Happen In Darkness

I woke to a dusting of snow and the chatter of birds. A robin has made the old maple tree outside my study window his morning hang out, caroling notes that rise and fall — cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily.

Cheer-up is a needed but sometimes hard to heed message these days. But it does remind me of an old poem, written so long ago the room that is now my study wasn’t built yet and the body in the poem has been gone for 14 years. Still, the message is the same. Life moves in cycles. No matter where we are right now, we won’t always be here.

Happen In Darkness

There’s this sense of diving in
as blackbirds flock back to my feeders
and poppies break old ground
as my body comes in line
to reach for yours
with a single urgency that rises
as the sun does earlier
and earlier in what feels
like a long rush back
to the long hot hum
of a summer afternoon
already past the zenith
we’re traveling to now
aware all along
of what can and will
happen in darkness.

Helen’s Crocuses


I’ve posted this poem before on this blog, but not for many years. This year I need signs of renewal and hope more than ever, so I walked down to the yard where Helen lived. Her house and barn are gone. The family dairy herd was sold in the 90’s. The greenhouse fell into disrepair and was finally taken down many years ago. But the crocuses are shooting up all over her former yard, like very year.

Helen’s Crocuses

Earlier than we dare to hope
for any native color beyond
the hard buds of maples sheening
the hills with faint rose, the cupped
crocuses shoot up yellow,
purple, white — orange hearts
studding Helen’s front yard.

Helen was a loose farmer — what bloomed
bloomed wherever; greenhouse customers
left notes and payment
clothespin-clipped to a board
by the broken door; eggs were sold
from an old refrigerator propped outside,
cartons stacked next to the change box.

So when the blood blossomed
in her brain as she drove to pick up
pig scraps from a restaurant,
she just pulled to the shoulder, planted
her foot on the brake and waited.
Twenty seasons later, hardy and startlingly
new, here again, her crocuses.

Home for 65 Years

My parents, my sisters, and me (left front) on the steps of the house.

This morning my parents left the house they’ve lived in since 1954, the house they moved into when I was a year old, the place I’ve thought of as my original home for 65 years.

How many people get to be my age and have their parents both alive at 95, still living independently in the house they grew up in? Not many. In fact no one I know.

My parents’ move to an apartment in an assisted living facility is the right move on every level. Their increasing frailty and medical issues make living on their own more and more difficult, and winters over the last several years have been particularly hard. They don’t drive in bad weather or after dark — the cold days that seem to be over in a blink mean they don’t get out of the house.  Then they feel restless and isolated. Who wouldn’t? I get cabin fever myself and I go out regularly regardless of the weather.

So my sisters and all our spouses are happy about this move. We’ll worry less, and we know my parents will be comfortable, and I think happier. They won’t be weighted down by the responsibilities of keeping up a big house. Living among others in their age range will make it easy to be with other people, to make new friends, and to find other card players. Both my parents have a whip-smart bridge player past.

But when I visited my parents earlier this week it sunk in that this is it. I won’t be “going home” any more. That place in all our lives — those bedrooms where I slept (my sisters and I shifted rooms often), the kitchen where so many family meals were prepared, the living room that held so many groupings of family and friends, the den where my sisters and I watched “Rifleman” on the old black and white TV with my father, where we played our teenage rock and roll records on a turntable set on the built-in knotty pine shelves — will no longer be ours. 

My younger sister and her husband are with my parents today and will take them over to their new home once the movers finish getting their apartment set up for them. My brother-in-law just texted to say they had left 429 Country Way at 9:30 this morning. Before leaving they took a moment to say good-bye to the house.

“Thank you for helping us raise a beautiful family and keeping us all safe and warm for 65 years.”

Thank you indeed.

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.

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.

