“I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life.” ~ Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet

William Ascroft Sunset in June after Eruption of Krakatoa c1880 pastel
“Sunset in June after Eruption of Krakatoa” (c. 1880s, pastel)
by William Ascroft

                   

“When you feel perpetually unmotivated, you start questioning your existence in an unhealthy way; everything becomes a pseudo intellectual question you have no interest in responding whatsoever. This whole process becomes your very skin and it does not merely affect you; it actually defines you. So, you see yourself as a shadowy figure unworthy of developing interest, unworthy of wondering about the world—profoundly unworthy in every sense and deeply absent in your very presence.” ~ Ingmar Bergman

Sunday, early evening. Partly cloudy and cold, 35 degrees.

No snow. Not a drop. No galumphing for Tillie, and no snow photos for me. Oh well . . .

So I’ve been thinking about clouds, not in a scientific way but in a philosophical way. Let me explain:

William Ascroft Amber Afterglow with Crepuscular Rays 1885 pastel
“Amber Afterglow with Crepuscular Rays” (1885, pastel)
by William Ascroft

When we look up at clouds in the sky, they seem to be buffeted along by the wind, without having any momentum of their own. They bump into other clouds along the way, sometimes just touching the sides, sometimes merging, sometimes completely obscuring. Clouds can be massive puffs (cumulus), multilayered (stratus), or wisps (cirrus), and all of the variations in between.

Now I know that in truth, clouds are propelled and formed by many factors: wind, gravity, moisture content, solar heating, etcetera. Yes, I know all about low level and upper level winds, jet streams, and all of that, but I’m keeping it basic as an extended metaphor for my life.

I realized that I am very much like a cloud: My life has moved along many paths, some of my choosing and others due to circumstance. Often I have felt as if I have had no say in the directions I seem to be traversing. Along the way, I meet people, some who seem to swallow me with their big personalities, and others who I tend to overshadow because consuming them is easy, and then there are the people who I meet in passing who may or may not leave me with any sort of lasting impression.

“After the cups of tea, coffee, public conversations . . . I want to sit down with someone and talk with utter directness, want to talk to all the lost history like that deserving lover.” ~ Michael Ondaatje, from Running in the Family

Now if all of that sounds like some kind of new age bullshit, well, what can I say? I’m certain that I’m not the first person to have used this metaphor for life, nor will I be the last. I can only say that it occurred to me this morning as my consciousness was coming into waking, and I decided to go with it.

William Ascroft Sustained Light after Sunset 1886 pastel
“Sustained Light after Sunset (1886, pastel)
by William Ascroft

As children, we put our heads on our arms as we recline in the grass, and we look up at the clouds and try to make out shapes—bunny rabbits, cats, dogs. As adults, sometimes we see other things in the shapes—an arrow, a mass like a mushroom cloud, Richard Nixon (okay, maybe that one is just me). When do the innocuous shapes we see as children morph into things more reminiscent of our waking nightmares?

I couldn’t tell you. I only know that at various point in my life I have been content to be bounced around by the winds, landing wherever and whenever. I suppose it’s part of the overall adventure. But at other times I have felt indignant at having so little power to control my path, which reminds me of a particularly crass simile that I have heard many times: It’s like pissing into the wind.

Fate. It’s tricky, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle.

“I go, we go. On the way we keep a log-book, the book of the abyss and the shores. Everyone does. My books are thus like life and history, heterogenous chapters in a single vast book whose ending I will never know.” ~ Hélène Cixous

I know. Pretty flaky, and I couldn’t really tell you where any of this came from. Just thinking about life, my life in particular, life in general, and the fact that no one really has control, no matter how much they may think they do.

William Ascroft Sunset and Afterglow 1883 pastel
“Sunset and Afterglow” (1883, pastel)
by William Ascroft

Presbyterians believe in predestination, as in the idea that when someone is born, his or her life is already planned out, from start to finish, as willed by god. I always found that concept incredibly troubling. John Calvin contended that some people are born already condemned to eternal damnation, while others are slated for salvation. Think about this for just a moment: No matter what you do, you are damned if that is what god decided for you before you took your first breath.

Sucks.

I remember learning about this concept when I was about 10 or 11, and even then, it really bothered me. If one holds to predestination, then why try? I mean, if you have a run of bad luck at one point, is that god shaking the omnipotent finger at you, saying, “Tough luck. But this is your road, and you can’t do anything about it”? And if so, should you just give up because, well, what the hell? What’s the point?

