For hungry gardeners

Betsy and I drove out to Broadmoor today to walk the trails. Unlike in Boston and Cambridge, however, which experienced rain and melt in the past week or so, the walkways out in the far suburbs — especially in the wooded shade — are not cleared of ice. We tried for 20 minutes, then laughed at our slippery efforts and quit.

We left Broadmoor and headed to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, free and open to the public every single day of the year. Perhaps 10 miles at most from the Hub, in the midst of this New England winter it’s another world, indoors. Cacti, succulents, orchids, fish, ferns, flowering trees, forced bulbs, water, and two other women, who, in their own words, were “trying to learn to sketch.” And it seemed to us as though they had found the right place.

– Parallel play

It’s heaven to lose yourself in the company of others. In this instance, I’m thinking of Saturday afternoon in the Kind Cafe in Selinsgrove, PA with fellow writers James Black and Jimmy Guterman. For an hour, we sat together, ignored each other, and wrote. For me, it was utter peace, focus, and fellowship.

The two of them are fictioneers. I thought about joining them and taking a stab at a story, but couldn’t work up the energy (or was it courage?). I thought about starting a new essay, which feels like my writerly occupation now, and immediately my energy dropped — I’m temporarily tired of exploring the known. So, I took some notes (see top right corner of the page in my new notebook, below). Then, I thought about poems, and writing one. I mean, I like characters, and I can’t help but do setting, and yet I’m not so hot on plot. Don’t only narratives have plot? But, I’ve been reading again the longer poems of Louise Glück, and I like the story quality to them.

Jane's new notebook, 11.1.2008

Jane's new notebook, 11.1.2008

At the top of the page, after the bulleted notes, I wrote a note to self: “narrative poem — why not?” I dove in. After a couple of pages of 4-line stanzas (an impulsive decision), I stumbled over an image I liked and circled back and slapped a provisional title on it: “Ghost Dances.” Here are the first few stanzas. Very DRAFTY.

Where she stands. At the edge of the
yard, her back to the cedars, she
faces her own house, the life
inside, like a movie

playing for her. Or Hollywood Squares, each
window a light, a character, a
small stage. Not the world. The world
is a stage, but this is not

the world, only hers. Life is boxed,
parceled into bits. There, the kitchen:
a woman bowed, hair falling away
from shoulders, tipping toward dishes

that her arms, white and bare, wash.
Light glows down on her. Woman washing
is holy and this is what Grace, feet
planted on dirt and moss skirting

the trees, churns up at when she
watches this movie, the one with the good
golden girl. Even the audience wants her,
only Grace doesn’t. She wants the dirt

I wrote many pages of this in longhand, and experienced many discoveries, while working quietly alongside my friends. Note: Grace is simply the name of the main character of this narrative poem. She bears no resemblance to my daughter of the same name. It’s just a lovely name, and it was on hand, so I used it.

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P.S. Dr. Poppy also inspired me today with her post on handwriting.

– Postcard to me

On the evening ferry from Oak Bluffs back to Hyannis, I finished reading the last few pages of the book I had brought along, and then I completed a chronological list of the little events that had comprised my day.

Next to me sat a couple with their two young children. The little girl — I’ll call her Rachel — was about six years old and full of energy and sweet sass. She complained about her parents’ lack of a pen, so I loaned her one. Then she enlisted her mother as a scribe. Rachel said out loud the words she wanted on postcards to various friends, and her mother wrote them down. The girl would say, “Dear Maya. Um, today we went to the beach. I had a hamburger for lunch. Then I had chocolately crunchy ice cream -.” Her mother interrupted, “That’s boring.” Her father, who seemed to have educational intentions, gently added, “Rachel, people don’t only want to know what you did; they want to know what you thought.”

Rachel tried again, “Hmm. Today we went to the beach. It was fun. Then I had a hamburger…” She seemed to be thinking. Her mother, who really did seem to be kind and loving, said softly, “Still boring.” Her father said, “Rachel, give your thoughts.”

