Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snowbound in Carolina

I look out my kitchen window and see white everywhere.  Ordinary branches are transformed into giant lace by thick lines of snow.  The sky is white, and everything is silent.  I wonder why we find snow so magical?  I assume that unless you are an Eskimo you too marvel at feathery flakes sifting through the light from street lamps, laying down a white blanket over bare earth and the stalks of dead flowers.

I spent a good deal of my life in northern climes--western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Ontario.  When I was a child, I loved snow because it meant snow forts, sledding, and snowmen.  Later, when I was a young mother and it took a solid hour to ready my kids for an outing--snowsuits, hats, mitts, scarves, boots--I started to question the sanity of those who choose to live such strenuous lives.  By the time the kids were ready to brave the elements, someone invariably had to go to the bathroom.  I didn't find snow so magical then.

I've said many times that I don't care if I never see snow again, but today I think I must take that back.  I had forgotten how a snowscape outside can make indoors feel cozy and protected.  I know there are children out there who are getting to use their sleds at last.  I'm glad I don't have to brave the cold to take my grandsons to the hill across the street from their house, but I can imagine their thrill as they swoosh over the snow with tingling cheeks.  Children know what to do with winter.   Kids who can scarcely be persuaded to walk to the corner of their street in April will trudge three miles to a friend's house if there's a foot of snow on the ground, as my sons did once.

"Where are the snows of yesteryear?"  I find they have been locked in my heart as memories I had almost forgotten.  I haven't changed my mind about snow really; it's good to know it will melt and be gone soon.  But for today it's fun to cuddle up with a cup of hot tea and a good book and pause to listen to the silence of the snow. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

One Perfect Christmas

I've always loved Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales."  To me it is the perfect, certainly the most poetic, expression of what Christmas is all about.  I am what you might call a secularist, but I still welcome Christmas.   I love the fragrant Christmas tree with its ornaments and lights, especially when some of the ornaments have tiny hand prints on them or are made out of popsicle sticks and cotton balls. 

I've had many good Christmases, some better than others, rarely a bad one.  But one Christmas stands out in my mind; I call it my one perfect Christmas, when I came the closest to recreating the spirit  captured in Dylan Thomas's magical tale.

I was living in Canada with my then-husband and two young sons, four and 15 months.  It was our first Christmas in the this land of snow and short winter days, where English and European traditions intermingled.  I decided to embrace as many of them as I could and have the best, most beautiful Christmas ever.  No, I didn't do anything remotely Martha Stewartish, no gilded turkey skeletons as a centerpiece or over-the-top light display.  But this was the year I did make everything, beginning with fabric wreaths and homemade Swedish Christmas bread as gifts for family and friends, cookies by the dozen, and of course a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.  I dug out an old-fashioned recipe for homemade mince meat that included suet and meat as well as the apples, raisins, and candied fruits we are all familiar with.  There was a world of difference between my mincemeat pies and the ones with canned filling.  In those days I was adept at making pie crust, and my pies were--well--divine.  Hot homemade mince pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream can be enough to make you weep.

The piece de resistance, though, has to be the Christmas tree we tramped over hill and dale to find.  The four of us joined another couple and their little girl to go in search of the perfect tree.  The tree farm played Christmas carols over a loudspeaker, in case our mood wasn't already sufficiently festive.  The snow lay deep on the ground, and my sons' cheeks were like bright red apples in the cold.  The little one couldn't navigate the snow drifts, so I carried him, his arms and legs stuck out in his snowsuit like a doll's.  I carried him, and we walked what seemed like miles, with him growing heavier and heavier with every step.  Still, we pressed onward, sure the perfect tree lay just ahead.  At last we found a tree that did indeed meet all our expectations.  It was tall and thickly branched, and its shape was classic.  My husband cut it down, and we began the walk back to our car.  Let me tell you, the return journey was a lot longer than the journey out.  The sun sank toward the horizon, shadows lengthened, and my son felt like an anvil in my arms.  My husband had the worst of it though.  Dragging the tree all that distance gave him a hernia, so although the tree only cost us $2.00, we paid for it in other ways later on.

We met more friends for a supper of homemade soup and bread, relieved to be back in the warmth of our friends' home where we could shed our wet boots and heavy coats.  The house was warm, but the air was tangy with the cold we brought in with us.  Little kids ran around in their sock feet, while the grown ups thawed out with hot mulled wine.  We were so young, just at the beginning of our long adulthood, with so much that was unknown still ahead of us.  We inhabited a space of relative innocence, when all a young family needed to be happy was healthy children, good friends, and the confidence that we would always be brave and strong and happy. 

