a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storm Warnings

Ever since Ivan appeared on the scene, whirling out of the South Atlantic, I've been getting messages from family and friends by all sorts of media inquiring whether I've decided to evacuate.  The fact that the storm is nowhere near me, and, by at least some projections, not likely to do more than send a small tail of rain and wind our way, makes me wonder what use warnings of this sort, to the tune of the background noise of insistent newscasts, are.  And also makes me realize how little I pay attention to things like that.  For better or worse.

Not that I wouldn't move in a hurry if I lived in a Miami high rise and the storm was at my door, as it seems to be there today.  We have, in our time, sat out more hurricanes than I can count, and lived to tell the tale, but only after judicious consideration, or blind indifference.  Hurricanes shift what the weather people design as their "paths" all the time, so projections are little use to coast-dwellers, who, if they have been born and bred to the climate, know better than to expect the expected.  One takes shelter in different ways, depending on a lot of things both at home and in the sky.  My mother and aunts liked to tell a story of a day they spent in the kitchen at the shore, baking, when one of them looked out the side window and noticed that the ocean was running down the street only a few feet from the side lawn.  How a hurricane could sneak up on you like that is beyond belief, except that I, who was small and there with them at the time, must have inherited their cluelessness.  They stayed put, of course, put out candles, I suppose, and listened to the wind howl.  I don't remember hearing how the baking came out.

My husband and I, who had eighteen years earlier traveled through a raging hurricane to our new home near the sound, sat out Irene five or six years ago, along with all our neighbors, despite "mandatory" evacuation orders.  We weren't scofflaws; we lived in 100-plus year old houses and figured that they'd lasted this long without suffering defeat.  Irene too felt right at home and so stayed atop us all day and night until, in the morning, we all looked out at the fine day and fell to picking up the trees littering one another's yards.  Right now, one Floridian of my family has moved north; another, with ailing parents less able to make a trip, has hunkered down to ride it out.  A third southerner, like us nowhere near its path, has made elaborate plans to be somewhere else, where exactly he hasn't decided.  My friend talks about her friends who live in a double-wide in Irma's path, but can't decide whether to stay or find a last-minute motel.  There's nothing like hurricane warnings to show us our tendencies.

Meanwhile, other warnings ride the waves of the air.  I'm not sure I pay enough attention to those, either.  Along the way, things I should have had at least an inkling of have caught me by surprise, like that ocean hurling past my mother and aunt years ago.  A job cut.  A friend's betrayal.  And yet there are others I can feel in the wind right to my bones.  A child in danger (the worst of the worst).  A need to get away.

Close friends I'd planned to see today have had to cancel; his health won't permit the visit...he's at a dangerous crossroads, suddenly brought on, and his wife is on tenterhooks.  While the cancellation is understandable, it's thrown me off this morning in surprising ways.  Coming home from the aborted trip, I changed and began to think of what I could get done instead...there's quite a list...but somehow I couldn't organize myself to what are, after all, pretty simple tasks.  I really wanted to see my friends.

I put on a recording of some Cajun music I like (my friends are from New Orleans in the most entrenched way) and thought about making shrimp remoulade for dinner.  To the tunes of the Breaux Brothers, I began to make some cookies, then went out in the yard to prune the overindulged tentacles of what's known in these parts as ugly-agnus.  The cookies crumbled; the pruning, which I usually consider therapeutic, seemed tedious.  Coming back into the house, I tried a few phone calls, but the work I really have to get done...art I've long neglected (and me with a November show coming up!)...just wasn't in me.   I'm thinking of my friend, blank of mind about his condition, and knowing I probably won't know how he is until much later.  That seems to have drained me of any focus except on him and on his wife, whose voice on the phone was uncharacteristically heavy with portent.  It's difficult to be so far away from those I care about and want to support.

I used to like storms...still in a way, do...but so much experience with those inner ones life throws at us have warn me down.  I believe I'm good at coping with what comes, but these days I think to myself, what next?, and not in a cheerfully anticipatory way.

I'd say that I'm just temporarily out of sorts (I used to tell my husband that, to his puzzlement; "What does that mean?" he'd ask), except that outside it's a beautiful day, one of the nicest we've had in a week of gorgeous weather, and one of my favorite seasons, fall, is in the air, and I've a workshop full of potential just waiting to be realized.  There is every reason to be hopeful, to be full of life, to be engaged in the future.

