Thursday, July 28, 2005

An Uncushioned Life

i have a lot of things. If anyone asked me, i would say i am not a particularly "material" person; but the fact remains, things abound. It was in the midst of a recent decluttering effort that i came across a little gem of a book which i'd read a few years ago - The Clothes They Stood Up In, by Alan Bennett. i can't remember how i came by it; i only know it's been lurking in the terrifyingly tippy tower of books beside my bed. Not much bigger than my palm, it tends to unbalance the stack. i sat on the floor and opened it about in the middle and began to read, to remind myself what i had liked about this book that made me keep it. Here's what i read:

[First, a synopsis - Mr. & Mrs. Ransome are a middle-class couple who return to their home from the opera one evening, to find they have been robbed of every possession - everything but the clothes they stood up in. Over the next few days, they each come to terms with this event in different ways. ]

"Mrs. Ransome, too, could see the cheerful side of things, but then she always did. When they had got married they had kitted themselves out with all the necessities of a well-run household; they had a dinner service, a tea service plus table linen to match; they had dessert dishes and trifle glasses and cake stands galore. There were mats for the dressing table, coasters for the coffee table, runners for the dining table; guest towels with matching flannels for the basin, lavatory mats with matching ones for the bath. They had cake slices and fish slices and other slices besides, delicate trowels in silver and bone the precise function of which Mrs. Ransome had never been able to fathom. Above all there was a massive many-tiered canteen of cutlery, stocked with sufficient knives, forks and spoons for a dinner party of twelve. Mr. and Mrs. Ransome did not have dinner parties. They seldom used the guest towels because they never had guests. They had transported this paraphernalia with them across thirty-two years of marriage to no purpose at all that Mrs. Ransome could see, and now at a stroke they were rid of the lot. Without quite knowing why, and while she was washing up their two cups in the sink, Mrs. Ransome suddenly burst out singing.

...Mrs. Ransome had begun to see that to be so abruptly parted from all her worldly goods might bring with it benefits she would have hesitated to call spiritual but which might, more briskly, be put under the heading of 'improving the character.' To have the carpet almost literally pulled from under her should, she felt, induce salutary thoughts about the way she had lived her life. War would once have rescued her, of course, some turn of events that gave her no choice, and while what had happened was a catatstrophe on that scale she knew it was up to her to make of it what she could. She would go to museums, she thought, art galleries, learn about the history of London; there were classes in all sorts nowadays -- classes that she could perfectly well have attended before they were deprived of everything they had in the world, except that it was everything they had in the world, she felt, that had been holding her back. Now she could start. So, plumped down on the beanbag on the bare boards of her sometime lounge, Mrs. Ransome found that she was not unhappy, telling herself that this was more real and that (though one needed to be comfortable) an uncushioned life was the way they ought to live."

Hmmm...Mrs. Ransome had it easy, didn't she? The dread of choice was taken from her; she only had to choose how to respond to the loss of her things. How much more difficult to discern, sitting on my bedroom floor among the dustbunnies creeping from under the bed, whether to keep a book like this - so worthy! - or to truly espouse its teaching and get rid of it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Vague Sense of Certainty

There's entirely too much information coming my way. Instead of reading one newspaper - actual "news" printed on actual "paper" - i now peruse three or four online, and am bombarded with links to additional articles my friends feel i must read. i have access to 3,754 critics' opinions of the latest movie releases. i can check the price and availability of any product for sale anywhere in the world. But somehow - and i don't mean to sound ungrateful - somehow, none of this information has led to greater sense of satisfaction with life.

Here's a prime example: A few years ago, my local library converted its card catalog to a computer database. There are now little computer stations all over the library where i can look up any book in publication. Of course, since ours is quite a minor branch library, only a very small percentage of those books is actually housed in the building. Others are available by transfer from other branches within the system; still others on special loan from university libraries in the area. All this is quite wonderful. When i look up a book i'd like to borrow - say, the latest Falco mystery by Lindsey Davis - the record indicates, among other things, how many copies are available within the system and within my own branch, the number of times each copy has been checked out, and the current availability of each copy. However, it often happens that when i meander down the aisle to retrieve the book, it is not to be found in its appointed place. Now, in the old days (notice i stop short of saying "good old days"), i would simply have assumed that the book had been checked out, and would either try again later or put in a reserve request. But the computer just told me that one copy is available in my library! So where is it? Instead of resigning myself to waiting until it was returned by whatever lucky reader got to it first, i am left to battle a rising sense of outrage at either A) the inaccuracy of the system, or B) the incompetence of the employee who must have shelved it improperly, or C) the inconsideration of the slob who took it to read within the library and then left it laying on a table somewhere, unaccounted for.

