Monday, September 24, 2007

September, 2006

The clipped, yet lush Japanese islands at the botanical garden slowly disclose beautiful secrets. A perfectly proportioned island is revealed behind a gently curving turn of the path. Tiny landscapes of stone are tucked into ancient moss. Revelation and insight reside here by design. I try to concentrate on Mia’s stream of talk because the simplicity and intensity of the landscape is teaching me important lessons, if I only slow down, pay attention, pay close attention.

Mia holds a botany bingo card, placing stickers on the pictures of plants and landscape features we see, a Japanese lamp, a chipmunk, a tree.

“This is a map,” she says, holding up the bingo card for me to see. “The map says to cross the bridge before the alligator eats the bridge.”

Okay, maybe not everything she says is wise, but then I’m surprised by the next old words coming out of her little mouth: “The map says we have to cross the bridge to see something else.”

It’s like a little koan. It’s a plea to live. Don’t think about what’s below the bridge, Momma, don’t think about falling. There are still more wonderful things in this old world to see.

“The map says we have to see the treasure before something scary.”

In the Japanese tradition, bridges link worlds. The material world with the spiritual, the old world with the new. Paths control our understanding of the landscape we pass through – the rougher and more arduous the path, the more our attention is drawn to the details around us. The smoother the path, the more quickly we move through and past the beauty. Here is a wonderful gift for me, a metaphor for motherhood. If only I pay attention, pay close attention.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mother as Constant Gardener

The September garden is beautiful.

The autumn clematis overflows the fence in nearly embarrassing abundance, bursting with hordes of delicate white flowers. One clematis explosion pulls down the flimsy wood lattice that strained all summer to support it. I jack the lattice back up against the garage wall, attach it with a rope to a hook under the roofline. The resulting off-kilter mound of plant and wire and thick rope has a butt-ugly shape but the flowers don’t care, jumping onto the rope, continuing to grow wild and fast tendrils, like slow-motion squirrels exploring, swirling toward the roof.

The sedum is a beautiful old-fashioned shade of soft pink; the Bluebeard caryopteris is a riot of bees. We are in recovery from the crispiness and fatigue of August. Freshness and energy fill the air, like spring, but wiser.

That October day four years ago when we first saw our house, when I walked up the stone path curving through the side yard’s woodland garden, I was sold. Something peaceful and expansive in the established beds of green and blossom made me dismiss as minor quirks the house’s cracked foundation, the bowing basement wall, the tilt of the upstairs floors.

“We inherited this garden,” is my reply to compliments about the Eden in our backyard. Someone unseen planned and installed and tended beds on all four sides of the house. Someone planted the roses, the lilac and dogwood and dreamed of seeing them in maturity someday. But that someone moved away and we are left with the blossoms.

I have the same feeling of windfall when I look at my girls. I have to say, “I can’t see it” when people claim to see a resemblance between them and me. Where did these two beauties come from? How did we get so lucky to have them come into our lives? How can we live our lives so to deserve them?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Corrections

Last month in Michigan I was not so much reading The Corrections again as galloping through it at a pace to keep up with the anxious frenzies of the neurotic and endlessly hungry characters. I carried the book with me everywhere, read while I brushed my teeth, held the book open with a jar of Ponds while I dried my hair. But when I carried it down to the stream where the girls played, Randy offered a correction of his own. “Engage!” he called out, then went back to focusing the girls in his viewfinder.

I put the paperback down in the sand right next to me, watched the girls who were content to splash and wade without my help. I didn’t say a word.

It was a moment worthy of the passive aggressions and petty retaliations of Jonathan Franzen’s book. You know how you start to live the book you are currently reading, thinking in the patterns of the narrator, seeing the world through characters’ eyes?

I sat there in the sand, the book inches away from my hand, and stewed. I stewed at the memory of Randy sitting in the car with his Ipod earlier that day while I led the girls down the peach orchard lanes.

