New Song

FriedEggPoppy

“Songs,” he added, “are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his blood come in gasps, and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves—we get a new song.”

–Uvavnuk, an Inuit elder, from the introduction by Edmund Carpenter to I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, by Richard Lewis, Simon and Schuster, 1971

 

It’s the day before we leave Vermont and I wish I had a new song to describe all the mixed feelings that are swirling inside. I have to mop the floor. I have to pack my bag. I hate to say goodbye to the woods and the lake but I suppose I’ve been doing that for days. Took my last swim yesterday and the crisp water temporarily cleared the hard truth of our imminent departure. For the thirty minutes it took to swim across the lake and back, and when I took a rest and floated, staring at the cloudless sky above me, I forgot I was leaving.

A Sleepless Walk

sunrise

“No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.

They will not brighten it or make it less strange.

And the day too has its own deep indifference to anything that is said.”

–Colm Toibin, from The Testament of Mary

 

 

A familiar deep pain wakes me up

Something I have known since childhood but never have identified

Mysterious and precariously adjacent to vulnerable parts

A piercing throb deep between pubis and coccyx

I can’t sleep

I ask what it wants and get no answer

Other than the urge to move

 

Slip out from under bed covers

Where my sleeping daughter lies

And step outside in a haze

Half expecting to see something, specially propped up for me

Deer grazing in the field perhaps

But there is nothing outside but the pink glow of early dawn

Which I follow

 

Cross the field, the internal pain subsiding

Dry spokes of grass prick my city feet.

Yesterday, I bragged to the girls that at their age I never wore shoes in summer

And without acknowledging me

They vowed to spend the rest of their time here shoeless.

The view of the bay brings old memory back

Glasses left by the bed turn it to a foggy dream

 

Open the gate to the neighbor’s field

Our right of way to the water

Sodden earth squishing between toes

And blades of grass stuck there

I stop at the sight of Canada geese ahead

Wondering if they were what called me down

 

Sudden stinging

My legs covered in mosquitos

For a moment I consider retreat—Run fast! Back to the house!

One of nature’s cruel jokes

Tough as my childhood feet, I wipe the pests away and run to the shore

Like the Sanderlings

Chasing ocean waves

 

I rub the salt water onto my legs

Which helps

There is a ladder in front of me

I climb it

Onto the neighbor’s boardwalk to their expensive boat

We don’t like these neighbors

But it’s so early they will never know

 

I walk toward the end

The dock is armed with anti-bird devices

Whirling plastic and metal, smooth cones to exclude perching

The devices are meant to intimidate all creatures including me

And are littered with evidence of gulls

Whose large white bombs paint the centerline of the walk way

Another joke

 

I stand at the end

Watching elegant egrets fly low

Another shorebird dives

The sky is pink-orange, the horizon cloudy

I miss the sun

I wonder why I’m here

What am I doing?

 

The great fiery disk appears

Emerging slowly from behind blue grey streams

Popsickle color and ragged edges

A simple reminder

Light years away

Of what I am

And why I braved the mosquitos

Something Lost and Something Gained

GraceinWilloughby

The absolute hardest part of parenting for me is the letting go. I remember when my first baby was born, going to the pediatrician when she had only spent two weeks in the world and being so turned off by the lumbering eight-month old in the waiting room who I thought was absolutely grotesque compared to the tiny being in my arms. What was worse was how excited and proud the giant baby’s parents were. The way they handled him, practically throwing him around was something I couldn’t imagine. My baby was so fine and fragile with her few wisps of hair and fingers delicate as a bird’s wing. I cried on the way home knowing my baby would be like the massive drooling thing in the waiting room in just a few months’ time.

My baby just turned thirteen and I’m going through the familiar annual shift of releasing another phase of childhood and welcoming her pending adulthood. Who knew when we started this whole project that it would go so fast. It seemed a daunting idea back in the day to raise someone up and be responsible for them for eighteen years. How foolish to think we would be a) done in eighteen years or b) want to be done in eighteen years. Yet eighteen is still when I imagine sending her off to college and that will indeed be the biggest letting go of all. It’s the day I dread and look forward to most.

But I still have five years before all that. Five years of insecure teen love and friendships. Five years of zits and other body changes, discussions about sex and birth control and boys. Five years of hoping she’s not trying too many drugs, of deciding when I trust her words and when I don’t. Five years of worrying whether she is safe in a friend’s car.

