Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. Continue reading

Mother and matrix are from the same root, but martyr is not

For a long time, I thought the word “martyr” was somehow related to mother. Perhaps the few letters in common between it and the Latin “mater.” Yet the root of “martyr” is witness, or one who sees something happen.

Don’t we often, though, think of mothers as ones who martyr themselves? This evokes images of a woman stabbing herself in her own throat or heart for the good of others. Indeed, martyrs were historically people who were killed or suffered greatly for a principle or cause.

Today, on Facebook (where else?), a friend posts a philosophical question after she overhears a conversation between two divorced women who are mothers. One tells the other she is going to a music festival for four days at the end of the summer, right as the new school year begins for her young child. The question arises: is this okay, acceptably, motherly? In the comments, there is much debate. Most of the respondents are women; none want to judge; some say that self care is okay, and others say that mothers must be there.

I did not post a comment but I found myself a little on the side of the woman going to the music festival. I wondered about the rest of the circumstances, including the age and disposition of the child, and if the father or other parent could help the child get settled in school. I also recognized that I might not make this choice myself, realizing that music festivals happen year after year after year, and not everything has to happen now. Philosophically, I thought the woman should go, simply because she wants to and it’s okay, even though I probably wouldn’t have. She shouldn’t martyr herself or suffer unduly, although staying home from a music festival is not suffering.

IMG_0021 (2)

in front of a church in Brooklyn, March 19, 2016

The absence of a desired experience is not akin to suffering. And yet as I write that I realize we, at this moment in history, may think of it that way. Missing out (or FOMO, as the kids say) is suffering. Continue reading

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).

dress_hem_measure

The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.

dress_hem

At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

Do nothing, and results will follow

It was breezy and overcast, but we headed anyway to the kayak and paddleboard rental place on Nauset Marsh in Orleans on Cape Cod. Why hadn’t we thought to call ahead? When we got there — there were 12 people in our family group — we learned that the breeze and tide made it too difficult to paddle back in. Rentals were closed.

Nearby was Nickerson State Park, with lots of wooded camping and a boat rental place on a pond. We drove there in our three vehicles, and split up even further into an assortment of single and double kayaks, a peddle boat, and, for Lydia, a stand-up paddle board.

across the pond, August 30, 2013

across the pond, August 30, 2013

Last summer she tried the SUP board on a cool day with high winds, managing the standing part but finding the navigation part challenging. A goal for this summer was to use the board to actually go somewhere.

The kayakers and Lydia headed out across the pond, after getting some advice on the wind and current from the young guy manning the rental business. Jimmy and I peddled behind. The squared-off peddle boat goes so slow. Even though legs are more powerful than arms, the kayaks and SUP board were more streamlined. They and their passengers seemed to go quickly and reached the other side of the pond while we felt stalled permanently in the middle.

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

accidental photo of me, peddling, August 30, 2013

We saw them head back, their faces to the wind and the prows of their boats into the current. The kayakers seemed okay, but even far away Lydia, who never fell, seemed to be working very hard. Emily and David hovered in their boat near her.

Jimmy and I changed direction and attempted to predict their path and intercept them. Emily and David traveled on. As we got within shouting distance of Lydia, I asked if she wanted a ride.

She shouted back, “I don’t need help. I just want some company.”

So for the rest of the way back to shore we stayed within about 50 feet of her, hardly interacting (beyond the occasional photo taking). She rowed hard and made it.

As parents and teachers — and in my family this broadens to include lots of loving adult figures — we don’t always have to step in and do something. We can be nearby and offer our silent presence: not advice, not physical help, not even encouragement. Young people already have some skill and often great determination and strength. Also, although mistakes are one possible outcome, it’s unlikely that they will be disasters. For example, I know Lydia can swim well, and the worst that could have happened was a dunking and a challenging climb back onto the board.

When we are in a teaching/helping/nurturing/leading role, the impulse is often to intervene. The danger in the intervention, however, is that the outcome becomes ours. The person helped loses her agency.

