Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Inch Thirty-Six: Dark

The lights went out last night. Not just in our house, or just on our block, but all over town and out into the county. It was still dusk when the power quit, so there was more than enough time to gather candles and start lighting them. I set out a flashlight as well, but planned on relying on the candles to get me through the evening.

Warren headed off to a downtown meeting; I settled in at the kitchen table to use the last of the evening's light while I wrote up oncology notes and then started in on some letters to friends.

The first thing you notice when all the lights are out is how quiet it is. The house was silent: no refrigerator humming, no dehumidifier kicking on in the basement. The candles sputtered and hissed from time to time, but that was a quiet noise, a little noise. My pen moving across the surface of the note paper was the loudest sound in the kitchen.

After I finished the first letter, I took a flashlight and walked out onto our back deck, turning it off after I got outside. By now it was very dark. There was enough evening light in the sky—a little sliver of a new moon caught in some wispy clouds—that I could just make out the bulk of the house next door. I could see some dim, hulking shapes in the backyard: our large pines and, beyond that, more black mass than anything, what I knew to be the rear of our neighbor's mansard-roofed Italianate house.

But otherwise dark. No ambient light from the downtown, no streetlights. Just dark.

Deep darkness and night—true night—are lost pieces of the past for most of us. Unless we are out in a wilderness or other very remote area or are experiencing a power failure, there is always light somewhere, even out in the country. We gain the security—real or imagined—of artificial light, but we lose something in return. We lose the mysticism of night, seeing the stars and the moon gleaming brighter overhead. We lose the night sounds that we hear more acutely without the visual distractions.

And maybe we lose the sense of our place, accustomed as we are to electric lights and televisions and computers. I noticed that many of our neighbors, arriving home in the dark, immediately left and did not return until later. Maybe they were in search of a hot meal, but maybe they just didn't like being in the dark without the blink of a screen.

Roger Ekirch wrote a history of night,  At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, in which he explores the relationship of humans to night. Ekirch did an excellent job of charting the mysterious and often ominous roles night and darkness played in European and colonial America. Night was not all evil: Ekirch also wrote of the home and social conventions that grew out of gathering together to share a fire, a game of cards, a festival, a story.

Standing on the deck in the dark, sensing rather than seeing the shapes before me, I had a faint idea of Ekirch's fascination with night.

I had just noted in a second letter that I was writing by candlelight, not because I wanted to play at being Ma Ingalls but because of the power outage when the power came back on with a whoosh of appliances. Suddenly the house seemed impossibly bright. I went outside and saw lights dotting the neighborhood once again, from lamps burning brightly in windows to the Halloween decorations next door glowing bright orange. Warren came in shortly afterwards: his meeting was held by flashlight. Our City Council managed to meet in the dark as well. Friends reported children playing in the yards by the light of glow sticks.

After the lights came back on, the night went on without a hitch and our lights stayed on until we turned them off for bed. The dark, the mysterious and impenetrable dark, was gone.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Inch Thirty-Five: Romance

The young (in her mid-twenties) woman was lamenting the progress of her romantic life. She and the object of her affections (same age) texted or messaged one another often, but she didn't know whether he shared her feelings, which she never revealed in the texts. She said he did not always reply to her texts and sometimes he would comment on others' Facebook posts while failing to respond to her messages. (Mind you, many of these "conversations" fall into the "hey, whatcha doing?" category.)

She agonized over whether to continue to text him. You couldn't ever tell what someone was really saying in a text, she observed.

He lives down the street from her. I suggested she knock on his door and invite him for a walk. As in "oh, hey, I'm just walking by and wondered if you'd like to join me?"

Her eyes widened in alarm. A face to face encounter?!

Well, I said, you could do it the old fashioned way and write him a note. Not a lengthy letter, not a love letter, but just a "maybe I'll stop by one day and we can go for a walk!" type note. Or send him a funny Halloween card.

Now the young woman looked positively ill.

Send him a card? How weird was that? That was just too strange.

