the view from here

view from hadley

Today, for Mother’s Day, my two youngest and I hiked up Hadley in the lower Adirondacks. It’s not a big mountain, not a long hike, not at all difficult or dangerous. But it was enough of an expedition to make us feel as though we’d gotten out into fresh air and sunshine, and it was enough of an exertion to work up a decent sweat. It was also plenty windy. At the summit, buffeted by wild, chilly gusts, we stayed just long enough to snap a few photos and peer up the fire tower (nope, no climbing that, not today, not without flying away like gum wrappers in the wind) before skedaddling back down the trail.

We last hiked Hadley as a family of five several years ago, back when my youngest was wee, my oldest was home and my husband was still among the living. To say I recalled him — and the family we once were — as I hoofed up and down today is to state the obvious. Of course I remembered him. I see him everywhere we ever went together. And of course I remembered our children in their younger days. How could I not? Being a parent means seeing children with eyes that view the past as well as the present, flashing back through earlier incarnations (baby, toddler, kindergartner, middle schooler) while regarding the fully formed creatures before us with love, admiration, worry, gratitude and something close to shock. How the heck did that happen?

My oldest daughter couldn’t hike with us today, because she’s about to graduate from college. That statement is so outrageous, I have to re-type it in all caps. SHE’S ABOUT TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE. How the heck did that happen? My younger daughter just came back from volunteering in Australia. How the heck did that happen? How the heck is my son about to finish his second year of high school? How the heck did I give birth to three such colossally spirited, resilient, interesting, good, compassionate, loving, intrepid souls?

It’s a mystery, just as every gift is a mystery. So is every loss. God only knows why anything happens to anybody, and I mean that literally.  All I know is this: I loved their father. Because I loved their father, these three people sprang into being. Because they sprang into being, the mother I am sprang into being. Every fumbling step I’ve made through parenthood sprang into being, too. Every decision I’ve made. Every mistake. Every moment of pain, frustration, insight, joy. Every piece of who I am now, who they are now, who they might be next week or next month or next year. All of that transcends time, transcends space, transcends any comprehension of the cosmos as finite or linear or in any way confined by my puny capacity to understand it.

My kids embody all of that. They give shape and sense to things too misty to grasp: the love of God, the looping movement of days, the sense of blindly hiking through a thickening fog to an unknown summit. I can’t and don’t know squat, really. Who does? What can we know in this life beyond the value of the people walking beside us?

Looking out from the top of Hadley, I saw the rolling peaks, the bundling clouds, the elbowing curves of the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Looking over at my children, I saw love.

 

 

falling

broken
I was 2 when I fell down the stairs and landed on my head, biting my tongue. I can still feel my foot slip, still taste the blood in my mouth, still feel my mother’s arms embrace me on the living room floor.

That was the start. I just kept falling and breaking. The people I loved kept falling and breaking, too. My life’s lesson — just the one, and I seem to learn it over and over — is that I’ll always slip, I’ll never really manage anything with perfection, I’ll never come away from a project or a person and say “Well, I did that/him/her/them utter justice, I served that/him/her/them with unfiltered love and kindness.” I’ve written before about my lifelong struggle with chronic and incurable screw-up-ed-ness, the way I’ve always tried and failed and tried and failed and just kept trying, anyway.

But then, some weeks back, I stepped on my Chromebook. At first it worked just fine. Then the screen started to blank out until I wiggled it just right. Then it began to blank out more often, and the wiggling didn’t help any longer, and so I started bending it slightly to get it back. Then, one fateful evening, I bent it so hard it cracked, shooting a quiver of crooked arrows across the screen.

The thing was so unexpectedly lovely, and so totally and irretrievably broken, that I decided I wanted to see more. I grabbed the screen with both hands and bent it toward me, shattering it. The image that resulted was startling: two black tulips tilting toward the light, or in the wind. Immediately I saw in their fragmented, accidental beauty a metaphor for living: What breaks us can bring us to grace.

As a lover of God and science, I thought of the cosmos — the mad forces that made the universe and spin it ever outward, the entropy that leads it into chaos. Its beauty rests in its brokenness. As a Catholic, I thought of Christ — the savior who could only serve God’s purpose, and save God’s people, by breaking on the cross. His beauty rests in His brokenness.

