Not So Spooky

IMG_2422It’s not just that Halloween comes around now. You’re drawn to the spooky anyway at this season, with the bones of the world emerging through the trees; the branches scratching like dead man’s fingers at window panes icy to the touch.

When I was little, we went once with our cousins to a tall old ruin of a house, abandoned and alone on a hill. We stole inside and crept around. We looked down the parched throat of a long-gone toilet. “See that rusty stuff in there?” the eldest among us said. “That’s blood!” We shrieked, and bolted, and ran all the way home.

Funny: I live in a house like that now, though it teems with life still. I sit by the hour in the little window seat of its second-floor study.  Just outside the glass, when there’s a wind, the ivy outside waves like the Queen at the parade passing before it.  In summer, the ten-thousand hands of its leaves are shiny-green. Now they are red-tipped, or vermilion throughout.

 “Ivy rots the shingles!,” the experts shout when the talk turns to house-painting.  “Ivy is ruinous!”

 “Tell it to the birds,” I think, the birds who shelter and practice their scales there, all safe and hidden in its rustling depths.

 Once a decade, the painters come and strip the ivy to the ground. But almost before the year is out, it has grown back, clear to the roof, nearly – and we secretly cheer it on.

When David and I were in our twenties and babies still in every way, we bought a little apple orchard way up in Maine that belonged to a dead man named Luce.  This land was inexpensive because it had no electricity and no water on it.  The old man, who had been born on the land, sold it for not much money to some city-slicker who immediately doubled the price and sold it to us. Shortly after this, Luce died. Some said it was the humiliation that killed him.

 A neighbor that first year asked us if he could graze his cows on our land; it would keep the grass down, he said. Sure, we told him, and went back to building a cabin that looked like the Three Little Pigs’ House of Sticks.

 We used to go there for weekends, and cows as big as oil burners watched us as we set fire to our steaks, to our marshmallows,  to our very selves, on some nights. After eating, they watched us walk the orchard’s 20 acres.

We often stopped to wonder at the clump of vegetation growing together by the road –  birch and aspen, and a riot of blackberry – a strange sight on this land, cleared but for the tidy rows of apple.  Finally, one day we looked closer: The growth sprang from a cellar-hole, the foundation of the house where Old Man Luce was born.

Structures crumble, the message seems to be, but loveliness grows up from the ruins. And though Winter seems like death to us now,  it is only Winter. Would the noble geese leave us had they not made reservations for next year’s visit?

The part of our house covered in ivy is a small turret capped at the top by a pointy princess-hat of a roof. Under it, on the second floor, is my curve-ended study with its window seat. Under that is the equally arc-shaped end of the living room where we put the Christmas tree each year.

“When I die, lay me out here inside the curve of this turret,” I used to tell our kids. Never mind rented men in a set of rented parlors, I say. “Invite the world, give ’em lots of food and drink, and laugh as much as you like. “

“OK!” they answer in chipper fashion. They don’t find it strange or macabre, because they were kids, and kids understand this truth best of all: the Old Growth dies to make way for the New.  

Scary? Nah, it’s not scary.That little cat at the top is mostly just …curious!

A Wider Sky

eve the ginkgoIt’s silly the way we all dread what we think is coming when the really big tigers sneak up on us all unawares and bite our throats out before we know what hit us.

Macabre-sounding I know but hey it’s Halloween week, and didn’t the opening episode of AMC’s Walking Dead just have post the highest viewer numbers in the history of something or other.

When I wrote here last Monday I thought I would have to joke around continually this week so as not to feel the sadness I thought I would feel when give of our trees fell to the woodcutter’s blade. 

And in fact it was pretty sad.

I went outside when I saw them out front. The main tree guy of the three-guy team saw my face as he perched high in the 60-foot maple that was once so young and wobbly it needed wire cables to hold it upright  

“Now it’s just a little off the top for these trees out front, right?’ I said to him, wanting to be as certain as the surgeon is when he says “So today we’re operating on your LEFT arm, is that right?” They would be pruning the ginkgo too.

“Just a little off the top!” he called down happily. “Yeah that’s probably what they say when they sit you down in the electric chair too. “

He laughed, but a tad uneasily as it seemed to me. “Nutcase,” he was probably thinking. On the other hand, he knew as well as I did that he and his men would soon be donning the executioner’s hood to cut into the healthy flesh of five tall white pines out back. 

I fled the scene. I knew I couldn’t watch. I stayed away all day: went to an exercise class, wrote in my car and walked round and round the little pond whose beauty I captured in this post.

But when I got home at last I was surprised to find that the place looked pretty good with the five tall pines down. David wanted to cut them because they were impeding the growth of tress that we just plain cherished more: the two crimson maples that hold the birds every season as a beautiful woman loosely holds a strand of pearls; the evergreen an old friend gave us on the occasion of our son Michael’s birth; the once-small-and-slender elm our daughter Annie asked for as a present for her 16th birthday. These were spared.

We’ll need to plant some things – shrubs to hide our homely cars from view and maybe those gorgeous sea grasses currently in fashion   – sure, but all in all it’s an improvement. See if you don’t think so too.

