Category: living

A Grave Error

 

The other evening, about cocktail hour, I sat on the chaise in the backyard of our house near the village, looking at the tree swallows wheeling and chittering high up in the sky. It reminded me of when I lived in the woods not too long ago, and I was comforted to see these birds here, too. What else have I seen, I asked myself? Ospreys and egrets, since the river is so close. Catbirds, wrens, bluebirds, cardinals, house finches.And bald eagles. I have heard thrushes on those soft mornings they love so much. Plenty, to feel like I’m still surrounded by nature.

Living here has advantages to living in the woods. There’s the Tour de Crumb Cake, for instance. This is when I ride my bike down the river road until I get to Not Ken’s Coffeehouse, where I buy two crumb cakes and one coffee (one of the crumb cakes is for Richie, of course.) I arrange them all in the bag on my D.E.B. bike (intelligently designed and made by Kris Henry for just such a purpose) and pedal until I get to an entrance nearly obscured by large hedges, where I turn and coast past the gravestones to a bench overlooking the water. Here I sit and eat my crumb cake and drink whatever coffee hasn’t spilled out, and I am soothed.

One day, I was disheartened and annoyed to see a small group of people at the overlook near the bench where I always sat. Grumpily, I biked to a different bench and munched the crumb cake, but it was not the same. Obviously other people had discovered the peace and beauty of this place, and now it would be ruined forever; it would be a destination. I cast baleful glances at the group as I munched, until small details pierced through my irritation. I felt sheepish.

It was a funeral.

And so, the cemetery remains a safe destination for rest and peace,

and not just for me.

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The Buddy Capers

 

Buddy went to his first cyclocross race of the season in Rochester, in that lovely Olmstead designed park. Buddy is fond of children, the smaller the better, although I suspect he likes the babies in strollers primarily for the stuffed toys wedged in the stroller with them. He is gentle, though, as he roots out the toys and tugs them from their dark corners. Some babies think this is funny and gurgle with delight as they see their stuffed alligators or teddy bears making their way in Buddy’s careful mouth to the light of day; others become upset as they see their toys changing hands. They are probably future Republicans.

Buddy had satisfying exchanges with three sets of children that weekend. The first was a tiny infant being carried by its mother in a front-harness baby holder. I had Buddy in his own backpack, on my back. In case you haven’t seen it, Buddy sits in the pack with his head and one leg visible, looking like, as someone observed, “a cabby with his arm hanging out.” When the infant saw Buddy on my back, his neutral expression creased into a slow, serene, appreciative smile. Really, it was just like having a Buddhist monk smile at us.

The second was a group of three siblings. They asked (as most children do these days) if they could pet Buddy, who had trotted right up to them. He nestled himself into the center of the three as they crowded around, gently patting and exclaiming about how soft he was.

“I like how his mouth does this,” said the littlest boy and made a small moue.

“I wish we could have a dog. We might get one,” said the middle child, a small boy, with an Arab name.

“We won’t get one,” said his older sister, who had early adolescent pimples and braces but who seemed full of joy. She hadn’t said it to be mean, I could tell. There are disappointments in life, she seemed to know already, and there was no point in pretending otherwise. I really liked those kids.

The third encounter was a little four-or-five-year-old who marched up, and asked to pet Buddy.

“Sure,” I said. “He likes people who are little.”

As soon as I said that, I knew it was wrong and the child set me straight at once.

“I’m not little,” he said without rancor.

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that.”

Facts restored, he proceeded to pet Buddy. “What’s his name?”

“Buddy,” I said.

He paused, his face wrinkled in puzzlement. “What’s his nickname?”

I cracked up. Because, really, he had a point.

“Little potato,” I said, and now the boy cracked up.

An hour or so later, Buddy and I were near the finish line and I heard a shrill, piping

voice behind us, getting louder, “His nickname is little potato.”

I looked around. The not-little kid was ushering a group of friends over.

“His nickname is little potato,” he informed them again, bending down to pet Buddy proprietarily.

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TMI

I’ve taken myself off Facebook and twitter, not that hardly anyone would notice. Except of course, me, which was the point.

