a journal of...

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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Of loss and the lost

I know I promised to write this time about the art I'm framing, gathered from trips abroad, but I can't settle into that right now, though the two photographs, painting and poster are laid out in front of me, their inspirations still vibrating.  What is on my mind has been almost life-changing; but if that sounds like hyperbole, I can't blame you for thinking so...so much is overblown these days (think about that poor word amazing, which has lost its true meaning with every inexact stab; life-changing, like incredible, fails that way, as well).  But hear me out.

A week and a day ago, carrying Alexander to the Farm for an afternoon swim, rushing first to get him on his feet and ready for our reservation (in these days of distancing and caution we have to sign up for a place in the pool), I forgot, while I changed into my suit, to remove my necklace.  We were in the pool, diving under water and playing Alexander's game of Torpedo, when I suddenly said to him,  "Oops!  You wait here by the pool side, while I go up to put this in my bag."

I dropped the necklace in the deep well of (oh, look! here comes some travel art, after all) the canvas bag, a David Hockney reproduction which I'd picked up at the Tate exhibit while in London a few years ago, and which became thereafter my swim bag.  Then I went back to fun with Alexander.

We had a busy afternoon...the swim, then coming home for a snack and rest, then making dinner for Joseph (it was Friday night)...so I didn't think of it again until just before I went to bed.  Unloading the bag, shaking everything out, then shaking out again, I began to panic.  No necklace.

I'm not much of a jewelry person, but this one is always with me, part of me after all this time.  It's the one Jake gave me for our tenth wedding anniversary, three small diamond and gold droplets, graduated in size to represent, he told me (as I stared, astounded), our past, our present and our future together.  It was a gift so unlike anything he would have ordinarily chosen that it became a kind of icon of the moment. 

Jake was, really, a romantic person.  Each holiday, birthday, anniversary brought a huge bouquet of flowers to the door.  Celebrations were often weekend trips or longer journeys, often surprises (we were only a few miles from Williamsburg when I realized where he was taking me one birthday), and tokens picked up along the way to remind us of where we had been. But something like this...I couldn't get my head around his head thinking of this gift.  That day I clipped it on me and there it stayed, all through the next decade and on into widowhood, removed only for showers, MRIs...and of course swims.

The next morning I called the pool, emailed the Farm director, and then, the minute they opened, rushed over to beg the lifeguards to help me look for it in the only two or three places it could have dropped out. They checked lost and found, drawers and cubbies.  Ben, the director, kindly sympathetic, promised to keep an eye out.  All kinds of scenarios were going through my mind, including, I'm sorry to say, the not very generous image of someone finding it and deciding it was their lucky day.  On someone else, I imagined bitterly, it would be bereft of meaning, only a sham.

In a few days, Ben wrote to say a necklace did show up, one with gold stars, but it wasn't mine.  I looked for a photograph to send him, but because I am not a selfie taker, and, frankly, dislike having my picture taken at all, it was difficult to come up with any.  Finally, my sister texted me one she had snapped in front of the Louvre last year (neither the museum nor I come out looking dignified, but at least the necklace shows clearly.  And,no, it won't appear here, though Mary Ellen looks good).

Meanwhile, my mind was undergoing a sea change, not unlike those transformers all the kids had to have a few decades ago.  Though I live only a block from where Jake is buried, I avoided that corner when I walked each morning, shamed by my carelessness.  It occurred to me that this might be some sort of sign.  He's been gone eight years last month, but maybe the universe was trying to point out that life with him had become, as Grace Paley wrote, a known closed book.  My sister, trying to salve my sorrow, reminded me that loss often means an opening to something else.  Like what?  Goodness knows, life has changed almost constantly these past years.  Haven't I changed enough with it?

When a week had gone by, hearing no more news, I briefly thought of filing for insurance, but I didn't dare open that can of psychological worms.   Money, or even a close replacement was useless; it wasn't, after all, so much the jewelry that was precious but that signature of a life.

Interestingly, my reading during the past week has been, first, Jill McCorkle's new book Hieroglyphics, about a couple whose lives were each founded on loss, and for whom such small leavings mean everything.  (The book comes on the heels of her Life after Life; my favorite of all of hers, it also, though in a different context, threads through the same theme.)  When I came to the last page, I reached automatically for one of Anne Tyler's to re-read.  Jill's stories and the telling of them always seem to me to share the same sensibilities as Tyler's, and three novels later, An Accidental Marriage closed beside meI lifted my head, now wrung out with late regret.

