Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Final Post...

FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE: My essay, The Bad Wife, was published in the January 2015 issue of PANK Magazine, a badass print and online literary journal with tons of edgy, insightful and luscious prose and poems. Go read PANK!

Suburban Soliloquy has closed its doors. You can find me, now, at Banks of Noon (where I'm cross-posting the below piece), a new writing blog. I'm also taking this opportunity to introduce you to four friends and cohorts, from  different pockets of the USA, who are genuinely gifted writers. 

I'm deeply grateful for all your support and for your friendship over the years, and I hope to see you around town in the future.  :)

Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend and partner-in-crime, Maria Mutch—the boot-rockin' ingenious writer—tagged me some weeks ago when she posted her contribution to “The Writing Process Blog Tour.” She asked me to answer four questions about my writing process, and my first thought was: No! I don't have a process! But Maria, author of, among many other brilliant works of art, the poignant Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours, possesses criminal powers of persuasion, and she forced me to confront the challenge (i.e., my fears). I’ve known Maria for some years now (we met in a writing workshop when her memoir was still in its infancy), and I know how brave and tenacious she is, and that she would not let me off the hook easily, and so...
Thank you, Maria, for inviting me; my second and resounding thought is, Yes!
What are you working on?   
Currently, I am working on completing my thesis in partial fulfillment for my MFA degree in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington College. My thesis consists of a collection of essays, a few prose poems, and perhaps a song and some photographs. Okay, well, maybe not a song. Aside from the pseudo-scholarly work, I’m also writing one or two essays that address the complexities of conserving historic and open space in suburbia. Unfortunately, that exercise involves dipping into politics, which is something I’m allergic to. I’m sneezing a lot lately.
How does the work differ from others of its genre?    

I have trouble with that word—genre. (The hoodlum in me wants to confiscate genre from the landscape of literature and bury its burden deep in the earth). I don’t know how to categorize what I’m working on, so I can’t say how it differs, other than that my essays are my essays (until they become the reader’s) and are of a somewhat fractured nature. They are not necessarily crafted with a central theme in mind, however, a thematic concern (danger, uncertainty, fear) does seem to emerge as I piece my thesis together. But I don’t think about these things when I’m writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m not thinking at all, and sometimes I’m thinking so much it hurts. 
Why do you write what you do?    

Writing has been my passion for as long as I can remember. (These days that’s not too long.) So has photography. I've written off and on for years, it' in my blood, I come from a family of logophiles. But I'm a late bloomer in terms of getting serious about my writing. (Same for photography.) Now, I am in a program that offers me an abundance of inspiration, advice, and the space and structure—which I sorely need— to write. It’s been a fantastic experience and I do worry that, without its structure, my space will become slippery and I will begin to flounder. But I’ve come to realize that I need to write. I write from a place of curiosity, to learn, to know and, fortunately, I always want to know!
I draw inspiration from the natural world, particularly the mountains, seas, skies. Land, sea, sky: they are not mute; they talk to me—we’re in a relationship, share a reverence  for one other, which is something I seek to emulate in my relationship with humanity. As most of my writing is personal in nature, it consists of a lot of interior thought—how the outer world affects the inner and vice versa—which is oft obsessed with the interconnectedness of all things, with signifiers and symbiosis. The lens through which I filter my experience of the world informs how and what I write. When I say “lens” I mean that both metaphorically and literally. Which leads me to process… 
How does your writing process work?   

I wish I could tell you that I rise each morning and write. But I don’t. I’m criminally undisciplined. Sometimes I don’t write for many days. Though I read every day, and am often lost in research (whether in books or the interwebs). Then there’s the walk. It always starts with the walk—a prelude to the actual act of writing. The walk sets a rhythm that allows me to connect with the world and its swells and shifts. I don’t leave home without my iPhone or camera, in the event I want to take photographs while I’m walking. Photography is also a huge part of my writing process. My handwriting is atrocious, I’m terrible at carrying a notebook, and stuff just passes right through me, so I have come to understand that the only way I’m able to take notes is through the lens of a camera. (Although I have, on occasion, scratched something down on found paper in the middle of the night. But I couldn’t later read it.) And photographing, like writing, is also about looking, and I don’t think one can write well without really looking.
The interesting thing about the picture-taking is that, more often than not, I manipulate the photo, apply various filters, so the scene looks how it appeared to me in that time now gone, or how I think it might have appeared to me, or to a deer or a loon or some other living thing that is also looking and processing. Sometimes the result may have a surreal quality. (But then, what is real is relative, and we all have our own unique filters.) The filters may skew figures or wash out color, may highlight little corners that tend to go unnoticed, or may shade areas that don’t wish to be revealed. Mood is set, perspective is established, and the resulting tone and feel informs point of view. And I remember what I felt the moment I was present to snap it, remember what I thought, where I came from and where I’m headed. Barthes said that the “Photographer’s organ is not his eye … but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates…” I think the organ, the aesthetic organ, so to speak, is both eye and finger. Eye to the world, finger to the trigger and keyboard.

