Perfect Placement

“Pooh Bear has a spot, a log under a tree marked by a sign, that reads ‘Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot.’
 
“This is where Pooh would go to think. From this, a famous quote emerged, ‘This is a thoughtful spot to rest.'”

–April Giatt, “A Thoughtful Spot”, sholom.org

There were 14 of us around the table, talking about culture, talking about place. Our book of focus was JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We all connect to the same small college. We are old and young, male and female, faculty and staff, retired, just starting out, and mid-career. And about half of us have our roots here, in this land, in this place, and in this culture.

The rest of us come, mostly, from northeastern United States and northern Ohio—places not so far away, maybe, but places that are different in shape and scope and in the way the wind smells after a soaking rain. One young instructor comes from a cityscape in new Jersey, and she is dedicated to understanding her Appalachian students.

She expected to deal with issues like excess partying and crazy costumes and disrespectful language…and she found, to her pleased surprise, that, those kind of issues are short in supply here. But she encountered other challenges, like the student who had to miss an important exam because her grandmother was in the hospital.

Her grandmother was not critically ill; it was a gall bladder operation.  No matter, the student told her professor, the family HAD to be there.

But…the young professor said. But…doesn’t your grandmother want you to pass this class—to do well in school? She must be so proud of you.

My grandmother, said the student, wants me at the hospital.

The people around the table who’d grown up in the area nodded and jumped in with their own stories. One talked of the edict, on a night that she had a very important meeting–a meeting, mind you, in which she had an organizational and a speaking role– to come sit vigil with the extended family for Aunt Aggie–who was 94, and had been slowly dying quite a while. Come and be there, the caller said, with 14 other family members, for the conference with the doctor. The person thus called upon is a smart and savvy woman, a polished professional who has made strong decisions and excelled at school and forged new pathways. And Aunt Aggie, mind you, was long past knowing or caring who was in the room with her.

So what did you do? the New Jersey refugee asked.

I told my mother, Aunt Aggie won’t know or care if I’m there, said our colleague. And my mother told me, Your Uncle Gary wants you there.

She looked at us and shrugged wryly.

So, she said, I went and sat vigil with Aunt Aggie.

Several people nodded.

It’s what we do here, they agreed.

They believe in the power and the value of family. They believe that you need celebration at birth, and support throughout your life.

They believe that, as long as you have family, there’s no reason for you to die alone.

**************

There are those of us who leave, and there are those of us who stay: for all of us, there is the issue, the decision, of place. The places we choose shape us and hone us.

Our choice of place is an important part of who we are.

**************

We lived for a while on the prairie in western Ohio, where Mark went to law school. We visited the campus the spring before he enrolled, exploring and observing; we watched students walking the sidewalks that intersected the manicured lawns. We gaped.

“Where are the piercings?” I asked. “Where’s the purple hair?”

I had worked at a SUNY campus where many of the students majored in music or art; they were dramatic and flamboyant young people with studded lips and noses. They wore vintage fabrics draped artfully over authentically tattered jeans.  Their hair color often changed to match their costume hues. Many students, both men and women, dark-lined their eyes, and their passionate conversations soared and crested.

On the campus that housed Mark’s law school, the students walked sedately. Young men wore Oxford shirts; some free spirits jauntily rolled their long sleeves up. We saw more khaki pants than jeans, and the young women, hair shining, often wore skirts.

They were polite and smiling; probably thinking anyone as old as we were must be faculty or administration, they all said respectful hellos when we passed.

Mark and I exchanged looks. “Toto,” we agreed, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Twice, faced with unexpected detours on the back roads of Ohio, I was rescued by polite young men in pickup trucks who insisted that they’d lead me back to civilization. One drove seven miles out of his way to get me onto the main road, and then turned his truck–which was pulling a trailer full of hay–around in a driveway, waved and sped off before I could even stop to thank him.

It’s how these boys were taught to behave. Or, as friends with strong roots here say, “It’s how we do things here.”

The people are nice where I came from, but I don’t see that seven mile detour happening. Place has a lot to do with how we act and interact.

******************

There’s a writer I like, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes books about North Carolina Appalachian folks–folks who are deeply rooted in the hills and the hollers of her fictional county. And she touches on, in her writing, the massive exodus of the Scots and the Irish from their lands, and their flight to the United States.

There’s a strand of green mineral, McCrumb says, that undergirds Scotland and Ireland. The same mineral strand runs below the hills of Appalachia. The author believes that back in the days of Pangaea, the Celtic lands connected to Appalachia. Then some catastrophic cracking separated the mass into two continents. But when the Scots Irish came to America and looked for a place to settle, the hills of Appalachia, formed and shaped by the same geology as the hills they left behind, spoke ‘home’ to them.

“Yep,” I can imagine them saying, “This here. This is the place.”

Transient, forced to leave their birth-lands, they settled in places that looked and felt and smelled like home. And protected–or cut off, depending on your view–from outside influence, they retained many of the customs and courtesies of the lands they’d fled. In fact, the year we first moved to this area, a troupe presented Shakespeare in the park in Columbus, Ohio–presented the play in Appalachian dialect. The language, the director maintained, was the closest living language left to Elizabethan English. Nurtured and protected in those hills and hollows, it  survived when other dialects were flattened out and homogenized by proximity and media.

Some of those hollows are still pretty well insulated from modern intrusions. There are students here who go home to houses where the long arm of the Internet still does not reach–or whose “highspeed” Internet is dial-up.

If your place does not plug into modern society’s media arteries, that, too, defines you.

***************

We understand that ‘click’ of connection, Mark and I do, with land that feels like home. We enjoyed the people and the long vistas and the opportunities afforded by our prairie years, but there were days when the cold wind blew in, relentless, from the west, and I could look out miles and miles and miles to try to see where it was coming from–a flat unbroken plain of view.

We grew up, both us, in western New York, on the coast of Lake Erie, where gentle foothills swell into the Allegheny Mountains. Those rolling hills shaped and formed us, and we found we missed them. (Once, then, I made Mark drive us to a nearby town called Mount Victory, so we could see the mount. We found, sadly, that the highest point in town was the railway overpass; there was no hill to climb.)

When we first visited Knox County, Ohio, where we’d live after Mark graduated, we felt an immediate connection. The hills rolled and gentled.

“This feels,” Mark said, “like home.”

****************

If one lives in the United States, one comes from migratory stock. One’s ancestors may have chosen to relocate, or they may have been forcibly relocated. But relocate they did. The mythos of the country is a legend of migration–of westward expansion, of independent cusses who had to up and move when the land got crowded, when things like stores and schools and churches moved in.

My friend Wendy, who grew up in New England,–where, of course, they famously farm for rocks,–comes to visit and she marvels at the rich and gently rolling land. New Englanders must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven, she says, when they came upon this fertile land. No wonder this place called to them.

People choose their places by geography or opportunity, by job and by marriage.  Some put down long roots and really merge, and generations come to know and appreciate the same spaces.  Others are transplants; their roots stay closer to the surface. Survivors, they know that they may have to pull up those shallow roots and move on again.

There are benefits and sacrifices to whatever choice is made.

*****************

I am thinking about place because of the revelations that emerge in discussing Hillbilly Elegy, and some of the mysteries of this place, and some of the mysteries of these practices, are explained.

I am thinking about place as one I know contemplates a difficult choice between two wonderful jobs–one that would take him away from the home he and his family have adopted and grown to love, but that would also move him closer to his roots.

I am thinking about place because a friend is willingly exiled by a family emergency; she misses the geography and the comfort and the refuge of home.

I am thinking of place as the reality of time rubs against the needs of an adult son with disabilities; he will need to access services after his father and I are gone. Where, we ponder, is the best place for us, ultimately, to live?

******************

The places we live work to shape us; the choices we make help define us. We choose this place because…it feels like home. It gives us room. It offers work. It has the goods, the services, the people, the proximity, that fill our need. Or–we choose this place because our family is here. Because our roots go deep, and we will not pull them up.

We choose because this is the sight we want to see every morning when we wake up and take our mug of steaming coffee onto the back stoop; this is the vista we need to start our every day.

The choice we make reflects what is most important to us at the time of choosing. We may make that choice many times in a lifetime. Staying will teach us many things. Upping roots and going will give us chances to learn others.

********************

And those who go and those who stay blend and meld and create cultures–and those cultures slowly change and shift, enriched–not often impoverished–by the influence of people, of media, of industry and tourism and the winds that blow across the lake, the plain, the mountain peak. We may be tiny pebbles dropped into a large still pond, but the dropping makes a ripple. We change the culture. The place exerts its pressure onto us.

There is not, I don’t think, a WRONG place to live–unless the place we’ve chosen sucks our souls dry or presents us with choices we cannot bear to make. But our places absolutely shape our beings.

We all, like Pooh Bear, need to find our place. And we need to be able to look at the place we’ve chosen, to sigh, and to and say, “This is a thoughtful place to rest.”

A Good Friday Ledger

Easter

The bricks and cement of the back patio are slicked and wet when I run the kitchen garbage out, ducking into the carport to wrestle with the recalcitrant trash can, which is always unwilling to surrender its lid. The app on my phone did not predict rain–clouds with periods of sun, it promised–but rain seems fitting.

It is Good Friday, and steady somber weather feels just right.

“The pubs are closed in Ireland today!” Mark said this morning, looking up from the early paper. “They can’t buy alcohol!”

He seemed shocked. (I feel the Irish ancestors rising up in dudgeon. “Tell that boy,” they demand testily, ” we could easily forego a drop on this most serious of sacred days.”)

