Saturday, December 29, 2012

ETERNAL MOMENTS AND WASTED GOODBYES



 And would it have been worth it after all, after a joyous Christmas Eve with ukulele songs, after the slow waking on Christmas morning, after the tree and turkey and mince pies, after the dog walks, the games of Catan, the coffee cups and wine, would it have been worthwhile, to have rolled up every last crumb of universal time into one ball...

...to have used every moment to its fullest?

The long minutes before you say goodbye often seem like wasted time. You don’t know what to say because you’ve had your fill of celebration and relaxed by now into an easy family dynamic. You're no longer desperate to make your time run.  Instead you are calm in each other’s company, confident that Christmas will last forever. 

So to have done more with those final hours would be a mistake. Instead you sat together on the sofa, daydreaming or talking of nothing special, and you put on the kettle, and lazed away the morning.

The thing about goodbyes is the difference between those final relaxing hours and the final tense minutes when time has run out.  When you hold each other close, knowing it will be many months, and many transatlantic hours until you are together again.   You wasted the final morning packing and doing one last load of laundry, but those hours were better because of it. You couldn’t have soaked each other up another drop, so instead you let it run its course, until you were faced with a final moment. It came upon you suddenly and you hugged each other deeply and held back the tears.

This is what it was like yesterday afternoon when our two sons left for Australia on two different planes three hours apart.  Elliot had been given frequent flier miles to travel there and visit his brother for winter break, and Alex was returning to Australia in time for the new years celebration, and another year of work.

We said goodbye to Elliot first. “Don’t do anything foolish,” I urged him. “Don’t swim in waters infested with piranhas or sharks!”  Laughing, he promised he wouldn’t, while Rozzie said, “is that really the naughtiest thing you can imagine them doing, Mama?”

“No,” I said, “not the naughtiest. Just the one I’d really never forgive, if something happened.”

So he got into the car and Ben drove him to Dulles Airport, while the rest of us went inside and wasted our final hours. It was only Alex and me and Rozzie and the dogs by now, and we were letting time run out until Ben returned in the car, when we went through the ritual of saying goodbye again.

Something about all the time changes and speed between connections, gave the whole experience a through-the-looking-glass quality.  When I picked Alex up a few weeks ago at 9 pm at Dulles I asked what time it was for him.  “1 o clock tomorrow afternoon,” he said.

Now, ten days later, they were embarking on journeys, which would have them miss December 29th entirely. Instead, they’d both be satellites flying halfway round the globe, all through that day, faster than the speed of the planet.

wasting the final hours together
It’s crossing the international dateline that confuses me the most. I don’t think at this point I’m ever going to understand. As a result, my dreams last night were full of confusing images – the idea that by the time they landed it would be December 30 in Australia while still the 29th for us – and that they would then go into a new year many hours ahead of us. The fact that now they have landed and it's still the 29th for us, but isn't for them, and never was.

I woke up in the middle of the night and checked my phone and saw that Elliot had texted me before his final connection, all the legs of the journey having run smoothly. 

We then spent a day watching the snow fall, and waiting for it to stop so that we could walk the dogs. We saw a hawk high up in the trees on our walk and returned to make lentil soup, and to talk.  Then Rozzie checked her phone to find that Alex had skyped her.

He was in the arrival area in Sydney waiting for Elliot to get in too.  Rozzie called him back, and as we spoke to him, miraculously Elliot arrived behind him,  and there they were, united in Australia while we looked at them on a tiny screen on the other side of the globe.  That’s when our goodbyes turned into hellos and the departure didn’t seem so hard.

There are many during this season of terrible loss who would give anything for a glimpse at their loved ones on a tiny screen, just to see that they had arrived safely.  That they had landed somewhere else  after a difficult journey. For them it might be the casual nature of their final mornings together, when they said goodbye at Sandy Hook, that makes their departure so painful. You want to hold them close and make the final hours count for more than that, but making it count for more would have spoken of desperation.  I wish for all those who had to say such goodbyes, to feel that some of the best hours they experienced together as families were hours they chose to waste.  It was the wastefulness of abundance and comfort in each other’s company. Of taking each other for granted. There may be no comfort quite as profound as the company of those you take for granted.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

DOGS AND THEIR MEMORIES

Memory is a powerful and confusing thing, and our dogs might not be able to access their memories without our help.  They live in the present - yet the past is always with them, too.  We remember them in their puppyhood - and what they have meant in our lives as time goes by.

