Welcome to News and Notes

For a long time I avoided using the word blog, since it ranks as one of the ugliest words in the English language, right up there with puce and ointment. Refusing to use the word, however, does not change the fact that this page has become one. From now on I will be posting not only news about publications and events, but also new short essays, along with longer essays that have already appeared elsewhere.

Please feel free to leave comments or contact me through this site.

Finally, the black and white photograph in the banner above was taken by Mimi Crawford. I urge you to visit her site as well. She's a terrific photographer.

Grown Children essay in LHJ

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(This essay appeared in LHJ last year.)

When my daughter was in second grade she transferred to a new school. That was 20 years ago, but I remember it all vividly. On either side of the classroom door there were narrow glass panels, and if you stood at just the right angle, you could see into the room. The first day I watched my daughter fight back tears when the other girls huddled together with their friends while she sat alone. In the afternoons, when I arrived early for pickup, I would see her sitting by herself at one of the big round tables, bending over a workbook, her long blond hair hiding her face, her leg tucked under her like a small bird in a nest.

Then one afternoon the following week I peered through the panel and saw all the kids sitting on the floor looking at the teacher. They appeared to be making up a story together, each student contributing a sentence, while the teacher wrote the story on a big sheet of paper clipped to an easel. My daughter sat between two other girls, and a third girl sat behind her, braiding her long hair. When it was my daughter's turn to come up with a sentence, she tilted her head in a way I knew well, then said something that made the class laugh. The teacher said something back that made her laugh, and two things dawned on me at once: Oh, she's going to be fine. And oh, she is a complete person, separate from me. It was as if I'd turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night and discovered that all the forks and knives were dancing.

Of course I had always acted as if I believed both my kids were complete people, separate from me. I asked their opinions. I gave them those fake empowering options you're only supposed to use for 2-year-olds (Do you want to put on your pajamas or brush your teeth first?) but that actually work for all ages (Do you want to finish those SAT forms now or wait until after dinner when the rest of us will be watching Friends?). As they got older I respected their privacy (which does not mean I didn't know who their friends were and where they were going and whether or not a grown-up would be there) and let them make as many decisions as I could stand without losing my mind.

But somewhere deep inside my overfunctioning maternal instincts there lurked a notion that I, and I alone, had to get them through the first few weeks of nursery school and the first few days of summer camp, through team tryouts, drama tryouts, final exams, anything major, anything that might make them unhappy. I felt responsible for every aspect of their lives, but above all I felt responsible for their happiness.

This is a tricky business, as every parent knows. When our children are little, we have enormous power. We feed them, and that makes them happy. We talk to them in high voices, and that makes them happy. We sing to them, get them into dry ­diapers, show up at the door, make a face, blow a bubble. We are the great and powerful Oz.

As their needs get more complicated, however, so does their happiness. And though trying to keep an infant fed and dry and smiling and more or less happy is a more or less reasonable goal, trying to keep a 7-year-old happy, let alone a 12-year-old, is not. It's not even a good idea.

As soon as unhappiness hit, I tried distraction and avoidance. When my daughter was having a tough few weeks with a difficult teacher, I kept showing up at Friday pickup time with little gifts, until one day she said, casually, "It's okay, Mom. I'm used to her now. You don't need to buy me anything else."

The truth was that seeing my children unhappy made me unhappy. And I didn't like that. In fact, for a while I believed I couldn't bear it. And so I lost touch with one of the best gifts a mother has to give: perspective. I was the grown-up and I knew that not being the teacher's pet or not having a starring role in the class play was small potatoes in the big picture, but too ­often I forgot those insights. Even though I adopted the preferred parenting language of the time ("Did you have fun?" "Did you meet anyone new?"), my kids could sense my anxiety in the ­vibrato of my forced cheerfulness and my fumbling attempts to suss out crucial information ("Not that it matters, but did you remember all your lines?"). Too often they got the message that the fleeting unhappiness brought on by disappointment of any kind constituted an intolerable burden -- for them and for me. It was better not to try than to fail, better to stay in your known little world and avoid the judgments of the wide and wicked universe.

