The Great Idleness

There are those of you how are traveling now, on your way to family and friends, or perhaps  you are heading out west, or to Vermont, for ski slopes and sleigh rides and hot chocolate by a fire. 

Maybe you are knee-deep into a house project, one of those projects that you came up with this time last year, sketched out on graph paper over the President’s Day weekend, ignored in the heat of summer, and are shamed into it, finally, now that you have a yawning break between Christmas and New Year’s, motivated as you are, to draw a line through the task before the calendar turns on Monday.

I don’t know you people.

I am not like you.

For this is the idlest of weeks in my year.  The curtain closes on Christmas Day long about 3:00 p.m. for my family.  Alway has.  The tradition is rooted deep in our childhood, when the five of us, fueled by too much sugar and anticipation, and deprived of sleep and a control of our emotions, would crash and burn and dissolve into tears or pouts or fisticuffs mid afternoon on Christmas Day. 

Often the ending of the holiday was punctuated by a trip to the alley to sort through the trash of ripped wrapping paper in search of a part, or instructions or some other vital thing accidentally tossed out in the mayhem of the morning.

Flashlights were involved. 

Failure usually, sometimes success, but after you have had your head in a trashcan for half an hour, the magic of the holiday season is truly and finally over.

Then the Great Idleness began. For the next five days we barely got out of our pajamas, we ran around the house, played with our toys, stacked and re-stacked our presents in front of the tree.  Counted them, took naps with them, played and played, and wondered how the holiday had come and passed so quickly.  We discussed how long it would be until next Christmas, the agony of that, the letdown that this one came and went so soon.

So, the week between the holidays hasn’t changed much for me.  I sleep late, turn on the lights of the tree, and think…about nothing much at all.  I flip through my Netflix list, looking for something to watch, but fall asleep before the opening credits.  I read books, or rather, I think about reading them. Spend whole afternoon mapping my walks on an app on my phone.

These are walks I intend to take, not walks I have any intention of taking.  I might wander over to my sister’s, but her boys are home and they will have eaten all the good stuff.  I will go to the grocery and  bring home something healthful and cosy, a chicken to roast, or soup. 

I will prepare these things, but I will eat Chex Mix  and cheese balls instead.

Winter has always been a time of conserving.  Our must-do tasks boil down to only a few essential things—keeping warm, keeping fed, keeping our minds occupied.  So, maybe this is the week we make our first preparations for surviving the rest of winter, the dreary days, the cold.

Yes, let’s say that.  I am not slothful or idle.  I am preparing, mentally and physically, to conserve my strength and mental outlook for the bleak days ahead.  Me, this here chicken, some chocolate and Chex Mix.

Of Dark and Light

 

I was sneaking around last week, trimming some branches overhanging a sidewalk, branches of the evergreen variety, which I planned to take home and drape artistically across my mantel.

That I was driving around with my pruners on the front seat of the car is, frankly, no one’s business.  That it was dark, just after dusk, is a happy coincidence that, even so, hindered me in performing this civic service to the walking public.

Perhaps my eyes have not adjusted yet to early nightfall, my rods and cones still scanning the environment for the crisp light of autumn.  Or, maybe it is coming for me, that old age thing that descends like velvet across a window as I approach the time I can no longer see at night, at least not well enough to drive.

For I was having trouble.  I ran a few errands along streets I have known all my life, but in the gathering darkness I felt a bit off-kilter.  The shadows sooty black, headlights too bright, neon signs along Frederica strobing and blinking and making me a little sick.

Or, maybe my rods and cones haven’t seen total darkness in years, if ever, and they were just searching for the best possible reading, not unlike a camera searching, searching, in and out, for the proper exposure in difficult light.

My head felt a little like that, buzzing and catching, and I came home and had to sit down for a minute.

Even at night, in our beds, we do not drift off in complete darkness. We are instructed to turn off our TV’s, leave our phones in other rooms, keep the blinking and beeping of computers and gadgets to a minimum in our sleeping chambers.  There are eye shades and blackout curtains if all else fails. 

There are those who chase the light—pilgrims from overcast countries who dream of the sunny seaside, or t adventurers in parkas who travel far into the frozen tundra to glimpse, if conditions are right, the aurora borealis.

And then there are those who seek the dark. Total dark, without street lamps, the glare on the horizon of a city afire with neon and halogen.  A place so dark the stars come out—all of them—and the moon illuminates the landscape, at once familiar and foreign, lit, as it is, from the sun, once removed.

