What a Dope

early autumn morningGrouchy little poems have been writing themselves in my head all month.

It’s the strangest thing. 

Take these lines that were composing themselves behind my eyes when I first opened them one day last week: “The leaves are limp, the grass is dead, I’d like to stay right here in bed. Dawn comes so late, how can that be When birds once sang at half past three?”

What’s wrong with me? How can I be feeling so dark with this kind of beauty greeting us every day, the fog rolling slowly off our inland bodies of water?

I wouldn’t mind if they were good poems, poems of a polite praising nature, like the countless others written for this threshold moment of the year.

 I think of the one called “September” by Helen Hunt Jackson that my Seventh Grade teacher made us all memorize:

“The Goldenrod is yellow, the corn is turning brown, the trees in apple orchards with fruits are bending down.” Nice, right? There are several more stanzas, equally nice, like this one:

“The gentians bluest fringes/Are curling in the sun/In dusty pods the milkweed/Its hidden silk has spun.” Even nicer! So why can’t my silly creations hold even a little of that lyricism?

I think it’s because this particular September doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t feel right at all.

For starters it stayed hot for too long, hot enough that in this house, we still have the air-conditioners in. There they still hang, our sad old window units, stuffed into our sad old windows.

By now I hate these air-conditioners, which I have come to believe make each room smell like some old bag of frozen peas. Plus they’re ugly, especially on the outside, the way they lean out the windows like rude boys showing the world their backsides. 

Added to that, birds poop on them, leaving wispy white streaks that fan out from under them.

And then there’s the grass. The grass in our yard looks like somebody seeded it in Shredded Wheat.

Aren’t September’s evening dews supposed to refresh the grass? I thought by now lawns would have begun greening up again and looking like bright chopped salad, the way they did back in the spring.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’m grouchy this September because I got to thinking it should function as a second spring, almost.

It doesn’t though. It can’t. If the trees and bushes are starting to sport small dabs of crimson, or coral, or amethyst, it isn’t because they are flowering. It’s because they’re dressing up for the farewell ceremonies.

Sooner or later I’ll get on board with this fact I’m sure. But right now what keeps going through my head are the final lines of the Robert Frost poem called Reluctance, which ends with the speaker asking, “When to the heart of man/ Was it ever less than a treason/ To bow and accept the end/ Of a love or of a season?”

But then? Then I look at this image of our deck at the lake, as it looked just after 1:00 yesterday afternoon. I see the new, early shadows, and I repent of my grouchiness and feel freshly grateful each day’s particular beauty. 

IMG_0422

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In the Museum of the Confedaracy

union & rebel vetsOn that blazing bright day in early August, I stood with my grandson inside a museum housing relics from what some still call “The War of Northern Aggression.” Some call it that in the South, anyway, which is where we had come on this family vacation.

He and I had paused to let our eyes adjust to the dim interior, I holding the flower we had just bought outside, a palmetto “rose,” skillfully woven out of the fronds of that tree. It was then that the elderly lady who took our money began engaging us in conversation.

“Are you back in school yet?” she asked the 11-year-old.

“Not yet, “ he smiled, and I instantly wondered if I should have counseled him to say “No ma’am,” and “No sir,” according to the etiquette practiced in this region. 

But if she noticed the absence of this social nicety, she showed no sign of it.

“When I was a child, school never started until after Labor Day,” she said. “Our children are already back now. 

“Where are you from?” she then asked, and we named our northern state.

Did she stiffen just a little? I wasn’t sure but I think she may have. Did I stiffen a little when my gaze fell on the bumper sticker available for sale? “Heritage, Not Hate” read its text, under an image of the Confederate flag.

Let me extend myself a little more and see if we can find some common ground, I thought. “It’s a beautiful building,” I said, indicating the space inside this 1841 structure.

“Yes,” she said. “Confederate soldiers came here by the hundreds to enlist in 1861.”

“For sure the past is all around us,” I remarked.

“My people fought for the Confederacy,” she replied.

“Oh! Did they all come home?” I asked, mindful of the fact that more American lives were lost in this war than in all our other wars combined.

“Yes they did!” she said, with emphasis. “Oh dear,” I thought.  Was this an insensitive question, coming as it did from a northerner?

I searched my memory for anything I knew about Civil War battles and came up with only one:

“I think of Gettysburg alone,” I said. “All that loss of life!”

