Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rest in Peace - A Piece of Family History

Maryann and William John Gilpin outside
their home in Enfield, Massachusetts

Many of the stories my mother passed down to me were stories passed down to her from her grandfather. After her mother died when she was five, she moved around from one relative to another, but the home she spoke of most fondly was that with her paternal grandparents in Enfield, Massachusetts.

William John and Maryann Bannister Gilpin had settled there with their family after emigrating from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. There they had been linen weavers. A loom was set up in the house, and every member of the family took part in the making of this fine fabric made from the flax plants that grew nearby. 

Life was not easy. Though they all worked hard to create this beautiful material, it ended up on the tables and in the closets of the wealthier people in the area, but William John did not complain. He took most things in his stride, accepting what he saw as God's will.

But tragedy can test one's faith.. One day as he returned from a trip to the village, he saw Maryann coming out to greet him, carrying something in her arms. As he got closer, he saw that it was the tiny body of their son, William John, his namesake. Through her tears Maryann explained that he had fallen in a well, and by the time he was rescued, it was too late to save him.

William John was overcome with grief, yet he knew it was his responsibility to give the child a Christian burial, and having no money to buy a fancy casket, he fashioned a small box from wood he had salvaged and buried the child quietly in a corner of the church cemetery. Then every morning before the sun came up he would return to the small plot and say a prayer.

About a month later when he came to the cemetery one morning he found the plot had been dug up and the small coffin containing his child lay on a mound of dirt. He realized immediately that the grave had been appropriated for the casket of a town official who had died, a member of one of the wealthy families who bought the fine linen that his family had weaved.

When he arrived back home later than usual, he explained to Maryann what had happened. She  was distraught thinking of her child discarded so thoughtlessly, but then he explained he had taken their son and buried him again "somewhere where only God and I know." Presumably he continued to pray over his son in his new resting place for the years that they were to remain in Northern Ireland.

Swift River Company Mill
Their relocation began after Jim, their oldest son, fell in love with Sarah Hickland, and Sarah's family sailed to the United States and settled in Enfield, Massachusetts. Jim soon boarded a ship and followed her there where he proved to Mr. Smith of the woolen mill that he was a skilled weaver. Once Mr. Smith saw what Jim could do, he agreed to send for the rest of the family and there they settled in the Smiths' Village section of Enfield. 

William John Gilpin Home

And it was to their small home in the Smiths' Village years later that my mother was to come after her mother died. Her cousin, Uncle Jim's daughter, Ruth Vivian lived nearby, and she soon made many friends. Her grandmother was a great cook and taught her to make Irish delicacies like champ and potato bread.

She went to elementary school there, and then began high school at Belchertown High School, but when her father got a job in Springfield, she and her sister Gertrude were able to be with him, so they moved back to the city. 

Not long after they moved back, her grandmother and then her grandfather died. They returned to Enfield for the funeral and the burial in the church cemetery there. Watching her grandfather's coffin being lowered into the ground, she remembered his story of the child he buried so long ago, and she wondered if he were still resting in peace.

Neither her grandfather nor her grandmother were to rest in peace very long for it had been decided that the Swift River Valley--home to the towns of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott--was to be flooded to create Quabbin Reservoir that would provide water for the city of Boston. 

Vera Gilpin Schneeloch
at the Gilpin marker
Quabbin Park Cemetery
Soon all that had been of these four towns was razed, moved, or destroyed. This included those interred in the cemeteries. A new cemetery was created on the other side of Route 9, and all the graves were disinterred and buried again in the new Quabbin Park Cemetery.

So William John and Maryann who had endured the trauma of having their son disinterred and reburied were themselves disinterred and reburied. 

At least now there is a marker with their names engraved.  New names have been added including that of my grandfather William John Gilpin, Jr. He was to receive the name of the child who had been lost so many years ago.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Imagine That!

Last week I went to a retreat at Rolling Ridge on "The Poetry of Prayer" led by Steve Garnaas-Holmes. It was a great fall day full of nature's glory, inspiring words, and new and old friends. This poem came out of that retreat.

