Secret Circles

I learned recently that the moon wobbles. Observing a simulation of that rocking motion – libration, it’s called – via a NASA app on my iPad is a cheap thrill indeed. Connecting this mottled image in my hand with the glorious, full orb in the sky tonight is a stretch . . . .and yet.

I can’t say whether the moon in my hand is in collusion with the moon in the sky, but I can say I feel wired, jittery. Wobbly. The sense of time passing grounds me.  The possibility that so  much still lies ahead lifts me.  I loved coming of age in the Sixties, for all the personal and political strife it presented. I am now in my sixties, the full moon coinciding (give or take a day) with my birthday this year. Next year, astrologically speaking, may be a big one: 12/12/12.

You Reading This, Be Ready . . .  A poem by William Stafford  would be welcome any day of the year,  but I take the timing of this one’s appearance personally, a gift as mysterious as the moon itself, with its reminder of waxing and waning and, yes, wobbling.

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

My understanding of the phenomenon dubbed moon wobble is that the face I see in the sky tonight is ever-so-slightly different from what I saw yesterday or what I’ll see tomorrow.  Of course, this is not visible to the naked eye. What ever is?

A few weeks ago I sat across a table in a light-filled NYC restaurant, looking into the face of my longest, dearest friend. BFF, yes, even before (and without) the short-hand.  Sure, we both look (a little) older, but the smile I always recall when I think of her, the one that taps at a heart as golden as it gets (and gives), has not changed.  We talked as if we had seen each yesterday, not  years ago, when she relinquished to me that cherished volume,  ‘The Sherondas.’  Inside the pages, a little fragile now, is a weekly record of our club meetings. We collected dues. We argued. We planned parties.  We watched “American Bandstand.” We cried about boys. We were preteens caught up in the music of those great girl groups. It’s hardly a stretch to hear echoes of the Shirelles in the circle we became, the letters of each of our names strung together to form the Sherondas circa 1961.  My stint as recording secretary would never lead me to believe I had the stuff real writers are made of : “We were eating and eating till we decided we needed some good, rude arguments.” Then again, it wasn’t my job to comment, just record, though each of us, in turn, did manage to bring a little of her own flavor to the minutes, my BFF the most spirited of all.  We let the memories roll as we sipped our drinks and nibbled on food.  I handed her the treasured record of a very innocent time. She wants to share it with her daughter, recently married. She plans to make two laminated copies, one for each of us. The information it would retain, for someone’s future curiosity, is less important than the fact of its existence.

My daughter, it so happens, works on a TV show about a group of teen witches, “The Secret Circle.” Innocence may not be what it once was, and, yes, birthdays have a way of making me feel “captive on that carousel of time.” And, whether or not Marlo Morgan’s account of her walkabout in Australia, Mutant Message Down Under, was a hoax, one lasting impression it made on me was the suggestion that the nomadic Aboriginals she wrote about do not celebrate getting older each year. “We celebrate if we are a better, wiser person this year than last.”



The Sound of One Tree

October 31, 2011. I’m sitting in my living room, two sweatshirts over a long-sleeve shirt and a tank top. The only sounds I hear are a buzz saw and a neighbor’s generator.  This is a Halloween trick, no treat at all.  The first snowstorm on record in October hit two days ago.  At its height there was the sound of clumps of snow falling, tree branches snapping off, trees toppling under the weight of heavy snow and leaves not yet fallen.  It reminds me of the avalanches I would hear in the distance when I visited Mount Cook, New Zealand, with my daughter.

No power. No Internet. No heat. Fortunately the sun is strong, streaming through the windows.  It feels warmer outside than it does in the house, a marker of autumn,  especially those days when you’re not quite ready to turn up the thermostat, that winter mindset (not to mention the oil bills) just beginning to take hold.

