Friday, December 30, 2016

Part Three: Alcohol (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)


Dear Sunny -

John meets you, pretty young Carolyn May, in a dry cleaners shop. You want to wed him. He wants to wed you, but because of the recent death of his mother, and perhaps because of the start of what will later called The Great Depression, you decide on a small ceremony. I’m sure you’re glad for the intimate wedding. No crowd, no camera flashes and no excessive attention, just you and him, and perhaps a witness or two. When you marry in that little church, does John know about your troubles? About your dreadfully poor childhood? Do you tell him about the man who hurt you? Have you told him about your mother and your father or your sisters and brothers? I imagine John probing you with questions, but that you keep things light and him in the dark. I imagine he likes to talk about big ideas, about humanity and kindness, God, empathy, service and community, while you’d much prefer to discuss the dinner you’re eating or the suit he’s wearing or the birds in the park singing. Maybe you want to remain a mystery. Or perhaps, you’re so lonely and in such need of companionship that all he has to do is tug at the past just gently enough and you can’t help but unravel your history until it is in a heaping heaving pile on some cafĂ© tabletop beside your ashtray and half empty cups. Maybe John thinks that he can help you, save you from yourself. After the wedding, he takes you to New York City for a honeymoon. It is 1926, Prohibition Era, but he seems to know people, possibly old college pals, and he has some money and so he takes you around town to speakeasies and secret parties and it is then that you are introduced to alcohol. 

I have my first real drink, wine coolers, in college. They taste like juice and quickly make me dizzy, giddy and flirty. A drink gives you confidence - doesn't it? Confidence to sit with strangers, to dance with John, to pretend that you aren’t that poor, hungry child from some unmapped coal mining mountain town for which you are. You are clean now and well dressed. You are a lady, a married young lady with a new kind of social life and this is all well and good, but money and pretty dresses and cigarettes and scotch won’t change you, Sunny. You are still the daughter of a drunk. You are still the survivor of pneumonia with a frail frame and punctured, weak lungs and scarred skin . And you are still an orphan. All you know of your past is what you manage to remember. You have no photo albums. No parents to call on to converse with and ask questions. (I want to mention that I don't want to sound as if I am blaming John for giving you your first drink. I hope you don’t blame him either. It would have found the inside of your glass eventually.) Your horoscope tells me that you appreciate simplicity, of experiencing life through the senses. It also tells me that you are shy. I know this already. Just as I understand that a drink feels good in a warm sensory sort of way and a couple drinks can silence most self-conscious worries. Is it here on your honeymoon in New York City when you discover that you have been carrying your daddy’s coal in the soles of your shoes since childhood? Do you drink very much and collapse onto the hotel bed in your evening clothes? Do you then discover in the morning the filth of your daddy’s addiction as if it were a stain beneath your heals? If so, what is this devastation like? Do you wonder if he has damaged your biology? It’s from him, isn’t it? Or has it manifested itself further back, as far back as your great-grandmother? I don’t know how much you and John drink once you return to Philadelphia after your trip, but Prohibition goes on for another seven years. I imagine you find a way, but perhaps you are forced back into seven more years of sobriety. As you age, Sunny, I’m told you crave alcohol when you feel alone or afraid. You won’t ever really quit. Not once you know this warmth, this ease, this softening or rather blurring of lines and memories and feelings.

I wonder how deep this coal dust goes - how much of it is in my blood. Does it reach inside a miner to seep black specks of darkness into his sperm so that future generations can’t escape the sadness, which grows from hopelessness, hunger and years in the dark underground? Why am I not surprised to hear of a Scottish drunkard? Is there something in the soil of the lands of the Scots and the Ires? Something in the water? The sea air maybe? Have the rivers all turned to ale? A drunk father delivers his drunk disease to his baby, a future drunk son or drunk daughter. It is a story as old as famine and rotten potatoes and sheep wool sweaters. Could the stars be to blame? Your stars tell me how you might be. Much of it goes with the stories I’ve been told, but is this just coincidence? How can the moon and the tides and the planets shape us? Guide us? Do our brain cells or souls or cells reach for the heavens like a compass to gather our bearings before we push through our water womb to cold air and breath? If that’s true, then where we are born matters too. And how our mothers and fathers treat us - whether they love us, hate us, hurt us, spoil us- I imagine all these pieces matter. I hear that our genes can be very different from our siblings. We can’t all be made of the exact same matter or we’d all look, sound and act identically. Therefore, to share traits with one’s great-grandparents must be even more unlikely. But still, I wonder, are you in me? You must be here somewhere. Maybe all you give me is this story and your suffering. A story that says, I was born in 1906 in Eleanora, Pennsylvania. I live during this time with these circumstances so that you don’t have to.

Well then, dear Sunny, thank you.






Part Two: Your Mothers (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)


This is a photo of my own beautiful mother. 

Dear Sunny - 


John Samuel Stephenson Jr. is born June 21, 1906 in Philadelphia to a wealthy Main Street family. He has two sisters and one brother, but his brother dies when John is young. After his brother's death, John’s mother, Sallie, devotes nearly all of her time to charity work, leaving John with his older sisters and father. His sisters are quite a bit older than the two of you (14 and 15 years older).

Sallie herself dies in 1926 when she is just 59 years old. I don’t know why, or rather from what. John is 20 years old at the time, you are 17, and the two of you have just met. John sounds like such a happy chap, a songbird with a kind, reverent soul. Does his gleeful temperament rattle you with guilt? Or does it soothe you like sunshine in early spring? Do you curse at your gloom so that it might hide in the corner of your broken heart or do you sort of invite it in, give it a blanket and a bed inside your bones, as if you deserve nothing better? John’s mother sounds a wreck, leaving him all day. But maybe that’s why he turns out alright. Perhaps she knows that if she is John's primary caretaker, he will grow up to the sound of her constant weeping and that isn’t healthy for a child. I wonder if Sallie can’t stand to even look at baby John for very long; to hold him or kiss his face. He is her other son after all and he is young and also destined, as we all are, toward death. I hope his sisters kiss his face in her absence and blow raspberries on his belly and play him records and nuzzle his neck and cheeks.

When you are a young gal, Sunny, your daddy is off working long dark days and drinking away his nights, while you are left with your mother and your sisters. I'd guess that the boys, your brothers, are breaker boys, working too - sitting beside conveyor belts all day in a dark cloudy building, separating coal from impurities, arriving home coughing filth and blowing black snot from their noses. You probably help clean the house. Maybe you have a large garden in the back, one you weed, till and harvest. Maybe you have a cow and a small flock of hens for eggs. Maybe you help bake bread in an outdoor beehive oven, churn cream into butter, scrub and wring and hang the clothes, make the soap, boil the soup, run to the company store, gather bits of dropped coal from beside the tipple (the structure above the train tracks for filling train cars with coal), clean out the nasty privy, and gather water from the pump. You squish bed bugs and wait for your Christmas orange. Unlike Sallie, your mother, [who's name is now unknown, forgotten, unwritten, lost (a metaphor that is not lost on me)] has no choices really - for poverty is a kind of imprisonment. She can’t leave you with a governess or a grandmother or with your father even. Sure, your sister Jean could care for you. But there isn't much extra scrip (company money) for fine haircuts in a nearby city or for pieces of delicate lace and silk, anyway. She’s stuck there in that house, in a row of other identical houses, sucking down coke oven coal dust, scrubbing out its grease from familial skin and coarse muslin - unable to hide from you the reality of your destitution.