Instead, all I seem to be able to do is shrug, and wait for it to pass, hoping whatever storm is roiling through me leaves me grateful for the rain, inspired again, and, most important, facing no great loss.  Evacuation isn't really possible in such circumstances; neither is gathering candles and stockpiling peanut butter and water.  We just have to ride it out and accept the yard full of broken trees.  If the dam breaks, it breaks, and we ride its muddy wash out until our feet touch land again.  Then we get up again and start over.

A few days later, we're still waiting for rain stronger than a drizzle, but the weather has cooled a bit, and to counteract the gathering clouds I decided that I'd use up a week's leftovers by making a meal (I'd give anything to share it with my ailing friend) that seems to warm everyone.  Those of you in the same boat might try it, too:

Pot Pie
1. Dice leftover (cooked) chicken and set aside.  If it's been dressed while it was cooked...for example with pesto or balsamic reduction or even BBQ sauce...so much the better for flavor.
2. Saute some onion, celery and carrot, also diced, until the onion is almost translucent.
3. Add the chicken dice, about a cup of vegetable broth mixed with a small can of evaporated milk, and some parsley, sage, and thyme.
4. Add some small-diced sweet potato or butternut squash (or both) and cook for a few minutes, 
then add some green peas and cut string beans, maybe some corn kernels, asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, whatever.  Season with S/P (red pepper is best).
5a. Mash some potatoes with butter.
5b. Make a short pastry and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness.
5c. Mix up some cornbread batter.
6.  Pour the chicken mixture into your prettiest casserole dish and top with the mashed potatoes (5a.) or the pastry (5b.) or the cornbread batter (5c.)  
If you use the mashed potatoes or the cornbread batter, just mound it here and there over the top.  If you use the pastry, cut out a pretty design to vent the steam.
7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes while the house warms and smells delicious.
If, like me, you don't do meat, just substitute all the vegetables you can think of for the chicken.  If you're vegan, lose the butter and milk.  Won't make any difference to comfort.
If your refrigerator goes out during the storm, you can reheat it on your outdoor grill, 
or share it lukewarm right out of the pot.
A bottle of your favorite wine, red or white, isn't a bad idea, either.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Family History

As we packed for their move to North Carolina in a few days, I opened a box of letters my Aunt Vi had been keeping…not like me, who hoards every letter ever received, but selected cards from family that she held dear to her heart. 

It wasn’t only keepsakes that were saved in that box.  Each card opened to a story, a remembrance, a family connection.

Digging in it, I discovered a watercolor I had sent her with some photographs, and a poem celebrating her 82nd birthday.  The pictures inside, though, were mostly taken 67 years ago come November, when she’d flown to Florida to meet my grandparents at their Miami house and surprised them with another guest:  me.

Though I’d been born in that city during the war, my father being stationed by the Navy there, we’d moved back when the war was over to where my parents had grown up, my grandparents eager to claim their first.  This, then, was only my second flight that far away from home (the first, at six months old, I couldn’t remember), and though it could rightly be called a journey to revisit my roots, the trip to Miami might well have been to another country for one so young as I.  So much to see, such a different landscape and lifestyle.  I loved the sun and bathing and floating around after my aunt and grandparents.

If Miami seemed a far country, we were yet to make, in fact, a real international jaunt.

Card, poem, photos all brought back to me not only that experience, but a more historically significant one, for from Miami we’d flown to Havana, where my grandfather had some business interests.  An inventor of machines for special industrial interests, he and his company had ties to the Cuban and American companies that dominated commerce on the island before Castro’s revolution. 

Since I was young at the time, the images I can recall from that marvelous visit are few, but still clear:  the balcony of our hotel over a street teeming with vibrant life…merchants, shoppers, music, a cacophony of different languages; a dinner at a client’s elegant ranch house farther out in the country where I’d seen my first finger bowl, in each a fragrant flower floating; a walk along the harbor where (remember how young I was) the push and pull of the foot traffic had me huddling between my aunt and grandparents.  How I would like to visit that city and country again now, when so much more of my eyes, ears, curiosity, and knowledge would broaden the adventure considerably.

