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.

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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.

 

Birthday Dreams

Astrocytes in the Brain
An Ava & Mimi collaboration

Early Wednesday morning I was being chased by creepy men in a nightmare. I’d been able to run away, along with some other women, until a large, blond, overweight man caught up to me. I looked at him and thought calling to my friends, who were somewhere in front of me, was my best chance of safety. I was terrified.

“Help,” I managed to squeak out, which was some kind of noise loud enough to wake David, who then woke me. Even awake the palem bloated face of the man in a short sleeve, patterned knit shirt stayed in front of me. I shook myself, got up to pee, then went back to sleep.

It wasn’t until later on Wednesday that I remembered the nightmares Eric had in the last year of his life. His whimpering and muffled cries would wake me. I’d sit up and shake him, and he’d rise from his dream to tell me about some ghoulish figure pursuing him. Months after Eric died I remembered those nightmares and wondered if they came from his body warning him that his cancer was back and blooming. There was a menace chasing him. The dreams started before we knew how sick Eric was, probably about the time the cancer got a foothold in his liver and bones.

Wednesday was Eric’s birthday. He would have been 67. A friend texted me early in the day to say she was going to eat a piece of candy in his memory — he had a pronounced sweet tooth. Candy was a way of life; Twizzlers and Peanut M&M’s were favorites.

I texted Adrienne and Sam about candy and Eric’s birthday and we all committed to Eric-inspired indulgences some time that day. Adrienne gave Emilio and Ava candy after dinner and told them it was to remember Grandpa Eric, who would have made sure they had access to sweets if he’d lived long enough to know them.

Ava said, as she ate her chocolate, “but we can’t call Grandpa Eric. He’s dead.” Emilio said, “we’re eating candy to remember Grandpa Eric because he loved candy. But can we not talk about him being dead. It’s almost my bedtime.”

Eric lives on, along with anxiety and pleasure and joy and connection and candy and dreams.

The night after the nightmare I had a long dream about Eric. He was just around. Being in life.

 

Black Ice

 

Black ice is mesmerizing. Near shore you can see leaves and moorings and lake-bottom scrum through the clear ice, cut with wavy cracks and tiny plunging bubbles of white. Where the water gets too deep for the bottom to show the ice is black, glass against the darkness of water.

The lakes and ponds around me usually freeze gray — all those tiny white bubbles so close together they make a gray smudge, clouding the ice. This year the ice-making weather the last two weeks has been perfect for freezing water clear and I heard from two friends that Pleasant Lake froze black.

Yesterday David and I went to see it. The last time I remember seeing such a big body of water covered with black ice was more than 10 years ago.

Walking across the lake on microspikes was like walking through a brilliant black and white abstract art show. Thin dark lines on the surface slit down into white and crystal waves and twists, a crack that criss-crossed countless other cracks and curled off across the lake. Patches of fine snow turned out to be collections of minuscule bubbles trapped in ice, nothing to brush off, the surface smooth under my mitten. Shards of ice cut by ice fishermen gleamed like gems in the muted sun.

As we walked the ice sang like a whale, gulps of settling and laser-ping pulses echoed out across the flatness. We walked towards the eastern shore and the blue of the sky lit the lake, the line of reflected trees receding as we moved closer, a doubled edge boundary we never reached.

 

Right Brain Relief

One night in September David and I were doing our usual campaign check-in at the end of the day. I was thinking, if I’d known it would be this hard to run a campaign for state office I wouldn’t have done it. Then David said, “If I’d known running for State Rep would be this hard I wouldn’t have done it.”

David was about half way through knocking on the 896 doors on the canvassing lists of “persuadable voters” given to him by the Democratic party. Grueling work. We were figuring out how to deal with the mess of Facebook — comments misrepresenting and attacking David and two fake Facebook pages mimicking David’s campaign page, only these full of defaced photos of David, slashed by red banners proclaiming him a Gun Control Extremist. We were planning mailings and I was organizing volunteers to write letters to the editor, drive David as he canvassed, stuff mailings and write postcards to voters.

We were exhausted and there were still six weeks of this ahead. I wasn’t sure I could keep up, but two weeks before the election the pace slowed. I began to have blocks of time I could take up my own writing again. Except I didn’t. I kept checking things off lists — cleaning up the gardens, taking down screens, stacking wood. 

David and I went to an art opening and I talked to my friend Al, a celebrated clay artist, about not being able to write or do anything creative. “Of course you can’t,” he said. “You’ve been in your left brain constantly for months.”

He was right. I kept track of David’s paperwork and lists of door knocks, oversaw data entry, sorted spreadsheets of voters and postcards and people to invite to house parties. Everyday I updated an online list program so I could quickly scan across categories: volunteers, events, signs, print jobs & mailings, to-do tasks, social media. Every few weeks I had to file a NH Campaign Finance report. I used Excel more in those three months than I had in the previous 10 years.

With Al’s comment in mind, I signed up for The Grind for the month of November, a daily writing commitment to other writers through email. The Manic Mix category includes collage, for some reason, and I’d used The Grind before to get me started collaging.

It worked again. While I didn’t quite make my goal of creating a postcard collage every day during November, I made 21. What a relief it’s been, to be in my right brain. Enough of a relief that for the last few days I’ve begun to work on poetry again, I’ve written a couple of political columns, and just now I wrote this.

I’m Grinding again for December. A poem or collage every day. I might make it.

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