My five year old came to me crying two weeks ago, telling me everyone in his class has an elf on the shelf. “Simon,” I told him, “that’s just a thing people buy and then move around the house.” That’s as far as my understanding of this phenomenon really goes. There is also the war of the Facebook photos of elves on shelves doing ever cleverer or more lecherous things, and I’m not sure what that is about. But, to keep alive the wonder and magic of Christmas, we called upon a lesser known figure: that of Buddy Bison.

Buddy Bison is a small stuffed toy we got at the National Parks Service gift shop in Faneuil Hall. I told Simon that we could try believing very hard in Buddy Bison, and if he deigned to oblige us, he might come alive. Since that evening, my husband and I have been moving Buddy around the house when the kids aren’t looking. That’s the sum of what Buddy does for us. We don’t take his picture, he doesn’t do anything interesting, he just stares out at us with his placid, bovine eyes from inside a rain boot, or under a chair, or on top of a ceramic horse.

IMG_6231I didn’t know there was some weird panopticon, “someone’s always watching” element to the Elf until a day or two ago, but that does not apply to Buddy. Buddy doesn’t care whether the kids are good or bad, and we don’t actually talk about Santa in this house. Simon asked why poor kids don’t get just as much as rich kids from Santa. What could I possibly say to that? “Santa prefers the middle class,” or “Santa does not wish to visit trailers and derelict apartments.” So instead I say, “Yeah, that’s not very fair, is it? What do you think about that?” And he pretends he doesn’t hear me.

The kids get a couple presents at Christmas, and they’re generally from thrift stores. This year, I went to a used sporting goods store and the owner showed me the kids’ cross country skis. I chose the cheapest ones, a thirty dollar pair with rust on the bindings and scuffs all over. When I took them to the counter, the owner sniffed and said, “Well those aren’t much.”

Buddy’s not much either, I suppose, except that when the kids see him someplace new, they’re giddy with surprise and delight. When they get their used, not-much presents, they will be thrilled. The key is to deny them any gifts all the rest of the year, or any toys, or really much besides food and clothes, and those we get hand-me-down. The other key is not to care what other people think. Sniffy shop owners, other parents, whomever. Just keep on going. High self esteem and low expectations. That’s the real magic of Christmas.

Darkling, I listen


The Cratchitt family coordinates their bows.

Tonight is the opening performance of A Christmas Carol at my college. My two sons have roles; one plays Tiny Tim, and the other, Ignorance. I have a role too: to drive them to and from, and to sit at every rehearsal and watch and listen, and to help them get dressed and made up and tell them to be quiet a lot. It’s a strange position, to see all the behind-the-scenes coming together of a show and to be only a passive observer. As it’s taken shape, they’ve moved from piecemeal scenes with characters missing each night to full dress rehearsal. Though it’s been tiring, I’ve found myself more fully in the spirit of Christmas than I’ve been in many years. Last night, sitting in the dark theater, I listened to the madrigals singing their carols, and the lyrics, profoundly and unambiguously religious, prodded into my brain and began to stir around a heap of ashy coals. Underneath, what breathed into life was the glowing red memory of sitting in the dim balcony at Sacred Heart Church when I was a child, among the hundreds of other Catholics rustling and pressing against each other, and singing. In that arch ceilinged space, and all the saints arrayed around, and the ladder-ribbed Christ suspended above us on the cross, I had known very early that I was faithless, and yet I loved that place, and the poetry of it. When I was old enough, I became an altar server, knotting my rope belt around my robe and lighting the candles, inclining my head toward the priest’s to pour water over his hands as he murmured, to me alone, it seemed, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.”

I no longer go to church, but I sometimes miss the sacramental hush, and the ritual, the rising and kneeling, and the echoing chant. But I found myself listening to those same hymns of Christmas in this different place, under a plaque of the comedy and tragedy masks and listening to the Dickensian syntax of the band of players. And though the songs are religious, the play is not really so. The admonishment to “keep Christmas in one’s heart” is given to mean kindness to one’s fellow man, and charity, and a care for the common welfare. Scrooge’s nephew says Christmas is “…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” The heavy punishment for failure to see that is to be fettered as the ghost of Marley.

That’s all I look for Christmas to be. I’ve been avoiding the round-the-clock radio of more secular Christmas songs–Jingle Bells, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and that–and tried to hold in my head the sound of pure human voices raised in darkness.  I hear so many stressed out laments over Christmas, and over the dichotomy of choosing either the veneration of a Savior, or the golden calf of retail. This theater is my third way. Sitting in the seats among the waiting actors, watching Act I rehearse, the bewreathed Ghost of Christmas Present is tapping time behind me, Tiny Tim spinning his crutch beside me, and the student actors with their glowing cell phone screens are scattered here and there in the dark. I listen, and cannot wait to see it all at once, with a full audience. For despite having heard these lines over and over, it’s never quite the same as when the play goes off for real. The audience, after all, is transformed by the players, and the players by the audience, and we are, all of us, fellow passengers.

