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Family, Poetry

Fishing with Dad

A repost from my previous blog, slightly updated.

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On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of my dad who died over 30 years ago at age 75. He had a heart attack, sitting in his chair, 5:30 in the afternoon, watching 3s Company reruns on TV and probably sipping a Manhattan while my mother made supper.

Dad’s eyesight was failing due to glaucoma that he’d had since he was 40. He had a heart condition; the heart attack was a surprise but in some way also expected. He’d had a pacemaker for a few years and problems regulating his heart medication. He was slowing down and having a hard time accepting this.

He had a group of men friends—the Old Goat’s Club they called themselves. My dad, the ex banker; Hubert, who used to own the drugstore in town; Dick, who was also a banker; and Jack, an insurance agent. They met each Tuesday morning at a coffee shop off the town square. I wonder what they talked about as they navigated retirement and aging.

Dad was an avid photographer—I still have carousels filled with his slides documenting trips and family events, including many silly pictures of me, little ham that I was. My sister and I said we would sort through them, scan some onto the computer and toss the rest but we never did. I kept his camera and used it for many years until it needed a new part and turned out to be too old to fix.

I also kept his yellow cardigan sweater, one of his favorites. I remember its texture under my fingertips and on the inside of my arms where I’d press against him in a hug–he was good with hugs.

I wish I’d known my dad better. That sounds like an odd thing to say about a man I saw every day for more than 18 years but he was a very private man, who was, I think, easily hurt. I remember one blow-out fight we had when I was in my 20s. I don’t remember what the topic was–I just remember yelling at each other–a rarity in our family–and I remember thinking that beneath his anger, dad was deeply hurt that I thought so differently about something.

We were up in Maine, in a cottage that my parents owned for a few years right after dad retired. I was living in the Boston area and came up a lot on the weekends in the summer. I suspect we were arguing about decisions I was making about work.

We yelled. I probably cried. Mom intervened and it was over. At times I wish we’d kept going–gotten to something deep and honest that needed saying–but I also wonder if one of us–probably me–would have said something irretrievable.

That one fight aside, the times I spent with dad in Maine are some of my best memories of adult time with him. The cottage was on a lake. He had a rowboat with an outboard motor and we’d go fishing for long hours, puttering down the lake to find a good spot and then casting our lines and waiting companionably for something to bite, which it rarely did. Here’s a poem I wrote about that time:

Fishing with My Father

Our boat drifts through light and shade.

We sit angled, bow and stern, poles poised

for elusive fish, no sound but the slap

of water on the boat’s hull, the whipping hiss

of a cast line. We are caught there,

drifting the length of the lake.

We pretend knowledge of underwater geography,

the habits of fish; disturb the places hidden by rocks,

push our way through lily pads and weeds,

seek the warm currents.

Family, Nature

Sunsets (for mom)

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m reposting a short piece from my previous blog, At Home on Harlow.

I don’t have a view of full-on sunsets from my house but on summer evenings I can see a faint rosy glow, the edge of the sunset, through the branches of the evergreens at the back of the yard. Sometimes that faint glow draws me out of the house and down the block to the field at the end of the neighborhood where I can watch the full display across the valley.

My mother loved sunsets. She kept a journal, beginning in 1966–she would have been in her late 50s then. She wrote in it sporadically, an entry or two and then a gap of years before another entry. The last entry was dated 1976. She wrote several times about the sunsets she could see from the kitchen window. In the first entry, written on a January afternoon, she describes a sunset that was a delicate rose in color with black tracing of tree branches. She goes on to say how frustrating it is that my father and I didn’t see this beauty: “I say, ‘Look at the sunset–it’s fabulous.’ They say ‘yes very nice’ and they don’t really see. It’s so beautiful it hurts.”

And she’s right. As a teenager I didn’t see the sunsets–or at least I didn’t see what she saw–the painful beauty of them.

I wrote about sunsets in my own journal once a few years ago. I’d had a string of conversations with friends who were dealing with illnesses of various kinds. I wrote about driving home from work along the river one winter afternoon. The sun was setting behind the hills across the river and it took my breath away–the hills, the scarlet sky, the reflection in the river. I wrote that I wanted to give this sunset to my friends as an antidote, a balm, something to hold onto when all else seemed to be giving way. The redemptive power of sunsets.

Maybe that’s what my mother saw in sunsets, those many many years ago. I wish I could come up behind her, circle my arms around her waist where she stands at the sink, rest my chin on her shoulder and see the sunset along with her. Yes, it’s gorgeous I’d say.

