Soft Landing

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Martha Dog on her first night here.

 

A woman I’d met in Boston Terrier rescue sent me the photo. Did I know how to contact anyone in American Foxhound rescue, she asked. I wrote back to her. There is no American Foxhound rescue.

American Foxhounds are one of the rarest breeds in the American Kennel Club. There are probably fewer that 20 of them being shown in the country right now. But truly the breed is not rare.

In the south, particularly, they are a popular hunting dog, used for trail hunting  on deer, coyote, foxes. It’s not that unusual to find them in pens of  ten, twenty, a hundred. The same in the mid-Atlantic region where they run in huge packs alongside horses and riders.

Even good hunting dogs get lost. The National Bench champion from three years go ran off with the rest when the hounds were “cast” during the final element of competition, and was never seen again.

Dogs who are troublesome are turned over to shelters, or simply turned loose. It takes an educated eye to distinguish an American Foxhound from its cousin, the Treeing Walker Coonhound and in fact, the popular tri-colored Foxhound is often referred to as the Running Walker.

This is a long way of getting to a short brutal fact: the southern pounds and shelters and rescues are full of tri-colored hounds, and there is no specific rescue to spring them. They are often not placed from shelters because they don’t do well with overstimulation and they tend to cower in the runs.

They can be a handful for first time dog owners– any hound can. They are the most independent of the dog breeds. They love to sing. They can scale fences and any hole they can get their heads through, their limber bodies soon follow.

I have a small pack of Foxhounds, retired show dogs who sleep on sofas and eat ice cream on their birthdays. It hurts my heart that there is no organized rescue for Foxhounds and truly, I just try not to think about it.

The woman wrote back. These two hounds were in the Johnson County Garage, because Johnson County, Kentucky doesn’t have a shelter. They’d made a few pens in the county garage and some  very dedicated and hardworking women labored tirelessly to place the dogs and cats that came in– because those that weren’t placed by Friday afternoon went to animal control the next town over, where they were killed.

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I looked at Johnson County on a map. There was a guy there who’d bred Foxhounds in a town there. He had the sire of one of my dogs and the grandsire of another. I looked at the picture of the dogs more closely. Was that a familiar profile I saw? Were these dogs family?

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There was a dog show in Lexington beginning on Thursday. I was going that far already. How much farther could Paintsville be?

Quite a bit farther as it turns out, more than 100 miles through the Appalachian mountains. We were pretty much broke. It took some careful finagling to get together the money to buy gas drive just to Lexington. Feeding two more hounds wasn’t really a move in the right direction.

I went anyway. Another Foxhound exhibitor gave me $40 to buy some extra dog food. I figured I’d get them home and place them. At least they wouldn’t be dead. Yeah, they seemed a little long in the tooth. And yeah, there’s not even much of a market for Foxhound show puppies, but maybe someone would step up.

A woman met me in the parking lot of Tractor Supply in Paintsville. The hounds were in crates in the back of her pick up. I opened up the back of the Jeep and she helped me load them. First the male, then the gyp. The male looked so old and tired, I wondered if he’d survive the trip home. My own Foxhound girl, clean and shiny for the show, seem to recoil in her crate.

One look told me what my head should have known anyway. These dogs weren’t related to our dogs. They were Foxhounds, certainly. From someone’s pen, no doubt.  But there was no way I could say no at that point. It was Thursday afternoon, they only had a few hours left.

I called my husband to tell him I was on my way home.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m just leaving Paintsville.”

Paintsville!  You didn’t go and get those dogs did you?”

“What? I can’t hear you, must be a bad signal here. Call you later. Love you. Bye.”

I stopped at a gas station just outside the on-ramp to US 52 to put a bit more gas in the tank, get an iced tea, walk the dogs.

“Just wait a minute, Gracie. Let me walk these two first.” The old pair hopped out of the back and went along pretty happily on leashes with me through a vacant lot. Gracie howled her displeasure from the Jeep. With a deep sigh the male dog squatted and deposited a pile of turds as big as a cantaloupe. Within minutes, the other one too had left a steaming mountain — they must have been holding it in for a few days.

I came back with Gracie and some plastic bags to clean up after them. Gracie stood far away, with one delicate foot poised in the air, watching me bag the evidence.

