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.

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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.

This Year, It All Looks New

Bedroom re-do

The Spring sun shines through the bedroom windows, through crisp, newly washed drapes.  We have painted one wall–the window wall, the wall you see when you walk up the stairs and glance in the room–a light and sunny yellow. We have moved the bed: it was facing the windows; now it’s flanked by them.

Simple moves, simple expedients, and the entire room is changed.  The very size of it feels different–lighter, brighter, roomier.  The colors–a soft sky blue, the gleaming white trim, the gently beaming yellow of the window wall,–combine with the sandy color of the carpet to suggest to me, “Beach.”

It gives me summer thoughts; it makes me smile. I grab my empty coffee mug and I thump downstairs to where Mark is gathering his gear for work.

“I can’t get over that room,” he says.  “Finally, it’s the way it SHOULD be.  Who knew?”

I agree.  “What other little changes can we make?”

We look around the dining room, a room that collects the morning sun, and that also collects the clutter: Jim’s lists and books and DVD cases; Mark’s tax papers and work documents; my books and notebooks, pens and craft stuff.  There are chargers and cords–all the paraphernalia of modern electronic life.  The Sunday New York Times, which we never quite finish reading during the week after it arrives, waits hopefully on a side chair.

I want to pull up the rug like a cartoon wizard and snap it, watch items fly up into the air and then fall smartly into their very right places.

Or watch them disappear.

I smile at Mark, who is seeing his own vision of the room.  Perfect organization may not happen as easily as in my animated fantasy, but we’ll whip this room into shape.

There’s a lesson in the simple bedroom changes, a lesson about using what I already have to make things new, that I need time to ponder and absorb. I think this might be part of it: Things change.  Bad times pass.  Spring, always and eventually, comes.  But listening, seeing, processing, and then acting, is required.

********

It is just before noon, and it is a treat to sit at Giacomo’s in a corner booth, checking my email, and to see Susan’s sleek black SUV pull in. She’s got the rear-view camera; I always enjoy watching her back smoothly into a parking place.  (Me, I try to find a place where I can park facing out–no backing required, arriving or leaving.)

And it’s so good to see Susan, who retired in December, and who has been on the move– down the coast, across the country, over the ocean to that mythical island state–ever since.  A lunch hour won’t give us enough time to cover everything.

I meet her at the counter. I gather up a lovely spinach salad–those healthy greens are festooned with bacon and red onion and accompanied by slices of baguette (the crust crackles and explodes; the bread inside is fresh and tender), and my loaf of take-home sliced french bread. Susan gets her soup and sandwich.  We convene to the corner booth; we commence  the necessary work-information sharing.

Then Susan talks about her grand-twins, Cleary and Will, the tiny, sweet children of Laura and Josh. Barely over a year old, they are finally on the growth chart at their pediatrician’s.  Granted, they’ve just climbed on to that chart, topping out at two and three per cent, but they’ve arrived at that comforting ‘normal’ range.  (I think of how small Jim, in the 98th percentile for length and weight, seemed as a baby, and how fragile; I try to imagine parenting such amazing little morsels of humanity.)

After a very chaotic first year of life–a year involving long hospital stays, feeding crises, surgery, care issues, and, I know, nights and days of pain and worry for their parents and grandparents,–those babies, like any other babies their age,  are walking.

The sun shines in, and Susan and I move on to talk about what we’re reading, but there’s a happy grounding to our talk. I think about those miracle babies.  And now: a new chapter in their young and exciting lives begins.

What a nice lunch.

I head back to work.

*******

New chapters and new babies are on my mind tonight after I pack up my desk, and, driving home, I wonder how things are going in Maryland. That’s where Alison is making my friend Sandee–my friend who first knew me in Grade Five, when a tiny nun half our size and twice our ferocity terrorized us both (Oh, we could tell you stories…)–a first-time grandma.

Alison and John’s baby is a boy; the delivery’s a scheduled C-section; the name will be revealed on FaceBook. That tiny boy will be a new life, of course, and he’ll create new lives for Alison and John, who become, in that twinkling when they hear his first affronted wail, Mom and Dad.  And Sandee and Don take on new personae, too–they’re suddenly Grandma and Grandpa Hulihan, and they’re parents, now, of Mama Alison and Auntie Colleen.

And, here he is!  Welcome, Matthew Philip!
And, here he is! Welcome, Matthew Philip!

********

After dinner, Jim pulls out the vacuum, I get the duster; Mark carts some extraneous office furniture out to the sun porch. I organize the dining room, the cubbies, the shelves–tackle some of that clutter.  We’re getting ready for a special visit. Mark’s Mom, Pat, arrives on Saturday. It will be her first visit to Zanesville; it will be her first Easter as a widow.  A new kind of life for Pat, too.

We will show her the wonders of our adopted homeplace–the Y Bridge, the gardens, John Glenn’s boyhood house, the restaurant built with barnwood from Agnes Moorehead’s farm.  We’ll take road trips, we’ll hit book stores (Pat, whom I met when we worked together at the Book Nook, is a voracious reader), and we’ll watch movies in the family room; we’ll cook up big meals, and we’ll visit some of our favorite funky eateries.

We’ll talk and drink coffee,  maybe play some cards, and we’ll get to know Pat in her new role. Pat, after Angelo’s death. Pat, grieving, but moving forward.

**********

Just itching to open...
Just itching to open…

The daffodils have pushed up quickly and insistently, so fast, in fact, it seems like we watched them grow in Disney stop-action.  The first tentative blooms have opened.  By Sunday–Easter Sunday,–we’ll have a Wordsworth sea of those nodding yellow heads.

After a tough, dark winter: the Spring,–a time of rejoicing, and a time of somberly marking what’s been lost to the cold, cruel season.  A time to celebrate–first cries, first steps.  Anticipated blooming. Unexpected change.

I love the contemplative time January 1st offers every year, the fillip at the end of Christmas, the beginning of a new cycle.  But this time, this season, this Eastertide, always feels to me like the real beginning.  Here we emerge–sometimes from a cozy, dark quiet; sometimes from a deep and abiding sadness; and sometimes, from a season that handed us both–into the light.

Interior growth stirs; it inches; it parallels the real and raucous blooms of spring–the first bold yellows of daffs and forsythia mellowing into the lavendars of hardy lilacs and tender violets, the many tulip hues, the bold scent of lilies.

We’re launching, now, into future.  We must go forward,–no choice–, even when that means leaving something precious behind.  But it means, too, celebrations of new life and new progress; it means embracing new roles and seeing new possibilities.

Some years those changes, those beginnings, are subtle; I have to search for them; they’re like violets shying into the uncut grass.

This year, my head spins with all the loud, proud, joyful shouts of Spring, of time’s changes, of new life. This year insists I take time and be with this. I hope I’ll be awake and brave and strong enough to take this season’s lessons all the way home to my heart.

Whatever holiday or holy day you acknowledge, whatever seasonal joys you lift your face to, I wish you all the blessings of this amazing season.