Archive for June, 2008

The Lovers’ tasks

June 29, 2008

A week ago, I went back to coastal Connecticut, where I grew up, to help move my grandfather into one room in a nursing home. My parents had already packed up his apartment, and all day we carried pieces of him out of the moving truck — the wooden stand he made for his ships’ clocks, the chronometer, small tables from his mother’s family, the brass bell two men had to carry.

He had already had to scale back, and the things he had left all belonged to him. I remember them in their places. We tried to come up with their stories, where they were made, what flea market he found them in, what craftsman in his city made them, all the time we were dispersing them.

My aunt brought the bed he had made for her, and them kept for her when she moved, into a guest room where she always sleeps. The posts scraped the ceiling, and we spent a hilarious half hour trying to find four places where the floor boards were low and the ceiling was high at the same time.

We brought his medical school microscope home for my sister. She and her boyfriend were packing up her first year med school dorm. The case has my grandfather’s name on it — Mister —. I’ve never seen it written out like that. He’s been a doctor since my mother was born.

My parents went to pick up my grandfather, then, and my brother and I took over a job that had been my grandfather’s all through our childhoods. We drove back to the city where he has lived all his life, through the archway on Wooster Street where the tricolore flies, and waited in line at Frank Pepe’s Pizzaria.

When we were kids, and my grandfather lived a short jog from there, he used to wait there for us, an hour or more at a time. He’s been coming to Pepe’s for 92 years, and he knew all the guys in the kitchen. We would sit on the counter, near the juke box, watching them deal slices of mozzarella onto the rounds of dough, and sometimes they would give us slices of cheese.

My brother and I sat on the window ledge in the lobby, breathing garlic and oregano every time the door opened, and waving the line in ahead of us. A team of teenage girls pased the window in basketball jerseys, eating lemon italian ices. We waited an hour or more.

My grandfather came in on my father’s arm. I sat on a bench next to him. He said, is your name Margaret?

It isn’t.

Then he said, you have a new job. I do. And he told us he had just learned that Margot is a German nickname for Margaret, and that Damariscotta, Maine, have gotten its name from Damaris cove.

He does still know me. He does still know that he loves us. When we had all gathered, and toasted, and stretched out dinner until my sister and her boyfriend made it through traffic (eat slowly, my mom said, as soon as the pizzas touched down), we all saw him home. And he told us so.

He told us stories about the paintings he still has, and the ship’s wheel, and the lamp he made from a lignum vitae dead-eye that came off the last Canadian wooden ship to challenge the American clippers. Her name was the Blue Nose.

And I had another post in mind when I sat down to write this one, about books and plots and making the risks real. But I wound up writing about my own instead. My grandfather looked after me, and gave me pretzels in his waiting room, with the elevator that had a diamond pane of glass in the door so you could watch the brick wall slide by. He got me into the Yale library, all through high school, and once into Beinike, so I could look at Papist tracts about Colonel Thomas Blood. He paid house calls and built wooden boats in his back yard and let me try his sextant for a science project.

He lives in a room slightly larger than my sister’s dorm room. As far as I know, he isn’t in pain. At 92, to be warm and dry and fed and loved is a great deal. I just don’t want him to be lonely.



June 15, 2008

It’s summer, and I have fallen headlong into my new job. I’m sorry for the break in writing here. In May, I got bowled over by a flying calendar, 72 pages’ worth, and since then my quiet three-page weekly section of the local paper has bloomed into a weekly magazine, 24 pages and counting.

So this blog will run on a kind of reverse academic schedule for the forseeable future. Whatever writing time I carve out over the summer I’ve been saving for my novel. But I’ll still be here when I can.

There’s a pleasure in absorption. It’s finding out what I can produce, and holding each magazine in my hands when it’s finished. It’s walking through new buildings, and reading my freelancers’ hikes up trails three miles from here that I’ve never heard of, and getting to tell people about them. It’s sending a staff writer off on his first trail ride and hearing him laugh about it afterward. I feel that I’m doing good work.

And in the cracks, when I’m walking home late on a deadline day, blissful because it’s done, sometimes somewhere along the wood fence by the stream in the park I pull out a pocket notebook and jot a note about my own book. My novel is always with me, and it hasn’t stopped reminding me that the hardest chapters are here already.

I am loving this season for its bareness. Mixing bread dough in the morning, barefoot in pajamas, I gloat when the stretched neckline of the old shirt I wear slides over my shoulders. I’m loving the blue haze of mountains, and I’m loving the headlong rush of work, most of the time. In part for the way it makes me think, and carefully finger all my spare moments, and for the way it keeps me here.

It’s easy to be impatient in a new place, in a new job — to want comfort and company all at once, and to feel I should be doing more, faster. I still have five chapters left in a draft I wanted to have done in May, and I’m still single, and I still haven’t planted snapdragons under the front window or oregano by the drain pipe. And I’m still laughing at myself. You see what I mean?

Too much absorption can be dangerous. But all the same, if you never let yourself fall wholly into something, you never stretch yourself wholly. The greatest joy of graduate school was to let myself love the work I wanted, and choose it, and knock myself silly finding out how to do it. Now I’ve done that, a few minutes by the stream in the dark, and a few hours writing longhand in my arm chair, will keep me going weeks at a stretch.

Without that time to want it openly and think it through, I wouldn’t be able to see the work clearly. I feel more firmly myself for it. So I’m wishing, for many people I know, enough sleep, and enough spurring from like minds, and enough space, and enough time to fall in love.

World enough and time
For Rachel on her birthday, March 21, 2008

When you are walking wide streets under palms
or leaning forward at an outdoor table,
let the sun steep you in the gentle heat
of argument. A breeze lifts linen from you.
Bowls of dates hold corners of translations,
and muezzins call, not far away.

People from all reaches of away
felt with you the soft, dry shade of palms
and read with you translations of translations.
They cupped a flame and blessed a sabbath table
and left that flame to live today with you.
Hold to your forehead that absorbing heat.

This afternoon you will run the first heat.
The canopy has been folded away
and all the courtyard beckons bright around you.
Drink among the orange trees and palms.
Talk begins like rain around the table,
and you begin to write your own translations.

Among you, you will write your own translations
as once Toledans quickened in the heat
a university around a table
with a hundred definitions of away.
A ladder rung leaves friction on your palms.
Stories out of stories will enthrall you.

Classmates chant a blessing, turn to you,
laughing with the quick joy of translations.
Clap and sing contemporary psalms
until your palms are glowing with the heat.
Now within time, every here and away,
every sabbath table is this table.

Swallows’ shadows fly across the table.
Dusk has cooled the courtyard stones while you
were rapt, while you were looking for a way
to unite the root and all translations,
imprint the dates, the swallows and the heat,
this communion touching palms to palms.

Let palms inscribe your palms then; let this table
heat in the sun and brand its knot holes through you:
translate away from love — love from away.