Imagine That!

Imagine you are loved
really loved
as much as you love your old dog
who poops on the carpet
who pees reliably not on the pee pads
who turns up his nose
at the expensive single serving filet mignon.

Remember how you forgive him
time after time
even after he does it again
and again.
that there is no end
no condition
no restriction
no contingency
on you love for him
on  your forgiveness of him.

Imagine that you,
yes you,
your flawed, shitty self
is loved and forgiven
that much
over and over
and over again.

Imagine that!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Feeding or Fooling the Birds

I bought a gallon of shelled sunflower seeds at the Bird Store on the Cape thinking I should dust off the old bird feeder and hang it from the shepherd's crook where the summer basket of flowers had hung. Then I could watch the birds from the window. This is also the same shepherd’s crook where I had hung the hummingbird feeder that attracted no hummingbirds, but in my experience, the winter birds aren't as picky.

So I put the bird feeder back together--the three pieces of plastic column inside the cage to keep out the squirrels, (Ha!) filled it with the sunflower seed, and hung it on the hook. 

For several days the level of seed seemed unchanged. Then on Monday I noticed the level had gone down some, but when I looked at the plastic column, I saw that I had put it in upside-down so that now that the seed was below the tiny spouts where the seed spilled out, there was no way for the birds to get at the seed. So last night I brought the feeder inside intending to correct my error today.

It was on my to-do list as I sat eating my breakfast when I saw a tiny chickadee fly from the hydrangea to the hook where yesterday there was a feeder, then back to the hydrangea, then back to the hook, and then fly off. I felt as if I had tricked it into thinking this was a good place to look for sustenance, then taken away the food.

I immediately fixed the feeder, filled it with seed and returned it to its rightful place. I can only hope that the birds will find this again. I suspect they will.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Autumnal Equinox

When and how
the earth turns or twists
to create this moment of balance
is beyond my control.

Exactly when the planet
leans into darkening hours
shorter and shorter days--
all this is out of my hands.

I may protest
every minute of disappearing sun
the packing up of porch furniture
the pulling out of extra blankets,

yet there is a sort of comfort
in knowing that the universe decides
when to replace a second of sun
with a second of night.

But it is I
who must make
the decisions
about my old dog,

I who must decide
what path to take for todays walk
whether through the rose garden
or around the lily ponds.

I who must choose
between the chopped chicken
or beef in gravy
for his dinner.

On this day of transition
I look at the basket of unused toys
hind legs that cross or collapse
cloudy cataracts,

and I wish I were not
entrusted with
decisions about 
his universe.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September's Sweetness

September's Sweetness

This morning's peach
may be the last this season,
everything about it perfect.
The soft skin peels easily
to reveal sweet gold fruit.
I savor each piece,
hold it in my mouth
for just a moment longer.

       From upstairs I hear
       a plaintive whimper.
       Riley is calling for me
       to carry him downstairs.
       I cradle his warm body
       and hold on to the rail.
       I want to hold him like this
       for just a moment longer.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Monkey Business

I recently watched Planet of the Apes, the 1968 version starring Charlton Heston. Somehow over the years, I had missed it, so decided it was about time. Parts of it seemed dated, and the acting was spotty, but, all in all, a good movie with some interesting messages. The idea that what we're doing to each other and the planet may cause us to devolve seems still relevant. There were amusing moments too, and one, in particular, made me laugh out loud.

