Yom Kippur Visitation

Photograph by Todd Henson https://toddhensonphotography.com

Tuesday I looked out my study window as I talked on the phone. In the dim light I could make out a blue heron standing on the top of a tall white pine tree. It seemed a strange place for a bird I normally see flapping wide wings across the sky or standing in shallow water, waiting to snatch a fish.

But it was almost dark, almost the beginning of Yom Kippur, so it made sense. Here was Eric, in his usual guise of one of the birds he loved most, planted in my view, helping me usher in the solemn day.

Yesterday morning at Temple I was talking to a friend, catching up on news while we waited for services to start, when a young woman approached. She circled around to stand where I could see her face.

“Excuse me,” she said, stepping forward, and told me her name. I greeted her, then was honest and asked how I knew her because I couldn’t remember. “Did you used to be married?” she asked, clearly not sure she had me right after I told her my name.

“Yes, I was married to Eric Schain,” I said, knowing that was the connection she was looking for. She smiled. She’d had Eric as a Temple School teacher and loved him. She’d thought she recognized me from all those years ago and wanted me to know how important he’d been to her as a Jewish child. Her mother had taught with Eric. They were big fans of each other, sharing a love of Judaism and a commitment to passing along their traditions.

The young woman and I chatted for a few more minutes — she wanted how Adrienne and Sam were doing and told me her mother died two years ago. Another parent gone too young. As we parted she again told me how much Eric had meant to her and held her hands in prayer beneath her chin, made a small bow with her head, then lifted her face and put a hand over her heart.

Sometimes I wonder why I still make a point to get to High Holiday Day services. I consider myself a secular Jew — attached to the holiday and festival celebrations I shared with Eric, traditions at the center of the family life we built together. But I’m not observant or religious and often squirm during services at the frequent mentions of God, as if there’s an embodied being behind life.

But once again I was reminded why I was there, why I keep this observance in my life. It’s where I find Eric.

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That’s It For the Zinnias

Saturday night was the second hard frost, two nights in a row. The wilted zinnias I left when I pulled out the brown basil in the morning, thinking they might revive if the temperature pulled back up into the 40s or 50s for a few nights, were hopelessly deflated when I went out to the garden yesterday.

So the bouquet on my desk, and the one on the kitchen table, are it for this year. No more fresh blossoms every couple of days, one of my favorite summer treats. Not surprisingly, I wrote a poem about this 25 years ago, published in my chapbook Fever of Unknown Origin. And here I am writing ,about it still.

FIRST FROST

That day my hands smell of wheat,
by evening yellow-green
from tomato vines.

All night zinnias age on the table,
blackening their water
as ducks blacken the dawn.

Four Years and Infinity

I had a short visit with Ava this past weekend, meeting up with family at a disc golf course, on our way home from a vacation on Cape Cod. Ava and I hung out by the road, on a picnic table in the shade of tall maple trees. We played with a princess sticker book and played school and of course she was the teacher. At one point a loud motorcycle went by and Ava covered her ears.

“Smart move,” I said. Which led to a story from Ava about a time she was in a field and had to cover her ears because she heard “100 motorcycles or infinity, or actually both numbers at once.”

Yesterday was the four year deathaversary of my sister Chris. Four years! It feels like ten and it feels like four and it feels like infinity. Maybe so many people I love have died that one grief bleeds into the next and each loss feels like forever.

My sister Meg called me yesterday to let me know she was going to visit Chris’s memorial bench. She planned to paint some rocks to put on the bench and wanted to know if I had a message I wanted her to put on a rock.

“I do,” I said. “But I feel like it’s selfish.” When she asked me what it was I told her I wanted to say, “I miss you.”

“That’s not selfish,” Meg said. She’d called our sister Jeanne earlier in the day and Jeanne had the exact same message. “And I planned to write ‘We all miss you,'” Meg said.

