November 2012

This year I am in the day care only a day and a half a week, some weeks less, when we have a Monday holiday or a Superstorm Sandy or another reason to miss day care on a Monday or Tuesday. I find myself looking for chores that need doing to keep the place going. Last week I changed a bunch of light bulbs. Yesterday a four and I went through all the markers, sorting out the dried out ones, making sure the caps matched the markers, putting out a new set of thicker ones. Today another four found a train engine that is electric but wouldn’t go. We tried replacing the battery, then I took it apart and put it back together. The light works, the motor gets power, but I haven’t yet aligned the gears to make the wheels turn.

Each Tuesday afternoon this month the other teacher, Alice, and I have gone through a shelf or cupboard or drawer in the kitchen, tossing things we don’t need, bagging stuff to share, reordering and labeling what remains. We do this during the late afternoon, when the young ones are napping and the older ones play nearby.

I like doing these chores in the presence of the kids, as well as many others, raking leaves last week, taking out the trash and compost a couple of weeks ago, turning over the worms and composting food with a pitchfork, making meals, looking after babies, recording attendance, paying bills and creating receipts, interviewing prospective families, answering e-mails from their folks. I want kids to grow up knowing how things work, to learn by watching and helping and doing, to see the adults around them and to become competent caretakers of their world, human, physical, financial, relational. I like having kids see me change the storm windows, open an electric toy with a screwdriver, wash the pots, and for them sometimes have to wait while I attend to the place where they spend a good deal of their lives.

One time I offered a workshop on Children and Real Work through the Child Care Resource Center in Cambridge. It was cancelled for lack of interest. None of the early childhood standards, as far as I know, address real work. I think they should:)

Late yesterday morning I said good-bye to my kids as they drove away from our place in the country in the loaded in more ways than one sporty car of our good friend, off to see their dad and step mom and their friends, while I stayed behind with the good friend’s wife, my day care partner and friend of many years, to visit, to clean the house, load the van, lock the doors, buy a gift in town, take a short walk in the woods nearby, and drive to the glamorous home where our dear friend and fellow day care provider was to celebrate her sixtieth birthday with friends and family, new and old. We arrived in Springfield on the top of the hill overlooking the Connecticut River just before sunset, toured the large home where the sun poured through stained and antique glass windows, onto the luxurious wood panelling and shiny wood floors and thick carpets, glanced off the many collections of furnishings and decorative objects, room after room of a couple’s life in travels and decoration, until we came to rest at last in the kitchen, newly remodeled, large enough for a small bar with a couch in front of a huge fireplace lit with candles rather than a fire, to sit and visit with our friend’s friends, an older couple who had traveled from Michigan, to learn their story, which began at a home for children where the man had arrived from China as a twelve year old boy many, many years ago, sent by his mother to start a new life of promise in the US, and had stayed on caring for the children’s home by stoking the furnace and attending college classes at which point he met his soon to be American bride, who sat beside me on the couch in her stylish tan suede wingtip shoes with the lime green soles while her husband, so many years and degrees later, sat nearby dozing in a leather chair in his Mao style wool jacket with hand made buttons down the front. Later he told us about his practice now, interviewing and evaluating candidates for disability, most he said, who did not qualify, who just did not want to work, and about his practice as a young man, where he offered therapy, not only prescriptions, as so many of his younger colleagues do now, and about the letting go of the way that went before he is learning to do, whether or not it seemed better or worse, the old ways are in the past and something new lies ahead.

Also at our table were the sister of the hostess, as well as the sponsor of our friend’s husband and his gal, and his mother, ninety eight and dressed for a party. We sat in the fancy dining room at one of three tables, admiring the art, the collections, the furniture, the fireplace, the plaster ceiling motif, the paper dragons and red lanterns hung to decorate the room in honor of the birthday girl, born in the year of the dragon, and listened to words of love and kindness lavished upon our friend Sue, day care provider, sister, daughter, wife, mother, and spiritual seeker extraordinaire.

We arrived home late, first to Liana’s house where we unloaded her bags, then to mine, where I was too tired to unload mine, which sat in the van until after this morning’s religious service of choice, Unitarian Universalist, where I found and sat beside my good friend and her son, former members of our day care group, listened to the singing and reading of two of my son’s friends, and scanned the crowd for others I might know, finding no one, thinking as the service proceeded, readings, response, piano, organ, flute, choir, sermon, about the previous trips I’ve made on my own to Quaker Meeting in Cambridge, and wondering where oh where I might belong.

