Essays

WARNING: Once a month, I will post a personal essay here. Sometimes the essay will contain swear words. I have a fondness for swear words. Occasionally they are all that stands between me and violence. My swear words distress my husband as he comes from a family whose women did not swear. I, on the other hand, come from a family where any number of the women swore. It never prevented them from being kind or generous or intelligent or gifted.

At the moment, I can think of no other warning to issue to the unwary unless it is that I am a knee-jerk Liberal, knee-jerk being the only kind of liberal I can imagine being. These matters dealt with, let us begin.

****

January 17, 2014

Calendars – Oy Vey!

We have two sets of encyclopedias in our house, a Funk and Wagnalls from 1975, and a Britannica from 1942. You’d be surprised how frequently I dig out a volume searching for information. But, after all, consider: most of history took place before 1942. Since I am a Luddite with no experience on the Internet, and since most of my fiction is set pre-1975, I’m quite content poring through these musty volumes.

Recently I dug out the “Brain through Castin” volume of Britannica to read up on calendars, the better to know why we celebrate New Years when we do. Let me tell you, there is far more about calendars in that volume than you would ever care to know.

There are more kinds of calendars than there are planets in our solar system, especially since astronomers took away Pluto. There are perhaps fewer calendars than there are stars in the sky, but it’s a close thing. The Chinese calendar, the Egyptian calendar, the Aztec calendar, the Jewish calendar, the Islamic calendar. Well, you get the point. Most calendars are based on mathematics so complicated my eyes crossed and my brain froze.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, people used the Julian calendar, named after that great mathematician Julius Caesar (“All Gaul is divided into three parts”). New Years was then celebrated on March 25, the Feast of Annunciation, which is interesting since Julius Caesar died in 44 BC, quite some time before the angel surprised Mary.

In 1582, the Roman Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar, named, naturally, for another great mathematician, Pope Gregory (“All God is divided into three parts”), and began celebrating New Years on January first. One by one, over the next couple of centuries, the other European countries followed, England capitulating in 1752.

So here we westerners are, January 1 being the arbitrary beginning of the New Year. People more daring than I make resolutions now. Having no faith in my resolve, I don’t venture into those treacherous waters, but am content to sin the same old sins, maybe minus one or two somewhere along the way.

Frankly, knowing now what I do about calendars and the mind-boggling, not to say insane, mathematics of them all, I feel that we ought to consider every day to be New Years. Certainly the magic of the arbitrary day is in our minds, is it not?

Therefore, each day, may we resolve to be kinder, more charitable, less resentful, less envious and less slothful. Well, maybe not less slothful. To fly too close to perfection is I think to tempt Fate, and She is nearly as unknowable as calendars.

December 22, 2013

The Generosity of Trees

More elegant than runway mannequins, more majestic than crowned heads, they march down our street, the slanting early morning light picking out the diamonds in the oak’s snowy cape, catching the dazzle of the linden’s feather-boa-ed limbs. In the night, as the world cracks with cold, the elm will shudder opals on the banked snow beneath the streetlight.

Come spring, that same beauty will cast a lacey shadow across the grass while the young locust by our door waves fern-leaf arms, her raiment so delicate that in autumn it eschews the rake.

Meanwhile, in the backyard, an old Norway maple, dying now, a bit more each year, still manages to scatter winged seeds on the ground, in hopes one will thrust down roots to succeed her. Even as she dies, her great branches reduced in number, her insides hollowing — creating a safe nest for squirrels — she splurges on greenery, spending her shade recklessly, as if it would last forever.

The breeze from the north stirs her big leaves and she whispers, nothing elegaic, rather, memories of children who played in her huge, accommodating limbs. She has been castle and fort and Indian pony. On the glider where we sit, we raise a glass.

Even as they remind us of life’s cycles and seasons, these companions shower us with selfless beauty. I find it easy to attribute souls to them, and who here will deny that their grace and generosity is a lesson: whatever our season, the best we can give is ourselves.

October 27, 2013

Darlings, be advised:

For every five cooks who wish to knock out a wall, opening their kitchen to all and sundry, allowing said sundry to kibbutz, criticize or generally distract by telling long and fairly pointless shaggy dog stories, there are by my estimation at least two, maybe three, of us who’d rather be flayed alive than tear out a wall.

