– Convalescence

Dark sunLydia came into the bedroom at 7pm last night and said, “Mom, I can tell you kept yourself busy this morning.”

“You can?” It was so sweet of her to know how I operate.

“Yeah,” she replied. “You never fold my clothes.”

She was right. Yesterday morning I busily and methodically went through the house, making beds, folding dropped clean clothes and putting them away, hanging up jackets and shirts, sponging the kitchen table, and straightening books and papers on the coffee table. That’s my modus operandi: to deal with percolating fear, I keep busy.

By the time Jimmy and I left, yesterday morning, for the hospital at 11am, the house was as neat as if we were expecting company. My hair looked great and perfectly straight, because I had blown it bone dry, which I rarely do in the summer. My finger and toe nails were trim and clean — don’t anesthesiologists examine the nail beds for oxygen flow? I think I learned that on Quincy, M.E., years ago, when the clue that pointed to murder was the dead woman’s painted fingernails. She had died during surgery, and her nails were still beautifully manicured. Quincy had overlooked that detail at first: Don’t women often have painted nails? Ah ha!, though, not if they’re having surgery; the surgical team needs those nails bare. Quincy removed the polish and found the cause of death: a lethal injection to the nail bed.

Not only do my hands tend to unnecessary tasks when nervous, my mind does, too. Continue reading

– Incomprehensible

EconomistJune13CoverThe June 13th issue of The Economist is on the kitchen table, and Grace, who loves magazine covers, is examining it. I’m puttering around the kitchen. She asks, finally, “What does it mean?” So I lean over her shoulder and take a stab at explaining the visual metaphor: “Right now, the world is experiencing huge financial problems, created by people who are adults now. However, the problems are so huge that it may take 30 or so years to solve them, and the people who will be most burdened by these money problems are babies now.”

Grace responds, “I still don’t get it.”

Jimmy has entered the kitchen and offers a more concise explanation than mine: “The world is in debt right now, and the people who caused the debt are Mom and my generation and the Baby Boomers’ generation. However, the people who are going to pay for this debt are babies and children right now, like you.”

Grace looks again at the cover. “I still don’t understand.”

Honey, you shouldn’t have to, I want to say, but there is nothing more to say, because she is only nine years old.

– Terra firma

That really is the phrase that goes through one’s mind, joyously, after one has spent a few hours on a small boat, commandeered by an arrogant captain, with 90 other passengers who are gripping their stomachs, wincing, weeping, and eventually puking into garbage bags as the boat made its way out of Provincetown Harbor and into a post-storm ocean with 15-foot swells to seek whales, which it eventually found, although not many — myself, two daughters, and one niece included — were well enough to view them, and then rolled and heaved back around the tip of the Cape and into the harbor.

– Number one fear?

For weeks, Grace has been preparing for her animal research project, which is the culmination of the second grade curriculum. Out in the garage, with the door open, she constructed over many days a diorama that featured the elephant seals’ habitat. In the basement, on the kids’ computer, she searched Google for “elephant seals” to find what she called “quick facts.” (They are carnivores and eat skates, small sharks, and other fish, by the way.) She talked about an upcoming “oral presentation,” yet the design and rehearsal of that happened entirely at school.

Raised handOn Friday, we went to school, sat in the back of the classroom, and watched Grace and her classmates, one by one, give their presentations. The room was arranged like an auditorium, with a table as podium at the front and the desk chairs arranged in rows. There was a microphone, into which each child spoke as s/he read aloud her prepared remarks. After the formal presentation, each speaker asked, “Any questions or comments?,” and then called on raised hands. Remarkably, what happened during the Q&A is what happens during the Q&A of presentations made by many adults: The speaker relaxed, smiled, and seemed more natural and engaged.

Children have less polish and guile than we do, so there’s something very raw about the behavioral “data” they present for our scrutiny. In this instance, the eight-year-old presenters gave me an opportunity to wonder this: Why does even a practiced, rehearsed professional speaker seem stiffer, less natural, than the same person during the Q&A?

I have always been skeptical of that claim that Americans fear public speaking more than any other fear, even fear of death. This source points to a 1973 survey by the Sunday Times of London that initiated that now wildly-held belief. Of 3,000 respondents, 41% listed public speaking as their number one fear. Hmm. About 1,200 Americans — many of whom might be dead by now — have got a lock on our fears. I, for one, do not fear public speaking over fear of death, or the death of anyone I love, or my fear of woodchippers. Let’s put this survey, and its outdated data, aside and actually examine this fear. Whether it ranks first or tenth, it’s still real. Continue reading

– Before coffee

Coffee cup drawing

I like talking to Leslie Sills, my daughter Grace’s art teacher, about process. She’s a sculptor and a writer, so inevitably we get to how making objects and making prose are alike, and unlike.