John is shielded from his mother’s tragedy.

You are not.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Part One: Coal and Pneumonia (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)






Dear Sunny -


Coal dust smudges the skin of sweaty miners, seeps beneath fingernails, and stains trousers, jackets and bootlaces. Is there running water? A bathtub and bars of soap? Is there a proper school, a grocer, baker, butcher? Is there even a doctor? I imagine whitewashed wooden houses with crooked roofs, dense gardens, open cook fires and muck and black dust everywhere. Does the sun shine through the coal dust clouds to the poor mountain town below or does is pass it by to save its rays for the bottom of the mountain where there is grass and a river that carries all the black runoff water away? Eleanora, Pennsylvania --- she can’t be found on maps today. Gram says there was a fire, but history tells me it was abandoned.

When you are a child, great-grandmother, you and all the other children in the patch are given an orange on Christmas day by a wealthy man, probably one of the owners of the coal company or the manager of the company store. One hundred years later, I see grey juice dripping from cold little fingers, down round chins to wet jumpers and jackets and holy wool sweaters. Orange globes in the hands of poor dirty children. I wonder if the coal, ash and soot is still there today with the rest of the remains of that forgotten Pennsylvania town.

In 1909, you are born, the sixth of seven children, to a Scottish drunken mine superintendent and your mother, who dies when you are young, but more on that later. Born, Carolyn May Hammond, later nicknamed “Sunny”, I see you like a little light in that town. Pale and pretty, squashing bed bugs when you’re sent to bed early, wondering if you’ll ever have enough to eat since your papa might be spending his pay at the company store or to bootleggers for bottles of scotch whiskey or wine or ale. But he isn’t all bad, your papa, for when you are a girl of six or seven years, you take off her coat. It is just before the start of spring and you must be warm and so, as all young girls and boys do, you remove her jacket. Someone scolds you for it, your momma or your big sister, Jean. And they are right to do so because a very short time later, maybe a day or two, you, Sunny fall ill with pneumonia and your daddy carries you out of the company town to transportation, to a train I’d guess. And it takes you and your papa to a hospital with doctors and nurses. There he leaves you to be saved. So no, he isn’t all bad. When you are an old lady, you remember the hospital, but you can’t recall where it is, just that it must be far from home since no one in the family goes to visit you, not even Jean. At the hospital, around the year 1915, before antibiotics, a year when a child with pneumonia usually dies, doctors insert tubes beneath your arms to drain the fluid from your small lungs. You rest and recover. The nurses must like you, you think, for they give you a little birthday party at your bed when May 1st arrives. When you are well enough, it is decided that you will go live with your aunt who knows a few things about nursing.

Throughout your life, you contract pneumonia many times, but it never kills you. It weakens you, as illness is prone to do and for the rest of your life, I’m told, you are frail. However, you reach your 80th year. I remember you in your glider, swaying in the Sunday morning sunlight. When I am a small child, we often visit with you after church. You chat with Mom and Dad while we play on your clean beige carpet.

When I am a toddler, I contract pneumonia. There is a Polaroid picture of me in a hospital crib. It must be 1984 or 1985. I don’t know how or why I become so ill, but I spend a week in the hospital. My lungs are not punctured and drained like your 7-year-old body, Sunny. I am given antibiotics, Penicillin probably. They don’t make me weak, you'll, I think, be happy to hear, I’ve always been very strong.

Eventually, you return to your momma and papa in Eleanora. Around this time, the youngest child in your family, Marion, falls from her highchair into the fireplace. She is burned badly. I remember her, a little old woman from my own childhood. She looks like you. I don’t remember any burns, but perhaps that’s because her papery wrinkled skin hides them well. You blame one of your sisters for pushing Marion and for the rest of your life, you never speak to her again (even when Marion begs for a reunion). After her fall, your sister, Marion is sent away. She lives with relatives, sweet people she recalls, who treat her like their own child. A couple years after you are home from the hospital, your mother dies. She is pregnant with her 8th child. No one knows why or how now, but the thought of my great-great-grandmother, bearing a child and taking her last breath, inhaling that dirty air, while her soul slips from her tired malnourished body, a body with a belly that is hoarding water and scavenging nutrients for her newest developing baby, torments me. What is her husband, your father, like when he drinks? Does he see his wife as his property, taking her body whenever he wants? Or are they lovers and life partners pinned to their place in the world by addiction and poverty? I’ll never ever know. But after your momma dies and the babe in her belly dies with her, your papa remarries and when he does, he sends Jean away. Does he marry his second wife because he needs someone home to raise his children and keep house? I’m sure he can’t afford to pay a nanny. Does he decide then to marry one of the town’s known spinsters or a hungry childless widow or an aging prostitute, a flirtatious bootlegger? None of you children like the stepmother, but your pop isn’t married long. He dies a couple years later. Does he drink himself dead? Does he suffocate underground, choking on earth and dark? Does his heart break beneath the weight of his failures? Or does a fire in the mine snuff him out? When he perishes, does he fall ill by an infected wound or by the flu or pneumonia? ….Is his death sudden or foreseen? The young children who are still home are sent away. You are 13 years old and go on to live with a woman, not a relative, in Philadelphia. She isn’t very nice. She makes you go into the city to run errands for her. Years later, you realize that these peculiar jobs she sends you on are to retrieve stolen bottles of perfume, which this woman then illegally re-sells. I imagine you’re told: Go to this address. You will meet this person. Take the box. Bring it home straight away.

Your daughter, my grandmother, Nancy, writes, “These were her teenage years and I faintly remember her mentioning once about being assaulted by a man visiting the house. There are many dark corners in her life that we were never told about.”

You are an orphan living with a strange woman in the city, which is a new city to you. It is a busy city with trolley cars and automobiles and tall buildings and railroads and shops. You wander these wide roads, completely alone. Do you make any friends here? Is there anyone you can talk to or meet with? Who is this man who hurts you? A friend or the husband of the woman with whom you live? Does he sneak into your room at night? Force himself into the apartment when he knows you, a young girl, are home alone? Do you fight him off? Or are you too embarrassed and frightened to scream, kick, bite and claw his entitled skin until he gets off of your body, because it is your body, Sunny, a body you have worked so hard to keep living. Perhaps he presses a knife to your slender throat. Perhaps he has a rope. Perhaps he has the strength to hold you by the wrists and steal from you your dignity as if you were a box of perfume he could take and re-sell in the city. However it happens and whatever it is that does happen, I’m sorry. I wish I could be there. I wish I could slip into the past and protect you.

You start smoking cigarettes in 1924. You are 15 years old. Tobacco smoke blackens your fragile lungs all your life. You never quit. I can’t imagine this helps your health, your proneness for pneumonia. I wonder if you think it’s worth it, this trade. Maybe these nagging urges feel necessary for your sanity: a constant distraction from the real problems that threaten to suffocate and torture you.

Sometimes I make an entire pot of coffee and drink it all day long. Cup after cup. I drink it black now. Once in awhile, I'll drop in a little cream, but usually I take it as it comes.

