Monday, November 17, 2014

Inch Thirty-Eight: Dust of Snow

We had our first major snow of the season last night, a storm that dumped four or so inches on us. Early this afternoon, the snow tapered off, the skies cleared, and the sun beamed. I had a meeting downtown at 2:00, so I bundled up and starting walking, figuring it to be a nice day.

What I had not counted on was the wind picking up, shaking snow from the trees onto cars, sidewalks, and me. There was no way to dodge the blown snow, which ranged from a sprinkle to large clumps. I kept brushing it off, trying not to slow my stride, hoping nothing larger than a small handful fell my way.

The last gust was particularly zestful, and I found myself enveloped in a brief whirl of snow, just enough to dust me thoroughly. I found myself thinking of Robert Frost and his poem "Dust of Snow."

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

As it so happened, there was a crow in a nearby pine (maybe a hemlock), cawing at me or the wind or the snow or all three of us.

Robert Frost, who took his own pleasure in cold and dark and snow, is good and out of fashion in many circles these days. In fact, poetry as a subject is pretty much out of fashion in our schools and modern curricula. Small wonder that seven years ago, when teenagers vandalized Frost's house in New Hampshire, they had no idea who Frost was, let alone the significance of his contribution to American literature.

By the time I finished my meeting, the day had gone gray again and the temperature had dropped several degrees. My walk home was brisk; I pushed myself to reach the warmth of the house as soon as possible. The crow had gone silent; perhaps it had taken shelter deeper in the tree, huddling against the cold.

I thought about my walk once I was back inside. I had no day to rue. Just a dust of snow and a crow cawing vociferously and a long-dead poet who accompanied me downtown and back.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Inch Thirty-Seven: Family Ties Rebound

When you get a divorce, you usually snap family ties and connections that have been in place five years, ten years, twenty years. The sister-in-law, the nieces and nephews, whomever—they all go back to the other side.

And then something happens, independent of the divorce, that reconnects you with those one time family members, and you take up once again, in some new form, the ties that once bound and then came unbound, and rebind them.

I have written about this before, when I found myself reconnecting with my first mother-in-law and a former sister-in-law. Through the wonders of Facebook, I had already created some electronic ties with members of Ben and Sam's paternal family. I see the photos of their children, stay in remote touch with a "like" here or a brief comment there. I have sent presents to Eric's baby girl. These are small ties that would not have been possible in the past: the remote but personal connection.

These past two weeks, I have been in close contact with nieces and nephews, cousins of Ben and Sam, with whom I have not spoken in a decade or more.

Marisa contacted me first. She had some questions she wanted to bounce off of me—a request I could and did not deny, unusual only in that it has been so long since we talked. Her voice spilled through the phone—the same vibrant, rich, upbeat voice I had known so long ago. We talked, I listened, I commented, and when in passing she mentioned one of her cousins and a family health crisis, I sent off a FB message to that former nephew and got a quick response.

And then Waldo died. Waldito, my former brother-in-law.

By the time I got through absorbing that news, I had more messages. What was my phone number?Waldo Enrique (the oldest son) wanted to call me.  Would that be okay? And when my cell lit up later than evening with a number I did not recognize, I was pretty sure who it was.

"Hello, April?"


Waldo may have been the first I met of the eleven nephews and nieces that were part of my husband's family. I don't remember. Waldo was always good-natured and sweet-voiced. And here he was again, only now he is 48 instead of 16. Now he is the father of a 15 year old, instead of the teen himself. And now, as he reminded me laughing, "we are getting old, April."

He called because I had posted my thoughts about his father's death on Facebook. I wrote:

I just received word this morning that my former brother-in-law, Waldo De Castroverde, died yesterday. I am filled with memories of many, many occasions spent with him and Vivian, his wife, and their children, Waldo Enrique, Ana, Alex, and Orly (now Orlando).
This is a picture of Waldo and Sam playing chess at our house in 1996. He and Vivian were in the Midwest to watch their son Orly wrestle and drove over from somewhere (Iowa, I believe) to visit. Sam was not quite six and lost the match. Ben, who was 10, ended up beating Tio Waldo and that was the end of the chess for the night!

