I call myself writer now and it took me a long time to do it, not that I haven't written my whole life, not that I'm a bad writer, but that the permission hadn't been set in my own brain. I finally got there and that's okay, but when I began calling myself a poet it felt false because of how I had previously defined it. It was the same problem all over again. It was a definition I had constructed that didn't include me. I think we do that - define things so narrowly it's hard to shift into a different mode. And we all have a bit of imposter syndrome going on that taps us on the shoulder and makes us feel uncomfortable, unworthy.
So about this being a poet. Besides writing poetry and having a big pile of poems going back years, and besides writing every day, how can I feel more comfortable about my own definition of myself? Well, I thought of a way. I signed up for 30 Poems in November, a fundraiser for the Center For New Americans. A poem a day - and honestly I'm almost doing that anyway - but it allows me to step into poetry in a more formal way. It's like making a contract with myself to commit to being more present as a poet, to have more intention at least for 30 days. A side benefit is that I'll be connecting with other poets who are of a like mind; who whatever their motivation regarding writing is, they too want to support immigrants. I definitely do. We all struggle but those who come here with no connections are struggling to become part of a community. They're more than a little bit lost. They need connections to food, learning, health providers -- so many things, and CNA does such good work to support them. If you'd like to receive a daily poem from me in November, I invite you to use the form on my website to send me a request. And if you like, make a donation to the Center For New Americans. I'll be here writing poetry. I can do it. I'm a poet.
There’s a tin dove hooked onto the window. It’s a window that doesn’t open so it’s a good spot for a bird made of metal that will never fly but which represents flying. I come in to touch it from time to time and pretend I can, like an inoculation, get a bit of bird-ness, of movement and desire to fly high from it. I suppose that’s why it’s there. I’m not even sure where it came from, but it is something that has a power as inanimate objects sometimes do. When I moved here it was in the box and I placed it without too much thought on the old sunroom window. It seems more important than ever now that we’re all stuck in one place.
We do hold onto things. We hold onto memories and objects and hopes and dreams. I carried a whole bunch of my paintings around with me for years, decades, until one day I just let go of them. Things go on until they don’t. I suppose that’s the thought most of all in these pandemic times…when normal is anything but.
The other morning I saw a bit of sunlight on the ceiling and it was bent as if by magnets or magic and it stopped me. I took a photo of it because if light can bend , if bending light is possible, right here in my living room, why not miraculous cures? Why not all kinds of miracles? I find myself thinking of the things one thinks about after a long illness or after a fever of several days. It’s a clean slate of wonder about the world and what is possible if we can truly be ourselves and not the jealous, reactive, sometimes selfish people we have a tendency to become. It’s not like we do it entirely ourselves, but we can try harder. I can, I know that.
The other day I had a conversation with someone and I allowed myself to overreact and I was not happy with myself later. Is it so hard to just allow others to be their weird selves and to be the Dalai Lama in the room; the one who accedes and concedes and smooths out, not the one pulling and tugging and making all the wrinkles? Well, remorseful, I am (Yoda speak). I resolve to try harder to not get all plugged in. But it is a delicate balance between surrendering and giving up. Big difference. On the one hand, you are accepting and contributing and on the other hand you are removing yourself and taking yourself out of the equation; just disappearing. Somewhere in the middle would be good.
Let’s all be the tin bird; not flying, but representing all that we can be. Let’s be persevering but not privately hoping we win. Let’s all value ourselves, but not above others. God, it’s hard to do! I miss Sundays when I used to try to press the reset button. Now, it’s a drifting sort of existence without Sundays or weekends. We’re just all home all the time.
But we can be our own tin bird; each one of us trying to represent and emulate and (+outside of the metaphor) reaching out to others and helping and acknowledging their efforts in the best way possible. It's not as hard as bending light, right? If this is too corny, I’m sorry. I’m a bit fond of corny. Sitting around with my cat has only made it more noticeable.
I don't want to wake up early, sometimes at 6:30 a.m. My cat hasn’t even walked up onto my chest and butted me in the face to let me know she’s hungry. The light is barely getting going. The sun is very slowly hauling itself up and into this cloudy morning. Or I'll wake up with a start at 5:30 a.m. and (after sprinkling a few cat treats to keep the cat happy) I'll climb back into bed and drift off immediately; sucked into dreams with casts of thousands, often people with whom I’ve lost touch or who have left this world in some form or another. I dream of my father who is someone I’d like to speak with about just about anything and certainly about the precarious life we currently live. He died before the Berlin wall came down and before Russia dismantled itself. I speak to him by simply tilting my head. Dad, I say, do you believe this? It’s incredible…and then I wait for him to reply. There’s no voice but I feel better having spoken aloud to him; acknowledging the weirdness of the times in which we live and that I miss him.