Cuba today…having been closed to us Americans for so many decades, changed in its relationship to us, its culture and its own historical evolution…would be a wonderful juxtaposition to those small scenes of ancient memory.

But back to our own diggings: the watercolor I’d painted for that birthday emanated, as such images usually do, from the day and the recipient.  It was raining, but earlier that morning it had not yet swelled with dark clouds.  I thought of that first view and how I might preserve it on waking.

Inside the watercolor was the inscription, which rather than explain (we don’t explain poems, I kept telling my students for 40 years; they are what they are…and what you bring to them), I reproduce here:


It is a gray day, four hundred-some miles from
where we should be, and will be soon, lunching with you
in honor of your eighty-second birthday, laughing at old
pictures around the table by the window at the shore;
not there yet but here, the rain is falling in that steady, persistent
way you have always advised for growing—grass, flowers,
an even tide of white-edged waves coming in its wake.
And in appreciation, the bright zinnias dance in their pots,
the herbs unfold into dense plenty, the sanctuarial hydrangeas,
even now on their way out of season, preen and shine
becoming the character of the exotic, the faraway.
For I am thinking of other rains…not only there at the shore
years ago, when we play in the garage or bathhouse,
keeping ourselves busy with old slickers and puckered
cast-off hats from the cellar door, you laughing as,
rippling the wet boardwalk, we raced the molded carriage
up and down, soaking ourselves, or washed clam shells to paint
for a sidewalk stand when the sun and beachgoers returned,
but in other, farther places—Miami and Havana for me,
Scotland and the Hague for you—where as well the rain still falls
in our memory.  Small and leery of new shores, swarming
marketplaces, hustling streets crowing garbled tongues,
I balk and you coax me down from the high, ornate balcony
of our hotel, taking me to dinner in the tropical rooms of strangers
as if all this were only family again at our own complicated,
complicitous tables at home.
It didn’t rain in the parrot jungle,
or at the alligator farm where the wrestlers pretended to battle
the embattled; it might have rained once or twice the days
we planned to go fishing or bathing, but in those old photographs,
the sun seems ubiquitous—dancing on the picnic table in the yard
of palms and flagrant bougainvillea, chasing away territorial crows;
posing well-dressed and territorial myself against the tall,
white marble memorial to a forgotten city’s past, or sitting
like beauty queens on the sand—you always beside me, behind me,
guardian and guarded guest; still in your twenties then, and I only five,
we seemed like short and long echoes of each other, one practiced,
the other practicing for:  a good girl's dream of aunt and me.

That last line, I know, probably resounds in a lot of families...the aunt who took us under her wing, the aunt who was sweet, the aunt who gave us treats (and remembered what we liked best), the aunt who was a shoulder to lean on, an ear to hear what we had to say, the aunt who told us without hesitation family stories, and drew us into them.

It takes no digging at all to bring up the way our aunts all played such enormous roles in our growing years.  It hardly takes a photo, for we carry their leanings in us always.  But introducing this blog is one of my favorite photos, also found in that envelope with the Miami/Cuba images...three of my aunts at my mother's birthday party a considerable time later in time though not affection.  If you are an artist (and even if you aren't), look at the ease with which we arrange ourselves into this composition.  This is a picture of what I think of when I think of my aunts.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Life Changes

This time of year, there are quiet shifts in our neighborhood.  People leave and return from vacation, or leave permanently for newer horizons, like the couple who stayed in the house behind me, doing a fellowship here before returning to their home state where a job and their baby's grandparents awaited them.  The house is empty now, so we're all waiting to see who will next become part of our world.  Except for that cottage and a newly built house down the block with a young family arrived, there's been remarkably little removing among us.

 As summer has progressed, we ourselves have come and go (though not speaking of Michelangelo), by all sorts of means, connecting to families far-flung.

Life changes in less dramatic ways all the time:  children grow, heads and beards thicken or thin, strides lengthen and shorten, voices rise and lower, shadows in windows quicken and slow.  And on the horizon, changes  await our connection with them, some planned, some unplanned.


