated Press.

Heady times. Seventeen is a good age to have a cause, to fight for something with utter certainty that you are right. The board presentation went great.

My political education began the next day.

Every single board member made a point of taking me aside to tell me that they agreed with me. They had been convinced, they said, that the strong extracurricular activities in the district were a selling point for people looking for a new home. They agreed that imposing a fee on a poor student to enable that student to sing in a choir was antithetical to the values of public education. They agreed that the fees collected would be big enough to prohibit a student from participating but too small to make any noticeable impact on anyone’s property taxes. They agreed, in short, that the argument was strong and had convinced them that the fees were not going to do anyone any good.

Then came the punch line, or maybe I should say the punch. Every single board member voted to impose the fees. Every one of them explained, as though it were the most rational position in the world, that they didn’t have a choice. The elderly voters in the district wouldn’t be happy/vote for them again if they didn’t pretend to help them by imposing the fees.

My adult, teacher self wants to say to those people, be careful what you teach a teenager.  The cynicism was too much for me.  I didn’t vote for years.

But wallowing in ancient outrage is not where I planned to go with this essay. I meant to write about grasshoppers. They came out of the earth by the millions a few weeks ago.

As my dog and I walk down the street, they fly up from our feet like little dust clouds (remember Pigpen?).  They part for us, wafting up and settling five or ten feet up the road. It’s as though someone is bedecking our path as we walk. (And yes, I really mean bedecking–it’s just that sort of old-fashioned, ceremonial connotation that I need here.) The grasshoppers are turning our ordinary walks around the neighborhood into processions. We are attended in our walks by leaping clouds of glory.

Rusty didn’t like them at first. He’d swat at them with his paws as they leaped too close to his head or snap at them like travelling snacks, but he’s used to them now. He accepts their homage, confident that he deserves it, trotting smartly, head up and gait stately.

Curiously, unlike the tent-worm summers of my childhood, or the more recent Albuquerque moth infestations, or the Mormon crickets on a fire-closed highway between Reno and Jackpot (where we stopped for hours and watched the blacktop crawl), I like this plague.

A news site out of Philadelphia writes, “People in Albuquerque are on edge as millions of grasshoppers invade the city.” Really? People in Philadelphia are talking about our grasshoppers? List me as one ‘Querque who is not on edge.

I have to say I saw them coming, although I didn’t know the earth well enough to know what I was seeing. A week before the grasshoppers swarmed, I told my husband the sycamore in the backyard was dying. There was a sparseness in the leaves; the yard was a little more sun dappled than seemed right for late spring.

Extra birds were also swooping and diving and chattering around us. We see lots of doves and robins and sparrows and finches, but big birds with yellow bellies were flying back and forth from rooftop to rooftop, something small and deep orange flashed and settled in my neighbor’s mulberry, and big black speckled birds and swallows were arguing and dipping low over the empty house on the corner. All sorts of bird sounds I couldn’t identify were singing me awake each morning.

And now, all the neighborhood birds, hungry these many drought years, are growing fat on grasshoppers. Mary Oliver asks who made them and has a beautiful line about their jaws, and ee cummings wrote a grasshopper poem, too, but it’s too hard to reproduce it here. Keats in his poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” gets it right when he says, “he takes the lead in summer luxury,– he has never done with his delights”–

Rusty and I are laughing in that grasshopper delight when we turn into the driveway and see something I’ve never seen before. A robin is picking a fight with a bunny under the piñon tree. The robin flies at the rabbit’s head and startles the rabbit, who hops back and freezes, hops and freezes. I don’t know if I am watching animals at play in the world or if the robin is hoping to eat this bunny.

So here’s where it turns out I’m going with this. Rusty and I stop in the driveway and watch for a few minutes. When the robin notices us, she gets wary, hops back a few steps, and freezes. The rabbit ignores us; she’s holding still, pretending to be invisible. After a few minutes, Rusty gets restless and makes a move toward the front door. The robin flies back about ten yards to perch on a low wall, and the bunny, sensing her chance, takes off across the street.

I can’t help thinking about what we saw. Was that rabbit really prey to a rogue robin, or are these just two creatures who share my front yard and don’t always get along? Is there a nest of baby rabbits under the sage bush and a nest of baby robins up in the white plum? Maybe nothing at all momentous was happening under my piñon.

I can’t shake the feeling, though, that Rusty and I helped shape the world. What if our most casual and unintentional actions helped save a little fuzzy life? Or maybe I’m wrong to be rooting for the rabbit; what if the rabbit were the aggressor? What if our simple action of walking up the driveway determined whose babies lived and whose didn’t that morning?

And here’s my point, at last. There are people in the world who have just that sort of power, people who could make intentional decisions that might just keep someone else’s children alive, who keep finding excuses not to make those decisions.

I’m grateful to Richard Martinez, whose son was killed in the most recent shooting and stabbing rampage, for saying he doesn’t want sympathy from politicians. “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me,” he’s widely reported as saying. “Get to work and do something.”

“Don’t you dare,” is what I want to say to all those school board politicians in the House and Senate who agree that gun laws should be strengthened but rationalize inaction out of fear of political repercussions. Don’t you dare pretend you don’t have a choice, as you cede your actual power to the NRA’s threatened power. Don’t you dare tell a grieving parent that you know they are right but you can’t vote their way.

In Pittsburgh school kids paint little fishes by street sewers to remind people that their actions have consequences. Little kids know you still own the garbage that ends up downstream.

Keats says, “The Poetry of earth is never dead,” and Mary Oliver says “I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” and Richard Martinez says, “I don’t give a shit that you feel sorry for me.”

It’s summer, and the world is frothy with grasshoppers. Robins and rabbits are fighting in my front yard. The earth keeps swelling with grief and glory.