About now you may be saying to yourself, perhaps understandably impatient, "Yes, yes, how sad...but we do lose things, after all...one gets over it."  It's how I too kept thinking I should be thinking.

Should have been thinking, should be thinking still.  And yet...our losses return over and over in waves, no matter what the latest event that brings them forth.

I put aside Marriage, and picked up my phone, which, by the way, had been oddly silent the hours I was reading.  On it was a message from the Farm:  "Necklace", Ben had entitled it.  It had been sent an hour before, probably just when I had gotten to the point in the story where Michael, the husband of the couple, finally comes face to face with the now-grown child they had lost track of over 30 years before.  I don't think there is significance in that...only in the message that lay for an hour unreceived while I read it: Good morning.  I think my assistant manager, Seth, found your necklace.  Picture attached.

 "I'm on my way," I wrote back, grabbed my keys and headed to the Farm.

Seth, who, it turned out, was no longer at the pool, but at the grocery while his kids napped, told me the story of the find when we met in the parking lot.  He and his family had been leaving their swim session when his little one dropped the top of her sippy cup just outside the entry gate.  He leaned down to pick it up, and there, half buried in the gravel, he saw my necklace.  Unwilling to leave it at the desk, he put it in his pocket. "I'd been reading the emails about it," he said, "so I knew it was important to you."

I didn't know how to thank him...a nice dinner, I offered?  a gift? anything at all? I kept babbling my thanks over and over.  No, no, he repeated.  "I'm just glad to get it back to you."

In the car, I clicked the necklace on, still a little rough from its week in the gravel, and went shopping myself, every few minutes patting my neck where it lay like a security blanket.  Now, a day later, I seem to be traveling between the way things were before its loss and a different place I haven't figured out yet.  I'm relieved, of course, but what I am swimming in is much more complex than relief.

In the meantime, however, I am pretty sure I owe Seth's little girl something for dropping her sippy cup just where it could turn my day and my sense of where I am around.  Monday, I'll see to it.

And I am thinking that that loss and that find with all their reverberations would play good parts in either of those authors' novels, wouldn't they?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Whence art?

Good morning.  A little storm coming through has me comfortable, laptop in lap, eyes sliding from window screen (digital) to window screen (architectural) where I am watching the meditative drops and the slowly darkening sky.  It's an art in itself, the way rain, and indeed all weather, seems to provide the backdrop to what we are at any moment.  Watching this wetness, I ought to be talking about losses of this last week, but instead, I'm focusing on art, for there have been gains, too, in spite of that.

Elizabeth Matheson, porch at the inn in Hillsborough
In my view at the moment are two new pieces of my own and two recently acquired.  And then, the brown paper packet of art I have been carrying around all year, bought abroad and waiting for their time to be framed and hung.  Now, I decided, was the time. Though my wall space is limited, there will surely be a place for them, for they are the work of friends, new friends, two of whose work I have admired for years, so I suppose, in the language of art, they are actually old friends.  Knowing the person behind the art is like knowing a fuller story to be imagined.

It's like that triangle I used to teach my writing students:  The author/artist on one point drawn to an idea on another point and finally to a reader/observer on the third point.  All three form the meaning of the art, its beauty, its recurring vibrations.  Where art comes from and where it goes are all apiece.  (I suppose one could interpret that literally, too...how does an art change in essence from the artist's working bench to the museum wall to my wall?  But let's not go there right now...)

Last week, unhappy about doing yet another small art project, especially with all that friendly inspiration around me,  I looked up and noticed the original of that tree I painted for the head of "Ancestry" a few posts ago.  I liked it, but in that flat surface it seemed as unhappy as I.  Perhaps it deserved a new space, where it could incur renewed  meaning.  A tree is life, after all, growth, connection, protection. 

I cut a piece of linen, then with a tiny, sharp scissors cut the tree from its paper roots, and pasted it on the fabric.  From my pocket-stash of found things, I gave it a human connection...a swing hung from each side, with a ground of old metal beneath.  I added a cloud above, though, frankly, it seemed (and still seems) gratuitous.  l called it essentials.