Her birthday was spent with family and friends in Vermont as it is every year. In the past she complained about not being able to spend it with her buddies back home, but this year she appreciated being here. She got to choose the meals and opened lots of thoughtful presents and we all went to a nice lake to swim. At the end of the day she said it had been the best birthday ever because she got to spend it with people she loved. And when we said goodnight she actually cried a little, over the end of childhood, and the prospect of being a teen–a segment of society she has  disdained until now. She admitted to understanding why teens get such a bad rap and asked that we cut down on the stereotyping.

My daughter seems only to get more lovely with age. Each year I feel sad giving away the favorite things she has grown out of while being awed by who she keeps becoming. Our conversations get deeper and sweeter, and our understanding of one another gets more layered. It’s all about remembering that with each new phase there is always something to be gained. For me, it’s getting to know this wonderful person called Grace.

Back in the pediatrician’s waiting room that day, I know I understood all this. I knew I would love bouncing my own drooling butterball in eight months jut as I would love watching my kid go off to college or begin her own life in some other way. But that doesn’t mean I don’t cry every time we celebrate her birthday.

Letters from Camp

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Possibly the best thing about having a child in camp is writing and receiving letters. I don’t know about most camps, but at my daughter’s there is no wi-fi or cell reception. There is a camp phone which campers are allowed to use on Sunday afternoons only. Last year was our first time being separated without the luxury of instant communication and it was excruciating for the first week. So I did what my mother did in the old days and wrote to her.

In those moments when I wondered if she was having fun or miserable, it was incredibly comforting to sit and write to her. Simply describing life at home without her was a way of outlining how she was missed but we were getting on without her and also that she wasn’t missing anything but the same ol’ same ol’.

This year, we knew the separation and lack of instant communication would be much easier, but we both stressed how much we liked getting letters and vowed to write a lot. I tried to write every day, but reporting the weather and what I was doing seemed boring. So I sent her a notebook and drew on the first page. Next I wrote a poem and illustrated it. But I really had fun when I made a comic strip about what we did each day, highlighting the funniest parts. “Your sister and I hiked up Brousseau Mountain, and at the top we met a couple in their underwear!”

The best part was getting her letters. I waited excitedly for the mail and when a letter arrived, I would hold it in my hands, savoring the anticipation of opening it. I poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat in my favorite spot on the porch, looking out on the field and the woods around it. I dipped a donut in my coffee mug and gobbling up all her words.

Peace

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Sometimes I wonder why we go to the trouble to get to Vermont each summer. I wonder about it when I’m packing up the house in LA and feeling overwhelmed by the details of travel, getting kids organized for camp, and making sure all the bills get paid in my absence. And I wonder about it when my kids complain about leaving their friends in California for two months. Usually, we spend a week to ten days with my family in Brooklyn and on Long Island before heading up to Vermont for the bulk of the summer. While we visit with grandparents, aunts and uncles and my kids are playing with their cousins I question our choices once again: Why are we going to Vermont for so long? Why not spend a few more weeks down here with the family? Most people spend time at home and take shorter trips over the summer. Most people don’t uproot themselves and basically move across the country for ten weeks at a time.

And then I get here.

As soon as we cross the border from Massachusetts into Vermont, my shoulders relax into their sockets. The air is clearer and there is no more bustle. There are few cars as we roll up the interstate, 200 miles north of the southern border to the place where none of the pretensions and stresses of city life can touch us. The mountains stretch forever and it seems we are driving uphill the whole way. As we turn onto the dirt road to our house, the layers of regular life are already shedding.

And then I take my first swim.

I dive in, hot from the humid day, and the water feels silky on my skin. It’s clear enough to see my hands but murky enough to obscure the bottom. I swim and swim and swim with eyes closed knowing there is nothing to look out for. No waves. No boats. No rocks. Just a big clear open expanse of fresh water. Sometimes I open my eyes to find I’m just feet from a loon. Sometimes I swim clear across the lake which is so tiring I am exhilarated pushing up onto the dock at the other side. I rest there for a few minutes, gathering the strength to swim back, unless it’s so cold that the water feels warmer than the air.

