Friday, March 24, 2023

Commonplace Quote: A Chair


Photo by Kelly Miller on Unsplash

"Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit still in."
Sarah Broom, The Yellow House

"A chair that is hard to sit still in."

I have to think about that concept. 

When is it hard to sit still in a chair? 

When you are waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. That happened to me last week when longtime friends who live far away but were in town for family matters said they would come over "sometime" that afternoon. Indeed they did come over, but for the last 30 minutes or so before their arrival, as the afternoon wore on, I found it impossible to stay seated for more than a few minutes. Instead I kept prowling by the front window to see if they had arrived yet.

Even reading could not hold me.

When else is it hard to sit still in a chair?

When the chair is uncomfortable. Goldilocks, of course, had this issue: too big, too hard, too whatever. I don't mind a hard chair, provided it has a sturdy back (our kitchen chairs, now in their 21st year of service). I have not had too many experiences with a chair that was physically uncomfortable to sit still in. 

So let me go back to the "remembering"  that starts the quote. 

If I am remembering something good, something warm, something satisfying, I can sink into that memory, let it wrap its arms around me like a comfortable, broken-in chair.

The chairs I can see from the couch in our downstairs study - those kitchen chairs, the green chairs in the living room  - those trigger some warm memories. I bought them all when I was moving out of the house my then-spouse and I had bought 12 years earlier with such high hopes. These chairs were my steps in making a new home for myself and my sons. They served us well then, they continued to serve us well when Ben went off to college and Warren joined our home. They are now in their 3rd home since their initial purchase, and I cannot imagine our house without them.

If I am remembering something that hurt me something that did damage - then the chair of remembering is indeed hard to sit still in. No matter how far I have come from that long ago event, it can still sting or worse. At that point, I am all over the place, wriggling on that chair, until I can let the memory go, take a deep breath, and once again sit easily in the chair. 

I saved that quote in late 2019. I would probably save it again, even when I find it easy to sit in that chair of memory. While typing this out this morning, my mind went back to my grandmother Skatzes and the study chairs she sat in - kitchen or living room - and the joy of sitting beside her. 

That is a chair of remembering I could sit still in for a long, long time. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

And Sometimes Where You Start Is Where You Have Already Been

After just writing that I plan on writing some posts using quotes from my commonplace books as prompts, I ran into an omission in my commonplace books of such enormity that I burst out laughing. 

My new-to-me Walden arrived a few weeks ago and I have been reading it slowly, sometimes setting it aside to read a library book (due dates, you know). Last week, I concluded chapter 2, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For."

At the very end of the chapter, beginning the very last paragraph, are lines that have become ones I hold dear in my heart: "Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

The cause for my laughter? When I look at my oldest commonplace book, Volume 1, which I filled with a number of quotes from Walden, guess which lines I did not bother to write down back then?

You got it.

I am fairly sure that if I thumb through later volumes, I will find that quote, probably more than once. But then? Nope. 

Going back to my last post and my wondering whether my curated quotes would hold up over time, this is not unrelated. In my early 30s, I read Walden closely  (as opposed to dashing it off as I have done more than once) and apparently did not find those sentences worth saving.

If I had to guess why, I would say that early-30s-April did not give much thought to time other than the most immediate days and hours. But older (way older) April, who has lived with cancer for so long? Oh, yeah, she is a lot more aware of time.

I have written before in this blog that somewhere along the line, probably post-diagnosis, I stopped thinking of time as linear. Time became far more fluid for me: a lake that I float in. For me, it was realizing that I couldn't control time or, more specifically, I couldn't control how much time I had left. That was where I let go of time, of trying to hold it tight in my closed fist. Don't get me wrong. Yes, there are birthdays and anniversaries and appointments tied to the calendar and I did not toss them out. But I threw time as in "how long?" into the lake years ago. 

Time was but the stream that Thoreau went a-fishing in. And time is but the lake that I go a-floating in.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

All That Time


Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

14 years ago tomorrow, I started this blog with a post about the magic of opening doors.

