Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shabbat in the New Year

After six days of creation, God rested. Silently, I ponder the words: God rested. Significant. Important. God knew enough to rest. Mostly, I don’t, so on one recent Saturday morning, visiting my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandson in their apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City, I was delighted to learn they were observing Shabbat by giving up electronics. This practice has a name, Technology Sabbath, a twenty four hour period once a week to turn off television sets, iPads, iPods and cell phones.

The daughter of an assimilated German Jewish father and a non practicing Jewish mother, I grew up without a formal Jewish education. I raised my three sons without Hebrew School. My own journey back to Judaism began when my sons were in their teens—too late for Bar Mitzvahs. My daughter-in-law, a convert to Judaism, loves the faith. She is our lucky, lovely gift. At nine my grandson attends Hebrew School, and I fully expect he will become a Bar Mitzvah. Committed to Judaism, but not Orthodox or Conservative in their observance, my family does not sweat the details of pushing buttons on Shabbat, elevator buttons, stove buttons. Nor do I.

On that Saturday morning I sat in the living room of my son’s and daughter-in-law’s apartment, thinking of Shabbat long ago, which I called Shabbos, then. I was six when I rode the bus from Madison to Morristown, New Jersey to spend the weekend with Mama and Papa, Orthodox Jews who observed Shabbos while my Mom and Dad worked in Dad’s store. Mama and Papa did not switch on lights or strike a match to ignite a burner on the stove. Papa did not smoke his pipe. Quiet descended inside the house while Papa sat in his blue easy chair, reading the Yiddish newspaper. Did Mama read, too? I don’t remember. I remember sitting in her lap, touching her curls and breathing in her soft, sweet lilac scent. I remember my small hand in Papa’s hand as we walked to Burnham Park where I stooped down at the edge of a pond and waited for a single brave duck to pluck a wad of bread from my palm. I wanted that touch of the duck’s beak, blunt and rough, but not sharp. Later, I would stand outside on the front porch watching for the first three stars to appear in the sky so I could announce the end of Shabbos. Even then, as a child, I felt the bitter sweetness of a moment that was both an ending and a beginning.

Giving up electronics on Shabbat is not simple. Work spilled into weekends. On that day, my son, a film maker and adjunct professor, was editing his latest film on two large monitors in his study. Always, he was plugged in, communicating with his actors, his production team, his students either on line or by cell phone. My daughter-in-law, an associate professor at a college in New Jersey, relied on electronics to collect and grade student papers, to plan meetings, to keep in touch with her colleagues. “Now,” my daughter-in-law said to me, “we have no choice. We go hiking every Saturday. We do things together as a family.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, scholar and theologian who among his many books wrote that wonderful slim volume, “The Sabbath,” called Shabbat “a palace in time.” To appreciate Shabbat we needed to turn away from space. In space we acquired things, laptops, iPods, iPads, iPhones. In time we connected with each other, with nature, with that mysterious force that some called God, that others like me refused to name because there was too much baggage associated with that particular naming.

On that Saturday, the four of us drove to New Jersey to pick up my granddaughter whose father, my oldest son, was away. We drove to Bear Mountain State Park, all five plus Jo-Jo, the dog, a white bichon with a trim hair cut. We hiked to a shelter, roasted hot dogs on sticks, not Kosher, along with tofu dogs. Kosher? We toasted our bread on forked sticks. We walked to caves where the children explored hidden narrow passages, calling back, laughing. Jo-Jo ran in circles up a bank and through leaves. My daughter-in-law, my son and I stood at the mouth of the cave listening to the children’s shouts, keeping track. Time swelled, and I wished this moment would last forever. It wouldn’t. But it would come again, and this was the glory of Shabbat.

Following a trail out of the park, I felt the mystery of water rushing in a stream and of the sun shining through bare branches at a slant and warming the cold air. I listened to my grandchildren chatter. I walked for awhile with my daughter-in-law, then with my son, my heart kvelling, that Yiddish word that means joy, but so much more than joy. We were a family: together.

Nearly three weeks have passed since that Shabbat. It is Thursday, December 29, and I am thinking of the new year. I don’t do well with Resolutions; yet, I feel the need to make one. Just one. In 2012, I will abstain from electronics on Shabbat. At home, I will rest, read and spend my day with my husband and my dogs, taking the joy of Shabbat into my heart.

I wish you all, a happy, healthy and joyous new year. And a good Shabbos.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bloom, Romney and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I’m into religion. I’m not talking about, faith, revelation or ritual, I’m talking about the way religion plays out in that essential question: who am I? So when I read Harold Bloom’s piece in The Times early this month—“Will This Election Be the Mormon Breakthrough?—I was intrigued.