At this point, I rolled my eyes and asked my friend if she had ever read Little Women. No. Well, you should, I said, and proceeded to tell her about Meg's glove.

If you have read Little Women as many times as I have, you will remember that one summer day, Meg lost a pair of gray cotton gloves in the conservatory of the Lawrence residence. Only one was ever returned. Months later, on a fall day, Laurie reveals to Jo the location of the missing glove. His tutor, John Brooke, has been carrying it around all this time. Jo is upset.

          "Where?"

          "Pockets."

          "All this time?"

          "Yes; isn't that romantic?"

          "No, it's horrid."

He carried her glove? The young woman looked at me incredulously. Why would he do a stupid thing like that? Clearly the romance of Mr. Brooke's gesture was lost on her, much as it was lost on Jo.

I related the story to Warren, musing out loud that Louisa May Alcott used the same romantic gesture in An Old-Fashioned Girl. Tom carries "my Polly's rose" in his wallet when he goes away to work off debt and redeem himself, while Polly keeps a clip of Tom's hair, a button from his coat, and a boyhood  picture of him in a locket. Only when they finally admit their love for one another does each reveal the token that kept hope alive.

Warren was quiet. "Well, I kept those photographs all those years."

He's right. I had taken a shot of his foot back in high school, never daring to take a photograph of his face, and had made a print of it for him. I had also taken a photo of his first car, a Volkswagen Bug, and given him a copy. Warren had hung onto them through the decades. He still has them.

And for my part, for the very longest time, I had a scrap of a broken Remo drumhead that Warren had given to me during his senior year marching season. I kept it in a small box of mementoes and would never see that ragged piece without thinking of Warren and those long ago hopes, hoping he was well, hoping he was happy.

The course of true love never did run smooth, according to Shakespeare, and any of us can easily attest to that. The age in which we live now—with texts and messaging and the expectations that responses will be instantaneous—adds an extra kink to that course. There is something to be said for not having an immediate response, for carrying the glove in the pocket, the rose in the wallet, the hope in the heart.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Inch Thirty-Four: By Hand

Some nights, later in the evening, when he isn't working in his shop or practicing or writing a grant until one a.m., Warren will visit some favorite woodworking websites, sometimes watching videos he finds on those sites. I am often in the same room—our downstairs study—albeit usually reading a book or writing. His videos do not interrupt me, but neither do they interest me.

One caught my ear the other night, though. The video was an interview with Curtis Buchanan, a man who has been making chairs by hand, one at a time, for almost thirty years. He talked about how he got into the business, about how he learned to build chairs, about the art of working by hand with hand tools.

I started listening and then took some notes. Buchanan talked about why he used hand tools instead of power tools, which would undoubtedly speed up the process of making the chairs. Using an electric drill "doesn't add anything to my day." He liked "the pace hand tools set—it allows me to keep control of my day."

Buchanan is satisfied with his life and his livelihood. He used the word "contented," adding that he thought "contendedness was vastly underrated." He hoped to make chairs for another thirty years. The key, he said, to making a chair or anything else for that long a timeframe was to "just go down to the shop every day and work and eventually it'll work out. Eventually, it'll get there."

As I looked over the quotes I'd jotted down, I recognized that they also applied to writing. I'd just had an email exchange with a colleague who was incredulous to learn that I still did much of my writing longhand. "Loose (sic) the pen and paper!" he exhorted.

I penned out this post on a late Wednesday evening while Warren was at rehearsal. As I type it up tonight, he is at dress rehearsal for the opening of the season tomorrow. The first two of four pies are baking. It is quiet. I am sitting in our small downstairs study, typing on a laptop. My notebook with the draft of this post is close at hand.

Buchanan is right. My pen, like his handheld tools, allows me to keep control of my writing and my pace. I could use the computer, the equivalent of an electric drill, to draft this post or any other writing, but it wouldn't add anything to my day. I suspect it would have the opposite effect and diminish my day. For me, the physical act of writing both soothes and stimulates me.