Then what, I thought?  What is this all about?  Maybe this tree, after all a family tree in its origins, needed some words of its own to show me what it meant.  So I asked my sisters, aunt, cousin and nieces to answer a question:  what do they believe has kept them going throughout life?  I expected them to think a while on that, but only a few seconds after the text went out, the first answer arrived from my new niece Stephanie, expecting her first little one, and a minute or two later almost all of the rest tumbled out, sending my phone blinging away.  One more niece (she was on a conference call at the time) caught up soon after, and two more, whose phone numbers needed correcting, soon after that.  They seemed happy for the chance to step out of the ordinary and focus on an essential way of being.

Not only their quickness, but the astuteness of their responses amazed me, and the intra-chat among them, too.  Here is a family that knows what it is, I thought.  I typed their words out and hung them in long strips on the tree.  That's better, I thought.  And left it at that.

A few days later, though, there remained still a degree of uncomfortable flatness.  Besides which, as was mentioned once or twice, the words were difficult to read, being small and sidewise.  My niece Meredith liked them that way...inspiration and blessings come from both directions, she said, looking up for them and raining down.  We liked her take on it.  Still, I thought those words needed yet another airing.

Kathy Steinsberger, studio
Words, I thought...I guess I could put them in a book.  Immediately I began ruing the fact that this pandemic has prevented my dropping in on Kathy Steinsberger's studio, a place where art magnetizes you from every surface and the infinite varieties of books burst from every corner.

So each morning this past week found me (excitedly, I will admit, almost as if I were at Kathy's) choosing papers, measuring, cutting and sewing, clipping and arranging, pasting pages, words, covers.  While they dried and were pressed, I decided to ask the men in the family the same question.  A book, after all, can have as many pages as it needs to say what it means.

Interestingly (such a useful word), I had to wait a few minutes for the first reply, my nephew Tommy weighing in with his philosophy of a life's journey.  An hour later, my brother Frank sent in one word...a really good one.  A few days passed, and Jimmy, another nephew, sent his in, writing first that it was harder than it looked to decide what he lived on.  That's it...so far.  I'm still waiting.  But meanwhile, the book, put together, held well what held us together, what we lived on.  If there are more words forthcoming, they have a place there, too.

Next time, more about the art of friends...

Be well, all...please, please take care!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Old lives

Last week, my sister sent me a message that echoed back a decade ago.  "I was looking through my computer files," she wrote, "and found a copy of your novel from 2011!  I remember I really liked those characters.  I am going to read it again."  She wasn't sure she had the whole thing.  Would I look to see?

Well.  That set me into a quandary.  Where to find the original now, since the years hence have had me cleaning out and clearing at least four times, and the manuscript, done that many life changes ago, would pretty much be a stranger to me.

Fiction is not something I've done much of.  In all the words I have put on paper, only a few have been devoted to it, mostly in the guise of a family story, part of it (necessarily) imagined.  In fact, this story, too, began as one, told me by my husband Jake about his grandmother, a woman who had died fairly young and whom he hadn't much chance to know.  As family stories often do, this one had a mystery about it, mostly because it had been handed down in parts by different people at different times.

But it wasn't so much the story but the occasion which prompted my deciding to write from it...if, in fact, you could call it deciding.  One fall morning, Doris Schneider walked into the journal workshop at the library with a flier from New Bern arts festival literary contest.  New Bern is an old town about half an hour from Washington, where were were living then, like New Bern an old town on a river which used to be important.  There are many similarities of history, landscape, and social design.  But it also has its differences, particularly among the people who live there.

That, however, is beside the point.  Doris' point was that we should enter some of our work in the contest.  Doris was a novelist-in-training, one who has since shown her talent in print several times.  So it was not a surprise to hear her so interested in the contest.  But the rest of us were in the workshop for very different reasons, writing for ourselves primarily, reading to a closed and respectful group, so her flier didn't receive much enthusiasm.

I felt a little bad about that response, so I told Doris I would think about it.  There were separate contests for poetry, nonfiction, and fiction entries, and it would have been easy for me to turn in a poem or two.  But a few days before the deadline, I sat down with an image in my head for which poetry would not suffice...a young girl, running from home, hoping for a life outside the one slowly suffocating her.  It was the girl from Jake's grandmother's story.  To this day, I can't figure out why, at that moment, she came to me.

