Wolf pack, last time

“When I was a Child… I listened to vinyl records,” Pasi Mämmelä (2016), via a CC license

My essay, “This Will Be the Last Time,” was recently published by Pangyrus. The full essay — which presents the three last times I saw my late husband, Jimmy Guterman — can be found here: link.

Here’s an excerpt, from when the kids and I visited him, in his last earthly existence, in the funeral home.

They touched their father then, over the sheet. His legs. His chest. Did anyone touch his hands? They were under the shroud, a lump on his chest. I touched his hard, bony small knee through the sheet.

“Remember the wolf pack?” asked Eli, putting one hand out to hover over Jimmy’s chest.

We nodded and looked across the body at each other, remembering that time in a dark-paneled and stuffy TGI Fridays in Niagara Falls, on the rain-soaked first night of our summer vacation. Tired from a long car ride, we longed for hospitality, not our cramped hotel room or the awful food in front of us. To break a rotten, collective mood and restore family togetherness Eli had declared, “Wolf pack of five,” and led us through the stacked-hand gesture.

Ten years later, in Levine Chapel, Lydia put an outstretched hand on top of Eli’s. I put my hand on Lydia’s, and then Grace topped my hand with hers. With our hands making a sandwich and hovering over their father’s body, Eli commanded, “Wolf pack, last time.” Our hands released, fluttered up like birds, and then dropped back to our sides.

There was a lightness in the air; we were relieved. Jimmy, estranged husband and troubled father, on the run and missing for days, had been found. We walked out of the room, and he was gone.

To anyone who has a heart

On profound occasions, a person like me feels the pressure to come up with some profound words to mark the moment. I have none ready-made.

Today was the last meeting with my physical trainer, Kim Gomez, because we are moving. For the last year-and-a-half, with almost no breaks in our schedule, I lifted, stretched, lunged, and hinged two times per week. This has been one of my most important new relationships in the two years since Jimmy died, and we didn’t talk that much. I’m not a small talker, and neither is she. Of course, we talked. More significantly, she believed in me and she pushed me, and as my body got stronger my mind did too. It’s hard to come back after a trauma. If you ever have to do something like that yourself, reader, make your body do something. The mind doesn’t always lead the way. Often, the body does.

We both knew it was the last day, and I wondered how I would mark the occasion, though I didn’t plan it out as I usually plan things out. I actually hurt my back mid-lift, and instead of maxing out on lifts and lunges, Kim led me through stretches and extensions until I was okay again.

I couldn’t look at her in the last few minutes. I looked away, steadying my voice, and said, “It’s hard to put into spoken words what I want to say. I’m going to write it down and leave it for you.” She embraced me. Maybe she said my name – I love when my name is called. I hugged her back, and in the air next to her head I said, “Kim, you have been a great friend to me, in the work you do and the way you do it. I’m strong again. I’ll never forget you.” She responded, “I’m proud of you. Email me anytime if you have questions.” We parted. I stopped to look out a window.

Today is also the two-year anniversary or yahrzeit of Jimmy’s death from suicide. Here is his obituary: link. This event in our lives was truly “unexpected.” And yet, like so many stunning events, it also made sense to us as we reflected on it. The fragments fit together.

Just that something makes sense doesn’t mean that we feel any loving kindness toward this truth, any deep peace. Recently, talking about love, Eli said to me, “Mom, I have a feeling that for the rest of our lives all four of us will be experiencing everything through this layer of trauma.”  I thought this: “… even if that layer thins over time.” Continue reading

First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

Happiness and material life

IMG_9288Another Tuesday on the couch with Winston the Dog, this time it’s morning.

On his blog the other night, Lee asked, “When things are fine, who cares about writing?” The question surprised me because, from his daily diary on Grammar Piano, I took him to have an enjoyable life almost every day, and not just this one day. Enjoyable = fine.

Is this true, when life is enjoyable, no writing? And the inverse, when life is not fine, lots of writing?

I think it was Amy Bloom who once said, in an essay she wrote for the New York Times Magazine, that being unhappy is not a required condition for good writing. She called herself happy in this essay, as I recall. (This is another one of those memories where I may have actually invented it. I sort of remember this but it’s not like I have the article in front of me, either on paper or digital.)