As my children started taking tests and getting grades and gaining and losing boyfriends and girlfriends -- and the stakes got higher -- I realized something had to change. Since the world didn't step up and volunteer to alter itself, changing had to be an inside job.
So during their early teens I returned to the meditation practice I had abandoned when they were little. For my birthday one year I bought myself a seven-disc recording of dharma talks delivered by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. The subject turned out to be happiness, which, she warned, "cannot be found through getting ­serious and uptight about wanting things to go in the direction that we think will bring happiness." The point, she ­insisted, is that "the happiness we seek is already here and it will be found through relaxation and letting go."


In looking back now, I see that my confusion was understandable. As a child I was pretty much on my own in the happiness department. My parents traveled for six months of the year and then returned to take up their parental positions, in which they swung ­between being delightful coconspirators and strict disciplinarians. My brother and I were not very happy children, but what mattered to my parents was that everyone looked happy. He and I learned early on that troubles, failures, and misfortunes were best kept to ourselves. So I entered the vast and mapless terrain of parenthood not wanting my own children to feel, as I had felt, that they were all alone out there.

Over time, my spiritual practice let me step back from my children's disappointments and perceive them more accurately as minor glitches or even useful life lessons. When one of my kids got into trouble for underage drinking, my first response was panic, but soon I began to see how useful an expe­rience it had been, for all of us. When one of them didn't get accepted at a first-choice school, I listened, watched, and a few weeks later e-mailed that child another Chödrön quotation: "When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure." (Please note: I did not send the quote immediately because nothing is more annoying than being assaulted by Buddhist wisdom when you're sobbing in bed.)
Instead of continuing to hammer home the message that pain and failure are unbearable and must be avoided at any cost, I tried to communicate a lesson that somehow, miraculously, my children had gleaned on their own: that if you aspire to anything other than sitting in your room playing video games, pain and failure are inevitable. The goal is not to avoid them but to learn how to take them in stride. Besides, it had not escaped my notice that the bad stuff that happened to us was minuscule compared to the tragedies that befell other people around the world -- mortar shells, tsunamis, gunshots, hunger. To spend too much time worrying about unhappiness began to seem ungrateful and deluded.

At the moment, my daughter is hundreds of miles away in a grueling law school program whose motto translates loosely as "We passed through Hades, ergo you must pass through Hades." When she calls, I listen, make practical suggestions where appropriate, but try to stay out of the happiness end of things. In part I do this because my daughter has little patience for my self-serving impulse to cheer us all up and in part because the longer I've abstained from meddling, the clearer it has become that I have no earthly idea what will make my children happy.

But most importantly, as I have watched them mature, my understanding of happiness has changed. Life is a package deal. If you want the highs, you have to take the lows. Loss and failure transform us. They help to make us who we are. For some, hard times can shut down the heart and pull up the drawbridge. For others, those same hard times remind the heart that it is human and vulnerable and therefore part of a loud, clamorous community whose members are all in this together.

So these days I'm content to pick up the phone and listen to my children's failures and sorrows, their successes and discoveries, their tales of participation in the wide and varied universe. I am pleased to report that, despite my blunders, both of them have kept their hearts open and opted for the clamor.

Into the Wide and Startling World

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My chapbook of poems, INTO THE WIDE AND STARTLING WORLD, is now for sale on AMAZON.

Here's a sample:


In a huge sand landscape
a small boy
in black trunks
runs along the river
toward a white dog,
arms cocked like commas,
right hand, left arm
unfinished, no hand, only
a rounded end with tiny buds,
the beginnings of fingers, like the thought
of a hand that never got spoken in his body.

It was the summer
they laughed at him in camp.
I watched the boys slide away
as he came to them, again and again,
to show them his precious friendship.
Like fish in a school they disappeared
into one another--until
he stood alone.

