Poem of the Week, by Denise Levertov

At a dinner party the other night some friends asked why my mother, born and raised in Manhattan, had lived her entire adult life in the rural foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I told them she had always wanted to live in the country, that she had spent childhood summers at a camp where her mother had a job. Like my mother, I’m both country and city, but when things get too worrisome I recite poems like this one to myself. Which might mean that at some level, country wins out.

A Reward
–  Denise Levertov

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

For more information on Denise Levertov, please click here.

Andes Mint #13: Walk slowly.

Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. (Middle Eastern proverb, at least according to the Reader’s Digest magazine you read it in, back when you were in middle school)

Three decades after you both graduated from that high school in the foothills, you feel a tap on your shoulder and turn to behold him, smiling, having recognized you in line. You’re back, from a thousand and more miles, to that place that you still call home, while he never left.

?? and !! and ?? and !!

And the whole time you’re smiling at each other and small-talking, a whole other conversation is taking place deep inside: that night you slow-danced together at the bar, when the drinking age in upstate New York was 18 and that’s how old you were, that summer after senior year, year of cut-offs and baby doll shirts you made by cutting up thrift-store nightgowns.

Dreamweaver on the radio. Roller skates around and around the gym on Saturday nights. Fribbles and blue cheese salads during your break at Friendly Ice Cream. Boys who pressed coins into the chocolate fudge in their sundae glasses for a tip, printed their phone numbers on paper napkins. The red Datsun pick-up that shifted like butter, that you drove up and down Glass Factory Road, Route 12, Route 274.

Sun-drenched days and long nights of crickets and mosquitoes and goodbye parties.

You were leaving soon and you would never return again for longer than a week. College for you, a carpenter’s toolbelt for him.

Now you get out  your old yearbook and flip through its pages. Feathered bangs. Turtlenecks. Serious eyes, composed smiles. Walk slowly. All you can ever come to is yourself. Decades later, you would still choose the same quote, still put it beneath that photo of you standing by that tree.

Andes Mint #6: Phantom ice cream

When you think of Charlie, which you do every day, he appears to you smiling, sitting on a chair wearing dark pants, a white shirt with a faint stripe, dark shoes. The chair is simple, one step up from a folding chair, and it’s set on the linoleum floor of the dark pantry-like space in his old house, the same space that once held the commercial soft-serve ice cream machine he bought at an auction and installed for the use of himself and his family.

The house burned down many years ago. The ice cream machine was uninstalled shortly after Charlie got his triple bypass. The night your parents called to tell you he was in the hospital, you sat down and wrote him a letter that began, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

Charlie was your father’s best friend. He is inseparable from every moment of your growing up, and from your entire life until he died last year. When you think of him now he’s always in that chair, always smiling, always chuckling.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

You hear his voice perfectly. It’s as if he’s in the room with you whenever you think of him. His voice, followed always by that easy chuckle. The man could get along with anyone in the world, and others counted on him to be the conduit through which they got along with others. This was a role he was born for and he fulfilled it unerringly.

He was a farmer for much of his life, an extension agent for the state for many years, a Walmart greeter for a few. Sitting here typing this, on this buckling white couch in your basement, where you’re trying to escape the heat, you try to think of even one person who didn’t love him. You can’t.

There he sits on that chair, smiling, that easy laugh, that mellow voice that has always sounded to you like a cello turned human.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

In your mind you pull up a chair opposite him, there in that dark pantry where the soft ice cream machine is churning away. This is where you meet, now that he’s gone, in a disappeared pantry in a burned-down house: a place where he used to sit you down with a spoon and a big bowl of melting vanilla ice cream.

He’s talking to someone else at first, someone you can’t see, but after a while he glances over and meets your eye. He nods and smiles and you nod and smile back. There is the same deep, wordless understanding between the two of you that there always was.

