Watch Your Bow Wake

boat wakeSign at the marina in Wickford, Rhode Island

An average-sized lobster boat pulling ten knots in an average-sized cove will kick out a bow wake of thirty-one waves. Here on the dock at Quahog Cove, writing but distracted, I count them. Laws of physics are at work here.

Continue reading

The flute reed remembers …

Carolina wrenWhere’s home for you?

Me, here: a dynamic attention brought to the moment, composing the writing-to-be as close to the impression as possible, allowing no thought—that officious intermeddler—to fill the space into which innocent material will be given, new, as if this moment has never happened before:

Continue reading

Reviving August

One can actually get self-forgivingly bored—then allow oneself to be pushed by some creative impulse into something new and deeply satisfying.


Did you read the column in The Wall Street Journal this week? Ruined, the columnist said, August has been ruined–traditional summer activities curtailed by school openings in mid-August rather than in September as in days of old. August isn’t the month it used to be, he wrote.

It is for me. Finally.

Continue reading


 …there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known. Go there with a new question … go there.

The spotlight’s on in the backyard; the light in the bedroom’s off.  I watch the wind, made visible by snowflakes. Expect 8 to 10 inches tonight, we’re told.

The word driven comes to mind–snowflakes driven down like rain, perpendicular.  Or pulled down like gravity on meteorites–white, dragging  their neon ribbons.  Then a change in the mind of the wind: snowflakes waft like May flies in a swarm, short-lived.  Then that testy wind laughs.  A cyclone in white explodes in silence.

I think of other silent spaces.

There’s the silence in some books.  In Marilynn Robinson–I’m thinking of Home or Giliad–and I imagine her writing new lines early in the morning, before she uses language for anything else. No talking, no listening to others talk, no listening to herself talk.  You know, that associative chatter in the head.  Just stillness.  Essential to craft. She places pockets of potential silence at the end of sentences, of paragraphs.  Can you see them?

Continue reading

Two Days of Thanksgiving

It’s an escape-from-the-kitchen, four-person, no-pressure, six-hour marketplace stroll through 21st century Northeastern culture—and without expectations.

Thanksgiving — my favorite holiday.

No ToDo list to labor over.  No gifts to buy, wrap, and mail.  No red, green, and silver decorations to haul out and pack away.  No debate about whether to use tinsel this year.  Or not. Just set the table with Mama’s porcelain, silver and crystal. Then cook tried-and-true recipes while listening to the year’s first playing of The Messiah (loud; everyone cooking gets to sing in parts; you don’t cook, you don’t sing), light the candles everywhere, and gather family around the big table (“…and feed our souls on thy heavenly grace…”).

Eat favorite foods: My favorite dressing with 45 ingredients. Southern spoon bread (Christiana Campbell’s, Williamsburg).  Cranberry sauce with Port (more than a generous pouring).  Pecan pie (more than a ladylike sufficiency).  More.  More.  More.

Get someone else to do dishes, take a brisk walk, nap and/or read Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville throughout the Patriots game (ignore the roar) and, later, with a glass of chilled pinot grigio, settle under a throw, watch a Masterpiece rerun, skip dinner, go to bed early, promising not to eat again … ever.

The day after Thanksgiving—my second favorite holiday:  go to the mall (do not laugh!) with nary a ToDo list in sight. It’s an escape-from-the-kitchen, four-person, no-pressure, six-hour marketplace stroll through 21st century Northeastern culture—and without expectations.

Look at people. There are fewer white people, more overweight people, more black tights and long sweaters, less make-up, more hair, more tatoos, more short skirts. Thus, more ass, which brings on interesting escalator-ride comments in our foursome.

Continue reading


She is mooring of a far-flung kind.

starAt 2:46 in the morning she breaks clear from behind black cutouts of maple and elm. The room is black; the sky, a slate gray wash of preparation. Suddenly she is there, wearing that crown, spikey and star-white, and the eastern sky is hers. A stunning appearance. I realize I have been waiting. I shift my head on the pillow, bringing her to the right angle of the lowermost windowpane. I want to see where she goes, again, and at what angle, again, and how quickly she moves, again. I do not tire of this.

She trails Jupiter by only two hours along the planetary elliptical that, here, climbs at forty-five degrees. I use the black rectangle of window as reference, like high school geometry. She takes off, sliding up to the right, shot out of the sun’s memory and reflecting that light. Here and there, she disappears behind a grille, trailing that gauzy hem of light. She blinks out. A powerful tease.