And though
the tide is in and the salt river
fills quickly, coursing with tricky
currents from the bay, and though
the dog is strange and might be
dangerous, might bite, and though
people might tease and stare,
despite our fears despite
our terrible need to keep him
safe,he rushes headlong again
and again into the arms of the world.


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In the December/January issue of MORE magazine, I have a short piece about money, gratitude, and common sense. The story was inspired by something my friend, Ira Ziering, said to me years ago, advice that has served me well over the decades.

Into the Wide and Startling World

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This spring, in late May, I have a small book of poems coming out, titled INTO THE WIDE AND STARTLING WORLD. I will send out an announcement in early 2012. This is a type of redemption for me, since I had counted all these poems as material lost in the ozone of my feckless past.

Parents Magazine and Ladies Home Journal

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My essay about the lessons we learn from our children on the topic of winning, losing, and loving the game appears in the October, 2011 issue of Parents Magazine.

Also, in the October, 2011 issue of LHJ, you can find my essay about being the paralyzing illusion that we are in charge of our children's happiness.

Once these two essays are no longer on the magazine websites, I'll post them here.

As Fate Would Have It

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In the spring of 1995, Burt Porter agreed to do a favor for one of his neighbors in Glover. During a winter storm, the neighbor's mailbox had blown over. So Burt offered to share his own mailbox and pick up mail for both of them until the fallen post got back on its feet.

The neighbor had a subscription to The New York Review of Books. Burt had been teaching English for thirty years, and was himself a poet and musician, so he decided to thumb through the Review. In the back pages, he came across a list of personal ads, and since he had been single for a while, he looked through those as well.

At that time, my dear friend Lindsay Knowlton was the director of Financial Aid for the School of Law at Boston University. She'd had the job for many years, and appreciated her colleagues and the students and the excellent health and retirement benefits. But the job could be long hours, and she had two vocations entirely unrelated to her day job: birding and writing poetry.

She, too, was single, and had happened to place a personal ad in the issue of TNYRB that Burt had picked up for his friend.

When Burt saw her ad, he got in touch. A few weeks later, Lindsay went on a birding trip in New Hampshire and continued the drive all the way up to Glover. It was Father's Day, and Burt was celebrating with his sons and his sons' partners and various family members and friends, some of whom lived on Burt's land.

"I was charmed immediately," Lindsay told me afterward. And when the guests left, Burt and Lindsay found out they had a lot to talk about.

Four days after Lindsay returned to Boston, she suffered a massive stroke. For the first twenty-four hours, it wasn't clear if she would make it. Lindsay had mentioned Burt Porter to her sister, but without saying where he lived in Vermont. So her sister called 411, reached a sympathetic operator, and told her the whole story. Together they went through all the possible B. Porter's in Vermont, until they tracked down Burt's number.

He arrived at Lindsay's hospital room within the week. Over the next six months, he continued to make the trip back and forth from Glover to Boston, while Lindsay worked on her recovery, which was a long and grueling and often disheartening. By the end of the summer, it became clear that memory loss and vision impairment would make it impossible for her to return to her job at Boston University. Lindsay and Burt had spent only one afternoon together before the stroke, but that had been enough.

So when Burt asked her what she wanted to do next, she answered, "Move to Vermont and live with you."

In the fall of 1995, she joined Burt and Burt's son and his son's girlfriend and a bunch of chickens and two oxen and a variety of other animals and birds and neighbors and family members who came and went in the house and garden and surrounding fields on the sixty acres in Glover.


Lindsay's recovery was far from complete.

"When Lindsay got here," says Burt. "She was still wacked." They are telling me this story in the kitchen of their house, where a big wood-fueled cooking stove radiates heat and keeps a pot of soup warm.

