YEAR 2: DAY 235: SUMMERING THROUGH

Today is August 22, 2012 the 235th day of the year.

I last reported (that’s a fairly glib use of the word) to you From This Ter­race on the 11th day of a newly minted year. Although I wrote with hon­esty about reach­ing a place where I wasn’t wait­ing, I think I must have been wait­ing, as we all do. It’s the human response to life’s chal­lenges and per­haps an indi­ca­tion of hope for change.

I’m not recant­ing. I’m con­fess­ing I couldn’t live up to the ide­al­ized higher self I thought I had come close to touch­ing in the heady days of early Jan­u­ary. At least I glimpsed what I thought I could achieve. Then many things col­lided at once. The temp­ta­tion to push aside what I felt wasn’t essen­tial over­took me. And silence ensued, and did it ever last. 224 days of it. The Stone Sage Lion began to roar at me and that’s quite a feat.

Silence is a writer’s best friend, or so I’ve been told. The great Russ­ian poet Anna Akhma­tova said that there was only one lux­ury a writer could not live with­out — the abil­ity to be absolutely alone. I’ve been mostly alone in the days of this year — if not always in actu­al­ity, a still soli­tude has taken up res­i­dence in my brain. It’s not felt like a lux­ury, but more a defeat occa­sioned by ill­ness and life choices. It’s made me think about silence and soli­tude. It’s made me remem­ber the writer and scholar Car­olyn Heil­brun who spoke about soli­tude being some­thing one craved only if one did not have to endure it all of the time.

Sum­mer is a silent time in my part of the world. Sup­press your laugh­ter. In fact, my Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood is quiet because peo­ple go away. They “do sum­mer” and I don’t “do sum­mer” any longer. Sum­mer was never my friend but I pre­tended we were inti­mates. Even­tu­ally, the pre­tense gave way to the real­ity of my life. I stopped being a truth-evader. Sum­mer and I do not get along well. We’re not a good match – I think of us as a con­stantly quar­rel­ing cou­ple. So rather than win­ter­ing through as Rilke com­mands in his son­net, I’ve sum­mered through. I’ve decided what’s essen­tial is to com­bine silence with con­nec­tions, even if those take the form of sus­tained email con­ver­sa­tions with friends. I still believe C.S. Lewis was right when he said that we read to know we are not alone…but I now add my foot­note to his com­ment … I think many of us write to know we are not alone. That is surely the case for me.

So, am I wait­ing for some­thing? Yes, I am. I am wait­ing to learn how to let go of extreme expec­ta­tions for myself that blind­side me to the small­est plea­sures of a day. Early this morn­ing, I was awak­ened by the sound of birds in the mid­dle of this com­pletely urban land­scape. They were rum­mag­ing through the terrace’s hang­ing flower boxes to see if by chance there was a tasty morsel for them to enjoy for break­fast. They were chat­ter­ing to each other, and to me.

From This Ter­race is Open…again…finally.

©Alida Brill/From This Ter­race 2012

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YEAR 2: DAY 11 — WELCOME TO 2012: NO WAITING REQUIRED

Today is the 11th Day of 2012, the 2nd year of From This Terrace.

“The high­est activ­ity a human being can attain is learn­ing for under­stand­ing because to under­stand is to be free.” — Baruch de Spin­oza (1632–1677)

So much of what we do and think about involves wait­ing. We wait to grow up and wait to get a job only to spend years in jobs wait­ing to retire. Once we are grown up many of us want to be young again and will do many expen­sive and dan­ger­ous things to look as young as we did when we were wait­ing to be older.

We wait to fall in love with the per­fect per­son, often over­look­ing the love that would have lasted. Then we wait to get a divorce or wait to find the next flawed com­pan­ion or spouse con­vinc­ing our­selves that it will be the right one, only to wait for them to make a mis­take or miss a step. So we can wait to start our lives over once again.

