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. 

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

Crafts, Family, Friends, Home

Is it done yet?

“Have you finished that afghan?” Jean asked during one of my last visits with her before she died. I didn’t see her often in her final months but each time I visited she asked about the afghan that sat in my knitting bag, two-thirds done. 

I don’t remember what prompted me to start this project, which is actually a lap blanket rather than an afghan. Did I imagine it wrapped around my own knees on winter nights? I already have an abundance of woven or fleecy or hand knitted options for knee warming. At various points in the years since I started it I’ve considered possible recipients, hoping that the deadline of holiday gift giving would spur me on. But it continues to languish. 

Jean was a long-time friend—and my knitting guru. An artist with needles and yarn, she encouraged me to stretch my skills, take on intricate stitch challenges, branch out from scarves to knit a sweater or hat, ruthlessly rip back to fix mistakes. We spent many chilly evenings sitting at her dining table, a fire crackling in the woodstove, knitting and talking while scarves, hats, sweaters, and shawls grew. 

I learned to knit when I was nine or ten. My cousin was visiting and my mom, desperate for ways to keep us occupied, sat us down with balls of yarn and knitting needles and set us to work making garter stitch potholders. Sporadic forays into knitting in my young adult years mostly resulted in half finished projects. I did eventually finish an orange wool scarf made with yarn I bought in Ireland on a two-month England and Ireland exploration the summer after junior year at university. The bright wool knit up nicely in popcorn stitch. I wore the scarf a few times and then left it in a restaurant that immediately went out of business and the scarf became the property of the creditors. 

Mom was an accomplished knitter, regularly producing sweaters and vests and scarves to keep us all warm. She knit American style—and that’s what she taught me. I’ve since been told this is an inefficient method but in her hands it was fluid and fast. I can still see her sitting on the couch, eyes on a TV show, fingers flying as she inserted the needle, wrapped the yarn, slipped off the stitch, row after row. 

I have an afghan that mom made—she made several and gave them to family members scattered around the globe. Mine is shades of green and each square is a different stitch pattern. I also have several scarves, a hat, and a sweater I made for myself. And maybe this winter I’ll finish and bind off the lap blanket—and imagine Jean saying “Well, finally!”

Garden, Home, Poetry

Flowers, glorious flowers

In this New England valley, spring first arrives in the form of bulb shows at two local colleges. For two weeks in early March, when the ground outside is often still buried in piles of old, icy snow and the wind still pierces through winter coats, students at Mt. Holyoke and Smith fill greenhouse spaces with displays of spring bulbs and flowers of every type, hue, and scent.

A friend and I usually gravitate to the Mt. Holyoke show at Talcott Greenhouse—smaller and less crowded than the Smith show and every bit as lush. This year a collaborative sculpture spanned the length of the room, representing the three seasons that students are at school, fall leaves becoming winter snow and then spring blooms.

As always, the first thing I notice as I enter the space is the scent of hyacinth, narcissus, and damp earth. I pause and absorb the color and light and scent before making my way slowly down one aisle and up the next then around again, this time taking pictures—oh so many pictures. For twenty minutes, my body lets go of its wintertime hunch and shrug.

I come home from the bulb show to my snow covered garden and devour the pictures I’ve taken, hungry for the light and color.

But gradually in the following days, as temperatures moderate and the snow recedes, I begin my daily  search of garden beds, cheering when the first green shoots of crocuses appear and then the first small purple blossom, the nubs of Hellebore blooms, and more and more green shoots poke through.

This poem from Jean Connor speaks to the season of yearning and waiting and remembering.

And finally, a link to a song I’ve been listening to, I Arise Facing East, from Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Cicone.