The walk home up the road is a great gift. Often I’m with a friend and we are giddy, impressed by our own athleticism and high on the fresh feeling in our lungs. We feel so good the horse flies and mosquitos that attack from the surrounding woods don’t bother us at all.

And then there’s a thunderstorm.

Sometimes we get caught, get soaked, and don’t care. The electricity in the air, the thunderous clouds and the fearful cracks in the sky are pure excitement. The air smells of the summer storms of childhood, of taking shelter in a barn, or driving through the rain with the windows down. But the best part is how it changes so fast. The utter peace that emerges, when the friendly clouds come back, the sun shines through the wet leaves and all you hear is the rain dripping off them.

I grew up mostly swimming in the ocean, so I can’t explain my love of lakes, mountains and thunderstorms except that they represent a quiet stillness I haven’t found anywhere else. And I need that. I need it every year, for several weeks, in order to dissolve the accumulated tension and grime that builds up in me the rest of the year.

So when my kids ask, “Do we have to go to Vermont?” I answer yes. We absolutely do.

 

 

Call from Home

phoebenest

Little eastern phoebe, follows me around

Perching on a tiny twig, that bends close to ground

She eyes me and I turn away, careful not to look

She shuttles from her nest of moss, plastered to a nook

 

Flitting from my mailbox, up to the highest tree,

Then back down to bendy twig, she steals a look at me

Then ventures to the porch’s edge, not far from my toe

As if to size me up, or implore me to go

 

She twits and chirps a constant song, assurance for her young

And nonchalantly preens her wing, as new lives are begun

I hear the tiny calls of babes, who’ve fledged and now must flounder

I wonder if she’ll go to them, or just remain a sounder

 

She flies up to the nest again. A hummer tries the feeder

Maybe there’s a new born brood of flightless chicks who need her

She touches down, departs again, unsure if I’m a threat

Then tips me with her wing to see if I’m worthy of her bet

 

A call came from my father, whose life is near the end

Ready to face the future, see on whom he can depend

To do the work when he, no longer mows field and lawn

At ninety-one it pains us chicks, to see him rise at dawn

 

I’m so glad he’s willing to talk, and look me in the eye

My beak is stretched wide open, and ready for that fly

It must be nice for him to feel, that life can safely end

That he can perch on his last twig, and that the twig can bend

 

And I’m so glad the phoebe, decided to trust me too

And feed her young while I sit here, and do what I must do

 

Tripping Up

tent

I’m in Vermont sitting in my car in a very uncomfortable position, my laptop squeezed against the steering wheel and my foot up on the dash because I twisted my ankle and I need to keep it elevated. I planned a nice run around the lake with a friend for this morning, but last night I tripped as I was getting Frances ready to sleep outside in her new tent. She wanted to test it before bringing the tent to camp today for a sleepover, and for whatever reasons I was not excited about setting it up. It was late, and I knew I’d have to get her up early to wipe off all the dew before packing it up again and getting her down to the corner where the bus would pick her up at eight. But I had promised so I set up the tent in the dark, got her settled inside it and made a bed for myself beside her. I was not looking forward to sleeping outside because it was cold and I was tired, but I resigned myself to at least stay until she fell asleep. I was bringing the very last thing out, a bottle of water, having turned off all the lights in the house so I couldn’t see at all.

I guess I forgot about the two big granite steps I needed to traverse right outside the door and wham! I was moving fast, in a mindless hurry to get Frances to bed and I pitched forward. As I put all my weight on the foot that had only air beneath it, I felt my right foot hit the edge of the step and then the ground as it twisted and rolled under me. I felt my left knee and both hands hit the flagstones before my face. As I lay there, Frances called from inside the tent, “Are you okay Mom?” I asked myself, am I Okay? Why the hell was I rushing out the door, all stressed out about a little backyard camping?

I recently read a pretty amazing article about twins separated at birth, which shows that many, many, of our traits are purely genetic. A pair of identical twins meeting for the first time found they sit, stand and scratch their butts exactly the same way. They are both very close to their mothers and have similar attitudes toward life and crack the same kinds of jokes. I recognized my father’s tendency to get wound up over little things when I visited with him over the last two weeks. It was hard, seeing it so clearly, being annoyed by it, and knowing I do many of the same things. When there are a lot of people around and kids moving in different directions, or wanting different things, I can feel myself tightening up. I get snappy, the same way my Dad does. All that could easily be genetic. It may also be related to grief.

