Egret

[This is an excerpt from my new meta novel, Missing Reels, currently looking for a home:]

Egret, she starts to write on a new blank page.

(Lozen knows the basics: red-tailed hawk, swallowtail, sagebrush, cottonwood, eucalyptus. Sometimes, hidden and sheltered under her favorite willow, she will say these words aloud. She will practice speaking.)

But as she crosses that T her hand—she’s left handed—cramps. Again. Why? And she’d so much wanted to write about that wading, elegant, snowy creature today!

That’s not quite it. What she’d wanted to write about is how she’s noticed she only writes about the Reserve flora and fauna she knows the names of.

(And she sees herself—Lenore back then—at ten, at twelve, in khaki shorts and a madras, short-sleeved shirt and white sneakers, a New England field guide and jacknife in her pocket, roaming the woods and shoreline of Walden Pond. Alone. Content.)

But, most important, she’d wanted to write about how this name-knowing confuses her. About how she would much prefer to watch and listen and be patient and curious and reverent and when she sees something, she will name it. Based on her observations. White, stalking-fish bird.

But also about how insulting language like that is like the cowboys-and-Indians movies she’d grown up with; Tonto and the rest of them, those Hollywood versions of indigenous peoples, how they spoke the same pidgin language she might employ for a creature she’s noticed but can’t name: Tiny bird never alone.

(It’s called a bushtit. Psaltriparus minimus. Had Lozen known where to look, she might have also added something like . . and builds a nest that looks like a sock.)

She wonders if naming something is asserting dominion over it. She wonders if knowing the name of something gives her power over it; that naming might be simply another version of oppression. And why then, perhaps, she doesn’t just go ahead and steal a California field guide from the library; learn the damned names?

But even in the heat, this dry, dry LA heat, her hand refuses to uncoil. So, drowsy and, yes, content, she watches how that egret lifts one leg, then the other; how it wades. How it fishes. How it survives.

Excerpt 1: Strands

[Since I am both proud of what I am currently working on and, apparently, unable to do more than one thing at a time, here is an excerpt from a new book I’m working on: Strands]

Sometimes Nature lies beyond my backyard but still close to home. On my masked walks through Somerville these days, hungry for a glimpse of Turtle Island green, I’ve begun to notice inexplicably tall pine trees towering over the two or three-story frame houses beside them, their needled branches filling what little remains of an eighth-of-an-acre city plot. They’re all over the city!

Why weren’t these giants cut down years ago? How have these magnificent trees survived in, until very recently, a working-class city where landscaping often meant a postage-stamp-sized concrete yard dotted by one or two joint-compound buckets filled with plastic flowers? (To be fair, when the city was still called Slummerville, some ‘ville residents, many of them Italian or Portuguese, tended grape arbors and compact gardens, often terraced to make best use of their small size; some residents scrupulously cared for two or three fruit trees. And if not priced out of the homes where they’d raised their children and grown these crops, some still do.)

Had these pine trees survived because they look like giant Christmas trees and were therefore considered holy? Are they still here because they don’t require leaf-raking or the yearly ritual of unclogging the gutters? Do they remain because, for generations, the human occupants of those tiny plots have loved to fall asleep, windows open, and listen to the sound of wind soughing through their branches? Just as humans have loved hearing that soothing sound since Skywoman fell out of the sky and Jesus walked this precious Earth?

“Fewer birds sing just a loud,” Veronica, a young woman from my Meeting offered at a recent, Zoom meeting for worship as she’d sat outside, in her own tiny backyard. In her message, sparrows and crows, maybe a pigeon or two audible in the background, I heard so much: I heard her pain at nature’s diminishment. I heard her joy to be in worship in citified nature. I heard her celebrate robust Aliveness; I heard her radical acceptance of what is here, available, now. As is.