When we got home, my husband was annoyed, but resigned. He knew what he signed up for when he married me. We put the old dogs in a run for the night, he was tender with them. I knew what I signed up for when I married him too. The dogs seemed quite happy.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m sure I can place them.”

We called them George and Martha, after the Washingtons. George Washington developed the American Foxhound by crossing French staghounds with the slower English Foxhound in order to create a dog that could give chase to the quick brown fox.

For a few weeks George and Martha lived happily in the kennel run– they had a dog house and seemed content. They’d been fed communally and even though we brought them separate dishes, they’d eat first out of one bowl and then out of the second. Neither wanted to come inside.

Then Martha came into season, and she had to be separated from George. Then the autumn chill came on, and George had to come in as well. It was quite an ordeal to get him into the kitchen as he seemed certain that his life would end in many a hideous fashion if he crossed the threshold.

It’s an unfortunate trend that people like to talk about what awful lives their rescued dogs must have had before they came to live with them, as if the worse it was the more virtuous that made the “adopter” or “rescuer.”  Shelters feed into this by embellishing or creating terrible life stories to go with each dog.

Were George and Martha abused? Probably not. They weren’t well socialized– they’d been hunting dogs. Maybe they’d had more rough handling than tenderness, but they still looked to people for affection.  Who’s to say how they came to be trotting down a highway in rural Kentucky one morning, but the only one who ever came for them was me.

I kept telling George and Martha when they arrived that this was just a way-station for them, just a stop on the journey to their forever homes, and they would look at me and smile and wag their tails as if they knew different.

I guess they knew different.

You can probably figure the rest of the story. Eighteen months later George and Martha are still here. I never did get around to even trying to network them. Occasionally my husband grouses about the extra mouths to feed, but they’re old dogs. They’re happy here. A commitment to the “rest of their lives” is no more than a year or two.

George spends most of his time hanging out with two of our other dogs. I would have said originally that George and Martha were a bonded pair, but really Martha has little patience for George. George is not the smartest of dogs– he’s easily confused. I believe now that he is quite profoundly deaf.

Martha sleeps in my study. If we move her bed she can’t find it, but she sees well enough to get around the house and mosey through the yard. She is always cheerful. She loves the sound of her name, a bowl of her own, cookies at bedtime, a soft landing.

Banjo Song

Myrtle B. Wilkinson playing tenor banjo, Turlock, California, 1939. Photographer unknown.

Myrtle B. Wilkinson playing tenor banjo, Turlock, California, 1939. Photographer unknown.

Last year, on Ash Wednesday, I started a new writing project “Writing for Lent,” in which I intended to write every day for 40 days. I made it for a week.

This year, I thought, I’ll try it again. I don’t have to write 1000 words a day after all, I can write 100 words. Or five.

And because fate has a wicked sense of humor, the morning started out with an email about a fundraising letter I’d written.  The email included an edited version of the letter with every bit of music stomped right out of it. Obliterated as surely as if the editor had used a hammer on a piece of Limoges.

Not that I’d asked for the letter to be edited, mind you.

So, in the spirit of plaint, I posted rhetorically to Facebook, pondering the mystery of why no one takes professional writers seriously. Because they don’t. Everyone truly believes they can write a book. They can write an article. They can write a sonnet.

And I suppose they can. We are all taught to make one word follow another after all. Surely years of discipline and experience and millions of words arranged on a page count for nothing, right? Because we all can write.

The general consensus of that thread was that I was mean and nasty and horrible to think that professional writers should write unmolested by those who think they have the mandate to fix what the writer wrote.

So I took it down. I almost wrote that I took it down because I love my friends and there is a tiny little granite marble of truth in that statement. But mostly I took it down because it made me feel worse.

No matter how I tried to explain, I couldn’t make myself understood. It didn’t make me feel like much of a writer, I tell you.

And tonight, I wanted to write about how much my life, this series, writing in general and the very business of getting up and lying down again makes me think of banjo music; an endless frenetic loop of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

And it’s not that I hate banjo music. I like banjos. I’m one of those people– banjos, bagpipes, the Mongolian horse fiddle– I like them. They make me feel cheerful. (Ruth, I know you’re gritting your teeth.)

And anyway, it was just a metaphor, but I couldn’t find the structure to make it fit, and it’s late, and there’s still so much to do and pluckpluckpluck twang forward roll. Sometimes that’s just the way it is, on and on and on.

