Wash All Their Feet

grace maloney w her new baby 1915

I am very moved that the Pope washed the feet of women in a detention center, for who couldn’t use a blessing like that and a woman shut away from her children; who suffers more?

I lived for the first ten years of my life up in an old Boston house on whose porch this picture was taken. My grandfather bought it in 1913 for his four little children and this new wife Grace, who you see to the left and below.

grace k. maloney collegeFormerly a spinster teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, she was also the sister of his first wife Carrie, who died in 1910 from pre-eclampsia while carrying the couple’s fifth child, a stillborn daughter now buried in her arms.

This house, though built in the 1880s, was new to these newlyweds and for them it carried all the promise in the world. It was there that they welcomed their own new baby, seen here, and who knew that this tall former teacher would also follow her sister into early death, now leaving six people in that house with all their sorrow?

It was also the house from which my mother was married at 38, by then a spinster herself in the eyes of the world. Two years later, when she came to understand that her husband was truly abandoning her, it was the house to which she returned, with a baby at her knees and another on the way.

I was that second baby. My sister Nan was the first. We three lived in this house along with that same grandfather and his mild sister Margaret and his true-spinster sister-in-law Mame, still grieving the loss of her two dear sisters. We all lived there until that good man died and the aunties needed nursing care and then we moved.

Thirty years later, dawn by dream and memory, I went back to this house, which by then was serving as a pre-release center for women getting out of prison. I visited there again and again and in so doing came to know the women a little.

Most of them were mothers.  According to the Family and Corrections Network of the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners between 1995 and 2005, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by 57%, compared to 34% for men. And 75% of all incarcerated women are mothers.

The mothers in my old Boston house on the Roxbury-Dorchester line were permitted to have their  babies with them, just on weekends, but the house needed more cribs. As it happened, I was just finishing up with the crib I found on the Want Advertiser and bought for $20,  refinished and used for my own three babies.

I refinished it again and brought it to this house, now latticed with fire escapes, but otherwise looking not very different from the way it looked in 1913 as the pictures below will attest. So would I who am not the Pope wash the feet of an incarcerated person, whether man OR woman? Would I perform that humble gesture that says ‘I am at your service’?  You bet I would.

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32 charlotte street dorchester MA

We’ll Always Have Paris: On Hanging In

T&D happy in parisWhat Mindy Kaling says about her parents’ marriage is all well and good but are WE pals, the many rest-of-us coupled up and marching together in life? Based on my experience, here’s how you can tell:

You’re pals if you started married life thinking it was funny to throw cups of cold water from the bathroom sink over the shower curtain and onto your spouse, all nice and toasty and soaped up in there.

You’re pals if, even decades later, you both still laugh when one of you reaches for the drinking cup while the other is just stepping into the shower

The two of you are pals if you say nothing about the fact that a CERTAIN PERSON in the marriage never, ever wipes off the sink after shaving, leaving puddles that drip down to leave white marks on that nice wooden vanity you had to really stretch to buy.  (You used to say plenty about this habit, but your remarks had no effect so you gave up. “Pick your battles,” wise older souls have told you all along and now you get what that means.

You’re pals if that person says nothing about the fact that for some reason you can no longer cook a meal without opening all the doors to the kitchen cabinets and then leaving them open. (It’s a mystery why you do this. “Creative ferment?” you try telling your spouse, who just gives you that studiedly neutral look on seeing them and before quietly going around shutting them all.

You’re pals – and you can stay pals – if you can master this neutral look, as it is far safer than a smile, which can be seen as a smirk, or a gloat, or what it usually is: the ill-fitting mask for a scowl.

In fact in the name of marital accord you must ban many looks, from the I-Told-You-So look to the I’m-a-Saint-For Putting-Up-With-You look. Facial expressions like these send malevolent veils out into air that twist and curl and choke off all good will in a marriage.

