New World

“There is no death, only a changing of worlds.” —Chief Seattle

At night I lie in bed and think of the cemetery gate on Monument Hill. It was a fairly steep climb up a gravel path and always left me winded, so I didn’t often attempt it with our all-terrain stroller. At the summit is a clear view of the college grounds and a circular, enclosed graveyard where the founders’ bodies lie.

I will likely never open that gate again. I wonder how long my arms will hold the recent memory of tugging at the rusted iron, the screeching of metal on the stone steps so loud it set my teeth on edge. I brace myself against the sound and pull.

I turn over in bed and rearrange the covers, hear the wind in the pines. The weather is already so cool in Northern Michigan, as cool as I remember my last winter in Virginia, and it’s only September. I’m restless at night. I reach for the gate. The grating of metal resounds in the earth and in my stomach. The kids cry out and cover their ears.

Inside the stone enclosure, the grass is lush and soft. The kids dance on the graves. The columbarium is their stage. They never want to leave, but I anticipate the long walk home. There are tears.

I’m romanticizing. I do that. It’s how I’ve always managed; I tell myself stories, create tableaux. [Read more...]

All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]

Camping with God

The exodus (small “e”) was a family of five fleeing the New York summer in our Volvo wagon just last week.

Crossing the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge, a veritable wall of water reared up on either side of us in the gray-out of a rainstorm indistinguishable from the river below. Naturally, this was followed by bumper-to-bumper traffic on the FDR, a seeming pile-up of similar-minded refugees, enemy chariots, or both.

All in the effort—in our case, at least—to finally inaugurate family camping.

The desire to do so had been brewing in me for years, what with city life and three kids whose feet were far more used to asphalt than grass, to crosswalks than nature walks, and streetlights than trees. Though our youngest is only three, and thus a significant liability to collective sleep in a shared tent, our oldest recently turned nine—meaning there was only so much time before she’d rather die than go camping with her family. [Read more...]

Living on the Threshold

Guest Post

By Elizabeth Kalman

My house sits on the edge of a salt marsh in Charleston, South Carolina. On one side of the house is the street, on the other, the marsh, teeming with life. I have a fence between my yard and the marsh, but the crabs, snakes, rats, and cockroaches all ignore it. The Night herons, in particular, use the fence as a perching place before they hop down and crap on my deck.

The bank is about to foreclose on this house, so I live on a threshold between homeownership and something else, something unknown. And that unknown place is where God keeps me. For better or for worse, here I am.

I got some insight into the meaning of thresholds last summer when I returned to Nantucket Island—my hometown—to help my son get his house in shape for the rental market. I pulled weeds and hauled stuff to the dump and painted, but every Tuesday evening I gathered up my notebook and scraps of poems and walked into town for a poetry workshop led by Greg Orr.

We met on the second floor of Mitchell’s Book Corner: Greg, a group of year-round islander poets, a smattering of summer visitors, and me. I began to learn how to write a poem. [Read more...]

For the Time Being

I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

[Read more...]


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