Author Archives: catherine_hawkins

Three-Year-Old Freedom

She sits in front of me on the bus, her dark head barely visible over the blue seat. Pink bows keep two small braids from unraveling by her face, and her head turns swiftly as she tries to take it all in through the window.

I am on my way to church — not necessarily against my will, but most definitely against the yearning I feel to roam all day in the sunshine and write with my friends by the Charles River. But I made plans with another friend (in part to make sure I did indeed get up and go), so here I am on the bus that will take me to the T station. I have been audacious enough to ask to be blessed, to ask that God would somehow bless this thing that I find so difficult to do in this season of my life.

With an old man at the next stop enters the hot stench of an unbathed body, and I bristle, both at the smell and at the rudeness of the girl next to me, covering her nose, pouting. The old man looks at me, and I smile — a peace offering — because it won’t be long before I, too, offend people with aging.

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It is the Sunday after a trip to the midwest and the Sunday before I jump right back into all that I left behind. I performed a makeshift grocery-run on Saturday, I diligently did my laundry, I celebrated a friend’s engagement with champagne, and I realized I hadn’t read half as many pages of my stack of books as I had planned. At choir, I leaned in and whispered: I feel like I’m in college choir again. Like those days when I was at the beach but had to come back to campus for practice, and I can’t focus and all I can think about is the ocean and the sun.

I was giddy with something (holiday-high, maybe?), and I sang but I also laughed through rehearsal. Sally and I topped it off with our classic buffalo chicken calzone, and here I am, the next morning, praying that choosing this church to call home, at least for now, is right.

The little girl reaches out and touches the back of her father’s thigh. Her hand is small and her fingernails are perfectly-shaped crescents that I imagine her mother carefully clipping after a warm bath. The girl gazes up at her father’s face. He does not look down, and I realize she is merely checking in. She doesn’t need acknowledgment, only presence.

I am captivated.

We funnel off the bus and onto the T. I do not mean to, but I am sitting directly across from her. Now she stands, her little body full of the confidence so many of us grown-ups lack. She knows to grasp the T pole with both hands — she knows the world loves her.

I snap a picture.

I feel guilty, a thief. But I am spellbound and I can’t explain it.

When we reach my T stop, I get off, knowing I will never see her again. I had wanted so badly to reach out, to cup the top of her head with the curve of my palm, but her ease and wonder would not be possessed. She unselfconsciously took in the world and demanded that it love her.

And I did.

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WriterTeacherSingerSpy

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I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

~     ~     ~

Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

~     ~     ~

As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

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I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

A Hundred Years of Singing

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I remember discovering music as a little girl in the old brown church. Out the thin windows, I could see the pink hydrangea tree dipped down to the ground, bent from years of blooming. I couldn’t read yet, but I stood next to my father and followed him. I remember wondering How do I know where to put my voice next? and it was like the first time you think maybe there is more to be known than you will ever learn.

My grandfather used to sing “How Great Thou Art” under his breath while he hoed the garden, sorted the mail, wrote notes in his little breast-pocket notebook. He would hum and whistle, and ever since he’d lost some of his hearing, the tune hadn’t been quite right.

My Maine grandpa would sing fun ditties as he rocked us in his rocking chair. “How much is that doggie in the window?” and other silly songs that came from decades ago. It was when he took out his harmonica, though, that the music really started — his gnarled, hard-worked hands making music unlike any I had ever heard before.

And then there was singing in the car, belting along to Randy Travis and other 1990s country artists, wondering why I sounded different from the man singing. I hadn’t yet learned what octaves were.

I remember staying in the blue van while my family left because we’d gotten to my grandparents’ house, but it was in the middle of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and there was no way I was going to miss that key change, that high note at the end.

Standing in front of a large woman at church, in awe of her operatic voice but also afraid of it and confused by why she was always a little bit behind everyone else.

Getting a thrill whenever “Black Velvet” came on the radio. Alannah Miles’ sultry voice and lyrics of desire had me enthralled before I hit kindergarten.

