Sunday, November 25, 2012

Old Songs

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope and trust you had a good time. What did you do? Who were you with? Who hosted? Did you eat--gasp!--a bird?

You will not answer, of course, because by the time I speak with you next this holiday will be long past and there will be other things to talk about. Anyway, as a scientist, questions, not answers, are your stock in trade.

Anyway, I've been puzzled to note, this year, a definite impulse among some liberal circles towards denying or pointedly not celebrating Thanksgiving. The rationale is that Thanksgiving celebrates the genocide of Native peoples via its association with the Pilgrims. Ordinarily I am on board with this sort of thing--certainly genocide has occurred, is not quite over, and is nothing to celebrate. Columbus Day is justifiably losing its celebratory status for this reason. Except that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the Pilgrims, despite their spurious inclusion in grade school holiday activities. The modern holiday was created by Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to boost morale for obvious reasons, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who moved the holiday up a week in order to encourage more holiday shopping. Pilgrims didn't have anything to do with it. Gratitude and consumption, not proto-American history, are the themes of the day. Our history-themed holidays are the Fourth of July, Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veteran's Day. Thanksgiving Day is not about history, gosh dernit!

Except, that's not quite true. Thanksgiving is about history, it's just that it's about personal, not national history. It's about family, and family is a mess of history. As I told you last year, that is why I go to my mother's place for Thanksgiving, to indulge in good food, good conversation, familiar smells and familiar people. It is the holiday that has changed the least in the thirty-some years of my memory.

For example, when I was nine or ten years old, Thanksgiving Day was cold and rainish, and I was expected to spend the day inside helping with cooking and being social. I like helping with cooking and being social, but in most cases I regard being inside as an irritating interlude between periods of being outside. So I managed to escape for a few minutes and I climbed a tree. While I was sitting up there, a cat walked to the base of the tree, looked at me, and mewed. I'd heard about rabies in the area, and I didn't know what to make of this friendly stray. I stayed in my tree and she went away. But the following summer she approached my family again, and this time we fed her and she moved in. We named her Elora, after the baby in the movie, "Willow," and she lived with us for fifteen years until she died of old age, curled up on the blue reading chair we inherited from my mother's mother. She died on my mother's birthday while I was out of the house, and when I saw Elora's body it was still where she had left it, on the reading chair, but someone had placed one of the roses from my mother's birthday bouquet across the still form.

And those flowers...but way leads on to way and story leads on to story, and if I continue in this vein the end of this letter will find me still in the distant personal past and not in the crisp early winter of today and the titmouse opening a sunflower seed in the young sweetgum or the winter wren eying me from the woodpile.

The reason I brought up that first memory of Elora is that this year, this past week, the better part of thirty years later, Thanksgiving found me doing exactly the same thing; socializing and cooking and wishing I could be outside. And again I escaped, this time to do yard work with my husband. That tree still stands, and Elora's grave is within fifteen feet of it, a coincidence I'm not sure I've mentioned to anyone else. I spent part of the time nearby, coping with a disorganized woodpile, and part of the time further back in our long yard, clipping back invasive multiflora rose while my husband battled the equally aggressive bamboo. The yard does not look like it once did, having succeeded into  a young and tangled forest. My Dad once wrote a poem containing the line "it is here I have come to be older than the trees," and indeed I am older than most of the trees here. They will get older than me, in time. But while the neighborhood has gained trees it has also lost them, and a recent loss particularly caught my eye; the sweetgum in my neighbor's yard, the one I used to climb so often, is gone, cut into segments awaiting decomposition or disposal. I am not really surprised; it has been ill with some sort of systemic fungus for as long as I can remember, it's lower branches gradually dying off, denying me access, the bark of its dark and wrinkled trunk smelling sweet and musty on rainy days. That my neighbor would decide the tree was rotted and had to come down was not surprising.

