30 September 2012

September's End

Sometimes there seems just too much honest sadness out there to bear and so little opportunity to relieve it. Oh, I can serve as a good ear and responsive heart, and sometimes that can be some comfort, though I doubt that it relieves much pain. I recognize how powerless I ultimately am to actually do anything to provide much relief of any lasting significance. And vice versa. Dylan writes:
It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
He’s right from his side.
Sometimes the wisest strategy is just to make a retreat. So I come out here to Walden to write, to read and to think. Ah, it is so peaceful out here. Today is a warm last day of September, and though many trees have already lost their leaves, those trees still adorned are afire in color. There is no wind. I think of Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point. He writes, “I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening-point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.” Olson says that we all seek a Listening Point, and I have always     thought of Walden as my discovery. I came out this afternoon to my Listening Point troubled in mind and seeking peace.
I opened all of the five oversized windows and let the air blow freely throughout the cabin. And I sit down in my reading chair with my arms resting loosely on my torso. And I listen. And outside the cabin on the eastern wall I hear a small community of woodpeckers pecking away at my cabin. I race outside flailing my arms and screaming mild oaths only to discover large patches of pecked cedar. And across the southern and western wall of Walden I see swarms of box elders basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. And above me I spy the beginnings of a wasp’s next in the angle of the room beams where even a broom couldn’t reach unless I stood dangerously on a ladder risking my brittling bones.
And I recall Fran Lebowitz’s dictum: “The great outdoors is lovely . . . so they tell me!”

23 September 2012


The weather during these early Fall nights has turned to chilly. I stack the blankets at the end of the bed so that I can pull them over the comforter when I am awakened by the cold in the early, early morning hours. I fit the premium flannel sheets onto the mattress, and I consider whether to purchase a bathrobe. Actually, I don’t really mind the change of season: I enjoy the opportunity to be snug like a bug in the rug (one doesn’t often get to use that phrase so appropriately!) when the temperature drops to what can only be referred to as cold.
So, for the next six to eight months, when I leave the comfort of the warmth under which I burrow for the nightly trip to the bathroom, I would normally step onto icy wood floors with my bare feet. But anticipating such eventuality, I purchased slippers to roam throughout the house and to keep by the bedside.
And so there is a scene in the film Dead Poet’s Society that I’ve now come to see from a different perspective. It is the scene when Neil Perry’s father, played by Kurtwood Smith, sets his slippers by the side of his bed and the camera focuses on his placing of the slippers exactly parallel and facing outward. Smith is portrayed in the film as the epitome of oppressiveness, the enemy of freedom, youth, art and obsessively exact (and exacting). Mr. Perry is the adversary to the Dead Poet’s Society, and represents everything for which the film means to advocate: truth and beauty! The shot of his meticulous slipper placement characterizes him as dogmatic, anally retentive, and inflexible. Indeed, it will be the film’s portrait of his autocratic rule of the household to which will be attributed his son’s suicide. Neil Perry has been portrayed in the film as a young, talented and vulnerable lad whom the audience has been led to adore.
For years I resisted any identification with Mr. Perry, Kurtwood Smith’s role in Dead Poet’s Society. For years I viewed the careful alignment of his slippers with contempt. But now, in the middle of the night, as I step out of bed and search for my slippers, I think to myself, “How else should slippers be placed beside the bedside other than carefully aligned and facing toward the door (or bathroom) for the ease of slipping them on? How absurd it would be to place the slippers by the bed in such a way that one couldn’t even find them, much less put them on with any sense of ease or purpose.” I think I have come around to the opinion that the shot in the film of Mr. Perry carefully placing his slippers by the bed for their anticipated use exploited the cliché of order as a cheap means of ideological characterization, but that the intent was essentially not true to any real sense of life.
Nonetheless, when I get into bed each night now I align my slippers and for a moment worry that I have become Mr. Perry. But when I step out of bed on my way to the bathroom and slip them effortlessly on my feet, I feel only warmth and ease and little guilt.

