Saturday, December 25, 2010

Winter Ice

Andrew skates onto the ice at a small rink in a shopping center in suburban Denver. Still the most graceful athlete of my three sons, he scoops up his daughters’ hands, Raina, fourteen, on his left, wearing her pipe cleaner jeans, her mother’s narrow brown wool sweater pulled down over her hips, her fisherman’s cap tilted at a jaunty angle, Lilly, eight, on his right, dressed in her brightly patterned leggings, her pink short sleeved shirt, her jacket unzipped and slipping from her shoulders, blond hair lifting on invisible currents. Two days shy of the winter solstice with afternoon on the wane, the sun shines more brightly here than where I live on the coast of Maine. Andrew and the girls glide past, Raina glancing back over her shoulder, “Hi Grammy.”

I was twelve when my mother bought me my first pair of figure skates, skates that weren’t hand me downs, skates that were finally white with those little ridges at the front of each blade, bought them a size larger than my shoe size, so that I’d have room to grow. I stuffed the toes with balled up newspaper, then skated onto the pond at Taylor Park, in Millburn, New Jersey, and years later, onto a pond in my suburban Boston neighborhood, wearing those same skates the toes packed, again with balled up paper, teaching Richard, Andrew and Douglas to skate, and standing here, at the railing of this rink in Colorado, the depths of memory swirling in time’s vortex, I am no longer that young mother, no longer the twelve year old, no longer the grandmother glowing in her granddaughters' light, I am a child watching from the edge of a pond in Morristown, New Jersey as my mother, head bent, wearing a knitted tam, sits on a bench, lacing her white figure skates, then taking my hand. My skates are double runners, and I can’t wait to graduate to skates that match my mother’s, but until the year I am twelve, I will wear brown skates that come to me from neighbors or cousins.

The skating ponds of my mother’s childhood, of my childhood, my sons’ childhoods have for these granddaughters given way to rinks, large indoor rinks, smaller rinks at ski areas, this rink surrounded by shops, walkways, trees and shrubs. Content, today, to be the observer, I don’t rent skates; I shop with my daughter in law, then later, walk with Raina, the two of us meandering in and out of shops, a bed and bath shop, a crafts shop that sells woolen hats knitted into monster faces, a flower shop where inside thick glass an etching of a tree glows.

As we leave the shop, lights come on, red stars, white Christmas balls suspended in the deepening dark. At the rink Lilly has found a friend, and as the two girls chase one another across the ice, I’m reminded of a chase long ago when my husband, my three sons, and I were vacationing in Davos, Switzerland, taking a day off from skiing to skate. Douglas was in the first grade, playing tag with a boy he met, neither speaking the other’s language, but understanding each other just the same as they followed, touched, laughed, as Lilly and her new friend laughed now, the blades of their skates splintering time, spraying memory like crystals into the cold December night.

Friday, November 19, 2010

So Just What is a Writers' Colony?

For years now I have made my pilgrimage to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the VCCA, an artists’ colony at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia. Before I leave, friends wish me well. “Happy Writing,” they say; or, “So you’re off to writers’ camp;” maybe, “Have fun at your workshop;” and the most bold, the most direct, “I don’t understand why you have to go there.”

So just what is a writers’ colony?

The VCCA sits on a hill top surround by fields where cows graze. Out the back gate are country roads, narrow and unlined where the few cars that pass drive fast. There are small houses, where if you turn right, you’ll find mostly African-Americans; turn left and you’ll find white folks. Dogs roam freely. The are woods. On my walk, today I passed a field where, under the bright Virginia sky, goats grazed. Sun shone down. There was a breeze, and birds thought fall had turned to spring. I passed no stores, no strip malls, no baseball fields or tennis courts.