My great-grandma played the piano by ear, sang through the open window while she washed dishes and hoped someone from Hollywood would walk by. She never did get her big break, but she sang for 105 years.

~     ~    ~

We start our lessons with stretching to the sky and then hanging loose like a rag doll. I tell her to take deep breaths, to feel her back expand with air. We do sirens to activate the different registers, we talk about our diaphragm and how it supports our breath, and we talk about opening our mouths as the notes get higher.

She loves to sing hymns. She has big hazel eyes that take in what I say with this look of hunger to learn it all. She asks to sing “Amazing Grace,” but she doesn’t want to sing it alone.

“Can we sing it together? You know, when you sing different things than I do?”

“You mean when I sing the alto line and you sing the soprano line?” I ask.

“Yes, yes! Can we?”

Who would say no? Besides, I love hearing her little-girl voice paired with my slightly-less-little-girl voice, a cappella in my practice room with the string of Christmas lights.

I’m not sure she’ll be able to hold the soprano line, and she falters a bit. Then her voice stops wavering. She sings with confidence. At the end, we smile at each other.

I tell her I love singing with her.

I don’t tell her that she’s been gathering music memories for eight years, that they will build on each other and come out at surprising times.

I don’t tell her that maybe she’ll remember singing “Amazing Grace” with her voice teacher, how the mismatch of their voices mimicked the mismatch of their time of life.

[Photo: geraldbrazell]

Another Year, Another Lent

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Winter is a stark time. The snow on the baseball field glints in the light from the street lamp, I bang my boots in the doorway to dislodge the brown sidewalk sludge, the old woman next door calls desperately to her lost dog, looking under bushes, her cries reverberating through my bedroom wall.

Winter is harsh, so it is no wonder to me that the Lenten season begins at the coldest time of the year. My soul feels barren right around now, and the earth mimics that emptiness. The Greeks had it right with the myth of Demeter and Persephone: only the most desolate yearning of an abandoned mother could depict the earth’s brokenness in hibernation.

~     ~     ~

There are places you feel safe, and you forget for a time that it is not true. You feel in control, like the queen of a kingdom that is small but significant, and you rule it with love and little bit of self-aggrandizement. Then, one morning, you wake up and realize this kingdom of yours is out of control. It is full of rebellious and thoughtless citizens who — even though they may care greatly — do not have your best interests (or those of the kingdom) at heart.

You blink.

You don’t feel safe anymore.

You desperately try to gather up the pieces that are left. It’s okay, let those ones go, they weren’t dedicated or committed enough. Cut them lose. Soldier on. Create community with what you’ve got left.

So you celebrate Shrove Tuesday with Flatbread pizza and meeting new people.

You honor Ash Wednesday with sushi, connecting with your once-called “city-friend,” and remembering the Ash Wednesday of 2015, complete with a cross on your forehead and German beer with Jewish men.

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You try to remember who you work for. Who you teach for. Who you love for. Because if there’s one thing this week has taught you, you certainly can’t do these things for just another person. People are fallible and weak. There’s a switch they flip so they stop caring when they need to. You wish could find that switch inside yourself. Your co-homeroom teacher wishes you could find that switch inside yourself so he didn’t always need to be the calm yin to your crazy yang. There are benefits to turning it all off.

~     ~     ~

But I’ve never been able to do that. I tried for years and fooled a few people, but I became a caricature of myself: critical and nit-picky and closed-minded. I don’t want to go back to that place, but I’m not sure I can survive here in this emotion-filled but also-empty place.

Last Lent, I went through a similar season, and Henri Nouwen spoke balm to my soul. I opened the slim book again this year, wondering at the gift of the church calendar, and I felt like Nouwen was sitting in the room next to me, speaking to my moment in time, to my pain in time. It didn’t matter that it was only black words on a white page.

