Family, Garden, Grief, Home, Nature, Poetry

Yes, and…

In our writing group recently one of the prompts was Jane Kenyon’s poem “Heavy Summer Rain” in which she writes about missing someone “…steadily, painfully.” This poem felt particularly poignant as we move into late summer/early fall days when the quality of the light, the feel of the air remind me of my yearly visits with my sister either here in New England or at her home in England. I miss her deeply, especially when I sit in the garden in the late afternoon. The following is what emerged in that writing session, with just a bit of editing to make it readable.

*****

A pervasive ache of missing weaves through my days. Missing far flung friends, missing places, missing you. Missing Maine and the view of Damariscotta as we drop down the hill from Route 1, then the road out to the coast, the tang of sea air, the porch overlooking the cove, sitting there with you in late afternoon light as birds skim the water. Or missing your little piece of England, the view of the village up on its hill, the church where you and Peter are buried, the village hall and cricket field, the winding lane that curves in front of your house, your garden that slopes up to a fence and field, your house with its multileveled roofline, its stepped and staggered rooms, its worn upholstery and pooled lamplight.

The shape of loss changes with time, the space it occupies waxes and wanes. I go for days without much thought of you and then…I’ve written about this before, how turning from Route 116 onto the road toward home jolts me back to the turnoff to your house or how a particular bird call tugs me back to your garden in the late afternoon. Small seams of grief. 

I recently re-read Unless by Carol Shields. I took the book off your shelf the last time I was in your house, before all the books were packed up to be sold or given away. I remember your admiration for her writing and your small pleasure in having known her. She was a year ahead of you at Hanover College and preceded you on a junior year abroad to study at Exeter University. You told the story of how her safe return from this trip convinced our father that it was OK for you to head off to England, where you met Peter and fell in love with him and his home, how she set you on a course that took you around the world. 

A friend emailed me a recent New York Times article about Carol Shields. As I read I felt your absence tip-toe in. I wanted to call you and tell you about the article, send it on to you. 

A pervasive ache of missing threads through my days but I’m not, on the whole, unhappy. Tired of this viral existence? Of course. Worried about the future, the election, the course of the pandemic? Oh, yes. But day to day small pleasures abound, details I wish I could share with you in a Sunday phone call—a meal with friends at the end of the day, a pot of hot orange zinnias in the garden, an egret wading in the river, a small boy in yellow shorts and orange sneakers running down the path, a rooster that crows at me as I walk by his driveway domain, the white flowers on the chives glowing at dusk, like small stars hovering close to ground. Grief and delight. The “yes, and…” of life. 

Poetry, Writing

Back again

My apologies for a long absence from the blog. I have been writing short pieces that would make good blog posts but some kind of strange inertia has kept me from taking that next step of doing a little editing and then posting. I hear from a lot of friends and from writers I follow on social media that this creative lethargy is a common experience these days. For me, it’s a combination of the disruptions caused by the pandemic we’re all enduring; the onslaught of other news, much of it deeply disturbing; and simply summer vacation mind (even though I haven’t gone farther afield than fifteen miles away). 

Most of my writing has happened in groups, both in-person groups (via Zoom these days, rather than someone’s living room) and online in a private FaceBook group. I’ve written before in this blog about both the pleasures and the challenges of writing in a group but the camaraderie of these groups has been more important than ever during the past months. 

One of my first experiences with writing in a group setting, back in the late 1980s, was in an Amherst Writers and Artists group led by Pat Schneider, a writer and teacher who along with her husband Peter developed a gentle, nurturing, supportive approach to writing in a group. Twelve of us gathered each week in the Schneider’s living room, notebooks and pens at the ready, mugs of tea or coffee by our sides. Pat would give a prompt, we’d write for 20 minutes or so, and Pat would then issue an invitation to read our words aloud. I remember how my voice shook the first few times I read but with time I came to trust the process and know that the listeners’ positive responses—what they heard, noticed, appreciated—would help me revise and strengthen the piece. 

Pat died in early August. On Saturday I attended a virtual memorial service for her and heard person after person talk about the impact she had on their lives and I think about the way those evenings in her living room helped me believe in myself as a writer and commit to making writing a serious part of my life. 