Continue reading

Wine with Everything

“Much happens when we’re not there.” — Window-Blind — Denise Levertov

My what-to-pack list is not long. This will be a weekend of retreat.  Simple needs: dental floss, pajamas, jeans, a skirt, t-shirts, a towel. No hairdryer. One pair of shoes.  At weak moments, I’m already missing my hairdryer.

I worry about my toenail polish.  It’s my favorite.  Revlon #711, “Wine with Everything.“ It’s not bubble-gummy or that awful purple stuff. Rather, it reminds me of my favorite Cabernet Sauvignon.  My feet take on that glow of sophistication and dark mystery.  Too much information?  Well, anyway …

I worry.  People with agendas will be at the retreat; there will be those leave-your-shoes-at-the-door sitting meditations and group gatherings. “Wine with Everything” will draw everyone’s attention down to my feet.  There’ll be social activists; they’ll assume I’m a Republican.  Environmentalists; they’ll assume I endanger the planet with chemicals required for toe upkeep. Then the PETA people; they’ll look at my feet and think about rabbits and mice and monkeys dying in dark cages.  And international spiritual folks — the French, the Brits, the Israelies, the Spanish — and they’ll see me as a fraud, too married to the world of appearances.  All that harping about American ego.

I’m packing my pajamas, and I decide they’re wrong—I’m an Independent, I recycle, I have a spiritual practice.  I’m tossing in my alarm clock, and I decide they’re right—I don’t trust Obama, I don’t always check the triangles on the bottom of hand lotion bottles, and I can be a serious backslider.  I’m squeezing shampoo into something smaller, and thinking these folks need to get a grip.  I’m thinking I need to get a grip.

“Environmentalists and social activists and PETA people and international spiritual folk will be there … all harping about American ego.”

I can’t stop thinking.

Twenty minutes before I must leave for the eight-hour flight, I remove “Wine with Everything.”  My toes look striped of interest, of energy, of summer.  I think of slugs.  But I’m safe from risk, from judgment, from worry.

At seven o’clock the next evening, a hundred people sit on cushions.  The leader of the meditation sitting enters.  At the door she whispers “Bon jour” to someone she knows. She settles herself on her cushions, faces us, and smiles.  She is wearing “Wine with Everything” or something very close.

I seem to have dealt with the wrong question.

Photo credit: Scott Cunningham

In full aerial dogfight mode

In memory, there’s nothing so thrilling as the sudden pulling up into an arc — those Gs! — and flying upside down, hanging from straps with the earth 3,000 feet below and the blue Pacific stretching forever.

Something tiny darts through my peripheral vision.  I put my book down and go to the back door.  A ruby-throated hummingbird is in full aerial dogfight mode.

The enemy: a nuthatch minding his own business on the trunk of the sycamore and a skittish chickadee hunting seed on the patio slates.

The hummer is having none of either.  I assume she’s protecting her young in a nearby nest.  Out!  Out of my territory!  I watch with fascination her zips, hovers, banks, and dives. The sound is that of a tiny motor — no, more like a tiny fan on HI.  Her attacks, beak first, are aimed at the heads of the interlopers.  She doesn’t miss.  She’s a missile.

In my younger years when there was nothing I wouldn’t try at least once, I did some aerobatic flying with a friend who was equally as experimental.  An R&D engineer who knew his physics, he’d draw the maneuvers on paper.  Inside loops, outside loops, lazy 8s.  I’d see on his face the thrill of it, and he probably read expectation on mine.  “Let’s do it!” I’d say.

Continue reading

Ijawi breath

Outside the window, the first songbird of spring after the winter that wasn’t. A cardinal by its sharp call — the first one on the feeder, the birdbath, the fir, even before the robins, who are late.  The word is out: hustle.

There will be straw collecting, mate selecting, nest building, bark tapping, worm and grub hunting, gatherings at the bird feeders, territory protecting, and quick sex. The windows are open for the first time since October. The pine grove awakens and shushes in the breeze, like an inland breath.

… surf taking and retreating along the packed beach … that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath …

There’s been no winter. The deer didn’t eat the rhododendrons and, hey, I wore my new (fake) fur coat only four times — both of these situations are of equal importance to me — and this spring’s not so much a relief as an expected occurence.  But it’s sweet enough.  My last year’s summer clothes still hang in my closet.  I’m not sure what to make of this.

I begin to think about the Outer Banks.  I may turn my head to hear the wind in the pine grove — that shushing, whispering, and awakening — but surf taking and retreating along the packed beach of a barrier island, grounded in the broad Atlantic basic?  Well, that’s the planet’s true ijawi breath.

The brown pelicans know this in their light bodies.  Watch them.