 

 

 

Butter-knifing

Here I am, once again, “circling Fort Knox with a butter knife trying to figure out how to get in.”* I know I want to write about loss, about sorrow, and about how, for most of my life, I’ve let anger mask sadness. I want to write about the grief of climate change. I want to write about my mother’s family, its secrets, its tragedies; about transgenerational trauma. I want to write about my moment-to-moment grief and horror to be white and affluent at a time when the ravages of income disparity and systemic racism and growing fascism are more and more real, obvious.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as I circle, sadness, grief, loss happen. Terrifying headlines reporting another environmental disaster happen. Someone pisses me off happens—and I, self-conscious “apprentice” that I am, try to access the sadness underlying my anger. (And it’s not as hard as I thought.) Meanwhile, I feel all the heartbreaking Feels that I get to do this work at the same time the People Of Color all around me struggle. Meanwhile, I buy myself a copy of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief  by Francis Weller so I can physically interact with his every word, every paragraph, write in the margins.

Here’s a bit I’ve already starred and underlined and <3-ed (heart-ed):

An apprenticeship with sorrow requires a hands-on encounter in which we are invited to work with the materials of grief, its leaden weight, and the particular demands of melancholy. We can feel it already, just in these few sentences, that this apprenticeship leads us below ground, into the hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors. Here we find the scattered shards of unattended grief, the pieces of unwept loss, and the shavings of old wounds swept into the corner.

Meanwhile, like someone in recovery, I’m making amends.

 

  • Ann Patchett said this—at a writers’ conference I’d attended—about trying to figure out how to begin a novel.

Two Toucans Touching

Sometimes I exchange books with a dear friend. Sometimes I’ll notice intriguing titles or descriptives in a box of give-aways on the sidewalk and grab a book or two. Sometimes my grandchildren tell me I should read the YA they’ve just finished. However randomly books show up in my reading queue, it is not random that I’ve just read two post-apocalyptic novels* back to back. Sadly, given the dire time we live in, such subject matter makes perfect sense.

Towards the end of one of those recent reads—no, I won’t say which one—a grandchild asks his grandmother, “Did you ever see an elephant?” That child’s wistful question much on my mind and in my heart, on Black Friday I visited the San Diego Zoo.

I saw elephants. I spent considerable time in the Reptile House—which I’d always avoided. Like a pilgrim I walked from habitat to habitat—as zoos go, San Diego’s is pretty spectacular—giving thanks for all creatures great and small.

And, dear Reader, I was not alone. For there were times, in one of the aviaries, for example, where the (probably endangered) birds from distant countries were so close, so accessible, so magnificent that zoo-visitors were noticeably hushed. Reverent. Grateful. Grieving.

How do we live into such grief and loss? That question, dear Reader, haunts me.

*The Bone Clocks and The Fifth Wave

Freshly Brilliant

There have been many times over the past month as I either prepared for or recovered from both eyes’ cataract surgery, when I simply sat. Sunblocked, broad-brim hatted, adequately hydrated, I just sat. Earlier in the month I silently mourned for someone; when—Oh Joy!—I learned he was still alive, I gave thanks. Over and over. Sometimes, as my post-surgery vision improved, I marveled at a world now scrubbed clean. (Some shades of blue, like the color of my gas stove’s flame, remain startlingly, astonishingly amazing!) Sometimes, bright light still hurting, I’d wear my “Ray Charles” glasses and, seemingly impaired or disabled or something-not-quite-right-about me, was blissfully ignored as city life swirled around me. Sometimes, sitting on my back deck, I flexed my new long-distance post-cataract lenses to more fully observe a dutiful catbird feed its squawking fledgling or squirrels playing tag. Bumblebees and white butterflies—and at least one monarch—dart over freshly-brilliant-to-my eyes zinnias and black-eyed susan’s. A strand of spider web bending in the soft breeze. I watched clouds from my hammock. Swallows. Con-trails.

One day, my grandchildren in town, I’d arranged for them to meet with Claire O’Neill, a French scientist who is training volunteers to keep count of pollinators in a community garden near my house. But, it turned out, in order for more people to understand what is happening to our world because of climate change, she trains adults, not children—and my close-range vision Not Good, I’d be hopeless at this!

Besides, as I have had ample time to reflect upon over this past month, Just Sitting has gifted me the message Claire so passionately seeks to share with us: observe this precious world, love it; mourn.

From The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel: “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

 

“How Do I Tell Myself?”

Buoyed by a weekend with precious family, I felt brave enough to read this.

And then I finished my coffee. Put away the laundry. Sent some emails. Not surprisingly, given that I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling lately, Cody Petterson’s essential question remained, however: “How do I tell myself?”