Maybe ours does, too.

All of us are busted up, all falling and dying from birth. Gravity does a number on our bodies. Loss does a number on our hearts. We live in homes that crumble, love in ways that hurt. This is who we are and how we live, always hoping, often shattering, never sure. But there’s joy to be felt, if we’re patient. There’s beauty to be found, if we look.
.

life’s rich pageant

Remember that time the temperature plunged to -1,000,000 and my pipes froze and sprang a leak and I swore and swore and swore? I remember that, too. It happened — ooooh, let’s see, now — less than two weeks ago. The leak’s been fixed. Yay Hurray! Happy ending!

BUT GUESS WHAT.  Today I’ve been dealing with a flooded toilet AND a flooded basement, and when I say “flooded basement” I mean up to my floppy soppy ankles. As I type this, The Mighty Sump Dump is doing its job while bowls and buckets and laundry baskets and other plasticky vessels and shit are floating around my cellar like abandoned dreams in a sad Scandinavian arthouse movie. plunger

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’ve only sworn once so far! I know how lucky I am to own this house o’ mine, just as I know how lucky I am to traverse a life that’s been chock full of oh-so-interesting triumphs and disasters. This is all part of the daily thrill of being alive. Just the other day I was thinking, “Wow, I’m only 52, and already I’ve done a lot of living!” It hit me: If I died tomorrow, and I so hope I don’t, I’ll have led a rich and interesting life.

And I have. I’ve loved like crazy, given birth three times, watched my children grow, traveled bunches, read books, written three, played soccer, played Dvorak, sung Bach, worked as a journalist for 34 years (holy old farts!), MET SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS, been assaulted by turkeys and assorted South American creaturesfallen hard, gotten up, felt the sublime, laughed like hell AND undergone minimally invasive cardiac surgery for a wacky heart condition that I’ll write about some other time, but don’t worry, I’m fine. Plus! I got to have a colonoscopy when I turned 50, which is something my dear late sister Lucy never got to experience. That was quite a trip. Everything was.

Even the painful stuff has been a blessing, in its way. Even the failures, the flooded basements, the floating receptacles of crap. Even the broken bits inside me, the wild furies of fear and human weakness. Even the losses — everything that cracks me open and lets in the light and warmth. I feel. I live. Can’t do one without the other.

A coworker reminded me, today, of that bit in “A Shot in the Dark” where Clouseau falls into the fountain and emerges sopping wet. The sexpot maid played by Elke Sommer tells him he should change his clothes or catch his death of pneumonia. He replies: “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

As I drove home to deal with the basement, I thought about this. And I realized: My life is a “Pink Panther” movie! AND I AM JACQUES CLOUSEAU! Minus the accent and the mustache. He was the embodiment of slapstick catastrophe, whether smashing a priceless Steinway (“not anymore”) or vacuuming a woman’s boobs. And he coped. He fumbled forward and figured shit out.

So here I am. My basement is flooded. My bathroom’s a mess, or it was until I mopped it with bleach. My whole damn house is a mess. My whole damn self is a mess.

But I’ll live, I guess. I have already.

not alone at being alone

prairie pano
I often feel alone. And not just when I’m writing, which is usually, and which must rank as one of the most isolating occupations devised by humankind, right up there with oil-rig roustabout and Byzantine hermit. I can feel alone even when surrounded by people I love, and I’m blessed to have a lot of those. I can be having the bestest time with the wonderfulest friends and family — I can be gabbing, and laughing, and thanking the Lord for all the gifts in my life, fully in the moment and profoundly joyful — and all the while, deep down, a little hidden piece of me feels an awkward disconnect. Feels adrift, insecure, unsure, invalid. Alone.

As a former introvert turned “ambivert,” whatever the heck that means, maybe this is my natural state. Maybe I’m always beating back a sense of isolation. But who isn’t? Who doesn’t feel alone? And wouldn’t it be weird if we didn’t?  Look at us, steering through life in bodies as self-contained and alienating as cars with tinted windows, unable to see behind the windshield and fretting that no one can see us, either. How easy it is to grumble with resentment — nobody understands me! nobody knows me! nobody cares! — and fire off middle fingers into the darkness.

