– Prompted by snow

The view of snow out of a second floor window into our backyard reminds me of other times, in other winters, I’ve stood at the same window and looked out on the same view. These linked memories seem to collapse time and heighten the present moment.

Snow out window, December 14

Yesterday I was the first adult home, and I dug out the driveway. This morning, I dug out a 600-word essay I wrote in mid-winter 2003 and tried to publish, in a local newspaper, in winter 2004. It seems fitting to publish it here today. Yes, it’s about snow, and something more.


Snow Hunger

February 2003

This morning, snow again. The branches of the bare and mature Japanese maple outside the girls’ window is furred with snow, as if the snow had grown there. The lower-growing junipers in the back, planted like fence posts in a line by the neighbors on the border of their yard and ours, are top-heavy with snow, their heads bowed in awe of the maple.

I say out loud to Grace, “Oh, look at the beautiful snow!” Almost three and unstoppable, Grace jumps off the low bed she is dancing on, steps onto the blue stool at the window, and blurts, “Oh, I hungry for it.” Her instant desire, I know, may have more to do with getting the snow into her mouth than appreciating its beauty, but I am instantly touched by her word choice, so more deeply true than “I want to eat it.”

I love the snow and the cold. Especially the snow. Last winter there was none that accumulated, and in this house we wished daily for it, watching the sky out our kitchen window as if we could discern the signs of weather. We wished for freezing temperatures, too, a long string of sub-freezing days and nights.

In December last I bought a backyard skating rink kit, and Eli, Lydia, and I assembled it in the backyard on an afternoon cold enough for coats and gloves but not too cold that it would have been unwise to run the hose for several hours. The water started running into the 17 x 21 foot form in mid-afternoon, and even at 9 p.m. Jimmy and I were still checking the progress of the fill. Moon glow and a backyard light shimmered on the water, yet we could not see well and so had to put a finger in to check how far to the top edge of the frame the water had reached. By our bedtime it was full. We turned off the hose, disconnected and drained it, and coiled it away in the garage for the winter, its last watering task done.

A day here and a day there, temperatures dropped below freezing. Through January, February, and March 2002, however, there was no trio of days cold enough to freeze such a large quantity of water. Nevertheless I loved looking out at that still, shallow pool every morning as I filled the pot to make coffee. I noticed the stray leaf or two that had fluttered down and settled to the bottom, a dark rotting brown against the slippery vinyl white. Some mornings there was a crust of ice; leaves and broken twigs rested lightly on it. Those days gave us hope for even colder weather, for a giant puddle to blossom into a skating surface, for a frosted patch to fill with bright, whirling parkas and a flash of skate blade and the shrieks of the neighborhood children convening in our yard.

The hope for cold and ice — for extreme weather — was the only hope last winter. I also remember sitting on the wooden steps leading from our porch into the backyard a few months earlier, on September 11, 2001. It was a stunning and clear afternoon, and I remember peering at the blue sky, the Japanese maple leaves not yet ready to turn from dark green into their autumn flame, and these words bursting into my thoughts: “I will never be happy again.”

One season later my daily wish for a certain kind of atmospheric condition, and the ice it could bring, lifted me. Better it was, I think now, that a sustained freeze never arrived. There was so much potential in that silent, inexpertly made pool of water.

Picture above, of the view from the window at 8 a.m. today, is by me. Picture below, of the tangle of tree branches seen through the same window, is by Lydia.

Snow on branches, December 14

– 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.

– Little house moment

Rain on stepsSaturday: rain, finally.

There was one quiet period when Lydia was at Mandarin Gourmet, having lunch with her friends; Eli was at John’s house, doing some mysterious thing that teenage boys do, fueled by Vitamin Water and cheddar cheese potato chips; and Jimmy was at Roche Brothers, getting provisions.