After you complete your high school education, you enter a program to become a nurse. Do you want to help children who are alone like you? Paint birthday signs, wrap little gifts and blow up balloons for hospital bed birthdays? Tell them they’re going to be all right as you bring them supper or tend to their wounds or hold their bodies as they weep from fear or loneliness or pain? I’m sorry to hear you are unable to complete the training. That the physical labor of scrubbing floors and changing beds and cleaning bedpans and lifting limp bodies is all too much for you.

When you are 17 years old, while working in a dry cleaners shop, a happy handsome young man from a wealthy Main Street family enters. He is charismatic and good-looking with light hair and clear blue eyes. You are charming and pretty. I like to imagine you dancing home from work the day you meet him, your future husband. His name is John. You tell him that your name is Carolyn. I wonder if you blush with excitement and possibly even passion as you feel, maybe for the first time in your life, hope.





Tuesday, December 13, 2016

We must make ART.



I must make art. It would be easier to live without this condition for happiness. To spend my free time in mindless monotony. Busy myself with socializing, obligations and passive observations. But the trouble is...my passion to make stuff pokes at the microscopic puddles of my pores like sewing pins; swims like a pod of whales in my piss, blood, spit and soul. It bites at my tissue and bone like termites: MAKE ARTit demands, BEFORE WE SWALLOW YOUR SKIN AND SKELETON AND SHIT YOU OUT INTO A MOUND OF POWDERY GRAY MATTER. 

I thought I didn't want to make theater anymore. Thought I could outrun my infatuation with age, but this thing is more like real love. More complex than lust and far deeper than any crush or fleeting obsession. This is true. Admittedly, it is mean and difficult too. Theater isn't easy. The industry has abused me with disappointments. Starved me and confused me too. But my moments lit by tin can lights or rehearsal bulbs or the midday sun (on some outdoor stone stage) still enthrall me. I feel courageous up there with my lines of text and intention. My words fly / stab / sing / grab from my mouth to kiss the silences that sit on the edges of springy, velvet-sewn seats or metal folding chairs or patchwork quilts stretched over dirt and dry grass.  My body dances to the song, the story, of my characters. I love theater. I love the spit and wind of it. Love the raw unedited magic. Love the magnetic pull of poised, competent actors enunciating sharp poetry for a crowd of engaged onlookers. Oh yes, I love it so.

I've been searching for both distraction and action lately. Theater feels like an old friend who stands at the back of a cold church funeral. As soon as I see her, I weep and run, collapsing into her tight embrace. We laugh as she pulls me across the street to a bright dance party where the music is so loud and the lights and the people are so beautiful in their color and movement that I forget, for a little while, the tragedy I have just left behind. And even though, at this dance party, I must make sure not to embarrass myself and/or drink too much, I am reminded of passion. I am reintroduced to my own neglected joy. And I am served an entire pie of sweet sweet peace.

Since our nation's recent election, I have been feeling as if I were sprawled out across all the steps of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance], with a skyscraper on my chest and my back pressing jagged cement.  I'm mostly avoiding the news. It frightens me. This country and world appear terminally suicidal. Out in the corn fields, there is a plowed message, a tattoo on the arm of this "super" power, and it reads DO NOT RESUSCITATE.

I am seeking light.

A few weeks after the election, I am invited to perform in the staged reading of a marvelous play.  At night, after baby is in bed, I'd lie on the couch reading and re-reading myself into my character's body and story. [For actors are detectives and we spend much of our preparation gathering evidence so that we can understand the person we are trying to portray.]  This study is an old bliss of mine and I am grateful for the distraction. Even out in the stage lights, standing before the audience on the night of the performance, I feel as if I am catching the end of a long lost breath.

I want people to flee their TVs with me, even for just one night or for a few hours every day. To join me in a search for life. Come, I urge you, and turn off your cell phones. Silence them, and ignore them and your urges and addictions. Briefly or forever, abandon the noise of the Internet and all its false promises of entertainment and information and look with me to people, real people and to the art we make. Get dressed up and shout a song into a microphone or hide in a closet nook and make something. Sing folk songs on your porch / build a quilt / paint a portrait / dance in your living room / write a poem about the cracks in your mother's hands / write a silly novel about peach jam / write a love letter / stitch a dress / crochet a scarf / darn a sock / mix and bake a carrot cake / wallpaper a wall / go to a music shop and touch all the instruments, then take one home with you / sketch with crayons or markers or pencils or coal. Whatever it is, go on and make something.

Personally, my screens are burning me. I feel dry in my deprivation of skin and conversation and social interaction. I need a crowd, a cacophonous cafe. I need to go to town. Soak up the spoken word of strangers and suck in the stink of paint and clay, of wet cement and cigarettes, of candy shops and Indian food and messy book stores. I want to warm myself with body heat. Find friends, fliers and ticket booths. Gather on sidewalks and in bakery lines and libraries. I want us all to rebuild our world with stories / paint / glue / coffee and cake / yarn / ink / wood / tape / voices and voluptuous color. 



Sunday, November 27, 2016

EXTREMISM



I vow to fight off EXTREMISM with quiet isolation. I will take vaccines of turned off screens and paper books, newspapers, magazines, conversations, dirt, grass and the company of oak, pine and maple trees. I will not allow the Internet to infect my mind, mouth and ears. For it is a deafening disease, EXTREMISM. I capitalize the letters to show you how big and scary it is. EXTREMISM makes it nearly impossible to think for oneself; let alone to empathize with others. It doesn’t allow conversation, but yelling with covered ears. It is seeking for same and destroying, humiliating and denying anyone different. EXTREMISM is growing, spreading rapidly. The widespread World Wide Web, I think, is partially to be blame. For EXTREMISM is quite contagious. It spreads by rhetoric but hides inside stories and ideas and opinions. They convince and collect believers by the billions. And what happens when one clan of EXTREMISM attacks an opposing clan of EXTREMISM? I fear the answer is war. Because if no one is listening to the shouting, then both sides will seek to silence their rivals with bullets, cannonballs and atomic bombs. So please, be wary. Don’t believe everything you read, hear or say.









Thursday, November 17, 2016

To Baby,

Your newest word is happy.  You keep saying it, aaaPeee. That's how it sounds.  It feels like a sign from God or my heart or the whole universe - because while it is an important word, it isn't a common one in our house. So it feels like you or something or everything is telling me: Be it. Go ahead, be happy. I know it isn't always easy, but as best you can, be happy. 

Well, that's easier said than done, baby, for you don't know it yet, but the world is a frightening unpredictable place and I can't figure out how to fix it. I'm sorry. Once you were born, I tried. I did everything I could, but I've been completely unsuccessful. I haven't been able to eliminate nuclear weapons. Nor am I able to adopt all the wandering, homeless refugees. I can't feed all the hungry people either...not even just the starving children. And I tried, I swear I did, but I couldn't pick all the plastic out of the oceans nor could I rub all the pesticides off the produce. I couldn't blow all the smog away either. I couldn't save the rain forests or the rhinos or the honeybees or the children in Aleppo. I couldn't cool the atmosphere or end bigotry, racism, homophobia or bullying. I can't even convince anyone of anything, which makes me feel silly for trying.

