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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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.

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.

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

#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.

October Swim

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.

We go home and take hot showers. For a long time.

Glory and Splendor

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My backyard is riotously colorful. Catching glimpses of the trees along the brook through the windows as I walk around the house makes me happy. I can’t quite believe how glorious it is.

How is something that happens ever year able to be astonishing, again and again?

Some years there are predictions of a dull foliage season — this year the drought, other years too much rain — but it never seems to happen, a season that disappoints. Every year, over and over, I’m surprised again at how wild and vivid fall foliage is in New Hampshire.

And I’m not alone. My friends and neighbors are all agog too. Hillsides go from green to orange and individual red maples are unlike anything else in nature. You see zinnias and geraniums that shade of crimson wine, but not a whole tree, a tree that reaches 70 feet into dead blue sky.

So here I am again, interrupting conversations in the car, or out walking, to exclaim at another patch of color. On Saturday John and I talked about a specific tree on Rte. 4 headed in to Concord that we notice, now look for, every year. I know which swampy spot to watch for the first sign of color, the progression from red to orange to yellow across my neighbor. Familiar yet magnificent. Such a grand trick.

I take a lot of photos so I can remind myself of this beauty. And what a relief during this season of bitter divisiveness — trees of glory and splendor.

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What I Kept

I love standing at my new desk, stroking a brush with long dark bristles across a collage of dried leaves, spreading acrylic varnish that’s both protective and adhesive.  The motion is methodic and fluid, comforting.  I’m making something, a physical object, following a non-speaking muse when choosing the placement of the leaves and ferns, the colors, moving shapes around until it looks right.

I’ve gone through many of the piles of paper and old magazines and cards in my study this week, organizing them by type, maybe some day by color or theme.  For now the old DoubleTake magazines (who remembers that incredible journal from the late 90’s and early 00’s of top-tier writing and photography, and what a blessing I kept them and then David wanted them in his studio and now they’re back with me), Lapham’s Quarterly (outstanding illustrations and graphics) and art advertising books from Santa Fe and the coast of Maine, are together on a shelf, along with other random magazines.  Postcards are sorted in cubby holes of a shelving unit I built in an adult education woodworking class 25 years ago, both new cards and antiques, including souvenir folders of cards from the 40’s, sets Eric’s father was mailing home when he was in the army during WWII.  Eric collected the antique Squam postcards.  I have decades of Mother’s Day and birthday cards from Adrienne and Sam.  Those I’m saving to save, not to collage.

“Where did these come from?” David asked when I made my first collage with the dried leaves earlier this week.  Our trip to Rockport, Maine in the fall of 2008, when we were only months in love and reeling from the death of David’s wife two months before, a quick cancer death like Eric’s. David and his wife were in the midst of a divorce when he and I met, but once she was sick he disappeared from my life to go back home and help.  It had been a hard summer, a terrible time for David’s family.  By the fall his back had given out and he could hardly walk.  That he and I were away together, alone, with trees full of red leaves in every imaginable shape of maple, had seemed miraculous.  I walked around the neighborhood where we were staying, carefully picked leaves and folded them in paper towels.  I needed to hold on to something beautiful.  Tucked in books I had with me, I brought the leaves home and somehow kept track of the pile of preserved fall and then there they were, in my study.

Or, my studio.  It’s been a very satisfying week.

Tidy

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I was being tidy yesterday.  Actually, I was looking up, once again, the varieties of my apple trees.  I wrote it down in my gardening log years ago, and have looked it up several times in the last few years, as the run of laden trees continues.  Wanting to compare the taste of the types, I needed to look up what’s what yet again.

David’s blood pressure machine has been sitting on the bottom shelf of a small table in the kitchen for the last year, the cord to the cuff looping over the folder with my gardening log sheets.  As I reached for the folder, holding up the loop and balancing the device so it wouldn’t fall off the back of the shelf, I decided to make room for it in the drawer at the top of the table. One problem — that drawer hasn’t been cleaned out for decades.

There were old maps and menus in the drawer, five dreidels, small plastic bags of metal and rubber parts to long ago gadgets, screws and nuts and a four inch antique nail, a hand forged wedge of steel too beautiful to throw away with the rest of the mess.

And a plastic bag with an unusual assortment.  Two banister supports, some screws and a few washers, a bit of old bead twine and three green clay beads.  I remember the beads were made by Eric’s first wife, Rene, at least 45 years ago.  I don’t know why they were in the bag.

But most surprising was the human tooth, a broken molar.  Who put a tooth in this random bag?  Whose tooth is it?  Eric’s?  On the assumption it is, I’m going to put it with the baby teeth of Adrienne and Sam that I still have in a box on my bureau.  Is that weird?

I found the log sheet with the varieties of apples.  The trees were planted in 1992, thin sticks now over fifteen feet tall and so full they shade the north side of the yard and one of my garden beds.  This year the trees have enough fruit to feed us all winter if we had the ambition to store it. Working west to east, Northern Spy, Cortland, Macoun, Golden Delicious, Baldwin.  Nourishing Courtship Makes Good Babies.

Ah, babies. . . .

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Baby Emilio and Baby Ava

Maple Flowers

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David and I spent the weekend in New York and the streets there are lined with flowering cherry trees, crab apples, forsythia, magnolias.  Some hardwoods had tiny leaves emerging from their buds, lighting up their crowns and making the world feel softer.  The splashs of color and blossom were delightful; the evidence of spring growth was reassuring and made me happy.

Then home, to tighter buds, grayer days and temperatures that have me wearing wool again when I sit at my desk.  But from that desk I also look out the west window to some branches of the maple tree in our front yard, and every day I notice how much bigger the buds are on the tree, how the balls of red brighten the landscape.

Two days ago I went out to examine those buds and realized what I’ve been looking at are flowers, not buds.  Really gorgeous and even trippy flowers.  Balls of fuzz puzzling enough that David and I spent a good bit of time reading online about maple buds and blossoms.   We learned a lot.

Maples have both male and female flowers on the same tree, the male with the sperm needed to pollinate the female.  As the leaves start to emerge so do the seeds, wrapped in the papery-winged helicopters I stuck on my nose as a kid, peeling open the seed pocket and using the bit of juiciness to make it stick.  The seed pods — samaras — are shaped so they spin in wind and can travel, sometimes a long way.

Yesterday we were in Portland and there were no flowering trees, though the magnolias looked ready, long flutes of bud with just a slip of blossom showing on a few.  I missed the clouds of blossoms we’d seen lining the streets in New York.  Spring in cities can be so pretty, I wanted to see it again.

We went down to the waterfront and in the parking lot saw some maples flowering.  I went to get a closer look, these flowers tamer and less flamboyant than those on my tree, fewer stamens, less fuzz.  Today it’s gray again and not particularly warm, but the maple flowers are still popping and pollinating and getting the whole spring thing going.  Here it comes.