The limit of five-pages went quickly, because that image erupted into words from the first.  I turned it in, as Doris did her story, and another journal writer her poem.  In a few weeks, all three of us received a call indicating that we had won something.  New Bern might be the judges, but Washington was holding its own.  We were pleased with our success, and I, especially, was grateful for the remarks of one of the judges who sought me out.  "I really liked your work," he said, almost sotto voce, "I could see that girl, such an interesting character."

Not too long after that, there was a suggestion, I forget how, that perhaps I should keep her story going.  So, having nothing pressing to keep me literarily busy at the moment, I did.  All good fiction, said someone who knew what she was talking about, begins with a question, even if at first one thinks he/she has the answer.  The question now was obvious:  where did she go?  And then, What did she do?  Until, What became of her?

Like that first chapter, words rolled out into shapes of characters and plots, and what turned out to be an interesting historical setting...mill life in the thirties in a place changing character too swiftly, and not a little roughly.  More immediately, there was the setting of boarding house life, which has for a long time fascinated me anyway.

Jake, excited to be my guide, drove me all over his home town, filling in the facts of the town he knew so well:  who was who, who did what, where to find more.  He tagged along with me to two library archives where facts and photographs rose up like painted scenery behind her story.  I moved my girl, Anna Lee, up about thirty years ahead of her model's real time, to take advantage of the possibilities history presented, and also because, frankly, I couldn't envision the 1890's the way I could the 1930's.  I imagined houses, streets, buildings, roads and the faces of people whose lives could easily interject with hers.

Best of all, at the invitation of Jake's sweet cousins, we went to stay awhile in the old family cabin out in the county where, each day, I set up my laptop on the porch overlooking Stony Creek, and a new chapter a day bloomed.

Beyond some family and a few friends who know writing, I didn't send it out anywhere.  I think I wrote one publisher about it, but having no response, let it dangle. And then Jake died and the need for it died, too.  It went on the shelf, where a few other manuscripts lay collecting age.  To be honest, I am a person who, when she is finished with something...writing, painting, whatever...is done with it.  I don't care how it gets out into the world, or whether it ever does. 

So, that's the story of my story.  Now the trick would be finding that manuscript in one of a few stored closets, digging for some missing parts, and then, one Sunday afternoon, all afternoon, sitting down to read it again.  That turned out an adventure in itself.  Had I really written this, I kept asking myself?  The story was familiar, but the words...how did I ever think of those phrases?  Where did that fellow out of New Orleans by way of Brooklyn come from?  But obviously they were my inventions, some other mind ago.  Now, like a stranger reading a new book, I was looking with other eyes at that girl, and at all the others who crossed her path along the plot.  There were, in fact, numerous plots, for each character brought his or her own story into the fray, weaving in and out of the happenings and places to change their direction or import.  That was the fun of writing it.

I also found a few startling abscesses, for clearly not quite all the story had left my head for the black and white of the page.  There were misalliances and leaps of incredulity I hadn't seen from so close. (I think Wayne Caldwell, for one, tried to tell me something like that back then, bless him; now I see it.)  Still, I have to say, the story was in the main pretty good.

Eventually, I found that my sister was, indeed, missing a chapter, and promised to send it.  I also mentioned that it might be interesting to go back and see what I could do about revision, after all this time, even if it were just an exercise to help fill these virus-enclosed days, in the hours when art, reading, walking, and Alexander escape me.  Maybe the characters everyone seems to like deserve  not to stumble over their lives so.

I haven't got to it yet, but if I do, I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Waiting for Rain

Since we are socializing outdoors these days, the weather makes a strong play for whether a coffee, walk, lunch or dinner (suitably masked and/or distanced) will go on.  Storms gather to the south and east of us, one promising to take a name as a tropical depression.  So far, however, clouds split as they pass over our town, sparing not a drop for us.  It's been dry here, and the usual summer's heat has been intensified by oppressive humidity. After my walks each morning and each evening, I return home drenched.  We wouldn't mind the 87-90% clogging the air if a little ground-nourishing water went along with it, but the ground is about at the hard, cracked stage, and the gardens are drooping.  Joseph's new hydrangea looked desolate by Sunday.