I am constantly surprised at how hard it is for me to deal with the little rejections people inflict on each other day by day…This atmosphere often leaves me with a feeling of being rejected and left alone. When I swallow these rejections, I get quickly depressed and lonely; then I am in danger of becoming resentful…

But maybe all of this is the other side of a deep mystery, the mystery that we have no lasting dwelling place on this earth and that only God loves us the way we desire to be loved. Maybe all these small rejections are reminders that I am a traveler on the way to a sacred place where God holds me in the palm of his hand. (Gracias A Latin American Journal)

God reminds us of things even when we don’t want to be reminded of them. I would much rather feel both loved and accepted and supported on earth AND in heaven.

There is little to be learned from comfort.

Even as I write this, the sky is turning pink over the city skyline. I hear birds in the bare trees below my window. My roommates are waking slowly, the floors creaking under their morning feet.

I am grateful for seasons on the earth as I am grateful for seasons of the church. I can’t imagine a world where our inner workings always stood in stark contrast against the evergreen world or the always-joyful church.

The promise of spring holds more meaning for me as an adult than it ever did for me as a child. I see the greenness of the old pine tree even beneath the crusty snow.

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The Art of Dating

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There are definitely some things in life I never saw myself doing. Being a teacher is one (who has the patience?!). Living at home till I was twenty-six is another. Getting on the almond milk bandwagon is yet another (everybody’s doing it, it’s fewer calories, and now I can eat more cheese).

The one that really stands out, though? Online dating.

After dating a few guys in college, going on a handful of random dates with no seconds, getting set up on a blind date and fingers-crossed this was the last first date I’d ever go on, I find myself fully immersed in the bizarre culture that is ONLINE DATING. I don’t think anyone envisions themselves online, trolling through profiles, swiping right, swiping left, liking, what-have-you, but so many people my age are doing it.

Which is good, because that makes the pool just a tad bigger.

Which is bad, because it means that there are hundreds of people on here and each one of them has different expectations, different assumptions, and different ways of expressing this thing called attraction.

For the girl who thought she’d only ever date one guy and then marry him, I have certainly become the expert — at least at the beginning stages. I know basically how interested to appear, how often to text, what topics of conversation to avoid and what topics bring out the side of me that’s just a tad too intense, or how lightly I should graze an arm on that first date.

What I don’t know is how to choose.

I don’t know how to be discerning enough ahead of time. I find myself sitting in a bar with a man I would never go out with had we met in real life. And so, I fill an hour, hour-and-a-half, with questions, just enough information on my end not to be a jerk, and wondering why I didn’t make plans for afterwards so I could make a smooth exit.

I have never been on so many dates with so many men in my life. I fear I am perfecting an art I never wanted to pursue.

As for the array of assumptions, they are vast but they are becoming predictable. There are two ends of the spectrum: the first one is not so shocking, given our current society’s views of dating and sex — a good number of guys are barely able to veil their main reason for asking me out, and I’m learning to let go of my naiveté and accept that we have different sexual ethics and bid them adieu.

The second, though, has surprised me a bit more, and left me feeling a little less sure of my own motives. There is a loneliness in the world that I have rarely observed in the people in my life. It is meeting me head-on, here, in this virtual world, and the deep loneliness reaches out from these men and grasps at me, hoping that I am the one to relieve them of their darkness.

A few have texted me daily even before we’ve met. Once we’ve met, they assume I want to jump into a serious relationship, that I am dating only them, that I am doing my best to be single for as short a time as possible, and that I want to hear trite, romantic bullshit as a symbol of their affection. There is almost nothing that turns me off faster than language that doesn’t convey its truth, and anyone who’s only been on one date with me has no business pretending to know who I am. Isn’t that what this game is, anyway? It feels sometimes like they have a list of bullet points in chronological order: 1. Text incessantly, 2. Find her on Facebook, 3. Find out where she is every evening, 4. Convince her that you are sincere, and 5. Try to get her to see you again and again, even after she has clearly stated she is not interested.

The thing is, I am under no illusions that I can just sit back and wait for an amazing man to walk into my life. I, also, need to learn how to express myself, my feelings, and my admiration in a way that is received and desired by the individual man I am interested in. I have a lot of work to do — learn how to engage people as other, independent creations who have valuable things to offer even if I don’t share all the same values, philosophies, or sense of humor.

