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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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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A New Year, Another Year

I sit in Temple, listening to the familiar Rosh Hashanah prayers. Eric is beside me, in his brown and black tweed sports jacket, reading along with the Hebrew. He taps me on the shoulder and points at something in the text, some letters I might recognize. He wants to teach me to read Hebrew.

Except he isn’t and he doesn’t and he won’t. This is the 13th Rosh Hashanah when he hasn’t sat beside me, but I still feel him there every year.

Today I sat behind a family I’ve known since Eric and I joined the Temple in 1981. Two daughters, a husband and wife. The older daughter is Sam’s age and they went through Temple school together. The mother worked in the same hospital as Eric and was principal of the Temple school for many of the years Eric was a teacher.

They switched seats often during the service, standing for a prayer and then shifting around. They chatted and put their arms across each others’ backs and tapped hands and leaned against a shoulder off and on. I loved watching their connection and affection and wondered what it feels like to have the same husband for all those years, to have your mother and father still together, to have a family unit uninterrupted by loss.

My kids and I have the kind of connection and affection I witnessed today, but there’s that hole that never goes away. We’ve walked a long way through our grief and are all living lucky lives in so many ways. But still, there’s a particularly piercing sadness during these High Holy Days that meant so much to Eric. I think about how life would be if Eric was still here — would we all be together at the Temple, would we each be living where we are now, with the same partners, the same work?

Probably not for most of those questions. But I still have Eric’s jacket and it’s back hanging in my study, a trick I thought of two years ago. I can almost see him in it. He’s smiling, watching me at my desk, happy to know I’m writing, happy to know that the kids and I are okay.

Sometimes we’re sad, but we’re okay.

 

Firsts

It’s been two weeks of firsts, though the wedding last weekend that David and I officiated was the third for each of us. But it was the first time we’ve done it together, and many of the guests commented on how nice it was to have a married couple perform the ceremony of marriage for another couple.

The most impressive first of the wedding  was hiking with the bride. The original plan for the wedding was to do it on Neville Peak in Epsom, the proposal location and also a frequent hike for the bride when she visits her aunt and my friend Alison. But getting all the guests to the summit wasn’t going to work, so instead a hike after the wedding was planned. The hiking option was announced on the invitation: ceremony at 2:00, hiking or cocktail option at 3:00, reception at 5:00.

Would anyone really choose hiking over cocktails? The ceremony wasn’t very long, so there was time for both. After photos and drinks, the bride bustled up the train of her embroidered and beaded gown and walked down the driveway and started up the dirt road to the Epsom Town Forest, headed for the beaver pond a mile uphill in the col between Nottingham and Fort Mountains. At least half the wedding guests followed, still in dresses and suits and shirts and ties. It was a merry sight.

A one point a young family passed us on their way down the trail and were surprised to see a beautiful bride in her white gown, sparkling and magical. The two little girls stared and the parents stood behind them looking puzzled.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” the father of the bride said and the girls kept staring. “It is a fairy tale,” I said, then pointed to the bride. “And she’s a magical goddess.” The bride smiled, the groom smiled, we all resumed hiking.

The next day David and I went to pick up Emilio, who spent last week with us on a camp on Northwood Lake. Friday afternoon, as we were getting ready to drive Emilio home, he and David made a list of all his “firsts” of the week and wrote them in the cottage guest book.

  • first almost tornado (the wild thunderstorm that hit Northwood Lake last week)
  • first world cup on the water (every float trip from the dock to the beach featured pretend competition between world cup teams)
  • first time wearing goggles to search for a lost swim ring
  • first overnight in a tent (three of the five nights he was here)
  • first time sleeping in a sleeping bag (it got chilly at night later in the week)
  • first time catching a fish
  • first cotton candy ice cream (left behind by his uncle Sam)
  • first personal password for a Kindle (he’s reading “Dog Man”)
  • first ten minute river of minnows swimming past the dock (gorgeous and extraordinary)
  • first time surfing on a boogie board (Emilio stood on his own for over 10 seconds)
  • first time a bald eagle has flown right over his head with a fish in its claws
  • first snapping turtle sighting (a big one!)
  • first time seeing a scuba diver in a lake
  • first time watching a huge crane lift felled trees (see first first)
  • first time kayaking in David’s kayak

So many firsts, so much fun. It’s been a great couple of weeks.

 

Sunset on Northwood Lake
Photo by Emilio

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.