Two Months Back

girl readingTwo months ago now, just at that moment of the deep dive into true summer, I went out and bought a fat book to celebrate the season. It was about Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great philosopher and Transcendentalist, and it had a wonderful title: “Emerson: The Mind on Fire: it was called.. I remember that there was a wild cloudburst as I drove to the bookstore, found this volume and forked over the full $35 for this book. The price seemed worth it to me though; I think that for me it symbolized these ten delicious weeks of school’s-out freedom.

And it certainly started out in lively enough fashion, recounting how a year after his first wife died at age 20, the grief-stricken young Emerson has her body disinterred so he could gaze once more upon her face.

Talk about your sensational opening chapters!

But as I have continued reading, I have been sorry to find the rest of the book to be as dry as toast, dealing more with the influences playing upon the man, what he must have been reading when he wrote this or that – in short, the kind of stuff that scholars build careers arguing over.

 As a result I’m still on page 68. Just sixty-eight pages for my $35! What was I thinking?

Maybe I was drawn to it not just because of my fondness for this man but also because of how I passed so many summer days as an adolescent: When swimming and field sports were done for the day, I read.

 Of these young summers I remember chiefly this:  The shady porch of a simple house built my grandparents in 1920.  A living room furnished with wicker and ignored ever since.

 I close my eyes and see more still: The floorboards by the windows washed bare of varnish by winter sun and the spill of summer rains. Two rugs, faded to grey and as thin as Kleenex. The lumpy cushions on that wicker couch and me stretched out on them, reading and reading.

I carried a battered dictionary everywhere then, to look up unknown words. I still have a list of the ones I wrote down at 13. When I say them aloud now I see a girl in an oversized shirt and cut-offs, barefoot, and deeply absorbed.

I kept a notebook then too, of all the quotes that moved or inspired me, which I own still and have just pulled down from the shelf. And surprisingly enough, here are the words of Mr. Emerson himself, copied so long ago. I read them again now:

 He said, “You shall have joy, or you shall have power…. You shall not have both.”

 He said, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous.” I love that one.

 He said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else.”

 And finally he said this, as if he were sitting right here beside me and clapping shut every book in sight:

 “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

All right, Mr. Emerson, here is what I know:

 I know that my time is my own, to savor or to waste.

 I know that many fat books await me if I but make time to read them.

 And I know that sweet nostalgia notwithstanding, this summer, the summer of Right Now, beats any summer I could hope to disinter from memory’s dusty vaults.

good advice by emerson

Summer Morning : Earth

When we’ve all moved lock, stock and candy wrapper to some giant biosphere high up in Space, what will be said of our time on this planet? What will be remembered, say, of a summer day here on Earth?

Will anyone recall the young women riding morning buses on their way to work?

girl on a busEarlier this week, I looked up from the task of wedging groceries into my dented little car, and saw, on a bus idling at a red light, one such young woman perched on the inward-facing seats

She wore a dress scooped low in the back, and I watched as with sure and practiced hands she reached behind her to arrange her hair, lifting and looping sections, disciplining its long braids, until, at last satisfied, she let the heavy whole of it drop against bare skin.  

Where is the video camera for moments like these?

Later that day, 100 miles farther west, at a rest stop on Interstate 90, I wondered that same thing again, as I sat on one of the arc-shaped stone benches encircling the stone tables on the Visitors’ Center’s leafy patio.  I watched as the scalloped edges of the umbrellas sheltering this Stonehenge-like seating danced in the wind and thought, “If I could only paint! I wouldn’t need a video camera if I had the artist’s eye to capture this breeze in a series of brush strokes.”

I looked around more and saw a woman well into her 70s so delighted with the pre-school child holding her hand that she was literally skipping from her car to where I sat, the little boy skipping with her and the two talking delightedly away even as they flitted from the hot asphalt to that cool bower of shade where we outdoor diners sat, paused on our several journeys.

That pause is a big element of life on this Earth in the warmer months I think.

I move through my days, same as I do all year, but find myself lately taking more time to notice each moment.

Yesterday I was trying to clear a sink drain and accidentally dropped the small red cap to the can of the harsh chemical down into the drain too, thus doubly stopping it up, and the irony of that fact made me ponder.

I called the plumber and when he arrived we chatted away about all the small mild ‘reprimands’ Fate sends our way.