Kaling says no, she never did see her parents gazing into one another’s faces – unless perhaps her mom was administering drops to her dad’s eyes. She says gazing isn’t necessary when you are pals and I think she’s right. If you hang in long enough to become pals you can tell how the other one’s day has been, just at a glance.

When I first got married, my mom started referring to my husband as ‘Silent Sam,’ as a joke, just because, unlike the rest of us in the family, he didn’t feel the need to talk until his listeners all lapsed into comas. Maybe I too wished he talked more at first, but after a time I began to ‘get’ him.

I remember thinking he didn’t care that much for our little cat – until after she went missing for several days. Then one morning she suddenly popped out of the bushes. “Here she is!” he cried from where he stood in our driveway and just for a second I saw his knees buckle with relief.

I think Mindy’s exactly right: Spend enough time living right close to people and you can’t help starting to love them . And gazing and pretty speeches hardly come in to it at all.

Oh and that’s us, above . November of 2004, Paris. Gooood time!

C’mon Married People

mindy kalingI just finished reading Mindy Kaling’s 2012 book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns, a part-memoir, and part-general-musings-kind of a book that dances right on the edge of the funny and the moving.

Mindy stars in The Mindy Project on FOX, but for many seasons prior she has also played the inimitable Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s blockbuster hit, The Office. She has, in also written, directed and co-produced many episodes of both shows. No flies on this girl!

One short section of the book shows what I mean about her ability to both amuse us and touch us. It’s about marriage, and her parents’ marriage in particular. She says her parents get along because they are pals. They like to talk about the same things.

“In my parents’ case, they can spend and entire day together talking nonstop about rhododendrons and Men of A Certain Age, watch Piers Morgan, drink a vanilla milkshake and go to bed.”

I should point out that the name of this section is “C’mon Married People” and in it she talking directly to us wedded folk.

She begins by saying she doesn’t want to hear about the endless struggles to keep the ‘spark’ in marriage or about the work it takes to plan date night.

Instead,

“I want to hear that you guys watch every episode of The Bachelorette together in secret shame, or that one got the other hooked on Breaking Bad and if either watches without the other, they’re dead meat….

I want to see you guys high-five each other like teammates on a recreational softball team you both do for fun. I want to hear about it because I know it’s possible, and because I want it for myself.”

That right there. That’s the what I mean about the disarming double tone:  “I want to hear about it because I know it’s possible, and because I want it for myself.”

She says, she guesses that “happiness can come in a bunch of forms, and maybe a marriage with tons of work makes people feel happy. But part of me still thinks… is it really so hard to make it work? What happened to being pals?

 “I’m not complaining about Romance Being Dead – I’ve just described a happy marriage based on talking about plants and a canceled Ray Romano show and drinking milkshakes; not exactly rose petals and gazing into each other’s eyes at the top of the Empire State Building. I’m pretty sure my parents have gazed into each other’s eyes maybe once, and that was so my mom could put eye-drops in my dad’s eyes.”

Funny, right?

“I’m not saying that marriage should be easy, but we get so gloomily worked up about it these days.”

And that part’s surely true, is it not?

“Maybe marriage IS work,” she says, “but you may as well pick work that you like.So “Married people it’s up to you. It’s entirely on your shoulders to keep this sinking institution afloat. It’s a stately old ship, and a lot of people, like me, want to get on board. Please by psyched, and convey the psychedness to us.

And always remember, she ends by saying, “so many, many people are envious of what you have. You’re the star at the end of the Shakespearean play, wearing the wreath of flowers in your hair. The rest of us are just the little side characters.

And there it is: a sweet, funny and sage perspective on marriage from a single girl. Next in this space: Companion thoughts on marriage from someone more than 40 (?!) years in.

You’re the Jackass

tim olyphant as raylanThought for the day, paraphrasing Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens from the FX series Justified: “You run into a jackass today, OK you ran into a jackass. You run into jackasses all day long, you’re the jackass.” (Only Raylan uses a more vivid word for it.)