But that tree was my friend. In its branches I watched the progression of its flowers and fruit. Have you done this? Sweetgum flowers are little pyramids of green balls, like something a child might glue together in summer camp, or like green, fuzzy, grape hyacinths. In time, most of the balls fall out of the pyramid and away from the tree, but one to three, the fertilized ones, stay and grow, their stems lengthening, their fuzz stiffening into dozens of paired spines like gaping mouths, until they become what we called "monkeyballs" when I was a kid. If that epithet had anything to do with the anatomy of a monkey, I never thought of it. I suppose I thought they were what monkeys threw at each other, if I thought of the derivation at all. They were good for throwing, as I recall. And now my friend the monkeyball tree is just another ghost of memory, clear in my mind but nowhere else. I can imagine so many things that are gone, that have not yet come, or that never were.

My Dad once wrote a series of songs with  friend of his. They recorded their songs on cassette tapes, at least four or five of them, and as far as I know, no one but me has ever thought of them since. I thought of one of them this week.

Someone cut down my favorite tree
along with the shadow that used to hang over me.
Noone keeps a secret like a sunny day.

Was this my favorite tree? Not quite, simply one of many I have grown attached to, some of which predeceased it and reminded me of that song also. I don't know which tree my Dad meant, or even if he meant a specific, literal tree. I don't know what shadow he meant, either, and I don't remember the rest of the song, but I like the deep ambiguity of those lines. I can imagine the flat cheeriness of a sunny, summer day, its silence oppressive, the smiling denial of history.

But today the dappled sunlight of my yard neither hides nor reveals any stories. It is simply cold, crisp, illustrated by chirping and the dry scratching of what I think is a nuthatch exploring the layered bark of a young white oak behind me. I hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing today, sun and shadow together find you illuminated and similarly entertained.

-best, C.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Few Words

Hello, my friend,

I've been thinking of you lately. I've been talking to you in my head--the habit of having imaginary conversations is one I share with my father and it may have something to do with being a writer. But I do not anticipate actually talking with you, in person, until next year and I do not know what to say to you now. I like living in Maryland in this house of ours. And I like living close enough to my family of origin that I can go visit them for a weekend here and there. But I do not like not being able to see my friends with some kind of convenience...Chris wants to know why I don't make friends locally--and I have made some friends locally. But humans are not interchangeable.

What do I say to you? What do you want to know of my life? Thanksgiving is coming up, and we're going to my mother's. I told you about that tradition last year, and I expect this year to be just another iteration of it so I will not repeat myself. My bound copies of my thesis have arrived (I got two, one for me, one for a committee member who wants one), and according to the calendar I now have my degree. I have not received the actual piece of paper yet, but the conferral date has passed and so I am officially a master of science. I'm pretty excited about that,but this morning I feel pretty melancholy and I am not in a mood for crowing. Nothing is wrong, but I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed by my various plans, and it's making me pessimistic.

Fall is pretty well progressed here, now. About half the trees here are loblolly pine and hence evergreen, but the other half are mostly oaks and they have turned brown. The leaves drift downward, relaxing into winter, and I pick them up on my walks. There are so many different kinds; at least five different species, possibly seven. I'd like to make a list of all the woody plant species we have here. It lifts my mood somewhat.

We went out to Assateague yesterday and spent some time tramping around the marsh where Chris has been cleaning up from the storm.  You could see the wrack lines, thick bunches of broken phragmites, cattails, and spartina grass pushed up halfway across the island. The surge came in from the bay, not the sea, and pushed in nearly as far as the main road. The boardwalks from the trails had floated off and scattered. Chris and his volunteers managed to save part of one of the trails, but the others will have to be rebuilt. The marsh elder is white with wispy, cottony seeds, as are the drying heads of thistle and the stalks of broom-sedge, but ome of the seaside goldenrod was still in flower. We went out to see the sea, dramatic grey and white with the latest offshore nor'easter.

I must be off; I have packing to do, for we travel today. I fear this letter is sort of bland. I do not feel much creative exuberance, and this melancholy of mine is not the inspired kind.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

First Trip Around the Sun

Hi, there!

How are you? It's been a while since I've heard from you directly, but your posts on Facebook imply that you are well. I expect you're happy about the election--I know you were concerned about it, as was I. Another cycle completes and begins again, happily as it turns out. Or, happy according to you and I, anyway. I am aware that some people do not like the results, of course, but my expectation is that this is for the best for them, too...a statement that sounds somewhat condescending, but it not meant to be. After all, if I did not think this would be the best for everyone, I would not have voted as I did.

