I am having a stellar vacation by the sea, which is where all the best vacations are. I have kayaked every day but one. I have seen a bald eagle, swum in a lake, paddled a canoe, drowned my cell phone (see aforementioned canoe), eaten lobster and fudge and lobster and saltwater taffy and lobster and oysters and lobster. Because this is Maine and this is what you do.
One thing to mar the trip — Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath died. Her voice has been a fixture of my life for some time. I’m feeling quite sad about it. In her honor, please read a blog entry I wrote a number of years ago (8?!? Is that possible?) based on a crazy evening and a song I once heard her sing: <a href=http://harri3tspy.diaryland.com/060122_79.html>”The Secret Chord.</a>. And if you’re interested, I talk a bit about the song and how it got into the story I told and also about memoir and the perils and importance of what is fact and fiction in the subsequent post, <a href=http://harri3tspy.diaryland.com/060123_53.html>”True or False.”</a>
Wow, has it really been nearly a month since I’ve posted? My apologies. I will try to reform. It’s happened because I’m doing a lot more writing at work, which makes me want to step away from the keyboard when I get home. But I miss this space and I miss the kind of writing I do here. Work writing is interesting in its own way, but aggravating too. I explain a lot of the writing I do like this:
When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to write out instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. The goal was to teach us to be specific. On the day the assignments were due, our teacher brought in several jars of peanut butter and jelly an a whole lot of bread. She then had us read our instructions aloud and she followed them, taking care to do something ridiculous if the opportunity arose. You got to eat the sandwich made according your instructions at the end. Most people were handed sandwiches dripping jelly from the outside, bread shredded from being spread with the wrong end of the knife. One person got a plastic bag covered in peanut butter, as he’d neglected to mention the importance of removing the bread from its packaging. I was one of two people in the class who got a perfect sandwich. I’d thought it through. I’d put in such an insane amount of detail that people laughed as I read my recipe, but I’d left no margin for error. I’m not sure if this says good things about my character. But the sandwich was delicious.
There aren’t too many writing assignments I remember over the years, and this teacher was not a particularly inspiring one overall, but this was actually a pretty useful lesson to learn, and one I use nearly every day, probably to the annoyance of my coworkers. It’s essential in dealing with outside contractors, often based overseas, who don’t fully understand what we do. But it’s mentally exhausting to work this way.
This week’s assignments are different though. They’re more like term papers, requiring research and a more analytical bent. One is an assignment I get every summer, and deals with planning out the next year. The other happens much less frequently and requires me to analyze what we’ve done over the last five and me projections and recommendations for future long-term development. In another kind of job– say, manufacturing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — I might find this work tedious. But because what I do is intimately tied up with the things I love best, it’s a lot more like writing an academic paper on my field of specialty. And I’m finding my writing procedures to be similar. I’ve already written a complete draft that I tossed out the window altogether to start over with something completely different. I never seem to learn the lesson that if I start too early, I do twice as much work. It is my process and after this many decades, I fear I am stuck with it.
After a 14-hour day yesterday, I’d knocked off an acceptable draft of the annual document and made it about halfway through the other. It’s coming on vacation with me, alas. But I almost don’t mind. It’s an interesting thing to think about, at least to me. The first one was the bigger concern, as unlike previous years, instead of handing it off for my boss for approval, I’ve got to sign of on my own work (and that of a few others). And everyone knows what a hardass I am about deadlines.
But the first morning of vacation is sacred, so this is the only writing I’m doing today. There will, however, be a lot of laundry and packing and cleaning. Probably some swearing and arguing too. But tomorrow morning, we will be pointed toward the ocean, where I always find redemption.
When I am stressed, I clean. This morning, when I should be packing and showering, I have already removed everything from one of our banks of shelves, have washed them down, reorganized, thrown things away. I have done two loads of laundry and have washed the dishes. I emptied the vase on the mantel and refilled it with clean water, cutting back the dead stems. My house smells like reconstituted lemons.
Somewhere in my head, an observant little voice is reminding me that this is therapy. That the fact that I’m having trouble unplugging from work is because that’s where I feel competent and in control. I’m conjuring emergency scenarios in my head about work that won’t happen until October just because planning to prevent emergencies means I can prevent them. When facing an emergency that I was utterly unable to prevent, it’s what I need to get by, I think.
This has been the longest week. Last night I told my mother Andrew had been gone for more than a week and I didn’t realize my mistake until AJ looked at me like I was crazy. Since Monday feels like a week. I’ve completely lost track of what day it is. Alarms and reminders are getting me through the day. Alarms and reminders will make sure AJ and I are on our plane tonight. I’m counting on being swept into the family orbit when we arrive. There is safety in numbers.
It’s over and it’s just beginning. Some families fly apart when crisis strikes. Ours winds tighter than a top. It’s feeling very strange to be on the East Coast with AJ while everyone else is back in Chicago.
Plans are mostly made, tickets bought. Tomorrow we sort out the things we need to wear. I left the office midday today to come work at home, but I was too scattered to get much done, instead pacing around the apartment, not sure what to do with my hands.