As a person of faith, I believe I came from a Somewhere without boundaries and misunderstandings, where I’m known and know and loved and love with clarity, transparency and ecstatic peace. I believe that I’ll return to that Somewhere someday, and I believe that when I do, I’ll reunite with a fine horde of loved ones who unfortunately arrived well in advance. I also believe I’ll shed any nagging pang of solitude or separation — from them, from God, from creation at large.

You know that pang, whether you believe in a creator or not: It’s that ache you feel when you encounter the sublime. It’s the rift that hurts — the impassable gap that we all yearn to cross and become one, at last, with beauty. We want to crawl inside it. We want to know it, merge with it, be with it, whether it’s a breathtaking vista, a swell of Beethoven or an immortal beloved.

This is the strange pull of our lives, longing for a union we can’t quite achieve. We brush tantalizingly close. We make love and babies, love our babies into adults, say goodbye and squat in our emptied nests. We bury spouses and sisters and parents and friends.

The truth of being human plays out like a lie. We’re called to push ourselves outward, to share ourselves wholly, to embrace without judgement, to know and be known, to love and be loved, to do all of that perfectly, fearlessly, generously, completely, divinely, repeatedly — all while knowing we’re bound to fail. Fail we do. What choice do we have? The game is rigged, right? But then we turn right around and do it again, beating back loneliness the only way possible: by tempting its onset. In an effort to assuage it, we risk more.

Fun paradox.

So here I am, squirreled away in my attic on the last day of 2015, busily isolating myself at my chosen profession, counting my multitudinous blessings and the bounty of love in my wee world. I have so many causes for gratitude, so many beautiful reasons not to feel alone. The fact that I do anyway doesn’t mean I’m wrong; it just means I’m human. Happy New Year from across the abyss.

awe, part two

yosemite, view of half dome
The mountains. The valley. The scored, striated, soaring granite cliffs. The falls crashing between them. The thinness of the air, the precipitousness of the drops, the windiness of the roads — the way you round a bend or come through a tunnel, then look up and gasp with wonder, then look down and gasp with fright. The world feels bigger in Yosemite. Older. It feels more present. Its time is eternal and immediate, because you can see those millions of years within the rock. You can feel those thousands of years inside those yawning glacial chasms.

My dad brought me and my kids on a nine-day trip to Yosemite, and I’ve already written about our first day there and my first encounter with the ancient and majestic giant (they’re not kidding!) sequoias. But it’s hard not to write about them again, because I fell in love with them, and once you’re in love, all you can do is yammer on like a ninny about your infatuation and infatuee, right? I WANT TO MARRY THOSE TREES. (No. Not literally. Go away.)

Clearly, I was gobsmacked. I continued to be gobsmacked as we explored the park, hiking and snapping pictures that I knew would fail to capture the scope and scene. We saw Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and its towering crags. Lembert Dome and its breathtaking, high-altitude, low-oxygen views of the snow-capped Sierras. Yosemite Valley and its massive bluffs and falls (El Capitan is IMMENSE). Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome, where we summitted with two friends from Fresno, and one of them, hearing me gasp at the view, turned and asked: “What do you see?”

I tried to explain it: how the mountains were different from my relatively cozy Northeastern ranges, which were stunning, yes, but a little smaller and a whole lot more familiar to me. And greener.

These mountains are mostly bald, I said. You can see the time etched in their sides. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s somehow foreign. Alien, even.

Later on, I thought about this a little. In part I was blown away by Yosemite because, OK, I’m just a farty old Northeasterner who doesn’t know the West and its landscape that well. But I decided that wasn’t all of it. I decided that in Yosemite I collided with beauty, fell into it, yielded to it, in a way I’d never quite done before. And I came away changed.