Bloom, a literary critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, is one of our brilliant American minds, a man with whom I have not always agreed, but a man who’s argument I have always respected. I read carefully. In his opening sentence Bloom asks us to pay attention. Look, he says, but not in those words, look at what’s happening now right now. Pay attention to these candidates. What you see now foreshadows what you’ll see later—darker. Intensified.

Mitt Romney, if he gets the nomination, will be the first Mormon to secure a major party nomination. Bloom a scholar of American literature describes Romney’s church as “that very American Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints.” So what’s the big deal? I’ve heard news pundits deplore the fact that Romney’s religion may become a factor in the Presidential election. We should be beyond that, they say. I agree. We should, but we aren’t. Religion plays a huge part in American politics.

Full disclosure. I’m Jewish. I don’t go to synagogue. I’m ambivalent about God. I love the ritual of Sabbath candles, of Passover. I love the scholarship of my people. I love learning my people's history. I love my people. But not exclusively.

What strikes me is Bloom’s definition Mormonism as a particularly American religion. Bloom knows American literature. He knows the American character, that rugged individualism that we mythologize in our cowboy movies, our gangster movies, our literary heroes, Thoreau, sitting alone beside a pond or canoeing alone in the Maine wilderness, Emerson teaching us “Self-Reliance” and Willa Cather writing of Antonia in My Antonia and Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark, stories with huge western landscapes and independent thinking women.

Ah, yes, individual freedom, a fabulous idea, but when it runs amuck, that same idea produces mean-spirited, selfish individuals who refuse to see their responsibility to the whole—ie the rest of us. And this refusal, if I’m understanding Bloom, is what he calls: “American spiritualized greed.”

Americans, we worship money. I’ve often thought it strange that candidates who want to see this nation declared a Christian nation are so enslaved and enthralled by money that they allow themselves to be carried away from their own Christian values of helping the poor and the less fortunate among us, which translates to me as an unwillingness to make health care available to all and an unwillingness to make education affordable. Bloom says, “obsessed by a freedom we identity with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude.”

And this, I think, is the connection to Romney. The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints is an economic power house and I agree with Bloom when he says, “money is politics.” To take this argument a step further, Bloom says, “A Mormon presidency is not quite the same as an ostensibly Catholic or Protestant one, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints insists on a religious sanction for its moralistic platitudes.”

So this argument translates to values. What are Romney’s values as an individual? as a candidate for the Presidency? He’s a devout Mormon, and his faith tells him that the rest of us are infidels, a word which suggests faithlessness and disloyalty. As a devout Mormon, Romney keeps his Church’s secrets, aspects of his religion that cannot be revealed to the rest of us. I agree with Bloom, that this concealment “may be a legitimate question that merits pondering.” In other words, Bloom wants us to ask questions. To consider. When we asked John F, Kennedy how his religion would affect his decision making as President, he responded with his religion speech in which he pleaded for religious tolerance and reiterated his unconditional support for separation of church and state. We, the electorate, and the news media need to ask Romney that same question.

That said, another danger of a Romney candidacy and perhaps a Romney Presidency is the continuation of governance that has evolved into both a plutocracy and an oligarchy where money and power continue to be consolidated into the hands of the few, leaving the rest of us behind. How is this related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It is the model of their organization.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy Boston

His red curly hair sticks out from under his woolen cap. His teeth are yellowed, the spaces between them filled with plaque. Sitting on a stool outside a tent in Dewy Square, he talks about facilitating meetings. He wants to get inside of a corporate board room. He wants to be visible. This is what Occupy Boston is about, making the invisible visible, and as I walk the paths of Occupy Boston one Saturday in October, I am struck by two things. First, that this is a community, and second, that the folks camping here are mostly homeless.

Some say there is no organization. All I see is organization, at the entrance a sign welcoming me, another sign setting the rules: No alcohol, No drugs. There is a medical tent, a library tent, a food tent, a clothing tent, a tent where a volunteer uses bicycle parts to generate electricity to charge iPads and iPods. Volunteers haul bags of garbage to designated dumpsters. They pick up trash. Outside the food tent, they wash dishes. Mornings, they hold general assemblies. They schedule events. This is what Jeffersonian democracy looks like, people gathering to protest a government that does not respond, to our will. And they are not alone. Daily, others join them, teachers, engineers, students, my three friends and I who have traveled from York, Maine.

What do they want? What do I want? What do we want? Nothing less than to reform and reconstitute American democracy. This is a movement about choices. Do we want housing, schools, books and libraries or do we want drones, wars and death? Do we want to give away our jobs, give up Medicare and Medicaid or do we want to tax the rich and to tax corporations?