Next up on the tour, look for posts from four fantastic writers (and Bennington cohorts) who’ve agreed to accept the torch: Megan Culhane Galbraith, Denton Loving, Susan Pagani, and Barrett WarnerMegan's work has been appeared in Hotel Amerika, Danse MacabreDrafthorse, The Notebook (a recent guest editor)and Rosebud. Her essays have been featured on 51% on WAMC-FM and have been twice selected for the Bookmarks Reading Series at The Arts Center in Troy, New York. She lives on a gorgeous farm in upstate New York, and knows how to wrangle a horse and throw a party. Denton, executive editor of Drafthorse, and editor of Motif V.4 - Seeking Its Own Level: An Anthology About Writings On Water, is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag); he's also the recipient of several writing awards including the Gurney Norman Prize for Short Fiction, and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave Fiction Prize;  his fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Birmingham Arts Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Minnetonka Review, Main Street Rag, Nantahala Review, and in numerous anthologies including Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia. And his southern accent woos us all. Susan is a journalist, editor extraordinaire (I know, she's handled my early drafts), foodie, and fiction and nonfiction writer. She recently coauthored The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food (Heavy Table, 2013), and contributed to Minnesota Lunch (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). She can write about food and birds like nobody's business. Barrett, the author of Til I'm Blue in the Face (Tropos Press), and the winner of Salamander's 2014 Fiction Contest, is an editor of Free State Review. His short stories, reviews, poems and lampoons of U. S. poet laureates have appeared in Atticus ReviewCalifornia QuarterlyCoal Hill ReviewComstock ReviewFreshwaterSoutheast Review, and many others. He says he's lazy but his work says otherwise. These, my friends: I love them (even if they make me look bad). You will, too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Seeking Its Own Level


This gorgeous anthology (two of my water photos appear on its covers!) has been released by Motes Books, and features writings from authors and Bennington Writing Seminars faculty Amy Hempel, Bret Anthony Johnston, Jill McCorkle, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and many of my friends and cohorts from BWS, as well as other emerging and renowned writers and poets.

David Joy, author of Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey, says of Motif v4: Seeking Its Own Level—an anthology of writings about water:
"'Under the rocks are the words,' Norman Maclean wrote of the river, and in this water-themed volume of MOTIF all stones are thrown aside. What's left are the words. From established forces like Margaret Atwood to emerging voices like John Sealy, this anthology is a rare blend of literary current guaranteed to leave you breathless."
You can purchase your very own copy at here.

Many thanks to Denton Loving, editor, and Kate Larken at Motes Books for this stunning collection of words on water.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