Let’s all be careful what we teach the teenagers.

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Driving

I suppose my oldest brother has said wise things before, but if he has, I wasn’t listening. Last week when he picked me up at the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, he said two things that struck me at the time as being worthy of remembering.

I can’t remember the first one. The second one was, “You can’t drive someone else’s car.”

Often when my husband and I are going somewhere we have the following conversation.

Heather: That car in front of us has his brake lights on.

Fred: He shouldn’t. The light is green.

Heather: Nevertheless, it will hurt if we drive into him.

Fred: I don’t know why he has his brakes on.

Heather: It doesn’t seem important to me that you know why he has his brakes on. What seems important to me is that you put your brakes on so we don’t crash into him.

Now, a critical reader might note that the fact that I have time to use the word “nevertheless” indicates that the danger I’m imagining is less than imminent. I suspect that’s what Fred would tell you. My ability to imagine danger is both a genetic and cultivated gift, but you’ll have to read some older posts if that’s what you are interested in. Today I’m thinking about driving.

When we were little, my friend Joanne would feel carsick every time my dad drove us somewhere. I always felt safe in the backseat of the Pontiac, but my dad did have a habit of accelerating toward stop signs and then stopping quickly. An engineer, he taught me that you have more traction if you accelerate through the curves, so we’d do that, too. Joanne and I would sway into each other in the backseat as we veered off Clifton onto Dashwood. And then there was that other spot on Dashwood, if you came down the hill from Irishtown, where your stomach would do that jumpy roller coaster thing if you could convince the driver to take the bump without slowing down. I loved being a passenger.

Today as my brother and I take the curves easily and drive across the bridge into southern Ohio, I’m mostly managing not to help him drive. We are on our way to visit our sister and our mother.

When I was learning to drive, my father offered me the choice of learning with him and fighting a lot, or letting my sister teach me. I opted for my sister. She stayed calm even when I drove the car into her boyfriend’s house in Gibsonia. I passed on this calm approach to my step-daughter when she picked me over her father to teach her. She still laughs about me saying things like, “You might want to accelerate now that you are in the middle of the intersection so that truck doesn’t barrel into us.” When I wanted to learn how to drive a stick shift, my husband left town and one of my best friends bunny hopped around parking lots all over Albuquerque with me. I never really thought about driving being this thing passed on between women before, but I like that thought.

My mother never learned to drive. The story I heard is that my dad tried to teach her once and it didn’t go well, so she never tried again. As she got older and the world changed around her, we would often encourage her to learn. I remember once she told me that she couldn’t drive because she could never live with herself if she ran over a child. (See “both genetic and cultivated” above.)

I hardly ever visit my mother. For the past few years she has lived in a nursing home in Kentucky, many years into a lonely ride with Alzheimer’s. The people there are kind to her, my sister visits her all the time, and her roommate, who is also losing track of her memories, expresses herself solely via compliments. “Those are some nice shoes you’re wearing,” she says, as soon as she comes in the room. I can barely say thanks before she says, “That sure is a nice purse.” She has enormous clear blue eyes, and I’m not sure how this game goes.

“You have beautiful eyes,” I compliment her back, and we go several rounds before my sister laughs. “You can’t win,” she says. Eventually my mother’s roommate sits on her bed, tells me to take her shoes off, and falls asleep. I hope that if I lose my mind before my body wears out, my dementia manifests itself in such a gentle way.

It has been years since my mother has spoken at all, or recognized any of us in any conventional way. One time when she was still speaking a little, she recognized me as my sister Meg, who died in 1990. My mother’s eyes are all that speak now, which is either heartwarming or heartbreaking, depending on whether she is happy (my last visit) or suffering (this one). A recent stroke has taken away her ability to walk, so she sits upright in a wheel chair now, held in that position by what looks like one of the aprons she wore in lighter years.

After a few days with my sister I flew off the mountain in Charleston and headed out the next morning to the Taos Shortz Film Festival with a bunch of teenagers. My friend had one carful of kids and I followed her around through the week in my Subaru. The teens in my car laughed as my friend buzzed through yellow lights, leaving us behind to find our way without her. “You can’t drive someone else’s car,” I told them.

We watched one hundred eleven movies in four days. One afternoon, almost all of the movies were either about people in varying stages of living with Alzheimer’s or about children who were being horribly mistreated by the adults in their lives.

At some point that afternoon, crying in a dark theater, I realized just how little love it takes to barrel through pain. I also realized how true my brother’s words are. You can’t drive someone else’s car; you have to love the world as it is.

No one expected my mother to live long after my father died; it was hard to imagine either of them without the other. I like to think it’s possible that my dad has been trying to get my mother to join him for a while. She never moved quickly. Anytime we left the house she went through a series of steps that strike me now as more incantatory than practical. She would check the stove, then the locks on the front windows, then turn on the radio. She’d get halfway to the car only to run back to turn on a few upstairs lights so it looked like we were home, after which she’d have to check the locks again.  Sometimes we’d drive around the block to make sure we hadn’t left a window open. That was the ritual to leave the house for an hour or two. I can only imagine how many things will have to be in order before she leaves for the last time. “Let me just make sure I turned the stove off,” I can hear her saying, as she runs back into the house to check one last thing.

I want to imagine my father growing impatient. He is waiting in the driveway with the engine running, calling, in a sing-song, never actually irritated voice, “Cathy, we’re going to be late.” One of these days she’ll come skipping down the front steps at last and get in the car.  If she wants to check one more thing he’ll convince her that everything is taken care of.  He’ll turn on the radio and pull out of the driveway. If an old song comes on, he’ll turn to her and say, “Do you remember this one?”