I feel this myself, too. When I am faced with a challenge, I like the pleasure of working it out myself or, if I can tell that I need it, asking for very specific help. It gets my back up when someone offers to take over for me. And yet when I am doing something difficult or grueling, it can be wonderful to have a trusted person nearby, perhaps involved in their own parallel challenge, whether physical or intellectual.

To help most, therefore, it sometimes takes great self-restraint, an ability to have a thought and not speak it, to perceive a solution and not implement it, or to sense uncertainty and not resolve it.

Teachers, for the semester ahead, let’s remind ourselves of the value of our presence and the power of nonintervention. This is not to discount the value of our active teaching — that’s important, too — but simply to remember that we have more than one way of being and doing.

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications

homemade seed marker

homemade seed marker

In the spring of 2009, I planted a sunflower folly in half of the front yard: link. It was a dramatic success. For me, it had been an experiment as well as a therapeutic act after I had experienced a major disappointment. In September, the growing season done, I was content with the results of my folly, documented them, and set the idea aside.

A month ago, as she watched me start the spring clean up, Lydia asked, “Can you do the sunflowers again? I loved that.” So here I go again, although on a smaller scale.

This time, instead of planting half the front lawn, we tilled up the barren strips that lie between the road and the town sidewalk. Sunflowers can grow anywhere, and the poor quality of this soil will not deter them. The flowers’ appearance will also delight passers-by and provide us with a visual screen.

Mail-order seed packets

Mail-order seed packets

Seeds were purchased from Burpee and Gurney’s. Because the planted area would be smaller, I only ordered six packages total, in a variety of colors and heights:

  • Elf: yellow, 14″ to 16″ stems (Burpee)
  • Sunspot: yellow, 2′ stems (Gurney’s)
  • Chianti Hybrid: burgundy with gold, 4′ to 5′ stems (Burpee)
  • Hybrid Double Shine: fuzzy orange, not many seeds, 5′ stemps (Gurney’s)
  • Coconut Ice Hybrid: white, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)
  • Solar Flare: flame red, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)

After tilling (thank you, Jimmy), Lydia raked and smoothed the dirt. I sprinkled on some foul-smelling fertilizer, and we used the eraser ends of pencils to make 1″ holes for planting the seeds.

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia came up with the planting scheme: tallest flowers in the sight line from our front windows, with shorter ones surrounding them. Her first proposal was that we “throw them down and let nature take its course,” but that was not enough of a scheme for me.

supplies: landscaper's cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

supplies: landscaper’s cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

This was quick work. After planting, I watered the dirt lightly, put down some landscaper’s cloth with big staples (I used black cloth this time because I could grab it at Home Depot, but wish I had the white that I mail-ordered and used for my first folly). I made some improvisatory seed markers with the seed envelopes, some gardening sticks, and binder clips. See above.

I drank espresso. Winston kept us company.

Winston, good company for gardeners

Winston, good company for gardeners

Official planting date: Monday, May 20. Stay tuned for progress reports.

—–

Previous posts on the Sunflower Folly of 2009, in chronological order:

  1. Sunflower folly: link (with full instructions)
  2. Sprouts: link (first sprouts, 13 days after planting seeds)
  3. First sunflower: link (first sunflower, 73 days after planting seeds)
  4. Habitat: link (folly as habitat for a wild rabbit)
  5. Harvest: link (sunflower harvest, four months after planting)

Cinderella goes to the ball

Cinderella is Grace, and the ball is a Bat Mitzvah.

Today our house was a scene of cottage industry. I altered the dress I bought for Grace in the women’s department. The style and fabric were exactly what she wanted, but it was too drop-waisted, too long for a 5′ 1″ girl. Out came the sewing machine and ironing board.

sew dress 500

Meanwhile, Jimmy drove Cinderella to Target to buy some tights. He was shooed away by his daughter from the Intimates section of the store. I asked him where he lingered while waiting.  “Electronics,” he replied, with a tone that conveyed, “Where else?”