Without power, and with bright sunshine,  I can read. Books. Earmarked articles from magazines. I can also write. And yet something makes me want to do nothing but listen. This is no zen acceptance of things as they are. Living in a part of the Northeast where overhead power lines still rule, I’ve grown used to the power outages, typically in summer and winter, with the extreme weather those seasons is prone to bring. I almost welcome the silence, not even a hum from the refrigerator.  Until too much time without makes me impatient for the expectations I’ve grown to live with.  There’s something to be said, too, for the normal rhythms that give rise to a productive workday. A walk. Errands. Reading the newspaper, in print or online. A conversation with my daughter. Yoga. A workout at the gym.  Without them, am I feeling a little lost, maybe even unable to focus?

Besides, there’s this tree – a huge one – that has fallen across my driveway.  I can walk around, or under, the tree, which, admittedly, awes me with its sheer magnitude and beauty, even toppled as it is.  Mother Nature has dropped a sculpture at my door, an earthbound treehouse. But walking around, or through, or over – even owning up to its enchantment – will only get me so far.  How long before I begin to feel trapped by its presence?

I keep listening, as if the very listening will make the refrigerator begin humming, force the heat to kick in, the
sound of the buzz saw chopping away at the tree to recede into the background.  It’s an unpleasant sound, yes, even if rhythmic in a way that resounds with that methodical piece-by-piece elimination of tree branches that shaded my house and that full, once-sturdy trunk that stood like a regal reminder that something exists in spite of itself. In spite of me. A process of elimination that fascinates me as I watch three men, salt of the earth, move like bees in and out of a hive: sections of the tree chopped by one,  placed in a wheelbarrow by another, branches cascading like peacock feathers off the shoulder of still another.  Yes, there is that story I need to e-mail someone, and all those Tweets and e-mails and Facebook feeds I want to catch up on. If I can’t (yet) have that access at home, at the very least I can find myself a WiFi hotspot, or go to good friends who have power and provide the kind of warmth that goes way beyond a heated house.  But for that I need my car, to take me to the other side of the downed tree.

Shoot to Kill

Once in a while, around dinnertime, I need to tune in to TV news. For all that’s available to me via the Internet, sitting on the couch and watching a news anchor deliver the top news of the day, condensed for easy consumption, is, oddly, a tuning out of the 24/7 mentality. I like Brian Williams for lots of reasons — his repartee with Jon Stewart, his appreciation of Bruce Springsteen, his resemblance to Peter Jennings. His intelligence and empathy.

Tonight’s top national story (October 19) was more human interest than politics, reporters on the scene in Zanesville, Ohio, where dozens of exotic animals were let loose by the very man who kept them in his own private wild kingdom.  Why he did it will never be known (unless he left a note not yet made public). He shot himself after releasing them, the dozens of lions and tigers and bears left to fend for themselves in a heartland that was no real home to them.  “Shoot to kill,” police were instructed. As one of them pointed out, this was not a situation they were ever trained for.  At least 49 animals were killed, among them Bengal tigers.

The local news, a half-hour earlier, was my real reason for watching tonight, curious about a story I had gotten wind of the night before and was still having difficulty processing. In this Northern Westchester community where I live, upscale by most standards, a man bludgeoned his wife to death, shot his two young children in bed, then killed himself. This is not a family I know (though I know exactly where they live), and all I keep trying to fathom is what rage or mental derangement it must take to commit this kind of murder and suicide in one fell swoop. Divorce proceedings were in the works, but even the most acriminious of family break-ups do not end in such violence. Having raised a daughter in this (mostly) wonderful exurban part of New York,  I keep imagining what it’s like in the local elementary school today (and the days to come), how teachers are trying to conduct classes and what’s going through the minds of those friends of a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old they’ll never see again. Just the thought chokes me up.

Zanesville, Ohio, and Cross River, New York, are dots on a map, hundreds of miles from each other.  Animals running in a wilderness not of their choosing, connected in some curious way with two children lying still as stone in a bloody, forever unmade bed.



9:15 p.m., an early October night. I go outside, lured by the tree frogs and crickets, the same as I do in the height of summer – just to listen. The air is cool, more summer than autumn/less autumn than winter. There’s a ring of light around the moon, a lunar halo. The sound, bells strung together on a vine of dying light, is thinner than it is on those mid-August nights bursting with syncopation – katydids in tandem with peepers, a cricket singing solo.