The game closet, yesterday.  I was rummaging through it, looking for something, when I found a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle in a corner.  Stem green with a purple edge, one side a ninety-degree angle, the rest of it like fingers flung out. A cornered amoeba.

I do not like jigsaw puzzles.  They crop up everywhere in my life, as if the universe continues to send me not what I want, but what it thinks I need to see … until I see it.  I suppose, then, the universe will be sending me jigsaw puzzles forever.  Because I won’t do them.

Take, for example, the jigsaw puzzles for the beach house.   Prior to our family trek to the Outer Banks each summer, all puzzles are dragged out of the game closet, unpacked, spread out, picked over, dismissed or chosen, repacked carefully, talked about in the car for 500 miles, removed from the car first, set up on a card table, and fussed over.  The year we forgot the card table, we used the dining room table for the puzzles and ate on our laps. Ketchup was difficult.

“Coming down to the beach?” I say to four family members.  It’s 10:00 – beach time – and I’m at the door, greased up, hat on head, beach bag packed with the day’s supply of books, pens, and notebooks.  Four heads bend over a puzzle.

“Looking for this piece,” one of them says to another, pointing to a hole.

“Try this one.”  Murmurs.

“No, I need a ninety-degree angle.  Green.  With a little purple showing.”

“Y’all coming?” I say.

“Found a different one!” my husband shouts, and applause breaks out. He looks at me as if to say I’m not a team player. I know this.

I go down to the beach alone, schlepping my chair, umbrella, bag of books, and frustration.

Now, take the jigsaw puzzles at The Heritage, my mother’s retirement community.  Rummaging through closets in the club room, the Puzzle Queen of South Carolina discovered 179 boxes of puzzles, dragged them out, shouted “Come on, y’all” to everyone in her building, and thus founded The Heritage Jigsaw Puzzle Club, going strong for three years now.  Puzzles are fussed over and discussed as if they are intractable children. She has told me three times that The Puzzle Club has completed 53 puzzles.  This is not from short-term memory loss.

“Let’s walk down to the club room and see what’s happening with the puzzle,” my mother says to me.  I’m visiting her for two weeks, and we’ve just finished three loads of laundry and a chocolate treat.

“I’m not into puzzles,” I say.  “You go.”

“But I want us to do stuff together while you’re here.”

I’d rather read Pam  Houston’s latest book.  “OK, OK,” I say.

I sit down at the card table in the club room.  Three other elders are there, intent on the puzzle of the week.  Hot air balloons.  The workers murmur, eye one another, poke through puzzle pieces, try one, then another, ease pieces into right places, and snap them into place to a chorus of exclamation.  I look down at the tiny pieces, all similar in shape, size, and my interest in them.

“Why don’t you like jigsaw puzzles?” my mother says.

“No idea.”

“Puzzles keep you young.  They work your brain.”  She’s ninety-six.

“My brain’s just fine.”

“Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.

“They help you understand how the small things fit so you can figure out the big picture,” she says.  “You know.  Puzzles are like life.”

“Mama, you know I don’t believe that.”

Opinions on the subject rip across the faces of my mother’s friends, but no one offers support for either side.

“You should think about it.”  Heads nod.  She finds a piece that fits, lets out a whoop, and applause breaks out around the table.

My brother sits with Mama and me in her living room.  I’m go back to reading reading Pam Houston.  She spreads dissimilar fragments of her life around with her pen, sees some odd relationship among the pieces, some quirky theme; the pieces don’t fit together and she doesn’t force them and she doesn’t tell us every little thing. But I know somebody is present.  We are left to infer. “Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.  My yellow highlighter and ballpoint are poised over the page – How does she do this?

My brother and I are sitting with Mama in her apartment.  I am reading.  They are working a crossword puzzle, another family activity I’m not good at.  Or don’t have the patience for.

“Can’t get this last word,” my brother says. “Eight letters — begins with M — means ‘Vacancy on the top floor’?”  His pencil is tapping, his leg is pumping, he’s leaning toward Mama whose brow is furrowed over the coverless Webster’s she uses for her crossword puzzles. It’s almost as old as she is.

“Mindless,” I say without looking up.

They jump as if they’ve been shot from off-planet.  My mother says it fits, my brother says it’s perfect, and the Sunday crossword is completed.

Words I can do.  Words are not a game. I remember what Mark Twain said about words.  “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning strike.”

It’s 11:00 by the time my husband arrives on the beach with his chair and his own books.  I hold his red beach cup of tea with lemon, no sugar while he sets up for the day.

“I don’t feel deprived because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles,” I say.  “And I’d rather write.”