I am one of the Unholy who hate to cook. So, God forbid that some nudnik who’s slopping down my Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc should disturb me while I am elbow-deep in chaos. Let’s face it, even we who eschew the kitchen except for pilfering the sea-salt caramels on top of the refrigerator, must occasionally venture forth to throw a steak on the barbie (horrid picture, that) or toss a green salad.

Do I want someone looking over my shoulder as I innocently douse the charcoal flames with my squirter bottle, thereby setting the dinner hour forward forty-five minutes? Should I not resent the guest who, third Mason jar of wine in hand, slips on that slick spot where the dressed radicchio flung itself from bowl to floor and sues me (the guest, not the radicchio), or the freeloader who distracts me while the pasta transmogrifies from al dente to al pot-hole-filler?

No, no, no. And again, I said “no.” Take back your sledge hammer. Unhand that fair kitchen wall. It is all that stands between me and madness.

****

January 1, 2013

POET AND MOON

In spring, the night sky is as vulnerable and bejeweled as a fledgling debutante. The would-be poet, with longings inchoate, gazes up through tender branches now fluttering small green flags. His heart lifts toward a moon drifting and dreaming as though it had forever to complete its circuit.

The gravitational power of an unfamiliar wistfulness pulls the poet, and his heart flies up and he with it, clutching at stars and sipping falling dew.

In summer, the moon, like an odalisque, rises warm and golden from the bath of waning day and, sure of her charms, rests upon pale evening’s soft divan, riding the night sky to meet the poet.

Moon and poet are lovers now. Their terrible ardor flings the tides against old ramparts, bringing them down; it melts the silver threads holding little stars in place and pitches them screaming through the void.

Poet cries, “This shall last forever.”

Moon sighs and hides her doubts behind a veil of cloud.

In autumn, Harvest Moon burns huge and orange, lit by embers deep within that flare and gutter and flare again, as dying embers do. She casts a lenient eye upon Poet whose familiarity pleases, like a sentimental refrain. In her leniency lies knowledge she cannot share with Poet, about beginnings and endings, about light and dark.

Poet gazes fondly upon Moon. “This shall last forever,” he tells her, his voice thrumming with golden assurance. He smiles an October golden smile.

In winter, Moon wears an icy pallor and tosses diamonds on the snow. Poet no longer flies up to meet her. He is weak and old and saves himself for the struggle ahead. The blood in his veins is cool and slow, while the heart in his breast is still warm and fond, and each evening he steps out his door to send a blown kiss skyward.

Then one night, Poet’s blood stops in its course and his eyes close, the lids heavy with finality. Now, Moon flings down a beam to her old love, and lifts Poet on it. As he lies in her arms, Moon bears Poet across all boundaries. With new eyes, he glimpses the Pleiades in their flowing tunics as they flee Orion. And off there, the rescued Andromeda.

When at length Moon lays him down, she leaves Poet in a world of white, like Moon herself. He lies in a kind of downy basket, surrounded by others in like baskets. He does not recognize this small, wrinkled hand that is his nor the soft flannel that swaddles him.

Women, speaking low and wearing white, move among the baskets tending to one and then to another. Some in baskets cry and struggle because they are hungry or frightened, but many weep for the place they have left.

Poet does not cry, though he is puzzled. Through the window, he studies the dark sky and the milky moon hanging near. Moon…Moon…He has a memory but, like a cloud breaking up, it drifts away in fragments. And now Poet cries for what he can no longer know.

****

May 27, 2012

YOU PAYS YOUR NICKEL…

This morning, Dan and I drive to Medina, a western suburb. There, every Sunday from the first of May to the first of November — while the weather’s tolerable — the Lions Club sponsors a flea market in the parking lot of the Medina Ballroom. Mmmhmmm. A ballroom. You thought they’d gone the way of 8-track tapes.