To Leap Again

I look at the picture and it reminds me of what I’d done to get it. The covered bridge in the photograph is pretty—timber trusses and beams, tongue and groove vaulted ceiling, Burr arch—very New England. Had its sides been wrapped with boards and batten it would be almost as quaint as the historic covered bridges of Vermont. But it’s likely sturdier than most of those old bridges—some of which are too structurally compromised to cross any longer—as it’s constructed to merely allude to a simpler time. The wooden rail, shiny in the left hand corner of the photo that I am now scrutinizing, runs the length of the bridge and drops down to road level at either end. It sits just below the Burr arch truss that sweeps over its span and against the beams and it is only about three feet high. It doesn't look it though. Not in person. It looks a bit higher in person. No, perhaps it looks lower. It looked to be, I had thought, however high or low, something of which I could easily step on—for a better view.
What I had done first, that fateful Saturday evening, was get out of my car at the bridge. I had just dropped my teenage daughter, Lulu, off at a friend's house, and my husband and son were away, in Lancaster, for the weekend. It was a lovely fall day and I had the evening to myself, some free time to kill (kill, that's an odd thing to do with time), about four hours, and I decided, before heading back home, that I would stop by Lincoln Woods, take a few pictures, and then head on home to get some work done. Read. Write. Clean the house. Do laundry. So I kissed Lu goodbye in the car, went straight to Lincoln Woods and immediately parked by the bridge just yards from the entrance. You might say the bridge marks the entrance. The beginning of a serene wooded landscape. The entry point is as far as I got before I knew my plans might change. It was such a lovely fall. Nothing more than photos is really all I wanted and I determined there and then, standing in this tranquil setting, that I’d be there a while, would explore the whole park (screw everything else, it will always be there for the doing, especially the laundry), take as many lovely photographs as possible. Home was not where I desired to be; home was a place of calamity. Months earlier the kitchen had flooded after the dishwasher's no-burst supply line cut loose, walls and wood flooring were torn away, mold was found, the inside was dirty and dusty and displaced, and I felt like I was living in squalor. And it had rained all day and now it wasn't and the light was beautiful with early evening glow; the foliage like a slick field of concentrated carotenoids, ripened pompoms of color. Everything sprouting and dangling glistened.
Looking into the woods from this entrance point reminded me of the October weekends I had spent with my grandmother, whom lived on a dairy farm, and as I peered deeper into the woodland, beyond the bridge, I sensed a sudden childlike awe taking hold of me. On those brisk weekend days, Grandmother and I would hike through the woods bordering the farm to collect pinecones and other gems—things my grandmother would sometimes have to identify for me—fallen from the enormous conifers. Later, we would make wreaths with our takings, wiring pinecones, seedpods, acorns and other dried botanicals to bent clothes hanger frames. I thought of the crispness of those autumn woods, the smooth boulders on which I had jumped and climbed that seemed to have fallen from the sky, plopped in the woodland’s deep recesses, the crunch of autumn’s blanket beneath my feet as I ran between swaying timber, and the smell of fresh pine tinged with the odor of manure wafting up from the farm. Everything about the woods back then was magical and mysterious, and when I entered it I always had the sensation of something I can describe only as being put under the sort of spell that one would never want broken.
I walked across the road, and, near the wooden rail, looked over the bridge to a silent stream running below. A better view could be gotten from atop the rail—that was clear, and what became manifest was my impetuous need to have that view. I placed my right foot up on the wood rail, which was about eight inches wide, and tried to follow with my left, boosting up from my toes, but I didn't have enough of a start since I was standing still. My shoe choice didn't help—little brown ballet slippers. Truthfully, it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I wasn't, it turns out, as strong as I used to be and this surprised me. What is this? I used to vault over a leather horse and pirouette across the balance beam in gymnastics. I used to jump from rock to rock. For chrissakes I used to fly across city rooftops when I was a kid. Rooftops! (This was close to forty years ago but I still had a spring in my walk, I still felt limber and strong.) Man I need to get back to the gym. Boy I hate the gym. That's what I thought, yes, I hated the gym and my body was betraying me.
Annoyed by my limitations, but only slightly deterred, I worked out another approach: Step back from the rail. Step back, a slight start, just a bit of speed and a hop onto the rail would get me up there. It seemed a plausible plan. A running start and a bounce was all it would take.
