Writing a post was not on my list of things to do today, though plenty of other things were and are.
I must say this: I love my planning book. Before I go to sleep, most nights, I write down
everything I plan, hope, or have committed to do the next day. This nominally clears my brain for sleep, keeps me on track (again, nominally), and most of all, mysteriously triples every accomplishment: one mini-blast of satisfaction writing it down, a second doing it, and a third in crossing it off the list. I do have to remind myself that a “To Do” list is not the same as a “Want To Do” list or a “Want to Do but Actually Could Only if Days Were Two Months Long” list. But on balance, my planning book is one small but essential component of what a good life for me looks like, and a component of actually writing, as opposed to thinking about writing. (Picture by David, November 26, day after I wrote this essay. I don’t usually keep herb sprigs lying on it, but “Here’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and it’s still growing in the garden, despite a run of days in the low teens, and I just felt like it, so I did.)
On today’s planning book page, there’s less than usual in the writing area, and more than usual amount in the tasks area. “Make 1 more flan — coconut? maybe 2?” “Vack dining room, kitchen, & rompus room. ” “Lay fire in fireplace and woodstove.”
These are all because it’s my birthday, and I’m having a party.
But because it is my birthday, when I woke up and lay in bed having my Good Think (see previous post) and found myself mentally writing this, I thought, well, okay then! Get up and write the post! It’s your birthday, you can do what you want! I’m secretly hoping that I’ll get a few presents toom especially as I always get Gifts For People Who know me.
And so, after a little more nestling, here we are: me writing this, you, later, reading this.
Waking up this morning was exceptionally fine. It was early, much earlier than I usually awaken, but I felt well-rested. It was still dark, still raining as it had rained most of the night. The clean sage-green flannel sheets have a good thick very soft nap that is almost irresistibly cozy. On top of those sheets, and me, a rose-and-sage-green quilt, and a fluffy white
duvet. One of the extreme pleasures of New England life, believe it or not, is the joyful discovery of sleeping warm and bundled up, but in a cold, and I mean really cold, bedroom. The bedroom is unheated (my aunt only used the place as a summer dwelling; central heating never made it upstairs — for which, given fuel prices, I am grateful — and the wood-stove, or a vent from it, aren’t even close). But in addition to this, I actually open the window a few inches, even when it’s in the single digits. While I do have wakefulness issues at times (see insomniac lessons), I’ve never known better sleep than what I have up here: socked-in in coziness and warmth, the bed an island of comfort in contrast to a frigid ambient room temperature. Too, when David is gone (he’s been in Indianapolis since Wednesday, due back here tonight), I let the two cats sleep with me. (There they are,pictured above, adorable monsters, not in bed, but in their beloved Scratch Lounges, which, to some extent, spare the furniture the ravages of its function as claw-sharpener).
So this morning of my 56th birthday, nested securely in the chilly room, I awoke to two calming sounds, simultaneously: the gentle, steady rain outside, and two cats, both purring, one within reach of each hand on the bed. I was happy to stay in bed but then there was a knock at the door. I went down to see who it was and it was a fresh flower delivery from Flowercard from one of my friends the other side of the country. What a lovely way to start the morning!
Happy birthday to me.
Yesterday, in the parking lot of Shaw’s, the nearest supermarket (known to me, for no particular reason, as “Pshaw’s” ), I was walking back to the car with two bunches of green onions, an item they hadn’t had at either of the farm-stands or the Village Market in Walpole where I prefer to shop, and where I’d just bought all the rest of the stuff for the salad which I’ll be serving as part of my birthday dinner. I remember that time when a friend told me about the fantastic car they got for their birthday. And get this, they got car insurance brokers on top to get them a fantastic deal on their car insurance! So lucky!
And I suddenly thought: I’m glad I was born. Glad I get to spend time on in this body on this earth. Despite everything, glad. I thought it without disclaimers or talking myself into it. Just came into my mind walking across the damp Pshaw’s parking lot.
