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Archive for December, 2013

I’m not surprised that Pope Francis has met with widespread praise and welcome from all corners of the world. Following on the heels of a red-shoed, calculating and doctrinaire Pope Benedict, who did little to rehabilitate the popular reputations of either Germans or Popes, Francis seems all the more approachable, welcoming, and above all, kind. To those on the outside, Catholicism looks authoritarian, top-down, obedient to the enthroned Holy Father. On the ground, things have always looked a bit different. Growing up Catholic, I never heard much about the Pope. We prayed for him every Sunday, and for Cardinal Law and the unnamed droves of church leadership and faithful, but that was about it. I know the list of the Church’s continued failings: institutional homophobia, misogyny, the pedophilia scandal. Father Geoghan was my father’s parish priest growing up. I come from a line of Catholics raised in the Boston archdiocese, the belly of that particular beast, and I have no illusions about the flaws of of this Church.

Francis looks, to non-Catholics especially, like a scouring beam of light illuminating the fusty and corrupted chambers of the Vatican, and therefore, the Church’s parishes around the world. What he looks like to me is what good Catholics have been all along, and the best of these, to my mind, was my grandmother. Born Marguerite Hayward, nicknamed Peggy, married to become a Fahey, and known to me and to my dozens of cousins as Nana. Last night, on Christmas Eve, I watched the children perform the Nativity pageant, as a little blonde girl and boy walked up the center aisle playing Mary and Joseph, and I thought of Nana. She was devoted to Mary, which made particular sense as she herself was great with child for the better part of twenty years and more, bearing twelve children. She never wearied of children, it seemed, a feat I marvel at all the more now that I have two of my own. When I see a baby, I feel my uterus clench protectively around my IUD, just making sure. Nana, though we were so many, was ever happiest at the center of an orbiting universe of children and grandchildren.

On their wedding day.

On their wedding day.

She was madcap and zany; she sent us sticks of spearmint gum individually taped inside cards by way of birthday presents. She was deeply devoted to Larry Bird and the Celtics in their prime. She kept plastic jars of holy water from Lourdes or Our Lady of Guadalupe stashed around the house. She wore clip on earrings and kept tiny saints’ medallions pinned inside her pocketbooks. She prayed to St. Anthony for me when I lost things, and she gave me a scapular to wear under my clothes, with Mary on one of its square faces and the sacred, thorn pierced heart of Jesus on the other. When I hear Francis say, “Who am I to judge?” I think of her. Though she sorrowed for those whose paths, she feared, had strayed, she didn’t pronounce upon them, she only prayed harder and baked them an extra batch of rice krispies treats smeared with a thick layer of chocolate on top.

Nana with my dad in 1980

Nana with my dad in 1980

In the last months of her life, she moved into my parents’ house. I was in college then, but fortunate to come home often. She had lost much of her eyesight to macular degeneration and could not drive herself to doctor’s appointments. I brought her to many of these, and on the way back from one clinic on the North Shore, I got lost somehow. We followed the ocean she could no longer see well as her delight at our wanderings increased and it got closer to lunchtime. “How about we get something to eat?” I asked her, and she, the perpetual dieter, and perpetual diet cheater, giggled and assented. After that, every time I drove her, I carried on the same pretense, claiming we were lost and had better stop and fortify ourselves.

It was two weeks between when I came home for the summer and when she died. I read to her from The Greatest Generation, and I used a little manicure set to do her nails, painting them a garish pink, and rubbing her gnarled and burnished knuckles. She held her hand out, the arthritic fingers pointing off somewhere else, and exclaimed, “I can see them!”

On the last day of her life, we had a graduation party for my sister, who had just finished high school. We have one grainy photo in dim light of Nana with my sister and my cousin Kate. All three are wearing graduation caps, and Nana is smiling her squint eyed smile.

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That night, the lung disease that had been slowly claiming her fulminated suddenly. She was in her bed and the whole room was a sudden flurry. I followed the steady, sure-handed example of my mother, a nurse, who recognized the ragged breathing of the dying, and was trying to make her comfortable. My father, whose mother Nana was, came into the room and I tried to hug him but he firmly guided me back to the bed and said, “Go. Stay with her.” And I did. I stayed on my knees beside her as she tossed under the blankets. I held her hand and said almost nothing at all. Then she was gone, and I was still kneeling there, holding her hand. It suddenly occurred to me, her death having come so abruptly, that she hadn’t received the last Eucharist–the Viaticum, “provision for the journey.” Here she was instead, with me, far from a priest, a non-believer. Before we dressed her, and all her sons and daughters were called and those close by enough began to arrive in our back room where she lay, I pressed my palm to her forehead, then bent and kissed her brow. The best approximation I could make of last rites for a soul already well provisioned for the journey.