At home now I have only a few minutes before my children return, one on his way back to college with his dad, the other two here for the day with me. I wonder as I always do, how to do the things I need to do when they aren’t here so I can do the things I want to do when they are. I wash dishes, unload the car, start a load of wash, read the mail, then indulge myself in time here while Jackson C. Frank sings to me from the speakers overhead.

I haven’t got a clue really what to say except to tell the story of my days, to put some detail to the living that passes unnoticed unless I stop to write. I’m in that sort of place. Work is less a part of who I am than it’s been for years. I’ve dropped most of my community involvements, no longer am out at night and up in the morning at meetings and worrying about the politics or chores of groups to which I’ve pledged my allegiance and my time. Maybe the trip to the UU was for that, to see if there’s another place to put that part of myself. After one visit is my guess is no.  I loved sitting beside my friend and her son, loved seeing what she has come to value and appreciate in this stage of her family’s life, found it sweet to see the children sitting on the front of the church as someone spoke with them and read to them from a book about November, enjoyed the guest speaker and her talk, but found the singing of a type that didn’t move me, the congregation not as familiar as I’d hoped, not just in terms of knowing individuals, but in terms of feeling I might belong. Hard to say what it is about a group of people that feels right or wrong or just off, but so far, I don’t think I’ve found my place in a religion as an adult, as much as I revere the silence of a Quaker meeting, and the wisdom spoken there on occasion, or the earnestness of the Unitarians, open to the liberal world of all sexual orientations, and most creeds, deep down I’m still a Catholic, though the idea of returning to the dogma of a formal church with teachings and a pope that don’t align with many of my beliefs feels wrong, too, so for now, I’ll be a visitor, finding quiet in Meeting, inspiration in a service, giving Krista Tippet and her podcast On Being a turn now and then, taking a walk in the woods to remind me of the divinity in nature, and spending time in the quiet of my house, noticing the solitude and company in my surroundings and what each brings.

I’m sorting out how to be alone in the world in a way I haven’t done in awhile, maybe ever. I heard a quote recently, can’t remember who it’s by, but the ghist is that if parents don’t teach their children how to be alone those children will always be lonely. Learning to live with myself, in the quiet of the days, on the long road of life, is the subject of fascination that draws me to poetry, to religion, to retreat, to the woods, to my kitchen sink and table, to music, to turn off the radio on long trips on the road, to stay in bed long after I’ve awoken, to pay attention to my dreams, to write here, wondering always what it means to be a person at each stage and station in life.

This month’s loss was a twenty percent pay cut from my new employer, SVS. It’s a source of some shame for me to accept a pay cut at a new job for a position that already pays less than any job I thought I’d take at this stage of life. We all voted to accept a renegotiated contract in the face of low enrollments at the school, caused by a variety of circumstances, to keep the school alive, also to keep our jobs, which cannot continue to pay us if the money isn’t there. It’s also scary to watch my income go down and down and down at this point in my life, one son in college, two more at home, living in an expensive place in the world, driving an old car, living in an old house full of old things. I’ve done it once before, I keep telling myself, and I’m fine. Divorce, for me and for many, means a decrease in income and security, more drastic than most changes in my life, save the loss of a job, which I have only endured for short periods of time, have always gone smoothly from one job to another, though have never, or rarely earned as much as my contemporaries from Cornell, have learned to accept that part of my choosing in life, choosing not to be rich, but to follow my dreams in other ways.

I don’t really know how to cope with this round of loss. I’ll be careful at Christmas not to overspend. I’ll hope my taxes this year will go way down. I’ve called the phone company and the dentist and the oil company to reduce my bills. I’m thinking of energy conservation, making long term plans for savings and for maintaining the house. I’ve hired my brother to do work I’d otherwise pay contractors more to do. I bought myself two pairs of shoes on sale, one fancy pair of red boots, one decent pair of hiking shoes, a couple of shirts, a sweater and a fancy dress on clearance, and my kids each a thing or two on sale at the gap, figuring it’s good to go into lean times well dressed and also that the belt tightening will happen, but for now, I have some money in the bank and might as well enjoy it, as the magnitude of the problem is not just about shopping for my kids jeans, but about learning to live on much less and not to feel always deprived, again.

We had a fine Thanksgiving and a birthday celebration for me that night. I was surrounded by the house and land and people I love and in that moment I cried for the happiness that brought. My mom got me new kitchen towels and an Audubon book, my sister a silver barrett and wool socks, the sorts of gifts one offers a practical single mom with small indulgent desires.