The alcohol ban seems fitting to me, Good Friday being a day of fast and abstinence. Although—I remember a daring Good Friday when my friends and I went to a hometown bar and tasted our first Manhattans and Rob Roys. And ordered up cheeseburgers to go with them, flagrantly flying in the face of tradition, proud rebels of spirits and cuisine. The drinks were unimpressive–I don’t think I’ve ever tried either concoction again,–and the burgers cold and uninspiring. (So that was meaningless and uneventful–real rebellion should inspire some sort of thoughtful, lasting transformation. That silly mini-binge night: huh. It didn’t change a thing.)

Coffee, in my family canon, is okay on Good Friday–it’s a day when I still do not eat meat, nor do I nosh between meals, but I drink coffee all day long today without a twinge of conscience. This morning I dump the too-dark syrupy dregs of my morning pot and set up fresh water for the next pot of decaffeinated brew.

I pull the duster and the vacuum from the back closet. This is a good day to clean, a good day to clear surfaces and suck up the dust and grit of the week, to organize clutter. The sacrifice of Good Friday demands austerity. The celebration of Easter is best painted on a clean slate.

I wick away the cobwebs and, to the crabby little dog’s dismay, I fire up the vacuum. She flees, staying a room away from its high-pitched whooshing noise. I curl the excess cord over my arm; I push forward and I pull back, and the rhythmic motions release tamped thoughts. Sadness flows, and sense of loss.

Last Monday, deep into planning a workshop on holding effective meetings–the irony of planning a meeting to talk about meetings bouncing in front of my awareness like a silly balloon–I felt the raw, insistent blatting of my cell phone. An electric jolt coursed. I knew before I picked up the phone that the text would tell me Kim had died. She was ready; she was at peace with knowing the end was near. She was suffering. This was a blessed Lenten release. And yet: the sadness and the loss were immediate and very real.

And this is the season of new life–of religious festivals of death and rebirth. My mother died a Lenten death, too, and she was buried from an Easter church. There were flowers and banners with butterflies-emerged, and we sang about eagles’ wings in the glowing of the Paschal candle. Symbols of resurrection everywhere: great comfort for my father.

A celebration for Kim might be a different kind of thing, I think, held in an outdoor ‘scape where grass pushes into woods. There would be wine and poetry; the singing might be softer and more yearning. Scarves would float and billow in honor of the lost one. There might, in fact, be drumming, pagan and pulsing, thrumming from those woods. Kim would like to hear some Wendell Berry recited well; she’d be lulled and transported by some authentic rhythm and blues.

And Spring nature itself proclaims the message–what was dead is bursting into life; what was dormant is transformed. Liturgical, ecological: truth interpreted whatever way the listeners need to hear. A death, a release, requires celebration.

On Good Friday, though, I recognize the loss and let the sadness stay.

************

I line up vases and pretty, thick-walled jars. When the rain stops, I’ll go and harvest daffodils and the waxy white flowers, drooping bells like giant lilies of the valley, that have blossomed in the sunlight behind the house. I’ll check to see if there are blooms on the stalky unkempt lilac bush neglected in the farthest corner of the yard. I’ll trim and sort and arrange, and carry flowery offerings to brighten all the common rooms. I’ll bring the promise nature makes inside to my dark corners.

On a basement shelf, I find a box; it’s labelled “Easter Stuff.” Some scant ceramics nestle inside: two bunnies, a little egg-shaped house, a pink-faced Easter lamb. I let them share a sunny table top, punctuated by candles, awaiting the arrival of blooms.

***************

I shake the crumbs from the toaster into the sink; I remove the little trays hidden beneath and wash them sparkling clean. I completely clear the countertops and wipe all crumbs away. I fill the sink with steaming water, dollop in some cleaner, and plunge my damp mop in. I am mopping when the dog erupts, and the mail slides through the slot.

While the floor dries, I read my letter of acknowledgement from my pension system. More paperwork is coming, it tells me, but my retirement is on track. (The letter also offers helpful advice, like, “It’s important to let your employer know that you have plans to retire.” Aha. I make a note.)

Retirement will not mean, for me, an end to work, but it will bring great changes to the acts and facts of my working life. Another portent of new life coming, arrived on this mindful day.

************

I open the refrigerator to pull out salad dressing and celery to mix my tuna salad for lunch, and I smile at the turkey breast defrosting on the bottom shelf. We’re having a family mini-rebellion this year: Away with the Easter ham! We’ll have us some turkey instead!

So Sunday, we’ll chop veggies and sauté them into stuffing, mixing in the rich broth we made from roasted chicken bones last night. We’ll mash steaming potatoes with cheese and a touch of garlic, whisk the gravy, pour whole cranberries in their tangy sauce into Grandma’s old glass dish.

We will dine as if it is Thanksgiving, and maybe Thanksgiving is an undercurrent of this season:


Thank you for the safe end to winter.

Thank you for the joy of new growth.

Hams are good; they’re lovely, in fact. But this year, we’ll eat turkey.

**********

There will be treats, too, of course. One day last week, James and I did a Granville run and stopped at our favorite chocolatier. We bought three scoops of special treats–English toffee, sea salt caramels, salted caramel turtles,–and had the lady wrap them up in bright Easter papers. We hid them in a pot on a way-high shelf, so we’d forget and let them be until triumphant Easter morning.

We bought a frozen custard cake, just the right size for three appreciators. It is tumbled high with chocolate chunks.

We will have much for which to thank our Easter bunny.

***************

This afternoon, I’ll steal the time to read a new book* about the poet Robert Lowell, who studied at Kenyon College, not so very far from here. Lowell was a genius; Lowell was bipolar, and his periodic bouts of mania would whisk away his right mind and replace it with a wrong one. Every time the mania hit, he’d turn away from his wife and to some young and inappropriate lover. His tongue would leap with cutting, harsh words he couldn’t control, and he would hurt and shame his friends. He would stalk and drink and dance the night hours away–sleeping be damned!–until the whole thing got so bad the police would arrive to take him away.

Once he made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to a  poem before he went off willingly to his next institutionalization.

And then would come the pain of stabilizing, the long time of healing, until his right mind returned. And always he’d both embrace the return of life and burn with shame for all he’d done. A quirk of Lowell’s illness was a perfect memory of everything he’d done when he was out of control.

Lowell was a man who understood Good Friday, with its grim and unforgiving sacrifice. He was a man who knew that new life follows darkness.

******************

I sit at the dining room table, and I watch, though the bay window, white petals floating from the tree that’s just outside. They stain the once-mowed grass–the lawn that needs mowing again tomorrow. They float to earth, making way for the leaves pushing themselves into the light.

The rain has stopped; the clouds are lightening, and here and there the sun cracks through.

The messages of loss and growth abound. It is Good Friday. I move a ceramic bunny closer to the brass candlestick, and I go to eat my lunch.

********************

*Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire; A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Kay Redfield Jamison. 2017; Alfred A. Knopf.

The Artist’s Walk

We pull ourselves up, grabbing gleaming railings buffed by years of hands sliding over their glossy surfaces, to the fourth floor of the old Masonic building.  Heart pounding, legs quivering, I stop to get my breath, to let a family—long-tressed tiny mama, dad with a fuzzy knit hat and a baby papoosed on his chest, dancing toddler daughter in blue jeans and lavender nylon tutu—scooch around me.

The old building, with its grand architecture, elaborate woodwork, intricately tiled floors, is a warren of art studios. On the first Friday of every month, the artists put out brownies and lemonade, white wine and home-baked Parmesan crackers, craft beer and crudités. They sweep up the detritus that’s left from making art; they display their work on rickety tables covered with jewel-toned cloths. And they throw open their doors to a cool-eyed crowd. They wave and beckon, hoping the public will appreciate and understand.

I wander down the hallway after the boyos; at the very far end, in a small, bright room, a slender young woman stands rigidly next to a table full of tiny paintings. I say hello and she takes a breath, and then she is unleashed.

She tells me she works in paint and crayon, ink and oil. She does multi-media art and photography. She is celebrating her one year anniversary of having this studio with a buy two, get one free sale.

She looks at me, hopeful.

I ask her about her favorite medium, and I pick up a pen and ink drawing of the Dark Side album cover. I show it to Jim, who, at age 27, has just discovered Pink Floyd. (“Oh, by the way,” he will ask me, once or twice a day, apropos of something random, “which one’s Pink?”)

I mention Jim’s interest to the artist, and she lights up, swiveling, still in that tightly-held posture, to face him. “Favorite song?” she demands, and Jim is thoughtful. He tells her about the four albums he has bought and downloaded in the last year; he has favorite tunes on each. He loves an opening here–but not the rest of that song,–and a cover there.

I leave them discussing “Comfortably Numb,” (“My dad wants that played at his funeral,” Jim confides to the artist-girl) and wander next door, where Mark is looking at some large photographic canvases. There are shots of soaring planes in magenta clouds and gleaming red sports cars on rain-glazed Parisian streets. There is one of Janis Joplin floating above the ground next to a pink RV. Behind her, the moon is tethered to the ground with what look like attenuated swing-set supports. Acrylic and multi-media, read the tags.

This room is bigger, evening sun shining through massive windows with ancient, rippling glass, and many artists share the space. Amazing wooden sculptures interrupt the photographic realism. They sweep and swerve and they beg me to touch their gleaming surfaces, as smooth and lovely as those railings that help us heave ourselves upstairs. Polished by elbow grease, though, these works are–not patina-ed by time.

We circle the room, the walls lined with prints and girded by sculptures; the sweeping floor punctuated by installations. I circle around one and find, behind a wall of paintings, an exhibit of chain mail. There are gloves and the beginning of a vest; there are tiny samples  of linked metal that show how one begins. There is a stack of flyers advertising the artist’s specialty bracelet–chain mail linked by a polished silver puzzle piece. He urges people to wear them in support of families affected by autism.

