Eden

Yesterday at a school in Oklahoma, teachers lay on top of their students to protect them as a tornado smashed through town. This is what teachers and parents do every day; they throw themselves between children and danger, hoping that such a frail shield will be enough. We keep getting reminded that all we have are these flimsy, breakable bodies, that sometimes all we can do is throw ourselves to the ground and hold on.

I was already thinking about loss. All week I’ve been trying to figure out the connection between loss and abundance. I’ve never agreed with people who say that loss exists to make us appreciate joy. Joy is its own tangible thing. You know this if you wake early; every single morning, one bird sings first. Being awake to hear that wild call into darkness, that summoning of light, isn’t the absence of anything.

The day Fred and I walked north and south as far as you could go on the beach at Laguna, clambering over rocks, skinning our knees, and peering into tide pools, wasn’t the absence of anything either. Joy didn’t come that day because no one we knew was dying. Joy came because an abundant world had cracked open, and we had shown up to see sculpin, sea anemones, and starfish washing in and out of the tide pools.

If loss isn’t a joy-deepener, what is it? The callous “suffering is God’s will” has always struck me as an oxymoron, and a particularly unkind one at that. I prefer to imagine a distraught God trying to talk a stubborn son out of crucifixion. I can picture a strong-willed young man-god explaining to his horrified father, “I know you didn’t mean for it to go this way, but, trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

I guess deep down, I don’t know what to make of Eden.

For almost a decade, I spent one week every year at a Zen Buddhist center in the Jemez with a bunch of teenagers. Buddhism taught me that my thoughts weren’t my self and that I could acknowledge anxiety and then let it go. It taught me to breathe, and to chant, and to be still and wait for understanding.

One of the four Noble Truths says that the origin of suffering is attachment. My understanding of Buddhism is whatever you call understanding before you can call it rudimentary, but this one always bothered me. How do you love and remain unattached? How can learning how not to hold on be a good thing?

For the record, I excel at holding on. My step kids laugh at the way I grip the strap above the passenger door when Fred is driving. I don’t lift my hands in the air on roller coasters (or at least I didn’t back when I used to ride them). I never let go of the handlebars, or even the steering wheel for that matter. In the picture from the Tower of Terror, one of those elevator-dropping rides that I got on accidently, you can barely see me; I’m tucked in behind Fred and holding on. Even when I’m riding the tram to the top of the Sandias, where my biggest fear is that the cable will snap and we’ll plummet to the canyon floor, I hold on to the pole in the middle of the cabin, as though somehow that grip could save me. I’ve got holding on down.

Non-attachment always sounded to me like not caring, like protecting yourself to avoid inevitable suffering. I know how to do that, and for me, learning to be alive in the world has meant un-learning that skill. I had to learn how to love enough to be destroyed by loss, and then, when loss almost destroyed me, I had to learn how to tread water beside it without letting it pull me under. I had to come to grips with the fact that the children I teach can die, and still throw myself on top of them as though every nascent promise will have a chance to blossom.  I have to throw seeds into clayey ground and trust that something beyond my meager gardening skill will help them grow.

It took an Episcopal priest to help me understand this idea of loving without attachment. When the Rector of my church announced his upcoming retirement, I, along with an entire congregation, had several months to come to grips with the impending loss of a wise, compassionate, beloved teacher. Over those months, in sermons each week, he and the other clergy talked about love and grace and leaving.

At first I wanted them to stop. I didn’t want to live in the loss any sooner than I had to. But as they all kept talking, every week, in beautifully crafted sermon after sermon, I felt something in my grip unclenching.

Last Sunday after the final service, I went to a ballet recital. I watched as one of my students led a group of three year olds on stage. A minute or so into the dance, one little tutu’d girl stopped. She didn’t get confused or distracted or scared; today just wasn’t her dancing day. She folded her arms across her white leotard, dug in her white-tighted heels, stuck out her tiny lip, and pouted. Tiny tutu collisions followed as the other girls, their routine disrupted, lost their way on the big stage. My student danced on beautifully, her face relaxed and smiling, her dancing free and joyful.

When I first heard about our Rector’s retirement, I was that little girl in the tutu with my arms crossed. When the time came for our last service together, I was my student, able to keep dancing through a world that wasn’t organized around me.

One summer before I realized I like the idea of gardening more than I like gardening, I planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, thyme, and parsley in some clayey soil that gets too much sun next to a brick wall that radiates heat and cooks the plants all day. (My sister once added sage and rosemary to this mix and called it her Simon and Garfunkel garden.)

