Protect and Serve

January 2, 2015

Cranston cops

On New Year’s Eve, we had dinner at our house with a couple of friends, and then the four of us piled into our friends’ car and headed out for our neighborhood bowling alley. A few minutes into the drive, we noticed  a weird rattling. Our friend pulled over and climbed out to investigate. Flat tire. So we all climbed out and set about changing the tire.

Easier said than done. First we had to pry the spare out of the trunk, and then we had to find the special tools, and then we had to figure out how to use them. It didn’t help that we were standing in the dark on a relatively high-speed through-street. Plus, it was cold.

We were huddled around the trunk, trying to read the instructions on the tool bag by the light of the tail lights and our phones’ flashlight settings, when a police car cruised by. Oh good, we thought. Help has arrived. And it had.

The cop angled his car protectively behind ours and trained his headlights on our work area.  We would have been grateful enough just for the light and the protection. But the officer – a slight, young white guy with a band-aid on his finger – didn’t stop there. When he realized that we hadn’t called a road service and that we were having trouble changing the tire, he pulled out his flashlight, studied the instructions, and went to work.

It didn’t take him long to get the car jacked up and remove the first couple of lug nuts. But neither he nor any of the rest of us had the strength to loosen the last lug nuts and get the flat off the car.

As luck would have it, a second police car came by. It parked up behind the first one, and the cop strolled over to see what was up. This second officer was taller and beefier than the first one. By jumping on the lug wrench a couple of times, he was able to free the flat tire.

What would we have done if the cops hadn’t come? What would we done if they hadn’t been so helpful? How could we thank them? We asked for their names so we could write a letter to their chief. But they waved the question aside.

“That’s not necessary,” the first cop said.  “Next time you get in trouble like this, you should call us.”

The second cop took a picture for the department’s Facebook page. “This will be great for community outreach,” he said.

We agreed. Those cops were good guys who do a difficult, dangerous and necessary job, and they went above and beyond what that job requires.

We all shook hands, wished each other a happy New Year, and went our separate ways. The first cop’s shift was almost over. The second one would be working until 8 the next morning. And we had a date with our local bowling alley.

___

We live in the Edgewood section of Cranston, Rhode Island, a relatively prosperous neighborhood of large, well-kept, owner-occupied homes between Narragansett Bay and Roger Williams Park. Like most of our neighbors, we and our friends are white, conservatively dressed English speakers. Our car was clean and – except for the tire – in good shape. And the four of us were old enough to be the police officers’ parents.

The bowling alley is less than two miles from our home. But to reach it from the block where we pulled over, we had to cross the railroad tracks and Route 95.  The bowling alley is on a busy street across from a discount grocery store, in a neighborhood where most residents rent. The other bowlers were all younger than us by at least two decades. They included people who had prominent tattoos, who weren’t white, and who weren’t speaking English.

Looking around, as we bowled through the last hour of 2014, I couldn’t help but wonder. What would the experience have been like if the flat tire hadn’t happened to us, in our neighborhood? What if it had happened to one of the other bowling parties at the alley? Would the cops have gone that extra mile? And how would we have felt, when that first cruiser pulled up, if we were younger, or less white, or if English wasn’t our first language? Would our first thought have been, Help has arrived?

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2014

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2014 has clearly not been my Year of the Blog. Not that there hasn’t been a lot to write about. If anything, there’s been too much.

In the wider world, the very real tragedy and hyped-up panic of Ebola. Injustice in Ferguson and Staten Island. Children murdered, Earth’s climate gone haywire, war after war after war.

There’s been good news, too. Expanding marriage rights. Thawed relations with Cuba. Greater awareness of income inequality, white privilege and sexual violence. Those might sound like bad news, but they’re hardly new, and the fact that we’re finally talking about them is progress.

Here at home, we saw momentous events, too. We said goodbye to my beloved father-in-law, and hello to our first grandchild. We spent time with family and friends, celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday, and explored rocky canyons and beautiful beaches.

I had thoughts about all of this. But when I sat down to post my thoughts here, words failed me.