Once, in a discussion on finding time to do self-generated work, amidst teaching and other commitments, Leslie said, “Before coffee.”

“What?”

She elaborated: “I heard Katherine Patterson speak at the Brookline Library about her work. She said, “Write before coffee.”” Leslie has tried, and keeps returning to, this simple advice.

Intrigued, I tried, too. Many times in the last fews months I’ve gotten up about an hour before I normally would (time varies depending on weekday or weekend) and done some writing while I waited for the coffee to drip.

Here’s a long hand-written piece from early Sunday, October 28, presented to you as is:

So, then a hundred, then 50 more black birds, so black there was a bluish oily tinge to tail and head feathers swooped and circled into our backyard this morning, into Isaac’s, into Gail’s, and pecked for a few minutes in the grass. All the while, they were cackling together almost screaming. But not crows, not big enough to be crows. They must see well, to be able to see between grass blades the insects they peck at. They look purposeful: taking steps, peering down as if seeking, zeroing in, pecking.

When they first arrived, I saw them (I was looking out kitchen window) swoop in an arc from beyond Isaac’s house, in the air around his garage, some made stops in our Norway maple that’s on the property line, before hopping as solid as a stone or fleet as a bullet down onto our grass.

Bird squad. Bird squadron. Bird squads.

As if sensing a signal, the ones scouting the east end of our backyard lifted off and circled away. Hastily. As if being pulled by threads or by a signal that they senses second after, others took off a flew, too. In the crowd, there was a kind of order, even though I felt a kind of compressed hysteria in watching them.

Why did they arrive so swiftly, and from where? Were they hopping from yard to yard, satisfied to get one or two bugs per bird in each yard? Incessant moving, incessant feeding to fuel the movement, a cycle that cannot stop.

This must happen every fall and around this time. I remember in the fall of 2001 — only six years ago? — being home with Eli, and noticing the same pattern with the black birds. They swooped in, blanketed the front lawn, chattering and hunting, and then swooping away. It was ominous, marring, on a beautiful October afternoon. Eli said, “The birds know something. Because they’re in the air, they know what’s coming before we do.”

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 were on all our minds. Eli, only nine years, imagined the birds, like planes, in the air, sensing a familiar pattern (planes fly up there, “we” (birds) fly down here) altered, and knowing that something had changed and was changing, yet not being able to predict what.

And when it happened? Was it another fire for them — treetops burning, cracking, popping and falling — acre after acre — or was their familiarity with buildings and glass enough to tell them that this event was remarkable, something that doesn’t happen.

I couldn’t have written this at night, when there often is more free time to write, because the birds would not have presented themselves to me.

I doubt I could have written this before coffee, because the having of coffee makes me sharper, more thoughtful, deliberate. With coffee, would my mind have wandered to where it ended up?

—–

The image is from Grillboy’s Coffee Cup Project.

– Garden for our times

Do you remember the walled, overgrown garden brought back to life by a boy and a girl in F. H. Burnett’s Secret Garden (1911)? The book was a favorite of my childhood, and perhaps the long, restorative story about gardening has something to do with my own attraction to shabby, abandoned patches, as if glory and possibility, like this, await in each one:

The seeds Dickon and Mary had planted grew as if fairies had tended them. Satiny poppies of all tints danced in the breeze by the score, gaily defying flowers which had lived in the garden for years and which it might be confessed seemed rather to wonder how such new people had got there. And the roses–the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades–they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds–and buds–tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air. (247)

Lovely, isn’t it? Fresh, new, full of playful life — not unlike an uncomplicated view of the child.

