Sunday, October 19, 2014

The landscape I know


Sometimes I cannot remember where I am. I cannot remember if I'm in Oregon or New York. For example, I just read that Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn and I thought Of course and I pictured Brooklyn as a grayish spot on a map, a hub of brownish buildings cobbled up over sidewalks lined with black garbage bags and London Plane trees, all far east across the continent. And then I thought, No, it's just across the East River. And just a few days ago I thought of London Plane trees and how their hardy leaves make good ghosts and that we should go pick up some to paint for Halloween and then stopped because I don't know if London Plane trees grow in Portland. I think they don't. Because I was in Portland then. (Where we have two enormous healthy elm trees that make as good company as the Hudson River, but that is another story.)

The story today began with a trip up the Hudson to Cold Spring, NY, where we bought pottery and dress-up clothes. We had duck with fennel and guinea hen with apple ragu for lunch. The leaves along the Taconic were orange and yellow, and sometimes blew across the road. The sky in the afternoon turned dark blue-gray and splattered us with some heavy drops, but not too many. There were barn sales and tag sales and traffic. And I said it was odd, the way I love the Northeast landscape. The old rocks and huge deciduous trees, the soft hills and majestic light. It makes sense to me. Woods with little underbrush and white three-story farmhouses. Its odd because I still feel like I'm a foreigner here; all the memories of these places were made by my adult mind in the last 15 years. And even though I've repeatedly visited places like Rhinebeck or Saugerties or Cape Cod I know I don't exactly belong. That is not to say that I do not drive like a New Yorker, or expect people to be direct and knowledgeable like New Yorkers, but that in my heart of hearts I am not a New Yorker.

And it is the opposite in Oregon. I feel that the landscape is my own, not because it makes sense to me or is beautiful, but because I just know it. Because as we drive the geography reveals itself like the shape of my own arm. I know where to turn for Canby without knowing that I knew where to turn for Canby. I can guess that the trees in the orchard we are passing are hazelnut, but I wouldn't have known three minutes ago how to describe a Hazelnut tree. Not the way I could describe a Linden, Honey Locust, or Copper Beech. New York is my adult mind. Portland holds my child's mind, a mind that holds far more than I knew.

Years ago my Dad came to visit me in New York, and then we drove out near Akron, Ohio, where he was born and raised. And as we rode down wide, flat lanes lined by brick houses so far back from the road that the lawns seemed oddly large, he would tell me things like, This is where Aunt Anna lived or This is where we sold flowers on Saturday or This is the road to the old coal mine. And while the landscape seemed hot and yellow-green and sort of all-the-same to me, it spoke of different things to him. I wonder if he has felt like Oregon is a foreign country all this time.

To my adult self the hills around Portland are dark and spiky and a little unfriendly. They seem too new and the deciduous trees too small (and too few). There isn't any schist lying around sparkling, not enough rock in general. I despair of split-level or ranch homes or slanty-wood-fronted buildings. I despair of people who never disagree with you, of people who drive slow. People who drive as if they are apologizing for their carbon footprint with timidity, No, no, you go ahead. At least the bicyclists are worth their salt and seem to think the point of transportation is getting there.

And yet, despite all this, Portland is where I belong. The land is connected to places and people that are my own. The roads lead to Dad's house or Mom's house, to the old nursery, or by skate church, or near my high-school, or my university, or Saint Nicholas. Hippo Hardware hasn't changed, nor all the strip clubs, or the coffee shops. I pass the place where I fell out of Dad's truck and Heidi yelled Amber's dead! and I felt myself all over and thought I don't think I am. I live a few blocks from the dry cleaner where I worked two afternoons a week in high school. I don't feel even remotely foreign there.

