Displacement

Distant ocean view from my desk

Here I face east and see the ocean, a blue mass that fills the horizon beyond the bare trees and rooftops, down the hill to the long flat spit of sand that makes the beach. At home I face west and look at cows, pastures and a distant line of pine and hardwoods.

I’ve purposely displaced myself. I want to see what I see when I’m looking at a new view, sleeping in a different bed, tapping at my keyboard in different light. My sister and her husband are off on an adventure to Australia and New Zealand, which means their comfortable house on the coast is empty and quiet and perfect for a writing retreat.

Whatever it is I let distract me when I’m home won’t be here. I can’t make plans to see a friend or go to an appointment because I’m away. I can’t reorganize the cupboards or pick out a new paint color for the bathroom. I can’t straighten the house or put the ski boots away. I’m also good at following rules I set for myself and I came here to write, so I’ll write.

Yesterday I finished an OpEd and sent it off to the paper. I wrote a poem and I’ll write another one today. I’ll open the documents of poems I’ve been writing for the last month and fiddle with those. I’ll read the books of poetry I brought with me — The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Midden by Julia Bouwsma — mostly to enjoy the poems but also to see what I can learn about writing that directly confronts injustice and harm to people of color. I’ll sort through the poems in the manuscript I worked on last winter to see what will fit in the new book I’m working on which, in a sea change for me, isn’t centered only on grief and recovery. Or is it the same book, just completely reimagined?

It doesn’t matter. There’s paper and pens and a computer and books and time. Time to write.

 

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.

 

Black Ice

 

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.

 

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.

 

What Can I Say?

 

What can I say that will lessen discord and polarization and help people listen to each other? What can I say that will move the world closer to my vision of justice, kindness and compassion? What can I say to trolls that would make any difference? What can I say to a woman who tells me she loves me after insisting that Democrats are always wrong and Republicans always right, followed by a declaration that she’s proud of Trump?

Do I need to listen more? Maybe I need to listen to more poems by Wislawa Szymborska. Maybe everyone needs to listen to more poems by Szymborska. My friend, poet Marie Harris, read a poem of hers at our Skimmilk Poets group the week before last. This week I listened to Catherine Barnett read Szymborska’s poem “Maybe All This” on the New Yorker Poetry podcast. Her book View With a Grain of Sand is now on my desk.

CHILDREN OF OUR AGE
by Wislawa Szymborska

We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So, either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death,
at a round table or a square one.

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

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.

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.