Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Single New Year’s Resolution

The hand writing on the envelope is distinctive. I can’t get Hanukkah cards out to my own family, yet, every year this woman remembers. I tear open the envelope. Her handwriting’s a slow read. I like that, give my brain time to remember the days I used to spend on her porch, the two of us, sipping wine, eating dinner, talking and talking. She’s a poet, a teacher. We met while we were both graduate students, going back to school later in life. She became a good friend, a close friend, but we haven’t seen each other for nearly four years, ever since she moved away. This is a woman who has shown me a beach where we trolled for sea glass, who has introduced me to the work of Rita Dove, a woman who loves me as I am, a woman who won’t let me drop out of her life. I adore that.

And so that card brings me back to our friendship, and I realize that as we near the end of this year, a time when everyone seems to be making resolutions for the future, I’m looking back. I like that, and I think that’s what’s missing from this crazy listing that we do, telling ourselves to spend more time with family, to exercise, to lose weight, to quit smoking, to quit drinking, to enjoy life more, to get out of debt, to learn something new, to help others, to get organized. The list is overwhelming, and sets us up for failure.

My friend didn’t move a great distance, seventy miles or so. I could easily drive there. I’m the one with the time. She lives on her elderly aunt’s farm. There are chores, animals to feed, to water, eggs to collect. There is the aunt. My friend has a daily four hour commute for work. Why don’t I create the space? And so I find myself thinking about the drives I’ve taken last summer, passing the road to the farm, on my way to hike in the White Mountains. I’ve thought about veering off. I haven’t.

And so I find myself making a resolution, a single resolution. I will call. I will make that drive. This will not be a veering off. It will be a visit, a real visit, and I’ll bring Lucy and Sam, my two standard poodles. They’ll love the farm. I’ll love the farm, but most of all I’ll love reuniting with my friend.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Morning of Clarity

The sky was cloudless, the air so clear I thought it would break. Sun poured in. On the other side of the sliding glass doors, the ocean rolled. White caps broke. Foam roiled. On a flat promontory of rock that we, the family, called, Nana’s Rock—because that’s where we gave my mother’s ashes to the sea—cormorants dried their wings.

At the kitchen table, my husband sat watching those long-necked black birds. “You know what else dries their wings?” he said.

He was full of these tidbits, like Harper’s Index, like my middle son, about whom we used to joke, Andy’s Index. Like my husband’s facts, my son’s facts were obscure, but correct. Who knows what we carry in our genes?

I had no idea what other creature dried its wings as the cormorant did.

“Mayflies,” my husband said.

I stood at the kitchen stove, pouring water through freshly ground coffee beans I’d scooped into a paper filter. Where had he learned that?

Turned out he was watching one of his nature programs. He loved animals. This show was about bears, a mother bear teaching her cub to climb trees, then to come down as the cub went up, head first—another interesting fact. Who knew that a bear needed to climb down a tree head first? The mother was also teaching her cub to fish. That’s where the mayflies came in. They emerged by the thousands from streams, ponds and lakes at twilight in early spring. They perched on the surface, drying their wings. Trout fed on the mayflies. Bear fed on the trout.

I sat down at the table. I loved my husband's stories, loved these strange connections, the mayfly with its veined transparent wings, the clumsy black-winged cormorant. I thought we’d talk more about this strange coincidence, but his attention was elsewhere. I followed his gaze to the string of small red peppers I’d threaded, then hung from under a kitchen shelf. “I think they’re called 'ristas,' he said.

I was lost. “What’re called ‘ristas’?”

“Remember when we were in the southwest and they had all those strings of hot peppers?”

Of course I did. It was a wonderful trip, the long drive across the desert, each of us taking turns driving, taking turns reading aloud from Willa Cather’s, Death Comes For The Archbishop, passing through the magnificent landscapes of Cather’s vivid descriptions, her words painting themselves indelibly on our minds.

“'Ristas’, aren’t they?” he said, again.

