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Tuesday, April 16, 2013


In the western suburbs, the party starts early because the race starts early. Even so, the first runners won’t go by for at least an hour as we thread our way down already crowded sidewalks, dodging lawn chairs and small children, older kids throwing balls and dashing gleefully into the closed road to retrieve them. At this hour, the road is mostly empty; only unofficial challengers are this far along the 26-mile route. Cyclists, mostly. And small groups of soldiers in fatigues, backs straight under their heavy packs. At the front-yard party that’s our destination, someone asks if there are more soldiers than usual this year. The rest of us shake our heads. They’re here every year, challenging themselves to go from Hopkinton to Boston in full gear. It’s a tradition.

Spring comes begrudgingly to Massachusetts some years. We’re all in fleece or heavy sweatshirts and sweaters. When the sun comes out and the hot coffee goes down my throat, I tie my fleece around my waist. But only for a few minutes. BB is cold in her windbreaker, and begs my jacket from me. She’s eight years old now, and she’s grown several inches this year. But the sleeves of my jacket still dangle down several inches past her wrists, and she has trouble balancing the bagel on her paper plate. I help her, then fumble with the straw on a younger child’s juice box — my picky eaters never did learn to drink juice. But they fend for themselves well enough now at the folding buffet tables with the food and the water pitcher.

Do they tell you in the news that our first excitement every year comes when we spot the police escort accorded to the leaders of the wheelchair race? We shoo the kids out of the street and take positions lining the sidewalk so that we can yell and clap as they approach. So many different kinds of wheelchairs. I see one person sitting ramrod straight in his seat like an old soldier; I see a person or two recumbent and turning pedals with his hands. Some of the racers have their legs tucked underneath them almost invisibly. Some racers have no legs. We cheer them until our throats are sore, just like we do every year.

Later will come the runners. First the elite women go by; then the elite men. Disabled runners must have an early start time, because many of them beat the pack to our vantage point. We see a man on one good leg and one blade. He’s running with a guide on either side of him, and he’s visibly struggling. A pair of able-bodied male runners come up behind them and pass. They’re not on the leading edge, but they are well ahead of the pack, making a time that anyone would envy. One of the pair, an African runner — I don’t catch the country on his jersey — turns around as he passes to catch the eye of the man with the blade. Thumbs up, he signals to the man. The man brightens. We all cheer wildly, for the blade runner, for the kind runner, for kindness and courage.

Do they tell you about the man on stilts or the man running in a pink tutu, the man in a Captain America suit or the man dressed like a bumblebee? Do they tell you what it looks like to see thousands of people running in a line as far as your eye can see, or what it sounds like to hear thousands of shoes hitting pavement? Do they tell you about the children waving signs, hooting into noisemakers, scampering into the road to retrieve discarded water bottles and gloves? Some of the runners have smiles as wide as the sky as they edge to the side to grab a slice of orange from the platters the kids hold out or to give a high-five to a child’s outstretched hand.

So many runners write their heart on their shirts for us to read as they go by. Friends of Griffin, we read on tens of shirts. Griffin must have a lot of friends. We don’t really need to ask why Griffin’s friends are running, why they’re trying to raise money or raise spirits for Griffin. We see stories like this one run by every year. Is there another sporting event that’s as much about celebrating hope and resilience in the face of hardship and tragedy, year after year? I hope there is.

Next year it will be different, god knows it will be different. The front yard parties and packed town commons, the kids who dash into the street, the drummers and barbecues and radios blasting updates from the Red Sox games. It will all be different, constricted, laced with fear and PTSD and tears. There will be people missing who should be there. There will be wheelchair racers and blade runners who once ran with the pack.

But I hope we never stop cheering wildly for kindness and courage and carrying on, 26 long miles’ worth, and the marathon-length of our lives.