Now at this point, you might ask why I did not simply walk over to either end of the rail, where it bows down to the road, bend my foot up onto it and pirouette across its top as if it were a balance beam—a surface on which I had always felt comfortable maneuvering, my balance being impeccable. I would tell you, though, if you asked, that this sensible idea never occurred to me. My eyes locked on the rail, and everything but the rail became a smudge—like the blurred edges of an old photograph, a tunnel vision that narrowed my cognitive reflection of the scene. Standing on the paved road of this pretty bridge, at the edge of luscious and enchanting surroundings, under the tincture of fall, a spell had been cast upon me like the woodland spells of yesteryear. My true age, the age I felt for that brief moment in time, was precisely the inverse of my fifty-two years. (Though, truthfully, this feeling is not always short-lived and has, in the past, proved a perilous idea to hold on to.) An uncontrollable optimism bubbled in me, my body resonated with the same audacity and flushness as my backdrop and, in an instant, a full lionhearted transformation took place. I remembered all the hopping and jumping and leaping of my youth, and, comparing what I used to do with what had to imminently be done to get the perfect picture, hopping up on a wooden rail hardly seemed like some insurmountable hurdle. Oh yes, leap, I thought. To leap again! Yes, there was only one option: leap. (Lulu would later ask me if I thought I was Spider Woman.)
Looking back now, I see I may have gotten more than just a slight start. I may have gotten a bit of a running start prompted by thoughts of another familiar scene, that is, rooftop leaping with my younger brother. Neighbors chasing us away. Hey, get off my garage! What do you think you're doing, I'm going to call the police! (Today, my kids call them popos. When I was a girl we called them pigs, and I think popos is much more civilized.) And the neighbors certainly could have called the police, at least that is what my brother and I imagined for we were stealing grapes off the neighbor's vines, vines twisted around whitewashed arbors, arbors we had climbed and marauded, and we were giddy with guilt. It was so easy—aloft, breathing in higher altitude, fat grapes in hand, nothing underfoot, rooftop to rooftop. There had been one close call: a toe hitting the edge of a tar shingle, a sudden jolt and then a lunge forward to the safety of a black sea of sandpaper. Except for scratched hands, we never got hurt doing it, though some grapes were squashed. But, as we know, that was decades, a lifetime ago. Still, I don’t often get hurt. Life is fairly uneventful except for, well, events.
Such as the time I fell and hit my head hard while skiing. I probably had a concussion but I didn't see my doctor, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Back then (that was a lifetime ago, too) nobody paid much attention to a head injury. They shook them off. Nobody signed paperwork confirming they had read all about the danger of concussion. If I had seen my doctor back then, I may have healed quicker. I may not be so fuzzy today.
At six o'clock, as the sun lowered, I bent my knees slightly and got my running start under the covered bridge, noting that the bridge did not have a wooden floor, and too bad, for it would be even prettier and feel softer underfoot than had it a wooden floor. Pavement is hard and cold and, on this day, a bit slippery from the rains and the coating of wet crimson and gold leaves. My stride, though, quickly narrowed to a skip, and I adjusted my body above the hips to match it. Yes, three skips and...
...Ah, a leap!—I was in the air just like between rooftops!—leading with the left (or was it the right?) leg, the other leg trailing, one foot hitting the top of the wood rail. I felt so alive, body in motion ascending upon the top of the rail, right or left leg following, soaring above ground in unison with the mind's intent. Yes, yes, just as planned! The air, sweet with the scent of plump Concord grapes, tasted the same as it did from rooftops! I squeezed my iPhone tight like a stolen cluster of fruits, and then my left (or right) leg came in for the landing, my knee like a hinge thrusting my foot toward the wooden beam, and my foot stuck to its mount, sliding in aside its size 9 mate...
...When, in that moment, the moment I stuck my mount, my knees knocked together and I at once ascertained in a deep, panicky breath, a sudden and horrifying loss of equilibrium. In the next second, a second, my feet shifted and I teetered, my iPhone still in hand, reaching out to nothing—no wall, no guard, no rooftop—and lurched toward the ground, and down,
I hit the pavement hard, flattened like a grape in a crusher, at a 45º angle from the rail, all the air from my lungs trapped in the same panic I carried from the mount. My left elbow had dug into my abdomen just below the rib cage and the palm of my left hand was scraped and pocked by small stones. Oh no, oh no, this didn't just happen! The pain was sharp, throbbing, spasmodic, it was everything an old body must feel when it unexpectedly hits a hard surface with all its might and muscle and tendons stretch and twist and bones splinter. A moment passed before I raised myself from this, this hurdle, this terribly painful hurdle—more painful than the ruptured ovarian cyst that had sent me to the ER two years earlier. But unlike the agony and shock of this accident, the pain from the cyst had been building momentum, orbiting through my gut for hours, and I had time to organize my thoughts, chart the pain’s trajectory and prepare for the worst before it engulfed me. I never went easily to the ER. I can tolerate a good deal of pain. Once, as a young girl, I stayed in a soccer game long after my backside (the part where the sun doesn’t shine) had been impaled with the branch of a broken shrub. It was only after I had gone back to my keeper position in the goal, wiped my dirty hand on the backside of my pants and saw blood on my palm that I went running across the street to the old colonial. My mother quickly brought me to the local ER where everybody discussed the merits of playing with the boys as my little French derrière was sewn up.

