Sunday, April 26, 2020

Reading to her

We began reading to our daughter almost as soon as she was born.

Her mother was a children's book editor, so she brought home scores of books.  Many I'd never heard of.  I really hadn't had much experience since my own kid days reading The Little Engine That Could a zillion years earlier.

I don't know of any child who doesn't like being read to.  I mean young children, who can fit easily in your lap or are alert in their crib when you start to read to them.

And I can think of few things I did as a parent that I loved more than reading to my daughter.

She was quiet, eyes following the pictures, listening to the words.  These were stories, and they held her attention.  More than that, they aroused her imagination.  And I was the one reading to her.  We were both in this together.  The idea that she could be so captivated, so enthralled by a book, that she wanted me to turn the pages, was simple and exciting.

I began to see her tastes!  She liked certain books more than others.  Why?  I didn't know.  It was just thrilling that she had preferences.  That spoke to her being an individual, which, in the end, was something so good to see as a parent.  Or it was for me, at least.

It's bedtime.  She's still in her crib.  So, maybe she's a year and a half?   I'm sitting in a chair next to her crib with a book. I lower the outside rail so I can show her the book more easily.  What is the book?  Let's say The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, the same person who wrote Goodnight, Moon.  I love this book, and I want my daughter to know the story.

She has the flaming-est red hair you've ever seen.  She's been fed, bathed and changed.  Essential needs met.  She's in her one-sy.  On her back.  All she has to do is look and listen.  And while she does, she does little things with her body, one of which is to put her foot in her mouth, which looks incredibly natural and even beneficial.

"Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away," the book begins.  I turn the pages, one by one, and read the words, changing my voice and intonation to match the characters.  Then, at last, bunny reunited with his mother, I close the book.  "The end," I say.  I say this every time I finish reading her a book.  "Ok, sweetheart, it's time to go to sleep," I say.

She doesn't look tired.  "Read another!" she says.

I do.

Saturday, April 18, 2020


Everything becomes not taken for granted.

Breathing, to start.  Maybe, like me, you aren't a Buddhist, or especially mindful, and so weren't paying a lot of attention to your breathing.  But now perhaps you are.  Still breathing.  Pretty good deal, isn't it?

Then there's the sky. Wide and gray or blue, or white and blue, it's there.  This majestic semicircle.  Always changing, providing a new palette.  A fresh drama of curiously-shaped clouds that move sometimes, sometimes don't.  A sky that can be a wide wash of gray or a clear azure.  That can erupt in jagged white bolts followed by jump-inducing thunder.  A sky that can send our roots rain.

Let me not forget light.  I mean the opposite of darkness.  The slow drawing aside of the night's curtain every morning to reveal the sun's emergence.  Not much is reliable these days.  In fact, is anything reliable?  The sun is.  I use its steadfastness every day to give me an anchor.  Once again, there it is.  Climbing upward.  Unfaltering. 

The senses.  W.H. Auden called them "Precious Five."  Sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste.  What these times have made abundantly clear is that death is real, it's near, it's possible.  The place I put death in my daily life before this was somewhere in the remote part of the Outer Banks of my mind.  Not anymore.  So, seeing things.  Smelling things.  Tasting things, touching and hearing things.  With gratitude.

If this situation has done anything, it's stopped time.  Or slowed it down considerably. Forced not to do most everything we used to do, we're left to observe and experience what is directly before us, in every sense.

For those of us who are not sick or struggling, a gift many of us had forgotten.

Six visions to be grateful for

Vision #1

I am walking in the city of Paris for the first time.  It is 1972.  I am twenty-seven years old. I will be living here for six months.

I have never seen streets like these, some wind and curve and some are straight but all of them have buildings of such stateliness and accomplishment on either side.  I don't recognize some of the smells.  I don't recognize the way the phones work, the Metro, the busses, how you buy things.  This goes beyond language.  I don't understand that all women in shops must be addressed as "Madame."  It is uncomfortable but liberating.  I am liberated from the notion, so beaten into my head, that America is the best and only place there is.  I look around at the river Seine, and I see the Pont Neuf, and the Rue St. Jacques and the beautiful older women so confident and purposeful, and my real education begins.