"One time," says Lindsay, "I was trying to tell Burt a story about a friend of mine who is a big birder and loves loons especially. My friend had spotted a pair of loons on a pond, right about the same time a red fox had spotted the same pair. So my friend got to watch as the fox slipped into the water to go after the birds. But the loons just kept diving longer and deeper until they eventually drowned the fox.

"It was a good story," she says. "The problem was, I couldn't remember the word 'fox.'"

Burt laughs. "She kept saying, 'Oh, you know, that giant orange bird with little tips of black on its ears.'" He holds his hands up on either side of his head and makes fox ears. "It was like in the Wizard of Oz. She fell asleep in Boston and woke up in Vermont with some old guy she barely knew."

At that point, Lindsay had already attended the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College and later received her degree from Warren Wilson College. She had also received a fellowship from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, been funded by the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities, and twice been a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. She had published widely and been a finalist in a number of prestigious manuscript competitions.

But she couldn't remember the name of the giant orange bird with black tips on its ears.

Slowly, surrounded by the landscape and people and animals and life of a small town in northern Vermont, Lindsay returned to words and the natural world. In many ways, it was an ideal setting for her. She felt at home in the old house in the country. She had grown up in rural Massachusetts in the second oldest house in New England, built in 1636, and she had been a birder and naturalist all her adult life.

Still, after sixteen years, she's mindful of native Vermonters' reluctance to allow flatlanders to claim full citizenship. "I never call myself a Vermont poet," she says. But her poems are filled with the language and images of the world in which she recovered the names of things: the sighting of a bobcat or the slow collapse of an abandoned barn. She recently published a poem about the burial of the last of Burt's pair of oxen, Nip and Tuck:

Ritual for a Red Ox

"That was the last of them then," I thought
when up on the hill, I heard the knell of backhoe brakes
and looked down at the pasture to see Erik's
telltale rig digging out the grave.
We had buried Tuck a year before,
and now it would be an aged Nip.
Lately it seemed he'd been readying himself:
after peacefully grazing-- instead of the usual way
of lowering himself down on his knees to sleep,
he would just flop down
and roll on his side like a horse,
as if angling for a looser life
or playing dead. But this time
he meant it--this time was for real.
I thought "smart ox to go early in spring before
the black flies worry your poor spent hide."
And after Erik, with backhoe and chains, had dragged Nip
into position and slowly lowered him into the grave,
as we had done before with Tuck,
we all gathered in a circle and joined hands;
and just as Lucinda had shown us with Tuck,
we tossed hay in to foster his oxen dignity
until only one long horn poked through. Then
Burt read his poem about the year
quickly turning and the oxen kneeling in prayer
"to what mild God an ox might think is there."
With final solemnity he cast the book
into the grave and Erik leveled out the dirt.

And the field grew up
lush and green and barren.

Last year she published her own first collection, Earthly Freight, with iUniverse, because, to my mind, thought she had been a finalist in a number of competitions, none of the traditional publishers had the wit to recognize the Wordsworthian dignity and glory in these poems. I should hasten to add that is not what Lindsay would say. In truth, it doesn't much matter how she gets published or what she calls herself. She makes poetry of what she sees and hears, finding language fine enough for the natural world.


If Lindsay's poems are those of the sharp-eyed naturalist, Burt's are those of the musician and storyteller. He almost always writes in forms, often sonnets. Even the longer narrative poems use blank verse, the stately, five-beat, unrhymed lines of Wordsworth and Frost.

Musical talent runs in his family. Burt began playing mandolin when he was six, accompanied by his mother on the piano and his father on the mandolin. Eventually, Burt inherited the fiddle that had been made for his great grandfather in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1873.

Burt also writes songs and ballads of his own. Whenever we visit, we get him to play for us. I'm especially fond of the Yeats poems he has set to music. This evening, after we eat, as light dies in the window behind him, he takes his mandolin out of the case and plays a song he wrote about listening to his father play the mandolin, when Burt himself was a small child.
Songs softly gleaming
Like gold in the evening,
Songs that would fade
In the twilight's last glow...