19 September 2012


I don’t know if it is early or late (though after 23 years in Wisconsin I should know these things), but today was the first time I entered a supermarket and found bags of newly picked apples. When we first moved here we visited Connell’s Orchard every early Fall and picked bushels of apples which we then made into pies, apple crisps and applesauce.
I love to make applesauce, and every time I do so I remember my mother standing over the food grinder preparing her own homemade applesauce. I think the recipe came from her mother, and who knows from where Grandma Rose got it. My mother sent me the food grinder I now use for preparing applesauce. Applesauce became a family affair.
I fill a very large soup kettle with cut and quartered apples and put just a little water in to protect the bottom of the pot. And on a good day I let the apples simmer for an hour or so until they are nice and mushy. Taking the top off the pot releases a magnificent spray of apple scent and has become for me the scent of Fall. And then I slowly ladle the nectar into the food grinder and begin to grind. I count the turns: so many to the right and so many to the left, until all that is left are the bare skins and cooked seeds. When the grinder is empty and the sauce bowl is full, I stir a teaspoon of fresh cinnamon into the sauce and stir it until it is quite melted. I always freeze a portion and put the remainder in the refrigerator for present consumption. Of course, we have always eaten both portions by Hanukah, and so before the holiday I run through the routine again, but this time the apple sauce adorns the latkes and is consumed all at once. We have almost never purchased jars of prepared applesauce. Son and Grandma prefer our own effort. 

11 September 2012

Autumn's Winds

The temperature today reached ninety degrees again: this has been a regular event since August. But over the past few days the winds have begun to blow autumnally. The trees, distressed from the summer’s extreme heat and persistent drought, have begun to drop their leaves. I don’t know what Fall array we will experience this year: there are trees along the highway that have already reached their peak autumn colors and it is not yet autumn by the calendar.
I am re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I feel warmly wrapped in the beauty of her prose. Listen, (for I think the words must be heard):  “Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions“Will you fade? Will you perish?”scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely need that they should answer: we remain.” I am not sure who asks the questions. If it is loveliness and stillness who poses the questions then the answer comes from the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs and even the wind and sea airs, and though they need not do so, then it is loveliness and stillness that answer, “We remain.” But if the question stems from the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs and even the wind and sea airs, then what remains is the integrity, the peace and indifference of those things: “we remain.” The rhythms of her sentence here, even the rhyme embedded within it, is itself loveliness. It remains.
But the integrity of the silence depends on the absence of human beings, and the entrance of Mrs. McNab is a welcome disturbance to the incorruptible innocence of the silence. Mrs. McNab is the coarse, simple and practical human being, “tearing the veil of silence with hand that had stood in the wash-tub . . . came as directed.” And as Mrs. McNab lurches about in her effort to ready the home for its visitors, she represents some “incorrigible hope . . .” that as she restores life to the home she restores hope to it as well. “Visions of joy there must have been at the wash-tub, say with her children (yet two had been base-born and one had deserted her), at the public-house, drinking; turning over scraps in her drawers. Some cleavage of the dark there must have been, some channel in the depths of obscurity through which light enough issued to twist her face grinning in the glass” and make her sing. Mrs. McNab appears here the primal energy of life.
How comforting to be enveloped in this prose that moves with the rhythm of thought and considers the rhythms and meaning of life. As Moby Dick is not about whales, neither is To the Lighthouse about rowboat excursions.
I wonder: Is there in the cat’s vocabulary an equivalent for ‘thank-you?’ I came out here tonight having earlier fed the black cat dinner. S/he was laying in the shade napping, but as I came to the cabin door the cat roused and meowed. It no longer runs at my approach, though it will not come close enough to be touched. But its greeting this evening seemed to this human the cat version of ‘thank-you.’ And then s/he put her head back down on her front paws and returned to her sleep.