What you know –and he knew you knew it– was that Charlie’s easy chuckle was his defense. It was how he got through, how he bought time so that his brain would have a few extra seconds to whisk through a thousand possibilities, figure out how to defuse, how to smooth over, how to make everyone in the conversation –especially those who were angry, quick to judge, quick to injury– feel listened to, seen, known.

If Charlie could have been cloned and installed in embassies around the world, there would be no war.

Now he is gone, but you still need his presence. So every day you draw up a chair opposite him. You smile. You listen to that easy laugh. Charlie steadied the lives of those who knew him. He smoothed things over among people he loved and people he barely knew. An invisible filament strung through his hands held so many things together.

In life, the two of you never spoke openly of what you knew about each other, which is how much effort that takes, not only to do it but to make it look effortless.

"Though your life felt arduous/ new and unmapped and strange. . ."

I’m talking to you, 2012. You were a long and hard year for so many of those I love. You felt helpless and horrifying at times. And you are almost over.

I’m thinking about the smallness of human life. The smallness of my life. Of this year. The smallnesses are what I remember.

Like the sound of my sister’s laugh on the other end of the phone that night when she called me back after I left her that long message.

Like the night I was playing dirty word Bananagrams with my daughter and an old friend and they both called PEEL at the same time for the same dirty word.

There was a morning in February that I ran on a deserted beach while dolphins kept pace with me fifty feet from shore.

There was a night in May that I spent sitting on the couch with someone I adore, drinking limoncello and youtubing classic songs from our youth.

There’s the fact that I can send out a smoke signal to my other sister and she will call within an hour, saying Got your smoke signal. What’s up?

There was the day I found those beautiful, vintage, handmade boots at Experienced Goods in Brattleboro and I tried them on and couldn’t take them off even long enough to fork over the $8 at the cash register.

There was the night last summer when I danced late one night to every single song –yes, even the Hokey Pokey, thanks Stinky– from that crowd-sourced dance mix.

There was that night at the open-air restaurant by a faraway sea with my daughters, candles flickering on the wooden tables. There was that perfect Greek salad and seafood from the sea a few feet away.

And that maitre d’ who kept smiling at the three of us and sending over treats: little glasses of ouzo, stuffed grape leaves, a plate of chocolate cake.

There was a pillar at an airport, a pillar I leaned against while waiting for someone, and there was that familiar and enormous swell of love when the someone I was waiting for got off the plane.

There were nine circuits around the dog park on a 2 degree day because the dog was so happy to be out there, and how could I let him down?

There was the night I stood in line for pie at a community play in my hometown and felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my high school friend, unglimpsed in over thirty years, and I flashed back to slow-dancing with him late one night when we were 17, and the Denny’s breakfast that followed, and I remembered thinking, that long-ago night, What a great guy he is, and there he was, and I could see right away that he was still a great guy, and we hugged each other and smiled and smiled.

There was the afternoon I sat down and wrote a thank-you note, an actual thank-you note, to my brother because he is so damn funny and he makes me laugh so hard.

There were the tiny blue and yellow Italian pottery cups that came with that bottle of limoncello.

There is the ongoing fact that even though my grandmother has been gone for so many years now, I still talk to her every day. I still feel her presence, like the electricity inside the walls of my house. Invisible, and everywhere.

There is the handleless handmade coffee mug that I have to keep circling in my hands so that my fingers don’t burn but which I use every morning anyway because there’s something about it that feels exactly right.

There was Big Fat Bacon on a Stick at the state fair with my friends Stinky and J.O.

There was the day I sat down to write a blog about my best friend and I didn’t know where to start, because she is threaded throughout my entire life, and where do you begin?

There was the gratitude –what would I do without her?– and the panic –what would I do without her?

There was that day out on a run, stopping at a bridge to look down, far down at the river below, and all those bright kayaks lined up in a row on the dark water, and I couldn’t stop looking at them, remembering my living-with-cancer-for-many-years-now friend’s comment on how she can hardly stand going to the Farmer’s Market anymore, because “the colors knock my socks off,” and I knew exactly how she felt.

