Friday, December 3, 2010

Have I Outgrown Charlotte and Wilbur?

My new perspective on Charlotte's Web.

        The world is a much different place than it was in 1952 when E. B. White’s children’s story, Charlotte’s Web, was first published.
         I am different too.
         I am a lot older, sixty-one-years old instead of three. I don’t worry about monsters in my closet. I am married and have raised three children of my own. My parents, who read Charlotte’s Web to me many times in the Fifties, are both long gone. Many of my contemporaries have passed on as well.
Does this mean I have outgrown one of my favorite bedtime stories as well? Are Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig no longer relevant to my world or me?
           I should answer yes. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White’s novel, is after all, a children’s story. But denying the two famous friends a current place in my heart or at the 21st Century’s table makes my stomach turn and my head cringe. I have opened this book many times since growing up. Not to read it to my children, mind you. Our youngest left home a decade ago. Not to read to my grandchildren either--I might when the time comes but I don’t have any yet. No, I still read Charlotte’s Web because I love the story. It draws me in as an adult even more than it did when my children or I were young…for almost as many reasons as there are strands on a spider’s web.

            First off, I love farms. Growing up I was quite familiar with them. I never lived on one but there was a farm next door to my parents’ home. Even though we lived in the suburbs our neighbors raised unusual cattle and beautiful horses. More than anything else in the world I wanted a farm of my own so I could ride horses. I also visited relatives at their farms in Iowa. The small family ones, like the Arable’s and the Zuckerman’s, were especially magical. I love the fact that farmers never left Mother Earth for more complicated pursuits. I love a farm’s simplicity, its honesty and its unadorned necessity. Our culture longer needs horses and buggies or wood-burning stoves or LP records…but it does need farms. I love the animals and the crops--that farmers can fix a dinner merely by walking outdoors and picking it from the garden; the self-sustaining independence of this. Farms and their barns are a part of our heritage that is as important now as it has always been. Barns “often had a sort of peaceful smell--as thought nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.”

            I also like Charlotte’s Web because I am a sucker for friendship and friendship is a very important element in this story. Wilbur “realized that friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.” Like Wilbur, I only had a couple friends growing up. Unlike Wilbur, when my friends moved on to other interests like Fern Arable does, I didn’t really have anyone in the rafters…no egg sacks in my future…to fill the void.
           For a while it didn’t really matter--I was busy with college, then marriage and then with raising my family. But when my children left home it occurred to me there was a void in my life. My husband’s habit had long been to bury himself neck deep in his career so I tried to bury myself in mine. I took courses to advance in my field with all sorts of framed certificates to show for them. I got involved in community service--won all kinds of leadership awards. Then I gave classes in my field and was very much in demand. I traveled and I visited my children. My calendar was packed! But at the end of the day--in the dark of my bedroom--I was miserable.
           Finally, I realized the way to fill this void was with people--not awards to put on a bookcase, not meetings to attend and not places to visit. Even though my head said this was a crazy idea--that most folks I knew already had plenty of friends--my heart said otherwise. Not that anyone needed me but that I needed them. “After all,” Charlotte says, “What’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. By helping …perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.’”
           Unsure of my own value as a friend, it was still my goal to approach potential friends indiscriminately--with no regard for what they might offer me in return. I had a simpler calling--to seek out potential soul mates, as unnerving as that was because I was like Wilbur, a lowly pig that meant “less than nothing” to a barnyard goose.
            A funny thing happened with all this. I learned I was not the only person who needed friends. My efforts were almost instantly rewarded--the people I befriended came back at me by leaps and bounds--because they, too,were lonely! I haven’t wound up with five hundred and fourteen friends like Wilbur did when Charlotte’s babies arrived but the friends I made bring smiles to my face at the end of each day.

