Kitchen Table Wisdom

MedicineHands

“Can you read,” I asked my friend.  She recently lost her life partner of 34 years and I know how searingly painful acute grief can be, how the day can feel like an impossible bag of cement blocks you have to drag around, how hard it is to feel settled enough to read even though you’re exhausted.

“I can’t really focus,” my friend said and I knew exactly what she meant.  One of the things I remember most vividly after Eric died was my inability to read.

One of Adrienne’s childhood friends, Leila, came to the shiva service for Eric the week after he died. Leila had also lost her father to cancer, about a year before, and her mother, who I knew from all of our daughters’ years of play dates and high school events and parties, sent along a book for Leila to give me.  As another member of the widow club I’d just joined, she hoped it would be helpful to me.

But I was a reading snob in those days.  I read literature, not self-helpy feel good books like Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.  The book, by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., is a collection of very short, true stories about life written from Remen’s perespective as a a pioneer in the mind/body health field, and told with an invitation to the reader to “listen from the soul.”

Scanning the book I saw chapters with titles like “Life Force,” “Opening the Heart,” “Embracing Life,” and “Mystery and Awe.”  I was grateful to Leila’s mother for thinking of me, but inwardly I scoffed.  I would never read a book like this I thought, which was comical on one level because at the time I wasn’t reading anything except emails, sympathy cards and snippets from a grief book a friend gave me.

From the tiny bit of reading I’d done I knew that not being able to read is common in early grief and I mourned that loss also.  There was no book to bury myself in, just moment after moment of the ever present absence of Eric.  I craved being taken away by a good novel or memoir, a story besides the sad one I was living, but I had no capacity to read one.

A few weeks later, when the post-death visiting and attention were beginning to die down and I found myself with more quiet evenings, I thought I’d try reading again.  I found Kitchen Table Wisdom on a book case and picked it up.  The first story in the book was only three pages.  Surely I could read that much.  I did.  The next story was five pages long. I read that story and the next and the next.  Well into the first chapter I realized I was reading a book.

I began to take the book to bed with me, reading before I fell asleep, a life long pleasure I’d lost along with Eric.  And here was that pleasure again and the book I was reading wasn’t literature.  It was a book from the Self Help section of a book store, a book I would never buy and certainly wouldn’t read.  Except I was reading it and enjoying it and it was actually making me feel a bit better.  It was helping.

The memorial service for my friend’s life partner is this week and I’m going to bring the book with me.  She may not like it and I don’t think it’s her kind of book, just like it isn’t my kind of book.  Except it was and it is.

 

Posted in Grief, Moving On | 2 Comments

First Thing Ski

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Waking to 4″ of fresh, fluffy powder on the snowmobile trails that cross our yard calls for one thing, first thing.  A quick cross country ski, before the snowmobiles are out, while we have the trails to ourselves and get to make the first tracks.  Our skis catch the new snow just enough to climb the hills and then is slick and quick on our downhill runs.

David and I do double hills.  There are two good slopes on our regular route and as we climb each one we turn around then shoot back down. Climb again and continue our ski, then get to do the downhill again on our way home.

This morning we were out early enough that the sun was just starting to light the trees, a peach sky above the beech leaves that are still hanging on, hung with snow.

I have a lot going on right now (when don’t I?) with commitments and lists and tasks I have to get done on deadline.  But there needs to be room in my day for a ski, first thing.

Posted in Outdoors, Weather | Leave a comment

Wind and Snow

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Clouds of loose snow blow across the fields and past the house.  As long as there’s any dry snow in the world to the west of me, it makes its way past my windows.  Every path I shovel gets packed with hard, dry drifts that lift like bricks as I shovel again. 

We came home late at night two weeks ago after a windy storm and a snake of drifted snow curled out of the walkway to where we parked the car.  I stepped over the first, knee-high drift on my way to the porch to get a shovel  The next ridge was waist high and I plunged up to my thighs.   It was impossible to tell from our yard how much snow had fallen in the storm.  It was all drifts and mounds and long lips along ridges of white.

Our ski tracks across the field filled in this morning in the hour we were out.  It wasn’t snowing, just blowing.  We’d skied though woods to the edge of another field where the wind had sculpted pockets around the trees where we stopped.

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Now gusts grab chunks of packed snow from the roof and fling it down into the stream whipping through the yard.  The whistle and whisk of the wind turns into a long murmur and then a slap, slap, slap and bang as the shovels on the porch slip around.

The maple in the yard loses another dead branch.  The hills in the distance are foggy with their own wind storms and above it all the sun has come out, last night’s storm has swirled itself out to sea and here on the edge of the great circle the wind keeps turning the corner and scrubbing my world.

