Falling In Love With Lilacs

February 16, 2009 — An Island Journal*

Eric and I found a lilac bush and a house to go with it. It was 1981 and we needed to move. For the past five years we’d moved around New England as Eric built his career in food service management. I didn’t care where I lived, as long as I was with Eric. I was a poet, I could write anywhere. The shifting landscape of Eric’s work had landed us in New Hampshire two years before. We rented a house and got married in the backyard. Adrienne was born in our bedroom. We settled in. But after a year the couple who owned the house needed it for her parents. We wanted to stay in New Hampshire, Eric had a good job, it was time to stop moving. We began looking at houses to buy.

Eric fell in love with the lilac bush by the front door of the house we bought, the only house we ever owned.  When we first saw the house it was a mess. Old, wide-reveal aluminum siding left smudges of white on your skin or clothes if you rubbed up against it, metal gleaming through in patches like a bald skull under thin hair. The rows of windows on the porch running along the south and west sides of the house had peeled to bare, raw wood, the glass barely held in place by dried caulking that flaked off in chunks. There had been a grease fire in the kitchen the year before and black soot still crawled up the walls to the ceiling, an echo of the flames. An old corner room had been turned into a bathroom, a toilet and free-standing sink and tub spread across the space. It was an upgrade from the two seater outhouse in a corner of the barn.

But the massive lilac bush was in full bloom by the front door and the air was sweet with scent. We stepped over the threshold into the living room and looked at each other.

“This is it,” we said to each other with our eyes.

In the week after Eric died, the lilac blossoms burst open and I sat on the porch, next to the bush, and wrote and listened and watched. The world was all new again, focused around absence. A catbird I wanted to believe was speaking to me for Eric sat on the wires crossing through the crown of blossoms, and sang over and over. The songs varied in pitch and melody, as if the bird was trying out for parts as other birds, other beings. A pair of sparrows was nesting in the yew hedge on the other side of the porch, and when the catbird wasn’t singing I listened to the chicks squawking as the parents brought them food. Birds became my porch companions. They occupied my grief and gave me a new language, one I didn’t have to write down or try to remember.

The passage above is from the The Island Journal, the first iteration of the memoir I recently completed — a book I intended to write only on islands, in a handmade journal David gave me in the first months we knew each other. There are many reasons there are very few traces of that original Island Journal in the finished draft of the memoir (the primary reason being that people who read it couldn’t figure out what was going on), but there are so many memories packed into that journal that come to me at different times.

Like right now when the lilac bush is coming into peak bloom. I still live in that same house, the lilacs still make me think of Eric, and I still bring a bouquet to Eric’s grave every year. I’ll bring one tomorrow.

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The Tower Room

Eric loved this room. It’s on the second floor of the tower that connects the house to the old barn loft, so it’s high up. With three big windows to the south and one to west, it’s full of light and the views are outstanding — the old farmyard and silo across the field next to a line of tall spruce, and the slope of Fort Mountain to the south. The forsythia is a bright splash of yellow at the edge of the road and the maple tree we planted five years ago as a memorial to Eric is thick with red buds.

Eric watched TV and napped and slept in this room. Once we built the tower as part of a house renovation he spent more time here than anywhere else in our house, even counting sleeping. He’d watch sports or the history channel sitting in his Danish leather recliner in the evening, fall asleep, then get up at some point and sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night he’d get into bed with me. He was a nomadic sleeper.

When he got sick we moved a bed into the room and this is where he spent his last three weeks. This is where he died, about a foot from where I’m sitting right now. My desk crosses into the space that held his bed.

The tower room is now my study and the room where I spend most of my waking time. I look out these windows and feel like one of the luckiest people ever, to get to be in such a beautiful space while I do work I love. Eric missed so much, sometimes I try to appreciate things double. Or maybe it’s just that I know how quickly it can all be gone.

Eric died twelve years ago this morning by the day, tomorrow by the date. I planned to light a yahrzeit candle for him tonight, sun down to sun down, but I couldn’t wait. I came to my desk earlier to work on the manuscript I’m putting together and couldn’t concentrate. That Sunday morning in 2006 is so present in this room today. I couldn’t only think about it, I needed to do something.

So I lit the candle early. I look out the windows. I write.

 

 

 

Neighbors

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When I bought my house 37 years ago I didn’t realize I would be completely surrounded by one family, the Johnson’s. Johnson family members owned the farm across West Street, the house kitty-corner on the other side of the cross roads, the small pasture across Canterbury Street, the white cape on the other side of Narrows Brook along with that barn and corner of land, and the corn field across Route 107.