Grace and I were home, quietly puttering around. I sorted the junk mail on the dining room table while she worked at a rainy-day gardening task I gave her: creating plant markers for all the “new” perennials I made over the summer by dividing the overgrown ones. They’re about to fade into the ground for the winter, and I want to mark their places while they’re still recognizable. Look at this — 45 plants from the original seven.

Plants markers by Grace

Finished with lettering, Grace wanted another chore. “Do you want to organize the spice jars?” I asked. We have too many, including lots of half-containers of duplicates and triplicates (four little shakers of thyme leaves!). I put them all on the counter for her, and then she arranged them according to her own scheme, which had something to do with size. Any scheme is better than no scheme.

Spice collection undergoes renovation

I left her arrangement out for a while, admiring it and inviting the comers-home to admire it, too. Hours later, after Grace was asleep, I filed them away into the cabinet.

During the industrious and peaceful hour or two, I suddenly thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and how much I loved them as a child, and how the drama of the family’s survival is punctuated Little House coverby these moments of unadorned pleasure of a kind we don’t usually get to experience in our lives, in a time when the birch plant markers have to be ordered online and delivered by UPS, and when we can walk across one intersection and get Starbucks coffee or egg drop soup any time we want. I like that, and I even wish sometimes that there were still more restaurants within walking distance of my house, but I also like when, as I felt on Saturday, what you have to do is not be anywhere else but where you are.


Read the first several paragraphs of Little House in the Big Woods here.  Ah, trees.

– Slow down, you move too fast…

It is customary for Tom Cavanagh, the principal of the K-8 school in Brookline that Grace and Lydia attend and Eli graduated from, to begin his frequent e-letters to the school community with a quotation and a short thoughtful essay. This one hit my Inbox on a day in which I, and everyone who works with me in the writing center, had spent careening from tutorial to tutorial, task to task. The principal’s words spoke both to my conviction that everything we do in education is necessary and therefore hard to say “no” to, and to a hunch that we must allow ourselves a moment now and then to pause and take a breath. Please keep reading, courtesy of the man his students call, respectfully, “Mister Cavanagh.”

Chestnuts, a handful


Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

–John Keats, “To Autumn”

Several years ago, during a particularly hectic autumn, I was running from project to project and classroom to classroom. One afternoon I was racing up the stairs and as I came into the office, I told Mrs. Helen Hunt, my former secretary, that I wanted to quickly dictate a letter to her. As I waited impatiently in my office for her to come in, I made a quick phone call and shuffled some paper on my desk. When Mrs. Hunt came into my office and sat down, I immediately started dictating the letter. However, when I looked over at her, I realized that she was not taking the dictation. Instead she was staring serenely out the window seemingly in another world. Following her gaze, I looked out the window and saw that she was staring at the magisterial oak trees that canopy over my office.

“Aren’t the trees beautiful at this time of year?” she sighed.

“Yeah,” I said grudgingly and carried on with my dictation.

However, Mrs. Hunt was not quite ready to let go of the moment. She stood up and walked across to the window and said, “Come here, Tom.” Knowing it was useless to proceed with my agenda, I got up and stood next to her at the window. She pointed toward a small outgrowing maple tree on the knoll and pointed to the flame bushes that are outside Ms. Cherkerzian’s and Ms. Roses’s rooms, and she explained to me what each of them were. And then she walked over to the side window that points towards the Hoar Sanctuary and made me look at all the elms and oaks and maples blending in a colorful autumnal weave.

It was a lovely sight and I momentarily gave up my urge to get back to dictation. Finally sensing that she had my total attention, Mrs. Hunt said softly, “You know, Tom, it’s important to stop to see the beauty that’s around us and to really enjoy nature.” This incident was to me what is called a ‘teachable’ moment. And from that moment on I have tried — sometimes in vain — to remember to enjoy the extraordinary beauty that New England offers.

