Friday, January 21, 2011

Where I Am Right Now

 Photograph by Andrew Testa for The New York Times, January 21, 2011

Not there, alas.

I saw that picture this morning in The New York Times and it immediately pulled me in. I want to be there right now. I want to hold that scene in my heart right now.

Where I am instead is deep in Grantland. I've been there all month as I craft a federal grant due in early February. Most of my time and almost all of my brain cells have been turned over to this project and I am only now starting to see the faintest glimmer of light from a very distant end of the tunnel.

As I noted in my last post, my field expedition in Grantland doesn't leave a lot of energy or focus for anything else, including writing for this blog. I think back to Bess Streeter Aldrich's comments about how one can always find time for the things one really wants to do, including time to write, and I think "not when you are in Grantland."

Bess would accuse me of making excuses. My friend Katrina would probably say I am whining.


The above picture accompanied an article about the ongoing debate in Great Britain as to whether to eliminate daylight savings time and the Scottish opposition to doing so. The reporter called the issue of altering time one of "horological management."

I like that phrase. Horological management. It fills my mouth and rolls off my tongue. While horology is more properly the science of timekeeping (and, some would add, the art of crafting timepieces), I like to think of it in broader terms. From now on when I plan my day or week, I am engaging in personal horological management.

There is no horological management in Grantland, except for the drop dead date (and hour and minute) the grant is due. Otherwise, one hour blends into the next, one day blends into the next, one week blends into…well, you get the picture.

In the original Ghostbuster movie, which I have seen at least a million times because Ben loved it so as a little boy, there is a line that the Bill Murray character utters before they take up their weapons in the final battle. I think of it now while I lace up my boots and reach for my pith helmet, readying myself to plunge back into Grantland.

See ya on the other side.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Xylophone Notes

I have been working on a grant for days now. While I have been deep in Grantland with all of its accompanying frustrations, my own words went scuttling away faster than any crawdad I ever saw. And, like those tenacious crawdads of yore, no amount of poking under the rocks with a stick could bring my personal words back out.

I sent the grant draft out to my colleagues for review this afternoon. For the last hour of it, while I snipped and tied up loose ends, Warren was in the basement practicing ragtime rhythms and tunes on his xylophone.

The notes were hopping up the stairs and spilling into the kitchen. Bright, bouncing notes - brisk, high bouncing notes right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ragtime notes. 

When Warren was twenty, he spent his summer working in the Musser factory in La Grange, Illinois. For the most part, he spent his days drilling holes in xylophone and marimba bars. In the evening, he would head to the upstairs room he was renting nearby and play his marimba for hours.

The marimba is a sonorous instrument with rich, lush tones that hang forever in the air. The marimba does not bounce and chatter like the xylophone does.

The marimba sings. The xylophone chants jump rope rhymes.

The marimba is flowing water. The xylophone is pebbles skipped across water.

When I first heard and watched Warren practice marimba, almost three years ago, I did something I rarely do: write a poem. (Rarely? How about never?) The sounds resonating in the air pulled the words right out of me.

Today's xylophone playing did much the same thing. Those gold-hatted, high-bouncing Fitzgeraldian notes yanked those stubborn words right out of the rocks and crevices and threw them down on paper. I picked up my pen for the first time in days and rearranged them until I came up with this.

Many thanks, my dear husband, for always giving me gifts from the heart, even when you are "just practicing." Here is one from mine in return.

Warren at the Marimba

Running water
Over rocks
Over small ripples.

The notes clear.

I see you standing there
Hands over the bars
Mallets bouncing as your wrists turn to their own tunes

Where are you and what are you seeing?
Are you in the music?
In the babbling stream?

Do your hands know the way?

You said one summer you practiced in a small upstairs room
Facing the garage and alley
Every night you would stand up there and play
Hours on end
No air conditioning

It was hot
Chicago summer hot but you didn't notice

You were in that babbling stream
You were in that cool water

Your hands were finding their way through the notes, caressing the wet pebbles.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Winter Night, Winter Memories

The first Friday of each month, our downtown stores stay open late and people come out to eat and shop. The Symphony office, located downtown next to the movie theatre, stays open for the event. So last night found both of us headed out for First Friday.

I had a book to return to the library, a block and a half down the hill from the Symphony office, so I walked there in the gathering evening before coming back to help Warren out.

It was snowing lightly when I walked down, and snowing a little harder when I headed back up towards downtown. As I walked up the small hill, I could see the lights of downtown burning bright against the evening sky.

I was hit with a strong, cold wave of memory as those lights came into view. Not strong enough to knock me off my feet, but it jarred me all the same.

When I first came back to Delaware 20 years ago, I worked as an associate in a very small law firm in the heart of downtown. For reasons sometimes too twisted to decipher even decades later, I rarely was allowed use of the family car. Fortunately, we only lived six blocks from the office, and I loved to walk.

I last worked at that office 11 years ago, but I still remember, strongly, emerging from the building on an early winter evening onto the very same street down which I was now gazing. Street and window lights would be on, often it was cold, sometimes there'd be snow falling. I would walk home quickly, bundled against the chill, eager to reach the shelter of the house.

My thoughts would often be on the day I'd just left behind - the clients, the paperwork. As I walked, my mind would transition to whatever awaited me at home. In all likelihood, I had talked with my then husband and already taken an initial reading of his mood over the phone. I was too often tense over what probably awaited me when I got home, but that often propelled me to walk faster, not slower, to get the homecoming over with and to be there for my sons.