A few minutes ago, though, a friend called to say that she thought her backyard dinner had better wait for another evening...the weather radar showed a rain heading our way. 

So we are waiting to see whether that green-yellow-orange system stalled over Georgia will reach us finally.  In the meantime, my friend Joanne kindly packed up her already-cooked meal to send me...we will dine each in our own homes, trying to imagine the conversation real presence might engender.

 That, I think, has been the most difficult thing about the sequestering this viral outbreak has necessitated.  With each new report of conditions, we try to squirm around changing parameters of safety, hoping for a chance to be among friends and family.  The late news that outside is safer than inside brings a lot of relief, at least to me...it means that even while I skirt the (amazingly, alarmingly) oblivious walkers and runners, who do not seem to have heard that masks and distance can save them (I am pretty sure they are not, as the song goes, thinking of me), the natural world of path and garden salves jitters, and there are plenty of alternate paths one can take to avoid trouble.

This morning, watching a mother and her toddler exploring an ant pile between bricks on the quad, or the woman with cane whose slow gait along one arboretum path led me to turn onto an alternate route, I thought about how, ordinarily, I would have stopped to have a chat with either or both.  One can wave across the distance, or smile from across the greenery, but there are now fewer possible real connections to people who share a shrimking world.

Joanne and I will find another way to catch up, and so will I with others I know.  But that woman with the cane (who, on any day when my knees are cranky, might be I) looked as if a conversation with anyone could bring her out of her funk.

And that's the trouble, right there.  We are all, no matter what our resources, waiting for rain...for the chance to join the community again, to be a part of the wider world.  Other parts of the world are opening, but farther beyond us than we can reach right now.  And some, open, are closing up again. We wonder how long this drought will last, even while we know that wondering is useless.

On the street, in the park and around the neighborhood, things are just the same. I come to the conclusion that I can do no more about others' social disregard than I can about the rain.  I carry a mask or an umbrella, spontaneously diversify my routes, and hope for the best.

But what's this?  As I am about to post this, I look outside, and suddenly I am running to catch
the first sign of relief!
Rain...at last...one wonders how long it will last.

Saturday, June 27, 2020


The other morning I woke up thinking about age...not so much feeling my age  (I don't think I have ever felt my age, so distorted my sense of it...sometimes being this old bemuses me; sometimes I feel 100), but calculating it in my head.  I figured, in three years I will be 78, and it came on me like a light from above that that pinpoint in time would be another major turning point in my life.

I don't know why that number arrived to draw that conclusion.  If I wanted to bring myself up short, I would think I'd be looking at 80 in five years (well, four and a half), or 90 in only fifteen.  But at the moment those don't daunt me the way that first sum did.  "70 is the new 40," I remember some rash-tongued article, probably from AAA, once hawked.  Right, I had rolled my eyes.  And the moon is made of blue cheese...or the wrinkled skin of those seventies.

Maybe the thought of age has been drifting toward me for longer than I realized.  A few weeks ago, a book I hadn't seen in years fell at my feet from the bottom of my bookshelf.  I had been digging around looking for one to read...since the library has been closed, I've been re-reading old ones, and, as you might expect, finding new ones in them.  I know I can go to the online catalog, choose a library book and then pick it up at the door at the appointed time, but, you know, I have rarely searched for a book that way.  I don't necessarily know what I want.  I need to be in among the shelves, deciding that today I would pick from the BA - CT shelves, or whatever, or go back to browse among the new book displays.  Even in the days of the card catalog, flipping among the cards found me more interesting things than what I could have opened those drawers intending to find.  (My friend Jim and I were, just recently, ruing the day the card catalogs disappeared.)

Anyway, so as I picked up the book that dropped, it opened to an unfamiliar page.  The artist figured in it, Marjorie Raeder Altenburg, mentioned thumb-printing a painting.  Or so I misread.  Hmm, I thought.  Maybe that is my inspiration for the day.  I put the book on my worktable, still opened to its self-selected page, and chose another book to read...I think it was Jessie Burton's The Muse.

Later, as I sat down to work on the small art I've been practicing these few months, I tried thumb-printing, pressing my thumb into the paint and designing a flower or two.  It didn't really work well...too confining.  Too regulated.  I never went back to it.   (Not that I regretted having tried it...Alexander might find it fun, or my grandnieces when they visit.)