The memorial bench isn’t always there when family goes to visit it. Perched on top of a sea wall, looking out over Minot Beach to the ocean in Scituate, MA where my sisters and I grew up, the bench gets knocked over and tossed around by storms.

But the bench was in place yesterday, and Meg was able to bring painted rocks. Peace, Love, Thinking of You, and We Are All One, which is the message Chris chose to have on her bench.

We all miss you.

 

Clean Windows

Today I finished washing the windows in my house. All of them. Big double sash windows, 2 over 2 in the old part of the house, 1 over 1 in the rest, wide open panes with no mulleins. I washed the glass in the doors and the skylight too. The oldest windows are in the living room, and the old aluminum frame storms need to be up to seal the screen, so I also washed those. In all, I washed 29 windows.

This is a big deal, to me anyway. I hadn’t washed windows in decades. In fact, I don’t know when I last did it. David washed a few downstairs when he first moved in 10 years ago, and some of the windows are newer than 10 years old. But I know some of them haven’t been washed in over 20 years because the window in Adrienne’s old room still had space stickers and a Pearl Jam decal on it and she last lived here in 1998.

Last night I talked to a friend who also recently washed her windows for the first time in decades. Like me she needed to do something concrete and visible. The state of the world is distracting enough, and adding on this winter of getting pulled off track by family illnesses left me more adrift than I can remember feeling for a long time. Focusing on my writing projects, or any creative expression, has felt impossible. My usual slip-into-flow attention when I have days in a row with no major obligations has been blocked off. I just can’t get to that headspace where hours go by as I fiddle with poems, or revise an essay, write a column, or cut and paste a collage.

But I still have all this energy to do something. Earlier this spring I scrubbed the old grout on the tiled bathroom floor. The grime of 30 years didn’t go with the new soaking tub and paint job. Then it got warm enough to garden and I turned soil, fertilized, planted and thinned and weeded. My garden has never been in better shape.

Several weeks ago, just as it was getting hot enough to call for putting the screens in the windows, I walked into our bedroom and looked at the windows back-lit by late sun. They were filthy, smudged and spotted with dirt in a way I hadn’t noticed before. That’s when I decided I would wash every window in the house as I put in screens this year.

Cleaning my windows was more satisfying than I could have imagined. Not only did I do something useful, I can see what I did and the effect of my work brings me great pleasure. The outdoors has come into the rooms of the house in a newly refreshed way. I don’t have to look through dusty crud to look out at the pastures and cows, to see the maroon and green barberry bush out the front windows, the garden when I stand at the sink. Is the sky bluer, the leafed out trees more green?

The state of the world is still distracting and there’s always something to be reckoned with in a family as big as ours, but maybe I’m getting a bit of focus back. I wrote this. And as I wrote it I looked up now and then to admire my clean windows.

How the World Works With A 4-Year-Old

Ava: Do pirates suck your blood?

Me: No, vampires do, but there aren’t really any vampires.

Ava: What are vampires?

Me: Vampires are in stories but they’re not real.

Ava: Are pirates real?

Me: Yes, pirates are real. They’re people who rob other people on ships. But not people like you, like big ships and pirates have their own boats and they go up to other boats and steal stuff. There are real pirates and there are stories about pirates that aren’t all real.

Ava: If you had a treasure chest of gems on a boat, pirates would steal that.

Me: Yes, that what stories about pirates are like.

Ava: Let’s go play on the playground.

Me: Okay, but remember my back is really sore today. I won’t be able to pick you up. I can’t pick up anything right now.

Ava: But if you saw a gem you could pick that up.

Me: You’re right. I could.

New Category

As Eric’s 13th deathaversary creeps closer (Sunday by the day of the week, Tuesday by the date), I think about how much everything has changed, and how much is the same.

One big same is I still live in the house Eric and I bought together almost 40 years ago. I look out on the same pastures and farmyard. The stone wall of the cemetery up the hill, with a burst of flaming forsythia among the gravestones, still draws the closest horizon. I run the same routes in the morning and hear the same birds. Today a loon called as I ran along Northwood Lake, its eerie tremolo announcing its arrival as it landed in the water.