She won’t, and he’ll explain where they were when they heard it for the first time. Time and love will grow wide around them. I’ll be standing in the front yard waving until I can’t see them any longer, but they won’t look back. My dad will accelerate into the curve, and they will drive off into the unknown world together.

 

 

 

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Enough

I woke up this morning with a gospel song playing in my head. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer…”

I’ve been in a bad mood this week. My natural state is calibrated well toward the joy end of the dial; happiness usually comes easily. But something has been bothering me all week, some shadow standing between me and the sun, and I haven’t been able either to figure it out or to walk out of its shade.

Sometimes in the morning when I write, I find myself following random trails, bouncing from memory to story to inane prattle about my day. I might do that for a week or two, until one morning I wake up in a bad mood with a gospel song in my head and realize that for the past two weeks I’ve been writing about need.

November 10. I’m writing about how much work and how little time I have. Mid-thought I stop whining long enough to ask, what do I have enough of?

November 20. I’ve been thinking about something that happened at least ten years ago. I was in a public restroom in a mall in Lubbock when a woman in a wheelchair asked me if I could come into the handicapped stall with her to help her.

I had no idea what she needed or how to help, and some part of me that is too well trained in fear wondered for a moment if this were some new kind of scam, and if I were about to be mugged. Fortunately, more developed parts of my brain prevailed, and I smiled and said sure. I followed her in, did what she asked, and in a few minutes we were both washing our hands, exchanging pleasantries, and leaving each other’s lives forever.

It was an unexpected intimacy, and I thought about it for a long time. I wondered what sort of courage it takes to ask a stranger to help you use the bathroom in a shopping mall. I wondered what sort of grace had let me be chosen.

November 22. Thinking about the woman in Lubbock has me thinking about my mother-in-law. In 2007 when Ann was dying in our downstairs bedroom, I grew adept at helping with bathroom details. The hospice worker told me what to do and somehow my mother-in-law and I managed.

Late one morning the doorbell rang. It was Mary, the hospice social worker. I had just made a pot of coffee, so we all sat down at the kitchen table. Fred and Mary talked about how my mother-in-law was doing and what the doctor had said most recently and about the nurse who had been by earlier.

Then, this woman I had never met turned to me, looked into my eyes, right at the spot that was hurting, and said, “And how are you?”

We had moved my mother-in-law back into our house on the day we got home from my father’s funeral in Pittsburgh. We should have done it sooner; that day we drove straight from the airport to her house and brought her home with us. She had stopped bathing some time before, we learned, and for the first few weeks she wouldn’t move out of a chair in the living room. We had taken to opening windows in November and lighting scented candles before it finally occurred to us to call Hospice.

Hospice is an amazing thing. Strangers flooded our house, helped us manage things we couldn’t possibly manage: personal care assistants coaxed Ann into the shower, a doctor diagnosed her illness and dispensed medicine she didn’t want to take and oxygen she refused to use, nurses applied salves and showed me how to help her in the bathroom. There was even a social worker who stopped by from time to just to make sure we were all still keeping it together.

I hadn’t met Mary until that morning when we had coffee. I fled the house early each day, happy to escape to work, a place where everyone showered regularly and no one was dying. If you’d have asked me then, in those months right after my father died while my mother-in-law was dying, how I was doing, I would have told you I was fine.

And then this woman I didn’t know asked me over a casual cup of coffee if I was ok, and I didn’t tell her I was fine, and it felt good, weeping at my kitchen table, to say “I’m not ok,” and to let this stranger help.

November 28. I’m thinking about how long it has been since I’ve posted an essay on my blog and having a quiet Thanksgiving. Family comes Friday evening, so we’re saving the big meal for Saturday.  I made a pot roast today, and I’ll be baking pies tomorrow when everyone else is eating leftovers. I have to say I’m sort of enjoying the extra days of anticipation.

My dad used to tell this story about having enough. One time, he said, he was complaining to his brother. “There’s never any extra,” he told my uncle. “Just when you get the dryer paid off the dishwasher goes on the fritz. When the dishwasher is paid off, the car needs work. There’s always just exactly enough.” My dad would pause here before relating my uncle’s response.  Apparently Uncle Larry looked at my dad for a minute, considering his words. “That’s neat,” he said.

November days are getting shorter, but these aren’t dark days. I still haven’t really figured out why I was in such a bad mood this week, or why this gospel song keeps dogging me.  Walking the dog late in the afternoon I’m thinking about apple pie and my Aunt Ann’s cranberry orange relish; I’m thinking about need and about abundance. I’m thinking about how maybe all of us are broken and glued back together, and about the odd beauty in all those cracks and jagged edges.

As the dog and I turn the corner, the sun darkens.  Two crows are chasing each other across the sky. They swoop and dive and jabber, their bodies turning the sun on and off as they fly in and out of its path.  I look up and watch them dance. I don’t notice that I’m humming, or that my shoulders are softening, or that the glue in my cracks is growing firm again, but the dog does, and he’s not about to stand around and watch while a couple of crows have all the fun.  He’s all wag and bustle; he pants and prances; his whole body is shouting JoyJoyJoy or maybe it’s NeedNeedNeed–it’s all the same big blur of fur, and it’s tugging on the leash right now, pulling hard for home.

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Thief

Last Thursday, after living the first six years of his life as a largely law-abiding citizen, (I’m not counting the time he ate our rug or mistook my slippers for his; those early crimes were committed before he reached the age of reason), Rusty tossed respectability to the curb like an over chewed bone and embarked on a life of crime.

I’ve never seen him happier.