             And this is important because friendship is one of the few things that survive death. Death is everywhere in Charlotte’s Web. That life is temporary dominates from the very first sentence. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Fern asks her father.
             I am not impressed with children’s stories that speak so blatantly about death. Bambi comes to mind as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But unlike many other children’s stories, White offers alternatives and hope. There is Fern who saves Wilbur from the ax. There is, of all characters, a rat named Templeton who helps save Charlotte from Avery’s capture. There is, of course, Charlotte who saves Wilbur with her brilliant writing and there is Wilbur who saves Charlotte’s babies. All this is done in the name of friendship.

              Life on a farm is not for the weak. Not for runts like Wilbur who “will never amount to anything.” Poor Wilbur is perhaps more preoccupied with death than any other character in the story. Repeatedly he says things like “Do you really think Zuckerman will let me live and not kill me when the cold weather comes? Do you really think so?” And yet Wilbur, the runt, not only lives but succeeds in accepting that we all die sometime.
             Charlotte also sensed her clock ticking…“knew she didn’t have much time” though she deals with it in a more mature manner than Wilbur. Her hours were limited not just for convincing the Zuckerman’s of Wilbur’s value before they butchered him but for creating her “magnum opus”  before she died. She says to Wilbur, “‘I guess I feel sad because I won’t ever see my children.’” White tells us that it is okay to be sad but not to dwell on it. “‘You’re carrying on in a childish way,’ Charlotte says to Wilbur. ‘Stop your crying! I can’t stand hysterics.’”
              No one can avoid the end of life. Even “the crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever…the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” Like the stalwart spider, we cannot wallow in self-pity but should pick ourselves up and carry on. And, Wilbur does. He goes from being a whiny and insecure piglet to a confident and caring pig that worries more about others (such as Charlotte’s babies) than himself. He has grown up and, as a result, “he was never without friends…and life in the barn was very good--night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall. ”

               Finally, it is the large themes in White’s story--the universal truths he relates--that lead me to keep it on my bookshelf.
               On the precariousness of friendship Wilbur says, “‘What a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty--everything I don’t like.’ Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend.”
              On growing up, Mrs. Arable says, after “the children…danced off…toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure and the wonderful excitement, into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard them and guide them. ‘Well, they’ve got to grow up some time.’”
               And, on miracles Dr. Dorian tells Mrs. Arable, “Oh, no, I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
Just like life itself, a miracle is to be celebrated, to be danced about, to be wondered over and appreciated for everything it offers. Especially friends.

               Charlotte’s Web is not just a classic children's story, it is a literary classic. What defines this is, of course, debatable and subjective but, for me, it is a work that holds a great appeal for adults as well as children. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Red Pony, Charlotte’s Web holds this appeal because it is written from the heart--simply and honestly. White presents the emotions of fear, love, joy and loneliness in a way the whole world can embrace. He presents the struggles of growing up, of accepting mortality and of remaining loyal to our friends even in our darkest hours in a way that is not frightening but beautiful. He shows me that miraculous changes take place when we overcome these struggles. Most importantly Charlotte’s Web has held this appeal for generations, which brings me once more to my opening question.
Have I outgrown Charlotte’s Web?
                  Certainly I am much different than I was in 1952 and so is my world. Instead of the spreading influence of television we have the Internet; instead of rampant posterity spoiling us we have home foreclosures breaking our hearts and our bank accounts; instead of snuggling in a chair with a printed newspaper or magazine we hold e-readers while we ride a subway or stand in line; instead of watching ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ as a family we put the kids to bed and watch ‘Cougar Town.’
Yet, in spite of all this change, we still marry and raise children. Our children grow up and look forward to the day when they can venture out on their own. We still have farms and pigs and spiders. We have not devised a potion that allows us to live forever. We still face meanness and greed around every other corner. But, like Wilbur, we also see miracles taking place every day. Hopefully we have learned to recognize them.
               That is why the message of Charlotte’s Web will never get old. It is a message that holds meaning for young and old. I have not outgrown Charlotte and Wilbur and I hope I never do. To the contrary I would urge every adult to read this story to every little one in their life as many times as that child will listen.
               Let that child bond with Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern and even with Templeton; let him hear White’s words of wisdom; let him feel the rhythm of those words and appreciate the depth of metaphor and let him embrace the truisms our entire world. Let him learn about the simplicity of farm life, sense the urgency of mortality, but know the miracle of a spider’s web. It is the only way, I fear, that this world of ours will redeem itself.
               Lastly, let that child come to love a good book and the way it takes us out of the moment in order that we can better appreciate that moment. Our world is moving much too fast--some would say it is spinning out of control. Charlotte tells Wilbur, “They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they’d…wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no--with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute.” If Charlotte thought her world was rushing past, what would she think of ours?
              As his elder Charlotte taught Wilbur the value of love, loyalty and friendship. Wilbur passed that torch to her 514 babies. It’s been our turn ever since.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Removing Chaff--Not So Easy