But tomorrow, another piece, perhaps one that will settle into place, orderly and melodic, a way to get in touch, a message more deftly conveyed,  a better song.

And if I’m lucky, one the day after that.

 

 

 

Scenic Route 53


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“A great alternative way to reach Grants from Gallup is via Scenic Route 53, which runs parallel to, and south of, I-40. It takes a full day to really experience this out-of-this-world landscape of lava tubes and red arches, volcanic craters and ice caves, as well as unique historical attractions and traditional New Mexican towns.”  

-Lonely Planet

On Friday, I turned 53. I’m not particularly bothered by it. I happened to be online around 1 a.m. and commented that I’d been 53 for 53 minutes, to which my mother (the next day) said “Not exactly.” Which is true, I wasn’t born until 6:40 in the evening. My father had gone home to make a sandwich.

And it was one time zone over, so I guess I wasn’t truly 53 years old until twenty minutes of eight on Friday. But that’s not what this is about. I could be turning 39 or 57 or 10.

This is about expectations.

Like everybody, I’ve had good birthdays and crappy ones. I’ve had full-blown week-long celebrations and birthdays that passed with little notice. Oh wait, that last part’s not true.  I’ve never had a birthday that passed without notice.

But lately I’ve started to realize that the enjoyment I found in a celebration had direct correlation to what I expected from it– but not having any expectations is not only not realistic, it’s not the answer.  The answer is this: make your own fun.

One of the very best things about my birthday is that the weather, which has been a socked-in-solid deep freeze for the last several weeks began to thaw. I know it isn’t spring, this is still January. But it was forty something, and the air felt soft. I went out into the world wearing a velvet coat.

It starts with a swim at the Y, a brand new luxury for me. The day before my husband went with me to sign up for a membership and bought a parking pass for good measure. Then we went out to buy shoes.

“Shoes?” you query. “Who needs shoes to swim in a pool?” Well, that’s true. I don’t need shoes to swim in a pool. But I might need them to sneak a little walking or racquetball or some other exercise disguised as fun. This is a very delicate arrangement, I don’t want to frighten my good intentions.  These are the shoes, they’re far more gaudy than any pair of shoes I’ve ever bought in my life, my footwear exists in the spectrum from Doc Martens to sensible Mary Janes.

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After swimming, it was off to the kind of meeting that makes you wish you were having a root canal instead. For two hours. Lord help me. Save us from people who refuse to be reassured and offer nothing in the way of solution or support.

And I didn’t even get paid for those two hours lost forever from my life, on my birthday no less– it was all part of a volunteer gig. On the other hand I was the youngest person in the room. That gives me faith that 53 is not all that old, and that there are still plenty of years ahead for me to make trouble.

After the meeting, a late lunch with a friend. The white tablecloth restaurant where we hoped to go had closed for lunch, so we ended up at Panera, but that was alright, I had a favorite salad and it was delicious. My friend gave me this wonderful birthday card, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Inside it says “You’re just a few clicks past thirty.”

 

bostonbdayI would have lingered longer but I had to go pick up my son.

At home, there were birthday cards– one, from my father’s widow, had a generous check enclosed. There was an odd shaped package from my mother, which turned out to be a tall object resembling an umbrella stand.  We don’t think it truly is an umbrella stand, but it has found a place in the hallway and I like it.

Earlier, on our way to the closed restaurant, I passed by the windows of a shop I had only seen from the car. I’d always thought it was a high end gift shop– you know, home of the $40 paperweight. But walking by the window I saw on a shelf a figure of a dog, but I hadn’t had time to check it out before going home. So, it’s my birthday, right, I’ll indulge myself a little.

Back to the shop, and it is chock full of interesting stuff, shiny baubles and costume jewelry and beautiful French wrapping paper. The dog figure is only ten dollars, but it looks like the head of a mastiff on the body of a hound, so I pass on that, but pause over a number of bracelets, inspect some marked down Christmas ornaments and buy some French wrapping paper. It’s a place I’ll go back to, I’m only sorry it took me so long to go in the first time.

From there to the weird hum of the Goodwill outlet, where I found a blue plaid wool blanket, a poster from a Grand Funk Railroad tour, a first edition of LeRoy Neiman’s Art and Lifestyle, an interesting Melmac tray and a Magnajector. This is a Magnajector.

