The Telltale Heart

My notion of time gets whacky in the Fall. 

During a walk I saw suspended in midair a golden maple leaf, caught on some invisible thread connecting this world and the next. I’ve come to call October my tender time because of loved ones lost this month yet still brilliantly before me.

As much as the Fall draws me to the past, it also creates a sense of urgency as I prepare for the coming cold. Leaves to rake and bag. Spent plants to cut back. Hoses to drain and bring in. The canna and elephant ears to dig up and store. Fireplace wood to order. Storm windows to wash and put in. The furnace filter to replace.

And despite my refrain, “I don’t want a dog,” Eloise has made the present fuller with her steady companionship. I linger in these moments even as I know she needs a permanent home before we are so attached that I will have to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Proud Foster Failure.”

Against this ever-shifting notion of time is Lela Gore, my childhood piano teacher. If I learned one thing from her, it was the absolute steadiness of time. Her metronome was the corrective to my varying tempos as I managed a few good measures before hesitating to find my next notes.

I wasn’t diligent about practicing between lessons. So when I walked down the block to her dreary house (a rental that the wealthy landlords were too stingy to fix up), my dread mounted. Like Poe’s telltale heart, her metronome became my terror.

When she wasn’t teaching, Miss Gore lived in the past, or at least in a world that suggested more dignity than her current circumstances. She often spoke of her training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, her mother, and her travels to England and Scotland as she served me tea and shortbread still warm from the oven.

As long as we spoke of other things, another time, I could forget her metronome sitting on her Steinway in the living room. But when I sat on the bench under the bright single lamp and she set the metronome’s arm swinging at the tempo I was to match, I couldn’t keep up. Undoubtedly there was a pedagogical reason for using a metronome, but to me it was an instrument of torture. When my hands stopped and my shoulders dropped in defeat, she sighed and adjusted the beat. But by then, any tempo felt impossible.

I think I would have confessed to anything if she’d only stopped the telltale tick-tick-ticking. Yes, I should have practiced more. No, I wasn’t the prodigy she had hoped I would be, just another student whose mother thought I should have some musical training.

My career as a concert pianist never took off. Instead, I became my mother. There were many things I vowed I would do differently, but this wasn’t one of them. As soon as my kids turned four, I signed them up for piano lessons. To ensure it was a better investment, I sat with them when they practiced, my own relentless “one more time” on a difficult passage acting as a kind of metronome that must have been equally irritating to them. They too eventually quit. They too survived.

Fall feels like life without a metronome. Fleeting, transient, and unsettling. I have the past tugging at me. I have my list of chores, my monthly blog post, a manuscript to promote, a web site to update, agents to research filling each day. And I have the future, whose shadows lengthen with each year.

I found a much-needed steadiness recently when I came across Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Let Evening Come.” Her pace is measured and the truth doesn’t falter. The last stanza reads:

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

How I want to believe that this is so.

The Other

When I was in 8th grade, I went to a coed party. There was a girl whose friendship I was desperately seeking. So desperately, that I made a loud show to get her attention. She finally turned to me and said, “Shut up!”

In an instant I became the “other,” the social misfit, the one who didn’t belong.

Several things this past week have reminded of what that painful moment felt like.

I went to see “Almost Equal To” at the Pillsbury House Theatre by Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. The play is a commentary on the consequences of capitalism. The characters constantly measure themselves against each other in an attempt to gain or retain power, status, and wealth. Their greed and suspicions propel them to treat people differently while justifying their own behavior.

The recent election in Germany has seen the rise of a third party, the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD). Its stance is anti-immigration, particularly anti-Muslim. But behind the party’s rhetoric I hear a broader narrative. Anyone who isn’t “German” isn’t welcome. When asked to explain what it means to be “German,” a party spokesperson mentioned, among other things, punctuality, as if Germans have exclusive rights to this trait. (Here I thought the Swedes owned it!)