But closing the book to put it away, I read again and realized my mistake:  the caption under the artist's work read,

I remember in art school they used to tell us to make these little thumbnail compositions.

Oh, right.  Thumbnail sketches.  I knew what they were. Something to get you started, to help you "plan" your painting. as my friend Nancy Collis used to suggest, looking at me in despair.  Back in the caption, the artist went on:

I never would get anything out of that.  Things keep shifting until I know exactly where it is supposed to go.  When it's there, it's there, and that's it....one thing suggests the next thing...I don't seem to be painting my paintings.  They just seem to happen.

No way I could misread that one.  It's the story of not only my painting but my life. Planning (though I have tried on a number of occasions) is not in my veins, or the paint on my brush.

Small art:  collage

Small art:  watercolor

Small art:  photograph
But here was an example of a cue that, on first reading, I missed.  And then there was the "fault" of misreading...how many times has that happened, times innumerable, perhaps, that went unnoticed?  Still, thumb-printing got me a flower or two.  Nothing wasted:  I turned the paper over and drew a map of the Luxembourg gardens.  Small art lets you do that.  These days I am reveling in the small.

I admit to getting a bit scatty about things...hearing broken in half; tongue disconnected from word-hoard; knees unable to take a 45-degree downward slope over wet cobblestones; mind deconstructing a lot of what I once knew for sure...  I'm not sure 78 will make a difference in that regard.

Misreading, misdirection, mistakes...I would prefer to think that they are not really about age but about a nudge from the unseen forces that lead us to an opening in the field we hadn't seen yet.  I am finding that out more and more these anti-viral days, in sometimes literal ways.

But I am planning a big celebration for that 78th birthday.  I'm not sure what it will be yet, but it will come to me when I am ready.  I know that for sure.  Perhaps you will join me?

Sunset, Saharan dust

Thursday, June 4, 2020


Branching out
I have been noticing the number of us who lent voices, small as each of ours is, to protest
the senseless violence igniting streets, cities, the whole country and beyond, and the meanness of the abhorrent, often officially condoned, disregard for human life that continues despite the many "laws" that proclaim our freedom from social and political discrimination.

That's a mouthful of words, I know.  Yet words are what seem to be at the base of the problem here:  what we speak is not really what we act on or presume.

We rail against injustice, as we rail against violence, and yet we rear children in the permissive arena of both.  Peace is a word still conjured up in the abstract, and thus undermined by a long history of ignorance...in all its meanings.  We seem to accept that condition without examination.

So after yesterday's controversial blackout, today I happened to turn on, quite by accident, a segment of a PBS show that I like...Henry Louis (Skip) Gates' "Finding Your Roots"...which unwinds the tangled histories of celebrities' families to find answers to the essential question, Where I Come From.  I am not much of a celebrity watcher.  What interests me is the search for roots and its process; the celebrities might as well be the rest of us, everyone (or everyman, in the old lingo), for their fame disintegrates in the face of the personal unveiling they undergo.  Learning it piece by piece, they are amazed, sometimes humbled, sometimes proud, feeling validated or undone, though always they seem to welcome the knowledge.  The puzzle of who they are, or at least part of it, has been solved.

Once a woman in my Journal Workshop nearly went mad when I assigned what I considered a basic cue.  "I can't do it!" she cried.  "Where I come from is too complicated!  It's too crazy!  It's too scary!"  She just about threw her notebook at me.  Okay, I told her.  You don't have to take hold of the huge long picture...just write about one incident in your life, and start from there.

The next week, she came back with a short poem about leaving her house in the morning for first grade.  Her mother would braid her hair carefully, and she, dressed in her favorite outfit--jeans and a cowboy shirt--would run out.  In the alley behind her house, she would undo the braids and shake her hair loose. "And then I am beautiful!" she wrote. When she came home for lunch, her mother would have made her favorite sandwich.  The girl (though she was writing as a woman of 60) then remembered, "Mother would be sad again.  We didn't talk about it.  We never did."

From that seminal version of where she came from, she eventually went on to stories of her family's past.  Growing up in West Texas, she was the granddaughter of a doctor who rode horseback from one patient to another.  Her predecessors had helped settle the west.   So her ancestry as she slowly unveiled it seemed richly entangled with the history of that part of the state, which by the time she wrote was still in many ways a frontier, albeit in a much more cosmopolitan way.

