On a Firebird, and Arriving

One advantage of the slower pace the dog now sets on the morning marsh walks is the opportunity to scout around for birds. It’s been a cold, wet spring and my long, weather-beaten parka felt warm and comfortable on the ramble this past Saturday morning. As is usual these days, we took the meadow walk instead of the trail through the woods; this offers a great view of a wandering watercourse with the lonely train track in the background. As we came around the lower part of the oval walk,  a stunningly orange bird sat perched on a stubby gray fence post. It was odd to see it sitting there in the first place, and, when it took flight, a full red-orange flame spread from wingtip to wingtip. No black of the oriole, no red of the cardinal. What could this Firebird be?

The dog and I trudged on while I considered the tanager possibilities. Once home, in consultation with my birder husband, only the summer tanager seemed to fit what I had seen. Recent internet sightings included one such bird seen on Nantucket:  could he or another of his kind have arrived in our more northern meadow?

The rest of the weekend took flight about as quickly as the bird in question. Laundry abounded; dorm furniture had to be moved into summer housing on campus; when said bill for the same was discovered to be as yet unpaid, that had to get paid. Distant children sent texts and Face-timed; party decorations for the retirement party I am shepherding tomorrow had to be finished while I pondered what to pack for the upcoming mid-week trip to Chicago, all this on Sunday afternoon alone.

But fast forward to the moment I just experienced this Monday morning as I took my train seat, my body laden with said party supplies and general work gear. Today the conductor did not ask to see my train pass! Could this be another kind of Arrival, a sign that I, a rider only three days a week, am now a known bird who travels from my locale to the Big City?  Perhaps the tanager, spring, and I have all arrived, almost together, at the true cusp of summer, of being known and recognized. And perhaps what lies ahead for us all is the arrival of true summer, a place of rest and warmth, the good Earth under our feet and sky-bound breezes beneath our wings.


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The Great Cousins

“This beauty was not lost-it cannot be. All that we gave remains.”[i]

I arrived back from visiting extended family in the heartland about a week ago, re-entering the library after a very soggy Marathon Monday. A new peachy colored book jacket attracted my eye, so I grabbed it for a quick skim. Anne Lamott is a familiar name of course, and although I’m not a devout reader of her work, Rediscovering Mercy seems an apt title for our times.

Her sentence above first inspired this post because it stopped me in my mental tracks on the train ride home. Although I’ve long believed all really good work and love are not lost, now, on this morning’s ride in, the truth of this visits me anew:  I’ve just learned of the death of one of the remarkable women I’m coming to call the Great Cousins.

I’ve referenced some of these cousins previously. There were four of them, including my mother, who grew up together on a tobacco farm in hard times Kentucky. They were children in the Great Depression, and heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio as high school seniors. These bright spots went off to business school, leaving the farm to serve in government jobs during the War. Afterwards they became wives, mothers, civic and church leaders, you name it. They never lost their closeness despite the miles and raising, between them, their 14 kids. And, it turns out, at the literal ends of their lives, as in their beginning years, they waited, called out for each other and walked off in the company of each other. The last to go just this week said she saw them: “The cousins are coming soon. I will wait.” They walked to and with each other to death just like they did to school in life.

Today as my train passes the marsh at GE, I wonder at the long and full lives each of these cousins had. Two of their fathers were brothers; their sister was the other girl’s mother. As I look out the window, the old photos of them dance before my eyes: all four dressed up standing in front of their Louisville auntie’s big brick house; posing in front of the barn in worn but clean dungarees. Fast forward and there they all are at my 1980s wedding, helping out and chatting over the very sweet homemade punch. Through all the years these Great Cousins led the way for us daughters (and sons, no doubt) and now there’s a palpable gap on top.

But here, in this loss, I find again this quote from Anne Lamott which began last week’s half a post, and it reworks itself into a remembrance of the Great Cousins lives and labors and leadership. Stubborn, outspoken, talented, smart, I want to remember that nothing of their strength is lost: all that they gave remains!  And although Ms Lamott was not writing about my family in her search for mercy, I will take what she’s written and sit with it awhile. Perhaps I’ll find a way to wrap my small arms around these dear cousins’ big long lives, the way I know they are now embracing each other, all together at last, there on the other side.


[i] Lamott, Anne. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017 page 37.

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Making the 8:13, Posted a week late

It’s a minor miracle that I’m sitting in this warm train car looking out at the passing marsh. Life is so full these days that my mother, were she still with us, would say “you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.” And it’s true.

This morning’s debacle was so unusual it defies all logic except that it provides evidence of too much, apparently, going on this week for the task manager in my brain to handle. We got to the Tuesday/Thursday train station and I didn’t have my laptop. For those employed by or connected to any school, who goes without that?