Total darkness exists, but it is harder to find.  It can’t be found on the continent of Europe, or in the eastern half of the United States.  But cross over into the prairie and into the plains,  and you can find it. The northern tier states have it, and in the mountain ranges of the West.  Parts of Maine, too.  Almost anywhere in Greenland, Mongolia, the western reaches of China.  Most of Kazakstan, the great midsection of Africa, the Australian outback.

On the eve of the longest night of the year, I think of the great darkness and the way it captured the imaginations of human beings, back when real darkness meant something.  I would have burned a yule log, too, would have kept vigil, done all sorts of things to ensure the returning of the light, this light made more precious for the long hours without it.

I would like to see the world, as it once was, as it rarely is now, pitched in utter darkness. 

Would the wind blow differently, would sound carry in odd ways, would I feel a change, a shift, would I still know who I am, what to do, with nothing but the light of the stars to fix my place? 

Would my eyes adjust?

The winter solstice arrives and we build fires, light candles, fill our homes with tinsel and glitter and shiny things. We do this for Christmas, for Hanukkah, for comfort and reassurance.  We gather our loved ones close, for they light our way, too.  We sing, boisterous or sweet, with abandon, or reverence, or joy.

We take a bit more time in our greetings, are pleased by chance meetings with old acquaintances in shops and on the street, happy in the encounter.  This, too, is a kind of light.  A reminder of who was once important to us, and who is important still.

We hunker down in December. Count our blessings like gaily wrapped gifts.  Watch for star shine in our loved ones’ faces.  Thank the dark for helping us see it, just there. And there. And there.

PAR AVION

A month or so back, I received a long blue envelope in the mail, and inside was an irregular-shaped post card sent to me from my friend, Beth, who is living in Bordeaux with her husband, Kris.

The postcard was lovely, and contained greetings from Beth and Jason, our pal who was visiting her for a few days.  They met up in Paris and sent the card, of what, I can’t say just now, perhaps a panorama view  of the Seine—something outsized and requiring special wrapping for its overseas journey.

What I was most taken with was the envelope. Baby blue and impossibly thin, I hadn’t seen such a thing in years. Hadn’t seen it since the Seventies, probably, when I wrote my brother in the Navy when he was posted abroad.  In those days envelopes had to be stamped “AIR MAIL” if it had any hope of arriving in a timely manner. Mail, so marked, was bundled and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Europe, or Japan, other  exotic locales.

The rest of it got dumped into the hold of some slow boat to China, or Athens, or Hamburg, and arrived, oh, really, who can say? A lot can happen to a canvas bag heaved onto docks and flopping around the damp of a cargo hold, and who knows how much of it gets where it is going.

All mail is air mail now, of course, or mostly all of it.  But back then, air mail was expensive and postage was assessed by weight, and thus, the thin blue stationery.

I would drive my grandmother to the post office and we would pick pads of note paper and envelopes, the same blue color, onion-skin thin, so we could write my brother. The post office sold pre-stamped sheets of air mail stationery—and we filled up the blank backside of the paper,  and then spent a minute or so performing arts and crafts as we folded along dotted lines and made flaps from the odd triangular wings until we had a self-contained letter and envelope, all in one.

The business side of the envelope was pre-stamped with proper postage, and the words  “par avion”  and “air mail” jumped off the page. I mean, really, does it get any more cosmopolitan than that?

Beth has been in Bordeaux for almost a year now, and she and I chat on occasion through Facebook.  We make plans to Skype or FaceTime  but somehow that never quite happens. I think, well, I will write her a long newsy letter, but that never happens, either. 

But something about that thin blue envelope made my hands itch, made me tear off her return address in France—a physical address—and save it. Something in the familiar feel of it sent me to the office supply store and the post office in search of air mail letters.  

No one seemed to know what I was asking for,  although the older clerk at the post office remembered  that  “foldy paper” people used to buy.  I returned home discouraged and rummaged through my stationery drawer looking for any old thing.  

Still, the idea of writing Beth in France on short fat note paper left me completely and utterly cold.

It lacks cache.

I eventually had luck on-line, and found  air mail envelopes, the colorful ones with the red, white and blue checked borders, sporting a round crest with “air mail” in three languages.  The ultra-thin paper is on its way, but it must be in some back corner of a warehouse somewhere, because it has been a couple of weeks and still no sign.