How lucky I’ve been, to have Johnsons for neighbors. There have been the inevitable shifts and changes and now my property doesn’t abut Johnson land on every side. But many family members are still in the same houses, with one significant exception.

Arlene Johnson died last Friday, at age 96. She was a remarkable woman. At her service the minister talked about what an “extraordinary ordinary”person she was. But, he said, she wasn’t perfect, no one is except in Jesus.

Arlene’s neighbor on the other side of her house disagreed. She stood up when people were invited to share stories about Arlene and said, no, Arlene was perfect. The fact that this neighbor is someone who’s lived 200 yards from me for 18 years and I’ve only ever seen her three times, and who introduced herself as the person who never leaves her house, gives a tiny view into who Arlene was — such a special person that she could connect enough with a deep introvert that the woman not only went to the service, but stood up in front of a church full of people and spoke and cried and described how Arlene loved her. And she loved Arlene.

I agree with my introverted neighbor. Arlene was as close to perfect as anyone I’ve ever known. She was invariably kind, friendly, spunky, cheerful and helpful. Even though she and her family have a deep faith in Jesus and believe in the redemption he offers, she never once tried to talk to me about her faith or press her beliefs on me. Rather, she was curious about Judaism. When we were preparing for Sam’s bar mitzvah she told me she’d never been to one and wondered what it was like. I invited her and her daughter-in-law and they came and had a great time.

Over the winter, as Arlene’s health deteriorated, David and I visited as often as we could. David would play guitar and I’d chat.  I showed her my photos from our trip to Ireland and she told me about her attempt to climb Mt. Major last year; she only got halfway before she realized maybe she was a bit too old to reach the summit. At her service her grandson said the one thing she left undone on her bucket list was zip lining. Until just about a year ago she was walking to the corner store on a regular basis, and up the hill to the old maples to collect fallen branches to haul home for kindling.

The minister at Arlene’s service talked a lot about the love and saving grace of Jesus, but the face Arlene showed the world was one of a deeply human, considerate and caring individual. Her favorite verse was Micah 6:8: And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

That was Arlene. What a world it would be with more people like her in it.

Garlic Is Up!

Egyptian Onions

And so are chives and yarrow, phlox and the dusty purple coils of columbine. The green world is breaking out, the biggest plant so far the Egyptian onions from a clump my grandmother gave me 30 years ago. The onions are a gangly, messy allium that grow in bunches. Their fibrous green shoots sprout clusters of small onions on the tips, get heavy and fall over to the soil to root and start another bunch.

My grandmother gardened into her 90’s, though at some point in that decade she said to me, “You know, I get so tired. I can’t just dig in the garden for hours and hours anymore.”

At 97 she was still driving, and was in an accident; she was hospitalized and then in rehab for a couple of weeks. The accident wasn’t her fault. When I visited her at rehab she told me the problem with all the people there was they didn’t have anything productive to do. It made them lazy and slow, they could be doing factory work of some kind. She stood and said, “You should see how they walk,” and then did an imitation of an elderly person’s halting gait. She may have been the oldest person in the facility.

So I see the onions green again and think of what a feisty, self-reliant and matter-of-fact person she was. I don’t remember her ever hugging me. I don’t remember her ever telling me she loved me. That was all assumed. When she visited she brought hats and mittens she’d knit for my sisters and me, she made sauerkraut and mashed potato pancakes, she played the piano and had a hammock on her porch. She gave me Egyptian onions.

One night when I was young she put me to bed. As usual I was anxious about going to sleep  — how could I make sure I didn’t die if I wasn’t awake? I told my grandmother the tall white pine outside my bedroom window scared me. The branches looked so menacing. “Oh no,” she said. “Don’t be scared of trees. The trees are your friends.”

She lived to 102, in her own house, alone, until the last month of her life when she moved to a nursing home. She had bladder cancer and went there “to die,” as she told me. She seemed fine with it. A year before she’d been hospitalized and when I visited  she complained that she couldn’t get a needle and scissors so she could sew. There was nothing to do.

Nothing to do doesn’t work for me either.

 

 

The World Is Blue & Brilliant!

My first look at the world with new lenses was startling in a wholly positive way. The yellow caste of cataracts had colored my world gradually and thus much more fully than I’d realized. With the cloudy lenses I’ve looked through for a year gone and clear implants in their place the world was suddenly much brighter and bluer than I knew.

I’d forgotten. Light has an edge  and over the lip of the edge is blue, like the underside of a snowdrift or the last slide of winter dusk indigo before it goes black.

I can see across a field like I could when I was twenty. The line of trees on the far side of the pasture out my study window is sharp, with distinct white trunks of birch scattered among the oaks and white pine. Without glasses.