My timing’s off, I tell him. But he knows that. He’s seen me bumble around in life and has never outwardly cast any aspersions. He’s seen me rise early and fall asleep only to meet me in my dreams. He’s seen me unable to settle down at night, sometimes up until nearly 1 a.m., not even coming in the bedroom to lie down until after midnight. Gone is the 10 o’clock bedtime you could set your clock by. Read Jane Austen or Wilkie Collins my father would advise. It’s good advice. I always settle down after reading twenty pages of Jane Austen. And I love the Moonstone. Like a favorite chocolate, it never gets old; the desire and satisfaction combined in every (readable) bite.
I made coffee this morning as I do every morning. Once I open the bag and scoop in the blackness, like scooping earth itself, and it fills the tan pleated folder and waits for water, even at that moment, before it’s really coffee, I’m repaired. At least for a little while. The smell of it is what does it. Anticipation is all about smell in coffee and I guess in many things. I read in the NYT that a little known definitive symptom of COVID-19 is the loss of smell. That’s news that should be passed around. I’m not sure buried in a feed that information will be read by enough people. You’d notice not noticing smells wouldn’t you? That’s my thought. Slight cough, feeling off, aches and pains…and no ability to smell whatsoever. I know someone who hit his head and for nearly a year he couldn’t smell. That would be torture for me. I smell everything. I smell tree bark and weeds and (yes, coffee) and garlic and just so many things. I rush up to them and insist they produce a smell. I’m like a child that way. It’s a kind of instant happiness that invades me when I’m able to waft in aromas. And that’s not even talking about the memories they invoke; old bookstores and libraries, a funny green soap that reminds you of elementary school, that crisp, distinctive icy smell before a snowfall.
So if my timing’s off (and I suspect yours too) what do I/we do to mellow out? For me it is to look out the window as the snow falls. The luxury of being in rural pandemic-land is that the fields are laying out there unencumbered by people and you can walk down and come close to the river, the mountain standing behind it. It's the nature-cure of fixing all broken things. I’m grateful for that. Try to find your cure. Be sure and smell a block of cheese, the cat box or open a bag of coffee and put your nose in there. Take deep breaths of things. And at night, if you’re unable to sleep, read Jane Austen.
My daughter who teaches yoga and voice and something called vocal yoga and is very connected to the spiritual side of herself, and when I say that, I mean the part that is familiar with the word Chakra and all the 7 chakras and whether or not they’re blocked, tells me I should not hold in fear, or have fear govern me because it will be detrimental to my well-being.
I guess my reaction (other than being fond of these types of advisories and, of course, of my daughter) is to respond by saying I’m not fearful. I don’t have that pang or dread or physical heating up or any physical sensation at all. No out-of-breath-ness (just my regular problems in that regard) no super pangy headaches, no clamping of the jaw – nothing. I was robbed at knifepoint once so I know what fear is. I don’t have fear, I tell her and I mean it.
I just have the sense of the oddness of it all. Like we’re in an episode of Twilight Zone and Rod Serling (who wrote more than 80 episodes) is there mixing it up; serving up his twisted mix of horror, sci-fi, comedy and superstition. Except (cough) it’s real. It’s our real life. It’s (and I hate to say this) the new normal.
So I can walk in the back yard and down to the river. And I can step onto the porch. I can even drive in the car. But I can’t open the window if someone wants to speak to me. Not with a recent lung infection. Nope, can’t do that. And if a friend volunteers to pick up a few groceries I can wave from the steps but I can’t come out to meet her. She puts the bag down next to my car and knows that after she’s pulled away I can come and fetch it. If my upstairs neighbors (it’s a large gothic Victorian with two flats) come to the door I can’t open it and say hi. Nope can’t do that.
I read recently that the bank in town (the little town next to the little town I live in) has suspended in-bank banking. You can use the drive-up and if you have something terribly complicated you can make an appointment. Nobody can be seen without an appointment. I called the local general store (yes, we have a general store) and asked if they had any special things they were doing for COVID-19. She asked who I was. I said I was Fin, a neighbor from down the street. And she said, Well, no –not really. We’re washing our hands, she added. With the virus in all the surrounding counties but not having made an appearance in ours, I guess I get that. Still, I would have to wear gloves and probably a face mask if I entered the store and people were there. Rod Serling knows these rules. Out here in rural America we’re trying to figure it out. I wonder if it’s scarier in the city. At least we have nature for a distraction.