I’ve not been reading. I’ve been with family and friends, working, watching TV, too much Mad Men on the tv in my bedroom, not something I wanted so much as something I could not waste, moved upstairs when I bought us a new one for the tv room last Christmas, but hardly watched til recently as I learned to be alone in the company of moving figures on the tv, not to see it so much as letting myself down as all right, company I ought to learn to accept.

Last night I was on my own after many days with my kids and with my beau. Plans derailed and I found myself at Porter Square Books in the poetry section trying to find my way home. Sharon Olds was there, waiting for me, and in this interview she validates my yearning, wishes her books would keep someone company when home alone.

I had known she had written a new book, had been pleased recently to find out in a short piece in Writers’ Almanac, which to my great pleasure lay below a poem I admired by Louise Erdrich, another of my favorite writers, whose book, The Round House was propped on the counter beside the register when I bought White Stag, two of my women waiting there at the book store to greet me, to remind me I was not alone. I held off buying The Round House, saved my twenty seven dollars for another night, also kept myself from dividing my attention. When I get a new book of Sharon Olds poems, I like to read it straight through, like a novel.

When I got home, I put the groceries away, too many as always when I thought I was stopping for just Karo syrup and maybe clementines, if they were on sale, ended up with Pim’s cookies, PG Tips and Sleepytime and Bengal Spice Tea, Moxie and Orange Dry and Perrier and too many other things I could not resist on sale with my Shaw’s card, all for me to load, unload, shuffle into the cupboards and bags of the day care and upstairs kitchen and the trunk of the van, preparing for Thanksgiving, for life with kids, for time with my guy, for day care meals, reminding me again, I am not alone.

Then there was leftover mac and cheese and cauliflower for dinner with a candle and a cat, and upstairs to read before bed, this time with ipod and work bag in hand, hoping to knock off a few chores and maybe a blog entry before we’re off for the holiday.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read or written much. I’m out of practice, out of my element again, out of of my depth, unmoored again. I needed to come home, needed Sharon Olds to bring me back.

Sure enough, I cried on the first page, took breaks, and read straight through, hard for me to believe that Sharon Olds was with me again, this time not in raising her children, letting them go, in connecting deeply to a partner, but in enduring a divorce. Somehow, if it was mentioned in the Writers’ Almanac blurb, I missed this bit of important information. The family Sharon Olds wrote about with astounding intimacy is broken, just like mine, and she with it, for a time, just like me. This news both comforts and shatters me. Somehow I had thought she was the model for next time around, how to do it right, how to love another so deeply that things could not possibly go wrong. Instead she’s the one who writes about her husband as he’s leaving, as she’s looking back at signs trying to see what happened, as he’s gone, across town, with someone new, even there again years later, wondering what comes next. It takes a long time to heal from a lost marriage, in Sharon Olds case, of thirty years, in my case, of twenty. We were young and in love once. Now we’re not that anymore. Life moves on, and we try to do it with some grace, while not denying the reality of hard places. Here we are, after the marriage and family are gone, new territory which even my dreams are working to reshape.

Last night I dreamed again about moving. Every night I dream and every morning I remember briefly. Often shortly after I forget. The art of forgetting is important, too, as well as the art of remembering, preserving, holding on, letting go. In last night’s dream, I believe I was sorting belongings, a project in real life I immerse myself in regularly, against Louise Erdrich’s advice, now I remember her poem, to renounce all the sorting, the cleaning, the tidying, in favor of the authentic. For me, the handling of the memories is a piece of the authentic, the lifting of my son’s school papers from the floor of the room where my mom will soon sleep, in a bedroom abandoned first by their dad when he moved his office downstairs, then by the oldest boy when he moved downstairs after his dad left for his apartment, then by the middle guy when he took over the room that was our first bedroom when we bought the house, was then many things, including bedroom for my then husband’s father, project room for the kids and after school group, space for our exchange student who arrived and left with Visa trouble, making room for my boy.

Each time the house shifts, we shift, too. Now there is more work to be done, piles of toys and small clothes in places calling for my attention, put the children to rest, say good-bye to those small moments Sharon Olds brings to life so fully in her poems, when they were small, or growing up, or gone. I wonder all the time these days how I will care for the house through this next transition, one boy off to college, one mom off to work elsewhere three days a week, only one of me to pay the oil bill, to replace the roof when it will surely go, along with many other things, porches, furnaces, van, computer, refrigerators, washer, dryer, all on my list of things which need my money and attention, which are aging as I do, who will help me do it, if I’ll stay.

