Shadow of Grief, Arm of Joy

It’s been a very cold start to the week, a real taste of “deep winter.” Various extra bits of clothing litter the kitchen, holiday mail (happily) keeps trickling in, reminding us we now owe everyone a note of some sort and there is general confusion over everything due to the refrigerator dying. A 16 year veteran of a household of six (more or less) as kids came, left, came back, left again, it got us through our absence for Christmas and the last child’s extraction of wisdom teeth. As soon as that last ice pack was applied, the freezer, then the body, began to leak, warm, and clearly declare its work finished. Given the weather, it’s the perfect time to loose this appliance, but it has involved some dashing about with a thermometer checking on bins in the attic and coolers in the van. I’m not sure why it will take three weeks for our new choice to arrive, but since no one really buys ahead for a refrigerator, it is what it is.

Into all this came a delight in yesterday’s mail. For some years before my father died in 2006, he’d been the recipient of a class action suit involving one of his former companies and asbestos. He’d given clear testimony several times about his hands-on work in the 60s and 70s as an insulator. Suits were settled and fees were paid. When he passed away, my mother received these occasional checks. And when she died three years ago, I persuaded my brother that we should at least keep the option open. Why not?

Since then we’ve probably had 2 or 3 small payments come our way, and yesterday this happened again. When I saw the return address of the law firm I felt that sense of kindred family: here was Dad, reaching out! What a nice surprise! It was familiar and comforting to see his name in the memo line of the check. But when I read the issue date, it was more than that: the check was cut on my birthday last month.

I believe these are the moments when as the Good Book says, the veil is very thin. Through the shadow of grief, of which there is plenty to go around, there can come a real arm of joy. “They,” our dead loved ones, are not so distant! “We,” those left here a while longer, are not out of range! God in his mercy is alive and well despite what we see as the very real human condition. The painful parts of the situations around us are a truth, but not the final truth. They may lodge with us, but they don’t define us. They are not our final destiny.

On this “deep winter” day, this is more than just my hope and prayer. Somehow, but especially in moments like this, it’s my belief.

Thanks, Dad, for my birthday check, even across all this time and space! Miss you still, and love you.

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The Anthropology and Archaeology of a New Year

As our train whizzes into Boston this dark and rainy morning, I’d like to report on the first trip of the new year the local grocery. Happily, the normal pre-Pats game crush wasn’t there; probably many had stocked up the day previous. This grocery plays a fairly central part of our life: not only do I seem to be in there every other day, but I wrote a column about it in each issue of my now very infrequent family newsletter. Designed for children away at college back in the day, the “News from the Bucket” updates were very popular.

On this inaugural trip of 2017, a large carton of Oxy-Clean laundry detergent lodged itself in the exit doorway. Noticed by one of the cart wranglers, he asked a couple of people exiting whether it was theirs. Alas, no. He strayed a way into the parking lot and also found no claimants, but as I scanned for my car, I headed over to a likely suspect. Sure enough, this shopper had dropped her soap and, with a “Hail” to the wrangler still stalking other cars, I managed a match the soap to a grateful shopper.

I then headed to my car, unloaded, and seeming out of nowhere, a shopper appeared who kindly offered to take my cart back to the ranch. “Thank you, “I called, “It’s all in the community.”

On archaeology: Yesterday was the day for mopping the bedroom floor. In the process, I found myself staring into the gunk lodged in the crevice between two very old floorboards. As I pried out a dime, a bobby pin emerged. With that pin I retrieved 22 cents; 2 paper clips; 1 stick-on diamond earring; 2 short pencils and 5 lego parts. Just as I was thinking that with another instrument I could find more, I unearthed a half-rusted quilting needle. Now with two implements I continued this surgery. More legos, but perhaps some of more significance: a lego visor, a golf pin flag (no 72), a horn, and a car flame. I also found 3 small washers and a tiny, tiny Tricolor: surely a flag from a Madeleine sticker set from years and years ago. And the best find? A teeny tiny blaster, no doubt owned by Han Solo, probably missing from truly a galaxy far, far away.

At one point I wonder if I should leave all this material in situ: after all, these planks swell or shrink depending on the season. What if this material were holding parts of this old house together?