“You know, maybe this is how your concerto ends. I mean, not a big end with trumpets and violin. Maybe this is the finish, just like that suddenly. Not sad, not happy, just a small room with a lamp, abed,a child sleeps, and tons of loneliness.” ~ Eran Kolirin, from The Band’s Visit

My awakening cloud metaphor stayed with me even as I read an article in Rolling Stone about Aaron Swartz (The Brilliant Life & Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz). You may not know the name, but Swartz was a brilliant Internet pioneer, helping to develop RSS and reddit, and he committed suicide in January of this year. Swartz was being charged with theft for downloading documents from the JSTOR system of MIT. JSTOR is an online repository of articles for which colleges and universities pay access.

William Ascroft Sky Study 1886 pastel
“Sky Study” (1886, pastel)
by William Ascroft

Swartz, who was a child prodigy, was also plagued by personal demons, including depression and a sense of isolation. What does this have to do with what I’ve been saying? A lot.

Swartz, even though he could create code like others brew coffee, wanted to be a writer. He often felt as if he had no control over the direction his life was taking him. That he committed suicide is sad for all of the obvious reasons, but also because society lost a bright star, one who contributed to much but felt as if he had contributed nothing. When he died, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, wrote that Swartz was “blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good, a maker of things.”

What touched me about this story was how this genius man-boy was so self-doubting, so insular, so afraid, yet others saw him as this fierce fighter for access to information.

We never see ourselves as others see us.

“The time of departure is not mine to choose; I must find my way alone in this darkness. With the shadow of the moon at my side, I search for traces of wildlife in the white snow.” ~ Wilhelm Müller, from “Good Night”

I have spent so much of my life drifting aimlessly, it seems, yet you tell me otherwise. I have spent so many years lost, but not really.

I have had the pleasure and pain of encountering kindred spirits and malevolent spirits, all of whom have helped to build me up and chip away at my soul. I have merged, dissolved, grown layers and lost parts along the way.

William Ascroft Sunset and Noctilucent Cloud 1885 pastel
“Sunset and Noctilucent Cloud” (1885, pastel)
by William Ascroft

I have been soldiered on by winds that were warm and comforting, and I have been tossed about without any ability to tether myself to something solid. If have felt spun, blown, thrown, carried, cajoled and heaved. I have lost my way and in being lost, have found other paths.

All of this is to say that in this third act of my life, I am older, wiser, and still thrashing about completely without a clue.

Just before waking, a woman in my dream said this to me: “Century, century, 25.” I had no idea what it meant, which is to say, business as usual. And all of this brings to mind that completely sardonic Yiddish proverb: “Men tracht und Gott lacht.” (Man plans and god laughs).

More later. Peace.

(All images are by British artist William Ascroft, who drew hundreds of pastel sketches following the eruption of the Krakatao volcano on a small island in Indonesia.)

Music by Mikky Ekko, “Feels Like the End”

                   

The Dumka

His parents would sit alone together
on the blue divan in the small living room
listening to Dvorak’s piano quintet.
They would sit there in their old age,
side by side, quite still, backs rigid, hands
in their laps, and look straight ahead
at the yellow light of the phonograph
that seemed as distant as a lamplit
window seen across the plains late at night.
They would sit quietly as something dense

and radiant swirled around them, something
like the dust storms of the thirties that began
by smearing the sky green with doom
but afterwards drenched the air with an amber
glow and then vanished, leaving profiles
of children on pillows and a pale gauze
over mantles and table tops. But it was
the memory of dust that encircled them now
and made them smile faintly and raise
or bow their heads as they spoke about

the farm in twilight with piano music
spiraling out across red roads and fields
of maize, bread lines in the city, women
and men lining main street like mannequins,
and then the war, the white frame rent house,
and the homecoming, the homecoming,
the homecoming, and afterwards, green lawns
and a new piano with its mahogany gleam
like pond ice at dawn, and now alone
in the house in the vanishing neighborhood,

the slow mornings of coffee and newspapers
and evenings of music and scattered bits
of talk like leaves suddenly fallen before
one notices the new season. And they would sit
there alone and soon he would reach across
and lift her hand as if it were the last unbroken
leaf and he would hold her hand in his hand
for a long time and they would look far off
into the music of their lives as they sat alone
together in the room in the house in Kansas.