“The puzzle’s missing one piece,” he tells me, frustrated.

I backed out of the game closet, pulled the dust bunnies off the green and purple puzzle piece, and took it downstairs.  I put it where he’d see it.  When he came home, he said something like, “Finally we’ll see the big picture!”

We’re not getting one

Every six months or so I want a dog.  I think of this returning wish as a chronic disease, like malaria.  I punch up “Rescue Shih Tzus” on my MacBook and page down through what’s available.  I get to choose what area, how old, what color, how much, and when available.  Like shopping online for the right lamp.

I found an adorable Shih Tzu nearby.  Male.  Seven years old.  Alfalfa colored.  Black eyes, looking at the camera as eight-month-old babies look at the world — as if they just arrived from the other side of the moon.

“Here,” I say, “look at this one.  Isn’t he adorable?”

I don’t expect an answer.  He doesn’t want a dog.  We’ve had this conversation many times, and we’ve debated all the reasons.  Vacations, the rugs, early morning and late night potty walks, and our frequent commutes to Boston, our long days there.  All valid reasons why not.  I allow MacBook to sleep, and the chronic disease begins to subside.

After the evening news, Nature brings us a preview of an upcoming documentary, “Ocean Giants.”  There in deep water in a photographer’s lense is a mother whale and her tiny baby, just born.

“Look at that,” I say. “Isn’t it adorable?”

“We’re not getting one,” he says.





Fauxs, a sacrificial gesture

My twenty-year old coat is not warm.  I’ve said so for three years.

“‘Warmth’ technology has improved,” I said.

“How ’bout one of those down coats from L. L. Bean?” he said.

“You mean the ones that make me look like the Michelin Tire Boy?”

I found a fake fur coat.  I would say “cheap”, but that would be a tacky description for a coat that’s anything but.  So, let’s say “inexpensive.”  It’s warm.  It has a hood.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s fake mink.  I feel a bit self-conscious in it.  When I wear it, I make up reasons for having it (I live in a cold place) and rationalizations for having it (I’ve never had one before, I deserve it, why not me?).  The time it takes to run through all this internal dialogue is excessive, time my old black coat never required.  Ever notice how long and involved our stories are when we’re justifying?

I wore it to the post office on Saturday – the thermometer said 18 degrees – and I got in line behind a woman with a small child.  She looked at the coat, then at me.  She sniffed and said, sotto voce, to her daughter, five years old, give or take, something like “animal murderer.”

I smiled and said to her, “Yes, a lot of fauxs died to make me this coat.”  She had the grace to smile, but only a little, like a reflex.

“What’s a faux?” the little girl asked.

“A fake animal,” the mother said, not looking at me.

“A fake animal?”

“Well, one made by a machine.”

“Machines can make animals now?”

“No, just the fur.”

“Can’t animals make their own fur?”

Bob the postal clerk interrupted with “Next,” and the woman flew to the counter with a big box I noticed was addressed to L. L. Bean.


For Christmas, a Marine and a Shih Tzu

It’s Christmas week, and I’m browsing for Christmas decorations at the mall. I like the mall at Christmas.  It gets my blood up, and I need some fake encouragement when I think of two major holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas — smashed together in less than 30 days.  It’s not fair, and I don’t have to like it just because it happens every year and I should have accustomed myself by this time. I haven’t.

So, I look for the odd and satirical.

I see two handmade ornaments hanging on an overly decorated tree that stop me in my tracks. A shih tzu and a Marine.  The former is not unusual.  In fact, we have ornaments honoring our dead pets.  A favorite is an Australian sheep dog.  Our Eli, now dead.  The Marine is a first for me.  And so weird a juxtaposition that I laugh out loud.  I buy the shih tzu and the Marine.  My husband will remember and laugh.

The Outer Banks.  Three summers ago.

As massive as New England Patriots tackles, Navy Seals, or heavyweight boxers, two young men walked up the beach in front of our umbrella and chairs, books and beach paraphernalia. The group caught my eye, so out of character they seemed. I poked my husband – Hey, look at that! – and he glanced up from his book. The young men followed in the wake of a small dog. A fluffy brown and white shih tzu, button-bright eyes, a pink bow on her little head, prancing, pulling a big guy forward on a taut lead, she convinced us: she was in charge and she knew it. I remarked the young men’s expressions: proud, unashamed, confident. When globe-and-anchor tats on muscular biceps came into view, I recognized the men as Marines. From nearby Camp Lejeune, I guessed.