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From Goodwill to the grocery store, and flush with the unexpected birthday check, I splurge on steaks for us. And a ganache-covered torte to serve as birthday cake.

Birthday dinner, then was sublime. More relaxed than any restaurant and you could go back for seconds. No candles on the torte and no singing (that may have been a misstep) but the cake was awesome.

It was nearly midnight before I sat down to check the computer. There were emails. A couple of texts. Some Facebook messages . . . and more than 150 posts wishing me a happy birthday. Some of them so perfect as to be gifts all in themselves.

Like this one.

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And this one from my friend, Terri, quoting Byron.

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And this one from my pal Mark, noting my return to the water.

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What gift could be better than messages like those from friends like that?

And then I found out all kinds of interesting things about the number 53.

  • It’s the number of an incredible scenic highway in New Mexico.
  • 53 is a prime number.
  • It’s the code for direct-dial calls to Cuba, a place I desperately want to visit.
  • 53 is the racing number for Herbie the Love Bug.
  • The Daily Mail says that 53 is when middle age begins.
  • At 53, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony
  • Sidney Sheldon began writing his first novel at 53.
  • Robert E. Peary reached the North Pole at age 53, and that’s how old Walter Hunt was when he invented the safety pin.
  • 53-year-old playwright Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia.
  • Sue Monk Kidd published her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, at– yep, 53.
  • The atomic number of Iodine is 53. In it’s gaseous state, it’s violet, like the cardigan I’m wearing in the photo above, taken on my 53rd birthday. It is present in ocean water, as I too, would so like to be. But the Egyptian-inspired pool at the Y will have to be a close second.
  • The character of the Grinch (who stole Christmas) is 53.

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As is Dewey Largo, who in the episode of The Simpsons that I just happened to watch on the night of my 53rd birthday, sings “My country ’tis of thee, my job is misery. Life disappointed me, I’m 53 . . . .”

(I think I aged better than Mr. Largo.)

 

Here’s what I know: you are responsible for your own happiness. I had a wonderful happy birthday, because I decided that I would have a wonderful happy birthday. Many, many people, friends and family alike, helped make it even happier. But from the time I got up in the morning I decided to celebrate the day like the present it was.

Today I am still eating birthday cake. Lucky girl.

A Second Cup of Tea

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Last year, I decided that I wanted something different for the new year– not resolutions which seemed doomed to failure and designed to inspire self-loathing– but something else, a kind of “to do” list. Not a bucket list, with its solemn life-changing scope, something smaller. What I came up with was a “tea-cup list“.

On the original list, there were 15 items. I achieved 7 of them:  I did renew my passport and I did leave the country. I bought a kitchen torch, I took Ransom to the beach, I spent more time with friends. I threw away my old tired undies, I explored more, I kissed more.

But the living room ceiling is still without gilt, I didn’t get to Kitty Hawk, I haven’t been riding, though I did take a carriage in Central Park.  I didn’t take the train to the Library of Congress, and I didn’t find a place to swim.  The fireplace still needs tile, and I haven’t learned to make a pie crust– though I found a restaurant in West Milton, Ohio that makes the most wonderful pie, so maybe I can cross that off instead. I am not writing five days a week and that does vex me.

I still want to get to all of those things, but they won’t make this year’s list.  Oh, perhaps you will catch a glimpse of one or two here or there.  But it is a new year and I have new things, and new-old things I want to try. And as with last year’s, I post these not because I think you have any particular interest in how I plan to make my year, but in hope that it may inspire you to make plans for some fun of your own.

 

Tea for 2015

1.  Two finished chapters by March 1.

I’ve been spinning my wheels on this long enough. The research is always fun, but the weight of what I need to do has begun to tax me. It’s time to get those chapters written, the outline polished, the pitch made perfect. In March I want to begin to sell the book.  (And while this sounds a bit like a resolution and I am resolved to make it happen, it is finally, a gift to myself to move forward.) 

 

2.  French doors to the study.

There are two sets of vintage French doors in the garage. And a five-foot wide opening into my study through which sail dogs, husband, children and the like. I love my family, truly, but if I can’t close the door, they interrupt, and if they interrupt I don’t get any work done. See item 1. 