I had no idea. Then, I wondered. How can this man remember ‘ristas,’ remember that a mayfly dried its wings, yet forget the names of friends to whom I’ve introduced him over and over, forget what he ate for dinner the night before or what he ordered and liked so much the last time we visited a particular restaurant? And how annoyed I became with his forgetting. I glanced at the threaded peppers, and suddenly, my thoughts seemed trivial and mean-spirited. Here was my husband stitching time, telling me stories about mayflies and 'ristas', which I found out were ristras—but he was close—early one morning in late November as we drank our coffee, and after nearly fifty years of marriage, this old love of mine has made my morning new.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Cup of Tea

Recently, I canvassed for No. on One, here in Maine those cold calls, a knock on a strange door, and I’m sad that we lost, sad that bigotry won, but I liked strolling neighborhoods I’d never visited, chatting with strangers. How, odd, I thought, I’m such a private person, writer who guards her time. I do not answer the phone when I’m working. I’m a solitary walker, a solitary hiker, my dogs my only companions. At parties, I seek out people I know. So this was a big deal, this saying, yes when I friend asked me to canvass with her.

Sitting here at my computer, I see in my mind’s eye some of the people I met those days, a man who came to the door in his bathrobe, and I’d thought, “Uno. What’s going on here? This is the middle of the afternoon.” His face was guarded as he opened the wooden door; most faces were, wariness in their eyes. I gave him my biggest, warmest smile. “Hi, I’m Sandell and I’m a volunteer with the No. on One Campaign.”

I must confess that my list was culled. These were mostly supporters. My job was to get them to the polls. Turns out the man in the bathrobe was recovering from a back operation. I apologized for getting him up.

“No, no,” he said. “I’m with you. I’m glad you’re out there, spreading the word. I don’t understand these people who want to take away this right.” He was referring to a law the governor had signed making gay marriage legal in the state of Maine. Question One was a citizen’s initiative, a ballot question designed to take that right away. And so we chatted, the man in the bathrobe and I, and I wished him well.

At the car, I met my partner. She’d had a conversation with a new couple on the street. They weren’t on her list, but when they found out they could vote at Town Hall that afternoon, they were on their way. Together, my canvassing partner and I met a woman who stepped outside to chat. Inside, a daughter was sick with flu. This woman was with us. She would vote that day at Town Hall. She had a second daughter going to college in Boston. It was too late to mail her an absentee ballot. She’d just have to tell her daughter to drive home and vote, the woman said.

It was nearly Halloween. Doors were decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons, corn stalks, witches. Shaggy haired mums bloomed. There was a festive breath in the air. People were friendly, kind, committed. Life glowed with enchantment. Perhaps this canvassing was my antidote to the nightly news, so full of rants, and Tea Party folks. I was drawn into these people in my home town, my neighboring town, the man with the back operation, the woman, obviously raising those daughters alone, a woman I stopped as she walked her miniature poodle. My dogs are poodles, both standards. This woman was caring for a daughter who’d had a stroke. She didn’t know if she could get her daughter to the polls. But maybe the Town Hall. That was a possibility.

I met a young man who was at home on his lunch break, caught him just before he climbed into his pickup. Yes, he and his wife were planning to Vote No at the polls. There was another house, one of those houses in a constant state of both repair and disrepair. I knocked on the outside screen door. Dogs leapt onto the small porch. They looked like pit bulls. There was a space where molding should have been between the house and the doorframe. Dog noses poked through. Then, a young man appeared. He laughed. He contained the dogs. Yes, he was voting No. on One, but he couldn’t get the polls on Tuesday. “Today,” I said. “You can vote today.”

“I’ll do that,” he said.