I share these thoughts with you because we are in the waning days of the most beautiful autumn of recent years. And, perhaps, many of you are like me: forced marching from one obligation to another and missing what is directly in front of our eyes. Below [in the principal’s letter] you will see a rapid-fire listing of various school events and programs. Many of them may make it on your calendar and you will find yourselves with more to do than time allows. Might I respectfully play the role of Mrs. Hunt and remind you not to let the seemingly interminable burdens of each day cause you to miss what’s in front of your very eyes. — Tom Cavanagh


Today Eli and Lydia, at Arnold Arboretum, took turns with the camera, snapping shots to illustrate their principal’s essay, and occasionally posing for each other. The handful of horse chestnuts image, above, and the tree trunk & leaves picture, below, are by Eli.

Leaves, tree, shadows

– Sitting still

This drought is hard on living things with shallow root systems. For weeks I’ve been moving the sprinkler around the yard, trying to hit each spot every few days. Around 8 o’clock the other night, I was standing in my driveway, watching the oscillating streams that were illuminated by the street light. On the other side of Puddingstone Road, Steff emerged with her children from the lit foyer, saw me in the mostly dark, and asked in a friendly way if I was watching my grass grow. “Yes… yes, I am.” A simple answer, yet not quite right.

Plant & brick detail, wet

Often in the summer I sit on the front steps, looking at the current state of affairs in the yard: subtle undulation of brick, mix of blooms and leaves, shadow and light on the lawn. Sometimes I look across to the temple, and I check out the greenness of the grass or the alertness of the annuals or the bend in the trunk of the tall white birch, which Dick tends while Rufus, his bulldog, keeps him company. In an hour, creatures might shift a bit, puddles may appear, but nothing much changes — nothing more than this, anyway:

A haiku by Shiki (Japanese. 1867-1902):

The sparrow hops
Along the verandah,
With wet feet.

Our front door, unless we’re asleep, is always open to the storm door, so we can look out. This morning, Grace perched herself on the front steps: Grace, sitting still for a changenot feeling well, sitting quietly. That’s my summer spot. Today I sat inside, on the stairs that go up, and looked out at her looking out. I thought of how a moment freezes when we watch our children, still, like this. Eli told me once that he’s noticed me stand in a doorway and watch the girls, who go to bed earlier than he does, as they lie there. “You like to watch us sleep, right, Mom?” All parents do: It’s the only time, kids, that you stop moving, and that Time stops, going neither forward into your future or looking back over its shoulder at your earlier selves. It stops. I study you, in the absolute present. This is not time expanding, as it does when a person becomes absorbed in the activity of writing or gardening or making music or love. That kind of flow has movement in it, even if the movement makes the experiencer lose consciousness of self and time. What I’m talking about here is Time… pausing. Time bare of verbs.

One by Issa (Japanese. 1763-1827):

How lovely,
Through the torn paper window
The Milky Way.

I was not, then, watching the grass grow two nights ago. More like me, grass, water, dark, warm air, streetlights, and still.

Grace and Jane on front steps—–

Photographs of Grace alone and Grace & Jane by Eli.
Haiku from
Haiku (Everyman’s Library, 2003).

– Nell and a shovel

Nell and big shovel

This is Nell. She sent me this picture today, calling it “My Summer Job.” Until I wrote her a follow-up — “tell me more” — and got her answer, it seemed totally valid to me that Nell, as handy with power tools as she is with organizational consulting, would have a summer job operating construction equipment. Her whole family (mother, father, two brothers) is like that; they make, fix, solve, initiate, teach, and oversee. I met Nell through her mother, my friend “Jane G,” as I think of her. She and I — the two Janes — worked together, along with Nell, at The Albert Einstein Institution, an organization studying and promoting nonviolent actions run by visionary strategist Gene Sharp, in the late 1980s. Nell’s e-mail reminded me of two things I believe: (1) people who are in charge should be the people who know how to do the job, not just manage it; and (2) more people should know about Gene’s work in civilian-based defense and learn about the role of noncooperation and nonviolent strategies in diffusing or ending conflicts.


Note: Nell’s summer job was not in construction. Her family recently replaced the septic tank at their lake house.