But you're right, I can still be happy. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can rake the leaves, while you kick the piles and fall in the dirt and carry sticks, pine cones and rocks in your small hands.  I can wash the dishes. I can clean the floors and I can feed you. And when I feel frightened, I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can call my mother. I can hug my brother. I can kiss my father's cheek and I can soothe my sister. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can walk the dog. I can sing and dance and bake and teach and read and laugh and make you laugh. I can smile. And whenever I'm scared or sad or cross, I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again. I can weep. I can fight. I can fail. And I can run, leap and stomp. And I can suck all the air in from around me and throw it back out again.

Tonight you stand on our hope chest, built seven years ago by a dear friend, and you jump onto our bed where I've piled blankets and pillows, giggling as you land on your belly. I help you to somersault and I tickle you and kiss your face.

I can't do a lot of things I'd like, but I can try to be happy. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Seriousness and Silliness





This year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This timing is so good. We need to remember and sing his songs of protest, injustice and peace. Recently someone told me how it feels like we're back in the 1960s. When I see the protests now, I think, Look children, this is how you stand up to a bully. Sometimes it takes parades and protests, handwritten signs and song. It takes face paint and walking sneakers and courage. It takes so much courage, such bravery to tell a bully 'NO'." I've decided to share this video of me playing Dylan's tune, The Times They are a Changin'. I film it Sunday, five days after the election. Here, my daughter wears white like the suffragettes and squeals as she crawls around me on the couch. I am so grateful for her gaiety. This little taping is an accurate snippet of my life right now. While I worry and search art and the news and my heart for understanding, she lives, blissfully unaware. I need her now more than ever, to distract my seriousness with silliness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Election Night


I put our little girl to bed; wash the dinner dishes and go to the Internet. Polls are closing across the country. It is Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Election Night. I am watching and waiting for states to turn Blue, but when many go Red, I abandon my screens. My heart feels like a cassette tape unravelling, tearing and tangling my breath and blood into a mass of illegible scribbles. My stomach aches. My hands shake. My head is so full of thoughts I worry they might burst through my skull and skin to spill out into the air like a jumbled mess of wails and incomplete sentences. I stand up and go downstairs. The dog follows. I lift my guitar and play. I need a drink but all I have are these cans of hard cider. It's too sweet, but I gulp one down anyway. My anxiety doesn't leave me then, but it prevents fear from completely pillaging me of my hope and sanity.

Late into Election Night, I am folded at the belly, holding my knees and weeping. "I feel like someone's died." I say to Scott as the news commentators tell us how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton will win. It is midnight, the start of my 33rd birthday.

Upstairs, at 2am, baby cries for me. As soon as I hear her, I decide that I'm done. There's nothing left for me to see or do tonight. I need to try and rest. Scott stays in the basement and falls asleep on the couch. I sleep with our girl until morning. I get four hours before the sun rises and she wakes me. We all go out together to walk the dog. We are slow, dragging our broken dreams behind us in sacks full of sleeplessness, disregarded history books and harassed progress.

We go out to breakfast. It is my birthday, after all, and we need to see people. The restaurant is quiet, but crowded. We hug our waitress. Scott worked here a few years back, with her. She wears black. She looks like she's been crying, but she manages to smile a little. She tells us she's in shock. We all are, we assure her. We are all tired too, sick and tired, but we need to eat and we need company. We need each other. Our 14-month-old baby girl is happy, walking around, opening and closing her soft hands in waves and pointing to the paintings on the walls and to the pictures in a book. By the time the food arrives, she's hungry, grabbing at the banana, oatmeal and egg I cut into bits and place onto her plate. I have to keep taking deep breaths to slow my heart from rattling me unconscious. I eat my breakfast and drink my coffee.

"I think, more than anything, we all need to love each other harder right now." I tell our friend, hoping it will somehow heal us.

Later, when she clears the table, she says that we're all set, that she's taken care of our bill.

What? No way. We tell her, feeling guilty and grateful.

"Love harder, right?" She says before walking away.

Yes, love harder.







Sunday, November 6, 2016

Heard in my Privacy

I trim her hair for the first time while she sits in soapy warm water. She has wispy strays that pass her ears and form a curly little tail in the back of her neck. Just a teeny trim is all I want to do. I am giving her a midday bath because the egg yoke on her lip won't wash away with a wet cloth and I'm cold and tired and sad and don't feel like leaving the house for awhile. My coffee is on the bathroom sink. It is my third cup, I think. Baby is splashing and I am singing little songs to her about boats and turtles and bubbles.............. My mind goes and goes: I know the history of my home and yet this feels like an alien occupation. I want to hide inside with my cell phone turned off, but I keep turning it back on because I am addicted to my fear, searching for a cure to calm my nerves by scouring the burning internet for camaraderie and reassurances. I want to hide and I want to seek. I want to stand on my roof and preach into every microphone and telephone and ear on the street. I want solitude. I want celebrity. I want to be heard in my privacy. I just want us to try for equality. And I want so badly for all the people that I love to understand me. I want them to listen. I will listen if they want to talk. I can't not write about this election. Even when I try to write a few simple sentences about bathing my baby, here I am again. If there is a revolution, how safe are we in these woods? If there is a civil war, my dog will not be able to protect us from bullets and looters and the lynchings of liberals. Should I keep quiet and never write again? I'm not breathing properly. It's as if my stomach has shrunk even though I keep eating nervously. They tried to tell us. Black Americans have been begging us to see the racism that is still here, but many of us whites hadn't seen it or we didn't believe that it was, or rather, is so widespread. But this disease of supremacy is real and it is like a plague except it is a disease that doesn't die with death for it is passed to children who have children who have children who have children... I wrap my child in a towel and hold her close. Her fingers and toes have wrinkles. Her teeth chatter. I hold her in my arms and take her upstairs; diaper her bottom and zip up pajamas (I'll dress her when she wakes). We read books in her bed. She is smart and strong. People say she's pretty, but I don't really care. I care mostly that she's smart and strong. So she drinks my milk, then sleeps for hours in the middle of the afternoon. When she cries, I open her door and lift her up.


It is midnight now. I wish I could sleep, but those three cups of coffee are looting my insides and stealing all my hope.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Cars and Clocks


Today while driving over our local four-lane bridge, a big white pick-up truck nearly hits me head on. I am in my left lane. He is in his left lane, right behind a little car he's trying to pass. Baby sleeps in her sunlit carseat behind me when the driver swerves into my lane, sees me, and swerves back before hurling himself into his right lane and flooring it. The thundering of his engine and the bellowing of his impatience stays with me. It sours my stomach and shakes my hands. I rarely need to hurry these days. I don't work very much. We have few appointments and meetings and so I see everyone speeding around me and it all seems incredibly silly and trivial and yet, reckless, selfish and stupid. There are mothers and babies and fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and lovers in every single car and truck.  So let's all try and honk a little less, slow down a little more and realize that our clocks will kill us if we let them. 





Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Some nights

Tonight, she falls into sleep, screaming as she plummets toward slumber. I am singing. I am humming. I am stroking her forehead and cheek until her wet eyelids finally land and her mouth goes slack and soft. The second she reaches silent sleep, I miss her.