Leaving that house, I felt a kind of tingling in my finger tips, an elation that pulsed. What was going on with me? Was it that sense of mystery that has driven me to adventure all of my life, the ski trail, I’ve never skied, the recipe I’ve never tried, the mountain I haven’t climbed? Perhaps, it was accomplishment. I understood that every person I got to the polls was a victory. It was a little like Talmud, that authoritative record of rabbinic discussions. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it  is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Then, my thinking turned inward, taking me back to something that was lost from my life, probably lost from most lives these days, the art of dropping in. I remembered the doorbell ringing in my grandmother’s house. It would be mid- afternoon, maybe three, chores would be done, supper planned, maybe even simmering, a pot of brisket, maybe flanken, sending their meaty smells into the air. I was very young, living in a house with my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt and my uncle. The younger adults would be at work. My grandfather would be in the cellar, fixing what needed fixing. My grandmother would answer the door. It would be Mrs. Klein or Mrs. Botkin. My grandmother would boil water, serve tea in glasses, slice a yeasty coffee cake. We’d sit at the kitchen table, all three, and I’d listen as the women talked of the weather, the butcher, the chicken man, the vegetable man. They talked about who was well, who was sick, who needed a pot of chicken soup, who needed to meet a nice Jewish girl or a nice Jewish boy. I sat inside the rhythm of their voices, sounds of both English and Yiddish, their covert language, but I understood, and so I learned their secrets, learned about the world of women, learned about life, its grief, its pain. And I learned about the soothing power of words, the voice that reassured, the hand that reached and patted an arm.

And so my friends if you’re reading this, fill the kettle, light a burner on the stove; I’m dropping in. We’ll sit, and we’ll sip a cup of tea. We’ll talk. And next time, we’ll all vote No on question One.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Don't let schooling interfere with your education." (Mark Twain)

Adam, my grandson, and I sit at a table in a Japanese restaurant. It is a low table with benches. There is a dug out area for our feet, a variation on the traditional low Japanese table. Adam loves this table. He walks along the bench. We have come here after visiting a small science center on the New Hampshire seacoast where we walked through exhibits, learned about a Tofu, a two year old whale, who’d been killed in a shipping lane outside of Boston Harbor, completed a scavenger hunt, searching for a lion fish in a tank, a barnacle in the tide pool tank, a stuffed osprey displayed high above a doorway. Adam won his whale sticker which he wears, proudly, on his shirt.

Outside the science center, he climbed rocks at the edge of the sea, watched the ocean, watched gulls. Together, we examined rocks, Adam identifying quartz and sandstone. He is a child who cannot be rushed. He studies his world. He’s an avid learner, an avid reader. Now, he is hungry, and he’s tired. He’s, also, a child who feels intensely. His needs are sharp and immediate. It’s late. He’s starving. We spent a long, long time at the science center. Not that I wasn’t aware of time. I was, but I didn’t want to rush. I wanted to let Adam and time play out. Now, I wonder if I should have been more diligent.

Adam glances toward the sushi bar. He looks out the large plate glass window. The day is bright with a hint of coolness in the air. It is nearly September. Soon Adam will enter the first grade. He’s young, not quite six.

“So, Adam,” I say, “are you looking forward to going back to school?”

Adam is slightly built. He has blond hair and penetrating blue eyes. He lowers his gaze, shakes his head. “Not really.”

I’m surprised. “Why not?”

“I want to stay at Grammy’s house with my cousin.”

Often, I take each grandchild on an individual outing. This is Adam’s turn. When we return, the children will swim in the pool. They’ll play games, indoors, outdoors. Both are only children, and each loves having a constant companion. “But your cousin has to go back to school, too,” I say.

Gaze still lowered, body swaying, voice dreamy, Adam speaks. “We could learn at Grammy’s.”

“How would you learn at Grammy’s?”

“We could learn about the sky and rocks.”

I’m interested. I want more. “How would you learn about the sky and rocks?”

“We could have people come tell us.”

Ah, visiting lecturers. Experts in their fields. Perfect. What else did he have in mind? “What about the other children? How would they learn?”

“They could be in other places.”

“You mean along the shoreline?”

He lifts his gaze, tilts his head, then nods, and I am visualizing the coast of Maine, the rocky beaches, inlets, coves, table-top cliffs, all swarming with children and their teachers who are geologists, climatologists, biologists, writers, musicians, painters. I am a life long teacher, but I’ve never been fooled by the systems in which I’ve taught. I’ve been critical of bureaucracy, incompetence, mediocrity. When I taught middle school in rural New Hampshire, I’d begin each year, writing a quotation atrributed to Mark Twain on the blackboard. “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” I’d turn and face the class. “What does that mean?"