“How about that?” I say, showing Mark,–and Jim, who has joined us. The artist, a gentle young man in a fuzzy toque, with baggy jeans and sleeves so long I can just see his black-tinged fingertips, breaks away from a conversation and wanders over. He tells me that someone from the autism society suggested the project to him. He liked the idea.

How many should I make? he asked his mentor, and that person said, I don’t know. Twenty?

So he made twenty, and they sold within two days.

I need to make more, he says.

I told him we’d be interested in knowing when he had more bracelets. Autism, I say, is a topic of close importance to my family.

He looks at me, fiercely making eye contact. To MINE, too, he says.

He gives me his card, and we wander on, down the stairs, past the three men by the doorway, playing folk guitars and singing “The House of the Rising Sun” .

We cross an alley and a parking lot and we go into another studio, shared by two women named Susan who do collage and fabric art and experiment with paint and printing and weaving found objects into their work. Their studio is upstairs; three men make music in a couched corner. Above and behind them soars a book lined loft, reached by ladder-like stairs. Slouchy, comfortable chairs angle into the sun. I want to sneak back and spend an afternoon, reading in the sun amidst amazing art.

At the back of the studio, one of the artists offers us a tour of the loft apartments which have just been vacated. We walk on reclaimed wood floors, surrounded by soaring brick walls, and windows that reach from floor to 16-foot ceilings. Sleek open spaces. Wood and stone and metal.  Someone’s artistic urban vision come to life in a downtown Zanesville building.

We drive home by the still and mirrored river, and I ponder artistry and inspiration. I am reading a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison,  Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. It is subtitled, “A study of genius, mania, and character.” Lowell, who won the Pulitzer for his poetry, also spiraled between intensity and insanity, in and out of institutions, up from the depths, writing his way through despair and shame after manic episodes left him reeling.

I think of the intense young artists I met tonight. I think of an artist’s cooperative I visited in Chicago with my nephew Brian, a vibrant downtown space filled with the work of autistic adults. I think of Vincent Van Gogh and his mutilated ear.

Because where is that line, the one between genius and lunacy?

**********

Children are creators, uninhibited, dancing and singing, wielding wild crayons, declaiming to plush audiences. Cutting paper into baubles worthy of the Queen. Children land beautifully, unselfish-consciously, on the side of crazy-good creating.

But that doesn’t always–or often, maybe–stick. Something happens; the creativity fades and other passions flood in–the passion for achievement, for nurturing, for being responsible. This is not wrong or bad or ill-advised. But I remember going to visit ‘Auntie’ Mags, many years ago; she was in her nineties, in a home, and her hands encircled my wrists like the claws that blindly reach for gaudy treasures in those rip-off machines at the arcade.

She’d been an art teacher, Mags had, and a dancer. Once, she told me, she’d loved an artist; he had, she said, a chest as big and firm as a tropical beach, and as warm and tantalizing to rest on. She chortled at my twitch of shock.

An artist, she mused, remembering, and then she told me that a day came when she looked at him and didn’t see free-spirited creativity. She saw laziness instead. She burned, she said with the desire for motherhood and respectability, and not long after that, she met her love, a businessman who adored her bohemian charm. They had babies and they gave parties in their artfully appointed home. They traveled. He built her a studio over the garage.

It was an artful life, said Mags, but not an artist’s life. She had come to a day, way back there when she was a wild-eyed, dancing girl, when she had to decide which flame to fan. She never regretted her choice, but, she said, when you close that door…Oh, it stays so firmly shut.

**********

There’s a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Robert Lowell walked that razor’s edge, falling sometimes this way, sometimes that. Living on that terrifying ledge, he was able to make his art. His art enriched the world.

Mental illness does not guarantee artistry, and not all artists are mentally ill–I know firm-footed, completely grounded creators who produce work that makes one soar and dream and weep. But there is some open doorway there, in all creators, an access to a rooftop, maybe; it’s a vista reached by a hidden stairway not all of us can climb.

Maybe the fact of illness, for some people, unhooks the restraints that keep the rest of us tethered. Maybe there’s a moment of decision for every artist–a pivotal point like the one Mags remembered so well: rooftop or kitchen? Phoenix or LeSabre?

And some, maybe, put away the brushes and the clay and craft a life instead–a life often filled with beautifully sculpted meals and well-plotted family adventures and rich fabrics and doors that open to a fascinating fleet of friends. Life as collage, perhaps, responsible and well-ordered, yes—but tinged around the edges with a vibrant searing hue.

And the others–well, they throw themselves into the fire and let genius, as Jo March’s sisters said of her, burn. And what they forge! The songs and sonnets, tales and tableaux, paintings and sculptures. Masterpieces. In between, of course, there are the false starts and the flops, the mis-steps and mistakes. The artists throw those things back into the fire. They continue on.

They emerge sometimes to get cool, to rest from the unrelenting heat. But then, the creative brave ones, they dive back in. They sacrifice, those artists do, giving up a certain security, foregoing some sorts of domesticity–they enslave themselves to art.

If they live next door to us (unmowed lawn, lights blazing late at night), we might call them lunatics. If they are separated from us by time or geography, we deem them geniuses, and we scrimp and save to buy their creations, or to visit the museums that showcase their work.

What makes a person an artist? What calls a person to create?

************

I don’t know, but I know I need it. I need the spice and rhythm and richness that artistry releases into the world. I need the direct contact with jolting, flooding feeling, with a different kind of worldview, with a willingness to walk an unmarked path.

I don’t know what conjures up the artist in a person, but I walk the busy studios on First Friday, I see the intensity and eager displays, and I am grateful beyond gladness that there are those–in any and in every time–who give their lives to art.

The Hardest Part

…I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth   
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
        –from “I am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42869

“I am waiting,” writes poet Ferlinghetti, and years ago, I, an awkward, impatient college student, read those words and realized something: everyone is waiting. Waiting for payday, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the message or the phone call; waiting to hear about the job; waiting to settle into the job; waiting for real life to commence.

They’re waiting for baby to arrive, for the results of the election, for the next joyful day. They’re waiting for the next bruising thing.

Waiting, my 19-year-old self realized, though dimly, through distorting smoky lenses, is the human condition.

And, oh. How I hated waiting.

***********

As a child, it seemed that every good thing involved a protracted wait, a rigorous preparation time,—and I was not, I quickly learned, a graceful wait-er. Before we put the Christmas tree up [on the day before Christmas Eve, and why did we have to wait so long? Everyone else’s tree had been up for a week or more. I had a friend whose family put their tree up on THANKSGIVING WEEKEND] the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. This involved scouring all surfaces and, sometimes, even painting them. It involved crawling on the floor with a bucket that contained water sudged up with a glomp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, a viscous substance which needed much flailing of hand in the bucket to become one with the water.

“God forbid,” I would mutter, “we should march into Christmas with unwashed woodwork.”

That sentiment earned me a rap on the head, but it did not get me out of cleaning. Christmas was coming; Advent was its season of waiting. Of preparation. We washed woodwork. And I could feel the coming of joy, of that moment on Christmas morning when it was finally time! When everyone piled in and tore off the wrappings and wonderful, unthought-of things were mine, mine without asking, mine without sharing, mine, because someone had considered what I might like. Thank you, Jesus, for your birthday treasure, thought the child.

I did not sleep the night before Christmas; I thrashed and whined and lay, eyes wide open, feeling all the angst and wonder of major joy imminent.

It didn’t help that my father worked for the power company and that he always had to work on Christmas. If he was scheduled for later arrival– 8 a.m., perhaps, we’d all get up at 6 and pile in. But if he had to go in early–say, from 6 until 2–we would have to wait. Those hours, after a sleepless night, and with the presents stacked enticingly below the tree, were murderous.

“Take a NAP,” my mother would snarl, when I whined about how long it was taking.

A NAP? Was she kidding?

The hours ticked away, moment by sluggish moment.

Good things are worth waiting for, my mother opined.

Waiting, I thought (but did not say), is highly over-rated.

****************

It was hard enough waiting for good things. Waiting for bad, awful things was even worse. When I committed some childhood crime and was told we would talk about it later, I thrashed and moaned. Oh, let’s just get it over with! I thought; let’s be on the other side of the spanking and the yelling.

But timing wasn’t MY choice; if they said wait, then wait I must.

We had an egg-shaped dentist, bald of head, round of belly, garbed in white, who had powdery clean hands and lashless eyes behind rimless glasses. He did not believe in Novocaine–Novocaine was for SISSIES! he said,–and he would crook my head firmly in the pit of his elbow and drill for gold.

No matter how I brushed, it seemed there was always gold for which to drill. In those memory-tinted days, we did not go to the dentist every six months; we went every toothache instead. So there was never a, “No cavities this time!” visit; every visit involved the whirring, smelly, smoky dental drill. And there was always a wait of at least a week before we could go.

So I waited with an aching tooth, and I waited with the knowledge of pain to come, and the waiting seeped in and flavored–tainted–every single day.

I tried to tell myself that I was letting one anticipated moment ruin hundreds of others.

I tried to tell myself that the time before and after the dreaded moment was GOOD time, happy time, time to draw pictures and play kickball and read wonderful books. But that one looming moment soaked into everything I enjoyed, spoiling the fun.

I would leave the dental office with the memory of that ache ground into my teeth, knowing a next time was coming.

*******************

When I grow up, I thought, contemplating waiting, things are gonna change.

And so I waited to grow up.