It’s funny, now that I think about it, this transition moves us not only to a different kind of being but maybe even a different time. It reminds me of a Jane Austen period of time. All of a sudden, we are much more formal. Did you notice that? We bow. We don’t shake hands. We make appointments. We don’t just show up and expect to be served. You know, I hadn’t thought about it until now. The new normal: in addition to making us value our friends and family, has made us more polite. If there are other silver linings, please feel free to tell me.
It’s deceptively normal.
Truth is stranger than fiction, never more than right now with the whole world reeling from a pandemic. COVID-19 in the hilltowns? Last night I heard my upstairs neighbors (in their early thirties) having some type of get together. I was envious. I won’t see people, even my brother and his wife, for what looks like months it sounds from the last report. I am aware that life ends, but the sword of Damocles palpable imminence of it, the tortuous prejudice of the divide between young and old, the fact that I am seemingly disposable and have to live in subjugation until that moment in time does irk me. It really does. I know it affects all of us but if you’re old you’re screwed. The streets are deserted this morning, the plows making their way from driveway to driveway to carve out exit holes for those allowed to leave their homes.
There isn’t enough snow to require plowing of the entire parking area. It will not amount to anything. I have that view, looking out at the white, thinking that particular evaluation was made about the virus in the beginning. Now, with the fat in the fire spitting away and flaming up, now measures are being taken, caution turning to panic, rising up like a fire completely getting out of control. I look at the president and think, God, we’re in for it. He’s so cavalier about everything. We never get the truth. It’s always some varnished bit of truth that he’s been holding in his pocket, polishing. One imagines him as a schoolyard bully; torturing kids and buying and extorting favors. It’s not possible this man is the president. I’ve said that to myself a million times.
Today, I discovered my phone charger isn’t working properly so I’ll need to get a new one. A month ago this would have been a simple task. Today it’s an adventure. I step outside daily to walk down into the field near the river, but I am mainly here. I try not to leave the house to do errands more than once a week or two. I haven’t been in a store almost three weeks. I wore gloves on Friday when I went to the little Post Office. There was someone at the counter chatting with the clerk and she looked like she’d be there a while. In my former life I’d have looked at the cards and loitered inside. Today, I smelled the dusty, dirty smell of the cramped space, almost a metallic smell, and stepped outside grateful for the sunny day, the fact that I had that option since it had warmed up a bit. When the woman left I scurried in, hoping she wouldn’t take it personally that I couldn’t be in the same room with her. I wouldn’t even have gotten my mail except that I knew some books had come in. If one has to be in solitude one needs poetry, certainly Yeats and Eliot.
My neighbors Tom and Mary don’t have email and I’m assuming they don’t have any ties to social media. I’d like to reach out to them, but I don’t want to intrude on their privacy. It’s about 150 yards from my house to theirs. He and his wife have lived in this tiny town for decades, having raised their kids and settled in a cozy kind of way. I’m new. I’ve only been here a year and a half, coming here after illness and death, the two things that I had thought you could move away from. My daughters didn’t want me to move so far away. But the east seemed like such a refuge at the time, a place to reconnect to my distant past.
My tiny family; not counting my kids, it’s just me and my brother. Now, I spend days worrying about them and about my son who lives three states away. Both are about 6-7 hours away if you come right down to it. Not that hopping on a plane is in my future or anyone elses. It’s always after a plane ride you get the worst colds. We can’t afford that now. The germs out there live on plastic for three days. Is that right? And the droplets – we’re supposed to be vigilant about the droplets; social distancing and keeping at least 6-8 feet away from everyone. Tom and Mary live a quiet life and I wave to Tom when he’s out in the garden. They have a lovely garden. Tom’s out there digging and pulling weeds quite a bit of the time. It’s winter now, or March’s version of it, so they’re not outside. Mary was sick for a while and I heard she was much better. I hope so. They are good people. I should have sent them a Christmas card last year (I let Christmas come up too quickly and wound up not sending any cards at all, not even to my kids). I regret that. I regret so many things now that hindsight is a daily mode.