Friends, Garden, Home, Meditation, Nature, Writing

Spring and tulips and hope

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem
of wildflowers,
her torn
veil of mist,
of light rain,
blowing
her dandelion
breath
in our ears;
,,,

From “Spring” by Linda Pastan

I’ve been reveling in spring days, especially sunny days when the gardens glow. I wander through lush grass dotted with dandelions and violets and grape hyacinth that have escaped from the garden beds. A couple of weeks ago I scattered seeds for blackberry lilies in one of the front beds. A friend harvested the seeds from her plants last year—they’ve lived in a pill bottle in my kitchen cabinet for a couple of months. Maybe they’ll germinate—on a tour of the gardens today I spotted a few green shoots poking up—but no matter what happens, there’s hopefulness in the act of loosening dirt, scattering seeds, covering and tamping knowing that rain is coming then more sun to warm the earth.

Tulips dot the middle and rear of various beds. I haven’t planted bulbs in a few years and don’t remember planting any in these particular places. Maybe some burrowing critters have done some garden redesign. I’m loving the surprise of tulips in all their fluttery white and orange striped and frilled purple glory.

Hope lived in the initial autumn planting of these bulbs some years ago. And as I key that in I remember my friend Fran planting bulbs in her last autumn hoping she’d be alive to see them emerge but knowing she most likely would not.

I recently found a piece of Fran’s writing when I was looking through writing files. Writing was one of the things that sustained her through three painful years living with cancer. She joined a writing group sponsored by Cancer Connection and faithfully attended meetings up until a few weeks before her death, scrawling her fear and hope and rage and wonderings onto page after notebook page. I had the privilege of reading through a few of the notebooks to help choose some pieces to include in an anthology of writing from the group.

In the short piece I stumbled on recently, she wrote about lying in bed, exhausted and ill, listening to the spring rain outside her window: “It said ‘Listen to me, listen to my softness, listen to my steady rhythm, listen to me fall onto the earth, soak the earth, cool it and refresh it and let it live.’”

Listening. One of my favorite places to sit and listen is at the top of a field in my neighborhood. The field, which slopes down behind a university building, is maintained as a bird sanctuary with mowed walking paths. I walk to the end of my street, across the top of another field and then up the long slope to a bench at the top where I sit and look out across the valley to distant hills. As I sit, and listen, some kind of stillness settles in me.

For a recent meditation session I chose a Tara Brach guided meditation that focuses on deep listening—to sounds in our environment near and far, to our minds, our bodies, letting ourselves be part of the world around us, just as it is in this moment. My mind skittered around—it always does—but I kept returning to that home base of listening, as I now listen to the words in my head, the images, the vague ideas that lead these words.

COVID-19, Friends, Garden, Poetry, Writing

Snow in April

Big fat snowflakes fell all day, a mid-April snow that coated the forsythia and the early flowering rhododendron—their bright yellow and hot pink flowers drooped under the snow but still shone through. A chilly day is in the forecast for tomorrow but increasing warmth throughout the week will bring those beauties back to vibrant life. This is spring in New England. Looking back through my archive of photos I see yearly shots of snow on April buds. 

I and most of my friends are now fully vaccinated, our immune systems firmly boosted by either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. I expected to feel some dramatic sense of relief, a desire to leap back into the world, but the shift has been subtle, a lessening of anxiety when I go grocery shopping or meet a friend for lunch on a coffee shop’s patio. I’m fantasizing about some regional travel but am not yet ready to hop on an airplane. Friends and I are planning summer theater excursions, outside, under a tent but I’m not quite ready for a movie theater. Outdoor restaurant seating is fine; indoors, too confined. Wearing masks in public spaces, especially indoors, is still the norm around here; I find this reassuring.

The New York Times recently posted an interactive piece titled Who We Are Now, featuring the voices of a range of Americans reflecting on the pandemic year. These reflections speak to the upheaval, disruption, fear, grief, renewal, recalibrating, and rethinking that the past year has brought especially for those younger than I, who have contended with job changes and losses, kids learning from home, parents at heightened risk, as well as for those whose age or health concerns have kept them isolated at home or in nursing homes. 

For me, life in viral times has meant an intensifying of changes I would have made anyhow as I left a full time job behind and moved into unstructured days that give me time for reflecting and writing. In a March 2020 blog post I noted that pandemic life isn’t all that different than my writer’s life except it’s harder to find alternatives to solitude when time alone weighs heavily—no stores to browse in or coffee shops to sit in with my computer open and eyes surveying the life around me. 