How right he is though: Some days all you want to do all day long is pick a fight with people, only you don’t know that’s what you want. You think the people who irritate you are just idiots. even if they happen to be people you love, and you’re dying to tell them so.

It’s happened to me more than once, but now I have Raylan’s maxim to help me get right in my head.

I mean to use it too. Because what’s true is that on most of those days when you’re trying to pick a fight every minute the whole time what you really need  but can’t seem to ask for… is a hug.

Humans! When will we learn ?

I need a hug

The Pit – and The Pendulum Too

ThePit & The Pendulum by ShawThis was me Sunday night, all but the rats: I was so sick I thought I was dying. That’s exactly how you do feel when those steel walls of pain close in on you, like they did for the poor sucker in “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe. Here come the room’s walls, shoving you like dirt before a backhoe, closer and closer toward this yawning oubliette-style hole that has suddenly opened in the center of your pain – and let’s not forget that special blade of a pendulum that starts lowering down from the ceiling on the poor guy.

I could feel that too, in my delirium, tickling the fibers of my pj’s, then starting to slice me neatly open.

What did our friend Emily Dickinson say? Pain has an element of blank, It cannot recollect When it began, or if there were A day when it was not. She was right about that, boy. Past and future fall away when pain is extreme.

I tried to think of all the tasks and projects I had planned for the day and could not even remember what they were.

I felt like Job on the dung heap.

Like Job scraping his boils, and listening to that trio of distinctly uncomforting comforters who showed up and started proposing reasons for his suffering. You deserve this, I kept thinking, and really it’s not hard to think you do deserve many of the blows Fate deals you. In my case I have to look no further than the self-satisfied tone of my last postOh! I swapped out some colors and re-arranged the decor in my little burrow!  What a clever little foxy am I!

my life in the burrow fantastic fox

(That’s me on the right, the girl-looking one, admiring my walls. )

It was a terrible night anyway, with some vividly extra terribleness toward dawn. But then ….

As quickly as it came the pain left, and one again I felt skipped over by the Grim Reaper; passed over as the ancient Jews were passed over by the Angel of Death so 4,000 years ago today. and happy be set down on the safer shores of that wide Red Sea; once again on the shores of Health and the blessed dullness of everyday life.

What Weekends Are For

This chest of drawers is from the 1820s, meaning that it’s even older than my own chest ha ha. Thus I knew I should exercise care in replacing its one missing knob.

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I had bought it just last Monday in a used furniture store and nicked and flawed as it is, I could still see its beauty. It reminded me of the sort of chest where our girl Emily Dickinson might have hidden away her sewn-together packets of poems.

This past weekend I was up early both days in my quest to find the true artist who coud use his lathe to ‘turn’ a new knob for me, out of mahogany like the other nine knobs. Ad didn’t I find him thanks to a series of recommendations  that brought me at 9am on those two days to two different parking lots in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. The first day the man studied one of the intact knobs that I had brought along and less than 24 hours later here he was again with what looked like its exact replica, which he had made with his own hands.

Lately I’ve been trying really hard to focus on the fact that weekends are for stopping your antlike work a while and looking around some. I looked at the stats page for this blog and saw with some alarm that as of last Friday I had written some 1300 posts here. Ant indeed!

So instead of writing, or answering emails, or responding to Facebook messages and besides making those two forays at knob replacement, I basically sat in one room reading and thinking and listening to music.

I hung this print of a semi-famous Impressionist painting on the wall.

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I found I didn’t like it much anymore and thought to give it a try in a new place. I decided that the problem was its gold frame which seemed a bit over the top to me so I borrowed the belt from David’s bathrobe and hung it along the side to see if it would benefit from a darker frame.

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Then I read some more and thought some more and listened to music some more while ‘auditioning’ this look – well, that is until David wandered into the room to ask me if I had any idea where the belt to his bathrobe might be.

I gave it back to him but that was fine: i knew by then what I would do.

And so on my way back from meeting the wood-turning genius for the first time I stopped at the hardware store, bought some Espresso-colored paint and painted the frame. So much better, right?