Back on the grounds of the VCCA, I sit in my studio, the corn crib, a free standing building that looks like Hansel’s and Gretel’s cottage, and yes, it was a corn crib with its slanting walls and slanting roof. I sit at desk, my computer in front of me. There is a bookcase, an upholstered chair, a single bed, box spring and mattress on a metal frame. I don’t sleep in that bed. I sleep in a residence hall about a football field or so, down a driveway and across a wide lawn. The bed in the studio is for what Virginia Woolf called her well. When it went dry, she waited until it filled again. So I lie on my studio bed, my well fillling my mind drifting, aimlessly, it seems, but not airmlessly, for my sub-conscious brain is hard at work. Here, the phone does not ring. I don’t collect mail, and the real world is far away.

Around me in studios I cannot see other artists work as I do, writers, painters and composers, all of us toiling long hours in our solitary spaces, coming together for meals, although some choose to eat alone, sharing our work at readings and open studios, although, some choose not to share. They’re not shy. They’re simply not ready.

Because we are here, together, something happens. It is as if invisible seeds fill the air. We feel them them floating, and we plunge deeper into a story or a painting. Perhaps, we try something new, return for dinner estatic: a break through. If this sounds a little woo-woo or new age, think of yourself when you were a child, the way you built whole cities out of sticks or sat mesmerized by a rainbow inside a puddle after rain. This is the artists’ world, cities out of sticks, a rainbow in a puddle. Here, we have the space around the time to squat down, to look, to listen, to fill the well. Here is where art is born, then suckled. We are kindred spirits, kindred souls.

So yes, this place is all of the things you asked about, writers’ camp, workshop, and now you know why I'm here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

For Now

Last night, Dick, my husband and I lifted paintings from their hooks on living room walls and carried them into the dining room. He carried plants. I carried a small leather bound set of Shakespeare, twelve volumes, the leather flaking, the pages thin and trimmed with gold, then placed it carefully on a long Italian limestone serving counter in the dining room. These were my mother-in-law’s volumes. Shakespeare did not live in the house in which I grew up. He lived in my mother-in-law’s house, along with volumes of Dickens, the complete works of George Eliot, a leather bound volume of Keats', Poetical Works, a two volume set, Famous Actors of the Day, Famous Actresses of the Day, copyright L. C. Page and Company, 1899, Boston. In that two volume set, there are lovely photographs of those actors and actresses, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter.

I lifted a lovely old wooden tea chest from a shelf, placed on the limestone counter. After his mother died, that was what my husband wanted, this wooden tea chest. The counter is long. It holds throw pillows from my couch, a stone carved walrus that Dick brought back from a trip to the Arctic, a hand built ceramic sculpture that Andrew, my son who is a potter, crafted, an old German beer stein that belonged to my great-great grandfather on my father’s side. There are three figures, two men one woman, all wearing what looks like Tyrolean dress, the men in short jackets, the woman in a ruffled white blouse, white apron. All three wear hats with feathers. There are my orchid plants, pillar candles, a metal sculpture of the discus thrower that belonged my maternal grandmother, a small carved ivory figure that used to sit inside a breakfront in my parents' living room.

This morning when I walked Lucy and Sam, my two standard poodles, I walked in drizzle, thinking I may have a reprieve. Perhaps, the carpenters won't come. Perhaps, I will go to my study. Perhaps, I will hear only the sound of the ocean outside the sliding glass door and inside, only the sound of Sam's breathing. Perhaps, I will drift to that place where I go when I write, a place where the rest of my life falls away. But, there are two black pickups in my driveway, and outside my living room windows, two carpenters have climbed ladders. They are hammering. I am sitting at the dining room table, drinking coffee, trying to write this piece. I’m edgy and distracted. They are prying with the backs of hammers. One tosses a board of gray siding to the ground. They are replacing a large picture window, two side windows. They need to repair flashing, seal the house against leaks. Inside, another carpenter covers the couch with plastic. He covers the rug, the coffee table. Outside, the sound of a drill. Now, voices in the living room. Two carpenters. One uses my phone. I overhear words. “Can’t finish until I have… “ I have lost the essential word. What does he need? Over the years I have learned not meddle. I will wait because I will have no choice. He hangs up. “Always somethin’”

Days later, after the carpenters leave, the painters will come. They will repair what the carpenters have torn apart. They will sand, then repaint around those replaced windows. They will prime and paint raw wood. They will patch the ceiling where water leaked. After the paint dries, Dick and I will carry those volumes, that old tea chest back to the places where—for now—they belong.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The History of Love

