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Archive for May, 2020

My Sister

Happiness is not ready-made.  It comes from your own actions.  Dalai Lama

Dare to live full the one precious life that is yours.

I want to tell you a story, one close to my heart.  My sister entered hospice a few weeks ago.  She plans to die at home in the apartment in Connecticut she shares with her husband of twenty-two years.  But this isn’t a story about dying.  This is a story about living.  My sister is a buoyant soul.  Her name is Auralie.  It was a hard name to own as a girl in the sixties when Sally and Nancy and Lynn and Sharon were the norm in our New England town.  More often than not, it was mispronounced in a myriad of comical ways at swim meets when she would step up to the block to compete in the distance events that were her specialty.  We would laugh and she would take it in stride because she was a good sport.  But I don’t think she realized until she was an adult how appropriate a gift our mother gave to her at birth with this name that shines bright with the word “aura”.  Auralie is funny and fun and competent and creative — a potter, a weaver, a seamstress extra-ordinaire — and her aura is a powerful beam of light that uplifts those around her.

And now, as her body loosens its hold, as her voice, that was always boisterous and hearty, weakens and slows its tempo, as she settles into the letting go of this physical world, her aura still is beaming that light.  And this story I am sharing with you shines of Auralie’s aura, and of a generosity between cousins.  It was in the midst of the pandemic, before Easter, after some medical tests, that Auralie heard the news, that things had worsened and spread and the prognosis was months to live.  Her doctor, who had become close, was flustered when he made this dire pronouncement, told her that he always wore a tie, never had forgotten, but on this day, in the midst of a pandemic and having to tell her this, he was tieless and vulnerable.  Of course, Auralie and her husband were devastated that day in early April; we all were.  But she couldn’t stay dimmed for long, especially when sharing with someone who is probably her best friend.  “I’m going to buy him a tie!” Auralie exclaimed to our cousin, when relating the whole story.  And our cousin replied, “I can do better than that; I can send you a whole box of them.”

You have to understand that Auralie and our cousin bonded early.  Our mother, a widow, with two young children, re-married in the mid-fifties.  And, it was at the wedding, while eyeing that amazing cake and soaking in the sea of happiness, that these two four-year-old girls, born within six weeks of each other, one the daughter of the bride, the other, the niece of a beloved uncle who was the groom, became fast friends with a love of cakes and joyful celebration.  And during the next few summers, before our parents built their own cottage in the cove on the other side of the point, the cousins lived within a holler of each other, our family in the old saltwater farmhouse and Karen’s family on top of the granite hill in the lodge that was once the main building of our family’s summer camp.  Though I was a baby and toddler during this time and can’t remember specifics, I’ve heard stories of their back and forth message-sending, their sharing of candy and cookies, their romps in the woods.  Our father named his bright red lobster boat “The Auralie” and the cousin-shared boat rides were filled with salty spray and sea sparkle and boisterous loud fun.  And later, I witnessed their exuberance first-hand.  During the school year, we lived in town; our cousin’s family lived in the country, and, many a night, our cousin spent with us in our rambling sea captain’s home.  I remember Auralie and our cousin’s laughter, their escapades and cookie-making, their bumping down our long winding staircase on their bottoms, their secret language that a younger sister could only observe from the outside.  I want you to know I have my own Auralie stories, an ocean of them — our sister-friendship is remarkable and the five-year-gap in our ages didn’t stop us from being the best of friends growing up.  But this is about our cousin.  And Auralie.  And their friendship.  I’m sure their stories also can fill an ocean and their bond has lasted through all these decades of living.

And there are the ties.  In her twenties, our cousin married her beloved Dane who was a generation older, and their marriage, immersed in home on their tidal river in Maine and travel to his native Scandinavia, was deep and true and filled with creativity and spanned over four decades until his passing a year ago.  “I have a whole box of John’s ties,” my cousin told Auralie, and Auralie shared this with me in a phone call three weeks ago before hospice, before her voice became weak, before confusion began to set in.  “I’m going to give them to my doctor when I see him on Wednesday.”  And a week later, when I next spoke to her, while walking on my favorite two-track on a sunny May morning with spring breaking through the long wintery cold-streak in northern Michigan, Auralie’s voice, though slower, softer, was also sunny as she told me of care packages, how our cousin had sent Fig Newtons, their childhood favorite.  “What about the ties?” I asked.  “Did you give your doctor the ties?”  “Yes!” she replied, her aura shining through.  “I did!”  “What did he say?”  That’s when she told me, “He tucked his head and he cried!”

Later, on that same walk, I called our cousin, told her what Auralie had just told me.  “I think your friendship is amazing,” I said, my voice faltering with the truth of it all.  And she replied, “I think your sister is amazing, to scheme of gifting her doctor a tie, to find humor and delight in the midst of sadness.”  So there you have it.  My sister is amazing.  And so is our cousin.  And the sparkle in an exuberant person is a resilient thing.  That afternoon, under the brilliant blue sky of early May, while standing next to that largest of lakes, I handed my husband a crystal and he held it in his palm for a moment, then called out, “for Auralie!” and tossed it into the harbor.  We watched it plunk into the water, watched it begin to sink, watched it for what seemed like a very long time as it spun and sparkled and finally found its way down into the depths beyond our reach.