~ B.H. Fairchild

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” ~ Carl Jung

Spitfire Lake Reflection by Will Forbes (National Geographic Photo of the Day)

                   

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise . . . that denseness and that strangeness of the world is absurd.” ~ Albert Camus

Wednesday afternoon. Cloudy and mild, thunder showers.

Carl Jung again. I’m finding more and more that I really like Jung, but I probably should read more of him before I become a devotee.

Foggy Landscape by Vadim Trunov (Voronezh, Russia)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about mothers and daughters, the relationships that are carved from necessity and that  ineffable fragility that exists between the two. I’ve tried to think of the kinds of things that I’ve told Alexis over the years, and whether or not I’ve been the kind of mother that she has needed.

Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve always said the right thing, and probably, I have not. I don’t know if I’ve always been the sounding board that she needed, or if I’ve shouldered enough or too much of the burdens that she has borne. No one gives you a manual when you take your first child from the safety of the hospital. Suddenly, you find yourself holding this tiny bundle who has needs, the kinds of needs you have never before had to consider. It gets easier with subsequent children because you have already had to learn what the different cries mean, what the different body postures may signal.

But that first time? You know nothing. It doesn’t matter how much you cared for other children when you babysat for the neighbors or how often you had to take care of younger siblings; with your first child, you enter foreign territory, and it is nothing less than terrifying.

Alexis is entering that territory. She told the family at Christmas that she is pregnant. Surprise!

I had wanted to wait until all of the tests were done and she had passed that iffy 16-week mark before saying anything. She has had to undergo more testing than the average pregnant young woman, mostly because of that unexplained seizure that she had a few years ago. Thankfully, everything seems to be good, normal, whatever that is.

“Everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. So suffering must become Love. This is the mystery. This is what I must do.” ~ Katherine Mansfield, from The Journal of Katherine Mansfield

So of course, I am filled with trepidation and joy, simultaneously. My daughter is not as strong as I was at that age; that is simply an observation, not a criticism. She is an entirely different kind of person. Everything worries her, and she becomes emotionally distressed easily. Having said that, I have noticed that she seems to be handling this rather tremendous life change with a kind of quiet grace.

Colibita Lake, Romania, by bortescristian (FCC)

This is not to say that she doesn’t have her meltdowns. Hormones, that and the fact that she cannot take her usual medications. She is a bundle of raging, unchecked hormones. Thankfully, Mike is very excited about becoming a daddy, and he seems to be balancing her well.

Now ask me how my mother took the news? Not well. She made a rather biting comment in front of everyone, and then said that she was joking and couldn’t understand why everyone got so upset. Luckily, she has since progressed a bit and is now purchasing baby clothes. Regardless, her initial horror at the news really affected Alexis adversely, understandably.

Which brings me back to my original thought: mothers and daughters.

“The tiny space I occupy is so infinitesimal in comparison with the rest of space, which I don’t occupy and which has no relation to me. And the period of time in which I’m fated to live is so insignificant beside the eternity in which I haven’t existed and won’t exist . . . .” ~ Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

I am hard on my mother, judgmental, critical. And I have to wonder if Alexis views me in the same light. I would like to think that this is not the case, that I have managed to carve out a good relationship with my daughter, even though I know that it has not always been good, that there have been times when the estrangement between us has seemed to vast to ever be repaired.

I have not always liked the males that she has chosen as boyfriends, nor have I always liked those she has chosen as friends. I think that those things are probably standard fare for mothers—thinking that the person with your daughter or son is not good enough, believing that your daughter or son does not make the wisest choices when it comes to friends. No matter. Alexis has a tight group of friends that she has been with since grade school, and she has been with Mike for nine years. Obviously, I was wrong about some things.

Morning Fog, The Meadows, Edinburgh, Scotland by keepwaddling1 (FCC)

But I suppose what I am really wondering is if I have instilled in her the knowledge that she needs to face this big new adventure in her life, whether or not I have shown her by example how important it is to love even when it is hard to love, even when everything within screams NO, I will not, because even though you may not want to, sometimes with children it is better to give that inch in order to gain the years.

Does that make sense?

When you are a mother, you subsume so much of your own personality at certain points in order that your child or children can become stronger individuals. You bite your tongue, or you walk away, even when you really don’t want to. And those mothers who are unable to do this, mothers like my own mother, are never able to retain their own identities, continue to live through their children, long after their children have become separate individuals. And conversely, mothers who have very strong personalities, such as myself, must take care not to try to impose that personality on their child or children.