I am walking my son’s dog along Grand Street on the Lower East Side, looking for Leo Gursky’s building. For some reason I remember 509, but I’m not sure. It is Saturday morning. September 25. Shabbos. Sukkot. Hasidic men, wearing black suits, white shirts, wide brimmed hats walk purposefully along the sidewalk. There is a sukkah outside of Noah’s deli. Probably, they will gather there. It is sunny and warm, still summer. I hold my cell phone to my ear, leave a message on a friend’s answering machine. “I know this is crazy, but I’m on Grand Street and I’m looking for Leo Gursky’s building. I wrote down the number, but I left it at home. If it’s not too much trouble, can you find it for me?”

The thing is, Leo Gursky is not real. He’s an invention, a character in The History of Love, a novel by Nicole Krauss, but he lives forever in my imagination, as alive as my maternal grandparents who like Leo Gursky walked these same streets. My grandmother lived on Suffolk Street. She and my grandfather married on Sheriff Street. My grandparents came here during the great waves of immigration in the 1890's leaving a town that was sometimes, Polish, sometimes Russian. I never knew, but I've always wondered whether they lived through pogroms.

Leo Gursky came here sometime after the War, having survived the Nazi invasion of his native village that like my grandparents' village was sometimes Polish, sometimes Russian. He hid in the woods where he listened to shots that killed his mother, killed his brother, killed almost everyone in his village. He lived in forests where made himself invisible. Leo Gursky loved a girl who had left for America just weeks before the Nazis invaded. Now, an old man, waiting for death, he loves her still. I am struck by Leo Gurksy’s capacity for love. He's a funny, quirky man and I adore him.

My friend calls back, leaves a message. Number 504. Number 504 is a brick building wider than it is high, with store fronts, a Jewish bakery, a Jewish grocery, apartments above. It’s shabbos, the stores are closed.

On Sunday morning, I when I step into the bakery, I feel as if I’m stepping back into my childhood, holding my grandmother’s hand, looking into a glass case in a bakery near my great aunt’s apartment on the Upper West Side. My grandmother buys me kicheI, air cookies. Some are flat, others shaped like bow ties. I see them here. I ask the old woman behind the counter if she knows when this building was built. It has to be a pre war building to have been home to Leo Gursky. She looks at me as I’m from outer space. I am. I’m from Maine. She gives a little shrug, maybe sixty seventy years ago. That will do.

Walking later with my daughter in law, I ask her the same question. She studies the brick façade, the way bricks protrude in a design. She studies the shape. The wide cement trim. “It looks a little art deco,” she says. “And it’s only six stories. I’d say the twenties or thirties.”

Better yet.

I return alone, study the façade, trying to figure out which apartment was Leo’s, which was his friend Bruno’s. I imagine their footsteps on the stairs, imagine them knocking at each other’s doors. This is what good fiction does, creates not only a life, but a world, one that when we enter, enriches our lives.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Freedom from Torture-- Really?

Yesterday, as I was driving the quiet, winding roads of my neighborhood, not quite rural, not quite suburban, I turned on the car radio, turned to NPR, and found myself in the middle of a program in which a reporter was visiting a center for new immigrants. In New York? I’m not sure. These recent immigrants were learning, the reporter said, what it meant to be an American. First, a group of four year olds singing a song I knew I was supposed to recognize, but didn’t. Then, adults, a woman, reciting, carefully, in her Asian accent, some of our core American values. “… freedom from torture and degrading treatment,” she said.

“Ooooh, very good,” her instructor said.

In my mind’s eye, images from Abu Ghraib, a hooded prisoner, toes grazing the top of a rectangular box, arms outstretched as if crucified, a naked prisoner dragged by a leash, a pyramid of naked prisoners, American troops, holding rifles, taking pictures. A few bad apples, they told us. Believe that, and I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. There is evidence. There is history. There is Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, his research on the technique that became known as “The Vietnam,” that hooded man, arms outstretched, a stress technique developed with the aid of the CIA.