How to live forever

Last night, I dreamt that my friend Peter was still alive. It was this time last year that I learned his life was ebbing away, so maybe now there’s a link in my brain between the waning November light and the loss of him. In my dream, he was alive though, in quotidian ways. We talked from time to time, or wrote, or ran into each other downtown. But he was not well, and in the dream, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do once he died. I walked the downtown, looking in at shop windows and seeing things I thought he’d like, and realizing he would have no use for them. They had been made utterly frivolous.

What would I do to remember him? How would I stave off oblivion? In my dream, it came to me, the way dream revelations do. My face pressed against a shop window, I thought, “I will remember him, and when I die, I will pass into the memories of my children and he will go with me.” I woke up with the conviction that I’d solved the great riddle. And then, as I shook loose of the dream, the sense of it fell apart entirely.

Stone wall and cow bones, Connecticut dairy farm.

Stone wall and cow bones, Connecticut dairy farm.

I suddenly thought, lying there, of a discussion I’d had recently with a student about homeopathy. We’d gone over the principle of it: a drug or a poison is put through serial dilutions and shaken (they call them “succussions”) each time, until eventually, the dilutions have reached a state where there is not one single molecule of the original substance left in the solution. There is only, proponents claim, the “memory” of the substance itself. Then I despaired. What is my memory but a dilution of him? And when I then pass into memory, it will not be whole. The passage will not be of every thought I ever had, and every person I ever lost.

My grandparents are real to me, though dead, but only stories to my sons. My great-great grandmother is only that to me: a photo of her visiting family in Italy and feeding the street pigeons in some piazza; some stories of her in heels out in the driveway sweeping the puddles away with a pocketbook over her arm. We become derivatives, caricatures, a few stories.

There is a line I have tried to find again in one of Hardy’s novels about generations upon generations of cows passing through an old field gate, the individual animals unimaginable in their oblivion. That is the fate worse than death, to be like mute animals, who, even when they have names, are erased when the farmer who called them that is gone. That, I suppose, is why I write, though admitting to such hubris and self-preservation makes me squirm. If I leave words behind by which they might know me, then I can face this all with a bit more grace.

Serial dilutions and succussions, and after a while, there is no substance left. “Water has no memory,” I found myself saying to the student. It applies to the molecules and molarity, but really, we could have known. After all, one cannot write on water.

My family spent the Columbus Day weekend in Franconia, New Hampshire, through the beneficence of an acquaintance with an available condo there. Franconia itself is just north of Franconia Notch, access point for the trails up Franconia Ridge, a hike I’ve wanted to do for years. Malcolm, at seven, is supremely confident in his hiking abilities, and I am too often susceptible to his suggestions for overly ambitious trips. This time, I bowed to the realities of two young children, a husband with an unreliable knee, and the ever encroaching darkness at either end of the day gnawing away at the available hiking hours. I scrapped my hopes of hiking the ridge. Instead, we climbed Cannon Mountain, a 4100 foot peak across the notch from the Ridge.

The trail is short, and, typical of White Mountain paths, heads just about straight up the mountain, regardless of the obstacles. No switchbacks, no effort to avoid boulders or slab, so the trail sometimes resembles not so much a path as a dry creek bed. The route was direct, but difficult. Arguably, our trails are like our people in that regard.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

There were other people on the trail, a few knots of college students with dogs, a passel of hedge fund types talking loudly about their returns, but overall, it was quiet and not crowded as we wound our way up the steep side and then the level secondary peak and little dip of a col before the final rise to the summit. At the end of the trail, we came to a gravel path, well-groomed and wide, which was disorienting enough. Then, a steady flow of people emerged from around a bend. They had just disembarked from the aerial tramway that conveys tourists up to the summit’s observation tower. A distance we had covered in two hours, with multiple snack and water breaks, and nagging thoughts of my whinging Achilles and overtensed hamstring, these people had traversed in twenty minutes. The coffee and hot chocolate they’d bought at the bottom hadn’t had time to cool. They wore leather equestrian boots and carried red purses. They tugged at insufficient sweatshirts or jackets and breathed into their hands. They crowded onto the deck of the observation tower and tried to coax their children to smile before the backdrop of the mountains.

The disorientation of emerging into this scene is not unique to Cannon. When Christophe and I climbed Mount Washington, we had a similar feeling as we crossed the last, barren scree field and came up over a ridge to see throngs of people ill-dressed for the conditions, but unconcerned in their flip flops and t-shirts, snapping photos and buying souvenirs before returning to their cars or the cog railway for transport back down the mountain. We put on our extra layers of fleece and contemplated the hours ahead of us to get back to the trailhead in Pinkham Notch.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

