Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29, 2009

Tomorrow is my blog’s first birthday, and I’m giving myself a moment’s credit for sticking to it. When I made that initial entry I wasn’t sure if a writing project called a blog was something I could sustain interest in. It seemed so anonymous, so lonely, so potentially unrewarding. Would anybody read it? Would anyone respond? Was that even the point? I had no idea, really, what I wanted out of the endeavor beyond feeling a need to get some work out into the world that might otherwise live out its days in the solitude of my word-processing program.

A year later, I’m still not sure who reads the posts or when or where, but occasionally someone responds. These responses are often from former or current students and they always, always make me happy. Responses, including those from strangers, seem like authentic moments of connection – someone visited the site, read what I wrote, and took a few minutes to comment. It’s a simple gesture, but tonight, at 2 a.m. on a cold, snowy, fairly bleak night in Oswego, New York, I feel it as profound. Thank you to every person who has written a comment on the blog or via Facebook, that weird and wonderful forum for fleeting contact.

It’s been a difficult year for many of my students, some of my family, and a few of my dear friends – many have struggled on the employment front, some have lost family members, suffered serious illness, contended with other private hardship. Each has taught me something about courage and resilience and faith. When I lived in Arizona, I’d often be awake at this hour, and I’d stand in my doorway and look out at the stars and the desert and wish to be back home, in the east, where it seemed like the lives of my friends were unfolding smoothly and joyfully and without me. It seemed like the loneliest time and place in the world… Now, when I’m awake and looking out at a different but equally beautiful landscape, I think of my friends asleep in the southwest, and recognize that I will always feel some degree of wanderlust and regret, some degree of what if and if only. It is my nature – perhaps a common nature – to want something other than what I have. But tonight I acknowledge and feel grateful to my bones for precisely that – for what I have.

We had an unseasonably warm day this week – it almost hit 40 – and the morning brought waves of increasing fog. My camera was jammed and I lamented that something so beautiful would go undocumented. Out of desperation I smacked the camera on the heel of my hand and it suddenly clicked into action. When I went outside to catch the light, the thinnest and most invisible sheen of ice covered every surface and I slipped on literally my first step. My right hand slammed against a wooden post, giving rise to an immediate welt. My left leg crashed into a step – a second bruise. My spine, already in less-than-perfect shape, felt like it torqued, twisted from left to right and from top to bottom. It was, in other words, not a graceful slip and I stood silently in place, trying to catch my breath, hoping I hadn’t broken my hand, hoping I hadn’t further aggravated my back, glad I hadn’t dropped the camera. I walked slowly to a level spot in the yard and began to take some shots. The effort rewarded me with some spooky and evocative photographs and, admittedly, a very sore back.

I’m posting one of the shots, above, because 2009 has been a year that will be remembered for its hardships, but hopefully, too, for its art.

Looking forward to more light, more beauty. Looking forward to peace and safety, especially for my brother and the other men and women who are, have been, or will be serving in the military, taking part in a war that we often seem happy to forget. Looking forward to healthy recoveries for my friends and family, and hoping that everyone who wants a job finds one. Looking forward to more art of every kind, including the beautiful and heartfelt poems & essays offered up by my students, the funny and creative notes on Facebook, the occasional cherished handwritten letter that arrives in the mail. Every word matters.

Peace in 2010, my friends. Thank you for visiting.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter, Ridge Road

A crow cawls across the ridge.

Snow tips from ten thousand limbs.

Some falls up, the way

ash ascends a flue.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ladybug Riff

Here in Oswego, it’s unseasonably warm. High 50’s, slightly chilly despite the white wafer of the sun, which is making its descent behind the bare trees across the road. I like being chilled, I like unseasonably warm weather in November. I like, in fact, November. It rhymes with remember. Which rhymes with December. Which is a sentence fragment.

When I was a kid, I disliked the word “chilly,” which seemed, to me, like a grown-up word. I didn’t like the word “woman” for the same reason. Only adults used words like chilly and woman. Kids said cold and lady. I found it unlikely that I would someday become a woman, and slightly disturbing that I had no choice in the matter. It seemed unfair that circumstances beyond my control could dictate my destiny. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a boy. But I hadn’t been asked. I wanted an option. I wanted a say.

The option, alas, was nonexistent, and now here I am, both a woman and chilly. Using both words with ease. Having my say. Doing all sorts of unexpected things – things I never thought I’d do – including using sentence fragments with abandon.

I was sitting outside on the deck, reading, trying to appreciate what might be one of our last temperate days for a while. A ladybug landed on my knuckle. She climbed over my grandmother’s diamond ring, which I wear on the middle finger of my right hand, then hurried over my ring finger. I held her up to my eye so I could get a good look at her. (The ladybug, apparently, also has no say in determining gender.) She took determined but graceful steps – an expert knuckle navigator. She paused, accommodating my scrutiny, then stretched her wings for a second, as though performing. I smiled. The bug flew.

Next door, the neighbor is riding a mower with a degree of recklessness that I’ve learned is customary during this endeavor. Every twenty seconds or so the blades hit a rock or a branch and it sounds like a shot ringing out. He just keeps going, high speed, more interested in completing the task than in doing it well. In his real life, he does fine, precise work. He’s a craftsman. But when it comes to this chore, he’s like a drunken cowboy.

I’ve been trying to find a new way of concluding these writings, these pieces, as I call them. Seems like I always turn reverent, always feel a little moment of what I have to call holiness, or awe, at the conclusion. I think it’s related to another inclination – wanting to say, when I finish writing, thank you. I’ve never really known who I was thanking, but the urge persists. I think we have to break our own habits though, periodically try to do something new, something unexpected. I could, for instance, ask a profound or pseudo-profound question. I could make a timely although possibly suspect observation, like “the neighbor just literally yelled yeeeehaaaa when he hit a rock.”

Or I can wait it out long enough that I get lucky: Inside my shirt, like a shiver, a ladybug is hiking up my cleavage. I tent the collar – – freedom.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

No Mask

Awake on Halloween morning at 4 a.m. Head downstairs in the dark to feed the cat, barefoot, half-clad, then pause on the landing on the way back to bed. The moon is setting in a hazy sky behind the western trees. Normally it wouldn’t be visible at this point in its circuit, but on the last day of October most of the trees are shorn. Rather than impenetrable woods, I see what looks like a loosely milling crowd – a crowd of trees. There are breaks between the cherry and maple and pine and locust, and in one of those gaps the moon shivers in its last silvery moments.

I, too, shiver, although the night air holds no real chill and the date itself carries no superstitious weight. The traditions of Halloween mean nothing to me, but October 31st feels important because it signifies, locally and unofficially, the beginning of winter. We’ve been fortunate to see no snow flurries yet, but it’s just a matter of time, and that awareness feels more foreboding than any collection of ghosts or goblins. The house seems to shudder, too -- a function of the wind, which hits in waves. I feel a draft whistle through the big picture window, which seems as good an indicator as any that I should go back to sleep.

Three hours later it’s a more reasonable version of morning. That is, we have some light. The sun is rising beyond the eastern trees and, because they’re at a greater distance than those in the west, there’s no observable glow behind what appears to be a dense, black ridge, an arboreal wall. I know the sun will rise soon only because it has risen in the morning for the last 50 years of my life. It’s the kind of quotidian faith I take comfort in, a reliability not always offered by the natural world or, for that matter, our human world.

