Wednesday, April 16, 2014

this loss speaks no disaster

photo by Mark Guy
O N E   A R T
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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Maybe the best indicator of maturity is the ability to lose. To walk away, to give up: demands, cities, dreams, rivers, people. I first felt the sting of real loss in my late twenties, a true friend gone—or, more precisely, divorced. It was both disorienting and freeing. I remember clearly the huge weight of it sliding off of me, and there in that open space the pain of missing someone I knew well. After that I could imagine losing other things with more ease. Trying on loss like a hat: this one or that?

But perhaps maturity is the ability to know what is worth keeping. Loss may feel less disastrous over time, but acknowledging the things which cannot be lost may be central to maintaining identity. Nearly three years ago I walked back and forth along a wooded stretch on our street, talking on the phone and crying. Not understanding why I was crying, but knowing that my best friend was in some inexplicable danger and that I could not follow her where she was going. I was surprised that I felt the pain so keenly: my body welled with anger, fear and loss. But I also felt confident we could ride it out; that our friendship would prove resilient, that she was resilient. And I was right.

We are six weeks from our move to Portland, but in significant ways the loss of New York has already happened. Our dear friends moved away a week and a half ago, a grief for us all but particularly the children. I watch as my son processes the absence of his best friend. I remind myself to be patient through the breakdowns and fits of anger, this is his first time losing something important to him. He is also getting ready to lose the city he was born in, his beloved nanny, and all his friends. I, however, am ready to go; this loss speaks no disaster to me. I can imagine our life in Portland down to the smells and the color of the light. The Hudson River may be sublime, but now I see her as a stand-in for the Columbia. The tangley woods of New England, however quaint and storied, lack the deep, wet stillness of a Douglas Fir forest.

Leaving New York is not really a loss, but just the turning of a page. I grew into an adult in this state—I learned how to party, to grieve, to be independent, assertive and beautiful here; I learned how to negotiate, to shovel snow, to parent, and to parallel park here. There is not much chance I will really lose New York when we leave. I will miss her and I will not miss her. There is joy and there is sorrow, they mingle together—it is no disaster.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

in praise of doing nothing

Part of getting older (yes, yes: I have been forty for two months) is not being at the mercy of embarrassment. I'm rarely embarrassed these days. Of course I have my own secret stash of embarrassing stories, moments of total mortification (and my best friend keeps these in a little box in her mind just in case I forget). Maybe getting older means you can play it off more easily. You step away from the embarrassing thing you just said as if confused about where that might have come from. Or perhaps look the person next to you in the eye and burst out laughing. Tools that just didn't occur to me in my youth.

I have a vivid recollection of being severely embarrassed by not-so-embarrassing situations. Once in my twenties I was sitting in a circle of women—wives to be precise—while the group kvetched about the problems of married student life: parking, shopping, laundry. I piped in to bewail the inconsiderateness of people who put tennis shoes in the dryer, particularly late at night. Shoes in the dryer make such a racquet! My apartment was just down the hall from the laundry room! Afterwards it dawned on me that the person who had put the tennis shoes in the dryer was likely sitting in that circle of women. But instead of making a joke about it or walking away and not giving it another thought, I took the high road: I worried about it for days, weeks, months. Heat rising in my cheeks whenever the thought of my words came to me. Did it even occur to me that the person who did put tennis shoes in the dryer—if she was even there—felt embarrassed too? No, I was absorbed in my own deep mortification. Writing this now I cannot fathom being so embarrassed by such a silly thing.

But that said, there are lots of little things I find myself internally a bit embarrassed about. Take, for example, my capacity for doing nothing. I am a champion at sitting and staring at nothing and no one, except maybe the sky or tree shadows on the wall. I think one of the reasons my husband, when I first met him, made me so deeply uncomfortable, was that he never did this. His incessant productivity seemed to seal my suspicion that happy, successful people do not sit and do nothing for long stretches of time.

But now I admit: doing nothing is a productive habit of mine. I cherish doing nothing each morning after the children are at school. I don't talk on the phone, or check email. Sometimes I check Pinterest or Instagram on my iphone, but I don't read anything. On mornings when I attend an exercise class, I speed home to a good dose of nothing. Without any sheepishness or internal guilt dialogues or suspicions that here is proof-that-I'm-a-loser-after-all, I sit. For about an hour or more: nothing. Then I shower, pop some chocolate-covered espresso beans, and make my bed (and the kid's beds, and dishes, laundry, etc).