We wait for mir­a­cle diets or mir­a­cle cures for what is wrong with our bod­ies. We wait to have chil­dren or once we have them wait for them to grow up and leave us alone. When they do, we wait for them to call us, spend more time with us, or come back home. If they come back home, we wait for them to get a job and move out. Some of us are wait­ing to go to heaven when we die, but if we become ill will sub­ject our­selves to almost any­thing in order not to die.

A lone leaf on a branch.

It seems the human con­di­tion is about wait­ing for some­thing other than what we have or wait­ing to go or be some­where other than where we are — in life, in the age cycle, in the world, in rela­tion­ships and in our careers.

I can’t help but won­der what the cal­cu­la­tion of time lost wait­ing would tell us about the way we have spent our time allot­ted on this planet. Surely it would tell us that too often we have failed to find joy in the moments. The eter­nity of now is a con­cept much under-appreciated but one that forces me out of the wait­ing room of my life.

For 2012 I decided not to make res­o­lu­tions I’ll only break in the first month. This year I didn’t promise myself once again I would stop watch­ing very late night tele­vi­sion com­pletely. I refused to con myself into believ­ing I had eaten my last over-the-top choco­late or that I would give up car­bo­hy­drates. I’ve stopped writ­ing down exactly how many pages I will write each day or how many friends I promise to see this year.

Most impor­tantly, I’ve stopped wait­ing for the per­fect life to occur because despite all that is dif­fi­cult … maybe, just maybe, my life is per­fect, as it is. It’s all in the definition.

Here are my thoughts on Not Wait­ing for 2012:

I am not wait­ing to get well.

I am not wait­ing in fear that I’ll get sicker.

I am not wait­ing to be loved and under­stood in pre­cise and rigid ways.

I am not wait­ing to die.

I am not wait­ing to suffer.

I am not wait­ing to change oth­ers or myself for the better.

I am not wait­ing to be sur­prised by 2012’s goodness.

I am not wait­ing to be dis­ap­pointed by 2012’s events.

I am liv­ing. Just liv­ing because it is a full and com­plex job.

I am resolved to enjoy liv­ing in each moment of each new day.

Wak­ing up each morn­ing to start liv­ing over and over again each day until I say good­bye to 2012.

And won’t wait in order to begin again, begin anew.

Because I am not wait­ing I am free.

I am present.

“Eter­nity is not some­thing that begins after you are dead. It is going on all the time. We are in it now.” Char­lotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)

©Alida Brill 2012

 

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Year 2, Day 1: A Song For the New Year

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE YEAR 2012
The Sec­ond Year of the Sec­ond Decade
of the 21st Cen­tury
 

A Song For the New Year
From A Shel­tered Place

I’ve stopped to watch a man skip­ping stones in a shel­tered cove
In a grace­ful angu­lar motion he takes each one then hurls it into the bay
I see only him and not the stones — he seems a gen­tly tex­tured man
With each one he moves in toward the water to help it take an extra hop
Crouch­ing by the shore he judges the dis­tance of the skip then begins again
His male­ness has a dan­ger­ous vul­ner­a­bil­ity and I will not let him go
Over and over he skips stones across the water in a pre-ordained rit­ual
Enor­mous pain and hap­pi­ness dance together in his eyes.

I won­der what the stones at once so heavy and so light mean to him
I think they are hope and death because that is what he is to me
I see Vir­ginia in another time putting other stones into her pock­ets
Not stones for skip­ping but for sink­ing. She sits at her desk
and then writes her last let­ter to him:
I’ve done the best I could, please for­give.’ And Leonard did.

Now he moves to the far end of the cove and casts the last stone
His mouth wide open in a mourn­ful scream but there is no sound
Count­ing 1–2-3–4-5–6-7 — 8 jumps it takes, the best stone of all
In a look of release not vic­tory he con­tin­ues on his way
He bows in trib­ute to an enor­mous absence he alone knows.