The wind is still loud, still rattling trees and shaking the house in intervals. It’s a southern wind, and the air is mild, but the mildness is misleading. The wind packs a wallop and has ripped most of the leaves from the trees. They lay in heaps, almost neatly, as though some neighborhood handyman tried to impose order on chaos. The tenacious few that remain look like umbrellas inverted in a gale, or squash blossoms oddly placed on high rather than trailing on garden vines.

As though to support the mildness of the air and contradict the persistent bullying of the wind, we have what I like to call a Rothko sky. Distinct bands of red and russet and gold swipe long swaths across my field of vision. Fall colors on the ground, fall colors in the sky. In the distance, the composition appears calm and dignified. Close up, in the yard, a gust hits the cherry trees with such force their branches extend in a horizontal choreography. The yellow and green and orange-tinged leaves whip sideways, making them look like a school of fluorescent fish shimmying in place.

I have many hours of work ahead of me, and no reason to think of costumes and masks, no reason, really, to be concerned with weather or seasons or the swiftly ticking clock. Around me I see the naked world, an undisguised world, and that world offers, today, both the elegance and embellishment of an abandoned cathedral. If I thought someone might hear, I might say amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lip of the V

Yesterday at dusk a deer walked through the yard. For two seconds, we made eye contact. The deer posed, body facing away, head turned toward me. “Be careful, baby,” I said, quietly. She had just crossed the road, and I was referring to cars, and hunters.

This morning I went outside and scanned the vicinity, visually tracing her path. We live on a ridge, which means she’d climbed uphill. She may have begun at the base of the ridge, where a small stream has carved a trajectory through stands of maple and cherry trees and knots of underbrush. I’ve seen other deer there, sipping clean water or, having heard the retort of a hunter’s gun, standing stock-still. Hunters aren’t allowed in the area, but posted bans are rarely enforced. One day I watched a deer stand unmoving for over 30 minutes. I needed binoculars to see to the base of the ridge, where she stood, and I got tired of holding them to my eyes. Every ten minutes or so I’d go back and check – the deer did not relent. Her life depended on her stillness – she’d heard or smelled a human being, a hunter – and, in a way, I suppose mine depended on my ability to look away. Had I continued to observe, had the deer been spotted by the hunter and taken down, I think I’d have had to move, to permanently leave this place I love so much.

I’ve lived in several locales that have been appealing to hunters, and there have been a few times I’ve worried that I would accidentally become a target. Even now, when I wander into the yard, I try to remember to wear something bright, colorful. More often than not, however, I realize upon returning indoors that I’ve been clad in earth tones, moving slowly, potentially mistakable for a creature not human. Generally, when I hear gunshots, I stay inside.

This morning, however, there were no shots. It’s a perfect October day, and the trees that bank the ridge have mostly lost their leaves. A few retain some color, so amid the vertical scribbles of brown and gray branches are a few swaths of yellow and red and orange. It’s an austere landscape: a radical slope, thousands of trees leading down to the creek, thousands of trees leading up the other side of the ridge. I feel like I live on one lip of a giant V, the house built into the ridge, trees our nearest enduring neighbors. Among those trees, deer slip. Occasionally one makes the climb up through our yard, and it is always uncanny and memorable. Unlike the wild turkeys, who are skittish, or the sleek foxes, who seem single-mindedly intent on reaching a distant destination, a deer will stop for a moment if it’s not in pursuit or being pursued. Standing among trees, in silence, nobody around but the deer – it’s a sublime and nearly inexplicable experience, though not uncommon. I’ve been within an arm’s length of a deer in the woods; during the few seconds in which both parties are startled into motionless observance, something occurs. It might be no more complex an occurrence than seeing – we see each other. It feels like authentic recognition. And then the deer disappears.

Despite their majesty, I’m aware that plenty of neighbors view deer as pests. The animals will happily munch on carefully tended gardens, and they’ve been known to smash right through sliding glass doors or windows and destroy a room or two in the ensuing panic. In places where deer are particularly abundant, they create a driving hazard. Hitting a deer means, often, totaling one’s car. It also usually means killing the deer. We’ll see them lying alongside roadways, as ordinary and ubiquitous as sheds or hay bales. Sometimes they look like they’re sleeping; other times their heads are angled crazily, dark eyes open wide like entryways to some other world. There might be skid marks where a driver tried to veer. Usually, however, there’s no sign of what happened beyond the relic of the animal. Whatever the human cost, it has been tended. The deer is left behind, exposed, vulnerable to scavenger birds, awaiting an official removal vehicle which may or may not arrive in a timely manner. Deer are left to rot, I’m saying. We overlook them.

Sometimes I wonder what happens to these creatures we brush up against. The turkey egg we found in the spring – kept it for a day, then replaced it in the garden where it had been discovered – just disappeared. I’ve read that turkeys will retrieve temporarily abandoned eggs – is that what happened? If so, did the poult survive? Is it among the rafter I see just about every morning, their giant bodies shining in the rain? And what became of the tiny snapping turtle I found on the front steps? I named it Bucket, after Charlie Bucket in Roald Dahl’s novel of poverty and discovery. As with the turkey egg, I’d previously found a turtle egg on the lawn. It looked like a punctured ping pong ball. We’d found a mature snapper in the yard as well – it was wider than a dinner plate, and Leigh had picked it up and held it away from her body, half jogging and half praying that she could relocate it down on the ridge before it amputated one of her fingers. Was Bucket an offspring of that turtle, had my tiny snapper been borne of that ping pong ball egg? Did it survive even an hour beyond the time I saw it, or did something bigger and hungrier make a snack of the turtle?

And what will become of yesterday’s deer? Will a rogue hunter take her down? Will I spy her through my binoculars this winter, standing like a statue near the frozen stream, picking her way through brambles and fallen limbs? We live in a dangerous, marvelous world, and one of its frustrations may be that we must live with questions like these. I find it difficult, at times, to not know the answers, to have no way of finding out the answers. Not everything can be researched, not everything can be discovered. Maybe that’s why we have dreams – I dream of animals as much as I dream of people, or planets, or structures. And maybe that explains the sightings. I don’t encounter ghosts of old companions or ancestors; I’ve never seen nor would care to see a human ghost. I am skeptical, deeply so, of those who claim to have had visions of the dead, conversations with the dead, interactions of any kind with the dead. I’m not much inclined toward the supernatural or even the merely spooky. But frequently, very frequently, I see deer ghosts darting across the road. I’ve seen the ghosts of bears, too, lumbering into the density of the woods. And for every creature I’ve actually seen – seen the flesh of them, the beak and hoof and feather and scale and fur of them – I’ve also heard phantom calls in the night. They’re out there, I’m certain, I sense them. Maybe they’re real sounds, legitimate sounds, maybe they’re explainable and tangible sights… Maybe it’s just one part of my brain trying to comfort another part…

Among us creatures there are many languages. And I hear them, and I see the shadows and the sources. And I take note.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Saturation of Rain

We are on the cusp of October, my favorite month. But September wants its full due, and rain is the name of the game this week as we trickle out its last few days. “Trickle” is nearly literal, although a bit of an understatement -- we’ve been sequestered under gray skies, the steady rhythm of rain providing consoling background music. I’m not given to romanticizing the rain -- as much as I enjoy the way it sounds, I become anxious when I feel quarantined, annoyed at having to deal with the weather, peeved that I and my students will get drenched walking from building to building on the way to school and then sit shivering through class. I try to keep my moodiness at bay by succumbing to the cardboardy patter of drops on the broad-leafed hostas outside my window. I hear splatter on the stone walls and driveway, and the quiet brush of cascading raindrops through the leaves of the trees. I enjoy these sounds. They appease me.