Heston's character, Taylor, is an astronaut who travels 700 years into the future and crashes on this land run by apes who, seeing humans as a sub-species, imprison and enslave them. He, unlike the other humans, can talk. (I did wonder why he never questioned the fact that they speak English when he thinks they are from some other place in the universe, but I'll leave that question for another day). When he is put on trial before three orangutans who will decide his fate, he tries to tell them the truth of who he is and where he has been, but is immediately silenced because humans have no rights here. When he tries to speak the truth, we see a shot of the three orangutan judges, one with his hands over his eyes, one with his hands over his ears, one with his hands over his mouth--the classic "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

I was reminded of this funny but telling scene this morning when I saw conservative personality Laura Ingraham's posting of a crowd cheering Donald Trump as he told a Telemundo reporter, "You're finished," when he pursued questioning him about his comments about Mexicans. Then I recalled hearing yesterday that Trump had refused press credentials to reporters from the Des Moines Register after they had printed a critical editorial about him. Now, the fact that candidates are in conflict with the press is nothing new, or even that they try to control access. What worries me is those who see his actions as something to applaud.

I am reminded of those orangutans who are more comfortable remaining ignorant than facing a truth they find uncomfortable. A free press--a truly free press--will, at times, expose us to uncomfortable truths, will make us angry, will cause us to want to turn it off--something I do habitually to Fox News, but, as Thomas Jefferson reminded us, “The only security of all is in a free press." If we are to make intelligent choices about who will lead us for the next four years, it's important that all the news gets out there. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Gifts from the Hydrangea

I write often about the old hydrangea in my back yard because it is what I see from the window
Neighbor Antoine Helps
Clean Up After the Storm
Hydrangea 6-23-15
where I eat my breakfast, because it is old and persistent, and because it keeps offering me gifts. Early last winter a heavy snow storm weighed it down and brought it to the ground. I mourned because I thought I had lost it. Then this spring little green nubbins turned into
leaves, and it was back. It had lost some branches, but clearly it had survived the winter once again.

Yesterday I heard the familiar cheep of the cardinal, and as I walked around, I determined that it was coming from the hydrangea. A ruffle of leaves led me to look on the side near the driveway. I walked as close as I could, trying not to scare it off, and sure enough, there was a female cardinal hiding under the leaves. I was particularly glad to see it was a female, not because I don't love the bright color of her male counterpart, but because of her subtlety, I don't see her as often, and I like her muted colors.

Then this morning from my peripheral vision, I could see a commotion in the yard. I turned to see two squirrels chasing each other up the tulip tree and down, over the fence and back, and into the hydrangea. One went off out of my vision, but the other stayed on the ground below checking out what goodies had been left there--seeds from the tulip tree, I suspect.

At other times the hydrangea has offered me chickadees who made a home in a hole in the old branch, sparrows hiding from the blue jays, and, most amazingly, monarch butterflies whose life began hundreds of miles away. Before long the blossoms will come with their wonderful scent, and the bees will be busy again.

So this morning I am just stopping for a moment to be thankful for my old friend and all the gifts it has shared with me. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Trees and Transition

When I moved into my house 33 years ago, there were two very large box elder trees in my back yard. I appreciated the shade, but before long there was a problem--box elder bugs. I soon learned that the two trees differed in that one was male, and one was female, and the seeds of the female attracted these pests. They did not appear to do damage to the tree, but as Wikipedia explains, "their congregation habits and excreta can annoy people." Yes, indeed, excreta can be annoying!

In the fall of the year they would swarm and cover the side of my house and Sunny's house next door. Sunny, a charming 90 something inveterate gardener, volunteered to pay to have the tree removed, but winter came, the bugs disappeared, and I forgot about them. That is until Easter Sunday when sitting around the dinner table with all my family, the bugs (who evidently had been hibernating in the cellar) woke up and started flying all over the room. This was not the way I intended to celebrate the resurrection!

OK, I gave in. The yard, after all, was really too small for two large trees, so I had the female tree removed. No more bugs. Well, no more box elder bugs. It wasn't long before I discovered that the other tree was infested with carpenter ants. Removing it became an issue of safety. So now I had a bare yard with no shade.

At Mulak's Nursery, Bonnie suggested a tulip tree would grow quickly and provide good shade, and soon the sapling was taking root in my yard.

She was right. It grew quickly, and the yard soon was shaded once more, and every spring it produces yellow "tulips." These were here this morning. I learned--once again from Wikipedia, source of all information--that the tree is related to the magnolia, and I can see the resemblance.

