Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bouquet

In the shop he hems and haws,
Each bud an act of penance.
The sweet young girl, she's offered
To gather a most felicitous bunch,
But how can he allow it? (When 
Sweet young girls as good as
Propelled him into this store,
At closing time on a chilly Friday.)
So choose he does, and the result
Is homely without a hint of quaint.

At home his wife jams the offering
In a cheap glass jug. She refrains
From arranging, hiding a rogue 
Or wilted bloom behind a good one,
As she would tuck her daughter's
Flyaway hair behind one seashell ear.
Dinner is silent, but for the chewing.
Shuddering, she pictures all the jaws
Clenching and yawing, caught out
In their seamy act of mastication.

The flowers betray nothing more than
Their smell, the way they flirt with bees.
He thinks of nature: picnics and the like.
The child with the seashell ear squirms
To be released into fresher air, as the 
Blooms would, surely, if they could.
But the wife, she has caught the scent
Of something dying, cloyingly sweet
Like the perfume her Nana wore well
Into her nineties. They sprayed it on her
In her casket, even; it wet the satin lining
But refused absorption by her paper-skin.

In the bin the flowers go, with the gristly
Bits of roast and too-tough celery.
It's so much more honest, she thinks
As she tosses them in, They're already
Dead, were so even as he begged them
To conspire in this warm meal served 
With a full, forgiving kind of silence.

Not one in this family seeing the poor flowers
As anything but signifiers of whatever else.
So let's discuss the flowers on the table, at last.
The flowers that keep straining toward the past:
Halcyon days, when instinct's pull forbade deceit.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gravy and Tears

It started with a gravy boat. A silver gravy boat that graces our table once or twice a year, at holidays. "This gravy boat doesn't pour straight," my husband told the boys tonight, "but we use it, because it's an heirloom." It was a funny statement, and it was true, also. Gravy spills over the rim and puddles underneath the boat. "Maybe," my husband mused, considering, "there was once a ladle that went with it." "Probably," I agreed, "but there's no one left to ask."

I was fine until that moment. I hadn't missed the two grandmothers and the one mother who made me, well, me, with so much more intention and follow-through than that one chance encounter of sperm and egg managed to do. How can it be that I can't call any one of them to ask them about the damn gravy boat?

And then I felt such profound loneliness as I looked around the Thanksgiving table to see the faces of people whom I love (and that is so important), yet who know nothing of the person I was for the greater part of my life. You know that loneliness, yes? The loneliness you feel at the end of a relationship, when you realize that it is chillier to be with him than to be away from him?

Of course it's always worse at the holidays, because one's own childhood experience of them resonates at such a high frequency - whines, demands, insists, insinuating itself into the present so thoroughly that it might as well be sitting next to you at the table. One familiar smell, and BOOM. Christmas, 1971. Or Thanksgiving, 1982. 

Anyway. Later I turned on the TV to find Charlie Brown, old buddy, unchanged, thankfully, and I smiled, and cried, and smiled some more. 

Children of mine, remember to ask me the important questions, like why the hell the gravy boat doesn't work right, while I sit here ready, willing, and able to answer them.

(Only I do see, I really do, how it is that the right questions cannot possibly occur to any of us until it's too late.)




Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cuisine

I clamber onto her bed, where she is eating breakfast on a tray. It is close to noon, soon to be time for my lunch. I nibble on her bacon and spoon golden bubbles out of her Medaglia D’Oro coffee. Her hair, usually wound tight into a chignon, falls loose and grey over her dressing gown. Bacon and coffee and the smell of her intermingle until I am drowsy with bliss.
+++++++++++++++++++++
My grandmother, like Julia Child, took a course at the Cordon Bleu. She learned the art of French cooking: milkfat. And we — my mother, my brother, and I — were the beneficiaries of her training. I was raised on choucroutes and cassoulets, soufflés and cheese puffs, spanakopita and sesame beef crepes, liver and tongue. My brother and I learned to tiptoe past the oven while the cheese soufflé was baking, or else the soufflé might fall. Catastrophe! (To us a fallen soufflé was not much different from its puffed up brother. But we would not have wished to disappoint someone who offered us, time and again, gastronomic bounty. So we whispered and crept, and the soufflé was glorious, regal and tall.)
Later I helped my grandmother in the kitchen. I added a hint of cinnamon, a dash of salt, a teaspoon of vanilla. The shock of sneaking a drop of vanilla onto my tongue, only to find it bitter and heavy. But then: Imagine, Sarah, she smiled, How vanilla tastes once it is cooked. Cooking, it’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?
Rapt, I nodded. The awful taste of the vanilla did not linger.
+++++++++++++++++++++
When my second son was a baby, he’d purr at the taste of food. We found it so amusing that we’d feed him goodies just to hear the incongruously deep thrum of contentment rise up from a compact little thing who couldn’t yet walk, who hadn’t yet grown one hair on his round, perfect head.
“Maybe he’ll be a chef,” I marveled. My husband narrowed his eyes. “Maybe,” he pronounced darkly, “he’ll eat too much.”
+++++++++++++++++++++
My grandmother and my lastborn child did not overlap. She did not lay eyes on this boy who enjoys his food so much. I mourn, sometimes, for him, that he will never be able to burrow into his great-grandmother’s bed and sample from her breakfast. Never know her, never know her food, never scoop up the golden bubbles in her coffee and taste richness and complexity, a hint of adulthood right there in the Medaglia D’Oro.
written in 2009 for Babette, whom I miss every day, but especially at the holidays

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Resurrecting Humpty Dumpty

I used to fall apart regularly. Sensitive children do that. Interactions with unfamiliar people or with familiars angry or sad chapped my insides just as bitter cold does exposed skin. Young, I tended to seek solace in my left thumb, my quilt, and the floor of my bedroom closet. Like the boy in the film The Sixth Sense who could see dead people, I claimed a sixth sense, but mine involved the ability to see through straight into a person's emotional core. What I observed often terrified me, because as a child I lacked the experience to attribute feeling to its proper source, or indeed to any source at all.

Today we use the term 'empath' to describe a kid like me.

I never much enjoyed it, my radar for others' emotional pain. I ended up deliberately structuring my life to involve a small but close set of acquaintances and friends, and by and large this strategy has limited the number of times I fall apart. Also, I choose to invest my energy mostly in the daily obligations of life as a parent, spouse, and co-worker. When I feel myself getting pulled into another person's emotional life, I take one step back. Please understand: I am not a bad friend. One step is not very far, but it seems enough to preserve my well-being. 

I had planned to be a therapist, and I would have made a damn fine one, it's true. (Does this show of confidence make me seem boastful? I've committed to being honest here.) But even early in my training I understood, with some shame and more regret, that I would never be able to leave clients' woes in the office, where at the end of the day they surely belonged. So I chose differently, and I have not often been sorry.

+++++++++++++++++++++

All this is to say that I haven't felt truly overwhelmed in a long time.

Until this week. The details are trivial in and of themselves. It was their timely conspiring that felled me. And so I found myself parking my car in the lot of a grocery store where I'd intended to shop and sobbing noisily into the steering wheel. The ugly cry that Claire Danes has perfected in the TV series Homeland, you know the one: hiccuping breaths, squinchy eyes, puffy red cheeks, snotty nose. A look even less pleasing on an adult than it is on a child. A woman settled herself into the car facing mine, and her gaze met mine, briefly. She smiled, not unsympathetically, and I was grateful, both for the flash of understanding I saw there and for her seeming respect for my privacy.