I have shut the door to the party. Once, when I was a teenager, my mother and I were driving into Hartford and we passed by the huge brick Aetna building, I said to her: “I would like to live there so that I could have a party in this part—“ I indicated the vast right-hand wing, “but my room would be here—“ I indicated the equally vast left hand-wing “so I could be alone.” Naturally, she looked at me oddly. But what I was trying to say was that I love people and I love doing things to make them happy, but I find them overwhelming.

So that’s that. Despite FB telling me that so-and-so really misses hearing from me (doubt it) I’m sticking to my decision. Fact is, I don’t miss the party. I do wonder slightly if I am like the ostrich, but then again, I do my bit in my own way, so I feel okay about that.

Interestingly, E.B. White felt the same way about the effect of television: “When I was a child,” he wrote in One Man’s Meat, his book of essays published in 1938, “people simply looked about them and were moderately happy. Nowadays they peer across the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.”

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Moving Along

 

I thought I’d tell you about how my life has changed since the election outcome. First, the good news for me, is that I’m white, albeit female so a certain part of my anatomy is apparently up for grabs, but at least I don’t have to worry about Neanderthal types yelling racial slurs or hitting me. So that’s good. But what’s bad is that I am stunned we humans are so tribal, so ignorant, and so full of base hatred for The Other. So I have to try to reconcile that.

But a very good thing has also happened, and it is that I feel united with the majority and I feel a sobering awareness to use my white privilege to stand up for the vulnerable. My sister-in-law told me, “My headscarf is ready if they start registering Muslims.” She is Jewish. But how wonderful to contemplate one hundred million people registering as Muslims in the United States.

There is a power in behaving with decency that is less obvious than the shock-value of barbaric outrageousness, but decency is the far stronger power, since it is based on values that enrich the soul, rather than corrode it.

“Against eternal injustice, man must assert justice, and to protest against the universe of grief, he must create happiness.” –Albert Camus

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There is Still Beauty

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This morning I watched two squirrels go back and forth, back and forth, leaping from branch to branch with mouthfuls of leaves, dressing up their nest. Yesterday I walked with a friend along the winter beach; the sun sparkled against the dark water, the sandpipers clustered, the marsh hawk silently soaring and the colors of rust, yellow, purple blending into a song of November.

There is still beauty. We humans are love and hate, kindness and cruelty. But the natural world—the natural world just is. And there is a great peace in that.

…Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled–
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing–
that the light is everything–that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Excerpted from The Ponds, by Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver Reminds Us in These Harsh Times

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I thought it might be time for something beautiful.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the trees
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver

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Manners, People. Manners

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Yesterday, Richie and I were in Rockport, Massachusetts, a picturesque little town on Cape Ann. There, we got into conversation with a resident. He talked about his work (owning and managing apartments) and how much he missed his wife of fifty-eight years who had recently died. We were three humans, connecting. Then I looked up and saw in his window, a sign: “Proud to be a member of the basket of deplorables.” Oh dear, I thought, a trump supporter. {Still!} We carried on talking in our friendly way and Richie mentioned that we were here for the Gran Prix Cyclocross race. I could feel the man pull back, in much the same way I had when I read his sign. Oh dear, his body language said, one of them. (The Gran Prix is not liked by residents because it tears up the park—although the race hires landscapers to repair it afterwards.) But we continued talking, continued connecting, because we are well-mannered people.

Currently, within the United States manners have been, by some, derided as “political correctness.” They’re not. They are an essential survival tool for a society. When manners go, society goes. Good manners towards another human indicates respect. No, you needn’t agree with their positions on things, but your display of good manners confers to them the respect due to another member of your society and by doing so—and this is key—you also establish to them, your own sense of self respect.

Invariably, rude people are unsecure people. As President Obama recently observed about a certain someone who most decidedly lacks good manners, “he pumps himself up by pushing others down.” When we feel threatened—insecure—our instinct is to hit back to force our threatener to feel worse than we do. Ergo, we are not at the bottom anymore!

Manners prevent us from lashing out destructively while we (ideally) work out within ourselves that which is making us feel insecure. The process of working it out is self-responsibility. Accepting self-responsibility is growth. Growth feeds self-respect.