Research done by Cecilia Conrad, the head of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, reveals that immigrants are overrepresented in receiving MacArthur Genius Grants. The immigrants who come here, she explains, are “risk takers. And their thinking and discoveries are nourished by the experience of dislocation, of navigating a new culture and a new set of norms. They come with a sort of hunger and a kind of gaze that don’t subtract from what those of us already here have but, instead, add to it.”

Even Ken Burns’s documentary “The Vietnam War” shows the grim affects of colonialism, arbitrary divisions of a country, trumped up rhetoric about the threat of communism—all resulting in an us vs. them, good guy-bad guy situation that drew the U.S. into a protracted, ultimately failed conflict.

All because we insist on creating “the other.”

And then there’s Eloise, who I am fostering. She is one of a dozen golden retrievers rescued from the streets and forests around Istanbul. Organizations in Turkey and Minnesota coordinated efforts to fly the dogs here, where they will have permanent homes. I won’t forget the moment when they emerged from their crates after 22 hours of being transported across the ocean to a whole new world. They were all wagging tails, curiosity, and hope.

Finally, and poignantly, I heard this notion of “the other” touched on at the memorial service for an elderly woman who deeply valued a sense of home yet lost that secure feeling as a result of her dementia. “At some point in our lives,” the pastor said, “every one of us is displaced in some way.”

The “other” go by many names: refugees, immigrants, people displaced by flooding, widows and orphans, veterans, people who don’t look like you or me, the person lost in the confusion of her mind, the retiree questioning his purpose, the abandoned animal, the insecure 8th grader.

But, like Eloise, we also all have names. Names that link us to each other. Names that at once remind us of our uniqueness and our rightful place in the world.

An Eclipse like One Other

I may be the only person who drove 400 miles not to see the eclipse.

To family and friends I billed my spur-of-the-moment trip as an adventure, a late summer vacation. To myself, I needed to step into the freedom and risk of the unknown. The Great American Eclipse was my excuse to do so.

A total solar eclipse is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience almost unavoidably shared because its path is so narrow. It brings people together like few things do anymore.

When they learned I was alone, several kind strangers invited me to follow them to the line of totality. Plenty of towns along that path had eclipse-related events I could join. I politely declined. I wanted nothing, no one, to obscure the experience.

My first “eclipse” was in 1961. I was an 8-year-old walking home from school. Suddenly the familiar houses and the elm-lined streets of LaGrange blurred. Even the steady hum of cars from Ogden Avenue faded. The green canopy of trees swayed in the light and I with it.

As in a trance, I was drawn into a cosmic theater, absolutely alone. It was a moment of totality I was completely unprepared for. The sun didn’t disappear, but I saw nothing, as if I stood in utter darkness.

That was when I felt it—a dizzying sense of self. That first moment when I realized, No one sees the world as I doNo one says the world as I do. I was meant to be. I touched my arm, never more sure of who I was.

Sunday afternoon I arrived in Jamesport, Missouri, population 505, where, thanks to a cancellation, I snagged a room. In Jamesport, nearly every house was in need of repair or the wrecking ball. Only the Mennonites seemed to be thriving. They ran the one café and bakery that offered a special eclipse buffet for $7.99. They operated a gourmet coffee shop down from a shop that sold hand-dipped candles. They offered horse-drawn carriage tours, though of what I wasn’t sure. Just south of town was another Mennonite-run bakery where long-time resident Blanche Archer told me, “I’ve never had anything I didn’t like.”

Only one road in town was paved. This was the road, which split south, that Blanche suggested I take to Chillicothe, a town 30 miles away, where I’d decided to view the eclipse. The vistas of farmland swelling and rolling to the horizon in early light rivaled any drive I’ve ever taken.

When I got to Chillicothe, with four hours to spare, I sat in my car by the high school and read as a wall of clouds, followed by a thunderstorm, moved in. Later the sheriff saw me and said I couldn’t park there because students would be arriving soon.

I drove to a bank parking lot. A few other cars pulled in. We didn’t huddle together. The young woman next to me spent most of the time looking at her phone. Most days I wonder if we haven’t lost our way. How many of us privately hoped the eclipse would bring this crazy world to its knees and make us believers again?

