This deathaversary season (what Adrienne, Sam and I call the anniversary of Eric’s, or anyone’s, death) has felt harder than other years. Or do I say that every year? I don’t think so.
The accumulation of other losses, the spread of grief in my circle of friends and family from those losses, and the communal dismay of the majority of Americans at the continued display of arrogant greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia (okay, I won’t go on forever) among the white fuckboys currently trying to run/ruin our country all contribute I’m sure.
But I suspected dates were lining up in a way to remind exactly of what was going on 11 years ago, when Eric was diagnosed with metastatic cancer just before Passover. I was right.
David and I had a busy weekend, spending time with my family to celebrate Easter in a decidedly secular way then coming home to host a Seder with a group of friends we’ve been celebrating Passover with for many decades.
Wasn’t this the weekend in April 2006 that we had a much diminished Seder after Eric got home from the hospital with his grim diagnosis? We’d planned to host the Seder with friends that year, but had called it off earlier in the week when we understood Eric’s back pain and accelerating fatigue was from bones full of cancer. Instead of a dozen friends seated around the table, we had a small family Seder, using a two minute Haggadah someone had sent to Adrienne. Eric sat at the head of the table as he always did at Seders, leading the ritual telling of the story of the Jew’s exodus from slavery in Egypt, embellishing the minimal text with his own knowledge of Jewish history and custom.
Yesterday afternoon when David and I got home I pulled out my folder of calendars and wasn’t surprised. Yes, the dates line up. The day Eric got home from the hospital in 2006 was Friday, April 14. We had our small Seder on April 15. This year David and I hosted our Seder on Sunday, April 16.
No wonder I’m feeling the presence of sorrow. The 2006 calendar is repeating. The sun is at the same angle, birdsong is rising out of the fields in the morning at the same pitch, the brook out back is running high and hard, and the red buds on the maple tree out front are fattening into their familiar, fuzzy flowers. On some level, my body takes this all in and connects it with that scared and bewildered body 11 years ago.
There is a difference in the Jewish calendar though. Passover is ending today, not beginning as it was in 2006. Tonight I’ll light a Yahrzeit candle, which I just learned is a tradition on the last night of Passover.
My conversation with Adrienne about daylight savings time started on Instagram. Under her photo of scrambled eggs and coffee she wrote daylight savings is weird. #theend. When I commented I want my hour back she replied every year! Time for the poem from 10 years ago!
Yes, Adrienne has listened to me complain about this lost hour all her life. It’s such a let down after that extra hour (bonus galore!) we get in October.
I’m not alone. Twitter is full of complaints today. Mamas, how are your #daylightsavingstime naps going? (Accompanied by a photo through a door of a child standing in a crib playing with a mobile.) I remember those days.
And, as always on Twitter, there’s politics and humor. You didn’t lose an hour of sleep #BernieSanders just redistributed it to someone who needed it. Losing an hour of sleep means you have to sleep in, right? I woke up and it was like noon wtf low key wishing we lost the next four years vs one hour of sleep last night. so do i have one more or one less hour to be high today? Well, at least the clock in my car is right again…
There was a suggestion we all chill out by Relaxing Back Into Soothing Stillness w/this #GuidedMeditation
Here’s what I had to say about it ten years ago, the poem Adrienne recalled. I wrote it the weekend Sam and I helped her move to live with Matt in NYC. March 2007, in the midst of the writing fever that produced The Truth About Death, less than a year after Eric died. I could feel the raw pain coming up off the pages as I looked through the manuscript for this poem. What a time.
Our daughter is going to the epicenter, someone is always
going somewhere, I can’t make small talk, I talk too much,
I am following the little red car, I can do anything I want,
I am a sparrow feeding in the bushes, the promised manna,
such pain to get here. Highways, cars, family, the irrevocable
center, flip your hand, wave off the evil eye, not evil, scary.