The incident took place on a drizzly afternoon. We were enjoying our usual walk when I stopped to talk for a moment with a friendly older man washing his car. He must have felt the need to explain to anyone who walked by why he was hosing down his Honda on one of Albuquerque’s rare rainy days, so he shrugged, grinned, and said, “I’m from Portland,” which I took to mean “I know this looks like rain to you, but trust me, it isn’t raining.”

The piece de resistance was an ordinary green tennis ball. Rusty has had lots of them over the years. They sit ignored in the corner in his toy basket until his friend Circuit comes over and carries all the toys outside. Rusty never takes the toys outside, because he doesn’t believe he can fit through his doggy door with anything in his mouth.  He thinks Circuit is pretty cool for having this supernatural ability.

Anyway, Rusty has never cared much about any toy. He’ll play ball with you, if by playing ball you mean Rusty gets the ball, trots around a little, and waits for you to come try to take it from him. He’s never really understood the point of the traditional fetch game; it makes much more sense to him for the human to do the running.

I laughed with the car washing man and Rusty seemed to be in a hurry for once to get going, so we continued up the hill. I kept asking him what the big rush was, if he had big plans for the evening, but he was holding his head kind of funny and not answering me.

I’m not naïve to the fact that my dog can be sneaky. Rusty wasn’t even a year old the first time he faked having a goat head in his paw. We go on a lot of walks and we live in New Mexico, so we encounter a lot of goat heads.  (And if you are not from New Mexico, and you are actually imagining the head of a goat stuck in my golden retriever’s paw, just go with that. It couldn’t be any more painful than what I actually mean.) We have a system, Rusty and I.  He comes to a dead stop, lifts the affected paw as though he’s on point, and I, loyal servant and companion, kneel and remove the diabolical sticker.

Only this one time, there wasn’t a sticker. He just wanted some extra time to sniff out the new dog on the other side of the fence. I’m not making this up. After I fruitlessly searched his paw for a few minutes, he admitted he was faking it. He took his paw back and pointed with his head to the fence, where the now thoroughly sniffed dog was rustling around. “Sorry, I just really wanted to sniff him,” he told me, as clearly as if he had used words. Then he swung his head forward, saying, “We can go now,” so we did. I remember wondering at the time what else my dog was pulling over on me.

As he pulled me up the hill on the day he became a thief, he wouldn’t look at me. He cocked his head to the right when we reached the top to tell me which way he wanted to turn, and that’s when I saw the green felt gleaming between his teeth.

He ignored my half-hearted “drop it,” and kept going, for the first time ever sniffing absolutely nothing for an entire block. Every now and then he’d look over his shoulder at me, as if to be sure I understood that something important was happening. As soon as we got home, he ran into the house, down the hall, through the kitchen, and out his dog door into the backyard, never even slowing down to see if he could still fit.

I think he was showing his new ball his kingdom. He strutted around for a few minutes, and then came back in, ball in mouth, and lay down with it safely tucked between his paws. A little while later, he took a nap with his new ball all nuzzled up beside his nose.

If my life were a sitcom, this would be the part where the responsible parent takes the tearful child back to the candy store, makes him confess his crime, return the half-eaten candy bar, and trade the fleeting pleasure of chocolaty nougat for the presumably more lasting sense of righteousness that comes from having done the right thing.

I can’t do it. My dog is blissfully happy. I couldn’t make this elated dog give this ball back to its rightful owner if she were four years old, wearing pigtails and overalls, and standing in front of me crying.

Saturday afternoon I’m working on this essay and trying to figure out exactly what my thieving dog is teaching me about my commitment to joy and my lack of commitment to property rights when the doorbell rings. The man standing there when Rusty and I open the door is wearing Dockers and a tweed jacket, and he has some of the saddest, kindest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Those eyes, the ninety pounds of fur leaning against my leg, and the knowledge that my husband is upstairs in his office have lowered my usual “strange man at the door” defenses, so I’m actually listening when he says, “Have you ever wondered what happens after we die?”

Before I can say, “You mean, other than every day?” he hands me a pamphlet, says “There is some very comforting information in there,” tells me to have a good day, and walks off down the driveway.

These aren’t my mother’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Growing up we lived a few blocks away from the Bethel Park Congregation on Irishtown Road, so it was pretty common for an eager believer to ring the doorbell on a summer afternoon and launch into an explanation of how we could be saved. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t hand you a pamphlet and tell you to have a good day. They wanted to convince you, and they had all the time in the world for you to come around.

One day, my mother, devout Catholic, decided she was going to make her case, too. She started explaining Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witness, and the two went at it for a long time on the front porch.

Because it’s Saturday, I actually read the man’s pamphlet, and it’s full of Old and New Testament quotations about life after death. I’m disappointed that the argument is as circular as it is, so I find myself thinking about the marketing team who came up with the plan to focus on eternity in this year’s doorbell ringing campaign rather than contemplating life and death with capital letters.

It’s the beginning of November, so Sunday morning the banco at my church is covered in photos of the dead and we’re lighting candles. For some reason, ever since I realized I was ok with my dog being a thief since it made him so happy, I’ve had the old liberation theology phrase, “a preferential option for the poor,” in my head. It always strikes me to think how at odds that theology is with today’s politicians who claim to be on God’s side yet work to demonize the poor. “Poor in spirit” is ok; poor in body and material goods is lazy.

Not knowing who Rusty stole this particular tennis ball from, I’m not sure if my dog is Robin Hood or JP Morgan, but it turns out I’m just rooting for joy. I’m thinking that this whole life/death thing might be a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and joy is what pushes at the far right boundary.

It’s been a week now, and Rusty’s new tennis ball is still his most important possession. He brings it to me when I get home from work, and I chase him around for a little while, and then we both flop down to rest, tongues hanging out, feeling like it’s good to be alive.

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Bad Theology?