Just as much, though, I need to learn how to be straightforward in saying no. In saying, It was nice meeting you. Thank you, but no thank you. 

I wish they didn’t make it so difficult. I wish they didn’t make me actually say: “I am not interested in you.” I wish they could receive the truth in softer words, but sometimes (as I have experienced as well) it takes a blow to drive home the truth.

And the few I’ve liked, the few I’ve thought Huh, maybe…well, they haven’t felt the same way.

There’s got to be someone who falls somewhere between these two extremes. Someone whose pace falls in line with mine.

I hope to write a funnier post in the future, perhaps a list of Dos and Don’ts of online dating, or just a story or two (trust me, they’re hilarious…and a little terrifying). Right now, though, there isn’t much funny about the disconnection of human beings, the desire for love that doesn’t seem to get filled, or the fact that I am consistently bashing my head against a dark wooden bar because I had to go through the list of things I enjoy doing “in my free time” AGAIN.

[Photo: mrhayata]

In Search of a Good Title

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So I wrote a poem for my writing class this summer. I sat down and wrote it without thinking. I didn’t let myself overanalyze, criticize, or edit. I didn’t stress over line breaks or punctuation or even the order of the stanzas. I blocked out the part of me that hates everything I write and forced myself to tell the story that had been brewing.

I wrote it and I passed it in. It came back in a yellow envelope with the rest of my writing for the term, and my professor had written comments. Nix this whole stanza, she wrote, and I agreed because the ducks didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Her biggest critique? Where’s the title?

That was August, and I’ve been laboring over this poem for months now. My writers’ group critiqued it and Jon solved a huge problem in the last stanza: What if you used a colon to introduce what the narrator is imagining?

Oh my gosh, yes.

We went back and forth over whether a word should be singular or plural, how to say the sun was bright without sounding trite, but the hardest part was the title. I told them I’d keep working on it, that titles are historically hard for me, that it’s nearly impossible for me to find one that isn’t heavy-handed. And every other week or so, I shoot Kate a text: What about this one? Or this? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I feel like I slink away with my head hanging because I should have trusted my gut on that one.

Why is this title so particularly hard?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the poem. It’s not frilly. There’s no fanfare. It’s straightforward and real. Every title I come up with is not straightforward or real. They drip with sentimentality.

If I didn’t care so much about this poem, I’d probably just slap on some sappy sounding empty phrase and call it a day.

But I do care. It’s one of the few poems that left my head and did the work I wanted it to do. It did that work, but then it did more. It became its own creature. It got up and walked on its own two feet. I refuse to do it the disservice of saddling it with a cheesy label.

So, whatever you’re doing right now, imagine me, sitting cross-legged in a green velour chair, wracking my brain for a title that is honest and clean and simple.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Expectations

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I’m standing in front of a tent full of people. I’ve finished my glass of white wine, my cowboy boots are cutting into my ankles, and my lace dress feels just a bit too sweaty to be beautiful. I unfold the crumpled paper, look out at these faces, some I know, some I do not, and I begin to read.

Joe, I have known Ashley a long time.

It feels a lot like singing, this performance, in the way that time moves so swiftly I don’t quite notice it’s passing. I read all the words. I look up once in awhile, smile at the appropriate times, slow down when I feel like I’m rushing. But I’m not really aware of what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. It might be that everyone’s looking at me but hardly anyone knows my name. It might be the heat of June. It could be stage fright. It’s probably all three.

I know what I talked about only because I wrote it down. I painted a picture of when we were little girls, playing Little House on the Prairie and baking together, playing Manhunt on summer nights. I talked about loyalty and love — only briefly — because they are things I don’t feel fully equipped to address. How can anyone wax wise on ideas of lifelong and commitment and trust?

Suddenly, I am done. I smile again, she is crying, and we hug. I hug Joe, too, and sit down quickly. I feel embarrassed, surprised, that I have just given my first maid-of-honor speech, and I’m not even sure how it went.