 I had a bumper crop of anise this year. 

The lacy-leafed bush that I grow as much for the monarchs it attracted one season as for its seeds. Sadly, the pudgy, iridescent green caterpillars have never returned to frolic amongst the sea-green gossamer that looks as though it would be equally happy submerged in some land-locked lake.

Monarchs or no monarchs, my anise bush has flourished. No matter, the birds like the seeds.

This year I harvested some seeds taking care to leave a fair amount for the goldfinches. I dried the seeds on a tray in my kitchen for a week, along with their fibrous leaves and delicate stems. Then it was time to get biblical-- to separate the wheat from the chaff.  
Oh what fragrance filled my kitchen! Reward enough for my efforts thus far.

The next task was not difficult but it was time consuming. I gently crunched the dry heads between my fingers and, with tiny tinkles, the seeds fell to the tray. So did many of the broken stems. As I have great plans to include the anise seeds in a Christmas cookie recipe, the stems had to go. This was when the clock seemed to stop ticking.
Finally I had removed enough of the stems to sift the remaining pile through a strainer. Of course some stubborn stems determined to offer up extra crunch to my cookies wound up amongst the seeds and these I removed as well.

I find myself removing lots of sticks and stems from my days as well. I am increasingly aware of the limit to my days. The pressure to make them as fruitful as possible overwhelms me at times. I should relax--should enjoy the extra time I have post retirement. But I cannot. I have so many miles to travel before I sleep.

Unlike my effort with the anise seeds, this task is difficult. It requires that I give equal attention to my passions and to the significant people in my life---not necessarily an inclusive equation.  To balance them fairly means to eliminate some of the chaff that has accumulated. I can see that there might be pain associated with this elimination process. I encountered none with my little anise seed project.

I haven’t resolved it yet but my sanity will soon demand that I get started. There are only twenty-four hours in each day. I need to simplify my life so as to have quality time to pursue my favorites. Sounds like an internet thing…my favorites.

Meanwhile the leaves are tumbling outside my bay window--delicate reminders that the seasons are changing. That summer will soon be a memory.

I gathered an entire spice jar of seeds today and now I’m thinking I won’t ever get to baking those cookies. That would be only adding chaff to the wheat of my life.

I’m glad I left some seeds for the birds. They may be the only ones who benefit from my fragrant anise bush.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Harding's Tinkers and My Mortality