Overhead the arching branches of maple and oak. In a backyard a paddock where two horses graze. Another glorious summer day. I'm on my way to teach at a conference, and I’m angry, angry with my government, angry with my neighbors, angry with myself, our apathy, our loss of our sense of decency, our detachment from our core values. “We do not torture,” our Presidents (note the plural) tell us. Clearly, we do.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Carter Notch

Water ripples. Here, there is a slight breeze. We’re in the middle of a heat spell, temperatures spiking into the nineties in New Hampshire and Maine. Lucy and Sam, my two standard poodles and I have hiked for nearly three hours. We’re hot. We’re tired. But I’d chosen this hike, carefully. We stand, now, at the edge of a mountain lake. Low growing pine trees ring the shore line. There are boulders, a small sandy beach. Sticking up out of the mist, Carter Dome towers above us. In the distance, cast in blue, the rest of Carter-Moriah range, draws itself against the sky.

I unclip the dogs packs, unclip their leashes. Unburdened, they wade and they drink, lapping, carefully. Because they are poodles or because the water is mountain cold? I unclip my own pack, leave it on a rock. I take off my wet shoes, my soaking socks. I’ve crossed the Wildcat River, three times, stepping on rocks, slipping, filling my shoes, soaking my socks. I strip down to my underwear, wade into the lake, submerge, emerge. Finally, I’m cool, so cool. On shore, knee deep in water, the dogs watch. This is one of those times, I want to read their thoughts, although, I’m told dogs don’t think. I’m the one who thinks, the one who anthropomorphizes, who sees in their faces both concern and amusement.

After snacks, Sam digs a hallow in the muddy sand, settles in next to my rock. Lucy finds scrub and settles down. We’re at the edge of a trail. A couple passes. I’m an old woman, happily sitting on a rock wearing her underwear. Now, I begin to feel a little self-conscious, so I pull on my shirt, a sleeves white, tank top, made of a fabric that dries, quickly. I leave my trousers on a branch. Sitting on this rock, knees raised, feet planted, I tell myself, I look like I’m wearing a tankini. I don’t own a tankini. I eat my lunch, a peanut butter and raisin sandwich on gluten free bread. I drink water. Trail food.

For nearly an hour, I sit in the quiet of this place as if I'm veiled, absorbing stillness, this rippling water, these ruffling leaves, the rising mist. There is no other place I need to be. I am here, no place but here, and there is very, very far away.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Carrying A Cloud

Words by Sandell Morse

Music by Kento Watanabe

Recorded at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Saturday morning walking a wood’s path with the dogs, I stopped to visit my favorite wild flower. It was a delicate flower that bloomed for a brief period in late May. Somewhat rare. As I stood looking down, I realized I couldn’t name the plant. Gone. It’s name was gone. I remembered that I’d once described the flower with its tiny veins and pink bulb-like sack as a tiny lung, imagining that this must be what a surgeon sees. But that didn’t help me find its name. Fleetingly, the word Alzheimer’s flashed across my mind. But I knew these things happened, knew that a momentary blip didn’t necessarily mean the onslaught of Alzheimer’s.

It had rained the night before, and pine needles were damp beneath the soles of my sneakers. The scent of pine wafted up. The scent of pine wafted down. As I walked, I thought about naming. I was disturbed, as if some essence of that flower had left me. I searched my mind. Nothing. And so I named what I could name, seedlings on the forest floor, beech, hickory, maple, oak. I named the rose tinged leaves of poison ivy. I named wood fern.

At the end of the path, I called to the dogs and told them to wait. I fed them treats, then gave them the okay to cross the dirt road, and suddenly it was there on my mind. Lady slipper. Of course lady slipper. And I thought of the lady slippers that had lined a path behind the house where we used to live in Holderness, New Hampshire, a path I’d walk out to my small log cabin. That log cabin had been my first study, the place where I’d begun to write. My sons and my husband had dug a trench so the electric company could bring a line to my study. I needed light, power for my electric typewriter. I heated that cabin with a coal stove. I thought of hiking in the White Mountains, the trail to Whiteface, where I’d sat on an rocky ledge, a sea of lady slippers in front of me, pink lady slippers, white lady slippers, yellow lady slippers.