As the day fades and the house fills with music, there is an eerie, pleasantly disorienting sense of timelessness. We are here in Glover in 2011, and there in his childhood home in 1951.


Burt grew up in rural Connecticut, but by the time he graduated from college, the area around his hometown had gotten too crowded for him. He looked for work in northern Vermont and found a job teaching English at the Lyndon Institute in Lyndonville, where he taught for forty years, eventually becoming chair of the English Department. He's always had animals on his land, chickens and dogs and, for twenty years, the pair of Red Devon oxen, Nip and Tuck, that Lindsay has immortalized.

Burt has published four books of poetry, including A Spiral Wind and Rhymes of the Magical World. He plays fiddle and mandolin throughout the area, and also calls for square dances. In the warm kitchen, which smells of soup and homemade bread, he continues to play the mandolin and sing one of the Yeats poems I love. Behind him, the big window reveals red-winged blackbirds, grackles, evening grosbeaks, and the usual sparrows and nuthatches, feasting on the feed that Burt and Lindsay scatter along the porch railing.

In addition to writing poems and playing music, Burt travels the state giving talks sponsored by The Vermont Humanities Council. One of his favorite subjects is the traditional fiddle music of New England. He has developed a few theories about how and why this music sounds the way it does, with its regular rhythms and complex melodies. He doesn't claim to be a scholar.

"This is just stuff I've come up with over the years," he says, as he explains his theories to me. "It made sense to me when I thought of it."

He believes the repertoire was shaped, in part, by our native Yankee love for order. Indeed, when Burt takes out his fiddle and plays the New England version of the waltz "Crossing to Ireland," the plangent notes and echoing repetitions seem to rise up out of the evening, out of the surrounding farms with their neat barns and gardens and fields and pens, out of the Vermont landscape.

No matter how random and serendipitous the details of their story might sound, every time I visit them, I have a sense that out of all my friends, it is Lindsay and Burt who have ended up exactly where they are supposed to be.


Grown Children

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(A version of this essay appeared in the November 2010 issue of MORE magazine.)

Last November, my younger child, my son, celebrated his twentieth birthday on the rooftop of the bar and restaurant where he worked in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At which point, I became, officially, a mother of grown children--not just because he turned twenty, but because it happened halfway around the world on a trip he had dreamed up and executed entirely on his own.

There is a lot to love about having grown children. Near the top of my own list is that since neither of mine is pregnant, it will be many years before I have to watch a Disney movie again. (Yes, I hear that Up was quite good, but as far as I'm concerned, Disney peaked with Pinocchio. If you get a chance, check out the hand-painted backgrounds of Geppetto's workshop.)

And speaking of movies, it turns out that now, in their twenties, my children have developed impeccable taste. They are my trusty scouts in the world of popular culture, and this includes music, books, and YouTube videos as well. (Have you seen the baby tearing the paper in half and falling over with laughter?) My husband and I live in rural Vermont, but thanks to our kids and the Internet, we have the best of both worlds, snow-covered stretches of open meadow and hot tips for iTunes downloads.

Then there are all the things I no longer have to endure: bake sales, sick days, head lice, sleepovers, Halloween, pasta with meat sauce (three times a week), wildly unpleasant 7 a.m. arguments about the nutritional function of breakfast, pretending to read until 1 a.m. while listening for footsteps on the front porch, driving them everywhere, them driving themselves everywhere, phone calls after midnight, SAT prep.

But at the very top of the list, the thing I love most about having grown children is that they are so clearly becoming who they are, and I am finally able to stand back and watch that happen. For years I imagined it was my job to mold these little lumps of clay into people who could arrive at their college interviews without food on their clothes. Now that the mission has been accomplished, I can see that my children are, to a large degree, who they have always been, those small three-dimensional people I was just too busy, and too worried, to fully comprehend.