Did anyone see? I was worried. Mortified, which was just how I had felt after being shoved into the shrubbery; I felt like a child—having done something foolish, only I did not have youth to blame. From my low vantage point on the ground, I scanned the landscape and did not find anyone staring my way. In fact, I found no one around. Thank goodness I was alone, for how silly, small and foolish I must have looked jumping up on things of which I had often warned my kids to stay off. I felt as foolish as a silver-haired man in a little red coupe (only he would not feel foolish at all), as foolish as a woman far past her prime wearing a mini-skirt (neither would she). Yes that's what I thought, as clichéd as it was—had I become, like many other baby boomers around me, hooked to our pitiable culture of youth, hypnotized to deny all signals of advanced age?  We are not in decline! We are really years younger, our birth certificates lie, and if we are not we might as well be extinct! And yet, I must confess, I might be tempted to wear the miniskirt—in a stylish wool tartan—had I the nerve. Perhaps, after my children have gone off to college, I would buy the coupe?
There was a decision to be made now. I was up on my feet, creased at the waist, gripping my sides with crossed arms around my chest. I bent forward and back, turned from side to side, tiny, painful movements. I wanted to cry but no tears would come, I was too angry with myself. Now what. Now what will become of this weekend? Should I go home? Should I call the popos? 911? I didn't dare call my husband—I didn't want to alarm him or my son. I limped over to the side of the bridge, the walkway behind the rail, and made my way to the overhang above the stream where I stood for a long while, gripping my midsection while chastising myself. When it became apparent that the pain would not subside and I would have to soon leave, I lifted my iPhone up to eye level and looked out over the stream, at its dense, leafy fringe of rust and pine hues. I centered the pinhole of the phone above the stream and pressed my thumb to the white circle three times. Click, click, click. There. I've got my lovely fall photos.
My decision was to go home. But the pain my body registered superseded pragmatism—or denial—I could barely walk, it hurt to move, to touch my torso, to turn in any direction, and the car took me to the hospital as if it wasn't my decision at all. I writhed in the car as the pain intensified, I moaned, I ran two red lights, drivers glared at me with dirty looks, and several cars honked at me. So what. Fuck you! Oh man, it hurt. It hurt even if I didn't want to know, didn't want to believe it hurt.
All the way to the hospital the accident looped through my head making me shake incredulously; I simply couldn't believe I’d slipped or done such a silly thing. Now I was worried that I had waited too long to go to the hospital—that I wouldn’t be out by ten when I had to pick up Lu. I was too embarrassed to call anyone for help. Should I have turned around? What had happened to my judgment? But now in the hospital's parking lot I was committed, having lifted myself from my car, a nurse in the lot saw me wobbling and walked me to the ER.
Blood work first. Six vials. (Were they checking my blood alcohol level? I'd drunk nothing but seltzer water and coffee all day, and I was glad I hadn't gotten into the wine—I was saving my glass of red for when I returned home.) X-rays—too many I thought. And to be on the safe side, a contrast dye CAT scan to check for internal bleeding or other injuries. My pain, tender in the belly below the ribs, had indicated spleen damage, and so the doctor was concerned about the spleen, the physician's assistant confided. I could have severed my spleen. Oh no, oh no, not that, I winced. That would mean immediate surgery. Surgery on a Saturday night! What could be worse? I watched the clock over the nurse's station move its long arm down to the six. It was now eight-thirty and I began to feel a chasm widen and sweep me in, its jagged black walls consuming me. Will I be out before ten? I asked a nurse anxiously. We'll see, the nurse said, staring at a monitor from behind her desk, We're waiting for results.
Shaking the quiver from my voice, I called Lulu—I am fine, don't worry, I'll keep you postedbit my lip when Lu got weepy, and then dialed up a friend. With the prospect of having my spleen removed, back-up plans were now in order.
Moments before ten o'clock, a languid-looking young physician shuffled beside me on my gurney just as I was expiring air from a spirometer (precautionary measure to keep the lungs clear, prevent pneumonia) after successfully keeping it in the "best" zone  (like the assistant had demonstrated, saying: See good, better, best on this chamber? You want the little yellow cap to float in the best zone. Pretend it's a hookah, breathe in slowly, hold, then out, prompting me to think, a hookah, ha, right! and I sucked the air in, the cap rising and falling, and then let go the mouthpiece and pushed air out, joking that I hadn't done anything like this since college). Eeerrr, I whispered, holding the blue flexi-tube before the doctor—for comic relief— like I was handing her a water pipe. She smiled lightly with a sort of suspicious look that made me want to say, Kidding! I don't do that anymore, not in thirty years! I was afraid I might implicate myself in something I hadn't done; I was perfectly, perfectly, innocent. (Unlike the woman on the other side of the curtain who was brought in handcuffed and escorted by guards in gray clothing.) Besides they had the blood work to prove it.
My failed attempt to make light of the situation, to make the young physician laugh, made me self-conscious of the totality of what I had done—dismissing the boring and brutal truths of my advanced age, behaving like a teenager and paying the consequences. I couldn't possibly be more than a half-century-old; I didn't feel it—at least not up until this very moment, when the young physician looked at me with her long face of sympathy, as if I were as fragile and historic as the old covered bridges of New England—and in that moment I knew it had to be true, I was old, my body was not as strong or as limber or as resilient as it once had been. The doctor straightened her posture and told me that I would be able to go home. My ribs were badly bruised, contusions was the word, but I would be all right.
But I did not feel all right. Nothing seemed all right—the fall, forgetfulness, moments of ambiguous limpidity—nothing about me felt sharp or balanced. I was getting the picture, a timeworn version of myself, like a daguerreotype portrait—dark, silvered, antiquated—too mature for miniskirts or sports cars or running around and leaping onto or over things. Everything does have a time, doesn't it? There was a time I leapt over rooftops like a cat , a time I swung from tree branches as if they were uneven parallel bars, and there was even a time when I skied five, six months pregnant (but never fell!), yes, there was a time when I had done many foolish things, thinking myself invincible, and now was a time to breath deeply and digest the truth: I wasn’t any longer as limber or quick as I once  had been. I was now a cautious skier, and with each passing winter I enjoyed the quiet and peace of skiing cross-country, along wide trails and fields, more than racing down icy slopes. It now takes me longer to read a book, to fill a page with words, to formulate plans and execute them. The truth of the matter is that some things are not as simple as they used to be, and the creeping progression of years has caught up to me, and I would have to accept and adapt to the alterations of mind and body that coincide with aging, embrace my new limitations. After all, should we not, in our advanced years, be freed from the need to have to prove anything any longer? Perhaps it was, it is, time to let go of this persistent youthful image of myself.
I got in my car and back on the road, feeling like I had regained some control over myself, and picked up Lulu, who plead with me to let her drive, never mind she was too young to have her license. Her talk caused me more discomfort—I didn’t want her to think me helpless. I snapped: I can do it, don't worry! I didn't take any pain medication at the hospital! Enough! You will listen! I was in control, yes I was.
Sunday morning I woke to a terrible headache and a call from the hospital, someone telling me that the radiologist had found a fracture in my tenth rib, and continued rest was the cure.
On the couch, sore and sallow, I wondered if I would, or should, ever leap again. I’d never before broken a bone, I told Lu. Lots of sprains, scrapes and knocks, but no breaks, and I marveled at hearing myself say these words, how it is that I managed to live through decades without one serious injury. What the rib break indicated, I was sure now, was a brake— a signal to yield to the years. And the headache was a trumpet in my ear, a high decibel warning that I was moving closer to extinction. Soon, like the old photos, I would be only a memory, and then, nothing, nothing at all.
I looked at Lu and smiled, Is there a Spider Woman?
Lulu scanned the picture of the bridge on my phone, gave me a hard look, and said, Don't go out alone like that again. Not ever again.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Friday Night Frolic" — Meet Me at the Playground