So how do we organize to have our voices heard? I stand in front of a stage at one end of Dewey Square, listening to an activist answer that question. He holds the mike close to his lips, speaks passionately about a sustained campaign across the country, where through our community organizations, we ask our local government to pass a resolution to cut pentagon spending and put that money into human services, including transportation and education. Fifty-nine percent of our Federal budget goes to the military, six percent to health and human services, another six percent to transportation, four percent to education. Those values are skewed.

Later that day, a crowd gathers to listen to Noam Chomsky, summarize what has happened, slowly and over time as fiscal policy such taxation, rules of corporate governance and deregulation made way for the banks to grow bigger and richer so that now corporate profits are reaching record levels. Unemployment, real unemployment is about the level of the Great Depression. More people are sliding down into poverty as the rich grow richer. Our schools are collapsing; our infrastructure is collapsing. Elections are bought, the outcome pretty much dependent on funding. This is not new, Chomsky says, but what is new is the extraordinary amount of money poured into campaigns. Also new is the buying of committee chairs in Congress. Chairs need to pay the Committees. And where does that money come from? The same people who fund the campaigns. These policies have set in motion a vicious cycle, that gets worse and worse. We need to break that cycle. This is what Occupy Boston, Occupy Wall Street, all of the occupying movements are about. Of course, the rich and the powerful, that one percent will try to dismiss the movement, ridicule the movement, scorn the movement. But we are the ninety-nine percent, and I plan to make my voice heard. How about you?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Auvillar, A Village in South-west France

I am searching for a path. I have markers, a conversation at dinner when John, a photographer said, “You take the road before the bridge. You’ll see some steps. Take the steps, then keep going up the hill.” Then, nodding to Robert, a craftsman who works with metal, seated at the end of table, John said, “When the two cooling towers of the nuclear plant line up, you’re at chez Robert. Then, you keep turning left.”

But there is a fork, two dirt roads, one marked by a caution sign, warning that the road is subject to flash flooding which I assume has something to do with those cooling towers that I try to ignore and the Garonne River which flows past. I choose the road without the sign. On my right fields with dried up corn, on a my left a fig tree. The tree is laden with purple figs ripe to the touch. I linger. But I see a house in the distance, and reluctantly, I walk, following a track made by vehicles. This farm land, land where people have planted gardens. Tomatoes grow in abundance, along with squash. There are trellises with grapes and another fig tree where I have reached a dead end. White figs this time. The fig is perfect, warmed by the sun with pale white flesh. I split it open then pop half into my mouth. No one can see me. I pick again, then follow the path back to the first fig tree. No resistance this time.

At the caution sign I follow a path to an athletic field, and there on the other side, I see the steps that John mentioned. At the top of the steps a main road and across the way, a narrow road that climbs. Undulating fields roll away from the road; They climb hillsides. Fields lie fallow; others are filled with blooming sunflowers. I am alone. Time meanders, and I meander along with it, stopping to look or to take a photograph. At the top of a hill dogs bark at my approach. There is a barn, a tractor, fields and across the road a farm house. Could this be where Robert lives? But the cooling towers don’t line up. “Bonjour Madame,” someone calls.

There on a terrace, I see two men. “Bonjour,” I call back.


Climbing again and cresting another hill, I watch the cooling towers line up. I see a long drive. A distant house. Perhaps chez Robert. Is this his view from a terrace, two funnels spewing white smoke? John lives here for five months out of the year. He doesn’t notice the cooling towers. Although I try not to, I notice. Soon they disappear from view, and I realize I’ve been walking a long, long time with no sign of Auvillar, my destination. Should I continue on? Turn around? I want to meet another walker, to say, “Pardon. Est que je vais a Auvillar?” Am I going to Auvillar? Not great French, but the best I can do.

Then, I see her, the woman and her dog that John had spoken of at dinner, Madame D. and Texas, her dog lumbering behind. It’s a big dog, tri-colored, part collie, part setter and probably part Doberman with those colors, and although the dog is slow it’s a strange dog, and it’s slogging toward me. “Madame.” I call. Then again and louder. She turns, calls to the dog, then speaks to me in rapid French.

Je ne parle pas Francis. Seul un peu,” I say. I don’t speak French. Only a little. “Est que le…” Is this the…. I point to the road. “Auvillar.

Ah, oui.” She is a woman of a certain age, and her smile crinkles her face. She wears her gray hair cropped close. “You come with me,” she says.

And I do.

Madame D. tells me the story of how Texas got his name. One day a young couple, students, staying at the git or inn that Madame D. and her husband run, found a puppy. They were thrilled. But when it came time for them to return home. “Well,” Madame says, “what would they do with this….”

“Puppy,” I say.