Today the tree towers above most of the others around. It took a beating in the October storm of 2011, yet it continues to stand and leaf and flower. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Number Numbness

Hold on to this number
and this number
and this number
5466 1608 1345 2093
Make sure you don't lose them.
Numbers open everything.
Don't get them mixed up.

You cannot call home with your Social Security number.
You cannot charge a purchase with your cell phone number.
Numbers are very particular.
Even though there are only 10 digits,
they dance around
and jump over each other
and then jump back again,
and they expect you to remember
when and where they stop.

I am holding on to
 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0,
but even though it looks like
123, 456, 890,
it's not.
Numbers are tricky like that,
and put in a dot
and everything changes.

On the first of January
we are expected to use a new number,
2015 instead of 2014
or is it twenty fifteen
which, technically is
two separate numbers.

I can't hold on to these numbers

they keep slipping out of my hands.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life with Riley

Yesterday I presented the following at Trinity United Methodist Church's annual Blessing of the Animals service:

I brought Riley here today to be blessed, but I am here now to tell you how he has blessed me. When I retired from teaching, I thought about getting a dog, but then I thought of all the responsibility I'd be taking on. There were the daily feedings, the walks, the grooming, the vet appointments, and I like to travel. Who would take care of a dog when I was off on vacation? Didn’t I want to be free, to just relax and enjoy my retirement?

Then one day my friend Tony asked me to go with him to Thomas J. O'Connor's. That's where I met a very sad looking stray that had been picked up wandering the streets of Chicopee.  His entire body had been shaved, he was shaking all over, and was looking at us with very sad eyes, but Tony suggested we take him for a walk. Once outside his tail began wagging, and he seemed to come to life. That was it. I was in love. Any responsibilities that came along with this sweetie were fine with me.

In the nearly 13 years we've been together, Riley has blessed me in many ways. My day is brightened whenever I hear delighted cries of "Riley" from the kids at the Drama Studio, neighbors, friends here at Trinity, or anyone who's met him before. Riley has become Arlene Mackie’s “grand dog.” When I am traveling, that’s where you’ll usually find him¸ if not there, with Tami Seyler.

Someone else who was always happy to see Riley was Ginny Hooper. Ginny had been a friend of my mother's, so I had known her for years, but when, as part of Trinity's Pet Ministry, we began to visit her, Riley, in his own quiet way, brought us even closer. You see, when Riley comes to visit, he comes with no expectations, no demands, no agenda. He doesn’t even expect a treat. (he’s rather picky about those). With Ginny, and later with Gladys Ruggles, he simply offers himself up to be loved.

During our time together Riley has been at my side through the many highs and lows of my life. He was there when I was diagnosed with cancer, he was there when I signed the contract for my book, he has been with me on hundreds of walks in Forest Park, he was there with me at the bedside of a friend who was dying, and he was there when Trinity won the softball championship.

He's an old man now. He can't jump up on the sofa any more, he forgets to go out to pee, and he sleeps much more than he used to, but he is still my Riley, my blessing.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Camden Yards 4-29-15

What is it like to play baseball in a silent park

No peanut vendors calling out.

No warbly rendition of the national anthem.

No expletives hurled at the other team’s fans.

No boos at the umpire's call.

No cheers for the single from the new kid.

No gasp at the fast ball too close to the batter's helmet.

No 7th inning stretch with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

No applause for the pitcher exiting with a shutout.

No sounds at all

except maybe

the cries of anger and despair

from the streets of the city.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cooking: It's Never Like it is With Giada

Ever since I stood beside my mother at the counter on Lancaster Street, I have enjoyed cooking. Living alone, I don't often try exotic recipes, but being a fan of Food TV, particularly Giada De Laurentiis, I get ideas for things I'd like to try, but it's even better when a friend serves something I enjoy and offers me the recipe. That's what happened recently when I complimented a friend on the squash soup she had made.