There was the afternoon that my quiet student, after reading aloud his strange, unearthly and beautiful-in-an-ugly way piece of writing to the class, looked over and met my eyes while everyone else’s head was still bent, and there was me nodding so that he would feel the Yes that I was trying to send to him, and there was the relief in his eyes when he got my silent Yes.

There was the night I went to see my father pretending to be crazy King George in a community play and I watched him, in his long white ruffled shirt and his rolled-up and safety-pinned black pants and his moth-eaten velvet robe, and I was so glad that sometimes in life, you get to live long enough so that everything gets worked through, gets left behind, gets washed away, so that there’s only one thing left, and that one thing is this: love.

Yup, I’m talking to you, 2012, here on the last day of a long hard year in the still-young years of a century whose end I won’t be here to see. Those moments above are a few of the millions of moments that I remember from you.

I’m marking you, 2012, acknowledging you, so that tonight, at 12:01 a.m., the world will be new again.

And we will all have yet another chance.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Things of this world

Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.

Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.

You sat there in the car and called your parents.

? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .

I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.

— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.

Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.

On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.

There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.

This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.

There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.

When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.

Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.

Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.

This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.

This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.

You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.

Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.

The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.

Portrait of a Friend, Volume IV

Unlike most friends, this friend has been part of your life for as long as you can remember. He figures in your earliest memories, and there hasn’t ever been a stretch of longer than half a year when you haven’t been in his presence.

That hat and shirt in the photo to the right stand as evidence of a rare instance of fashion coordination. The hat: plaid. The shirt: plaid. Two plaids = a well-matched outfit.

He’s a tall man, a big man. He has a big presence and a giant voice. His laugh, when he gets going, will fill a room and make all those around him shake their heads in admiration. This is a man who likes to tell a story.

He’s good at telling them, too. At the diner, where he goes every morning to meet his buddies for coffee, and where you go when you’re visiting, they sometimes egg him on.

“Did you tell Alison about the woman who propositioned you at McDonald’s?” one will say.

“Jesus H Christ!” he’ll say. “No I didn’t!”

“Are you kidding me?” you’ll say. “A woman propositioned you at McDonald’s?”

He will shake his head, that mighty laugh beginning to rumble out of him.

“Tell her,” his friends will say. “Alison needs to know.”

They will wink at you, and grin, while he looks down at the formica diner table, still shaking his head, still laughing. And then he’ll tell it, in that giant voice, so that the whole diner ends up listening. And laughing. And shaking their heads.

He is a man who has never been accused of political correctness. Nor has he, unlike most people in the world, ever tried to be anything other than exactly who he is.

Sometimes he would come to visit you during the four years you spent at that little college in the mountains, where most of the other visiting adults wore pearls and linen dresses and suitcoats and polished shoes.

Over the Adirondacks and into the Green Mountains he would come, cresting the hill in a big old station wagon. The door would open and he would haul himself out. Those were the years of the neon orange polyester shirt and the polyester pants with the grease stain. Those were the years of your friends, unused to big men with giant laughs, unused to hearing “Jesus H Christ!” so frequently and happily roared out in public, looking forward to his visits.

“Al-oh-sun.”

Despite a lifetime of knowing you, and despite the fact that your name is simple to pronounce, that is how he pronounces it.

“Alison,” you sometimes say, even now. “A-li-son. Emphasis on the first syllable. Try it again.”

He looks up and smiles, a gleeful little grin from a big man.

“Jesus H Christ!” he says. “I know how to pronounce your name, Al-oh-sun!”

This easy give and take, this banter, this happiness, wasn’t always there. When you were little, you were often afraid of him.

Was it that big voice, his height and his bigness? He was a man of enormous physical strength. He often spent entire days chopping down trees, chainsawing them into big chunks, then smaller chunks, then splitting them into smaller and smaller chunks that, finally, were small enough to fit inside a woodstove.