Eric loved loons and their regular presence around me is a way he stays with me. A loon shows up in this poem from The Truth About Death, the book I wrote the year after Eric died. As always, loons cry as they fly overhead at dawn most mornings in the spring and summer, moving between the lake and the ponds to the north.

But there are some big changes that ride along with what has stayed the same. I’m older, I’ve lost more people, I have grandchildren, I have more time for my own creative work, I run slower but still fast for my age, I know a lot more widows, I’m no longer a widow myself.

But I don’t think of myself as being in a new category anymore. I’m just here, and mostly it works.

Milk

I’m finally home reliably enough to get milk from my neighbors. I’m a lucky woman that I live next door to Jersey cows that produce more milk and cream than the dairy family can use. The fact that such a rich and delicious food is produced 100 yards from my house feels miraculous to me.

Life has been full of left turns this winter. David and I were unexpectedly away from home for much of the last few months, away too much to drop off my empty milk bottles at the farmhouse across the brook so they could reappear the next day, the pale yellow cream at the tops of the bottles already half way to butter. I’ve missed that sweet milk and the rhythm of it.

There was more I missed. I planned to spend much of the winter pulling together a manuscript for a Vermont College of Fine Arts Conference workshop this summer. But family illnesses overrode those plans and I just cancelled my enrollment in a week-long workshop with Matthew Dickman. That would have been a terrific week, with a wonderful poet and teacher and the feedback of the other workshop members. The VCFA Conference is magical — a week with kind and interesting people who are also devoted  to writing.

But I don’t have a manuscript. The time I’d planned to use to sort, revise and write poems into a book shape  was spent in cars and hospitals. And by now I’m sure I won’t have a manuscript ready to send in by the deadline of July 1. Well into my second week of being home without any major interruptions, I still have no creative focus. I can weed perennial beds and make granola and do a spring clean-up and purge in the basement of the barn. But I can’t focus on anything that requires sustained  creative thinking. I haven’t regained the drive that makes my own work the most important thing I can be doing. I got used to there always being something that really was more important.

But I’m home. David is home too. And we’ve been here long enough to trade our empty bottles for milk.  I’ll skim the thick cream off the top and start a batch of yogurt. The cream I’ll churn into butter.

Back to my delicious routine. May it spread.

Listen

 

The garlic cloves and onions all have shoots of green. It’s that time of year — sunlight in the yard while I peel and cut a winter squash to roast for dinner. The squash is getting soft in the center and white under the rind. Winter is almost over and the vegetables harvested last fall show it. A lovely folk rhythm is coming over the speakers and the sun is noticeably warmer. Enjoying these signs of spring, everything feels just right, just now.

I have so many poems and prose pieces about the particulars of these sweet moments and how all of life wants to crowd into this corner, to be in this space of knowing I’m where I should be and doing exactly what I should. I’m good at lyrical writing.

But I’ve felt less lyrical the last two years. My poems have changed from meditations on loss and the details that describe whole worlds to expressions of dismay at the level of lies and cheating people will stoop to to remain in power. I’m saddened by the more obvious tolerance for prejudice and the disregard for the harms people cause each other and feel compelled to speak out. I’m interrogating my own comfort and how to write to challenge myself.

So I’m writing fewer blog posts and hardly any lyrical poems. I’m focused elsewhere. I helped flip the NH House seat for Northwood from forever-Republican to first-time-ever Democrat. I’m on a local land conservation board  and the policy committee of another nonprofit. A lot of time is going into being a facilitator in two projects, one examining race and equity in NH, the other to encourage people to listen to different points of view without being triggered into fight or flight mode.

Two nights ago my friend Aron and I led the second of the Open Discussion Project sessions at Gibson’s bookstore. We discussed Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders by Reihan Salam. There were a range of political views represented, from far left liberal to conservative. People didn’t argue, though they often disagreed. People took turns standing and saying what was true for them, how they thought about immigration and how they viewed economic vs. humanitarian arguments for allowing people to come to our country.