Posted in Outdoors, Seasons, Weather | 2 Comments

Another Story

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A flock of robins has been flapping around my yard this week, lifting off from the maple outside my study window to fly to the garden and pick at shriveled globs that used to be apples, still hanging from bare branches.  They’re also eating the berries on the barberry bushes, leaving bright red splotches of bird droppings in the snow under the maple tree. Puffed up against the frigid temperatures and wild wind, as if making their feathers into bulky coats, their orange breasts are a welcome touch of color in the monochrome landscape of bare trees, white pines harboring darkness under their boughs and snow.

Anyone who lives in the southeastern part of New Hampshire knows that snow and snow and then more snow has been our story for the last couple of weeks.  I went to a Martin Luther King Day Commerative at the University of New Hampshire last week, to hear Natasha Trethewey deliver the Commerative Presentation, which turned out to be her talking about how she came to write her poems, a selection of which she then read. Stunning.  And encouraging to realize a woman of color could be so highly celebrated, even appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, for writing direct and accessible poems about our country’s history of racism and power imbalances.

So what does that have to do with robins and snow?  One of the speakers before Trethewey said that courage has been called the willingness to tell your story wholeheartedly.  That got me thinking about stories, in particular my story, or stories, as I think about the next steps in my writing projects — getting back to my novel to get it in shape for readers, and then reengaging with my memoir.  I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago and we were discussing someone who had mentioned she was writing a memoir.

“She’s writing a memoir?” a woman at the meeting said.  “As if her life is that interesting.”

“I’m writing a memor,” I said and the woman replied with something about my life being interesting enough to write about.  She was covering herself, because she hardly knows me and has no idea what my story is, or what part of my story I’m putting in the memoir.

And it also made me think about this blog and the blogs I follow.  They tell stories, some large, some tiny, the most successful translating some part of a life into a narrative interesting enough that others want to read it.

So what is today’s story, or the story of the last couple of weeks when I haven’t managed to post anything on my blog?  I’ve been busy being Mimi to another new baby.

 

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I’ve been working on both volunteer and consulting projects that always seem to chew up more time than they should.  I’ve not been writing much (as evidenced by the lack of blog posts) but I did go to a party with bigger-than-life-size super hero balloons and spent time batting Spider Man up in to the air to float above me.  That was a first.

 

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I’ve been skiing every day I can and shoveling snow every day I have to, which has been most days.

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I’ve been watching the robins try to make it through this very wintry weather and anthropromorphisizing their regret at not having migrated this year.  Does this make a story?  It’s made for a very full couple of weeks anyway.

 

 

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Questions

 

 

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WOM-PO, a women’s poetry list serve, has had a round of posts in the past week lauding a poem by Alicia Ostriker recently published in Plumean online poetry journal.  “Q&A,” the poem, has touched many women on the list serve, setting off numerous exclamations of “Brava!” and appreciation for the poem’s content, format and effect.

Why are we drawn to questions?  What is the role of literature, of poetry specifically, in asking questions and answering questions we don’t even know we have?  As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

The truth telling of poetry is the truth telling of breath, how language and thought move through us to create meaning and carry it into the rhythm of our bodies.  Poetry is a distillation of experience into a music that hums under the surface of conscious awareness. A well written poem reaches past what we know about the words collected on the page and tugs at a deeper understanding than what our logical mind constructs from those words, until we understand that we feel something deeper, even if we can’t exactly name what it is.

All of which reminds me of a poem I wrote years ago about exactly this, after asking myself a simple question.

Hope

What would be enough? Sometimes
it’s simply getting through
this hour and the next. Sometimes
it’s the hours dropping away, the day
a river of light, the passage
of sun moving shadows across snow.
More rare, the swelling of enough,
like a pool filling at the unreachable
core I can feel but not locate,
that comes sudden and sweet – the thin
chip of a cardinal on a winter
morning, the sun rising north
of the white pine, again, the last
clothespin clipped to the sheet’s corner
as the hemmed end charges a clear sky.

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Cooked

Gratuitous Mimi Love Photo of Ava Having Little To Do With the Blog Post

Gratuitous Mimi Love Photo of Ava Having Little To Do With the Blog Post

“You need to find a sucker who’ll cook for you,” Isabella said.  There was the usual assortment of painters and sculptors and mixed media artists and writers sitting around a long wooden table in the dining hall of Vermont Studio Center, and we were all wondering how we were going to manage returning to our every day lives after almost four weeks of a residency, and specifically, how were we going to manage making meals again?  All we had to do to get fed at VSC was show up at meal time, fill our plates, and bus them when we were done.  We were all doing a residency in order to focus on our creative expressions without the distractions and chores of every day life.  That’s what residencies are for.