*******************

And I discovered, having at least nominally completed that growing, that I finally had some control.

So our Christmas tree went up the second or third week of December, and quite often, the woodwork had not been scrubbed on hands and knees. We enjoyed the glow and the greenery and the warmth through the depth of that darkest month. The wait for Christmas morn, and the tearing into presents, became an enjoyable anticipation. If I still couldn’t sleep the night before, as a grown-up, there was plenty to keep me busy–presents to assemble and wrap, coffee cakes to shape and bake and frost, thank you notes from Santa to write for plates of home-made cookies.

And then living with an autistic child taught me something about waiting, too–taught me that if waiting for the good thing is exquisite and challenging for US, it can be true agony for THEM. And so we had to change the shape of much-anticipated holidays, doling out delights along the paths, lessening the pressure-cooker of stressful anticipation.

It wasn’t just being a grown-up. The people who are dear to me changed the way I wait.

********

But. I controlled what I could.

********

I found a better dentist, of course; I went for regular checkups. The need for the drill lessened dramatically…and when it did come ’round, I forcefully advocated for Novocaine.

I found that planning made the waiting times flow; that tasks to be done and milestones along the way created a pace and a paving to the anticipated event.

Time taught me that there are some waits I cannot control, as we navigated such things as closings for houses and celebrated the nine month preparation for a baby.

And I learned that, sometimes, waiting involves vigil.  I learned that at the bedsides of my parents; they taught me deep-planted lessons about the grace of dying well.

**********************

Lent is a waiting season, a vigil itself–waiting for the tragedy to happen, trusting in the miracle to follow. And this Lent, the theme of waiting is especially present.

This year, I can count on one hand the months left in my academic life: I am waiting to retire.

This year, I walk by my little dog, melded into the couch cushions, snoring deeply, and I think about her milky eyes and at least twelve years, and I ratchet down my annoyance at her pleadings and ratchet up my love of her silky head.

This year, my bold friend Kim, who was told seven years ago to get her affairs in order–told then that her hour was at hand,–is well and truly entered into that last days tunnel.

And I’m realizing that waiting times are sometimes grace times–times of doing the necessary work, ordering the papers; times of being mindful and joyful of what we know we’re losing; times of celebrating connection before the necessity of letting go: preparing the house for the event I know is coming.

I have learned this: that life, no matter what, brings pain. I can insulate myself to minimize that, to keep the pain at its very minimum–but the isolation itself is painful consequence. So…with every dog we’ve ever had, when the parting time comes, we have wept and we have muttered, “Never again. Never again. I cannot say goodbye like this one more time.”

And the car stops, it seems, of its own volition, at the Humane Society, and the wet-eyed pup pokes its nose through the chain links, and we know: we will adopt this dog, and we will love each age and stage.

And we will say goodbye.

And if I throw myself out into the torrent–if I take chances and forge connections and braid myself into others’ lives, and weave those others into mine–then loss becomes an inevitable part of joy. But on the way–what wonders. What growth and sharing and learning accrue, the gifts of deep friendships and family relationships and community commitments,–accomplishments forged together; fun, unimagined beforehand; perfect, complete, and nurturing times–what things I would have missed.

********************

I am waiting, writes Ferlinghetti, and oh, he’s right: I am waiting.

I am waiting for the flowers to bud, for the paperwork for the pension to arrive, for the four-legged step to falter, for the days of a wonderful friend to ebb and wane. I am waiting for that end to come, and I am waiting to learn how that end is also a beginning.

I am waiting because I must; I am waiting without grace; but I am waiting. And I am discovering the value that lurks within.

Sleeping In

The alarm clock jiggles and dances at 6:28 AM, and I reach out and slide the lever down, turning it off. The dog, who knows that THAT particular alarm sound is aimed at Mark, whimpers a little, heaves herself out of her cozy dog bed, and ambles around to where Mark is shaking off the sleep.

“All right,” he says, resignedly, struggling into his snuggly robe. “Let’s go outside.”

They leave; I hear the ticky-tacking of the dog’s nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, and then, the opening of the back door.

And I consider: I could get up now. Normally, I’d have been up for at least an hour.

But it is Friday, and I don’t have to work. Last night, I had one of those energy surges, and I finished up all my little hanging obligations. The package is put together and addressed; the notes for the meeting are ready. Letters written, responses made–there is nothing calling me to my computer.

I have nothing that must be done until almost 1 PM.

And the bed is warm, and the room is dark, and I pull the blankets more firmly around me, rolling over and sighing. The dog nudges open the door and jumps on the bed. She circles around three times, then nests herself into the crook of my knee pit. We breathe a deep, contented breath in unison, and we drift back off to sleep, lulled by the sound of water thrumming in the shower.

***********
I wake up an hour later, feeling crystal clear and smelling the definite smell of carbonized toast: Mark’s favorite breakfast complement. The dog looks sadly up at me as I swing my feet over her head and out of the bed; she is comfortably situated. She could stay there all day.

I pull on jeans and a floppy shirt, brush my teeth, stretch, and head into the day. I don’t even make the bed–we change the sheets on Fridays. I have that wonderful, light-shouldered feeling of nothing immediate to do.

The dog and I shlep down the stairs, singing about burnt toast, and Mark pokes his head from the kitchen, where–blessed man–he has turned the coffee on to brew.

“I believe that you exaggerate,” he says, grinning.

I treat the dog–half a Beggin’ strip, a coin of frozen hot dog; she’s already been fed. She declines a rawhide chewy stick and takes her lazy self off to the couch. After a tough night, snuggled up, protecting Mom, she needs her rest.

Mark reluctantly gets up to leave for work. It is casual Friday; he wears his jeans and pulls his old Bills jacket–an anomaly in southern Ohio–over his nubby sweater. We talk about having a little blaze in the fireplace tonight (winter has returned; the high today will be in the low-enough thirties to give us some snow, and right now, it is pretty brisk outside.) He reminds me he’ll be home at lunch, to take Jim to an appointment outside of Columbus. And then Mark opens the door; he lets in a gust of cold, and he plunges into his workday.

And I pour myself a steaming cup of decaf dark roast, pull on my fuzzy, Wicked Witch of the West socks, and open up the local paper.

I remember feeling this kind of freedom–this temporary reprieve feeling–in college on the rare occasions I wasn’t scheduled to work at the supermarket deli at 8 or 9 AM on Saturday. The morning would stretch out, a bubble in a torrent of time, a safe spot to stretch and rest and read. If those mornings had a sound, they would sound like a whispered ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Of course, then as now, I know the bubble is due to shatter. There are worries, real worries, floating outside–I can see them as I sit and read what’s going on in my town–about St. Patrick’s day dinners and speakers at the library and high schools sports games. The clock ticks down for a dear, dear friend, who suffers in her last days. Other friends grasp hands and wait out the weekend, awaiting news that will shatter or heal. Health concerns, and financial decisions, and things that have to be done in timely ways, in and out of work: all these bob around me, bumping, gently this morning, against the bubble walls.

This blessed, respite morning is like a small step out of time.

I walk the dog. We meander in the cold sunshine, and she sniffs to her heart’s content. I pick up the Columbus paper from the lawn, and we come back inside to treats for her and breakfast for me. I split an English muffin on a red Fiestaware plate, put it in to toast, pour more coffee.

Then Jim gets up and asks about the shape and the weft of the day, and I feel the sides of my bubble thinning. Reality pushes.

And the toaster pops and I butter the muffin and I read the news from Columbus, shaking my head over the idea of de-funding libraries, de-funding the arts, and I realize the bubble’s sides have quietly melted. I’ll read my paper now, do my word puzzles, and I’ll slide, feet-first, back into the torrent.

And it is good to deal with things, to face the pain of loss, to check the email, to run the errands and strip the bed and have the conversations and take care of all the myriad details that weave the fabric of daily life. I do not want to shirk one thing; I want to be there, for the good and the bad and the things that wrench our hearts.

But it is good, too, every once in a while, to have that cozy, fleeting bubble descend, encompass me. It is good to turn off the alarm, to roll over with a sigh, and let the day start without me.

******

I will take care of business; of course I will. But I’ll do it better today because I have slept in.

The Life at the End of the Tunnel

We change our shopping habits as Ash Wednesday looms, stocking up on fish fillets and cheese slices, cans of tuna, toasted sunflower seeds to sprinkle on crisp lettuce salads. I simmer up a batch of veggie broth. When the day dawns, we are ready.

So we greet Ash Wednesday with eggs and toast–a hearty breakfast to last until lunch; there is no eating between meals on this particular day. Choice of sandwiches for lunch–cheese or tuna or peanut butter; for dinner, a homemade mac and cheese and fresh, crisp green beans to accompany the fish fillets we grill. It is not exactly awful, but the gaps between meals seem long on this day of still-observed fast and abstinence–this day that ushers in a season of fasting, denial, sacrifice.

Ash Wednesday is like a heavy, solid metal security door, one that needs shoulder and hip pushing to open, protestingly, into the long, dimly lit tunnel that is Lent. And once I’ve shoved my way inside, that door snicks firmly shut behind me. There is no way out but through. I set off, reluctant and with threadbare grace, for a six week slog to Easter.

*************
I learned about Lent as a child.

Like many good Catholic children, I cut my reading teeth on stories of the saints and martyrs.  I read about the three children at Fatima, and how, devout and prayerful, they would mortify their flesh by wearing rough, horsehair belts underneath their garments, chafing their tender skin. They would deny themselves any kind of treats, eating only what they needed for sustenance. There were no pictures in my book, but I imagined their glowing, ascetic faces turned toward the heavens, awaiting the appearance of the Lady, cleansed and ready to receive her special message, that special sign of favor.