There is a blue balloon floating, this song is the tits, this song
is the bee’s knees, it’s if I had wings. I’m still mad
about the hour they took away two weeks ago. There are bells
ringing, it’s 6:00 p.m., the boys are watching college hoops,
the buildings out the window fall down in cubes, gardens
tucked into ledges, trees and statues below, a lion and a nymph
holding bounty, a set table in a room of glass, birds, planes
lifting west. I dance with a maenad, I dance by myself, drive fast
with my family. A lovely and ancient tradition. At dinner we discuss
predictive text, our son never finds his phone, our daughter’s lover’s
mother knows the pre-revolutionary Russian for lovely,
beautiful – veeleekalyepnah. When she found her grandfather’s book
of Torah commentary it opened to her son’s portion. Go forward
and be a blessing unto the world. Never enough, never enough.
Time moves horizontally, a train that passes on tracks and drags along minutes then weeks and months and years. A station approaches, a dot in the distance at first, then gets bigger until it fills the entire window when the train stops.
Time stretches into a balloon of stillness then unfolds into a fan with a story on each rib.
A rocket shoots past the gravity of time and moments pass so quickly we don’t inhabit them, we only know time has passed by looking at an outside measure, a clock.
What if we didn’t measure time? If the passing of the sun across the dome above us meant only what angle of shadow we could expect, and when it would be warmest, when our skin could burn and when we should rise and go to sleep?
Time? How can the dimension of life that rules everything be nothing? It’s consciousness itself, only the awareness of is and was and will be that moves the train, inflates the balloon, fires the rocket.
So it’s been a week and a half since I’ve written here and what is it that’s kept me away? I’ve been right here, just not in this definition of this time. We work hard to be here now, in this moment, because we know it’s all there is. But is it?
The wind was fierce yesterday and I felt sorry for the potted flowers on the porch, the onion greens all bending to the east, the zinnias putting out their first leggy blossoms into such a powerful force. Today the branches of the old maple in the front yard are still twitching and the grass of the pasture across the street ripples with wind, the seed heads bowing and rising in waves that move on and come again.
I’ve been writing, I’ve planted vegetables and flowers and mulched the garden beds. I ran for a long time in the rain and sucked up the endorphins. I drew vessels and peonies and worked on shading, then scribbled the creases in my cupped hand without ever looking at what I was doing. I glued and colored. A lot of time has been spent with friends and seeing people I haven’t seen for a long time.
A long time? What is that?
A poem from 2002. So much time thinking about time.
South Twin Mountain
The land has a lot to teach –
rocks, roots, gullies, water’s
effect visible everywhere; land
hauls us into the exact
moment we are in, musings
about the nature of time gone,
how the asymmetrical arrow
measures in only one direction,
how time cannot be experienced
by any of our senses.
What would time smell like,
how would it feel
in our hands? For now, we can see
light, taste the wind, hear earth
crash as we walk along its borders
in to the next valley.
A steady clack comes out of the bedroom where the plastic pull knob on the cord for the blinds taps the sill, pulsing in the wind through the window opened to get air into the house.
Sunshine glints off the screens in the four large windows in my study, screens that will come out in the next few weeks.
There was a frost while we were away, nasturtiums drooping on themselves, the basil brown and wilted. Was it last night?
Cows still graze the pasture across the street, framed by a branch of the old maple sprouting yellow, orange and red.
When I got home this morning I opened my journal to write about our last few days — all the places and family we’ve visited, the historic First Parish in Concord (this is the congregation Emerson and the Alcotts were part of, where Thoreau’s memorial was held) to meet with the minister who’ll be involved in the memorial service for Chris, the astonishing America Is Hard To Find exhibit at the equally astonishing new building now housing the Whitney Museum, watching Ava clap her gold moccasins together and laugh, fitting the pieces of a table-top-size Spiderman together with Emilio, last night in a Rodeway Inn off the traffic circle in Greenfield, MA, a former Howard Johnson’s with a glass shelf of spectacular crystal rocks behind the check-in desk that the clerk said no one knows the history of, this morning’s drive in pre-dawn darkness into the hills to the west and then east again into autumn smoke rising from rivers and dew — and instead I drew a map, with the buildings and skylines and houses we’ve visited, lines with arrows tracing our route, and then connecting the words when I began to write with language.