In this case, what i do know can hurt me.

Same goes for all the other information streaming toward me at the speed of cable modem. Sure, i can check out the symptoms of any disease by visiting WebMD - but i also get daily e-mails from well-meaning people, warning me of the latest horrible consequences of my antiperspirant choice, my diet, and the fact that i actually choose to inhale the pollution in my local airspace. So the vehicle i'm thinking of buying is available in Nebraska for $5000 less; that information only contributes to my sense that the cost of living is unreasonably high where i live.

One of my mother's little etiquette lessons that has stuck with me involved whether or not you should tell a friend that she has a run in her stocking. Mom always said, if you're somewhere where she can do something about it, then by all means, tell her. But if you're out in public with no remedy available, why burden her with knowledge that will only cause her discomfort?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

uneasy lies the head that wears the crown! Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 18, 2005

Dawn Redwood

This weekend, we bought a potted dawn redwood sapling for planting in the backyard. Until 1941, when a specimen was discovered in China, this ancient tree was believed to be extinct. Like the gingko, it appears to have remained unchanged over 100 million years (the name refers to the notion that this tree, Latin name Metasequoia, has been around since the dawn of time); present-day needles and cones appear identical to those found in the fossil record. Now one of these time-travelers will grace our own habitat.

What is the mysterious connection humans have with trees? From earliest times, people gathered in sacred groves; trees were both home to, and focus of, our worship. Grand specimens were believed to be the actual habitation of gods and goddesses. Wands made from particular trees were tools of magic. In Celtic languages, the alphabet was taken from the initials of tree-names.

Trees make the wilderness hospitable, providing shade and shelter; they also supply wilderness to our tame neighborhoods, giving respiration and inspiration. Trees can undo the damage we are inflicting on the environment, both short-term and long-term. A couple of days ago, while driving in heavy traffic, i noted the outside temperature reading was 99 degrees; five minutes later, on a tree-lined street, the temp registered 88!

Planting a tree is an act of hope as well as stewardship. American Indians think of trees as our elders - easily outliving even the longest human lifespan. In many cultures, planting a tree is a fine way to commemorate birth or death.

And yet..."tree-hugger" has become an epithet to indicate over-concern for our planet - as if such a thing were possible. Those who speak with such disdain for our Mother Earth - when was the last time they walked under night skies unpolluted by horizon lights? Or enjoyed the buoyancy of salt water undisturbed by jet-ski wake? i invite everyone who reads this to go outside - today, right now if possible - and lay your hand on the bark of a tall tree. Close your eyes and listen, open yourself up to the life running beneath your palm. There's something there you need to know - what is the message for you?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Aging, Joy, Water, Children, Love and Illness

A sestina by Dr. Alan Feldman, Professor of English and 2005 Distinguished Faculty Member of Framingham State College, read by the author at the 2005 commencement exercises...

I've told them it's a good form for obsessives. Love
for example may preoccupy you, like a long illness
or a splinter you can't extract, or a joy
so huge it's like standing next to a blimp. They are children
in this art, circling the big square seminar table. I'm aging,
wearing out my seat. In recent years, they've been flying through
here as fast as water.

Oh, sometimes, if the shade is up, I see a sky as blue as water
over their heads, while their heads are bowed in writing. I love
the quiet then in the room. I can almost hear them aging --
something they like, still, since to them it's growth, not an illness.
As i get older, they look like adults recently fashioned from
the children
in some fifth grade class, their child-faces sheer joy

as they assume their beauty and distinction. Well, i know for them
there isn't much joy
in school, they'd all rather be in or on the water
with iPods, towels, surfboards, digging in the sand like children
though I'm sure if I asked them they'd say they love
the course. After they're absent they even show me little notes for
non-serious illnesses
like mono and strep, nothing like the grave things they'll get when
they're really aging.