Doing nothing is how I process. I free my mind from the activities of the day so that I can remember what is important. Sometimes I go over my dreams, sometimes I rehearse conversations I need to have in my head. I think about my design projects in a lazy, undirected way. I pay attention to whatever might be bothering me but hasn't had the time to fully surface. Sometimes I think about my children and how I can better parent them. But nothing is planned, nothing must be thought or not thought about. It's just nothing time. And I need it every day, more—I realize now—than I need coffee. And, embarrassment? I don't have time for that.

Monday, March 17, 2014

old dogs; new tricks

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." I have found this line on my lips more than once in the last few months, spoken to a five-year-old who emphatically insists on his explanation of how things work. I don't know if he grasps what I am saying because the conversation usually takes a sudden turn to identity of Horatio and then Hamlet, and then a reminder that his stuffed tiger is named Horatio.

But the words keep coming to mind. And I suppose they rise to mind as much for me as for him. My Alexander Technique instructor lately has used the word plastique in our work, referring to the neuroplasticity of the brain, its ability to make new pathways in response to changes in behavior or environment. I don't want to think about neuroplasticity, however. I just want it to happen in some quiet way. So that one day I notice things have changed and I can say, Ah! My brain is still so malleable, and then, pleased, go about my day. (I can't imagine myself using the word plastique without sounding ridiculous.)

Which actually happened recently. I was sitting with a friend at lunch and was describing our plans to move to Portland and realized how smoothly things were going. Not with the trip itself, per se, but with us. Charles and I have hardly argued about anything, our ideas about homes and schools and jobs and neighborhoods not so much aligning as forming a conversation in which we know and accept our parts. Yes, I did wake up in the middle of the night worried we hadn't applied to enough schools—and feverishly applied to two more the next morning. And yes, Charles did think I was worrying too much, yet mostly kept a respectful distance. And yes, I did get snappish about some of the neighborhoods where Charles wanted to investigate homes. And I all but stopped listening to the discussions of mortgages, insurance, and property taxes—but not before grasping the outlines of the situation. I cannot be expected to understand all the financial maneuvers, but I have learned that I must continue to ask questions until I can translate the finance-speak into something I understand. Which is to say on the whole things have gone well. Which is to say I have changed—new paths can be learned. Nobody is claiming that it was easy or anything.

So what I'm telling myself is: yes. Old dogs, new tricks. On to the next challenge: my health. I hope to be more systematic and optimistic this time through. I bought a neon, hard-bound, pocket-sized journal with three words on the cover: find your happy. I know, sappy. But it will come in useful as I attempt to make some more changes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

a view of the kitchen

This photo was taken two weeks ago and nearly 3,000 miles from my closet-sized kitchen in New York. I pull out my phone to look at this other, cheery kitchen from time to time. And as of today, I own it.

Last week New York City was frigid, like the week before last week was frigid. Like nearly every week of winter this year. The heaps of snow along the Manhattan sidewalks are solid gray ice, littered with garbage and dog business. Walking my children to school I say over and over in the same exasperated tone, "Don't touch the snow! It's full of poop!" They climb on it anyway. On Saturday it warmed to 50ºF and the snow began to melt. It was a lovely day—the pigeons were as elated as the parka-less people on the sidewalks. And the previously rock-hard ice crushed nicely when my children jumped on the piles. Dog poop, however, does not melt along with the snow.

The week before last I walked down mossy sidewalks in my hometown with my husband. Dark fir trees and melancholy crow caws, drizzle from newsprint gray skies, coffee shops with ample tables. Damp everywhere, no poop anywhere. It was a busy week. By the time we boarded the plane back to New York, we'd applied for Ike to attend three of the eight schools we toured, put an offer on a home, had numerous business meetings, and even found a French-immersion summer camp for the kids. We are, it seems, moving to Portland, Oregon.

Before we left for our trip to Oregon I was full of nostalgia for all I love here: the old beauty hewn out of schist and granite, the view of the Hudson from my windows, the Metropolitan Museum, the North Woods of Central Park, spreading deciduous trees lining slate sidewalks, sunlight through tall windows, the Museum of Natural History, the languages spoken everywhere, Grand Central, Wave Hill, the Hassidic families in our neighborhood, my four quince trees in the magical cloister.

