The Pears

It’s September, so fall fruit is erupting on yards and sidewalks, in gutters. There are plenty of ghost orchards in the old suburb where I live – remnants of fruit trees are everywhere – stumps and jagged skeletons and even some healthy trees that are still producing. Our next-door neighbor, Larry, has a stalwart apple that’s a great friend to the deer who travel back and forth on the path they’ve tamped down between our yards before clambering up our back steps into the alley. I’m always grateful he hasn’t cut it down. Part of what was magical about our house when we first bought it were Larry’s trees. A line of crabapples and a giant pine that brought us shade and comfort. I cried when they cut it down. They made such short work of it, but the stump smelled of fresh pine for years afterward.

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On one of the still-remaining brick streets Baru and I walk at the end of every day, two young fruit trees are growing close in the tree lawn: an apple and a pear. I’ve noticed them for several years, through every season. It’s a block  I like to walk; down at the far end of the borough it runs along the ridge that shelters Chartiers Creek.

They are young good trees; the pear is rangy and adolescent, the apple shorter, pod-shaped, more like a little kid. This year both are heavy with fruit, but the pear is especially abundant. The apple is all in its head—top-heavy. Even in his wariness Baru makes friends more easily than me, and he charmed the man who belongs to the trees, so we ended up bringing four pears home about a week ago. I don’t know anything about that man other than he pressed his pears on me with some awkwardness and urgency—several fell for every one he succeeded in picking. He told us the woman who delivers mail also likes pears—that there are too many for him to eat (hundreds, did he say that?) He said the pears would get ripe in about four days, that’s how it worked, you had to pick them first then let them ripen. It took much longer than that, at least a week. By that time I expected them to go the way of most fruit, from rock to mush overnight. But no. The pears took their time. It was only this morning I could tell one was ready by its sweet smell and the slight red blush it wore.  It was delicious.

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Wish-Path, Prayer-Player

My edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls a prayer a “wish-path.” I keep mixing up the words: pray-wish. Path-prayer. Player. Pish. I learned prayer as the vehicle of ask and messenger of fear. “Say a prayer for _____,” my mother would enjoin, mostly as grim acknowledgment of an illness, my father’s troubles at work, or the dangers invoked by even minor travel. But health or money or safe arrival never brought reciprocal prayers of thanks. Joy. Celebration. This made me suspicious of praying, as it seemed more of a way to hedge one’s bets than to have any kind of conversation with God.

When my dog, Freire, was sick but still himself, I wanted to offer thanks for his life and I didn’t know how to do that or whom I should address or what I should say. Mostly I would walk outside in the mornings and squat down so I could run my fingers over the damp, cold grass and pat the frozen ground in our front yard. I said thank you to the morning sky, the street, the sparrows, to the trees, to the tattered wicker chair, to the moon if it was out— anything that would listen. I concocted small ceremonies that included burning  juniper or sage or tiny offerings of tobacco inside a pink/gray clam shell. Every day. Often, at least. On our walks. I said thank you, thank you, thank you. Whenever we went to the park. Thank you geese, thank you pine trees and dumpster and lawn gnomes.

But I still wanted something. I wanted it to matter that I did these things. I wanted Freire not to die.

Perhaps a dog’s illness is not the proper occasion for exploring prayer in earnest, and indeed, since dogs are pure of heart they might not even need prayer. Still. I’m not sure what the Buddhists mean by “wish-path” or if that’s even a remotely correct translation, but I believe it means you’ve got to walk the wish off. Literally is probably best, but one way or another.  Just walk it off. Along the way the wish will change shape and substance and this is how it becomes a prayer, after you’ve worn it for a bit and the two of you have traveled together for a while. You change each other. The path is transformed by weather and water and time.

One of my paths runs under the shale bluffs lining Backbone Road, not far from my house, then dips down to accompany Chartiers Creek on its way to the Ohio River. So far as I know it doesn’t have a name of its own; it is simply Chartiers Creek Path. photo[2] The Indians who first inhabited this area likely had camps on top of these bluffs, for they offered a clear view in every direction. By virtue of their proximity to the convergence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers these Indians were known as “Keepers of the Western Door.” But the Indians and the land were both elusive, the paths impermanent, the various tributaries and rivers always undermining the soil. According to Wikipedia, the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger explained that the Native American word Monongahela signified a high bank “which is ever washed out and therefore collapses.” Old paths give way to make roads for new wishes.