In this house, which I had begun to call The Inn for the frequent company I enjoyed, most of the rooms have these past few weeks been in an uproar, readying for some new residents to join me.  My aunt and uncle, now in a retirement village (think hundreds of acres, hundreds of "homes", a 30 minute bus ride across "campus"), will be my housemates.  Their changing health, until lately pretty good, and increasing blindness make watchful care more necessary.  I've certainly got the room to include them.  This is a house used to change, having been built as and remained a college rental until I took it over and changed its character.  Its spaces, perhaps oddly situated for newer houses, are nonetheless amenable to the shifts of various living requirements.  So it didn't take a lot of imagination to see that simply switching what was the large sitting room with what was the smaller guest room across the hall would produce a comfortable and private space for two, even given the usual multi-generational comings and goings around here.

But you know how renovations blossom:  once you begin to move and replace, other projects (not a few waiting in the wings for "some day") rear their heads, crying "What about me??"

For instance, I'd been wanting to paint the kitchen ever since I saw the wall color I'd initially chosen drain it of life.  What better time than the present when I am in the midst of change anyway?   This time I borrowed the tried and true Honey Gold from the dining room walls. As I cleared shelves and walls and counters to begin the job, the dining room, in consequence, drew itself up, affronted with piles of everyday pottery, ceramics, glassware, tools, piles of cookbooks, linens...how on earth does one collect so much in a kitchen?

Meanwhile, my own room, formerly Poetic Plum from a wild impulse I'd had when I moved in, found itself being repainted Quietude.  I have to say that none of the art, quilts or drapes turned a hair at the tonal shift; it's as if they were waiting for the restful background as much as the kitchen was for its new sunny disposition.

Thinking about whom I was trying to accommodate, I realized a few updates were due to the bathroom, too...a grab bar, uncluttered cabinets, and a lick of cleaner white, though after the first coat I realized I'd used the wrong shade...do you know how many whites there are?  I made a coat closet out of a storage closet, and rearranged the laundry room for easier use.  As stuff collected and as the back rooms traded identities, the mountain of Things I Don't Need and Wonder Why I'm Keeping grew and grew.  I sent out a plangent call for help moving, shifting, dragging out, fixing, restyling...and fortunately--and gratefully--I received agreeable responses.

The closets needed emptying and clearing, too.  For a few nights, I dug in, unearthing boxes of photographs, each a home for a different era of life...old relatives (a few nameless, though I might recognize a face), childhood, parents' lives, college lives, children's lives, husband lives, houses and towns, friends, travels, keepsakes from all sort of situations and circumstances.  Didn't that set my work schedule back a day! But on they went to their new memory closet.  Along with six file boxes of letters, calendars and cards, a set of graduation portraits, a stack of unhung diplomas, awards, citations for work I'd forgotten I'd done, etc. A bin of family history took up the whole bottom shelf; it's still uncatalogued after two decades.  Another bin (my grandfather's old suitcase, actually) of memorials, firmly shut since I stored them, remained so.  As did files of old stories and manuscripts, and odd clippings.  But alas their new storage was only half the size of the previous one, and so the mountain rose, nonetheless.

How does so much get crammed into a life, I wonder?  How does one ever get so far carrying all that baggage?  Not to mention those six bookcases of books that had to come down from their dusty shelves and be replaced...somewhere.

At first, all the clutter of lives past shifting from room to room appeared so beside the point. Perhaps by then I was tired of the shoving and stretching and rolling, the undoing and the redoing. The recycling bin yawned temptingly. One by one, though, each photograph and souvenir had brought up a whole world of not only memory but perspective, and even invention, forecasting analogies to come.

One item in particular reminded me of the move I made forty-one years ago last month, halfway across the country to a new home: two babies, a suitcase each, diaper bags and toys, purse and papers...and no promised airline aide in sight (thanks, Delta).  I got a cart, piled everything and everybody on it, and somehow we made our connecting flight and arrived at the right future.

Where then, I ask myself, looking at time's detritus surrounding me these days, do all those other former lives, belong in the present and future I step into day by day?

Yes, yes, I'm getting a bit too metaphysical, I know.  Aristotle and Descartes would have words on the subject, but, I'm sorry to say, wouldn't solve the problem.  (Philosophy mostly fails when presented with actual life situations.)

Where are the boundaries of a life?  Are our eras simply short stories unveiled in monthly series?  Are they novels, where chapters fall into one another, if not seamlessly at least relatively?  Are they shelf-fulls of encyclopediae kept for reference, or infinite databases that link the known and the unknown in sometimes scary connection?  What do I save?  What can be left, safely, like the children in Amy Tan's story, along the way?