This morning, the leaves are falling haphazardly. Most are green and still attached to the dozens of maples and cherries and locusts in the yard, but a significant smattering litters the surroundings. Our neighbors -– who may actually perceive leaves as litter -- were outside the other day, on the roof of their house, determinedly sweeping the leaves. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said “they do know that more will fall, right?” They do indeed, but a percentage of the local population has low tolerance for the drifts of color that will accumulate over the next month or so, and they make it a priority to remove the leaves as soon as possible. Sweeping the roof seems obsessive, to be sure, but perhaps no more so than Leigh’s behavior. She picks the leaves up one by one as they land on our deck. She only does this when they first began to fall, and I think it’s her way of stalling the season. It’s not that she doesn’t like autumn… it’s that she knows -- we all know, here in Oswego -- that no matter how beautiful fall is, it is a harbinger for winter. There is, perhaps, an understandable degree of denial in our approach to the descent of the leaves.

One neighbor has no patience for the sissy endeavors of hand-removal or sweeping. He utilizes a leaf blower, a primitive, tube-like contraption that exists for the sole purpose defined in its name: it blows leaves. It blows them from one place to another – from, say, the left side of the driveway to the right. It does this quickly, dramatically, and at a decibel level designed to incite ire in all who hear it. I must compare it unfavorably to the time-proven efficacy of the rake, which may require more physical labor, may produce unwanted blisters and shoulder soreness, but is blessedly quiet. I appreciate the simple design of the rake, as well as the rakish sound of its name. If I were to be reincarnated as a garden tool, I might choose the rake.

The longer it rains -– we’re only on Day 3, with five or six more forecast -– the more leaves come down. On the lawn, there’s a roughly even ratio, leaves to grass, 50-50. Soggy leaves have accumulated on the plates of the hostas, like wet dollar bills in a church collection basket. The deck looks like a shiny brown rug with an embossed leafy pattern, and the driveway is a long swath of black scarf embroidered with golden leaves. The other day I mistook a tiny snapping turtle for a leaf. I almost stepped on it, but part of it lifted in an unleaf-like way and I noticed it was a turtle head, black and blinking and the size of my smallest finger’s smallest joint. Tiny frogs, too, come out to enjoy the precipitation. They are all but camouflaged by the green and yellow leaves, splotchy with brown spots, plastered to the front steps. I have to be careful where I walk. Everything’s a little slippery, but worse than slipping would be to squash a frog or accidentally kick a snapper.

There was a year –- I was in my early 20’s, I think –- where I found it difficult to step on fallen leaves. I was feeling pretty fragile myself, and I didn’t so much anthropomorphosize the leaves as project myself into them. I didn’t imagine, in other words, the leaves as human or human-like… I saw them precisely as me. We were the same, shared a soul, and I didn’t want to feel stepped on. So I walked to school in a carefully zig-zagged pattern, a kind of stagger that made me appear drunk but which I executed while entirely sober. I lived on a wide, tree-lined street, but I didn’t knock leaves out of my way. I didn’t skip through piles of leaves collected near the curb or enjoy the crunch of leaves beneath my boots or behave, I suppose, in any sort of normal ambulatory way. But I loved those leaves, and I protected them, and I managed to negotiate the season without feeling overly damaged myself.

Today, perhaps in a similarly nutty way, the leaves look to me like broken birds. All across the yard, up and down the ridge, I see splayed, winged bodies. The rain has made the leaves’ colors ultra-vibrant, and their positioning seems open to the sky, as though they fell not from the trees but the heavens and are now in the posture of supplication or release. One maple leaf has landed in a thick pillow of ivy. It was a good life, it whispers. Its red arms shine and its body glistens against the deep lime-green leaves of the ivy. Thank you, it says. Thank you.

No, I don’t romanticize the rain.

I come by my dreaminess naturally; my mother claims to have loved taking us outside, as kids, and playing in puddles as it rained. I have no recollection of this activity, but she is so delighted when she recalls these occasions that I merely smile and nod. I can almost picture us out there, me in a pink polka dot top and striped shorts, my sisters and brothers similarly and goofily attired. We’re doing funny dances in the rain, we’re splashing each other. My mother looks so happy. The neighbors point from behind their curtains, and when my father gets home from work he hugs us all even though we’re soaked.

I do remember that later, as a teenager, I liked to run in the rain. I also liked to run in the dark, so after nightfall I’d grab a windbreaker and head out to the hills of our safe, suburban neighborhood. Jogging was the craze, but I never saw another soul running in a downpour. The streets would be slick and saturated, as black as crow’s wings, and I loved how the rain felt on my skin. There was something athletic and noble about braving the elements, alone, in the dark. It was good training, perhaps, for the writing life.

My favorite memory of rain occurred in the most unlikely place: the desert. I had arranged to meet my brother and his family for dinner. He had three small children at the time, boys of 7 and 5 and their younger sister. I hadn’t seen the kids in a while and they were only visiting Tucson for the day. I arrived at the restaurant in the midst of a serious thunder storm; it was the kind where lightning would scratch its way across the sky like a witch’s fingers, illuminating every needle on every cactus and causing the air to crackle. Two seconds later there’d be a crash so loud I’d levitate. I waited right inside the glass doors of the restaurant and finally saw my brother and his wife, headlights sweeping the parking lot, kids squirming in the back. They pulled up as close as they could, I stepped outside and waved nervously, the side door of the van slid open. My niece jumped out and ran as fast as she could, leaping into my arms. I spun her around and kissed her and hustled her inside the door just in time to see the 5-year old take a wary look at the sky, inhale, and charge toward me. I did the same thing – caught him, lifted him up laughing, got him safely inside. Now only my nephew Christopher was left standing in the doorway of the car, beaming. Maybe because he was older and we’d known each other longer, he’d been a little more lonely for me lately, and I for him. “Aunt Donna, here I come,” he yelled, and I braced myself. He was a tiny, tan kid wearing sneakers and shorts, and he darted through the rain as lightning skimmed the mountains and buzzed the valley and his body hit me square on exactly as the thunder cracked. Ka…boom! The impact rocked me on my heels but I held that boy to my heart and spun in the rain until we were soaked to the skin. There were no autumn leaves for hundreds of miles, but my eyes were filled with brilliant color.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Last Sunday

There’s one Sunday every year that breaks my heart. It’s the last Sunday of the summer, and here in Oswego it’s often a sunny day, the kind described as cool and crisp, the kind described as brilliant. The sky is blue, the clouds – if there are any clouds – are swift-moving. Because it’s already more fall than summer, I can smell wood smoke in the air. Although the leaves this year have barely begun to change color, there are drifts of dry browns and yellows and a few oranges already on the driveway and the deck, collecting up against the rock walls and lining the road. Fargo, my cat, who goes outside for approximately three minutes every morning, has learned that if she steps on one it’s okay, it won’t bite her. It’s this particular Sunday, every year, that fills me with emotions I can’t entirely identify, although there’s some percentage of yearning, of longing, some percentage of simple sadness, maybe some not-so-simple regret. There’s a whole pharmacy of unnamed feeling in me today, and it’s not because of summer or wood smoke or dry leaves. It’s because of the geese.