Some nights, she fades into sleep like a fog dispersing after sunrise.  Some nights, she nurses until I am sore and empty.  Some nights, she pulls my hair or bites my arm or kicks her feet.

Some nights, she climbs off her mattress and runs for the door where the crack between our bedrooms might reveal her father lit by the desk lamp and computer screen, working..."Daddeeee" she says. He turns. The chair creeks. A sigh slips from his smile. He stands and walks to see her, crouching to press another good night kiss to her cheek.

Some nights, she stares at me until her eyes flicker shut. Some nights, she pushes my face away.
Some nights, my nose touches her ear and her whimpers turn into deep breathy whispers.

No matter how it happens, as soon as she is asleep, I want to stay. I lie beside her, lingering for a minute or for many, staring at her still baby skin. When she is asleep, I somehow seem to love her more.



Saturday, October 15, 2016

She Doesn't Know What She Doesn't Know

"There are many who hold, as I do, that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man's intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers." 
Maria Montessori: The Absorbent Mind

"Bear!" Baby says pointing toward the woods, while her father carries her down the path to buy milk from the gas station. There is no bear. However, she is convincing enough to frighten her father into spinning around and scanning the shaded tree trunks and brush for black bears. She knows bears from picture books, from soft stuffed teddies and from the pictures of panda bears, polar bears, brown, black, and grizzly bears we see in nature magazines.

"Dawwwwgeee" she says every morning when I slide open her pocket door and the dog goes in to greet her. We see so many dogs: leashed dogs, car dogs, big dogs, little dogs, sweet dogs, barking dogs, and the illustrated dogs in her books... so many fluffy, silly, droopy-tongued dawwwgeees.

"Da-deee" she calls her daddy, which she has been joyfully saying and squealing since before she reached 12 months.

"Baybee" she says, pointing to her short, round reflection.

"Mahma" she says to me now. After going off to work for a few hours, subbing in a nearby school, I return to her finally saying it, standing beside her father, pointing with pride.

"Kit-eee" she calls cats and the photographs and drawings and paintings of cats. We find cats on calendars at the grocery store, cats beneath cars in our neighborhood, cats in houses and cats in apartments... lots of cats. She likes to follow them and point and if she's close enough, she'll slap their silky backs until they run away.

She loves words just as much as she loves gravity and the sound of things crashing onto the wood floor. She loves covering her head with a blanket and running (perhaps because the game always ends with me catching her before she crashes into the coffee table). She loves reaching her fingers to the back of her mouth until her gag reflex takes over and her eyes water. She loves turning paper pages and biting cardboard pages and she loves the feel of pillows and blocks and bricks and soft noodles and shoelaces. She loves throwing a ball ("Baah") for the dog. She loves grabbing handfuls of dirt and pebbles and sand. She loves slapping the bathwater until my pants are all wet. She loves listening to her food splat on the floor and loves even more to watch the dog eat it up. She loves to sneak sticks, leaves and pine needles into her mouth. She stumbles, trips, stands and sits and would touch the whole earth if we had the time. She points and points and points, silently, waiting for me to name the object, animal or person she is staring and smiling at.

If Maria Montessori were here, she would remind me to walk slowly beside my toddling daughter as she explores the sky and ceilings above; the walls and landscapes around and the ground and floor beneath our boots or bare feet. She would remind me to be slow and patient. She'd say that she, baby, is a new person and busy with the work of natural curiosity.  She has that unconscious absorbent mind, Montessori wrote about, and she only has it until she is three years old. This time is precious. During these first years of life, she doesn't know what she doesn't know and so she spends her days, feeling her way, licking her way and babbling her way through life, stumbling into discoveries and accomplishments, which to her, are all fascinating, exciting surprises. She hunts for these experiences, satiated only when sleeping. By three years, she'll have what Maria Montessori called the conscious absorbent mind. She'll start to see that there are things she wants to learn, tasks she wants to know how to do, so she'll try then to teach herself by watching others. I'll give her lessons, but mostly she'll learn by observing and trying, fumbling, failing and succeeding.

In selfish moments, I fail to give her what she needs. I catch myself thinking that I'm the one who needs something, when really I just want it. I'm bored or busy or tired. I want us to get somewhere faster.  I want to stay sitting longer. I want her to touch her head to her pillow and immediately fall asleep. I want us to go somewhere different when she so badly needs to be right where we are. When I prevent her from doing the thing she needs to do she arches her back; digs her feet into the floor; shoves my face away from hers and she wiggles away from my hands. The first time it happened, I actually said aloud, "Oh, she's having a tantrum." It happens when she needs more time to see and touch and do something. When these moments happen, she can't move on until her senses have swallowed that knowledge. So I wait. It isn't always easy, but it is so lovely when I can sink into the slowness of presence.  Therefore, whatever she wants to do, if it is safe, I try to let her do it. She is her own explorer, discovering this life for herself, but for now I am her guide, providing maps, seat belts, snacks and a compass. 

"What an adult tells a child remains engraved on his mind as if it had been cut in marble...Since children are so eager to learn and so burning with love, an adults should carefully weigh all the words he speaks before them. A child readily obeys an adult. But when an adult asks him to renounce those instincts that favor his development, he cannot obey. When an adult demands such a sacrifice to his own personal interests, it is like attempting to stop the building of a child's teeth when he is teething. A child's tantrums and rebellions are nothing more than aspects of a vital conflict between his creative impulses and his love for an adult who fails to understand his needs. When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child's development. We should remember that a child loves us and wants to obey. A child loves an adult beyond everything else, and yet the reverse is usually heard: 'How those parents love their child!' or 'How those teachers love their pupils!...' Instead, it is really the child who loves, who wants to feel an adult near him, and who delights in attracting attention to himself: 'Look at me! Stay with me!"
-Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood




Thursday, October 13, 2016

The American Suffragettes

On November 8, 2016, I will carry my daughter into the voting booth with me. She'll be 14 months old. On August 18, 1920, (95 years before she was born), women in America got the vote. Before that happened, however, there were many men who tried to stop the inevitable progression toward gender equality. Below is a gallery of cowardice anti-suffrage cartoons that were drawn, printed and distributed to keep women quiet. They depict the suffragettes as either ugly old spinsters or child neglecting snobs.  These images are hostile, unfair and untrue. They are old and yet they are new.

"SUFFRAGETTES WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN KISSED." 
"ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF A SUFFRAGETTE
At 15 a little Pet.....
At 20 a little Coquette....
At 40 not married yet! .....
At 50 A Suffragette" 

"WHAT IS A SUFFRAGETTE WITHOUT A SUFFERING HOUSEHOLD?
ELECTION -DAY" 

"My wife's joined the Suffrage Movement, (I've suffered ever since!)" 

"WHAT I WOULD DO WITH THE SUFFRAGISTS" 


"IT WON'T BE LAWFUL FOR A MAN TO REMAIN SINGLE." 

"THE WILD ROSE, which requires careful handling" 


"With St. Valentine's Greetings,
To stop your tongue from wagging
There seems no mortal Law,
So we are glad, there's one thing left,
That can make you
HOLD YOUR JAW!" 