When I was pregnant with my son, I went for a sonogram. After a few minutes of chasing him around the womb with the ice-cold magic wand, the tech said, "Is he always like this?"

"Like what?" I asked.

"I can't get a picture of him because he won't stop moving."

He crawled when he was five months old and I spent hours racing after him. Once he started walking, he headed off into the neighbors' yards, often shedding his clothes as he went. Following the trail of miniature shorts and socks, I would find him naked, chatting (in his 18-month-old vernacular--What that? What that? What that?) with our lovely older neighbor, a grandmother many times over, a woman unperturbed by his penchant for peeing into her tulip bed.

Sam Baby Pic.jpg

His unrelenting restlessness got him into small scrapes and great adventures and caused his parents years of sleepless nights. I worried that he couldn't sit still, wouldn't listen, didn't pay attention. I became convinced he would never finish his college applications on time, or be able to sit through the grueling exams required these days. But he completed them all and sailed off to college, happy to be on the move. And he has remained on the move ever since.

That is the same young man who just celebrated his twentieth birthday in Cambodia. He arrived home five days before Christmas, full of tales from his travels and reflections on expatriate communities, Hemingway, and the astonishing kindness of the Khmer people, which is something I would never have known if he hadn't told me and, given their history, seems like a miracle.

In so many ways, my children are who they were when they arrived. "Your children are not your children," writes Khalil Gibran. "They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." Despite those nine long months of gestation (or, for others, the months of waiting for the adoption to be finalized), despite the layette shopping and 3 a.m. feedings and endless pacing and back-patting and rocking and bleary-voiced singing, despite the blue eyes that belong to my father and the graceful hands that belong to my mother, the notion that my children belong to me is dangerously benighted. My husband and I may have been their path into this world, but once they are here, they become their own people, shaped by the force of life's longing to be exactly what it is. And now, all these years later, I am finally getting to see the forms that longing takes in my children.

On the other hand, the crucial corollary to this insight that our children become who they always were is the simple truth that they will always, at some point, surprise us.
Our first child was our home girl. When we took her to large parties of kids and adults, she often ended up sitting in her father's lap at the grown-up table. I worried that she was too shy. Go play with your friends, I would say. They're not my friends, she would answer, and settle in for a good long listen. In the car on our way home, she would comment in great detail on the adult conversation and its societal implications.


As she got older, her own dinner table stories about school contained emotional shadings rivaled only by the later novels of Henry James. And by the end of a full week of these intense encounters, she might even turn down an invitation to a sleepover in order to stay in her room and read, to eat dinner with the family, to watch a movie with her little brother.

She grew into a lover of Mary Oliver poems and Rothko paintings, a reader and thinker who became fascinated by the writings of Walter Benjamin. We figured her for the dreamy artist type. We thought we knew her pretty well.

Then, during the summer after her sophomore year in college, she interned at the Boston Police Department, coordinating access to resources for youthful offenders reentering society. And now, five years later, after coordinating the Obama campaign in Alexandria, Virginia, she has ended up 3,000 miles away from our home, in a demanding graduate program, with a focus on international human rights. Meanwhile our peripatetic son has settled twenty miles away from our house in Vermont--that is, until he starts his 2,000-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Looking back, I'm sorry I didn't spend more time just looking, watching to see what each of them did when I wasn't propelling them toward the front door or away from the television. There was a lot in the way--team tryouts and application deadlines and pet vaccinations--as well as my own strident fears about what my children needed to do and master, and the schedule on which they needed to finish their mastery, in order to be fine, in order to be safe. When all along, on some level, what I needed to do was stand still and discover what forms those lives yearned to take. My fear got in the way. And oh, yeah, the head lice.

Recently, I was interviewing a friend and healer for a book on which I'm working, and we got onto the topic of attention, specifically, the role attention plays in the process of healing. The next time I saw my friend, he handed me this quotation from Carl Rogers, one of the most important figures in psychotherapy, the guy who developed the notion of client-centered therapy (though the mind balks at what other form therapy might take): "Acceptance, empathy, and unconditional positive regard are necessary and sufficient conditions for human growth."