I read about Saint Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who knew from early childhood that she was destined for a life of prayer and sacrifice as a Carmelite nun. She petitioned the Holy Father for special dispensation to enter the convent before she even entered her teens. Admitted to the cloistered life, she found that she did not have any special gifts of living in community, not as a cook or a confidante. So she embraced the role of acceptance, not arguing when her sisters treated her meanly or unfairly, spending every possible hour on her knees, praying for all the ills she knew of in the world.

I imagined that kind of life–a life of self-denial and prayer. I wrote to the Carmelite sisters; they must have been used to receiving letters from passionate Catholic six-year-olds who’d just encountered the saga of the Little Flower. They wrote back, counseling patience and prayers for discernment, and enclosing informational brochures.

I burned with religious zeal, but I also enjoyed trying to burrow through the contents of my mother’s never-empty cookie jar and the raucous fun of a family wiffle ball game in the backyard after dinner.

And I wrote to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris too, and their replies and the nuns’ replies seemed equally to come from exotic, never-to-be-visited worlds.

By the time I was seven, my career aspirations had morphed to the world of rock and roll–maybe I’d be the fifth, and first female, Beatle. But then Lent would roll around, reminding me, again, of the value and necessity of sacrifice.

I learned about Lent at the Catholic school I attended. Sister Mary Elizabeth, the first grade teacher, inspired me with the joy of sacrifice, but didn’t offer too many hard and fast techniques. (Looking back, I think Sister must have been twenty at the most, and I wonder how the rollicking Sixties affected her vocation.) The lay teachers who came after, in grades two and three and four, shaped me more specifically. Mrs. H was clear and firm and a little dour: she saw no point in wimpy sacrifices. If sweets were what you loved, give up sweets for the whole six weeks. You loved TV? Give up ALL television shows. Make your sacrifice, she said, be something that you FEEL, something that is muscular and demanding.

Sacrifice, Mrs. H opined, was meant to hurt.

Mrs C and Mrs M were a little more flexible. They advocated giving up one thing–say, cookies–making it okay to have, occasionally, a cupcake or a little dish of ice cream. Or give up a flavor, they suggested, like chocolate. Then you could still have Payday bars and snickerdoodles; you weren’t entirely bereft of sweetness for a month and a half.

Or give up, perhaps, one favorite television show; go outside and play instead.

They debated with my friends on a controversial concept: whether or not Sundays were Lenten ‘days off.’

Both Mrs C and Mrs M were plump, cheerful, silver-haired, the kind of women who illustrated the concept of ‘grandmotherly.’ Mrs H was small and taut and scrawny.

My mother was small and taut and scrawny, too, and her views aligned pretty closely with Mrs. H’s. Sacrifice wasn’t sacrifice if it didn’t hurt; sacrifice was also no good if you broadcast it around. So my friends would wail and moan about how hard it was to live six weeks without cookies. I would clamp my mouth shut over the loss of my dear friend chocolate for the duration. Being dramatic about it, my mother taught, was a pleasure in itself. To truly be a sacrifice, the ordeal must be endured in silence. She brought all of the joy of her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing to her fervent conversion to Catholicism; there was no arguing.

And there were no Sundays off.

As I trudged through that childhood Lenten tunnel, the light would grow dimmer as the end approached. Lent broadened out into Holy Week, and the statues in the church—Mary in blue, with her immaculate heart; Jesus in red, his right hand raised to bless us, his sacred heart ablaze; St. Joseph, humbly clad in long brown robes, patient and quiet and giving–would be completely shrouded in deep purple drapes. The candles would flicker at daily Mass; Latin would be intoned, with no music; the shrouded figures pulsed with mystery and danger. There was often incense, chinked rhythmically from the jeweled golden censer. The air was dense with smoke and a heavy, spicy odor, an environment that was tough on little people fasting three hours before receiving the Body of Christ.

Roman Catholic Lenten and Holy Week activities in the early 1960’s were not for the faint of heart.

We re-enacted the Last Supper at church on Holy Thursday, our fathers on the altar, baring their white, frail feet for washing. We spent three hours–from noon until three–in church on Holy Friday. We had no Eucharist, but we lined up to inch toward the altar and to kiss the pale and holy plaster feet of Jesus.

Holy Saturday was like a day to hold your breath, a nothing day, wedged in between the sere and devastating drama of Friday and the glorious joy of Easter Sunday.

And oh, the light of Easter Sunday! The necessary travail of being bundled into scratchy dress clothes, with anklets that drooped and pinching shoes and a hat that would never stay on my outsized head, no matter the number of bobby pins pressed into the battle,–that was all endurable because after that, the hat came off, the jeans came on, and the Easter basket was there–a basket full of candy for just me, if I hid it well enough. (Prevailing wisdom dictated eating the good stuff first, just in case.)

There was ham for dinner and some kind of yummy dessert and Jesus was risen. And after the magnificent holiday was over, we were standing in the pouring-down light of that wonderful thing, ordinary time.

And the Lenten sacrifices disappeared back into that tunnel, dim memories that had no effect on life, moving forward.

*****************
I have traveled some distance, in activity and belief, from those austere early days, but the practice of Lent stays with me. Every year since then, I have at least nominally observed Lent, giving up, some years when I was a young partier, beer and alcohol in general, but more often, my dearly loved chocolate.

My reasons have morphed, from guilt (“Our Lord spent three hours in agony, giving up His LIFE for you, and you can’t last six weeks without a bite of chocolate????”) to greed (“Chocolate tastes so much better when you haven’t had it for a month and a half!”) to an acceptance that sacrifice is a mindful way to center my thoughts, to reflect on what I believe and how I live. So I have pushed away the beautiful chocolate cake, sneaked a Payday bar from the vending machine when my sweet tooth got the better of me, and stopped at the chocolatier to buy a wonderful treat for Easter morn.

And the long season of Lent, for years and years, has passed by, and the door slammed closed on Easter morning, and life returned to exactly where it was before I spent six weeks in that trudging tunnel.

********

Belatedly, a thought occurs to me: shouldn’t what I do, or what I don’t do, during this Lenten tunnel-time somehow change me? Shouldn’t my life be somehow informed or transformed, after the measured observance of six weeks of mindfulness?

This year as Lent begins, I am working with a Julia Cameron book, The Prosperous Heart, a creativity course intended to help the reader-user clarify and change her relationship to money. Cameron proposes some rules: keep track of money spent–any and all money. Take walks, write morning pages. And don’t, she tells me, ‘debt.’ So–no whipping out of the credit card to order a book because I have a coupon, because there is a discount, because the author is a favorite blogging buddy…because I just NEED to have that book. Oh, I can have it–but I have to plan and pay for it with real money. I have to be mindful of where my money goes and where my spending leads.

I give up my credit card for Lent, and I find myself growing critical, considering now every blithe expenditure, the need for the cruller or the magazine, the scarf or the silly gift. Do I need that? I ask myself. Could I MAKE that?

Sometimes, I realize the item is a need, and I buy it. But more often, I return it to the rack and leave the store.

Often, these days, I don’t go into that store in the first place.

I find some books on the ‘New Nonfiction’ shelf at the library. One shows  ways to make colorful old t-shirts into bracelets and flowers and spring-time wreaths. The other is written by a blogger who has embraced sustainable living. The things we need, she suggests, are usually already on our shelves or in our cupboards; we can concoct rather than shop. I check those books out, and I  take them home to pore through.

A daily reflection challenges me: what are you doing, along with your sacrifice? And I think about that, and I think of all the undone projects, and I decide that, while in the tunnel, I will complete as many unfinished starts as I can. I’ve knitted, for instance, torso, limbs, tail, and head of a silly monkey doll; those flat, empty monkey parts nestle next to one panel of a scrap-knit afghan. I’ll get my needles out instead of playing two-suit spider solitaire on the computer after dinner.

There are the brushed silver knobs I bought for my kitchen a year ago, along with the paste and paint to repair the random gashes and dents in my dark wood cabinet doors. There is a little pot of spackle, meant to repair cracks in the settling walls. There is semi-gloss paint to touch up the woodwork.

There are boxes to be mod-podged, and there are cracked but beloved ceramic pieces waiting to be morphed into outdoor mosaics. There is furniture to paint. There is mending to be done.

In the time I am not debting, perhaps I can be creating or completing.

***************
I feel, this year, a little of that reverent mindfulness that imbued my early Lenten journeys. There’s a reason for this, I think, and the lack of debting, and the act of fixing, weave together to build me a sense of actual change, and a bubbling sense of hope. Maybe, this year, I will develop a new habit. Maybe, by April 16th, my home will look as different as I project my spending habits will. (And it won’t hurt if I cut down on my chocolate consumption…but that won’t, this year, define this season for me.)

This year, when I climb out of the Lenten tunnel, climb into my sun-drenched ordinary time, I hope those ordinary days are a little differently shaped. I hope I will be buoyed by a sense of completion, lightened by awareness of living cleanly within my means. And I’ll be a little different, with shelves that are cleared and satisfaction in finishing long-simmering, oft-delayed projects, and the peace that mindfulness and restraint have given my relationship to the money I earn.

*************

This year, I embrace Lent, and I look forward to seeing a change in the light—a change in the LIFE–at the end of this particular tunnel.

In Birdland

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so.
Mary Oliver, “Bird,” in Upstream

They are here, everyday–even in Winter, when some wing southward, the steadfast ones remain, shivering the slender branches of the bushes, teasing off the winter red berries, flying off into gray laden skies. A concurrent civilization: the birds are here with us, but not part of us. We are landlocked; they are sky-bound. Our lives intercept, but they are not parallel.