If I didn’t have my cat I’d be quite lonely. She’s a senior cat adopted last November. When I put out my hand to pat her she stands on her hind legs and rises precariously to meet my hand and bonk it with her head. My sister-in-law calls that tippy-toeing. I miss them. We used to get together once or twice a week for beers. Often they’d bring their own beer because they don’t like my IPA. Too bitter they say. Family, people I care about that I used to see, now just people I speak to on the phone. Are they okay? I used to be grateful for proximity. But that doesn’t do me good anymore. My brother is a year older than I and in fairly good health, but until recently he worked at a large corporation with lots of opportunity for contagion. Now, until they’ve been isolated for at least fourteen days, I can’t see them.
I can’t see anyone really. I had a lung infection a few years back and now I’m susceptible. I think about those who are more vulnerable than I. I wish there were a way to collectively communicate to them and say, hey—hang in there. We can do this. Daily, I say a little prayer and light a candle on the mantel for the people I know and for the people I don’t know; holding them in my heart intentionally. I take a moment to move into gratitude. It’s helpful for me to return to that mode. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn that anger and hate just piles up on your own door if you hold onto it. So let’s see…I’m grateful for the people I’ve met at the senior center and church, all lovely. They are shadows, sadly, in my life now. We can’t go out. We can’t see each other. For many of them, old school telephone is the best way, the only way, to communicate. I’ve thought about letters but I don’t know where they live, what their last names are. There’s a woman, Shirley, who comes to the center to meet-up but doesn’t stay for lunch. I wonder how to reach her. Lunch and meeting up is only once a week. Correction, was only once a week. This is a small town of not quite 1200 people after all. That’s the official number but it’s got to be less than that I’m thinking.
So what will the future bring? I have a granddaughter I haven’t seen in a year. I was supposed to go to the west coast to my younger daughter’s wedding in May but it’s been canceled. There’s no way to hold any kind of gathering. All the restaurants and bars are closed. All the stores are closing. I read today that Philadelphia was closing the liquor stores. That’s a mistake in my opinion. I need my beer and whisky and in the evening, when you’re by yourself, it’s a comfort. I suppose they’re worried about the number of people in the store.
The latest advisory said no more than ten people. But honestly, if you’re a senior with respiratory or immune issues you have to stay home all the time. You have to ask people for favors in picking things up for you. Asking for help is something I’ve always had trouble doing. But we need to stay put. They call it hunkering down. As an introvert I’m okay with that. But I miss my friends and family. I miss my so called freedom. Did it ever exist or was it simply a figment of my imagination the whole time? Now, who knows? Venturing out is like a dark kind of roulette. At some point the ball is going to drop into your slot.
I don’t know what to make of my new life, seven whole days here*. It’s sunny, the windows are closed to keep in the cool and you can no longer hear the cars going down the Mohawk Trail. I got up at eight o’clock (late for me) and found mold in the coffeemaker from ten days of having left grounds in the filter. It’s so unlike me to not have taken the grounds out and rinsed the pot. I think I was just terrified I would somehow cock-up the chance to be at this (now recently passed) writing conference. I almost did. I almost drove to the wrong airport and had to pull over and go inside a coffee house in Shelburne Falls and try to calm myself down, recheck my emailed notes on travel. Sometimes coffee can do that, calm you down.
And then off I went in my rented car. If they’d given me an eye test they might not have been so happy to rent me the bright red hatchback I dumped at the end of my long drive to the Burlington International Airport. It was actually the hardest part of driving; entering the parking garage, a shift in light from bright to dark and following arrows up and up until I pulled into a spot that seemed like the right place; removing all my luggage; a heavy suitcase with wheels aggressively uncooperative, a large shopping bag with a straw hat and a bathrobe, a purse, a canvas bag with my laptop and what not, standing there for a minute before locating the bridge and elevator. It seems almost surrealistic looking back.
And now, home in my home of newness, a hardback chair pulled up, sitting at my desk, an old pillow used in packing, softening the seat. Lots of empty cartons, lots of opened and not very unpacked boxes, with the exception of my books (sadly a small percentage of what I used to have) and papers; things I had to unpack right away to feel like myself; my turquoise hippo, William (a replica from the Met) and my dad’s statues and a green bowl he used to have, things like that. I feel a little lost but mostly found. It’s like I’ve sketched in my life and haven’t done the inking. I think the conference made me feel steadier about the decision to go out on my own again after decades; always tied to men, to lives that depended on me and now, children grown, it’s just me, kind of like a water witch seeking my way.