From books I’ve read on grief and my own experience, I know that losing a child or a parent can make us lose our sense of safety. In some personalities, that loss can lead to chronic anxiety and a tendency toward edginess around chaos. I’ve seen it in so many people, including myself, who experienced grief at a young age.

I love the way life works. How I ended up on the ground staring up at the beautiful night sky, my right ankle throbbing and my left knee aching, knowing I had no choice but to lie there until the ankle told me it was safe to move. “I’m okay Frances!” I yelled, trying to appreciate the stillness of the sky and the sound of a distant owl. “Just need to lie here for a moment until my ankle feels a little better.” I had a feeling it wasn’t too bad. God is merciful. (God, meaning the perfect, mathematical way things work out for the best, or at least for the best way to learn the lesson I’m in for at that particular moment.) So I just lay there, contemplating how I managed to do it again. This was not my first fall.

I slipped on the ice back in January, right before my birthday, not far from this spot, as I was rushing in the same habitual way. Actually, it’s not so much rushing as it is hurtling, without thinking, my mind ten steps ahead of my poor clumsy body. I notice that I do it around transitions, arrivals and departures, changes of plans, and making meals for large groups. All things associated, if abstractly, to the grief following the loss of my mother almost forty years ago. A death is a huge change for the survivors and all the sadness is forever associated with the practical aspects of it. Moving, gatherings, meals, changes of all kinds, it’s these sort of transitions that (literally) trip me up. My parents both lost parents fairly young and their generation is accustomed to pressing on and moving forward rather than slowing down or feeling the feelings. Perhaps there is a connection.

Maybe the reason I got myself so wound up last night had something to do with the aftermath of spending time with my parents. Maybe I’m already pre-grieving them as they get older. Maybe I’m still processing all of it. But whatever the catalyst was isn’t that important. The result is being forced, instead of choosing, to slow down. Slow down, enjoy and relax. These are my mantras and sometimes, especially around transitions, I have to work very hard to keep saying them.

Death and DIYing

BodiesInWater

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in what happens when we die. Not where our souls go, but how we approach dying, and how we talk about it to those we will leave behind. But now the people I love, who have parented me and been there all of my life are getting up into the eighties and nineties and my openness and interest is being put to the test.

My grandmother, whom we called “Gram,” died this spring at ninety-six. She was my mother’s stepmother, the only grandmother I ever had, and she was funny and generous and slightly but wonderfully eccentric. She was an artist with a big painting studio she had built onto her modest but beautiful home by the ocean. As she got up into her eighties, having long been widowed, she began to complain about the difficulty of hiring people to help take care of the house. I suggested she might want to move someplace that would be easier, but she was adamant that she wanted to stay because homes for elderly people wouldn’t provide a space to paint. She had a point.

I read about a huge retirement community in Florida called “The Villages” which sounds like a playground for retirees, with golf courses galore and every sort of class and club you can imagine, but probably not much room for going your own way or being an artist. Gram would have hated it, just as she would have hated a depressing “old-age home” as she called them, precisely because both places would be too restrictive, too generic, and wouldn’t let her express herself in her space, as she was accustomed. My parents, who are 83 and 91, never talk about moving into such a place either, and though they are not artists, much of their identity is wrapped up in the community where they live in Brooklyn. I can’t imagine them moving anywhere. Certainly not out of state.

I recently spent a weekend at Gram’s house with my aunt who is just a year older than I am and more like a cousin to me. I was there to lend a little moral support as she began the daunting project of going through her mother’s belongings. For me, it was interesting and poignant to be in the house without Gram. It was odd to approach the entryway without the sound of her bracelets jingling and her voice calling out excited to see me, and my kids. But I did feel her there, very much so in the eclectic furnishings, her bold abstract seascapes on the walls, and in the kitchen, where she cooked with passion and simplicity, and fed us delicious meals. Her warmth and the excitement she held for life never left her, and still lingers in her home. The last time we visited she was focused on the trees growing up around her house. Dementia had begun to take hold and she was convinced that new branches had grown overnight. She kept exclaiming to us, “Oh look! Just look how fast they’ve grown!”

