Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Well, snow, I guess

It snowed Saturday night.  Today is Tuesday, and this picture was taken yesterday.  So much for the snow.  It's a little embarrassing, really, considering what's going on in the rest of the country.  I compare this with a picture my friend B. posted on Facebook of her little guest cottage drifted in with snow on the shore of Lake Ontario, and, well, it's a little embarrassing.

But it did snow, and it lifted my spirits to see the snow coming down, lit by the street lights, and to wake up in the morning and have to brush off the car to set out on what could have been a slightly iffy ride.  Seattle has so little snow that, paradoxically, it's more dangerous here than in Buffalo when it snows.  A few inches becomes a serious problem because there is not enough equipment (understandably--why buy equipment only to let it sit 364 days a year?) to clean things up quickly.

So the little kids went out in the snow and tried to slide and made little fencepost snowmen and got all pink and damp. On the whole, though, Seattle does kale and chard and parsley a lot better in the winter than it does snow.  Which is nice, really, especially since little C. has decided that parsley is acceptable greenery (nothing else that is green is allowed) and thus has added that to the meager list of food she will eat.

And on this morning's walk I saw tree buds ragging out, nodding hellebore blossoms, perky ornamental cabbage, primroses, and other evidence that really, guys, spring is just around the corner.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Winding the Clocks

This morning it was time to wind the clocks.  Among the many items of busy work I found to do this morning after my coffee and toast, this one seemed important.  If I forget to wind the clocks—there are three of them, all antique—they stop, and in their silence they accuse me of losing it, of not being able to act on a commitment, of not measuring up in various ways.  Still, this morning I didn’t manage to wind all three clocks at the same time.  I milled around weighing and washing yarn plied last night, made the bed, looked around for a project I knew was in a bag somewhere, and finally got it together to wind the banjo clock in the bedroom.  Then it was a few minutes before I got to the school clock in the kitchen and the grandfather clock in the living room.  Now they’re ready for another week, and all I have to do is wind them next Monday morning. 

Thus is it always: we do a task that will need to be done over again, only to know that we will have to do it again.  For me there is always a question:  will I manage to pull it off, pull it out of myself, the next time?  The opportunities to fall off the wagon of recurrent housekeeping tasks come frequently, and I fall off probably as many times as I stay on.  But clocks and dishes and laundry are quite forgiving, and that’s a small everyday mercy.

And up close to these tasks, there are homely little details that are part of the texture of my life.  The place where the key goes in is different for each of the three clocks, and there are certain times each clock cannot be wound because the hands are in the way.  The banjo clock has a lead weight that can be seen only part of the way up as it is being wound.  After a few winds, it becomes invisible in the thin shaft of the clock, where the frets of the banjo would be, behind painted glass.  The man who fixed the grandfather clock spent a few minutes on it in 2011 to get it going.  He warned me that I must not wind it until the weight hit the top: the little stop for it was missing, and it might strike the works of the clock and get in the way of its operation.  So I count how many times the winding key goes around, and slow down as I reach about ten, to be sure that if it does hit the top it does so gently.  It’s a little bit of guesswork that I must do each week, and I do it with something like affection, and with a flash of memory.  This clock was my parents’, and my father’s parents’ before that, and I know not whose before that.  It is a small window into the past.

So are the grandfather clock and the schoolhouse clock, and each offers its own little details in the process of winding. I have to get up on a stool to wind the schoolhouse clock, which is on the wall in the kitchen above the sink.  It is spring-wound and has no weight, and it winds counterclockwise, unlike the others.  Like the grandfather clock, it also indicates the date, and once in a while, when I’ve neglected my winding, I need to reset the date.  The glass window has a small crack, and I recall the time when my mother, in her nineties and infirm, remembering the crack in the window but not how small it was, insisted that I must have had the glass replaced. 

The brass key for the grandfather clock has an ivory handle, with grooves around it à la scrimshaw. There are two holes in the face for winding both the clockworks and the striker, but the striker is decommissioned, and its weight lies in one of my closets.  Thus I wind only the right side, lifting the weight for the clockworks. The clock man told me to wind until the weight reached the top of the top hinge of the door, but after a few times I noticed that there was a chalk or crayon mark a couple of inches above that.  It must be a mark made by either my father or his father. 

