Look beyond the self on New Year’s Day

My resolutions are usually about aiming for personal goals or eliminating personal deficits.

What if our resolutions were more focused on our interactions with others, not as a way to get but to give?

The writer David Rakoff (b. 1964) died in 2012 from cancer. In its year-end feature on notable deaths of the year, “The Lives They Lived,” the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a letter that Rakoff’s friend Ariel Kaminer had written, thanking him for important lessons. They are ones to live by:

  1. Don’t trade up.
  2. It’s better in the long run to be kind.
  3. Be grateful and humble and mean it.

Read the full version of the letter, and a fuller description of each axiom, here: link.

P.S. Of course I still have a personal resolution or two and will publish them later.

Trick leaf

When I first spotted this leaf it was dusk. The dimness of the light hid the filaments holding it in place.

A few days later, the leaf still levitates, the spider web holding fast. Only a good strong wind or the brush of a human hand will dislodge it.

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Photograph by Jimmy Guterman, who said upon emailing the .jpg to me: “It takes a village to make your blog.” I like that.

A pumpkin for Elsa Woodbury, d. 1924

Chores to do. Walk to take. We took a break from one and went on the other. Jimmy was enthusiastic, but I had to promise the reluctant Grace that when we hit 20 minutes we’d think about turning around.

Heading to Allandale Farm, we cut through the beautiful Walnut Hills Cemetery.  There are enough paths and gentle hills to make it a decent walk, which we’ve done many times. I thought I had seen all the gravestones of interest. Today this knee-high marker caught my eye for the first time; the small pumpkin at its foot was a beacon.

Infants died for many reasons in 1924, as Elsa Woodbury did at only one day old. The mystery is who is bringing a pumpkin to her grave 88 years after her death. No doubt her parents are dead. Grace speculated that a living, younger sibling could have done it. I wondered about a niece or nephew. Somehow, though, the memory of sweet little Elsa remained powerful enough in a family’s collective mythology that she would get a pumpkin for Halloween, the only one we noticed, by the way, in the cemetery today.

Does anyone else have a story idea for this find?

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Photograph by Grace Guterman, at my request.

Everywhere you go, there’s a habitat

I am working at home today. As a break, I thought I’d complete a fix-up of our old garage door. I went to screw on the new weather stripping and noticed that the handle to the pull-up door is rusted and bent.

After I found what I wanted at the local Home Depot and paid for it, I couldn’t help wandering over to the Garden Department. I hovered around the on-sale perennials (two for $10), and I noticed this creature hovering around the butterfly bush, as it should.

The fall annuals, especially mums, are getting star billing at all the nurseries and garden centers right now, but try not to let your head get turned. Walk to the back of the store, where you’ll find some drooping and over-sunned perennials deeply discounted. It’s the perfect time to plant them. I bought two sets of 4 each (hosta and phlox), violating the rule of Plant in Threes, I know, but they were each the last of the batches, and I could not leave them lonely.

I like digging things into the ground now because it gives me a sense of anticipation for the spring. There will be a long period of darkness and rest in which I’ll forget about the new additions to the yard and then, come May, voilà. There they will be.

Flowers in the attic, toys in the basement

Grace had a gig this afternoon babysitting for two little boys, ages 5 and 1 years, who are children of our friend Ellen, a woman who babysat for Grace when she was a baby. It’s that whole circle of life thing.

We invited the boys here, so that Grace could have backup if needed. Today we’re just puttering around the house anyway; there are still about 10 days left to finish our summer chores before the season officially ends.

It was time to bring up some age-appropriate toys from the basement. The dollhouse and its residents and furnishings needed washing.  Good thing I soaped and rinsed them because most of those pieces ended up in a little mouth.

I did administer one timeout today, when the older boy took his brother’s pacifier and wouldn’t hand it back to me. That parental authority: I still have it. Jimmy let the older boy win at a complex card game with slippery rules, and the two of them bonded.