I called my husband, and I was blubbering, but he listened, and said the right things (things that reminded me: We have known each other for over twenty years, and those two decades, they do matter), and offered to do the right things, and there I was, grateful again, both to be known, really known, and to have a number I can call when I fall apart. More than one number, in fact: how lucky am I! My thumb, my baby quilt, my bedroom closet: two of these are lost to me, and the other is not the comfort object it once was. But at the other end of the line, a person who gets me, and in spite of all the petty grievances is willing to catch me should I stumble. When you think about it, isn't that why we marry?

And so what I am grateful for, on this Thanksgiving, is that I am known, through periods of strength and frailty, and that my partner does not turn away but towards.

With that comes my wish that you might feel the same about a person in your life, someone who will gather up your pieces and sew you whole again, no matter how crooked the seam. And if there's no such person, may there be a stranger in another car, observing you not with indifference but with love. An empath. Yes, may there be an empath.







Saturday, November 23, 2013

Where I Am From

I am from concrete and piss and the smell of the elephant house at the Central Park Zoo.

From pâté and the ballet and the World Trade Center before it was through. 

From museums and paste, mimeographs and waste, and dodgeball, too. 

I am from fire hydrants and roasted chestnuts, the whale room and the reservoir, the best way to make a roux. 

(I am not from cows that moo.) 

I am from the nitty and the gritty and from blinded horses' poo. 

I am from Broadway and Soho, the East Side, the West, the Great Lawn, true --

But more than all of these,

I am from the legions of pigeons that bustle, hustle, and coo, though never at you.


Thanks to Elan and Alexandra for the inspiration, although I have not followed the prescribed template.

Because Anne Lamott Said So

Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground - you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move. (Anne Lamott, excerpted from Bird By Bird)

I stumble into wakefulness. A refrain, left over from some dream I cannot catch, keeps time with my pulse. "What is grace?," I mutter, as I make my sleep-addled way to the bathroom. I repeat the question but cannot make sense of it in the clarifying morning light.

+++++++++++++++++++++

I've been writing online for years now. The first year I blogged I published new content every single day. And it was not hard. I marveled at the number of stories that had seemingly been waiting for just this moment in time, stories I didn't even know I could tell until I was telling them. 

It was only later that I ran out of stories. That inside my head was nothing more consequential than a grocery list and some loose change swaddled in lint, a reminder of having lived inside someone's pocket through several washings.

But this was my mistake, or my foolishness. I hadn't run out of stories at all. I had shared the stories I believed interesting, or pretty, or dramatic.

That left the messy, incomplete, and hard stories, but it still left stories. "Stories that no one but me would want to read," I scoffed. For saying which the Anne in my head, who may or may not be the real Anne, admonished me, "If you are a real writer, you will write what needs to be written, not what you think others want to read."

Grace is recognizing that I may write the messy, incomplete, and hard stories, and you will not care to read them. Grace is understanding that I might write a lifetime's worth of words and never see them published.

Grace is learning to find joy in the release of my thoughts no matter where or whether they land.

And so today's story is small but packs a punch:

I live (as in own a house, as in lay my head on a pillow each night, as in maintain a mailing address) on Grace Street. What irony, then, that I've been searching for grace everywhere but here, on Grace Street.






Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Bridge Between His Tragedy and Her Joy is Empathy

When you live in a small town, everything feels personal. It isn't necessarily so, but it always feels that way. On Friday night, a university student fell off of a ninth floor balcony and died. It's not clear just yet whether he was under the influence of alcohol, or depressed, or both. Perhaps it was only an accident. But whatever its cause, it turns out that the student was enrolled in the class my husband is currently teaching. "What should I do about his grade?," my husband mused. "His parents may want to know how he was doing." I sighed and replied that there are probably protocols in place for what professors ought to do in such a situation. "Yes," he agreed, and fell silent. I expect that we were both thinking that this kid -- because he was just a kid, wasn't he? -- was only two or three years older than our firstborn son. Because that's what humans do, often -- make connections.