Later, I assisted with nail polish and jewelry selection and fastening. The black cardigan sweater, bunched up since the last occasion, needed some sprucing up with a damp cloth.

A check was written and greeting card found. Cinderella did her own makeup, and she is good at it.

wear dress 500

Purse, phone, hairbrush, and coat were gathered. Black slippers were slipped on.

I took some pictures.

Her carriage arrived. She went.

The ball, at a hotel in the adjacent town, ends at 11:30pm. Cinderella will be home around the stroke of midnight, in her customized dress, not-glass slippers, and pink tights from Target.

I try and try to understand. I study you for clues.

Winston is two years old, a poodle Shih Tzu mix, and a stray. Two days ago we adopted him from the MSPCA shelter in nearby Jamaica Plain. Besides a few health observations made by the shelter volunteers and veterinarian, those are the only facts we know about Winston, who was once named Saint. This is our first dog.

Winston_Grace

Winston and Grace

We study him for clues, trying to discern his “personality,” his preferences and fears, and even the unknowable: his family history. When Grace, Lydia, and I met him for the first time at the shelter, he brought to the bars of his pen a soft calico bone-shaped toy. We took that as a signal to play, as when a dog drops a stick or ball at your feet.  The first toy we bought him, once he was ours, was a soft fleece bone-shaped toy. He holds it in his mouth, brings it to us, but not to play catch, we’ve discovered. He doesn’t let it go; he doesn’t want us to tug at it.

Here comes Winston

Here comes Winston

We’ve discussed at length what this sign might mean. Lydia has deduced the fleece bone is a comfort object, like a child’s pacifier, and says, “I want to know what his life was like. I wish we had more information.” Jimmy, who came with us for the formal adoption visit, has observed Winston at home, and concludes that he was once well-cared for. Winston has some nice habits and deliberate gestures. We don’t know what they all mean yet, but we suspect they are part of a communication system he had with other people.

He’s just a dog, I know. Still our urge to know him — not as a blank slate but as a creature with a history and with an inner, coherent life — is strong.  We desire very much to understand him: through observation, but beyond it too.

Winston_shelter

First meeting: we belong together

Meanwhile, this week I am reading Joan Acocella’s profile in the New Yorker of psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips. He claims that our deepest urge is to be understood, and he finds this to be a fruitless urge and “our most violent form of nostalgia,” says Phillips. It is “a revival of our wish, as infants, to have our mother arrive the instant we cry out from pain or hunger,” explains Acocella.

I have wished to be known, to be deeply understood.  I am skeptical, however, about Phillips’s reasoning. It’s too Lacanian for my taste. Would we really spend our adult lives driven by desires established in infancy? That contradicts my common sense. (Or perhaps Lacan’s ideas confound my understanding. Also possible.)

My urge to be understood comes from my strong inclination and effort to understand others: Jimmy, my children, the members of my family of origin, my closest friends, and even the occasional colleague or student who intrigues me. This effort to understand — although conducted invisibly and silently — I give as a gift. I want the same one in return.

And maybe we are all doing this all the time: studying each other for clues. Or maybe this effort to understand others is gendered. Or maybe some people, like me, emphasize understanding in their relationships, and others emphasize problem-solving, favors, or action.

I do agree with Phillips that we would be better off in accepting our lives and stop always striving to fulfill its potential.  Good luck with that, though. I both aim for that and find it hard to do.

Winston faces the camera

Winston faces the camera

We do know we will never fully know Winston or get the facts on his family history. We are constructing a new narrative, and in doing so we are envisioning a previous one. We will assign logic and meaning to all the clues and believe at some point that we know our dog. But we will really only know the story we have made of him.

P.S. Yes, I know. He’s a dog. It’s my thoughts about him that interest me, which make me wonder about my thoughts about just about every person in my life.