I missed my boys. I wanted to be home with them more, but as the sole wage earner, that was not an option. Despite the troubled household, despite the tension and pain that laced so many of the days, I gathered strength from the looks of their faces when I walked through the door each evening. I knew that for the next few hours at least, I could focus on Ben and Sam, the stories of their days, the bedtime books, the blissful look on their sleeping faces.

Last night's walk in the early evening brought back the feelings - the anxiety, the sadness - I used to wear almost every day but most especially as I walked back home each night. But it also brought back the bright moments: the joys in my children's faces, the warmth of a small boy snuggling up against me to hear a story or to tell one himself.

The poet Rilke, commenting on his decision to leave therapy, said "if my devils are to leave me, I'm afraid my angels would take flight as well." That sentiment applies to the past as well. The past is what it is and I cannot dwell too long in its deeper depths. But I can reach into the gloom and pull out the brightest moments, and those would be the times with Ben and Sam.

When I got back to the office, awash in these memories, I looked over at the bookshelf inside the front door. On it are rhythm instruments and a collection of children's books with rhymes and music and art themes. Most of the books are loaners from my collection. They are books that were interwoven through Ben and Sam's childhoods: Color Dance, Mouse Paint, Traveling to Tondo, Brother Billy Bronto's Bygone Blues Band (a picture book that magically features both dinosaurs and a train wreck, which automatically made it a hit with Sam when we first read it).

Looking at the titles, I could once more feel the weight of my boys on my lap, once again hear their quiet, rapt breathing while we read. Surely it is a prerogative of every parent of grown children to hold close such memories, especially when their warmth and glow are inextinguishable against the dark winter night.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


The new year came in quietly with our staying home, watching old home movies until after two in the morning. There was a flurry of bottle rockets and Roman candles outside at midnight and we went to the kitchen to see them light up the sky, kissing while we stood there to celebrate the turn of the calendar.

The first day of 2011 dawned gray and rainy. We took a walk in the late morning, in between the storms passing through. The day was mild; by late afternoon, there was even sunshine spilling across the yard.

2010 is behind us now. It was a year of mixed reviews. As Warren and I walked, I asked him what he hoped 2011 held for us. He thought a moment, then observed that 2010 had been pretty good, but that he hoped "some areas" would go a bit smoother this year. What areas? Well, keeping the pace more controlled this year so things weren't quite so hectic and packed all the time.

I sighed. Me too. 2010 had been brutal on our schedules and personal time.

We walked on, talking of this and that. We walked past the house he'd lived in until he was ten: a small post-war cottage that featured prominently in the oldest of the movies we'd watched the night before. While we walked, Warren commented several times on the number of houses needing painting. I noticed the number of empty houses dotting our neighborhood.

The Great Recession hangs on tight here in Ohio, as it does in so many other places. Recovery, when it comes, will be long and slow. In Ohio, we have a projected deficit of over eight billion dollars for the next two-year budget cycle. The governor-elect has yet to announce his ideas as to how to proceed, but has already made comments, as have the Republican leaders in the statehouse, indicating the neediest and least protected are likely to be offered up first in the form of cuts to school funding, Medicaid, and other social services. 

If only it were that easy. The crisis is so deep that even the conservative, pro-Republican Columbus Dispatch ran an article today in which the writers noted:

Despite what you may have heard during the campaign this fall, there is no way state leaders can save billions simply by "trimming fat" or "enacting efficiencies" that won't be noticed. Experts will tell you that most of the low- and even medium-hanging fruit has already been harvested to balance the current budget, which suffered from an unprecedented drop in tax revenue.

Rather, state leaders will soon learn a political truism: Talking about cutting the budget is easier than actually cutting it. Perhaps that is why nearly every prior state budget crisis was at least partially fixed with tax increases, regardless of which party was in charge.

Last Monday we were in Detroit for part of the day. Detroit is one big empty town. It is almost a ghost town, which is sad and disturbing. There are many reasons for Detroit's plight, and I don't pretend to be able to write about them knowingly. But I also don't pretend to "not know" that when the Detroit auto industry was booming with a strong workforce paid good wages with benefits, Detroit had a large middle class of blue collar workers who were able to buy cars, buy houses, pay for their medical treatment, and send their children to college. And now Detroit is row after row, street after street of empty, boarded up, decaying houses and commercial buildings. Elizabeth, who was with us that day, was nervous in downtown Detroit and kept worrying out loud about our being "shot at or something." There was no one there to shoot at you.

Another sigh. The Great Recession will be with us for another year. At least.

And yet, on a personal level, 2010 was a year full of wonderful events: Ben and Alise's wedding, Sam starting college, triumphs by the Symphony, our travels. It was a year full of love and family and friends. It was the year of the Big Buffalo.

Wednesday night of the dying year we had our friends Linda and Mark over for supper. It was a simple meal with simple food: oven-roasted potato wedges, some ham from Christmas, a salad. Homemade applesauce. We sat around the table and told stories and basked in the warmth of good friendship and the good flavors on our plates. Even though the recession has bit hard into all of our lives, the lights and the laughter and the simple act of our gathering pushed away the darkness, even if only for one evening.

I began writing this longhand on the raggedy end of the first day of 2011. Warren was in the basement, playing scales on his xylophone. Ribs were slow baking in the oven and the rich smell of barbeque sauce carried through the house. Later that evening, Warren, Elizabeth, and I sat long at the table, talking and eating while the angel chimes spun around, delicately making its little tings. The candles were guttering low by the time we pushed back from the table. We spent the evening together watching Elizabeth's all-time favorite movie, "Pocahontas," before heading to bed.

2010 is over. 2011 is here.

This morning, the sun came in a blaze of glory.