Moments before the totality, the rain stopped and the sky cleared just enough so I caught glimpses of the eclipse. I saw a lip of disappearing sun before clouds obscured the totality. I saw a thin band of red on the horizon and felt the temperature drop as the sky turned a deep blue gray. Somewhere a group of young viewers laughed. One woman shouted, “I saw it!”

Then a thin curve of light, like a new moon, glowed. The bigger the curve, the yellower it became. I wanted it to be gold, but the color was neon and garish. As the moon’s shadow slid by, the curve bloated until it became the sun again. I saw no ring of fire. I didn’t witness a cape of darkness hurtling across the land.

“Go out and stand on the mountain, for the Lord is about to pass by,” came the word of God to Elijah, who was hiding in a cave. It took wind, an earthquake, fire, and then sheer silence before Elijah emerged.

The mountain we stand on or the cave we hide in is our own. The Great American Eclipse called me out of my cave. Often too comfortable, too in control, too safe, I needed to go far away and stand among strangers to be reminded that risks are worth taking because more often than not, they bring us closer to our essential selves.

I leaned against the car, my neck tipped awkwardly back, and peered through special glasses to see what, if anything, I could see. Mainly I felt the earth, solid and sure, beneath me. I heard a mourning dove. With the certainty of a child I knew that who I was created to be and what I believe matter more than anything my eyes will ever behold.

Omens and Amens

When we don’t think we know where we’re going

There is no mistaking a fox. One crossed my path on a recent early morning bike ride along the river bluff. Through a narrow opening in the chain link fence it came. It looked both ways, saw me, and still onto the paved trail it came. I may have slowed. But on it came, flagrant and orange. The fox presented itself in profile, held the pose, then loped just ahead of me before turning, with no haste, up into the brush.

Four years ago I set out to write a memoir about overcoming the silence that has dogged me much of my life. I admit I didn’t know this at the time, or for a long while. I had a general notion that I would write a book following the proximate deaths of my husband and mother. At first I focused on loss and grief. In another draft, I seemed to be telling their stories. Then there were experiments with structure. None of these attempts felt quite right.

The one piece of every draft that never changed was the ending. It seemed I knew where I needed to go, even though I lacked a clear path for getting there. Neuroscientists are beginning to recognize that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to consider the future. Foresight is our brain’s central function. Instead of merely recording and storing memories, we are continually rewriting history. I had projected the ending, even articulated it, without perhaps realizing this was where I was headed. Other chapters I could always refine or rewrite, but the ending I left alone.

Finally I let the ending guide my way.

I recently read through my latest (last?) revision. Whenever I stumbled over a sentence, I flagged the page. By the end, I easily had 50 yellow post-its reminding me of places I still needed to revisit. Many I resolved quickly. Soon I was down to 4. But these places stubbornly resisted my attempts to clarify.

Days went by. Company came and left. The hyacinth vine grew, patches of lawn turned brown. Then I saw the fox. My first thought when I saw its long body and tipped tail? A pencil. Yes, a pencil. In a writer’s world, a pencil, especially a red one, is used for editing. Within a day I’d made the final changes. I’d said what I set out to say, not fully realizing it until I was there.

My One Necessity

We all have a reason for being

This is my last post. I had a good run with my Princeton family. People have called me sweet (though I prefer rank, meaty, savory), but I can’t take all the credit. I kind of hit the jackpot when my humans picked me from all the others in the litter. Something about my personality, they said. Whatever that means.

I’m a yielder, not a fighter (except when it comes to tug). I couldn’t fight the cancer anymore. Monday I said good-bye to my favorite humans in the neighborhood: Mike the mailman, Pat (who let me clean out the cat dishes every time I visited), and Miriam, my other mom, who always carried treats and took care of me when my humans were away. Yesterday I got so sleepy. I think it’s going to be either a very long nap or an endless romp. Both sound perfect.