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I knew in the back of my mind that one day, I would be a maid-of-honor. I thought that perhaps I would have to give a speech, tell a story, celebrate two lives becoming one. I knew all of this, and yet I was surprised.

~     ~     ~

I sit across from him and I think: I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.

It’s hard to give someone a shot when you compare him to someone you’ve known for awhile, or, at least, someone you thought you knew, and who now colors your interactions with but I wanted someone like this, and this. 

Things never end up the way you expect.

~     ~     ~

We sit in a restaurant, and the waitress gives us free watermelon sangrias. Someone’s mistake has become our blessing. Susie looks at me and says, “A good omen!”, and we toast to the beginning of our new lives in a city busier than my little hometown of 26 years. Who knows what lies ahead? So we toast and smile and hope.

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We pose for a picture — two high school friends who accidentally followed each other into adulthood. The caption? “2015-2016…bring it!” Even as we’re smiling, I am aware that much lies ahead. Every year is unknown. Bad things happen. Students cry. I get frustrated with myself for everything that I lack, and as I’m smiling for this photo in late August, a little bit of fear creeps in and settles in my stomach.

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It’s December in two days. We want to get a Christmas tree, but we’re not sure how to get it home. The convertible is not conducive to carrying trees, so we’re pretty sure we’ll be trekking it two miles. I can picture cars whizzing past us, shaking their heads with pity at those poor girls in L.L. Bean boots dragging a tree halfway across the city. Worse things have happened. I climb the winding stairs to the third floor apartment, open the door, see the perfect place for a tiny tree in the living room.

I drink tea and hang Christmas lights around the windows in my room. I am at the same time content and longing, happy with a tinge of sadness. I burn a cedar candle because we haven’t gotten the tree yet and I want that fresh smell. I wonder what to get my mother for Christmas, and I think about last Christmas and how much I stressed over a gift that didn’t end up mattering. I think of two books that sit on a shelf — haphazardly, I’m sure, or perhaps on the floor — and I wonder how many things will end up differently than I expect a year from now.

What will Christmas 2016 look like?

Will I look back and think, Praise God?

Will I focus on the smell of fresh-cut trees, the laughter of roommates floating in from the living room, the joyful way we ate breakfast on the back porch in the sunlight?

Or will I feel heavy with the weight of the unknown? Or, perhaps, the now-known but not-wanted?

Sometimes you are maid-of-honor at a childhood friend’s wedding. Sometimes you stop talking to someone you love. Sometimes, you sit across from a man and give him a chance.

Nothing ever turns out exactly the way you expect.

Two Homes

The wooden holy family rests on a stack of old grammar school primers. I remember wandering the cobbled streets of Salzburg, how I picked it out as a gift but then couldn’t part with it once I reached Stateside. Next to it is the delicate hand painted teacup from my old Sunday School teacher. It’s almost too fragile for me to own, so I am trying to enjoy its beauty for as long as I can.

IMG_0301I pounded some nails into the wail to hang my sign and “Alice in Wonderland” caricature from my days of directing. I taped up postcards and photos above my bed, and I’m hoping to buy Christmas lights to string between the windows.

I’m trying to make this home.

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My routines transferred easily to this new place. I still get up and grind coffee beans, boil water, fill the French press. I still pack (or forget to pack) a make-shift lunch my coworkers have deemed “college-student-worthy.” I wipe down the bathroom every once in awhile, put the dishes away, and I’ve even swept the floor twice. My domestic side is not exactly thriving, but she is growing.

When my apartment mate plays James Taylor and Paul Simon.

I cut my bangs leaning over the bathroom sink. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Some routines have transferred easily, others are newly acquired.

When we sit in the living room, some with a book, some with a computer, others chatting, and all of us with wine.

I bought bright blue glasses, and my students said I looked like a hipster. And then my family said I looked like a hipster. I’m wondering how many times it takes before it’s true.

When I walk down the street to a friend’s apartment, and she shows me the best place for falafel.