At first, my students were puzzled. Then, they explored. We talked about education, where to find it, how to find it, in books in the library, in movies, in music, in rivers, in streams, and in each other. And if Adam had been there, he would have invited them all to Grammy’s house to study the sea, the sky and the rocks.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Edge of Infinity

A friend visiting for the first time, this summer, stared out my dining room windows. “What’s it like,” she said, “living at the edge of infinity?”

This friend is a poet. She writes of snow “winging white,” of “a (A) listening like the forest’s own,” of the “willingness of pure air.” And for a moment I was stunned. I hadn’t thought of this place where I lived in that way, but she was correct: this is the edge of infinity, and so she has sent me on a quest, a poet’s kind of meditation: What is it like living at the edge of infinity?

It was a day in late August, when I came outside to sit on a bench at the edge of the sea. Due east was Boone Light, marking a pile of rocks that jut up into the Atlantic, to the north, Nubble light, guarding York Harbor, to the south, towards Portsmouth, White Light on White Island, the southern most island of the Isles of Shoals, that on a clear day, rise like the backs of a pod of whales. The sea was relatively calm, the air soft as summer lingered. Usually, at this time of year, the chill of autumn, has insinuated itself into summer, and I wondered if because the season came late this year, this softness would linger beyond the weekend marking Labor Day.

Two days earlier, Hurricane Bill, headed north for Nova Scotia and roiled the ocean. My granddaughter and I watched from a living room window as swells soared, then crashed on a promontory, locals called Pollack Rock and the family called Nana’s Rock, because that’s the place where we all knelt to lower my mother’s ashes into the sea. Five years, later, we knelt at the same spot with my father’s ashes. However, the promontory has remained Nana’s Rock. On that day, as my granddaughter and I watched awe struck at the sea’s power, the swells rose twelve feet, before bursting and spreading foam, as if to level the promontory. I have learned, here, to never underestimate the sea’s power, the way it smoothes rocks or tosses them over the bank and onto the grass. Year after year, the bank erodes. And on that day that Hurricane Bill headed for Nova Scotia, the sea swept a father and his daughter into the caldron. The child died. The father lived. Infinity. That boundless place where life and death meet in letting go, or perhaps in prayer.

Today, the sea was gentle—like a sleeping puppy, the promontory like a plateau where cormorants sat, gathering as if in a colony, then spreading their wings. They’re strange birds, these cormorants, drying their wings in order to fly. Myth or truth? Both points of view abound. As I watched, one bird did not disperse the other. No pecking order, it seemed, as with the gulls, the younger speckled gulls, giving way to the older dominate birds. Soon, flocks of geese would fly overhead, heading south. Not the cormorants. They would be there, sitting on Nana’s Rock when the sky turned winter white, and the ocean darkened with cold.

Overhead, clouds stretched thin in a baby blue sky. There was a breeze. The tide was low, exposing the shoreline’s skeleton, rocks and kelp. The ocean sifted, its sound as rhythmic as a heart beat. I sat inside of constant motion; yet, I sat in stillness. And inside of me, a rare feeling of tranquility. I loved sitting, here, on this bench at the edge of the sea; yet, I had to remind myself to leave my kitchen, leave my study and come here. I am a driven person, restless, task oriented, a body in motion. I’m hard on my family, hard on myself. Not here. Here, something inside of me loosens and grows larger. With me or without me, this moment survives. This is forever. This is soul.

In Kabalistic teachings, the Absolute is Eyn-Sof. Eyn means No-thing. You might say, then, that God does not exist. Not so. Eyn does not mean nothing, for Eyn-Sof is not a thing, but something we cannot define. Eyn-Sof, the words combined, mean Boundless or Without End, so the Absolute or God is infinite, and infinity is boundless, unknowable, invisible, transcendent. And certain things in life are analogous, like this exquisite emptiness that fills my heart, here at the edge of this place, my friend called infinity.

[Quotations from Be That Empty by Alice B. Fogel,]