Mostly it’s about lists, but occasionally the sadness hits, when trying to figure out how to end a phone call, while walking up tenth street with the Weepies’ “Can’t Go Back Now” shuffling onto my headphones.
This song was sent to me by a friend who died a few years back much too young. Violet would occasionally suggest songs to me that she thought I would like and ask if I might learn to play them. The first Weepies song she sent me was “The World Spins Madly On,” which she gave me, I think, for safekeeping. It had been one of her favorites but now it reminded her of someone she was trying to forget. And I learned it and play it, but, at her request, not for her, although she sometimes asked to hear things. “Can’t Go Back Now” was the second, and I never took to it as much as the first. But I kept it on my iPod because she gave it to me a couple of weeks before she died and it makes me think of her when I hear it. Hearing the song this afternoon felt like a haunting, like a message I needed to hear. When I started crying in the middle of Fifth Avenue, I wasn’t entirely sure why — it seemed like a purely physical response, turned on by a musical switch. But I think it was for both of them. And I was grateful for my sunglasses.
There are so many lists. Things to bring. Things to do. People to call. Meetings to cancel. Our whole lives are revolving around this now, so it’s odd to be out in the streets where people are oblivious to the center of our universe. It’s why Auden’s “Funeral Blues” always hits home. When somebody you love dies, you want to everyone to notice that the world is now a different place.
For those closest to her, though, the worst is, I think, over, and they are coming out on the other side, now concentrating on plans and arrangements and learning to readjust their rhythms. We are grateful for rules and the people who follow them. We seize the templates that we’ve heard all our lives as if they are liferafts — I’m sorry for your loss, She was a lovely woman, It’s so lucky her children were with her at the end — and learn that while they’ve always felt like empty words when we’ve said them, they are anything but. They are a lifeline, a comfort, a pattern that holds us up as we nod and say “thank you” and mean it with our whole hearts.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying.
It helps to say it, that thing we all know to be true.
Really, we are all dying. She’s just closer to the jumping off point. She’s the one who reminds us how it is.
I am watching from afar as Mr. Spy goes back and forth to hold her hand, each time wondering if it will be the last. Probably thinking about how many times she was the one who grabbed for his hand.
Dying is a messy business, made only more so by our inclination to prop it up in an out of the way corner with a screen about it to tidy it up. We are afraid to look at it, afraid of what might be looking back at us. And yet, as with many things, it’s less terrifying to stare than to hide your eyes.
It could be days, it could be weeks. No one knows for sure. It’s not really any different for the rest of us, which is what makes it so unsettling. We like to pretend that we’re safe, that it is different, that we are different. We don’t want to know how it’s going to be.
We are oddly comforted by the plans we make. We order plane tickets and rental cars. We research hotel rooms and bereavement fares. We review our wardrobes to make sure we have something to wear in case of a funeral. It should seem morbid, but it doesn’t. Instead, it brings dying into our home in a way we can process. It’s a practical thing, a real thing. It’s something to do.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying from a million small things and nothing at all. Her dying is utterly ordinary except to those who stand around her, not knowing quite what to do and to those who stand around them, not knowing how to comfort them. The doctors have taken over doing what they do, which is to try to make the dying stop. But is that the best thing? No one wants to be the one to say no. And who can blame them?
The doctors are discussing things. The doctors are saying there’s nothing they can do. We should be sad, but it is more of a relief. We are released, absolved, almost. But there is still the waiting and the holding of her papery-thin hand with its transparent skin.
The England trip was lovely I worked a lot but I walked everywhere and saw a lot of things. I fell in love with Oxford, which I don’t think I’d ever been to before, at least not so far as I can remember. London’s lost a little of the magic for me — more on that in a minute — but it’s still a beautiful place.
My hotel in Oxford was a bit of a walk from town, but was lovely. I was on the ground floor with a door off a little courtyard, so I could hear a fountain running at night.
I walked and walked. I wore out my feet. On Monday, I went to the Toy Factory’s Mother House in a building that was built in the early 18th century — “The new building” someone told me later in my visit, as he pointed to the old building, designed by the same architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And then I met one of my favorite toymakers in his “rooms” — a combination between a faculty office, a small apartment and a castle. It had a stone fireplace that I could have stood up in, no problem. But we had stuff to do, o I didn’t get to try. But I got the tour of Hogwarts, where he teaches — no really, some of Harry Potter was filmed there — and to see where Alice Liddell used to play from Lewis Carroll’s former office, an 18th century library, a portrait of the founder, King Henry VIII. After my meetings, I took a walk down to the Thames and watched some boats go by, then walked along a wooded path that followed a tributary full of students punting drunkenly (it was the day after exams ended) and running into each other occasionally, past children playing cricket, past a botanic garden, through some medieval streets, and back to my hotel, collecting some groceries along the way.
On Tuesday, I went to visit an editor in his home full of musical instruments of all kinds (see previous entry). He also gave me a tour of his own side of the university and took me into the Bodlean Library, past where the tourists get to go. And I had a Pimms Cup by the Thames with a grad school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, followed by dinner.