I sat there, wondering what he meant. Rachel seemed perplexed, too. She kept listing her day. To the mother’s credit, she continued to transcribe although a few times she said, “Boring.” They managed to write about five or six postcards this way until the mother decided to take a break. The girl did not protest. Five or six postcards is a lot of writing for any six-year-old, even one with Rachel’s spark and persistence.

I love getting postcards. They could say anything: “Beach. Kite. Hamburgers. Ice cream. Bicycle. Thinking of you.” It makes me picture my friend’s travel day a bit, and I feel remembered, even in the midst of vacation distractions. Plus, who doesn’t like to get real mail?

I wondered what the family would think of my postcard to me, or what I wrote in the last four pages of my notebook on the ferry ride home. Here it is, with only a few lines about a private conversation omitted. Continue reading

– 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.

– Travelers’ advisory: Canada

Although I have often said that travel with children is more a change of scenery than an actual vacation, we managed to see new sights and experience rest and recreation during our recent trip to Montreal and Ottawa with four children: our own, plus John Tyler, Eli’s 17 year old best friend. It turns out we had much of our fun off the beaten path, which is often how things go.

Montreal

Vieux-Montreal (or the old city) spreads out along the seaway. It’s great for walkers, bikers, tram riders, and Segways, which Jimmy and the three older kids tried on our last day in town. The food there was not great on the low end, as my sister Em had warned; I can vouch for that. French fries and ice cream abound.

We did *not* go to La Ronde, the massive amusement park that is across the seaway and impressively visible from the boardwalk. No one in our clan likes roller coasters and other rides (which also explains why we, as a family, have never been to Disney World).

Of the touristy things we did in the “new” city — Biodôme, Insectarium, Jardin botanique, and Parc olympique — what we enjoyed the most was the Olympic swimming pool, which seems to attract more Québécois than visitors. For $3, a person can swim all day. We did that one day, and we liked it so much we went back again the next. As I sat on the side and watched the kids swim, an athlete (heading to the Beijing Olympics?) was practicing her dives off the highest platform and a team of synchronized swimmers, all wearing white caps emblazoned with the red maple leaf, practiced their routine on deck.

Pool, Parc olympique in Montreal

Pool, Parc olympique, Montreal

Because we were with kids, two of whom are vegetarians, we ate in a lot of pasta restaurants in Centre-Ville, where our hotel was. Groan. The food was forgettable at best. On our last night we drove north on Avenue du Parc on a hunt for Fairmount Bagel, billed as a Montreal institution. I pictured a sit-down deli, sandwiches, Dr. Brown’s cream soda. It was a storefront that sold good bagels indeed, but was not a deli. It was almost 8 o’clock and we had to eat somewhere. We parked. We walked around. Finally we found Le Petite Ardoise on Laurier Ouest. It was a delight. We sat on the terrace out back; the waiter spoke mostly French but was very kind and willing to try some English to translate the menu; the crêpes were just right for an outdoor nighttime meal. Later I apologized to everyone for dragging us out for bagels. Lydia said, “That’s okay. If we hadn’t come here, we wouldn’t have found the little French café.”

Le Petite Ardoise, Montreal

Le Petite Ardoise, Montreal

We had one why-are-we-doing-this? moment, at Oratoire Saint-Joseph, which is a pilgrimage site and the largest dome in the world after Saint-Peter’s in Rome. It was really late, and we had already been to a lookout at the top of Le mont Royal. At the cathedral John, Eli, and Lydia bounded up the granite steps, and Jimmy and I goaded Grace to keep going, up and up, 100 steps or more. She fell and banged her knee cap, hard, on a granite step, and then she fell apart, crying. Gently I tried to soothe her, and then get her start climbing again. (What was I thinking?) She sniffled, stopped, climbed, sniffled, stopped, climbed, and so on. I tried to distract her by telling her about this healer — Father Ralph DiOrio — who for a long time had an office in my hometown when I was growing up, and the stories of how he healed the sick and injured were dramatic and fascinating. Grace kept crying; I kept talking. Meanwhile, other visitors are walking up the stairs or down the stairs, passing us. We finally made it to the deck, to look out as the boys took their pictures, and then had to persuade the still weeping Grace to walk down. Really, it was an act of persuasion, not force, but still: What was I thinking?! The next day, Jimmy told me that another visitor, a woman, happened by us on the steps, just as I was telling the story about Father Ralph. She looked at Grace and then us, as if to say, “What are you thinking?!” Good question.