Alone In My House For the First Time in Weeks and Now Alone Alone

I’m not actually sure it’s been weeks, but it feels like it, so that’s how I’ll count it. I love having a full house, love seeing and hanging with my children and stepchildren and grandchildren and all the partners and friends that come with them. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

But there is a wall. A wall where the part of my brain that disengages with daily life and picks up in the pursuit of art — poetry, prose,  drawing, collages,  gardening, book-making — starts to stutter and slam around and ask for more attention.

When David and I are here in the house by ourselves, we’re easily able to ignore each other for long stretches of the day so we can fall into the tunnels of our own creativity and our work to make the world a better place. When family and friends are here, I love them too much to do anything but hang with them. Time with them is precious.

And then there’s the shopping and cooking and eating together, long meals with long talks, and games of Catan and Set and during these too too hot days lots of playing in the water. When I wake up Emilio is up right behind me so my early mornings aren’t at my computer unless we’re watching videos of endangered species. This morning I woke to taps on my shoulder and Ava’s whisper, “Mimi, Mimi, Mimi.” Time to get up and make her a honey “samblewich.” So busy. So sweet.

Later: I wrote the above over a week ago and haven’t been back to it since. Because I was only alone for one evening and then it was three more days of company and then once all the visitors left David and I put water toys away and did laundry and weeded and cleaned out the fridge and focused intently on his campaign for State Rep from Northwood (yes, he’s running!, but that’s another post).

Now I’m really alone, in Vermont, on a second story deck overlooking two old oaks, the closer one with a gaping, bubble-edged scar where a branch fell off what looks like a long time ago. A big mouth saying hello. These are very grand trees and very old. And my only company.

I’m in Montpelier for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. Yes, I’ll be spending a lot of time with other people during the day — workshopping a new poetry manuscript, going to lectures and readings and meals where, once again, there will be long talks. But the talks will be about writing and I’ll be living alone. When I come back to my AirBnB there will only be the page to talk to.

Time to expand.

#I Love Where I Live

The hashtag #ilovewhereIlive is a favorite of mine on Instagram, because I post a lot of beautiful photos from around my house, and because I really do love where I live.

Part of that is the cows. I’ve lived with cows as neighbors most of my adult life. In my 20’s, when I moved a lot, the houses Eric and I rented often bordered pastures. This house, where I’ve lived for 37 years, has an active dairy pasture across the street and again, there are the cows, out of the barn and into the field, a couple of new, tiny ones among them.

There has finally been some rain and the tall grass has a wet sheen, seed heads bent. As I walked home from a friend’s house yesterday I looked for the newest calf and only her ears showed, patches of white on brown, through the overwhelming green where she was lying down.

There are also cows on the other side of my house, owned by a family with three children. The oldest daughter is training one of the heifers for show and when I see her walking the cow down the street, hand on her halter, I remember the others I’ve watched do the same over the decades, including the girl’s father. I’ve watched boys and girls teach cattle to pull a sled, to walk led by a halter, to stop when commanded and to hold still.

I know when the heifer is out being trained without having to see her and the girl. One of the cows left behind bellows nonstop until the heifer returns. Her plaintive cries fill my yard and even seep into the house, a reminder I live among animals who have something to say.

At one point walking home yesterday I passed a patch of Lady’s Slippers, pink scrotums of flower dotting the pine needled hill. How lovely, I thought, to be in the country, in the quiet beauty of a unusually chilly spring afternoon. The packed dirt road sloped downhill, bordered by a stone wall silvered with age and under a grand old maple starting to fall apart, as the maple in my yard is, as many of the maples in this neighborhood are.

Like us, maples age. They loose limbs and leaves and hollow out and fall, then  saplings takes their places. When I moved here the maples at the corner of my road and up at the cemetery were still grand, tall and full and thick, with no edge of decline yet showing. But 37 years is a long time. Trees get old. My achey legs and creaky back after long days of gardening and long runs let me know I’m getting old too.

Still, walking that road, under the old maple, listening to birds sing and cows moan, was exactly where I wanted to be, with the misted light, the lush vegetation, and a world pulsing with life around me.

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.

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.