I think Beth needs real mail.  I think I need to write her real letters.  I think those letters need to look like something.  Something to remind me that this piece of paper is traveling a great distance, and it is of some import, even if it is full of nothing more than the gossipy goings-on of our friends.

I will write small, and neatly, like I did on those winged pieces of paper long ago.  I will admire  the blue ink on the blue paper, and think it pretty, those shades of blue. I will take my time to write, then post the delicate envelopes, making a special trip.  I will go inside.

It doesn’t matter what Beth does with my letters once she gets them.  It only matters that she gets them, from me, and that they go par avion.

Thanksgiving, now

A year ago I sat in my quiet house, admired the clean and uncluttered surfaces of my kitchen and pouted a little, even so, because I wasn’t in charge of Thanksgiving, wasn’t roasting the bird, wasn’t making the dressing or the elaborate and time-consuming cranberry salad.

For the first time since college I was spending Thanksgiving off, traveling to Louisville to be a guest of my niece and her fella, spending a couple of days with them, my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew, Dillion, and the dog.

Alex was solicitous when she showed me to my room that Wednesday.  Did I have enough covers?  Was the lamp bright enough to read by?  And, look.  Dan ran out and got a nightlight for the hall, the steps being steep and the light switch hard to find.

After morning coffee there wasn’t much for me to do.  She settled me into the sofa and turned on Netflix to a show she thought I might  enjoy.  It was a little like being a toddler. 

The day went without a hitch.  The food was great, Dan’s family delightful, and really, except for the dog dragging the turkey carcass into the living room after dessert, all  was perfect.

I had to admit, it was nice being a guest, getting fussed over a little, and contributing next to nothing but doing the dishes.  And even that was less about being helpful than it was about avoiding  the traditional Thanksgiving hike Dan’s family seemed so enamored of.

I was invited to return to Louisville this year but I will stay put, back in the business of roasting the bird and doing the dressing.  I’ll celebrate with my sister and her family, a smaller gathering than in years past, but one I am pleased about, one I am looking forward to.

It has been a year of change and adjustment, a year of fits and starts, with connections and separations that come to all families as children grow up, parents and grandparents leave you, and work and life rub blisters here, create opportunities there.  Everything in flux, up in the air, eventually falling back to earth in configurations you don’t always recognize or understand.

But this is nothing new. Life moves.  And we move with it.   It expands and contracts and veers off to the left, and here we go, eyes wide open or squeezed shut, but at least one hand still wrapped around the reins.  The stirrups may be flapping wildly, our hats have come off, but we don’t let go.

I’ve sent Alex the family dressing and egg nog recipes as she has asked.  But I called her, too, because I need to explain things, make sure I tell her what Granny Opal told me when she guided my hands all those Thanksgivings ago.  There is the recipe and there is the process. This is what I tell myself Alex needs to know.

How  fine to chop the onions, how many eggs to loaves of stale bread.  Time and temperature. The production that is making egg nog, whisking whites, long enough but not too long, how to judge when to stop. She can look all of this up, of course, can find better recipes on-line, perhaps, find more sophisticated ways of doing things.  But that is to miss the point.

What I mean is this. I want to instruct her as I was instructed, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen.   I want Alex to be there, too. I want her to have more than just a spattered index card.  I want her dressing in Louisville to join in concentric circles my dressing in Owensboro, and Granny Opal’s from 1948.  I want her Thanksgiving table to join with ours, and the tables of our grandmothers, and their mothers’ tables, ones laid in distant dining rooms we would not recognize, but belonging to us, all the same.

Black and White

I grew up in a photographic home. I spent a great deal of my childhood in one of two states—either antsy while standing stock still and waiting for the shutter to click, or hopping from one foot to the other while banging on the bathroom door, waiting for my dad to let me in because he was locked in there printing pictures.  He would let me in, eventually, but he was always a little huffy about it, and he was impatient, standing  there in the rosy red light and bathed in the fumes of developer and fixer.

When I got older he wanted to show me how to develop my own photos but the chemicals smelled bad and the production of mixing them, dragging the enlarger and trays and squeegees up from the basement was overwhelming.

It seemed to be a male pursuit, all the beakers and glass stirrers and thermometers, the black changing bag he used to spool up his film before he developed the negatives.  All of it a production and exhausting and the drama of monitoring the faintest of stray light,  the yelling to keep the door closed  frayed my nerves, eroded my confidence and sent me to an early bed.