Personally, I have never entirely understood the term unconditional when attached to human beings. It's never made sense to me to ask us to do something we simply can't do. I will always think my son looks better with longer hair.

But I was moved by this notion of positive regard, which implies the steady gaze of attention without judgment. Had I seen my children more clearly, might I have worried less? Might I have understood that my son's tendency to "move about in his seat and chat with his neighbors" (a quote from one of his teachers who shared my worries) would lead to world adventures? Might I have been less ready to define my daughter as the dreamy, sensitive child? Might I have discovered--in her attunement to the well-being of others and her penchant for solitude and reflection--the compassion and tensile strength that carries her through her current schedule of all-day classes, all-night study sessions, and vigorous debate?

In the end, I have to admit that there is one thing I do not like about having grown children. They are gone, and though they come back and bring their friends and ideas and movies and music and books, mostly the house is very quiet, the dog is a little older and sadder, and there is a space in my heart that was once so filled with bake sales and sick days that I didn't know it was there until it, too, emptied out and got very quiet and a little older and sadder.

Now that I have had a chance to see my daughter and son more clearly, I would like to look at them more often. Our children are not our children, says Gibran. And what better proof is there than the fact that they grow up and go away? My chance to study them at the kitchen table--my son finishing immediately and eager to get down, my daughter telling a detailed story about an interaction at school that involved many layers of feelings on the part of many people--is gone. I'm not saying I blew it. Life's longing for itself has found two exquisite forms in my children, through grace and good fortune and surely, to some degree, through their parent's efforts to love and provide for them. But if such a thing were possible, I would linger at that kitchen table longer, less worried about how much pasta my skinny boy had actually eaten and how intensely my girl took the world to heart.

I must be content with glimpses of my grown children, with rich conversations about expatriates and human rights and iTune downloads, around a table where we linger, at last, my son happy to stay in his chair, my daughter lighthearted in her reporting of the grueling schedule she currently keeps. For life goes not backward, Gibran warns us, nor tarries with yesterday.

family group 1993.jpg

Speaking of Life and Laundry

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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World


The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."


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This has been a strange spring in many ways. We had snow on the shady side of the house until the end of April. And then May 1st the season changed, and all the apple trees had bright green buds, the hyacinths unfurled overnight, and delicate pale, pale pink blossoms, yet to be identified, sprung up once again under the arbor. Yesterday I hung out laundry for the first time this year, and I realized that hanging out laundry is my true ceremony for marking the beginning of spring, more than planting the peas or setting out seedlings to harden off, it's carrying the wet sheets up out of the dark basement and running the line from the shed to the pole. When I brought the clothes in, around six, bright sunlight still streamed through the woods behind our house.

Meanwhile, I find myself living in a nation in which killing someone is being celebrated with beer-chugging parties and exclamation points. Recently our president announced that the CIA and Special Forces had assassinated the titular head of Al Qaeada, the man behind the planning of the September 11 tragedies. Only a few days earlier, the headlines trumpeted that American bombs had killed the son and three grandchildren of a loathsome dictator, responsible for the torture and death of thousands in his own country.

I don't know how to respond to this sort of news. My husband asked how I would feel if I heard someone had killed Hitler. Glad, I think. Relieved. And yet, do I want the state to have the right to kill people, for any reason? Suddenly, in this season, life seems immensely valuable.