 “Look at this,” he said, indicating his reddened left arm. “I was weeding around the foundation of my house when a whole swarm of yellow-jackets buzzed up out of the ground and stung me!”

 “I have eight or ten bites here,” he added, pointing.

 “Yikes!” I said. “And nothing hurts worse than a yellow jacket’s sting!”

 “Oh, but that’s not all! The next day when it started itching like crazy, I realized: That weed patch was full of poison ivy!”    

It seems likely to me that here was a conversation that would NOT have taken place in the hurry-up cold months.

The young woman would have been in a coat for one thing, her lovely back all covered; and the canvas umbrellas would not have even been there to snap in the breeze; and for sure the older lady would not have been skipping over stone-cold asphalt.

Time seems to slow in the warm months and open these small still pools into which we can for once really see ourselves living, the way God sees us and, let us hope, the way God smiles in the seeing.

beach umbrellas flapping


How I Spent My Week Off

IMG_3408How I spent my week off: Not the way this picture would suggest. This was our vacation week; the only week old David and I take all year, just for ourselves, up at our place by the lake.

My friend Bobbie, in a laconic email containing only one link, pointed me to an article in The Times about how you really mustn’t let your work life encroach on your vacation. It says you just can’t keep answering emails and making calls, much less initiating them, but… well, you know how it is: you’re never on vacation really after about age 30, and certainly not if you’re someone who writes for a living.

And then in my case there’s the non-profit I spend so much of my time with the local chapter of an organization called A Better Chance that places outstanding students of color from all around the country in secondary schools that are regarded as the among the most challenging, the high school in our town being one such. We call it ABC for short and somehow I can never NOT work on ABC stuff, especially now with two shiny new ABC scholars due to arrive in a little over a week.  

Lots of us volunteers have been busy lately, fixing up the house where our eight guys live together with two amazing resident directors and a crack resident academic coordinator. I myself have been buying new file cabinets and furnishing the newly painted study room with cozy window treatments and fresh artwork.

the back study room

I’ll admit I’m mad for window treatments lately and earlier this month even tried hanging swags from old Dave’s broad shoulders, like Carol Brunette did in her spoof of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett uses those velvety drapes from the lost glory that was Tara to make herself a ball gown. 

carol as scarlett

It’s like a nesting mania with me lately. You’d think I 22  and eight months pregnant.

Anyway the the upperclassmen will be coming back any day now, one for Cross Country, one to row Crew and one just to help get the younger guys assimilated to life in New England. And there’s yet more to do: We’re spiffing up the grounds and painting the fence, getting a plumber in to replace one of the shower doors., and day and night I’m writing to all the new volunteers in an attempt to infect them with the enthusiasm I feel for this organization that helps so many young men grow into their gifts.

Here’s one of them now, Machias Turner, who left here in June at 6’5” but looks to be returning to us closer to 6’7”. The picture was taken on the ABC College Tour outside of one of the buildings on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

machias fall of senior year

BUT ANYWAY, having said all this about the work i couldn’t help doing, I did relax some. In fact, along about Wednesday that rainy,rainy day I relaxed so much I wasn’t paying attention even to the simple things. I was treating my coffee with liquid sweetener and  added some drops then tasted: added more drops and tasted again. Why isn’t this getting any sweeter? I wondered before looking down at what I held in my hand to see what I was actually using: the bathing solution for my contact lenses. I knew I was in what passes for vacation mode in my world when I was able to just smile. So I put saline solution into my coffee, so what? What’s wrong with a little salt to go with your sweet? I mean, what else made the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup the hit that it is? 🙂

Time with Its Power

robin williamsWe sense so poorly that we too will die, like the every-young-seeming Robin. Ill chance and age come upon us as such an utter surprise.

I’m 65 now – 65! But can I be really, when I feel like the same 14-year old who dawdled home from school with her pyramid of books clutched against her chest, back in that long-ago time before anyone dreamed up such a thing as a backpack for the poor schoolkids? Instead we had bookbags – the boys used them more than the girls I seem to remember. I know I never could use a bookbag. What, let the History book and the French book, the Latin grammar and the tome that was Biology spill randomly into some sack?  No. I carried those books like an offering, as I walked dreamily home from the bus stop, enjoying this small slice of time when I was sure no teacher would call on me, where no conductor of a 9th orchestra would raise her eyebrows in my direction as Second Violin. Soon enough I would be home and laboring under the burden of all those assignments. This was my time, and it often seemed, my only time.