I think of the children's book by Allan Say, many times read to my children, Grandfather's Journey. When the grandfather was in Japan he longed for California, and when he was in California he longed for Japan--and when the grandson grew up and moved from Japan to California he felt much the same way. (Allan Say, coincidentally, lives in Portland, Oregon.) And I too, long for a different landscape: for golden magnificence of New York when I am in Portland, and for the damp clean of Portland when I am in New York.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

I remind myself of the point, publicly

I just finished another Alice Munro paperback, Moons of Jupiter. I bought it in a sleepy bookstore in Manzanita, when we were down at the Oregon coast for the last week of holidays. My children were in the store with me, and they were not using inside voices. They begged me to buy toys from the children's section, jumping up and down while holding various packages of brightly-colored things. Genevieve was bouncing directly under my nose in order to compete with the height advantage her brother was using to lobby for a set of dinosaur books he held (without bouncing) in my face. It was over their whining heads that I spied Munro on the shelves. I felt the book and I shared a secret, as if the scene with my children was something we were both observing: my exasperation, their insistence, my longing for a quiet book to hide myself with. I bought the book and not the toys.

Sometimes I think about how I'd be described if I was a character in an Alice Munro story—makeupless in print dresses and boots, long messy hair with gray roots, direct conversation, practical second marriage, extra baby weight, a longing to escape social gatherings, a vague unease and pride about how my life's turned out. It's not terribly flattering, but comforting all the same. But I would want to leave it there—no sifting through the contents of my mind to reveal the weaknesses and unsolvable entanglements. The whimpering and prejudice.

One of my dear friends has given up writing her blog, and so doing made me ponder why I still post here. Why do I write this blog? I suppose the answer is simple. I want—need—to write, and I prefer writing here to writing in a private journal. I've kept a journal since I was eleven. Five years ago my journals were damaged in a flood, and as I flipped through their water stained pages I felt I needed to stop. It is easy to be lazy, repetitive and pathetic in a private journal. Writing online pushes me to avoid complaining, to find a solution to a problem, or make sense of chaotic lived experience. That is to say, I write here for myself. I know there are a select few people who do read my blog, and I am pleased with a little readership. I am not writing for a general audience, even if the site is available to anybody (or any bot) with an internet connection. Thankfully, I am not popular and so can pretty much write as I please.

Writing connects me to myself, and it also connects me to others in the same way I connected to the Munro book at the sea shore bookstore. The part of me that began writing journals at eleven was borne of reading. Books were my childhood friends. Authors and titles I read in the years before I went to high school—most of which I haven't seen in over thirty years—appear without effort:
Elizabeth George Spear's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Bronze Bow, The Sign of the Beaver; Marguerite De Angeli's Thee Hannah, The Door in the Wall; Elizabeth Enright's Four-Story Mistake, Return to Gone Away; L. M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Anne of Green Gables; E. B White's Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpeter Swans; A. A. Milne's The World of Pooh; Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia; Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. 
These books, and many others, provided me with a way to make the world sane. They gave me templates for feelings and experiences I had not yet had. They directed me to what was important: honesty, friendship, laughter, curiosity, loyalty, endurance, love. They reassured and inspired me. And it follows that my writing does some of this same work now. I remind myself of the point, publicly. 

Photo credit: Azrasta, Flickr

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

tragedy, humility, sauerkraut


A raccoon is on my roof eating Asian pears. It is dark, and everyone is asleep—besides me and the raccoon. Every once and awhile a pear drops with a thud and then I hear a scamper or a dragging sound. In the morning there will be half-eaten Asian pears on the ground. It is also garbage night, which means that every hour or so a car pulls up in front of our house and someone pokes around in the bins at the curb. In Manhattan people did this all the time, pushing grocery carts heaped with black bags of cans and bottles, like a troupe of homeless Santa Clauses moving along the trash-bag piled sidewalk. I recognized the regulars. But I haven't gotten used to it here. Should I stick my head out the door and say hello, as a security measure of sorts? Or—more reasonably—let them delve in peace?

