Saturday, February 22, 2014

Declined

Another rejection. The recognition that this may be a pivotal moment, the quickening of the pulse and the clutching of the stomach, the body's stupidly predictable sympathetic response for naught. The index finger tearing open the envelope more or less neatly as befitting the stature of the publication, the quick scanning of eyes down the page ferreting out key words like 'sorry' or 'regret.' And 'although.' Always that. Or the opening of an email at the most inopportune time because it feels impossible not to know an outcome. In that event at least there exists no physical reminder of defeat, no hastily torn envelope or shortest letter deemed 'polite enough.' A quick delete of the offending no-thank-you is all it takes. I prefer the poison email to the poison pen.

I wonder why I continue to subject myself to such regularly scheduled disappointment. Why should it matter whether my name is attached to some words that have made their way into the arena of public scrutiny? I did not even keep my birth name. It would be my husband's name in print, just as well, I suppose. I never took to my given name. I do not feel defined by my maiden or married name, and yet a name (whichever one) is all that would stand between my writing and a stranger's eyes. It's inscrutable, really.

Perhaps when enough well-meaning souls suggest that it's only a matter of months or circumstance before you will be known to many, you can't help but believe them. Even if it's only reflexive kindness that your loved ones are offering, like homemade dinners on injury or the birth of a baby. A salad and dessert too?

I want none of this to matter. I might hope to be JD Salinger, not publishing because he saw no need of it. Except we all know that JD Salinger didn't much want to be JD Salinger, and he wasn't publishing for an entirely different, much darker reason.

If only I could voice the words in my head and let the air catch them. On the wind's back they'd travel far and wide, landing where they might, doing what good they could. If they caused a bird to sing out for the first time, if a plant grew taller or lusher on the diet of my words, I would never even know, but for this: on some spring day I'd notice that the earth smelled a little sweeter, the sky appeared a little bluer, and the sun shone perceptibly brighter. 

But that is not enough, whether or not I've managed to convey the reason. So I blink back tears and carry on, my aspirations more and more a source of embarrassment and shame -- aspirations as uncontrollable in their way as that stupidly predictable nervous system of mine.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Once, Maybe

I was dreaming about my first neighborhood, cranky Mr. Epstein with arms crossed at the counter in his stationery store, Mr. Epstein who peered crossly at all the children he expected to make messes and steal gum or perhaps a package of Lifesavers. The bank on the corner with its polished granite floor, the way it smelled like a crisp new twenty-dollar bill, ink and paper and the hush of wealth. Michael's, with its garishly painted toy cars to sit in while enduring the indignity of having one's hair cut, which I never thought was much of an indignity, bottles of blue barbicide along with a real honest-to-God barber's pole out front, and the promise of cellophane-wrapped lollipops, red if you were lucky. The Jackson Hole restaurant for burgers and milkshakes and, always, the story of when I was a baby and my mother left my unwieldy English pram outside the plate glass storefront while she lunched with my grandmother, "but everyone did that, Sarah, it was a different time." The pebbled sidewalk around Brick Church, and the pleasant buzz in my head from my skateboard's wheels battling its rough surface, no shock absorbers or kneepads in sight. The strange little overmanicured garden at the Cooper-Hewitt where I liked to sit on a bench, squeeze my eyes shut, and imagine the museum my house, as it was indeed some child's house, once. The Good Humor truck in front of the Guggenheim that set my small heart racing with the anticipation of a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar. I must have been smiling in my dream, remembering all these lovely things, and more: the wind singing tonelessly past my ears as my brother and I raced banana bikes down an access road in Central Park. But then you showed up and told me that I was wrong, that this memory couldn't possibly be accurate, because thus-and-so, and the same for that memory, and all the rest. I trembled, I think, retorted, "You weren't there! How could you know?" And then, yes, you actually smirked, and I remembered something else, visiting Dr. Moloshok and sitting on the examining table for so long, my white Carter's underwear not nearly enough to keep me from shivering as I waited in a tiny dark room for the nurse (Mrs. Bell, in hilarious contrast to the name of my first-grade teacher: Miss Ring) in her white uniform and cap to arrive with her stainless steel tray of syringes and do the dirty work of protecting me against funny long words that translated, somehow, into death. And the cellophane-wrapped lollipop proffered by the receptionist after the fact finally feeling like the bribe it was always intended to be.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Before the Thaw

I watched my boy tear across
Our back yard to the bus, late:
A lucky break for all the children
Who tend by nature to fall behind.
Still he battled hard against such
Inconvenient late-season weather,
High as his twelve-year knees, snow
Like filling crusted by mottled ice
Pierced through to a long slushy
Trip all the way to earth's surface
Hidden 'til spring, its tender young
Scalp scented with dirt and light.