I wait for the arrival of the stone’s absolute absence
I desire that pre­cise moment when there is no trace of exis­tence
I think then of other absolutes: the pre­dictabil­ity of sink­ing
Of Vir­ginia, and of me
I think about this man and the bur­dens he car­ried in the stones
I won­der what fur­ther sor­rows he will yet dis­cover on his jour­ney
Across the rocky beach I wit­ness him mov­ing away from me
Despite his retreat I believe in him and that love exists in silence.

In soft dreams my own stones leave me with­out effort
Gath­er­ing them­selves from inside my heart they fly upward
And catch an osprey guard­ing his nest
Osprey misses noth­ing – he sees all our stones
He knows the dis­ap­pear­ing man and my heart­grief
In a flash of his wing­spread Osprey cov­ers me in shadow

He flies toward his nest, his home, his refuge, his duty
In oblig­a­tory exul­ta­tion of joy I watch him land
I look up to him and down to the water
Pos­sess­ing noth­ing I indulge a thought of enor­mous grat­i­tude
For this small event of last­ing mag­nif­i­cence
In my past resides a man in a shel­tered cove skip­ping stones
I sur­ren­der my stones and in an instant’s breath I release
Everyone’s stones and feel sud­denly and com­pletely … Alive.

©Alida Brill 2012

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Day 355: The Family Tree

TODAY IS THE 355TH DAY OF THE YEAR

ALL OF US AT FROM THIS TERRACE WISH ALL OF YOU A HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON FILLED WITH THE JOY OF FAMILY MEMORIES AND WITH THE ANTICIPATION OF ALL THAT IS YET TO COME.


The Fam­ily Tree

I retain almost no visual image of my grand­fa­ther except that his eyes were crys­talline, as shim­mer­ing blue as Lake Michigan’s deep­est waters. He cut ice with his friends and co-workers. I have fan­tasy images about this man who spent so much time on frozen sur­faces to make his liv­ing. Ice Men sold blocks of har­vested ice from horse drawn wag­ons through­out the streets of the city. The ice­box was the only form of refrig­er­a­tion then avail­able. Grand­fa­ther was a har­vester, not a sales­man of ice. But when I was a girl I heard about a famous play, The Ice­man Cometh. And made the assump­tion Grand­fa­ther must have been impor­tant if an entire play had been named for his occupation.

Frozen Stream

On land he designed and built a large wooden home for his wife and grow­ing fam­ily. It was crafted from the reclaimed lum­ber of an aban­doned ice stor­age house. I try to imag­ine it being dis­man­tled and hauled off a frigid lake or river to a street named Lil­lib­ridge in the Vil­lage of Fairview, which even­tu­ally became part of Detroit. From this for­got­ten and once frozen lum­ber he cre­ated a res­i­dence of grace­ful sub­stance and a large hearth for the wife he loved. My grand­mother was a woman con­sid­ered beyond his sta­tion in life. Grand­fa­ther was proud to be part of the indus­try that kept food fresh, safe from spoil­ing. The inven­tion of the mod­ern elec­tric refrig­er­a­tor as a com­mon domes­tic appli­ance changed everyone’s life. The fact of indus­trial progress trans­ferred his pri­mary iden­tity to the cat­e­gory of his­tor­i­cal footnote.

As my mother grew older, sto­ries about her father were more often about his life on land. He worked as a skilled car­pen­ter. Today he would be called a cus­tom cab­i­net­maker. Her favorite mem­ory was walk­ing to meet him at the end of each work­ing day. Patiently she waited on the cor­ner where he got off the street­car. He greeted her — always pre­tend­ing sur­prise. She slipped her hand into the pocket of his jacket and reacted with rec­i­p­ro­cal sur­prise when she found half a cheese sand­wich saved from his lunch. Through­out her long life the mean­ing of the cheese sand­wich lin­gered as a code. Through a scrap of left­over lunch he found a way to express love. Theirs was a large fam­ily — all the other sib­lings were boys; she was his only girl and the youngest.