Oratoire Saint-Joseph, at night

Oratoire Saint-Joseph, at night

The next morning I told my roommates — Jimmy, Lydia, and Grace — about a dream I had in the night, in which I went to a religious retreat at a huge campground. Many of the people there were members of families that we used to socialize with as children (the Newcomers, the Fisets), and many were strangers. We were all waiting for the healer, who was taking his time coming. People were crying as they waited. I tried to comfort them. I kept saying the same phrase to them, over and over, and embraced each one. Grace wrote it down in her notebook, and today I came across the page, which she must have ripped out of hers and tucked into mine. This was that dream phrase:

You’re a stranger to me, but I love you, and I want you to know everything will be fine.

And so went my only vacation-time dream.

In Montreal I was not only a monster to Grace. On the last day, just hours before we were set to head to Ottawa, she and I went skating for a few hours on the indoor ice rink at Atrium Le 1000, a huge office tower at 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest, which was only one door away from our hotel, a Marriott. Why it took us until the last day to discover this, well, that’s the nature of vacation. As we whirled around the ice, with a assortment of skaters, I had that feeling of perfect rightness: This is where I want to be, now. Grace did, too. Usually a timid skater, she ordered me a couple of times to stand still at the side while she skated solo once or twice around the ice. Then, she ordered me to take a solo turn while she waited and watched.

Ottawa

I have less to say about Ottawa, and yet we enjoyed it more. It was our first visit. My mother recommended it as a destination, and yet when I told this friend or that about our plans to travel there, eyes would either narrow or open wide with skepticism. “Oh…. really? How… nice. Are you sure?”

It rocked. Canada’s capital, it’s lovely, walkable, outdoorsy, English, artsy, interesting. You can walk right up to government buildings — Parliament, for example — and not have a machine-gunned guard try to inspect your bags or keep you out. Hmm, how unlike another country I know well.

Parliament, Ottawa

Parliament, Ottawa

We had the same bad luck with food that we did in Montreal, but that’s not because there were no good restaurants; there are plenty. It’s just that our kids don’t want to eat in any of them. We did walk 18 blocks one night to Pancho Villa, at 361 Elgin, and we all loved the freshly-made Mexican food and the cheery waitress.

Our hotel was on the corner of Sparks Street, home to the city’s pedestrian mall, and the annual Buskerfest was going on while we were there. We saw more fire-eating acrobats in three days than any of us had in our lifetimes. And still, we kept going back for more…

Every night in the summer around 10 o’clock there’s a weird, yet affecting sound and light show at Parliament. Actually, it’s projected *on* Parliament. Lydia and I went. It’s very patriotic, and I tried to imagine myself as a Canadian. I felt proud.

During the day, we walked through Byward Market and passed by restaurants, food stalls, souvenir vendors, flower and vegetable farmers, and coffee and ice cream shops. Kind of like Fanueil Hall in Boston, times 10.

Jimmy and my favorite spot was also the place we had the least time in: the National Gallery. This may be the most beautiful museum I’ve ever been in. The way it uses its site and honors the art inside enlarges a person’s experience of a building. I can’t describe it. I wondered, as I walked through, if what I felt was akin to what people walking through those ancient, massive Greek temples felt, in their times. The art, especially 20th century Canadian, was something, too.

We hoped to visit, but did not, the War Museum, which we drove past on our bus tour. The guide told us that its building is the only one in Canada that is not visible from the air, because of how it is designed, like a bunker, with sloped sides and planted on its roof with grass.

Now that I’m home, I keep meaning to check this on Google Satellite.

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Pictures by Eli Guterman.