Hours after the death of the university student, on Saturday morning proper, a bicyclist and a motorist collided at one of the busiest intersections in town. Severe head injury, I read in the local paper. No name yet published. But our community is not large, and my husband and I found ourselves considering whether we might in fact know the bicyclist, the motorist, or -- an awful coincidence, surely -- both.

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine at work is on leave as she cares for her husband, who has long suffered from colon cancer and is now in hospice. We at work are offering money so that my coworker and her family might be able to eat a Thanksgiving dinner without worrying about taking the time to prepare it. Time is at its most precious for this family just now. I can't help raging inwardly about the scourge of cancer, how it takes so many people from us, and far too young besides. This man is only fifty-one years old. As his family members eat (or fail to eat?) their Thanksgiving meal, will they be able to avoid feeling as if Thanksgiving ought to have been canceled this year, or to avoid asking themselves what exactly there is to be thankful for?

++++++++++++++

All this I place in relation to the horror that recently unspooled in the Philippines. So many dead. I am unable to wrap my mind around the sheer numbers. I keep returning to the hope that death was quick, at least for many of the victims of the Asian typhoon, but I suspect that I am defensively attempting to put a positive spin on something that contains no positives, none at all.

++++++++++++++

The thread that stitches together the incidents in my town and the one that continue more than halfway across the world is my helpless empathy in the face of them. I can throw money at victims' funds and Thanksgiving dinners, and I suppose that doing so is better than doing nothing. But why then do I feel so terrible? My imagination has always been outsized. I close my eyes and imagine a wave washing over me, a rush of indifferent water separating me from my small child. Or I ruminate about how one says goodbye to a person who is dying. In theory I have experience in this area. I spent plenty of time with my mother in the season of her dying. But I never really said what I wanted or needed to say to her. Either I was afraid, or the moment simply didn't present itself the way it does in the movies. Or maybe I try to understand how I would feel if I were a motorist who hit a human being with my vehicle. Pretty awful, needless to say.

How does all this angst translate into anything productive? Or does it assert itself as a reminder that I am human, that we are all human, prone to the vagaries of wind, sea, and circumstance? Empathy surely allows me to treat those in my tiny sphere of influence with kindness and understanding. Maybe that's why we feel so acutely: so that we can be better friends, parents, lovers, humans.

++++++++++++++

Sometime between when this college kid -- only a sophomore! -- fell off of a balcony and the time the bicyclist and motorist had the misfortune to cross paths hours later, a friend of mine gave birth to a healthy, robust nine-pound boy. A beauty, as all newborns are, if you ask me. At the news I felt a wave of serenity and love so strong for this child, this boy whom I've never met and probably never will. Empathy, again. The other side of the coin. Welcome to the world, Marshall, I gushed.

And maybe that's it? That for all the tragedy, there is so much joy. That world-wide four babies are born every single second. Four lives that so recently were only theoretical. Four minds that might just work in wonderful and novel ways, enabling a cure for colon cancer, or the design of a bicycle helmet that eliminates severe head injuries, or the development of a system allowing us to predict dangerous meteorological events weeks in advance, early enough to save untold numbers of lives.

If we didn't mourn for people, could we feel such joy on their behalf?


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Balthazar

In the school hallway a perpetually sunny six-year-old boy, a child in another primary classroom, stops and stares at me. "Wait," he puzzles. "Are you really a doctor, I mean in real life?" I have dressed in a doctor's coat and looped a stethoscope around my neck, because it is Halloween. My best friend is a physician, and she has kindly lent me my costume. ("No doctors wear doctor coats these days," she tells me on the day before Halloween. "Take it for as long as you'd like.")

At the boy's question I suppress a grin and answer, "No. Only on Halloween." This, by the way, is why I love children. They believe that I might just leave work every day and go to my other job as a physician. Their thoughts and dreams are expansive and bold. Anything is possible.