“Pupeee,” she says. “Well, I do not know. My husband…” Her voice falls off and she gestures. “But he? She?” she asks looking at Texas.

“He,” I say.

“Is beautiful,” she says. “So we keep the dog. Then how to call him. They are from Texas, the young couple, so voila: Texas.”

“He is very kind dog,” Madame says. “Everyday I walk with him. They all know me.” She pauses. “And Texas.”

And everyone in my neighborhood in the town where I live on the coast of Maine knows me as the woman who walks with her two standard poodles. But not today. Today I am far from home, following a different path, down hidden steps that Madame D. says is her short cut before we step onto a road, Madame D. Texas and I, all strolling into Auvillar.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Pledge

Reading In My Father’s Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer, stories the writer recalls of his father’s Beth Din or rabbinical court, an ancient Jewish institution, blending court of law, synagogue, house of worship and psychiatrist’s couch where Jews would come to settle disputes and get advice, I was struck by one particular story called “The Oath,” which seemed to me both warning and lesson.

In the first paragraph, Singer proclaims that his father would open each Beth Din proclaiming his opposition to the taking of oaths. I was sitting in my study, legs stretched on my chaise, looking out through the screen at my perennial garden, daylilies at their height of mass and color, pale yellow, tangerine, scarlet, heavy on their slender stalks, at purple coneflowers, petals thrown back, dome shaped cones like noses sniffing the sky. And beyond the garden a single lobster boat fished on the high tide. “No oaths,” I said silently.

For at that moment, John Boehner was negotiating with his recalcitrant representatives, all of whom had sworn an oath, not to God, not to our country, but to an organization called Americans for Tax Reform, controlled by a single man, Grover Norquist. And that oath? No tax increases under any circumstances. And I couldn’t help wishing that Singer’s father, that old rabbi long dead was the man leading the House of Representatives instead of John Boehner.

And why was the rabbi against oaths? Because we cannot trust our memories, and; therefore, we must not swear to what we believe is the truth. As we all know, truth is elusive. Take three people to the scene of an accident, and each will give a different version of what he or she has seen.

One day a woman and a group of men came to the rabbi’s Beth Din, the men accusing the woman of swindling. As the argument grew more and more heated, the woman cried and screamed her innocence. Suddenly, she opened the Ark, took hold of the Torah, that most sacred of scrolls, and swore she was telling the truth. All in the room were shocked into silence. Months later, the woman returned to confess to the rabbi that she had sworn falsely and that she wished to repent. I lifted my eyes from the page. The woman had fooled me, too. I’d thought she was innocent. She’d bullied me, bullied the rabbi, bullied the three men, and I said to myself: “Isn’t that what’s happening right this minute in Congress?”

In a recent article in the New York Times, Frank Bruni states that all but 6 of the 240 Republicans in the House, along with 2 Democrats have signed Norquist’s pledge. Bruni also says that Norquist uses the pledge like a hammer, vilifying pledge resisters during their primary campaigns. Let’s take Norquist out of the picture for a moment in order to concentrate on our 236 Representatives who took that pledge. They are no better than the woman in Singer’s Beth Din swearing falsely on what they cannot know. Their job is to legislate, that is to make or pass laws, yet, they have chosen to bully the opposition, leaving no room for negotiation. Compromise is intrinsic to a functioning government. If these 236 House members don’t understand this, they don’t belong in Congress. If only, like the woman in Singer’s story, they would confess. If only, they would repent. If only, they would govern.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Art Matters

What would it mean if we could walk into any Marriot, any Hilton, any Ramada Inn and see Chihuly chandeliers hanging in the lobby as I did at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel in New Orleans. It was early on a July Sunday morning, and I was exploring the arts district, an old warehouse area which had gone from a center of industry in the 19th century to an urban wasteland in the 20th century. The transformation began in 1976 with the opening of the Contemporary Arts Center, closed when I climbed the stairs to look inside, seeing gallery after gallery and wishing I had the time to return. I was searching for Tchoupitoulas Street, trying to get that Marriott, and when I did I couldn’t figure out where the art gallery next door ended and the hotel began, for there in the lobby, I saw three Dan Chihuly chandeliers, their vibrant colors, their geometric shapes, cascading and forming sculptures. I stood breathless, hardly believing what I was seeing. “Are those Chihulys?” I asked the desk clerk, a young woman with dark hair and a ready smile.

“Yes,” she said, obviously pleased to show them off.

I lowered my gaze from the ceiling. “Do you mind if I look around?”

“Please, do,” she said.