The schoolhouse clock was in my mother’s life in her childhood, and the other two in my father’s.  They are part of my heritage, and every time I wind them, they bring me in contact with generations before me.  It amuses me that under normal conditions I cannot see the escapements of any of the clocks, rocking with the seconds.  But I hear all the clocks, ticking away the seconds of my life, and I love the company of these mechanical presences.  

Loving that which is beautiful

Deciding to "resuscitate" my blog, as a dear friend suggested in 2011 (!), I found this draft, written years ago.  It is a curious synchronicity to find it, as I saw Rusalka two days ago on one of the Met's movie theater simulcasts.  I still believe what I said that day several years ago.  

Is it all right to love someone just (or mostly) because he/she is associated with beauty? Or maybe just because he/she is beautiful? These questions were running through my mind the other day as I pulled weeds in brilliant May sunshine and heard in my mind Renee Fleming's voice singing "O silver moon' from Dvorak's Rusalka.

I remember a parking lot moment when I could not move from my car until the Dvorak aria ended, and a trip on winding roads from Troy, NY, into the Berkshires attended by "Mariettas Lied" from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, over and over and over. I remember seeing her spread her arms wide to the audience in Buffalo a few years ago, after a concert of such beauty that I kept thinking how glad I was to be alive, and how lucky I was to be able to be there. "I love her" was the spirit, if not the actual words, of all those moments. (Right now, I imagine it in Emma Thompson's voice in Love, Actually, as her character recalls to her husband the importance in her life of Joni Mitchell.) I don't even know Renee Fleming; does it make any sense to call this love?

Yes, I think so, but perhaps it is not really love for the person, nor even, exactly, for the image the person has created in public life. Murmuring in my mind are words written by the poet Keats. In a letter written not long before his death, he says, "I have loved the principle of beauty in all things." Perhaps it is just the "principle of beauty" that we love when we love those who produce beautiful music. Perhaps. But it feels personal. What I feel is that I love Fleming for her gift (though I admit that if she were a cold, humorless person, or a truly ugly one, there might not be so much love there).

And when you think about it, that is not very fair, if a gift is really fundamentally a gift, not an achievement. Should we love people for something with which they were gifted from birth, for which they are ultimately not really responsible? (Let us leave aside for the moment the years of work Fleming has given in her love for the "principle of beauty" in music: all of it would have come to naught had she not had a beautiful voice.)

I have felt the same love of the beautiful in the case of one or two very lovely women with whom I have had the good luck to be friends. I cared about their characters, wouldn't have cared about their beauty if they hadn't been interesting and pleasant to be with, but how I loved to look at them! And the love extends to a very select company of those I have never even known: I love Ingrid Bergman, for example.

It's there: it's a genuine feeling. If it is mixed up, okay, it's mixed up. But somehow it feels very close to a deep impulse I think all of us feel from time to time, the impulse toward praise. What I mean when I say that is not at all clear to me: it's not exactly synonymous with "praise God," though that is how it is expressed in many formal utterances and songs. Why shouldn't we rejoice in beauty? Why shouldn't love spring from us as an answer to it? That is, after all, an answer in kind.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Brought to Me by Irish Spring

This is the first time I have seen this lily blossom in many years. I couldn't even remember what color it was! Every year, every single year since soon after I put it in ten or so years ago, it has come up like gangbusters, developed two or three hearty stalks, budded, and then--before I even really get my mind around it--the buds disappear, thanks to my friends the deer.

The same thing has happened to tomatoes. Last year, I grew a lovely tomato plant in a pot--just enough cherry tomatoes for me. Not. Every single tomato--EVERY SINGLE ONE!--was eaten before it began to ripen. I am not entirely stupid: I checked into getting some netting to protect it. Turned out the netting would cost far more than the sum total of the tomatoes would have cost me at the local markets, so I decided to be stoic. But I digress.

This year, determined to see the lily blossom, I decided to try the frequently-recommended remedy of Irish Spring soap. What you can't see in the picture is the entire cake of soap impaled on a green bamboo stake, right beside the lily plant, at the same height as the buds and blossoms. Fabulous! It works. Deer smart--woman smarter. Sorta.

I hadn't seen too much of the deer lately. I was imagining them saying to each other, Keep out of that place--it STINKS! But here they were this morning, and it was hard to think any bad thoughts at all about them, the pretty little things.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good Enough

I care quite a bit about what I see in the mirror. When I get dressed up for some event for which my appearance seems to matter, I really like to look nice. But I was never a looker, and now I'm getting old. Many's the time that I have looked at myself in the mirror and said to myself, "Well, I look nice-ish." That's usually good enough.