But coming back, all I saw was garbage. The cold trudge to school past overflowing trash cans and heaps of garbage bags. Sewers clogged with litter. Rats eating garbage in the subway. Garbage trucks trapped behind double-parked cars, honking. The hustle to get anywhere, the tiresome planning and coordinating of each trip, the throngs of unsmiling people pushing past. Competition for everything. Competition for a handful of pole on the A train, my face inches away from the black (always black) back of someone's parka. I am exhausted by this anxious city, the impossibility of parking, the lines, the urgency. Once the decision was made to move, I lost all my energy for it the rush and crush of it.

I have been in New York a long time: fifteen years. I am hardly the young woman who left Portland years ago. In fact I'd say that since I left the West Coast I have been four different Ambers. Four different faces of the same person, four different sets of priorities, preoccupations, dreams. Some things have remained the same of course. Like my best friend. Our friendship has been one constant in my life during these years (except that now we talk about our plans for retirement). And my faith has remained too, although grown in new and interesting directions. But in suddenly moving back home I am faced with that earlier Amber, that Amber four Ambers ago. We have a lot in common, but we are not really the same person.

However, she comes in handy. She told me I'd want to move to Sellwood, preferably on the bluff overlooking Oaks Bottom. But the new Amber insisted on looking at real estate all over the place. No, no, no: after a few days we were restricted our searching to Sellwood. Not too many light-sucking fir trees there. And charming, flat, walkable blocks with coffee shops and old Craftsman style homes. A yarn store, a children's boutique. The dry cleaners where I worked during high school still on the same corner, still with the same name. Our new home is, reassuringly, in Sellwood.

And while the move date is still a few months away, I am ready to be off. It's not as glamorous as some of the plans we've kicked around over the years. Most recently we'd been researching Geneva— French and English speaking, a beautiful family setting and good prospects for Charles. But for one reason or another we never really followed any of our plans through. Ultimately family took us back to Portland—Grandma, Papo, Grandpa, two aunties, three uncles, some cousins. Charles also has two cousins there, with their own families. And Hawaii is much closer, as is the rest of Charles' family. I am at peace with the decision. And can't wait to have a window over the sink and a working dishwasher!

Friday, November 22, 2013

photo friday: the poetics of space

The house in which we were born
is physically inscribed in us. 

It is a group of organic habits...
[However] the word habit is too worn a word
to express this passionate liaison of our bodies
which do not forget—with this unforgettable house. 

– Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

When I was eight or perhaps nine I had a serious conversation with God about interior decorating. At church I had heard that he, God, was preparing "mansions in heaven" for the faithful, and this led to some anxiety on my part. The mansion itself was not the source of my concern, however; it was the descriptions I'd read of heaven, particularly this New Jerusalem—the place where I assumed my mansion was being built—that caused my uneasiness. The Book of Revelations had it that the city was to be a perfect gold cube, encrusted with all manner of precious jewels, crystal, and pearls. Horrible! My pre-teen aesthetics felt a headache coming on. A showy city teeming with sparkling mansions (no doubt done out with cold marble and polished gold)—ugh! Thus my pleading conversation with God that he (pretty please?) not prepare my mansion this way. Didn't he, being God, know there were people who preferred a more rustic setting? I was partial to wood, stone, calico. And I was hoping he could just hole me up some out-of-the-way heavenly farmhouse with lots of books. In my prayer I referenced photos I'd seen in my mother's Country Living magazine, just so God would get a clear picture of what I was after. A sylvan setting, a nice view, a cat or a horse or two milling about. As long as I didn't have to do chores, that would be paradise enough for me.

Some things don't change. I have remained demanding when it comes to my living quarters, despite the challenges of Manhattan housing. I expect my apartment, however small, to adhere to my particular vision of home: a certain mix of elegance and homespun, books and art, with a clear flow of energy (something alike feng shui ), high ceilings, decent light, a view that includes trees, and nothing higher then six floors above the ground. And we have this, more or less.

* * *  

* * *

I took three sets of photos for this week's theme. The first set, above, were all taken after my children had gone to bed and husband had fallen asleep on the couch. If you look carefully at the top image you can see him. (And so that you may truly appreciate the size of my kitchen, the second image gives you full view the the entirety of my kitchen counter space.) The second set of photos (directly below) were taken in the kids' room on a lazy Sunday morning. And the final set (at bottom) was taken yesterday morning after everyone had left for either work or school.