How do I tell myself this story?

Some instructive, guiding adverbs: Unflinchingly. Honestly. And perhaps most important, Humbly. To keep in mind that whatever I tell myself is simply my own, inadequate version. It is absolutely not The Story. Another version, guided by different adverbs, perhaps, may present itself over time. (Will Kindly join the mix? Would that be remotely possible? TBD)

Key elements: Change is inevitable. And impermanence is, to quote my current fave, Frank Ostaseski, “an essential truth woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s inescapable and perfectly natural. How we meet that truth makes a world of difference.”

Key Question: Do I insert “Nevertheless, . . . ” into my story? Do I unflinchingly list all the ways we’re doomed—but then employ that wonderful literary device referenced by Richard Powers in a recent interview?

Question: What moves you most in a work of literature?

Powers: The bending of certainty, the surrender of ironclad temperament and the surprise capacity of otherwise completely predictable human beings to forgive each other and counter the unforgiving world with a “Nevertheless.”

A couple of possible, key word neverthelesses: Indigenous wisdom. Women. Trees. Botanists. (Hmm. I think I just inadvertently googled Robin Wall Kimmerer!)

Ending: I won’t live long enough to see how this story ends. So I’m left with only that old, old way to conclude: ” . . . and the moral is:”

And that’s easy. Mourn. Now. Be grateful. Now. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with my God. Now. Shower the people I love with love. Now.

 

 

 

The View from Here

 

View From El Yunque National Forest; March 13, 2019

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

On our way to El Yunque National Forest, Narayan De Jesus Reyes, our excellent tour guide and driver, made a stab at this quote. Our small white bus weaving in and out of Puerto Rican traffic and over the island’s not-great roads, Narayan got Twain’s remarks pretty much right— although he was a little shaky on attribution. (Which happens a lot with Mark Twain quotes, right?)

So many ironies, so many paradoxes, so much to consider and to hold:

That so often, it is only the privileged who can afford to travel!

That, seemingly, travel = selfies these days, i.e. an opportunity, for example, to pose in front of a rainforest waterfall, post your ecstatic face on social media, then climb back onto a tour bus.

That there were so many tour buses! As we moved from site to site—most of the park’s trails are still inaccessible so we mostly stopped at look-out areas—Narayan constantly struggled to find a place to park. Every day, two or three humungous cruise ships visit San Juan; every day those cruise folks book tour buses bound for El Yunque.

These other tour buses proved a personal struggle. I resented all those fossil-fuel-powered vehicles—like the one I rode on; like the plane I flew on—and was grateful that this still-recovering-from Hurricane Maria paradise might benefit from all those tourists’ dollars. (That our mainland money might actually benefit Puerto Rico was a major reason why my husband and I had chosen to go there.)

That, according to Narayan, a good third of the rainforest’s trees had been destroyed by yet another climate-change-era superstorm. And, as one of the park’s rangers later told us, its famous, endangered parrots were seriously impacted by such devastation and now seem to have disappeared. The kicker?  I only know this because I can afford to take a guided tour to this holy place in a fossil-fuel-spewing bus!

About that holy place: For our last stop, Narayan had arranged for us to bathe in a delightful swimming hole surrounded by rich, tropical foliage and fed by a rainforest-generated river. Think of it!  As I sat on a volcanic rock at the bottom of a small, gurgling waterfall in bright sunshine listening to birdsong and the soft, gentle murmur of three young women nearby, I felt wholly blessed. Annointed. Utterly grateful. “My people believe El Yunque takes care of us,” Kenia, who served me breakfast the next day, explained. “That’s what you were feeling.”

Oh.

 

 

 

 

Room With A View

Rockwood Hall State Park, Sleepy Hollow, NY. (The Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.)

Thursday, a warm and sunny post-snowstorm day, while visiting my daughter and her family in Tarrytown, New York, I’d asked her if we could maybe take a walk along the Hudson. Her  eyes lit up: “Oh, yes,” she said, clearly excited to share yet another feature of her still-newish community (She and her family had moved to Tarrytown about a year and a half ago), “we can definitely arrange that.”