You know how my human loves words. These last few weeks, as I grew weaker, she sat and slept by my side as faithfully as I sat and slept by her these past 11 years. Besides the great ear rubs and the luxurious stroke of her fingers drawing a line up my nose (how I trembled when she did that), we talked. She with words, me with my eyes, ever attentive. I’m a great listener.

She recalled the memories that she said will link us forever. Summer days in the yard, her bent to gardening, me sprawled out in the cool grass or under the pine tree, dizzy with happiness. Trips to Lake Hubert, where I went for rides in the boat, jumped off the dock to rescue my human if she swam out too far, and dug in the sand for any delicious remnant of a dead fish, wild with joy. Hikes along the Mississippi River in Hidden Falls. Romps in the snow. And bunnies. Every part of me alert and throbbing.

She even read me something from another human (she does this when she’s feeling sad or sentimental).

“We can live any way we want. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse . . . to grasp your one necessity and not let it go.” (Annie Dillard)

Even I, ruled all my life by my nose and tummy, liked the sound of those words, “stalk”especially. Or maybe it was the way my human slowed down at “your one necessity.” She looked at me deeply when she said those 3 words, and that’s when it clicked: the feeling that swelled my heart every moment of our good life together. She was telling me that we all have a reason for being, a purpose while we walk this green and glorious earth.

Will you tell her she was mine?

What I’m Thankful For

This fall I took an online class on the personal essay, never realizing how all consuming it would be. Between weekly readings, 3,500-word assignments, and a discussion board serving as our virtual classroom, I felt as if I was back in graduate school.

So I was relieved to finish up last week, eager to get back to my life. Two days later I flew to Philadelphia to visit my son Andrew and his fiancée, Kendall. On Saturday, we drove north of the city to the Woodmere Art Museum. Its exclusive focus is on artists from Philadelphia. None of us had heard of it before but were drawn to a special exhibit recently launched of the photographs of John Mosley (1907-1969). A photojournalist his entire career, he documented the Black community post-Great Migration. In more than 100 black-and-white unframed images, Mosley chronicled the positive, vibrant life of Blacks during this period of history: Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King; Langston Hughes; Joe Louis and Jesse Owens; the church, culture clubs, the YMCA, and Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City, to name a few.

On the heels of a decidedly strange political season and an even stranger outcome, where our country’s future is anything but certain, and the rules are being rewritten and roles redefined, I am suddenly grateful for art and its practitioners. Grateful that an entire army of creative people march to their own beat. Grateful that on any given day I can read an essay by Joan Didion, attend an exhibit by Haitian mixed media artist Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre, listen to K.D. Lang’s version of “Halleluiah” by Leonard Cohen, hear Billy Collins read his poems, and smile at how extraordinary it is to be alive.

I am grateful that artists care about truth and find infinite expressions for it. For Italo Calvino, writing connected him to a “collective enterprise.” Mary Gaitskill writes “to give form to things we can sense but not see.” Writers, according to Susan Sontag and many others, pay attention to the world. Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That . . . prism is the art of literature.” Art interprets life for us, giving us the rich texture of the most ordinary moments.

For my money and time, listening to an enduring piece of music, viewing the work of a visual artist, or opening a good book are not different versions of turning away from the events of the day. Getting “lost” in art—better, filling up on art—means glimpsing the very essence of what matters. Saul Bellow called it “opening life up down to the pit.” Artists, it turns out, are much less afraid of the truth than the politicians who spin it.

Back to School

I recently enrolled in an online class that starts in September. As soon as I signed up and paid, I felt a slight increase in heart rate, a twirl in my stomach, that eagerness that I associate with learning. Until the class begins, I am happy to visualize my much younger instructor, who teaches from a trailer she lives in with her husband on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan and a Bible camp she attended as a child. Oh, the things I will learn!

When I think of going back to school, I am transported to Ogden Avenue Elementary, a solid three-story stone and brick structure six blocks from my home, straight east on the same street that connected me to the world.

