Baby

In December 2020, my daughter sent me a peperomia plantling. It was a thoughtful gift that fetched a feeling of great tenderness. I’ve named and renamed her several times over these years because I could never quite recall the nom du jour. Finally, I landed on “Baby” as the easiest endearment to remember, likely because it was the affectionate name my father used for me when I was a child.

I wouldn’t call Baby a vivacious plant, but she has nevertheless been responsive to what have been my well-meaning efforts to keep her alive: a weekly watering; as much filtered light as I can find for her in my dark living room; and occasional, one-way discussions. Every so often she has surprised me with a new leaf, and I have hovered over it like a helicopter parent until I was confident it had matured sufficiently.

A few months ago, though, an infant leaf appeared at the base of the plant, where it remained tiny, pale, and unfurled. Then last week I noticed that one of the mature leaves had fallen off and was laying on its back next to the planter. I picked it up and turned it over and over before coming to the conclusion that it certainly seemed healthy enough. Immediately, I felt a small panic spread as I asked myself the following questions: Had I overwatered her? Had she suffered because there were more than a few days when I decided not to open the blinds? Did I not show her enough attention and care?

Since it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to answer any of these questions, I instead pinched off the dying infant leaf and considered throwing the whole of Baby in the garbage. Although I didn’t do this, I was aware of a dark compulsion urging me to do so. Later that day, I also noticed an emerging desire to throw away every plate, bowl, glass, and mug I own because a few are chipped and cracked.

Increasingly, I see that I have had a limited tolerance for imperfection, which of course means that I have had little tolerance for all the world, including for myself. In trying to manage this entrenched self-contempt, I learned when I was a young girl that, if I impetuously cast out everything I regarded as flawed (and also threw in for good measure some things that weren’t flawed, at least from my perspective), I would be granted the chance to reset my life to zero so that I could start all over again.

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Voice as Rorschach

Robert Siegel, longtime host of NPR's All Things Considered, will be leaving his role in 2018.

Driving home from work each evening, I generally listen to NPR’s All Things Considered — and with more attention than I might otherwise muster after a long day. I have enjoyed all the co-hosts, but I especially enjoyed listening to Melissa Block, who left the program in 2015 after having been a part of it for 12 years.

Though it is difficult to describe the qualities that make for a beautiful speaking voice, I can say that Block somehow made me feel like I was the only member of her listening audience. There was a tender, silver-throated warmth to her and a sense, too, that I could pull up a chair to her table and sip a cup of tea with her while she delivered the day’s news; still, she always seemed to have absolute mastery over the delivery of any story.

My feelings about Robert Siegel’s voice, on the other hand, have been shot through with judgment. A radio veteran who has been with the program for 30 years, Siegel has “[o]ne of the most distinctive voices on NPR’s airwaves,” yet, while it may be that off-air he is a very kind soul, his voice sounds just this side of about-to-make-a-mockery of someone. And, from the sound of it I have always seen him thus: pink-faced; thin and small; balded; dressed during summer in short-sleeved, button-down shirts; thin, bowed lips the color of raspberry Popsicle.

It wasn’t until I learned that he was retiring that I had an occasion to see his photo, and I have to say I was taken aback. There is a darker density to him that I do not hear when I listen to him speak. I hadn’t imagined the facial hair either, which certainly changes things.

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Love trumps Trump.

woman-pulling-on-sock

Last Saturday, I went to pull on a sock and instead pulled every major muscle in my mid-back. I fell flat out on the bed and sobbed — not so much because of the physical pain, though the pain was considerable, but because Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.

In the days preceding the back event but following the election, I was left to contend with an unremitting migraine behind the left eye, a bout of despair diarrhea, and a stress-induced shingles episode that, among other things, left my shoulder numb. The body is a genius.

It would be wrong, though, to think that I am yet one more aggrieved American adding to the volumes of articles written about Donald Trump and his last-gasp entourage of greedy, self-interested, racist, anti-Semitic, white-skinned misogynists since, as Jon Stewart in his understated and affecting interview with Charlie Rose reminds us, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Some, he says, are afraid about their health insurance premiums.

For 11 days now, I have borne witness to my unfettered feelings of anger and fear, and I have seen the underbelly of contempt I possess towards my particular version of “the other”; yet, while I am not proud about admitting I am a container for the very darknesses I ascribe to those I already have condemned to the wrong side of history, I am happy to report I still have a heart that beats stronger for love than it does for hate.

There is my daughter, whom I have loved freely and unconditionally every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year for more than three decades. No one taught me how to feel this love. It appears to have come in the same box with the rest of my parts.

And no one told me how, or why, to love A., whom I have loved without end for some 17 years in spite of the fact that these feelings have never been reciprocated. Something from within (or from without) winged me to him, or him to me, and I came to know, without knowing, that I was to love him without condition or expectation.

The love I feel both for my daughter and for A. is a very great mystery, and I can say only that love’s capacity to awaken us and to help us evolve from the pipsqueaks we really are puts into perspective the shallow affairs of nasty men, who, like the rest of us, will one day fall to dust.

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Just thought I’d share

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The other day my colleagues were talking about the difficulty they have discussing sex with their male clients. The reasons for this shyness with the “emerging adults” in our program are complex, but, to illustrate the complexity, I told them about an experience I had had just the day before.

My supervisor, whom I adore (I realize this point is apropos of nothing), and my counterpart at work were discussing the sister of one of our young men when I blurted, “She’s, uh, with child, isn’t she?” Had I wanted to sound any more like a character straight out of “The Monk’s Tale,” I might have asked, “Hath she child in womb?”