It’s so easy to think of your child as a miniature version of yourself when you first start out. So many people come up to you and say things like, “She looks just like you,” or “She has your eyes and nose,” or whatever. It is much more difficult to remember that genetics are not destiny.

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.” ~ Aldous Huxley, Island

In other words, just because this tiny individual looks like you does not mean that she is you. And that’s a hard but important lesson to learn—early. And while I am talking mostly about mothers and daughters, the same is true of fathers and sons, or parents and children in general.

Morning Lake Mist by basheertome (FCC)

My god, it’s hard. It’s hard not to invest everything in this little person, and I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t invest everything. I’m only saying that it’s so important to remember that at some point there is going to be a separation, a time in which that little person is no longer little, no longer your mirror image, no longer content to live life as you see fit, and that point, that moment is when so many parents fail.

They try to hard to hold on with everything they have in any way that they know how, whether it is by proximity or money or guilt or something else.

As an only child, I have always felt that I could not move too far away from my mother because who else is there to be there in emergencies, like when she falls and breaks her leg? And even though I write often about my longing to be elsewhere to see other countries, I know that I am bound to this place indefinitely. I would be lying if I said that a part of me doesn’t resent this, but I also know that in the end, family is family, and my mother has me, only me, which is why she is determined to hold on so tightly, to try to control things in any way that she can.

“what matters most
is how well you
walk in the
fire.” ~ Charles Bukowski, from “how is your heart?”

So in the end, what have I taught my daughter, my children? What things do I hope she retains in her reservoir of knowledge that may be of some use to her in the coming months and years?

  • That voices raised in anger can say things that can be as damaging as a hand raised in anger
  • That a hand raised in anger can do irreparable harm
  • That the words I love you cannot be spoken too often
  • That calling a child a hurtful name is the same as marking that child
  • That hugs are for sharing
Old Gate in Fog by elias_daniel (FCC)
  • That it is more important to listen than to hear
  • That promises are meant to be kept
  • That a child remembers if you break a promise
  • That children learn trust from being trusted
  • That there is no good time to lie to a child
  • That compassion for others helps you to be a better person
  • That beauty can be found in unexpected places
  • That the toilet seat should be down
  • That body image is cultivated at home first
  • That tenderness should be expressed frequently
  • That hatred for others who are different is learned not inherited
  • That it’s okay to be silly at weird times
  • That we are stewards of the earth
  • That music and art are important aspects of life
  • That it is impossible to spoil a baby
  • That babies are meant to be held
  • That Law & Order is the best show that has ever been on television
  • That your children see and hear more than you realize
  • That truth is paramount
  • That a loving relationship with your partner helps your children to form loving relationships
  • That respect should never be taken for granted
  • That you only have one body and you should respect it
  • That you should always look someone in the eye when you shake their hand
  • That being tolerant should never be underestimated
  • That animals are sentient beings and must be treated as such
  • That until you have walked in another’s shoes you should not judge
  • That stuffed animals do in fact need homes
  • That words hold more power than you can ever imagine
  • That the rich should pay more taxes
  • That simply being a celebrity of any sort does not imply being a good person
  • That the Golden Rule is the most important rule of all.

“Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” ~ Sarah Kay

I know that I’m running long, but what it boils down to is this: I cannot remember the last time that my mother told me that she loved me. It has been years, maybe even since my father died.  I tell each of my children and Corey that I love them anytime they leave the house and before I hang up the phone. Is this too much? Can you say such a thing too much?

My mother’s constant patting of body parts and the tsks that followed taught me to be ashamed of my body. I hate my neck because she spent years telling me to do exercises to get rid of my double chinssss. I hate my belly because she does not hesitate to pat it and say something like “you’ve gained weight.”

Bridge in Mist by jamtea (FCC)

My mother’s inability to trust, especially my father, made it very hard for me to trust men. And her difficulty in showing intimacy gave me very mixed signals as a teenager. I was taught that sex was dirty and an obligation, and while I realize that this is a generational thing, don’t think for a second that being taught such a thing didn’t screw me up.

I want my daughter to bring her daughter into this world full of hope and a recognition that there are always possibilities. That heredity is not destiny and that we are only limited by ourselves. And one more thing: I will actually be a real Lola now.

More later. Peace.

Music by Peter Bradley Adams, “I May Not Let Go”

                   

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

~ Wislawa Szymborska (translated by Joanna Trzeciak)