I looked over the neatly printed card she sent to see what I had on hand and what I needed at the store. I had some homemade chicken stock in the freezer, so I took it from its Zip lock bag and put it in a shallow dish on the counter next to the stove to thaw out overnight. The next morning there seemed to be a lot less stock in the bag. When Riley scooted by me to start licking up the puddle on the floor, I realized what had happened. The bag had leaked! He did a good job of cleaning up what was visible, but it had run under the stove, so I had to pull out the stove (always fun) and mop the floor underneath it.

Then I was off to the store to buy the other items I would need: squash, tomatoes, cannellini beans, onions, and, of course, some canned stock. After returning home I put the kettle on to make myself a cup of tea while I put the groceries away. Soon I smelled something burning. I thought maybe it was something from a previous cooking adventure that had stuck to the flat surface. No, upon lifting the kettle, I found the recipe card--now black and flaming around the edges. Quickly extinguished, it was deposited in the trash. Now I had to imagine exactly what it had said.

Tonight was chilly—a good night for soup, so I set out to make some sort of soup with the ingredients I had. I've made soup before. I can do this. So what if I don’t have the recipe. My idea was to sauté the onions, garlic, etc. Then I would put everything into the slow cooker and let it go.

While I was sautéing the onions and garlic, I poured the stock into the slow cooker. But as I was pouring it in, I knocked the top of the slow cooker on the floor where the handle broke off. It's important to know that this is the NEW top to the slow cooker that I had just replaced a couple of months ago, having to order it online for some outrageous price. It wasn't my fault that time. The screws that held on the handle became corroded and broke. Seems like a design flaw to me, but not a battle worth having.

Well, it's all in the slow cooker now, covered by the top with no handle that I have to wedge open with a knife. I just hope it's worth it all.  Sometimes I miss Julia Child and her chicken that fell on the floor.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Patriot's Day 2015

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet 
sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Mark Twain

I will admit right off the bat that I have no idea of the anguish parents must suffer when a child dies, even more so when that death is violent. Although I have had many children in my life whom I love dearly, I recognize that the bond a parent has is something much deeper and stronger. It’s understandable that these parents may feel a need for revenge when the person whom they love more than life itself has been taken from them. There is a need to take that fury and do something with it, something that feels like justice. Yet, there are loving parents who choose another path, a quite extraordinary path. I lift up three stories here.

Bill and Denise Richard’s 8-year old son Martin was killed in the Boston Marathon Bombing two years ago, and their daughter Jane lost her leg. This week, as the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial begins, they have asked the federal authorities to spare their son’s killer the death penalty, to end what could be years of appeals causing  them to re-live the horror over and over. They have also founded the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation that honors Martin's message of "No more hurting people. Peace" by investing in education, athletics and community.

In 2006, after their daughters were brutally shot to death in their classroom, Amish parents went to the home of the killer’s widow to grieve with her, and to say that, true to their religious beliefs, they forgave him. Later, donations totaling $4.3 million came from all over to support the families of the victims. The money was used for medical expenses, local emergency services, and a portion was given to the widow and children of the killer.

In 1993 Peter and Linda Biehl’s 26-year-old daughter Amy, a Fulbright scholar who worked with disadvantaged South Africans, was stoned and stabbed as a crowd shouted anti-white slogans. Four black men were convicted in her death. The Biehls went to South Africa, and when the perpetrators asked for amnesty, they supported it, and shook hands with the men who had killed their daughter. The Amy Biehl Foundation, a charity that dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence, was formed, and two of the convicted men now work for the foundation.

These are extraordinary stories, hard to believe, and yet each ends with a legacy of peace and rebuilding and a hope for a better future. Revenge cannot offer that.

Monday, March 16, 2015

English Anguish

“It’s tough,” she said with a cough, after falling from a bough into the slough.