(Later that evening, I called my mother, who if you’ve been reading this post you know is 94 and is early-stage dementia and, to my mind, much more amiable because of it. I said to her at one point when we talked, “… And I’m glad you’re my mother.” To which she replied, with cheerful enthusiasm, “I’m glad you’re my mother, too!”) (Left, Charlotte, October 2007, on her front porch).
This time of year must be navigated carefully; it leads through dangerous territory. No matter how good one’s minesweeper is, there’s no surefire avoidance of potential detonation. The flip side of memory, which on the one hand allows nothing to be wasted on the writer, is that for this writer at least, it’s all there. Almost all of it. Almost always. With probably above-average vividness and easy emotional access.
November 23, the birthday of my late, much-adored father. November 25, my birthday. Thanksgiving somewhere in there. And, November 30, the day of Ned’s death.
So, on November 24, it was a big deal to just feel deeply, unambivalently glad to be here.
This may be why, for the first time since Ned’s death seven years ago, I decided to throw myself a birthday party. My friend Chou-Chou, pictured left, bless her, threw a surprise party for me on the first birthday
afterward. For which I will always be grateful. Her doing so broke what could have been a curse of pure association, the more so as, believe or not — that first birthday? Not quite a year after Ned’s death? — I actually, unbelievably, had to give a deposition that day in a lawsuit filed by the family of the kid whose vehicle struck Ned, who was suing “the estate of Ned Shank” for “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Though I could barely
make it to what I thought was going to be a quiet dinner for two with Chou at our favorite Eureka Springs restaurant, the now-defunct Caribe (one colorful corner, pictured right), I got there, at her insistence. Some thirty friends were waiting. Guests told me I literally jumped when everyone yelled “Surprise!” (“Were you frightened?” one asked me later. “You looked frightened, you looked kind of deer-in-the headlights.” “Just … startled,” I said, I think truthfully. “But then you got over it,” she said, stating it, remembering, perhaps, both our mutual enthusiasm, later on, for the cake, chocolate layers, raspberry filling. “But then I got over it,” I agreed. Got over being startled, tat is. You never “get over” a death, at least one like Ned’s. But, as I’ve said before, you do, over time, compost it, gradually incorporate it, and your grief, into who and what you are. Into your very being, your core self.)
Each year, I think “Bless Chou, bless her, bless her,” for this act of extreme, lasting kindness. Now, each year, sometime on or around my birthday, I recall that night at Caribe, and Chou-Chou’s loving subterfuge. It comes to mind much in front of the surreal horror of that deposition come to mind, continuing to fade it, by contrast, into minor significance.The surprise party, as multi-colored as the fiestaware plates (in the picture above, taken by David) Caribe used, as bright as its cuisine.
But I hadn’t thrown myself a party, not in seven years. I almost never do on the exact day of my birthday anyway; never did, because it falls too close to Thanksgiving and just isn’t convenient for most people. (My 40th birthday fell on Thanksgiving, back when we had the inn. I spent that birthday preparing dinner for 60 some people, two seatings. We did do a mighty nice Thanksgiving, back in Dairy Hollow days, but good lord, it was exhausting. And then staff dinner followed, in the evening).
Since David was going to be away today, I decided to make the party girls-only. Very very simple food. Easygoing and kind of goofy. Here’s the invitation I emailed.
What’s the point of getting older if you can’t stay up late & play?
But not always with playmates. Of whom you are one! With whom I hope to play!
On my birthday! Hey, y’all –—
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!!! Want to come to my party?
Tuesday, November 25th, 5:00 pm until whenever (some of you can stay
overnight if you want, but at least a token appearance and play,
anytime between 5:00 and 10:00 will be delightful, from my POV at
least… I realize some of you work on Wednesday and/or are doing major
Thanksgiving gigs and promise I will not guilt-trip you if you’re in and out).
WHERE: My home
WHAT: my birthday party! It’s:
O Ladies (often known as “women” in Vermont) only
O Pajamas only (including slippers, robe, etc … changing room available)
O Dinner served at around 6:30 pm… bring something if you want but not necessary: on hand will be my famous Cuban Black Bean Soup with rice and fixings, a giant salad, and a cake-free dessert, probably in the flan family.