(I turned off comments ages ago because I got tired of batting away spam. But I think most of you know where to find me and each other.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Maurice Sendak

I never thought of Maurice Sendak as a writer for children. Possibly this is because I did not read his books when I was a child. I don't know why we never had many picture books in our house, but for whatever reason we didn't. We had Dr. Seuss and Mercer Mayer and a handful of miscellaneous titles, but no Sendak. I went straight on from The Lorax to the Bobbsey Twins, and, as I grew, did my best to fake the cultural literacy I'd missed. In college I often rewarded myself after surviving exams with a trip to the children's section of Wordsworth, where I marked the hardest moment of my senior year by purchasing two paperback copies of Where the Wild Things Are. I cut away the bindings and funtacked up the entire book on my dorm room wall, page by page. The monsters were familiar to me as the back of my hand; Jim Henson and Maurice Sendak only officially collaborated on a few animated shorts for Sesame Street, but the Muppet monsters (especially the full-sized ones, like Sweetums) and the Wild Things were clearly kin. But, Muppet associations aside, Max mastering the monsters wasn't comfort so much as it was company. Self-mastery is a journey one must make alone, but the wild things remind us that one's travels are fully populated nonetheless. I ate many a solitary supper under those illustrations, in Max's company.

Company, not comfort. I never found anything about Sendak comforting. Not just the explicitly upsetting texts, like We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy (with its rats and starving brown children), or Outside Over There, with its terrifying Holocaust subtext. All of his books were so heavy with dislocation and strangeness, which I recognized then and now as the way the world distorts itself when seen through the telescope of suffering. Even the rollicking books teetered back and forth on the edge of an abyss. Mickey in his cake, sturdy child, was only a nightmare without the screaming, a nightmare yanked into happy ending by sheer force of animal health. We all know, don't we, that some sorrows respond to nothing but fat and sugar. In the Night Kitchen was the only one of Sendak's books that we read with any frequency here when the children were small. "Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake and nothing's the matter!" We chanted that over and over again to general glee, and pretended for a moment that cake would cure our many small disasters, when we knew it was only keeping us company with its promise that the world contained always the possibility of sweetness and love.

Sendak was never a comfort, but, oh, he was brave company. He saw and felt and represented with an unflinching eye. Mary McCarthy once said about Elizabeth Bishop, "Not that I want to have written her works but that I would like to have had her quiddity, her way of seeing that was like a big pocket magnifying glass. Of course it would have to hurt to have to use it for ordinary looking: that would have been the forfeit." That is how I think of Sendak; I cannot read his books without feeling also the hurt that was the forfeit. In fact, that is how I place him, in a line with the poets of looking, like Marianne Moore (who, according to Tony Kushner in The Art of Maurice Sendak, wished that she had written Chicken Soup with Rice!) or Bishop. I do not think it is a stretch to place Sendak in that lineage. He associated himself with it when he illustrated the poet Randall Jarrell's last work, an achingly beautiful fable called The Animal Family, which should have a far more prominent place in the canon of children's literature than it does — or, at least, in the canon of literature that we say is for children because it gets far closer to the heart of being than most grown-ups can bear.

Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for keeping us company with the things for which we have no comfort.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New little side project

I shall be over here on Sundays with a list of lovely links to writing by women around the web. Read something awesome by a woman? By all means let me know. I'll tweet links from here, too. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The way we think about current events now

In the brave new world we live in, your day starts in the usual way. You don't read newspapers anymore; you haven't in years. Lately you haven't even been checking newspapers' websites, unless you're following a link to some article or another, a link posted by someone you know, where "know" is defined as -- no, not in the biblical sense, you smart-ass -- "someone you follow on some social networking site." It feels a little lazy, getting all your news preselected by your friends in the computer. But, well, life is short, and there is an infinite amount of crap out there, and everything is a little easier if you have some way to filter out the vast bulk of it. Your filter is "People Who Share Your Interests Think It's Interesting." Whatever. It works.

So your day starts, and you're on your social networking site of choice, reading short bursts of language about unimaginable suffering or malfeasance in places where you've never been, or places that you know well. Someone links to something. Say, for example, this: US Nuke Plants Ranked By Quake Risk. You click on it, and are horrified to see that the people you love best in the world live within a 150-mile radius of the three nuclear plants ranked to be at highest risk. You look at the list over and over again, gripping your coffee cup a little tighter and keeping half an eye on the tab that's still open to your social networking site of choice, because you're hoping that someone you know will say something that will distract you from what you're looking at, perhaps with photos of kittens? You look again at the tables, thinking there must be some mistake. You live in the Northeast, for pity's sake. This is not the San Andreas. But there it is, anyway. There you are -- you and everyone you love.