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In praise of the presents

Yesterday I asked Malcolm what his favorite part of Christmas is, and he told me, “The presents.” I paused, thinking to bring up family, and meals, and all those other, often intangible things about the holiday. Then I said, “Me too, bud.” For him, it’s the getting of presents, while for me, it’s the giving of them, but it’s about the same in the end. It’s about the boxes and bags and the sheer stuff.

I felt a moment’s pang over this; how could we be so materialistic? In truth, we love other things too–the tree, the lights, the daily countdown on our homemade advent calendar that contains healthy vegan treats for each day of December (yes, they actually enjoy these), but the presents are the main event. When I think about how it’s come to this, I discover our good fortune.
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We live five miles from my childhood home where my parents still live. Two of my younger sisters live in apartments in the same building; another sister lives a few blocks away. My little brother is in college, but in state, so he’s back regularly, and I never have to go too long between sightings of him, lounging on my parents’ couch watching SportsCenter. Every Sunday, just about, my mother puts on an elaborate multi-course supper to rival or exceed the average person’s Thanksgiving Day. When there’s light enough in the day, I lace up and run there, take a shower, and come out to join my siblings for whatever my mother has chosen for the night’s “signature cocktail.” My two kids and their two cousins pile up to watch tv before the meal, and after, they dance while my brother-in-law plays the guitar for them. It sounds entirely ridiculous when I lay it all out like that, but when people ask, “Will you be seeing your family for the holidays?” this is the vision that leaps to my head. “Oh, yes,” I tell them.

My husband’s family is a bit farther afield, but no one lives more than an hour and a half away, and we see them fairly often–often enough that a Christmas visit is no novelty either. We vacation on the Cape in summer with them for a week, and drive down to see them for birthdays. As we continue to consolidate, his parents are contemplating a move to our neighborhood too.
IMG_5155This idyll turns out to be strangely isolating at Christmas. Watching sentimental commercials about homecomings, and time-lapse visits with grandkids only seen in person this one time a year, it’s not that I wish for long car trips or, God forbid, plane rides, but sometimes, I suppose, it might be nice to miss someone.

The trade-off has been a downgrade in professional ambition; the highly driven, accomplished set I took up with at prep school used to look at me with wonder and puzzlement when I announced I’d be attending my state university. After vet school, I was asked constantly why I didn’t apply to a residency in New York. Because it’s in New York, I’d answer. The things I love to do–write and teach–I am fortunate to be able to do anywhere, so I may as well stay where my whole family is. I still get vaguely pitying looks from people who ask me, “Why don’t you travel?” or, if I have traveled somewhere, “Yeah, but you can’t really know a place unless you’ve lived there a while.” True, I can’t argue with that. But what my nomadic peers might not realize is that there’s knowledge that only comes from staying put too. I’ve spent all but a month or two of my life in New England. I have no opposition to travel, and maybe someday we’ll have the money to do it, but I don’t long to leave this place either.

I remember one Sunday at Mass when I was a kid, no different than any other Sunday, as the priest gave the usual parting blessing. “Thank you for your presence and participation,” he said, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.” One of my little sisters, suddenly jolted from her reverie, looked up and said, “But we didn’t bring any presents!” It took some explaining to get her to grasp the concept of homophones, and, more importantly, that we were not, in fact, slinging gifts at Father George for no apparent reason.

Every Sunday, we were at Mass. Every Christmas, we’re at home. Every summer, we prowl around the shores and mountains of our homeland. We’ve got presence and participation in spades. Now, bring on the presents.

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Thousand mile retrospective

Around this time last year, a friend goaded me into trying to run 1,000 miles in 2013. It wouldn’t average out to too terribly much–about 20 miles per week given that I would have to take two full weeks off to go to an island and capture gulls for science. No running out there. I agreed to the challenge, and today, I hit the mark with ten days to spare.

If I’d run it all at once, as the crow flies, I could have been on Jekyll Island, Georgia by now (which is lovely; I’ve been), or along Ungava Bay in Quebec, or in the middle of the Atlantic, having overshot Bermuda by a couple hundred miles.

I thought maybe I’d hit 1,000 on a longish run, and be someplace back on the more scenic sections of the roads around here. Instead, I wrapped up just exactly by my house. No witnesses, unless you count the dead opossum that’s been hanging from a crooked branch in a shrub around the corner for over a month now. No finish line festivities, no post-run drinks and snack station. I’ve run mainly on either side of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, stitching through over and over with my routes through every season.There hasn’t been much fanfare over the course of the year, but both solitude and traveling on foot have their own rewards, and I reckon by now, I’ve reaped about a thousand.

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January on Currierville Road in Newton, New Hampshire.

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Powow River on its way into Massachusetts at the end of February.

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Following Malcolm down South Road in March.

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Following Christophe down 1A in March.

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Coltsfoot and Coors Light in April.