 

3.  Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is safe, thank God. I had planned to go and visit when it was in danger of being raffled off to cure the city’s bankruptcy.  The imminent threat has been abated, but I still want to get to the Motor City to explore restaurants and make photographs of another great American city and poke around the art museum and see my friends Ed and Jerry over there in Windsor. 

 

4.  A few nights at the Elizabeth City Bed & Breakfast

When the Wrights went to the Outer Banks to try their Flyer, the train took them to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They stayed in the Southern Hotel there while waiting for the weekly freight boat to Kitty Hawk. The Southern is long gone, but the quaint and charming Elizabeth City B & B is in an old inn that was the Southern’s contemporary. I think there’s a pillow there with a mint on it for me. 

 

5.  Chincoteague

I want to go and see the ponies. It’s not so far. 

 

6.  Finish early

This one is even more like a resolution, but my relationship with deadlines is a toxic one. It makes me anxious and cranky, and I could just be a lot kinder to myself by not letting it go so long. I will try. 

 

7.  Swim nearly every day.

What a luxury, and one within the realm of possibility. I would not have modified it to “nearly”, and could have planned to swim every day but I know my own life well enough that my best hope is four or five days a week. 

 

8.  Hang every picture in the house. On freshly painted walls.

I have many wonderful paintings and photographs and the like that are stacked in closets and up against walls and packed in boxes. It’s time to hang them so I can enjoy them. Some of the walls need a new coat of paint first. I’ve got the paint, I just need to set aside the time to make it happen.

 

9.  Rookwood Pottery. A single tile. 

Rookwood Pottery is functioning again. I told my husband I’d like a bear for my birthday. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. But really I’d like to go and look at tiles and see them made and perhaps buy just one, and use that one splendid tile for the focus of the surround that the living room fireplace has needed since we moved in. Eight years ago. 

 

10.  Go to the zoo and visit the lions.

I love the lions at the Cincinnati Zoo. There are new cubs. It’s not so far, nor so expensive. I just like to sit quietly and watch, it’s good for the soul.  I’ve never been sorry to spend an afternoon there. 

 

11.  Have a lobster roll.

My most favorite food. I don’t know where I’ll get this lobster roll. It doesn’t seem all that likely I’ll get to the Maritimes two summers running. But maybe. Revere Beach is closer. And if it comes down to brass tacks, I’ll make one for myself. 

 

12.  Resurrect the Suburban.

Poor Suburban, our work truck, gasping for fuel, the front passenger seat torn asunder where the dog lost his mind one afternoon. There’s a spot on the roof with a bit of rust. It’s sat in the driveway so long now that the remote won’t work. But it wouldn’t take so much to put it all to right, and once again have a rig that will carry sheet rock, plywood, garden soil, straw bales, dog crates, storage tubs and furniture. I miss it, I miss sitting a bit higher than the rest of the traffic. I miss its limousine qualities. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to bring it back. 

 

13.  Winnow

Like everybody, I’ve got too much stuff. Some of this stuff I don’t even really like. It’s time to pitch it. Ditto the spices I’ve been carrying around since I was a sophomore in college. The shoes I will never ever wear again. Some of the ways I squander my time. Friends who aren’t friends. Clothes that make me feel self-conscious. Books that I haven’t read and won’t read or those I’ve read once and won’t ever read again. Music I don’t like. VHS tapes.

 

14.   Go to the movies.

I like the movies. There’s a first run cinema here where you can see them for five dollars a pop on Wednesdays. I just need to make a point to go. I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie in a theater. It might have been a decade ago.

 

15.  Keep being grateful.

This autumn I made a point to count my blessings– three a day for a hundred days. I’ve finished that exercise and it was a good one. I’m so very glad I did it, even though I’m –um– grateful that I no longer have to do it such a formal fashion. But it did change me in a profound way. I learned to look for the silver lining, to note the things that made me feel happy or joyous or content instead of just letting those slide.  The glass is more beautiful when it is half full.

 

 

To a Former Student of My Father’s

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A few weeks ago, an email arrived out of the blue from a former student of my father’s. My father, dead now nine years next week. In this unexpected missive were recollections of my father’s enthusiasm for 18th century poetry and the way he laughed. He did have a wonderful manner of laughing. It’s said that you die two deaths. One when you draw your last breath, the other when someone speaks your name for the last time– and thus my father, Larry Vonalt (January 10, 1937 – December 26, 2005) lives on.