Waldo grew up in Cuba and was committed to seeing Cuba becoming a true democracy, first by opposing the dictator Batista and then by opposing the dictator Fidel Castro. Waldo was one of 1400 Cuban exiles who made up the military force that took part on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a prisoner, Waldo was part of a group of captured soldiers selected by Fidel to go to the U.S. to negotiate a ransom agreement with the Kennedy administration to free all of the captured soldiers. When negotiations failed, Waldo was sentenced to a 30-year prison term, of which he served 20 months before being released in late December 1962. While in prison, Waldo debated Fidel about democracy, communism, and freedom. He loved to recount that story.
Waldo never gave up his dream of a free Cuba, and had the Castro regime fallen, Waldo would have returned to his beloved homeland to help rebuild the country. One of his nicknames was “El Presidente” and there is no doubt in my mind that he would have run successfully for high office.
I was fortunate enough to know Waldo and to join his family on many occasions for holidays, debates, meals (Waldo could outcook anyone and his paella Cubana was the best in the world), and special occasions. He loved his family, he loved intellectual discourse, he loved to read, he loved the United States, and he loved Cuba—what it was and what it had the potential to become. Waldo loved to debate anyone on any topic, and as the debate gained momentum, he would suddenly switch from English to Spanish, which served to increase both the volume and speed of the debate. When he was in his 40s, he fulfilled a lifetime dream of becoming a lawyer, and practiced for the next several decades first alone and then with his two younger sons. I have to imagine he was a whale of a lawyer and I would to have loved to have seen him give closing argument.

Waldo and I talked for several minutes about his father, about his parents, about his siblings, about all the things you talk about when there is a hole in the family fabric, even though I cut my own hole in that family when I divorced Waldo's uncle. It didn't make a difference.

Ties that bind, ties that are unbound, and family that picks up those ties and ties them anew.

Friday, November 7, 2014

One Yard: On Writing

Back in March, I set myself a goal of writing a blog post a week. Almost eight months later, I have written thirty-six of them, a whole yard of posts marking the passage of time.

I'm not sure I have much more to say about it than that. When I began, even a foot of posts seemed improbable, given my intermittent postings over the prior months. I am still challenged by finding the right place for writing in my daily life. I still chastise myself for continuing to write mostly in the margins of my days. I think of the poet William Stafford, who would rise early each morning, light a small lamp to see by, kindle a fire if it were cold, make himself comfortable, and then sit in the dark, quiet house and write.

In recounting that story to my friend Margo, I added "I'm not getting up at 5:30 to write."

And therein lies the rub. Stafford addressed that point, as his son Kim captured so clearly in a memoir about his father: "We are not practicing to be writers; we are entering into the practice of being writers, revising our very lives, yielding in each moment to the vocation that demands our deepest allegiance." (From Early Morning by Kim Stafford)

A variation on that thought is found in Simple Living by Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska: ""It's the peculiar notion held by so many that you spend the lion's share of your life wanting to do something else...before you get to the sliver reserved for the 'real you.'"

In short, writing is what writers do.

I can tick off a handful of reasons without even pausing as to why I don't write more frequently. I work at Juvenile Court, I volunteer at the Legal Clinic, I have regularly blood work and oncology appointments, I am working on a special court project on a contract basis for our local Municipal Court, I am married to a man with an overly busy schedule, I bake, I sit on our Civil Service Commission,  I am the caretaker for an aging aunt, I am married to the Symphony.

And I write in the margins of my life.

I have a good friend who also writes in the corners of her daily existence. Cecelia's life is immensely crowded with a young family, school events, parish commitments, a husband whose job takes him out of town, and a full-time job. I am a lady of leisure compared to her. She and I are talking about making a commitment to each other to write x times a week and each of us encouraging the other to write. She has some ideas in her head and on paper; I have a juvenile novel one-third written and the rest hanging out there somewhere.

Is x too many times? Realize that x is an unknown. Does x=2? Does x =3? Let's say x=2. If I write my blog post and my Myeloma Beacon column in the same week, have I met my minimum quota (x)? Or does x represent one blog post and working on my novel? And if I write only five minutes on my novel, is that writing? (One of the many great things about Cecelia is that she puts herself through these same mental paroxysms, so we understand each other perfectly.)

Solve for x.

In the end, it comes down to making writing work in my day. Or, truthfully, making a commitment to writing. Just not at 5:30 a.m.

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.



          "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.