So tough and stoic is he in the face of pain that he once had to lie down on the floor of a doctor’s office and refuse to move in order to convince them that something –which turned out to be an appendix that had ruptured more than 24 hours previously– was seriously, terribly wrong.

You remember him once pouring Clorox over his bleeding arm: disinfectant.

Unlike now, he was often angry.

Like most children, you assumed that his anger was directed at you. That you were the cause of it. That you must have done something to bring it on.

Like most of the grownups close to you, he was a familiar mystery. In retrospect, you didn’t know him well. How could you? Each of you kept things hidden from the other.

You remember late nights when you were a girl, him working at the kitchen table, head bent over complicated graphs and charts, filling in tiny boxes with penciled numbers. He worked for a dairy farmers’ cooperative; he was keeping track of milk counts at various farms. Or he was charting milk tank truck routes; milk has to be taken to a processing plant within a certain number of hours, and winter in upstate New York is fearsome and unpredictable.

You remember him figuring out other numbers, bent over a checkbook, writing check after check, paying bills.

“Where does it all go, though?” you remember saying once, when you were in your teens.

You were talking about the money that he made. It was an honest question, an idle question.

“Where does it go!” he roared. That anger again, or what you interpreted as anger, anger at you. “Where does it go!”

Later that night he called you out to that kitchen table. On it was a piece of ruled notebook paper. BUDGET at the top of the page. Underneath, line after line with things like Mortgage and Taxes and Food and Gas and Car Payment, each with a dollar amount jotted next to it. Exact dollar amounts, written from memory, subtracted and subtracted and subtracted from that single figure titled “Income.”

“Now do you see?” he said. “Now do you see where it goes?”

Yes. Now you saw.

You didn’t, not really. But later, many years later, when you yourself were sitting up late at night, your children asleep upstairs, dividing a small number over and over again, trying to make it come out differently, you remembered that night so long ago. That piece of lined paper titled Budget.

He was a young man, back then, which is something else you didn’t know. Grownups, those mysterious beings. To a child, a grownup is born a grownup. Could you have imagined him, back then, as a child himself? No.

When you were a little girl you had no idea how young he was. You do now, though. You look back and you wonder at his youth. What went through his mind? What were his dreams? What had he put aside, for four children and the responsibilities that go with them?

Once, when you were about twelve and he was, what, 36, someone asked the people in the kitchen in which you were both standing this question. “If you could start your life over, would you?”

Almost everyone in the room answered immediately: “No.”

But not him. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”

And not you. “Yes,” you said. “I would.”

Looking back, it seems impossible that you, at that age, could have answered that way. How in the world could you have lived long enough, lived through enough, to want the chance to do it over? But the memory is perfectly clear.

You remember looking at him –that big, tall man, often angry the way he was back then– and recognizing that something in him, something he had never talked about, was in you too. Even if neither of you knew what it was.

If he never talked about the big questions, he was full of small ones. When you would return from a day or overnight at a friend’s house, for example, he would quiz you.

“What did you have for lunch?” he would say, “and what did you have for supper? Where did you sleep? How warm do they keep their house?”

He would lean forward so as not to miss anything, and you would describe it all.

“Jesus H Christ!” he would interject, fascinated and needing more details, which you would supply.

He loves a good story, and so do you. He will happily exaggerate if it will make a good story better, and so will you. His love of a good laugh, his keen interest in the people around him, his frustrated anger at his young children when he was a young man, his deadpan humor, his fierce need to make his own schedule, to be free, to get in his car and drive?

All these are in you too. Early on, you felt yourself so different from him. Not anymore.

You remember him coming out of a gas station on a summer day, somewhere in the middle of the two-week road trips that were your family’s annual vacation, his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.

You remember a dusty wooden-floored building out in the country, where every once in a while a polka band would set up. You remember setting your then-small feet on his enormous ones and holding on while he danced you around the room.