I’m a sucker for shih tzus. If the breed tolerated being alone all day, like goats, I’d have one. I once located a local breeder, pestered him online for weeks, chose a tea-colored puppy, and considered names. Shih tzus are not named Rover or Butch.  I favored Laphroaig. Then at the brink, I recovered. At my age, I don’t need to babysit a two-year-old for fifteen years. I changed my mind, with regrets. But I’ll stop people on the street to get up close to a shih tzu.

I walked over to the Marines, knelt near the dog, and held out my hand – dogs like to sniff your hand before you get in their faces; they appreciate the respect – and said something predictable like, Ooooh soooo cuuuute. What you’d expect from a shih tzu fawner.

The two Marines were proud to tell us that the dog was theirs now, left to them by a buddy who’d shipped out to Iraq.  She’d recently attacked a bunkmate’s weimeraner, leaping two feet to its neck, holding onto its collar with its tiny teeth, bobbing and jerking around its neck as the larger dog took off down the street, yelping and trying to toss the shih tzu into traffic.  They had to catch the weimeraner before they could pry the little dog loose, still gnawing and growling.  The shih tzu was furious — some real or imagined affront, they assumed — and the weimeraner was a nervous wreck.

Well, we’re laughing and they’re laughing, and I’m stroking the dog’s sweet face and fixing her ribbon and she’s licking my hand, and I ask the usual question, “What’s her name.”

There was a quiet pause, shiftings from foot to foot, the stealing of glances right to left, clearing of throats.  I looked up.

“You’re not going to like it, ma’am,” said one Marine.  Such polite boys, such gentlemen.

“Ah, come on.  I can take it.”

“Bad Ass,” one said in an apologetic tone.  “Her name’s Bad Ass.”

I love Marines.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” I said to the tiny dog.

Everybody loves to hear their own name on the lips of others.  She rolled over on her back, and I scratched her tummy.  When she’d had enough, and she knew when that was, she jumped up, offered a quick bark, pulled on the lead, and led her Marines down the beach.  They hardly had time to say their cordial good-byes, which all Marines offer the ladies.

I take the new ornaments out of the box and hang them on the tree, close together.  A Marine and a shih tzu. The Marine is in camo; the shih tzu is wearing a pink bow. They hang among colored lights, gold stars, silver bells, Santa faces, gold and silver balls, various reindeer, a cat ornament that looks like the orange “Morris” cat we used to have, and Eli.  My husband walks up behind me. He sees the Marine and the shih tzu.

“Hello, Bad Ass,” he says to the small shih tzu.  Then, just in case, he plucks Eli off the nearby green limb and moves him to the far side of the tree.  Just in case.




A property manager’s attention – or lack of it

In the kitchen, I have it in my hand – the key to the down-the-hill house, the house we rent out – along with my veggie lunch in ShrinkWrap, my briefcase, my MacBookPro, a third draft, and, for fun, a Brenda Miller story. I hang the key off a finger; a neon yellow plastic tag hangs from it.

In the mudroom, I slip into clogs and see that my jeans have shrunk an inch in the dryer. What did these jeans cost per square inch?  I do the math, and I don’t like this. I set the house alarm I don’t like and remember the screaming horn that brought the Fire Department up the long, narrow driveway when I burned a rue. Fireman in suits — more neon yellow — carrying ready hatchets with red beaks.  Fleshy can-do faces.  I like firemen.  I slam the back door and notice our wild turkeys have dug dust holes.  I like turkeys.  I decide Brenda Miller’s convinced me to rewrite a troublesome scene. I like Brenda Miller.  I check my watch and count on my fingers how many writing hours I have left today.  I put a move on.  My briefcase is heavy.  Today, I’m toting my Rodale.  I like my Rodale.

On the porch, I see the maroon mums need water and decide I can write until 5:00 if I settle for an omelet for dinner and call it some fancy name. Gruyere has a nice ring. And maybe I’ll take a chocolate tart to Connecticut next weekend. It’ll be a hit. And I have homework over which I’m already building up a self-depricating, blank-page terror. Walking across the driveway, I make a note to call the eye clinic. I must do something about the two little awnings (read: eyelids) I live under. I play out a predictable argument with BX/BS — “It’s not cosmetic,” I say.  “I don’t do cosmetic.” I don’t like BX/BS.  I punch in the garage door code, numbers I sometimes can’t remember. Why can’t it be a birthday or the house number? I have an idea for my writing assignment.  I like how my right brain works.

My Highlander roars into action and I remember my old Camry, low on the road. Faithful. Only 200,000 miles.  But I like sitting higher now, and we need it for beach trips. Can I say that out loud? I compare the gas mileage … but I do recycle. I drive down the hill, take a left, take another left, and park behind Tom from Richland Glass who’s waiting with a new mirror the painters cracked – we should have had them pay for it. I say “Hello, Tom” and reach for the key to the down-the-hill house.