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a group of people and someone said, casually, "April is the cruelest month." After which, someone else asked where that quote came from, and what it meant anyway, and I found myself again in the oddly uncomfortable position of knowing a lot more about that line of poetry than anyone in the group actually wanted to hear. Of course, it's the first line of Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," and the poet explains exactly what he means in the first four lines--April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain. He then goes on to expand that meaning in each of the five sections, venturing into the worlds of Tarot cards, Easter Sunday (the Road to Emmaus), Augustine's Confessions, The Golden Bough, the Upanishads, the Holy Grail, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Dante, and Wagnerian opera--among others. Eliot was having a long, slow nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the poem, and The Wasteland has always struck me as the perceptions of a man whose nerves were on the outside of his skin, unsheathed. The post-WWI world of western Europe felt unbearable to him, thus it seemed cruel to have memory and desire stirred. Better to accept our wasted fate and huddle under winter's blank cover. To be honest and unfashionable, I tend to read the poem more optimistically than some. The poet ends with Shantih, shantih, shantih, which the poet footnotes as the formal ending to an Upanishad, and translates loosely as "the peace which passeth all understanding."

During that same coffee gathering, a friend told me about sitting by the bedside of a woman we both know, who is dying of cancer. My friend is leaving to work in a distant country for two years, so she will never see the dying woman again. She said she knew it sounded trite, but sitting there in the hospital, she really began to wonder what it was that filled her head most of the minutes of the day, what those worries were, and why they seemed so compelling. Suddenly I understood that I spend a good deal of my energy protecting some illusion of my self from some illusion of the world, as if my precious little self were made of cheap glass and the world were a big bad hammer.

Of course, an individual life can seem fragile. But life, in the largest sense, is also and equally irrepressible. That's what the rituals of this season confirm. Though I'm a Christian, I'm not a big fan of the way most churches celebrate Easter--too much triumphalism for me. In fact, I don't really need Jesus to have come back and proved he was still around, but if he did that, I hope he actually walked the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, who remained entirely blind to his true identity throughout their journey together, who spent the whole time telling him all about his own death and resurrection. That is a human story. We're so busy recounting the bad news of the day, we miss the miracles.

If we accept the theory that the world's theistic religions are grounded in seasonal rituals, celebrating the planting and harvesting of crops, it all makes sense. Jesus reappears in the spring, along with everything else. The birthday of the prophet Muhammud is celebrated in late February, or early March, of the western calendar. The Sikh New Year is observed on March 14 of our calendar. When I join friends at the Seder table, they sing raucously to G-d that it would have been enough just to lead them out of Egypt, or just to split the seas so they could escape, or just to give them the Torah. They survived. They are careful to remember those who did not. They are careful to tell all the stories--of slavery, of death, of escape, of miracles--because one set of stories does not cancel out the other. We mourn, we pray, we celebrate, we hope. Next year in Jerusalem, they say. L'chaim.

The P Word

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We have recently gotten a puppy, and I have discovered that on this subject, as on so many others, the world falls into two categories. There are the folks who don't know, and the folks who do know. When you say the word puppy to a member of the first, don't-know group, the person's face tends to get a dreamy, innocent look, as if you had announced that you were shortly to be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

But when you tell the folks who do know that you have recently bought a puppy, their response is more along the lines of, "Yeesh. How are you holding up?" To which the correct reply is a mild shrug and, "As well as can be expected." These are people who either have gotten a puppy recently or have gotten, over the years, many puppies. In other words, they remember.

Obviously, I love dogs, or I wouldn't have paid for a second one. But not unlike caring for an infant, caring for a puppy is a pain in the keister. Of course I know perfectly well that there are major differences between the two experiences. Things that are better about having a puppy: you can leave a puppy in a wire cage and go to a movie (BIG difference); a puppy will eventually learn to poop outside; you do not have to start a college fund; eventually, you will have a dog.

Things that are better about having a baby: eventually you will have a person.

But then, as I always tell my children, anything worth doing is a pain in the keister, and the more worth doing it is, the bigger a pain it is. This list would include learning to play the harmonica, traveling to India, getting and staying married, building a boat, planting a garden, writing a book, keeping a friend, and, of course, raising a child. And if I am right about this, I can only deduce that having a puppy is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.

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