********

The parking lot is full, after lunch (just imagine–some student up and took ‘my’ convenient space on this cool, gray, rainy day!), so I park in the back lot and tug my bags out of the back seat. I trudge across the rain-slicked lot thinking desultory thoughts,…thinking, “Gotta email John, and set a time for the extra workshop. Where’s my Third Thursday schedule?” when a flicker snares my attention.

I look up to see that there are plump, rosy-breasted bluebirds perched in each of the saplings in the grassy yard behind my building. They flutter into flight as I walk by,  as I stop to fumble, too late, for my cell phone and its camera.

Bluebirds! I marvel. A flock of bluebirds!

I lived in New York State, where the bluebird was the official state bird, for the majority of my life. I had never seen a live, free bluebird until we moved to Ohio. And never before today had I seen an entire flock of them.

The little birds are so bright and boisterous I can see why they’re associated with happiness. Feeling somehow lightened, I march back to my office to tackle my trudgy to-do’s.

***********
I leave work at 5:30 that afternoon, when nature is beginning to hunker down for the night, drawing close its gray wool covering. And the crows are on the move, en masse, cawing harshly, leaving whatever places they inhabit during the day, gathering in pulsing, heaving, social masses.

They blacken the trees perched on the edge of the slope behind the Helen Purcell Home, the steep drop-off that rolls down to the river plain; they overlook, as the sky darkens, the winking lights of our little city spread out below. The crows gather and they open their beaks and chorus raucously as they sing their late ones home.

Sleek and black and noisy–the crows don’t give me that flicker of hope the bluebirds imparted. Instead, safely inside my car, I duck my head defensively, and feel a cold finger trace chill lines on my back and upper arms.  Foreboding: that’s the emotion the crows bring with them.  I am glad to park my car in the carport and bolt into the house.

Today is one of those days that I remember to realize that birds live all around me.

****************

I know people who pretty much pay attention to birds all the time.

There is Al, who teaches in the Wildlife program. He leads a troupe of students who build wooden box dwellings for barn owls.  They put these up in the deep, unsettled areas of this rural county; they don’t share the locations because barn owls, endangered and necessary, are shy creatures who don’t cotton to the company of human gawkers.

Al is someone people call when they find an injured bird. He came to an all-employee meeting once with a majestic red-tailed hawk perched on his shoulder; she’d been hurt and was mid-recovery. Her eyes rolled at all the people. Al put her on a tarp and let people sidle carefully closer to observe this emissary from a different civilization. She paced, nervous and wary. When she spread her long, strong wings to try to flap her way outside, away from people, to a free, safe place, I felt the heady rush of wind she created twenty feet away.

Al has other birds, too–hawks and falcons, fallen ones that he nurses back to health and launches back into their wild homes. Sometimes, though, they won’t leave, and Al has a continuing companion, one who, I imagine, keeps his barn free of rodent pests and keeps him, too, carefully within the long, wide shot of their piercing, protective eyes.

There is Eryk, one of Al’s students, whose passion for wild birds leads him to his choice of profession: park ranger. Eryk, in a writing class, taught me about wild ducks and geese. He talked about bald eagles, too, raptors which have returned to this corner of Ohio. When I told him I’d never seen one, he laughed.

“You HAVE!” he said. “The immature birds have dark heads. You’ve probably seen them clustered in fields, and thought you were seeing vultures.”

There are wonderful bird-bloggers, like Kathy Doremus at Backyard Bird Nerd (https://backyardbirdnerd.com/2017/02/20/a-popular-place-to-perch/ ), whose wild bird photography fascinates me.

There are people who have their life lists, who travel to sight the birds they’ve never yet had the chance to see in nature.  We know a very special woman who flew overseas to catch an important migration not so very long ago. She was in her 80’s, with a serious illness, and that illness brought her home early, but, darn it, she took the chance and saw the birds she needed to see.

Some people, I think, share a little of the migratory wanderlust with the birds that fascinate them.

******************

Mary Oliver writes about rescuing an injured bird, of creating a place for it, giving it a good life in its last broken days. My brothers sometimes brought home broken fledglings when we were children. We would nest them in cardboard boxes from the supermarket; we would try to feed them with an eyedropper. Mashed worms. Warm milk. We would coo them welcome.

They never made it. Often, they would disappear from the box while we slept, our parents not wanting us to wake up to that stiff little feather bundle. There were baby bird graves in our back yard.

My mother fed the birds in that yard. She kept a container where we threw stale ends of bread, crusts and heels, and she would crumble those up and broadcast them in the hard-packed areas of the yard that we’d worn grassless playing wiffleball and kickball.  The birds would swarm–mostly robins and starlings and sparrows. She would stand, smoking, in the kitchen window and watch them, marveling at the way they integrated and shared and communicated.

Feeding the birds is not a habit I’ve perpetuated. Seeding the lawn with edibles would invite a whole additional set of visitors beyond just birds. I don’t want to encourage raccoons and squirrels and field mice who might just turn a speculative eye toward the house from which such bounty emanates.

And my appreciation of Mom’s bright-eyed perky sparrows has been jaded, too, since talking with our nature-loving friend Grace. Grace is zen-centered, non-aggressive, and willing to live in peace with most of God’s creatures, but Grace despises the English sparrow. They’re not supposed to even BE here, she says; they stowed away, most likely, on rickety wooden ships making the sea voyage to the New World, debarked, checked it out, and decided to stay.

And propagated.

Sparrows, Grace says darkly, are the Cosa Nostra of the local bird kingdom; they will wait until a bluebird has settled in a box, and a lovely warm home has been created. Then they will viciously attack, killing the grownup birds, destroying eggs and tender babies, and smugly taking the comfy site over for their own. They will nest, says Grace, right on top of the carcasses of the birds they’ve killed.

Now when I see the sparrows hopping and pecking, they look sinister, not perky. What are they plotting? I wonder. Or–what have they already done?

****************
For there is, certainly, a cold and  bloody side to our beautiful bird friends. We have seen, walking with our animal-loving granddaughter, laughing crows sweep in and steal a baby wren from its nest, dangling the sad little thing, staying a few feet ahead of its frantic parents, cawing and taunting as they take turns flying in to peck at their little captive.

“Put it DOWN!” our granddaughter wailed, running after the carnage-crows, but they laughed and taunted her, too.

And one day, Mark stood on our sunporch, talking on the phone to his brother in California. He was watching a couple of chipmunks cavorting in the rain across the street, when a hawk swooped in, grabbed a chipmunk without breaking flight, and pumped away, lunch in its talons.

“Whoa!” Mark yelled. “What did–? I can’t believe that just happened!”

The other chipmunk skittered away, and the sky, Mark said, was vastly empty.

**************
I have read that birds are closer to dinosaurs than any other creatures living, and I imagine those prehistoric creatures cocking their heads, rolling their eyes, hopping delicately from treat to treat like the funny little birds on my lawn.  I picture T-Rex with a coating of bright feathers. I wonder if its tiny arms weren’t vestigial, if the T-Rex sported wings whose flesh and cartilage, in time’s furnace after death, wasted away, leaving tiny arm bones for scientists to find and speculate upon.

Maybe birds once ruled the world.

Maybe, in their perception, despite our houses and cats and environmentally unfriendly habits, they think they still do.

****************

But how would I know what birds think? I barely register sharing space with them most days. Unless it is spring and they are boisterously calling; Mark swears we have a dysfunctional bird couple that returns to roost in our trees each year.

“Judy Judy Judy,” he calls, pleading. But, “Cheater Cheater Cheater!” she shrills back at him.

You’d think, Mark says, he’d learn–or she would.

We used to have hummingbirds that visited; then I hung a hummingbird feeder. I haven’t seen one since.

I am not, naturally, a nature girl; a too-close high school encounter with a nasty bird who targeted my shining red hair leaves me permanently bird-wary–and left me, too, with the nickname “Condor” for quite a number of years. So I do not know how to lure and keep feathered friends returning to my yard; they make me a little nervous, in themselves, and  I worry about the habits of the friendly prowling cats of this pet-loving neighborhood.  But I feel the prickle of awe when I see a calm, majestic hawk perched on top of a power pole. I marvel at the gawky, prehistoric flight of one of the herons I see on summer evenings, lazily winging away from the river.

We are earth-rooted; birds are, as Mary Oliver writes, sky-citizens, ambassadors from a wholly different culture, testifying quietly in our midst. I am glad for the glimpses I get into their world, for the visit of a bluebird bunch, for the awkward heron flapping. I treasure the photos and the facts more knowledgeable people share. They remind me, birds do,–when I am awake and aware–that MY world is also THEIR world; that we live side by side with all kinds of wonders,  with beauty and with treachery.

And we do not know everything. And we are not alone.

Saturday Cleaning (This Week, a Lick and a Promise)

Saturday morning, 9:30… breakfast complete, the day’s chores begin.

The boyos clomp downstairs and begin chuddering around, packing up bins of clunking glass bottles and chingling tin cans.  They heft and stomp and chide each other. They are going recycling. They’ll drive up to the bins at the city barns, behind the new building at the College, and they will empty out the totes they’ve packed into Mark’s  trunk. They’ll stuff the aluminum and plastic and glass and paper into all the right compartments, pack up the empty totes, slam the trunk closed, and then they’ll head over to the bakery outlet store.

There, they’ll buy a couple of loaves of cheap white bread, a package of English muffins, a single serving peach pie, and a sleeve of little chocolate doughnuts. They’ll throw in two bags of cheese curls–the kind that are so cheesily powdered, they turn our lips and fingers disgustingly neon orange. (And still, I can’t stop eating them.)