For years my friend Margaret and I have driven ritually to Medina, as if to church.  In recent years, Dan has joined us. Margaret’s husband Dave isn’t so taken with cast-offs as the rest of us. He stays home and works the Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

On this particular Sunday, Margaret can’t join us, as she is recovering from a knee replacement. Regarding which, do not buy a used car from someone who tells you, “It was a breeze. I was playing tennis the next week.”

Though we, too, are fond of the Times Sunday puzzle, Dan and I are drawn to cast-offs, he on the scavenge for LPs, I in pursuit of old books, amber glass and tapestries. I’ve come close to cornering the market for tapestries here in the Upper Midwest. All sizes, all shapes.

Not the latter-day ones, mind you, their colors too bright, their conditions too unabused. I’m looking for tapestries with character, tapestries that are old, faded, a little ravaged around the edges. Like me.

What do I do with the tapestries? I cover pillows with them; use them as dresser scarves and table runners; protect chair seats with them. A large and unusually heavy one is floor covering in an alcove of our bedroom. The others find a restful home stacked in a cupboard, safe from moths, silverfish and other devastators until I call them forth.

And then! French courtiers in froufrou and escalator hair-do’s step into manicured nature for danse et liaison; a weary doge wanders the canals of fifteenth-century Venice importuned by those who kneel to curry favor; under a relentless desert sun, Bedouin princes gather at an oasis, watering whiny camels, pitching tents, exchanging goods and tribal gossip; horsemen and hounds bound across swale and lea, through copse and spinney, in silent pursuit of a fox who, like Keats’ “unravished bride of quietness” remains forever beyond possession.

Breathes there an imagination so dilute or jaded that it can no longer weave itself into a timeworn tapestry, into the thin October spotlight of Venice, the milky incandescence of parc or bois?

Come with me down the aisles of cast-offs at the Medina flea market. But, first, a stop at the snack wagon for coffee and a raised, glazed doughnut. Now, then, we’ll begin at the upper end of the lot, where one usually finds larger furniture pieces mixed in with footstools, hoes and rakes, household utensils, vases and linens.

Here’s a basket of laundered and ironed vintage linens and, look, an old tapestry folded in among the rest. A shepherdess, her crook beside her, reclines among browsing sheep. Do you feel the laziness of the afternoon, the drowiness of the shepherdess? The stillness of the trees and clouds? Bees hum among tiny meadow flowers. What is out of sight, over there, beyond that gentle rise?

A shepherd with a pan pipe, you suggest? You’re certain this is your first visit to the Medina flea market?

****

May 1, 2012

MORE ESCAPE

Before I fall asleep at night — though God knows I can fall asleep during the day, walking to the post box — I read from an old Georgette Heyer mystery, or an Agatha Christie, or any “cozy” in which seemingly intelligent, smartly dressed Londoners motor down to the English countryside in a Duesenberg or Bentley in order to be murdered.

Though she doesn’t really pen cozies, Martha Grimes will do as well. She has, after all, created the impossibly sexy (in my opinion) Melrose Plant, who eschews his title (Earl of Caverness), yet drives a Bentley and serves as sometimes-sidekick to Richard Jury of Scotland Yard.

With my good right ear I hear sniggers. Cozies, you are thinking. Old lady fare. Well, yes. I am not too proud to admit being old. This despite my only slightly squashed figure and freckled arms which some — no longer intimates — insist are age-spotted.

The thing is, regarding cozies, I feel free to fall asleep during them, a thing I’d be loathe to do during a Nicholson Baker or Penelope Lively. And they are pure escape. Escape is as essential to good health as Vitamin D.

We are all escape artists. Some escape in gardening or drink or drugs. Or, God save us, knitting. Personally, I prefer escape with a cup of tea, a plate of fairy cakes, and a Bentley parked in the graveled drive.

****

April 1, 2012

POT METAL LAMPS

I am particularly fond of lamps made of “pot metal,” dating from the 1920s and ’30s, their “sculpted” bases depicting women in flowing costume throwing themselves about in what one assumes to be dance poses. And/or women seated at pianos or holding mandolins while wearing expressions of exquisite vapidity.

I have no excuse for being particularly fond of these except that they draw me into a past I don’t recall, one that may never have existed. And yet, darlings, don’t we all yearn toward such a past — or could it be a future? — even as sunflowers yearn toward the sun?