What is that feeling, coming up into such a group when they’ve been carried up and I’ve walked? The fall foliage was a bit past peak as we sat there, but the yellow of the beeches was still licking up the flanks of Lafayette across to the east. Sitting on the only available bench, we received a glowering look from a harried mother with two kids of her own fresh off the tram. Christophe leaned over to me and said, “I don’t feel the least bit guilty about taking this bench.” Watching these people take panoramic pictures with their phones and jostle and cajole their kids, and rub their cold arms in the brief time they had before the return trip, I had the distinct sense of moving at half speed compared with them. They were still paced for the ordinary world–everything at least quick, mostly instantaneous. We’d climbed for two hours, and had two hours yet to climb back down. Our whole day was consumed by this mountain. I’m glad to see people get outside and into the mountains however they can. Those kids may, having seen the mountains from this perch, someday decide to climb them on their own power. It’s good for people to get outside. And there are other mountains that offer solitude, and no tramways or roads. I am still a few years from being able to climb them with any regularity, so they preoccupy me. While I’m preparing lectures or grading homework, the breaks I take are to read stories about hiking or long backpacking trips. I look at a lot of pictures. Someone, a family friend, once took me for a hike up a small mountain to a fire tower. Ever since then, I was captivated by the idea of walking up mountains. Taking kids up a mountain on the tramway is better than nothing.

15539742431_6d01846359_o-2The next day, we waited three hours for a seat at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. It was a cool, sunny day, and from outside the restaurant, there is a clear view across the notch at Franconia Ridge. As the morning progressed, clouds descended on the peaks. Not on little cat feet, but with broad, leonine paws, and then, lowering its full bulk down until the peaks were all obscured. How many years before I can walk up there myself and traverse that ridge? Maybe two or three, and my boys will be able to hike it without much trouble. For now, I look at it from any angle I can. From Cannon, across the notch, from a clearing in Sugar Hill, from Route 93 creeping along its base. We’ll get up there one of these days. But you can’t see the summit from the summit itself. The views are better at this remove.

I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

Last night, all the phones in the house began ringing simultaneously. This is always an indication that an alert is coming out from the school system–snow days, an incident of violence at the middle school, that kind of thing. Last night, it was to tell us that Emma Jacobs, a 17 year old from our small town, had died in a car crash that afternoon. With that terse message (“crisis counselors will be available at the high school,” etc.), a bomb detonated in the life of our little town. The crater that opens up at the death of a child swallows up her family and friends entirely, and the concussive pressure wave rips through all the concentric rings of neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

I did not know Emma or her family, but I am walking through this day with a thickness in my chest for everyone who did–for the neighbors who’ve known her since she was a baby, the elementary school teachers who taught her and who teach my kids now, for the kids at the high school who knew her, played lacrosse with her, sat in class with her, and, being teenagers, have neither words for what is happening, nor mastery over their inchoate feelings. Everyone wants to talk, and no one knows what to say. On Emma’s Facebook page, high school kids post “Rest easy,” and “I didn’t know you well, but you were always really nice,” still speaking to her. Her page says she goes to Exeter High School. There are still people who haven’t received the news yet, and knew her, and to them, she’s still alive. We are still in the period after the bomb blast when everything is chaos; the shrapnel is still in the air.

IMG_5659We cast around for what to say, or what to do. People leave notes or send emails to the family telling them, “Anything you need, just ask.” “Reach out to us–we want to help you.” I have never been at the bottom of such a dark hole myself, but from what I’ve seen of this kind of grief, it will have to be us who do the reaching. The pit in the stomach, the nausea, it’s partly the sorrow we feel for what’s happened, but it’s tangled with embarrassment, with fear of saying the wrong thing, with guilt that our own kids are sound in their beds. Despite this, we must say something. Pray for them, if that is your tradition, and tell them you’re doing it. Bring food, or just go scrub their toilets or mow the lawn. Do not be afraid to speak her name, either now, or in the long weeks, months and years to come. You will not remind them of something painful they forgot, you will remember someone they loved and cannot ever forget.

A man I went to high school with died, along with his son, in an avalanche last winter. His father visits the memorial Facebook page for them from time to time, looking for new stories people have shared about his son and grandson. In the immediate aftermath, there were many. Now, they have stopped almost completely, but still, he posts from time to time, asking, or just thanking people. I can feel his fingers searching in the dark, sifting for more fragments of memory. It is a kindness we do, when we say the names of the dead to the people who loved them most.

We hope that the people who are bereft will tell us what they need, because we are ready to offer anything, but we don’t know what to do on our own. It takes courage to go so close to a grief this large. It has its own gravity, and it isolates those within it. But we have to be the ones, up here on the crater’s rim, to reach down to them. They are in utter darkness, and the walls are steep. When they emerge, there will never be a way for us to close the hole up behind them. We will all, forever, be stepping around it. They will be living very close to its rim. In time, they will, with help, be able to look away from it more often, and see the rest of life going on farther from it. But it will always be there, at the center of their lives. What we can do, however far we are from the epicenter, for now, is help them on the long climb out. The heavy feeling in your chest that is grief and fear and dread, it has a use too. It is an anchor point. Lower your line from that. Set your heels into the dirt and brace for the weight. It’s going to take all our strength to raise them.


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