The next day we put up the tree.  The house we lived in had 12-foot ceilings, but the tree had to be shortened to fit into the living room.  It's hard to judge the size of a tree when it's standing outside, just as a new couch is always much bigger in your living room than it was in the store.  Ah, but it was a gorgeous tree.  When only the Christmas-tree lights were turned on, a fire crackled in the fireplace, and the darkness outside rubbed against the windows like the velvet noses of reindeer, we were complete.  Now my sons are grown and I also have a daughter who has two sons of her own.  None of them remembers that Christmas, alas, but in my memory it will always be my one perfect Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson Strikes Some Sparks

Having recently read Sarah Bakewell's biography of Montaigne, I was interested to read an essay in Harper's Magazine about Emerson that includes a discussion of Montaigne's influence on him.  I think I feel about these great essayists the way I feel about opera: I absolutely love certain arias and passages, but I find listening to an entire opera tedious.  What I liked about the Bakewell biography was the quotations she extracted from the density of Montaigne's prose.  The Harper's article includes some thought-provoking quotes from Emerson as well, just enough to get me thinking....

"...after thirty a man [or woman] wakes up sad every morning."  I'll come back to this.

This resonated with me: "The style of middle age is a style of reappraisal, a style characterized by hesitation, by uncertainty, by the objects of the world rather than the passions that transport us from this world."  Remember that passage in Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" where Hemingway dismisses abstractions like "glory" and "honor" and says the only things that matter are the names of the roads.  I believe Emerson was saying something similar. 

I've been doing some reappraising of my own, especially now that I am over 60 (how is that even possible?), and I find my mind keeps turning to the past, specifically those things and moments that, for me, encapsulate the feeling I had--or remember having--when gleams of intense well-being shone through the tapestry of my life.  I don't think of these chinks of time as nostalgia; that's a more diffuse longing for a past of supposedly better times.  I'm not sure I find that particularly healthy.  I guess I'm a bit like Proust; these illuminated moments are usually triggered by a smell or the feel of the air on my skin or the cry of a mourning dove.  One sense feeds into a whole world of associations that don't so much transport me from the world as impress me more deeply into it. 

I spoke in praise of objects over abstractions, and here I am going on in a most abstract way.  So enough of that.  I would like to try to describe one of these memories and what it means to me, though I'm already sure I won't be able to do it adequately.  The thing is, I want to make you FEEL the same thing I do, and I am nearly certain that is impossible.  Still, I will try.

I am addicted to tea--regular English Breakfast but ordinary Lipton's will do in a pinch.  When I raise my mug to take that first sip and breathe in that fragrant steam, I am--for a brief moment--thrust back through time to the small town in Indiana where I grew up.  I can see our small backyard with my father's flower beds.  Gladiolas were his favorite--bright, gaudy flowers that stood upright and proudly announced themselves.  It is summer, though still cool in the mornings.  I have been ill for a long time, and I am ten years old.

This morning I am allowed outside because it is finally warm enough that I won't get a chill.  The sun warms me; it seems to soak right into my bones, yet that freshness of early morning mingles with the warmth so that I feel cool one minute and almost too warm the next.  My mother brings me a cup of tea, or perhaps it's my blue-willow tea set with the tiny cups.  At ten I did not know that I was destined to become an ardent Anglophile, but I already had the English taste for tea beautifully served.  I am not strong yet, but I no longer feel dizzy when I stand up and I can finally believe that one day soon I will be well.

That harmony of my senses lifts me into a state of mind that seems to hover above the grass, the flowers, the scent of hot tea.  In that hovering I feel what I can only call bliss--a suspension of joy that hangs in my mind as the breeze hangs in the branches of the pussy-willow I planted last year.  This is the part that is hard to describe.  I can tell you about the smell of cut grass or the flagrant blossoms of my dad's flowers or the feel of a teacup cradled in my hands, but the sense I am trying to capture is ineffable.  Today when I am sad or unwell, I try to imagine myself back into that scene where I was a child made serious by my illness but still untouched by the storms and tribulations that lay just ahead of me.  I was at the apogee of happiness, caught in that moment just as the incline begins to fall.  It is a moment tethered to the world around me as it was then, but it exists only in my mind.