You remember a day in a restaurant with him and his mother, whom you adored, and the rest of the family. You remember his mother losing her balance and falling flat on her back and him, then in his 60’s, silently and swiftly scooping her up in his arms and setting her back upright.

Now, these many years later, you sometimes get eight or nine emails a day from him. Almost all are forwarded posts that he’s gotten from others: astonishing or weird sights, political jokes, cute pictures of animals, unusual historical facts. Jokes, off-color in the extreme, that almost always make you laugh.

Usually, the mere sight of a forwarded email, with those telltale and dreaded endless lines of recipients and senders, means an automatic delete. Not so if he’s the sender. You read them all. You respond to the ones you like best.

He likes late night solitaire. Sometimes, when you’re going to bed, you picture him, far away in that house in the foothills, his still-big body perched on a small chair, gazing at the green screen, seven vertical rows of cards.

The sound of a baseball game turned low on a television in the background of a room, or a baseball game on the radio in a car, any car, brings you back to childhood. When you visit you sit and watch with him, arguing about the Yankees.

You’re lucky people. Lucky to have both lived long enough to live through the storms. Not a day goes by that you don’t get up in the morning and sit and bow your head and thank the world for that. For having come out on the other side. For the loss of fear and the gain of love.

In your 30’s you read a poem, this poem:

* * *

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

* * *

You memorized it.

Portrait of a Friend, Vol. 2

You must have known her from kindergarten on, although it was in middle school that you became close friends.

She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which was right next to the high school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school.

Unlike you, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.

In your memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in your memory, are blue, blue, blue.

And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. You can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with you, because when you were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.

In middle school the two of you used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, you’re pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.

Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. You and she were too young, you missed out on that. But often, when you walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Had you been alone you would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But you weren’t alone. You were with her.

Why did she like you? In retrospect you were quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun, although maybe you’re not the best judge of that.

But one reason she liked you is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that you were afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared you, hurt you, made you angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.

The boy you had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off your lunch ticket.

“Sure,” you used to say.

“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.

You would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. You and she were nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.

“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”

You looked at her. She looked at you and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging.

Into her house the two of you would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see you zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.

The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of you would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.

You’d sit eating and drinking, trying to overhear the conversations in the other room. Trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were you cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts.

She was one of the few friends you kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town.

You? You left at 18 and never went back other than to visit your family. Not that you didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way you grew up.

But staying there never felt like a choice. For her, there was no other.

“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”

She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.

Twice that you know of, because she told you, men asked her to marry them.

“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.

You asked her why. She shrugged.

“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”

She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.

Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.

She’s been gone twelve years now, but you think of her every day. Every morning, you talk to her. Picture her.

When she appears in your mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against you, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin.

When you pour a glass of milk and stir in some Quik, you make a toast to her. When you and some of her other friends organize an annual fundraiser in her name, for an annual scholarship in her name given to a high school kid in that little town, you do it for her. When you write your annual check to the food bank in that little town, you fill in the “in honor of” box in her name.

If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place.

You wish you could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. You’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce you around.

from an unfamiliar photo sent by a friend

See that photo there, in the upper left? Of course you don’t. That’s because there is a tiny mutant rebel army wielding swords and running amok in the walls of this blog, much as tiny mice used to run amok in the walls of the very old house in which I grew up, and they have decided to chop out all the photos that once could be viewed here.

The tiny mutant rebel army soldiers also stand guard at the gate of New Photo Uploads, denying permission to every new photo I try to include. So you shall have to use your imagination when you look at the invisible photo to the upper left, and trust me when I tell you that it’s a colorful snapshot of five teenagers, all wearing green t-shirts –they must be part of an urban summer camp of some sort– playing Double Dutch.

Remember Double Dutch? I do, sort of. Two of the teens hold a jump rope in each hand and stand opposite each other while two others watch. The jumprope-holding teens are, from the looks of the photo, swirling back and forth with each hand, creating a double rainbow of a jumprope, through which Teen #5 is leaping.