We laughed heartily when I said, “I don’t know why I couldn’t just come out and say the word p-p-p-pregnant,” but later I reflected on my embarrassment (interestingly, in Spanish the word for “pregnant” is embarazada). I realized I had never been comfortable using that word because the “preg” part of it conjures for me the act of a man impregnating a woman — as in putting his (p word) in her (v word) and depositing his (s word). So asking flat out if the woman being discussed was pregnant also could have suggested that I might have had intimate knowledge of how she came to be with child in the first place.

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location, location, location

Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.

To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.

I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.

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February 14, 2016

follow your heart:

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“It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation….Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.”

Letters to a Young Poet (#7) by Ranier Maria Rilke

What blogging has taught me etcetera

Blogging

Four years ago, when I started my blog ruminationville, the word “blogger” was often used to disparage someone who either had limited writing skill or who thought more highly of his or her skill, personal magnetism, and importance than others might have done.

While the term still manages to purse some lips (as in “She’s not a writer; she’s just a blah-gger.”), and while a needless blog is born just about every second, I’m not much taunted by the negative connotations the word can conjure.

Starting a blog (and then having to call up enough discipline to maintain it week after week) has given me more moxie than I could have imagined for myself. Whereas before I couldn’t even see myself writing for an online audience of one, now I think along these lines: Come one, come all. Read me or don’t read me. Follow me, don’t follow me, or unfollow me. Like me or don’t like me. Just don’t land on this wobbly little planet of me looking to make a bit of stupid trouble. I’m shy and yielding, yes. That’s my nature. But when it comes to stupid trouble, I can be fierce.

So, what have I learned while I’ve been blogging? These things:

  1. People in this BuzzFeed era have become accustomed to headlines that seduce and alarm (as in “This One Ridiculously Crazy Idea Will Scare the Holy Bejesus Out of You!”), but I won’t write a ridiculously shocking headline unless I have something ridiculously shocking to say, which so far is never.
  2. In this age of online news-bite consumptionism, people have come to adore lists. I have come to adore lists, and I can be drawn to an article that promises I will discover the meaning of life if I follow six simple steps.
  3. Still, I try and stay away from giving easy, empty, unlived advice.
  4. I have absolutely no way of knowing, or predicting, if what I have written will appeal to readers. I can post something I think no one will find interesting, and my “like” stars will light up like tiny, pointy Christmas bulbs. Or, I can post something I am certain everyone will think is pure genius, and the only response I will get is nothing.

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Turning four

number four

I’m not good at making resolutions. If they involve a bleak self-denial, such as when I try and say no to a food group, or if they require an inner tamping down, such as when I try and say stop to a pining, something from down deep rises up and digs in—leaving me starved for the very thing I think I should deny myself. Really, I find it’s best to pretend there is no hunger at all and to go about my business as if I were able to manage myself.

Still, it is a new year, and I feel obliged to reflect on the past 12 months. This has always been true of me during January, at least since I have been an adult, but as I get older it is even more crucial to consider who I have been during the previous year and who I will be bringing into the new year—these two seeming so much more important, in fact, than what I might, or might not, have accomplished. Accomplishments, like bones, fall to dust, and in the end who is going to care about what I have written here? I’m not even certain if I care about what I have written here.

Yet something in me does care about the fact that, in a week’s time, ruminationville will turn four, and I cannot help but ask myself what I have to show for these years. Certainly I could count the number of posts, or poems, or photographs, or movie reviews, or comments, or likes, or absences of likes. But there is such emptiness in this kind of exercise, and I have come to the end of my own emptinesses.

What cheers me now is the knowledge that I have all along tried to be genuine with you and that I have allowed you to see who I am, and who I love, if only a small bit. Nothing else much matters.

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winter upon us

winter upon us
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Shook elms lining the sloped

edges of a pitted road drop

their dying leaves while

Simon with Sam heave-ho

the grounded ones then

threaten each other with

pellets and rope.

Somewhere above the

yellow-brown heaps,

one songbird calls to

a white-winged friend:

“sweet-sweet-sweet”

and feeds her slick babies

black beetles and yarn.

What was once

dark was gray

after became hope

wanting to wind

its way down

to the ankles of

Carlisle Mountain

and lap at the feet

of the widow who

longed for that fat

girl Sanne to return

home and lie about.

It’s snowing and I’m thinking.

Noreaster-snow-storm-

Last night I received an email from a friend who told me she had just finished reading Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation. “Somehow, it reminds me of you,” she wrote. There is such mystery embedded in these six words that I searched for it at once on Amazon.

Happily, I was able to “Look Inside!↓” and read a few selected pages of the book. Though I couldn’t determine from these pages what in them might have reminded her of me, I did come upon a passage that made me think of something I wrote in 2012 on painter Lucian Freud. More a piece about what one needs innerly to live an artist’s life than it is about Freud himself, though, “An Ode to Selfishness” gave me an opportunity to reflect briefly on qualities that seem to make the difference between those who sustain the life of an artist — in the very broadest sense of the word — and those who do not.

Freud was a prodigious talent; he was also a prodigious philanderer who was rumored to have fathered as many as 40 children. A man who has a predilection for spilling his seed across continents is of interest anthropologically, yes, but what was most fascinating to me about him was, as I wrote, “his single-minded devotion to his art and…his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him….”

As I have gotten older, I have become much less preoccupied with what others might think about me, but I don’t imagine I will ever fully abandon my need for another’s good opinion. This craving, I have come to think, stands in the way of what it takes, in my case, to be a writer worth her salt.

In her novel, Offill has her narrator reflect more deeply on this idea and on how it is related to gender. “My plan was to never get married,” she says. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

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