Wordsworth spoke of "spots of time" when memory becomes meaning.  Perhaps that is what I am trying to evoke.  This sounds comforting, yet I agree with Emerson that after thirty everyone wakes up sad in the morning.  At least, I agree with him insofar as it applies to me.  I don't usually feel sad in the morning, but in unguarded or empty moments--like those upon first waking--I feel a sadness that clings to me like a spider web.  I did not feel this melancholy when I was a child, and I believe that summer memory I have just described is important to me because that was the last time life was uncomplicated and the only world I knew was lovely and safe.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


The wonderful thing about literature is the way a writer can describe something unique or very personal and make it seem as if you were reading your own thoughts.  Because some are able to plummet the depths and bring them to light with words, the rest of us are comforted.  I just read such a piece in the New Yorker that came today.  It's by Joyce Carol Oates and it's about the last week of her husband's life, his sudden illness, his hospitalization, their assumption that things would be all right, his unexpected death.

Of all the emotions we human beings feel, one of the strongest has to be grief.  Part of our fear of death is our fear of the grief that will follow the death of someone so important to our lives that life itself doesn't seem possible without them.  And yet people die, others grieve, and the world goes on.

Oates regrets not telling her husband just how much she loved him (though by her account it seems she did, whether she realizes that or not) and not being there when he died among "strangers."  Her account  is so poignant it makes your throat tighten and your eyes sting.  I hope she has good friends to comfort her.

Every detail of that last week is seared into Oates' heart in a string of moments that in retrospect are freighted with meaning.  For me, the moment that clings to my heart occurred a year before my mother died.  My mother was a lady, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.  She was genteel, soft-spoken, and calm.  To me she remains the ideal woman against whom I measure myself and come up short.  She taught middle-school art, refusing an offer to move to the high school because she loved her squirmy students and was good with them.  She was artistic, but she left it to my brother to be the artist.  She was an unfailing support to my father, a coach, who adored her but probably never realized how much she sacrificed for his sake.  My parents were a couple who were a closed world, much as it seems Joyce Carol Oates and her husband were.  They needed no one but each other.

I have a memory from when I must have been about three.  My parents were standing in the middle of our living room with their arms around each other.  I wanted to be included and put my little arms around both of them--at about knee level--but even then I knew that much as they might love me they needed each other more.  When I was a child, my security came from the stability of their marriage.   They shared their most important thoughts only with each other.  "I love you" wasn't part of the conversations they had with me.  I don't remember now the first person I ever said those words to, but I'm sure it wasn't either of my parents.

My mother lived to be 88, but she suffered a series of strokes during her last four years that left her speech impaired and confined her to a wheelchair.  She and my dad were in a nursing home that my mother had insisted they move into before one of them became so decrepit the facility would no longer admit them.  You had to be able to walk in the front door on day one.  So they moved from the home they had built and loved into two rooms with a microwave they never used.  Six weeks after moving in my mother suffered her first debilitating stroke.  From that point on we couldn't communicate by telephone; I ran everything through my dad, with whom I'd had maybe two serious conversations in my life.  I expressed concern; he tried to remain optimistic and never left her side.

This is when adult children step up to the plate and care for their parents, not as if they were dependent children but, yeah, sort of.  But I lived many hundreds of miles away, was a single mother with three children, and had an ill-paid part-time teaching job.  I was able to get back only about once a year at Christmas.  My nieces lived closer, and they were wonderful.

A year before my mother died I did make it home that summer for a week-long visit.  She had been in and out of the hospital and was just then in intensive care.  My brother was there too, and he, my dad, and I sat beside her bed and carried on a desultory conversation.  Beyond her hospital window were fields with cows grazing, and I was reminded of Auden's poem about Icarus falling into the sea while ordinary life proceeded unmindful of the extraordinary event.  I was leaving the next day, and I didn't believe my mother to be in immediate danger, but in her condition you never knew.  My dad left the room first, while my brother and I said our goodbyes.  He took her hand and spoke to her with such gentle kindness that I later told him that if I ever got sick I wanted him to take care of me.  I waited for him to leave, then I said goodbye.