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And while I was there I also got some nice dark woodstain to address the old chest with. I applied it as well to a chair that has grown pale and bald with 60 years’ sitting in sunny rooms and is now darkly handsome again and awaiting only some fresh upholstery for its seat, the work of ten minutes since I have the goods already.

So in short it was a pretty nice weekend. And if anyone wants the contact info for the gifted woodworker Steven Crane, well, just let me know and, with his permission, I’ll get it to you right away. 🙂

Happy Weekend!

We drove to our place up north for 48 hours. The week is over and I am SIGNING OFF for two days!

My advice for everyone out there? Exercise caution at all times:  Don’t let the cat near your fine silk drawers, use nothing stronger than Woolite on your dainty washables and read all labels lest you rub Liquid Silk into your hair thinking it’s your Thermal-Protectant Conditioner. Beyond that you’re on your own.

We just got to this summer place in the woods where it sure don’t look like summer now.

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I just watched two deer nibbling desperately on whatever tiny patches of greenery they can find at snowbank’s edge and the wind is making this kind of mischief with the trees.

I also just opened what I thought was a cheap bottle of red from the famous Marotta cellar of cheap reds at the back of the bedroom closet. Turns out to be a very nice Shiraz from the year 2000. (What did I say about reading the labels?) Now we have to make the night worth the wine. 🙂

Happy weekend everyone. Tomorrow I’m buying lettuce for those deer. This one looked at me for so long as I stood not 12 feet from him at the edge of night here, I felt abashed. I was the one to withdraw first, leaving him to his  private yearning.

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The Full Glass

Updike Witches of Eastwick

It was john Updike’s birthday Tuesday, and how could I have missed that fact, he being a fellow Pisces and I owing such a debt to him for teaching me to ‘tell’what I see.

Look at the words of the narrator he gave life to in his story “The Full Glass,”  published in The New Yorker in 2008. I loved it so much on first reading it, I scanned the whole thing so I could keep it always.

It begins “Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately”  which seems so sad now because the man who created this piece never saw 80. He was dead less than a year after its publication.

Then further down on that first page:

Now that I’m retired…I watch myself with a keener attention, as you’d keep an eye on a stranger who might start to go to pieces any minute. Some of my recently acquired habits strike me as curious. At night, having brushed my teeth and flossed and done the eyedrops and about to take my pills, I like to have the water glass already full. The rational explanation might be that, with a left hand clutching my pills, I don’t want to fumble at the faucet and simultaneously try to hold the glass with the right. Still, it’s more than a matter of convenience. There is a small but distinct pleasure, in a life with most pleasures levelled out of it, in having the full glass there on the white marble sink-top waiting for me, before I sluice down the anti-cholesterol pill, the anti-inflammatory, the sleeping, the calcium supplement (my wife’s idea, now that I get foot cramps in bed, somehow from the pressure of the top sheet), along with the Xalatan drops to stave off glaucoma and the Systane drops to ease dry eye. In the middle of the night, on the way to the bathroom, my eye feels like it has a beam in it, not a mote but literally a beam—I never took that image from the King James Version seriously before….

and then, of that one glass of water…

That healthy sweet swig near the end of the day has gotten to be something important, a tiny piece that fits in: the pills popped into my mouth, the full glass raised to my lips, the swallow that takes the pills down with it, all in less time than it takes to tell it, but tasting of bliss.

From there he goes on to describe the bliss he felt as a young person, who  woke up inside his life and like any person does and takes joy in all five of his senses.

I read Rabbit Run when I was 12; it’s how I found out how sex works.

But it wasn’t the sex that kept me reading. It was always the way he made you see what he was describing; the way he made you feel you were right there beside the characters he was moving through their own special world. A letter carrier who passed me crossing the street said it, when he saw me in 1990 toting my brand-new copy of his autobiography  Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike. “Hey I read that!” that man called out to me is we passed each other on the crosswalk. “That John Updike can make even psoriasis sound interesting!”