You read again, more carefully. The article ranks nuclear plants by their "risk of suffering core damage in an earthquake." Number 2, with a risk of 1 in 14,493, is in your state. You've been to that town; you suppose most everyone around here has. Your children go to that town on field trips. The nuclear power plant is not on their agenda when they go. You didn't even know the plant was there until last week, but since then you've read somewhere that the plant shares a design with the nuclear plants in Fukushima. You put that information together with the earthquake risk list, and have a sudden, dizzying sense that not very much separates you from the people you've been reading about, that your possibilities now are not so very different from what theirs must have looked like two weeks (a lifetime) ago. Who knows what happens next? You imagine any combination of natural disasters washing over the shores of that town, and you picture the roads you'd be taking to flee the catastrophes that followed.

Before you get too involved in your useless catastrophizing, you pull yourself together long enough to remind yourself sternly that you don't know enough to judge whether or not this article is meaningful or even accurate. Lord knows it's been a long time since you took it for granted that anything you read or saw in any media was accurate. And then there's the issue of the accuracy of your own memory. Pilgrim shares the same design as Fukushima? Are you sure? Where did you read that? You can't remember, though it was only a day or two ago -- but you read so many things, click, click -- how can you possibly remember? But it doesn't matter: you Google, and are relieved to see that someone has already updated the plant's Wikipedia page with the same information, so you know that you are remembering what you read accurately, even if you can't for the life of you remember where you read it.

Well, you think. Now that the design similarity is known, someone must be asking the hard questions, right? You click on another Googled link, this one to a local television station's written report. "The disaster in Japan is raising safety concerns at home. Officials at the nuclear plant in Plymouth and other emergency responders are now taking a closer look at their own safety measures," you read. You feel reassured. Until you read further. "Plymouth isn’t on a fault line and tsunamis aren’t a concern. Still, the plant is built to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and a total power blackout."

6.0 earthquake? Your brain is a whirl of barely remembered information, but it is not for nothing that you own a copy of this book. Googling confirms what you think you might remember once reading: The Great Earthquake of 1755. Was that more than a 6.0? You would like an answer on this point, but of course anyone who tries to give you a definitive answer is only guessing. You know better than to trust Wikipedia when it tells you the 1755 earthquake was a 6.0-6.3, but your comforting skepticism takes a severe hit when you see that the estimate is sourced to an article published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, authored by the director of the Weston Observatory. Which is the chief seismic monitoring station in New England.

You've drained your coffee by now, and there are 37 unread updates on your social networking site of choice. But there's nothing you need to respond to immediately, and the child who's home with the flu is reading quietly in the other room. You Google the Weston Observatory in the hopes of finding something there that will make you stop hyperventilating quietly into your empty coffee cup. Well, here's a nice map of seismic activity in New England from 1975-2010. You note with some relief that the few green squares marking earthquakes of greater than 5.0 in magnitude are all at some distance from the Pilgrim nuclear station.

But there's still that nagging worry, because how many times have you read recently about regions that are "at risk" for severe earthquakes because they are overdue for one by X hundreds of years? 1755 isn't a long time ago, geologically speaking. Are we so sure that we're not also overdue for something? You contemplate reaching for an old geology textbook, or doing some more Googling. But you're tired, and you read this piece after the Bar Harbor earthquake, so you already know that the short answer would be, "We don't really know."

You think also of the articles you've been seeing linked around (like here) that climate change and melting glaciers may lead to more severe earthquakes. Journalists are writing those climate change/earthquake articles, and you know better than to assume that something on a non-specialist site with a couple of quotes from some scientist somewhere is worth losing sleep over. But you wish you could find something, somewhere, that would help you decide how much credence to give the theory.

By now you've got so many browser tabs open that you can't even see the one still open to the social networking site. You think longingly of more coffee, and also of someone with the time and focus and expertise to pull all of this together in such a way that you can understand it and feel reassured by your understanding, if not by your relative risk. You hum quietly to yourself, noting that there is simply no way that "John McPhee" has enough syllables to replace "Joe DiMaggio" in a song, even if you are turning your lonely eyes to him.