Silence.

I went on. “I think of the accounts – even the old bits of film – of Union and Confederate veterans meeting 50 years later, and even 75 years later, a few of them. I think of the way they greeted one another so warmly, shaking hands in the very spot where so many fell.”

She paused a moment.

“I couldn’t do that,” she then said.

“It’s hard for people, I know!” I said. “My mother used to tell me how, in the years just after the Second World War, many Americans still harbored hostility toward the Japanese.”

“Many still do,” she said, and closed her mouth firmly.

Then it was my turn to go silent, because that has not been my experience at all. The 11-year-old and I thanked her for our tickets and moved in to the exhibit hall.

My sister in Florida tells me that way back, when a hurricane would come, an indigenous person of our southern coastal region would lash himself to a palmetto tree until it had passed. They knew that this short, deeply-rooted plant would never topple.

Maybe we are all “rooted, in this way,” all inclined to maintain the view of the world as it was first communicated to us. I just wish we could start feeing less “dug in” somehow. I wish we could be like those old soldiers and meet across our differences, our hands extended in fellowship.

Now watch these Civil War Veterans on film, from the documentary Echoes of the Blue & Gray 

Pompeii?

Some day stuff like this is all that will be left of us, besides our acreage-gobbling burial places.

a typical dayThis is an example of the to-do list I have been making every day since I was in the 9th grade..

The 9th grade!

I came upon it this morning on one of my million legal pads and,  because I wasn’t quite awake yet, thought, “Great, it’s my list! Ok, what am I supposed to do first?”

It took me a while to realize it was a list that I had made … when?

A year ago? Two years ago?

I study it and think ‘What a busy girl!’ And also, I wonder if I got it all done?   

Probably not but I I know I sure tried.

Someday, stuff like this is all that will be left of us, besides our acreage-gobbling burial places. 

It’ll be like what we know of the inhabitants of Herculaneum and Pompeii after Vesuvius blew her top: besides our bones-and-dust and a few gold teeth there’ll just be a bunch of old kitchenware and some wall treatments – though hopefully not just the sex-and-phallus-glorification kind like they left. The theory is, this was an oil lamp:

oil lamp

No accounting for tastes I guess. . Right now people rummaging among my things would find a bunch of sample grey damask papers for highly outdated front hall (speaking of wall coverings. 🙂

grey damask

Necessary Roughness

mammogramWhat can we say of the yearly mammogram? 

The glass plate is cold, they make you stand so close to the machine your ribs bruise, and then they force you to hold these contorted positions and stop breathing for like a million minutes while they set up the shot

And then, of course, there’s the vise.

That victim of  the revenge of Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s  Casino comes to mind.

head in a vise

Your eyeballs don’t pop out like that guy’s did, but it feels like two things further down might pop for sure.

Oh I know, I know, you don’t really get permanently disfigured during a mammogram, and it’s a crucial diagnostic.

It’s just that you go in with two rough approximations of this shape on your chest:

sphere

And two minutes later they look like this:

angelfish

I think I was even leaning over like this guy by the time we got done – and though he appears to be almost smiling,  I sure know I wasn’t!

You’re Asking ME?

the doctor is inWhat  do you do when someone seeks your advice?

 I ask myself this question every time I read Dear Abby, the advice column written by Pauline Phillips, who, now in her 74th year, is one wise and earthy person.

Take the response she makes to this high schooler who writes in to ask if it’s “wrong” to be put off by the fact that her new boyfriend has just told her that two of the toes on each foot are “webbed.”

“When he sent me a photo one day to prove it, I realized they are almost entirely attached and I freaked out. I don’t know how to feel. Am I being shallow? “

“No, you are being foolish,” replies Abby and I’m betting it’s this kind of candor that keeps people reading her. Plus she offers so many pearls of wisdom: 

“Look within,” is often the gist of her advice. Also, “Examine your motives.”  Not to mention, “Seek counseling” something she will say in the same way that bold people will yell “Get a room!” when they come upon a madly making out couple.

She just makes sense, as in this response she pens to someone going on and on to ask what words s/he should use to tell her/his new psychotherapist that that person “isn’t right for me.”

“The words are, ’This isn’t working for me and I won’t be coming back,’” says Abby, adding only that the therapist probably does deserve to know why.

