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.

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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.

 

 

 

The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

 

The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

Talking with Emilio I often find myself explaining idioms. “What do you mean you’ll take a pass?” he asked recently. We were in the car and not playing ball of any sort, so how was I going to catch a pass?  To him a piece of cake is what he gets to eat at birthday parties. Tying the knot is a way to attach two pieces of rope. How can you drive someone up the wall?

The shoe is on the other foot? This idiom first appeared in the mid-1800’s as “the boot is on the other leg.” Either way, it makes clear the possible discomfort in reversing roles, especially when positions of power are involved. Did I have that in mind as I put together the images in this new collage?

A friend recently told me she thought the collages I was making two years ago really “had something.” The encouragement was welcome, because I missed creating statements with images. The Fractured News series I did early last year, weaving newspaper and magazine articles and graphics, was calming in the midst of so much distressing news. The need for calm amidst the news hasn’t gone away.

So I uncapped my x-acto knife and opened a favorite book of images and followed my instincts about what to cut and shape and paste. Getting a leg up? Finding a foot hold? Standing on my own two feet? On my feet? Have legs? The shoe is on the other foot? The words that go with what I put together come later — it’s all layer and color and intersection as I collage.

It’s fun to be back to it, especially as a break from all the word work I do. My memoir work right now is pulling out pieces to make into essays. I’m also starting to assemble a book of poems. I signed up for a poetry manuscript workshop with Kathleen Graber this summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, without any plan for a next book. I knew having a deadline would get me working, and I must have known somewhere in the back of my mind that I had a series of poems from five years ago in a folder buried in a folder. Those poems were waiting for me, ready to be the basis of my next book.

And my knife and glue were waiting too.

 

 

 

Making Things

I love to make things. I make poems and blog posts and stories and prints and broadsides and dinner and sweaters and gardens and friends and granola and yogurt and books and books of boxes, which will soon have poems in them, the boxes that is.

Yesterday I made things all afternoon with Alison, a friend who also loves to make things. And she knows how to sew.  With her help I lengthened  a too-short sweater by attaching the extra of an extra-long scarf to the bottom. Now my favorite sweater falls past my hips, exactly as long as I want it. I made treats for Alison to put in her freezer and she made a skirt out of another too-short sweater I never finished or wore.

While Alison and I were happily making things, David and John made music, playing guitars and singing. John remarked on how much better David has gotten and David answered, “I’ve been practicing and playing like I need to make a living at it.”

I thought, yes, that’s how I write, I put in enough hours to create something I could sell. Given what I write, if I do “sell” a piece it may not bring in much money. It may not bring in any money. But I work to create marketable pieces. It’s extremely unlikely that David will ever play guitar and sing for money, but he wants to be that good. Using the standards of the material exchange economy keeps us working hard, and we have the great good fortune of not having to make the exchange actually happen. The results of our creative focus are free to be gifts.

Have you read The Gift by Louis Hyde? He won a MacArther Grant for it and it was well deserved. Creativity is a basic human instinct and the art that comes from that instinct is a gift. It doesn’t have to be in the market economy to be meaningful. In fact, creativity is even more important given our culture’s focus on money and commodities. We need to create not to earn but to share.

If you want to make art of some sort but don’t think you have permission or the time or a worthy talent or the necessary creativity, read The Gift.

Then make something.

Armchairs & An Untitled Manuscript

Weeks have gone by without a blog post. How did that happen? I’ve been very focused on getting through another revision of my memoir and when I got to my desk that’s where my energy went.

Until this weekend. Because I’m finished. The manuscript is done. It’s formatted and ready to print out and read through for one final check.

Last week I told David I was done and he kept saying you’re done, you’re done, that’s a big deal and I couldn’t deal with that so I kept trying to qualify what I meant. But I guess I meant it. There’s a scene in the memoir when I’ve finished the manuscript of The Truth About Death and I go sit on a foot bridge over a river on a cold, windy day and cry. All I could think was, now what am I going to do?

So again, now what am I going to do? Well, I still don’t have a title so I need to figure that out, polish the query letter I wrote a year ago, do lots of agent research, and then launch the manuscript into the unknown.

Meanwhile my current printmaking class has led me to armchairs as a subject. Comfort and stories are drawing me. I’ve made monotypes and etchings and I’m not done yet.

Maybe I’m ready to sit down for a while.

 

A Ball to the Head

Thursday was my first full day at home without any commitments since returning from Ireland. I planned to garden and open the memoir file on my computer and start to sort out my next steps in the revision process.

Instead, I got up and made a list for the day, starting with four people I wanted to call. Then I did a lot of puttering — folded our Ireland hiking maps and put them in a cupboard with all the foreign country maps I’ve collected over the years, rearranged files on my desk, filled out medical forms for an upcoming appointment, made a big pot of black beans.