The parsley loved it. I put in two plants that year, and they grew bushy and tall, and I ate fresh parsley all summer. I remember those plants vividly because a parsley caterpillar spent July living on one of them. If you haven’t seen a parsley caterpillar, it looks more like something that came out of Pixar than out of creation. My grandson wore a Bee Transformer costume on his fourth birthday, and the parsley caterpillar looked a little bit like that. 1284088532SZTrNi-1

I spend just enough time paying attention to the world that it’s still easy to surprise me. The parsley caterpillar, striped in neon green and black, dotted with bright yellowy-orange spots, would lift his head and wiggle his two bright green horns when I came into the garden to water.  (Ok, I suspect I’m personifying, or at least canine-ifying here, but all I can do is tell you how the world feels to me.) I learned to water gently, so as not to wash him off his stem. Each day I’d peer at the parsley until I spotted him, say good morning, and update him on the dismal state of the other plants in the garden.

The first morning, certain I was experiencing something new on the planet, I did some research and learned that my little (ordinary) worm would grow up to be a black swallowtail. I wondered what he knew about who he was becoming. He didn’t seem concerned. He lazed on the parsley all summer. Back when we shared our house with three aging beagles, my sister described them as “decorations that follow you around.” That’s sort of how I felt about the caterpillar; he was a really cool animated plant decoration.

If you’re a real gardener, you already know how this story ends. One morning I showed up with the hose at my scrawny garden, and the parsley and the parsley caterpillar were gone. Every single leaf had been chewed to the stalk. It hadn’t occurred to me that one day he would leave and take the parsley with him, but it made sense. He’d had to find a new spot to spin himself into his shroud while he transformed. I looked around the garden, but I never found the chrysalis.

Mostly I don’t understand loss. I don’t understand how each loss holds every other loss. I don’t understand how we keep managing to live our way out of it. I don’t understand why sometimes these frail bodies are enough to hold back pain, and sometimes they buckle. For a while I wondered if abundance were about the present, the potential each moment has for bursting into beauty, and loss were about the past and future, and our fear of losing every impermanent thing. That doesn’t really explain it, though. Loss is every bit as present and tangible as joy.

Because my parsley caterpillar went away to cocoon, I missed the moment when the black swallowtail emerged into a new world. I didn’t see him light on the trumpet vine and wait quietly for his wings to dry. I don’t know if he burst out blinking into the sun, or unfolded himself easily into early evening.

1351460677oDGetxMostly I don’t understand loss. All I know is that that summer, the back yard was full of black swallowtails. I loved to watch how gently they brushed the planet. I can see them now as I watch my student dancing; they skip and flutter, they light for a moment on a branch that doesn’t bend, they swoop and hover. All they are is wing and wonder; nothing about them is built for holding on.

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Revelation

Am I really the only one who never realized that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the ABCs are the same song?

I learned this riveting bit of trivia from Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first Poet Laureate, at a workshop in January. It was a throwaway line, something like, “You know, the same way Twinkle Twinkle…” He wasn’t expecting to reveal truth with that aside, but for me, it eclipsed everything else he had to say.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about these songs since I was five. Twinkle is contemporary music for me. If that idea seems hard to imagine, you probably never had a child who played a string instrument. My granddaughter decided she wanted to play the violin when she saw Celtic Woman on TV. In retrospect, she was still in her princess phase, so maybe she just wanted to wear the sparkly dress, but we’re enthusiastic grandparents, so off we went to violin lessons.

The Suzuki method leaves nothing to chance. There are games for learning to hold the bow, games for naming the parts of the violin, games for getting to violin lessons on time. (Ok, I made that last one up, but there ought to be.)

The first thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up violin is that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star becomes the music of your life. She’ll play the twinkle theme in quarter notes (the way you are used to hearing it), and then she’ll play it in triplets (think twin-twin-twin-kle-kle-kle), which she will understand as “lavender octopus.” She’ll play Twinkle to the rhythm of “fuzzy yellow caterpillar” and to “I practice each morning.” Just last week she started playing it to “I’m [pause] a monkey.” My point is that she will spend some part of each day for the next two or three years (and counting) playing the song I didn’t know was the ABC song.

The second thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up the violin is that you realize she’s having a lot of fun, and you’re just watching. Hence the third thing: you buy a violin and start playing Twinkle Twinkle every day yourself.

I have to admit that I thought it looked easy. I’ve played the piano on and off for a long time—how hard could it be to learn an instrument when you only have to read one clef?

It turns out, there are at least three reasons it’s harder to learn to play violin than piano.

