Friday, December 31, 2010

This Moment

This is the last post of 2010.

Just as when I was a child, I feel a sense of momentousness as the old year ticks away and a sense of foolishness, too. Momentous it is, for this year 2010 was a wonderful one for me and FF. It will now become an entry in a blog, some photos in a binder, perhaps fading little by little from memory as new concerns and events take hold in my mind. Foolish it is, too, as I realize that these clumsy time markings of ours are just man-made attempts to observe, control and even to stop the mystifyingly quick passage of our lives.

Time is not real. Only this breath, this moment. Only this room in the old stone house in Tiny Town is real. Only this fire in our little hearth is certain. The fire itself is a wonder, never staying the same for even a second, the gases released from the log leap and dance while the spirit of the tree it once was rises up, igniting and extinguishing itself simultaneously. The orange, mumbling fire, never still, is the very essence of constant change.

Once a year we watch midnight come, as if this time we might hold it in our hands and have more time to examine that moment, turn it over and really look at it, and perhaps make the world stand still. I think we all have a deep urge to find a way to make time stop, to take one moment and to be able to understand it fully and quietly before pressing that play button again that sends us hurtling into the next, barely comprehended moment.

As a child, I always felt as if my moments were tumbling by too quickly for me to understand them. Vacations, school days, holidays, birthdays, or just nice days in brief space of time seemed to appeal to me to keep them, to not let them slip through my fingers. And worst of all were those decisive moments like graduations, a golden summer afternoon, a twilight whiffle ball game, hearing mother say "They've shot the President", or saying goodbye to Grandpapa for the last time. Those were mad days when I thought "This here is important, wonderful, irreplaceably great and/or terrible, and I must pay attention." And yet, despite the gravity of the moment, the time slipped past as if it were any day, as if the importance of things to me was, ultimately, of no importance at all to the universe.

And so the moments, consequential and ordinary, flew by at the same incomprehensible speed for me, and I was lost to nostalgia for the day before the sun even set.

Now, right now, I am sitting in front of the fireplace with my husband. It is our first New Year's Eve as a married couple, and we are spending it in our house in Tiny Town. There is gentle music playing in the background, an orange fire in our grate, and we are writing our way towards midnight in companionable silence, sharing the old red desk chair to prop our four feet up in front of the warm grate. Oh yes, this moment of contented domesticity is one that I would stop and turn over and over like a pebble in my hands. He sighs slightly as he writes, the logs crackle softly, the wooden flute music fills our living room, and all is well. Such moments would be worth stopping not because they marked a grand separation, but just because they were full of ordinary sweetness.

Certainly, as I get older I am less drawn to those spotlighted, decisive moments and more to the ordinary and everyday. In the quotidian moments of our days here in Tiny Town I have flashes in which I achieve a sense of timelessness, in which I understand that there is no then and now, only this moment in all its perfect roundness, eternal and comfortingly real, always accessible. When I have this glimpse of eternity, I do not need to hold onto any moments, not even the moment this year when FF and I said "I do" or the dropping of a ball on Time Square. Not even this lovely picture of two newly married people in front of a fire. I let them all go, because at last I see that not only can I not hold them, but even more wonderfully, they are not really going anywhere.

So there will be no goodbyes, 2010. You've been a great year, but we both know that you're going to accompany me on to what we'll agree to call 2011, and on and on until I grow tired and have to stop contemplating time and become part of eternity again. Time isn't going anywhere: It's just us, always on a train to somewhere, like the fidgety creatures that we are and always were meant to be.

Happy New Year from Tiny Town to all of you. Peace to you, wherever you may be.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Seasons of my Soul

If there were no Starbucks, I might freeze to death in New York City.

It was Tuesday, my New York City day, the air was bone-achingly cold, and I didn't have many classes. My teaching schedule tends to fall apart in December. And although I keep showing up faithfully, my students tend to get sick, flake out inexplicably or suddenly realize that, by golly, they are too busy at Christmas to study Spanish! Suddenly my schedule sprouts holes, unprepared lessons, confusions about billing, and other miscues of various sorts. So in the gaps between cancellations and hectic subway encounters in the frozen urban tundra, I seek refuge in Starbucks.

I am deeply thankful for free WiFi and hot tea.