A few days ago, I was eating a roasted vegetable, pesto, and melted cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria when I overhead just enough of a conversation between my colleagues to become intrigued. “What is the meaning of life?” the historian said. The biologist replied, “What is life?” and then they both laughed.

I’ve been thinking about that second question. I learned this summer that a host of microorganisms calls my body home. I guess I’ve heard that before; I suspect in some long ago science class I looked at  a drop of saliva under a microscope and saw tiny things scurrying around, but this summer when I read an article about the The National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, I was hooked. The NIH is working “to characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of the microbes in human health and disease.” It’s the human genome project all over again, with a vastly expanded notion of “human.”

Some of the things I’ve read suggest we might have several pounds worth of these creatures eating lunch, going to work, sleeping, making love, and raising families, all snug inside the cozy planet previously known as “Me.”

Is it hubris to get excited about the idea that colonies of microorganisms call my body home?

I remember reading an article years ago about the giant sequoias in California. The author had climbed into the uppermost branches with a group of botanists and wrote about the entire ecosystem she encountered. If I’m remembering right, a distinct species of huckleberry flourishes in the canopy. I remember being amazed as I read that a mini-world hides above the world  we know. I imagined how it would feel to be a bush whose roots sway in the California breeze. I like to think that to a root-bound creature it might feel like being part cloud.

I can’t really explain why I find these stories of mini-ecosystems so fascinating. Somehow the idea that bushes grow in trees or that microorganisms in my body are working beyond reach of my consciousness to keep me alive is oddly comforting.

Let’s be clear: I’ve never liked the idea of things crawling on me. When I was eight or nine, I used to tag along with a girl named Betsy as she delivered newspapers on Sunday mornings. I remember standing in her driveway, stuffing ads into the paper, and loading them into a big canvas Pittsburgh Press bag. At one point, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, my legs grew itchy. I looked down and was horrified to see hundreds of tiny aphids crawling out of my sneakers and swarming my legs. I jerked, I danced, and I howled, loud, neighbor-waking howls, until we finally dragged a hose out of Betsy’s garage and flushed the bugs away.

That was the end of letting things crawl on me. So it surprised me when I read about these studies to map the human microbiota and thought, “Cool!” In the pictures, they look like jars of multi-colored gummy bears, or necklaces of green, fuzzy jade, or twisty colored pipe-cleaners. These creatures, I’m reading, are linked to our health in ways that scientists are just beginning to explore.

As a young girl raised Catholic, I had lots of exposure outside of science class to the idea that my body was home to something other than “me”; in addition to being the container for that mysterious thing called soul, my body, I was taught, was also the temple of the equally mysterious Holy Spirit.

Honestly, that vision matches my experience fairly well. I have often felt deeply connected to the world. I’ve lived through solitary times when I have known, with the part of knowing that doesn’t happen in my head, that I was not alone. In her poem, “Some Questions You Might Ask,” Mary Oliver writes, “Is the soul solid, like iron?” and “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” The poem packs fourteen questions into twenty-one lines, including my favorite, “Why should I have it, and not the camel?”

Can you see where I’m going with this? I have just enough knowledge of science to put it to work to do bad theology. I’m not (quite!) saying I have discovered the soul and it is a collection of multicolored eukaryotes, but did you know they have been around for over a billion years? Do you know that they live in you and on you and that you are not, it turns out, ever really alone? It’s not our imaginations: something always pulses in the night.

One night in Pittsburgh I thought it was horses. I was staying with my parents in my childhood home and sleeping fitfully. The window by my bed was wide open, and late in the night I heard a horse whinnying deep in the woods. Longing spread through the trees as the animal called out, waited, called into the silence again. Finally, after what felt like hours, an answer came, and the two voices nickered back and forth. I fell asleep to their singing, bathed in wonder, gifted by this mysterious conversation.

Back home in Albuquerque, knowing there couldn’t be horses in those woods, I described the sound on an internet birding site. Within minutes, I received a link to a sound file identifying my midnight horses as screech owls. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Mated pairs may sing to each other antiphonally, both day and night.”

I want to say, I have heard the screech owls singing, each to each. In Eliot’s poem, after the mermaids sing each to each, “human voices wake us and we drown.” We all know that’s how the story always ends. A while ago, though, when I was still trying to decide if I should keep my guard up or settle in and trust the world, a priest stumped me by asking, “What is death, anyway?”

So here’s the thing I keep Googling. I want to know what happens to all those microorganisms when I die. Am I like those conifers in forest fires who open their pods and fling their seeds madly to the forest floor, shouting “Life Life Life!” into the flames? Do the bacteria in my digestive tract have a chance to flee their dying planet and strike out for a brave new world? Or do these same microbes who have devoted their lives to mine help me, one last time, to shed skin and bone and ease into element?

I like that idea. I’m trying to say that I’d be ok if it turned out that the secret to eternal life, to God, is symbiosis. I like to think that that huckleberry bush doesn’t know her roots never touch the ground, doesn’t know that the whole thing she calls the world is cradled in a net of branches, doesn’t know that she, too, is part huckleberry, part prokaryote, part bacteria, part fuzzy jade and twirly pipe-cleaner, part every other thing that teems and swims and breathes in this abundant world.

Just now, my ten year-old granddaughter asked me what I was writing about. I tried to explain without going in to too much detail that we have these tiny things living in us, and that I think it’s really cool. She got quiet for a minute, then stuck her tongue out. “Ew,” she said.

That’s another way of looking at it.

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Little Dog

IMG_1836This morning as I write, a little barrel-shaped white dog is sitting on my desk. Her tail is curled across the edge of my laptop, and she is calmly surveying the scene behind me. In other words, she’s got my back.