Not that I haven’t been writing. If anything, I wrote more this year than I have in a long time. I wrote and rewrote picture books — about swans and pirates, bears and dreams, builders and baby brothers. Mostly, though I’ve been working on a novel – about an odious uncle, reality TV, and two girls on a mission from the Universe.

And while I’ve been writing, I’ve been waiting for the publishing world to send me good news. That has happened for me in other years, and I have considered myself very lucky. This year, though, it didn’t. So I’ll keep waiting. But mostly, I’ll keep writing. Just not necessarily here.

For me, on balance, 2014 was a good year. I hope it was for you, too. And I hope that 2015 is a good one for all of us.

Found!

October 21, 2014

kindle returned

So after all my moaning and groaning about leaving my Kindle on the plane and getting scammed into giving my Visa card to someone claiming to be from Delta Airlines’ Lost and Found Department, and canceling said Visa card, I finally reached a live human being at Delta’s Customer Service Department to complain. (They don’t answer their phones on the weekend.)

I detailed my suspicions to the nice lady on the phone. She told me that Delta outsources Lost and Found to an outside contractor, and that asking for my Visa number was part of their regular operating procedure. She couldn’t explain why UPS didn’t recognize my tracking number. But she did say that she would pass along my complaints.

My next call was to Lost and Found — the number that I had called half a dozen times on Friday until, at 9 pm, someone finally picked up. This time, my call was answered immediately, by a woman who told me my Kindle had been shipped three days earlier.

“Then why doesn’t my UPS tracking number work?” I asked.

“Because we don’t use UPS,” she said. “We use Fed Ex.”

Oh.

Could have sworn the lady said UPS. That’s what I heard, anyway.

A quick visit to the Fed Ex site traced my Kindle to East Boston. Expected delivery the next day.

And here it is! My shiny new Visa card came yesterday.

Can’t wait to curl up this evening with the last part of The Paying Guests. Sometimes, wrong is the best way to be.

Lost and Found

October 19, 2014

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The first third of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is excruciating. It traces the growing intimacy between Frances, a lesbian in 1920s London, and her married tenant. When the women finally make love, the relief is heart-stopping. I reached that climax at 30,000 feet, somewhere between Colorado Springs and Atlanta.

It wasn’t the best setting for such steamy reading. I worried that the woman sharing my armrest would notice my heavy breathing. I’d been up most of the night worrying that I would sleep through my 4 a.m. alarm. I had a long day of traveling ahead. And after so much narrative build-up, I wanted to give the scene its due. So slipped my Kindle into my seat pocket, closed my eyes and took a nap.

Late that afternoon, back home in Rhode Island, I unpacked. I was looking forward to picking up with Frances and Lillian. And that’s when I realized where I’d left them — in the seat pocket on the plane to Atlanta.

It wasn’t as if I couldn’t keep reading The Paying Guests. I could buy the book at a store, or borrow it from the library. I could open it right then, on the Kindle app on my phone or my laptop. I could even, easily, replace the lost Kindle, and download my library onto the new machine. But I still felt bereft. I’d grown attached to my device, with the little scratch on its indigo, faux-leather cover.

Mostly, though, I felt dumb. And embarrassed.

I called my husband, who was still in Colorado. David suggested I call Delta – fast, while there was still a chance the Kindle might be found. Found? It was a long shot. But it couldn’t hurt. So I filled out a report on the Delta website. And then I thought to de-register my Kindle. Most likely, my Kindle had already been squirreled away by whichever ground-crew worker reached seat 31A first. And I didn’t want her, or whoever she sold the device to, downloading books on my dime.

I had dinner, and settled in for the evening. At a little after 9, my phone rang.

“This is Delta Lost and Found,” the lady said. “We have your Kindle. Will you be returning to Atlanta soon?”

I wouldn’t. But that just meant that they would UPS it to me.

“Do you have a UPS account?”

I didn’t. But that just meant they would charge the shipping costs to my credit card.

“Would you it overnight, or three-day?”

“What’s the cost difference?” I asked.