I am contented, a word I recently used to describe myself. And being contented is vastly underrated. It's not exciting, it's not active, it's not partying or shopping or carrying on. When coworkers ask me what I did all weekend, I know many of them are baffled when I say "I had a great weekend. I stayed home and didn't do much of anything."

I have yet to adopt on a daily basis the rest of Buchanan's advice, the piece about going to the shop—in this case, my notebook—and working every day. I have no doubt it would make me a stronger writer. It would, I am sure, also make me a more contended one.

My colleague meant to tell me to "lose" my pen. By inadvertently typing "loose the pen" he may have been on to something else entirely. If I would loose my pen daily, my writing would eventually work out. And I would be content.

I'll stake my hopes on Buchanan's final words: it'll get there. His chair, my writing: it'll get there.




Thursday, October 9, 2014

Inch Thirty-Three: Art


Some years ago, someone asked me the following question: If I had extra money, what would I spend it on?

This individual's tastes ran towards the luxurious: many meals in expensive restaurants, travel to exotic parts of the world, pricey events (sports, theatre, music), and lots (and lots) of clothing purchases.

In short, not a lifestyle I could even begin to understand, let alone appreciate.

In retrospect, I realize now that the question was posed a bit cruelly. The inquisitor was trying to make me acknowledge the spareness of my lifestyle. What was really at the heart of the question was this: Come on, April, admit you'd like to live a more comfortable lifestyle, but you just can't afford it, so you just pretend you aren't interested.

I didn't rise to the bait, even when the followup comment was along the lines of did I ever think about being more ambitious and earning more income? Expensive meals, box seats for the Broadway touring company, splashy high dollar events for this or that campaign or cause—none of it appealed to me.

My answer, more or less, was that if I had "extra" money, I'd give more to causes I cared about. And if I had an indulgence, it would be to buy some art. Not drop a bundle, but occasionally buy a piece that I really liked.

Many years later, my answer remains pretty much the same. Now that my income has stabilized (thanks in part to great health insurance), I do have a little more money. I do donate here and there to causes I care about. I do have a little more breathing room on the budget than I used to.

But what about that art?

Last week I was sitting with a friend in one of our downtown coffee shops. High on the wall I was facing, up above a cupboard full of teas, half hidden by the cupboard's crown, was a painting I could not stop staring at.

The artist is local and her work hangs on all of the shop's walls. She paints on a crumpled surface: water colors on thick paper? I don't know. I can't tell. Her pictures are simple: a boot, a rooster, a beach scene, a dandelion puff.

And a sunset of gold and white. Over the marshes, over an ocean, over a prairie lake. Somewhere.

My eyes kept going to the painting. Before I left the shop, I looked to make sure it did not have a "Sold" sticker on it. It did not.

I came home later that day and told Warren I was buying a painting the next time I went there for coffee. I tried to describe it and gave up. He raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything else. We have been together a long time and Warren is accustomed to offbeat comments about a bit of poetry, the Wizard of Oz, and other odds and ends. So now April's buying a picture she can't describe? Okay.

I was back today to meet another friend. After she left, I went up to the cash register.

"I want to buy one of the paintings," I said, my heart thumping in anticipation.

"Which one?"

"The one on that wall." Pointing.

The owner's face broke into a smile. "Oh, I love that one."

Me too.

Five minutes later, I was on my way out the door, the painting in my hands.

Right now all of our first floor walls are bare, stripped last spring in the rush of renovations before Ramona arrived. As I write this, the painting is propped up on the sofa and I am sitting directly across from it.

It was a splurge, a $70.00 splurge. That is a little more than one month's water bill, a little more than two months of Revlimid.

A little splurge. And a whole lot of joy.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Inch Thirty-Two: Scraps

It is Friday midday as I sit down to type this. We have a weather front moving through: warm temps, intermittent winds and rain. I walked downtown midmorning to meet a good friend for coffee. I had my umbrella, which I used most of the way coming and going. As I walked along, I marveled at the tree, the green leaves giving way to the reds and the oranges, the leaves in the heights coming down to the ground.