"Let me know if there's anything I can do, and if you need me to come back, just say the word."  She nodded with comprehension and tried to say something, but she couldn't finish a sentence.  I leaned over and kissed her forehead, then I, too, left the room.  My brother and dad were waiting for me by the elevators, and as we descended to the first floor I felt as if I were being strangled.  If I so much as tried to utter a single word, I was sure I would burst into tears, and that I simply would not do.  As we rode the elevator in silence, I knew that I would never see her again, and when she died a year later I had not been able to afford to return in all that time.  Did my parents want to see me but not want to impose?  Did they prefer to be left alone to face this together?  Were they disappointed that I never came?  I will never know.

My dad lived four more years, increasingly deaf, increasingly isolated.  When he was nearing the end, I went to see him and it was clear he didn't have long.  I didn't want to have the same regrets with my dad as I did with my mother, and I told him what a great father he had been and how much I loved him.  He said, "That's very meaningful," then paused.  "I'll be with your mother soon."  Those might not have been his last words, but they're the last ones I remember.  I do so hope he was right.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two Things on my Mind

Singing and scones.  First, singing.  I just listened to Chanticleer singing "O Come, O Come Immanuel" on the radio.  It was ethereal and transcendent.  Yet again I wished I had a great singing voice.  To be able to open your mouth and produce a sweet, piercing sound that makes people's eyes well up would be to me a truly magical power.  Like beauty, a great voice is something you either have or you don't.  No amount of hard work will ever produce golden tones.

I remember a girl I knew in college; she lived on my floor in my freshman dorm.  I don't even remember her name now.  But I remember her voice.  A group of us would sit around on the floor late at nights, smoke cigarettes, and sing folk songs, and her voice rose above the others like pure silver.  I so much wanted to be able to do what she did so effortlessly, but it was not to be.  The only singing I've ever done is to my kids when they were small, and I even put an end to that when my then-two-year old daughter looked up at me pleadingly and said, "Mommy, don't sing."  Everyone's a critic.


I have a perfect Christmas memory.  (Actually, I have many, but here's one.)  I once lived in Canada where there was a village untouched by commercialism and the tourist onslaught that later devoured it.  There was a main street that ran along a canal, with a bridge at one end and an old mill with a waterwheel at the other.  The buildings were all made of stone, weathered by centuries of northern winters.  In them were shops that sold wooden toys imported from Scandanavia or handmade candles and wooly mitts or beer from anywhere in the world.  There was a tea shop, run by two Scottish grannies, that was a welcome refuge from the cold, the leaden skies, and an afternoon of shopping.  The wood floor creaked comfortingly, a fireplace crackled with warmth and light, and tea was served in giant pots engulfed in tea cozies.  The scones came with clotted cream and strawberry jam, homemade of course.

The tea shop was not  a twee imitation concocted by marketers but a plain and simple place where everything seemed about a hundred years old, the leaded windows still held the wavy glass of earlier times, and the Scottish accents of the ladies whose domain this was took you quite out of yourself.  They understand comfort in the British Isles.  Sitting in that tea shop all those years ago, with a good friend and our two babies, drinking endless cups of tea while the babies dozed in their strollers and we ordered another round of scones--it WAS Christmas--I couldn't imagine that anything in my life would ever go wrong.

What the Hell?

What the hell are the Republicans trying to do?  And why are the American people letting them get away with it?  To take just one issue--the extension of unemployment benefits--the Republicans say we can't afford it.  We have to cut spending (more like slash and burn) AND taxes, as if starving government programs would somehow solve our financial problems.  What "cutting spending" means is this: families with disabled children (picture a ten-year old who can only eat through a tube, can't speak, can't walk, can't bathe herself) will lose desperately-needed services; more families will be driven to the wall by ballooning medical costs; more people who seek employment will feel like failures because there are no jobs in sight; and the economy will still be in the toilet.

Over and over, I hear economists--famous, reputable ones--say, let government keep people afloat and create jobs in the short term, and plan on reducing the deficit in the long-term.  The Republican drumbeat is that raising taxes discourages job-creation, that government is the problem and can't be trusted.  What amazes me is how so many Americans fail to recognize that the government is us.  Everyone in Congress is there because enough Americans wanted them to be there.  Our government is not an occupying army.  If Congress refuses to extend unemployment benefits, what that says to me is that America is a selfish country, at least half of whose people (the majority of voters in our last election) lack the compassion to imagine what it feels like to be poor or to be caught up in circumstances beyond one's control.