This is my 842nd post. If I play with the math, that means I have averaged 60.14 posts annually. But the average is meaningless. If you look at the Blog Archive in the column to the right, it shows how many posts I wrote in any given year. Best year? 2009, the year I started, where I came in with a mighty 101 posts. Worst year? 2021: a year of still coping with the pandemic, five brutal months of hard school mediations, and my wrapping up my paid professional life. Small wonder I did not write; I am surprised I even managed 8 posts that year.

Through these years, there have been some common themes: the garden, the Symphony, pies, my children, my grandchildren, money, traveling, reading, books, writing, family, cancer, community. There have been births along the ways (those grandchildren!) as well as deaths, including my older brother, my mother, and my Aunt Ginger. 

Time has just kept flowing along.

For the next few weeks (months?), I may be putting up posts using quotes from my commonplace books as the jumping off point for the post. My first book dates back to the later 1980s; I had started one before that in the mid-1970s, but that one got tossed decades ago (before starting the current volumes. Why did I toss it? I have no idea. (For the record, I am now in volume 5.)

I skim through the various volumes (always close at hand in our downstairs study) every four to six weeks, often looking for a reference or a quote I just know is in one of them. I am usually successful. But what I wonder, considering that the books scan some 35+ years of collecting quotes, is whether I would now find some of the quotes of little interest or even invalid for the person I am now. So I will use the quotes as random prompts and see where they take me.

Like any blogger, I have made friends in the blog-o-sphere along the way: thank you for reading my words. There are also personal friends from my pre-blogging life who have been on this since the onset or have joined on: thank you for reading my words. And thank you,dear Warren, for being there all along the way.  

I am grateful. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Writing. Still.


As of last night, I have been writing for 15 minutes or more in one format or another almost every day since January 2. Blog posts, some poetry (still sticking to pantoums as I reintroduce myself to poetry), a large ongoing work (35,000+ words) which is most likely a memoir of my childhood.

The more I write, the more I want to write. I don't mean "want to write about;" I mean "want to write." 

The physical act of writing is a powerful act. It is magic. In several places in my commonplace books, I have captured quotes of writers of different eras, different genres, who all comment on writing being an act of the hands and not the brain. Keyboard or pen on paper: make the words come. I write longhand before turning to a keyboard: my pen, my hand learn the words.

Warren recently made a similar observation as he prepares for a major timpani performance in May. He noted that he is very familiar with the written part, looking at the score, but that his hands have not learned it yet.

These last few weeks have been, as I have noted more than once, a time of mixed emotions and mixed feelings and mixed actions. The medical path ahead is still murky; Dante in his dark forest had nothing on me. But with help from Warren, my PCP, and my friend David, I have reached some clarity about what I am thinking. What help did they give me? Listening closely, listening carefully, and affirming my wonderings.

And there are other arenas - money (always money), travel, community - that I am talking and writing through as I move forward. 

On that note, here is a recent pantoum: 

I am taking stock: 
Counting out the pennies,
Counting out the seeds.
Where are we now? 

Counting out the pennies, 
I try to scan the future,
Where are we now?
The bar code is invalid.

I try to scan the future;
The past is no help.
The bar code is invalid.
Only the present works.

The past is no help.
I am taking stock
And only the present works,
Counting out the seeds.

As you can tell, gardening is never far away. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Having Our Day


Henry David Thoreau

Spring is coming on, for the most part earlier than usual. It is startling to see daffodils not just sending up shoots, but in full bloom. Having just finished reading The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle, I look down at them and wonder what kind of world my grandchildren will live in and what nature - anywhere - will look like. Bill McKibben's The End of Nature came out 44 years ago and we are still pretending everything is fine.

From The Great Displacement (which was just published; god, I love our library system), I turned to Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson by Jeffrey S. Cramer. Earlier this year I tried diligently to read Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson, and was taken with the subject, but the tiny type (9 or maybe 10 point) did me in. Richardson was known for the format of his major biographies: 100 chapters, all relatively short (5 pages was a long one), but I could not get through the typeset. All the same, I was fascinated with what I read, and expostulated to Warren and others that I could not believe that NO ONE in my early years (high school) ever exposed me to Emerson.