FF and I are about to celebrate our second Christmas in Tiny Town and our first as husband and wife. This weekend, he helped me string up fir garland around the stone and timber walls of our pre-Revolutionary War living room, patiently looking for the nails I had driven with care into the old timbers last year. He hung the garland as I stood there holding the donut roll of connected fir boughs, fragrant like a sylvan feather boa. And as I stood watching him loop greenery around our cozy room, I suddenly had a mental picture of my Dad, now almost 11 years deceased, putting up the big old-style colored Christmas lights on the big yew outside Mom's kitchen window while she stood on the snow crackled lawn in her embroidered shearling coat giving him instructions.

That mental picture of Mom and Dad is one that surprised me. It was a "new" memory, if you will, one I don't remember ever having remembered before. Coming as it did in that moment of decking the halls of Casa Tiny Town, it showed me the continuity between my life now with FF and the world from which I come. For if there is a rhythm and logic to the life FF and I are building together, there is also another deeper logic that comes from our past and it provides a comforting synchronization between now and the other lives we lived when we were young trees. When I was a girl in the suburbs of Philadelphia, when I was still wondering who FF would be, I was watching this very scene unfold. Now here I am doing the Christmas decoration dance in another time and place, and it makes me feel as if I am living right.

There is a comfort to my life in Tiny Town with FF that is based on sameness. Our life has a schedule that involves our individual and cooperative activities: My Tuesdays in Manhattan, fish on Wednesdays, diner Fridays, welcome home notes, and countless small gestures and activities that through happy repetition make our life take shape and assume a form at once reliable and comforting. When we said our vows in August, the unspoken subtext was that for a long while now things are going to continue in basically the same way and that we two are really OK with that. This sameness is like a favorite record (yes, I wrote "record") that you've played hundreds of times before and, though the songs are always the same, the pleasure is new each time. In the soothing warmth of good love, I am finding out, the fun comes from observing the slight variations that emerge as we dance to the same old song.

Early on, before the wedding, the sameness of this rhythm here in Tiny Town irked me in a way I couldn't quite locate: I felt kind of jittery. Life was delightfully, annoyingly, enchantingly, maddeningly peaceful here! It was as if I were afraid that life would outrun me, as if there were something I was supposed to be doing but wasn't doing while I was here watching the leaves turn color and the river rise and fall. It was as if I could not feel truly engaged in Being writ large while quiet, as if I were going to miss my stop on the destiny train without the onslaught of the City's obstacles and energies. Constant change, of personnel and place, have been my life in New York City for the past 28 years. And constant change is not only inevitable, but also good, right? Keep pushing forward! Change keeps you young!

But I am no longer just about myself and my own quicksilver dreams: I am profoundly anchored to Love with a man who is himself as rock steady as a sustained G below middle C. Deep and kind, tired but tireless, he keeps a steady rhythm for me that quietens me. Is it this countryside or is it the man himself that soothes my heart so? No longer does the whim of change intrigue me, nor does it seem like the way towards any destiny worth having. I want to gather myself up like a thunderhead, like a great tree silently exploding from its roots in centennial slow motion towards the heavens. I want to feel my roots beneath me as I move with deliberate dawdle. I want to know the depth of my life, not just its speed, and see how it is always the same and ever-modulating in microscopic ways that I -- finally -- find worth noticing.

I no longer need a world tour to make me feel alive. I lose myself in the profundity of one single square foot of Right Here, Right Now.

Tradition, sings Tevya forever, tradition! I have discovered here in Tiny Town with FF that Tradition is not something that you do alone: You do it with other people, people you love. Tradition is not merely a series of parties and holiday shopping lists, but rather it is a conscious, cyclical exchange of feelings based on a continuity of identity and a shared passion with specific people. Now, in our first year of marriage and our third year of knowing each other, FF and I get to say, "Remember when...?" and we get to laugh together in a way that presages a future that will be equally, satisfyingly ours.

Somehow tradition never happened for me in New York City. People were coming and going too fast and they were too occupied with getting the project done, the better job, the invitation to the networking party, or whatever they were off trying to do. I, too, was coming and going too frantically to really know where I was headed. The spirit of strive and conquer, which is at the very heart of New York City's reason for being, discourages silent nights and it does not care about the quiet contemplation of one square foot of snow crackled ground.

