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Crafts, Family, Home

The black ceramic dog

The window ledge above my kitchen sink is home to a collection of artifacts—a glass replica of a Hershey’s kiss given me by a roommate years ago, a miniature watercolor of an iris that I bought in an antique store near my sister’s house in England, a tiny blue vase I made in my wheel thrown pottery phase, and a black ceramic dog that I made in eighth grade art class. 

I have never been much of an artist ; I’ve abandoned attempts at learning to draw or use watercolors. I don’t remember much about that art class—I suspect it wasn’t one of my more successful academic experiences.

But there’s this dog with ears and a nose and legs curled up and a tail tucked in. Never mind the fact it looks like a black lab and I was trying to make a statue of our family’s tiny brown terrier. I made this thing that is pleasing to the eye and fits easily in my hand. The surface is smooth although I can feel lumps in the clay when I glide my finger along its body.

I don’t remember what I did with it after I brought it home from school. Did I keep it in my bedroom? Give it to my mom? Many years later I saw it on her writing desk where it sat between the blotter and the lamp. After she died I packed it into my suitcase and brought it back to Massachusetts with me. 

This doggie has lived on the ledge above the sink for all the years I’ve been in this house–a small lumpy thread back to childhood. I often don’t notice it—it’s just part of the array of small items that have migrated to that spot. But sometimes my eyes linger on it and I stroke its back. It reminds me to create what needs to be created, even if it ends up being a black lab rather than a terrier. 

COVID-19, Music

Singing together alone

I recently reconnected with a choral group I sang with years ago. We’re three weeks into a five week Zoom choral experience. I signed up for this out of curiosity and as a way to make connections during this viral time. But I was dubious. Much of the joy of choral singing, for me, is the interaction with the other singers, listening carefully to each other as we weave harmonies around the melody, our many voices becoming one. How could I be part of a chorus singing by myself in my little pixeled box?

And we do each sing alone in our houses, muted to avoid the cacophony of variable connection speeds, learning our parts and then singing along with a recording of the song. As with many pandemic adaptations, it’s strange and a bit sad this singing together alone. 

But there is pleasure in the singing, in opening my throat, hitting the pitch, holding strong to my part. And as I look at the other singers in their little boxes, mouths moving, bodies swaying, and sometimes their eyes look up from the music, into their cameras and then into others’ eyes, I can imagine our gathered individual voices blending, swelling, diverging, and merging, our virtual chorus, and it is good enough, for now. 

Here’s one of the songs we’re singing: We Shall Be Known

COVID-19, Home, Writing

Writing feels distant these days

I open the computer with the intention to write but my restless mind interferes and soon I’m out the door where I pace up and down the street or do laps around my yard. My body appreciates the exercise but writing stagnates. I wish I had the cat’s ability to focus. He can sit for long stretches of time staring intently into the shrubbery, not even a whisker twitching as he waits for a chipmunk or vole to emerge. 

Eventually, renewing my resolve to sit with the blank page until words emerge, I go back inside, settle into my comfortable chair, and open the computer. I poke at a piece of writing for a while but then slide over to look at email or social media.

This past week has been especially difficult as the election nears and threats, fear, and anger escalate. Writing about my daily life seems frivolous, and yet it’s what I know. I’m angry and weary–as are most people I know–but I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about current events except to note how overwhelming it can all be. 

I talked about this with some writing friends and felt reassured that writing about my day to day is just fine. It might even be an antidote to the gathering angst. So, throughout the week I’m going to post quick word snapshots, glimpses of moments from my day to day. 

For example, yesterday I was in the front yard looking for the cat who I’d just seen disappearing into the depths of one of my gardens when I noticed the next door neighbors were out in the street taking pictures of their two boys.

I wandered over to see what was up. The three-year-old was just learning to ride a two-wheeled bike. He had such glee on his face as he wobbled along finding his balance point for seconds at a time before needing to plop his feet on the ground. Not to be outdone, the five-year-old demonstrated his ability to ride with just one hand on the handlebars.

He was just about to try riding with no hands when my phone rang. I needed to take the call and the family wandered off down the street. But I was left with the younger child’s broad smile and his joy in the trying and then trying again. 

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