I’m not sure how. I’m not sure I can put it into words just yet (though obviously I’ve been trying pretty hard). Sometimes life alters us in ways that are obvious and immediately graspable; sometimes it alters us without our even knowing; sometimes it WHOMPS us with such thundering force that we know in an instant we’ve been changed, though we can’t say how. In the past I’ve been mutated — keelhauled, more like it — by loss and grief, forces I know and recognize as powerfully transformative, even when I don’t know how and why and what I’m actually becoming.

But this was different. This time, the transmogrifying forces were the opposite of death — or no, not the opposite. Something more. Something closer to everything: the epochal hugeness of it encompassed life and death and creation and decay, all of it, every resounding tear and crash, since the broken earth first spat up magma three million years ago. What terror! What violence! And it’s still there — a window into the trauma that made our world. Because I believe in a creator behind the creation, I looked out at Yosemite and saw a wild genius at work. But even if I didn’t, I’d still be faced with the brilliant, beautiful, savage ingenuity of the natural world. And I’d still be awed.

awe

wow.

wow.

I had never been to Yosemite before. Have you? No? Go before you die. I’m serious. I have actually never said that to anyone before: “. . . go there/do this/read that before you die.” It’s presumptuous, behaving as though MY life is somehow vastly more stimulating, action-packed and brimming with profundity than anyone else’s. It ain’t, unless you count eating Nutella off your index finger an electrifying life-changer in the extreme.

But Yosemite. The first day on my first visit, I hiked into Mariposa Grove with my kids and their Pop-Pop and, standing there amid the giant sequoias, wowed and gasped oh my Godded and holy shitted before enormous living things that sprang into being sometime before the birth of Christ. Standing there with them, I felt tiny and young and transient but not insignificant, not worthless, not pointless, simply awed in the presence of something so much greater and older than myself. They seemed wise. They seemed to know all, or at any rate more, reaching into a sky that felt suddenly vaster despite the thickening mist that shrouded their topmost branches.

At a tiny stand of sequoia seedlings, a sign explained that they were due to mature around the year 4,000. Again I wowed and gasped and oh my Godded and holy shitted, understanding my own lifetime as something far less than a moment. And again I felt not diminished but swollen with awe — at the weight of time, the breadth of the cosmos, the miracle of creation and the gift we’re given in simply being able to appreciate it. What if God and the universe had given us beauty but denied us the capacity to see it? What if we were blind to the sublime? If we stood at the foot of a giant sequoia and saw nothing to merit a wow? I couldn’t imagine it. I was already struck with wonder, filled with gratitude and oh my Godding like a prayer book.

And I hadn’t even seen the mountains yet.

allegretto

mama and lucy
The other morning, while driving to work, I twirled the radio dial over to WMHT just as the announcer was cueing up the honeyed opening allegretto to César Franck’s A major sonata for violin and piano. I yelped quietly with thrilled anticipation. Yes. Yes. I turned up the volume. Gripped the steering wheel a little harder. Leaned toward the speaker. And there they came, those first, quietly inquisitive chords on the piano. That lovely, lilting answer on the violin. The dialogue that followed between the two instruments and their players (Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell) was performed with an exquisite and subtle joy that made me weep.

The Franck Sonata is one of those pieces that always prod my tear ducts into action. The last movement of the Sibelius Fifth is another. The Ode to Joy. The Moldau. A bunch more. But the Franck is special for me, because I first heard it one winter sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, when my brilliant violinist-mom and just-as-brilliant pianist-sister started prepping for a recital together in the summer to follow.

It took place one breezy summer day in a barn-like hall in Litchfield County, Conn. They split the program between solo works — Beethoven for Lucy, Bach for Mama — and a duet. The Franck. It was the one piece that Lucy hadn’t memorized, so I had been recruited to turn pages. This was the only time I ever appeared on stage in any capacity with either of them, and the experience was transporting. I was terrified of screwing up. How could I not be?

And I did screw up, just once, early on: I was late on a turn, and Lucy had to reach up and whip the page herself in a blur of sudden motion. But my blunder didn’t stop them. They kept playing as though music were the only thing that mattered, lighting that allegretto and the movements that followed with a fierceness and a delicacy that carved out beauty from the air. And as those lush and liquid motifs spilled around us, the music overcame not just my fear but my ego, too, arousing within me a sense of art as something larger, more layered with meaning, more perfect than its most imperfect parts.