1. The notes on a piano know who they are. If you put your finger on middle C, the 24th white key from the far left of the keyboard, the tone you hear will be, with a high degree of statistical certainty, middle C.

Not so on the violin. You will put your finger in the same unmarked location where you are certain you put it yesterday to play a D, and you are likely to play a D flat (who plays a D flat on purpose?), or a D#, or if you haven’t been practicing enough, you might actually play a C or an E.

2. Learning to play piano, you might have to practice scales in contrary motion (one hand singing do re mi fa…the other do ti la so…), but both hands are doing roughly the same thing in different directions. You do not have to finger a scale in your left hand while your right hand makes unnatural stroking motions with a stick.

3. You do not have to hoist a piano onto your shoulder and hold it in precisely the right place with your chin to play it.

Finally, if my husband or my dog were writing this list and loved me less than they do, they might add that it never actually causes your family physical pain when you practice piano.

So.  All that is to say that I’m quite familiar with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; it’s not an abandoned relic of my childhood.

Which brings me to the ABCs. With five older siblings, I’m sure I knew the alphabet well before first grade, but circa 1970, I (and the forty-four other students who would line up in front of and behind me through eighth grade) marched around Sr. Esther’s room, carrying canes with letters on them. Along the way, we jumped in tires and probably even clapped out beats as we sang the alphabet song. I loved those canes.

I remember 1970 as the year we colored everything yellow and circled words that rhymed. At some point, we also learned to say the alphabet backwards, presumably to make looking up words in the dictionary easier. (I can’t say this skill has ever helped me figure out if equanimity comes before or after erotic on the fly, but it does make it easy to impress teenagers on the first day of class. As does writing your name forwards and backwards at the same time with a marker in each hand, which is really no different than playing a scale in contrary motion, but I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had a love affair with the alphabet since I was a little kid. I used to say periwinkle was my favorite color, just because I liked how it sounded. And when I checked the dictionary just now to make sure periwinkle really is just a fancy way to say purple, I learned it is also a sea snail, which is every bit as much fun to say.

So at some point when I was three or four or five, I learned the song that taught me to cast my wonder onto the stars, and I learned the song that gave me twenty-six tools I could use to explore that wonder.

“How I wonder what you are” still pulls me onto the back deck with my sleeping bag each November to watch the Leonids. “How I wonder what you are” still calls me to my keyboard to explore that mystery, the way Rilke does when he explains life in eleven syllables: “it is alternately stone in you and star.”

When Hakim Bellamy said casually, “You know, the way Twinkle Twinkle and the ABCs are the same song,” what I heard was, “in the beginning was the word,” or, in the words of my old teacher, John Dunne, “if it all means the same thing, it means God.”

Back when I was first learning to sing to the stars and to love the world with letters, I had to leave for the bus stop when the trolley came for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Today, I have to stop writing and get ready for work when I hear my neighbor’s garage door open.

Before I turn off my desk lamp, a little pool of light illuminates my hands, spidering over my laptop. The backs are flat and my fingers curl gently toward the keys. If I were to put pennies on them while I type, an old piano trick for practicing scales, they wouldn’t fall off. If the moonlight caught me just then and you looked in the door, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I were playing at a Bach Invention or playing at salvation.

Click here to read Rilke’s poem Evening  

  Click here to get to know Hakim Bellamy

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Company

One Wednesday evening last fall, I found myself sautéing sage leaves. I can’t claim to do this with any regularity; my October Bon Appetit just happened to show up as I was trying to decide what to cook for my relatives, who would be getting off a plane at ten-thirty that night. I was looking for food that would satisfy them if they hadn’t had a decent meal since Pittsburgh, that would say “I’m so glad you’re here!” and that wouldn’t reproach them if all they really wanted to do was say goodnight and go to bed. Who wouldn’t fry sage leaves in that situation? By the time I left for the airport I had chilled the champagne and done everything but drizzle the butternut squash tart with the Serrano pepper honey simmering on the stove.

As they came toward me through security, the gate agent was pushing Uncle Don (at 87, my last living uncle on my mother’s side) in a wheelchair. He was wearing his Marines Semper Fi baseball cap and talking to the agent. My cousin Tommy (proud bearer of the title of oldest cousin on my dad’s side) was pushing Uncle Don’s fancy red walker, wheeling his own suitcase, and almost succeeding at balancing Uncle Don’s little blue suitcase on the seat of the walker. Uncle Larry (last living uncle on my father’s side and newly retired from the priesthood) and my brother Paul were carrying, dragging, and balancing the rest of the luggage. All of them looked like they might be rethinking that decision not to check the bags.