Sometimes I would stay with him and watch the images emerge, but I remember mostly the sensory aspects of it. The familiar bathroom made alien in the red glow of the special light bulb he used, the snap of the enlarger drawer as he extracted paper from the light-tight box, a softer snap of the negative carrier, the even softer metallic scrape of the enlarger head sliding up and down. 

The watery slosh as he rocked the large white trays gently back and forth, an imperceptible twinkling later, the chemical smell.  Our eyes fixed on the trays and the paper floating just below the surface of the chemicals.  We willed an image to appear.  It would, eventually, but  it took a long time, and it felt like a magic trick that wouldn’t work this time. 

But, then, faces rose up, or buildings, slow and faint and distorted in the watery darkness, wanting to be liberated it seemed.  My father kept pushing them back into the drink, by the corners and gently, but still.  It seemed excessive.

Photos, transported from one tray to another to another, and then plucked dripping by the corner to be hung up to dry on a string by metal clips.  And as mysterious as the process is, I was—and am—still struck by the fact that these high value objects—photographs—begin their lives as wet paper.

In college, though, I changed my mind about the process, and learned how to take better photos and how to develop film and print my own pictures.  It was still messy but I used the school’s darkroom and that helped.

Now, I am feeling the itch to try it again. I have inherited a couple of old but good film cameras and as much as I love my digital cameras I would like to see the difference in prints made from real negatives, not pixel. Amid the junk in the basement sit two enlargers, shrouded and kind of creepy, and I am  just not sure I have the strength, or desire, to haul one upstairs and use it.

My research question has become this.  Does black and white photography look so good because of the camera and lens, the film, the processing of the film, and/or the way in which photos are developed from the film—the chemical process and the paper.

And if it is the camera, negative and paper, could I bypass the chemical processing of the darkroom for a quality scanner and printer and good paper?  Would the results be almost as good, good, or maybe even better?  Is printing images the old way an esoteric pursuit like bookbinding by hand, or in service of the finished product?  I don’t know.

This will be my holiday research project.  I want to play around with the old film cameras.  I admire classic film black and white photography, the creamy whites and rich blackness of it.

Would like to try my hand—again—at developing my negatives.  I can do that at the kitchen sink. But I can also tell you this. That lazy kid hopping from one foot to another is still hanging around, and if there is an easier way, a  better way, or as good a way, she is going to embrace it. 

Joan Didion and Her Blue Nights

I’ve spent a great deal of time with Joan Didion lately.  As I was finishing her book, “Blue Nights,” my pal, Janice, told me about the new documentary about Didion on Netflix, The Center Will Not Hold,” so I watched that, too.

Readers who have come late to Joan Didion’s work are most apt to know her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the beautiful and award-winning account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the dinner table, an hour or so after returning from a New York hospital where their only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a New York ICU, on the verge of death.

Grim stuff, that, but Didion tells it, unflinchingly, and in her distinctive voice that readers have admired and praised since the 1960’s when she wrote for Vogue, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Life. Her writing is sophisticated but approachable, and when I sit in her presence, I often let the book drop in my lap for a moment while I admire that sentence, this paragraph. 

I don’t know how I came to pick up my first Joan Didion book—I suppose I was browsing the non-fiction section in some bookstore or another, and I came across her book of essays on the Sixties, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

The title, alone, was enough to recommend it.  It is a compilation of articles she wrote to explain, or attempt to explain, the Sixties—the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, the “flotsam of jetsam” of humanity that flees to the golden coast, searching for something, that elusive better thing, only to find a vast ocean, and no where else to run.  In her opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she captures the promise and desperation of the mythical place that was California in the mid-1960’s.  The center of the counter-culture, John Wayne, quickie divorces and beauty school, sunsets over trailer parks on the flat, scrub brush edge of town.

“Blue Nights”  is the memoir she wrote after the death of her daughter, Quintana.  She struggled with serious illness before her father died and for two years after.  It has been called an uneven book, but an important book, even so. 

Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” in three months, wanting to get her thoughts down while they were still fresh, raw, and she tells us in interviews that for her, it is through writing that she processes her life and comes to terms, in a way, with Dunne’s death.  It is a deeply honest book and moving, perhaps more so because there is not a hint of self-pity in it.  We see her, sometimes, blinking in the searing light of her new grief, disoriented perhaps, but never pitiful, as she searches for the word, the thought, the memory to help explain things.

“Blue Nights” is a different kind of book.  One reviewer said it was not a memoir on grief, like C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” or indeed her own  “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  He suggests it is a memoir of regret, as Didion grapples with the loss of this child,  the questioning of her effectiveness as a mother, and her own aging. 