February snow just like my heart:
Hardened, beleaguered, streaked
By mud and salt, less ugly than just
Plain. And yet: you might stomp
Through to me, you know. I would
Allow you this sweet slow slide
Too soft to quicken your pulse
Until you stop, surprised by what
You've uncovered: soil richly dark
Hosting all manner of plants fairly
Straining towards life, keeping time
With the beat of my tone-deaf heart.




Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ode to My Grandmother on Her 103rd Birthday

There’s such a thing as too old,
There really is
, you confided,
And I nodded, willingly enough.
(I did not believe, and you knew it.)
But I’m older, now, each day closer
To understanding, to sight.
I saw darkness fall, shuttering
Your sickly eyes, your waiting books.
You mourned them silently,
As was your way. A sigh here,
Another there, the breath
Barely audible. (I heard.)
All my friends are dead,
You announced, one morning
Over coffee, as sunlight striped
Photos of all the smiling grands
And greats. Then you made a choice:
You shook with mirth, and irony.
I adored you in that minute,
Your rueful crooked grin, your
Belief in the privacy of grief
Undimmed by age, by familiar pain,
Though you did place withered hands
On broken knees, and wince. (I saw.)
Once it was your gift to make a thing
From air, or dirt. You spun silk
Indoors before ten, outdoors at four.
I studied. Chagrined, I discovered
I hadn’t inherited your skill or ease.
You forgave me then, and later.
You found an old typewriter, set me free.
Write a letter, to your dad,
You said, Or something else.
I chose else. Soon I thrust paper near
Your whirling form. You stopped to read.
Hmm, you offered, a little pleased.
Much later I found that poem,
If one could call it that,
Among my father’s papers. You’d
Sent it on to him, that very day.
Dick, you’d scrawled,
This one likes her words.
The September night you lay dying,
I drove an unfamiliar route, just
So I might reach you in time. But
Nearly lost, I registered a voice,
My sister’s, choked: I, you, hadn’t made it.
I sobbed on the shoulder of I-78.
You were one hundred and one years old
When you died, too old for your liking,
But not, ever, for ours. Where you live now,
Can you be of use? I imagine you so.
I watch you wheel from this to that,
I watch your busy hands. They fly.
written in 2010

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Farewell To Grief

Five years have passed since my mother died. When you've had cancer, the five-year mark is profoundly significant. At five years with no recurrence, you are considered to be free of disease. Any subsequent cancer is diagnosed as a primary event, unrelated to the first. Grief feels the same to me. I would no longer call myself someone grieving. The loss is present, of course; that will never change. But the anguish, the anger, the rawness: these are gone. When I remember my mother, it is with an overriding fondness and nostalgia. Everything is soft, as if blurred for effect. There is no glare, there are no harsh planes. If there were a setting attached to my mind's pictures of my mother, it would be twilight in a New York City spring, the trees blossoming white and green.

There was no discernible moment when the grief stopped and tenderness took its place. The transition was as gentle as what it's left behind. Oh sure, isolated incidents can freeze me in my tracks, but these are more likely to be times when I am struck by the knowledge of being the only living ancestor of the younger people I love. My own ancestors, by and large, are now dead. I am the person who represents my family of origin, and that responsibility, that charge, can weigh heavy.

I still reach to call my mother, to tell her something about my children, or to share with her the latest political catastrophe. Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge scandal, yes that she would love. But I laugh when I do, at my own forgetfulness, coupled paradoxically with the stubborn memory of 10 consecutive digits I could dial in my sleep: 212-988-5523. Don't try calling; there's no one there.

When my brother, my sister-in-law, and I carried my mother's ashes to a stream in the deep woods of Connecticut, it was a rainy, cold morning. We pressed through overgrown foliage, knee-high in spots, to reach the stream, really more a trickle of water sluicing a jumble of rocks. The deed was more noble, more emotionally fraught, in anticipation than in reality.

That night, I pulled a tick off of my leg. The tick felt like a message from my mother, across death's unknowable distance. It was never clear what the message might have been, but sometimes, in my anger, and in hers just before she died, I thought it was a Screw-you! kind of message, a How-could-you-have-put-me-in-a-nursing-home-and-left-me-to-die? message. Or perhaps it was an I-will-leave-my-mark-even-if-it-hurts! sort of missive.

Today I see it for what it was: a tick, common enough in northwestern Connecticut.  The fact that the tick infected me, that I was forced to down six weeks' worth of antibiotics later that spring to prevent Lyme disease from settling in my body, was only a byproduct of where I was, not what I was doing. Sometimes a tick is just a tick.

Five years, and I'm calling it: this episode of grief is done. Subsequent grief will be freshly cutting, like all grief, but I am gladdened to have learned through personal experience that it too will remit, not with a holler but with an unintelligible whisper, akin to the soothing whoosh you hear when you hold a snail's shell up close to your ear: the sound of tides rising and falling, the sound of our collective history.