[An FNF repost—initially published in 2011—because I love these guys, and they know how to usher spring into summer. Memorial Day is for remembering the past, commemorating and thanking our loved ones, and glimpsing into future's shiny possibilities. It's also the time of year that marks the beginning of days that open wide and warm, reminding us that the world is chockfull of beautiful things.]

At the playground, or in the park. Or anywhere the sun's warmth and the cool, breezy air conspire to liberate those heavy burdens tucked in your worn, leather satchel. (Gosh, that arm must be sore.) You might want to swap the satchel for something light, like a crisp canvas tote bag filled with peaches and champagne and a Frisbee. Wear your All Stars. Or your woven slip-on sidewalk surfers. Or flip-flops. Or nothing at all. Bring your felt Indiana Jones hat, or a baseball cap, or a straw fedora, or anything brimmed and easily stolen by the wind.

It's been a long time.

How will I know you? Will you still look the same?

Remember my small Brooklyn Heights apartment on Kane, where I gazed at Lady Liberty from the third floor paint-chipped window? I could walk to the park from there. A long walk. I won't do it like that, though. Not this time. I want to get there quickly. I'll take the subway from Cobble Hill to Prospect Park. (If I can still do that. If it's still there.) Up Flatbush. I always liked the underground surprises along Flatbush.

I'll be waiting for you. At the swings. Adorned in a long, gauzy skirt, white t-shirt, beige linen blazer and crinkle scarf. And flip-flops. We'll spread a colorful, vintage Peruvian blanket under a large singing sycamore, pop the cork and consume fuzzy fruit and bubbly. Our cheeks will blush with spring's lustrous shadegolden rays and mossy, ripening trees, cherry plumaged cardinals and deep blue, blossoming crocuses.

Late afternoon you'll decide to pull the old drum sticks from your tote and bang them against the tin filled with chocolate mouse layer cake. I'll be amazed you've kept them all these years. I'll want to cry, but I won't. The ice cream guy will come by with his cart and you'll buy two vanilla bean ice cream cones, and we'll toss the Frisbee while licking streams of sweet goo racing down the waffled spires, running through our fingers. We'll put thick blades of green grass between our thumbs and blow. If it's not playing on someone's transistor radio we'll still hear music in the air. We might even sing. We might even dance.

Then we'll head over to the playground. Remember how we used to play? Hopscotch or jump rope or the see-saw or monkey bars... You used to dangle from that damned center bar and never let me pass. We'd spin on the little merry-go-round 'til we were dizzy.

Remember some kid almost lost a leg on that spinny thing? We won't do any spinning this time. But we might hop on that little springy frog. We might go for a slide on the big one with bumps in the middle, and jump through recycled tires. (Though we might also need some Dramamine to do it all.)

Or perhaps we'll just sit on the colorful, vintage Peruvian blanket, and eat ripe peaches. And layered cake. And vanilla bean ice cream. And we'll listen to spring's symphony:  birds, swaying trees, the little waterfall, babies on the carousel, and pedal boats on the pond.