They’re leaving. Great lines of them – some in aerodynamic V-formation, some in straight lines, some in patterns that might best be described as disorganized, a few in couples or straggling solo – fly directly over our house on their way south. “South” is relative; some geese head for Florida or Texas, but some are content to rest in southern New York or Pennsylvania. Plenty over-winter here in Oswego which is, technically, south for the Canada goose.

There are days when hundreds, even thousands fly their routes, and I’ll hear them in ten or twenty minute intervals. On this, the last Sunday of summer, I’ll go outside every time they pass. I look up, I scan the sky. There are so many leaves still on the trees this year that it’s hard to spot the birds; their calls echo off the ridge we live on and I can’t tell which way to look. Eventually though they’re right overhead in a big open patch of sky. This morning the sun was rising when I heard the first group and the bodies of the geese were lit from below and shone. It was an orderly contingent, row after row of V’s, like a parade, and although there were probably only two hundred their calls echoed for several minutes, bouncing off the ridge and back, as though the sky were full, for miles, of honking birds. Closer to earth, the local birds were more active than usual. I don’t know if they’re agitated or inspired by the calls of the geese, or if they hear them at all. But the trees were being stitched, it seemed, by dozens of robins and cardinals and the occasional crow. Seeds from the black cherry tree fell like rain drops – I could see them being released, landing in the grass, bouncing off the garage roof – and on the driveway I found a composition that included two red feathers, hundreds of maple leaves, and small round white cherry stones that looked like punctuation.

Every summer, on this Sunday, I wonder what it is exactly that calls to me when those geese head south. I have felt it since girlhood, feel it only when I hear the geese in autumn or when I stand at the edge of the sea. Maybe it’s some combination of mortality and urgency. Maybe it’s just the recognition of beauty.

Maybe someday I will categorize every subtlety of longing and gratitude that I can isolate. But today, I listen to the geese. I go outside, I look up. And they are there.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September Sun

September 1st, and I’m sitting against a fencepost in the yard, soaking up some sun. I never do this – although I’ve bunched a jacket beneath me and propped a pillow at my back, I’m not particularly comfortable. Nor do I enjoy sunbathing – it’s too hot for me, usually, and unless I’m at the ocean I get bored almost instantly. But today it’s partly cloudy, so the heat isn’t an issue. There’s a sweet breeze – literally sweet; I can smell it – and the fact that it’s suddenly September adds a bittersweetness to the mix, an urgency that I heed. We won’t have many more days like this and, even if we do, classes have begun and my time is limited. And so I’ve assembled this makeshift chair and rolled up my t-shirt sleeves so I can feel the brush of a burn on my shoulders. My feet are bare and I’ve abandoned my sunglasses – these rays are meant to reach me.

Our neighborhood is a quiet one. No such thing as traffic out here – I think I’ve counted 2 or 3 cars at most in the last hour. Someone out of sight is making a small racket. Sounds like he’s hammering a metal post – a rhythmic, ringing series of clangs and clanks – but it’s far enough away that I don’t mind. A neighbor kid is clearing some messy growth from our backyard. Leigh hired him to machete an area that has become a tangle. It’s not really the backyard… more like the back of the backyard, a nondescript area that separates the tamed lawn from the untamed ridge. Beyond this intermediate zone is the heavily wooded slope I refer to as “the jungle.” It’s really just an extensive, thick stand of mature trees and underbrush. I find it a little funny that Leigh’s having the margin cleared – she wants to improve the view. To me, the view can be summarized in a word: green. But where I see green – shapes and sizes, versions and varieties, tones and shades of green, yes, but in the end, just a mishmashed canvas of green – Leigh sees fern and wildflower and shrub and poison ivy and maple saplings. I think she’s needlessly shaving off a layer of green in order to appreciate another layer of green, but it makes her happy to open up the yard to the wider world, and it makes the neighbor boy happy to have a pocketful of twenties, so why protest.

Thirty yards upridge from his efforts, more in the front yard than the back, I’m surrounded by buzzing and chirping and rustling. There’s an aural intelligence to these acres, I’m sure of it. The overlapping sounds of the wind, the chipmunks’ persistent, cranky cheeping and trilling, the yellowjackets and wasps that whizz by but rarely bother – it’s complex but accessible music. Visually, too, there’s composition everywhere. In the grain of wood where I sit, in the fringe of grass which is really ten kinds of grass and clover and weed and moss and another dozen things I can’t identify. I’m a little in love with the nail heads visible in the wood planking of the walkway. You’d call them round, and flat, but not a one truly is. Each has an irregular perimeter – rightly call them roughly round, or roundish…And they’re grooved, some of them, or appear embossed. It’s possible I’m the first person to closely examine these particular nail heads, and I feel as content as an explorer who’s stumbled upon some new species of tortoise. Some of these nail heads look like tortoise shells, actually…

The breeze picks up and brings me back to my senses; it’s almost like I can feel the wind through my skin. Along the driveway, a stretch of dried grass, fallen leaves, and gently curved twigs is disturbed by a low-flying current. It’s like a leafy chorus line – the whole strip rises up and tumbles and flutters – but it’s a chorus line with no stamina. As quickly as it kicked up, it dies down.

The post I’ve been leaning my head against is embroidered on either side with spider webs. A couple of butterflies flit by, and two hummingbirds parry, battling for rights to the feeder. A big tree groans, the neighbor continues to hammer. The boy’s still hacking at the underbrush – every so often he exclaims from the effort. The sun’s become hotter and the clouds have dissipated. I’m sweaty and happy and – despite what I know to be pervasive suffering, near and far, despite what I know to be fear and loneliness approaching those I love – for this hour in the September sun, I have been sated.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eat a Peach

I have a thing for peaches. I love them. In the morning, with my cereal, I slice them up and have them for breakfast. My slicing method is precise and never varies. I wash the peach, and I am like a parent giving a child a bath. Firm, but gentle. It’s important to rub closely around the dimple at the top of the peach, where the stem was attached. Sometimes a little nub is still there, like what’s left of a baby’s umbilical cord in those first days or weeks of infancy. I use my thumb to knock it off, and it falls into the dish drain, which I clean as rarely as possible. I don’t like the sliminess of it. Those little translucent slivers of onion, spaghetti worms, thumbnail-sized specks of broccoli or garlic – it makes me queasy to look at them and more queasy to touch them. But that is a bad habit, my reluctance to clean the drain, and I’m trying to describe a good habit, this washing and slicing and eating of a peach. After I knock the stem stub off, I pay special attention to the prime meridian as I call it, which is that equator-like line that transverses a peach. It starts out as an indentation, near the stem, but often becomes convex as you follow it around the body of the fruit. I try to scrub out the indented part, in case any dirt or germs or chemicals – pesticides – are lodged in there. Sometimes I think microscopic insect eggs could hide in that spot, or even, say, the dismembered leg of a mosquito. It’s important, I’m saying, to be thorough.