Indeed, she is right. English is tough. It gathers words from all over the globe, and even when they have the same linguistic source, they may be pronounced differently, hence those Old English “ough” words.  It picks up new words and lets go of others. It discards some colloquialisms and hangs on to others. What was slang becomes common usage. In 1922 Emily Post considered “taxi” barely acceptable slang. (I wonder what she’d think of Uber). Yet its flexibility and accommodation are what make English so useful.

Clearly, having spent my entire professional career teaching it, I love the language. What I do not like is when I am introduced as a former English teacher, and the immediate response is, “Now I’ll have to watch what I say.” To many, we are seen as guardians of “proper English,” the scolds of acceptable speech and writing. My usual response is, “No need to worry, I’m retired.”

All this is not to say that “between you and I” or “Me and Lucy went to the dance” don’t grate on my ears, or that I get the urge to grab some Wite-out and eliminate apostrophes in plurals. Truth to tell, I actually corrected the grammar on some graffiti in a bathroom stall once. It’s an occupational hazard!

I started thinking about all of the again after a friend sent me a link to Oliver Kamm’s article “There is no ‘Proper English'" in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. His main point is, “If it is in general use, then that is what the language is.” Split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, using “hopefully” to modify an entire sentence—all these are remnants of 18th century prescriptive manuals “intended to teach propriety to an emerging merchant class….The whole debate about English usage has been bedeviled ever since by this snobbery, whereas the real task of language instruction (for adults as for children) should be to help people learn how to address different types of audience at different sorts of occasions.”

Right you are, Mr. Kamm, and one of those audiences is people like me who learned those rules. When I was teaching, it was not uncommon for students to complain that the language they used was the language they heard around them, so how could it be wrong. It was then I would give my wardrobe speech:

Language is like a closet full of clothes. The language you use should suit the situation. You wouldn't go to the beach in a ball gown, nor to the prom in jeans. You decide what to wear according to the situation, likewise with language. There is language that is appropriate for the locker room and different language appropriate for a job interview. I do not have to teach you how to speak in the locker room. In fact, you could probably teach me about that language. What I do have to teach you is your “best dressed” English, the kind you need to use when you go on that important interview.

English must change to remain alive. Try reading Beowulf in Old English if you don’t agree. To allow for change, and at the same time hold on to a common understanding, that is the challenge.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Gifts of Old Age

See those eyes. Imagine a soft whimper to go along with it. That was Riley this morning at my feet as I had finished my oatmeal and was starting to write. I had already let him out twice and checked his water bowl. He doesn't eat at this hour, so I wasn't sure what he wanted, but there he sat with that plaintive look, asking me for something, and once again I was frustrated that I don't speak Lhasa.

This language barrier, however, does not stop me from talking to him, so I picked him up, put him in my lap, and explained that I was trying to write, and to my surprise he settled down and now sits here warm and soft. Now I have the problem of trying to type when he's in front of the keyboard, but that's okay.

This is a new behavior. When he was younger the only time he would sit on my lap was when he was scared--either when there was a thunder storm or when I was about to leave him, but he is old now, 14 to be exact. Now he is content to just sit and cuddle, and I am pleased to have him here  especially on this frigid morning. Don't get me wrong, I have always appreciated him, enjoyed his youthful energy, his curiosity, but this quieter, mellower pup is a gift.

There have been other, not so welcome changes. He seems to have forgotten the rules about bodily elimination, so I invest in puppy pads which I place at his favorite release points. Of course, then he finds new favorite spots. He still loves his walks in the park, though he tends to leave the geese to themselves, and he no longer chases any of the squirrels or cats who wander into the yard. He takes longer naps and  sleeps much more soundly.

Funny, I find myself taking longer naps too. Yes, we're growing older together, and when it's sub-zero outside and the world is still enjoying Valentine's candy, it's nice to have someone warm and soft to cuddle with.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Love Coffee, I Love Tea

Every morning in the kitchen on Lancaster Street my mother would get out the small aluminum percolator, fill it with water, measure the Eight O'Clock coffee into the basket, and set it on the old gas stove where it would bubble perk, bubble perk. The pot made just three cups of coffee--one for my mother, one for my father, and one for my grandfather to pour over his Shredded Wheat.