Too much to think and write about this morning. I’m off to start the day, kids with their dad, beau with his kids in New Hampshire, mom on her way here today with my boy, home from college, as Sharon Olds foretold. Someone reads her poems on my blog most every single day. In that way, as in many others, we’re united. I hope she’s ok with that.

Here’s one from her book which she has published in the NPR interview to which I’ve linked above, and the Louise Erdrich poem from a recent WA which I hope you’ll like. Read them together and you’ll know me a little better in the place where I live. Turns out, the poem and the piece about Sharon Olds were in Writers’ Almanac only yesterday morning. Cool.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, whoever, wherever, however you may be.

“The Healers”

“When they say, if there are any doctors aboard, would they make themselves known?  I remember when my then-husband would rise and I would get to be the one he rose from beside. They say now that it doesn’t work unless you are equal. And after those first 30 years, I wasn’t the one he wanted to rise from or return to, not I, but she who would also rise when such were needed.

“Now I see them lifting side by side on wide medical waiting bird wings like storks with the doctor bags of like, loves, like dangling from their beaks. Oh, well. It was the way it was. He didn’t feel happy when words were called for and I stood.”



Advice to Myself

by Louise Erdrich

Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

“Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich from Original Fire. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the poet Sharon Olds (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1942), who didn’t publish her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), until she was 37 years old. She said, “It took me a long time for the poems that I was writing to feel like me, rather than feel like the people I admired and was learning from.”

Her most recent collection, Stag’s Leap (2012), came out in September.

Her advice to other writers is to be daring and take chances. She said: “I think that whenever we give our pen some free will, we may surprise ourselves. All that wanting to seem normal in regular life, all that fitting in falls away in the face of one’s own strange self on the page.”

When I walk into the art room on Thursdays and Fridays and sometimes even Wednesdays, there is fabric everywhere, at least several times a day. Kids from four to about ten or eleven have taken to sewing. The boxes of fabric and sewing stuff that had lived in the art room before I arrived were a good starting place. First a girl who is no longer there and I worked to figure out the sewing machine. Then somehow the hand sewing began. I think it happened before I was aware. I remember a girl of about nine showing another staff member her wrap around skirt, a piece of fabric fastened around her hip with a closure of some sort, and thinking, there is potential here, kids may like to sew. Just like when the beads and looms came out and kids gathered around, when the fabric comes out, the kids appear. Ironically, the Friday before school opened, the older staff members and I tossed loads of old fabric, thinking it useless. So, I solicited donations from the day care group, and came up with four bags of fabric, small scraps and a few larger pieces, and pins, buttons and ribbon and lace. I bought a new smaller pair of sewing scissors and we found more needles in the art room drawer.

As with the beads, part of the attraction to this activity is the tactile, sensory experience of the stuff. The satiny ribbon, the knubbly ric rac, the bits and large swaths of deep red velvet, the open work of bits of lace, one fingered by a tattooed teen, others squirreled away by younger girls, the brown fur and black satin collected by my youngest bead loving boy, the off white flannel used by a group of nine and ten year old girls to sew the bodies of dolls, since discarded, the hot pink satin pouch snapped up by a visiting six, made into a purse when she added a strand of metallic edged lace, all these things call out to the children like jewels to a mockingbird. Some just want to touch, others want to own, some want to take them home, others want to put them together into finished works, for themselves, or for their friends.

Yesterday the youngest girls wanted to make dresses. This time they hit a nerve, a swath of deep red velvet a slightly older girl had pulled out in the early morning which gave me pause. Up until then all the fabric has been available freely for the children’s use. This time I felt ownership, reserve. I asked for it back, decided that this piece was special, would cost money, should be treated dearly according to it’s value in the larger marketplace. I also wonder if I was triggered by my own childhood memories. When I was a small girl I was invited to be the flower girl in an older cousin’s wedding. She had a seamstress measure my sister and me and make us long gowns of deep magenta velvet trimmed with off white cotton lace. Till this day, that dress is probably the garment which made me feel most beautiful. I wore it again for Christmas, after the wedding in November, and the following year, my mother remarried, and I wore a dress of the same pattern, this time in a larger size, and sewed of turquoise double knit, a gorgeous color, but not so gorgeous as the magenta, and the double knit offered nothing to compare to the velvet when it came to sheer hand feel. I still love to run my hands over velvet.