The 19th Amendment gives me, an American woman, the right to vote. I want to know who to thank for this nearly centenarian privilege so I've done a little research. Here's who I found. These are a just a few of the prominent suffragettes who picketed peacefully; spoke eloquently and passionately and were arrested, jailed and tortured for me and my rights.

But first...a palate cleanser from the foul posters above. 
"VOTES FOR WOMEN
For the work of a day,
For the taxes we pay,
For the Law, we obey,
We want something to say." 


1869: The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was formed in New York City by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

"The best protection any woman can have... is courage."
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton 



1872: Susan B. Anthony, along with many other women demanded the right to vote. They were arrested. Only Anthony had a trial. She was 52 years old. 

"There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers."

1884: Susan B. Anthony appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives to submit an amendment to the Constitution, which would give women the right to vote. 

"It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people -- women as well as men."
-Susan B. Anthony 










Inez Milholland was a labor lawyer, an American suffragette, a public speaker and a World War I correspondent. "I am prepared to sacrifice every so-called privilege I possess in order to have a few rights." She collapsed during a speech in Los Angeles and was rushed to the hospital. She died from pernicious anemia in 1916. She was just 30 years old. Inez Milholland's last public words were, "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" 


Inez Milholland at the Woman Suffrage Parade in 1913. 


1916, Inez Milholland...the year of her death
"FORWARD OUT OF ERROR
LEAVE BEHIND THE NIGHT
FORWARD THROUGH THE DARKNESS
FORWARD INTO LIGHT" 


1913-1920: The Suffragist, a weekly newspaper, acted as a voice for the Silent Sentinels and the National Women's Party. It was started by Alice Paul and the first editor, Rheta Childe Dorr (pictured). 


1916: Alice Paul, along with Lucy Burns, started the National Women's Party after meeting in Europe and assisting Christabel Pankhurst with the British Suffrage Movement. Alice lived 92 years, spending more than half of it as a leader for the N.W.P., fighting for equal rights between the genders. She was vocal, smart, organized and brave, enduring violent arrests and imprisonments.

"It was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote."
-Alice Paul 


1913: Alice Paul organized the Woman Suffrage Parade. Thousands of citizens from across the country gathered and walked in Washington D.C., the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The Parade's program stated: "march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded" 


1917: One night, prison guards decided to make Lucy Burns an example. She was leading a hunger strike and they didn't like that very much. So they cuffed her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her there for an entire night. Fellow suffragettes joined her by holding the bars above their heads and suffering the whole night along with her. After a few days of refusing to eat, Lucy was force fed by five people. They held her down; shoved a feeding tube up her nose and watched as she bled and bled. Lucy was arrested many times for her protests. 

"It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the issue of the right of all women to political freedom."
-Lucy Burns 



"There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it."
-Alice Paul


1917-1919: The Silent Sentinels (with the National Women's Party) picketed the White House six days a week starting in January 1917 until June 1919. They were peaceful and silent, but unjustly abused and arrested. 



"WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST OUR HEARTS - FOR DEMOCRACY. FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THEIR GOVERNMENT" PRESIDENT WILSON'S WAR MESSAGE, APRIL 2ND 1917..." 


In 1920, The 19th "Anthony Amendment" was passed, granting women the right to vote in America. Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, but her efforts and leadership have never been forgotten. 


On November 8, 2016, I will carry my daughter into the voting booth with me. There, I will vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, America's first female nominee (of a major political party) for President of United States. It is a vote for dignity, peace, intelligence, experience and equality. It is a vote for an America where LOVE wins over puny, red-faced fear (and all its manifestations: racism, misogyny, islamophobia, elitism, violence, fascism, ignorance, ignorance, IGNORANCE). This election feels like a fight between the past and the future. And I so hope the future wins. I want this wicked past to be written into our history books, titled Never EVER Again, America, printed prominently for our children to study so that they won't repeat this massive, horrid wrong. It will take incredible willpower not to scratch out his name until there is a hole in my paper ballot and pencil markings on the table, but I will restrain myself. I want my vote to count. For I vote for every suffragette who sat in jail. I vote for every sign they held; parade they marched; and feeding tube they choked down. I vote for every letter, newspaper, speech, pamphlet, poster and amendment they wrote. I vote for every woman who saw a piece of anti-suffrage propaganda and felt unworthy, voiceless and misunderstood. I vote for my future and the future of our country. 


I can't wait to show my baby girl what liberty looks like. 

Thank you suffragettes for your stamina.

This vote is for YOU.




"The day may be approaching when the whole world will recognize woman as the equal of man."
 -Susan B. Anthony







*most of the pictures are from the wonderful Library of Congress



Sunday, October 9, 2016

There is a dead bird on our deck.




I don't let baby see. It crashed into her window the day before with that surprising and yet familiar thump, but I had forgotten to look around for it. It's either a warbler or a hairy woodpecker: black beak, black eyes and black feathers with white specks. After I put Amelia to nap, I step out onto the porch, gently, as if I might startle it alive. Its insides have been cleaned out by insects. Two black flies buzz off when I take a stick and a metal bowl's edge to the fragile bird body. It shows me its smooth red gut, which looks like a halved peach after its prickly pit has been plucked from its flesh. It's beak is sharp and still, pointing down to the planks of wood beneath it as if he is averting his eyes, afraid to see that his heart is missing. After his body flies for the last time, limply landing among the dead brown leaves in the mouth of the woods, fuzzy gray feathers stick to my bowl, which I then carry inside to soak in soap and water.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Storm at the Chapel


In 1872, this place we live was established as a Methodist summer camp. In the center of the park, there is an outdoor chapel. It is moon white with metal, olive-green lamps dangling from its cathedral ceilings. The altar is a warm honey color. There is a center aisle and rows of dark blue benches with backs and brass commemorative plaques.

It had been hot and humid: so humid that the ants have returned to the cracks and the corners of our kitchen cabinets and counters; so hot that I was sleeping without blanket or sheet and with the fans humming in the bedroom windows. Last Sunday morning, I dressed baby in her white pants with polka dots and her pink t-shirt with the dog on it. I didn't bother her toes or soles with shoes or socks. I wore a tank top, stretchy exercise pants, sneakers and socks. I strapped her to my back and clicked the dog into her harness, collar and leash. We climbed up and across the trail behind our house, as we do most mornings. Soon, we left the leafy lumpy woods for the hard flat road. We walked for a little while then crossed the cement to enter another trail, but as we were about to reenter the woods, I noticed how dark it had become. The sky looked full of elephants: gray and heavy, blurring the tops of trees. We turned back and began hurrying home. Seconds later, the wind picked up and leaves and bits of branches began to fly and fall. I had no umbrella, not even a hat. The rain began: pattering and then pouring. We were a good distance from the house and so I ran. Baby's body bobbed with every step. Wind burst in and out of the standing trees: here, then over there, then suddenly everywhere all at once! These trees are old, enormous, wide and wise with branches as big as giraffes or sailboat masts and this wind threatened to loosen these limbs and toss them like pencils. I hurried as best I could, watching above me as I went, while also watching below me, dodging puddles in the dips of the dirt road. My skin was wet, but I wasn't cold yet. It was still quite warm.