Once I’ve covered the trouble spots, I rub the globe with my fingertips, almost as though I’m trying to rub off the fuzz. I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the fuzz. Food, I think, probably shouldn’t be fuzzy. But if I give it about 30 seconds worth of fingertip massage, the fuzz is either removed, or slicked down sufficiently to appear gone, which is good enough for me.

I use a paring knife to cut the peach, which might be one of the few times I use a gadget for its actual purpose. Well, technically, now that I think about it, I’m not actually paring the peach. I don’t peel it. Since the fuzz has been matted down, I eat the skin along with the flesh. I don’t ever think of it as skin and flesh, however, as that might make me even queasier than the remnants of old food in the sink drain. So it’s not paring I do with the paring knife, but simple, precise slicing. I start at the stem and follow the line of demarcation – what would be, on an actual globe, the equivalent of the prime meridian –around the body of the fruit, slicing deep enough that the edge of the knife blade hits the peach stone. Once the blade hits the pit, it is very easy to smoothly rotate the fruit in the palm of my hand, keeping the knife firmly pressed against the pit. When the incision meets up with itself at the stem, I lay the knife down and take the peach in both my hands, giving a gentle twist. The fruit opens into halves, one of which cradles the red, pocked pit. That part is temporarily put aside, and I devote my full attention to half number 1, which is quickly divided into equal slices – one, two, three, four. Each of those slices is then divided into 3 or 4 bite-sized pieces. Those pieces are placed on top of the waiting bowl of cereal. The milk has not yet been added so as to avoid sogginess.

Half number 2 takes slightly more care, due to the presence of the pit, but essentially the same procedure is followed. Often one last slice will continue to cling to the pit; at that point, a slight tug will dislodge it and the slices can be trimmed to their appropriate size and -- somewhat more carefully -- added to the growing heap of cereal and fruit in the bowl. If the peach is large enough, two additional steps may be required. First, several sections of peach may need to be eaten during the process of composing the bowl. Second, in securing proper placement of the peach pieces, one might recall the maneuvers involved in the game Tetris, and attempt to strategically place the pieces to ensure that no peach topples from the bowl. Such toppling is not tragic, but should a piece hit the floor it is lost and must be disposed of -- I am not a believer in the "5-second rule," especially when it comes to fruit. The lost peach must be relegated to the trash or thrown out the back door to join the unofficial compost heap located, roughly, 20 yards over the ridge that borders the backyard. The proper way of introducing the peach to the compost is by flinging it, although flinging a bite-sized piece of fruit is considerably less satisfying than flinging, say, an old egg or overly ripe avocado. Bananas, too, are quite satisfying as they produce the illusion of a boomerang effect. They do not actually circle around, but one could imagine they might if one knew precisely the right speed and angle with which to throw it.

Once the peaches have been arranged atop the cereal heap, milk is added and eating commences. I try to ensure that every spoonful of cereal is mated with a piece of peach. Depending on the initial size of the peach, this may be possible, but often one runs out of fruit at about the 75% point and finishing up one’s breakfast can become a slightly bleak affair. It is important, on those mornings, to maintain perspective and not allow one’s spirits to sink over the loss of peach.

There are, after all, fresh tomatoes for lunch.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where in the World

This isn't a new piece. Just lonely for my friends and ruing the end of summer. Enjoy.

Light catches the paddle of a weed. A hummingbird perches on a low branch of shrub outside my window. The blue spruce, which worried us in the spring with its sagging lower limbs and dried needles, no longer languishes. The open arms of the tree take a hit during our long winters; it’s as though the limbs attempt to hold up the snow, a heavy burden that collects on its boughs and causes them to droop. By summer, however, the tree has rebounded and its glaucous needles are gloriously blue, its branches sheltering a few sun-struck weeds and a smattering of grass below.

Early summer is dreamy here on the shores of Lake Ontario. The peonies are still flamboyant, although defeated, their pink petals accumulating like lingerie in the ivy. The irises, similarly, have shed their labial purple petals and are morphing into papery brown husks. A few flowers linger on the bleeding heart, but they, too, are getting in their last licks. The new stars of the yard will be the roses and the hydrangea, the latter of which will persist into fall.

It’s summer, and my friends are gone. My human friends, I mean, not these flower and avian acquaintances who are delightful, for sure, but harbor the quality of substitute. In summer, my friends visit other shores; they travel, they vacation. I’m not quite as ambitious as Emerson, who said he’d walk a hundred miles for a good conversation, but I do crave contact when they’re are gone. That’s probably why I watch the hummingbirds, listen for the zipper sound of their arrival, a sound that becomes the background noise of my days, as though the buzz of their wings is always right at my shoulder. They like the nectar I’ve mixed for them; it’s a little heavy on the sugar and I think I’ve become the equivalent of the neighborhood crack dealer for the hummers. I’m not sure whether they’re sparring or flirting at the feeder; the hummingbird social scene is a literal blur. But they dart and dodge and confront and zoom and hide and reveal and when one seems to gain the upper hand and temporarily stakes its territory, it sends its long quick tongue deep into the glass globe that holds the sugar juice and drinks, drinks deeply. I admire these dervishes, colorful as flying paint; they seem like tough little creatures as they charge, meet eye to eye, wing to wing, in some repeated dance of delineation that seems to say this is mine or I want you.

The hummers and the roses and the peonies are reasonable companions, I’m saying, but it’s a companionship based on observation that inevitably turns into imagination. There’s only so far I can go in my scientific zeal before I turn poet and begin to anthropomorphize too much, sentimentalize, over-imagine. The natural world tends to send me into some rather lofty realms where I imagine a mutuality that likely doesn’t exist. The hummingbirds don’t notice me, for the most part, and when they do, they flee. I am not their friend. The trees, the flowers, the wind, the grass – if there’s a consciousness, if there’s any relationship between these features of the yard and me, it’s a mystical one, a spiritual one. Sometimes I sense that relationship, but the sensation is problematic, as I believe in no god.

It’s complicated, you see, and so is this longing I feel for my friends. I miss the flesh and blood of them, the substance of them. I miss their words. I can’t really talk, in any satisfactory fashion, after all, to the robins or the spruce. And although I can listen, and do, and can learn from such listening – The first duty of love is to listen, so says Paul Tillich – it’s human language I crave. Vowels and verbs, words strung out in interesting ways, like lanterns lining a dark walk. I miss, simply put, talking the talk.

And, to be precise, I’m not really referring to in-person conversations with my friends. I’m talking about their writing. I miss hearing from them. I miss their letters, their emails. When I wake up in the morning, although I am blessed to hear birdsong – what could be better? – I wake with this thought: “Maybe someone will write to me today.” Those words, that hope, gets me out of bed. Not the warblers, not the chittering of the hummingbirds, not the rush of wind or the sound of rain on the broad leaves of the hostas... The prospect of the written word – that incites me to rise.