And yet, as everyone who listened to her realized, the most important and most terrifying part of her otherwise sweet poem was that last line..."we didn't talk about it."  The unknown of our histories begins in that very place.  What do we pass along, unrealized, when they don't?  What is it about us that we cannot put into words?

The same issue occurs on a larger scale, too:  the more cosmopolitan we become, the more our ancestries become unspoken.  They get lost in the thickets of entangled social mores, like the rabbit in the children's tale who knows few will dare to venture into such a dark, thorny place after him.  The thorns of discovery hurt, whatever the prize when we find it.

On this show, Gates was interviewing a couple, actors married to each other...famously, he pointed out, for nearly three decades.  Going through their separate histories to find their origins by family history, genealogy, and genetic searches, he and his staff, with the digging of local experts, came up with not only the stories of the generations that bore them, but also shed light...quite a bright light...on the eras those generations lived in and helped shape.  It was easy to do, as interestingly each actor had ties to the progenitors of this country.  Filling out the past beyond family stories, however, meant going into their ties to revolt and to slavery, in which each family had played some part.  (It's a theme that Gates favors, being an historian of some celebrity himself.)

Gates' teams' research led straight into the history of slavery in the North, specifically in New England on one side and in Quaker Pennsylvania on the other.  All the parties agreed that neither family nor learned history, in both actors' cases illustrious, brought that to light.  To make his point about what we learn and don't learn about ourselves as people and as a culture, Gates took his subject to a classroom at Boston Latin, not exactly in the lower echelon of schools and an historic entity in itself.  If you were living in eighteenth century America, he asked them, would you, like your other countrymen and -women, hold slaves?  The students' responses, Gates noted, were more intelligent and open than his own generation's might have been.  He admired that.  (These privileged students, of every race and color, were used to speaking out, of course, in so protected an environment...he didn't add that, but it leapt to the eye.)  Some of them, both black and white, said, yes, they would, because that would have been the norm then.  How they treated their slaves might, they hoped, be better... I leave that sentence hanging, as they did.

I wish Gates had asked them if, that day, that minute, they would fight against the slavery the world still supports.  The thing is, this isn't the latest segment of Gates' show.  I think it aired in 2010.  Have those students, or we, come any farther in self-discovery?

I mention all this because I am thinking back to words spoken and unspoken about where we come from and why we harbor, knowingly and unknowingly, openly and secretly, the prejudices we inherit and pass on, in our families as well as in our social groups, and just as terribly as a country.

I once took my father to task for using a slur at the dinner table, adding that I was glad my two young children weren't in hearing distance.  He looked at me with genuine astonishment.  "But that's just something we say," he said.  "Yes," I said,"but they will hear that that's who they are."

He apologized, of course, as genuinely as his astonishment.  I knew perfectly well by then that my father grew up in a rough, unprivileged time when every culture had its detractors and its slurs, slinging them at one another, hatefully, both in public spaces and in the very corners of private, hands-off places.  They were fighting words which built up barriers whose foundations had begun long ago and continue to be built up, no matter what words we use to counter, to overcome them. He lived through them, fought their consequences, took for himself the shield of toughness to resist their hurt.  We who live in social enclaves (autoclaved, I sometimes think these days) where we pretend they do not exist think we have risen above that.  Have we?  What, I wonder, have I, knowingly or not, inherited from my family's past or my own?

I wish that were not as pessimistic as it sounds.  I'm sorry.  I am pointing out that we still live in a country where hate and prejudice rule in high places as well as on the street, and in a time where resistance still has to be brought out into the streets to try to counter it because in high places it is still entrenched.  I suggest we need to bring that resistance home, too.

But while it is energizing to be against the destructive, how much more hopeful to be for our better selves by inserting acceptance, understanding, the assumption of human dignity in the place of isolation, of xenophobia, of tyranny, hoping against hope.  I would hope we would want to do more than hope; that we would work hard for the better.

Can we do that?  Are we willing?

I'd written this post already when this morning's walk brought me face to face with those very  questions:

The Tri-delta sorority house on Franklin Street...

...and its fraternal neighbor
Good for you!  I said in front of the Tri-deltas.  But I would have liked to see the same allegiance to "We will do better!" on their neighbor's front porch, too.