For the first month, I tossed in my sleep, afraid I would get a parking ticket in this ticket-happy town.  I still haven’t parked in the wrong spot and it’s been six weeks. I only believe in spending $50 on worthwhile things.

When my sister or friend comes down to the city, and we make tea and sit in the shady park.

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A book club friend and I went into the thrift shop, and I came out with a sequined top. Not just sequined but fully sequined, with swishes and bright colors. “Oh my gosh, I love this top!” the cashier said. “I’ve been eyeing it since we got it.” I’m waiting for a good dancing night to christen this vintage beauty.

When writers’ group is about to start up for the year and I’m itching and waiting to read and write.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel so much like home. Like when I hit more potholes than my little car can handle and the wheels get all misaligned. Or when I open the fridge and realize, Shoot, I didn’t go grocery shopping, and it’s hardboiled eggs and crackers and hummus for dinner. Again. Or when I climb the steps to my front door, feel eyes on my back, turn around to see a rough man leaning out of a large white van, staring, watching me enter my house. Or when I google search for a new church to visit, and I slip in quietly, worship alone surrounded by strangers, and slip out.

When I spend a Sunday afternoon making applesauce from Dad’s bruised apples, listening to a sermon on what it means to be sanctified, and starting the next baby sweater on my knitting list.

I am moved by poetry in the fall. My soul is played out in Chopin and Debussy in October.

I am in love with this poem by John Holmes right now, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it. Maybe it’s being so close to him, to where he taught, where he wrote. Maybe it’s experiencing these two towns.

Read it slowly. The end is worth it, and the beginning makes the end matter.

Map of My Country

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A map of my native country is all edges, 
The shore touching sea, the easy impartial rivers
Splitting the local boundary lines, round hills in two townships,
Blue ponds interrupting the careful county shapes.
The Mississippi runs down the middle. Cape Cod. The Gulf.
Nebraska is on latitude forty. Kansas is west of Missouri.

When I was a child, I drew it, from memory,
A game in the schoolroom, naming the big cities right.

Cloud shadows were not shown, nor where winter whitens,
Nor the wide road the day’s wind takes.
None of the tall letters told my grandfather’s name.
Nothing said, Here they see in clear air a hundred miles.
Here they go to bed early. They fear snow here.
Oak trees and maple boughs I had seen on the long hillsides
Changing color, and laurel, and bayberry, were never mapped.
Geography told only capitals and state lines.

I have come a long way using other men’s maps for the turnings.
I have a long way to go.

It is time I drew the map again, 
Spread with the broad colors of life, and words of my own
Saying, Here the people worked hard, and died for the wrong reasons. 
Here wild strawberries tell the time of year.
I could not sleep, here, while bell-buoys beyond the surf rang.
Here trains passed in the night, crying of distance,
Calling to cities far away, listening for an answer.

On my own map of my own country
I shall show where there were never wars,
And plot the changed way I hear men speak in the west,
Words in the south slower, and food different.
Not the court houses seen floodlighted at night from trains,
But the local stone built into house walls,
And barns telling the traveler where he is
By the slant of the roof, the color of the paint.
Not monuments. Not the battlefields famous in school.
But Thoreau’s pond, and Huckleberry Finn’s island.
I shall name an unhistorical hill three boys climbed one morning.
Lines indicate my few journeys,
And the long way letters come from absent friends.

Forest is where green ferns cooled me under the big trees. 
Ocean is where I ran in the white drag of waves on white sand.
Music is what I heard in a country house while hearts broke. 
Not knowing they were breaking, and Brahms wrote it.

All that I remember happened to me here. 
This is the known world.
I shall make a star here for a man who died too young.
Here, and here, in gold, I shall mark two towns
Famous for nothing, except that I have been happy in them.

Change is Good

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Diana walks slowly across the grass, her hand brushing the porch post as she passes. She settles herself into the Adirondack chair and places the bowl of yogurt and granola in her lap. My friend looks six months pregnant, but no, she assures me, she’s due in January. I look at her belly again. Really? Five more months? The thought crosses my mind — twins — but I don’t say anything. What do I know about pregnancy?