After the weekend at Gram’s I spent time with my father and stepmother. Gram’s death made me appreciate them even more and feel the preciousness of the time we have left together. I moved west years ago and my annual visits are brief and I feel a kind of pressure now, when we’re together, to discuss what’s on my mind and to ask the hard questions.

And yet I stumbled. Talking about death is the easiest thing in the world to put off. No one wants to admit they’re nearing the end of life. No one wants to prepare for it. I kept asking myself, is it really necessary to ask questions? Can’t I just leave them alone and we can all figure things out as they happen? But I had just watched my aunt go through it with her mother and I felt that certain hardships might be avoided by asking the right questions before it’s too late. Most people these days get some dementia before they die. I want to ask before, God forbid, they can’t answer. Things like, do they have ideas about what kind of services they would want? Do they have ideas or plans for how they would get along without each other? My father is increasingly immobile, so what will he do if he outlives my stepmother? And would my stepmother want to live alone if she ends up outliving him?

I took stabs at these questions when I was there but the conversations didn’t get very far. I sensed Dad wanted to talk, but it was hard to keep a thread going. When I asked him about funeral plans he started talking about his healthcare directive. When we talked about the possibility of him outliving his wife, he joked about remarriage. I decided maybe a letter would be easier.

I wrote him a very frank, open-ended letter about how much I loved them both and how I had wanted to talk about the future when I visited, but had failed. I tried to open the conversation casually, without pressure, to let him know I am open to talking, and that I’m sure all of us are (I have five living siblings). I told him it’s fine if he feels more comfortable talking to someone else. I don’t really care how it happens, but I know I’ll feel better if I know that the conversations are at least beginning. It’s hard, but I know it will be worth it.

Mammoth Tree

EndlessTree

 

Giant

monument to living

To a trillion leaves, add millions of twigs

How dare I number your appendages?

Even an arborist, a dendrologist

Wouldn’t attempt to fathom your numbers

 

One cannot trace infinity. I have tried and failed

Multidimensional webs of vessels and veins

Gnarled fingers and ancient skin

Slow growth and tangled hair

 

You

In living and death slowness reins

A browning of edges

A sucking back of resources

A lifelong reach for the sun shrugged off

moment to moment to years

 

No grasp on the geometry of your boughs

I will happily praise

the embrace of your outsized presence

against a distant gray sky

The Value in Nothing

dried brush

I keep coming back to the same idea about value. How do I value my work, myself, my relationships? How do I measure my success? This week I’ve been listening to interviews with some great writers, thinkers, researchers and spiritual leaders on this topic of value and kneading my own newly formed idea, which is, that no matter what I do, whatever I accomplish, it is not worth crap if I wasn’t present, completely present, during the process. It’s a tall order, sometimes, to be real and honest, and even tougher to maintain. But when I do it, when I am fully in my body, watching my breath, seeing the beauty of the moment roll out like a technicolor carpet even if it is in the midst of something “bad,” I am living the best way I know how. Showing up really is the most valuable commodity I have.

I watch people, myself included, and I see how important everyone feels it is to do things, to start projects and finish them, to be busy, to have bucket lists and to look good. We value it if it gets an award. We value it if it makes money, or shows up in a magazine or on a website we deem legitimate. We value it if it adheres to present ideas of what is good for the earth, or humanity, or both. But we don’t necessarily value the elastic moments that happen every day, the spaces where we touch one another with tenderness and time stops as we experience pure love. That is what I value. The moment of hugging my child after a bath to keep her warm. Of feeling proud of my almost teen for trying something new. The moment of laughing with my husband over an old joke that we still think is funny. The value of listening carefully to a story even if I think I know how it will turn out. The pleasure of talking with someone who is sick or very old because they understand life and suffering better than I do. I don’t get paid for being kind, or for listening, or for helping someone listen to them self and yet these are my gifts. I don’t get awards for writing through old pain, but that is some of my best work. I don’t seek acclaim for being a loyal friend, or for trying to understand someone who has a very different approach to life than I have and yet these are the things I am most proud of.

To me, living a good life means finding the innumerable moments that offer opportunities to love, to give and to show up. I think it was Gandhi who said, “I cannot change the world. But I can change myself.” We can let ourselves off the hook of having to change the world, or save it. We need to change ourselves. Reinvent ourselves. Save ourselves. And watch the course of history change with us.