The timer is now on, 20 minutes, so this post will be a freewrite. I really don’t know what I want to write or what end I’ll get to. It’s more about noticing Lee’s question and wanting to start with it.

Sometimes when I’m worried and can’t write, I think of the Russians who wrote even while in prison – to me, that must be the ultimate in unhappy conditions – and I wonder what’s wrong with me. I suppose a prison cell is a room of one’s own, and maybe that’s really what’s needed: your own room, whether happy or not.

I’m sitting on the couch. I don’t have my own room (or office or study), and I don’t necessarily believe the solitary room is necessary.

I also read somewhere that Brice Marden has, like, seven houses around the U.S. or around the world and each of them is set up with a studio. The light is different in each place, and he accomplishes different art works in the different conditions. Whoever wrote this profile — probably also in the New York Times Magazine which I read pretty faithfully though I also despise it for the high-net-worth advertising alongside stories about, oh, post-partum depression or refugees or educational inequity — didn’t comment on his wealth as ridiculous. Really?? I wondered. I suppose I do expect some kind of struggle and even privation for art to be authentic. Not that you have to be Tillie Olsen, but you can’t make your life too comfortable. Don’t you need to find out something to make art? Not: which of my seven houses should I fly to today and make a painting in the utterly perfect conditions.

You might think I am jealous. Continue reading

Creativity, power, and compliance


The writing of this post, though not the content, was inspired by this link, on writer’s block, anxiety, and writing itself as the therapy:

It may be that learning to do creative work of any kind—not just direct imagery exercises—may help combat writer’s block. Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist who is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of “Wired to Create,” says, “When one feels writer’s block, it’s good to just keep putting things down on paper—ideas, knowledge, etc.”

I don’t feel as though I have writer’s block, but I haven’t been writing. Why not 20 minutes a day? Start now.

I went to a lecture today for one of my classes at MIT, 2.00b Toy Product Design. The professor was leading students through a list of commonly misunderstood and misused terms: engine vs motor; nut vs. washer; die vs. tap; and so on. He got to energy vs. power. He asked for the definition of energy, and a student answered close enough.

He asked, “What is power?” and a student blurted out, “A great responsibility.” I laughed, the professor laughed, and many students in the class laughed.

The definition for power actually is “amount of work or energy transfer per unit of time.” It’s a rate.

I learn a lot in these classes about engineering. In another class this week, I deepened my knowledge of stepper motors. These are very ingenious things.

But this afternoon, as I left class and walked to get some dinner because I have a night lab at 7 PM also in the toy design class, I was thinking about power as a responsibility. The professor had added, after the laughter died down, that he hoped it wouldn’t be used for evil, and he meant the social relations kind, but I suppose also you could apply it to the physics principle. Let’s not use machine power, for example, to plow a vehicle into a crowd.

I have power, and I have prerogative as to how I’ll use it. Over the weekend a dear friend gave me a high compliment: she said I was one of the two most “self-directed people” she knows. That is a kind of power. Therefore, it makes me bristle sometime to have people try to exert their power over me – not the law so much (I’ll comply with that), but the demands or instructions of others especially when they are not consistent with my values or desires.

Jimmy, my husband, once said I am “typical GenX: outwardly compliant and inwardly defiant.” This is true too. Even when I bristle at the demands of others, I often will fulfill them, for peace or ease or even the satisfaction of others.

Is there another generation that is inwardly compliant and outwardly defiant? Some people are this way. They act out, though inside their desires are conventional. (I think of compliant as having to do with some set of rules or expectations or sentiments shared broadly in the culture, and not, oh, compliant with the weather.) An employee, for example, may make a lot of commotion at work in the form of complaints or acting out, but inside s/he is really wanting job security, a promotion, and praise. S/he looks like a change maker or ballbuster but really her/his comfort zone is in safe territory.