At either end of the valley there’s a pool of sky where planes pause— zeppelin-like—coming and going from the airport. I had another dog, Nesco, who chased planes. Big, commercial, slow-moving planes, small planes, anything in the sky. He barked at the moon, bright stars, satellites. I think he saw intersections everywhere – paths into the sky that brought bright objects within reach. I don’t think he ever really wished to catch them. Catching sight was enough.

Every time I walk the creek I glimpse some creature that moves almost instantly out of view. The other day it was a lion-canine tearing down the ravine. Feral collie? Hybrid coyote? It moved very fast for a normal dog, but I couldn’t see it long enough to tell. A man was walking far ahead of me, he was almost at the end of the path,  but I didn’t see any creature following along. This time of year the frozen creek masquerades as a fast-moving stream tumbling white-capped out of the mountains; the motion of the water in this photo is all under the surface, what you see is only ice: a log jam of wishes praying for thaw. photo[3]

Our House

On Thursday my father closed on his house. The house that was once my parents’ house. The house where my mom died. Our house. My house.

When you’re a kid you say come over to my house, right? You don’t own it, and you can’t control what goes on there, but the place you think of as home is yours completely and specifically and forever. How does that happen? Maybe it’s because the place you were thinking of never quite existed to begin with, but remains protected, elsewhere, free of encumbrances and requiring no maintenance.

For 44 years the dwelling at 1177 Prospect Road was the one place I  knew I could always return to: much as I refused it, much as I would never. In the weeks we’ve been helping my father move out, I had trouble rustling up memories and in writing this came to realize, weirdly and surprisingly, that I only really lived there for five years. We moved in in 1970. After I left for college in 1975 I came and went for short spells: after I quit school, between the Ford F150 journeys, after I got divorced. But I never stayed for long. Still, it seemed my permanent address.

At the closing the buyer told me his children were very excited about moving in. The house is cottage-like, cozy or much too small, depending on how you look at it. The front door opens right into the living room, where on one wall there’s a stone fireplace surrounded by dark wormy chestnut panelling, carriage lights, and small windows. Real wood – real stone. I was excited to move in, too. I loved that wall. The hearth. Though I can’t exactly remember why, I was positive that if I could just live in such a magical space my life would change. And it did. I turned 13 that year and came out of my only-child shell, started to understand, for better and for worse, what it meant to have friends and be among people. Finally, I was abroad in the world. Whether this had anything at all to do with the house, I can’t say. Now I’m thinking it served as a launching pad, of sorts. photo[1]

It’s been a while since I participated in a closing, something that I did a lot when I was a paralegal and had to keep track of the comings and goings of many papers and signatures. Thursday I mostly watched, and assured my father that final sewage or water bills are usually wrong. The closing-firm lawyer was quick and efficient and everything was easy. One of the real estate agents had a very shiny bald head set off by slick black goggles, which are in fact glasses, I think, albeit with the added bonus of creating a super hero effect. He wore a classy-looking peachy orange shirt with  S O L D monogrammed on his left cuff.

Even though my father did not have a lot of stuff, as is always the calculus of such circumstances he had more stuff than we thought. He has a lot of tools. Now his tools live at my house, among my books, of which he thinks there are far too many.

Here are some good things I remember: laying on the side porch in the metal glider, protected by the trees, sinking into the cushions, rocking and dozing for hours on warm afternoons. Sitting on the couch in the living room kissing my boyfriend, Ed. Ah, such good kisses those were, too. Standing at the kitchen counter after school, eating Tahiti Cookies with Rachel. The smell of freshly-cut plywood drifting up from the basement, accompanied by the sharp noise of one of my father’s saws. Sitting wedged in the small space between the couch and the coffee table and the fireplace, where it was warm and I could stay hidden while still in plain sight. Just enough.