Breathes there a man or woman so abysmally strong or dead that they do not hunger for a past that never was? If so, do not, for any reason, introduce us.

****

March 1, 2012

THOUGHTS ON THE DAY AFTER ST. PATRICK’S DAY

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Cousin Danny Daly’s B and B on the green edge of green Killarney where everyone is named Sullivan, except, of course, Danny Daly. We took tea and cake with Danny and his wife Hannah, and, later, enjoyed supper of lamb and root vegetables.

Following breakfast the next day, we strolled — my Dan and I — in the misty, west Irish morning. West Irish moorings are mostly misty, with nothing lying between them and Newfoundland but the churning gray North Atlantic and an erratic escarpment of stony islands.

Down a gravelled road we wandered, into a petering-out of the city; into what in famine time had been wild countryside. Our glance was all to our left where pleasant modern houses stood with wide lawns rolling down toward us, brilliant flower beds tumbling and tumbling down the gentle slope. Flowers thrive in these misty mornings.

When we had ventured perhaps a mile, we turned back. Now on our left as we neared Cousin Danny’s was a strange, tossed, lumpen landscape, obviously nothing created by Nature, yet as brilliantly green in knee-high grass as the rest.

Drawing closer, we noted white-painted pipes poking up out of the ground higgledy-piggledy. A tall wire fence and a gate enclosed this odd patch of countryside. We thought of entering, but were constrained by a silent voice. Or perhaps that’s putting it too strongly. Nevertheless we did not unlatch the gate but, rather, turned to the right and into the curving drive of the B and B.

Back in the bright comfort of Danny’s home, we asked at once, “What is that place across the road with the white pipes sticking up from the ground?”

“Oh, that,” Danny said, “that was one of the places along the roads where folks came to die when there was no one to bury them at home. The pipes once had cross-pieces, but those have fallen off, y’see.”

If you’re a Yank whose grandmother or great-grandfather came across a century or more ago, often as not you eschew the poems of the Troubles, of the Black and Tan, even as you avoid, except at St. Patrick’s Day, songs of the famine and the wide ocean that forever divided families. You’d rather not think about those girls in villages who were sent across the Atlantic because there was not enough food, but were first shamed in the public square by having their heads shaved because they were going and the others couldn’t. Never forget to be humble.

Now and then, you come across an old photograph or family story, or you stay at your Cousin Danny Daly’s B and B at the edge of Killarney where the flowers tumble down to the road, and you understand again St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not about green beer or the eternal, infernal tappety-tapping of Lord of the Dance. It’s about respect. That says it all, I think. Respect for those buried beneath white pipes and the girls in the square with shaven heads, and those who survived and wrote the poems.

February 14, 2012

IT’S ABOUT SEX, RIGHT?

St. Valentine notwithstanding, beneath the romance and roses of February fourteen, runs a warm chocolatey river of sexual expectations or at least tensions. In considering this, I was oddly reminded of a dinner table conversation when our three children were young — maybe 9, 6 1/2, and 4. One warm summer evening, they asked where babies came from. That is, one of them asked, glancing at Dan, and the others looked mildly interested.

I’d imagined that children asked this question when they were about five, as in, “Allison’s Mommy is going to the hospital to get a baby. How much do they cost and can we get one?” From which dear innocent query, appropriate sexual information would ensue. But our children had waited until this evening to cut to the chase. “Where do babies come from?”

How, you ask, did the older two get so old without being curious? Well, on our block there were no young mothers bursting with babies. There were a lot of 45 and 50-year-old mothers looking immensely relieved. Those fecund mothers who accompanied a child to the little school attended by our brood, were dismissed as grossly overweight.

And, remember, this was around 1974, and the Sullivan children were only allowed half an hour of television per evening, this on a 12-inch black and white screen — a half hour usually given over to something starring Bill Cosby or Dick van Dyke and containing precious little of a salacious and informative nature. By the time they were old enough for Benny Hill, it was too late.

When you have three or more smallish people hanging around the house, they gather in dimly lit corners, giggling and speaking in hoarse whispers behind hands held in front of their mouths, always keeping a sharp eye peeled.

