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.

—–

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.

—–

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?”

—–

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

Happiness is a moment, not a life

Last Saturday morning, walking to the last sessions of the IWAC Conference in Savannah, I saw this graffiti on a building behind my hotel at the corner of Turner Boulevard and Fahm Street.

The graffiti says, “Happiness is a drug I can’t afford.” (Click and see.) Who spray painted this, I wondered? Is this a shout? And if frustration gave birth to this remark, did the spray painter not feel any thrill in the act of expressing it?

I’ll bet he did have at least a few minutes of absorption that are equated with happiness.

I don’t like that question, “Are you happy?” because happiness is a quality that is on the move constantly. It’s like hunger or the satisfaction of hunger: depending on the moment, I could answer in different ways. If I say NO the person asking may assume a generalized unhappiness on my part when, really, happiness is specific and ephemeral. This is okay.

This month in The Sun, the painter Ran Ortner describes the feeling of being engaged in his work:

In my reading I’ve come across this again and again: that a person is most powerful when in a state of inner peace. The outside world recedes when I’m engaged in my work. I fall under the illusion that what I’m doing is all-important… I’ll take a break, and when I come back and look at the work, I’ll think, Damn, there’s magic there… That’s what makes art great — it’s a souvenir from these frontiers.

To me, a sort of cool-temperatured soul, that inner peace is happiness.

It doesn’t only come with art-making. If it did, I would experience it as infrequently as I make art. So much of my time seems spent in getting work done or giving comfort or making/maintaining a home.

Some of that inner peace comes actually from those activities, even mowing the lawn or sweeping the sidewalk. And I feel satisfied with the souvenir from the frontier of the backyard. Just this morning, Friday at 6:50am, I sat on the steps in the back, watched the birds peck at the damp dirt under the green grass, looked around at my neighbors’ yards, heard the garbage truck on a distant street, and felt happy with the place I’ve made over many moments of absorption. This includes my recent wrestling with two overgrown rhododendron. Happy is a lightness of being — that may be the best way to describe it. (Thanks to Kundera for the phrase.) It comes and it goes and it comes again.

Continue reading

Pillars of civilization

We unloaded the two busloads of Brookline fifth graders in front of the State House. Driving up Beacon Street, with all but the gold dome hidden by trees, I had not seen the huge Bruins banner hanging from the ballustrade and down over the portico.

Massachusetts State House, June 20, 2011 @10am

Our bundle of children, parents, and teachers stood on the sidewalk as the buses pulled away and left us. I leaned over to one of the other parents and murmured in her ear, “Ah, those twin pillars of civilization, politics and sports.”

Squinting, she nodded and agreed: “Especially in Massachusetts.”

This was the first stop on our Boston architecture tour. The teachers ran it like a quiz show with points for correct answers.

Teacher: Who was the architect of the State House?

Students: Charles Bulfinch

Teacher: Which English building did he imitate?

Students: Somerset House

Teacher: Who, in 1802, covered the wooden dome with copper?

Students: Paul Revere

Teacher: Why was the dome painted black during World War Two?

To this question, there were many responses, all guesses. One student answered poetically: “It was a dark time.”

Only the parent chaperones, all in their 40s, knew the answer to this one, having heard of the wartime practice of blackout. None of us, though, had ever lived it.

It was a bright, hot day at the end of the school year. Summer beckoned. The dome sparkled. Among the lucky, we feared nothing more than sunburn, lost lunch money, and a dawdling child. Our leisurely tour through Boston history — a stand-in for the American struggle for independence — began.

No nightlife, no boogie

No doubt there is nightlife and boogie in Toronto, but we didn’t find much of it. That’s probably because we — traveling with children ages 10, 14, and 17 —  weren’t looking for it.

Staples in telephone pole, Kensington Market. By Lydia.

Still, we hoped to have our own brand of fun. And we did. What follows is a handful of highlights from the Toronto leg of our summer vacation, August 10 – 15. (The Cooperstown and Niagara Falls legs are documented in a previous post.)

Leg three: Toronto, Ontario

We drove into the city on a Wednesday afternoon. Lydia, sitting in the way back, observed, “This is another one of those cities with cranes. Like Chicago.” I had to agree.

Another city of cranes.

After dragging our bags into our hotel on Yonge Street, at one time designated the longest street in the world, and feeling daunted by possibilities for What Now?, we walked blocks and blocks to Yorkville Ave. for ice cream. At Summer’s Sweet Memories, Eli and I tried their famous flavor, Toronto Pothole: almonds, marshmallows, chocolate chunks, and peanuts in chocolate ice cream. Later in the week, we went back again, for the same flavor. That was one of my good delicious vacation ideas. Continue reading

Escape from America

This summer marked our third family car trip to Canada. On occasion, we have joked darkly and said that our habit of traveling there is practice for when the U.S. reinstates the draft, and we have to hightail it north to keep Eli and perhaps the girls from compulsory service. Interestingly, during our stay in Toronto I read a biography of Jane Jacobs and learned that she and her husband moved to that same city in 1968 to keep their two sons from the draft, and she easily made it her home for the rest of her long life.

More immediately, though, we love it: a chance to go and be somewhere different, cool, and not America without the hassles of an airport and high price of (five!) airline tickets.

Driving by Jimmy. Back seat photo by Grace.

Plus, before we cross the border, we get to drive through some nice country in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York and visit friends and stop at some out-of-the way U.S. attractions. This was so on our recent trip through Albany, Cooperstown, and Niagara Falls, on our way to Toronto.

What follows, in this post and the next, is less a summary than an accounting of high, and a few low, lights of our August vacation. Continue reading

Hiatus

My maternal grandmother, Ellen (Harney) Lindberg, was not a world traveler, but she knew how to take a break: time at the beach, a road trip to Newport to bet on Jai Alai, card parties, golf, and line dancing. The point seemed to be less the destination than the excursion. Fun is wherever you make it.