One Hundred Miles

After being gone for a week: a dead house sparrow in the fireplace and a live bat upstairs. The bat was easily persuaded to fly out through an open window; the sparrow I placed across the street in some tall yellow grass.  I noticed a spray of soot on our marble hearth, just outside the glass screen, and peered in to find the sparrow laying inside on the grate – a delicate creature. Soft grey – deep brown. It looked young.

My grandmother called all little brown birds sputzies but she was referring to house sparrows, I think, the birds who have been hanging around us and our buildings for centuries.

The sparrow and the bat seem quite specific signs. Surprise guests. I wonder how the bat got inside and why the sparrow fell. But the trouble with interpreting signs is the trouble with sputzies – you can’t discern any differences between them if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Or even, perhaps, that differences exist – for they are often subtle and easily missed.

For six mornings in a row I biked  up and down an old railroad corridor turned trail that cuts through the Lancaster County farmland. We were staying in Mt. Gretna, the Pennsylvania Chautauqua, visiting friends. I brought a big stack of books and plenty of things to work on, but instead I rode 100 miles over the six days, mostly up and down the same stretch of trail, mostly by myself, though Frank and Jim and Kristin came along for some of the ride. I did not start out with any goal in mind, but the trail is exceedingly pleasant and relatively flat and it seemed important to keep going.

Monday morning, after a wild storm on Sunday night, we encountered many downed trees and met SuHwan Choi who’s biking from the Brooklyn Bridge to Vancouver.  The trail moves under highways and across narrow winding back roads that I found to be mostly quiet. On Wednesday I was stopped, looking at a breakfast menu on my phone, and I missed an Amish woman and her two children riding past – they were moving at a good clip in a small wooden buggy and by the time I looked up all I saw was their short yellow horse pulling hard, buckling into the hill as they disappeared up around a bend. I felt the clip clop of their passing – the creak of the wood.  But I did not see their faces. For three mornings in a row I saw: a small dog in a yard with a much larger dog laying half in and half out of the pet door, watching, Great Blue Herons wading and eating, yellow Monarchs, Chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits — all busy. Also horses out early before the heat and the flies got too bad. Some peering out from their stalls or dozing. Fluorescent green pond scum. Invisible frogs. Spring water running past a spout and brick outpost built by the WPA in 1938. A doe. I said hello to all the creatures I ran across – even the people . There were acres and acres of corn.

 

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The trail is longer today, Frank said on the last morning. The bright yellow sumac leaf I stuck in my notebook has already turned brown.

 

An end to housekeeping …

There’s a great confusion of days this week as summer skids into the Fourth of July and careens towards school.  September is New Year’s to me, so already summer is hurried. I’m out of time.

Music travels up the valley from the annual holiday celebration in Crafton Park, and because of the valley and surrounding hills songs are clear up here at our house; I can pick out Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” What odd songs to catch wind of. Tomorrow there will be fireworks visible from our second floor, just over the treetops .

Across the street from Crafton Park, right next to the miniature golf course and Walgreens, is a historical marker for Hand’s Hospital, erected in 1777 and named for General Edward Hand. I have always misread this sign as honoring The Hand Hospital, which I understood to be a place where soldiers went for hand and finger repair, or amputation. In fact it was an “isolation” hospital, built of logs, with a door on either end but no windows. It was the first federal hospital in America, and was built to treat soldiers from Fort Pitt.

I’ve come to realize I can take good care of people and creatures. But I am not a good keeper of things: cars, clothes, shoes – houses. I am hard on things. When I lived in Colorado Springs I knew a woman from Kansas who got so frustrated with this state of affairs that one morning she insisted on polishing my scuffed Frye boots because I never would. I watched her while eating a cheese sandwich on Nickel’s wheat bread. She did a good job.

Right now I am besieged by detritus and stacks of paper. My father is getting ready to sell his house – my parents’ house –  and so china dogs and crystal bowls in the same place for 40 year are stirring. I must decide the fate of a petrified flower arrangement composed of a butterfly and yellow roses that I bought for my mother at Kaufmann’s department store one Christmas a very long time ago. There is a frightening, pale blue china clown stretched out on his stomach, chin propped on his hands, that my mother specifically wanted me to have. I mean no disrespect to my mother but I plan to throw that clown in the river. There’s stuff I wish was here that isn’t: my stuffed elephant, Dumbo, my electric train set with the illuminated chicken car and the bright yellow engine, my mother’s good silverware.

“Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping,” Ruthie says at the end of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. This is after she and Sylvie set the house on fire but soon realize it is not enough; they must run away because the house is huge and old and damp and refuses to burn quickly or well.

In our backyard a plastic hummingbird sits on top of a pole gathering power from the sun via tiny solar cells. Unmoored in the darkness it glows cheerily until around midnight or so and reminds of my dog, Freire.  He was always happy. There is also a small deer path  – barely a few steps – stomped just below our light post, past Ethel’s rose bush, the weeds, the day lilies, and over into Larry’s yard. Other animals likely use it as well, but most mornings hoof prints show distinct in the mud.

We’ve relocated three young groundhogs down to the woods along the creek, though there’s still a deep, permanent looking burrow by the corner of our front porch, destabilizing things a bit.

At a house up the street, there are written messages everywhere: on bricks and pots and on small wooden signs. Tonight I spied a little Grateful Dead wisdom chalked on the steps.

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” It’s just a box of rain, or a ribbon for your hair. Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.”

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea ….

Do you know Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, The Lamplighter?

MY tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea, 
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more; 
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

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Walking up Hawthorne Avenue I came upon a house lamp I’ve passed hundreds of times, but tonight, dusk looming behind the just-bloomed rhododendrons, it reminded me of  Leerie.

Good poems occupy you, right? They stake a claim, set up shop, colonize your whole being – heart – head – deep in your throat. The Lamplighter lives just below my breastbone. When I touch my hand to my chest I can hear Stevenson’s words in my grandmother’s voice: high, tender, full of flourish and song.

Every time I reach the second stanza I feel exactly as I did as a child, deeply heart struck and excited. Part of that feeling is poet business, of course, rhythms and line breaks and rhymes. But to be a lamplighter? What a thing!  Imagine carrying your ladder from house to house-glancing in windows … just think of everything you would see there. The whole world in an instant, setting small flames alight all over town.

 

Randomly …

Greil Marcus said of Lester Bangs… “he was also a man with a job…” Bangs was prolific – pounding out thousands of words that never made it into print. Reportedly, he was also honest. He had a sloppy kind of dignity.

There’s a great piece about Bangs as literary mentor by Maria Bustillos from the New Yorker Blog a few years back. You can find it here.

Chrissie Hynde  does not like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I suspect Lester Bangs would agree.

I’m disposing of a LOT of paper. In those stacks: work I planned and never got to, work I completed I don’t remember doing.

So many teaching notes.

Every day on the internets there’s some new chatter about higher education and its problems, which are many and legion. I have something to say about all of that but not quite yet.

I am not now and have never been an academic, even though I have taught college composition courses for 20 years, more or less. This disclaimer has much more to do with habits of mind than with being an adjunct all of that time. When I worked for corporations I was so desperate to get out. To teach was to do something meaningful, I imagined then. Something thoughtful.  I was positive teaching would keep me on a path that was connected to what is good and true and right with the world – but this really had nothing much at all to do with scholarly interests or pursuits.

I can not imagine my life if I had not gone to college. If I had not met people who loved books and loved to talk about books. For some people college was not or is not necessary to engage in these and other thoughtful activities. But for me, being affiliated in some way with a university has always been a kind of class insurance. It turns out that insurance is bogus after all. But. Still.

Not long ago I found an entry in one of my old notebooks that said something like: “Worst case scenario I get a job and go to law school at night.” That was a few years before I got a job and went to law school at night.

Tattoo on a young woman at the bar: on one thigh “feminist” on the other “killjoy.”

I’ve been going to the library lately. The main Carnegie Library where you can walk around and discover not only random books but musical scores, small nooks in which to read or doze, and helpful librarians. It smells pulpy and ancient. They still use fans. Take that, Amazon.

Lots of activity at the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain this early evening.

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Who decides what animals will populate any given merry-go-round?