"But you are a doctor!," calls out our classroom intern, and she winks at me. "A different kind of doctor," I acknowledge. The boy looks from me to her and back at me. Now he looks mightily confused. "Happy Halloween!," I say brightly, as I sweep him down the hallway towards his classroom. At which point I may or may not take a swipe at the chuckling intern.

++++++++++++++

My children have started asking me questions. I've long wondered not only when this moment would arrive but also how I would handle myself in its presence.

"So, Mom." This from my eleven-year-old. "You have a PhD, like Dad. Why don't you train to become a teacher? You totally could." I smile at his faith in me. I agree. I totally could.

I explain that I wanted so much to raise him and his brother, that being a mother, for me, was and is a goal in and of itself. I add that this time is precious. His older brother will start college in fewer than three years.

He nods, but I study his face and realize that he does not understand. Or does not agree. Maybe he will understand, once he has children of his own. Maybe he won't. Should I care?

++++++++++++++

At lunch I sit with the children in my classroom. It is my favorite part of my day with them. They tell me stories, about themselves and their families. They share age-appropriate jokes funny only to themselves. I answer with jokes of my own, jokes I remember my own children telling at six and seven years old. They are open and generous with their inner selves. They are wondrous: all potential. They have most of their lives yet to live. They will laugh and love and eat and drink and grieve and learn and cry happy and sad and frustrated tears. They will go places and see people and sights they never even knew to imagine. They will bear children, become mothers and fathers themselves. They, most of them at least, will know what it means to grow old. Some will make choices and sacrifices similar to my own, and others will sacrifice in different ways.

But just now they are little more than clay that sits sealed off from air and light and waits to be shaped into forms, each form novel, each form promising things valuable and worthwhile.

++++++++++++++

I view myself these days as Balthazar. I am as wise as the people with whom I journey. I offer my unique gifts. But my wisdom and my gifts do not stand alone. They complete others' wisdom and gifts just as they are completed by others' wisdom and gifts. Lately, when I sleep at night, I sleep untroubled. If when I die the public does not mourn for lack of knowing me, there are still twenty-some fresh faces each year who brighten at my presence, and on whose shoulders I lay my hands: to guide, to protect, to motivate.

They call me Mrs. P., not - never! - Dr. P. And to the call of "Mrs. P.!," I raise my head and help mold another form. The beauty is that there seems an infinite supply of workable clay in every shade of every color, and black and white besides.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Thirteen Years

What you see is this: leaves on the ground and on the trees, brilliant fall colors that would seem impossible if you hadn't observed them yourself, blinking once or twice to verify. A plastic picnic table of the Little Tikes variety. A chain-link fence to separate the preschool's playground from the rest of the university. And three people: a young mother and father crouching next to a very little boy whose hand rests comfortably on his dad's chest. That hand says, "He is mine. They are mine. I am theirs."

The boy's life will shudder and heave in a year or two when he becomes a big brother and refuses to speak to his mother for days to punish her betrayal. But all of that sturm und drang is yet to come.

It is the child's third birthday, and his parents have brought cake to share among the boy's classmates. An older mother (her boy is a friend of the birthday boy, and also her youngest child, the youngest of three) offers to snap a few photos of the event. "You will want these later," she says, and her tone is authoritative. The young mother is dismayed. She did not dress for pictures. Her hair has been restyled by a brisk October wind. She keeps forgetting to lose those extra pounds. Mentally she frames her regretful no-thank-you, but the other mother's gaze is fierce and long, and under its sway she can only nod her assent.

A few months later she opens an envelope and finds the photos from her son's birthday. Absently she shuffles through them and puts them aside.

Until that birthday boy is sixteen years old, and most everything has changed, except for the yellows, reds, and oranges of the October trees. The preschool has been razed. The family is now a family of four, not three. It's been a long time since the birthday boy felt as if he were the only sun about which his parents orbited.

As for the photographer's prelude ("You will want these later," a mere five words), years gone by have shaped it into prophecy: truth, guileless as a newborn, in each and every photo.

Small revelations abound.

You will want these later.