And when Basil our dachshund was sitting beside us, watching the documentary "Sweetgrass" about sheep farmers in Montana,  his head turning back and forth, trying to understand the plaintive baas of the lambs and sheep on screen - this is why we decided to help him to access some memories of his own.

So..ool..." We called. It was the name of our tabby cat who died a few years back. "Ahhhh, Sol!" we cried - as Basil tilted his head back and forth.  The sound of that old cat's name was oh so familiar - and yet, what did it mean?
Sol, the amazing eternal cat

"No," I said. "It's cruel, Rozzie. We shouldn't be doing it."

"Why not?" she responded.  "It's his only way of remembering Sol. And look, it doesn't make him sad.  Look at him! He's only now remembering..."

Basil and Hannah
After that we called our labrador Hannah, who had died two years ago. "Hannah!" we called. "WHAT a good girl..."  and Basil's head tipped backwards and forwards with recognition, and I had to agree with Rozzie, it wasn't terribly sad. It didn't seem manipulative. We were helping Basil to access a memory.

Adam, Basil's new friend
Sometimes memories of those we love gone by, can be painful.  But if we don't remember them, how do they exist for us at all?  And yes, it pains me to think of my beloved father, and realize he should be here and yet  no longer is.  Or to think of my father-in-law or sister-in-law Kate, so present in memory, particularly over the holidays.  But painful though it is, we must remember them and keep them present in our lives.  They are part of who we are - not part of our futures perhaps, but certainly part of our pasts, and according to Ecclesiastes, that which hath been is now.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

HEDGEHOG IN FOX CLOTHING

 
If the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one great thing I, my friends, am a hedgehog.

 I’ve always known one thing and one thing alone – the love of reading books and the hope of writing them. To put it simply  - the sublime satisfaction of written communication.  So, in the beginning, I followed a path to develop this singular goal.  In my twenties, I swiftly published and taught writing at Emerson College, working as Creative Writing Coordinator under James Randall, who founded the MFA program.  Later I got a job at The New Yorker – and would have stayed for the rest of my life, (or at least for as long as they’d have me), if not for the role of fox that was thrust upon me.

As a diehard hedgehog, I was forced to wear fox clothing when my husband Ben joined the foreign service. I must give up my beloved job at The New Yorker and move to who knew where.  As it happened, the posting they chose for us was Caracas, Venezuela. 

What happens when we hedgehogs are forced to behave like foxes?   In my case, and in true hedgehog spirit, I took things one at a time. First I learned Spanish. Then I got pregnant.  Then we moved. While in Caracas I honed various skills, attended diplomatic functions, traveled and managed my live-in household help.  Oh, and I also gave birth. Twice! These things changed my sense of identity considerably.

But I wasn’t finished with my foxes clothing yet. After having two children, I moved to Buenos Aires with Ben, where I continued to speak Spanish and then to teach – digging myself in pretty deep with new friends and the local church, doing lecture translations on the side ~ until we moved again.

Our travels took us to Moscow. I had another baby. I learned Russian. And just as I thought I had got that all down, we moved again to Brussels, Belgium where I needed to brush up my French.  After that it was Rome –where I spoke Italian and taught English and tried desperately to come full circle.  I hoped to return to my hedgehog roots and managed to get a literary agent in London. Yes!  Now I'd get back to my writing!

But hedgehog though I was at heart, I had clearly not experienced the hedgehog privilege of burrowing in.  I had not honed the skills I would have developed had I remained at The New Yorker.  Instead, foxlike, I'd been forced to develop disparate talents -  social and linguistic skills, learning to connect with ease to people from different cultures.

And that gets me to where I am today:  teaching at a community college - communicating with students from vastly different backgrounds.  Oh, how I understand these students!  I can see what being out of their comfort zones has done for them as people.  They are wonderfully nuanced individuals with incredible stories to tell, and although they often feel out of their element, I suspect that many of them are on paths of discovery that will develop and enrich them as people.

Probably they long to return to what they know – to burrow in, just as I long to burrow, as we hedgehogs always do.  Even now, in my heart of hearts, I feel myself as a hedgehog.  Others may perceive me as a fox – with a superficial gloss of international savvy and language ability. But to myself I am a hedgehog in foxes clothing.

I am like Mole, on the riverboat with Ratty, longing to return to my burrow… not nearly as confident as my foxes clothing suggests.  I feel fully myself when deep in my reading and writing – and my greatest dream is not to travel the world – (I’ve already done  a lot of that –) but to publish my novel – to get on with my writing career, which seems at times to have been thwarted by an incidental foxtrot.

