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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Deep Cuts, Currier
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.
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.
Full wetsuit, bathing cap, goggles. Warm clothes to put on as soon as we get out of the water. A tentative wade off the small beach to make sure the water temperature hasn’t unexpectedly dipped into an intolerable range.
It hasn’t. Plunge. My face stings and the tips of my ears that aren’t covered by the swimcap ache. I keep swimming. Thirty strokes into the swim my two toes that don’t tolerate any kind of cold are numb but my face is fine. I look up and see David’s blue-capped head swimming up behind me. Back to counting my strokes, twenty breaths to the left, twenty to the right.
When I lift my face for air the hardwood trees along the shore are red, orange, yellow and gold against the dark green of pine. Face back down to pull my stroke the water streams a cloudy bronze as my fist punches bubbles under the surface. Face up again to the string of color on the shore. I catch a glimpse of blue sky as the fast clouds above break apart.
Across the pond and back, heading into a hard wind left from the front that blew through with rain this morning. It whisks the surface of the pond blue-black with white wave caps. I stroke harder.
When we get out the air is warmer than the water and there’s no wind under the pines on the beach. We’re not as cold as we expected, but there’s still a chill somewhere deep. We’re a bit off balance from a half hour of cold in our ears and tilt as we get dressed.