Another kind cycle has completed and begun as well, for this week was my little nephew's first birthday. I drove up for the party alone, since Chris had to work, but that, too is an interesting symmetry, for I drove up by myself when he was born, too. I remember I had a really horrible ear-ache the whole time my sister was in labor, which meant both that I was in pain for three and a half days and that I could get no sympathy for it whatever. And of course I did not try to get any. It has been a year since then, a year since that strange little being, a newborn baby, the first baby in our family in thirty years, lay under a sun-lamp in the hospital and cried. It's been a year, "a candle and a trip around the sun," as Jimmy Buffet says.

My nephew is now walking, though not talking yet. He had straight blond hair, rather like Christopher Robin and, more to the point, like his great-grandfather did at the same age (we have pictures). I expect it will darken as he gets older. I started out blonde, too, after all. It will be interesting to see if he goes bald, like his great-grandfather as well. He's got a one quarter chance, by my calculation.

He's a delightful little boy, outgoing and personable and sweet. On the night of the party he did not make many speach-sounds, he did not babble much, but he did laugh and when he noticed everybody watching him and smiling he squealed and giggled. He loves music. His favorite presents all made noise, including a pair of tiny maracas. He can dance, in a way, by bending his knees slightly several times in a row. He likes chocolate cake, also. He's never had it before, and did not want to sit in his high chair anymore, so he was crying and pushing and squirming until his Dad put some cake in his mouth. The cries, interrupted, were replaced by a small sound of surprise and appreciation and the boy ate the rest of his cake in silence, carefully picking up each crumb with his tiny fingers so as not to waste any. A year ago I wrote of him "he does not know about birthday cake." Well, now he does.

He still does not know I write about him, nor do his parents know, I think. I'm not going to use any of their names, nor will I say anything particularly private about them, though of course I could disclose something without realizing that it is private. Not everyone has the same understanding of what should be private, after all. But being the subject of someone else's writing is a very mixed thing. I myself do not mind it. I've been the subject of a number of my Dad's poems, and he never asked my permission, either to write them or to share them publicly. He may have published some of them, I'm not sure. But for me, this was always one part proof that he thinks about me, and one part simply what daddies do. In my experience the quality of "daddy-ness" includes the composition of poetry, as for your daughter the same word must instead signify birds. Or maybe it also means poetry for her, I don't know. I don't know that you don't write poetry, after all. Not observing something is not the same as observing its absence, a lesson I could have learned from you, except that I already knew it.

But not all children of writers react the way I did. The real Christopher Robin reportedly felt very used by his father, who had of course built a literary career on the most private thing of all; someone else's childhood. I can understand Christopher Robin Miln feeling violated, but I can also understand how and why A.A. Miln could have so violated the boy and done so in all innocence. The fictional Christopher Robin is not the same as the real one, but he is no less the son of his father; the real boy was the son of A.A. Miln's body, while the fictional boy and all the other residents of the Hundred Acre Wood and its environs constitute the son of A.A. Miln's soul and mind. How could he not love his children equally? Once the mind-child was conceived, how could Miln not bring the boy to birth by publishing him?

This is a line that all writers must tread, and many write about it, often with some discomfort. David Sedaris does so most touchingly, reporting that his sister once confided in him about something and then, tear-streaked, told him that if he ever wrote about it, she would never talk to him again. He actually responded "why? You're not using it!" before wondering to himself "am I the brother I was, or the brother I have become?" The story ends with Sedaris, bizarrely, up in the middle of the night teaching a parrot to say "I'm sorry." The line between generosity and selfishness is thin and subtle and easy, far too easy, to lose.

Should I then stop writing about people I know? What then would I write about? I never minded being written about, and my Dad actually wrote quite deliberately about my sister after realizing he'd written about me more (I am older). He didn't want her to feel left out.

So in a few years, my nephew will discover that people he has never met, including some people no one he knows has met, know that he likes chocolate birthday cake. He will discover that although he is his mother's child, he has a counterpart who is the child of his aunt. And he will take this discovery and turn to me with whatever thoughts and feelings he has about the matter. And I will bear them.

-best, C.