And I did, walking slowly, looking at chromatic prints on wood, the work of Luie Cruz Azaceta, an award winning artist whose work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, facts I did not know that Sunday morning, when I stood mesmerized by a large collage with grids of snapshots that seemed to me to chronicle Hurricane Katrina’s devastation or perhaps any human devastation, scenes of broken buildings, a photo of a man, a child and a dog, the man mournful, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the child standing slightly behind him but leaning into him. The dog, too, seemed to need the man, and the man the dog, his arm around the animal’s body. All three were survivors, and all three, even the dog, seemed understand the dilemma of surviving. Another Azaceta work was Beads No. 2, a piece full of color and zest. Mardi Gras beads? Prayer beads? I had never heard of Azaceta. Now, I loved Azaceta.

And I loved this lobby, soft piano sounds coming from hidden speakers, a table that formed a pedestal for displaying ceramics, sitting areas with rugs, chairs and sofas that echoed the various shapes and vibrant colors of those Chihuly chandeliers. And so I sat, and I wrote in my small notebook, and I watched. Sitting in the adjacent dining area men, women and children, ate breakfast. They talked, softly, as if absorbed by their surroundings. Beauty soothes us. I had never seen art woven into the fabric of a corporate enterprise in this way. This was not simply art on display; this was an environment, and I was sitting inside of it. And I thought. Let’s do it. Let’s move art into the corporate world; let’s move the corporate world into art. Let’s come to together, so that each of us can save the other, the artist from anonymity, the corporation from devouring us all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mount Kearsarge North

The day was delightfully cool with a breeze to lift the black flies because they were here, on this Friday in early June, especially in the parking area when we arrived, Sam, my standard poodle, and I, without Lucy my other standard who would soon be eleven and could no longer hike for more than a couple of hours. This was Mount Kearsarge North, a small mountain that presented itself like a larger hike, climbing steadily through woods then over open ledges, gaining 2,574 feet in elevation before reaching the top where the view opened to 360 degrees.

Sam stopped on the trail and looked back. When we hiked with Lucy, the two dogs vied for first place, pushing past each other on the narrow trail, the sides of their packs brushing, and I couldn’t help thinking that Sam missed Lucy as much as I did. Perhaps, it wasn’t missing in the same sense, but he seemed to understand that something had shifted. He hung back most of the way, stopped with me as I stood and looked at lady slippers lining the path, drawing in their beauty like breath. Near the top and growing in dirt between rock, laurel bloomed, deep lavender flowers that somehow reminded me of dragonfly wings.

At the top, the breeze picked up. Sam and I took shelter behind a rock outcropping where I hitched him to a branch, and he lay, head lifted, his body alert as if on guard, and I thought to myself, What a lovely dog. Then, I wondered, Was Sam waiting for Lucy to walk over ledge and down into our secluded spot? The hike had been easier without. She had an edge, holding hikers off with her barking. I couldn’t trust her; she could nip. Still, I missed the old girl, and leaning back into rock, eating my peanut butter sandwich, surrounded by these mountains, I thought about the passage of time. How long before, like Lucy, I would have to give up these heights for a lower climb? Perhaps, this gradual diminishment prepared us. When Dad’s time came, he was ready. And although Mom’s dying was not long, one week in a hospice unit, she, too, seemed, if not ready, comfortably, resigned. Both my parents left this world peacefully and with love, and I know what they would tell me right now, their voices chorusing: Enjoy the day. Stop brooding.

A tiny gray bird with a yellow beak and white on its tail and belly feasted in a patch of unripe blueberries, and sitting here, I was returned to a day just last month when I was walking along Grand Street in New York City, with Adam, my grandson, who was seven. He stopped to pick red berries, growing on bushes lining the sidewalk. I wanted him to hurry up, but I didn’t want to say that: Hurry up. So I said, “Adam, the birds need to eat those berries.”

He argued, his voice firm, his features set. “No they don’t,” he said.

“They do, Adam,” I said.

And I walked on, hoping he’d follow. He did after a while. Then, he opened his hand to show me the berries he’d picked, saying, “It’s okay, Grammy, I left lots for the birds.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Maine to Virginia

I don’t know why I’m obsessed with this, why sitting here in my studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, looking out a rusted chain link fence, at trees leafed in the fullness of a Virginia spring, surrounded by the still quiet of this place where writers write, painters paint, composers compose, I see in my mind’s eye the face of a man I don’t know, didn’t meet, a man who approached my car in a parking lot outside of Panera Bread. I’d spent the night in a Comfort Inn at an exit off of I 81 in Harrisonville, and that morning I’d found the espresso that I loved. I was juggling a water bottle, travel mug, wallet and car key when I heard a voice. “Excuse me, Ma'am.”

Turning, I saw a broad faced man of about thirty-five with thinning light brown hair. “I see you’re from Maine,” he said, his voice friendly, yet urgent. “I’m from Maine. Just moved here. You don’t see many Maine plates around here. What part of Maine?”