Monday, May 18, 2020


This morning, damp and gray after nearly a week of beautiful skies and breezes...a little hot the last two days maybe but still drawing me outside as much as I could...it seemed like a good time to stay in bed with a good book. Sleep has been broken these past nights...why I can't figure out; some reel of odd worries that certainly one can't deal with at two a.m. keeps playing and the button to shut them off remains elusive.

At the sound of others waking up in the house above, I picked up Mavis Gallant's From the Fifteenth District, a collection of short stories I'd owned since at least the 'eighties.  The night before, I'd finished Pagnol's My Father's Glory, a charming remembrance of his childhood in the south of France, but didn't feel like starting the nonetheless anticipated pleasure of his second half, My Mother's Castle, so soon.  So a hand to the bookshelf brought out the Gallant, also about that part of Europe but in the hard period during and after the war.  The contrast between the two couldn't be sharper, but the French film maker Pagnol's views are so artfully witty, that the interior tensions of the Canadian expatriate Gallant's were their own draw.

This is all the review of them I'm going to get into, I promise.  I'm just saying that I am in the mood these days to spend a lot of time imagining life, for better or worse, in the south of Europe with large dollops of Paris on the side.  (My read before Pagnol has been The Paris Hours, a novel by Alex George,  that filled that criterion topically if not as satisfying.)  If the world weren't so closed off, I'd probably get on a plane and head there now.

I wonder why, this minute, I feel that pull.  There are so many unknown places I have yet to explore. Certainement, I have loved my small trips to Paris and to Aix, to the Luberon and the southern coast, mais oui, absolument.  Watching a film last night, which happened to be subtitled in French, I found myself reading those phrases more than hearing the English...it startled me how that language was suddenly gelling after my years of clumsy trial.

I guess that in these days of at least partial isolation the pleasure of those freeing journeys outside oneself rise up not so much out of memory but out of sensual instinct.  You can hardly blame me for my wanderings that recall what my spirit seems to need right now.  That lovely painted cover of Gallant's book has me placing myself in it, the broad-brimmed-hatted woman at the cafe table, a wine in hand, waiting for nothing in particular. (I could, in fact, be outside on the terrace here among the roses with a glass of wine, my pink hat on the table, waiting for nothing in particular, but I am guessing it would be second best.)

Back in reality, there is still a lot of pleasure in this lovely small place...a kind of substitute, it occurred to me the other day, for that wonderful Aix Airbnb Mary Ellen and I stayed in last summer...

Also, I've been wandering over to put my hand to helping Joseph with his rock walls and terraces at the house.  (They remind me a lot of the Luberon.)

I'm not, I'm sorry to say, any use digging, discovering, rolling and placing boulders, but give me a plant to insert or leaves and ivy to remove or weeds to pull or branches to cut up for the dump, and there I am.  Poking around in the garden is one thing I have missed since I've taken up apartment life, so it's nice to have that chance to cultivate earth only a few blocks hence. And also to be a small part of the evolution of that nondescript front slope into something more definite than I could have imagined, though goodness knows I tried to while I lived there.

There's that word again:  so much of life nowadays seems lived at once in immediate need (for health, for safety, for supplies, for closeness) and in the imagination.

Reading, for me at least, takes on its own necessity.  This time it's not so much a good plot or interesting characters or fine language;  it's the sense of a certain place, one I could recognize in a stretch of recollection (to borrow from Wordsworth), or of wish, an other-world that I seek (and no, I don't mean alien life on Mars).  I want to travel again to the certain pleasure those former places retain for me.

What a difference from last year, when my imagined itinerary insisted on places I hadn't been before, places that would widen my knowing the world, footfall by footfall exploring.  The world still shrinks more and more, even when we can't get to it, but somehow it is the sense of, and the memory of, travel that I want to find between those pages these days.

Reading has after all been, since I was a child and first learned the power of placement words evoked, a kind of traveling out from wherever I was.  I could get lost somewhere and still come out again.  I could be someone, somewhere else if I wasn't easy with who or where I was.  (It's the same story a lot of readers would tell.) Here again, in a closed up world, I'm traveling through pages by necessity.  Or call it yearning, if you wish...you wouldn't be far off.

Ah.  I see I am rambling a bit.  Be well, all.