I decided to abandon the quest, vacuum the remains, and leave the full length pencil in place. It’s a new year, there will, hopefully, be another day. I also wanted to file away the note found tucked behind some of the many notebooks that need shredding. It read, “Take out nutty dog.. van at MBTA lot.  I trying to make the 10:05.” No time for even complete sentences that day, but on this day, finding such abundant evidence of people and the stuff of their lives, I am refreshed in gratitude for all of it, and I wish each of us a peaceful, life-full, new year.

 

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Serendipity and the Band Pants

Here the morning train rumbles into town after the full, long and gray Thanksgiving weekend. The rainy days provided enough spells of drizzle to get the errands done but also enough cold and dank to do some long awaited inside tasks. And although I’m not sure why,  I’m thinking of a conversation I had a week ago about “band pants,” that elusive item asked for by boys ages 10-16,  all too often ON the day of the performance.

The young mother with whom I spoke was sharing a success story she’d had the day previous, and, happily, several days ahead of her son’s concert. I found myself regaling her with my favorite story of the ‘band pants need’ declared by one of my boys a mere 5 or so hours before performance time…and the “miracle” of walking into the nearest store in our town that had pants, and pulling off the rack the one black pair of pants in his size in the whole place. Still amazing.

Fast forward a week to this past Saturday when I found myself ramming the vacuum hose down behind the washer and dryer: definitely an inside task that hadn’t been done for several years judging by the outcome. For what emerged attached to the hose was a skinny black pair of waist 30 band pants. Today they are headed for the dry cleaners and a reuse store where I hope they live again.

Another serendipitous moment occurred last night as I consulted my organic cookbook for advice on making a base for asparagus soup. Earlier in the day I’d thrown on my “Gibbs” hoodie, sent to me by a dear friend: it happens to have all his rules on its back. Gibbs’ rules are so famous there’s an NCIS marathon devoted to them: which happened to run on Saturday. (this provided plenty of time for another indoor task: 3 hours of ironing through the annual seasonal clothes change.) But the serendipitous wasn’t the marathon or the rules: it was finding at the soup recipe a note from the same dear friend that sent the hoodie I was wearing! Are so many random things connected?

The sun shines brightly on this re-entry Monday, and I hope you’ll forgive my thoughts tracking more toward hoodies, soup, friends and band pants rather than the tasks up ahead. I’m grateful for these and much more. I’m even glad the train has just waited for the man running madly up the station steps.

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An original poem in honor of another one

Transport

Today my wonderful used bookstore find

Winds its way out of backpack; The Actual World[i]

Its name, and it in lies

Poetry that should, actually, seize the world.

We see what the poet paints: the October Farm while we

follow the Charles; The Hen House and Shed at the Museum.

And then on Binney Ave we sit bolt upright

At the shift to Christmas Eve with three

Hungarians!  Kings, thieves, Catholics, heroes.

Then nothing is the same.

Still further in we go to

Winter dinner filled with beets

And greens and smoke to the sky

And, no doubt, wide eyes at all the

Dancing and those paper rings.

Finally out we walk in line

To mushroomed woods with

Mother and gypsy and time.

Ah, the pain. The pain of beautiful words

That bring to us our misplaced joy then stay.

They stay to send the day away unwittingly, unknowingly,

Because with them we see just a corner of heaven:

Here, in the Actual World.

[i] Funkhouser, Erica. The Actual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

CSS 8 November 2016

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You Know You’ve Been to Fenway When…

I write this post still floating from a treat-of-all -treats on Sunday: the chance to use a friend’s free tickets to the last regular season game in the career of Red Sox legend David Ortiz. Imagine sitting in the executive level, right over home plate, able to enjoy the down draft of a heater(!) to take out the trace of October chill, and even having “curb service” take your order and bring you snacks. Whaaat?

In honor of this exquisite gift, I humbly offer these observations in the style of another trip taken awhile ago now, but enjoyed by someone close to home.

You know you’ve been to Fenway when….

