Thursday, April 26, 2007

Never too late to be a late bloomer

Trees are finally beginning to bud, adding another hue of fluorescent green to an already saturated palette. Tonight at dusk a deer purviewed the new greens at the edge of our backyard, leisurely nibbling this new leaf and not that, as if choosing which morsels to sample from the produce section at Whole Foods. We've waited a long time to inhabit this spring, forgiving today's chilly and rainblown below 50's temps. Of late I've considered the things that ongoingly occupy the geography of my psyche and have been struck by the fact that almost all of what is crucial to me, what is impossible to imagine being without, are things that came so late to me I remain astounded and grateful they ever showed up at all. Foremost, my husband, who swept me off my rollerblade-clad feet long after I'd relinquished the idea that I'd ever stumble upon the one man who could fuse his being with this complicated and contrary soul and show me in a thousand ways what it means to love, and which resulted in two radiant daughters, a constant heartbreak of beauty for which no superlatives suffice. And then, whodathunkit, poetry. I never read it, never thought about writing it, never did, apart from a very few "roses are red" stanzas in grade school. My first attempt at thirty, after relunctantly signing up for a poetry writing class when all other English sections were closed, and now it's a passion. Science. I finagled every means I could to take as little math and science as possible and graduate. Now I buy physics books second to poetry and fiction, making up for lost time and the great black holes in my knowledge. I had no idea of grandeur housting this whacky realm we call our existence, the poetry and paradox of creation. All the ways the mind can be boggled. Graduate school, Indian food, rollerblading, Branston pickle, yoga, vows, diapers, Borges, Buechner, Bruce Cockburn, Adam Zagajewski, Simon Veil, Kierkegarrd, Smog, Joseph Arthur, Ray LaMontagne, Patty Griffin, the Flaming Lips: all after thirty, some way after. Which leads me to believe there just might be more boggling to come. Better late than never, they say. Sometimes just better late.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is the What

After an early false start which proved disastrous to area gardens and vineyards, Spring is again attempting to arrive. Our fox again ventures from his hole, birds are weaving a new nest above our front door, and leaves are timidly beginning to unfurl from tangles of brown branches. Nature is wearing a light heart on its sleeve but I'm still feeling a bit Apocalyptic. As I write these words a verse in Matthew occurs to me: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." Ca-ching. I've just finished Dave Egger's What is the What, the story of Sudanese Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng. If you are feeling a bit grumpy about your own state of affairs this substantial read (475 pages) offers a stiff antidote. Valentino's childhood odyssey is even more violent, gruesome and heartbreaking than the son's in McCarthy's The Road, and it actually happened to him.

I've admired Dave Eggers since first reading his memoir A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. Anyone who can make me laugh as hard as I did when I came to the stapler drawing in the preface has won a lifelong fan. My admiration grew as I became aware of the inner city literacy programs he's organized, the lavish attention he pays to the graphic design of the books he publishes through McSweeneys (sometimes superior to their content) and his many literary and publishing innovations. Now I have to admire his international activism. Along with giving Valentino a voice, he's using all proceeds from sales of the book to fund the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which will go to, according to the website:

The rebuilding of Marial Bai [Valentino's village]: In the summer of 2007, Valentino will travel back to Marial Bai and begin work on a large complex there which will feature a library, a women's center, a youth activity center, a community gathering center, and a sports program.

College educations for Sudanese immigrants in America: As can be seen in Valentino's life, even with support networks, it's very difficult for Sudanese in America to attain college educations. The Foundation will help provide scholarships to aid the educational pursuits of Sudanese immigrants, and will assist programs that serve the Sudanese diaspora.

I often struggle with the idea that the art I spend so much time on should "do" something. Provide some benefit to the world. Eggers has figured out how to do both and do them well: he's contributed a work of art which has also become a vehicle to make some little part of the world a better place. Check out the website by clicking the header above. Then thank God for the pillow you lay your head on, the food in your stomach and that outside your door is nothing more menacing than furry foxes or twittering birds.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Apocalypse, Easter, Apocalypse, Easter

Friday night, while shopping at Target for Easter basket filler, I spotted Cormac McCarthy's newest book The Road. He's a favorite of mine and that book has been on my wish list since it launched so I grabbed a copy (the Orprah sticker fortunately removable) and tossed it on top of the mountain of purple Peeps, jelly beans and Robin eggs. Maybe not the most inspired Easter purchase but relatively apropos for Good Friday.
Then, yesterday, we imported a beloved Houston tradition begun a few years ago by the ever gracious and hospitable Marcella, our former neighbor, by inviting all the families on our "street" over for an Easter egg hunt. The night before Wayne and I sat on the floor and filled 12 dozen eggs while watching The Children of Men, a movie set in a bleak and horrifying 2027. The youngest person on the planet, age 18, has been murdered. The youngest person being 18 years old because 18 years prior, for undetermined reasons, all women became infertile and no more children were born. The world, bereft of the laughter, hope and imperatives of order children engender, falls into chaos and violence. I won't give the story away but a tiny ray of hope does finally puncture the endless wasteland of unmitigated brutality in the end. On that disquieting note I eventually dropped to off sleep but woke to a bright and sunny, albeit chilly, Easter morning. Church bells rang out as we arrived for Easter services and echoed brightly in our ears as left.