Here in in Tiny Town, Christmas creeps upon us with a tree lighting in Revolutionary Square (our tree is about 15 times smaller than the one in Rockefeller Center), and a frozen hush that is so deep you can hear the very thoughts of the few passersby. When I shop on Main Street I get a 10% discount because I am a local, but I would shop here anyway just to share some encouraging smiles with the local merchants whom I now know by name and who continue to tough it out in this very contracted economy. The local weatherman promises a white Christmas, so I will pull a tarp over the short-cut logs from the old buttonwood tree we had to fell this autumn. Those logs will require some seasoning before we can burn them, I think. And I am satisfied that this pile will keep us warm. Next Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a very Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Soft Is Not Stupid

The recent news of pitching ace Clifton Phifer Lee, aka Cliff Lee, turning down the New York Yankees' offer of around 150 million for the Philadelphia Phillies more modest 120 million dollar offer had me exultant. Crowing. Ebullient.

I'm a lifelong Phillies fan, and of course I was thrilled that we now have probably the best lineup of starters ever in baseball history with Lee, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. And if we can only remember how to hit the ball, the 2011 season is shaping up to be a humdinger for Phillies fans. But the story really got to me because Cliff Lee, in his very polite Arkansas way, said "no" to a big steaming wad of money and "yes" to a lesser wad and the team and city he really wanted to play for. Cliff Lee said no to New York City.

Texas Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels remarked to MLB , "He was very appreciative of the time he was here (in Texas) and how he was treated. He and his family enjoyed his time here. He also enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and liked some of the things that opportunity had to offer. People rag on players for following that last dollar. Cliff didn't do that. I have a lot of respect for him."

Me too. I also admit that if anyone offered me 100 or so million dollars for anything I would be really OK with the "lower" amount. But in the professional sports world, saying no to money is unheard of and saying no to the New York Yankees, the Rolex of the MLB, just doesn't happen.

Did Lee turn them down because he likes the team in Philadelphia? Apparently yes. But there were also some factors weighing against the Lee family going to New York, like the fact that during the World Series some Yankees "fans" decided to spit, throw beer and shout obscenities at Lee's young wife Kristin who was sitting in the visiting team's seats watching her husband play. Nice, huh? And not too darned surprising to me. Yes, there's dumb fans everywhere who do mean things. But this particular bad had the stink of New York on it and, sorry folks, but no way that would have happened in Benton, Arkansas where the Lees are from. Neither in Philadelphia, I'd wager.

Said Kristin Lee "The fans did not do good things in my heart. When people are staring at you, and saying horrible things, it's hard not to take it personal." The fans did not do good things in my heart, she said. I am utterly charmed by that one sentence which is a gentle rebuke from a southern lady who was truly hurt by the uniquely barbarous behaviour of New Yorkers. That meanness, coupled with the arrogance and swagger of the city that considers itself the center of the universe, is one of the main reasons I am breaking up with New York. And it is fortifying to have my experienced verified by a pitching legend and his wife.

My lifelong friend Mary Elizabeth is a style writer and was born in the south. She was transplanted as a teenager to Connecticut, shared an apartment with me on the Lower East Side for a while before marrying her painter husband, also a southerner by birth. Mary Elizabeth and her husband woke up one day to discover they were sincerely and deeply unhappy in New York, though both were pursuing careers that would have dictated that they stay near the supposed center of art and fashion. But, she told me, they had an epiphany one day and left New York soon after, with a sense of great urgency. Says Mary Elizabeth, "We (Southerners) are genuinely hurt when (New Yorkers) mistake our friendliness and outgoing natures for falseness or stupidity." They went South, to Charleston SC, a place where you can be friendly and not be despised for it.

Not long ago, Mary Elizabeth and her husband bought a home in beautiful Altamont, NC. She only has to endure that peculiarly New York meanness when her career as a freelance writer brings her back to the city for conferences with the sharp-clawed denizens of the fashion and design world. It's not as if Mary Elizabeth can't have sharp claws when she wants to, it's just that she prefers not. Just like Kristin and Cliff Lee prefer not. Just like I prefer not.

It is not a sign of stupidity to smile, or to be generous or kind. But New Yorkers as a tribe seem to think so and if you have even a scrap of graciousness in you, you will eventually be hurt by New York's brand of mean. Beauty wears a frown in New York City, and she has sharp elbows and knees that she won't hesitate to jab into you if you show the least bit of softness. That is why I am leaving New York.

And that is why Cliff Lee said "no thanks ", in the softest, nicest, Southern way possible to New York City.