I sometimes joke with friends that when one of us dies, I won’t want to know, exactly. Instead I’ll want to think, a little sadly, with some degree of denial that’ll look like perplexity, “Ah, Jo stopped writing. I wonder why…” That is my anticipated euphemism for the deaths of my friends: so-and-so simply stopped writing. “Have you heard from Marianna?” I’ll be asked. “No,” I’ll reply, slowly shaking my head and looking off into the distance. “She stopped writing…”

There’s a corollary to my hunger for words; it’s not just that I need to see writing on a page, words on a computer screen. It’s a little hard to explain so I’ll be direct: I need to know where my people are. The degree of urgency might require emphasis: I need to knowneed meaning I will panic, will feel anguish if I don’t – where my friends are on the planet. I want to know what country they’re in, what city or town they’re in, I want to have some faith that their normal routines are intact, want to know whether those routines temporarily incorporate the local surroundings. Are A and B having breakfast overlooking the beach; will X shower after a run; is L brushing back her hair, idly, while daydreaming through a novel, and so on. When I know the customary location of a friend is about to change – when they travel – I become anxious. I can’t sleep. I want their itineraries. I want, as I half-jokingly requested of friends heading off on a trip this week, for them to strap GPS receivers to their ankles and feed me the signal while they’re gone.

That doesn’t happen, of course. My friends leave, or I leave, and for a few days or weeks we are, as we say, out of touch. I don’t hear from them and, therefore, cannot listen. And maybe that means the second duty of love is to endure silence. To wait. Or to turn, temporarily and perhaps insufficiently, to a kind of alternative conversation. I’d like to decipher the maneuverings of the hummingbird, I’d like to understand the night calls of bats or the soulful trembling choreography of the trees. Vocabulary is everywhere. But when my friends are gone, all I hear are wings, and although I recognize no god, I recognize – I listen to – these angels.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Day of Your Brother’s Funeral

Saw a man yesterday in a white convertible driving down a country road. No passengers but for three acoustic guitars in the back seat, upright as gravestones. The man's dress shirt rippled in the wind and his arm was propped on the door, crooked at the elbow, as though he were a carefree tour guide showing the instruments around town. “To your right are the college ball fields,” I could imagine him saying, with maybe a few gentle pings as response. “Up ahead we’ve got a great view of Lake Ontario…” A stronger strum replies. As they make their way down Bridge Street, a song develops. The man starts singing, and the guitars improvise their small-town blues. In the cemeteries, even the ghosts of the dead are pleased, and the sky assembles into elegiac cloud banks. Somewhere in the world brothers and sisters say goodbye.

From space, Earth is just a blue ball dipped in glitter.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Counting the Gulls

It’s a perfect summer afternoon (mid-60’s, breezy, miles of architectural cloud formations) and I’m taking a walk after spending 4.5 hours in what my school calls an “intensive English Language Program.” That description translates like this: I spend six weeks teaching a fairly enjoyable series of summer school classes – two consecutive three-week sessions – wherein I attempt, as best I can, to tutor enthusiastic and highly motivated second-language speakers in some of the idiosyncrasies of my first and only language. (“Professor, why do you say “get in the car” but “get on the train?”) I love this gig, but by the end of every day I’m hoarse and weary and just a tad embarrassed about how many times I fall back onto the “English has many exceptions to the rules” response when they ask me yet another unanswerable grammar question.

As I pass a big green field – fifty yards, give or take – I decide to count how many seagulls are sitting or standing in a loose cluster at its center. They’re not easy to count – the local gulls have no interest in the clean lines of, say, marching-band formations – but I appreciate precision and so I gamely add them up and arrive at the number 122. I wonder if it would be alright to change that sum to 117, should I later decide to use the gulls, somehow, in a piece of writing. One seventeen sounds better,” I think, although that’s clearly subjective. I question whether the tiny fact alteration is exactly the kind of tweak I sometimes warn my students against – the beginning of the proverbial slide down the annoyingly alliterative slippery slope – or if, rather, it falls rather obviously into the “creative” side of creative nonfiction. Losing interest in that question almost more quickly than it takes to ask it, I begin to wonder why I prefer odd numbers to even. What have even numbers ever done to me? What have odd numbers ever done for me?

The gulls have maintained a steadfast aloofness despite my wandering about, but now I must cross the field. I’m careful to stay far enough away that I don’t disturb them, but as I approach the halfway point I begin to feel mischievous. I want to wave my arms, I want to shout, I want the gulls to heave up in a great mass of gray-white cacophony and squawk in their shrewish and raucous manner. I want to report that it was like seeing oddly edgy angels arise from the meadow, but it’s not a meadow, the gulls are nothing like angels, and I remain, however foolishly, however much it limits me, enduringly devoted to what I believe, in my heart, to be the truth.

I took a walk on a beautiful day. A few common clouds rimmed the sky. The gulls pleased me. There were about 120 of them, white loaves scattered on impossibly green grass. For a while, I was happy.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

27 Things My Father Taught Me

How to ride a bike
How to fix a bike chain when it fell off the only bike we could afford
How to swim
How to dive
How to hold my breath without holding my nose
To love the ocean
That the ocean could heal anything
The importance of the right tool for the job
The importance of improvisation
How to put a sick pigeon out of its misery
How to watch t.v. and sleep at the same time
How to properly throw and catch a baseball
How to paint
To rinse the sand off our feet before getting in the car after the beach
The joy of driving fast
The importance of health
To appreciate a good sandwich
The importance of education
How to ride a horse
The importance of family
How to tell a good bedtime story
How to get one’s heart broken
How to leave and not look back
That much is worth laughing at
The elusiveness of luck
How to grieve
How to endure

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Summer Time

I’m convinced that time moves more slowly during the summer. I just spent a good hour watching two spiders in the corner of my study. No idea what they were actually doing, but among the possibilities: completing a web, boxing, playing, mating, philosophizing. They were right up close to one another, using two legs each to feint and jab, stroke and pat each other. Now they’ve backed off and appear to be at rest, utterly still and upside down. Actually, one is a sound sleeper, totally motionless, belly to the sky, while the other seems to be doing a dreamy ballet, two of its legs slowly stretching and contracting. This morning I watched another spider in the bathroom, at the ceiling. That one seemed to be trying to make out with its own shadow. Its body would bump and re-bump against the ceiling, over and over, until eventually it dropped on a strand of silk, either frustrated or sated. Who knows, maybe spiders really can mate with their shadows, maybe soon there will be ghostbaby spiders all over the house. Maybe that’s what I feel sometimes, those inexplicable shivers or tickles or faint caresses that seem to have no source. At any rate, I think I spent an hour with the spiders, but for all I know it was the entire morning, or a mere ten minutes. I keep losing track of what time it is, what day. No surprise -- half the time I don’t know what year we’re in, even though right now we’re smack in the middle of ’09 -- I’ve had six months to figure it out. Some mornings I lie in bed mulling over a lot of nothing, realizing that twenty minutes have passed and I’ve accomplished little more than determining which window a bee was buzzing at.

I should be grateful for these lazy passages, the lengthening of an afternoon or the enduring stretch of a given hour. Five decades have passed so fast… it’s only right that some benevolent deity or lucky twist of fate or circumstance of my own aging brain allows the perception that little parcels are exceptions, certain periods of time don’t fly, don’t fly, but unfold with the luxurious grace of a spider’s delicate leg.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Egg Came First

The day began with a gift from Leigh: an abandoned turkey egg she found near the top of the driveway. It’s larger than a chicken egg, and is dappled brown. Very pretty, and I have no idea what to do with it. Normally it’s the kind of thing I’d save, but apparently a mother turkey can abandon an egg for a while and then return. I guess I’ll put it back in the grass, although I’m worried one of the crows might make a nice breakfast of it.