Dear David,

Thanks for your note. I’ve been meaning to answer it since it arrived, but time has a way of zipping past regardless of one’s intentions. I can’t imagine what you found on Google– but I haven’t been 40 for some time. I went to Florence O. Stillman and Wilbert Snow Schools in Middletown and have vivid and mostly happy memories of living in Connecticut.

Though I know well his enthusiasm for 18th c. poetry, Dad’s interests later tilted more towards the Moderns and after– Eliot and Pound, and then Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman. I sat in his senior seminar in poetry the summer of 1972– and remember some 40 years later that two poems covered that day were Anne Sexton’s “Woman with a Girdle” and “Flee on Your Donkey.”

Dad spent 1971 (’72? one of those) — on sabbatical trying to write a book about John Berryman. It was the same year that Berryman died– but he didn’t finish it and as a result didn’t apply for tenure at Wesleyan. My mother fell in love with a British physician and she and I left the country in the autumn of 1972.

When he was dying of laryngeal cancer in 2005, Dad asked me to clean out his office at the University of Missouri at Rolla and I found drawer after drawer of material on Berryman– each poem had a file an inch thick. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote (having been robbed of speech by that time) “Pitch it.”
I didn’t, of course, I couldn’t– and instead carted it home like a very heavy cautionary tale.

The way he let me know that the cancer treatment had failed was to ask me, by email, if I wanted his poetry books. (Because of course, I already had copies all my own.) When we buried his ashes at a cemetery in New Harmony, Indiana I read aloud at graveside the last stanza of “Little Gidding” from a first edition of Four Quartets, (“We shall not cease from exploration . . . .”) and then I carefully tore the page from the book and placed it in the little vault (bigger than a bread box? barely) with what remained of him.

He would be very pleased to know that you turned out to be a poet. I tried for years to not be a writer. I mean, I worked at not being a writer, even going so far as to take a degree in art. But I allowed myself a few poems, and then somehow I became the protege of Howard Nemerov. After my shoebox filled up with rejection slips from all the best houses and journals, I gave it up in entirety. (Marriage and children and a career in journalism contributed to the fall, I’m sure.)

I still miss my father every single day.

Thanks for writing. Enjoyed the couplet.

Larkin

 

Into the Dark

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I looked at death tonight. I’d like to say I examined it like you would a textile, holding the weight of it in your hand, feeling the surface. But of course, it wasn’t like that.  No one touches death, we only picture it until it embraces us.

It was more like admiring something in a catalog and thinking “I wonder how that would be. What would it be like to try that on? Is it too expensive?”

In my twenties, I used to think about suicide on a fairly regular basis. I’d imagine the aftermath. I’d consider it as a solution, but not for long. If you’re thinking about the “after” you’re only kicking the tires. For a month or so, when I was 26, I slipped way below the surface and really thought I wanted to die. I was in so much pain that I didn’t see the point in going on living.

Luckily I had health insurance. Because I had health insurance, I had a psychiatrist, a good one, who kept me alive by making me sign a contract every day that I would not kill myself before I saw him the next day.

I don’t have a psychiatrist anymore.

But this evening, I looked at death again. And I didn’t think about “after.” I looked at it like one looks at a deep dark pool. Some alternative state. And what I thought is this: it would be so nice to rest.  This would stop all of the things that are hammering in my brain. The last box to tick on the last to-do list.

I have too much on my plate.

I am supposed to be writing a book. I haven’t done a damn thing for it since October. That inattention weighs me down. I have been busy with volunteer efforts. I have been busy helping friends. I have been busy spinning my wheels. The days start and end in the dark.

When I tell my friends that I am out of hope, they suggest chocolate. They say they feel the same.

At my house, the television goes constantly. My husband is wonderful in many ways, but he starts the day with “Paternity Court” and falls asleep on the sofa to “Rachel Maddow” on Tivo. I am not in the same room with it, but I hear it throughout the house. A friend of mine used to share the complaint– her husband had a particular fondness for “The Price is Right.”  When her husband died last winter, “The Price is Right” was on across the room.

Our twenty-year-old son lives with us. He’s a good kid, but he and his father can’t communicate.  As a result my husband nags me all day every day about the things he wants Julian to do, since direct communication  between the two of them so often ends in shouting.