I cannot imagine anything more unsettling than contemplating that day when I will no longer be a physical part of this world. Worse than that, though, has to be George Washington Crosby’s plight in Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers. It opens with him in his living room on a rented hospital bed, eight days away from death. And yet both George, and his poet father Howard, has given me reason and strength to open and re-read the pages of my own mortality.
George is desperate to “look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end”. He has always been a responsible, analytical and organized man. Sadly, not only is he helpless to control the order of his memories but all of them have shifted in so many different ways that what he sees is a “different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”  And since control and precision were huge priorities for George the novel opens with him hallucinating about a “torrent of (window) panes (that) would drive everyone from the room…(leaving him) marooned on his bed in a moat of shattered glass.”              
Safe, yes, but also alone.
I would guess that those last hours of life are unsettling for as many reasons as there are persons experiencing them. I think of the differences between a priest, a burglar, a mother and a child. Their thoughts on their deathbeds, if they recognize them as such, have to be vastly different. But certainly our need to comprehend what happens next is a universal concern. Does death mean we have forever lost our connections to the only life we’ve ever known? The people we love? Do we merely become “a ghost, almost made of nothing”? Or, is there a way …a promise, a hope…that we will still remain connected but perhaps not in a way we recognize?
For Kathleen, George’s mother, the “nearly martial ordering of her household is, in fact, the love she is so terrified that she does not have.” Likewise for George, a builder of solid homes and a repairer of fine clocks, abandoning his family in death--exposing them to the whims of nature and “intrepid squirrels”  just as his father and grandfather had abandoned their families--is tantamount to forsaking their love. It is a loss that both George and his quixotic father, Howard, dread.  And it is their coping with that dread, trying to make sense of its pain that not only permeates this beautiful story but also draws me to want to read it over and over.
My own father, an alcoholic, left my mother, my siblings and me when I was the same age as George. He did not leave us physically but like Howard, “The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.”  It is heart wrenching to read how George and Howard deal with their loss but, at the same time, it is comforting. It connects me to them.

Throughout his work, Harding juxtaposes dreams and reality and light and shadows in ways that create tension to the point of frustration. I found the tension not only within the story but also within myself as I read. Harding very effectively nurtures this with his narrative mode. I might say it is simply stream of consciousness except that that implies a narration of primarily the characters’ interior monologues. Harding goes several steps further by throwing in a dizzying combination of dream sequences, epileptic seizures and lyrical soliloquies like a Summer evening of fireworks that are both stunning and enlightening but, at the same time, awesome in their frightful power. This tension pitted my chances of understanding Harding at the same desperate level as the characters’ attempts to make sense of their lives. I felt their pain because Harding nearly drowns us with it-- like the silt and water of Tagg Pond that encompasses Howard as he sits in it for a day and a night while searching for his father and for himself. By the end of the novel I, like George and Howard, craved a resolution that gives us all a sense of being re-connected with those we lost and those we love.

There are other juxtapositions throughout the story. There is Howard who basks in the unpredictable but beautiful wonders of nature and its demand that we endure its hardships. “…winter already sealing the country people in behind him.”  In contrast there is George, who venerates the precise and predictable mechanical world of clocks despite their demands that we maintain them and live within the boundaries of their minutes. “Eighty four hours before he died.” 
Howard received his poetic leanings from his minister father whereas George’s tendencies reflect his mother’s “stern manner and humorless regime.”  I loved them both because Harding makes them real--vulnerable yet capable of tremendous love. As I read, more than anything, I cheered for them. I waited for them to connect once more with each other, probably because I never really connected with my own father.