Notes from the Cocoon

When sailing uncharted waters adapt and innovate.  Arthur Ainsburg

My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.  Proust

We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness.  So, as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.  Mary Oliver

 

I

My sister-in-law scrounges the beach for sea glass, places wave-smoothed pieces in a pocket or bag.  Her eye is keen.  Her appetite hearty.  She knows which colors are most valued, knows the stories behind shards of pottery, has been collecting for years.  And now that she and my younger brother have moved back to coastal Maine, our family property is her favorite hunting ground, and, during this time of social distancing, it is the hike out through the pine and balsam forest to Sister Point and the hours spent on the Point’s ledges and shell beach that bring her a sense of peace and safety.  “Helen,” she texts, “we found sea-worn stoppers to two antique bottles!  And a couple of days in a row, marbles, old-fashioned glass marbles have washed up to shore.”  In this cocoon space of letting go of familiar routines, this time of limiting our world to home and neighborhood walks, there are treasures to be had, treasures that flow in with the tides to the shores of our own lives.  We just need to soften our eyes in order to discover them.

II

“Leave what you can.  Take what you need.”

On my daily walks, I pass the card table set up at the end of a neighbor’s driveway, drop off two packages of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, peruse the nonperishable items left by others.  Bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise stand next to a four-pack of paper towels.  Packages of pasta mix, baby food, a bag filled with children’s winter hats — they are all lined up, carefully displayed.  It is has become our neighborhood country store, our metaphoric beach to scrounge, and each day there is something new that the tide brings in.  I’ve been tempted by the Bettie Crocker Blueberry Muffin Mix.  I love muffins and I love blueberries and it would be a treat, all right, but I heed the sign that says, “Take what you need.”  Some little kid is going to appreciate those muffins more than me, and, besides, it is the table itself, set out with such generosity and inspiration that satisfies my appetite, and the broad smiles of neighbors as they add their items to the store’s merchandise, and the knowing that the friend who generated this brilliant idea takes bags of what is left at the end of each week to feed more little kids who are self-distancing and hungry like the rest of us.

III

My husband and I always seem to be hungry.

We buy a whole chicken at the co-op.  A whole chicken!  I, the almost-always-vegetarian, hardly ever eat chicken, perhaps once a year, but we’ve been thinking about it for weeks, since a dear friend in Maine texted a photo of the chicken she roasted on a bed of root vegetables.  You’d think it is Christmas or Thanksgiving, the way we fuss over our chicken, stuff it with cloves of garlic, lemon, salt and pepper, the way we slather its surface with butter, tie its legs together with string, lay it on the bed of chopped fennel, beets, carrots, potatoes, whole peeled shallots, the way we splash on the olive oil, and ever so carefully place the pan with all its fixings in the oven to roast.  We pour love into that chicken.  That’s what I want to tell you, that we have the time now to be careful, mindful, loving as we prepare our food.  We, my husband and I, have been home together, just the two of us, for seven weeks now, since I returned from visiting the kids and grandkids in Idaho, since he broke his femur in a mountain bike accident the evening my plane touched down in Marquette County.  And when I say we’ve been home, I mean home, really home in our house, cocooned.  Time has opened up for us and food has never tasted so good.  Oranges and grapefruits and kiwis, greens grown in hoop houses in our Northern Michigan county and delivered to a drop-off site once a week, pancakes for breakfast drizzled with syrup from maple trees tapped during this cocoon time by a friend who lives close by, homemade soups for lunch, suppers that fill our plates to overflowing, a banana cake that I, who haven’t baked in years, mix up and prepare for a finale after our feast of roasted chicken.  Yes, we are almost always hungry, and we have remembered that food is essential and can bring us pleasure.

IV

We are not the only ones who are hungry.

In the gray dusk of a cold April evening, I scoop the sunflowers seeds and the oats into two cut-off plastic jugs, carry my offerings into our yard that borders a thicket of trees and a small marshy swamp.  I fill the feeders, scatter seeds on the ground, then turn back toward the house, and, as I do so, I peek around to see three of them trotting up the hill from where they had been lurking among the white pines and birches, on this side of the marshland.

For all the years of our marriage, we have fed the birds from two feeders and a small cage filled with suet.  And yes, the gray squirrels — a family of them with tiny white ears– and the red squirrels, and a bunny who finds haven under our deck also eat the seeds we pour into the feeders and the leftovers we scatter on the ground beneath.  And I want you to know that we didn’t intend on feeding them, too, the herd of deer who have spent the cold months at the edge of our neighborhood, in the borderlands between wilderness and domesticity.  And yet, the past few winters, hard on us all, have stretched long into April, and the deer have joined the backyard menagerie.