The design of the Open Discussion Project is to get people with different points of view into the same room to talk about difficult political  issues and listen to each other. Not to argue and convince, but listen. Not to judge and defend but to listen.

So far, it’s working. Making space for people to talk about issues that usually fracture into left vs. right/Democrat vs. Republican, without having to defend their positions, is powerful.

Towards the end of the first meeting of the Project, discussing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, I asked how many of the 85 people who came were there to hear points of view different from their own. Everyone raised their hands.

In order to hear, you have to listen.

Errors, Fakes and Oddities

Kentifrica, based on a creation by Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle

I was intrigued by the NH Institute of Art’s email, a call for entries to Errors, Fakes and Oddities: An International Mail Art Exhibition.

Mail art? Over the past few months I’ve made almost 40 collages on blank postcards. We’d used sheets of postcards to print invitations for campaign house parties last fall, and had most of a box left. Using a consistent size to make collages was appealing. I like working within forms. The last series of collages I did were in a 12″ x 6″ sketch book. Most of the poems I write end up in a 14 line, sonnet format. I’m not a formalist, but I do like form. This form worked — 5.5″x 4.25″ cards with a blank back for a message and address.

The call for entries set out the guidelines:
1. Mail art is sent without the expectation of receiving something in return.
2. Mail art shows are never juried.
3. All artwork is free or bartered.
4. Collaboration is always encouraged.
5. Process is more important than product.

Mail art started in the 1950’s and has had a steady following since of artists who mail art to each other as a way to promote interconnection. It’s an international, populist art, accessible to anyone, maintained outside traditional exhibition and approval systems — art markets, museums, and galleries. Mail art shows accept all submissions. Which seems just right for the first time I want to “show” my artwork — no competition, just connection and appreciation.

In this exhibition the art isn’t returned to the artist but artists can barter their work with each other at the show’s close. Having looked at the website with art already submitted, I plan to be at the closing reception to do some trading.

The artists putting the show together say “mail art is social–it’s a form of communication that builds social networks. There can be hundreds to thousands of artists in a single person’s network — a tactile form of Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.” What a great idea, to resurrect analog experience.

The Mail Art show will be at the Sharon Arts Gallery in Peterborough from March 8 – April 14, with an opening reception on Friday, March 8 from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Jazz Men

Displacement

Distant ocean view from my desk

Here I face east and see the ocean, a blue mass that fills the horizon beyond the bare trees and rooftops, down the hill to the long flat spit of sand that makes the beach. At home I face west and look at cows, pastures and a distant line of pine and hardwoods.

I’ve purposely displaced myself. I want to see what I see when I’m looking at a new view, sleeping in a different bed, tapping at my keyboard in different light. My sister and her husband are off on an adventure to Australia and New Zealand, which means their comfortable house on the coast is empty and quiet and perfect for a writing retreat.

Whatever it is I let distract me when I’m home won’t be here. I can’t make plans to see a friend or go to an appointment because I’m away. I can’t reorganize the cupboards or pick out a new paint color for the bathroom. I can’t straighten the house or put the ski boots away. I’m also good at following rules I set for myself and I came here to write, so I’ll write.

Yesterday I finished an OpEd and sent it off to the paper. I wrote a poem and I’ll write another one today. I’ll open the documents of poems I’ve been writing for the last month and fiddle with those. I’ll read the books of poetry I brought with me — The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Midden by Julia Bouwsma — mostly to enjoy the poems but also to see what I can learn about writing that directly confronts injustice and harm to people of color. I’ll sort through the poems in the manuscript I worked on last winter to see what will fit in the new book I’m working on which, in a sea change for me, isn’t centered only on grief and recovery. Or is it the same book, just completely reimagined?

It doesn’t matter. There’s paper and pens and a computer and books and time. Time to write.