Monday, December 31, 2018

Not-so-cockeyed Optimist

As I grow older, I am appreciating my mother more and more. Among her many attributes, my mother was an inveterate optimist, to the point where I frequently found it very annoying. If a conversation became too depressing or contentious, she would immediately change the topic to something light. I remember my teenage self trying to persuade her that she wasn’t being realistic, that she was in denial about the world around her. To that, she replied that cute puppies were real too.

I came to understand that her optimism was a shield she had developed to survive in a world where she lost her mother at five years old, then was shuffled around from one relative to another. She never had a real home again until she married my father, but even then there was tragedy when her full-term first pregnancy ended with an empty crib. So, she avoided, as much as possible, what was unpleasant or distasteful, and lived to be a happy 96 years old.

I have been very blessed in my life, enduring none of the tragedies my mother did. Still, I am frequently disturbed by what I read and see going on in the world, and as I look at Facebook in the morning, I sometimes despair when I see the children caged at the border, read about the disappearing monarch butterflies, and hear more and more angry, hate-filled speech. I could go on and frequently do, but when I allow myself to wallow in the negative, I become enervated and unable to bring myself to any constructive action.
So, as an antidote, I watch crazy pet videos or James Cordon performing musicals with Lin Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt. It’s not that I am unaware or uncaring, but I need to remind myself that there are things to smile about, that cute puppies are real too.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pass it On or Pass Away

Kristin LeMay's book I Told My Soul to Sing:Finding God With Emily Dickinson is one of those books it may take me months to finish, as I read it a little at a time to allow myself to consider the big ideas she's discussing. And, as anyone who's read Dickinson's poetry knows, one of her big ideas is death.

In each chapter LeMay reflects on one of Dickinson's poems. In her discussion of "Behind me--Dips Eternity"  she says, "Yet rather than mourn that we are finite, Emily marvels here that for a few brief moments of this life, we participate in the infinite." Moments of infinity? Now there's something to ponder.

When I stop to think about my mortality, which is not often, I find it hard to imagine. After all, this consciousness in this physical form is all I have ever experienced. To imagine it ending, though logic tells me it absolutely will, is hard to wrap my mind around. 

It's as if having lived on an island all one's life, we are suddenly asked to consider that we must sail away to another place--far off, unknown, and unseen. We've seen others set off in their little boats, more and more every year, but we really never know where they're going or what the other destination is like.

When LeMay talks about moments of infinity, I think she's talking about brief glimpses we may see of it--moments when the veil seems to part and we catch sight, if only for a second, of a vaster, purer reality.

I think I caught a glimpse of that vastness when I was with my friend Jack when he died. I was sad, of course, but at the same time I was awed by the mystery I had just experienced. At one moment he was there; then the next he was not. His heart and lungs had stopped but he did not disappear  from my life. I still held onto his humor, his dedication to issues of human rights, his stories about his work as a campus cop, and his collection of Betty Grable paraphernalia. His body had stopped "being," but he will existed.

The finiteness of Jack or me or anyone is merely the flesh and bone that confines us. The rest--the love we've shared, the laughs we've engendered, the friendships we've kept--those do not die. Even as those who are left with the memories of the deceased die off, something goes on.

I have tried with my family and friends and students to pass on the love that my parents gave me. I know that some of that will be passed on to others. In that way, we do not pass away, but we pass it on.

As LeMay says, " does not end in ashes to ashes and dust to dust, 1830-1886. Instead it moves as a poem does, from miracle to miracle, mystery to mystery."

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Morning Visitor

Her name was Nicole, but at first I didn’t even know she was a person. As I walked up the walk to work, I saw what appeared to be a pile of something covered by a sheet right in front of the door. It was raining, so I thought someone had delivered something and covered it to protect it from the rain, but as I walked closer, I saw the green water bottle on the right, and the flowered bag on the left, then a lock of dark hair escaping from the sheet. This was no pile of stuff. This was a woman sound asleep in front of the door.

I called out, “Good morning” a couple of times until she lifted her head and looked warily at me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I was sleeping somewhere else, but it started to rain.” She quickly busied herself putting on her slippers and gathering her few belongings.

She was a small woman with striking blue eyes. Around her neck hung a rosary—the same shade of blue as her eyes.—a pale endless blue like a sea that stretched on forever.

She stuffed her sheet and an unraveling skein of green yarn into her bag. “Are you knitting something,” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “a blanket.” It was a warm late August morning, but cold weather was coming.

“Do you go to the shelters?” I asked. She said she didn’t like them, that she had been managing on the street for two years. Her children—she didn’t say how many—were “with family.” She said she saw them "sometimes."

Having returned her few possessions to her bag, she apologized once again, then walked off toward the street.

I wish I had invited her to join me for breakfast, to hear more of her story. How did this tiny woman end up sleeping on the doorstep? What circumstances in life took her away from her children or the family they stayed with? How does someone so frail looking survive two years outside?

I am left with many questions and the memory of those eyes. I see them still.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Visiting Anne Frank's House

I was 28 when I first traveled to Europe. Our first stop was Amsterdam. I was excited about visiting the Van Gogh Museum that had just opened the month before. I looked forward to visiting Delft and picking up a piece of Delft Blue earthenware, but maybe more than anything else in the Netherlands, I wanted to visit the Anne Frank House.