My traveling companion and I have somehow managed to find an apartment on the villa d'Alésia, in the 14th arrondissement.  It is a sculptor's studio with tall opaque glass windows that face the street and can be thrown open to let the world come in.

We live in a neighborhood where there is a wine store where you get your litre bottles, without labels, filled with wine that costs .50cts a bottle.  There is a butcher shop that sells only horsemeat. 

I, like so many thousands of others through the years, discover that I've never eaten bread before.  That I never understood the idea of individual dignity in a café.  That I didn't see the nobleness of a life as a waiter.  That I didn't understand time, that Notre Dame existed as it does now in the 14th century.  That building began in the 12th century.  How can I process time like that?

All of this is mine for the months I live in Paris.

This city completes me, as the writer James Salter wrote.  It makes me the person I was meant to be.  I am coming to the place I have never been before but to which I have always belonged.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The agony and ecstasy of Easter

Easter, 1953.

It was a small church in the country, about five miles from where we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  This is where my mother took us every Sunday—my brother, sister and me.  It was an Episcopal church built with brick and wood like so many buildings in that part of southeastern Virginia, marked and influenced by the colonial past.  We went reluctantly, my brother and I, especially in the summer, when baseball and barefooted freedom called to us.  But there was no question of not going.

I knew some of the people who came and some my mother knew and some we only knew from those Sundays in church.  

In this little Virginia church there were two days that were the mightiest, the most significant.  They were Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Though they were two days apart, the two days could not have been more different.

We usually went to church on Good Friday. We had been taught the story in Sunday school, and the minister had led us up to this day each Sunday.  We knew what was going to happen.  We knew that Jesus was going to be nailed to the cross.  But part of me didn’t want to believe.  Part of me didn’t want to believe that his Father was going let his son die.  It couldn’t be! As the time went by in the church, and the sad words from the Bible were read by the minister, I kept hoping that God would save his only son from dying.  Maybe this time it would be different.

When the minister read those lines that Jesus said, “It is finished,” as he gave up the ghost, despair came over me.  I felt a great sadness sweep through the church as well, as dark as the clouds that the Bible says covered the sky the afternoon Jesus was crucified.  I went home with my mother feeling gloomy.  It was a dark day in every way. Saturday was as well.  

Then, at last, Easter Sunday.  The one day you had to be in church.  We dressed in our finest.  My mother wore a wide-brimmed hat, a lovely dress, and she wore white gloves that inched up her forearms. 

When we walked into the church, it was festooned with flowers.  Sprawling, exorbitant arrangements everywhere, by the altar, and along the sides of the church.  Easter came at the same time as our Virginia spring, so the windows of the church were thrown open and the smells from the flowers from outdoors entered and flowed about.  Everything was bursting with promise.  The women and girls were dressed in bright dresses, yellows I remember, chiefly, and they all wore elaborate Easter hats.  They looked remarkable.  Jesus had risen from the dead!  He had come back from the dead and had walked the earth and then ascended into heaven to be with his father.

Everyone was relieved and smiling and we sang the celebratory hymns in gratitude and hope. 

After the service we shook each other’s hands and wished each other Happy Easter.  The Lord Had Risen! Praise the Lord!  Everyone was joyous.  From great despair to great joy in one weekend.  My little body could hardly contain such wide swings of emotion.

We rode back home in my mother’s car.  If the day was warm, and it often was, the windows we would be down and the sweet breeze would come into backseat of the car. 

In a few years I would stop feeling these things as if they actually happened to a man who walked the earth.  I would still go to church on Easter, though, still love the words and the music and the flowers and love seeing the women in their fine dresses and hats.  But I would never again feel as I did as a boy in 1953 in Virginia that everything was so wrong with the world and then, just a few days later, suddenly, in a burst of wonder and awe, feel that everything was right with the world.