When Adam named the animals, he called them into being, or so I’d thought. My friend, a rabbi, tells me, no. The animals were already there. As were the plants. But Adam didn’t name the plants. My friend, the poet Susan Donnelly, has another take on naming in her poem, “Eve Names the Animals,” a poem I adore. Eve uses words to transform—perhaps what Adam has already named. A lion become sun. Hers is a poem about language. It’s a poem about change—and being open to what we see—or to what we lose. I lost a name, but I saw the lady slipper, saw it transformed into a log cabin, then into three boys and a man digging a trench, and finally into a sea of color on a mountainside.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sounds Like A Plan

A friend called from Florida. He’d moved there three years ago, but he’d kept a condo in Killington where he went winters to ski, then spring, summer or fall to bike. “How’s the weather up there?” he said.

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Cloudy, drizzly, around fifty to fifty-five. But we have had sun and a few glorious days.”

“Thought so,” he said, his voice flat. And in that flatness I heard, Better you than me.

What I didn’t say was that as I walked the dogs this morning, Lucy and Sam, my two standard poodles I’d noticed buds opening on the apple tree at the end of the driveway, that as we walked out the dirt road, a hedge of forsythia bloomed along the perimeter of a neighbor’s yard, that the in the woods the fiddleheads were growing taller, holding onto just their end curls, that in the marsh green spears of cat tails were pushing their way through last year’s dried stalks, that I came out of the woods at the base of a hilly lawn where clumps of daffodils bloomed their heads off, that I’d stopped to watch a cedar waxwing perched on an out lying branch of a red maple, the bird singing, apparently oblivious to my presence, the branch tottering, its nascent leaves as delicate and perfectly formed as an infant’s hand, that along a swath of grass the dogs romped among snowdrops and violets, that back home I checked on my small vegetable garden near the pool where sets of lettuce were nearly ready for picking, that soon I’d see shoots of arugula, carrots, peas and spinach, that my parsley, oregano, lovage and tarragon had wintered over and were thriving, that the two lilac bushes I’d planted in memory of my parents, first my mother, then my father were unfurling their heart shaped leaves. I didn’t say that anticipation and promise were in the air.

“I think I’ll come up at the end of August. Maybe by then the rain will stop.”

I smiled to myself. “Sounds like a plan.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's No Joke

Seeing the Tea Party protestors in brief glimpses as I watched television the Sunday Congress was voting on the health care bill, I was struck by the awfulness of their signs, the portrayals of President Obama as a Nazi, as the devil, the name calling: Communist, liar, traitor, thug. I wanted to dismiss those protestors, call them fourth grade playground bullies, but I couldn’t. There was something chilling about their rally, their own evocation of the Third Reich. I am a woman of a certain age. I am Jewish. I know that propaganda can incite, know that mobs are dangerous. Then, I saw John Boehner, waving from a balcony. Yikes, I thought, this is serious.

To me the health care bill was a watered down version of the reform I’d hoped for. No public option. Thirty-two million more customers handed over to private insurers. No coverage for illegal immigrants. The powerful interests had had their voices heard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for passage, grateful for Obama’s legislative victory, thankful for reform. Yet, on that day, I wondered at the rage of the protestors, their racial and anti-gay slurs, their hatred of President Obama, of Nancy Pelosi. Their venom seemed disproportionate to what was actually in the bill. I couldn’t figure out what was driving them. Then, this past Sunday I read Frank Rich’s piece in the Sunday Times.

“To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill,” Rich wrote, “you have to look a year before Medicare, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both laws passed by similar majorities in Congress; the Civil Rights Act received even more votes in the Senate (73) than Medicare (70). But it was only the civil rights bill that made some Americans run off the rails.” Rich goes on to say that what was at stake here was a law that that signaled “inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of American, not just its governance.” Think of a tapestry in which color changed design.