That was the last moment anyone looked back on. It was a magical five days, the kind of visit you always imagine having until your real company has replaced their fantasy doubles, set their glasses down without coasters, left the gate open to let the dog run away, and failed to be duly impressed with the view of the mountains from your backyard.  This company wasn’t like that. (And if you have ever stayed at my house, rest assured that I’m not talking about you.)

That first night, we didn’t get to bed until four; it was as if we’d all agreed to wring every last bit of life out of these few days together.  Thursday night I baked a six-layer cake I’d found in that same issue of Bon Appetit. Nine eggs and fourteen squares of dark chocolate later (this was a serious cake), we were singing happy birthday to Uncle Don, as he turned eighty-eight. “You know,” he said, “you live alone for so long, and then people do something like this for you, it just makes you want to weep.”

Mine looked almost like this.
Mine looked almost like this.

Saturday morning I make pancakes (plain old Bisquick and blueberries now that we’ve reached day three) shaped like sixty-fives to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. My husband takes Uncle Don to the casino so he can play bingo, and the rest of us launch into another day of sightseeing. When we meet for dinner later, Uncle Don raves about the two (“not one, but two!”) hotdogs he ate at Wienerschnitzel and slyly shows me the bingo markers he has slipped into the trunk of his walker for the ladies in his “harem” back home.

I forget to warn my relatives not to make eye contact with the mariachis, so soon an orange-haired woman and her husband, who met fifty years ago in their church choir, are serenading us. They sing happy birthday and Una Paloma Blanca, and we’re all fast friends by the time the check comes.

I’m still singing about that white dove flying up to the sun as we walk out of the restaurant and see fireworks exploding in the east against the Sandias. We sit down on a bench in front of the restaurant like we’re sitting on the front porch on Marvle Valley Drive (and I won’t change that to “Marvel” just to make spell-check happy, because that street was misspelled my whole life, and I’m trying to tell the truth here). We watch until the last flare fades.

No one feels like going to bed when we get home, so we turn the Notre Dame game on, play some pinochle, and listen to Uncle Don tell stories about how he met Aunt Ann. For some reason we start googling our birth years. Uncle Don was born in 1924, the Year of the Rat; 1955 puts Paul in the Year of the Sheep.  For some reason we find this hilarious. Sometime after midnight we talk about how fast the days are going and call it a night. In bed my husband and I marvel (there, spell-check, happy now?) at how these days are glowing so richly by.

Sunday morning the sky is full of hot air balloons, and I’m trying to decide if I should wake everyone up to see them. The coffee’s ready, and the last thing I expect Paul to say when he comes out of the guest room is “I think Uncle Don is dead.”

But that’s exactly what he says.

I could tell you a lot more about this story; I could explain how the police came and Uncle Larry said last rites and I cooked a pot roast and we all moved into that shimmery borderland you walk in when death reminds you that it’s been there breathing beside you all along.

I could tell you about Uncle Larry’s Christmas card this year, in which he said he’d love to visit again, “with a slight adjustment being that all who arrive together will depart breathing.” I could tell you about Uncle Don’s comment, earlier in the week he died, that some nights he would lie in bed alone and say, “Ok, God, why don’t you take me now, I’m ready,” and how sure I am that he said that prayer that night in my guest room.

I could tell you about all the jokes we make now about the thorough vacation experience available at my house, and about how happy everyone is that Uncle Don died here, surrounded by family, at peace in his sleep after a day that included mariachis, bingo, pinochle, fireworks, and hotdogs.

I could tell you about the envelope the funeral home sent me, full of left-over laminated flag bookmarks with Uncle Don’s obituary on them, and the mass cards bearing the dates October 4, 1924-October 7, 2012, along with the complete text of The Halls of Montezuma, but I’ve said way too much already.

It’s a short story, really.

It’s the one I told the people whose names I found in his address book and called that Sunday morning: Uncle Don came to visit, had a great time, and died.

In her poem “Train Ride,” Ruth Stone writes, “All things come to an end. No, they go on forever.” The lines repeat throughout the poem, and you can feel the train jogging along through the music. I used to think the poem was arguing with itself, trying to decide what kind of a world we live in, what kind of lives we live.

I don’t think that anymore. Monday afternoon I drive my last living uncle, my cousin, and my brother back to the airport. I watch as planes pull away from the planet. I know that when Ruth Stone (who didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was sixty) says, “All things come to an end. No they go forever” she’s not arguing with anyone. She’s just telling all the truth there is to tell about the world.

 

 

 

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