Every plaint, every pundit, the queries by phone and email, the tasks left undone, each of them another stone in my pocket.

Today I met a friend for lunch. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was out of sync, not quite keeping up. Afterwards, alone, I sat in the car in a parking lot in silence. For twenty-five minutes, just staring out at the December sky. I felt strange. I ran some errands, picked up dog food and toilet paper.

Driving home through the city streets, I didn’t even feel like I was in the car. I felt like I was in some other place, perched on a diving board, my toes curled around the edge.

And then I came home. And the television was on and the dogs swirled around me. In the kitchen, my husband notes that I have tears in my eyes. I just nod. I don’t know why I’ve been crying. I don’t know why I feel so down. I don’t know why I feel so tired. I only know that I’ve been into the dark and out again.

 

 

No Thanks.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 1.11.05 AM It’s my least favorite holiday.  I don’t think I really knew that, or even examined the question fully until today, but the verdict is clear. I’d rather just skip Thanksgiving. I believe that the grateful life is a healthy life, and that counting one’s blessings is a worthy use of time. I’ve made it Day 73 (so far) of delineating three different things I’m thankful for each and every day for a hundred days. It’s not that. I am grateful.

But this holiday . . . this holiday gets me down.

I was an only child and we lived 800 miles away from extended family.  In Ohio, my great Aunt Della was famous for her thanksgiving feasts. But I was never a guest there. I remember fish fries in the summer, and sauerbraten and homemade noodles,  and at Christmas the fudge she used to send through the mail. But I never had a chance to bow my head for prayer at her Thanksgiving table.

Nor at my Nana’s house in South Carolina. I’m sure there were Thanksgiving traditions there, but I don’t know what they were. I couldn’t even speculate. I know the fried chicken and the green beans and the macaroni and cheese and the pound cake. But Thanksgiving? I haven’t a clue.

I do remember one childhood Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend:  roast goose,  Asti Spumante, Doberman Pinschers nosing around my lap for whatever I might slip them.

Then, a divorce, and we moved to England, where Thanksgiving is some foreign holiday, and the fourth Thursday in November passes without comment.  Later, in Canada, we again had Thanksgiving, but it’s the second Monday in October, celebrating the harvest and somehow cleaner, without the  bloodied history of European interaction with tribal nations. (Not that Canada doesn’t have it’s own brutal history, it’s just not that history.)

To Boston for college, and a hasty marriage one morning just prior to Christmas.  The month before my mother and stepfather came to visit for Thanksgiving,  but Bob was due for an extended family gathering at his grandmother’s house on the north shore. We delivered him there, met everyone, shook hands all around and left. Later, Bob said,  his sweet grandmother felt terrible for not asking us to join them, she’d been so flustered, there was plenty of food. But we went away and drove along the Massachusetts coast until we found someplace open. A dining room that looked out over the cold gray sea, where I ate tinned chowder and cringed under my stepfather’s harangue at not being asked to stay.

Of course, I was also rebuked for not taking more time off to be with them; but working in retail there were no days off the weekend after Thanksgiving, and we could be sure that those days were going to be utter hell.

Mind you, Thanksgiving itself is big business in Boston. Plimoth Plantation, which was developed around the site of the original colony has been a major tourist draw since 1947. It tries to present a picture of both the immigrant and indigenous cultures and you can still eat “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner” there for $93. Each. (Or $68, if you want to re-enact the 1621 dinner with  “A Sallet, Mussels Seeth’d with Parsley and Beer, a Dish of Turkey, Sauc’d, a Pottage of Cabbage, Leeks & Onions, and a Sweet Pudding of Native Corn.”)

Set off for Montana on my own some years later and I remember weeping when they played “American the Beautiful” on the radio.  Amber waves of grain, purple mountain’s majesty, fruited plains– yes! Finally, a place where Thanksgiving meant a connection to the earth.

Reality was that I married a lovely man with two young daughters. Every holiday was a cause for a fight with his ex-wife over where the girls would land, and Thanksgiving was no different. If we had them for Thanksgiving, we missed Christmas morning. And it wasn’t up to us to decide.

But working at a newspaper there in Montana I helped create the most rewarding Thanksgiving I’d experienced. While doing a human interest story on Meals on Wheels, we discovered that they didn’t deliver on Thanksgiving. Restaurants weren’t open on Thanksgiving. If you had nowhere to go that last Thursday in November, you were out of luck.