EXPERIENTIAL, OF-THE-MOMENT, GIFTS-TO-EVERYBODY GIFTS ONLY, PLEASE! By which I mean… NO STUFF.
Please come prepared to bring something experiential for everyone. For instance:
You could :
o sing a song or do improv performance or dance, inviting
others to be part of it either as participants or audience.
O bring nail polish and hold a drawing for one lucky
guest to get a manicure (or everybody could do one other person’s toes).
O help us (or some of us) do pajama-appropriate yoga
stretches or a Bollywood dance or T’ai Chi or a fake version of any of
O offer hand or foot massages, or teach one simple technique for same so those who like could do same for each other.
O pretend to be a cat. Or a sloth. Or anything else. You could ask us to guess. Or not.
O read your favorite poem or children’s book.
O bring paper and crayons or finger paint or cookie dough or
clay or stuff for a collage or scrap book or group creation or
something we can change into something else.
O find something to applaud each guest for over the course of
the evening, tell them what it is, and applaud them loudly.
O bring your favorite CD and lead a conga line through the house.
OR… your choice!
So. That’s on for tonight, and here I am now. The black bean soup is made, I need to do that other flan. (Because, frankly, last night I decided to taste one of the two flans I made and, then I needed to taste it again, and then I … well, I didn’t eat it all, but I made a pretty good dent in it and enjoyed every bite.) I’ll prep everything for the salad but put it together at the last minute — several times, I imagine, as in my view a really good salad is made about two seconds before you eat it, and various waves of friends will be coming and going. My usual morning stuff’s in order: bed’s made, my sort-of meditation. I have work-out clothes on underneath my bathrobe; I am a devoted fitness person, not to shrink the body but to expand the life. It’s primarily a feel-good thing, though it’s also true that if I’m going to put away flan as I did last night, I better stick with working out or I will get to be the size of a small guest cottage.
Fifty-six. Widowed. Due to have surgery on my right shoulder in a few weeks for subacromial impingement which is indeed hurting like hell (and since I had it done on my left shoulder about a decade ago, I know more or less what I’m getting into). (Yes, this does mean I moderate my workouts fairly substantially for now). Grieving, at times intensely. Partner I love, friends I love — ten of whom are coming over tonight! Gardens and cats. Hairballs. Happiness.
Glad to be here on earth.
Which, according to Eye on the Sky, is a very relative place. Driving home from Pshaws, listening to Vermont Public radio, I learned that if you think of the sun as a balloon, the earth is, relatively speaking, the size of a peppercorn, half a mile away from the balloon. If the planet’s a peppercorn, what size does that make us?
When David and I first got to know each other, one of his more seductive moves was to recite (not read, recite, from memory, laying in bed) a few of Pablo Neruda‘s sonnets. To me. First in Spanish, then in English. One in particular simply astonished me. David had no idea — for we did not then know each other at all well — what a perfect choice it was. I was in deep ongoing consideration of what it meant to love a second time, if such a thing were possible, late in life. I’d been schooled rigorously by experience: my understanding of choice and non-choice, and that difficulty was unavoidably inherent in joy and vice verse, was absolute.
You must know that I do not love and that I love you,
because everything alive has its two sides;
a word is one wing of silence,
fire has its cold half.
I love you in order to begin to love you,
to start infinity again
and never to stop loving you:
that’s why I do not love you yet.
I love you, and I do not love you,
as if I held keys in my hand:
to a future of joy-
a wretched, muddled fate-
My love has two lives,
in order to love you:
that’s why I love you when I do not love you,
and also why I love you when I do.
When I first heard this poem, spoken by my then-new lover, lying in bed together in a cabin near Big Sur, I thought, simply, “I am hearing the truth. This is how it is is.”
This morning, lying in bed by myself (well, with the kitten-kattens), that poem again came to mind. New context: it’s not just about loving another person, I thought, it’s about life itself.