A very quick calculus showed that just maybe I could drop my husband at his school, race home in the car (20 minutes if no traffic), grab the laptop and haul it back to the station in time for the 8:13 to Boston. Tight, but just possible.

So the race ensued, steering wheel gripped and eyes all over the road, panning left, then right, looking for speed traps. Here, the threat of a passing bus. Trucks. There, someone going 38 in the 55 mph zone.

Once home, I ran to unplug the device. Threw it into the car. Pulled a coat down for the dog to lie on in wait for our return. Cracked open a shutter despite the biting wind. And back, then, to race for the station.

Curving roads, a pushed traffic light, a careful pass of a left-turner, more frantic scanning along the shoulders. A truck pulls in front of me but actually serves to keep me near the speed limit. I pull into the station and dare, finally,  to look on the car clock: 8:03. Time to breathe, hide the key, use the parking app, stow the laptop, the cause of all this trouble, and stand in the bracing wind to try and evolve into something that might look like “normal.”

But it’s not the fault of the laptop, is it? It’s the way the work of yesterday: walk the dog; Facetime the girls; call in the dog med refill; call the insurance guy; do church warden-y things; “work”; throw in laundry that finished drying (I hope) in a second cycle begun at 10:30pm as the last act of the day; order flowers for the very sad occasion of the passing of my mom’s first cousin: they grew up together as their fathers farmed their land together, now a nearly a century ago…it’s the way all this fits or does not fit with the ‘normal’ work of this day,  and what choices lie before me tomorrow: keep the insurance appointment? take the car in for its 2000 mile overdue maintenance? “work”? pack for the upcoming trip to see family next week? shovel snow (it’s cold enough, and flurries are predicted)  Can my brain find a way to choose and then sequence what I should do and when? (pause-note to self: remember the tech report questions need sorting out before the weekend)

Although we are nearly at Chelsea station, I’m going to sit back, check my email and calendar, and try to focus on the not so simple tasks of finishing the trip to my office, hopefully picking up a mobile breakfast en route. We need to slow down and don’t know how. But surely we should keep trying, yes? and give thanks that even prayers made during this desperate wild ride to the station (i.e. ‘help help help help’) are heard by the One who gives us the breath we need to breathe.

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Boiler Up!

Tonight I’m off to a new experience: hanging out in the rafters in the Boston Garden to cheer for my alma mater, the Purdue Boilermakers, who are in the Sweet Sixteen!

Even though it’s the late game, I’m excited to do my part. After all, when might these lucky stars align again, sending the Boilers right here to my (adopted) home town? Perhaps taking the midnight train will feel like walking across the quad from late night study sessions. I was only in West Lafayette two years, having spent the first two years at a regional campus. But still, I’ve been to Mackey Arena, hoped and watched the team through other NCAAs and now they’ll take the floor just down the road, a short commuter rail train ride away.

Campus memories return easily if I carve out time to look back. The tough methods class in biology (LOTS of lab time); living in the Windsor dorms and then in Meredith Hall working in a position people now call an RA (we were “counselors” back then); I was even able to be part of the Blizzard of ’78 which totally dates me. And all those walks to the early morning Physics lab:  howling winds across the Engineering Quad to arrive by 7:30 am. Brrrr.

Fast forward to the chance to wear some black and gold and be Indiana for a while. We’ll put the day and week of crazy Boston weather behind us, and hope for a victory to speed the late arrival of spring.

“Hail Hail, to Old Purdue, all hail to our old gold and black, Hail, Hail to Old Purdue, our friendship may she never lack….Ever grateful, ever true thus we raise our song anew, of the days we’ve spent with you all Hail, our own Purdue”  ba ba ba ba ba baaaaaaaaaaaa, ba ba ba ba ba!!

This is going to be one off my (Oaken) Bucket list that I never knew I had.

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A Most Remarkable Small Thing

Last Friday was a work-at-home day, what with all the recent storms and schedule adjustments. It afforded a huge chance to catch up on the home front: power enabled the laundry, vacuum, drying, baking, email and a host of other operations to take place. Manual tasks also brought some cleanliness and order: scrub a few walls here, fold a load or two there and, relevant to this post, take some deep hand sweeps under the kitchen’s radiant heating vents down low behind the dog’s dish and what we call the Boot Box.

“But I must go further back,” states a quotable line from a favorite film. And I must, for another part of this story involves clearing out my earring mismatches two weeks ago and the dresser on which they sat. Many years ago one of the kids gave me a hand-painted, hinged box for small things, and for decades it has lain flat open to catch my earrings or other randomly found but potentially precious objects. That day, besides earrings, it held buttons for the comforter, odd screws, and the Jasmine doll’s curly white slipper. I’m pretty sure that slipper has inspired a blog post or poem along the way.