Finally I opened the memoir file and fiddled with it for a few minutes. Then closed it. Looked out the window. I went out to the garden to pick flowers and make bouquets for the house, hoping that might dislodge the heavy funkiness and floating dislocation I’d felt all day.

Arranging hydrangeas in vases to dry for the winter, I thought about Chris. Two summers ago when I spent so much time with her as she was dying, the first thing I’d do when I got home was pick flowers for the house. And here it is just about two years since she died. Tomorrow is the deathaversary.

Then I got the “ball to the head,” the term Adrienne uses to describe the sudden smacks of grief you don’t see coming.

The four people I’d put on my list first thing that morning to be sure to call are all friends who’ve lost a spouse. Of course I wanted to talk to them, check in. I know how hard it is to figure out your way through the loss of a life partner. But I wanted to talk about grief for myself too, and access the rare benefit that comes from deep loss — being able to talk to others about it.

Having people to talk to who’d gone through a loss like mine was such a comfort for me after Eric died. It comforts me still.

Summer: There, Here, Gone

I’ve been an infrequent blogger this summer, mostly because for the second summer in a row I’ve largely let go of any writing habit. It started with the week in June with Emilio, playing like a six-year-old since I was with a six-year-old, which was enormous fun but left no room for writing. An editing job with a July 1 deadline also ate up most of my desk time, making other people’s writing work better, leaving little energy for pulling my memoir into a better shape.

Then it was vacation time with family, followed by a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, a week spent immersed in workshopping, generative writing, outstanding readings by the outstanding faculty and talks about the craft of writing. It was inspirational and gave me a clear bead on exactly what I need to do next to get my memoir in shape to get it out into the world. But there’s was no time to actually work on the memoir.

The week at home after the conference and before returning to New York for another week with Emilio was consumed with harvesting and processing the bounty from my garden (yes, an electric mesh fence really does work — at least so far — to keep the woodchucks from eating my vegetables and flowers before I can get to them). The time I did have for creative focus I found myself drawing, pulled into my right brain after a week of such intense language, left brain focus.

Today I fly back to New Hampshire and will have 24 hours at home before David and I leave for over two weeks in Ireland. It’s been a very fun week again with Emilio — playing miniature golf, seeing how many times in a row we can catch each other’s throws (55 is our record), going to parks and playing the game of Life. He and I can be silly, serious, focused, scattered, wild and quiet together. He’s sweet and intense, loving and competitive and fiercely athletic. I’ll miss being with him and Ava every day; the energy of small children is amazingly centering because there’s no time to be anywhere other in the moment you’re in with them.

An added bonus of the week: celebrating my birthday which included Ava painting her legs with the blue frosting on my ice cream cake. It was impressively messy and abandoned. Emilio continued his habit of taking whacky selfies while I’m driving.

Now I’m looking forward to a traveling adventure with David. It’s been a long time since we’ve spent a couple of weeks only with each other, exploring a new country. We’ll be walking the Beara Way, then traveling to Connemara and Donegal. From everything we’ve read and heard about Ireland, I expect we’ll be stunned by beauty, heartened by a friendly culture, and cheered by the camaraderie of pubs. I’m also going on a Twitter fast. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go a day or two without checking the news.

All of this activity has made the summer fly. But it’s not over yet and this next journey should be as rich as all the summer I’ve already lived. Want to get a sense of what it’s like to walk, drive, drink, tour, discover and relax in Ireland? I’ll be blogging while we travel, so follow along.

A Book of Boxes

I’ve written before about John the Founder (of Vermont Studio Center) welcoming everyone on the first night of my latest residency there by saying, “This isn’t a place for ego or worrying about how our work is viewed by the world. We’re just a group of people, who for one reason or another, like to make things. So go ahead, make things.”

That has stayed with me for the more than three years since I was there, because I like to make things. Sure, I make dinner and a garden and crackers (check out these amazing, life-changing crackers) and yogurt, but those are all practical. When I most need permission is when I want to make something that’s a creation for the sake of creation, something arty, something that pushes me to try something new, something that might not be perfect.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing and editing in the last few weeks, going through another revision of my memoir and working towards the deadline on an editing job related to my work on sexual assault. Lots of hours at my computer, very few hours at my art desk.

I’ve also been making a lot of phone calls and writing emails to Senators and Reps. There is no shortage of the need for political action and resistance , and I’m keeping up with my 15 acts of resistance a week (mostly).

With all those hours at my desk and nothing tangible to show for it, the urge to make something was strong. The Image & Test class is over so I’m not getting a weekly fix of making: printing or folding or binding a book.

