Sunday, November 29, 2009

Before I sleep

Robert Frost wrote a poem much beloved of Nature-philes and English teachers: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” You may recall it from your school days—“Whose woods these are, I think I know….” The narrator sits in a sleigh far from home, watching his neighbor’s woods fill up with snow. The little horse pulling the sleigh “gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake,” and we can almost hear the solitary jingle of those sleigh bells in the silent night. “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.”

Many a time I’ve stood in the forest on a dark snowy night, listening to nothing else but the whispered soughing of the wind in the trees and the slight padding, just below our conscious hearing, of snowflakes piling up. The experience, to the uninitiated, might seem fraught with loneliness. But… “the woods are lovely, dark and deep….”

Frost was not happy in his life of tending a farm to survive financially when all he really wanted to do was read literature and write great poems. I understand. Another season, another potato crop.... Eventually, though, the poet came to balance his time spent in subsistence and creativity and in fact to incorporate his passion for Nature and the outdoors with the workings of the pen.

What thought was in his mind on that night, “the darkest evening of the year,” as he sat watching the snow fall? Was he tossing around the beginnings of a new poem as he watched the trees become top heavy with snow, contemplating the image of birches, and how, when loaded with ice, they bend, “like girls … that throw their hair before them over their heads to dry in the sun”? Or did he muse upon the idea that “promises” kept him from what he would really like to do if unfettered? Or did he simply celebrate, finally, the passing of the solstice, as I will in 22 days, knowing that more light each day means more time outdoors?

“The woods are lovely….” Thankfully, in these days of disappearing sunlight, the trees retain their statuesque beauty. Indeed, that beauty is only enhanced when draped with the diamonds of ice crystals or robed in a soft pelt of powder snow. I, too, have promises to keep, and will attend to them… after a walk in the woods. If only I had the horse and sleigh….

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ben, pre-flight

My grandson, Ben, turned fifteen last month. god. I know. How did that happen? Last year, it seems, he was ten, and we were riding bikes together and learning how to skip rocks. The year before that, he was five and graduating from kindergarten. I remember everything about that bright, spring day, Ben and all his friends in their brightly colored caps and gowns….

Now he’s a sophomore in high school, on the wrestling team. And exactly a month ago, the day before his birthday, I taught him how to drive my truck. Like the memory of us skipping flat rocks across the surface of the slowly rolling Santa Ana River, I will remember the experience forever.

I didn’t tell him in advance. We’d joked about it from time to time, about who would be brave enough to teach him how to drive. And it was really more on a whim than anything else, but we had a half hour before I had to return him to his mom’s, so I pulled into the parking lot of a church (“Close by,” I told him, “in case we find ourselves in need of any prayers for the dead or dying”), stopped but left the engine idling, then got out and told him to move over to my seat. He was at first confused (pretty standard for Ben), then thrilled. And he was a tremendously adept pupil. At first, we drove agonizingly slowly, just letting the truck roll and making sweeping turns around the oval lot which was empty save for one burgundy Camry. We wondered aloud how the owner would respond if Ben hit it, whether railing or forgiving. Eventually, I made him use the gas pedal to accelerate up to 20 miles per hour, then stop. We practice stopping over and over, so that he could feel how long it took to make something so huge come to a complete stop. Never once did he hit the brakes too hard. Never once did he jerk the truck forward as he took off again. A natural. Of course, we’ve yet to drive on the road. That will come.

As we switched seats again and hurried off to meet Mom (since our half hour had—oops—doubled), he watched everything I did, how I handled the truck in traffic, what I did as I came to stop lights, how I seemed so at ease driving 45. He chattered incessantly. I hadn’t seen him so alive in a long, long time. “Ha,” I said, “you think this is empowering? Wait until a year from now, when you get your license, and that first day comes when your mom tells you to go pick up your sister at someone’s house, and you’re out there, solo. Your uncle would drive for hours, just to see where the road would take him.” As any young person will who needs to escape. I did, as well. As we drove, I told Ben about how I dreamed of turning sixteen and getting my license just to get away from my wicked step-father. And the day I took ownership of my first car? Few things top it.

There will be lectures from me, the next time we drive, about speeding, grandstanding, risking the lives of others and so forth. And, to Ben’s mind, his next birthday probably seems like a lifetime away. To me it is no more than twelve turns of the moon, one Tour de France and a World Series away… the blink of an eye. I wonder if I’ll lose him then… if he will simply drive away one day—to college, or on a road trip with his friends—and when he returns from his journey he will have crossed the threshold into manhood, no longer in need of his Nana to teach and guide him.

On his twelfth birthday, I took Ben out to dinner and told him how sad I was that I had only 365 days left with him, that he would turn thirteen in a year and, as a teenager, would no longer want to hang around with me or—God forbid—hug me in public. He promised quite solemnly that, as a teen, he would continue to hug me and “of course” want to hang around with me. So far, he’s been true to his word. Time, which moves with strong wings when it comes to the changing of a child, will tell. For now, I still hold the keys.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Breaking the silence... with a sledgehammer

I went through a divorce when my kids were little. The pain of it—hurting them, uprooting them, depriving them—became a weight that only got heavier over time, a thick blanket of sadness and unrealized dreams and guilt that I couldn’t throw off. My then-friend Lana Buckley told me one day, “Don’t worry. Someday you’ll feel safe again, and you will be able to write again.” Funny. I don’t know how she knew I wasn’t writing. I’d been working on a book on Downs Syndrome kids. I had photos and interviews, and it was a project for which I felt great love, pride and satisfaction. But it was one of many things I was forced to abandon when I left my husband, a loss I could not fully account for until years later, when I finally had to simply let it go, accepting that I would never get back to it.

Lana was right. It took years, but I finally did begin to write again. And so I recall her wisdom now. I spent this past summer writing, posting to this blog, working on some projects I’d wanted to get to during the school year. But all that creativity came to a screeching halt when my brother passed away on Labor Day. Yes, we knew it was coming. I’m here to tell you, you can never ‘be prepared’ for the finality of a loved one’s death. Ever. Knowing we’d lose him soon didn’t diminish the sadness at his loss. For awhile, that sadness was my constant companion, shadowing me as I ‘chopped wood, carried water,’ carrying out the daily routine that enables me to make forward progress even in the emotionally dark times.

I can’t say I’m ‘over it’ now, that I’ve come to terms with his death. Close friends have offered honest comfort in saying that this kind of loss isn’t something from which one recovers; one simply accepts that the wound will never fully heal. This seems right, given my experience with the death of my father and a few close friends.

But I have at least come to the place where, after over two months, I was able, last Wednesday, to write again. Some of you know that I journal frequently. When I finally did put pen to paper, I had a lot of catching up to do. I sat in the waiting area of Big O Tires in Rancho Cucamonga for two hours while they put tires on the Tacoma and changed the oil, and I wrote page after page after page.

In the coming weeks, I will try to be more faithful about posting here. Several of you have sent emails of gentle inquiry, missing my writing. You can’t know how much I appreciate that; writers do what they do in solitude, as I have noted in the past. The process is at times a horrifically lonely ordeal. Knowing that the words are finally read and appreciated gives one courage to go forward.

And go forward we must. Life is all about making forward progress, is it not? If we halt in our journey we most likely are not learning or growing or giving. It is my intention to continue doing all three of those things while breath remains, so—onward!