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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Welcome, Sun!

Welcome, Sun!

Ritual

Music summons the wise
daemon, notes of young genius
stirring. We light candles
with wishes, untether

the expectations of smoke.
A chorus of voices rises
above the scotch and red wine
and we remember exactly

what we meant when we said
exquisite. Time has been kind,
we try not to repeat last year’s
desires. No one cries, none of us

died, our circle gathered again;
the sun creaks, stops, reverses.

Winter Solstice 11:28 a.m. EST

A Gift of Experience

 

Emilio at the Whitney Biennial

A week ago David and I finished the holiday gift I gave him for 2017 — a commitment to visit at least one museum and have one outdoor adventure a month. Experience gifts make sense — we already have so much stuff — and they’ve been a needed break from the dread and disgust that’s been too present for the past year if you’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world. Which we are.

Early on we decided if we went someplace outdoors we’d never been before, that could count as an outdoor adventure. It didn’t have to be arduous. Just new. We also realized early on that there are a lot of museums near us. New Hampshire has a snowmobile museum, several rail depot museums, a telephone museum, a model railroad and toy museum, and a classic arcade museum that has pinball machines and electric games built no later than 1987. We didn’t go to any of those, but we did go to the NH Historical Society museum which has an old ski-doo snowmobile as an exhibit.

So what did our year of art and adventure include?

We trudged through snow up a hill in an orchard under a full moon. We camped in Evans Notch and hiked the Baldface Circle (very arduous!), slept on the front porch three times in the last month, toasty in big down bags, swam in the North Atlantic twice in September and in Long Pond during the second week of October. Wet suits are magic in cold water, but we came out a bit off balance from the cold affecting our inner ears.

 

We walked in Ireland and hiked in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Snow Canyon and Jenny’s Canyon (Utah is amazing) and lowered ourselves into lava tubes, caves hollowed out of old lava flows. We stayed in the Mitzpah Hut near the peak of Mt. Pierce and hiked to the summit of Mt. Mooselauke twice

 

Our museum visits ranged from interesting to mind blowing. The Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier, featuring impossibly intricate and detailed paper art, was a marvel. We took in the Whitney Biennial along with Adrienne, Emilio and Ava. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice, most recently to see a phenomenal performance of poetry read by Jane Hirshfield (her own and her translations of Japanese poetry) and music composed by Linda Chase. The three part piece was a collaboration written in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was masterfully done. Stunning music along with spoken words in the best weave of the two I’ve ever heard. And that was after being enchanted by the exhibit of wild and vibrant wall-size murals by Takashi Murakami.

My favorite museum visit was to the Northwood Historical Society’s museum, open on August Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00. The town’s artifacts are housed in the small, square, brick building that was the Northwood Narrows branch of the library when I first moved to town. It’s around the corner from my house.

David wore his short wetsuit for that visit; we stopped at the museum when we saw it was open on our way to swim. The Historical Society volunteer staffing the museum that day didn’t pay any attention to the wet suit. She was too busy watching the two helicopters circling over the fields and woods of the Narrows, looking for a fugitive batterer, a man who’d come to town after abusing his girlfriend and then ran away from the police when they found him at a house on Blake’s Hill.

They caught him. It was an exciting day in the Narrows.

Boardwalk at Coney Island

Last Friday we walked the boardwalk on Coney Island, a good choice for our last outdoor adventure of the year. Closed for the season, the arcades and amusement parks were like huge broken toys. We walked with a cold wind at our backs, then turned and walked into it, along the gray water, the winter sun low in the sky. We walked for a long time.

I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to choose experiences like this, to take breaks that refresh and energize and inspire me. I hope to keep it up next year.

 

Lichen On His Stone

I hadn’t been to visit Eric’s grave for a long time. Six months? More? I’m quite sure there was no lichen on the rose granite headstone the last time I was there.

Now there is. I thought, this looks like an old grave. I thought, this is beautiful. Eric loved mosses and lichens, the small plants and organisms that add richness to the world’s green.

How long does it take for lichen to take root on granite? Or how long does it take before I’d notice that lichen has crept into the carving of Eric. And January. The Hebrew letters too.

The stone has been there since April 2007. Many lichens grow less than a millimeter a year, so these could have been growing on Eric’s stone all along.

I’d like to live in a room painted the pale sage of the lichen on Eric’s stone. It’s almost the color of Squam Lake water over white sand. Eric would love that lapping at his grave.

“Every Day I Have to Figure Out How to Detach Enough

to have a life that isn’t consumed with anxiety and terror.”

“How’s it going,” Jon Lovett asks.

“It’s difficult, man.”

So says Marc Maron in this week’s podcast of Lovett or Leave It. Maron goes on to counsel that you do have to figure it out. Trump thrives on making us mad and scared so when you let the unprecedented unprecedentedness of the terror of his presidency keep you from enjoying the clear blue of a cool autumn day in New Hampshire after spending two days playing with the unspoiled and precocious children of your child, then he’s won. Resistance is enjoyment of simple pleasures and there’s nothing better than a rainy Saturday morning entertaining beautiful children so their parents can have a rare morning of sleeping in together.

I have to say this over and over in order to write blog posts. What difference do my experiences make, as sweet as many of them are? Well, they make a lot of difference to me and then I have energy to at least try to do my fifteen acts of resistance a week (way off that average recently having taken over a month more or less off). And my frequent emails to Mitch McConnell (go here and join in the fun) telling him I’m afraid in a way I have never been as an American (fear is a core motivating message of Republicans so I love being able to honestly use it to oppose McConnell’s unconscionable behavior) are actually renewing.

Life has been good to me recently and horrifically hard for a number of people I love. So all that makes sense is to share the extra generosity of my life. Mortality and change and rain then sun, zinnias and eggplant running into colder weather but no frost yet, bouquets in the house still and all the colored paper clips put away from Ava “working” at my desk this morning.

Ava loves to help put things away and clean up. Emilio has an arm that’s astounding for a six-year-old. Really. We measured our football throws this morning and as I thought he can throw twice as far as me.

I’m ready for the next week.