One of Pat’s core beliefs is that we are all writers, we each have a unique voice and a story to tell, and we all need safe spaces in which to develop our voice and craft. Here are links to two safe spaces whose offerings I’ve benefited from:

https://www.jenaschwartz.com/

Writers in Progress

And finally, a poem of Pat’s.

Going Home the Longest Way Around

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
We make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.

Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.

And they were silent, the children
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.

It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

From Another River: New and Selected Poems
Amherst Writers and Artists Press

COVID-19, Friends, Nature

Hunkering down

“Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine for the plague.” This has been circulating around social media the past couple of days. “Yay for Shakespeare,” I say but my brain is so full of viral thoughts there’s room for little else, especially writing. 

My house is a mess. Cleaning is on the list for tomorrow along with writing up notes about cat care in case of emergency and reviewing my will. Morbid but necessary items that will help me sleep at night. 

Sun shines, rain blows through, more sun. The hellebores are blooming, vinca, lungwort. Crocuses have gone past. Daffodils are up and will bloom soon. Trees, water, dirt, insects, birds, critters. “We have a possum in our garage,” a neighbor says. Life in its rhythms. The cat loves the longer days, the sun, my being home to let him out. I stroll the yard and he runs to me, twines around my legs, meows, trots behind me as I keep moving.

I’m in contact with friends more than usual, even though we meet via phone calls and emails rather than face to face. Without the usual distractions life simplifies—home, friends and loved ones, time in the garden, walks through the woods. 

Will I be able to center into this time? Breathe, ease the fretting, slow down, row gently through the days?

This isn’t all that different than my usual life, I say. I often have strings of days with no engagements in the calendar. I’ve set things up that way deliberately to give me time for reflecting and writing. But… But…There’s always an alternative to solitude–a coffee shop to sit in, lunch with a friend, a library or bookstore to browse, a movie to go to.

I focus on finding my way through the day to day—how to shape the hours, carve a pattern in the day. I poll my friends: What are you doing today? I make yogurt, think about baking bread. I wonder where I put my spare fabric that I could use to patch a favorite pair of jeans.

But mortality is knocking on my door more urgently than ever. Older adults are more likely to die from this virus than younger ones–I hear this over and over. What does this mean for me? For my friends and family? The world feels precious. My daily walks yield small treasures–tree bark like an elephant’s skin, feathery bright green new growth, water rushing over rocks after a morning of rain, late afternoon sun on the river.  

An email arrives from my cousin in San Francisco. They’re staying home, life is quiet, they’re watching the birds at the feeder, planting their gardens, writing letters to get out the vote. Another email from friends in England. I make a note to contact my friends in Chicago. Webs of connection. All of us figuring out how to move through these days.

I try to relish the simplicity, cherish the strong connections, revel in the moments of breathing and moving, feeling the chilly air on my face, the soreness in my hip that says I’m alive and kicking, savoring the soft fur on my cat’s back, his warm body curled close to mine, his head butting my leg as we stand in the middle of the slowly resurrecting gardens. 

Garden, Grief, Meditation, Writing

Remembering

I haven’t posted recently—haven’t spent much time doing any kind of writing. That happens sometimes. I’ve cleaned closets, organized shelves, clipped back dead foliage in the garden, raked up leaves that I left down for winter mulch, read some good books (I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo), spent more time than I should scrolling through social media, walked in the woods—but the only writing has occurred in my Monday writing group (which is where I am right now). 

I’m not worried—I’ve had these lulls before. To give myself a nudge—a gentle invitation—I enrolled in an online group led by Jena Schwartz titled Dive Into Poetry. Three days a week for the month of March we receive a poem in our inbox. We can simply read and appreciate or we can respond with a poem of our own. 

I wrote a poem this morning about a garden cart that a friend gave me as a housewarming present twenty-five years ago. The cart has trundled across my yard thousands of times since that long ago August day, hauling leaves and grass clippings and potted plants, empty pots that need storing at the end of the season, bags of mulch and topsoil, rakes and hoes, and seedlings in green plastic pots ready to put in the ground. 