Officially, her name is Snow White, which is the same name that her predecessor (a little white cat) had, but we call her Little Dog, because she’s about a tenth of the size of Rusty, who we call Big Dog when Little Dog comes to stay. We’re dog-sitting.

*****

A few weeks ago, I was eating breakfast when I heard a persistent squeaky chirp outside. I listened for a little while, not sure whether it was a bird or something that needed tightening on the porch swing.

When I finally got up to look, I saw a robin hopping around, picking up juniper berries and rose hips from the rocks. The bird would pick up a berry, knock it on the ground a few times, and then hop over to the little spot of shade by the wall. There, the source of the squeaky chirp would open his mouth wide and wait for the big bird to drop the food in.

The funny thing was that the little bird with the wide mouth was almost as big as the big bird. Its breast was more speckley than red, and it was easy to imagine him as a chubby little kid. I am not an expert on how to raise a robin, so I laughed when I found myself thinking, “Isn’t that bird big enough to get his own food?”

I watched them eat breakfast until Big Dog lumbered out his dog-door and scared them away.

*****

In July in Albuquerque the sky does somersaults. If you turn in a slow circle on a wild day you’ll see clear blue over the mesa, towering white cumulous over the south valley, dark gray storm clouds teasing the mountain, rain falling in Placitas, and way off in the distance, virga, that broken promise of rain that evaporates before it hits the ground.

The other night driving to a baseball game, I saw a fully formed sculpture in the sky. I looked up, and it was as though I were standing in a museum. Back-lit against the horizon laughed a white marble cherub, rivaling any you might see in a Renaissance collection. A few nights later, driving west just before sunset across the Montano Bridge, it happened again. This time I saw the carved bust of a beautiful woman.

I’ve been searching for links online that might give a sense of what I saw. This National Gallery of Art image of the work of  Tullio Lombardo comes closest.

My mother delighted in ordinary things, so it wasn’t unusual for us to look for faces and shapes in the clouds. “Look at the sailboat!” she might exclaim as walked onto the front porch, or “Ooh, do you see that old woman?”

These sculptures, though, are different. I wasn’t looking for anything when they appeared; I just glanced up and there they were, solid and luminous in the summer sky.

*****

Last week, we traveled to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to visit one of my dearest friends. While there, I spent two mornings standing in the Banana River, really a salt lagoon, staring at manatees. At least a dozen of these giant sea creatures swam all around me, sometimes mere inches away, for hours. One came right up to me, flipped onto his back, and lay there gently flapping his flippers. Another, whose back was more barnacled than the others, kept swimming by my knees underwater, but wouldn’t surface until he was about ten feet away. Often I didn’t even see him coming; I’d suddenly sense movement in the water, look down, and he’d be there. Another swam up with her baby and nudged him up for air by my knees; I had the distinct sense that she was showing him off.

The next morning when I went back, the manatees were back, too, and we did the whole thing again.

*****

The longer I’ve lived in the desert, the more each trip to the ocean has come to feel like a sacrament. I’m gripped by the urge to see and to name every feature of this watery creation. On our first day, we saw laughing gulls, royal terns, skimmers, American oystercatchers, a white ibis, lots of pelicans, and a strange new bird that looked like what you might get if you crossed a vulture with a flamingo.

From a distance, wood storks are tall and elegant. White wings the birds fold around themselves like robes hunch solemnly atop long, dark legs, giving them the gravitas of old-time dons. This scholarly air is enhanced by their bald, reptilian heads.

My husband and friend head into the restaurant while I stay behind, taking pictures and talking to the birds. Eventually I turn away and join people I love in the known world for happy hour at Fish Lips.

*****

As I’ve been writing, Little Dog has relocated to my lap, so now I’m typing tilted to the right, with my left elbow up in the air and resting on her head.  At the beach, we watched a crow take funny, lurching side-steps into the water, as though he were climbing over things we couldn’t see; that’s how I’m moving now, as I shift and reposition myself around the thick skein of fur trying to get comfortable in my lap.

*****

Reading other people’s writing, I’ve always believed that using asterisks between paragraphs to separate ideas was a cop-out; a shortcut writers use instead of finding and making evident the connections between one idea and another.

Playing with this technique myself, I suspect I’m  right.

*****

When I went to the post office to stop our mail before the trip, the woman in front of me was buying stamps. The postal worker fanned her choices on the counter. “Are those Forever stamps?” she asked. He answered yes each time she picked up a different booklet and repeated the same question.

Finally, he said, “Lady, they’re all Forever stamps now.”

“Oh,” she responded. “And how long are they good for?”

He paused a moment, while she fingered the stamps and the question grew heavy around us.

“As long as forever is,” he told her. “Just as long as it lasts.”

 *****

Last night lightening ricocheted around the sky for hours, and thunder chased Little Dog far under the bed. I stayed up watching the sky explode until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. This morning dawned soft, and blue, and humid.

I’m trying to say that I love it here.

I’m trying to say that some days creation flops into view like a fish leaping in the Banana River and laughs at us for trying so hard to understand.

I’m trying to say that some days it is exactly enough to open my eyes in a wet world, to breathe salt air, to bask in a planet at play.

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Wobble Board

Have you ever stood on a wobble board? Mine is a sixteen-inch wooden disk, mounted on top of a hard plastic dome (imagine a circle of wood glued to half a baseball, with the round part of the baseball touching the ground). After I tore ligaments in my ankle for the second time a number of years ago, my doctor suggested I use a wobble board to try to prevent future injuries.

The point is to rock back and forth on the board in every possible direction without letting its edges touch the ground.  Theoretically, I’m not just strengthening lots of little muscles in my ankles and calves by wobbling around, but I’m also improving my proprioception, my body’s ability to sense where it is in space.