Ellen Lindberg, some beach, somewhere, 1971

Ellen Lindberg, some beach, somewhere, 1971

Growing up, my mother and father too were creators of excursions. As a family, we never left the country or got on an airplane, but we traveled and camped constantly. We went to more places in the Northeast and around the U.S. than many families with more money. My parents seemed always to want to go and do. In fact, I can recall a few Friday afternoons in the summer when I’d stop at home for a drink or snack, and my mother would say, “Pack up. We’re going camping.” And I and my four siblings would pack up — we knew the drill. Within a couple of hours, off we’d go in our Country Squire station wagon. I remember the excitement of driving the curving roads of New Hampshire or upstate New York and looking for campground “Vacancy” signs. My brothers and sisters and I would race each other to be the first to call my parents’ attention to a place to stay. “There! There! Vacancy!” Beyond whist parties with their friends, or Casino Night at church, this may have been the only gambling my parents ever did.

Last night we — I, Jimmy, Eli, Lydia, and Grace — returned from our break: an extended car trip to Albany (to see friends), Cooperstown (Hall of Fame), Niagara (falls), and Toronto (Red Sox vs. Blue Jays game three, Kensington Market, the world’s only shoe museum, AGO, city islands, and more). I’ll report on that in the next few days.

In the meantime, there are still weeks of summer left, enough time for day trips, boat rides, outdoor meals, and a beach somewhere.

– Chaperone

No adults allowed

Sign at playground, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 10.11.2009

Haight Street in San Francisco is just one long strip of shops and cafés. In America, we seem to put more energy into commercial diversity than we do into the human kind.

Along the strip, Lydia and Grace pulled me into store after store. They did not need to use physical force, like the hand yank or the extreme whine. I had already capitulated to an hour or two of shopping. If you know me, you know that’s a generous act: I dislike shopping, especially shopping without aim.

The clothing in the stores skewed to the young, or the “young at heart.” I’m neither young nor old at heart, yet in years and body I am smack between the two poles.

In one store, called X-Generation, while I waited for the girls to hunt and try on, I  wended my way through spaces between circular racks and looked at hats, scarves, and purses. The little dresses and tshirts were too skimpy for me, but hats — those are ageless, right? I tried one on, then another. I liked them, and even more importantly, they fit. I have a big Kokernak head bone, and it’s hard to find a woman’s hat sized for my head.

I turned to Grace, to Lydia, and asked, “Do you like my hat?” Both answered wordlessly, with lifted eyebrows or rolled eyeballs. I put the hat back on its hook, chastened. Continue reading

– In the pines, in the pines

Pines2“What did you find out?” That was the question I was asked when Jimmy and I returned from our one-day field trip to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, to find Elizabeth White’s house, Suningive, and explore Historic Whitesbog Village, a state trust which preserves a turn-of-the-century company town built around cranberry and blueberry farming.

The question, innocent enough, made me bristle. It seemed to beg for information, and the purpose of the trip had really been about sense. Having spent a good part of the summer reading about agriculture, fruits, the Pine Barrens, and Elizabeth White and her family, I wanted to test my sincerity. Am I really interested in this subject? Is my curiosity powerful enough to bring me back here, to keep taking the next steps?

There’s something about the beginning of an idea that’s so fragile: just a few cells, stuck together, with a heart barely beating. One must hold onto it, without exposing it. That’s how I feel. The beginning should be conducted in the darkened room of privacy.

So the question — wow! That felt like an intrusion. Inside, I felt my will kind of clamp down around what I could say or reveal, wanting to keep it for myself.

Still, the question-asker is a kind of audience, and I had said enough about my impulse to write a biography of Elizabeth White that the audience deserved a response, an early communication. Continue reading

– What are you letting go?

balloonOn Saturday night in Berkeley, after trying (without reservations) to eat at Chez Panisse (the upstairs, less expensive café part), Betsy and I walked along the block for a while before deciding on Café Gratitude, a raw food vegan restaurant that practices sacred commerce.

Our young server, Natalie, with her bangs and long black braid, bright eyes blackly lined, and pink glossed lips, gave us a tour of the menu and recited a bit of Gratitude’s history. Before she left us to ponder food choices, she asked us the question of the day: “What are you letting go?” Natalie opened her hands, palms up.

Betsy replied with her own question: “Do you want us to answer you… ?”

I interjected, “—or just think about it?”

Natalie seemed to take a step away. “Whatever you want,” she said and continued to smile. “I’ll be back.” As she walked off, I noticed she wore cool black boots with her black clothes. Continue reading

– A huge disconnect

"At the Edge of the Quarry," July 2008

"At the Edge of the Quarry," July 2008

There is much beauty in the world and its people.

(Dear Reader, I beg your patience. In this post I’m going to attempt to start at beauty and end up at crisis. At this moment of beginning, I’m not sure I’ll find the path.)

There is much beauty in the world and its people. That is what I feel and what I believe. I would say, too, that beauty is what I see around me; it is my nearest and often most vivid experience. Children, what grows from the ground, surfaces, words on pages, good hearts. Beauty is real to me.

Last week I was in San Francisco, the first time since 1987, and I stayed with my friends Marcia and Steve, who live near the Presidio. On my first evening there, Steve and dog Henry walked me up there to look out over the city and across to Alcatraz and Angel Island, the Bay Bridge, a cemetery, the Golden Gate. We walked through cypress and eucalyptus trees that composed a woods both magical and spooky, and everywhere in the air was their scent.

Good words fail at these overwhelming moments. Continue reading