They adopt Quintana in a flurry, and Didion tells us at the celebratory drinks party the next day it is her sister-in-law who suggests they shop for a bassinet, that it had not yet occurred to Didion they needed one. 

That this child is wanted and adored we do not doubt. But Didion lets us in on her horrible secret-perhaps all mothers share it—her fear that she might not be up to the challenge.

It is a moving and sometimes painful tale of families, hope, love, desperation and grief.

The actor, Griffin Dunne, her nephew, produced the Netflix documentary.  It adds context and texture to her writing and her life.  She reads from her work in voice-overs, this self-assured voice we hear in contrast to the frail woman we see on screen. 

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the book I have bought and given away at least a dozen times to friends and fellow writers.  I think Joan Didion is the finest essayist of our time, or certainly one of them.  Spend an evening or a week in the pages of one of her books, a perfect place to hide for a few hours in late autumn when it feels as if our own centers “will not hold.

A Little Beach Getaway

We were not a vacationing family, although we did, on occasion, venture out in the over-packed Vista Cruiser from time to time, a cooler full of pimento cheese and lunch meat, loaves of bread squashed between bickering children.  There were seven of us crammed into a car designed for six, but this was before the days of mandatory seat belts.  It seems impossible to me now that a couple of us rattled around in the very back—the cargo space for luggage and whatnot.

We went to Jekyll Island, one of Georgia’s sea islands,  where the waves were puny and nearby pulp mills freighted the air with their special perfume.  But the sun was hot, there were sea turtles and the abandoned mansions left by Rockafellers, the Cranes, the Vanderbilts and the Morgans.  When we tired of the beach we explored the old cottages—cottages by millionaires’ standards—where we found small openings to crawl through. We spent  happy hours running through the gilded halls with the peeling wallpaper, and no one noticed and we didn’t care anyway.

But the beach, with the heat and the sand fleas, and the blinding sun—the beach of my youth with the mandatory requirement to get as brown as you can as quick as you can—that beach was never my favorite.  There was no moderation to that kind of beach vacation, and no such thing as sun screen.  If you weren’t shivering by early evening with sun poisoning, then you weren’t doing it right.

Thus, my aversion.

But the mature adult beach trip. Now that is something else again.  It involves big hats, and 50+ sunscreen and possibly a caftan or two.  It involves lots of books to be read, read not on the beach but on the balcony overlooking it.  There are bags of organic coffee in the tote bag, and special cheeses and artisanal breads, and a list of fresh fruits to pick up at road side stands along the way. 

There is an unfinished knitting project along for the ride, just in case boredom sets in.  A laptop and camera.  Candles for the balcony, a life-planning journal that will remain untouched, even though the thought is, all that fresh air and ocean breeze and roaring surf will bring clarity and inspiration.

Uh.  No.

All those things just make one sleepy.

Which is to say that a beach vacation can be restorative.

That is why I decided at the last minute to find something on a beach, somewhere, even though it is summer and hot and I hate the heat.  But I have a big hat.  I have books, and all the items mentioned above. 

I am gathering up all my beach gear even as I write this, and trust me, it is pretty sad as beach gear goes. I picked up two beach towels at the grocery.  I scrounged around for some shorts and found a couple of tee shirts that don’t have holes in them.  Flip-flops. Swimsuit. Something to wear to dinner.  And that, dear readers, is just about it. 

I may make some purchases once I am there.  I have already planned my big splurge—a sand chair.  You know the ones. A lawn chair that, at first glance, looks like a second,  because the legs are so very short.  Surely mistakes have been made.

But no!  They are designed that way, so you can sit almost in the sand, but just above it, and if you take it to the water’s edge, you can sit and feel the tide come in, first your toes, and then your ankles,  and when your bottom gets the message, it is  time to move the chair.

And I have already decided, I will get a deluxe model—one with a high back so that when I am dozing it can support my head, which will be rolling around like a melon on a pike.

I will be heading out soon and I have to say I am looking forward to it.  The long but leisurely drive down south.  Peaches at a roadside stand. The imaginary walks on the beach at sunrise.  The even more imaginary walks on the beach with the moon over my shoulder.  Perhaps the Blue Angels will zoom out over the water as they practice.  Perhaps I will finish my knitting project.  Perhaps I will sleep late, nap in the afternoon. 

Perhaps, but it is not required, I will go into the ocean.

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