And then there’s the advice she gives to an angry grandmother who begins her letter by huffing,  “Whatever happened to respecting one’s elders and recognizing grandparents as head of the family?”

Apparently the woman has just come from a visit to the home of her son and his wife where she had  “many disagreements” with her daughter-in-law on how to care for “my grandchild. Instead of respecting my years of experience as a mother and appreciating my help, she chose to ignore my instructions and advice.“

Now, as a result, her son has told her she “will not be welcomed into their home again unless she apologizes for trying to undermine her parenting. I told him she should apologize to ME for not showing me respect as the grandmother! How can I make my son see that it is his wife who is wrong, and not me? “

Oh dear. I do feel for this lady, I do. Her desire is so human. I mean, who among us wouldn’t wish to be supported in the belief that we ourselves are just fine and it’s the other guy who needs to change?

Still, I have to shake my head reading her words: She’s the head of the whole family all of a sudden, just because her child now has a child? I’m a grandmother myself and my feeling is that in most instances my job is to keep pretty much mum until my advice is asked for.

I’m so glad that “Abby” is still out there doing what she does  – and I am dead sure I would never want her job. If I have learned anything in the near 60 years, I have spent as a thinking person it is this:  When people asks questions about the course of action they should take, they often already know, deep down, what that course is.

To my way of thinking, the best thing I can do is ask helpful questions and then listen to the answers, with utter, absolute attention and an open heart.

A Death Witnessed

the cormorant in death 2We watched a bird die in our cove, a loon as we thought from a distance.

“What’s wrong with that bird?” one of us asked.

“Is it a baby who doesn’t know how to swim yet?” somebody else said

“I would think a loon would be born born knowing how to swim,” a third person remarked.

We fell silent and watched as the bird fluttered and circled, circled and fluttered.

“Maybe it’s playing.””

But the bird wasn’t playing, as we realized when it abruptly stopped, dropped its head in the water, disappeared from sight  and, a minute later, bobbed to the surface, one side up and entirely motionless. 

David took a canoe and rowed out to it. The bird was dead. He lifted it on one oar and paddled back to the dock where the rest of us were sitting.

Everyone gazed at it sadly. 

the cormorant in death 1

“What can have killed it?,” somebody said. 

“Leeches,” opined the 8-year-old. “They suck your blood ’til you’re dead!” 

“Lead,” said somebody else.

” Lead in the water?”

“No, there’s sometimes lead in the sinkers on people’s fishing lines. When a bird accidentally swallows one…”

So the bird’s playful-seeming dance was actually a death agony.

We took pictures of the bird, as you can see, and as we did so came to realize that it was no loon at all but rather a cormorant like the cormorants who perch on the rocks in our little cove.

David carried him across the street on that same oar to bury him. 

Then the rest of us went on about our fun, alive and playing and all heedless of the fact, in the bloom of the late-summer day, that we too – even we – are also poling slowly toward  darkness.

pollng toward the night

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You Can Feel It

IMG_0241The sun is hot and then it’s not.

The wind blows and the sky suddenly gets scowly with clouds and leaves you didn’t know had fallen begin scuttling across the sidewalk.

Temperatures swing from the high 50s to the mid- 90s in a single six-hour period.

Something is happening. The crickets know it; your skin knows it, safe from a weakening sun.

Even the crickets know it, who, at twilight, are buoyantly bowing away on their little fiddles but by 4am are dead quiet. Have they taken a fright at the nighttime cooling and are dummying up so as not to call attention to themselves?

I don’t know.

I understand almost nothing of the great changes afoot.

Here is a poem by James Richardson called End of Summer. It makes an sharp ache in my throat today. See if it does that to you: 

Just an uncommon lull in the traffic
so you hear some guy in an apron, sleeves rolled up,
with his brusque sweep brusque sweep of the sidewalk,
and the slap shut of a too thin rental van,
and I told him no a gust has snatched from a conversation
and brought to you, loud.

It would be so different
if any of these were missing is the feeling
you always have on the first day of autumn,
no, the first day you think of autumn, when somehow
the sun singling out high windows,
a waiter settling a billow of white cloth
with glasses and silver, and the sparrows
shattering to nowhere
somehow ARE the Summer waving that here is where it turns

and will no longer be walking with you, traveller,

who now leave all of this behind, carrying only what it has made of you.

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