Monday, February 28, 2011

The Basket – Letting Go

The hardest part is letting go. It requires mindfulness to actually succeed in releasing my grip (that I try to convince myself that I do not have). I never knew that I had such a stronghold on certain people, events, and places until recently. There are triggers all around to remind me that we are always in a state of change. We are in constant motion and there is nothing before or after the moment that is concrete, therefore letting go is the only option.

I stood in the middle of the CVS store in front of a half empty Valentine’s display. A few plastic hearts filled with candies and small cardboard heart shaped boxes containing cheap chocolates cluttered the dusty shelves. I stared at the huge yellow sign – ‘75% off’. Wow, I should take advantage of that. At least that is what I thought. I wanted to pinch myself when I realized that I was falling for some pathetic way of thinking. I reached for my cell phone to check the date. Valentine’s Day was two weeks ago. I wondered if my daughter would prefer skittles or M&M’s. Either one is pure crap, loaded with sugar, colors, chemicals to be ingested in an attempt to fill that ever gaping void that seems to threaten to swallow us whole if we aren’t careful. When my children were young, I would go to great lengths to find beautiful, pure, organic treats. Everything was innocent and lovely, fresh and new, hopeful and exciting.

The silent screams of pink, blue and green plastic baskets, wide eyed bunnies and yellow marshmallow chicks pecked into my thoughts. My eyes wandered to the Easter paraphernalia crowding around me in the most obvious way. “Anna, when is Easter?” I asked while feeling how amazingly light the small package of Cadbury Mini Eggs felt in my hand. I imagined resisting the urge to bite into one. I wondered if Jesus would have that same patience if he ate a Cadbury Mini Egg… Ignoring a glimpse of my willingness to give in to the wicked temptation of more crap, I tossed them back onto the pile.

“Some time in April I think.” She twirled a curl around her finger like she has done since it was long enough to reach.

I took pride in never submitting to marketing scams. I taught my family the significance of the act of loving in every day life and that it was practically a mortal sin to dash off to the store to buy a Valentine’s Day card or Mother’s Day card. “It’s just making the card companies rich. We should express our love authentically and celebrate every day in all that we do.”

We spent hours making the most eloquent Valentine’s cards in a Victorian manner. The table and butcher block island in the kitchen would be covered with paper lace, pink and red construction paper, glue, glitter and the previous year’s Victoriana Calendar cut into scraps. We even made the envelopes. Then it was time to bake heart shaped cookies using the healthiest, heartiest ingredients. We celebrated love with family and friends, never weakening or giving in to the pressure to sink our money into the commercialism of the holiday.

I have accepted rocks, dandelions, drawings and unidentifiable things made from pipe cleaners for Mother’s Day. I used to tell my children, “Mother’s Day is every day. It is such a treat for me to kiss your boo-boos, sing lullabies, read bedtime stories and go for walks with you. It is a day for me to be thankful, just like every other day.”

So here I was buying a plastic heart filled with Skittles for my grown daughter in a CVS store. Clearly, I had lost my mind. There is this almost queasy feeling that I get and recently discovered (much to my dismay) that when my children left the nest and then return home…In my almost unconscious desire to hang on, I emerge in the most unusual way. It is awkward and I believe fear driven, especially in regards to my daughter who has chosen the life of a gypsy.

My prayer is to let go with trust and unconditional love. This is perhaps the most vital and difficult time for a mother. It is necessary and possible. The alternative is unthinkable.

Of course this is not the first time I have experienced this phenomenon. When my violinist son gets ready to return to Boston after a visit, I ransack the cupboards and refrigerator to give him whatever I think will be sustaining – a maternal memento.

On my way to the airport to drop off my son the sailor before he left on his first West Pacific Tour, it hit hard. Without warning, I had an incredible longing. As his mother, I felt like I had to do something…anything. I kept looking at him and thinking…wow…at some point in time, he evolved from wearing Batman pajamas with a cape velcroed on his back, to a 6’5” man in a sailor uniform about to navigate a cruise missal destroyer.

It’s the same as when a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly; you can watch it but never really see when it happens. It just does. That day I had to accept that my son didn’t need me anymore, at least not in the same manner. I knew this intellectually, but emotionally it wasn’t happening.

I panicked when I realized that I didn’t have anything to give him. I was relieved when I found a pack of gum in my pocketbook. I offered it to him. He hesitated, and then gladly accepted it. It was comforting for us both.