Is art hard to find or hard to find the time for?
For the first time since the beginning of July, I’m home with no immediate plans to be anywhere else overnight. What will I find the time for?
* From Whitney exhibit description of the painting above: This monumental painting offered Krasner an outlet during a time of deep personal sorrow. The year before, her husband, fellow artist Jackson Pollock, had died in a car accident. In the wake of this sudden loss, Krasner remarked about The Seasons, “the question came up whether one would continue painting at all, and I guess this was my answer.”
The Refusal of Time is a brilliant exhibit by South African artist William Kentridge. Currently showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (but only through Sunday so get there soon if you want to see it), the work uses drawings, collages, dance and theater moving across five-channels of video projected on large wall panels, music and spoken text, and a central “breathing machine” sculpture to explore time’s mysterious elements — how time shifts and moves, how we try to regulate time, how time is perceived, how the measurement of time has changed over human history, how we “refuse” time.
“Everybody knows that we are going to die,” writes Kentridge, “but the resistance to that pressure coming towards us is at the heart of the project. At the individual level, it was about resisting; not resisting mortality in the hope of trying to escape it, but trying to escape the pressure that it puts on us.” And politically, “the refusal was a refusal of the European sense of order imposed by time zones; not only literally, but this refusal also referred metaphorically to other forms of control as well.”
Sound deep and interesting? It is. The 30 minute video and sound loop is mesmerizing and complex enough that I sat through much of it for a second time. I wrote down words that were projected or announced that spoke to my own musings about time, which find their way into my writing over and over.
Some samples: “In praise of bad clocks.” “Full stop swallows the sentence.” “Here I am, here I am, here I am.” “The universal archive of images.” “Poems I used to know.” “Performances of transformation.” “A suitcase of teeth and glass.” The poetry of this astounding work is profound.
I grew up on the South Shore of Boston, in Scituate, a lovely town on the ocean with an excellent harbor and numerous sandy beaches. We occasionally went to Cape Cod when I was young (I had an aunt who lived there), and we had family gatherings for several summers on Martha’s Vineyard when I was an adult, but mostly I didn’t go to “the shore” other than to Scituate. Why go to the ocean when home was the ocean?
When I met David he talked about his family’s tradition of going to “the shore.” The New Jersey shore? Like in Atlantic City? Why would anyone go to the beach in New Jersey?(Yes, I was ridiculously ignorant about where millions of people on the East Coast go to the beach.)
When I first met David’s parents, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they talked lovingly of their home on the shore, telling me I would have to come visit there the next summer. Which I did and realized for the first time that the New Jersey coast is a long series of barrier islands with beautiful beaches and long bays with wide sweeps of marshland and creeks behind the islands.
David and I are here for a week, along with our kids, in the house his parents bought in the 1960’s. It’s not fancy, but it’s on the bay side of the island that’s divided between Avalon and Stone Harbor and sits right on the water. From the deck you look out across “the basin,” an inlet of water from the bay, the bay itself, and then the marshes, with the mainland in the distance.
My first summer here I sat with Betty, David’s mother, one afternoon when the rest of the visiting family was out doing errands or at the beach, three blocks across the island on the ocean side.
“Oh, forget about time,” Betty said that day. I was talking about an outing from years before, trying to remember how many years. “Time is out there and I’m here,” Betty said. “I’ve given up on being fact actual.” Betty had been suffering from dementia for years when I met her, but could be amazingly lucid and insightful at times.
I was reading Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry. “Do you do any reading?” I asked Betty, knowing she didn’t. She sat in a chair most of the time, going through magazines and catalogues and piles of paper, clipping coupons and flipping pages, over and over.
“Oh yes,” Betty said. “But I have no book now.”
“Here’s what I’m reading,” I said, and picked up my book. “Want to hear a poem?” I read her Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” She laughed in delight.
“Well isn’t that the perfect poem for here,” she said, and I read the last stanza again, with its lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.