“We don’t determine those costs here,” the lady said, sounding perfectly reasonable. “Would you like to do some research and call us back in the morning?”

I would. Was there a report number I should use when I called back?

“Just your name will do,” she assured me.She was so nice!

My faith in humanity was restored. My act of stupidity was erased. Thank God for David and his good thinking. I could practically feel the scratch on the Kindle’s cover against my finger. In no time at all, I would be reading the rest of Frances and Lilian’s story in comfort. And then I would read one of the other books waiting in my library. Which should be next? And how do you re-register a device that has been de-registered?

I thanked the nice Delta lady, and hung up.

And then I got a text from my daughter in Houston.

Sophie: Just got a call for you from Delta lost and found. I gave them your number.

Me: Why did they call you? Did I fill in the wrong number on my lost and found report?

Sophie: You must have….It was weird to get a wrong number for you.

It was weird.

It was also weird how much time I spent the next day figuring out UPS rates. I had to find the right website, estimate what the package would weigh, and look up the distance between Atlanta and Cranston.

It was weird how no one answered at Lost and Found  the next morning. And that I got transferred to an Audix answering service – wouldn’t a company like Delta have a more sophisticated system? Lost and Found personnel must have gone the way of leg room and in-flight meals, I figured, and left my message. Weirdly, they didn’t call back.  Or answer, though I tried repeatedly throughout the day.  Finally, at a little after 9 pm, someone picked up.

“Delta Lost and Found.” She sounded like the person I’d talked to the night before. This time, though, I could hear a TV in the background.

But I was so glad she’d answered, and so glad to be getting my Kindle back, that I went ahead and gave her my name and address (even though I had already filled that information in online).

And then I gave her my Visa number.

Weirdly, she didn’t tell me what the shipment would cost.

Weirder still, I didn’t ask. I just wrote down the tracking number she gave me, and reconfirmed her phone number, which she said I use if I had any questions.

“My name is Katrina,” she said.

“What are your hours?” I asked. “I’ve been trying you all day.”

“Oh, we’re here 24/7,” she said, sounding scoldy, as if it was my fault that no one had picked up.

After I hung up, I started to get worried. Why didn’t she tell me how much was being charged to my Visa card? Why didn’t UPS recognize my tracking number? At least, when I kept checking my bank site, no new charges appeared on my card.

Two days later, I got an email from Delta.

Dear Ruth,

The search continues. Although we have not yet located your missing item, know that we are still diligently searching for it.

Should we find an item that closely matches your item’s description we will send you an e-mail that guides you through the shipping and payment process so that we can reunite you with your lost item.

If after two weeks we are unable to find your item, we will close your report.

If you have found your item or have additional information to provide, such as serial number, please click here to update your lost item report.

Sincerely,

Delta Air Lines Lost Item Recovery Team

That’s when I finally thought to report my credit card number stolen.

I also tried to call Delta’s Customer Service number. But they’re not open on the weekends. A slick recorded voice gives the hours and directs you to their website. No Audix Answering service there. I filled out a complaint form, and will follow up with a phone call, first thing Monday morning. One of the details I’ll mention is that they called Sophie. Her number does not appear on the Lost Item form I filled in. But I did put her down as my secondary emergency contact when I bought my ticket.

I am stunned at my own stupidity. It seems like I spend half my life hanging up on phone scams, not clicking on suspicious email attachments, and not falling for online hoaxes.

So why did I ignore so many clear warning signs this time?

Because I didn’t want to see them.

Because I wanted to believe that I was getting my Kindle back.

And I wanted to believe that even though I’d been dumb, it hadn’t turned out so badly after all.

Sadly, this type of wish-fulfilling self-deception isn’t as weird as it may seem. We all do it all the time. Scammers depend on it. And they’re not the only ones.

As for The Paying Guests, I’ve read the next third on my phone. I don’t know how the story will turn out. But without giving too much away, I will say that  right now Frances and Lilian aren’t soaring nearly as high as they were when I left them in my seat pocket. Or as I was when I closed my eyes to the evidence around me and lulled myself into believing that what I had lost had been found.