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Charleston, South Carolina in June.

Roadside cemetery, Rome, Maine

August, roadside cemetery, Rome, Maine

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Porcupine retreating.

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Dying white admiral in Mount Vernon, Maine.

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Danvers Swampwalk in September; the last 90 degree day.

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Most of the way somewhere.

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Chase Road, Newton, New Hampshire, when the beeches have turned.

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Burrows-Brookside Sanctuary, South Hampton, New Hampshire in mid-October.

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Bullfrog traveling the abandoned road through Georgetown-Rowley State Forest.

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Woodsom Farm in Amesbury, end of October.

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Our next door swamp in November.

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Merrimack River from the Amesbury side

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The old hat factory by the river in December.

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Amesbury’s Great Swamp early in December.

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Bradley-Palmer State Park in Topsfield, Massachusetts after the first snows.

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Circling back round into East Kingston again.

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Finish line.

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One evening this week, unable to sleep and thinking of my friend Peter Greer, who was dying, I went downstairs to find a book. I pulled down the two volume collection of Meditations, selected pieces from among those given on Thursday mornings in the church on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy by faculty or by senior students. Peter gave several over the course of his teaching career, and some of those are in these books. Opening the first volume, I saw the dedication page to James Valhouli, an English teacher who died in my first winter at the school. I had not known him, and I was still getting my bearings in that sometimes intimidating and austere place when he fell through the ice on the Exeter River and drowned. It was terrible, and bewildering, but not personal. All I knew of him were a few stories, a black and white photo, and a favorite poem. The vivid details of his death were more real to me than he was, and when I think of him, it’s only as I cross that same river.

The dedication page of the second volume bears the name of another English teacher, Rex McGuinn, who died while out for a run four years after I graduated. I had one class with him, and when I heard of his death, I conjured all the memories I had–an impressive mustache, a soft, Southern lilt, generosity and kindness toward my own poor attempts at writing the required poems for his class. We read Blake, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and once we went to his house, and I was still young enough for this to strike me as strange and unsettling, a vestige of the childish belief that teachers live at school. In any case, I knew him, though we never became friends or kept in touch.

Peter’s name, I’m sure, will appear on some dedication page somewhere, likely many. He was popular, beloved, one, I’m sure, of the most heavily visited faculty members when reunion weekends rolled around. When he was my teacher, he did his best to draw me out of my muteness in class. When we met in conferences over my writing, he encouraged me, prodded me, challenged me. Chronically low on self esteem, I was flattered but suspicious of his praise. In my four years at school, I never really overcame the muteness in class. When the course was over, the depth of my shyness kept me from ever speaking to him or dropping by to visit. 

In my senior year, Peter’s wife, Anja, also a teacher at Exeter, died of cancer. In the weeks leading up to her death, I kept a secret vigil. A day student, I commuted to campus each day, and in the evenings, I would take a detour to drive past their big house halfway between the school and home. There was nothing to it but driving by, slowing just slightly, and looking to see which windows were lighted. I had never been inside, and I didn’t know the layout of the rooms, but I came to believe that one upstairs window, which was always illuminated, must have been where she was. I drove past every night, and thought of them in there. I told no one about this habit.

After Anja died, I wrote Peter a note. Then, I could not conceive of calling him anything but Mr. Greer, and so I addressed it that way. I drew a little sketch of a Northern Redbud tree, painstakingly coloring hundreds of the tiny pink buds, and included a few short, self-conscious lines expressing the inadequacy of my words. Less than a week later, he was back on campus, and all of us, awkward teenagers anyway, suffered the additional faltering awkwardness of trying to speak with a man whose wife had just died. Mercifully, I have no memory of what I said. But I have kept a journal since I was eight years old, and in an entry from April 27, 1998, I wrote, “I was sitting in the hall by the English classrooms when Mr. Greer came by. I saw the four, neat white teeth of his smile and he crouched in front of me and said, ‘I know I’ve already told you this, but that note was really wonderful. I just keep showing it to everyone. You said in it ‘I don’t expect that my little words would make a difference,’ but I want you to know, it did make a great deal of difference,’ and he laid his palm briefly on my knee.”

compbookMy last month and a half at Exeter were consumed by boyfriend musings and trysts, tormented decisions about college, and feckless participation in track meets. I circled around Peter, watching him, noting how he seemed, what he said, surreptitiously watching him clean out Anja’s classroom, walking down the hallway with a potted fern in each hand. I recorded my dreams in my journal too. In many, I was being chased. In one, I was crossing a river on a bridge of rotted planks, each one inscribed with a name and a death date. After my graduation, Peter and I settled into a semi-regular exchange of notes and emails. He prodded me to call him Peter, I resisted, and we settled on “Peter Mr. Greer” or PMG, for short. The aimless summer between graduation and when I went off to college, I rode my bike past his house often. Unmoored in my freshman year at UMass, his notes held me to my own center. I found my place gradually, and still we kept in touch, and I finally was able to call him just plain Peter. He came to our wedding. He wrote congratulations on my first child, my second. He made a good marriage; he got his diagnosis. He and Dale lived snugly in their fine little house with their fine little garden. They traveled; they stayed home. Looking through our notes now, I marvel at their frankness. He had once said he and I had a certain diffidence in common. It seemed we were able to write each other so freely because of, not in spite of it. Both of us were capable of being lively, gregarious in conversation, yet both of us often felt an urge to travel through a crowd with our heads down, unnoticed, even by friends.