My own sewing project in the art room, as I keep the kids company, has been to hand stitch little velvet bags for the game pieces formerly stored in fraying polyester felt pouches. I’ve made three so far. The first one was blue with a rose button and a guatemalan woven strap to tie it shut, to hold the grandest pieces, chess men. The second was a lichen green with a matching satin ribbon tie, to hold the backgammon shakers, dice, and pieces. The third was for the checkers, red velvet with a black satin ribbon and a button of pale pink, a shade not different from, but lighter than the velvet.

Someone used the chess pieces and when they finished, put the pieces in the velvet pouch, wrapped the guatemalan strap around it, and fastened a silicone loop at the end of the strap around the red button on the side, intended for decoration, now shown to have a function, too.

Sewing with the girls and boy who have so far showed an interest is a place to begin. No one else on staff seems to have an interest in sewing, so I’m free to do it my way and to take it as it comes. Mostly the kids sew and I help them learn little things like how to use the pins, where to find the fabric shears, and I remind them where things are and how to put them away, which they learn quickly to do by themselves. Occasionally I’ll thread a needle or tie a knot, but mostly the children learn to do those things as well, or to find other children who will help.

I’m wondering where the sewing will go. Will the hand sewers eventually sew more finished pieces? Will they want to use the sewing machine, or patterns, to make clothing, gifts, things for the school or their homes? Or will this be a passing phase, a fun thing to explore, that will be done soon, when they pick up the next best thing? I’m not a big sewer anymore. For me it’s about the materials, the exploration, the competence and conversation, the caring for the stuff, the space, one another, oneself, the development of practical and artistic skills, judgment and aesthetic sense, an opening to what is possible if one tries, persists, gives up, comes back, tries again, or moves on, just another way to do those things we do in so many, many ways.

This morning is the first day of daylight savings time. I am grateful when I wake up to find I have slept an hour longer than the bedside table says, as I stayed up too late watching two episodes of Mad Men after returning from a luxurious outing with my daughter, girls night out to Harvard Square then Coolidge Corner, bead shop, GAP, Panera takeout for dinner, which we ate while we waited for the show to begin, in only its second night at the theater. We were warned to show up early and we did, ate our panini and chopped thai salad and apples and cookies in the dark while the theater filled, until it was time for previews, then the feature, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which we both liked very much.

So, the cleaning from yesterday didn’t really get done. The changing of beds and the washing of clothes and linens is a weekend long project, nearly finished now at what would be noon on Sunday, but in this brave new world is only eleven. I vacuumed this morning, rather than shower, made raspberry pancakes, took my gal to the last stop on the subway to meet her teenage friend from the country, who had driven in and parked in the commuter lot, took their photo, and headed to Iggy’s for fresh bagels, rolls, and bread for the week, at a discount, delicious, wondering what soup or stew I’ll make to go with them.

As I left the bread shop at 10:45 I had my moment of regret as I realized I could have made it to Quaker Meeting, had I planned ahead, forgone the bread. The teenage friend indeed arrived just before 10:30, as she had planned, and if I had gone directly from the T stop to the Meeting House, I would have been just about on time for the 10:30 service, could have snuck into the balcony if nothing else. Too late now, though, as I drove home with the bag of bread beside me in the passenger seat, my daughter’s velvet jacket in between us, her fancy Easter dress strewn across the third row seat, my boy unresponsive to my text requesting input on the bagels likely sound asleep. I could have sat in silence in the beautiful meeting house, but instead I headed home.

The cat is happy that I did. Frances is on my belly as I type, insistent every now and then that I actively pet her back and neck and head, drooling as she does when she purrs, wetting my fingers and my sweaters as she warms my belly through layers of wool and thermal, winter gear from yesterday thrown on today when I moved from shower plan to vacuuming, to pancakes, to driving, to buying bread.

Ahead lie more laundry, more paperwork, more phone calls, more cleaning, some cooking, food shopping and storing, time with my guy, maybe some leaf raking, trash dragging to the curb. Its Sunday and I feel I should have done better, will take a bit of time now after the writing to read an article in The Sun, an interview with Parker Palmer, a Quaker at least, and the place this fascination with spirituality and Quaker ideas had it’s start for me. Maybe a nap at some point, too, good place to commune with dreams, find quiet, and rest.

Happy Sunday. However you honor the sabbath, may it bring peace to your body, mind, and soul.

Here is today’s poem from the Writers’ Almanac, by Jane Kenyon, wife of Donald Hall, partners whose lives in writing and in living seem to be some sort of model for what Sunday ought to be, at least for me.


Twilight: After Haying

by Jane Kenyon

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed —
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
— sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses….

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

“Twilight: After Haying” by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. © Graywolf Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)