He  sure made the world interesting for me. I told him so in a fan letter I sent along with the story I had written of my mother’s sudden death. I was responding to one of his short stories, again in The New Yorker, that was very obviously about the death of his own, real, mother. He wrote me back four days later , on a postcard, with a remark so kind that more than two years later when I was writing my first book I wrote a second time to ask if I could use his quote on the jacket .

“Ok on the quote.  Good luck with the book,” he wrote back, again by postcard, again not four days after I wrote him.

He was like that is all I can say: generous, and decorous and kind. The world of letters is surely the poorer without him.

Take six minutes and read “The Full Glass” now why not, which now, five years after publication, is available for anyone, just by clicking here.

john updike young

New Day

I feel OK about the new foot of snow because look what I had this morning: A sunup like this, all that warm buttery light just beginning to play on the face of the house across the street.

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That and the crocuses, ready to push up through the snow once again and brandish their short pale-purple swords. ( I know they’re under there; I saw their tips just the other day.)

How can we NOT hope now, with the days at last longer than the nights?

Here is my favorite poem about faith in things unseen. The last line is just the best in my book.  The poem is called Green Feathers and it’s by Reg Saner:

Five minutes till dawn and a moist breath of pine resin comes to me as from across a lake.

It smells of wet lumber, naked and fragrant.

In the early air we keep trying to catch sight of something lost up ahead,

A moment when the light seems to have seen us Exactly as we wish we were.

Like a heap of green feathers poised on the rim of a cliff?

Like a sure thing that hasn’t quite happened?

Like a marvelous idea that won’t work? Routinely amazing –

How moist tufts, half mud, keep supposing almost nothing is hopeless.

How the bluest potato grew eyes on faith the light would be there.

And it was.

All that faith! AND the lush image of moss!

Now to pull my boots back on and dig out more of these sword-blades.

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Not What I Expected

the violin and the pianoI thought Sunday was all about St. Patrick’s Day so when I got to church and saw a fiddle on the cushioned pew seat up front I thought,  “Wow, we’re going to have reels! Maybe even some step-dancing!”

But I was wrong in several ways that day.

First, in my attempt to wear green and still be warm on a mighty frosty morning, I wore a green wool scarf along with my fake-emerald pendant. I felt so good about the green AND the fact that I would actually be getting to church on time that I asked David to take my picture, which he very nicely did. The only problem was, I had put on one green earring and one purple one, which I didn’t realize ’til I looked closely at the photo.

But that wasn’t my only wrong assumption, as I say. I was wrong as well about the fiddle music. The violin that lay on that first pew seat at the front of the church was there because this was to be a Healing service, something that I had forgotten had been scheduled for this third Sunday in March.

I hadn’t expected when I arrived that I would soon see people filing quietly toward three healing stations in the sanctuary while a woman played that violin, accompanied by the organist/fill-in choir director who sat at the piano beside her. I had been to a healing service 20 years before at the height of the AIDS crisis and remembered the way people had come from all over Metropolitan area to be at it, some of them very visibly sick with the scourge that AIDS was in the early 90s.

I hadn’t expected to feel so moved as I watched the folks seeking healing sit in the designated chair as two people on either side and the person directly in front leaned in to hear what each had to say. Some spoke of what they needed healing for and some just bowed their heads to indicate they sought general prayers and the blessing that would follow.

In both cases, for me in the fifth pew, the sound of their whispers was as the sound of water over stones in a springtime brook.

So there were several surprises for me on that day. Sure I’m always sorry to miss a chance to hear an Irish reel but the sweet sobbing of the violin more than made up for any sense of loss on that score.

Here now is Greg Scott playing Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell, a tune we associate with the dim past because Ken Burns used as it the theme song for his documentary The Civil War. In fact it was written just 30 years ago. Listen to it now and think how for all the old beauty Creation shows us there is also much new beauty. Then think how, as my church teaches, revelation abounds, and God surely IS still speaking in this world.