Later, when the day had warmed enough the kids could run for eggs without coats on, our neighbors arrived. Giggles and shouts rang out over greening hills which seemed, for a moment, to have emerged from a storybook. The adults migrated to the kitchen table (why do people have living and dining rooms?), the kids downstairs to the playroom, and that is where everyone remained for the duration. A couple of hours later everyone had slowly drifted home and after I had cleaned up candy wrappers and cake plates and retrieved the sun tea I had forgotten to serve from the deck, I settled down with McCarthy's book and didn't get up again till I finished it.
It's a riveting story, again post-Apocalypse, in which a father and son roam the scorched and deadened earth waging a daily war to procure warmth and sustenance, both of which are in extremely short supply. Their other chief occupation is avoiding contact with the few remaining humans they encounter who would waste no time in killing and eating them, should they get the opportunity. Yet from this feral wilderness, and with minimal dialogue, McCarthy wrings a portrait of staggering love--a father and a son's-- and their incessant will to endure without a lick of sentimentality. I was wrecked by the end and sorry the story was over.
I finished shortly before midnight and in the fog of this heartbreaking love story loomed the morning exam I had avoided thinking about for the past week. I was scheduled for a second mammogram after having gotten abnormal results on my regular yearly checkup. It occurred to me then, as I fought off rising tears, that maybe I should have saved the book for after the test. I resorted to taking an over-the-counter sleep aid, knowing I'd lay there all night no longer able to avoid imagining every possible scenario and never get to sleep.
I woke up bleary and quite anxious to get the thing over with. I could make the story drag on just as long as the interminable minutes I endured this morning (as did Wayne in the waiting room) between the mammogram x-rays the radiologist slipped out with, returning to shuffle me to the ultrasound room where I watched another radiologist coax a big, black lump into make a number appearances on the screen before she too disappeared ("That's not supposed to be there, is it?" I'd asked with the calmest voice I could muster) then reappeared with a doctor who introduced himself, sat down in the driver's seat and, grabbing the ultrasound shiftstick, went for a very long drive before finally delivering a verdict. My mind replaying every weird thing that has occurred lately, sifting scenes and statements for significance, grasping for a telling sign. "Will you ALWAYS be my mommy?" My daughter has repeatedly, and unnervingly, asked this week. Every fear you've ever had rolled into one. My body trembling on the cot.
Knowing one minute is all it takes for your life to shift forever. Yours and then not yours. Instantly and keenly aware of how stupidly you live your life, the sorry things you worry about, the wasted time. Recognizing this is the tightrope we all walk on, obliviously, day by day. One day Easter baskets, the next Apocalypse. One word and I will fall. One word all it will take to pluck the tightrope like a bow and sending me sailing. Or hanging on by my fingernails.
He finally said the word and it clanged in head like a bell or a benediction: benign, benign, benign. It's still ringing.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Kansas City clicks

For the tail end of spring break we escaped two hours west to Kansas City. I'm convinced those couple of days away from phone and computers averted a multiple homicide or at least a nervous breakdown. Mine. Had a great time squeezing too many things into to few days--the usual. Shopping in the Plaza; a visit to Crowne Center with stops at Crayola Cafe, Kaleidescope (Wayne and I booted kids from their chairs so we could dive on the scissors, papers and ribbons Hallmark provided to create art projects), and the Hallmark Center (I teared up at their foreign commercials like they were for Johnson's baby powder); art galleries in Crossroads; funky shops and great restaurants in Westport, the Kempner Art Museum, sushi, room service, a wonderful feels-like-home church service on Palm Sunday at Jacob's Well.

Got home Sunday night worn out from all the vacation fun BUT straight after work on Monday we had tickets to Neko Case. I scrambled for a babysitter, promising her we'd be home by ten, basing this on the only other concert we'd attended at this venue: Iris Dement last month. Iris came on at promptly 7, minus an opening band, and was finished, as I remember, before 9. Remembering many late nights stretching till 3 am after shows in Houston I thought, wow, these midwesterners really are the early to bed sort. No messing around. So we arrive in a mad dash at 7, worried that the show had started, but the Blue Note is virtually empty and the music we hear is coming from the music videos they are screening on stage. Hmmn.

7:30, nothing. Still watching the admittedly nice selection of videos, I start getting pretty uptight, knowing we have to leave before 10. 8:00 rolls around and Neko's band finally emerges and starts playing THEIR OWN STUFF. Songs containing the words Idaho and Hawaii. How long are THEY going to play? Who knows if they're any good, I'm manically watching my watch and wishing I had a tomato. Get on with the show! They play till 9 at which time they jack around with instrument relocation. THEN Neko comes out and decides to tune the 43 guitars she'll apparently be playing. She's satisfied around 9:23 and walks back off the stage. I'm hyperventilating now. It's a good 15 minute drive home. Our neighbor's daughter is babysitting and we know her bus collects her each morning at something like 3 am. We'll push leaving till 10.

At approximately 9:26 Neko finally comes on stage to perform. I'm timing each song. Normally I enjoy stage patter. Tonight I'm strongly fighting the urge to shout, "Shut up and SING!" At ten pm, a mere blur of songs later, we slither out of our seats and tear out for home. We offer apologies for our tardy arrival. I'm still wound like a busted clock.

We'd sat for 2.5 hrs. waiting for a show we watched for less than half an hour. The upside (there is always one, isn't there?) is that during the interminable prologue I heard some new music. The last song played before they switched off the videos blew me away. All of us. I didn't know who was singing it but I got home and googled my head off with the couple of lines I remembered. And viola! This alone was worth the price of admission AND the babysitter. Enjoy.