Attention is an unappreciated phenomenon. In my studied experience, it comes in several shades, like a painter’s palette, subtle, observable.  Or if you like, several types, like a worker’s tools.  There’s attracted attention for watching a BBC mystery, for reading the Weekend section of the WSJ, for reading a new John LeCarre spy thriller. Call that a chisel.  There’s focused attention for designing new spreadsheets, studying a new menu, ordering a chenille throw from Restoration Hardware.  Call all these concentration, the electric drill. We feel like we’re getting somewhere.  We like to think we’re good at this.

But, look.  Both are attention that’s taken. Outside.  As when, jerked around by my likes and dislikes, my interior drama, my head thrashes around in the past and future, making stuff up.  Stuff I like.  In milli-seconds, I’m saying.  Milli-seconds.  I’m a walking, talking, dreaming head, five feet and six inches off the ground.

Then there’s attention that is not beholden. When I relax and drop down into my body, it is there. Naturally.  It arises in silence.  It slows me, it clarifies impressions, it grounds me, it freshens impressions, it is free.  I know where I am.  I know what my hands are doing, my feet, my mouth.  I see.

But, please understand, I forget. Taken by jeans, mums, turkeys, eye-awnings, garage door codes, mirrors, writing hours, writing assignments, where am I?  Well, I’m not here.  So when I reach for the key with the neon yellow plastic tag, where is it?

I have no idea.

The brown pelicans of Bogue Bank

To my mind, the brown pelican is an intelligent bird, and well evolved.  I’m no expert, but I can surely observe their goings-west in the early morning to feed off Bear Island and their goings-east in the late afternoon to roost on Shackleford Banks.  I’m just an all-day-sitter-on-the-beach, but I wait for these twice-daily migrants.  I watch for these grand and graceful birds.

Here on Bogue Bank, the pelican flocks in small groups of five to three times that.  Fewer than in the past, but I’m not complaining about this summer’s sightings.  It flies with its beak pointing direction, its pouch hanging, and its dark, side-mounted eyes straight ahead.  Its delta wings stretch out forever; its finger-feathers are majestic and reach out to test, guide, and taste the air.   They’re a statement indeed.  The bird knows about vacuum pockets, spacing, and the airfoil.  And the responsibility of out-in-front leadership.

We can laugh.  But it’s true to the careful observer.  Lead Bird (LB) works hard against new, blue air; its “wing man” (or “woman” — please) flies two bird-lengths back and at LB’s four o’clock position.  Don’t Air Force jets do this?  I picture a wind tunnel where scientists watch birds do it, observe airflow over and behind the wings, then copy what birds know.  The pelicans know where the slots – I think that’s the word – appear behind the wing, and that’s where the next pelican flies.  In the slot.

It’s something to watch, this silent passage.  Everyone’s eyes come off their books, their friends, their children; they look up and follow.  Taking the air lift above the cresting wave in the morning and the air lift up the dune in the afternoon,  even the pelican’s wing-flap is without sound — and used only when needed.  Powerful, efficient, imperturbable.   In the morning, the birds’ shadows glide cleanly over ocean swells, and close to their bellies; at dusk, the shadows race across the geometry of rooftops, scale the sides of beach cottages, zip up chimneys.  And they are gone, specks in formation moving toward the horizon.  I watch until they disappear.  A gift.

Going south …

Here’s what I know for sure:  those of us who’re driven by the desire for something we don’t have lean forward in our chairs, our cars, our projects, our families, our friends, our lives.   We lead a tough life.  Statistically, according to surveys conducted by those who don’t know what they’re doing, we’re a quarter of the population.   Be your own judge here.

I mention this because my family will go to the beach for two weeks later in the summer.  Two weeks!  Such anticipated luxury for the land-locked.  Particularly for the land-locked who grew up at a Southern beach house and miss it.  Terribly.  Longingly.  And whose enjoyment of what is today is thwarted by missing what’s not now available full time.  Oh, sorrow.  Some of us really have it bad.

So, what do I do?  I make lists.  I begin the lists on a clean, new legal pad, one page per topic.  What To Do The Month Before, What To Do The Week Of, Menus and Ingredients, What To Take (divided into categories, i.e., clothes, kitchen, linens, electronics, books, beach stuff, the wok, the Chinese Five Spice), What To Buy at the Beach (another umbrella), The First Trip to Food Lion (gin, tonic, limes, extra ice), The First Trip to Mrs. Willis’s (shrimp, king mackerel, flounder), and so forth for ten pages of expectation-on-the-page.