Some people want others to have power OVER them to keep themselves in line. Like a friend who says, “Please yell at me if I start drinking too much.” Okay, in that instance, that can be a nice thing for a friend to do, be your external monitor, but it also means you don’t have to muster up your own power. Continue reading

A complaint may simply be a boast in disguise

Years ago, I was having dinner at Brasserie Jo with a friend, her husband, and her out-of-town colleague. The colleague, a professor from somewhere in the Midwest, asked me about our experience of the public schools in our town. I described the school system’s exceptional quality, and I paradoxically whined at length about the excessive homework, competition, and parental (over) involvement.

Listening to myself, I didn’t like what I was hearing. I broke off and said to him, “I’m so sorry. I have a lot to be happy about, and I’m only complaining.”

He replied, “You’re boasting. I hear you. That’s okay.”

His remark was illuminating to me, and I have thought about that often. Whenever I hear someone else complaining, or even myself, I wonder if it really is a boast in disguise. I wish I had the guts that he did, though, and could say to someone else what he, so cheerfully, said to me.

And now I have a complaint that’s really a boast. Read on.

For six months, our old Kenmore washing machine has been dying a slow death. Repaired many times over its 12 years of life, it finally started to rust out over the winter, and Jimmy and I propped up the crumpled base with wooden toy blocks. It kept going and washing until a couple of weeks ago, when water started to leak out the bottom, and we realized we could no longer put off the errand. So we went to the store and ordered a new washer and dryer.

The plumber came Friday morning to disconnect the two (we have a gas dryer, and a plumber is needed) before the arrival of the appliances, scheduled for Saturday. With the appliances pulled away from the basement wall, we could see that the drywall was damp and crumbling up about 24″ off the floor. It would have to be fixed before the plumber came back Monday morning to connect the new appliances. No time to call a handyman — we’d have to do it.

My handy brother-in-law Kenlie came by, demolished part of both the wall and the frame supporting it (sections of the sole plate were rotted too), and told us what to do.  That “us” became “me” — poor me, that’s my overt complaint — and I spent a few hours on Sunday repairing the wall when what I had really wanted to do was not much of anything.

Watch this slideshow, and you’ll see the process. I wish I had a “before” picture, but the moment the appliances were pulled away from the wall was so disgusting — dirty and wet plaster everywhere — that I didn’t think to photograph it. The show begins after I’ve put in the pieces to replace the rotted sole plate, which I painted red: paint to make them a bit moisture resistant and red because it’s what I had nearby.

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And what’s the underlying boast? This was my first experience with drywall and plaster, and it came out very nicely, neat and clean.

I’m wicked proud of myself. There, I said it.

Thanks to Grace and Jimmy Guterman for the photography.


oak seedling and acorn relic

This fact once had a hold on me: that a baby girl is born with about 1 million ova. When my daughters were infants, I would stare at them, trying to grasp the reality that future grandchildren, if I were to have them, had gotten their start as cells inside my body. And the baby that I was diapering, was watching play with her toes, was soothing to sleep had a package of potential life inside her.

Contemplating this, I had a feeling not unlike the one you have when you stand in front of a mirror holding another mirror, and hold it in such a way that you see yourself reflected on and on and on and on.

Even as the babies grew into children — the daughters and the son — and their once physical connection to me was lost, I held on to the idea that cells that had originated inside me remained inside them like traces, souvenirs, relics. At the same time I felt perversely proud of my body (for doing what it does sort of automatically), these immigrant cells felt like losses to me, too, as though they took something from me.

My contrary feelings and ideas about my old cells residing in my children were so pressing that I of course had to write a poem about them. An early version (not the first draft) looked like this:


       for a daughter

Cheeks full. Lips
dripping pearl. You
have sucked

me soft.
What I had—
sinew leaping
blood replenishing
bones toughening—
spent.  Clean shell
I cultivate urge:

grow, colony, grow!
Multiply and billow
like yeast yet keep
my relic.

Moored boat,
patient seed, egg
inside me inside she
(my harbor, my flower),

remain, and divide.

Later, perhaps years, I dug the poem out and revised and revised it. I was going through a period of loving the cooler voices of poets like Mark Strand and Louise Glück, and I was a little embarrassed by my exclamation and stacked images. Continue reading

Backyard cat: stalker, or friend?