Please don't suggest that I digitalize everything and put it on discs.  The horror of that storage system (at least for me) is best exemplified by considering the difference between a still, constant photograph of one's grandchild, framed on the side table one passes fifty times a day, and the photographs stored on a flash drive one catalogs efficiently but never thinks to download and open.  Well, but, my niece reminds me, you could still have a digital photo frame on the table to show one by one...

Or maybe I ought to project a screen on a wall, like those photographic art exhibits in museums: in frame after frame, the artist in period costume, taking eccentric poses, and the people around her, some related, some not, appearing over and over again mouthing words no one can hear, in places one has to stand and wonder over.  It's tempting.  If only I had a free wall.

In any case, it does take a life change to remind us where we've come from.  I'd like to believe that we'd also find the map to the future in those same frames, too.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

From Where I Sit

[Note:  I'd written this a few weeks ago and forgotten to publish it, so consider it a letter lost for a while in the mail...]

I sit here writing
The heat surge the last weeks feels almost August except for the fan above, cooling me. This porch is the best part of this house these days; it was inevitable that I'd add it on here, as all the houses I've inhabited have had a place like it where, thanks to breezes and shade, you could be in the garden but not among the bugs and heat.

People around here consider the porch a Southern thing, but I think that's a bit provincial.  Growing up, the porch on our first house made a play area in rainy weather out from under our mother's feet.  The front porch at the shore slept men coming in late from work at night (the women and children all crowded into the beds upstairs) and provided a good place to hide with a good book during the day on the swing.  It's still the place to chat, read, write letters, nap, enjoy tea, coffee, wine or a gin and tonic with people who drop in.  

When we taught in New Hampshire or visited my parents there on weekends, the porch in either house was the first place I'd take my cup in the mornings, whatever the season.  One memorable dawn, I looked out to a mother bear raiding the garden, while her cubs sat in the patio chairs below me, picking at the pillow ticking, obviously having been told to "be good and sit here now, while I get us breakfast".

At our old home in Washington, the open front porch quickly introduced us to the neighborhood, and the back screened porch became so much an extension of the kitchen that most of the year the door between them stayed wide open as we wandered in and out, to bring the day or the groceries in, do the crossword, plan the next garden shape or escape from a crowded kitchen.  On warm days in December, even, it was a place to retreat from winter.

front porch on main street

In quieter moments, I could paint there, the light perfect.  I did one of my best works at that table, a complication of watercolor, wire, screen and beads worked into a folding, falling-open sort of book I called Back Porch Journal.  (Amazingly, the fine art show judge that year actually got what it was...)

back porch journal, 2011
These days, sometimes at the near-end of a walk, I'll park myself on a bench in the arboretum, a kind of porch itself, to contemplate the quiet. 

view from a bench in the arboretum
The other morning, likewise, I stopped on campus to sit under the wide porch of one of the buildings, and talked to my aunt on the phone for a while.  There was a huge tree in front of me I couldn't name, but its arches made a kind of canopy over the sidewalk, and it gave me the feeling of facing a high foyer where summer's glare was kept at bay.

view from a porch bench on campus
 You can see all sorts of things from a porch, like looking out a window without frame.  Not only who or what passes by, but interior passages, too.  You can hear yourself think, and that's not a bad thing, especially these days, when (often deliberately) distracting noises from everywhere seem to cloud our brains.  You can hear others...really listen to children, friends, neighbors, passersby, whether you are the intended audience or not. You're not eavesdropping, but you are connecting with the world as it comes and goes.

The word from the porch or the street, the casual remark of a stranger in passing...they're all clues to the reality beneath the reality shows that seem to pass for what is.  Leaving aside the generalities of opinion polls and flash-talk, and listening instead to the personal and highly individual thoughts of people who speak and act as themselves, means that we can adopt the human values we practice one person at a time.  On the porch, they tend to come out in more reflective, considerate, and respondable ways.

We may not like everything we hear or see, but that vantage point, from where we sit, gives us leave to try to understand it and put it in perspective, whether we agree with it or not.  And then we can think about where we really stand.  And why. The three-second (or 10-word) spits we've been encouraged to adopt as communication too often tend to degenerate rational thought into fallacy. Porches slow us down, make us take a wider view of the neighborhood and the world where we belong.