Ever since the UN report re climate change and how little time we have left, I am devouring books like The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass. My prayer life has expanded to include prayers, gratitude for all living things—especially trees. As much as I can, given winter weather and my urban surroundings, I’m walking through this precious, natural world as if both loving all I see and already mourning its loss. So I was psyched!

Land along the Hudson being prime real estate, I’d imagined our riverside walk would be maybe a mile or so long, on a wood-chip path through some overgrown vegetation, and end at some high-end development. So was astonished to find myself on the sculpted grounds of the Rockwood Hall State Park, perched above the Hudson, with magnificent views and wonderful, paved paths to explore but also, the beautifully designed landscape of a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. (It was my daughter’s father who’d first taught me how to recognize Olmsted’s eye-catching tree placement. On the campus of Vassar College. “See how your attention moves from this tree to that one and then to over there?” he’d coached. Yes. I did. Still do.)

But, wait! What’s the story behind all this magnificence? Who’d preserved these eighty-eight acres? Who’d made possible all this room with a view? Who’d hired Olmsted? The answer is: William Rockefeller. The brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-owner of Standard Oil Company. (I can still remember how brilliant I’d considered myself at eight or ten when I’d figured out that Esso, as in the name of the gas station—now known as Exxon, of course—was actually  S. O. As in Standard Oil.) He’d built Rockwood Hall; its foundations still stand although the mansion is gone. And, eventually, his vast estate—less than half of it anyway—became a state park.

Oh the irony. That our magnificent view, those perfectly-placed oaks and firs and sugar maples and sycamores, our excitement to watch soaring red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle, that glorious walk could have only happened because of the enormous wealth derived from a fossil fuel! A commodity which, like coal and natural gas, will make this planet unlivable for many, many species unless something truly miraculous happens.

Egad.

 

 

“Where To Begin?”

A Katrina Leftover, New Orleans, 2017

In the process of retrieving a much-needed toy from my granddaughter’s stroller parked on my front porch, I’d stepped outside to discover a white, curly-haired, slightly chunky young man about to ring my doorbell. Grandma on a mission, I think he told me he was soliciting for WGBH— but I could be wrong. I really wasn’t listening. For sure he launched into a spirited spiel lauding NPR; he even listed several programs and, to his credit, having taken note of the stroller and the toy in my hand, made special mention of  “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“I know what NPR is,” I muttered.

“Then I’m sure you want to support it,” he countered.

Approaching the front door I turned to face him. “I truly believe in what NPR does but, no, I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” he demanded and, to my consternation, took on an offensive pose, widening his stance, inflating his chest. (My guess? He played football in high school.)

Ahh, dear reader, what a teachable moment! How I would have loved to explain to that young man that for aging Quakers like me and my husband, living on retirement funds, charitable giving is incredibly complicated. Babies starve in Yemen, there’s relief money desperately needed all over the world because of climate change, and, locally, the Somerville Homeless Coalition always needs money; so does the Welcome Project. Every year my husband and I receive thousands of nudges and tugs and polite requests and the occasional solicitor at our door. Yes, we believe in God’s unlimited love, yes, we believe that “There’s enough” but, sadly, yes, our ability to support every worthy cause— I’m not even getting in political contributions!—is definitely limited. (And, sadly, because of inflation and rising health care costs, especially medications, actually shrinking.) How I would have loved to tell that young man that it took my husband and me almost two years to come up with a careful, thoughtful formula for giving. So, sorry, young man but NPR didn’t make the final cut.

But his belligerence on my own front porch—his aggressive posture triggered something very primal and territorial—meant I was Done. And besides, I was still Grandma on a mission!

“Where to begin?” I asked, stepping inside. (Sorry, young man. That’s all I got.)

And firmly shut the door.

 

“Unidentified Artist”

Detail from “Pieta” by an unknown artist, circa 1470, School of Avignon, France.

My mother isn’t doing well. Despite pain meds and massages and ice packs and the tender, loving care she receives from her long-term-care facility’s excellent staff, she suffers. She weeps. She’s horribly confused. Sometimes she’ll tell me about her conversations with my father (he died in 2010); sometimes she perseverates, “Who’s taking care of him? He’s over a hundred, you know.”!