According to Rich, had Obama chosen climate change, financial reform or immigration as his legislative priority, each would have triggered the same reaction, for what we had and have is a confluence of “a black president and a female speaker of the House—topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman….” And when I read his words I knew that Rich had clearly and succinctly identified the force behind the rage. These Tea Party folks were afraid. Mostly, they saw themselves as a dwindling minority. When they held up signs saying they wanted to “take our country back,” the obvious question would be, “From Whom?” From those who were not like them, blacks, Jews, Latinos, gays, but demographics would not and will not let them.

The Tea Party Movement, along with the attendant Militia Movement, is a force to deal with. Perhaps, though, a greater problem is the support they receive from mainstream politicians, those who speak at rallies, those who egg on the demonstrators. And what of the politicians who fall silent? Silence is complicity. So I’m calling on my two senators from Maine, Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, smart women, supposedly independent women, to speak out against the lies, the propaganda, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, the racism and the awful signs that link our president to Hitler and to the devil. If they can’t find their voices, who will?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Minturn Mile-- Vail, Colorado

“The Mile”, as locals call it, is not for the timid. It is a backcountry ski run, out of bounds, but not illegal, which means that as a skier you’re on your own, no lifts, no ski patrol, just a pristine snow field, then trees, pine and aspen groves, to ski among before hitting a long gully of narrow twisting terrain that rolls, a stretch that, later, Raina and Nina, my grand daughters, will call the loop de loops. The trail crosses a stream, no bridge—you take off your skis, toss them, then leap. After that leap, you catch your breath, step into your bindings and you’re off, running the infamous luge, a rough yard wide path where it is nearly impossible to control your speed. You snow plow; you look for an opportunity to slide left or right to slow down. Finally, you’re at the side of a hill and a narrow shoot that’s always, rocky, always moguled, but you see the end of the trail, see the road, know the Minturn Saloon is a mere half mile away where a bartender will serve up pitchers of margaritas, then carry platters loaded nachos to your high table.

The run begins at the top of Ptarmigan Ridge, dives 2,000 feet, then travels for three miles. To get there, you climb, ridge, ten minutes for Richard, my son, fifteen minutes or more for Raina, Nina, and me, all of us shouldering our skis. This is Raina’s second time on "The Mile," Nina’s first. She’s eleven, struggling, to carry her skis as she climbs, but if you’re skiing "The Mile," you carry your gear. Nina is strong. And she’s determined. As is Raina.

Richard is an expert skier, a backcountry skier. He’s trained to read terrain, to read snow. He knows exposure, understands the layering under our skies. He has timed our trip so that we’ll enter the back bowls before a ski patroller ropes off access, and if all goes well, we’ll arrive at the Minturn Saloon at 4:30 to meet the rest of the family for those famous margaritas and nachos.

As we reach the ridge, we see an outcropping of rock. This is our resting point, and standing here at 11,000 feet, we feel the stillness of these mountains, their majesty. The snow cover has been low this year, but in the last week snow has fallen every day. This day is no exception. We have high clouds. No view. We have a break in the snow, visibility and nearly a foot of unbroken powder, a skier’s dream. Skiing powder is like skimming along on whipped cream, but if you fall, you’re buried in snow that turns to cement. You need to dig out. You need strength you’re not sure you have.

At the top of the snow field, Richard chooses a line. I’ll go first, stopping above a small stand of pines. He’ll send the girls one at a time, then ski last to dig out anyone who falls in. The angle is low, not too steep, perfect for me, and as I point my skis down the hill, I feel them puff up on top of the snow. I let out a squeal. I’m floating. I’m flying. This is heaven. Now, the girls, spraying snow, each giddy with delight. Richard’s turns are perfection. He’s been skiing since he was a child. I’ve been skiing since I married—took skiing with my marriage vows. “You have to understand,” Richard once told a friend, “skiing is more than a sport in our family. It’s a life style.”

Life style. The way a person lives. So according to Richard, our family lives through skiing. What does that mean? All three of my sons, grew up on skis. My husband grew up on skis, still skis, although "The Mile" is no longer one of the trails he skis. At the Saloon, he will tell us once again, of his last trip down "The Mile" when he fell in that infamous brook. We’ll listen. We’ll laugh.