The boyos might stop at the wholesale grocer, too, and buy little chunks of assorted cheese (cheddar, hot pepper, colby-jack) packed  in a baggie, a couple of long, skinny, pungent beef jerky sticks, a one-serving bag of nacho Doritos. They may find some amazing deals on General Mills cereals or frozen pizzas or canned kidney beans. Then they’ll pack their bags of goodies into the car and head over to DQ, where they’ll treat themselves to the five dollar lunch deal, complete with mini-sundae.

They have their Saturday rituals. I have mine, too. While they’re gone, I’m cleaning.

**************

I have already walked the dog, who, sighing, sinks into the couch, rests her chin on the overstuffed arm, and falls immediately into a deep, elderly sleep. I throw open the coat closet where I keep my cleaning arsenal. I pull down the Swiffer duster and go to my rag bag to find a couple of soft, worn, white socks. (One Saturday, I reached for the duster refills only to find the box was empty. I said to myself,–I really did,–“Well. I’m not going to be able to dustmop until I get some refills!”

An immediate cacophony raged in my head, the derisive roaring of generations of stern Scottish housekeepers howling at the thought that I needed to buy duster refills in order to clean.

Above the howling, I swear I heard my mother’s dismayed, determined voice saying, “Oh, just put a sock on it!”

Sure enough, soft old socks, secured on the flexible stem with a rubber band, work just fine for dusting ceiling corners, light fixtures, the curved wooden rims of mirror frames, the iron fretwork on headboards, and the always dusty ledges of window sashes.)

I learned that Saturdays were for cleaning from my mother. By the end of the busy week, our house felt heavy and and dusty and lived in, and we would wrestle the proper tools from the broom closet–a dust mop with a fluffy head of brightly colored yarns, the old damp mop loaded by folding clean soft rags into neat rectangles and feeding them into its pinching, clamping jaws. The canister vacuum was heavy and irascible; it had to be wooed and fidgeted out of the closet, and its long hose was always curling up on itself, reluctant to cooperate. We used clean cloths to dust the furniture, and we did not use polish, Pledge being a hoax perpetrated on slapdash housewives with money to burn.

I did not like to clean, and my mother, a perfectionist at times, often found my help more trouble than it was worth. She doggedly kept at it, trying to train a reluctant daughter who would much rather curl up with a book and escape to a different world than embrace the romance of a freshly mopped floor. But sometimes, in frustration, she would snatch the mop or the dust rag or the vacuum hose away.

“I can’t stand to watch you,” she’d say. “Let me just do it.”

I would slink off to find my book and a quiet corner.

But she, even when feeling her lug-headed daughter was just not getting it, sowed the cleaning seeds deep. I feel that same household heaviness on a Saturday in 2017 that we felt in 1965. My arsenal of cleaning weapons may be modernized, but it, too, is much the same.

I learned the ritual of cleaning from my mother; but I did not absorb so much the best ways to go about creating a  clean house. My first apartments were grand examples of cluttered mess.  I learned efficient technique when, shortly after moving to central Ohio, I cast about for work. A mistaken phone call came when I was getting very frustrated–a wrong number from a cleaning company tracking down an applicant. Well, hey, I said, I’d be interested, and they said, Sure. Come on down.

They cleaned banks, this service. At the training, in the huge main downtown office, they unveiled the tools of the trade, and taught their philosophy of cleaning. Make your tools work for you, they said. And clean from the top down. Vacuum first, then dust.

I was assigned two small branch offices to clean; I worked with a trainer for a week or two, and then I was on my own, terrified that I’d forget the security code or take so long in locking up that the police would arrive and haul me away for questioning. But the work itself became a patterned dance–arranging all the tools, dusting from the ceilings down to counter height, scouring the bathrooms with antiseptic cleaners, waltzing the mop backwards across the scuffed tiled floors until the shine returned, sashaying myself backwards out the restroom door. Then I’d vacuum; I quickly learned where the most convenient plugs were, the locations that would give me maximum play of the cord. I’d dust the counter-tops with a citrus-y polish, pack up the cloths for the person who whisked them away for cleaning, dump the vacuum, bag up the trash. I would do one final circuit, making sure I hadn’t missed spots or left a bottle of cleaner sitting on a countertop, and satisfied, I’d grab my purse and coat, frantically pound in the security code, and rush outside while the door snapped firmly shut.

It was hard work, but satisfying–and it was kind of fun to be locked inside the bank all by myself after hours. To go from workday clutter to shining surfaces in a two hour sweep made me smile.  Before too long, I got a teaching job and said goodbye to the cleaning company, but I’d learned a thing or two about efficiency that I applied at home.

**********

So, on this Saturday morning, armed with the socked-up duster, I start upstairs, at the top, smoothing away dust strands stuck in high corners, sweeping over the tops of picture frames, scooting dust from the blades of ceiling fans.  I scrub the bathrooms and dump towels and washcloths and rugs down the laundry chute. I sweep, and then, just like the old days, I do a little dance with the damp mop on the tiled floors, backing myself out into the carpeted hallway.

I vacuum the carpets, but today, I do not move the beds or chairs or vacuum the mattresses. Today we have an adventure planned for the afternoon–a lazy meander down a road we haven’t traveled yet, one that winds south down along the river–and I want the house done before we take off.  So, I vacuum the obvious surfaces, and use the duster to tease out the under-furze, sucking it up with my Hoover. Next week, I’ll make up for the laxness, for doing what my mother would call a ‘once-over-lightly’ kind of job.  “We’ll just give it a lick and a promise,” she’d sometimes say.

My younger self thoroughly enjoyed a lick and a promise days.

****************

No, I have not always been a dedicated cleaner. In fact, although I always liked a shining house, was comforted by uncluttered, gleaming surfaces, I struggled to reconcile that with a fledgling understanding of feminism. In college and just after, I felt guilty for tackling the cleaning and the laundry–Why is this MY job? I’d demand angrily,–and sometimes I would grab my book and defiantly sit reading, actively ignoring, or trying to ignore, the mess and the clutter.

But the truth was an awful, messy house gave me awful, messy thoughts. Aged twenty-four or so, an avid reader of Cosmopolitan magazine (the day the new edition hit the supermarket shelves was always a treasure day for me), I came across an article by a young woman executive in New York City who lived in a messy apartment. She wrote how defiantly she did NOT clean up–she was a liberated woman, after all,–and how disgusted a date was at her messy digs. And suddenly, she said, she saw her quarters though his eyes, and it became not an issue of gender equality, but a symbol of lack of pride and terribly poor organizational skills.

She did not date the disapproving man again–a little too stuffy, she wrote,–but she changed the way she looked at her living space. She became, she said, house proud. She made her apartment a place she was glad to come home to. She cleaned and polished and decorated, not to impress another, but to be good to, and caring of, herself.

Funny how an article in a frothy magazine could re-adjust my thinking. House proud, I pondered, and I began to clean to please myself and not to conform to anyone else’s standard. And later, when Mark and I got married, the division of labor fell into an easy, pleasant rhythm. I liked to cook, and he was happy to do dishes. He took over the laundry; I vacuumed and mopped; we changed the beds together.

On Saturdays, although he was always willing to pitch in if needed, he did guy-things, sometimes with one of the boys, sometimes solo. He handled the car maintenance, hung pictures, did yard work, took the recycling to the bins. He cleaned and organized his tools. I cleaned the house.

The division of labor seemed pretty fair and even.

***************

Today,  I work my way downstairs. I straighten and tidy; I vacuum, and the sighing dog runs away to another room.  I run a soft rag over the dusty surfaces of end tables.  I empty the vacuum’s packed dust-catcher. I replace the towels in the half bath and the dishcloths in the kitchen.

The house is cleaned,–licked and promised,–and the boyos pull into the drive,  go-cups in hand, plastic shopping bags looped over their wrists, kicking the empty plastic recycling bins ahead of them. They have Saturday morning adventures to share.

I mix up tuna salad, make myself a sandwich, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and then we are pulling the door shut behind us, and heading off to explore the backroads on a sunny February Saturday. The adventure is undergirded by the knowledge that we will come home to an uncluttered, organized house, with clear surfaces on which to set any exploration swag we gather,–a lightened, brightened space where we can kick back and relax, dissecting the week.

*******************

“How we change,” I remember my father remarking, stopping in to see me shortly after Mark and I got married. He was remembering, I am sure, my messy bedroom, the chaos that was my first apartment in college. Now, the house was pleasantly clean, the cookie jar was full; we put on a pot of coffee and sat down for a visit at an uncluttered table, in some uncluttered time.  I was proud that he’d dropped in to find me organized, proud that I had mastered the art of caring, for my family, yes, but also for myself.

It’s funny. As a child, I needed to know that someone had it all under control–the house would be clean, there would be socks in the drawer. The cookie jar would magically refill. I needed that, but I needed, too, the teachers who dragged me out of my dependency on someone other, who nudged me into places where I knew I’d have my own landscapes under control. I needed to reach that place where I knew, having given my household terrain a lick and a promise, the promise would, eventually but certainly, be kept.

Crouching on a Crumbling Ledge, Looking for Common Ground

    Common ground (phrase): a foundation for mutual understanding
        —the freedictionary.com

Remembering.

There were eight students in the class, four men and four women. Four were white and four were not. Two were immigrants to America. Two men worked at the little private college in maintenance; two were women in their fifties. A couple of young professionals, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in her Somali community, a dignified older man finally enrolled in college after he’d sent all his kids to school: all busy adults taking night courses, enrolled in degree programs, working hard, and seeking better, richer lives for themselves, and for their families.