Twenty-six open tabs. You'll close them all soon; you'll bring the coffee cup to the sink, check on the sick child, start some laundry. What does it matter if you understand anything, anyway? You remember reading this and thinking, "The BP disaster didn't change the way anything got done. What happens in Fukushima won't change the way anything gets done here, either." Earthquakes, tsunamis. Things fall apart, and government exists chiefly to ensure that someone makes a profit from the entropy. You think about Category 5 hurricanes, and about how Republicans won't even allow that climate change exists, let alone entertain ideas about how to mitigate or plan for its likely scenarios. You think of the photo that made you close yesterday's tabs, the one of the Japanese woman weeping, clutching a hand sticking out of rubble -- weeping while she holds her dead mother's hand. You wonder how fast you could run, carrying a sick child who weighs half as much as you do. Not faster than water can flow. Not faster than the earth can shake. Not faster than radiation can fall. You close all the tabs now. It is late; it is suddenly very late. And nothing you know or see or read is going to make any difference at all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

First encounter: Elizabeth Bishop*

It was an exercise we practiced over and over again during my senior year in high school in preparation for taking the AP exam in English. We were handed a short passage of prose or a poem, and given 45 minutes to analyze the hell out of it. I hated it, like I hated just about everything that added any further pressure to an environment already so pressurized that I walked around with a chronic case of the emotional bends. But even I had to admit that I was pretty good at those 45-minute exercises. I had a peculiar talent for quickly and concisely bullshitting my way through a text, and that sort of talent was richly rewarded by English teachers and examiners. That I was good at it didn’t make me less anxious, of course — I never got that far from my fear of failure. But still and all, it would have seemed… unlikely that any major disaster would befall me when I sat down to yet another in-class practice exam in what must have been the fall of 1987 or the winter of 1988.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” We’d been tested on other texts that had moved me or struck me or made me smile to myself — but the opening sentence of this one rocked me so that I thought I’d fall out of my chair from vertigo. I read the words over and over again, ever more conscious of my failure to be scribbling out a response (like my peers were all around me), but I couldn’t muster even a single dutiful answering sentence. I couldn’t summon language; I couldn’t summon anything at all to hold against the void that had just opened before me. All I could do was hold on to the chair while the words of the poem repeated themselves like church-bell notes, echoing deafening truths. I couldn’t have told you the first reason why these sentences reverberated until they threatened to shatter me like a lucky glass. I was 17 years old. What did I possibly know about losing? (An awful lot, in fact — but it would be years before I could read and recognize the losses of my childhood. Some kinds of literacy we are very slow to acquire.)

The page upon which I was supposed to be writing remained pitilessly blank. I gripped the bottom of the chair and tried not to cry. In the last five minutes of the class period, I wrote something — anything. I don’t remember what. I do remember the teacher’s disappointed look when she handed back my graded paper later. It was the worst I ever would do on a written exam. But of course it wasn’t a disaster. I wasn’t cast out of society of humankind; I didn’t even fail the class. I aced the AP exam and got into my first-choice college, where the following fall I took English 10 (Major British Writers) in the company of a couple hundred of my (ahem) closest friends. My program of study was heavy on British poets and American novelists, so I would have said that I wasn’t influenced by Bishop again until the fall of my senior year in college, when she was the sole woman whose collected poems appeared on the syllabus of a class I was taking on modern American poets (Frost, Stevens, Williams, Bishop — if there was anyone else we studied, he didn’t make much of an impression). My copy of The Complete Poems 1927-1979 was the eleventh printing (1991). I was on the cusp of an annus horribilis, losing farther and faster than I thought I could bear, and soon to lose the friend of whom I thought immediately when first I read the words,
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

My friend’s copy of The Complete Poems was older than mine, and I think she already owned The Collected Prose, maybe even The Diary of "Helena Morley", which I bought a few years later, after college, when a new edition arrived at the bookstore where I then worked. I devoured it immediately — personal narratives, accounts of childhood, and descriptions of places unknown to me being three of my very favorite reading pastimes. I suppose that as I read I thought occasionally of Bishop as translator and mediating presence, but mostly I thought of my own childhood and my own losses, putting my own self in the blank spaces between the words, as readers do. I bought One Art: Letters around that time, too, though it was 10 years before I started reading it, and 15 years before I finished it. In my early 20s, I wasn’t ready to follow someone else’s passage through an entire life; my own halting progress required too much close attention. There were things I had to sort through, and winding paths that needed taking.