Other things or creatures I saw in the yard today:

Our snake, Rocky. Rocky is probably a series of snakes who live in the rock walls in the yard, but I call all of them Rocky and jump every time I see him/them. Post-jump, I just want to pick him up and talk to him, but I don’t. I just watch the S of him slither through the grass or take in a little sun on a flat stone.

The first dragonflies of the season. When they rest up against a rock and the sun hits them just right, it looks like they have about ten wings.

Hummingbirds. Lots of ‘em. Refilled the feeders and they couldn’t be happier. Or, who knows… maybe they could be way happier. But I can’t get much happier every time I see or hear one. The other day one buzzed right past my ear – I felt it as much as I heard it. I keep wearing my pink t-shirt in the yard hoping one will come right up to me. It’s possible… I’ve seen it.

Big bumblebees nosing in the impatiens and exploring the nooks and crannies of the rock walls. God they’re fat.

An indigo bunting. This is noteworthy because I've never seen one in our yard before. Other blue birds, especially blue jays, whom I love, but never an indigo bunting. This one was eating a dandelion (the white parachute version, not the yellow kids-favorite-flower version). Then it disappeared under some hostas. Its mate was nearby, poking about in the grass. They both seemed very low-key, as far as birds go.

While digging in the dirt, many earthworms. I tried not to hit any of them with the trowel, fearing I’d slice them in half. Every time I saw one I remembered my brother, as a little boy, picking one up and holding it over his head, which he tipped toward the sky and said “dare me?” I said “yes.” He dropped the worm into his mouth. We continued playing.

A young cardinal, thrashing about in a low cluster of leaves. No idea what he was up to, but he wasn’t subtle.

A blue jay, in an adjacent tree. Making less of a fuss than usual – it was like the jay and the cardinal had reversed roles. Every once in a while the jay would dive straight down from his branch to the ground, eat some seed, and return. It’s not much of a flight, but he takes it head first and fast, like some kind of daredevil stunt pilot.

And Leigh, who helped me plant my flower garden. Last week, while roaming about the yard, I’d noticed a spot that wasn’t being put to any use at all, said “some flowers would look nice there.” I’d have left it at that – I’m not a gardener, don’t like dirt and mosquitoes and backbreaking labor. But Leigh decided not only that we’d put in a flower garden, but that I’d pick out the flowers and do the arranging. I agreed, mindlessly assuming Leigh’s method of gardening would be similar to mine – the yes-that’d-be-nice-someday-maybe-especially-if-someone-else-did-it version. Leigh’s approach to just about everything, however, is to do it. DO it. I mean, DO IT NOW. And so that’s how I ended up at Ontario Orchards, my favorite store in the world, picking out flowers. And that’s how we ended up paying almost $200 for said flowers. And that’s how I ended up digging rocks out of the dirt, which seemed, for a time, more like moving dirt out of the way of the rocks. Many rocks. And eventually, much dirt. And, a few hours after that, lots of flowers.

And now, for years to come, when I go out in the yard I’ll see, among all the other wonders, the geraniums and pansies and Jacob’s ladder, and the one we call the chive flower and the one we call the amazing climbing flower and the one we call the-one-that-will-be-amazing-when-it-blooms.

I'm going to put the turkey egg back where it was found... I'm hoping the mother will return. I keep thinking -- forgive me, those of you who can't stand this kind of thing -- that maybe that turkey will grow up to be the equivalent of the turkey-world president. If I kept the egg, I'd be altering the course of turkey history forever.

My birthday's not til next week, but today felt like it was full of gifts. I'm only returning one.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Suddenness of Spring

I possess only the most rudimentary understanding of what it means for time to pass. I see the sun cross the sky, the tides shift. I watch closely as the seasons change; I witness the wrinkles that appear around my eyes and mouth; I notice how my mother’s gait has slowed and realize my younger siblings are and have been full-fledged adults for decades now. My current students, many of whom have taken classes with me several times over their college careers, entered as socially awkward freshmen and are about to leave, four years later, with new depths of confidence. They have grown up before my eyes, and it has clearly been a process, but it also seems to have happened overnight.

Here, on the shore of Lake Ontario, winter is suddenly spring. The season seems to have staggered through its changes in a one-step-forward/two-steps-back kind of way. The crocuses bloomed, it snowed; the robins arrived; the temperatures dipped back into the teens; the daffodils began to appear, more snow; the mourning doves established themselves, an ice storm hit. And then one day in April snow fell in the morning and had already melted by afternoon. That was a sign that the ground had warmed, a sign that the snow was gone, at least – we hope – for half the year. Days that teased us by lingering in the 30’s suddenly leapfrogged into the 50’s, skewed twice in succession into summer 80’s. Lawns turned green, the forsythia exploded into a yellow cascade, the lines at Rudy’s and Bev’s started to lengthen as everyone began craving ice cream cones and French fries eaten lakeside.

In a few weeks, late spring, I’ll turn 50. That has been a puzzling and staggered process, too. Often I feel like I’m as carefree as I was in my 20’s, or as happy as I was in my 30’s. If I stare into the mirror, I’ll concede that I look 40-something. It’s only in glimpses, only in moments, that I realize: fifty. I feel it in my bones, in my heart. The disappointments and regrets I harbor are those of a 50-year old. My hopes and dreams are now tempered by decades of experience. The phases of my life feel as though they overlap: I can easily locate the girl of 8 who loved to read, the teenager who couldn’t imagine a better afternoon than one spent making out with a boy, the college drop-out, the young lesbian falling in love and buying a house, the writer crossing the country to study her art, the teacher, the woman with aching bones, the woman who has come to understand that failure is inevitable, enduring, necessary. These memories are like a deck of illustrated playing cards – I can shuffle through them and smile, I have no trouble recalling those girls, being those girls, those young women. It is a private comfort to be able to drift back into those years, the adventures and heartbreaks. Shuffle the deck, and I’m 30 years younger. I’m six. I’m nineteen. Shuffle again, and I’m smack in the middle of middle age.

It seems that just last week there was snow on the ground. It seems that just last week I was a girl. Today, the sun is shining. But hold on: there’s a chill in the air that can’t be denied.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Meaning of Applause: The Popularity of Susan Boyle and Her Public Dream

Last week I received three or four emails in rapid succession, each with a link to a YouTube video. All of the messages said something like “You’ve got to check this out – amazing.” I didn’t check out the video; I get so many messages like that, mostly from students or former students, that I’d have to add a few hours to my days to look at all of them. But these messages weren’t coming from my students – they were coming from friends. Friends who are in their 40’s and 50’s and 60’s. Friends who are not usually susceptible to idiotic Facebook quizzes or chain letters or Jackass-like stunt videos, friends who don’t send me dumb or time-wasting attachments. After yet another email from another reliable source, I finally clicked on the link.

Like forty seven million others, what I saw was Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables. She’s a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, and the video shows, in what seems to be its entirety, her appearance: a short backstage interview, a brief interaction with the show’s panel of judges, and then her rendition of “Dream.” It concludes with the reactions of those judges after Boyle performs.

Several things are remarkable about the video. First is the disdain Boyle is shown by at least one of the judges, as well as members of the audience who are panned by the camera as Boyle answers a few initial questions from Simon Cowell, the most visibly cynical of the panel. It seems obvious that Boyle is being perceived as a joke contestant, one of the by-now familiar losers who provide comic relief on much-watched programs like American Idol. The viewing audience enjoys laughing at these deluded wannabes, seems to find a good amount of glee in mocking their off-key attempts to find fame and fortune.