I started this post last evening. I was couchbound, worn to the nub after a long day, a full week, too many late nights the prior weekend, and just a lot packed into too few days. I was recharging—reading and writing—while waiting for Warren, who has had an even fuller week, to come home. Earlier I had taken a walk, an act that is often recharges me, but last night it only wrung out the last dregs of energy within me. Sitting with a pen and an open notebook was perfect.

I have been turning this post over in my mind since last weekend. It has been coming to me in scraps: scraps of ideas, scraps of observations, scraps of memories. As I have tried to give more form to it, I realize I still have just a handful of scraps.

These are just scraps, but scraps can be useful things. Out of scraps you can make a simple meal or patch a rip in a pair of jeans. You can write a reminder note on a scrap of paper. Warren uses scraps in his workshop all the time, to shim a joint, to secure a wobble.

My scraps look like this:

  • Sitting through Rosh Hashanah services last weekend and remembering (I had forgotten) that the melody to the blessing upon opening the ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) was one I used to croon to Ben as an infant (substituting my own words) to get him to sleep.
  • Finishing the Penelope Niven biography of Carl Sandburg and crying at his death. Good god, the man died in 1967 and I knew that, but it still caught me in the pit of my stomach. 
  • Crying again Thursday morning at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, the sequel to our most recent book club choice. (This book was not one of our choices; I just had to read it.)
  • Hearing the Mansfield pops concert last Saturday, playing and singing various Broadway tunes, and the strong memory of the year Ben's high school performed Les Miserabl├ęs when the performers sang "One Day More."
  • A dust devil catching us as we drove the Mansfield that same day, this one spattering chopped straw against our car before it skipped on across the road. The whirling straw reminded me of (what else?) Oz.
  • Baum's Patchwork Girl was called Scraps. His granddaughter, Ozma (yes, they named her that) would duck her famous identity when growing up by asking her friends to call her Scraps. 
  • Seeing the fields take on their bare winter coats as farmers bring down their crops. 
  • Missing my sons and Alise and Ramona and looking up airfares and wondering where we (or at least I)  could shoehorn in a trip yet this year.
  • Missing my sons and Alise and Ramona and looking up airfares and wondering whether I would have enough energy for such a trip if I took it by myself.
  • A supper with our closest friends two weekends ago where we say out on our deck until late, the table and deck lit with candles that we carried out in bunches, eating Margo's good cheesecake and talking, none of wanting to break the spell of the flickering flames by moving inside or turning on harsh lights. 
  • The blanket flowers finally blooming, daring the nights to turn cold, lifting their yellow and red faces to the sun each day.
  • Banned Book Week last week and realizing the first banned book I ever read was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 
  • Reflecting that the blue umbrella I carried today was a long ago Mother's Day gift from Ben and Sam, and how I think of them whenever I pull it out.

Scraps.

As I walked downtown this morning, I looked up the street and saw a large gray door, snug between two telephone poles. It was on the tree lawn, and from a half block away it looked to be ten or twelve feet tall. At one level, I knew it wasn't really a door, but my eyes and imagination saw it as such. As I drew closer, the door resolved into a gray tree trunk, framed visually between the two poles several yards apart. No mysterious door after all.

But what a delicious thought for a minute or two. A gigantic door, appearing without notice on a path I have taken a thousand times, beckoning me to open it. Our current read in our Not Quite The End of Your Life Book Club is Was, a novel interwoven with the Oz of both the original Baum book and the 1939 MGM movie. I have written before about the magic of opening a door, starting with my very first post. I have written often about Oz, whether the movie or the book.

Oz and opening doors.

They are scraps I carry with me always.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Inch Thirty-One: New Year

Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, started at sunset last night. I sat through a Reform service livestreamed from a Cincinnati temple, Temple Sholom. It was the first New Year's service I have attended in over three decades. To my surprise, some of the prayers (I did not have a prayerbook, so I was lost at times) and many of the melodies came rushing back to me.