* * *

* * *
The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams.
The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home,
it is also an embodiment of dreams. 
Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. 
And often the resting-place particularized the daydream.
Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there. 
The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone,
furnished the framework for an interminable dream,
one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work,
could succeed in achieving completely.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

My children's favorite game for over a year now has been making nests. They build an indoor home of blankets, pillows, dolls, legos, bath toys, plastic figurines, snacks, art supplies, and anything else they can find. After which they "cozy in" and commence familial negotiations for more space or objects in high, silly-sweet voices. As much as it annoys me to open the closet and find a nest of legos and stuffed animals settled in on top of my shoes, I appreciate this innate desire to create intimate spaces of their own.

Much of my desire to orchestrate a elegant but modest home rises from a strong impulse to fashion the backdrop of my children's lives and dreams. I am aware of the ways in which the space they inhabit affects them, and I want their memories of home to both secure and propel them. The objects in our home are rarely random, but instead chosen for spiritual, aesthetic, moral, educational, or cultural reasons —and each contains a story or message. My hope is that this space we inhabit places in them fertile fodder for dreams, creativity, and a longing for God (with whom I've made some peace since my fears of bling mansions in heaven).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

everything changes

E N D   O F   A U T U M N

I have seen for some time now
the change in everything.
Something arises and acts
and kills and brings suffering.

In the gardens now from day to day
is a change from green
to yellow and gray,
a slow dying-away:
how long my road has been.

Now I stand in this emptiness
and look down on the rows of trees.
Almost to the distant sea
the foreboding earnestness
of the sky lies heavily.

–Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from the German by C. F. MacIntyre

•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •   
•    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •    •

It has been Poetry Wednesday all day, but I have been off-balance all week. The thin slice in pie-chart of my brain where Poetry Wednesday resides has been taken up with other mysteries—mostly social & business in nature—but not excluding a reoccurring dream in which I am given a new (and lovely) item of clothing only to find it is not finished, its collar is held on with straight pins or the hems left raw and unevenly cut. I believe I've had this same dream three nights in a row now, and a few times last week too.

It is cold, finally. A heavy blanket of fat gold maple and fluted ginko leaves covers the sidewalks in the morning, as if they fell overnight in a rush to protect the ground from coming snow. Gloves and hats, now necessary, are jammed in pockets and backpacks as the walks to school in cold weather commence. My son's kindergarten teacher left for Finland at the beginning of the month, where she plans to marry and then live. I liked her, but her sudden leaving hasn't gone down that well with my son. Or anyone, for that matter. Tomorrow there are parent-teacher conferences without a teacher; things limp by in their in-between way. I don't like in-betweens any better than my son. He came home today complaining that his stomach aches because school is too loud; before bed he told me he is worried about how everyone is going to stay on our planet when it's round.

Everything changes. And life is full of the in-between places, hobbling off-balance until you get two shoes back on. Genevieve needs two simple surgeries. Ike needs a new teacher. I am good, though, because I finally got our internet working properly and some of my more pressing technology issues sorted out.

And I'm going to bed now where I'll dream about a rust velveteen cloak with a hood basted on, or a lovely navy double-crepe dress with side seams unsewn.

Friday, November 08, 2013

photo friday: abundance

It has taken years for this to sink in, but I think I can go ahead and say it: I want for very little. Abundance is abundant. I do not have to worry about cutting corners when buying groceries—I don't feel guilty for not soaking beans, or comparing price per pound (something I rarely did even when I had no money), and I no longer feel luxurious when I purchase whole roast chickens. If the children need shoes or sweaters or raincoats, I do not stop to fret about the cost, I find something well-made and tasteful, and then look at the price.

This has not always been the case, there has been plenty scarcity in my life, even for a privileged American. When my son's school recently sent home free lunch forms, I dutifully started filling them out, but paused when I got to the part about income. Obviously we don't qualify for free lunch. But having always qualified for free lunches growing up, it took a moment to register that my children most certainly will not.

And while only real scarcity in my present life is space, we spend much of our family time in grand, spacious, and public places—museums, parks, mansions, conservatories. It is in these settings that I feel the amazing abundance of my life most keenly. That expansive beauty paired with careful tending is so readily available to us—the magical herb garden at the Cloisters a mere ten-minute walk—leaves my heart more generous, my mind less crowded, my spirit at ease.

And for all this, and so much more, I am truly grateful.