I used to bring a basket filled with granola bars, fruit snacks and drinks in the jeep when we went to the music school and all of our orchestra rehearsals and such. The basket was always ready, filled and a reminder of mother caring for her children’s needs. I miss that basket. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that I don’t need it anymore, but it is always there as a reminder and compass and nourishment for the soul, should the need arise.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Sigh of Relief and the Turquoise Sea

I left the Southern Gulf Coast of Florida last year about a month after the BP oil spill. Typically unwilling to absorb the propaganda on the mainstream nightly news, I stared in disbelief at the images of oil billowing into the ocean. Like most other viewers, I was shocked. My way of dealing with it was to act – a standard human response. I hit the beach.

I’ve been making jewelry out of abandoned sea life from the Southern Gulf Beaches for a few years now. I have spent hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours combing the white sands for shells, sharks’ teeth and whatever else I found to be artful. After the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, my immediate instinct was to gather as many shells as possible, before the possible genocide took its toll. I frantically gathered about 375 pounds of shells, which are waiting in buckets for their turn to be transformed into something eclectic.

After spending the past nine months in New Hampshire, I returned to the Gulf of Mexico for a brief visit. I was pleased when I noticed dozens of Ospreys’ nests – most of them occupied – on my way to Boca Grande. With gratitude, I observed circling Vultures, Mocking Birds, Gulls and Terns, and a wide variety of long-legged, wading birds. The most thrilling moment of the day was the initial sight of turquoise water, white sand and diving Pelicans upon approaching the bridge to Gasparilla Island.

I don’t know what I expected, since we no longer hear about the effects of the colossal oil spill. Like many other images over the years that have bombarded us via the airwaves – clips of the raging explosion, gushing underwater oil plumes, oil soaked pelicans, cormorants and sea turtles fighting to survive – were embedded into our collective minds. For some, there is hope of desensitizing; however the devastation of suffering animals does not diminish. We were relentlessly exposed to the horrors of the BP oil spill and then one day the source of information slammed shut. No one talks about it. No one asks questions. No more photos. No more suffering wildlife or fishermen. Like magic, we are expected to believe that it quietly faded away. Once in a while a spokesperson will attempt to assure the population that the FDA declares that the fish are “safe” for consumption. No thank you, I’ll settle for local, organic, clean food.

The other day when I saw the seemingly thriving "Southern" Gulf of Mexico, I was flooded with relief. I walked barefoot on the white, talcum powder sand to the water’s edge, examining random, familiar shells that lingered in foamy remnants of the waves. Just as I was about to sit down, I spotted a dolphin pod. I fought to catch my breath as I waited for them to re-appear from under the water, while a man about twenty feet away carefully released a large stingray from his fishing line. The sky was clear blue with a few genuine clouds dotting the horizon. I exhaled.

As I walked along the beach thinking about collecting shells, I noticed tiny black specks that I would normally consider to be sharks’ teeth. I examined them, not qualified to identify them. I cannot rely on finding authentic answers in the name of commerce and tourism. They are not sharks’ teeth, not shells and unlikely little creatures. When I pressed them between my fingers they left a brown oily residue. I do not recall seeing them before. I might be paranoid; I may have been handling tar balls. I don’t know. But overall, I am relieved and choose to believe that the loop current has saved the Gulf Beaches of Southwest Florida, or perhaps it is the work of angels. I simply do not know.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Inside of a Painting - Returning Home

The blinking yellow light that hangs over the intersection in the middle of the village keeps time like an old wooden metronome that never needs winding. At first the reassuring pulse welcomed me back to a shadowy place long tucked away amongst the cobwebs of my past. Returning has forced me to undertake the difficult task of separating what was real from what was assumed, based on fragments of my memories blended with those of my sisters’ and tattered photographs.

My breath quickens each time I approach that intersection. I hesitate when I pass the church and sometimes I stop and stare at the clock at the base of the traditional, long, pointed steeple, imagining the surge of children’s voices when it strikes, indicating the end of a long day of leisurely play. I have yet to pass by on the hour, although I have been there dozens of times since my return. I wonder if I will recognize that feeling as if the hammer strikes against the walls of my chest.

The opening, aerial shot of the Bob Newhart Show is this intersection. It’s all right there as it was in my girlhood, only the program’s setting is supposed to be Vermont.

Nothing has changed, 'cept the people are gone. I approach the stop sign slowly every time. I want someone or something to happen, but I don’t know what. I rarely encounter a vehicle or person on the sidewalk or in their yard. Straight across from the stop sign is “The Grill, Ramsey’s Variety.” Ramsey was my father. Other than chipped paint and a few random things in the windows, it is the same as it was before I was born. I want to go inside. I stay away.