These lists are created with a joy for the anticipated.  Clearly, I’m missing the present:  the unmatched loveliness of a New England summer day, the green hillsides and cool deep woods, the groundhog in the clover, the fox in the pine grove, the Red-tailed Hawks teaching their offspring to hunt for scurrying chipmunks in and out of stone walls, the climbing roses that survived the spring’s inch worms and are taking over the fence alongside the pool, in salmon, pink, scarlet.

Why is this?  I want to go to the beach, that’s why.   I get out of bed in the morning, leaning into it.   I can hardly wait.  Some desires I’m willing to give up; some I’m not.  The beach is one of them.

And New England’s crisp country silence will always be here for me, or so I tell myself.  I believe my own stories.


Remembering Rumi …

Once upon a time, there was a flute reed.  The court musician had sent his trusted servant down the steep mountain and into the far lands in search of reeds for this special instrument.  Meet any challenge, pay any toll, ask any question of those along the way who know about these things, he had told his servant, but bring me the plant from which my master flute maker may fashion the perfect flute reed.

After many months on the slippery sides of steep mountains upon his unshod horse, paying is last coins for tolls, and seeking directions from leaders both pleasant and unpleasant, both wise and unwise, the musician’s servant reached the southern marshes, a new land none had seen before and the home of the tallest, straightest reeds, exquisitely segmented.

With his sharp knife, he hacked at the plants, pulled them out by the roots, wrapped them into tight bundles, strapped them onto the back of his unshod horse with strong hemp rope, and journeyed the many miles to the mountaintop home of the court musician who waited for his servant, impatiently, pacing his hall.  He welcomed his trusted servant and, immediately, sent for his master flute maker who, called from his sleep, made his selection.

A long month later, after cutting, slicing, whittling, boring, soaking, and shaping, he brought to the court musician the flute reed.  Holding it in his hands, the court musician found this flute reed to be the most perfectly made of all his flutes.  He bowed to his flute maker and raised the flute reed to his lips.

Taking its transformation to its heart, accepting the musician’s thrust of breath along its length, and remembering the marsh of its birth, the flute reed sang.


Luciano or Jennifer

On a recent Saturday, my husband and I (in our 60s) and our daughter and son-in-law (in their 30s) enjoy an afternoon at the opera – The Met’s Die Walküre – shown in HD at Patriot Place in Foxboro (the home of the New England Patriots).  In a raked theater, we join a houseful of opera lovers (in their 60s and 70s) for four hours and thirty minutes of Wagner, Lavine, Terfel, and Voight.  In Act III, we go through four Kleenex each.

At the first intermission, I say to my daughter, “You realize, of course, that you and B—(her husband) are the youngest people here.”

“By thirty years, easy,” she quips.  She doesn’t care.

When she was five, six, and seven, commuting with me to Del Mar to her school and my job, she was listening to Verdi’s La Traviata on eight-track tapes and singing Violetta to her consumptive death.  She came to believe that everyone dies in the end – well? – and that the last line of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” is about enchiladas.  I did not discourage her in either conclusion.  I loved her sweet little voice singing along with Pavoratti about her favorite Mexican dish.  We’d drive through Rancho Santa Fe, singing that awesome aria with the windows rolled down.  My point is this:  she cut her teeth on Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and, yes, Wagner.   She knew who the Rhinemaidens were before she had a dog, and I swear she moved not one inch during a three-hour Butterfly at the Met in New York, her first live opera.

Then later, she had questions:  “What am I supposed to say when my friends ask me about those TV shows?” she asked.

“What shows?”

“Like ‘Friends’,” she said.  “I don’t know who Jennifer Anniston is.”

“Who?”  I fretted and wondered if she were being deprived.

I’m sitting in the raked seats waiting for Brunhilde to become mortal, and asking myself Where are the young people?  Ah, there’s a couple further up to the left!  I look at their faces.  Rapt.

On the way home afterward, my daughter reminds me to make reservations for the next Met season.  B— agrees.  Ah, another young convert.

Remember what Richard Gere’s ‘Edward’ says to Julia Robert’s ‘Vivian’ about opera in Pretty Woman?



PCPUs and BlueToothMan

In my four years of writing at a Border’s Café, I’ve become not so much an expert on the perfect sentence (alas) as on the habits of the PCPU – the Public Cell Phone User.  And since I like being an expert on something, I am rather buoyed by this.   I should say right here that I am in no way judgmental:  my friends and I — I’ll call us the Border’s Buddies — are PCPUs also.