Courage: grace manners under pressure.

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Cherish the Ladies

Our cyclocross season began last weekend with Rochester. A Category 1 race on Saturday and a Category 2 on Sunday. From my non-racer perspective, a C1 race means that the officials are Very Attentive about UCI rules. Must be wearing pit pass. Must have right size tires. Must not feed. The first two rules are yadda-yadda. The last is more of a problem. The “No Feeding” rule states that the racers can carry water with them, but cannot be handed water. However, many ‘cross bikes don’t have water bottle cages on them and skinsuits don’t have pockets. Cyclocross is a cold weather sport (theoretically) and the race lasts an hour, so the whole hydration thing isn’t supposed to be an issue. But it is becoming one, due to climate change.

On Saturday, when the Elite Women raced, the heat index was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. After their hour of racing, the women crossed the line for the final time and fell over. Literally. One racer was taken to the hospital for heat stroke. The race organization, seeing the sprawl of bodies, brought over bottles of water and ice. Now it was the Elite Men’s turn to race (they race after the women) and Rochester, a race organization that Gets Things Done, set up a hose to spray the men as they raced by and had people waiting at the finish line, handing out bottles of cold water to the men as they finished. Great! You say.

Not so great, I say. The race organization should have known that the very high heat combined with no water combined with strenuous activity would lead to problems. Why did they wait to see the triage that was the women’s race before instituting adjustments? Why, in a nutshell, were the women the guinea pigs?

The Rochester race organization is superlative and they put on a great race. They would deny this implication of neglect. And I would believe them. Because this casual judgment that women are less valuable than men is insidious. It is certainly not limited to cyclocross racing.

But you have to start somewhere and call it out when you see it. So let’s start here. Women work just as hard as men during the race. Elite athletes are elite athletes. Enough with the casual neglect that speaks of a blind spot.

Let’s start giving women athletes the same respect, attention, and care that men athletes get.

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The Vulnerati

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There is a pervasive myopia, and it is, that talent and success come to fruition solely by the genius of the person in question.

No one has ever done anything that is worthwhile alone.

There is always someone or someones who maintain the foundation of—lets call it that incubative stuff they put in petri dishes—that matrix, so that the cells can grow, unimpeded. There is always someone who provides one or more of the following: financial support, child care, housework, emotional support, intellectual support, physical support.

Leaving out this other half —and it is at least half—of the story in a profile of a successful person perpetuates the tired, and let’s face it, untrue trope of the solitary genius.

Walt Whitman had, not only his sister, but a wife to wait on him and take care of his every emotional and physical need so that he could create in petri dish splendor. Edward Weston had Tina Modotti. And so on.

I am looking forward to the day when a profile of a successful person—of any gender—includes the other half of the story, which is, of course, the whole story.

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The New Feminine Beauty

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The Democratic National Convention and the Olympics had a couple of things in common. They both exemplified the strength inherent in diversity and tolerance, and they both had some seriously powerful women’s bodies on display.

I’ve always been fascinated by the different shapes and sizes of athletes’ bodies during the Olympics and not because I’m objectifying them, but the opposite: their diversity proves to me that there is not one physical ideal of beauty—especially, most especially–in women. Gymnast Simone Biles is tiny and compact with the shoulders and hips of a linebacker. Swimmer Katie Ledecky is tall and long with big, big shoulders. And weightlifter Sarah Elizabeth Robles is a mountain. And thay are each so, so beautiful.

At the Democratic convention, Chelsea Clinton strode out on stage, post recent baby-birthing in a siren red, tight sheath, belly rolls, breasts and boutay on full powerful display. She owned her body and what it could do. The beauty of power and strength is the new standard of feminine beauty.

Sure there are holdouts—those women who still think that looking like Barbie is beauty. But I think if they gave it some thought—scratched the surface—they would see that Barbie is a man’s idealization of a women—blank expression on the face, large breasts, small hips, little shoulders—all the better to live in subservience.

And speaking of subservience, does anyone remember what those Republican convention women looked like? Hmmm, yes. Barbie.

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