We became friends studying music in college, she a mezzo-soprano and I a soprano. I remember meeting her in Music Theory I and how her bubble bangs curled over her wire-rimmed glasses. Neither of us was quite ready for college, but we entered the practice rooms with conviction: we would learn how to sing if it killed us. It’s only since graduation that we’ve become close, writing letters back and forth. I enjoy the way letters force me to slow down, take note. It was one of these letters on pale green paper that told me Diana was expecting and asked me to visit before fall came.

It’s my first visit to Deer Isle in the summer, and it isn’t hard to see why Diana came home. Eating breakfast in front of the ocean, I see two small islands covered in pine trees across the way, a working lobster pound to my left. In the field is an American flag flapping, and beneath it, we sit in two yellow Adirondack chairs. Kiska, their American Eskimo puppy, dashes across the grass flashing her long white fur. She gets too excited, barking and jumping despite Diana’s admonitions.

It’s my last hurrah of the summer. I go back to teaching in a week, and I drove the nearly five hours to Deer Isle with the hopes of rest and sunshine. I didn’t know till I got there that they actually live on Sunshine, a small section of Deer Isle proper.

“Like a borough,” I say. “So you’re Manhattan.”

She laughs.

“Yeah, we’re Manhattan.”

It’s a Manhattan complete with one coffee shop, one year-round restaurant, and two or three seasonal eateries that may or may not be open when they say they’ll be. The coffee is delicious, and I think as I sip: Maybe I could actually live here if there’s good coffee.

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I’ve come for rest and sunshine and Diana’s voice recital. Four years ago we gave our respective senior recitals, and now, on a Sunday afternoon in August, Diana stands in front of a small group of people with her four-month-belly and a black floor-length dress. She’s shed the wire-rimmed glasses and grown out the bubble-bangs. I know the work it takes to learn this music and the nervousness Diana must have felt this morning. I know that a tiny part of her just wants this all to be over. She takes a deep breath. Her belly moves out as she inhales and then, as she begins the first notes of Ned Rorem’s “Absalom,” her belly tightens beneath her skirt.

I am aware of every movement, of the muscle strength it takes to breathe and support. Her voice fills the white room, and immediately I see how much she has grown. Not just her voice, not just her musicality. Her face. Her body. Her ease. Diana wasn’t the only stiff performer in college; we all moved with inhibition and a fear of risk. We struggled with too much pride and easily wounded egos. I remember how hard it was to change my focal point, just to lift my eyes from the exit sign at the back of the room up to the right where the sunshine was supposed to be. But here she is, this beautifully strong musician who moves with grace. The piece isn’t happy: her mezzo-soprano voice bemoans Absalom’s betrayal of his father, King David. For a moment, I am David weeping in the high chamber: my child and my betrayer.

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Diana ends the final note with an emphatic sadness. She is David for a second longer. Then she is Diana again, snapped back to the small hot room with her belly that may or may not contain twins. She sings through the program, taking on each character and making me forget I’m just an audience member sitting in a hard pew. We clap her back onstage and her encore — “Summertime”  — is a show-stopper. Later, the audience lines up to greet her. Too many people comment on the size of her belly, the possibility of twins. She laughs and says something like, “Yes, I’m getting a little scared,” but she doesn’t seem scared, with her dark hair perfectly smoothed back and her diamond necklace and earrings.

She doesn’t seem scared of this baby or spending her entire life on an island of three thousand people. She looks at her lobsterman husband with a gentle kindness. There’s a power in her, a new ease. Maybe a good word for this new Diana is calm; she moves slowly but with thoughtfulness I envy. I read once that “rushing is the sign of an amateur,” and I know this is me, always frantic to do that next thing, accomplish that goal, fill that hole in me or my life. I feel this no more strongly than right now, in this place of steadiness and home-grown families. I wonder what it takes to grow from rushing to rest, and why it takes some longer than others to settle into rhythms.