That performance of the Franck was the most beautiful work of art I’ve ever played a role in, no matter my feeble contributions. It still is. Nothing I’ve written comes anywhere close to it. It was the moment when I first spied the divine and felt myself a part of it, no matter my human fears and shortcomings. This is the gift of all great art.

So of course I never forgot that afternoon on stage with my mother and sister, two of the most profound musicians I’ve ever known and heard. And of course I’ve often pictured them together in Some Otherworldly Place on Some Otherworldly Plane drinking Otherworldly Tea, shooting it through their Otherworldly Noses as they cracked each other up with Otherworldly Awful Puns. Maybe, sometimes, they join in on Otherworldly Music with Otherworldly Instruments.

But until Monday morning, tooling along in tears as Denk and Bell became Lucy and Mama through the magic of radio, I had not imagined them playing the Franck in heaven. I think they must be. I think they have been all along. I think they were that day onstage in that distant Connecticut summer, when I screwed up, and they kept playing, and art transformed us all.

the rain before the rainbow

rainbow
This is not going to be long. It’s not going to be profound. It’s not going to contain any original ideas. Indeed, if you squint just a li’l bit through a telescope, you’ll spy clichés. Maybe you won’t even have to squint a li’l bit. Maybe you won’t even need a telescope. My guess is the clichés are there, spy-able as a moon in full shining-pie phase. And you won’t even need to open your eyes to see them.

But what the heck. I love myself a big blobby cornball cliche now and then. And rainbows are beautiful, are they not? I spied THE most beautiful one EVER just north of Keene Valley in the Adirondacks while driving home from a visit with my aunt and uncle. It wasn’t a double, but it didn’t have to be; it was a perfect, single arc of color straight out of central casting. (PRODUCER: Get me a rainbow! Photogenic! Juicy, nice curves on her, but not too fat! LACKEY: Right away, boss!)

I knew it was coming. Tooling along Route 73 through sporadic sheets of wet stuff, I had remarked to my son: It’s raining. The sun is coming out. So, like, there’ll be a rainbow.

And the good lad nodded. He knows prophetic maternal wisdom when he hears it. I’m sure he was awed when, only a few seconds later, we looked left and spied the aforementioned refractive arch hugging a mountain. I pulled over and we tumbled out, oohing and wowing and ahhing. I snapped the obligatory pictures, oohed some more, wowed and ahhed some more, and could barely pull away again for the drive to Albany. Even as we did, it started to fade.

And I wondered, as we noodled our way home from the High Peaks, why rainbows matter so much to us — beyond the obvious facts that they’re pretty, and ephemeral, and suggest a magic span to a brighter place. Judy Garland had something to say about that. Kermit, too. But maybe we’ve been missing the point about rainbows. Maybe they’re less symbols of hope for some gossamer, dreamy, pot o’ gold future than tokens of the present — reminders that Now, for all its pressing duties and complications, has beauty enough to astonish and occupy us, if only we let it.

One other thought hit me as I was driving home, and it’s an even bigger, blobbier, cornballier cliché: No rainbows without rain first! No sirree! But as clichés go it’s a good one, at least for me, because I’m constantly chewing on this particular philosophical pickle of living — the one that INSISTS on darkness yielding to light, death to life, loss to love and drab October showers to kaleidoscopic crescents across a roiling gray sky. They’re not omens of the future. They’re emblems of the present and gifts of a past which, still unfolding, still surprising, doles out beauty.

not at all scared

i agree, bill wants her to run

but they didn’t even mention obama

On my lunchtime constitutional today, the non-scariest thing happened: four birds of prey circled over my head. I repeat, this was a non-scary event. Totally. Yup. Because I’m not superstitious, and I DID NOT REGARD THIS AS AN OMEN OF DEATH, even though this particular avian foursome resembled vultures looking for carrion. And I was the closest thing nearby that remotely qualified. And they were eyeballing me hungrily, I could just tell. And as they were eyeballing me hungrily, I heard one of them rasp to the other, “What do you think, bro? Too old and stringy? Metallic aftertaste?”