So skiing as lifestyle is memory. It is tradition. It is also strength—that determination I see in my grand daughters. It is respect for these mountains, for this back country where the unpredictable hovers, obstacles we don’t see, weather that shifts, a storm that blows in. It is love for a sport that thrills and challenges, a sport that binds us—three generations on "The Mile." Not bad.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Howard Zinn Died Last Wednesday

A friend introduced me to Howard Zinn’s work when I was writing a novel and doing research on the thirties. He sent me to Howard Zinn’s paperback, The Twentieth Century, a single volume mostly taken from A People’s History of the United States. Often, I’ll read the first sentence of book’s preface, then skip to the first chapter. This one began, “My book, A People’s History of the United States…. “

“My book….” I felt as if I were in a room with the writer, settling back into a chair. His voice hooked me. His thoughts held me. This was not a traditional history, not a history of American heroes, but a history of those who suffered under our heroes. Ah, this was a history about the ideological choices our leaders made in our name from the bombing of Hiroshima to Mai Lai to Abu Ghraib. According to Zinn, the reason these atrocities are still with us is that we are willing to bury them under a mass of other facts—or I might add, non-facts. Finally, someone was articulating my concerns—What are the human costs, the moral costs of our actions? I remembered arguing with my father about dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Had we considered the costs? Was the action necessary? His lips narrowed. He spit words. “Would you rather that they bombed us?” A non sequitur. But that was the kind of thinking that blurred and buried the truth, the awful awesome truth of what we’d done to human beings.

In Canning Jars, the essay on my website which is about anti-Semitism in rural Virginia, I end by saying, “In fertile soil misunderstanding takes root, grows and flowers into hate. Best to dig up those roots and dry them out in the glittering sunlight of a nearly perfect autumn day.”

Howard Zinn was a person who dug up the roots of capitalism, of socialism, of racism, of sexism, of power, of powerlessness and held them up to the light. He fought to make the world a better place, not that he believed that he would succeed. For him the game was not about winning, but about acting. He wrote, “To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”

Let us not forget him. Let us read him. Let us listen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

After the Snow

After the snow, an early morning walk with the dogs, Lucy and Sam, my two standard poodles. The sun was behind us, just rising, casting the few remaining low hanging clouds pink. The sky was baby blue, the air still. A thick layer of snow rested on branches, blue spruce, Austrian pine, white pine, white birch, gray birch. The cold felt clean on my cheeks. The world was luminous. Magical.

A plow had come in the night, packing snow on the driveway, on the dirt road where I walked with dogs, their noses to the ground or heads held high to pick scent out of the air. Sam stopped walking. He tilted his head, listening. I listened, too. Then, I heard it, a tiny high pitched sound, and I knew. A cardinal. Where? A flash of red inside my white world. We stood and we watched, the dogs and I, as the cardinal hopped deeper into a thicket of bittersweet vines, and I thought of how I’d hated those vines all summer long, then into fall, cutting, pulling, then discarding. Now, a few berries clung to those vines, food for the cardinal, hopping, now, and making it’s single high pitched chirp. Another bird in the thicket. “Perhaps, it’s mate,” I’d thought. No. A smaller bird, one with a puffy belly. A chickadee? No smaller still. I'd wanted to say sparrow, but I wasn’t sure sparrows had stuck around.

The day before, my husband had called me to a window. “The fox,” he’d said. I was too late, but I’d seen the fox before, if not that one, then several others, once four pups playing in grass near where I’d stopped to watch the cardinal. “It had a bushy tail,” my husband said.

That was code for: the fox is healthy. We liked a healthy fox. We hated seeing a mangy diseased fox. We wanted animals to live here, fox, skunk, raccoon, opossum, porcupine, turkeys, deer—and yes, an occasional moose. We didn’t like the fact that the recent building boom in our neighborhood had reduced their habitat. Now, with the Recession, the building has stopped. I’m pleased about that, pleased, too, that our animal population seemed resilient. But I’m a dreamer. I’d like a plan. A way to preserve open space and habitat, along with development.

The dogs and I walked on.