Young children keep going and going and going. I remember when Eli was little, Jimmy would once in a while hold the tv remote in his direction and mime trying to get him to stop for just one minute.

When the father picked the boys up at 5pm, I told him we got our exercise, two times over, today. “This is how they are until bedtime,” he replied. Honestly, I had forgotten.

Grace is resting. We’re still parents, and we have things to do.

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Suds by Jane; photographs by Jimmy and Grace; and dollhouse by Fisher Price.

Imagine the luck of her future second graders

Grace and I have been bitten by the organizing bug, and we are culling our collections. I took four boxes marked “Jane’s Junk” and got them down to one, and Grace has stripped her closet down to the essentials and tackled her desk drawers. Last night she came across a list made five years ago when she was in the second grade. Knowing I like to save the textual artifacts of childhood, Grace handed it to me. You can click on the thumbnail to see the scanned version in full size or read the transcript below.

From the handwriting, it looks like Jimmy and I took turns at dictation. I asked Grace, “What was this list for?”

She replied, “When I was in second grade and thinking about becoming a teacher, I thought it would be neat to be able to tell my second graders some day what I was like when I was their age.”

This is what she was like, as reported on November 15, 2007:

When Grace was in 2nd grade, she

  • was an artist
  • gave affection to all
  • swam on the JCC swim team
  • had experience as Ms. Aibel’s student and “teaching assistant”
  • could make her own French fries
  • watched Zoe 101
  • loved to snuggle
  • was a Brownie
  • had an electric toothbrush that played a song by Jesse McCartney
  • wore her hair in two braids every day
  • loved the comfort of yoga pants

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Grace, or Eli or Lydia, became a teacher? Then there would be three generations of us: my father, my mother-in-law, I, and one of the kids. Now that would be a family legacy.

States of matter, a dream

In Colson Whitehead’s “Rules for Writers,” number five is “Keep a dream diary.”

Sometimes, if I am awakened by a dream, I turn on the light near the bed and grab a scrap piece of paper — usually one of those blow-in cards from a magazine I’m reading — and a pencil, and I write it down.

Last night I had a dream that my skating teacher and his wife had a baby, and they wanted me to take care of it. So, I took that newborn swimming, and it swam.

The dream is still vivid, especially the baby and the YMCA-like pool.

Ice, water. (What’s next, an evaporation dream?) What does it mean?

I feel so close to you right now

couples, outside the ICA, Boston, June 2008

Sometimes what you want is far away, a dream.

And sometimes everything you want is right next to you.

On Sunday, two days ago, the five of us traveled in our van to New Jersey to see the relatives there. As the children get older, it is rare that we are all together on a day that is not a holiday. We played a mix CD that Eli made; it might have been the one he called “Hedge Money” or the one called “Sky Mall Mix.” They’re both good.

The three of them are talkative. We eavesdrop and only occasionally interject. I had my notebook on my lap most of the way.

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Eli (almost 20) gives travel advice Lydia (age 16), who is headed to Vietnam and Cambodia next year: “There are going to be so many leeches there.”

Lydia disagrees: “Don’t you think I’ve already gone on the web to see what kinds of insects there are?” This does not surprise me. Lydia is thorough and always prepared.

Eli keeps insisting. Lydia says heatedly, “Eli, sometimes you try to act as if you know more about something than I do, when in fact I know more about it!” I wish I had her awareness and the guts to go with it when I was a teenager. Really, it took me until I was about 35 to even think what she said.

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Eli looks at a photo of Grace (age 12) on someone’s phone. He says to her, “You’re so hospitable. You’re going to make a great escort someday.”

Grace: “What’s an escort?”

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Eli has two more weeks to go at Otto, his summer employer, a new, upscale pizza place in Brookline. By now, with his hands and forearms covered with oven burns and knife nicks, he’s had it. He describes his quitting fantasy (don’t we all have them?): “If I were ever so mad at Otto that I was going to quit on the spot, I would take a bite of everything that was about to be served and be like ‘Fuck you, Otto,’ and walk out the door.” We laugh. Continue reading