I observe that while PCPUs occupy space along the typical behaviorial spectrum, there are three main groups.  And then there’s BlueToothMan.  But more about him later.

First, there’s the TIO-PCPU.  This is the Take-it-Outside group.  Your cell blares out “Anchors Aweigh!”  You dig for it in pocket or purse, tap-tap-tap on the volume control (“Sorry!”), run for the door, and talk in the parking lot.  Through the wide windows of the café, my friends and I can see your mouth moving, your elevator eyebrows, and your hands waving about.  We cannot hear you, and we appreciate that this is your intention.  Your return to table, computer, book, and coffee is a polite reblending.  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full” and “Sweetheart, remember to write that thank you note before you wear your new sweater.”  I’d estimate TIOs to be, say, 5% of PCPUs.

Second, there’s the ITS-PCPU.  This group takes the phone Into-The-Stacks.  Your cell blares out “The William Tell Overture.”  You dig for it in pocket or purse, cover the mic with a palm, trot toward the stacks, and lean on the magazine rack against the far wall, between The New Yorker and a Conde Nast special edition on Mediterranean cruises.  We can hear you a bit, but, hey, sharing the world with others is life, right?  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Buffy and Kenny, take your game into the den.  We’re trying to read here.”  Estimate of the ITSs — 15%, give or take.

Third, there’s the RATT-PCPU.  This group does it Right-At-The-Table.   Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” tells you there’s in-coming.  You flip open the cell phone — it’s on the table, at the ready — and you talk.  Decibel levels may vary depending on gender, skull and cheekbone anatomy, vocal cord elasticity, diaphragm musculature, breath, and profession.  We Border’s Buddies hear each of your conversations: you’re a tekkie walking a client through downloads, a mother reviewing algebra homework, a patient talking to her therapist (yes, really!), a coach justifying a line-up to a dad, a salesman pushing a warranty, a lover reliving last night (aloud), a real estate agent revealing termites, a then-he-said-then-I-said teenager to an oh-no-he-didn’t friend, and a frustrated computer user talking to Del … ah, human discourse writ large and audible.  I imagine your parents saying to you at a young age, “Sweetkins, come tell everybody in the living room about your term paper on the Thirty Years War.”  My friends and I, scattered among you, drag out little pink foamy CVS earplugs and earphones, and punch in iTunes.  Now we’re all wired – offensive and the defensive play – and doing our business on a crowded planet.  Estimate, 79.09%.

BlueToothMan is a category unto himself.  He arrives at ten-thirty every third Wednesday.  We Border’s Buddies share eye rolls and soft sighs.  Ear gear of any known design has proven useless.  We abandon hope.  BlueToothMan seats himself in the middle of the café from which his affect will be a full three-sixty.  Within minutes, he’s fighting a weak connection with a Romanian rope factory, he’s dissatisfied with a plastic fastener supplier in some dusty hamlet in Mexico, he’s bearing down on his wife who has failed to reserve table 16 at Café Nuovo, and he’s fencing with his captive secretary who needs to rewrite the second paragraph of a letter that must go out to an irate customer, today.

We’re captive too.  We look up.  We try to catch his eye.  We cough.  We look at him as one might when social behavior fails to meet accepted norms.  Monkeys do it.  Apes do it.  Maybe even bees do it.  All attempts at nonverbal communication fail.  I’m thinking he should at least buy a cup of coffee, but then I have strong opinions on a variety of topics.  In case you haven’t noticed.

A month ago last Wednesday, in response to a few audible sighs, BlueToothMan said to us Border’s Buddies, “This is not a library.”  Responding simultaneously, we said, “And it’s not a phone booth either.” An unrehearsed Greek chorus if there ever was one.  But BlueToothMan remained gleefully unaffected, unoffended, and jubilant in his personal pursuits.  He smiled, and his smallish features crowded the center of his round face, prune-like and devilish.  I image his parents saying to him, “Paulie, you’ll always be the smartest person in the room.”  And here he is, fully grown, a happy .01% of PCPUs.

My cell phone rings.  I dig my cell out of my purse, cover the mic with my palm, trot toward the stacks, and lean on the magazine rack against the far wall, between The New Yorker and a Conde Nast special on Mediterranean cruises.  A bespectacled man in a tweed jacket, who looks like he teaches Early Indo-European Languages at Harvard, gives me that look – the one monkeys do, apes do, maybe even bees do – that tells me he doesn’t need to know how my mother’s new sciata meds are working for her.  I look up.  I catch the eye of BlueToothMan.  He is laughing, that devilish twinkle in his eye.