Then the lovely parts of the memory took over and I forgot all about the man and his technology. The girls and I picked fat and perfect peaches from ripe clusters on low trees. I was surprised by the effort needed to tug one from its tough stem on the branch. I was amazed by the luscious crunch when I bit into one - the perfectly ripe peach was as crisp as an Asian pear. “Why are the peaches at the store so soft?” I asked Randy later. And why are these magical trees that bear perfect fruit not in every backyard? Sally tells me that the pruning shape is called open center, like a goblet, with lots of space between branches. Pruning seems the skill that separates the farmer from the gardener.

Anyway, The Corrections. Great ideas on every page. Before kids, during my first read, I thought I recognized in-laws who shall remain nameless. This time around, I wince to recognize my own relationships.

I still relish with sick glee the chapter about Gary, the older Lambert son, locked in vicious battle with his wife over which one will be more sympathetically sane and which one will wear the mantle of “clinically depressed.”

Each character of the twisted Lambert family is both a neurotic cartoon and yet utterly recognizable. Contemptible and yet sympathetic! Except the daughter Denise. Her face remains blank to me. Closeted lesbian, executive chef, dutiful daughter, love adventurer? Don’t get her. Her chapter reads like mild Judith Krantz with dated pop culture references, recipes, thrilling sex, descriptions of fancy digs. Forgivable in the company of such other pages.

What did you think of the ending? Does it offer eternal hope or senselessly blind ignorance about what little is left in a wasted life?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The end of summer.

Red leaves tip the branches of the neighbor’s sugar maples.

Nora closes her eyes while flying back and forth on the swings. She launches into a song, “Oh no, you can’t believe it! Oh no, you can’t believe it!” Crowing at the top of her helium-high little voice, it sounds more like, “OH NOOOO, YOU CANT BEE YEEVE IT!” Mia and I join in and we chant the song for five minutes. The dusty smell of pot smoke drifts down from somewhere, probably behind that Rush beach towel hung up in the neighbor’s second floor window.

Nora’s voice is something like the buzzing of a soprano frog, something like the monotone of a tired little old lady.

In Mia’s bedtime poetry book, there’s a birthday song for a five year old. “Hey, we can sing this on your birthday coming up!” I say, then launch brightly into the poem. But when I come to the line about “Now I won’t ever be four or three or two,” my voice cracks and I have to pause. You forget sometimes, in the rush of cake planning and invitations that a tender stage is ending.

Why does their chubbiness move me so much? Eleanor has grown an inch since May. Who are those short-haired inarticulate cherubs in our Christmas video?

“Nora! What did Daddy catch in the cage?”

“Oh! A tip-moke!”

“A tip-moke?”

“No, a TIP-MOKE!”

“A chipmunk?”

“Yeah! A tip-moke!”

After a low-key summer, Mia started ice-skating, gymnastics, princess ballet and Montessori preschool all in the same week. She has taken it all in stride. What capabilities lie dormant in her, only needing the touch of the right teacher? “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Grandpa reminds us.

“I don’t want to go to school!” wailed Mia in the car on the way to the first day.

“Okay,” I replied. “We can go take a look and if you don’t like it, we can go home and try another day.” This is not a false promise. I would do this. But I had that mommy-Spidey-sense that she was going to forget my promise as soon as she spied some little friends.

Sure enough, she skipped from the car to the building, took the meandering garden path instead of the sidewalk and begged for a penny to drop in the donation dragon’s mouth. When the classroom door opened to show us a real bunny residing in his cage just inside the door, there was no turning back.

“I love school!” said Mia the next day. “Am I going again today?”

“GROWUPS!” This is Eleanor’s reaction to hearing any music that doesn’t have a predictable up and down melody, steady 4/4 beat and a soprano singer with a smile in her voice.

“Grown-up music is SAD! I’m gonna be SA-AD!” (in a threatening sing-song) “I’m gonna be SA-AD!”