One cannot read or write about Emerson without reading or writing about Thoreau. And vice versa. I am far more familiar with Thoreau than Emerson. Emerson used to be a standard feature in traditional high school literature curriculum but he had all but disappeared from it by 1970. 

Thoreau was never in the high school curriculum, but many youth, and I was one of them, found our way to him all the same.

I was in high school when I first discovered his "different drummer" quote, and being deeply taken with a drummer who truly listened to and followed his own internal beat, I embraced those words. I wrote that quote in LARGE letters with a permanent marker on the back of the large scrapbook in which I was assembling my photographs. I had that scrapbook for years, carrying it across the country and back more than once. 

Note: That different drummer and I took over three decades to finally get on the same beat, so to speak, but here we are. And yes, Warren still follows the beat of that different drummer.

In read Jeffrey Cramer's author bio on the dust jacket, I caught a reference to his being a historical consultant on a short film, Walden, which was produced in 2017 for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth. So while I ate lunch that day, I tracked the film down on Vimeo. 

I watched it.

I watched it with Warren.

I will watch it again.

There were moments in that film when I could murmur along to the quotes, all from Walden, and come darn close to getting them right. The film reminded me of why I was so taken with Thoreau the first time I read that book.

E. B. White revered Thoreau and Walden, and referenced both more than once in his essays and other writings. He called May 6, the day Thoreau died, "the saddest day of the year," and meant it. White admired Thoreau's vision of the meaning of human existence. (Andy White, like my husband, also moved to the beat of a different drummer.) I

Several years ago, I gave my most recently owned copy of Walden to my stepson David after he expressed an interest in reading it. I don't know if he ever did read it or even if he still has the book.

That is not important because immediately after finishing the movie, I went online to ThriftBooks and found a paperback edition from the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walden (1845). I ordered it on the spot. (Realize I rarely buy books anymore.) John Updike wrote the introduction to this edition. I have always admired Updike's writings on literature, so that was just an additional bonus. 

I can't wait for it to arrive.

What Thoreau always reminded me (and I have drifted far from remembering the lesson more times than I wish to acknowledge) was to pay attention to the natural world. Don't get so caught up in the hustle of modern society (for him, the Industrial Revolution) that you lose sight of what really counts.

Thoreau took to the woods because he "wished to live deliberately." He saw his retreat as an opportunity "to learn the essential facts of life" from the woods rather than, on his deathbed, "discover that [he] had not lived at all." He left the woods for a reason equally compelling: it seemed to him that he "had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

Thoreau died a few months before turning 45. Of death, Thoreau wrote, "Live your life, do your work, take your hat." (The conciseness of that summation makes me smile.) It was his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (who lived another 20 years, almost reaching the age of 80), who captured the essence of the spread of life: "Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short. But when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day."

"We have had our day." 

Even without the cancer of 18+ years, let alone the new diagnosis, I have no illusions about my being in the autumn of my days. Like Thoreau, I have left lives - careers, communities, focuses - because I had others to live. And like Emerson, I can truly say I have had my day.

And am grateful for it. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Two Views of the Same Night

Mr. Frumble of Busytown

Hemingway famously said that when you needed to start writing, "write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."

At 9:30 p.m. last night, here was my one true sentence: I am worn to the nub.

We are on overload on several fronts.

For me, it is the newest diagnosis. One of the hallmarks of having bone marrow - my hemoglobin, specifically - functioning subpar is to be exhausted.

Not tired. Exhausted.

But trying to spin it differently, I instead told myself last night that I had had a busy day (Justice Bus), a busy week (Concert Week).

That line of thinking reminded me of the Richard Scarry books about Busytown. Who was the pig character that never got things straight? Mr. Bumbles?

I had to Google it: Mr. Frumble.

And then I stopped writing, too tired to move the pen across the paper. 

That was my second one true sentence: I am too tired to write.

But there was more to last night than the exhaustion. 

Earlier that evening, we had dinner guests: this weekend's guest artist and his partner, who also performs. 