I look out the kitchen window several times a day and lock glances with its urine-gold eyes, which are pressed into a blank of black fur. I go out the porch door and down the steps, and there it stands, stock-still, defying me to shoo it. Not thinking of it, I head to the car in the driveway, and there the creature lurks, as though to say, “Wherever you go in this yard, there I will be.”

It’s my neighbor’s cat, and I think it’s haunting me.

Cats have never been fond of me. Growing up, we had one as a pet for a while. Named Saljami, short for Sally Jane Michael, she preferred my sister Sally over all of us. Saljami was sleek, gray, and striped, and she lived mostly in the yard and woods. One litter she gave birth to in my sister’s bed; I remember waking one night to see Sally sitting up in the other twin bed, with my parents around her and cat afterbirth on Sally’s nightgown. That’s how much the cat loved her. Not me.

In third grade, as a duet with Laura Farron, I sang “The Siamese Cat Song” on stage at Memorial School. Laura got scared in the first verse, and I ended up soloing. I wore a yellow dress that my mother had made, and one of the two pairs of cat glasses that our music teacher, Mrs. Holt, had supplied us with. My little disguise seemed to protect me from the audience, and I recall a feeling of elation as I belted out the verses.

In college, I babysat for a family that kept the food dishes of its two Siamese cats on the kitchen counter. This disgusted me, and when I cleaned up after dinner, I moved the cat dishes to the floor. The cats would jump up on the counter and stare me down. I always put the food dishes back in their places, and left the room.

When I first met Jimmy, whom I would later marry, and we visited his mother’s house, she still owned the family cat, Syd. I was indifferent to this old cat. In fact, as I sat in the den with my future relatives and had a conversation, totally ignoring Syd, of whom I was not afraid, Syd sometimes pounced on and scratched my leg. In retelling the story of how much the cat seemed to dislike me, I would remark that I couldn’t understand how I would provoke that much aggression in an animal toward which I felt neutral. I neither liked nor disliked Syd, or any cat. Jimmy would say, “Cats hate neutrality.” Continue reading

He’s not here

grandfather and grandson, March 2007

grandfather and grandson, March 1997

That’s a photograph, taken with a film camera, of my father, Stephen Kokernak, and my son, Eli Guterman, at the Harvard Square apartment of my sister Emily and her then boyfriend/fiancé. My father made the comics hat on his head to entertain Eli; he made hats like that for us when we were children. Eli seems to be having one of his frank talks with his grandfather. I look at the picture and can hear his little voice: “Grandpa…”

There were other people in the room: my mother, my brother Michael, Lydia, Emily, and Emily’s boyfriend, Stephen Ward, a “Steve,” too, like my father. Perhaps members of Steve’s family, from Gorham, Maine, were there, too; I met them there once — they were clannish, like the Kokernaks — but I don’t remember if this was that time. All those times at Emily and Steve’s place roll into one large, peopled, and good memory.

It would almost be possible to get everyone together again (in a new room, though, because the apartment has been passed along). All of us — I and my family, my parents, Emily, my three other siblings, Steve’s mother and siblings, his nephew — would be 12 years older. There would be new additions to both our families.

I’m not certain, though. Steve is gone, we’re not in touch with his family, and I don’t know who makes up the Ward clan now.

Emily and Steve broke up some time after this; I don’t recall when. Why they disbanded is Emily’s story to tell — I can say only that it seemed to be for an accumulation of the kinds of slights and hurts that break people up, and not a drama.

Had I thought about Steve after the break-up, and before September 11, 2001? Not much. Continue reading

– Seasonal shoe parade

Twice a year, on a sunny, dry day, I arrange in the driveway all the shoes that have accumulated in the front hall, mudroom, and garage, like so:

September's shoe parade.

September's shoe parade

We all browse our own clusters of shoes and decide which to put away, which to keep in rotation (near the door), and which to say goodbye to.  At the end of today, we had a big box of shoes that no longer fit or suit us, and only two or three pairs each in the mudroom.

Photo by Eli.