For a time I lived close to the sea. My writ­ing room was a slap­dash addi­tion over the garage. I loved that soli­tary peace­ful space. It was the only part of the prop­erty with an ocean view. Each morn­ing I counted the waves from my perch. Already in her 90s, my mother climbed the stairs to sit with me. We drank tea. We talked about books and the impor­tance of women’s equal­ity. Mostly we talked about poetry or read it aloud to one another. Some­times her words drifted back to Detroit to relate the tales of her enor­mous extended fam­ily, by then all deceased.

As her lifes­pan com­pressed she talked increas­ingly of her father who had been dead for at least four decades. One visit she pro­duced a snap­shot taken of the two of us – a tiny child stand­ing next to a lean old man. She said I had bro­ken his heart. On a visit to Detroit he pre­sented me with a fancy teddy bear, and I did not per­mit him to hug me. The story shamed me, but there wasn’t a place for my emo­tions. No per­son left to ask for­give­ness. I was a young child. He was tall and thin as a pen­cil. — An ancient man with for­eign ways I did not under­stand; he fright­ened me.

At the end of that visit Mama made the announce­ment she had some­thing impor­tant to give me. She had the unfor­tu­nate habit of giv­ing me a small trin­ket of sen­ti­men­tal fam­ily value only to decide in a few weeks she wasn’t really ready to let it go. And would then demand return of the fam­ily remem­brance. It was a game I didn’t enjoy. I had become dis­in­ter­ested in these offer­ings and intol­er­ant of her behav­ior. This par­tic­u­lar day she pulled out a worn fold­ing wooden ruler. Its num­bers were faded.

This was your Grandfather’s work­ing ruler. He used it in every­thing he ever made.” He was pre­cise and care­ful in his craft. I owned a toy box he had made. This ruler was an essen­tial tool of his trade. I was trans­fixed by it. I wanted his fold­ing ruler for rea­sons I could not express. Now I know I wanted it as a sym­bol of the eter­nal mar­riage between cre­ativ­ity and craft.

Are you sure, because I do want this, and I won’t return it to you. Even if you ask me to give it back. It will sit here on my writ­ing table.”

She kept her word. The ruler stayed.

There is a sacred qual­ity to this old piece of wood with its worn numbers.

I have lit­tle expe­ri­ence of what fam­ily life means and scant his­tory liv­ing within one. The fold­ing ruler means I belong to a longer story than my soli­tary one.

Some months after Grandfather’s ruler came to stay, I looked out the win­dow that faced the sea. I didn’t bother with the ocean view. It was a windy day. I focused on a tree bend­ing deeply in the breeze. An eclipsed mem­ory of Grand­fa­ther came into my head. It was based on the rep­e­ti­tion of Mama’s sto­ries, not per­sonal expe­ri­ence. His pres­ence flooded my senses.

I picked up the ruler and thought about the con­nec­tion between these two crafts — writ­ing and wood­work­ing. I imag­ined him clos­ing and extend­ing the ruler until the wood was per­fectly mea­sured. In my mind I saw him tame that wood with his skilled hands, as it turned into some­thing use­ful, some­thing beau­ti­ful. I, his grand­child from another cen­tury, was seated at my writ­ing table. I was work­ing and rework­ing ungrace­ful wooden sen­tences, clause-by-clause, word-by-word, and then letter-by-letter. We were con­nected to each other by his old and faded fold­ing ruler.

Today a branch sags in the wind
Grand­fa­ther you are this branch

Weath­ered and brown as nut
I cut the branch down and
held it in my hands
it turned into my pencil

A half-century away from me
I wrote this note to you:
Grand­fa­ther I Love You.

Ice
becomes
wood
becomes
the house
becomes
the tree
becomes
the pen­cil
becomes
the words
becomes
me
remem­ber­ing you.

 

Folding Tools

©2011 Alida Brill

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