So it's fun for me because as I'm aging
they keep appearing here like bubbles out of a spring. Earth's joy
in its own improvisation. More kids! More kids! For better or ill.
None any more necessary or unnecessary than the rest of us. Made
from water
and a few cents worth of minerals, and full of love
for the sweet forms of each other, something that leads to
the begetting of new children

though not just yet! No, here their heads are bent like children
taking a spelling test, their hair hanging down like curtains so you
can't guess their ages,
their book satchels, soda cans, candy bar wrappers, the sprawl
of Xeroxed papers i love
to hand out (so I can know I'm giving them something -- oh joy! --
even if it's only paper). Yes they could be underwater
they're concentrating as silently as though the illness

of distractibility has been cured for everyone forever, that illness
that drowns out all but the obvious meaning of words. Well,
aren't fooled by the obvious. They know the words are waiting
like water
to be played with. If I look up now I can see the sky is aging
into the color of the blue snow. But the windows are wide open. And
they seem to enjoy
writing while wearing their bright coats, not bothered by cold,
safely in love

with the winter that won't mean (for them) illness or aging
but amazing changes as the ice melts to water, and their thoughts
turn into waves of joy
as they turn away from being children, and find their own
new words to tell us how angry are, how much they love.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Cool Aunt

My 13-year-old niece is visiting for a couple of weeks. Just as my own young-adult children have become depressingly patronizing, here i have the chance to be seen as 'cool'. Luckily, i have some guidance in this area - the excellent example of my own Aunt A., who married my mom's younger brother when i was 13. She, the motorcycle-riding, rock-concert-going, pot-smoking rebel, was such a contrast to my other aunt, my dad's wallpaper-hanging, vegetable-gardening, Hummel-collecting older sister. Everyone should have a Cool Aunt; here's why:

First off, the Cool Aunt sees you as a grown-up long before your parents are ready to admit any such thing. She understands why you need Calvin Klein, not JCPenney, jeans. She says "cuss words" in your presence without apology. She gifts you with Tabu perfume, which your mother says is "completely inappropriate," thereby sealing your lifelong loyalty to the scent. The Cool Aunt teaches you to roll your long hair up on empty orange-juice cans, then brush it out super-smooth. She lets you borrow her nailpolish - and she has every shade BUT pale pink. She slips out of family gatherings to smoke a cigarette on the back porch, and with one raised eyebrow, enjoins you t0 secrecy when you discover her there. She doesn't stop talking about heated political issues, like abortion, just as you enter a room.

Yes, i've got a dazzling role model...but i'm very aware that i'm an awful lot like my older, responsible aunt (not the Hummels - had to draw the line somewhere!). My Cool Aunt was 19 to my 13...but i'm 44 now. And i'm proud of the stability of my life - i'm less exciting, perhaps, but more dependable. And it too late - am i asking too much - can i still be cool?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Message in a Bottle, II

It works both ways. Yesterday, my aunt gifted me with my grandmother's Bible. My grandmother passed away last November at age 96. The Bible is inscribed to her from her father, probably at her Confirmation, so that would have been around 1921. (He signed it "From her Father, Mr. A Schneider" - as if she wouldn't know!) Aunt Janet said that Grandma had observed to her that i was the only one of her grandchildren, including Janet's own four, who practiced any kind of a spiritual life.

i don't mean to sound self-righteous - it's just that, her words and that gift felt like a laying on of hands. In her lifetime, Grandma was a huge influence on me - i wonder if she knew how much?

Grandma H with my kids on her front porch, 1998 Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Message in a Bottle

A transatlantic phone call recently brought rushing back to me all the childish pleasure of those sealed-note experiments. N. is a charming woman i "met" on a message board 2 years ago; many e-mails and several delightful packages later, she asked for my phone number, and at 8 a.m. my time, 2 p.m. hers, i was rewarded with the sound of her voice all the way from Paris. We talked for an hour about our lives - and i suppose this connection is what i secretly yearn for, otherwise why bother to post random thoughts on a message board?

Experiments have shown that infants who fail to receive empathic responses to their early communication attempts stop attempting to communicate and fail to thrive. i wonder how many new blogs will just shrivel up and die from lack of response?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Here the Red Queen began again. "Can you answer useful questions?" she said. "How is bread made?"

"I know that!" Alice cried eagerly. "You take some flour -- "

"Where do you pick the flower?" the White Queen asked. "In a garden, or in the hedges?"

"Well, it isn't picked at all," Alice explained: "it's ground -- "

"How many acres of ground?" said the White Queen. "You mustn't leave out so many things."

"Fan her head!" the Red Queen anxiously interrupted. "She'll be feverish after so much thinking."

So they set to work and fanned her with bunches of leaves, till she had to beg them to leave off, it blew her hair about so.