~     ~     ~

On my drive home to Massachusetts, I think about my next visit to the island. There will probably be a baby — maybe two — and our conversations will not be about pregnancy but sleeping habits and resemblance and how to teach voice lessons with an infant. I will probably knit a tiny sweater that will only fit Diana’s child for a few months, and she’ll marvel because she can never believe I find time to do things like that. She doesn’t understand that picking out blue and white yarn for a sweater with whales on it is how I participate in the changes. I might not be in the same place she finds herself, but I can sit on my couch in the fall and knit something that will keep her baby warm. I like to think I’ll be learning the habit of contentment as I slip stitches from one needle to the next.

On Saying “I Love You”

IMG_1638“I love — ” he shouts from behind me, his voice stopping just short of “you.”

I turn around and see the surprised, embarrassed look on his face. I make a split-second decision.

“I love you,” I say with conviction, because if you don’t say “I love you” and mean it, you shouldn’t be saying it at all.

I smile big so he knows I don’t feel uncomfortable. I leave these three children I’ve been babysitting in the kitchen as I head down to my car. Saying goodbye at the end of the summer is never easy.

He stops short of saying “I love you” for a few reasons. First, he’s a thirteen-year-old boy, and everyone knows we teach our children (boys, in particular) that expressing love or affection is not cool. He desperately wants to be cool. He wouldn’t let me post a picture of us sipping iced tea because he was afraid of what his friends would think, so I didn’t. I understand ego, even if I have a slightly different perspective. Second, I’m his babysitter. I am not his mom or his aunt or his grandma. If our young boys do express affection and care, it is almost always in the context of family, and I am not that. I can imagine his struggle as he tried to figure out what was going on: Do I love her? How can I? She’s 26 and not related to me. But what is it, then? It’s definitely not a crush. Because that is reason number three: he didn’t want to be misunderstood and have his care confused into something it wasn’t.

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[My face most of the summer. They loved stealing my phone and leaving me photographic surprises.]

It’s the last day of summer, and I know deep down it’s my last summer with them. There’s a time and place for a babysitter who takes you to the Museum of Science, the beach, mini golfing, the Museum of Fine Arts, even to Funtown Splashtown, USA. But then you start to feel itchy, like it doesn’t quite fit anymore, and both you and your mom and even your babysitter realize it’s time for a change. You don’t really want it – you do love her, in some strange, mysterious way – and when you hug her, you don’t let go right away because you’re not sure when (or if) you’ll see her again. Will you ever ride the train to Boston again? Or try new things like bubble tea or yoga or hiking Mount Pawtuckaway? You’re excited for eighth grade and high school, but you’re missing your best friend who moved across the ocean, and your grandparents who moved to Florida, and even though you know it’s time, you’re wondering what next summer will look like without this strange loud singing buddy you’ve had for so long.

At least, this is what I imagine is going through his head. I know it’s probably not nearly as spelled out as this, or as worry-filled (because these tendencies come later in life), but I can’t help thinking about his voice in the hallway. How the words flew out of his mouth and he had to stop himself. How many times I’ve done that myself — felt an overflow of emotion that had to be expressed, but my words got strangled in my throat because of fear. We don’t have enough words to express what we feel. No wonder he feels strange saying he loves me; it doesn’t fit our paradigms of love, but there is no other word. And so I say it back to him because it is true, but also to show him that it’s okay to say.

I wonder what he thinks as the screen door closes behind me. I wonder if I embarrassed him. I hope he is able to get past that initial feeling of discomfort because someday, I hope he doesn’t stop short of saying it. I want him to be able to hug people and not let go too soon. I want him to be able to say “I love you,” and to receive that same love back. I want him to be free from coolness and uncoolness, debilitating fear and self-preservation, because when you’re able to let go of these things, love comes a whole lot easier. I wish I could be there to watch him grow into this, but just like my students who graduate every spring, he has to go this one on his own. All I can do is help him see that caring for someone is good and telling them is important. Maybe someday I’ll run into him, all tall and grown. I hope he isn’t afraid to give me a hug.