In the end both George who is “lamenting the loss of this world of light and hope” (23) and Howard whose “despair came from the fact that his wife saw him as a fool, as a useless tinker” (125) do find each other and this gives comfort to their final hours. Howard sees his shadow separate from himself and “his shadow dreamed just as he did for the reason that he could imagine himself to be a shadow of something--someone--else.”  I believe that someone is George, the son for whom Howard longed.            
As George’s last breaths escape, his face becomes almost like a clock, a sundial, and the shadows of time passing across it… (his body) “merely maintaining a pantomime of human life.” The real George, the ‘it’ which I took to also be his ‘shadow’, his soul, is plumbing “depths far, far from that living room”  and far from his family’s “own, human terrors about their own wases to the it, which is so nearly was that it will not or simply cannot any longer accept their human grief.”  He connects with his family and his ancestors on a level wholly different than a tinker might.
What happens is that George senses “finally, the foolishness of attributing the unknown to secret cabals”  He accepts that “Everything was almost always obscure”…that understanding shines “for no discernable reason.” For him it was okay, upon death, to lie down and get picked over and be “used to fix broken clocks,” to become a part of the solution. “This is how, finally, we were joined.”
Because, in the end, Tinkers is not just about finding fathers or about trying to understand either their precise, organized natures or their poetic ones. It is not about trying to accommodate the natural world to the mechanical one. It is not about trying to justify the forces that bring progress or those that hinder it. In the end, what Harding’s Tinkers is about individuals finding their connections with all those other worlds and, finally, with the ones they love.
I am not alone, I am certain, in wanting my family, my peers and, yes, even my ancestors, to appreciate me. It is important--it is the nature of being human.  Like Howard and George, I’d like to die knowing that the reflection of my life, my shadow, lives on after me and attaches itself to my loved ones so that as this process of shadows coming and going, extends itself through generations and “this alternating, interdependent series of lives (forms) a sort of intaglio” that lives on well after me.
It is uncanny how much Howard is like my father. He liked to tinker in his workshop, he was a salesman, he was a father and he was a poet. I often thought he would have been happier without the burden of his family. Unlike Howard and like George, my father stuck it out--but only in a physical sense. His sense of responsibility won out but it also frustrated him. There has always been a part of me that would like him to come back to this world, to re-connect with me on a spiritual level. To assure me that, with his drinking, he left my family not because of it, but because of him. Having read Tinkers, I am comforted to know his shadow already has.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time To Get Back

It has been raining for about seven hours--pouring really. Good day for writing except that this kind of weather definitely puts a different light on what ends up on the page--more like layers of shadow. Last night when I was unable to sleep I told myself I have to look for the positives. Not just the ones in the rain but in everything that is contributing to my unsettled mood.

So here goes:

**Rain is challenging when you have seven puppies to potty outdoors but it is good for the earth, the gardens and the rivers.

**Take pleasure in a clean floor instead of dreading how dirty it is and hard it will be to clean it.

**Focus on how far I've come in my writing instead of how far I have to go to come up with something decent.

**Remember that your true friends will take you for face value, not for an increase in their investment. If I return the favor to them what more is needed?

Olive Kitteridge**It hurts to consider that my mother likely didn't care for me. I was in good company, she didn't like herself much either.

I'm reading a good book, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. 
Olive is not very likeable. She is not handsome, is large, is 
opinionated and is domineering. A seventh grade math teacher, 
she moves about a small Maine town with authority and aplomb.

I had a nun in high school like that. Sister Veronita. She taught 'Current Events' and warned us all that the Middle East would be the end of us all. Almost every student in the school disliked her (my mother said never to use the word 'hate.' I liked her ...she was not afraid of anyone or what they thought. Sr. Veronita was, in 1967, one of the original feminists. Difficult for a nun, especially.

I like Olive and what she tells Julie towards the end of the book. "Go for what you hunger." (I'm paraphrasing, but it is close.) Julie does and it changes her life--or so we are led to believe.
I have a friend critiquing my current novel as I write it. I am doing the same for hers. One of the thinks she keeps saying is that she doesn't like my main character.

I think that might be a problem, unless I can make her more like Olive.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bel Canto is a rewarding read on so many levels I can't begin to cover them all. I think what stayed with me the longest is that it is about boundaries and barriers and about how people cross them (or ignore them) is what defines them.

The book opens at the end of a private performance by Roxanne Coss, a renowned opera soprano's, for a host of dignitaries at the lavish mansion of a South American vice-president in celebration of the birthday of Mr. Hosokawa. He was an opera fanatic and the founder and chairman of Japan's largest electronics corporation and the hope was that he would build a factory in the host company.