“York,” I said.

“I’m from Waterboro. My folks moved here a few years ago, so I came down. Sure is different. People so friendly. I mean every where you go people say hello.” He paused. “And the taxes. So low. You know how much I paid to register my car? Two hundred dollars. Can you believe it? And my property taxes, six hundred.” He shifted his weight. “Those Maine taxes. They’ll kill ya.”

I watched him carefully. “They are high,” I said.

“And the winters. You don’t have those winters.”

I smiled. “But there’s something about surviving them...,” my voice dropped off.

His eyes flickered. “Here you have a problem, you go the church”

A sinking feeling in my belly. I wanted to tell him I was Jewish, that I didn't go to church, that I hardly went to a synagogue. Instead, I stood passively, as he went on. “You don’t have all those services. I was involved in Waterboro, you know. Politically. I was a Selectman. I think eighty percent of the town got some form of public assistance.”

Unuh. Anti-government. Maybe Tea Party. He must have seen my bumper sticker, Got Social Security? Thank Democrats.

“Here you go to one of those offices, they ask, have you gone here? have you gone there? tried this church, that church?”

“Well,” I said, smiling, “the money has to come from somewhere, you give it to the church or you pay it in taxes.”

His eyes widened, and he paused, briefly, shaking his head. “Sure is different here. I never would have believed it. Two states, Maine and Virginia.”

For years, I’d traveled from Maine to rural Virginia to write in solitude, yet when I ventured out of the artists’ colony, walking country roads or driving to shop in a Barnes and Noble or a supermarket in Lynchburg, I'd pass church after church, and I couldn’t help noticing their huge presence and perhaps their power, all of them segregated. There was one synagogue in Lynchburg that I used to visit, so there was a Jewish presence. Small and contained, I thought. Mosques. I hadn't seen any, but I didn’t know. I looked down at my travel mug, the VCCA logo. “So you like it here?” I said.

“Well, I have to tell you, I miss the lakes. Waterboro has those lakes. And the ocean. I miss that.”

I lift my voice. “Well, you’ll have to come back.”

“Oh, I do. In fact, I was just there. You visiting somebody around here?”

“No, I’m headed for Amherst.” He frowned slightly. A place he didn’t know. “It’s east and a little south. I’m a writer. There’s a retreat for writers, painters and composers there.”

A slight nod of his head, as if, finally, he had found a place for me—one of those. I opened my car door wide.

“Well,” he said, “you have a good trip.”

Setting my travel mug into a holder near the steering wheel, I held the car door. “I will. Thanks for saying hello.”

He stepped back, then waved. “Like I said, you don’t see many Maine plates around here.”

I climbed into my car and watched him in my side view mirror, a stocky man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, walking across the parking lot.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

I lifted the slim volume down from a shelf of new nonfiction books in the library. The title had caught my eye. Perhaps, I’d read a review or seen the title in one of my many emails or in a newsletter. I glanced at the blurbs, one by Maxine Kumin another by Jane Hamilton. Then, I read the bold print: “The Earthly Adventures of a Woman and a Gastropod.” The writer was Elizabeth Tova Bailey, and like me, she lived in Maine. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a fine independent house, had published the book.

I opened the book to the title page: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and under the title, a lovely drawing of a snail, its soft body out of its shell, antennae alert. For the next two days I immersed myself in the small world of Elizabeth Tova Bailey and her snail.

When Elizabeth Tova Bailey was thirty-four and traveling in the Alps, she caught a strange virus or perhaps a bacterial infection. Her illness was severe and complications were life threatening. Mostly, she was bedridden. Years and years would pass before she even began to recover.

One day early in Bailey’s illness, a friend who was visiting walked in the woods. She found a snail, dug up a clump of violets, planted them in flower pot and set the snail down under leaves, then carried her gift to Bailey. And so it began, Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s fascination with this snail. Bailey became a careful observer, an ardent researcher, but what attracted me to this book was, not only Bailey’s emotional attachment to this creature, but the way the snail itself gave focus to her diminished life. Reading the book, I learned about snails, their history, their diet, their habits, their sexuality: woodland snails were hermaphrodites. I learned that snails have memory. I learned that no matter how small a person’s world becomes that world enlarges with connection, connection to a woodland snail.

Reading the book, I remembered my own fascination with a woodland snail, not that many years ago. One of the grandkids had arrived carrying a small terrarium. Which one? It couldn’t have come from Colorado so that ruled out Raina and Lilly. Zeke was too young. Nina. Memory flooded back, tooth marks in leaves of lettuce, slices of apple. I hadn’t known that snails had teeth, rows and rows of them. I emailed, Nina, now, twelve. “Nina, do I remember that you once brought a snail here? Was the snail a school pet?”