Every autumn in the Northeast is different, some more vibrant than others, this one off to a dull start, too much rain saturating the ground, making trees drop their leaves before the magic really begins – bouquet after bouquet of red and yellow, gold, orange, brown crisp against the sky. In spring I’m all ears, the birds signaling to take note. In autumn I’m all eyes, each day on the lookout for that pop of red in the distance, the glow of yellow against the sky. Today’s walk around the lake has me feeling a little autumn-deprived.  It’s the season of nostalgia, with its undercurrent of melancholy, my yoga teacher reminds me.  And every bone in my body tells me she’s right.  No sooner does September roll around, with its reminder of beginnings  (the Jewish New Year, the new school year) than thoughts of a year coming to an end creep in (Thanksgiving just around the corner, Christmas and Chanukah not far behind).  I need those autumn colors, with their announcement that something is so very alive before it dies.

Today, on my walk, something on the other side of the lake catches my eye, a heron perched on a rock, a swan next to it, neither paying any attention to the other. The swan is preening, the heron ever zen-like in its search for food.  Closer to me, but far enough not to feel threatened, are turtles lined up on a log. The swan and heron are a rare sighting, the turtles sunning themselves something I can so often count on. I usually stop, just for a quiet look, three or four small ones in a row, a snapper standing sentry. The splash as they dip back into the lake, one by one, is worth the break in my stride. Anytime I think of a turtle lumbering along with a shell on its back, I remind myself that they also swim.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,”  begins John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a line that’s a tongue twister if ever there was one. Autumn, for all its beauty, is not a season of playful ease. It’s something of a rush hour for squirrels and chipmunks.  A season when,

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The way it was / the way it is

A family affair. A wedding on a gorgeous (almost) autumn day, Duchess County, New York. A distant cousin walks up to me. “You know who I am — right?” She says her name at the very moment I recall it. “You look the same as you always did,” she tells me. I smile at the compliment.

The truth be known, I feel far from ageless. If anything, seeing the distant cousin, and all the others I see only at these few-and-far-between family events, both joyful and sorrow-filled, has a way of heightening the sense of something long gone. We talk about the grandparents who were cousins, and the affection our own mothers had for each other. We used to see each other (a little) more.

Nothing is the way it was, I remark. Everything just is what it is.

The father of the bride (a close cousin of mine) walks with a cane.  One cousin of the bride has flown in from L.A. (with his girlfriend); other cousins, from Ohio, came a few days early to visit with family.  Friends and family from the tri-state area got an early start for a ceremony scheduled for 1 p.m. on the lawn of Mills Mansion, an historic site that overlooks the Hudson.  With weather as perfect as it is, who could even complain that the ceremony would end up taking place more than an hour late? Whatever it was that delayed the bride will turn out to be well worth waiting for when we see a white Rolls Royce pull up, delivering the princess of the day. My daughter, also in from the West Coast, sits next to me. What more can I ask?

Maybe this is what we mean by ‘stolen moments.’ In another time, an earlier one, this very same celebration of a marriage would have been just another link in the chain of family events, an assumption across generations. Yes, there would be a touch of acrimony (former husbands and wives bristling at being in the same room, siblings holding their rivalry in check)  thankfully overshadowed by the joy of it all.

Just a month ago a death in family brought at least some of these same cousins together. I felt a little more saddened by my reason for not attending the funeral than the fact of not being there.

What happens when the yoke of obligation gives way, the glue of ritual thinned to a paste more water than starch?

‘Bittersweet’ has long been a favorite word of mine. Today there is no bitter, only sweet. Yes, there is a sense of something not here, except in a ghostly way, reflected in the tears I see filling the eyes of a cousin who I can only imagine is thinking about her mother, the grandmother of the bride, long gone.  The very same cousin who, reflecting on the good time had by all — laughing, sharing photos from our iPhones, doing shots with our (now grown) children, dancing to Sister Sledge (not to mention the hora)  — becomes wistful: why can’t we do this more often? Her heart, always in the right place, would love nothing more. I grant her this much: yes, I feel the tug of nostalgia, but more, perhaps, as a room to visit from time to time than a house in which to dwell.