And here’s the garden for our times. It is tended by the 21-year-old Edmond who has been traumatized by witnessing the slaughter of a contemporary war started in England by “The Enemy,” and it appears at the end of Meg Rosoff’s How I live now (2004):

On the warm stone walls, climbing roses were just coming into bloom and great twisted branches of honeysuckle and clematis wrestled each other as they tumbled up and over the top of the wall. Against another wall were white apple blossoms on branches cut into sharp crucifixes and forced to lie flat against the stone. Below, the huge frilled lips of giant tulips in shades of white and cream nodded in their beds. They were almost finished now, spread open too far, splayed, exposing obscene black centers…

The air was suffocating, charged, the hungry plants sucking at the earth with their ferocious appetites. You could almost watch them grow, pressing fat green tongues up through the black earth. (181)

The passage is narrated by Daisy, Edmond’s American first cousin and former lover, also 21, who returns to him after a six-year absence because of the war, which spread beyond the British island to six continents. Like the Secret Garden, this novel, which Meg Rosoff reportedly began writing in the run-up to the war in Iraq, is aimed at a young audience. Rosoff doesn’t shy away from blood, terror, or torture: a man has his face blown off, some civilians are slaughtered and most are displaced from their homes, and children roam the woods and abandoned farms, hiding and fending for themselves. Parent figures are either absent or die off quickly.

How I live now, coverThere’s nothing pastoral about the England in How I live now. Yet this dystopic novel is not without hope. In the end, Daisy joins Edmond in tending his rage-filled garden, and the reader senses that somehow subverting anger into hungry, persistent life offers a way back to what has been in short supply: peace.

– Being there

On Thursday, a new student, M., came in to the Writing Center for the first time. She had an assignment from her criminal justice class on the rule of law that she “just couldn’t start.” I sat next to her at the computer as she did the first thing: locate a definition for the rule of law. A Wikipedia article popped up; she pointed at it and said, unprompted, “Oh, I’m not gonna use that one. Anyone can write those.” So, she didn’t need too much help from me on research.

I also noticed, as our time together lengthened, that my usefulness to her was mostly in my presence, and in my occasional murmuring of vague questions like “Well… so… what do you make of that?” or nudges like “Yeah, write that down.” In front of her was a yellow ruled pad, which she kept turning to, writing note after note with a blue pen. Writing pad, pen, other vital stuffAs she wrote, she spoke some version of what she was writing: “Okay, and next I want to say that the rule of law is how it should be, and not how it actually is.” And then she would write and so on, back-and-forth between saying out loud and writing. I sat there, tilting in my chair, content to watch a young woman fill a page and hear her think out loud. Sometimes Sarah, at the front desk and the only other person in the Writing Center at the moment, would overhear and affirm M., who at one point said, “This is so much easier than it was last night, sitting alone in my room and trying to write it.”

Near the end of the hour with M., she wanted to start typing her response to her instructor’s question about rule of law, and would I look over something else she had brought in, a short essay on her educational goals? I sat nearby at the table, with her draft and my pencil. The first few paragraphs covered territory I’ve toured before: Education helps you realize your dreams; Education gets you respect. Some biographical information at the end surprised me. Her parents and friends are trying to call her back home; they don’t support her desire and determination to get an undergraduate degree, head to law school, and be a lawyer. “I have to find new friends,” her essay says, in so many words, in the conclusion. I penciled in the margin: “takes courage.”

Hand on shoulderTo start out – to get going anywhere – without a companion, well, who among us wouldn’t feel the vastness of what that requires? Writing alone, always moving forward into the unfamiliar… there’s only so much of that one person can manage.

– Blank page fear

This is the view from my kitchen window. Besides the neighbor’s row of junipers and our drooping hostas, this is the least planted spot in the yard. In the eight years we’ve lived here, since we took down a rotted white picket fence along the back and dug out clots of brush, I’ve stood at the sink and looked and looked and looked at this empty space. Blank space with chairI can’t say that I’ve spent much time imagining what I would plant there; it’s been mostly a focal point for daydreaming about other things. Once in a while, I’ve moved the chair or a bench into view, just to alter the scene a bit. Suddenly, recently, I tired of an empty that’s too empty, and I decided to plant.

Days later, in front of the outdoor cashier booth at the Dennis Agway, with shrubs and ground covers in a wagon behind me and Jimmy having gone to get the car, I said to the woman behind the counter and to Bob who advised me on the plants, “I’m hesitating. I… I have this blank space in my yard and I think I’m afraid to plant it.”

She nods. “Oh, yeah.”

Bob, who I’ve discovered is a retired social studies teacher and now full-time gardener, says, “We all feel it.”

“You just have to put something in the ground.”Half Face 2

“Dig it in.”

“Yeah. Hey? See what happens.”

We all seem resigned to this, and nod at each other. I sign my credit card receipt; Bob wheels the plants out to the car; and I’m on my way.