He is the only boy in the photo.  He concentrates intently, his red sneakers flashing. The girls watch, expressionless. There appears to be no real happiness in any of them. Why not, though?

Now I see –this is the first time I’ve noticed this, so focused on the jumper and holders have I been– that there’s a crowd in the background.

Girls and boys and adults sit on a low curb that flanks the parking lot where the Double Dutchers stand, their hands between their knees. An older woman with a long necklace and a yellow sun hat and Birkenstocks sits in a green plastic lawn chair.  I have no sense of conversation.

Hark! A table to the left holds papers, a tall can of Mountain Dew, and not one but two trophies. Behind this table sit a man and a woman, also watching the jumpers.

Is it possible that I have stumbled upon a Double Dutch Jump-Off? I do believe it is possible. In fact, the evidence seems incontrovertible: the intent teens, the green t-shirts, the silent bystanders, faces full of wary expectation.

Now I’m remembering the feel of a jumprope in my hands. It’s been a long time. Would I still like it? Because I used to, on the hot black pavement outside the elementary school.

I used to bring a jump rope with me when I traveled, so that I could jump rope in my hotel room. But did I ever actually jump rope in a hotel room? Methinks not.

The first time I met my friend Karla was through a story she wrote, in which the girl was great at making up jump rope rhymes. You know the kind, chanted in a singsongy voice. The girl in Karla’s story made up wild and unique rhymes. I looked at Karla, sitting across from me, her beautiful dark curls and her beautiful smile, and I hoped that we could be friends.

Long ago, my friend Judy used to jump rope in the fourth floor stairwell of our dormitory. You could hear the monotonous beat all the way down the hall, nearly inaudible most of the time and then, when someone opened the door to the stairwell, suddenly loud and echoey. My God, that woman could jump rope.

I have it in my head that she would jump for an hour at a time, but thinking about it now, that seems excessive, even for back then, when most of us were skilled at the art of excession.

“Excession,” in case you’re wondering, appears to be the title of a science fiction by Scottish writer Iain Banks, but which I believe should be the noun form of “excessive” instead.

Judy, hello, are you out there? Did you in fact used to jump rope for an hour at a time?

Would I be disappointed if she said no, of course not, you have a deeply flawed memory?

And now I’m remembering the Rope Power team at my children’s elementary school. My God, could those kids jump. Single Rope Freestyle, Single Rope Power, Double Dutch Speed, Double Dutch Pairs Freestyle, and on and on.

At one Rope Power tournament, I sat in the stands with a videocamera –perhaps the only time I, the camera loser, ever tried to videotape anything– taping. The children leaped and flipped around the gym, ropes swirling in all directions. It was stunning.

For the finale, a lone jumper came leaping out into the center of the ring, one leg somehow pretzel-twisted up behind his ear, backward and forward jumping on one leg. The crowd roared –it was truly an amazing sight, this twisted-up one-legged child nimbly spinning about– and just then the video ends with the sudden sound of my voice saying “Holy shit! That’s my son!”

A my name is Alison, I come from Alabama, I eat apples and I like the month of April.

Long Time Passing

toddler-doug-in-doorwayHere is what you remember from the 60’s:

1. Some of the high schoolers, who were huge and terrifying to the elementary- school you, wore black armbands.
2. At the yearly high school talent show, something you lived for because you idolized those huge and terrifying high schoolers, a girl with long dark hair and a muslin granny dress sat in the center of the stage with a spotlight shining down on her head and played a guitar and sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
3. At night the news had a running count of how many soldiers had died in the Vietnam War. Note: you think you remember this, but it’s possible that you don’t – it’s possible that you read about that somewhere and turned it into a semi-memory, which seems to be the case with much of what you think you remember.
4. Drawing peace signs and writing LOVE and LUV in big squishy letters in your notebooks. Note: This might actually have happened in the 70’s. You just can’t be sure.
5. An organic farm commune a few miles away from your home, named “Earthdance.” You and your family had your own giant, mostly-organic vegetable garden, but you sometimes went to Earthdance to buy homemade bread. This was in the days before Sister #2 set out on her quest to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion and began filling the house with homemade bread.