There I learned multiplication and division. I discovered science and history. I argued (and won) that women were the stronger sex, thanks to my mother, who suggested my thesis: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” One day during recess I outran every sixth grader. I learned to square dance. I was friends with the janitor. What I remember most about my grade school was the absolute cleanliness that greeted me each weekday when I walked in the double doors. Every corridor and wall gleamed. Windows were free of streaks and grubby fingerprints. It was as if dirt of any kind would interfere with learning. All of which gave my early formal education an antiseptic smell, not unlike that of a sterile environment.

One year, probably second or third grade, a student reported me for writing in chalk on the sidewalks between home and school. The principal was a pale, thin man with my last name, differently spelled. I had written nothing offensive. I hadn’t even written on school property. I remember sitting outside his office barely able to swallow. My bladder was about to explode. All I felt was an overwhelming sense of wrongdoing. I’d never been in trouble before, at least not with anyone I didn’t live with.

He lectured me about defacing public property. “I don’t ever want to have to talk to you about this again, do you understand?” I nodded and bit my cheeks so I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. Beneath the layers of Lutheran guilt that had already begun to rise like puff pastry, I knew I’d done nothing wrong. That the next time it rained, the directionals like “stop” or “this way,” the fanciful designs I had drawn on cement would disappear. My “sin” would be washed away.

My mother may have felt her own guilt for not defending me. She didn’t tell the principal his thinking was thin, his boundaries overreached, his notion of a lesson learned entirely wrong. Instead she picked me up from school at noon, a kind of offering on the seat between us—egg salad sandwich, potato chips, a cookie, and a lidded jar filled with milk of the off-brand powdered variety, which for years I considered a dairy product. I ate while she drove me to Ben Franklin so I could pick out a new outfit for my Barbie doll.

Back to school. Even students weighed down by backpacks filled with supplies and egg salad sandwiches know the secret. Probably learned it before kindergarten. If you ask them, they will tell you that learning doesn’t fit into a 9-month period, and doesn’t happen only within the classroom. That the world itself—its storms and force fields, molecules and mountains, honeybees and chimpanzees—is our school and playground. That the events of the day—shootings and protests, politicians trying to convince us that their sins are more forgivable than their opponents’—are where we can practice critical thinking, careful listening, civil discourse. Somewhere in all of the haze, we just might stumble onto a truth.

In my back yard, the monarchs and hummingbirds have shown up to feast on the orange Mexican daisies grown from seed to six feet. Students of life, these elegant winged creatures are fueling themselves for the journey ahead.

Half a Cucumber

I didn’t realize I knew where I was going

Two months ago Jim and I were standing in early light at Port Allen on Kauai, waiting to board a catamaran. The itinerary was to snorkel while the waters were calm, then head up the Napali Coast and, if we were lucky, see some whales. I unlocked my phone and, as if I needed any justification for being there, checked the weather in Minnesota. Minus 20 that morning. The weather where I stood in shorts and sandals, 68.

I checked e-mail, quickly deleting a few. Then I noticed one from the Minnesota Women’s Press. A solicitation, I decided, wondering how I got on that distribution list. We still had 15 minutes before departure, so I opened the e-mail.

The editor was asking permission to publish an essay I had submitted. Essay? What was she talking about? I admit my brain wasn’t fully revved. I had avoided coffee that morning, concerned about how my stomach would handle the motion of the boat for six hours. But I wasn’t so dull that I was sure I hadn’t sent anything to the press. Ever. There must be a mistake.

The editor even attached the article I had submitted, perhaps by way of saying, “You probably thought we never received your submission since we didn’t acknowledge it or decided it wasn’t right for our needs at this time.”

Curious, I opened the document. My submission was dated October 2014, 16 months ago. Gradually, the haze lifted. I had picked up a copy of the magazine once, seen a column called “My Story,” and thought I could share mine. And so, apparently, I had.

I read words I’d written, then forgotten. Yet they were familiar. The essay, “Life after Death,” is a kind of overview of the memoir I’m working on. I was surprised, more than anything, to read that even a year and half ago I had a sense of what I was doing, where I was going. (Or, that I am just as confused today as I was back then.)