My lost friend had also owned everything Annie Dillard had published, so I tackled all of those books, one at a time. For awhile I took as my personal emblem the Annie Dillard passage about the inchworm writhing at the edge of the limitless void with every step. But it was more than 15 years after I first read that passage before I realized that Dillard must have been inspired by the image of the inchworm in Robert Lowell's “For Elizabeth Bishop 4.” (The day I made that connection was in the middle of spring, and for weeks afterward I’d come home from walks to find a small green inchworm or two making its frantic way across my hat or sleeve. I picked each one off carefully and put it back outside, thinking to myself how much the universe likes a good joke.) Likewise, it was only while finally getting through the last few hundred pages of Bishop’s selected letters — marveling at how, all unawares, I seemed to have read every British poet she ever recommended and taken every piece of advice she ever had to offer about how to approach poetry — that I discovered that I had taken English 10 from a woman who had known Bishop personally, who was expecting Bishop over for dinner on the day Bishop died. There is something almost comically soothing in discovering that the apparently random wandering you’ve been doing has, in fact, been closely directed by forces you never knew.

It was another friend, the sort of friend who heals losses, who sent me Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box a year or two ago. (From her remainder shelf, I’m sorry to say, though I’ve found it’s surpassingly rare to run into any of Bishop’s published works used. She’s not the sort of writer one discards when the book is done.) I’m taking my time over it, as I always do with Bishop — I’m trying to make it last, and there’s that vertigo to consider. (I’ve learned to always read Bishop while sitting down.) On the back cover is a quote from a review by David Orr that ran in the New York Times. I looked up the full review; I looked up a lot of things. I wrangled my way into JSTOR, one of the major online humanities journal archives, and downloaded pages’ worth of search results: articles, anecdotes, translations, interview fragments. And there in the results was my lost friend, who apparently went on to publish scholarly articles about Bishop. Some echoes go on reverberating long after the sound that produced them has ceased.

But that book review. Orr started off thundering, “You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop.” I only nodded. That would explain it. Of course I am.

*I’m hijacking, er, liberating this meme from this lovely site, which is such an endearing mix of scholarship and pure, unadulterated fan-clubbishness that I can hardly stand it. Thanks to them, I heard about this event, which I am SO TOTALLY attending, though it takes me a committee of 140 babysitters (a.k.a. the number of students in MB’s Thursday-night lecture class) to get there. I might even live-blog it, but if I do, it will probably be here. I feel very you-kids-get-offa-my-lawn about Tumblr, but it has an effortless mobile blogging app, much easier than anything I could manage at this passé old-skool location.

Audience participation! Tell me (here or wherever you’re conversing, these days) what artists in any medium knocked you over on your first encounter with them. I’m curious to know.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Growing up

For the first five months that BB was in kindergarten, every single drawing that she brought home was labeled, “BB AND MAMA.” It didn’t seem to matter what the subject of the drawing was: landscapes (a house with a door and windows), portraits (BB in neon pink and yellow, with enormous eyes), hearts and flowers, oddly appealing bits of geometric abstraction — all of them bore somewhere, “BB AND MAMA.” It was her compass rose, pointing always toward home.

Now, at the end of April, when I empty BB’s backpack at the end of the school day, I find drawings that are carefully labeled in a firm, controlled hand. Just her name, a simple signature in clear capitals and lower-case letters in their proper order. Just BB, standing alone.