It’s close to miraculous.

The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

 

The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

Talking with Emilio I often find myself explaining idioms. “What do you mean you’ll take a pass?” he asked recently. We were in the car and not playing ball of any sort, so how was I going to catch a pass?  To him a piece of cake is what he gets to eat at birthday parties. Tying the knot is a way to attach two pieces of rope. How can you drive someone up the wall?

The shoe is on the other foot? This idiom first appeared in the mid-1800’s as “the boot is on the other leg.” Either way, it makes clear the possible discomfort in reversing roles, especially when positions of power are involved. Did I have that in mind as I put together the images in this new collage?

A friend recently told me she thought the collages I was making two years ago really “had something.” The encouragement was welcome, because I missed creating statements with images. The Fractured News series I did early last year, weaving newspaper and magazine articles and graphics, was calming in the midst of so much distressing news. The need for calm amidst the news hasn’t gone away.

So I uncapped my x-acto knife and opened a favorite book of images and followed my instincts about what to cut and shape and paste. Getting a leg up? Finding a foot hold? Standing on my own two feet? On my feet? Have legs? The shoe is on the other foot? The words that go with what I put together come later — it’s all layer and color and intersection as I collage.

It’s fun to be back to it, especially as a break from all the word work I do. My memoir work right now is pulling out pieces to make into essays. I’m also starting to assemble a book of poems. I signed up for a poetry manuscript workshop with Kathleen Graber this summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, without any plan for a next book. I knew having a deadline would get me working, and I must have known somewhere in the back of my mind that I had a series of poems from five years ago in a folder buried in a folder. Those poems were waiting for me, ready to be the basis of my next book.

And my knife and glue were waiting too.

 

 

 

Making Things

I love to make things. I make poems and blog posts and stories and prints and broadsides and dinner and sweaters and gardens and friends and granola and yogurt and books and books of boxes, which will soon have poems in them, the boxes that is.

Yesterday I made things all afternoon with Alison, a friend who also loves to make things. And she knows how to sew.  With her help I lengthened  a too-short sweater by attaching the extra of an extra-long scarf to the bottom. Now my favorite sweater falls past my hips, exactly as long as I want it. I made treats for Alison to put in her freezer and she made a skirt out of another too-short sweater I never finished or wore.

While Alison and I were happily making things, David and John made music, playing guitars and singing. John remarked on how much better David has gotten and David answered, “I’ve been practicing and playing like I need to make a living at it.”

I thought, yes, that’s how I write, I put in enough hours to create something I could sell. Given what I write, if I do “sell” a piece it may not bring in much money. It may not bring in any money. But I work to create marketable pieces. It’s extremely unlikely that David will ever play guitar and sing for money, but he wants to be that good. Using the standards of the material exchange economy keeps us working hard, and we have the great good fortune of not having to make the exchange actually happen. The results of our creative focus are free to be gifts.

Have you read The Gift by Louis Hyde? He won a MacArther Grant for it and it was well deserved. Creativity is a basic human instinct and the art that comes from that instinct is a gift. It doesn’t have to be in the market economy to be meaningful. In fact, creativity is even more important given our culture’s focus on money and commodities. We need to create not to earn but to share.

If you want to make art of some sort but don’t think you have permission or the time or a worthy talent or the necessary creativity, read The Gift.

Then make something.

Detroit: Put It On Your List

Detroit isn’t often a destination choice for a winter family vacation, but there are reasons it should be. The New York Times chose it as one of 52 Places to Go in 2017 and Lonely Planet put it at #2 for Top Cities to Visit in 2018. If their motive is to encourage tourists to go spend money in a city working hard to make a come back, I support that. Detroit is a great choice.

We have a couple of major Pistons fans in the family and I grew up as a Celtics fan and so did my kids. The Pistons played the Celtics at the brand new Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit last Friday night, which coincided with Emilio’s school vacation. So Adrienne, Matt, Emilio, and Ava traveled to Detroit from New York, Sam and Mariah came from Tennessee, David and I flew out of Manchester. The three planes arrived within minutes of each other. I walked off the plane, went one gate over and waited five minutes before Emilio emerged from the jetway in his Detroit Pistons hat and Andre Drummond shirt.

The AirBnB we rented was a three-story house, once abandoned and bought by a nonprofit that hires local unemployed people to learn a skilled trade while rehabbing properties. The returning prosperity of Detroit is less evident in the North End neighborhood. The AirBnB had a boarded up house beside it and one across the street and every block had vacant, littered lots.