For most of my life I’ve had a complicated, fraught relationship with my beautiful and brilliant and, until late in her life, unrealized mother. “You know,” she told me years ago; she might have been drinking.”You should have been my mother.” Over time I came to understand why this crazy-weird impossibility was so tragically true. Therapy helped. Al-Anon helped. Having four daughters of my own helped. Getting older—both of us—helped. And for the past three years, being able to drive fifteen minutes to visit her in her private, sunny room surrounded by her own paintings and photographs and books helps. That she receives meds to ease her lifelong anxiety and depression helps. (She pays a pretty penny for this care; an obscenely huge amount. Which she can afford. Until she won’t.)

Yet even on the best of visits, when we’ve “walked” along wheelchair accessible pathways to see how the community gardens’ tomatoes fare, or strolled down to a lovely, little pond to watch turtles and fish and, sometimes, a blue heron; even then, I’d come home and take a nap!

So, last night, worried about her and wiped out by another too-hot, terrifyingly unseasonal day, I lay on my bed, AC valiantly chugging along, and, headphones on, listened to music. I didn’t curate my selections; I just listened to what I love. (Or so I thought.) Like Maria Callas’s “Casta Diva.” Or Faure’s “Requiem” which, the first time I heard it, on my car radio on the way to work, triggered a peak religious experience. Yes, triggered. For having just experienced The Whole, That Which Is Beyond Words, Spirit’s Transcendent Love, all I could think of was “Well, this is highly inconvenient! Right here on Mass Av in Porter Square? Couldn’t I have been in a forest?”

Oh, right, I realized, listening to Faure’s gorgeous mass. Requiem! Ummm, as in death? As in my mother’s tears of pain, certainly, but also her tears of shame and sadness that she’s so helpless and weak; as in her dim understanding of what, possibly, is happening to her? As in, perhaps, that the veil between the living and the dead begins to thin for her; she’s catching glimpses of what I cannot see? Like my father? As in that I am in mourning for my beautiful and brilliant and realized mother; I am in mourning for a Mother Earth who is much too hot, now. (Jeez.)

And that, again, mysteriously, an Unidentified Artist some call Spirit loved me, guided me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Grammy

Reading “The Granddaughter Necklace” at Grammy’s house, August, 2018

For the past week I’ve been “Grammy.” That this delightful grandma-derivation is both something my beloved granddaughter began calling me one day, but can also mean prize-winning musicality, makes me very happy. Being Grammy makes me very happy— in the same way I feel whenever I am doing what is truly asked of me. Why is that?

What is it about being a grandmother that feels so “in the place just right”? For starters, spending time with the children of my children is a non-stop intimation of mortality! As Grammy, I am ever-aware that, yup; I am going to die. I. Just. Always. Am.

This fundamental realization immediately prompts a couple of questions: Okay, then, Grammy. So how do you want to spend this time with this child? And what do you want this child to remember about you?

So, yes, I am probably My Best Self as Grammy but, honestly? The role—which, for me, blessedly, also means being retired—allows that. Having cleared my calendar of all but the most essential duties and responsibilities when my grandchildren come to visit, Grammy time is pretty leisurely. You want to dawdle over breakfast, spend all morning in your jammies? No worries. (I could go on and on about this! But won’t.)

And what do I want this child to remember about me? My stories. Stories about when this child’s mother was a little girl; yes. Of course. But stories, too, about when I was a child; how different the world was, then. For I learned from my own, gifted, story-teller Grandma what a blessing it is to look at one’s own life as the next installment of an ongoing, mysterious, amazing story. To understand how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And, yes, looking into the eyes of my beloved grandchildren, I know I am looking into The Future. And ask myself: what am I, Grammy, called to do?

 

 

 

 

Tempus Fugit

Trash Day, March 10, 2018, Dane Street, Somerville, MA

This will be brief and, I hope, to the point: Several people have recently posted on Facebook that the extraordinary heat we’re experiencing all over the globe is the result of the carbon we collectively put in the air years ago! (Thirty, maybe? I was too appalled to keep reading.)

Which, somehow, this hot, muggy afternoon, makes something very clear: It all matters. Right now! Over time, our undoubtedly small and puny, individual efforts to Do Right in our daily lives mean something. Collectively.

Cool!