It’s comforting to think that my muscles know where my elbows are in relation to my earlobes and how to keep me upright if my left foot lands halfway on the curb and halfway on the road. I like that my body is working to keep me balanced without any conscious intervention on my part.

Not that long ago, I went through a period when I felt every day as though I were standing on that board. Accosted by a loss that knocked me off balance, I couldn’t figure out how to make the earth stand still beneath my feet. It was as though aftershocks from an earthquake were rattling the ground every day, reminding me that destruction was immanent.

Friends, well-meaning strangers, and grief counselors all recommended I “talk to someone.” For weeks I carried scraps of paper with names and phone numbers in my pocket. I was terrified that I’d call the wrong person; how do you choose among strangers which one to invite into your vulnerability? It wasn’t until I finally decided to talk to a trusted priest and even he handed me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it that I finally decided I wasn’t going to be able to find solid ground on my own.

A few months after I started “talking to someone,” I had a dream. In the dream, my husband and I were lying on our stomachs on a raft. We were somewhere beautiful, maybe off Hawaii or Monterey, in the middle of the ocean. The raft was also somehow a spacious field of grass, rocking gently on the waves. For some reason Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” always comes to mind when I think of this dream, although looking at the painting now, seeing the way the woman in the grass looks (purposefully?) toward the house in the distance, I can’t really explain why.

There was no purpose in my feeling in the dream. Years ago after breaking my wrist I woke from surgery to a stranger wrapping me in hot blankets. That was how I felt in the dream: enveloped, tended to, almost surreally peaceful. I found myself craving that feeling long after I was awake. I can close my eyes even now and almost feel it.

At some point in the dream, though, the waves picked up. The raft started rocking aggressively. As the waves grew menacing, I became terrified, certain that the next one would capsize us and pull us under. I dug my hands into the grass as the dream that had begun as a beautiful respite became, literally, a nightmare.

Just as I was trying to scream myself awake, a voice in the dream said, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.”  I don’t know whose voice this was, but it spoke matter-of-factly into my fear. It repeated those words, “It’s not a raft; it’s an island.”

Somehow, saying it made it true. I looked around, and I could feel the column of earth under my feet, reaching all the way down to the ocean floor. We continued to dip and lunge in the waves, but we weren’t going anywhere. We were on solid ground. I could relax back into the movement.

When I told the woman I had finally chosen to “talk to,” about this dream, she smiled. She said something like, “That’s such a powerful message from your psyche, telling you that you are going to be ok.”

The thing is that I believed her. The ground didn’t firm up instantly, but “It’s not a raft, it’s an island” became available to me as a mantra, as a little stone I can worry in my pocket whenever the earth starts pitching beneath my feet.

I remember one time flying over the Southwest and being terrified for a moment at how tiny all the cities are, how desolate the spaces that sprawl between. “We’re so alone!” I remember thinking, feeling a wave of compassion for all of us, tiny people scattered like old seed on dry land.

If you zoom out even further, beyond the airplane, who is to say what’s raft and what’s island? What is there, really, that’s tethered all the way down?

In his poem, “The Abduction,” Stanley Kunitz writes,

Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?

There was a time when lines like those could paralyze me, when all I wanted was to make the world stand still. I thought I needed the “shapes of things” to stop “shifting in the wind.” I wanted to be able to say with certainty, “The world is this way; therefore, it isn’t this other way.”

For some reason walking the dog with Fred in the rain tonight, I’m thinking about this dread and rapture. It’s a gentle rain by the time we head into it, but just half an hour ago, it was wild; lightening arced into the ground and wind twisted the sycamore in the back yard sideways.

The streets are wet and I walk balancing on the curb, still working on my proprioception, still trying to figure out how my body is positioned in space, still learning to keep my balance in a whirling world that holds both love that rocks you gently on the waves and loss that tries to drown you.

The trick I’ve learned on the wobble board is this: If you don’t want to fall off, you have to go with it as it flings you face-forward; you can’t panic as your body falls backward or dips to the left or right. You can’t fight the motion.

You have to let go. You have to trust that somehow, in some way you don’t have to understand, the center will hold.

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View Christina’s World

Read The Abduction

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In Vino Veritas?

When I was in sixth grade, I wrote an essay about an old family story and was asked to read it over the P.A. system. I don’t remember all of the details, but the important part of the story happens when Gracie and Vader (some degree of great-grandparents) hear a knock on their door late one night when they are in bed.

The knock is followed by their daughter’s voice, saying, “Mom, Dad, I’ve come to say good-bye.” She was living far away at the time and couldn’t possibly be there, but they both heard her.

It wasn’t until sometime the next day that they heard a different knock on the door and learned from the police that their daughter had died the night before. They knew then that she had indeed “come to say goodbye.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to know something. My husband will confirm that I’ve never met a button I didn’t push. “What’s this do?” I’ll say, already pushing the button, whether it’s on the dashboard, or the furnace, or his new camera. It’s not enough for me to hear his answer, “it adjusts the zoom,” or “it lights the pilot”—I have to see what that means by trying it out for myself. Once I’ve poked, prodded, and explored, I can relax, confident that I know exactly what that button does.

I found some tangible evidence of things I know while I was looking for a copy of that old essay. I pulled a folder labeled “St. Louise” out of a milk crate in my closet and was astounded to see all the things I know.

Apparently, I have hand-written, illustrated, and gotten good grades on lab reports on such diverse topics as Basic Principles in Electricity; Micro-Organisms (this one includes a drawing of the life cycle of a mold); Chemical, Physical, and Nuclear Change; and lots of reports on phylums, including Chordata, Arthropoda, Echinodermata (those cool spiny-skinned animals), and Molluska.