Bel CantoThe first boundary is crossed when the lights go out and the accompanist leans over and sneaks a 'strong and passionate' kiss onto Roxanne's lips and thereby crosses over, doing what 'all the men and women in the room...collectively' desire.

We soon learn the lights were extinguished by a band of marauding revolutionaries who look to kidnap the president who is not even in attendance at the event. A stalemate ensues that allows both the terrorists and the hostages opportunity to enjoy the music that Roxanne and others provide--a music that seems to cross the boundaries of the dangers present and unite everyone in a beautiful, harmonious existence.

Ann Patchett’s liquid language and unique tale about a likely but unlikely scenario as both the bad guys and the good guys become hostage to the rapture of music; hostages fall in love with their captors and untouchable opera divas fall in love with their admirers. It is as deceiving in its simplicity as it is simple in its message.

Bel Canto is a story about what constitutes barriers, what nourishes them and what happens on either side. There are many. First, there is the kiss. Then there is the wall that divides the mansion from the town--the dignitaries from the working class. There are the guns that separate the hostages from the renegades. There is the barrier of language among the 38 hostages and their captors. There are the barriers that the large corporations and governments put on their employees and citizens. There are the cultural barriers that forbid young female revolutionaries to fall in love with corporate interpreters; or, American opera stars to fall in love with Japanese CEOs; or, militant generals to teach chess to their teenage foot soldiers; or, entrepreneurs to play piano for militants. All of these are lyrically crossed.

Through it all we read about the beautiful music, which brings everyone together in appreciation and we come to love Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s interpreter, who brings everyone together in language.

But all this happens in a most unlikely world, a Camelot given temporary sustenance by circumstance--a dream that can never come true.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cormac McCarthy

      I am on a Cormac McCarthy kick lately. Have read The Road which I wanted to do before seeing the movie. He is a master with words--terse, unadorned style that even scorns the use of quotation marks. The Road is not even adorned with names for its characters--simply The Boy and The Father. Still, McCarthy is extremely readable. In this work the world, or at least our country, has been decimated--assumedly by a terrible war.  There are loving references to The Mother as The Father muses about the past. She was the first to succumb to the 'Bad Guys.' Now father and son are on the road struggling for survival, a warmer climate and a safe haven from just about every creature they encounter. It is a tender portrayal of love, an uplifting tale of fierce determination and a horrifying window into what could be.

        I've also finished McCarthy's first novel in his Border Trilogy--All The Pretty Horses. Same voice as well. A coming of age story about two boys who grow up in Texas on neighboring ranches in the forty's. Soon after they leave home seeking something greater than themselves they pick up a much younger boy--a mirror of themselves. Their journey brings them to the doorsteps of resentment, cruelty, greed and love and not all of them return home to talk about it.

       Cormac McCarthy was born in 1933, the third of six children, in Rhode Island. When he was four his parents moved to Knoxville TN where they continued to raise their children as Catholics. He was named Charles after his father but changed his name to Cormac ("Son of Charles") after the Irish King. Some say his parents actually changed his name. Not sure which is the case. He attended the University of Tennessee for two years then entered the Air Force for four. He returned to the University, published two stories in its literary magazine. In 1960 he moved to Chicago and worked as an auto mechanic while he wrote his first novel, "The Orchard Keeper," published in 1965 by Random House.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tears At The Counter

She was older than I and taller. Her hair was perfect and cropped short and stroked with silver as if from an ancient Chinaman's ink brush. She wore sweats--nicer ones. Her carriage was confident and edgy, as if she were set for a fight.

I was in Florida on vacation. At the supermarket the day before, a similarly confident woman dressed down the seafood counter clerk for the way he cut their swordfish. I was next in line.

“I’m from Connecticut,” she said to me. “They know how to cut their fish.”

I’m from Michigan, I thought. This is the only way I’ve seen swordfish cut.

“And I can’t believe you charge for your lemons,” she said to him and looked at me for approval.

