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.”

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

Meditation, Nature, Poetry

Looking downstream

Early crocuses are blooming, daffodils are pushing through, buds are swelling on shrubs and trees. Even on chilly days the sun feels stronger. 

Spring feels especially poignant and necessary this year. After so many months of loss and change, I need the new growth, the lingering light, the quickening bird song. 

Patches of snow and ice linger in the woods but a favorite path is clear and dry. Each day this week I’ve walked this path that winds along a stream in full spate with snow and ice melt. I stop at a bridge, lean on the railing, and let the sound of water quiet my mind. I should write a poem, I think, and then realize that this—the sound of water over rocks, the glinting sun, the green boughs—is already a poem.

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.