I was born after the war in Europe was over, so what I knew of the Holocaust was limited. Two things, however, had affected me deeply--an image and a sound. The sound was that wailing siren in the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank. Even after the closing credits, as I was coming to grips with Anne’s ultimate fate, that piercing sound of the siren kept screaming in my mind, continuing to echo for years afterward.

The image was much closer to home, just two houses away, in fact. That’s where the old rabbi and his wife lived so they could be within walking distance of the synagogue. At that time there were two Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, and it was common to see families walking up and down Sumner Avenue going to services on Friday nights or Saturday mornings.   One day as I happened to pass the rabbi and his wife going to services, I noticed it—the tattooed numbers on her arm. I knew immediately what they meant: my neighbor, the kind woman in the white house now walking peacefully to shul, had been branded, imprisoned, and designated as less than human. The only difference between my neighbor and Anne Frank was that my neighbor had survived.

I thought of her as I arrived at the Anne Frank House. Built in 1635, just a year before the city of Springfield was established, it is a four-story house, and like the other houses on Prinsengracht, is nudged in between two other similar houses facing the canal.

We followed our guide into the house and up a narrow stairway, then through a narrow passage, and past the faux bookcase that hid the entrance to the annex. Here Anne, her mother, father, sister Margot, the Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer had hidden for two years. Through this passage Miep Gies and others risked their lives day after day smuggling in food and news until August 4, 1944, when the Gestapo arrived, arrested them all, and took them away to their ultimate fate.

The rooms seemed empty and stark, that is until I went into what had been Anne’s room. Here on the wall of her room she had pasted pictures from movie magazines: Sonja Henie, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo. I immediately remembered myself at 13, how I loved reading Photoplay and hearing about my favorite stars, especially Debbie Reynolds. Then I remembered cutting out her picture from the newspaper when she married Eddie Fisher. And I remembered pasting it in my scrapbook, just as Anne had pasted these pictures on the wall here. 

From that moment on Anne Frank was no longer a name in a history book. She liked to write. She liked to read about movie stars. She was someone like me. Had I known her we might have been friends. 

That's when I heard the piercing siren again.Who were they coming for this time?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018, Presidents’ Day

Once upon a time there was Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. Growing up in Massachusetts, we only got Washington’s Birthday off from school, but when I started teaching in Connecticut, we also got Lincoln’s Birthday off. These holidays were celebrated on the presidents’ actual birthdays.

I’m not sure when the two were blended into one day and labeled Presidents’ Day, or when the apostrophe disappeared. (Being a stubborn old English teacher, I refuse to give up on the apostrophe, but that’s another story). Somewhere in the past fifty years the holidays were merged and moved to a convenient Monday, and here in Massachusetts, anyway, merged into February vacation.

When I think of Washington’s Birthday when I was young, I think of my grandfather who came to live with us after my grandmother died. He was a quiet, kind, and hardworking man—a warm addition to our home. At my grandparents’ home on Allen Street he had had a large garden. There he planted according to the seasons, never putting in tomato plants before Memorial Day (always May 30 back then) when the chance of frost was over.
Our yard was much smaller, but he made the most of it, planting vegetables that we enjoyed throughout the summer. But what I remember about Washington’s Birthday was that that was the day on which he pruned the golden delicious apple tree. Regardless of New England’s fickle weather, he knew that late winter was the best time to get the trees ready for the new season.

My grandfather died in 1953 before vacation considerations or marketing strategies moved holidays around, also before global warming changed the seasons themselves. Even the gardeners at Washington’s own Mount Vernon recognize that the trees that used to become dormant in December no longer do so.

I wonder what Grandpa would think today of all these changes—the calendar, the climate. Even his garden on Allen Street was split in two when Sumner Avenue was extended. Still the memories don’t change of this quiet, faithful man putting on his boots, picking up the saw, and heading toward the apple tree, getting ready for another fruitful season.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"The soup is getting cold."

“The soup is getting cold.”

Those were the last words Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his final notebook. These notebooks that were full of sketches of military machines, anatomical diagrams, random notes, detailed lists, and puzzling marginalia provided Walter Isaacson with rich source material for his biography of the original Renaissance man.

As with the two previous biographies of his that I have read (Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs) I found this look into the life of a genius engaging and illuminating. Isaacson lays out for the reader both the genius and the humanity of his subjects. At one moment I am overwhelmed by da Vinci’s detailed examination of the muscles used in a smile, and the next I am seeing myself in his list of unfinished projects.

At the conclusion of the book, Isaacson provides a list of lessons he has learned from da Vinci. In this age where an act is only considered worthy if it can be quantified, I think we would do well to follow da Vinci down a few rabbit holes--for as long as the soup stays warm.

  • ·         Be curious.
  • ·         Seek knowledge for its own sake.
  • ·         Retain a childlike sense of wonder.
  • ·         Observe. (Do it in steps, detail by detail)
  • ·         See things unseen.
  • ·         Go down rabbit holes.
  • ·         Get distracted.
  • ·         Respect facts.
  • ·         Procrastinate.
  • ·         Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • ·         Think visually.
  • ·         Avoid silos. “He knew that art was science, and science was art.”
  • ·         Let your reach exceed your grasp.
  • ·         Indulge fantasy.
  • ·         Create for yourself, not just your patrons.
  • ·         Collaborate.
  • ·         Make lists and be sure to put odd things on them.
  • ·         Take notes on paper.
  • ·         Be open to mystery.