On Wednesday, I spent most of the day at the Mother House, which involved a lot of running around up and down stairs through offices and odd little corridors, and once, when the fire alarm went off, out into the cobblestoned street, where I stood next to the tallest employee, a man who had to be nearly seven feet tall in heels, makeup, and an beautiful flowered dress. After the meetings, I headed to the train station where I stood in line behind a tall, thin man in a three-piece dark grey pin-striped suit, his bowler hat tucked into the crook of his umbrella. After I stood in the wrong place, entirely forgetting that there were classes and had to sprint for the car I’d paid for. After an hour of riding past sheep and suburbs, the grimy city buildings grew up and suddenly, there I was in Paddington Station. After doing a lap or two, I finally landed on the correct tube line to my hotel in a part of the city known as Pimlico, near Westminster Abbey and Parliament. My train was late and my detour around the station meant I was too, so I felt lucky when, after dropping my bags in my room overlooking a quiet square, I found a taxi waiting in front of the hotel. The ride to dinner, with another old friend, took me past the front gates of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and other familiar sights. Dinner was delicious and the company was even better. Finally back at my hotel, I slept like the proverbial log.
Thursday morning, I walked a couple of miles along the Thames to King’s College where I met with several people and got a good deal of work done. This was the main reason for my trip. Once the meetings ended, instead of heading back again, I went in search of the apartment I’d live in as a child, strolling through Regent’s Park, which I’d once known so well. It was a beautiful day and many people were out in the park. Several groups were playing what looked like the cricket equivalent of whiffle ball. I saw another group farther along doing what I thought was the same thing, but when I got closer, I saw that they’d laid out a make-shift baseball field with bags and sweaters marking the corners. But they were swinging the bat down low like a cricket bat. And when one woman paused at third, the rest of her team started yelling at her, “Run to fourth base! Run to fourth base!”
There’s something simultaneously reassuring and unsettling about going back to a place you once knew very well. It’s a very different kind of experience than seeing something for the first time. Thus was London a very different experience from Oxford. I was constantly on the lookout for things to compare to the London in my head. My apartment building was the weirdest of all, because I knew the smallest details and noted the changes — how the garden is locked. How there’s a door where there didn’t used to be one. And I remembered things I hadn’t thought of in years. How the neighbors’ dachsunds used to hurl themselves at the window when we came home from school. How the balcony down the row had a chow that had no visible eyes but which would turn its head slowly and watch as you walked past. How once, when my brother and I were in the garden, someone was painting.
Instead of going back through the scenic park, I cut through mews behind the building and out onto the high street, which was much less glamorous looking. The greengrocers is gone. So is the grocers where the elderly shopkeepers used to grab boxes from the high shelves with a giant claw and give us extra pieces of candy for our pennies. It’s now a souless minimart with a glass front. Near the tube station, I stumbled into a courtyard between several office buildings that didn’t use to be there. It was full of rows of colorful lawnchairs filled with people watching the World Cup on a giant inflatable television. I sat and watched for a while. Sometimes, when you’re traveling by yourself, it’s nice to be somewhere where there are a lot of people having fun. And then I took my tired feet back to the hotel where I collapsed, headed out for groceries for dinner, and collapsed again.
I spent Friday at a conference King’s discussing philosophy with some people I knew, some people I’d never met, and others that I’d emailed but never met in person. The day went fast. And then I was packing.
It was a good trip all around. I saw some good movies on the plane (American Hustle, Her, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and an old favorite, All the President’s Men) and some entertaining British television (a show called William and Mary about two single parents, one an undertaker, the other a midwife, who fall in love; and a positively hilarious German overdubbing of the original Star Trek). I had a full week of a room of my own, which, I must say, I kind of squandered. I left the country for the first time since my honeymoon. It was full of win.
And now that I’m back, I’ve got some new perspectives on things. It has helped to have a change of scene. And now I’m plotting a vacation for August, as yet unbooked, but we’re having fun looking at cottages by lakes and oceans. Sometimes the planning is the best part.
I have many meetings today and am heading to London tonight, so I’ll have to catch up later. But, for the moment, this:
Scene: The home of a retired Oxford don who is showing me his impressive collection of musical instruments, accumulated from a lifetime of international research. We have just looked at dozens of wooden flutes and horns made of actual horns and a couple of trumpets made from human femurs and a conch shell trumpet that is nearly 2000 years old. We are now looking at a shelf of small curiosities, proceeding from right to left.
Don: You probably know what this is [he picks up a small bird whistle and demonstrates it]
Harriet: I do — I may even have one of those at home.
Don: And these are ocarinas [there are ocarinas shaped like frogs and horses and people]
Harriet: Ocarinas seem to inspire a great deal of creativity. [We both pause as we come to the next instrument, an anatomically correct and slightly larger-than-life sized reproduction of a portion of the male anatomy]
Don: Hmm. Well, then there’s this rather rude little instrument.
Harriet: It is rather.
Don: I didn’t buy that one. It was bought for me by a friend as a joke. [Pause] But it is rather funny isn’t it?
Harriet: It certainly is.
Don: I’m not sure I should tell you how you play it.
[Post title from an obscure Irving Berlin tune, "Ocarina"]