I would like to say that it’s been a smooth transition from there to here, but of course it hasn’t been. There were complications, contradictions, an avalanche of notes typed or written to the finest specifications for heartbreak: “DeaR MAMA I DoNT wANt to Go To scHool plEAsE cAN I stAY HoME wiTH You.” When the heartbreak failed to have the desired effect, there was rigorous scientific experimentation to see if some combination of willfulness, piteousness, and flat-out misbehavior would do the job. The testing has eased now, but I don’t expect it to end. She is a stubborn and gifted investigator into the ways by which one may affect the actions of other human beings, and it is clear that she will never stop probing until she has determined exactly which of the laws governing the operation of the universe are susceptible to her control. It is awe-inspiring to watch. It is often exhausting to supervise. There is no respite to the process of growing up. Not for any one of us.

There was some discussion on the blogs awhile ago as to whether it was easier or harder to parent children once they reached school age. People I respect made arguments in support of both positions; and I nodded in agreement to points made by both sides. They’re both right, after all. Parenting is never simple: There are things that get much, much easier as the kids get older. There are things that get much, much harder. For myself, though, I’d have to say that it has gotten easier, if for no other reason than that my work week is now thirty hours shorter than it used to be. Well. Between half-days, holidays, school vacations, sick days, and volunteer requests, it is never a full thirty hours per week that I get off from the immediacies of parenting. I do say no to almost everything that’s asked of me during those hours — after eight long years of having to ask for every single moment I ever got to myself, I don’t feel any shame at all about turning down volunteer requests. The volunteers in our school do good work, of course. But I can’t help but notice how many of their activities are about busy work and tending to social connections. I don’t have the patience for such things anymore. Each hour I have to myself seems too precious to squander. After eight years of being on call to my family 24/7, I have earned the right, I think, to know my own strengths and play to them for as long as I can.

So I spend my hours as intelligently as possible. I take long walks, because walking is the only exercise I’ve ever liked. I tend to my closest relationships. I read. And I write. I hope to have, by sometime this summer, a completed first draft of a novel. Not something I ever intend to circulate or publish, but something I did entirely for myself, to see what the skills are that one must develop to accomplish such a thing, and to see whether or not it is fun. It is fun, actually — that’s surprised me, how much fun it is. It’s surprised me how much I enjoy submerging myself in something that isn’t for the benefit of anyone at all, except possibly myself. Whether I have managed to acquire novel-writing skills in the process, I have no idea. But I have acquired the skill of being for myself when I can, the skill of standing alone, just myself and my own brain getting down to work at something. It surprises me, how much I enjoy it all. It surprises me, how rewarding it is to go on growing up.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

For the convenience of the government of the state of Utah...

... I hereby present a short risk of things that are currently thought to increase one's risk of miscarriage. Pregnant women of Utah, play it safe and keep careful track of your actions. If you miscarry you could be considered "reckless" if you've engaged in any of these:

  • The woman's age at time of pregnancy. Is it a reckless act to get pregnant after the age of 40? I guess the state of Utah will decide. I should hope, though, that the state recognizes that getting pregnant by a man over the age of 40 is also a reckless act.

  • Previous miscarriages. Do you have a history of miscarriage? Getting pregnant again could be a reckless act.

  • Being too skinny. That's right: this study found that low pre-pregnancy body mass index was a risk factor for first-trimester miscarriage.

  • Coffee. Do they even have Starbucks in Utah? Anyway, stay away from coffee if you want to avoid the long arm of the law in the aftermath of a miscarriage. Because caffeine consumption ups your risk of miscarriage. Unless, of course, it doesn't.

  • Amniocentesis, particularly if done by a less experienced medical team. Ladies, now you know you are being reckless if you don't insist on having prenatal testing performed in a high-volume teaching hospital using highly skilled staff. What? Your insurance doesn't cover that? Hmmmm, that's not the law's problem, now is it?

  • Get pregnant by an abusive partner. You didn't realize he was abusive until you became pregnant? You didn't have a choice, because he raped you and/or sabotaged your birth control? Excuses, excuses. If you were really deserving of the state's protection, why, that man would have treated you better.

  • Eating at the deli. The good people of the state of Utah could choose to charge you with feticide for that turkey sandwich, you know.

Let's not forget the usual suspects: smoking, drinking, car accidents, falling. Don't do any of those, either. Because the loss of your pregnancy won't be enough punishment for you if you do. Oh, no. Just ask the wise men of the state of Utah.