There’s a river in my backyard and just knowing it’s there makes me happy. You can see the lawn sloping down in the backyard, although who would call it a backyard with its trees that look like they’ve been there forever, and then further, on the other side of the river, climbing up into a giant hill that I personally would call a small mountain. They call them hills. I guess I haven’t climbed many hills, not like those. The trees look impenetrable, like they’re on a bit of fabric and the darkness between the trees is just painted on. Could be my eyesight, of course.
Pretty soon I’ll have to walk down and get a battery from the little family store. So far, I know about the family store, the general store, the town hall, the post office and a pizza place that has calzone, but you have to wait forty-five minutes for it if you go on a Saturday. Everyone wants to go there because they have a covered deck and it’s on the river side so you can pretend you’re on a riverboat. It doesn’t move, but the river does. It's a nice place.
I don’t have any comfortable chairs yet. There’s a window ledge in the sunroom and I sit in the corner between windows and have coffee. It’s my new favorite thing to do. I’ll be damned if I will order a recliner. I hate recliners (they’re so ugly!) and they remind me of when my son was spinning on a particularly dreadful one and slipped and fell into something. Everything was sharp back then, including my father-in-law who as an ex-navy commander controlled even our thoughts. I’m glad he’s dead. Not because I hate him so much; hate having somehow mutated into just plain sorrow and pity; two perfectly good sons he ruined, and cut into and almost ruined, partly ruined, my son who perseveres. My daughter somehow was able to stand up to him as I was in the beginning.
My brother and his wife are a tonic to be near. The reclusive life I’ve set up for myself is punctuated by visits to their home up Legate Hill despite my fear of their giant pig who walks around the living room groaning when he’s not pooping in the shallow pan that is four times the size of a cat box, or shuffling his blanket around on the oversized doggie bed he clearly loves. He’ll come, my brother, and fetch me since I’ve dropped driving as an occupation and skill. I love driving and I’m a better driver than he is because I’m dispassionate. I let go of anger so quickly I barely feel it. I’ve had plenty of practice. It’s a kindness, the fetching. I haven’t figured out how to get around. There should be a weekend shuttle to Greenfield, I think.
But this is the country and everyone has cars. Surely there must be people like me whose eyesight is crappy. Is there a support group for people who are going to get new corneas from a dead person but haven’t gotten around to it yet? I pour that thought away like yesterday’s coffee; both in denial and procrastination. I happen to think those are good skills.
*posted this after 20 days (vs. 7). Still feel the same.
I used to think home was some place I could create. Or recreate. The thing is, you don't actually create it, certainly not by yourself. I'd say that, for some folks, it simply exists. It hasn't changed since childhood. It's their parent's home or their grandparent's home. It's a home that goes back in time, that has history not only in years but in experience. Whether it is big or small, the good holidays were there, the momentous changes came there, all the sharing times, sometimes the jarring times. Truth is, I had something like that, I guess.
We used to visit my grandparents on Cape Cod. It was a cottage, but big enough for us to fit in. We visited it in the summers when anyone in New York would pay good money to live anywhere else. During the school year, I moved so many times as a kid that I don't have a home that sticks out as being "home." My attempts to build a home have fallen apart (divorce, etc.) and I've gotten used to being on my own. The summer home was not really home, though. My grandparents were the kind you visit. And my homes have changed and mutated over the years. My kids have moved. I've moved. So, where is home? Where is it? What does it mean? I have to ask myself that question as I have another move looming.
E. E. Cummings had it right when he said, "I carry your heart with me. I carry it in my heart." Now, as I set out on another voyage to home, moving to a different state and choosing to be 3,000 miles away from my (grown) kids, I need to remind them and myself that the heart can carry love. Miles don't matter. Sometimes you wind up where you need to be and sometimes you have to pull up stakes and go to where you need to be. That's just the way it is. My daughter might "lend me" her cat to keep me company. He's an eight year old orange tabby who gets crabby if he doesn't eat every two and a half hours, a lot like me, actually. But he won't arrive until after I've gotten there to set up the new home. Recreating home is something that excites me and terrifies me. It's exciting because I've scoped down so much that spreading out and having an art room will be glorious. It's terrifying because I guess I'm just getting more scared as I grow old. But I'm going to stick with excited. It's an adventure and one should not turn them down too often.
[this is the first of, what will likely be, a series of ruminations on home]
C. D. Finley
Opinionated, wry, sometimes corny, observational humor mostly about writing, but you never know.