So we set about hosting an all-volunteer free Thanksgiving dinner for the community, citing of course, the communal nature of that first Thanksgiving. My friend Sheryl cooked the 90 turkeys on the rotating racks of her enormous bakery oven. The head chef from a nearby resort came to organize the kitchen. Food poured in, money poured in, volunteers came out in droves. No one was asked to prove their need. They only needed to want to be there with all of us. The District Judge gave the opening prayer. We fed 700 people.

The next year, we did it again. My father and his wife were on hand for that one, and again, it went splendidly. The next night, over dinner in Livingston’s best restaurant, my father lit into me for my lack of self-discipline. When I tried to defend myself (“I write 5000 words a week for publication, Dad. That takes some self-discipline”) he roared at me that he wanted some respect. I got up and walked out, happy Thanksgiving.

We did the Community Thanksgiving Dinner until 2001, when the events of 9-11 tapped out everyone’s last dime for charity. There was not enough money, or energy leftover to give locally.

Years later, we came home one winter evening to find three turkeys standing in the driveway. Live turkeys. They looked a bit like wild turkeys, but turned out to be Bourbon Reds that belonged to the neighbors. We were welcome to them, the neighbors said.

Apparently they’d acquired 4 turkey chicks in the spring and named them Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter. Apparently “Thanksgiving” had put up such a ruckus at becoming the centerpiece of the holiday meal, the neighbors had lost interest in going through all that again.

Turkeys are funny animals.  These three– two toms and a hen– liked to sit on the ridge line of the  barns, or atop the chimneys like storks.  They slept in the barn at night, bedding down in the straw with the ponies.  They’d greet you in the morning and run to meet the car when we came home in the afternoon. They would cluck and coo and gobble as they made their way around the farm.

One day Edward the dog got loose and caught and savaged the two toms. I wanted to kill him, I really did. I was ready to load him up and head for the veterinarian. My son Julian, then about 8, wept and pleaded and argued Edward’s case until I gave in. I picked up the poor beleaguered carcasses, wrapped them in a sheet and set them in the back of the pick-up. I knew my husband would put them in the green dumpsters; there’s no burying anything in the Montana winter.

The hen mourned. I would watch her sitting alone on the barn roof. She wouldn’t go inside anymore. She turned away from the grain I brought her. With temperatures predicted to plunge to 20 below, I brought her into the mudroom of the house. She threw herself against the door. I let her out. In the morning I found her frozen to death in the snow.

It was a long time before I could face the carcass of a turkey on a platter. The next Thanksgiving we had a rib roast.

Late in August of 2005 my father came to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to recover from laryngeal cancer. In the inexorable march over the next three months he scheduled people to come and visit. We sent an email– offering to travel from Montana to Missouri for Thanksgiving, thinking one last chance to do this right– but our offer was refused. He’d already scheduled his wife’s son Michael and Michael’s family for Thanksgiving instead. Absent was any message of inclusion. He died the day after Christmas.

Two years later we moved to Ohio,  and finally we had a shot at a real Thanksgiving with extended family– my 90-something-year-old grandmother, aunt and uncles. their families gathered at my uncle’s house. One year I brought the sublime macaroni and cheese I’d learned how to make from my southern Nana, and no one touched it.

But for the most part, these were happy gatherings, with pickles and noodles and turkey and ham and salads and a kid’s table and plenty of wine and conversations that went on long into the night. Then my grandmother died, and we met only one more time for the holiday.  This year my Uncle tells me that the main event at his house is a “quarter pound mixed-meat hot dog and curly fries.” He did have cranberry juice for breakfast.  I tell him that we need to be better organized.

We had a quiet thanksgiving here. We weren’t in the mood to cook, and the oven is broken anyway. We thought we’d just get by with burgers today. But the burger place was closed. You can’t buy a burger on Thanksgiving, but you can buy a big screen television. Or an iPad. Or whatever Macy’s and Kohl’s and Target is selling; the hordes out there trampling each other for deals hours after being grateful for what they already have.

Thanksgiving is marked at our house this year with bacon and eggs and hash-browns. Perhaps it’s better to just be thankful every day and never mind the rest of it.