Leading up to dinner, I realized I had to come to grips with "enough."

Did I clean the house to a white glove inspection standard? No. I cleaned it to a level where I was comfortable having guests in our home. 

And that was enough.

And the meal? I made apple pie, of course. And a salad and a main dish. But instead of rushing to the store to add this or that special ingredient, I made do with what we had here in our freezer and pantry (sauteed zucchini/onions with pasta). The Parmesan cheese was just out of the shaker - nothing fancy there. I thawed and warmed an uncut loaf of bread I had picked up elsewhere instead of trying to find the time and energy to make a loaf from scratch. And I didn't worry about anything else other than having a good meal.

And that was enough.

What counted last night was the laughter and the talk (and the pie). Our guests, who are on a long recital tour, were grateful for a home-cooked meal. 

And pie. Peter ate three slices while we sat and talked the evening away.

And that was enough.

I wrote the first view of my evening last night after our guests left and Warren and I finished cleaning up the kitchen. I wrote the second part, well, took notes for the second part, after going upstairs to our bedroom. I made those notes feeling tired but grateful. Grateful for a wonderful evening of good conversation and good food and good pie.

And that, truly, was enough.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Past and Present


I was at a City Council meeting—our City Council—last night for the first time in years.


I went with Warren because Council was talking about a long-delayed reboot of its flag and banner policy. The Symphony has banners for Concert Week that have not been flown in months as the City has been slowly reviewing its policies in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Shurtleff v. Boston. (Note: Not much progress was made last night either.)

I had a small sense of Old Home Week when I walked into Council chambers. I used to serve on our Civil Service Commission, so there was a joke with our Police Chief (who'd been a captain back in those days) and I was able to congratulate our interim Fire Chief, someone I had gotten to know well from those years. (The firefighters union, to my delight, was ever-present at our meetings; our interim Chief was in that bunch back then.) The head of HR, also someone I had known forever, came in behind me, tapping me on the shoulder and leaning in to tell me she was glad to see me. And I sat right next to the young person who I will be voting for in the next Ward elections.

I do not know most of our Council members at all anymore, although I still know the City Manager and, of course, the City Planning Director. ("Of course" because I also sat on our Historic Preservation Commission for several years. Plus I was a zoning lawyer , so even thought the current planner and I did not overlap extensively in that era, I still worked with him and his department before I hung it up.)

I found myself thinking back, way way back, to myself as a college student, to the year I was in between schools, and all the hours I spent at council and school board meetings during that time.

When I withdrew from Chicago at the end of my freshman year, I retreated to Delaware,  moving in with my Aunt Ginger and my Grandma Skatzes. It was a long period of putting myself back together — in every way imaginable. I did not work those months. I volunteered at my high school, teaching classes with the greatest English teacher I ever had. And I started attending council and school board meetings.

I had met a newly elected council member on Election Night that fall, and he encouraged me to see what city government was all about. As I was thinking of staying in Delaware, I started thinking maybe I should get a better idea of how the school board operated as well.

It ended up being a fascinating time – I made friends I still have, I felt at home at council meetings (never school board, interestingly enough), and I began to learn how this city functioned. I knew the insider jokes and side comments at Council. I change my career goal to law school, realizing that, if I was going to stay in Delaware, as I was strongly thinking I would, I wanted to make a difference and have a say in how the community operated. I started to have plans to run for Council at the next election cycle.

That was in late 1975, early 1976. By that summer, I was back in Chicago, eventually on my way to living out west for several years. I did not return to Delaware permanently until the fall of 1990.

I did become a lawyer. And when I moved back, I ended up practicing on the office of that Council member. I had met so many years earlier.

I never ran for City Council. That was not a goal by 1990 and thereafter. I almost ran for school board, but had a conflict, so did not. My service on the two city commissions was enough.

I did not sit there last night full of  nostalgia or wondering "What if...?" Maybe I had a sense of relief that I had not ventured into politics. But maybe not even that. Maybe just a sense of being there, listening to Warren make his public comments, and then heading home.

And that was more than enough.