There are two ways to go.  As a people, we can band together to create a  compassionate, fair, tolerant society and make decisions based on those values, or we can make money the measure of all things.  I love that challenge to create a hypothetical society without knowing where you would fit into it.  What if you were plunked down in a society as a gay person or a woman or a disabled person?  Would the society you "created" be as good for you as for everyone else?  The society we have now is very good for rich people.  Money rules.  I am flabbergasted that people who stand to lose the most were the very ones who elected a Congress that is intent on protecting the wealthy while slashing away at programs that benefit the majority of us.

Others have articulated my position far better than I--Paul Krugman and Robert Reich to name two--but I want to register my protest against the madness.  Americans are angry.  I am angry.  I am especially angry at the wizards of Wall Street who led us into this ravine, but I am angry too at those who fail to realize that whoever started this mess, we are all going to have to help clean it up.  Before we pull the rug out from under ordinary people, let's raise taxes to the levels of the Reagan or Clinton eras.  An undertaxed society is a starved society.  Too many of our citizens are going hungry, and we damn well better do something about it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Now I Get It

I think about my mother a lot.  She has been gone for many years, but I feel I am still working out my relationship with her--trying to find the truth of it, as it were.  Did I really "get" her?  I was sure she didn't "get" me, but now that I am "of a certain age" I'm beginning to think she perhaps understood me better than I thought.  I certainly hope so, because if she did there's a chance she might have forgiven me for all the difficulties I brought into her life.

Everyone gets a cold; it's one of the inconveniences of life.  It hardly qualifies as a major life crisis, yet when you're in the throes of one, nothing is more important than how miserable you feel.  So too, everyone gives their parents fits.  One of the givens of family life is conflict, and that conflict is a two-way street, with both parents and their children providing their fair share.  Out of this conflict comes guilt, the low-grade fever that blunts happiness.  I assume everyone feels something like this, so what's the big deal?  A cold, guilt--they're ubiquitous, so why dwell on them?  I think often of Tolstoy's first line in Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike.  Unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way."  (Forgive the undoubtedly inexact quote.)  Since I've taken up this blog to get things off my chest and to try to figure out my life, I'm taking license to indulge in self-examination and giving myself permission to be solipsistic, so, gentle reader, be warned.  My feelings--well--feel unique to me.  They are most interesting to me.  If they are of interest to you, so much the better.  The great thing about blogs is that they're not assigned reading (at least I don't think so).

I could cite chapter and verse of my growing up years, and maybe someday I'll lift the lid a bit on some of the more interesting passages (is that a mixed metaphor?)  What concerns me here is the way I feel as if my shadow is gradually filling in the shadow laid down by my mother, the one I have lived beneath since I had memory.  I remember her telling me that after she retired she had too much time to think.  I had no idea what she meant, and I still don't know what passed through her mind.  She never confided in me, so I can only guess what apparently troubled her.  Now I am retired, and I think I'm beginning to understand a little of what she might have meant.

 Here's what I hope: That my mother understood that my adult life was like spinning plates atop sticks.  Remember those from the Ed Sullivan Show?  (Only if you're a geezer like me.)  So much energy and attention goes toward keeping the whole show on the road that it's hard for anything else to catch your attention, let alone hold it.  I lived far from my parents and saw them on average twice a year for a week each time.  That is nothing!  Of course my mother had time to think; she had 50 weeks a year to do nothing else.  So one of the things I feel guilty about is the distance I allowed to exist between me and my parents over decades.  One of my horrors is being lonely in old age, and I am afraid my parents often were.  How do you apologize to people who are no longer alive?  And don't tell me they're in heaven where they see and know all.  I wish that were true,  I deeply wish it, but I know it isn't so.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Welcome to my blog

After much thought and with some trepidation, I have decided to write a blog, or at least to begin one. Whether I shall be the hero of my own blog remains to be seen (pace Dickens). When I was a teacher, I had an audience that I very much enjoyed. I relished the give-and-take of the classroom and the chance to speak my mind--to a degree. I tried, though, not to impose my own religious, political, or otherwise controversial views on my students. My job was to teach, not to indoctrinate. But now I am retired, I am getting older and ornerier, and I have opinions. Before it is too late, I would like to share some of them, partly in hopes of persuading others, but mostly, I suppose, simply to get things off my chest. Putting things into words has always been my outlet; in fact, nothing seems entirely real to me until I dress it in language. I believe in the power of the word, and despite the fact that I wish my own facility with words was far better than it is, I still want/need to speak my mind. If you don't like what I have to say, don't read my blog, but I intend to tell the truth as I see it--finally and at long last.