I have also written broadly  (and in cursive) about diverse topics in the social sciences, including Racial Relations in the North and South During the Gilded Age (which I covered thoroughly in 2 pages), Steamships (which includes a drawing of The Clermont), The US Indian Policy, Eli Whitney, Lillian A. Wald, and The Development of Air Power during World War One.

I also found a scrapbook from the 1976 Presidential campaign that includes my in-depth analysis of the choice between tickets: “Pineapple or peanuts?” Wait for it.

Sadly, I have no memory of knowing anything about any of these things.

Do you know that moment when you are watching Jeopardy! when you find yourself saying words like spirilla or manganese phosphate or cheliped with utter confidence and wondering how you know these things? I learned today that the answer to that question is  “What is seventh grade science?”

So. Here’s another thing I know.

A few years ago my niece was considerate enough to get married at a winery in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Glenora Wine Cellars has an inn, a restaurant, and down the hill toward Seneca Lake, a cottage. My sister rented the cottage, and I stayed there with her and her husband; my nephew, his wife, and their baby; and Sarah, until her wedding night. The two families slept in bedrooms upstairs while Sarah and I shared a closed-in porch on the back of the house.

On Sarah’s wedding night, I had the porch to myself.  Sometime around two or three in the morning, I woke up and heard people talking in the front room. My porch was separated from the main house by a sliding glass door that we’d been leaving open. On the other side of the glass door was a small dining room, and directly in front of that was the family room.

The soft voices made me think the baby had woken everyone up, and now that he seemed to have fallen back to sleep, the parents and grandparents were relaxing together before heading back to bed.

I had to go to the bathroom, but I was afraid I’d wake the baby if I went into the front room and joined the conversation, so I tried to stay invisible as I slipped through the open door. I could see shapes in the dark room that matched my assumption of what was going on, and I could hear them all talking softly. As I came out of the bathroom, I saw and heard them again. It was a sweet moment, and I fell peacefully back to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the next day I turned casually to my nephew’s wife and said, “So, you guys must have had a rough night.”

“What do you mean?” she asked me, genuinely confused.

“Mason had you up for a while, didn’t he?”

“No, he slept great,” she said. She looked at me a little funny when I said, “Seriously?” and reassured me that she and her husband and baby had had a deliciously full night of sleep.

A little later I tried to get a different answer from my sister. “Were you guys up with Mason last night?” I asked Judy, thinking that maybe the thoughtful grandparents had heard the baby crying and decided to let the tired parents sleep.

Again, “No, we slept all night.”

Imagine that you know that you ate a bowl of shredded wheat with blueberries this morning for breakfast. You know it the same way you know everything: you touched it, you saw it, you pushed its buttons. Then imagine that people you love and trust insist that there is no such thing as shredded wheat.  That’s how I felt all day as we hiked the waterfall in Watkins Glen. I kept reliving those nighttime moments, trying to find a way to believe they hadn’t happened.

As we climbed toward the top of the waterfall, I found myself wondering about the Underground Railroad. Now, I am not a person who goes through life spontaneously thinking about historic events. At no other time in my forty-nine years has the Underground Railroad popped into my head as I hiked along a waterfall. But there it was; as the afternoon passed, I became convinced that the family I had seen, heard, and felt emanating peace and love from that room had something to do with the Underground Railroad.

For the record, I know that I sound like a crazy person here. My husband’s cousin used to take pictures in graveyards, and she and my father-in-law would circle the spirits they saw in them, and I thought they were crazy.

By the time we got back to the cottage, I was hungry to press every button I could to learn about  the Finger Lakes’  involvement with the Underground Railroad. I was heading toward the porch to get my iPad when I noticed a book on the bookshelf. I don’t remember the exact title, but I think it was Emerson Klee’s Underground Railroad Tales: With Routes through the Finger Lakes Region. Remember that “They’re here!” moment from Poltergeist?

Here’s what I know for sure: There were people in that room that night. They were at peace, resting, lulling a baby to sleep. My family swears it wasn’t them. The Amazon blurb for Klee’s book notes the existence of “eight routes and 41 stations in the Finger Lakes Region.”

Here’s what my rational brain, and I expect your rational brain, thinks: It wasn’t just a wedding; it was a wedding at a winery. Of course, I had been drinking wine. I must have been dreaming. I must have seen the book on the bookshelves earlier in the week, and it filed in dutifully when my mind was looking for answers.

That’s a perfectly plausible, perfectly rational explanation. It’s not the one I believe, but it’s possible.

Later that summer, still pushing buttons to learn about my ghosts, I did some research. I found this book on Amazon: Ghosts of Genesee Country: From Captain Kidd to the Underground Railroad. The author, Ralph Esposito, leaves it to his readers to decide whether or not they believe his stories, but adds, “As for me, my money is on the ghosts.”  If I’m crazy, at least I’ve got company.

I have tangible proof that I knew a lot about the phylum Echinodermata when I was thirteen, but I didn’t know I knew those things until this afternoon. The list of things I don’t know grows exponentially as I get older. I’m not even sure this whole idea of knowing holds up very well. Emily Dickinson says “Wonder—is not precisely Knowing and not precisely Knowing not.”

I don’t precisely know if there is such a thing as a ghost, or a god, or what exactly happens to that thing we were in the second (or the century) after we take our very last breath. My great (or great-great) grandparents knew their daughter had visited them as she was dying. I know there were people in that room in Dundee.

When Hamlet has to explain his dead father’s appearance to his best friend, he says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

My husband, though, is more comfortable with the idea of me drinking too much wine than of me seeing ghosts. He points me instead to a quote often misattributed to Shakespeare that says, “The wine-cup is the little silver well, Where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell.”

I know what I think happened that night. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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