Yesterday I tried an idea from the class and made a book of boxes. I folded six mat su boxes (a basic origami box) from prints I made in class, collapsed the boxes, and then used a coptic binding to make them into a book.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I figured it out well enough and the result was more interesting than I’d imagined. Not only can the book be closed, then opened as each box is unfolded to find what’s hidden inside, the book can stand on its own as curious object. It spurred David to do a serious of photographs that catch it all angles.

But what is this for? It’s for itself.

 

Returning

The last month may be the longest blog break I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t intended, but it happened. Which is life, right?

Or maybe it’s my reflexive response to the current political insanity. Yes, I’m still obsessed with the news and spend a lot of time working to keep myself centered and using my energy to resist the dismantling of so much of what I’ve taken for granted as norms of democracy and living in a country inching its way towards true social justice.

At a party this weekend I talked about how meaningless my blog seemed to me after the election. How could I write anything that wasn’t directly political and pushing back against the madness engulfing us? Why write about the apple blossoms filling the trees and then salting the ground around my garden as the flowers start to fall apart?

“Because that’s exactly what we need,” one friend said. “We need to read about apple blossoms.”

It has been an extraordinary year for blossoms. From the forsythia bushes to cherry trees to apple trees to dandelions to lilacs, everything is having a bumper year of flowering. There are maple trees on my running route that have such thick clumps of red seed pods (also called samaras, maple keys, helicopters, whirlybirds or polynoses) they look like tropical blossoms, heavy and full as they nod towards the ground.

Yesterday afternoon I sat on the back deck steps for a few minutes, looking across my garden beds to the lilac bush intermingling with the largest of my apple trees. I could hear a catbird and finches singing. Every time I walked towards the small wood shed on the side of the barn a robin screeched from its nest at the top of one of the posts, trying to distract me from what must be a clutch of pale, blue eggs. The yard is an unbounded aviary (which actually would make it not an aviary at all, but you know what I mean), full of birdsong and nests and the flash of wings.

The world is still beautiful. I’m still resisting (15 acts of resistance a week — phone calls, emails, meetings, discussions) but I’m also still writing and drawing and turning over the soil and planting and picking bouquets for the house.

I’ve learned this before but have to keep learning it again. Bad things happen, but birds and trees and bushes don’t care. The sun comes up and spring comes on and the grass gets green and then grows again and the cows return to the pasture across the street, as they did today, right now come to the corner right across from my porch, as they do most evenings.

That’s reason enough to celebrate.

 

 

 

Deep Cuts: In Trump-Adjusted Terms

Detail of One Story At A Time by Kim Rugg

“In Trump-adjusted terms, I’m fine.” That was the answer a woman gave on a podcast I listened to this week when asked how she was.

Perfect! I thought. A way to skip the usual five minute greeting of yes, things are okay for me except I’m completely freaked out about the ongoing circus that our federal government has become — the meanest, freakiest, scariest circus ever — and half the time feel like I can hardly breathe. Now we can just give our TAT score.

In TAT I’m doing well, in part because I saw the Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art on Wednesday.

An attractive part of delving into visual art for me is the absorption in making something with my hands, beyond my fingers on the keyboard as I write. Most of my writing time these days is editing anyway, which doesn’t even mean many keystrokes — mostly I’m reading and sifting.

Time spent weaving a collage of newspaper strips or cutting blocks of words or gluing beads to a piece of paper for a pressure print as I listen to music can feel like slow snow — a suspension that’s going to amount to something at some point, and the creeping pace to that place feels just right.

But the level of detailed suspension in a head space of meticulous making displayed in the Deep Cuts exhibit is breathtaking. It can take me an hour or more to fuss with the strips of newspaper I weave to make a collage, painstaking for a relative newbie like me.

Then I saw Kim Rugg’s collage in the exhibit, “One Story at a Time,” and understood painstaking on a whole other level. Her work is a reconstruction of the front page of the NY Times after dissecting it letter by letter and pixel by pixel. The letters are put back together by alphabet, starting with all the a’s and preceding to z.

Detail of Altered Text: Unbearable Lightness of Being by Youdhi Maharjan
Detail of I am the rejection of you by Ambreen Butt

 

Youdhi Maharjan cut every single letter out of pages of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, along the exact lines of the letter, then massed them in a central column that runs through the excised pages pasted on either side. The letters are all discernible and black — you can see each letter in the cut spaces also, glowing gold from the background of the collage.

Ambreen Butt cut and collaged pieces of rejections letters — her own and others she got from friends — into a 10 foot circle that looks like an alternative sun. It’s beautiful, a source of light from an unexpected globe.

This is just a taste of this mind-blowing exhibit. Where do these artists’ brains go during the hours upon hours upon hours of exacting work? The same place my own brain goes as I continue to massage 85,000 words into a book constructed of the exact right words in the exact right places?

Whatever that place is, in TAT, being in that headspace myself, or looking at the marvels artists make from that space, makes everything better.