I always tried to be nearby when he opened the box with the picture of Niagara Falls on the front. In each box were four layers, each with three pillows of cereal. I had no interest in the cereal. (Amazingly I was a picky eater back then). What I was interested in were the cardboard inserts between each layer, and when Grandpa reached another layer, I got the insert. There were puzzles, and cut-outs, and other such things of interest to an eight year old.

I wasn't a fan of coffee either. I was offered a spoonful of very light, very sweet coffee once, and made the immediate judgment that the adults were welcome to it. Tea, on the other hand, was something I not only drank, but something that became a part of play as my cousin Bonnie and I planned and celebrated countless tea parties with our dolls on my tiny set of blue willow wear china.

My mother would make tea using one Lipton’s tea bag to a very large pot of water. Our miniature cups were half filled with this pale liquid. Then we would add a couple of spoonfuls of sugar and fill up the cup with milk. I’m sure neither Bonnie nor I knew about holding the cup with our pinkie extended, but we felt quite grown up drinking real tea. Of course, my favorite part of the tea party was not the tea, but the food that went with it.

We did not serve watercress sandwiches or crumpets. No, our favorite delicacy was Ritz crackers covered in peanut butter and marshmallow. We each had our own small knife to use for spreading, and sometimes it was almost a duel as we reached for the peanut butter or the marshmallow fluff at the same time. The tea was cool by the time we had devoured all the crackers. At the end of our repast the remaining peanut butter was streaked with white marshmallow, and the marshmallow fluff jar had peanut butter thumbprints on it. When the party was over and Bonnie went home, I would wash all the dishes and return them to their place in the corner cupboard, safe until the next grand feast.

Today I drink mostly coffee which I discovered to be quite satisfying, and when I drink tea, I drink it plain without either sugar or milk. In my dining room I have a few pieces left of that blue willow ware tea set. They sit quietly on the shelf. Most of the time I don’t even notice them until I do my biennial dusting. Sometimes a guest will ask if they are part of a set. I reply that yes, once there was a full set that was used regularly. They were the service for magnificent tea parties that would have made the Mad Hatter jealous.

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Keep Learning from Emily

One of the treasures under my Christmas tree this year was The Gorgeous Nothings—a facsimile publication of poems and fragments of poems that Emily Dickinson wrote on envelopes. They are photographed and reproduced so clearly that I have to resist picking them up off the page. It feels as if I’m looking over her shoulder as she writes on that tiny table in the upstairs room in Amherst.

In the many times I have visited her home, I am most fascinated by this very small table by the window where she wrote--the surface of which is as sparse as her poems.

When I sit down to write, I like space to spread out, reference books close at hand, fresh paper  and ink in the printer. I like the room at a comfortable temperature—not too cold in the winter, not too hot in the summer. I like a beverage nearby—usually either herbal tea or diet soda. I like it quiet, silent really. I like it well lit, both with the overhead light and the desk lamp lit. When all that is in place, I may write something worthy of being worked into a poem. She sat at a table not much larger than my laptop and wrote magnificence.

In this book I see scraps that she turned into wonder.  Envelopes I would throw into the recycling bin without a second thought she saw as an opportunity to explore the world. Thumbing through this book, I am reminded of a former student.

When I was teaching poetry, I asked my students to keep a daily journal, encouraging them to use it as a place to write down any fragments of inspiration that came to them, and any poems that might come from that. Most students used spiral notebooks or loose leaf binders, all except one. Bob had an after school job in a stock room where there were lulls between his responsibilities, so he used that time to write. His “journal” was a collection of packing slips, register receipts, and any other scrap of paper he could find to write on. More often than not, it was in these “nothings” that I saw some of the best work from my students.

Bob and Emily understood something I am still learning—where you write and on what you write is less important that that you write. The muse can be distracted by concerns about furniture and paper stock.