Probably I’m wrong.  Probably I have far more to say than I ever would have dreamed of saying, had I not been forced to wear fox clothing.

But how does it work in reverse, I wonder? How does a fox in hedgehog’s clothing fare?  Somewhat better, I suspect. A fox in hedgehog’s clothing knows how to play the game, has several talents up his or her sleeve to forward whatever singular pursuit they find themselves engaged in.   They know how to bluff and connive – can talk a good talk, work their contacts and skillfully distill and utilize their know-how, taking it all back to their faux-hedgehog burrow, and making it play to the world.

Foxes easily do the switch.  I admire them for that. If things go wrong, they readily shift focus. It’s second nature to foxes. They know how to roll with the punches.

But maybe we hedgehogs, forced to wear their clothing, end up with a bit of genuine fox in us, after all.

Monday, December 3, 2012

THE SPIGOT


Carol has lived in the house on the corner for years and now she’s selling.   Marnie has lived in another house, around the corner, originally identical, now very different. But she intends to stay there for life.

Carol is selling her place for the land. She just wants to see.  Getting the place up to code is too much hassle and she wants to move out quickly.  Hers is a small corner lot. "It’s not exactly Oklahoma," Ben points out to me, when we pass the sign that says, "Land for Sale".

Carol was a hippie in her youth. Now she is beautiful and fit with grey hair and earrings, and she's always going to the Smithsonian.  

 Marnie is tall, striking and very healthy. She wears jogging pants and loves to talk about architecture. Hers is the greenest house on the block with solar panels and thermal heating and a new roof that keeps in the heat and will pay for itself over time.  She says she’s going to be in this house for the rest of her life, which is why she is keen on getting it, not just to code, but better than that.  They are forever chopping wood, going off to yoga class and eating raw vegetables for dinner. When they bring a dish to the neighborhood pot luck, Marnie’s is home grown broccoli.

 If you pass Carol in the street when you’re walking the dog, she is usually on her way to the metro. She will have been every day to the Folklife Festival, for instance, seen all the dancing, attended the lectures, even on the hottest days.  Even when she thought she might faint, she stayed out 'til past nine and went back in the following day, as there was also a concert she didn’t want to miss and a Star Wars spectacle to which she was taking her nephew. She was planning on seeing the fireworks too, from a hotel roof – "the best spot in the city."

Ben and me and our neighbors Sara and Jacky, who were only up for walking the dogs said "oh" when we heard all this.  It didn’t really matter what we said, though. We weren’t able to get another word in edgewise. Carol doesn’t bother to wait for an answer because she just likes to talk, to fill the air with voices and the hours with activity. She's in a kind of race for life.
I suppose that’s why she’s moving. So that she can be closer to all the exhibits, openings and happenings in DC. She’s always going to some preview of a show – has subscriptions at the Kennedy Center and National Shakespeare Company. If you've seen a production, you can be sure that she's seen it first and has a lot more to say about it than you do.

I feel a little exhausted by both Marnie and Carol.

And now I’m at Sara and Jacky's party, and I find myself in a corner of the room discussing STUFF with Marnie and Carol - how you have so much stuff all the time and you want to get rid of it.  Carol has to get rid of stuff in the house because she’s selling. But then Marnie goes off on a kind of monologue about her mother's things – and how there was a spigot – I'm not quite sure why this is such an important story to tell, but she keeps going back to it, over the course of the conversation. Whenever we wind ourselves off track, she brings the story back to this anecdote about the spigot.

It's important for her to tell us that she was at her mother's house after her father died, and she was trying to help them sort through all the accumulation of years – the things they had, the china and so on, when she saw that the parquet had come up underneath the bureau, because of the spigot that was never mended. They just didn’t use it -  knowing it was broken. 

Except  then evidently someone DID use it, and it caused a leak and the parquet came up. So they had to move all of the china out of the bureau. And her mother loved this china while Marnie did not love the china.  And Marnie told her, "Mama, I don’t want any of this stuff. So make sure you get out all the things you want.

 And then her mum said, "Why don’t you like this china?"

 And Marnie said, "I don’t care about plates. Just because things have been in the family for generations it doesn’t mean they are valuable.

This was the important line that Marnie wanted us to absorb in all its implications. How she had told her mother – and apparently they became quite heated in this exchange - that she was going to take a match to this stuff at some point so that the mother better get out the things that she wanted.

Carol nods and smiles in recognition at the anecdote. They both seem to get it. I guess I’m the odd one out and they have more in common with each other than I thought. Because I just can't figure out what it means.