Tomorrow is the first day of school. A cute little school with cute kids and well-dressed parents, the teachers kind and friendly. Everyone speaking French, unsnobbishly. I will drive my children, with their lunchboxes packed with healthy food, in their well-chosen clothes, to their white-and-yellow private French school. And then I will get a latte. Meanwhile the world is in horrible, horrible shape. Iraq! Ukraine! Gaza! Ebola! For a few weeks I refused to register the events in Ferguson, Missouri because there was just no room for them in my head. Sorry, glass full of tragedy already. I am having a hard time reconciling my life with the world at large. I am fretting over the ingredients in the seaweed snack packs, the too-largeness of of kids' yogurts containers, what kinds of grasscloth roller shades to purchase; meanwhile people are being beheaded. Worse things. I suppose this has always been the case? I fret about my little problems while somewhere else people are fleeing for their lives, hiding their children in garbage cans.

I could just cry. Which I do to little end. What can I do? The atrocities of ISIS are beyond my circle of influence, though clearly not beyond my circle of anxiety. A few weeks ago our priest circulated a letter written by the metropolitan entitled A Pastoral Letter Concerning Violence and Extremism in the Middle East. I read the letter, which may be a first for me. OK, I didn't even read it, I skimmed it, but for long enough to find this:
If we are truly concerned about the strife in the world today, let us begin by overcoming anger in our own hearts by striving for meekness and humility. If we are upset by the violence and destruction in the Middle East, let us direct our energy to bring peace to the conflicts within our own families. If we are horrified by images of human beings injuring and killing one another, let us offer an image of Christ by giving alms to those in need in our own neighborhood.
That's the spirit. I'm not pretending that I come anywhere near this in practice. I can think of a few ways I could have overcome anger in my heart and been more humble in the last few days, heck, the last few hours. But I can take sausage and sauerkraut to my Dad. I can read my children the same book for the fifteenth time. I can sit with my son when his anger overtakes him. I can let my daughter wear pink and purple together. I can be patient when Charles and I have yet another of those conversations where we seem to be talking entirely past each other about the same exact thing for five minutes. I can feed raccoons; I can stop fretting about trash-pickers, grasscloth shades, seaweed snacks. I can be grateful for the good life that's been given to me.

Because it is a good life. And of course, there are some things I can do:

ACRO Mosul Appeal
Samaritan's Purse

Thursday, July 17, 2014

this arrival

It will be a month, tomorrow. A month since we arrived in Portland, Oregon at the end of a long drive across the country. A truly lovely—spectacular even— nineteen-day cross-country road trip. And now we've been nearly a month in our new home.

At first it was all highlights. Having a back yard, sprinklers, grass. Having a dishwasher, a kitchen that could hold more than one person, two sets of stairs, oodles of empty space: a basement, a garage. Two walk-in closets. Antique stores and a farmers market a few blocks away.

But in no time I was bone-tired. Charles headed back to New York, I had two children, long days, and no nanny. The dryer was leaving long slim burns on all our sheets and clothes. We had no wi-fi, no table at which to eat, no blinds on the windows, no routine, lots of boxes to be unpacked and lists of things to buy, and a lawn that needed to be watered and mown. I suddenly needed to sleep. I got cranky, the five-year-old got cranky; I was impatient, the five-year-old began throwing tantrums. My mom and sister appeared in shifts with paint brushes and plants and watering cans and platters of food. They took care of the kids. I learned how to sort and put out the garbage. I had phone conversations with internet people. I interviewed sitters. I watered. I despaired of finding a sitter. I bought things. I returned things. I went to IKEA four times. I made piles by the door of things to be returned (the pile is still growing). This is now.