“I’m the sucker in my house,” I said.  “I do the cooking.”

Isabella didn’t really mean that someone who cooks is a sucker, what she meant is how much time attending to the daily tasks of life can suck out of a creative focus. How could we recreate the freedom from every day tasks once we got home and continue to concentrate on our creative goals for what felt like almost unlimited hours every day?

We couldn’t, and in powerful ways, that’s okay.  In the spirit of the Zen saying, “Chop the wood, carry the water,” there’s a balance that attention and absorption in every day tasks brings to life.  If I had unlimited time for creative expression every day I’d undoubtedly freak out, as I did for close to the first week at Vermont Studio Center last March.  Not that the residency wasn’t fantastic and that I didn’t get a lot done, because it was and I did.  But that kind of unlimited time for creation, ungrounded in the details of life, wouldn’t work for me forever.  My creativity needs to sit in the center of a life attentive to dailiness if it’s going to be connected to life in a grander sense.  Yes, there’s an ongoing need to value my writing and make space and time for it, to believe it matters, but there’s also a need to take care of daily chores and believe that matters too.

Which is exactly what Michael Pollan talks about in his book Cooked.  Cooking matters. Preparing our own food, from real ingredients we’ve grown or chosen ourselves, connects us to our bodies and our place in the world.  We nourish ourselves and those we feed in ways that go beyond the nutritional elements of the food we prepare.  If we can chop an onion with presence and attention and allow ourselves to value and be patient with the entire process of creating a meal, we can then bring that nourishment, attention and patience to the task of writing a novel (though right now it’s editing a novel I’m trying to get a handle on) or painting a picture or playing the guitar or spinning clay into a bowl.

David read Cooked also and is now joining me in the kitchen more, chopping onions and frying eggs and stirring the pot of chili.  Are we both suckers?  No, we’re feeding ourselves.

Posted in Family, Food, Writing | Leave a comment

Winter?

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The birches and hardwood saplings are bowed again, weighted by another load of ice that slim trees can’t hold up.  Along Canterbury Road, the route we walk most and often our way into the woods, there were trees still hanging over the gravel a week after the heavy wet storm in November and many of them finally broke, young trunks snapped to expose white wood. There is debris all over the old roads we walk in the woods and we’re using the broken branches of maple and lilac we picked up in the yard as kindling. The world falling apart in sticks.

IMG_3447Today it’s ice-bowing time even more so.  The snow last night, overlaid with sleet then freezing rain then rain coated the world with up to a quarter inch of ice and now the birches aren’t just bowed over the road, they’re blocking it.  Our neighbors that live further down Canterbury Road have created a woven path to drive around the ice-laden crowns of the trees now bent all the way to the road.

I’ve just finished reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a book I wouldn’t have read except it’s for my book club, and isn’t that what book clubs are for, to cause you to read books you otherwise might not?  Aside from The Poisonwood Bible, a novel I remember as exceptionally good, I’ve never cared for Kingsolver’s heavy messaging in her novels, how her stories and characters serve a larger statement about some sorry state of the world rather than trusting that describing the trajectory of one life will resonant for others who’ve been on wholly different paths.

IMG_3457And Flight Behavior is no different.  The story of Dellarobia, accidentally named after a cheesy crafting product when the name could have come from an Italian sculptor or scripture, which says plenty about the hardscrabble circumstances of Dellarobia’s life that land her dissatisfied to the point of desperation until she finds a mountainside of monarch butterflies displaced from their usual Mexico winter habitat due to weather shifts caused by global warming.  As heavy as the story could have come off, it works as a novel.  Yes, the warnings about climate change are a bit much, and Kingsolver lays on the symbolism pretty heavily, but I recognized Dellarobia as an interesting person I wouldn’t otherwise know, so I stayed with her story and was not dissatisfied with how it was handled.

IMG_3462On this miserable day of icy snow, which ruined the ponds and lakes for skating (my skating friends and I have been on a pond, the lakes would have been perfect in another day) and doesn’t leave nearly enough snow for skiing, it’s easy to feel the hard reality of climate change.  There seem to be fewer and fewer good years for skating and skiing. Didn’t we used to reliably skate by Thanksgiving, the lakes freezing before the heavy mid-winter snows came?  Snow that when it came always seemed ripe for skiing?

I don’t think I have it wrong.  Something definitely has changed.  That doesn’t keep the ice-encased world from being beautiful, and so today it was a walk, weaving under small trees bent over every road we walked, looking at buds encased in ice, inching our eyes up trunks to  where a tree had broken, immersed in the new world, which is the world every day.

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