Almost one month later, the never-ending holiday ends

We returned the unwanted gifts to the stores in time for the 30-day return limit.

I packed up the ornaments, took down the artificial tree, vacuumed, undecorated the mantle, and got Jimmy to help me put the Christmas things in the attic. Then I went outdoors and stripped the yard of ornaments.

mail

I signed and stamped my second batch of holiday cards. I had ordered some with the New Year’s theme, knowing I’d never make a Christmas deadline. I bought some Taza chocolates and Effie’s oatcakes, local products to send to friends in Germany and son Eli in Burlington, VT.

This morning, I mailed the cards and packages. New postal clerk in Brookline Village: very friendly and efficient.

post office

I declare Christmas officially done. It’s been a long month.

What will I do differently next year? It was fun having dinner at our house; I would cook again, and perhaps the same meal. But the whole presents scheme must change. Next year, it will be quality over quantity. I ended up returning a lot of the gifts bought for the teenaged Gutermans and giving them cash to buy what they want. In the future, I will (a) not shop at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, which I love and they seem to hate, and (b) buy one special gift, fill the stockings, and give the rest in cash.

I will send holiday cards again. I haven’t done that in years, and I enjoyed the opportunity to reminisce about my cousins and childhood family friends and simply write by (private) hand and not via social (and public) media. At my sister Sally’s suggestion, I made a file with all the addresses in it, so that will be streamlined next year. I even added a few names of people I intend to send cards to next year; this year I ran out.

Here’s the New Year’s card photo, taken August 2012:

Mighty Gutermans

Also, now that the big push of Christmas is behind me and the choke points of the semester still to come, I am going to attempt to blog much more frequently, even if most of the offerings are slight. The accumulation of a lot of small gestures may add up.

It’s a new year and time for new experiments.

Over time, we may come to understand what these gifts mean

Angel_smallThere is this great desire to be known. To be recognized for who one is. We need signals from the intimate world, from the people closest to us, that we have been observed and found out. And around Christmas time, we start to hope that the gifts will be those signals — that someone will unearth or make the item that will tell us we are known, and we are prized for who we are.

We know we are loved. But are we known? That we worry about in our heart of hearts.

—–

As I child, I always loved Christmas and looked forward to it each year. My sister Sally and I shared a room for a long time, and every Christmas Eve we would lie in our beds wriggling with delight over what Santa and the morning would bring. It was hard to sleep, and we would kick and bicycle our legs deliberately to get rid of the energy. In later years, after the dream of Santa was behind us, I still endowed Christmas with much hope — a great, great deal of it — even though my rational mind knew that, with knowledge, the magic had dissolved.

When I was about 14 or maybe older, I received from my parents the gift of an antique wicker chair and table that had come from my mother’s Aunt Gert’s house. The set had been dusted off, and my mother had sewn a new cushion set. Intellectually, I could tell this was a special gift. I said thank you, and even now I hope I outwardly seemed grateful and happy. I wasn’t happy, though. I don’t recall if there was something in particular I wanted, but it wasn’t a family hand-me-down. I was a teenager, so perhaps boots or clothes or a record player or hot rollers would have been more worth getting.

I don’t actually remember the nuances of what I felt beyond the shock of seeing the table and chair, around the corner from the living room, too big to be put under the tree. I have a mental snapshot of the moment, and in trying to stand there in the same place again, looking at the table and chair, all I feel is the force of my own self-control: try to be thankful, try to keep your cool, try to appreciate the meaning and effort that mum has put into this.

The effort to accept a gift that one doesn’t want is so great.

—–

I still have that chair and table. Many years ago, I updated the table, marbling the top, when I took a furniture-painting class. The chair has been professionally restored by a wicker man, who told me the chair is a classic, and he may have even named its style, but I don’t remember it. There is a little piece of wicker on the arm rest that has broken off, and I have put it aside, intending to glue it back.

Continue reading