I have so much more fear now that I am a mother. If I had been alone, I would have run all the way home, watching the sky for falling debris, but with little actual worry. But last Sunday morning, I was wearing baby and so I ran to the chapel for cover. The dog pulled us there then sniffed the legs of benches and the ground. I had never before let her in here for fear she'd piss in this sacred place, but she didn't.

We sat in the front row and waited. This storm would pass quickly. There's been a terrible drought. It would be fleeting like all the others.
.

.

.
But it lasted. Lasted a good while. I sat watching branches bend and fall in the distance as wind swirled bits of flora like living illustrations. I took baby out of her carrier and stood her on the pine floor altar. Her bare feet slapped as she sang songs of sounds and waddled side to side. Her skin didn't feel cold. She was fine. When the storm slowed, we got ready to leave, but then the sky surprised us again, sending down larger drops, drops that hurt a little when they hit. So we retreated to the back of the altar. I sat on the floor, while baby walked and the dog sat and whined and looked about. (She doesn't like loud wild wind. I don't blame her. It's easy to fear things we can't see or understand.) Baby was happy. Her voice echoed a little as she paced. She plopped down on her diapered bottom and stood and plopped down and stood. She walked in circles, opening and closing her mouth, picking up yellow pine needles and pointing at things.

I have been wanting to return to the Unitarian Church in town. I took her there when she was still sleeping most of the time. For two services, she slept, strapped to my belly, while I swayed and sung psalms; while I said hello and good morning to the other churchgoers and listened to the poems and prayers and a speech of stories by the reverend. Then she started sleeping less and less predictably during the day. Then she started napping at the time of the Sunday service. And once I had missed many months, I stopped trying, having convinced myself that I didn't care. Going out can feel like such hard work with a baby, especially going somewhere new where I should really have a couple dollars for a donation and the courage to speak with strangers. (I tend to either say nothing and smile to those I don't know, or say far too much, rambling on like a long cargo train at a street crossing.)

Every Sunday now, during the hour before the service, I worry and wonder:
Should we go?
Are we going?
I need to get her ready if we're going.
We aren't ready.
It's too late now.
I missed it again.
We'll try next Sunday.


But last Sunday morning, this blessed universe sent me to church. I wasn't dressed in my best, nor was I clean or fed, but that didn't matter. I didn't need my car or diaper bag or checkbook. This pretty little place of prayer invited us in and gave us safety and sweet gracious peace in the middle of a sudden storm.

While I sat, watching baby and listening to the sky holler and weep, I wondered about all the people who have sought refuge in houses of worship throughout human history: in cathedrals and little stone parishes, in mosques and monasteries and nunneries, in all kinds of temples and churches and sanctuaries. In this chapel beside the woods, there are no walls, except around the altar, and so the wind passes through the congregation as insects, birds, love or prayer might.

Today is Sunday again. When I awake, rain begins to wet the windows. I read, sing and yawn through picture books with baby in her bedroom, but the dog is anxious to relieve herself and so we dress. This week, I put baby in her bear hat, long sleeves, pants and sneakers. I wear the same as last Sunday, but with a sweatshirt. With baby strapped to my back; leash around my wrist, and our big umbrella in my hand, we leave the inside for the outside. The rain and wind are gentle. The air is warm. The clouds collect in a thin white canopy, letting in some of the morning light. We are slow today, strolling up and down the single lane roads. When we return, I wake up my husband by blending a banana and yogurt smoothie for baby. He comes down in his underwear, looking for tissues and his daughter's smile. I tell him I want to go to the service this morning, would he watch baby? Of course, he will. We'll all go to town, he suggests. He'll take baby for a walk and get breakfast, while I'm in church.

I am greeted at the great big door by smiling strangers, saying welcome. I write my name on a name tag and stick it to my denim jacket. Then I slide into the last row. I listen and try to sing along to songs I don't know. I close my eyes when the pianist plays and in the moment of meditation. When we are encouraged to introduce ourselves to our neighbors, a woman with short white hair turns around in front of me and says, "Good morning!" We introduce ourselves as we shake hands. "Have you been here before?" She asks.

"Yes, a couple times. I had a baby last August and I brought her when she was a tiny baby, but I haven't been back in months and months........(that cargo train I was telling you about)....my husband has the day off from work and so he's with her outside now."

"Oh well, welcome." She says. "We've been away for a couple weeks, ourselves. Just got back from the Cape."

I donate $2 to the collection and share the hard cover book of psalms with the woman to my right. I feel a peaceful gladness to be here in this space. After the service, I find my family in the park. Baby has been making friends and chasing birds, I'm told. As we walk to the car, I tell my husband about it. I'll go back and we'll go back together too, but never out of worry, only out of love and longing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Between her Bedtime and Mine




Once she is asleep, I tip toe out of her room, away from her ...and toward myself.

I love these nights, these quiet dark nights. There is only a pocket door between us, but during the hours when she is sleeping, I am resting.  I am inviting solitude and selfishness to seduce me like they used to; to take me away for awhile, away from my motherhood and its obligations and attentions and worry. I wander through the house, drifting from one sitting place to another. I pen letters to my grandmother or write cards or tomorrow's grocery list. I read letters and bills and email. I take breaks from the alphabet, setting my eyes on screens, toward strangers, as they try to trick me into believing the stories they show and tell. Sometimes I take slow showers then stand in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, snacking on peanut butter toast with banana, while my hair drips down my back and my toes press into the floor as if they were kissing the earth to say, "Thank you, I am grateful for your gravity." Most nights, though, I send my mind off on journeys, my thoughts romping up and down pages, while my fingers follow tapping letter after letter after letter...

Tonight, the window behind the desk faces the black woods where the crickets, tree frogs and cicadas trill together like some far off orchestra, tuning for a concert in the trees. The lamp on the desk glows a dim gold, inviting moths to settle and dust the glass with their silky, dirty wings. The dog lies down and sighs. The highway traffic down the hill rumbles and whistles. And as the baby sleeps, I realize that it is here, within these hours between her bedtime and mine, where I feel most like a grown up.



Sunday, August 21, 2016

Tree Tree Tree



“It would be too soon for us to say: Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping. But, instead of this, we anxiously ask ourselves how we can make a child sleep after the sun has risen, and how we can teach him not to take off his shoes or wander over the meadows. Where, as the result of such restraints, a child degenerates, and, becomes irked with his prison, kills insects or small harmless animals, we look on this as something natural and do not notice that his soul has already become estranged from nature. We simply ask our children to adapt themselves to their prison without causing us any trouble.”  (Maria Montessori writes in The Discovery of the Child).


I push her in the stroller along our narrow neighborhood lanes, while Penny pulls, pees, sniffs and rolls. After awhile, we go home where I leave the carriage and the dog so that I can take baby back outside, just her and me. In a week, she'll be one. Yesterday, she walked a bit on her own and today, I want to take her to the wooded path beside our house for her first hike. She's wearing a pair of sparkly sneakers with Velcro straps, white socks, striped pants and a tank top. Not quite the attire of a Jane GoodallRachel Carson or Gertrude Bell, but we won't be going very far. She holds two of my fingers as we trample up and down the slight slope of golden pine needles, brown leaves and dirt. She falls and sits and crawls and finds sticks to sneak in between her teeth. She looks up and around and smiles and babbles and points. Tree. I say. Tree. Tree. I show her five tiny pinecones. Pinecone. I say. Pinecone. Pinecone. I draw in the dirt with a small Stick Stick Stick. She copies me, holding it between her fingers and carving lines into ant tunnels and worm trenches. Ohhh wind, Amelia! Wind. Wind. Feel the Wind? She wobbles as she walks, but she's fearless even after she falls and flops onto her back. Her cheeks pink as she pants from this work of walking, squatting, sitting, and standing. She pauses, plops down in the middle of the path and pinches a yellow Leaf Leaf Leaf between her fingers before tearing it to pieces. My little explorer's eyes are bright with curiosity.      