“The water is language,” Betty said. “If you don’t watch the water here you miss the whole thing.”
I think it’s happening. My relationship with time is changing, which if you’ve been reading this blog since the winter solstice, you may remember was my wish for the new season of increasing light.
For the last decade at least, my relationship with time has not been friendly. Time would move too fast, which seemed deliberate to me, as if the actual number of minutes and hours in a day was accelerated just so I couldn’t possibly get as much done as I needed. And not that I didn’t get a lot done, because I did. But mostly I did what I had to do, not what I wanted to do, though it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing, just that there was so much else I wanted to do. What I wanted to do beyond what I had to do — write poetry and stories, read novels and memoirs and at least get a peek or two into the New Yorkers that poured into my house and mostly went unopened on the coffee table for a month or so before proceeding to the recycling pile, walk, sleep, spend unhurried time with family and friends — got squeezed in around the edges. And very tight edges, measured in minutes if not seconds.
I can remember countless days, driving in to work, when I would say to myself, “I’ll go for a walk at lunchtime and pick up a few groceries at the Coop.” The next time I’d notice a clock, it would be after 6:00, dark and cold, the day’s sunshine long gone, and I’d be starving and want to go home but would be facing an inbox full of unread messages. Then a race would start, a race between me and the clock and email, seeing how much of the mass I could get through before I would give up, go home, eat a quick meal, crawl into bed and not sleep enough, and then start over again.
No wonder I sleep almost 10 hours almost every night. I’m still exhausted. But I can feel the pace changing if only in the fact that I have time to sleep that much. I’m writing, a lot, even finished a novel and now I’m editing the memoir I finished 3 years ago and haven’t touched since. My next book of poetry is taking shape in my head and in a file in my computer, and soon I’m going to be holding my first full length book of poetry in my hands. I’m reading whole issues of the New Yorker and book after book after book. I’m going for walks and seeing more of my family and friends than I have in years.
Now when I look up and am surprised at how much time has gone by, I don’t mind, because I’m not always working on something that has to be done right now!Or ten minutes ago! That horrible urgency that was like a cinder block in my chest has lifted, and I can let minute after minute after minute go by and it’s okay if I don’t get something done. I can breathe.
I love palindromes, and I especially love palindrome numbers made by digital clocks (11:11, 10:01, 12:21) and dates. So, I can’t let 11-11-11 pass without at least saying, what an awesome date. We had a discussion at a staff meeting a year ago, about how cool it would be to have a baby on 11-11-11, and when would you need to get pregnant to have a chance at that as your baby’s birthday. That’s it, just an appreciation moment. 11-11-11
It’s still raining this morning, the third morning in a row I’ve sat on the porch with a veil of gray draping the yard, the pasture across the road, the tall maples and oaks around the cemetery that fills in the western horizon. The horses don’t seem to care, and continue to forage in the field for whatever is left to eat among the yellow ragweed and purple thistle. The distant call of a loon hovers into the morning from the lake, across the busy state road hidden by trees, so the long wail cuts through the hum of wet tires on pavement.
I’m four days into figuring out this new life of mine, a life that isn’t tightly bound on all sides by time given over to a demanding job. All the unexpected, and expected, events of this summer combined so that this is the first week I’ve had without appointments, plans, trips — all that’s kept me from seeing if I really can slow down and find a rhythm to my creative life. I made pizza dough last night for dinner, and as I was kneading the ball of sticky, gooey flour and water threads into a stretchy mass that shone and rolled under the heels of my hands, the body memory of making bread and handling a yeast dough came back to me. It’s been decades since I had time to make dough.
David’s boat, which he kept on Lake Winnepausauke when his children were young, was called The New Life. When he moved into this house over two years ago, he hung the sign he’d made for the boat in the barn. Now that his new studio in the barn is finished, with shelves and desk tops and a counter getting installed this week, the sign has moved. It’s nailed onto the barn wall, over the wide double doors that face west. It’s announcement of what is, every day, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, is so true. This moment is always the new life, and in this life time is getting stretchy under my working hands and beginning to shine.