There are cement slabs where the gas pumps used to be. I stare at the spot where the red coke machine was. We liked getting soda there even though we could get it at Glenn Smith’s store. The bottles were in a vertical line and you yanked out the soda of your choice.

I drive straight through the intersection past the Parsonage on the left where I imagine John Mark’s sand box and the hill where we used to go sledding. It’s still pretty impressive and the sewer waits at the bottom, ready to swallow unassuming tobogganists.

The next house on the left was my childhood home. Sometimes I try to look in the barn when the door is open. I never see anyone in or around the house, but like all of the other houses here, the lights are on. I might summon the courage to knock on the door and introduce myself, but I doubt that I will.

The horse pasture is still defined by stone walls and apple trees. Then there is the school. It’s the same. I must make a point to drive by during school hours, because again, it appears as if there are no children there. No cars, no people. But there are pictures in the windows and signs of various projects on the grounds.

I see that old maple tree beyond the school yard. I climbed it on my eighth birthday and fell, breaking my elbow and ending up in traction for the summer. It stands proud at the edge of another long forgotten pasture enclosed by rambling stone walls.

I go back to Glenn Smith’s store. I remember that the uneven floor boards on the front porch were smooth on my bare feet. They still look smooth and are the color of brown mustard. A “For Lease” sign hangs in a window that has a crack in it. I want to write down the number, but I know that there is no security in leasing a store; you never know when the owner may decide to sell the property or something unfortunate like that. Besides, it's deserted now; I have never owned a store and don’t think it’s worth it to do so just to restore balance in my memory. It’s an impulse that has become a habit every time I pass by.

We used to run through yet another pasture across the road from our house that was connected to the back of the store. My mother always sent us up there for a loaf of bread, two quarts of milk, the Manchester Union and a pack of Salems.

I don’t remember Glenn Smith much. He’s one of those shadowy figures, but I imagine him to look something like Benjamin Franklin with shorter hair or bald on top; he has a soft voice in my mind’s eye. At Halloween, when everyone else gave out candy, he gave out nickels.

The store had a lot of dark wood and smelled like Fudgesicles and fresh ground coffee. The men who worked there were patient and reliable. Mr. Michaels stood behind the counter looking over the top of his reading glasses, sometimes offering suggestions on how to spend a quarter. Mr. Burrows, a quiet man with rosy cheeks and wire rimmed glasses, went on to own the store and then pass it along to his son, one of our long standing playmates, who owned it for many years.

We all went there. The selection of penny candy was almost as good as the Old Country Store in Moultonborough. We used to get things like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Root Beer Barrels, Candy Necklaces, Sugar Daddy’s, Bazooka Bubble Gum, Jaw Breakers, Teaberry Gum and Smarties.

It was a big deal when my friend Margie came to visit because she didn’t live within bike riding distance. She was from East Sandwich. It was customary for us to go to Glenn Smith’s Store and buy Peanut Butter Kits and giggle about it. If I saw her today (and it has been a very long time since I have seen her) and mentioned Peanut Butter Kits, I think that we would both laugh wildly. I am not sure why and I am not certain if she would still feel that untamed laughter burst from that place of innocence, but I am deciding to think so.

We didn’t limit our acts of bravery to touching the electric fence in the back yard. When we were in the store; we used to get a serious electrical shock if we touched two different refrigerated cases simultaneously. It was sort of like recharging our batteries; I don’t know why and I suppose it really doesn’t matter. We used to dash to the back aisle and get zapped and then be on our way.

Across the store is the inn. I stare at the empty, black windows; they stare back asking the same question. Where is everyone?

My friend Betsy and I used to go there and wash dishes and clean off the tables for a piece of warm, homemade, oatmeal bread. From the bar stools, the wide planks on the floor to the quaint booths - everything was rich, butterscotch colored wood. The heady scent of wood fire smoke from the cast iron cook stove hung in the air. The innkeeper, Ginny, was stern yet gracious; she let us play waitress.

All of the adults in town knew one another; the kids played together, watched over and antagonized each other. The town was alive and bustling with activity. 

Not now. I am intruding on the past; the people have mysteriously vanished. The landscape has not changed. The buildings, fences, sidewalks, trees, signs…all the same. No people.

The feeling of haunting the town haunts me; I cannot sort it out. It is so unchanged that I can’t look and I can’t not look. In the absence of life, I expect ghosts of the past to emerge. I anticipate the sounds of children’s laughter, dogs barking, horses neighing and mother’s calling.

I am trapped in a scene painted on a canvas that captures the essence of a place from long ago when there were people; now there are none.