Here is what you do not remember about the 60’s:
1. The day that JFK was shot.
2. Peace marches.
3. A sense of anger on the part of youth against their elders.
It all went right over your head, pretty much, the entire decade of the 60’s. And then one day the 60’s were over, and it was the 70’s, and you were in middle school. You were growing wildly, so fast that your bones literally hurt. You lay curled in bed at night, holding your thighs and knees, which sparked with pain. You lost weight because you were growing so fast.

Here is what you remember from the 70’s:

The 60’s were just past. It was the bare beginning of the 70’s. But you knew that you had missed out, and you wanted what you had missed. It was your goal to be a hippie. You decoupaged Desiderata and hung it in your room. You tie-dyed some clothes, including a yellow hat which your sisters scoffed at mercilessly. You tried to teach yourself how to play the recorder, the better to sit in a field of daisies playing  “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Hippies sat in fields of daisies, living in the moment and playing the recorder, didn’t they? They did. Surely they did. And they wore tie-dye yellow hats.

Sister #1: Where are you going in that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: For a walk.
Sister #1: In that yellow tie-dye hat?
You: Yes.
Sister #1: What’s that under your arm?
You: Nothing.
Sister #1: Oh my God. Is that your recorder?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Are you going out in back of the barn to sit in the field and play that thing?
You: (no response)
Sister #1: Oh my God. Sister #2! She’s heading out into the field again to play that recorder!
Sister #2 (from kitchen, where she is kneading bread): Is she wearing the yellow tie-dye hat?
Sister #1: Mais oui!
Sister #2: Oh my God.

So it went, that summer. Something about a recorder, something about a field of daisies, something about a yellow tie-dye hat. Sister #2 went on to become the New York State Bread Baking Champion that year. To the best of your memory she never baked another loaf, once the trophy was hers. Sister #1 made a granny dress out of checked orange and white cotton. And in the face of steadfast opposition, you kept wearing your yellow tie-dye hat.

Les yeux sont le miroir de l'ame

min-first-day-homeHer photographer friend Dani loves faces best. Eyes particularly. Dani laughs and shakes her head, surprised that after a decade of taking photos she is still and always drawn to eyes.

What can I say? They’re the window to the soul.

Her youngest child notices hands, the size of someone’s palm, the length of their fingers, the presence or not of rings, what those rings are made of.

Hands are expressive. Her mother’s hands, for example, are almost a part of her voice, the way they move when she talks, describing shapes in the air.

But the older she gets, the more she herself is drawn to eyes. Or maybe she always was, but she was more distracted before, by everything that surrounds eyes, all the other possibilities of the body.

Now, though, the eyes have it.

She thinks of an old man and woman she used to know, in the town where she grew up. Every Sunday she would talk to them at coffee hour after church. Early on she was taller than both of them. They were small and finely made, kind and talkative, dressed for church, and she loved them both.

The old man’s eyes were blue and kind, and he gripped her hand when he spoke. The old woman’s eyes were bright blue, clear and sharp, and she smiled when she looked up. They are gone now – where are they? – but she thinks of them often, and when she does, it is their eyes that she sees, looking up at her, seeing her.

Back then, she used to be surprised at the brightness of their eyes. They’re so old, was her teenager sense of them, but their eyes are so alive.

Now she thinks, They weren’t old.

She thinks, No one is ever old.

What is happening, now, is that she is starting to see people as separate from their bodies. Good looks, grace, strength and muscles and power, the way a person moves in the body he’s been given, all of that she still loves, and notices, and appreciates.

But the body no longer truly corresponds to the person it houses, in this new phase of life. Bodies are disappearing. Bodies are dissolving. When she looks at people now, what she sees is their eyes.