  • The person in the chai latte line moves just slightly away from you; it takes a second, but you realize you are humming “Sweet Caroline” and good times never did seem so good.
  • Security placed a red sticky tape on your handbag and you’re a bit slow to remove it. You even consider darting into the florist whose sign out front reads “ten percent discount if you are wearing Red Sox gear” because… that tape is close enough.
  • For just a moment, you wonder about buying season tickets. For just a moment.
  • As you begin the afternoon walk to the station your mind goes back to the 7th inning stretch. There comes a tightness in your chest: how much your grandfather would have enjoyed this place! His Kentucky farm hosted at least two diamonds, and he played so many games he had a hollowed out spot in the middle of his chest that would swallow a child’s small hand: poor protection for catchers back then.
  • For just another moment, you remember the games you’ve seen at the other “most beloved” ballpark up on the North Side. Is it disloyal to love them both?
  • Nearly 24 hours later, that “Fenway Frank” for supper is still a pleasant memory.
  • You are still happy you bought the 32 ounce David Ortiz souvenir cup even though doing so caused you to miss diving for the foul ball that landed on two people to your right.
  • Even on the day after the day after, you can still close your eyes and see the look of the infield extending back to toward right. No need to explain the smile on your face. It was a great day.

Thank you, Red Sox friends!

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Squarely in the Frame

The 3am thunderbolt crashed into what was already a restless night. The weekend had been full of good, hard work, “Fall Cleaning,” perhaps, what with furniture rearranging, popping unwanted items out onto the front verge and watching them go in 15 minutes, laundry, minimal but well-intended yard care in this continued drought, Red Sox games, more laundry. Sunday we had our normal group of kids in the Atrium, entertained a guest while watching Jimmy G get injured (now who is not paying attention??), tuned in another late Sox game, staying with them through the top of the 7th.  Now as my train  lumbers into town very low clouds drift over the bay. It was a downpour as we left the house but yes, the dog will get his walk, and somehow most of us in this moving tin box will stagger into the office on this gray Monday morning, recovering.

The notion of a “frame”  began to percolate on my marsh dog walk last Wednesday. We took the one mile trek, since the usually creaky dog returned from his previous weekend in the kennel oddly rejuvenated.  As we climbed the stony incline we saw directly in front of us a creature standing stock still. I hauled in the dog just to be on the safe side and rattled some brush to clear the path. I wondered, ” what is in my frame of sight, most days?”

This thought returned two days later when the dog was well underfoot and in the way of my hurrying. When I heard myself mutter, “You—You are squarely in the frame!” I caught a breath and wondered again how and why this phrase keeps circling my mind without finding a landing place.

Perhaps it’s not a question of who or what enters and leaves my literal frame of sight. Each day is full of responsibilities and tasks for people near and far. Also, our frames obviously change as we travel through passing hours and days. Car and even lowly commuter trips expose us to hundreds of miles.

Maybe the question is on my frames of mind. I can’t seem to shake off the form of a square for this frame, but I am wondering how porous the boundaries are. “I’m running behind,” I cry to the windshield on an extra trip to work last week. The answer comes from the Voice who knows me well:  “What are you chasing?”

I wonder if my frame is being stretched.

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“The Discipline of Seeing”

The day begins cloudy as I find my seat and pick up from yesterday’s reading in my new library book, House of Days by Jay Parini. I found it while scanning the poetry section (811) of a nearby public library, one I hadn’t visited in a while. The normal tour I follow is a stop in the lobby to see what’s new, then onto poetry and maybe, just maybe, up to the second floor fiction in search of authors and titles scribbled onto bits of paper in my purse, the “list” of books I think I might like to read.

I snatched this thin book and a couple of others that met the day’s main criterion of being easy to pop in my day pack. And great is the delight, I’m sure you know, of finding in such a snatch a great dose of poetry, so good, in fact, you think you might just purchase the book. After all, I only buy poetry books I’ve already read: don’t you?

Here are the arresting words from yesterday:

It’s always difficult to hold,

To place a moving landscape in the mind,

Where language feeds upon the given world.[i]

I was sitting in the back middle seat of my blue bus when I read those lines twice and thought about all the language that comes to me and each of us from this “given world.” Indeed, writers, those who aspire and those who’ve “arrived” feed on the sights, sounds and all of life. We move at speed and yes, it is hard to hold the scenes we see as they, too, move in and around us, compelling us to look again, to look deeper, to look beyond.

It’s a joy to sit in the train and not know what will spill out onto the page from the humble life doings that fill my days. Gardening is a bit like it: one goes out, finds a simple task; that leads to another task, and before long half the morning has found attention spent on things in need. If only I could move among the ingredients in my kitchen so creatively!

But for now, I am happy to read one or two more Parini poems before hitting the newspaper and the work tasks of the day. It can be difficult to navigate some of the pain we see in our given world, but we can resolve to keep our eyes open in case anything wants to be born from it.

[i] Parini, Jay. House of Days. New York: Henry Holt, p.12

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