And get to know one another again.

When it's silent, in that shared-grin moment, we'll know it's time to pack up our bags. We'll meander past the playground one last time. You'll be whistling. I'll challenge you to a monkey bar duel. But this time, I know you'll let me pass. This time you might even hold my hand. In mid-air. As I pass. Your arm will no longer be sore.

We'll remember that we were always layers of percussion and harmony.

We'll still like each other. A lot.

I'll want you to take the subway back home with me. So we can get there quickly.

Percussion and Harmony.

(And lots more over at Pearl and the Beard. Go visit!)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What the Dogwood Says

          When our dogwood tree had a limb pulling away from its slim, moss-mottled trunk, my husband, Michael, shored it up with a supersized rubber band and an ochre poultice that made it look as if a jar of mustard had shattered up its scaly arm. Watching Michael work on the rosy-petaled tree reminded me of the day Father planted dogwoods in the back and front yards of the old colonial that was on Collins Street years ago. He had acquired the trees from two elderly spinsters, with whom he worked at Falk Brothers, Clothiers, downtown—a part-time job he kept to supplement his teaching income. The sisters were looking for another home for their young dogwoods, and were happy to give them to anyone willing to take them away. So my handyman Father, always one to jump on a deal, went over to the sisters’ place with his long handled round-point shovel and dug up the trees.
            Before the dogwoods, the front and back yards were bare except for a bright pink azalea and a mauve mountain laurel that Father had also dug up from elsewhere. The young trees with their dainty petals made the yards look regal, and gave me a sense of being firmly planted in our quarter-acre city lot homestead. Each spring after Easter mass some adult would take photos of my sisters and brothers and me fitted in our Sunday best—girls in white dresses, gloves and straw bonnets, and boys in beige long shorts, jackets and ties— under the creamy blossoms of the dogwood out back. We could always count on finding the golden egg nearby.
            I’ve since learned that dogwood roots are shallow, which would seem to make it less stable, more vulnerable to strong winds that blow in. And I wonder, now, if I should try to find meaning in this. If it is somehow a represents the state of my relationship with Michael, which sometimes feels tenuous, fragile, as if we had neglected to lay down thick roots, or to provide the proper nutrients to strengthen them.
Michael and I didn’t plant the dogwood in our front yard. The front beds had already been landscaped when we moved in our builder’s spec house. Plantings were low to the ground and generously spaced, just as a prudent landscaper would advise. I could see the prickly English holly behind the weeping Japanese cherry. The rose of Sharon—my tree of breath—with its flat, luscious blossoms, stood upright until it hit the second story. The fire bush was not on fire. The young hydrangea teased us with the promise of blue mopheads. Then, my husband, gung ho to have a lush, mature arrangement of flora wrapping the front of our house added to the builder’s plantings, and now the beds are as crowded and unruly as Macy’s at Christmastime. Greenery is cannibalizing itself, a mass of roots zapping nutrients—the life—out of the mulch-covered soil. My rose of Sharon, two stories high, lunges toward Providence. My hydrangea delivered dead stalks clawing at Heaven. There are species in the way back with which I am no longer familiar. Father warned against this.
            Michael likes the overgrown beds. I like to see out my front windows. Michael doesn’t like to snip the bramble. I don’t like to watch plants suffocate or consume one another. So every once in a while, when Michael is not looking, I grab the hedge trimmers and cut into the crowd. This is a game we (or at least I) have been playing for a dozen years. Sometimes he notices and gets sore at me, sometimes he doesn’t. Most of the time he simply ignores the situation, and I grow more aggravated with the overgrown beds and his failure to properly care for them—according to my standards, that is. Even our own king-size bed is cluttered, extra pillows and blankets in all sizes. This game is played out in many arenas: the yard, the house, the budget, the kids. I state a concern, and Michael, if he is not also concerned, ignores it. But nowhere is it played with more vigor than in the front beds, where the level of neglect is beyond my understanding. I wonder if most marriages are like this—Venus and Mars—and god forbid if the two planets should ever collide. I make mental notes of our little conflicts, often I forget them, sometimes I can no longer store them in my mind, so I write.
            My former sharp-witted, perspicacious, writing advisor told me to search for meanings and opportunities that may not have been apparent to me in my first drafts— thing that might accentuate or heighten the awareness of a certain feeling. Dig deeper, he said, but don’t telegraph the meaning with hyperbole (hyperbole—ha, me?), or push hard to impart significance. Rather, the deeper meaning must speak for itself, and I must allow it to present itself to me “to record with a colder eye.” He is right. Why I don't do this in my first drafts, when my tendency is to search for truth, meaning, in everything, I don't know. Maybe I'm afraid of what I'll find.