As I muddle my way toward a structure that will hold these events and reflections, I feel reassured that I have some clarity about what I’m doing. Which was just the assurance I needed yesterday when I opened the freezer to pull out the fruit to make a smoothie and found, under the bag of strawberries, half a cucumber.

You can read the essay from the April issue of The Minnesota Women’s Press here.

Work as Prayer

Finding the sacred in what we do

I am 62, an age when the word “retirement” comes up frequently in conversation.

“I can’t wait to retire in June,” Jim says, but will.

“I doubt I’ll ever retire,” a woman laments, having never quite recovered from accumulated debt.

“I can’t believe how busy I am since I retired,” another Jim says who has devoted much of his time to mastering the cello.

“I worry I will spend all of my time on Facebook,” a friend who will retire later this year confesses.

For me, the word “retirement” doesn’t quite fit. I’m no longer an employee or independent contractor. Yet, by my calculations, I spend more than 25 hours a week in my home office. “Working,” I tell myself and others, to give “writing” some heft and credibility. We writers are an insecure bunch at heart and will do what we need to to elevate our craft—which we labor over with few if any guarantees—to a legitimate pursuit.

Near the end of the Ash Wednesday service last week, my mental gears were already shifting. Which route should I take to get to St. Louis Park, where I planned to visit my mother-in-law and then spend the evening with the grandkids? Should I have picked up Valentine’s Day cards? Did I remember my slippers? If 2-year-old Charlie looks at my forehead funny because of the dark smudge, should I tell him Grandma forgot to wash her face?

The words from the final prayer of the service broke through my wanderings: “. . . work as prayer . . .” Huh. The confession, the psalm, the sermon had all held me briefly with their power, but “work as prayer” wouldn’t let me go.

During my drive across town I turned the phrase round and round in my mouth and in my head until “work as prayer” became its own petition. May my work be a sacred conversation. May my writing reflect the longings of the heart. May all that I do be a sign of thanksgiving, forgiveness, and love.

Some of us still work. Some of us are glad we don’t. Still others have found different pursuits to enrich our lives. Imagine that whatever we occupy our time with we call prayer. How would it change the nature of what we do? How would it change us?

Writer-friend Nancy J. Nordenson talks about work in her elegant book Finding Livelihood. “Like Studs Terkel’s workers,” she writes, “I am on a search for daily meaning as well as for daily bread . . . I want to cast my net on the side of astonishment . . . I want to find God at work in me and through me.” (p. 4)

Nordenson’s wisdom on the subject of livelihood has drawn me closer to understanding work as prayer. Work as provision and work for the sheer delight of it. Maybe “astonishment” is the word I seek. Maybe it’s the and that retirement allows.

I vote we lose the word “retirement” because it no longer applies. People of a certain age are doing anything and everything but our parents’ version of retiring. They are helping their children. They are reading more. They are sharing what they know with others. They are pursuing hobbies, seriously or not. They may be employed part-time in a no-stress job and loving it. Perhaps, after all these years, they are finding their heart’s passion. Or they’re enjoying the legacy they built during a long career and mentoring others to do the same. Each is a prayer of thanksgiving and gratitude. A prayer that whatever we do, whenever we do it, our “work” is done with a fullness we may never have believed possible.

The Narrow Eye of Dawn

I am in my office this sixth day of a new year, shades open, houses and trees visible outside my bank of windows. The clock reads “8:25.” This time of year I am used to starting my days in the dark walking Indie. I make little effort to see much, since there is little to see. I am also used to night fading to a dull neutral and calling it day.

Then, I look up and see a small fire through the bare branches. As if an artist dipped her brush in copper pigment and placed it on a blank canvas, letting the paint form a pool of color before moving the brush in a single broad stroke to the right. I keep watching. “And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” The stroke of color intensifies. Now I see a brilliant band of light: the narrow eye of dawn.

Even a quiet dawn is a beginning. This is when it happens. This is when I think of a loved one. This is when I resolve to be a better person. This is when an insight comes to my dull brain, sparking new energy. Even as gray, dawn is noticeable. Even as a thin streak that is gone as quickly as it appeared, dawn brings more light.