The Riddle of the Reader/Writer

I admit it, I don’t know how the Blog-A-Licious Blog Tour got started, but here we are, installment #9, and I have the pleasure of introducing Nat and Sarah, tucked between them as I am. What I like about this blog hop is that the number of participants — ten in all — doesn’t overwhelm me.  The more the merrier does not necessarily hold up when it comes to the give-and-take of the blogosphere. With so much out there, how do we pick and choose?  It’s a mix of shared hyperlinks and and dumb luck.

Now to the theme: ‘Reader or Writer — Which Would You Rather Be?’ At first I thought this must be a riddle, sphinx-like in its asking. There is, after all, no writing without reading. Then I read Pandora Poikilos’s very poignant post, and things became a little clearer.

Writing, no less than reading, is an act of discovery, the difference being that, with reading, someone else has done the legwork. The reader gets to sit back, take it all in, see what resonates. The writer, in contrast, starts with a slate begging to be filled, a temptation all its own. Asking which I’d rather be is a Solomon-like conundrum: cut the baby in half and no one gets anything that lives. It’s in the love of reading that the love of writing begins.

At this moment — a night on the cusp of summer and autumn cheered by a symphony of insects and an incandescent full moon — all I want to do is put into words what I see and hear. And recall. Just hours earlier, the see-saw was weighted in favor of reading, serendipity leading me to a Twitter link, E.B. White, in his own words, “There are too many things I’d rather do than read.” It seems that the writer who gave us the most ‘literate’ of spiders, would “rather sail a boat than crack a book.”  Which makes me think that it isn’t so much about preference as it is about making connections — the kind that come from  staring at the moon or taking a walk,  listening to the blues or surfing the Web, sailing a boat or curling up with a favorite book on a winter night. And it’s about taking risks.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work,” says White, “will die without putting a word on paper.”

P.S. As irony would have have it, days after writing this post, an article comes my way re: the growing disconnect between writers and readers:  Writers who don’t read  may seem  like an oxymoron . . . and, yet, as Buzz Poole so eloquently points out, ” Humanity is losing its ability to be alone with nothing but our thoughts.”

Without Power

Photo ©Abe Frajndlich. Reprinted with permission

Saturday, September 3, 2011:  The air  is filled with anticipation. Irene is on her way. A friend who lives in lower Manhattan takes heed:  an 8:48 a.m. train will deliver him, with his son, to the exurban community I live in, about an hour north of the city. If Irene is as fierce as predicted, he doesn’t want to be in her path. Little does he know that leaving the threatened eye of the storm will take him right into it.

Irony. It adds zest to literature. Makes a mockery of all those woulda/coulda/shoulda moments placed in our laps daily/weekly/monthly. Once in a lifetime.  The predictive tools we have at our disposal are no measure against our individually peculiar ways of dealing with all things unknown and out of our control. Yes, knowing a hurricane of such (potential) magnitude is coming allows me some time to prepare, stock up on (at least) water. I’ve lived in an area of overhead powerhead lines long enough to know that all it takes is one heavy branch or one squirrel looking for warmth in all the wrong for places to leave me in the dark. Prepared? Sometimes I’m not even sure what that means.

Sunday, September 4, 2011:  The sky  is thick with rain and wind, no letup in sight, the power already knocked out by Irene in the wee hours of the morning. Not to worry, I tell my friend over an early cup of coffee. I have a rule of thumb: if the power isn’t on within two-three hours, we’re in for the long haul. No point in (yet) waking his son, the college kid. Without Internet access, what’s a boy to do? We wait it out, keep ourselves entertained with conversation, eating, reading by daylight. How lucky am I to have an iPad, backlit and fully charged. My friend, a very gifted photographer, points  his camera to the world outside, from the world inside. We have buckets positioned beneath scuppers, collecting rain for the necessary flushes. Showers? Nobody cares right now. We’re in the thrall of Irene, captive, maybe even a little captivated. We talk about alternative plans — what if the power isn’t on by nighttime?

The day passes, and, like a miracle, the sun comes out. The college kid has a craving for grilled chicken, and it’s a craving we can easily accommodate.  We have friends, too, who by luck of being on a different part of the electrical grid, have power but no cable. Wouldn’t they like some company, a DVD at the ready?