Still, I mowed through the drawers and this box, gathering the flotsam. I paused at the slipper as I must have done before. After all, somewhere in the attic was Jasmine herself, and I’d kept this shoe in this spot for at least 10 or 15 years. But no, I took it out: it was time.

Fast forward to the detritus behind the dog dish, and yes, you could write the story from here. One sweep of the hand revealed, of course, the other Jasmine slipper. After all these years, had it really been right there, all the time? Of course it had…and perhaps, upon reflection, since 2003!

My mind raced back two weeks to the moment I held the first slipper in my hand. Had I discarded it, finally giving up the hope that had kept it in my little box for years?

I had a sense that I hadn’t really parted with it despite its disappearance from the open little box. Mothering four children has left retentive roots on small things (and lots of artwork.) I went back to the earring box and it wasn’t there. But…had I dropped it with other sifted treasures into the attic Lego bin? It seemed I could see that in my mind’s eye.

So I sprang up to the attic bin and pushed my hand down where my muscle memory led me: on the right side and down in front. There was the other slipper. I hadn’t thrown it away, and now…I had a matched set!

On this Monday morning, a seemingly long way from Friday’s find, I lean into the train window. My car is full already here at the fifth stop in light of another impending storm. This page seems to have many words about a very, very small thing. But I’m still going to post it. Perhaps keeping hope alive is an important thought today, and if hearing about small plastic slippers kept and found  points to patient hope, perhaps that’s a good thing to take with us into the day ahead.

Now I just have to find Jasmine.

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Barry’s Forty on Four

Yesterday was a calm weather day but not, perhaps, in the WBZ studio, since it marked the 40th anniversary that Barry Burbank joined the staff to broadcast the weather for greater Boston. The station website has highlights of those early days and, with great fanfare (and apparently an upside –down coffee cup over this past weekend), staff and fans everywhere recognized one of the greats.

I might have come close to meeting Barry down at the American Meteorological Society HQ off the Boston Common once. He well could have been at a gathering I attended there in honor of longtime broadcaster Donald Kent. And although I’ve got a hometown loyalty to the wonderful weather folks back in Chicago, especially Tom Skilling of WGN, I’ve grown attached over the years to these Boston based crews. They are our living rooms daily, guiding us through heat waves and school closings and related events (just like the nor’easter blowing outside at the moment.)  We come to know their tendencies (Harvey goes high with the snowfall predictions, Todd goes a little less, Barry is really the reliable one…etc etc). Through them our vocabulary increases: isn’t “bombogenesis” on the tip of your tongue more often these days?

And by all accounts, the tributes for Barry indicate he is as authentic off screen as in front of the ‘green screen,’ and his passion for the weather has made kids glad all over the region. “A role model,” writes and says John Keller at the same station. After hearing John’s remarks, I’m glad we have the chance to take a moment to recognize someone who can integrate professionalism, passion for the science, outreach and family life all in balance, and do it well.

Congratulations, Barry Burbank,  but please don’t leave your art quite yet. Many of us still call you ‘Bar (silencing the ry) behind your back, and count on you to advise us, with your other daytime and evening colleagues of course, how we ought to dress for this tumbling and unpredictable New England weather. No such thing as bad weather, right? Just bad clothes?  Thank you indeed,  for keeping us from those!

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Two Point Five

Some readers may know the institution at which I work numbers both its buildings and courses of study. We speak this language: “you take the tunnel under Building 18 and go through 56,” or “have you visited yet in 1.018?” Yesterday I needed to search my computer for class related materials for the course 2.671. But a mis-typed digit brought me into a whole new world.

Instead of 2.671 I put in 2.5, and my “assistant” finder of things, the magnifying glass on the desktop, went into immediate action. The results of my search are telling:

  • “my 2.5 yr old does not listen.”
  • “my 2.5 yr old jeep sounds loud when idling.”
  • “my 2.5 will not eat.”
  • “my 2.5 is out of control.”
  • “my 2.5 yr old sebring cranks but won’t start.”
  • “my 2.5 yr old screams

I felt both an immediate kinship and sympathy for the those two point five year olds out there; it would seem they are a feisty lot, and the adults around them are searching for clues to their behaviors (and/or cars that will enable them to drive away for a break.) I recall my own experiences with those caught in the throes of being two: they are coursing full speed ahead toward ever more independence, yet find themselves often in a world they, too, think is out of control with people who won’t listen. Who wouldn’t send up a scream or two?

Today as we train into the city, I actually hear a few voices in the traincar, unlike yesterday’s completely silent journey after our team lost in the Superbowl. The strangeness of that event would fill another post, but suffice to say it seemed everyone was rather muted on the morning ride. Somehow that reminds me that whether we are 2, 22, 42, or 62, we’re all on the road together, hitting different curves at different times. Imagine the car here filled with those lively two year olds described above. I hope we bigger folk can face into our days today with a bit of their joy of life and their affections.

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