Before I birthed her, I feared Time would trick me with distortion. I worried my seconds would be swallowed by sleep or sleepy wakefulness. Worried my minutes might speed up like a Buster Keaton comedy with my beloved bloopers snipped and left to dust and boot scuffs on the 
cutting room floor. I worried the hours, days, weeks, and months might simply go missing as if stolen by the stars, sun and this rapidly spinning earth. But this still feels like a sober speed, clear and unaltered. It feels like a year since I sat at home waiting for my body to shudder and quake, to split open and push her out. It feels like a year since I introduced her to air, since the nurse propped her warm fuzzy head beneath my breast so that she could drink milk from me for the first time. A year since I bled between my legs and wept and pleaded to a room full of doctors: Why won't she come out? after her heart rate slowed and they threatened me with emergency surgery. It feels like a year of gradually lengthening limbs and the rounding of cheeks, thighs and tummy; a year of singing silly songs our sweet Lead Belly lullaby; a year of smiling, worrying, cooing and dancing. It feels like a true year. From her first social smile to belly laughs. From wet pink gums to eight white teeth.  From banana bits to blueberries, yogurt smoothies, sunny side up eggs and bread. From her first roll to sitting straight, to crawling, to standing and now to walking. This feels like an honest year because I am excited (not woeful or weepy) for her to speak syllables, words, sentences and stories; to play games with other children; to run, climb, and jump, and to sit on my lap while I read an entire stack of picture books....but I'm in no hurry. Nature leads her and I follow. It leads her up our steep staircases; leads her to crawl laps around the coffee table, and to pull tissues out of tissue boxes and clothing out of laundry baskets and balls out of her toy box.  She is absorbing her environment as Maria Montessori said she would, absorbing it like the Dirt Dirt Dirt absorbs the Rain Rain Rain.  




Monday, August 1, 2016

The Winter Garden



Snow drapes over the mountain like the finest of lace:
Tiny stitches into snowflakes of water and ice.
The storm has passed. The sun shines bright.
A rumbling truck plow breaks through the deep white,
Causing the country road to shine quite slick
Beside the little house of stone, glass and brick, 
Where the black iron stove is lit
And packed with crackling firewood, long since split.
High on the papered living room walls,
Shelves hold picture books and mystery novels,
Cookbooks, histories, dictionaries,
Pretty catalogues about birds and trees, 
Animal tracks, gardening, poetry
And maps of forest trails for exploring.

At the upright piano, Pop sits,
Pressing pedals and keys into quiet music:
Sweet, like the smell from the kitchen stove
Where Momma chops kale and red potatoes,
And sings to the baby sleeping in her belly,
While glancing at a tattered old recipe.

At the long farmhouse kitchen table,
Six-year-old, Hadley sits, so sad and dull.

“ Oh Momma, when will winter be over?
I miss the sunshine, berries and flowers.”

“It’s awhile away. Go make what you miss.”
Momma says, leaning in for a forehead kiss.

Hadley closes her eyes and pretends that she is barefoot in the garden dirt. Removes her long sleeved shirt, unlaces her boots, peels off her socks and imagines torn-up, tangled roots and muddy gray rocks. She pictures pulling weeds and planting seeds, unfurling a blanket and picnicking on cheese, bread and strawberries. She runs to the field where the breeze blows through the summer trees and tickles her naked sunburned knees. And there on the path, she sees, the flower patch with the pretty pale pink peonies for making posies! Then on her imagination goes……to the climbing vines of red tomatoes and the fragrant purple basils, the geraniums and the pointy thistles. She imagines her bathing suit pinned to the line, her black and brass bicycle, the lake, and drippy purple popsicles. She hears fireworks, tree frogs and coyote cries, sees bonfires and blinking fireflies.

Suddenly, she opens her gray speckled eyes.
Then off to her easel, she practically flies!

Hadley paints pale posies of peonies;
The blueberry bush; wild grass; pine trees.
She paints seedlings 
And feather wings, 
Shining stars, 
And insect jars, 
Green tangling vines
And warm yellow sunshine. 

Hadley paints and paints! 
Paints until she nearly faints!


Momma sits with her books and photographs,
Collecting data and drawing up graphs. 
She’s a botanist, a plant biologist, 
a professor and field scientist. 
She’s a social justice organizer,
a mom and a vegetable gardener.

Pop is a poet and a pianist.
 He’s a bee keeper and a tree arborist.
At the local elementary school, he teaches music,
English, history, art and mathematics.
He’s a dad, an animal lover,
A feminist and a book collector.
Today, he lays with his cellphone screen lit, 
Reading newspaper stories recently writ. 

Hours later, with an empty belly,
Hadley slices bread and smears it with jelly 
(The jam she and Pop made late last summer)
…And just like that, she starts to remember…

It was so hot then when Pop stood at the sink, his hand stained blue, holding a tall lemon drink. Blueberries boiled in a pot on the stove: hot fruit jam to fill jars with pretty handwritten labels. Hadley stood beside the blueberry buckets with her tongue, lips and fingers wet with blue violet. Now months later, back in the cold white winter...

Hadley prepares a cup of peppermint tea,
Turning the comb with wildflower honey.
She slathers her bread with blue jam and butter
Momma and Pop must have gone out without her! 
At the sink, she washes her dishes and sees, 
Out the window surrounded by snow and trees,
Are her sweet, precious parents, her family.  
Hadley puts the kettle back on for more tea. 

Hadley finds socks in her oak wood dresser,
Long johns and her softest sheep wool sweater. 
She wraps her scarf; ties the laces of her boots,
Puts on her knit hat and puffy snowsuit.
She buttons the buttons of her jacket;
Grabs mittens and the empty kindling basket.

Steam rises from the mugs like clouds in the wind.
When they see Hadley, her parents pause and grin. 

“Tea for you.” She says, holding out her tray.  

“Thank you! Ready for a little work and play?” 

Hadley gathers sticks from beneath spindly trees;
Fills the bird feeders with lots of little seeds;
She throws snowballs as far as she can;
Runs, tumbles, makes a fort and a silly snowman.
She sweeps the porch and brushes off the wood pile,
Shovels the garden path and wipes off the sundial.
Hadley coasts down the hill in her long, planked toboggan
Until the sun sinks behind their great pine forest mountain.

Sweaty and sleepy, Hadley lays in the snow,
Thinking about her day and the new thing she now knows: 
Even though it is late winter
And cold and windy and dark as ever,
Inside, she can be cozy, busy and happy 
And, if she wears her layers well and warmly,
The outside, too, is a delightful place to be.