A future of joy; a wretched muddled fate: which will it be? How about, at various times, both? I’m learning, gradually, to love life in the way Neruda described the act of loving his late-life partner Mathilde, to whom the sonnet above and 99 other were written. (Probably many more were written, but 100 were published. Speaking as a writer here).
But. To love life when I do not love it, and to love it when I do.
This led me back to thinking about David. Good boyfriend, even if he is in Indianapolis at the moment. But he’s due to arrive shortly before midnight, and when I did get up and opened my email this morning there was this from him:
If your ship does not come in today, for sure your boyfriend will — and your ship cannot be far behind!
x x x x x x x x x x o o o o o o o o o o x x x x x x x x x x o o o o o o o o o o x x x x x x x x o o o o o o o o
56 in Roman numerals is LVI … 56 for me is ILV you
Later I got that all those xxx’s and oo’s added up to 56. Smooches gracias, David.
It’s now about an hour later than when I started this. Still raining peaceably, but now light out. The cats have been fed. The State Highway Department, bless them, has already been up the road to check that nothing has been washed out (they are so on it in road maintenance here compared to Arkansas.)
Flans to be made, workouts to be done, black bean soup to be put into crock-pot and reheated.
I bought candles, too, to light at dusk. I went on the candle-hunt yesterday, to the cash-only Discount Food Warehouse (the funky el
cheapo what-fell-off-the-truck-last-week store where you never know what you’ll find) in North Walpole, New Hampshire. They always do have candles there, but you never know what kind until you get there. Sometimes they have nice respectable votives, but last time all they had in the candle line were Yahrzeits, the 24-hour burn candles which, according to Jewish tradition, you light in memory on the anniversary of the death of someone you love, starting at sundown preceding the day of death. This time, no yahrzeits, no votives — just great numbers of the tall religious candles, which come in glasses, the kind you see on Mexican alters, with Jesus, Mary, and various saints. For 89 cents apiece. I passed on Jesus and St. Jude, but found myself taken with the Angel de la Guardias candles (though my first association with “La Guardia” is the “New York airport that’s much closer than JFK.”)
The angel, against a kitschy bright blue sky with a white starburst his/her head, has long curly golden brown hair, a white robe with a large shawl of pink, and most impressive white wings. He/she is hovering benignly behind a small boy and girl,
dressed like something out of a German fairytale, hurrying across a rickety wooden bridge, barefoot, completely oblivious to the angel three times their size lurking behind them. The classic image, above keft, differs from the one on my candles, right. The candle’s scene is way, way brighter, the bridge less rickety, and you don’t see the threatening waterfall below — it’s all just smooth, bright blue water, benign and lake-like, below the bridge, and there’s a very cheerful Mexican-looking border around the picture, green and red and orange, adding to the general fiesta feeling) .
On the back on the candle there are two versions of a prayer. The one in Spanish, directed to Angel de la Guardia, was much, much longer than the English translation which followed. Although the shorter prayer, in English, was way too morbidly Catholic for my religious taste, and though I don’t believe in angels as such, I loved the way the prayer began: Let us, with confident trust invoke his aid and protection oh glorious Guardian Angel…
Vermont is an inland state. I’m on the top of a hill and the only water in sight is a small pond, which I can barely even make out today because it’s pretty foggy.
But guess what? I can see that ship to which David alluded in his email.
Angelic presence or not, I have been, and am, aided and protected, even at moments when my trust is less than confident and when my love for life is expressed in not loving it.
And — wait! I see now, the ship is already here!
And what cargo! It bears coconut milk for the flan, clean flannel sheets, the sounds of two cats purring and a gentle rain, my boyfriend, my girlfriends! It carries the huge relief of a new administration. It carries the fact that I live in a time when something can be done about injured, aging, painful shoulders, and the fact that, not having much money to begin with (it’s pretty much all in the house and property here), I was spared much of the free-fall anxiety of those who saw their net worth and retirement accounts plummet recently. The ship carries the wealth I’ve always relied on instead (or in addition to): creativity and love, two resources which are not only renewable but which will become depleted only if we fail to use them.
Look! Today, the ship is here, it’s docked. Oh, as my candle says, glorious!
Happy birthday to me.