I once read a rabbi contrasting the American New Year and the Jewish New Year. We ring in the New Year in America (and, indeed, in many parts of the world) with partying, alcohol, and fireworks on New Year's Eve. On January 1, we come together to watch football games.

In contrast, the Jewish New Year begins with an evening of prayer and worship, and the first morning of the New Year is spent in more of the same.

Rosh Hashanah starts ten days of contemplation, atonement, and personal reflection that will not end until sunset on October 4 at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sometimes that period is called the Days of Awe. It is a time of looking backward over the last year and of looking forward to the year to come. One of the rabbis last night reminded us that there is a continue pull between two extremes: "I am but dust and ashes" and "the world was created entirely for me."

The rabbi spoke at length about the latter statement. It is s statement not about ego ("look how special I am!") but about celebrating the uniqueness of every individual. For those of us who give constantly to others, she reminded us that we need to value ourselves and to make sure we also nurture our own lives.

The rabbi then quoted from a poem by Marianne Williamson: "it is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us." It is our obligation, she said, to see the Divine in every moment. Let your living be sacred in a way that reminds you of the beauty of the world.

This morning I rejoined the congregation for the Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Terlinchamp reminded us that Rosh Hashanah is a chance for renewal, to be a better person. Presenting a passionate, powerful sermon about marriage equality, truth, and justice, she alluded to Yom Kippur and the part of the service where we rap our chests over our hearts. That should not be seen as our beating ourselves in penance, the rabbi said, but rather as knocking our hearts to open them up to the wrongs of the world that it is our duty to try to correct.

Rosh Hashanah and the days that follow are a period that requires the Jew to look inward, to atone not only for everything that has been done in anger, hurt, or malice, but also for everything that was not done and should have been done.

These are Days of Awe indeed.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Inch Thirty: My Facepalm Moment

I was recently invited to join a very small, very exclusive book club, an invitation I accepted with alacrity and gratitude. I don't know what the other two members call it, but I am calling it the Not Quite the End of Your Life Book Club, with a nod of the head to Will Schwalbe and his beautiful memoir of a similar name.

I'll write about the book club soon. This post is about my facepalm moment (yes, facepalm is usually written as one word) when I finished the most recent selection.

The book was Hyperion, the first of a four or five book series by Dan Simmons. Hyperion is science fiction work, a genre I almost never read. This one is cleverly crafted, with a framework based on The Canterbury Tales and with the poetry and persona of John Keats woven throughout.

It was the last two pages, however, that caused me to realize just how clueless I have been for the last half century.

Pilgrimages fascinate me. There is the Santiago pilgrimage. There is my pie pilgrimage. The Canterbury Tales are the stories of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, a shrine to the martyred Archbishop Thomas Becket. The characters in Hyperion are taking part in a pilgrimage, one that may end in the death of them all.

In the final scene, the Hyperion pilgrims are descending into the dark valley of their destination. One of them starts singing a tune to his infant daughter, an old, old tune from an Earth long gone. The other five pilgrims pick up the tune and the lyrics, and are soon stepping along with lighter hearts. As the path broadens, they shift from single file to six abreast, linking hands. "Still singing loudly, not looking back, matching stride for stride, they descended into the dark valley."

The song?

"We're Off to See the Wizard."

The allusion?

Dorothy (Judy), the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, arms linked, on the Yellow Brick Road headed to the Emerald City.



And my facepalm moment?

HOW COULD I HAVE MISSED SEEING THAT THE WIZARD OF OZ IS THE GREATEST POPULAR CULTURE PILGRIMAGE EVER?

I have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz dozens of time. I have seen the MGM movie countless times and consider it my all time favorite movie. I mean, come on!

And after all those viewings and all those readings and all these years, I didn't get the pilgrimage theme? I didn't get that Dorothy and her traveling companions were on a pilgrimage to gain knowledge or understanding or self awareness to a shrine to a wizard who some doubted even existed? I didn't get even a hint of that?

Facepalm.