I guess I’m circling back to a question the poet David Whyte posed in a webinar: What is the seasonality of my life? What is coming into being? As I write that I think about my mother in her later years. Dad pulled her out into the world and after his death her own health problems and a strongly introverted nature kept her increasingly at home, in her recliner, touching the world through the Sunday New York Times, her television, phone calls with me and my sister, and visits from kind friends and neighbors. 

I picture her in those final years, sunk in her recliner in the living room. I think she found peace in the sitting and remembering, her mind drifting through time. In her last year or two I sometimes wondered if she was waiting to die, but maybe it was more that she was letting go, acknowledging the end. I’m not there yet; I’m tenaciously rooted in this life. But am I tiptoeing in that direction? Is that a piece of what’s slowly coming into being for me? 

I recently reread Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking.” I remember when I first read this poem many, many years ago, at a time of great upheaval and transition, I was drawn to the words “This shaking keeps me steady.” 

But now, as I sidle into a new phase of life, different words beckon me. “I hear my being dance from ear to ear.” “What falls away is always and is near./I wake to sleep and take my waking slow./I learn by going where I have to go.”

COVID-19, Garden, Home, Writing

Inviting Revery

As spring approaches I feel a quickening of spirit, a pull outwards to light and sound and life. The neighborhood sprang alive last week, little kids playing on one side, college students skateboarding and shooting hoops on the other side, people walking dogs, riding bikes. I chatted with Herbie from across the street, a widower in his 80s. I’ve seen him from afar this winter when he takes out the trash or occasionally pulls out of the driveway but we haven’t chatted in a couple of months. He says he’s OK but it sure has been a long winter. I agree.

First signs of spring

I started raking off garden beds last week, cutting back dried stalks of foliage, sweeping all the debris onto the old blue tarp and hauling it back to the brush and compost pile. It felt good to use my body in this way although I’m slower, more cautious, than I was when I first began gardening this small lot over twenty-five years ago. In those days I would have spent most of the day crouching down to cut stalks back to the ground, weeding, raking, edging, letting the shape of the garden emerge, plotting out what I was going to transplant, what needed feeding. I’d circle the garden with a cart loaded with organic fertilizers, one bag for acid loving plants, the rhododendrons and azaleas, the andromeda, and one for plants that appreciate a more neutral soil. 

But these days, with an older body to tend and nurture, I take my gardening in small sips and savor each moment. I choose a portion to clear, rake off the leaves and other loose debris, use the long handled trimmer to snip back the dried stalks, rake some more, then take a quick break to stretch before returning for a final round of clipping and raking. 

I uncover a few green shoots starting to poke through; the cat mint shows new growth hiding under last year’s smoky gray foliage, the pulmonaria sports a few blooms. I clip the dead foliage from the epimedium to make way for the delicate spring blossoms that will soon appear, tiny bells dangling from fragile stems followed by foliage that claims the space, holds its own. Eventually garden helpers will come in to edge, weed, and transplant. They’ll move through all the beds in a day, leaving them tidied and ready for summer, but I relish my slow start to clean up, my chance to say hello again to the flowers and shrubs, my old friends. 

I move more slowly through the rest of my life as well. This is partly pandemic lethargy. No need to hurry because there’s no place to go. Do I need to shower today? Not really. I pass a quick sniff test and the only living creature I’ll see in person is the cat. 

I lie in bed first thing, easing into the day. It’s hard to imagine being upright and functional but I’m soon out of bed and headed for the kitchen and coffee. The morning drifts along. I review my mental to-do list but have a hard time settling on a starting point—nothing feels urgent.

Friends and I talk about what we’ll do when we’re fully vaccinated, which for most of us will be mid-April. My dreams are modest: hug my friends, share a meal around my dining table, browse a bookstore. But even with increased freedom of movement and contact, I’ll need to navigate unstructured time, negotiate with myself about productivity, wonder what that means at this stage of life. 

At some point most days I catch myself staring into space, my mind wandering like those clouds that float in a summer sky, and I shake myself. Do something! Get busy! my inner critic chides. Then I remember the Emily Dickinson quote I used to have posted above my desk: 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I breathe and stretch, throw a load in the washer, do a few dishes, amble around the garden before settling at my desk and inviting revery to wander onto the page.