Still, even as I heard this, I DID NOT FREAK OUT. I just squinted mightily and eyeballed them right back, although I’d just eaten yogurt and a banana back at my desk and wasn’t all that hungry, so I doubt I looked convincing. Probably the mighty squinting and faux-ravenous eyeballing just made me look older and stringier and thus less appetizing, because the four of them soon lost interest and landed on the peaked roof of a nearby church, where they then cooled their heels (do they have heels?) while discussing politics (do they have politics?).

BIRD ONE: What do you think? Is Hillary running?
BIRD TWO: Get a real question.
BIRD THREE: Dudes, look. That weirdo white-haired lady. She’s still there.
BIRD FOUR: I still say she looks a little fibrous.

They didn’t stay long. I expect they ran out of things to say to each other, or they lost interest in me, or they wanted to check out that new Japanese restaurant on Wolf Road. But they soon flapped off, leaving me with my pathetic squint and my craned neck and my TOTALLY NON-SUPERSTITIOUS NON-FREAKOUT in response to this symbolically loaded quartet of doom soaring above me. I didn’t really take it as a sign. I didn’t really believe I was about to drop dead on the short walk back to work. But yes, OK, I’ll admit it, I was a wee bit spooked. I’m not sure why I was wee bit spooked. Am I afraid of death? Raptors? Steepled church roofs? Speculation on the 2016 presidential campaign? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, read too much Poe, heard too many yarns around campfires real and imagined. Maybe I’m still a child, and I just want to be scared.

Mostly, I was rapt by the raptors — by their beauty and majesty, by their circling grace and august silhouettes against the lightly tufted late-September sky. What I loved most, in watching them, was what I always love most about Nature: It doesn’t need us. It doesn’t care. It carries on without us, cutting through air and land and water with grace and selfless purpose, and if we’re lucky, we cross paths. In that sense, my lunchtime companions were indeed an omen. A good one.

the lullaby

I had a moment, last night, of feeling cradled.

It happened at Albany High. My daughter Jeanne is a senior there and sings in assorted ensembles. I was in the auditorium for the third and last of the school’s year-capping spring concerts when choir director Brendan Hoffman — “Hoff,” as the kids affectionately call him — asked everyone in the wings to move into the middle. Just one song, he promised. The students are going to surround you. Then everyone can move back.

I dutifully dislodged and parked myself in the center. As promised, the kids lined up around us. There were 80 or so of them, of every background, bent, ethnicity — the world sprawled beautifully across their faces. Hoff stood in the aisle, poised at that moment of rapt inaction before the hands snapped into motion and the music began.

And then he moved. And then they sang: Eric Whitacre’s “Allelulia,” a gorgeous piece that repeats and distends the one word, over and over and over, with layers of ecstatic harmony and solos spiked with airy dissonance. It isn’t an easy thing by any stretch. But it’s exquisite.

And we in the audience sat there, awed. It wasn’t just the song that awed us, or the enduring power of art, or the gift of an inspiring teacher — or even the miracle, and that is not too strong a word, of a publicly funded music program that feeds so many kids.

There was something else going on. Something maybe we felt but didn’t quite pinpoint, not till later. I know it didn’t hit me until late last night as I was lying in bed, my brain skittering fitfully through the day. I realized belatedly that we in the crowd — the proud parents of girls and boys so lately become women and men — had been serenaded by our own babies. Circling us in that big hall, embracing us in song, their young, strong voices hushed and held us as our own long-ago voices had once hushed and held them with lullabies.

We were cradled, in that middle strip of auditorium, by our own children. They gave us a song, a thing of beauty, a timeless snatch of enveloping love and joy. From the moment of birth, every parent anticipates a day when the tables are turned, when the son becomes the father, when the daughter spoons pudding into her mother’s soft and pliant mouth. That day will come, whether I’m aware of its arrival or not. What I never expected was last night’s gift, this sense of being soothed and nurtured by the child to whom I sang at bedtime not so long ago.

Maybe this is the power of art, after all: music that gives and gives, moments that stretch and stretch, children who grow up and sing to their parents, transformed.