            I do know this: truth makes for better writing.
There was a time when my watching eye was very cold. Very, very cold, and I could have recorded most anything I observed with the harshness of an ice storm. But as I’ve aged, become a mother, my view of the world has widened and warmed—it is not as sinister as I once perceived it, and I am less likely to see it through cold eyes. I think about the shallow roots of our dogwood, and realize that shallowness isn’t necessarily an indicator of weakness. Yes, a shallow-rooted tree may easily topple in a hurricane, but its roots won’t clog drainage fields, choke its neighbor, or crumble a home’s foundation like some bigger, more showy trees might. Shallow roots, as in the case of the pretty dogwood that’s fixed in our front bed, make for beautiful, blushing petals that fold out to reveal the sparkling fruit within.
Still, shallow roots or not, our shrubbery is now wildly out of control and beyond snipping—it would take a chain saw to lob off the overgrowth—and neither one of us is qualified to remedy or mitigate the disorder. What we need is a professional. I once called in a gardener friend to mediate our front beds dispute. She agreed with me that we needed to cut the shrubbery way back, and suggested removing some of the plants and bushes. Ah, an answer! Better for the house, she said. We were giving all sorts of pests an invitation to enter. All they needed do is march across the bridge of branches and leaves and flowers abutting the wood siding of our home. (This would explain the ant problem.) Yes, so true! I’d said to her. It’s the same advice Father had given me—sometimes I wonder why I hadn’t married someone as handy as Father was. Michael listened to the gardener’s advice but seemed little convinced, and so continued to manage the property on his own terms.
This September will mark our twentieth wedding anniversary. We met three years before we were married. But for all our time together, I sometimes feel that there’s little we really know of each other. We are apart each weekday with our separate agendas, and like most families, the evenings and weekends are full with domestic duties and obligations, rushing the kids off to soccer or basketball or wherever it is they need to go. We argue about things like front beds and light bulbs and deck furnishings. Too much, too little, not right! I don’t know this man, I think. What’s become of the man I met all those years ago? He’s changed. Or I’ve changed. The answer is, we have both changed, of course. And some of the youthful idiosyncrasies that I then thought so endearing in him—for instance, his easygoing, unhurried disposition, his pensive if sometimes detached demeanor—now annoy the hell out of me. Especially when things don’t get done when and how they should get done, which, I know, is however I would like them to be done.
If these things are in fact metaphors—shallow roots, disorderly beds—for our relationship, there are other metaphors, too. I suppose it bodes well that Michael repaired the dogwood tree. I suppose that my cutting away at bushes is a symbolic gesture akin to cutting away at Michael, opening him up, attempting to gain access to what might be at the heart of his often detached, pensive self. There’s a lot there, I know. His tolerance for the overgrown beds might be his way of celebrating the beauty, the lushness, of a wild thing—a thing that needs no confinement. But I’m torn about this metaphor, whether it’s accurate or necessary, or whether I am telegraphing meaning.
            The dogwood’s fruit, I have learned, symbolizes endurance.
            I read a Christian fable claiming that the Romans used the strong and durable dogwood to make crosses on which criminals like Jesus were crucified; and so the rose tint of a dogwood’s four-petal flower—the vague shape of a cross—supposedly reveals the “blush of shame” for how the tree was used, which made me wonder if my literate, Roman Catholic Father had been aware of it. I doubt he’d have given it much credence, or thought to root a dogwood in his back yard as a symbolic gesture, he was too pragmatic, though he did like to recount a good moral story. If anything, he planted the dogwoods because they were cheap—costing him his labor only, which, knowing Father, made the acquisition all the more gratifying. And since we know that the dogwood is a strong and durable tree, he could count on his effort paying off. The bonus was the graceful shapes, the way those trees gently opened to the world.
            Yes, the roots of a dogwood may be shallow, but they run at great lengths, anchoring trunk to earth with a heaving, vascular bundle of tubes. The tree grows wildly, wantonly, holds on for years, and even adult foliage teases the eye coquettishly. Nearly fifty years later, the old dogwoods still stand in the front and back yards of the colonial in which I grew up. Each year, they are a bit taller, a bit more regal, the petals that cup the succulent fruit pinker and whiter.  

            Yet, deeper meaning—if there is a deeper meaning—too often eludes me. I know I could keep digging into the dark, moist soil of those overcrowded beds. I might find ugly, wiggly things, a labyrinth of spider webs, or things that pinch or sting. But for the time being, I shall take our now blossoming dogwood, on the surface, as a good sign. Michael’s no handyman like Father, but the golden goo he applied to the tree has cured to a hard gloss, and the dogwood’s arm is holding tight, as if to say it has no mind to let go. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it will.