Anticipation. At its worst, it skips like a broken record scratched with anxiety. At its best, it suggests hope. We leave our friends, go home, make our way through the dark house. Collecting candles, lighting them, settling down in the living room. Talking. Laughing. Two men, a college boy, and me. It feels a little like camping out, albeit with (almost) all the comforts of home. Life could be worse, my husband says. It could be the dead of winter, not a beautiful summer night.

Monday, September 5, 2011. We wake up, still no power, my friend and his son ready to head back to a city hardly grazed by the storm. I could have said what I was thinking before they came up — namely, that if Irene is as bad as projected, they might not be able to go back Monday a.m. Mother (often) knows best, even if she doesn’t say it. Fortunately, by afternoon, there are trains from a larger hub (White Plains). Even if all’s not really well, there’s something to be said for a little relief.

Hurricanes. They used to have only female names, and no one could really say why, except to assume it had something to do with a volatile, fickle nature. The joke: whoever heard of a himicane? Now there’s no gender bias, and we’ve had our share of male names  (Floyd one of the worst in recent memory). And yet I can’t help thinking about all those women with the name Irene and the power it held, almost mythical, for at least a few days. I’m thinking, too, how many times, in the course of the three days I would be without power, I turned on the light switch in the bathroom, surprised more at the reflexive action than the result it did not bring.

The Big Screen

The last time my husband and I bought a new TV was 1995. Thirty-six-inch Sony, pre- flat-screen/high-definition days. We had just moved into a new house and the size was predicated on the room, coupled with the design aesthetic of my husband (a designer by trade). I have a very strong memory of the salesman trying to sell us on an even larger TV with this pitch: you never have to leave home.

Little did he know he had the wrong customer.

I love going to the movies – the smell of popcorn the minute you walk into the theatre, the scramble for the perfect seats (or whatever is available), the settling in once the lights start to dim, the enveloping darkness, the shared escape from the world as it exists to the one that lures us with technological wizardry, three dimensions (even more these days) captured on a very large flat screen, a blurring of lines between observer and participant. I can still remember the sense of awe that carried me through The Ten Commandments, the mesmerizing hold of Lawrence of Arabia, the tension that gripped my body the first time I saw Jaws. Used to be a more majestic experience, I admit. Double features. Glorious movie theatres (the Loews the king of them all) with bathrooms the size of NYC apartments. Not so much anymore.

And yet, even with state-of-the-art home entertainment systems and DVDs and the immediate gratification of streaming a film, up close and personal on your laptop the minute it’s available, very little beats the cool relief of a movie theatre on a sweltering summer day or the inviting warmth on a frigid winter night. Doesn’t take a Don Draper to tell you why Hollywood makes most of its money on summer blockbusters and winter holiday fare.

Say what you will, Mr. Salesman trying to sell me on private screenings in the comfort of my home, some movies demand being seeing on a very big screen. And I’m not just talking about the stupendous 3-D experience of Avatar, which may have raised the bar in movie making but was proof positive – based on the mediocre copycat follow-ups – that it takes a certain vision and art to know when that extra dimension is best left out of the cinematic experience and when it is oh-so-wizardly employed, as in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” Just the word – CinemaScope – suggests something a little larger than life. Give me My Man Godfrey or Casablanca or Strangers on the Train on the telly anytime. E.T.? I’ll take it (especially once the boxy outdated Sony is replaced by the affordable flat-screen LED we’re holding out for) but nothing will ever beat the experience of watching it at an outdoor screening on a summer night. And it wasn’t just the ‘bigness’ of the screen. It’s the shared experience of it all, the reminder of the time when we didn’t have everything at our beck and call.

I’d be the last person in the world to romanticize the waiting in line, the overpriced candy, the scramble for seats, the smirk you can’t resist when the seat you got – dead center, unobstructed view – becomes less than ideal once the six foot man sits squarely in front of you. And I’ll be the first to applaud that sensation, unabated joy, of sitting in a packed movie house, everyone simultaneously laughing out loud.