In my last note to him, I wrote in thanks. Over the years of our friendship and our correspondence, he had shown me how to be a teacher, a friend, a bird watcher, a reader, how to be contentedly married. While I was a student at Exeter, I gradually came into my gifts, helped by several marvelous teachers. David Weber, Ralph Sneeden, Harvey Knowles–with their encouragement, I gained in confidence, and began to think of myself, hesitantly, shyly, as a writer. But my skill in writing remained, to me, abstract and with a shallow purpose, like a parlor trick I could trot out to distract or dazzle. Writing to Peter, and being written to by him, was my first education in what my writing could do for someone. I looked at the effect my words had wrought on a friend and my own understanding of my gift was changed utterly. Exeter taught me to write for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it, the keenness of expression, revising for meaning and expression and tone. All of that is technique, and without technique, the meaning will be muddy, or lost entirely. But Peter taught me about the meaning itself.

After a shaky fall of feeling lost in the crowds at a big state school, I was beginning to regain my footing. In the winter of my first year at UMass, I made this entry on the last page of my journal,

“I emailed Mr. Greer tonight, nervously and carefully composing a two paragraph note. He inhabits such a strange place in my heart, at some great depth there. I miss him, and I worry about him, but I don’t know how to tell him any of it. He spoke to that same thing when he wrote to me, saying he knows what I mean; the current underneath my words is what I send him, and he hears it, and I gratefully continue writing.”

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Arrivals and departures

My small pond has been going through freeze thaw cycles for the past two weeks. November weather turns freezing one day and rises to 60 the next. In this shoulder season, things creep up on a person.

Spring is different. Spring is full of conspicuous firsts. One night, you open the window to listen for wood frogs and hear nothing. The next night, they’re raising a cacophony of quacking. You never notice the last night they sing though. One night, some days or weeks later, you remember that you haven’t heard the wood frogs in a few days.

The first phoebe of spring swoops in and lands on the clothesline outside the window one day and holds itself bolt upright, abrupt and jarring after a phoebe-less winter. When they go in fall, I couldn’t say which day I last saw one teetering on the top of the dogwood shrub.

IMG_5094In early fall, I’m susceptible to a kind of sentimental farewell to these creatures. I watch the old snake with his scarred tail wind himself under the rock by the pond and think, “This might be the last time I see this snake until spring.” But then a warm day follows a few cold ones and I see the snake again, and don’t bother to mark it much at all. “You again,” I take to muttering. But the snake’s out of sight for good now, and he’s an old snake, so it may be, truly, that I have seen him for the last time and I don’t even remember the day.

A month or so ago, I ran into a friend of mine at a coffee shop. He’s had an indolent, waxing and waning cancer for years now, but his kind of cancer generally does end in a terminal crisis. When I hugged him, I laid my cheek against his cheek and it felt cool. His hair was gone. We had only a moment to speak, and he murmured that he was undergoing a new treatment, and with a jolt, I felt certain that he was dying now. I meant to write him a note right after, and kept moving the reminder to do so from week to week in my calendar without ever doing it. Waiting to find the right stationery, I told myself. I could search my whole life long and never find the right stationery for this purpose.

Today, I found out that he’s gone home for hospice, and I dashed off a different version of the letter I meant to write, my hands trembling in a sudden panic that it would not get to him in time.

I hope to see him at least one more time, though I wrestle with the cowardice most of us feel, facing the death of a friend. Balancing his privacy, and his family’s need for time with him, with the knowledge that he would want to see his friends too. Not knowing, of course, what to say, but knowing at the same time that that doesn’t matter all that much. I don’t have any grand farewell speech planned, of course, and I won’t be with him right at the last either. But I won’t lose track of whatever time there is left the way I do the phoebes, the wood frogs, or the snake. If I am fortunate enough to see him again, once or twice, maybe, I know that when I rise to take my leave, each leavetaking will be freighted with the knowledge that it will likely be the last.

We see things differently when we think it’s for the last time, though we may not say things differently. A meeting in a coffee shop, a meeting by a bedside, either way, “It was good to see you, goodbye,” I say. It’s a mercy and a burden to know that this time, it’s for keeps.

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