“They’re free at Rhodes,” she said to me.

I snuck a wink to the clerk. “But the prices are higher there.”

The humble man simply thanked her for the observation and wrapped her purchase.

Now this woman at the vet threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin.

"What kind of dog is that?” she asked the clerk, pointing to the fluff of fur on my lap.

“Havanese,” the young girl said. “Isn’t she sweet?”

“She’s quite large for a Havanese,” the woman said and my eyes narrowed because the tone she used was sharp--just like the seafood customer’s--and I hoped I wasn’t going to witness another dressing down of a helpless sales clerk.

Because my Phoebe was actually small for her breed I looked at the woman a second time hoping for more reasons to dislike her. Her pants were the kind yoga students wear to the Y, not nice health clubs. And she was heavier than me. Huh, I thought.

The vet appeared from behind the counter and the phrases, “parvo,” “eleven weeks,” “kennel,” and “I’m so sorry,” pricked my ears. Huh, I thought.

The woman glanced over my head to a quietly distinguished man, maybe five years older, sitting in the corner holding a stack of printouts and an American Express card on his lap. She walked over to him and they passed these glances back and forth--glances of resignation and sadness. Then she handed him yet another printout.

“This is all about parvo,” she said. “In case we want to read it.”

Another series of silent glances.

“You need to go pay,” she said. “It's $800."

He walked to the counter and she turned to my dog.

“She’s very large for a Havanese.”

Still annoyed I said, “Actually she’s not.”

Discomfort passed between us. I didn't feel like being nice to her. Besides, I sensed asking about her dog would be even more awkward so I looked down at my Phoebe and scratched her ears.

“We had a cockapoo,” she said after a moment. “They just put her down.”

It was true.

That’s when I noticed that her fingers worked the handle of her purse clutched to her chest. Then I saw her eyes fill and suddenly this stranger and I were soul mates in the gentle cosmos of those who love our animals.

“How old?” I said.

“Eleven weeks.”

I thought about the puppy I'd lost a few years back. I'm a breeder and he was two days old. Cleft palate. Congenital, not contagious.

“I’m so very sorry,” I said.

Could she tell I was as sorry about my first impressions of her as I was about her loss?

“Thank you,” she said and I hugged Phoebe.

What did it matter if someone thought she was too big or too small?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Birth Day

Started my birthday out with a light breakfast and then yoga class. I know you are not supposed to think about anything during yoga. Still I thought about birth because is my birthday--61 years and counting. I thought about my niece who learned yesterday she'll deliver a little girl in May. Then I thought about my three daughters and my six siblings. Then the concept of birth and rebirth climbed into my head like a restless toddler. I fixated on that instead of my breathing.

Optimistically I have 1/3 of my life remaining--thirty years. Thirty years is a shorter time period than it was thirty years ago. At that time my oldest daughter was four years old...and we were less than halfway through the pregnancy of my second one with one more yet to be created. It's interesting to tick off the events--look back and remember Jenny, for instance. Her bounce of golden curls, her precocious temperament, her stubborn refusals, her loving kisses. Skipping down the sidewalk with her, crossing 'Jennifer's Way' to our next door neighbor's for tea or an afternoon sherry (they were quite British, you know). It seems like a different era altogether but my point is that thirty years is still a very long time. So, why the panic? Lots of weeks, months and years to decide what I want to do when I grow up.

So, in yoga I decided to declare this Birth Day a day for re-birth. A scary proposition since I haven't thought much about it until now. But also an exciting one. Expounding for a moment on the word 'birth' I came up with the following:

Tiny fingers and toes

Tiny green leaves




Birth: the completion of creation. A communion between a father and a mother, a grain of pollen and a stigma, a teacher and a student's mind, an artist and a palette of paint, a musician and a handful of notes--a heart and a soul--each giving part of themselves so that what they are can live on. 

Birth: the beginning of creation.


Happy Birth Day to me!