Yes, I am thinking on Time today as I think of Robin gone from the world now; as I picture Billy Crystal, once that fresh-faced kid from Long island…

billy crystal young

…now looking more like Kim-Jong-Il in his later days:

billy crystal now


I wonder at the power Time has over us all. Here is a passage from In Football Season, from John Updike’s collection The Early Stories that sums up for me exactly how wide that sky does seem when we are young. He speaks of the nights when he and his high school classmates would choose to walk the three miles home from the football game in a neighboring town, and felt that they had the night, and Time, all to themselves.

How slowly we went! With what a luxurious sense of waste did we abuse the stretch of time! For as children we had lived in a tight world of ticking clocks and punctual bells, where every minute was an admonition to thrift and where tardiness, to a child running late down a street with his panicked stomach burning, seemed the most mysterious and awful of sins. Now, turning the corner into adulthood, we found time to be instead a black immensity endlessly supplied, like the wind.

Would that it were. Would that time were endlessly supplied.


Helper or Helped?

imgresMaybe we all prefer to see ourselves as the ones who help, rather than the ones who need help. Here are two quick tales on this topic.

I belong to a group of college alums, the second-oldest member of which is a career educator I’ll call Rose, who still lives independently, together with her two cocker spaniels, in the house where she was born in the late 1920s.

Two weeks ago, when the person in our group who is closet to Rose reached out to say that she had fallen in her kitchen the day before and been taken unconscious to the hospital, I drove directly there.

She and Rose’s nephew had been in the ER with her for hours as they waited for a bed, but by the time I arrived she was settled in a pleasant room, her long hair, customarily worn in a 50’s-style ponytail, falling loose about her shoulders.

I don’t know exactly why I felt I had to drive there at 10 in the morning. I knew she would likely still be in the dazed state you get with a head injury. 

Maybe I thought it would help her to see the face of another friend, for we are fast friends, Rose and I are.

“How are you?” I burst out, practically running toward the hospital bed. 

“I‘m well,” she said mildly, and reached up to touch the bandage covering a ragged arc of coarse black stitches. “The staff here is very fine,” she added.

“Does it hurt?”

“No,” she said with that same mildness. “And they don’t think they‘ll do forgery.”

She hesitated, sensing that wasn’t quite right.

“Perjury,” she then tried.

“You mean surgery?” I asked, and she nodded, laughing at her mistake.

I guess I thought I was also helping the next time I went to the hospital and found her having a very quiet day indeed, with a magazine article open before her, single phrases of which she was reading aloud, in a slow and ruminative fashion.

I took both of these so-called ‘helping’ actions almost automatically. I just woke every day that week wondering “How can I help?” a variation of which, I suddenly realized, was the same question I wake asking myself every day.

So apparently I am one of the people who prefer to think of themselves always as the helpers and never as the ones in need of help.

Then came another realization. 

It was on the second day I came home from the hospital and found myself so unaccountably frazzled I couldn’t get my eyes to focus on the pileup of emails in my Inbox. 

This I was sadly regarding when a name popped up in the corner of my screen.

It was a Facebook ‘Friend Request’ with a warm message from a person named Susan whom I could not place. 

I accepted the request and messaged back, “Do we know each other, Susan?”

We certainly did, as she quickly pointed out; for not only had she had me for English back in in high school, but she had also gone on to become a nurse and ‘re-met’ me in a very different setting. As she wrote, I took care of you in Room 314, in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital when you gave birth to your daughter.”

I remembered that all right. If there was ever a day I needed help it was the day my first child was born, and Susan provided it, along with steadfast care and attention. 

Thus do I sense some connection today, and feel lucky and grateful for any help sent my way in past or future, even as I feel lucky and grateful to have been one who sometimes offered help.



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Ghost Town

arts & craftstime 087Where IS everybody?

It feels like even the Wallgreen’s parking lots are empty. It feels like if you called 911 you’d be able to just tell that the dispatcher was filing his nails and slurping a smoothie.

It’s the weather.

When the weather gets like this and stays like this, don’t you just want to dress any old way and mosey on over to the Arts & Crafts tent?

I do . I surely do. Let’s go ask these nice ladies for some gimp and get under that big tree outside and make us some lanyards, whaddya say?