Porches bring us back to calm reason and sense, and to belief.  They return us to ourselves.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Old Houses

These days I am in draft mode...everything I begin to write, except grocery lists, mostly fades off  the page unfinished.  Posts like From Where I Sit and Out of Grandmother's Kitchen lie in wait for reclamation, though from the first they seemed the word of the day--along with probably something else I've meant to say that's left the field now.  I blame the heat, but I think it's something more pressing I can't name.

Meanwhile, searching for inspiration of the tactile sort, I drift over the surfaces in my studio (lately invaded by youngsters seeking their own inspiration), picking over pieces of rusted wire, pink silk thread, mother-of-pearl buttons, copper fragments, and dried paint and glue, also waiting.

In a box at the edge of my work table, which my father had built when we moved into our old house in Washington twenty years ago, I find the watch face and works that my Aunt Sadie had given me a few weeks ago.  She took it from her jewelry drawer, saying, as she prefaces all such heritage, "And what am I going to do with this?"  She means for me to take it, and I do, along with the story of how it comes to be in this box, bare and unhoused for so many years.

"It was your grandfather's gold pocket watch," she tells me, "but during the Depression they had to sell all their gold..."  She doesn't remember who gave him the watch, or what the occasion, but his early history was so rich with possibilities that it could have been anyone, anywhere, whyever.  He'd traveled a good bit as a young man, seeking with his father homes for their family...Italy to Argentina, finally to New York and Philadelphia where, married by then, he began his own regeneration. For an engineer, as were the men in his family, a watch like this would be an important accessory.  But when the time came, it proved its worth by giving up its gold.

This is the kind of object which turns up often among my aunts' keepsakes, the kind I can never turn down.  This one creates in my mind, almost the instant she hands it to me, the book I will make around it, to make up for the housing it has missed for nearly 90 years. I can practically see it finished, though I haven't even started to gather the materials.  It's a book about time, and what time brings us forward and also back to.

Consider the clues in this time-in-a-box.  My aunt must have barely begun school then, those desperate transactions taking place as far beyond her ken as parental discretion would allow, though even she must have known what it cost to put a meal on the table.  She was the youngest of four children, and sometimes eating meant going down to their cousin Annie's farm, where other relatives gathered to help and to take nourishment in that generous place.  In photographs (I hope I can dig one up...it's around here somewhere), they look happy enough to be pictured among the greens and squashes at the edge of the field.  The stories of oatmeal for dinner and home lost, a good business suddenly curbed and other means invented to earn a bare living...sons having to leave school, daughters taking in piece work at night...they carry on generation by generation, so that, if only in the abstract, we understand what they endured.  And, more important, how the workings of life went on anyway, sans gilt.

So this watch, still its unhoused self in its box, comes to mean all that history and more...it also comes to mean, looking forward, that we are never without the possibility of privation, even in such spoiled-rich times as these.  Food on the table and a house to live in, a useful way of life, are always going to be the primary goals of our lives; everything else we believe we hunger for is needless, easily disposable.  It's ironic that our mechanism for timekeeping is also a reminder that there are timeless struggles--and ways of endurance--living invisibly among us, and it's well not to forget them.

Monday, June 19, 2017

At The Shore

My aunt tells me, "I'd like to see the shore once more..."  My uncle agrees that it would be good to have a break from the usual, their very nice but more restrictive apartment life in the retirement village they moved to last year.  My aunt will be 98 in a month, and with both sight and hearing challenges, and her heart giving us pause, a breath of sea air seemed understandingly appealing.

To be truthful, there was a lot of resistance, others wondering, protectively, at the sense of such a journey at her age and in her condition.  My uncle, too, also a late nonagenarian, might find it as difficult to be driven the three hours from their present home to their old one, and adjust to the different space.

But in all her years, she hasn't missed one shore stay for the 72 years the house has been in the family, and strangeness wasn't part of the equation for either of them.  So why not go once more to the place where, as my mother used to say, life was "easy in, easy out" and at the very edge of the world find some well-deserved peace and familiarity?  Sometimes, safety is a excuse we use (though with all good intention) to save others, and sometimes ourselves, from the risk of living well.