Susan Boyle – 47 years of age, plain, dressed the way your aunt might at a cousin’s wedding – does herself no favors by strutting onto the stage, forgetting the word “villages,” swiveling her hips, and – perhaps out of nervousness or a natural joie de vivre – momentarily vamping it up onstage. Cowell asks “what’s the dream?” and Boyle, without hesitating, responds that she wants to be a successful singer. When asked why that dream hasn’t been realized sooner – a moment in which it is clear that Cowell is setting her up, in front of the audience, who can see, they believe, exactly why the dream has been unrealized – she responds, simply, “I haven’t been given the chance.”

The next remarkable moment comes as Susan Boyle sings the first line of the song. It is instantly obvious – instantly, from the first note – that the woman can sing. Members of the audience spontaneously begin to applaud, and within ten seconds – that's literally all it takes to turn the tide of doubt that had built, just as quickly, when Boyle first hit the stage – the audience is on its feet. The camera takes turns highlighting the reaction of the judges, who one-by-one are shown jaws dropping, eyebrows raising, then smiling and clapping with delight – and showing Boyle, who appears confident and at ease, immersed in the song. She easily hits a high note, which sends the audience into a louder and more sustained ovation. Eventually we see Cowell sigh with pleasure, which may make us almost want to forgive his earlier assessment of this contestant.

Like many, I found Boyle’s performance thrilling, beautiful, and inspiring – I’ve watched it several times, and think of it as seven minutes of joy. I also found the follow-up reactions – those that have been published, at any rate – quite interesting. Most seem to focus on the clip as a resounding slap in the face to ageist and “looksist” stereotypes – stereotypes most often, but not exclusively, applied to women. Being 47 and lacking conventional good looks is apparently something many of us can relate to; I concur that the popularity of the video can be, at least in part, attributed to that interpretation – what my students would call the “relateability” factor. A lot of us are too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too short or too tall or too haggard or too uncouth or too uneducated or too this, too that. Most of us, I’d venture, are too something. But what the video represents to me, even more than a refutation of age or appearance stereotyping, is the triumph of the underestimated, the overlooked, the dismissed or easily ignored. It probably came as no surprise to anyone that Boyle claims to have never been given a chance before. She is not someone to whom chances are generally given.

I don’t like reality shows, in part because I believe they are often apt depictions of reality – aspects of reality that I rarely find entertaining. Britain’s Got Talent is, to me, a reality show – those few moments when the audience rolls its eyes, collectively, at Boyle say a lot. But – those moments don’t say it all. We can be a cold, uncaring, cruel people… but as Boyle’s voice hits the eardrums of every listener, the immediate and unanticipated reaction is one of utter surprise, pure pleasure. I’d like to believe that everyone in that room who had dismissed Susan Boyle ten seconds earlier was thinking, in that moment, “I was wrong.” I would like to think that they felt apologetic, that the enthusiasm of their applause was also a request for forgiveness -- and, perhaps, a mass thank-you.

In an age when we are all in danger of being overlooked or dismissed or taken for granted in any number of ways, I believe she makes us feel, for just a moment, a little less alone.

That's my dream, anyway, and I'll dream if for a while longer. And every time I watch Susan Boyle's video clip I'll whisper to her my own private thank you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bird Cemetery

Ten minutes before heading out the door to have brunch with friends, I heard a pop against the large picture window that sits above the central staircase of our house. It sounded like a sharp tap – almost like a fingernail snapping against the window – and it was followed by an almost imperceptible bump. A sparrow had flown into the window and was lying on the deck, wings spread, chest heaving.

In the last twelve months, I have buried two other birds who didn’t survive similar crashes. One was a blue jay who hit the front door and snapped its neck. When I first saw it, the adult jay was splayed on its belly, brilliant blue wings perpendicular to its body. It looked like an avian savior on the cross, and it gave a great, slow-motion heave of its wings. I thought it was alive, and shouted out to Leigh that it was okay. It wasn’t okay; after that last valiant gesture, it died. The hummingbird may not have hit a window; Leigh found it on the porch, possibly the victim of a neighborhood cat or perhaps having succumbed to its own super-fast heart rate. Hummers go into a state of torpor at night; for some, getting that heart revved up in the morning doesn’t work and they expire. It looked like a little jewel, like I could stick a pin in it and wear it on my lapel.

In addition to those two deaths, dozens of birds have hit the windows and survived. When I hear them crash, I usually go outside to see what kind of shape they’re in. In the past, some have looked pretty bad and I feared they’d not make it. A warbler last year took nearly two hours to regain its bearings. I sat at its side, worried that a larger bird or one of those cats might spot a tempting lunch. I watched the bird breathe, blink its eyes, and occasionally try stretching out one of its wings. Eventually it hopped a few paces from me, and ten minutes after that proceeded to hop across the lawn. I still worried its wing might be broken, but the warbler finally gathered its composure and flew off.

I don’t think today’s bird will be as fortunate. It hit hard, and its right wing appears damaged. It can’t stand; every time it tries to right itself, it tips onto its side. I’ve spent 30 minutes with it, and now have to head over to my friend’s. I’ve built a kind of low fortress around the bird, a windbreak made of towels, so that it’s partly camouflaged but can still hop out, if it comes to that. I don’t think it will. I think that sometime over the next few hours, while I’m laughing over brunch, the sparrow will die.


When we got home, it was still breathing. I thought about moving the bird into the garage, where it would be absolutely safe from predators, but worried that if it tried to fly, it’d do further damage. Left it alone for the night.


It’s morning. The sun is a cold disc in the eastern sky. The sparrow is dead. Over the first few hours of morning, I hear two more crashes. Neither are casualties; both birds shake themselves off and fly away.


This afternoon, I will bury the sparrow beneath a maple tree. If sparrows have spirits, and if those spirits have an aesthetic sensibility, this one will have a view of thousands of trees and a winding creek, will hear the local owl at night and the geese at dawn; will hear, at times, the howl of a coyote or the whistle of a distant train. I’m beginning to think we live in a bird cemetery, but that’s probably only the start of it. Nature is full of the marvelous, for sure, but it’s brimming over with death and dying. Even now, at the start of spring, I’m noticing which trees survived the long winter, which will not bloom due to ice damage, disease, or other mysterious and terminal CODs. I watched the gallant attempts of the crocuses to survive several days of snow and wind; they didn’t make it. And now I will be nursemaid to the birds, talking quietly to them after they’ve hit a window, hoping they can recuperate, burying them when they don’t. Elsewhere, I will remind myself, a friend is trying to decide whether to keep her cat alive by giving it daily injections. “She’s my longest relationship,” the friend writes, having lost both her parents last year. I will remind myself of another friend, who is in the process of learning how to say goodbye to her younger brother, dying of cancer. And another friend, who is relearning his life after surviving a brain aneurysm. And another friend, who has endured two years of fruitless tests, all attempts to diagnose an illness that has sapped her of her strength, energy, and creativity. These are the people I am closest to in the world, individuals I consider my family. Of them, right now, I am the luckiest.

I hold no formal faith, believe in no true god, but when I place a rock on the grave of the sparrow later today, I will whisper a prayer.