And now, I am cozy in the warmth of our home, over by the window, looking out into the yard.  The doe and her two fawns, the button-buck and his sister, have circled around the feeder, their black noses almost touching each others’s as they cock their heads to the side, as they stick their pink tongues out long, as they lick the feeder for seeds.  And a cowbird sits on the feeder’s rim, too, not budging from its perch, the four of them nourishing themselves in this wintery moment on an evening during the spring of our cocoon.

V

I hear a Vwump.  It is a sound I know well, one that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I cringe.  A bird has hit the bay window in the kitchen, probably one from the flock of juncos flitting from tree branch to feeder to deck-post to tree branch to feeder.  I scramble over to the window, see a tiny feather stuck to the pane, run into the living room to get a better look out to the deck still covered in mid-April snow.  And there it is, sweet and tiny, the black junco with the white belly, just sitting there, legs a little splayed, looking dazed.  I think it might be blinking its eyes.  And I claim a moment, just a moment to decide whether to go out and pick it up.  And that’s when it happens, in that single moment, with me, still looking at that tiny junco.  A hawk — a hawk! — wings spread wide darts down faster than I can even think and scoops up that junco in its talons from our back deck — from our back deck! — and is gone, gone before I can even catch my breath.  And when I do, I scream.  No, I don’t.  I holler.  That’s not right either.  I howl.  I howl to my husband, to the hawk, to nobody and to everybody.  I howl for that tiny black junco with the white belly.

VI

I know how to howl.  I know how to howl when I’m upset or angry or scared.  And I know that more than 60,000 people have died these past weeks of a virus sweeping across our country, know there is sadness and sickness and fear and people who are truly hungry and don’t have money for chicken dinner feasts, and I know that hawks are hungry too and their hunger can show up in my very own space.  And I do howl sometimes, wild and loud like the wolves.  But the thing is, howling is cathartic and freeing and I can’t stay upset when I’m howling like that.  So I howl out my sadness, my anger, my fear, and then I sing and I dance and I have compassion, and happiness bubbles up and that’s what I want to tell you — this morning, I woke up happy.

VII

My husband and I have been married for forty-three years.  And it astounds me to think of it now, that, until our hunkering in time almost two months ago, unless we have been traveling, I have rarely woken up before him, even on weekends.  For those forty-three years, five days a week, his alarm has sung out at six in the morning and he has sprung up and out of bed on automatic pilot, still half asleep.  Last summer, during a hike on our favorite two-track, he shared with me that he wondered whether he really was an early morning person.  Well, now he knows.  We both know.  As I lie in bed journaling and writing e-mails to friends, he is curled up beside me, making puff puff breathing noises, fast asleep.  He seems to feast on sleep, this deep rest he’s receiving in the cocoon of our home.  And when he awakens to the east sun flickering through the trees and into our bedroom or to the wind whistling against the house or to me gently nudging him, he is satiated by sleep.  And I feast on it too, the slow waking up, the warmth of a partner, the luxury to visit as we start our day.  It is a gift that the tide of this unique time has carried into shore for us, a gift we didn’t know we were hungry for, one that has filled us with satisfaction.

VIII

I could eat the whole sky today.  It is almost May and the weather has shifted.  And it is sunny and the breeze blows in from the south and the sky is blue, true blue, blue from horizon to horizon and there is nothing but blue.  I have never seen a sky like this.  Not once in my whole life.  There are no clouds, no pale half-moon, and no streaks.  That’s what makes this different.  There are no criss-cossed lines, no dashes of white, no familiar rumbling-sound breaking up the impossibly-blue of this blue sky.  The airplanes are parked and quiet.  And, on this neighborhood walk in late April, I want to engulf it, all this blue, want my cells to swim in this uninterrupted sea of blue, want to spread myself out in it too, become one with this wide space that surrounds me.  It has done something to me, witnessing it, embodying it, feeling its spaciousness.  I point it out to neighbors as they pass by in their family units.  “Look at the sky,” I exclaim, “at all this blue.”  I don’t want to forget it.  And yet, there is something else brewing too, on this spring-like day when two crocuses are blossoming in our garden of melting snow and the weather has shifted and I’m walking into the soft breeze.  I can almost taste it blowing in with the breeze.  I’m hungry, not just for this moment where I’m eating the sky.  I’m hungry for the smell of the sea and the point of land that is my ancestral true north and the people I love on the coast of Maine.  And I’m hungry too for the prairie land of northern Idaho and the ponderosa pines and the forest of tall cedars where the quiet is holy and fragrant and unyielding, hungry to be present with my kids, to hold my grandkids, to play unfettered, no FaceTime in sight.  And as I walk along through quiet streets, as I pass the card table of generosity — our metaphoric beach set up for scrounging — I know, that for today, this is where I choose to be, right here, on the ground in this neighborhood where I have lived for over thirty years, greeting new and old friends as we pass each other under this sky, this blue clear unstreamed sky.

 

The Generosity Table that Tanya Marra Allen has set up in her driveway by the street during this time of self-distancing: Spring, 2020

 

Our chicken dinner feast: April, 2020

 

The deer at our feeder: 2020

 

The guy with the broken femur, walking without his cane in Marquette’s Lower Harbor: mid-April, 2020

 

First blossoms in front yard garden: Late April, 2020

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