She emailed back. “Yes, I did have a pet snail named Skeebz after my best friend who moved. I kept it for about a year and then it died.”

As I write, I think about Nina’s brief response. She had a pet snail. She kept it for a year. The snail died. But, she named it after her best friend. So that small creature was for Nina a way of easing loss, a way of keeping her friend present in her mind.

I’m not a person who relaxes easily. I move too fast, try to do too much. Yet, when I would stand at my kitchen counter with Nina that year she was seven and in the second grade, the two of us observing the snail’s slow deliberate movements, I’d find ease in my fingertips, ease in my jaw. How could I have forgotten that time? And how could I have forgotten the pleasure of sharing that moment with Nina?

Reading Nina’s email, I was sorry to learn these years later that Skeebz had died. I wished for a happier ending, release into the wild. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s snail, release into the same woods where she had been found. Elizabeth Tova Bailey did, however, keep one of the snail’s many offspring. But Nina assured me that of all the snails given to each second grader that year, Skeebz had lived the longest.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A May Sarton Legacy

I’m an alternative medicine kind of gal, and so yesterday morning, sick with bronchitis, a sore throat that felt as if someone had run the tines of a metal rake down raw flesh, a headache, I drove to the supermarket. I needed lemons, fresh ginger root, and honey to make my soothing, healing tea. Inside the door, I paused as always, to survey the flowers, spring bouquets with dyed carnations, a sprig of freesia, a single sad looking rose. Then, I saw buckets of tulips, pink, yellow, purple, chose purple.

I’ve been reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, and I’m sure it was May and her book that prompted me without hesitation to buy those tulips and carry them home. May always had fresh flowers inside, Winter, summer, spring and fall, she describes trips to the post office to pick up the mail, then afterwards, stopping to buy flowers. For her, fresh flowers were a meditation. On Thursday, January 30th, 1975, Sarton wrote: “And once more I am in a kind of ecstasy at the beauty of light through petals… how each vein is seen in relief, the structure suddenly visible.”

And so this morning, sitting up in bed, after having breakfast, I am sipping from a mug of lemon, ginger and honey tea, looking at a vase of purple tulips on my bedside table. Earlier, I cut the stems, cut away yellow leaves, gave them fresh water. Their color seems brighter as if each blossom has absorbed light. My bed faces wide sliding glass doors, and although today the sky is pearly gray, light here at the edge of sea is luminous. From my bed, I see the deck’s horizontal railing and beyond the deck the ocean, waves rising, curling, breaking. This is my front yard, the foaming sea.

I watch a single flower, the egg shape of the bloom, white at its base, then notice small green veins. The attachment of stem and flower seems fluid, fragile and strong at the same time. I share May Sarton’s love of flowers, her love of the sea. She is a woman I might have met. I moved into her neighborhood, used to run along the road, then up her driveway as far as I dared, hoping to see her out among her daffodils, but Sarton was ill, then, no longer outside in her garden. This morning, I hold her book in my hand, watch the sea, watch my tulip. Musing, I sip my healing lemon, ginger and honey tea.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wishing the Harp Seal Safe Travels

Late Sunday afternoon, after walking the dogs, I burst into the house, called to Dick, my husband, talking as I climbed the stairs, “You have to put on your jacket. I have something to show you.”

Sitting on the living room couch, Dick looked up from the Sunday paper. He was a tall man with a long face, round trusting eyes. “Now?”

“Now,” I said.

Moving slowly, he folded the paper, then placed it on the low coffee table. “I’ll bet it’s an animal,” he said.

We lived at the end of a dirt road on the coast of Maine, and we loved sharing our animal sightings, the fox and her kits, porcupines, deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, hawks, owls, a rare blanding turtle, and once we’d watching from the deck as a moose swam in the surf past our house.

“I’ll bet it’s an animal,” Dick said, again as he climbed into my car. I didn’t answer. “A moose.”

As we approached a tidal inlet about a mile and a half from the house, I saw that we weren’t alone. A woman had come with two children. The animal control officer’s car was there, along with another car. This stretch of road was on a curve. There was a short metal barrier, a slope that led to the marsh where snow and ice had flattened out.

We were in the middle of a cold spell, and that day the high was twenty-seven. Snow on the sides of the road had hardened to the consistency of cement. Portions of the inlet had frozen. Getting out of the car, Dick pointed to the ducks, mostly mallards. “They aren’t frozen there?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Why would you think that?” My voice was hard, impatient. I wanted him to find that pair of black eyes. “Look a little closer to shore.

I watched as surprise transformed his face. “What is it?” he said.

“A seal,” I said.

“I’ve never seen a seal that looked like that.”