The course itself was a kind of hybrid freshman seminar, sort of English comp meets thoughtful-discussion-of-current-issues.  The college provided a common book. That year, 2004, it was a journalist’s discussion of how, in post-9/11 times, the rest of the world viewed and considered the United States, as a government, and as a people,–which, we found, were two very different perspectives.

We met in a kind of conference room, around a table that would seat twelve comfortably–the perfect room, the perfect size, for this small troupe. The room was on the third and highest floor of a blocky brick building; it was a corner room, and we could look out over the university’s green lawns and watch the quiet neighborhoods of the suburb settle into evening. There was something lightened and safe about the space, and there was something about the people enrolled and the subject matter involved that allowed a free and open exchange.

All the students came with defenses down and doors wide open, with real curiosity about what the others thought and knew and felt. They demolished barriers from the first meeting, wanting to meet on level ground, to hear real talk about real issues. No one snorted derisively, for instance, when one of the working men spoke of feeling passed over by affirmative action-type programs; the students listened, and considered, and asked questions.  And the others openly shared their experiences, too–as people of color in competitive markets, as older workers trying to remain viable and vital. Their classmates absorbed their words and wrestled with meaning.

Early on, it left off being a class and became a kind of team. Attendance was not an issue; they came, eager for the next discussion, open to learning, ready to share.

During Ramadan, Saara, the Somali woman, brought in food to break her daily fast. We would watch as the windows darkened, working until the sun took its late autumn slide, and then she would unpack a basket, set out plates for all of us, and pass everyone a kind of fried pie. Everyone tucked in; no one picked up the unusual (and tasty) food and examined it skeptically.  Saara talked about her faith and her country and her brother, a military officer who was murdered by the new regime in her old homeland. She told us of her work with the Somali people in her neighborhood, helping them navigate unfamiliar systems and find the supports they needed to be successful.

As she spoke to us, calmly and confidently, in a voice lilted by intonations learned on different shores, her world grew familiar–not exotic and other, but everyday and real. As did the lives of the other people–the single mothers in their fifties, one struggling with a grown child’s mental illness; the father taking the chance to educate himself after launching his six kids; the vibrant and successful young salesman who really yearned to be a college professor; the working guys; the young assistant director of college admissions…all of them met in the right place at just the right time.

They did good work, that class. Well, seriously, they blew me away; they did great work. On the last night we met, they all brought food to share, and they compiled lists of email addresses so they could stay in touch. Charles, the salesman, agreed to come and talk during a career exploration segment of a tech writing class I was teaching during Spring term at a community college.  Mary, one of the older women, gave me a beautiful hand-painted wooden box; it still, today, holds my letters and stationery. They stood awkwardly when the class wound down, reluctant to leave the tiny and temporary utopia we’d enjoyed for 16 weeks.

I waited until they had all left, cleaned up crumpled napkins, tidied the classroom, lingering at a college where, having accepted a full-time position elsewhere, I would probably never teach again. What a gift for me, as an instructor, to have had the chance to meet and work with these amazing people. These totally unique, very disparate folks who had entered into a kind of covenant, all there for a common purpose, all finding common ground.

***************

It is evening, and I am scrolling through my FaceBook feed. I see a post from a person I know professionally, respect professionally, and don’t even come close to agreeing with politically. The post is entitled something like, “A Letter to My Child,” and it explains this man’s disagreement with my point of view. I slow down to read it.

It is thoughtfully written, I concede, although I quickly decide there are fallacies a mile wide in several of the arguments. And it is, my prissy English teacher inner voice opines, a little glib. But it is honest and an attempt to share an opposing view.

But I know my view is right. Although I’m reading, I am not listening.

Then I read the responses. There are many, and they are mostly strident, some in support of, and some opposed to, this man’s stance. One of the opposed is someone very dear to me; she has launched an attack on the writer’s post that is shrill and laced with vulgarities and that hits at him very personally. The violence of it makes me recoil–even though, on all the issue’s points, I agree with her.

I feel a sinking dread in the pit of me.  I think of these two fine people, and the chasm that yawns between them. What could ever cause two people so strongly bastioned in their fervent beliefs to find a common ground?

**************
About a month before the election, my son James and I were driving to a little town fifty miles north of here for our dental appointments. There is no interstate pathway, so this trip relegated us to back roads. It was a bright fall morning. We drove past horses grazing in October sunshine, past fields of slow moving cows, past the stubble of cornfields. We came to a stretch of Amish country where we navigated around a slow moving buggy. We tempered our speed again in a little crossroads town that has a stop sign at its intersection. As we cruised to a stop, I saw a person tumble over a rock in a yard, and I did not see that person get up.

There is a corner store at the crossroads; I pulled in and turned around.  I half-registered a pickup truck behind me doing the same as I drove back to the house where the person had fallen. On the ground, propped up against a tree and looking bewildered, was a heavy elderly woman, bundled into a plaid wool jacket, rimless glasses glinting in the sun. Her sweatpants were green-streaked and muddy. Wispy gray hair escaped from a brown knit cap.

I rolled down my window to ask if she needed help. She gave me a puzzled look.

“I don’t think,” she said slowly, considering, “that I can get up.”

I turned off the car, pondering quickly our next best steps–should we try to get her up? Call for help? But the pickup truck I’d seen glided into a space right in front of us.  A man got out–balding, with overalls straining over an impressive belly. He came to my window and said, “I wasn’t sure WHAT I seen till I seen you turn around. You go on, now. I’ll get ‘er.”

He went over then and held out his hands, and the woman reached out to take them. He pulled her up. Her face changed completely, shining as she looked at her rescuer. She turned her head and gave me a nod–“We’re fine now!” it said–and she gazed up at the man in wonder. We pulled away, leaving them there, engaged in earnest conversation. I had that strong feeling one gets, knowing a problem has been taken on by someone who will see it through.

As we pulled away, James noted that the truck had a bumper sticker touting Not-My-Candidates.

“How,” he asked, “could someone so nice vote for THEM?”

And the overalled man might well have been thinking, “I can’t believe one of those ones bothered to stop and offer help.”

A reaction to an emergency, a person vulnerable and needy: a chance for common ground.

*********************

What would make my Facebook friends find common ground, I wonder. I have to think that, faced with an emergency, both of those good people would put aside their differences to work together, to get the fallen one back onto her feet, to call in the necessary experts.  They are, both of them, compassionate folks. They do not want to stand by while people are unnecessarily hurt.

I think of the kinds of emergencies that might create this bonding–egregious loss of freedom? Outright violence? We can’t wait until we get there, I think, to find our common ground.

Mandated participation in something–a class, a workplace seminar–creates the possibility of finding common ground. If people come in thinking, “Well, it COULD work. If the others are willing to be open and honest…well, then I will, too.” With the right people, the right program, the right environment…those obligatory meetings could turn into something rich.

But barring an emergency or a mandate, how do we leap across the chasm?  And more and more,–as I weave uneasily, as the ground shifts beneath my feet, and as the gap widens,–more and more, I feel the real and wrenching need for this leaping to happen, for an open and empathetic exploration of the beliefs underlying our actions. We need to inhabit the shaded space in the Venn diagram where we overlap and converge.

*****************

So. I enter ‘common ground’ into a search engine and hundreds of thousands of hits pop up. There is a progressive rock group called Common Ground; their album cover shows hands cupping dirt from which a tiny shoot grows. I bookmark them to listen to later; I think their common ground has to do with caring for the Earth.

I find a college website that has rules of engagement for instructors trying to norm their grading, to reach common ground on what constitutes an ‘A’ and what work has to be considered failure. That website offers steps to consensus–Collaborate creatively, it suggests, and then defines that for the instructors involved. Establish effective leadership. The site describes where such meetings should take place and how long they should last, who should be there, what should be provided.

A PROGRAM, I think; what if we had a program?  I remember a young woman named Valerie Walawender. Valerie, who was in a women’s writers group I belonged to many, many years ago in western New York State, developed a program to break down barriers between people, and to infuse appreciation for diversity. I type her name into the search engine and there it is: Valerie’s website (http://valeriewalawender.com/?page_id=714), and a description of the program she developed, called Faces in the Crowd. Participants are given masks; when each looks into a mirror, they see the face of another–a different gender and age and ethnicity, perhaps,–and they are asked to think for a short respite about who they would be if that really was their face. And then they have to share that story with the person next to them, and listen to that person’s story in turn.

Faces in the Crowd, it seems to me, is a tool for establishing understanding, to inching onto common ground.

But what circumstances would make us use such tools, engage in those programs, put that music on and sit down for a steaming cup of decaf and an earnest conversation with the Other?

***************************

I have been trying, this year, to shift my perspective, searching for my own strengths, and for those of others, rather than focusing on weaknesses and flaws. And here, I think, is another necessary shift…finding what we share, not what divides us. Where we converge. I am astounded by how difficult this process, seemingly simple, can be. It is so hard to really listen, so unsatisfying to release my need to be right.

The wider the divide, the more I think I lose sight of the other as person–as a person with beloved family and cherished dreams and aching hurts and needs they search to address.  We become, grouped and gazed at from a growing distance, The Other Side,–a faceless, nameless, soulless mob, an entity to be battled.

And then, thus labelled, we are stuck in place, quivering on the crumbling edge of the canyon, in danger, all of us, of tumbling in.

And, oh, maybe that’s just melodrama. But maybe,–a sobering maybe–we really need to find connection, build a bridge, toss a sturdy rope, sit and talk until we uncover our places of agreement. Maybe we need to find a safe room, acknowledge this emergency, and talk it through.

Not compromising our ideals–never that. But creating the circumstances for finding common ground.