But there were also houses occupied by friendly people. Everyone I passed as I walked to a coffee shop with David, Emilio and Ava on Friday, or while Emilio and I ran on Saturday gave us a hearty hello. An elderly man on the porch of a big brick house on a street scarred by boarded up windows and junk-choked yards cheered Emilio and I as we passed him on our two mile running loop through blocks varying from high end to abandoned.

Adrienne had tapped into her enormous network and found a friend who knows someone who knows someone and we were met at the Arena by a tall, handsome black man in a long camel hair jacket who escorted us to center court before the game. He took our photo while Kyrie Irving and Andre Drummond drained three point shots on either side of us. The photo was in a collage on the Jumbotron several times during the game, along with a shot Adrienne posted of Matt and Emilio in Pistons gear posing outside the arena.

The Detroit Institute of Art is a first rate museum worth visiting just for the Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry Murals,” a series of frescoes that cover the walls of an interior courtyard — huge, detailed, layered and complex. But you don’t have to go to the museum to see first rate art. Murals cover the sides and fronts and center strips of buildings all over the city.

The Heidelberg Project is the most bizarre and exuberantly expressive street art I’ve ever seen — a city block of sculpture and installations constructed from recycled toys, shoes, wagons, metal, plastic, and stuffed animals, bleached and wilted from the weather. Piles of discards of every sort are a central feature. Large and small rectangles of crudely painted plywood were nailed to trees and buildings, decorated with clock hands pointing to different times.

Every where we went we had good food, good beer and a good time. People in shops and restaurants and on the street were friendly and happy to know we were visiting from out of town. There was a vibe of welcome everywhere. A Lyft driver waited for us to all to load in her car after the Pistons game, even though it got her yelled at by an overly aggressive policeman because she didn’t move as soon as he said to. She was impassive and polite, then rolled up her window and drove us back to the AirBnB.

Yesterday morning Sam, Mariah, David and I dropped off our rental car and took a shuttle to the airport. As we boarded, the driver asked where we were headed. When he started to drive, he said, “You folks from Tennessee?” Sam and Mariah both said yes, that’s us. “When you get there, I want you to find someone for me.” “Okay.” Then a bluesy jazz version of Candyman came on and the driver laughed full and happy. Everyone on the shuttle laughed.

“And you from New Hampshire? How about when you get home you find some boogie.” More loud funk and we all laughed again. I got up and danced.

Yes, Sweet Things Happen Too: A Tea Party

You know you live in New Hampshire when you get invited to a tea party to celebrate your elderly neighbor’s house turning 200 years old. At the party the many older women there tell stories about growing up in this town.

“There was the time the horse fell through the floor of the barn. My father tied a rope to his tail and dragged him back up. How else was he going to do it?”

“I would visit Sam at the farm because otherwise I didn’t get to see him and one day I went in to the milking barn. His father and uncle pushed me between two cows and said, ‘Can’t come out til ya get some milk outta that udder.”

“There were only 40 of so students in each class at Coe Brown (the high school) and the boys didn’t know enough to ask a girl to the prom so the teachers had to tell them — ask a girl. They all asked the same girl.”

When you’re asked where you live people know your house by the family that owned it four generations ago.

Everyone goes around the room to say how they know the elderly hostess.  Connections that reach back three generations are discovered — a grandfather’s uncle lived on the farm next to a great-aunt’s mother (or something similar).

One women reads from a card with notes about who owned the house first — a couple who grew up on abutting farms (of course) and had eight children but only five lived to grow up.

There are fewer farms now and lots of people who live in this town are “from away” and the elderly neighbor no longer walks up the hill to collect branches blowing off the old maple trees bordering the ceremony to bring home and use as kindling. She’s too frail now. So her family keeps her house warm and makes tea and scones and fills the house with stories and maybe another 200 years will go by and another circle of women will gather and talk and make connections that radiate out from a center of home.

Indigo

 

There should be a name for the color of the particular blue deepening into purple-black indigo of winter evenings, especially as a day of snow slips over into sleet. The indigo glow through my windows right now brings back this poem from February 2007.  The barn and shed and silo are still there, though the farmhouse burned. And l need a bigger wagon, there’s so much more to hold than a hole now.

Valentine’s Day

The first real storm washes out the little color
in the landscape, the barn and shed and silo
weathered to the gray of a cut snow bank.
Sparrows peck in the perennial bed, tall stems
and seed heads clustered through snow. Small storms
of snow blow up off the roof of the hay shed,
sweep past. We would ski at midnight to catch
the pure snow before the storm slipped over to sleet.
So much happens every day, I need a wagon to hold
the hole. Last night I lay on the kitchen floor,
where our cat slept for her last year, her old body
bony, weightless. I noticed the narrow maple
floor boards running under the hutch, thinking
the world is flat even as I know it is round.