My father and sister came over for dinner this evening, we ate pizza at our new dining room table. The kids played in their rooms. When our guests left and the kids and Charles went to sleep, and I found myself doing laundry in the basement. Ironing dresses, hemming the cuffs on my son's new taekwondo pants. Maybe I can do this, with lots help of course.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

i am ready for that and weary of this


Tomorrow the movers come. Today Genevieve walked around our mostly-packed apartment and complained, "everything keeps disappearing." Disappearing into brown cardboard boxes that my mother has diligently continued to fill, despite the fact that I don't really want everything packed up. I dislike the transition, not knowing where the fingernail clippers are—or my phone or favorite sweater. I linger about the apartment, soaking in the space I love so much. Dismantling it perhaps a bit too slowly. Each day I've been taking photos from my bedroom window of the locust trees blooming above the Hudson, the Palisades peeking through the foliage. I will miss the trees and the river, the sunsets, and shadowy sunrises, the hawks and gulls. I will miss this little space full of light and peace, even as I won't miss the garbage-laden sidewalks, rushing pedestrians and honking cars, the tiresome culture of competition. 

I am looking forward to getting into our car on Saturday and driving west. Of course, our drive across the country is living in transition as well, but the decisions have mostly been made. Where to go, what to wear, where to sleep. There are many friends to see, and sights to show the children: the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the vast flatness of Kansas, the mountains in Colorado, the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods. And then the drive up 101 to Oregon. I am ready for that, and am I weary of this.

So I am excited (if not still a bit anxious) the movers are coming tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to the responsibility for all these possessions weighing on someone else's shoulders for awhile. And then just be the four of us, a suitcase, and a car.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

the hidden place that heals


Over and over by us torn in two,
the god is the hidden place that heals again.
We are sharp-edged, because we want to know,
but he is always scattered and serene.

—Rainer Maria Rilke
from The Sonnets to Orpheus, XVI
Translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell

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

It is Bright Wednesday, or at least the dying nub of Bright Wednesday, and I am finally sitting down to write. All day a cool, steady wind passed through the trees out my window. Each time I looked the sky and river changed color as if trying on different outfits: clouds once low and thin above choppy gray water, another moment green and heavy over gold glitter.

It was a productive day, both children (finally) back in school after a lingering spring break. And I finally began preparing for Genevieve's eye surgery for esotropia next week. By prepare I primarily mean prepare myself—I have already spent plenty of time preparing Genevieve. My habit is to focus on getting through all the unpleasantness and anxieties by clenching in and checking out during the difficult moments. I want to be done with it all and take off her bandages and have her eyes see straight. I want the healing well underway. Just like I want to be done with packing and saying goodbyes and sorting the keeps from the throw-aways. I want to plug through without engaging the uncertainties; pit-pat, all squared away. But I'm learning is that while this method might have worked well for me at one point in my life, and may still function OK at times, it certainly isn't helpful for my three-year-old. (And, surprise, surprise, it isn't great help to me either.)

Fear of engaging the present moment in favor of waiting for a more serene future moment is in essence living in fear. This literally means that my back is tense, my neck and shoulders clench, and my derriere is tucked in. I am trying to keep it all together by walking around stiff as a board. And what's more: no one can keep it all together anyway. Not even God. Isn't that what we learn during Holy Week? Today the Redeemer of the world is slapped on the face. Those lines from Holy Friday always catch in my heart. I have to ask myself, was Jesus walking around stiff as a board for thirty years, dreading his crucifixion? Wanting to get this being human thing over and done with? As I recall, he only allowed himself one night of that.

Over and over by us torn in two / the god is the hidden place that heals again. To be broken and feel my brokenness, to sit with uncertainty and accept it—this is part of the goal. But more importantly I am trying shift my focus away from the things I am dreading. To instead regard the whole situation with curiosity and gentleness. To remember that we are having this surgery now because we have an awesome doctor here, a surgeon who is an expert in this procedure. I can't be sure nothing will go wrong, but that small fear is only a small part of a much larger picture. The vast majority of things in my life, and in Geneveive's life, are going incredibly well. I know that hidden place that heals again, I've been there before. Now I just have to trust and live, breathe, through it. To be there—awake—for both of us.

{ p o e t r y  w e d n e s d a y }

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.

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

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.