In these Machiavellian sessions they determined which of them would ask the current hot question. But Dan and I had witnessed none of this usual hole-and-corner goings-on previous to the where-do-babies-come-from query.

Since it was Dan who’d been asked, he fell to with admirable aplomb, as if he’d long awaited this question and at the dinner table no less.

I wish I had taped what followed for it was masterful, beautiful, leaving nothing out, but handling each step with such tender poetry that personally I was moved to tears. My only fear was that he had made it all sound so attractive, they might get some pretty premature notions into their curly tops.

As his recitation drew to a hushed and reverent close, and Dan was at the point of asking, “Are there questions?” the three children, without a concordant glance passing between them, screamed, “Eeewwww!” jumped down from their chairs and ran from the dining room, through the living room, and out into the middle of the street, still screaming “Eeewww!” and now performing a kind of stomping dance of horror.

What passers-by who drove around them, or neighbors with open windows, made of them we’ll never know. But, for some time, the neighbors kept a polite yet watchful silence.

It’s my belief that, without even trying, Dan had postponed the children’s serious sexual experimentation by any number of years.

January 15, 2012

THAT THING ON YOUR EAR

Hey, kid. Or old lady. Or guy in business suit.

What’s that thing hanging on your ear?

A cell phone, you tell me. I see. And you’re saying important stuff into it. None of my business, you say. This is true, but I’m curious. It’s been hanging there for hours.

You’re busy, you say. Appointments to nail down. The hair dresser. The eye doctor. Is the dry cleaning ready? Can you pick up your re-soled wingtips? Has your cousin Martha’s niece’s daughter had her baby?

Listen, you say, how ’bout the buyer at Slomo’s Gizmo Factory? You gotta get to him before somebody else does, you say. You think I like this thing hanging on my ear all day?

Well, actually, you say, you’re shopping for a dress for a friend’s wedding, but first you have to find out what Eleanor’s wearing. You and your sister Eleanor should turn up, both of you in coral?

Well, if you must know, you say, your girl friend’s stuck at home doing algebra problems. Algebra. And she’s seriously bored. Seriously. She’s your good friend, so you’re going to, like, fill her in on what you saw in Devon’s  locker.

Well, you say, you’re driving down Interstate 94 West. Or maybe it’s up Interstate 94 West. Ever drive 94 West to St. Cloud? Well, you know what I mean. Exits to malls. Exits to malls. Exits to malls. So of course you’re talking to your friend Jane to pass the empty time. And, after all, Jane’s laid up with a cold.

What did you do before the cell phone? How did you pas the empty time?

Well, let me see, you say. That’s a good question, you say. You did a lot of things, you guess. You thought about the crossword puzzle you hadn’t quite finished this morning. That upper left-hand corner sort of stumped you. A seven-letter word for disorder? What’s that word you like so much but can never remember? The one that’s kind of like your life?

You’ve almost got it, you say. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Sort of like “trophy.” That’s it! Entropy! Wonderful word. And that reminds you…

And sometimes, while you were driving, you say, you’d think about the things you wanted to say to the kids, grown now. Like, you miss the way Caroline used to play “Fur Elise” hour after hour. And Buddy practiced baskets out by the garage til it was pitch dark and your head ached.

You say you dreamed, between Maple Grove and St. Cloud, that you and Eleanor would take a cruise through the Greek Islands. Samos and Mykonos and the rest, the water there as blue as your sister’s eyes.

Whatever happened to empty-time dreams? Whatever happened to empty time? Whatever happened to me-alone time, just me inside my head, luxuriating there, writing poems, designing next year’s garden, inventing the next big thing in telecommunications or space travel or kitchen gadgetry?

Do you still know how to dream? Do I?

****

December 18, 2011

ANGEL HAIR

Perhaps you remember it. Angel hair. I think a law was passed forbidding its sale because it was spun glass, bits of which could get into your skin or eyes.

You brought it out at Christmas. It was a little like cotton batting, maybe not quite so thick, and you pulled it, thinning out gauzy strands you then arranged on the Christmas tree, especially around the lights, those jolly fat lights that, wih metallic reflectors behind them, looked like psychedelic flowers.