Today I want to celebrate "nice-ish," "goodish," and "good enough." They can get us through the day, and they can help us let go of some of what holds us back.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined a wonderful term: the "good enough mother." He was convinced that children didn't need perfection in a parent but did absolutely need a mother who would both supply the child's needs for closeness and bonding and allow space between mother and child, a space he labeled "potential space." This is, he maintains, the space where the child can create through play--the space which in later years will become the space of creativity in other kinds of play (the arts, work, etc.). It is a lovely theory, and a comforting one. (It seems true enough.) Good mothers are so anxious about being "good mothers"! To know that "good enough" is really good enough is a great comfort: armed with that idea, a mother can relax and both allow the child to play and play herself.

In the late eighties I read in Tracy Kidder's more-than-goodish book House a comment made by one of the builders (he was somebody I went to high school with, delightfully enough, but that is not relevant to the current topic). When the builders encountered a glitch and found a way around it that didn't quite satisfy their zeal for perfection, it would be "good enough for Amherst" (the house was being built in Amherst, Mass.). My husband and I grabbed onto that "good enough for _______" expression. We would be making the bed, for example, and something would be a little skew-gee. My husband would say "Good enough for Buff" (meaning Buffalo), and we'd leave it at that. It always made us smile a little.

"Good enough for _____" is, in my mind at least, particularly resonant in Buffalo, a city with a large self-deprecating streak and a history of disappointment. A local artist, Michael Margolis, designed a T-shirt with the motto "Buffalo: City of No Illusions."
One could argue that it is a pretty negative motto. But we in the Buffalo area love it; it's just right. And really, it's something another city could emulate. It suggests that it's good not to have illusions. It suggests that "good enough" is good enough, that "goodish" is better than nothing, that a sheepish semi-success is better than failure, that half a loaf really is better than none. Most of our lives are half-loaf affairs; many of us can do little better than to look nice-ish. But why not celebrate the no-illusions attitude that sees "good enough" as really good enough?

All Those Hand-Me-Ups

It's time for a few words of praise for my wonderful daughters. We are all familiar with the concept of the hand-me-down, usually the outgrown clothes that a person gives to a younger person. As a child I didn't have many sources of hand-me-downs: I was an only child, and I had only one older child family member, a cousin who was 2-1/2 years older. I don't recall wearing her clothes, though I must have.

But now that they are grown up, my kids have been a rich source of such endowments! I cannot begin to enumerate the shoes and articles of clothing that have ended up in my closet because they were too big, too small (shoes, never clothes!), too far out of style, too something. Some of my all-time favorite things to wear have come to me that way.

Still, the best hand-me-ups have been intangible, and unlike the tangible ones, they can be both given away and kept. B., my elder daughter, pictured above in her kitchen making bread, has provided me with ideas for craft projects, expertise in breadmaking, courage to try foods I have ignored or avoided for six decades, a vision of sustainability, and--most important of all--the inspiration of a compassionate analytical mind guided by a remarkable ability to see what is important and right in human relations (what my late husband called a "good gut"), which operates both in her work and in her role as a mother of two little ones. A., my younger daughter, has taught me a great deal about fine arts and design, guided my reading and music choices, clued me in on style, challenged me to work on physical fitness, and helped me up to keep up to date with technology (more or less). More profoundly, she has inspired me with her steadfast courage to wing out on her own, despite shyness and doubts; her ability to rise to occasions even when they are difficult; and her self-knowledge and her unwillingness to betray her own identity.

I hope I am still able to grow--though I would prefer that it not be in girth! But I will never outgrow the intangible hand-me-ups of knowledge and inspiration that I have received from my lovely smart daughters.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Garden Is...Well, Some of It Is Okay

This is the amazing clematis that nature produced after I put the plant in the ground last year. I am very proud to have such a pretty thing facing my next-door neighbor, who knows full well what a triumph it is for a struggling and failing gardener. On the ground--well, there sure are a lot of weeds, and those two cubic yards of mulch didn't quite go the distance.

For several weeks I worked furiously in anticipation of a family luncheon. Since it came to pass, with some warts (metaphorically speaking) still showing, it has been harder to get out there just for the sake of the house, or Beauty. The weeds are alive and well, and here I am writing a blog while they inch up to take over the world.

Better rethink that strategy, I guess. Up and at 'em, woman!