So off we went.  The weather for the most of our week was grand--beautiful blue skies, calm ocean, refreshing breezes even as the heat soared inland, the early-season pleasure before the vacation crowds began.  One day we even managed to sit on the beach, watching the waves roll in.  As the weekend approached, the wind shifted direction, the waves grew frillier, and the currents drew in their brows, promising rip tides.  But the sky only sprinkled now and then on us those days, leaving plenty of time to walk the boardwalk a few times a day, sit on the deck in sun or shade, shop for new shoes and beach clothes, meet with family we don't see often, and entertain visitors.  At night there were cards and cribbage, and the fishing boat lights and the corp of engineer dredgers at work (the effects of hurricanes linger) against the blackness. In other words, shore life as usual.

The week went quickly; I was sorry not to have scheduled us a bit a longer, as it was clear how invigorating it was to them.  They walked longer and longer; they took stairs more surely (and sometimes startlingly more independently), and were up for anything.  It was, as my aunt kept saying, "a good change".

And for me, it was a hopeful and instructive lesson in how to live.

Change is most of the time good for us.  It's always a risk turning blind corners (all corners are blind, even the ones we think we can see around), not knowing how the future will turn out.  But it can also be a means of believing that, yes, we're still alive and up for anything.  That we still have the courage to face the unforeseen and the strength to accept it.

Especially when we're at the very shore of the biggest life event of all.

Meanwhile, the younger generation, still oblivious to the vulnerability of age, picks up where we leave off.  They're crabbing this afternoon, after dowsing each other with water balloons on the deck and shoveling their way to buried treasure in the sand.  Nights, they do puzzles, try bingo and an ocean version of Monopoly.  Just as we did.  Sometimes the years bring no change at all, a most welcome, most gratifying thing to behold...part of the pleasure of growing older.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

This is the Song

Home now, I am listening to the soundtrack that some months ago my brother asked his brother-in-law Mo to put together and give us for his memorial this past weekend.

It's a peaceful, beautiful, still-cool June morning, sun filtering through the trees and warming up to the idea of warming us as the day grows.  I've waited until this moment to play it so I could hear it pure, if you will.  Elton John's on now.

My gift is my song and this one's for you...

As with the soundtrack of everyone's life, its lines are what we remember Tom for.

Keep Me in your Heart for a While
The Weight
Over the Hills and Far Away
Heart of Gold
How Long Will I Love You
Peaceful Easy Feeling
Uptown Funk
Message in a Bottle (I hope that someone gets my)
Closer to the Sun
Time of Your Life...

Lots more.  Two discs full.  I started, unintentionally, with disc 2, entitled Follow the Sun. 

But the sun's been quite kind while I wrote this song
It's for people like you that keep it turned on

Ironically, there wasn't much sun for our gathering; it rained every single day for a week, and in the few hours when a vague clearing allowed, we could walk on the beach, go for a swim, stretch our limbs a bit, keep umbrellas at the ready.

 All the other 90% of the time we were together in one house or another, where there was a lot of talk and a lot of food (we are who we are), some drama, some pain, a lot more things to laugh over, and much more than that to be thankful for, mostly each other.

And you can tell everybody, this is your song
It may be quite simple but now that it's done
I hope you don't mind that I put down in words...

And there was music, lots of music every night.

Music in the ceremony, music in the video his son and niece made for us to reflect on his life, music long into the night when we played, one by one or in twos and threes, and everybody sang.  My brother Charles had written a song for him, which Tom had gotten to hear back in February, and he sang it again for us.

I hereby apologize to poor Jean's neighbors for the din of forty grownups shouting Boardwalk at the top of their lungs, but I also admit I'm not sorry. For a moment, whoever we be on our own, we who gathered were singing the same song.

...how wonderful life is while you're in the world

In my mother's youth, every family event rang with piano, strings, voices...opera, folk, popular, dance. Meanwhile, children ran in and out, cooks cooked, aunts danced, men weighed matters, stories passed on.  She and her father would think ours was nothing new, but would surely be pleased that somewhere in the genetic material passed on to us, the impulse to song continues.

So, yes, we got the message in the bottle, Tom.  We know who you were and still are. We know who we are, too...the ones who keep playing your life, who keep it turned on.

There's a reason that our favorite time of day, the one we get up in the morning to meet, the one we take most photographs to keep, is sunrise. 

Even if on some days, as my sister's wall reminds her, you have to make your own sun.