The poem was a distilled, focused memory of the gift of the cart, my friend helping me put it together, his death months later, my memories of him when I use the cart. My last lines said:

“I think of him now as I push the cart over a winter rutted lawn.
Not a heavy grief, but a remembrance
a nod to his thumbprint on my day to day.”

I was aware as I wrote about my friend and the cart and the gentle nostalgic memory that the cart evokes that I was not writing about the more poignant, stabbing memories that surface sometimes when I look at the print hanging on my living room wall—red tulips spilling out of their vase—or feel the nubbly texture of the yellow blanket folded on my office daybed, these relicts from my sister’s house, evocations of her and her home, many-roomed memories that swim in front of me of a place I can never return to, a person I can never touch again. 

None of this is surprising—griefs exist in diverse dimensions, deaths leave holes of differing sizes—the death of a friend lands differently than the death of a sister. 

Although I haven’t put words to paper much in recent weeks, I’ve been writing a lot in my head. I wrote an entire poem in my mind yesterday morning as I sat in my meditation group listening to Tara Brach and trying with great difficulty to keep my attention focused on my breath. I’ll remember this poem, I told myself, write it down when I get home. But it’s mostly gone. I got home, stroked the cat, ate lunch, and ventured out to the garden to rake and clip and tidy, the poem forgotten until this morning when I tried to recapture it with no success. Something about being the silence that is listening, being the stillness. 

Being the stillness. Things feel chaotic these days, all the hoopla and angst about the virus that creeps ever nearer, dominates the media, seeps into our thoughts, our conversations. I try to resist the anxiety, stay centered, fight the feeling that I’m swimming through germs every time I go out in the world. I spent a long time at the grocery store on Saturday stocking up on canned goods just in case I need to self isolate at some point and then got home and realized I’d been so focused on that hypothetical crisis that I hadn’t bought items that I’d actually need for the coming week. 

Breathe. Be the stillness. Relish moments like this, sitting in a bright room, surrounded by windows, looking out at sun and blue sky, feeling the sun on my neck, the back of my head, hearing the creak of chairs from the other room, an occasional sigh, knowing that we’re all engaged in creating, putting words out into the world, a community of writers. And being here, now, fingers on keyboard I enter a sort of stillness, a place of calm. 

Christmas, Family, Home, Music

Music and memories

Christmas eve morning, 2019. A young boy’s voice, pure and clear, sang the first line of Once in Royal David’s City and I was instantly transported back two years to England and my sister’s house, the last Christmas we spent together.

We’d had a mid-day meal at a nearby inn and by 3, with the sun low in the sky, we were back at her house, mugs of tea in hand, ready to watch the BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols service from King’s College, Cambridge. Coats rustled as people took their seats, silence fell, and a young boy’s voice rang out. 

I don’t remember when I first listened to this service—it might have been at my sister’s house or possibly with my mother on one of those quiet Christmases we spent together after dad died. I’d arrive on the 22nd or 23rd and we’d spend the morning of Christmas eve listening to the lessons and carols and decorating the tree. The listening helped us feel connected to my sister at home in her English village.  

On this Christmas eve, I sat for a few minutes then I was up and puttering around the house while the service played in the background. I paused to listen more intently to certain carols—Silent Night, Adeste Fidelis. And as the voices soared I was taken even further back to family Christmases in Ohio and the candlelit lessons and carols services we attended at Mariemont Community church, a small stone church modeled after English parish churches. 

I remember the strong descending notes of the organ and then the choir singing “On this day, earth shall ring…” as they processed in, the stone walls and dark wood pews, the familiar carols and my sister and I searching for the harmony line, the final carol, Adeste Fidelis, with its soprano descant that spiraled up through the candlelit space, and then the choir singing Masters in This Hall as they recessed. 

Music and memories. I spent Christmas with friends and will gather with friends tonight to see out the year. I revel in these warm connections—I am held by them just as I am warmed and held by the music of the season and the memories it brings. 

Once in Royal David’s City, sung by Kings College Choir, 2016

Adeste Fidelis, sung by Harvard University Choir, 2009

On This Day Earth Shall Ring, sung by the Kings College Choir, 2009

Masters in This Hall, sung by HSPVA Madrigal Choir, 2009