This is the corner of the lot before:

corner of the lot - before

And this is the corner of the lot now:

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This is the view of our driveway before:

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And this is the view of our driveway now:

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Oh I don’t know. Maybe I don’t really like it better. But life demands we make choices. And I’ll admit I wake wake almost elated these mornings, to look outside and find I live now under a wider sky.

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WHAT NEXT?!

IMG_2299Anything can happen and maybe that’s kind of good, if only because it keeps us on our toes.

By now  we’re so ‘on our toes’ around here, we could dance Swan Lake.

It all started in August, when the shower pan in the upstairs bathroom ‘failed,’ as they say in the drip-and-leak business. and water dripped so steadily down it made the map of Madagascar on the ceiling below.

Also, back then, a bird flew out from under our TV. How she got inside is anybody’s guess. All we know is she was too big to crawl through whatever dime-sized opening it was that let that bat in four weeks earlier.

Yup, a bat. We had a bat too, with its wee fangs and that sober little J. Edgar Hoover of a face.

He may have gained entrance by worming his way in under one of the air conditioners, which we set in such old wide windows we have to use a world of cardboard and duct tape to seal things up each year.

Which rarely works, despite our best efforts.

We never did catch J. Edgar, in spite of the tennis racquets and fishing nets we had at the ready.

They worked on the bird however, who was nicely escorted back outside, though not before writing  a ‘review’ of the TV show then airing, right smack on that pretty plasma screen.

What else now? A kind of amnesia takes over when so much goes awry.

Ah yes! Our old refrigerator almost fell through the kitchen floor when it was discovered that the thick beams beneath it, sturdily nailed together in the days when houses were made to last, looked like nothing so much as flakes of canned tuna.  

Then, a week ago, the furnace announced itself broken.

But all this was nothing compared to what happened last Monday night, when, at 11pm, burning-hot water began gushing out from under the sink as one of us was doing dishes and the rest were wiping down the counters and putting things away. The hot water just suddenly stopped coming from the faucet.

“HEY! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOT?” this someone said.

Then, not three seconds later, scalding water began coursing around his ankles.

Ten seconds after that, the scalding tide had filled the cabinet under the sink and was fountaining all over the floor – and because our house tilts after 118 years of standing in one place, the flood was speeding fast toward the living room.

It seems the feed pipe for the hot had simply exploded.

There ensued some Three-Stooges-style yipping and running around in circles. With a near-boiling Niagara in the way, we couldn’t reach in under and turn off the water supply under the sink, so instead ran for towels and mops.

We knew we had to get to the cellar and turn off the main water valve but then more yipping and running around in circles took place when we realized we didn’t know just WHERE that valve was.

What a mess. What a cleaning-up task to begin upon at almost midnight. And we had to take every single thing out from the cabinets and place it all on the counter.

But when so much goes wrong in a two-month span, you can’t focus on the bad. You have to focus instead on the good: all the fauna have moved out, the systems are hum along, and the pipe, thank God, didn’t explode later when we were at work or, God forbid, away for the weekend..

Had that happened I’d be writing all this from the Red Roof Inn and mourning the loss of three rooms of flooring , 30 years’ worth of treasures in the basement and the last remnants  of my sanity.

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A Little off the Top?

I’m a baby I guess but hearing that they were going to take down five trees in my yard about broke my heart when I heard about it out on Monday.

I ran away that day; couldn’t bear to be around my old friends knowing that these were there last days. After all, we have been together since 1985.

 Then yesterday I was on the run anyway and wouldn’t let myself think of it.

 Today though, Boston Tree Preservation arrived at 8 AM and got right to work .

 I’ll  have better pictures tomorrow when I have regained my composure, but here’s some video of what is going on in my yard right now. The pruning: that’s the stage they’re at now. The executions themselves are complete. 😦

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Saved by the Joke

Josh tutoring at 826 BostonWhen you feel life’s stinging side is when you reach for relief through humor.  

I cheered myself right up not long ago when I was transporting seven teenage boys who are part of my life into the city where they tutor young schoolchildren.

They  love doing this. The children they help look up at them with the shiniest eyes, thinking, as I imagine, This is how I will look in just eight more years! – Like Hazees here! Or Machias! Or Tobi, or  LaVon or Gamaral or  Enderson or Bryson!’  One child always sets a small hand on his older helper’s hemp bracelet and slowly turns it as they work.

I mean who wouldn’t be in high spirits after outings like this? 

I’m always in high spirits too as we make our way home through the by-then rush-hour traffic. We listen to Bob Marley and Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake and Marvin Gaye. They joke and catnap, talk and sing along. 

One day though we were on the last leg of the journey, navigating the curves and dips on road that constitutes the final leg of the journey  to lands us at last in our town, which is when one of the boys said “your car smells today.”  “Yeah it does,” said another. “I ‘m getting it too’” said a third. “It’s like rotting vegetables.  

“It does not!” I said.  

“Kinda though , Terry. It kinda does,” they said  one said and they all laughed some more.