Grandma left the tree-decorating to others. If the weather was sunny, she might be in the kitchen making divinity. You didn’t make divinity in the winter, when the air was damp and gray, as the candy would never “set.”

Since it took nearly forever to beat the candy by hand, I sometimes helped. Grandma did own a Mixmaster, but she didn’t use it for the divinity or for beating angelfood cake batter, either. Perhaps she was saving the Mixmaster for “good.” Any number of things were saved in Grandma’s house for “good” — things too dear in cost or sentiment to be taken for granted and possibly broken.

To help with beating the divinity was both a chore and an honor, a sign that I was growing older. Besides, I could steal a bit while it was still gooey, the best time. That divinity and angel hair could heighten the holiday together, was surely apt.

In the living room, the angel hair was catching the colors of the lights and the ornaments, softening them and dispersing them in a pale foggy haze. Magical. I would lie on the sofa staring into the tree, wanting to crawl inside, where further magic might be found.

In the soiled slush of March, angel hair dreams drowned. But in the dark heart of the next dying year, someone, Grandpa maybe, would set up a tree. Good smelling, yes, but just a tree like every other good-smelling tree — till the moment where the lights flared on and the watery, gossamer hues of angel hair drew you, as before, into freshly spun dreams.

Happy Holidays! 2011

****

Nov. 1, 2011

What About The Candy?

Halloween is my least favorite holiday, if holiday it is. I don’t remember enjoying it even as a child. Well, not beyond the candy.

Late October in Minnesota is usually teeth-rattlingly chilly, especially on the prairie where the wind screams across the Dakota border. When Dakotans say Badlands, they know whereof they speak. Consequently, when I was little, we wore winter coats over our costumes and, frankly, fairy princesses and ballerinas lose something in that translation.

By middle school or, as it was once called, junior high school, we were old enough to stay out til ten, soaping windows and stealing unpicked apples from neighborhood trees. High crimes and misdemeanors in 1946.

In high school, the boys took to tipping over country outhouses while some of us walked through the cemetary without flashlights. One of us fell into a newly dug grave. That was sort of interesting.

But, truth to tell, in childhood I was surrounded by family women who, had they lived in a different country, might well have been shunned as witches.

They read tea leaves, coffee grounds, and tarot cards, and deciphered the lines in our palms. They interpreted dreams and knew their way around a ouija board. When we children were sick, they dosed us with weird tasting herbs they had gathered along roadsides. Ghosts visited them, and my women dared to talk to them. If they dreamed of death, invariably someone close too the train west, as they say.

Compared with them, Halloween was ho-hum.

****

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Cry in The Night

It has started. It started last night, the night of September 12, 2011. The bedroom windows were open. A full moon, or one that was so nearly full as to make no difference, shone through the windows at the head of the bed.

Returning from the library, I enjoyed a Scotch-on-the-rocks, read a chapter of Georgette Heyer, and was about to drift off when I heard it. The cry announcing death, in this case, the death of summer.

The temperature had risen into the eighties during the afternoon. I’d worn white linen pants and a linen shirt to the library. White linen pants mean summer.

But there it was, the cry. High in a moon-bleached night, a squadron of Canada geese were gathering into their arrow formation and discharging themselves southward into the night. “Good-bye,” they cried again and again. “Good-bye.”

Every year, at the sound, a chill gathers around my soul. I am not a winter person. I once thought I was. I was mistaken.

When the snow is fresh, winter is beautiful. In movies.

A second home is out of the question, and Dan likes it here. I like it, too, except for winter. But as days grow short, I begin to gloom. One of my excellent daughters gave me a full-spectrum lamp, and that’s fine. God knows I wouldn’t send it back. But the lack of warm is as insidious as the lack of light. I want to walk in warm, swim in it, eat it and drink it.

And so, the cry in the night follows me into sleep, where I clutch the covers, wrapping them tight around me under a hot September moon.

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2 thoughts on “Essays

  1. Pingback: New essay, “The Generosity of Trees” | Faith Sullivan

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