Nor had I. Mostly white, white head, white body with black spots. Yet, it surely was a seal, the shape, the flippers, the wonderful seal face. The animal rested on a peninsula of ice and snow, lifting its head, turning its neck, as curious about us, it seemed, as we were about him.

Talking to the animal control officer, I learned that we were looking at a young male harp seal. He was fine, not injured, not beached, simply resting. The officer had come to put up signs, warning onlookers not to approach the animal. The seal was protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972. All of us should have been a hundred feet away. We weren’t. The seal lowered his white head to the ice, still watching with his coal black eyes. His whiskers twitched.

We drove home each inside a bubble of comfortable silence, until finally, Dick said, “I hope he’ll be all right.”

The optimist in me replied, “Of course he will.”

Doing research on the internet, I learned that harp seals had been seen as far south as New Jersey, that this male’s spotted coat would remain until sexual maturity when his harp pattern would form on his back. His head, too, would turn black. Harp seals that did not develop the harp pattern were called spotted harps. Adult harps grew to five or six feet and weighed between three hundred and four hundred pounds. I learned that babies were born on the ice, and loss of sea ice was a potential threat to the seals’ habitat.

Then, I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought about for years and years: the Canadian Seal Hunt. Once I read those words, nightmarish images of bloody ice, dying seals and hunters bludgeoning and skinning seals returned. I’d thought all that had ended, but it hasn’t. The hunt in Canada is described as the largest slaughter of marine animals in the world. The Canadian government subsidizes the hunt. Right now, both the U. S. government and the E. U. ban the importing of seal products; however, the Canadian government is pressuring both the United States and the European Union to lift the ban. In addition, the Canadian government is looking for new markets for seal products, especially in China. A fight I thought was over is not over. So many battles, it seems, need to be fought over and over. I’m thinking of the recent assaults in Congress and in state houses on women’s reproductive rights. I’m thinking of the ongoing battles for gay rights, for a just immigration policy, for health care. Perhaps, it took a young male harp seal, resting briefly on a peninsula of snow in my home town to remind me that our fights for justice and for decency are never won, never over, but ongoing.

The next morning, as I drove past the inlet, I stopped to see the harp seal, but he was gone. Perhaps, he’d left on the last high tide. I wished him safe travels.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Letting Go

Early morning. The ocean looks like a frozen lake, the air so cold that vapor rises from the sea: sea smoke. I am sitting in my window seat, propped on pillows. I’ve been sitting here for days, now, ordered to rest by Dr. K. Rest is not my usual way of being in the world. I’m accustomed to filling the rectangular spaces in my calendar with times and necessary places to be, yoga class, coffee with friends, a movie with Dick, my husband, a hair appointment, another for a bone density test, and those times I don’t mark with ink, I mark invisibly in my mind, write from nine to one, lunch, walk the dogs for an hour, maybe longer, water and fertilize orchids, check the calendar for the weekend, a movie at the library, family coming.

Yet, as I sit in my window seat, all of that has peeled away. I’ve been sick for more than a month, and now blood work has confirmed a clinical diagnosis: Mycoplasma, Atypical pneumonia, Walking pneumonia. That is what has brought me here and given me a gift of time unbounded by the face of clock, analog or digital, marking seconds, minutes, hours, then discarding them like balled up tissues. Here in my window seat, time drifts, past into present, present to past. I’ve read Great House by Nicole Krauss, Nemesis by Philip Roth, finished the second half of A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, a book I’d started more than a year ago. I’ve day dreamed of family and of friends. I’ve read the daily paper from end to end, all of Harper’s.

This morning, I watched as the sea smoke began to dissipate, drawn skyward by the sun, a white hot orb beating down, turning the snow on the ledge outside my window to crystal. Now, clouds hover at the horizon as higher clouds stretch in the wind. Under them the tide, nearly silent this morning, moves toward land. I wonder at the ocean’s quiet, wonder at the gulls I don’t sea. Perhaps, they’re waiting for slack tide, And so a routine has evolved. Mornings, I am in my window seat, reading, writing, dozing or simply closing my eyes and banishing thought—in the words of Dr. K. “like savasana. That’s what the body needs to heal.” Along, I suppose, with the second round of an anti-biotic he prescribed.

The other day, my friends, Susan and Victoria, arrived bearing a huge pot of chicken soup, that healing elixir, that Gene, Susan’s husband had made. There was also an assortment of veggie chips for munching. I love munching. In the living room, we spoke briefly, but long enough for me to explain my routine, after savasana, that pose of total relaxation, making it one of the most challenging of the asanas, or poses, lunch, then upstairs for a nap. “Ah,” Victoria said, “the discipline of rest.”

Or, I thought, later, of letting go.