So, what could I do but go funny: 

Oh yeah?” I said as we sailed down the last lap of that hilly road. “Well I’ve been drinking heavily, how do you like that?! Also….  I cut the brakes .” 

They laughed appreciatively at the absurdity of both ideas and we were off the topic of my sweet little girl of a minivan.

I was hurt by the remark about her, sure. And to be honest I generally DO have some old forgotten piece of fruit huddled under the seats festering away. But hey: If you’re the grownup and you’re spending time with young people the last thing you should do is make them feel they have to take care of your emotions.

Saved by humor again, as I hope to be so saved for many more years to come.

crazy driving

Took a Walk. Had Some Thoughts

IMG_2395I’ve spent the whole day so far walking and letting various thoughts rise to the surface.

‘What weather!’  was my first thought. Also my fourth, 15th and 98th. Then  ‘How lovely these living creatures look, highlighted in their supple beauty against the drying landscape.’

I listened to podcasts for much of the time I was walking  and from one such learned that comic Lenny Bruce had this to say about the craft of standup, which he was allowed to practice for only so long before they dragged him off the stage and arrested him. (This was of course was in those far meeker Days of Yore, before a six-year-old you could hear such language at any hour you care to name on television.)

He said the role of the comic was to say something funny at least every 15 seconds.

“Tall order!” was all I could think hearing that, even as a person who used to write funny stuff all the time.

If my heart hurt, I wrote funny. If I were bored, I wrote funny. But I found I could also ‘go funny’ when I felt so happy that my face was in danger of falling off what with all the smiling it was doing.

When someone loves you and the audience is with you, it’s easy to be funny. That’s pretty key to it, I have found. You also need the chance to speak in order to be funny. It’s hard to be funny when no one is listening to you. I remember sitting at the family supper table as a four-year-old with my grandfather, two great aunts, my mother, my aunt and my older sister. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise at those meals, and began stammering badly in an effort to be heard. Until my mother made everyone keep silent a minute and listen to me, I used to have to do physical comedy to get any attention at all, mostly a takeoff of the lady in the Playtex girdle ad.

What IS humor anyway and why do we need to produce or ‘consume’ it? Maybe I’ll think a little about that this coming week. I’ve got a little loss heading in my direction so maybe it’s time to turn jokey.

In the meantime, here’s poor Lenny Bruce, who never did get over being silenced and died two years later of heroin addiction.

 

We Learn as We Go

A week is made by many small exchanges but here is one that has colored all my thoughts.  It came when, arriving back home after an appointment, I opened an email from someone I had offended with my words.

The offense occurred in a column I wrote the week before last about life’s many surprises. In it I had joked, at the end of a string of short humorous anecdotes, that the meds, which I called ‘feel-good pills’, given to my friend’s cat after some oral surgery, sounded pretty good to me and, as I heard it, could be had for ten bucks a pop on the street. 

It was a quip. It was a throwaway line. And it wasn’t at all funny, as this reader made clear. 

“While I enjoyed the intent of the above column,” she wrote, “I was very disappointed in the ending line about the cost of a ‘feel-good pill’ on the street.  Seven weeks and three days ago, my 35-year-old daughter passed away after buying such a pill on the street.  I don’t know if it cost 10 dollars or 10 cents, but what I do know is that it ended her life.  Your ending was a less than sensitive attempt at humor.”

I felt sick reading this, and hit ‘reply.’

“I am so sorry,” I wrote to her. “You know, when I first typed that last sentence I felt a little tingling on my arms and thought THAT’S not what you want to say. But then a day passed and I had a houseful of people and when, just before my deadline on Friday afternoon, I went back to look for any typos, I somehow failed to read for meaning. Anyway, I never cut that part out.” 

I knew even as I wrote this, that it was no kind of excuse This person’s child had lost her life doing something I had made a foolish and irresponsible joke about.

Somehow though, the lady appeared to be forgiving me, as an immediately following email showed.

 “Terry, thank you for your kind response,” she wrote. “I prayed you would take my remarks in the heartfelt way I intended.  My daughter helped so many people in her three-and-a-half years of sobriety. Her viewing was attended by nearly 1,000 people who waited almost two hours to pay their respects. We were blessed to have had her. She fought a really good fight but eventually made a bad decision that cost her her life. Our hearts are broken yet I believe she is whole, once again.” 

“If you are interested and you have a free moment, take a look at the funeral home’s website – she included the link – “and see the endless comments made about her and the impact she had on so many lives. She truly mattered and for that we are grateful.”

Then she thanked me for allowing her to share. Thanked me, after my offense. Thanked and forgave me both. 

I can’t recall ever having been the beneficiary of such generosity of spirit.

Nor can I recall having ever been offered such a clear lesson of how careful we must always be about how our words ‘land’ on the people within our hearing.

And talking of things learned, here’s another truth that this exchange helped me remember: namely that those people who have lost most are often the most compassionate people. Suffering scrapes the heart raw, and at first seems to hollow it out entirely. But then, by some grace beyond our understanding, it can somehow, sometimes, fill again, fuller than it was before.

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