P.S.

But wait! There’s more!

Ten Books

August 20, 2014

 

Books

A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.

 

Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.

 

Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.

 

Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.

 

Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.

 

What are your 10?

Final Cut

August 8, 2014

2014-08-07-18-10-46When I went to get my hair cut yesterday, I brought along a bottle of Prosecco in a glittery gold bag. Enclosed was a card congratulating my hair guy Mario and his husband Tom on their 35th anniversary.

In the five or six years since Mario started cutting my hair, we have talked a lot about marriage. Also parents and politics, food and religion, travel and health, hairdressing and writing. And Mario has told me great stories about life in our little village, where he has been cutting hair for more than 30 years.

Yesterday, we didn’t discuss any of that. I didn’t even getting around to asking how he and Tom planned to celebrate their milestone. Instead, Mario discussed an even bigger milestone. At the end of this month, he’s putting down his scissors.

Hairdressing can take a toll on the body. All that standing can get to your feet or your legs. The leaning forward can kill your back. Or, as in Mario’s case, the repetitive snipping motion can a number on your hands. After multiple surgeries, Mario’s doctor has told him to stop. And Mario is listening. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I love my job,” he told me yesterday. “I love hair, and I love my customers. I have been to bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. This year I went to three 90th birthday parties, for women whose hair I’ve been cutting since they were 60.”

In the relatively short time that I have been going to Mario, I’ve gotten glimpses of that history. The shop itself, which Mario shares with his business partner, Joel, doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened, with its wood-panel walls and paintings of clowns and landscapes. I’m not their youngest customer, but just about. And I get the feeling that the younger customers have been coming since they were children. Conversation is constant and intimate, full of references no one has to explain.

Mario and I have had our own understanding. We were thrilled to run into each other at a Marriage Equality rally at the Statehouse a few years back, and I was thrilled to see Mario wearing his Marriage Equality button on his apron until the law finally passed. We no longer have to talk about my hair, because Mario knows how I want it (naturally gray and as easy as possible to deal with). But he has taught me a thing or two about how to be a woman who goes to a hairdresser.

For example, appointments. For years, getting one with Mario felt as hard as gaining admission to a private club. The sign outside the shop doesn’t indicate what sort of business it is. It just says Bucarr, a combination of Mario and Joel’s last names. They’re not open every day, and they have no answering machine (“Why should we?” Joel once said, when I complained. “That would just mean we’d have to return all those calls.”).

Flummoxed, I improvised my own solution. When my hair got so long that it irritated me, I would start strolling past the shop, hoping to find it open. If it was, and if Mario was there, he would put down his scissors and open his appointment book. If it was open but Mario wasn’t there, Joel would tell me when to try next.

Last May, I finally thought to ask, “Do most of your customers schedule their next appointment before they leave?”

Mario smiled. “I think I have two who don’t.”

“But how can I tell when I’ll need my next hair cut?” I asked.

“You get your hair cut every three months,” Mario said.

“I do?” I said.

“You do,” he said. And he opened his book to show me.

That’s when we made my August 7 appointment, and he told me it was his anniversary. At the time, neither of us knew that it would be our last appointment.

It was a sweet half hour. Joel wasn’t working, so we had the place to ourselves, and the conversation flowed more freely than ever. Mario, who is usually such a great listener, did most of the talking.

“I have never dreaded coming in here,” he said. “Not once. Even after a vacation, I have always been glad to be back. I love what I do.”

“You’ll surprise yourself,” I said. “You’ll love the freedom.”

“Oh, I know I will,” he said. “But this month is so hard. Every day, it’s like going to a funeral.”

“Who will cut my hair now?” I finally got around to asking. “Joel?”

“Joel is moving to Florida,” Mario said. “You didn’t know?”

Our 9:00 was over. My hair was done — exactly the way I like it. But Mario didn’t seem to have a 9:30, and we weren’t done talking. So I stayed a while longer. When at last I did get up to go, I wanted to say, “Keep in touch.” But I knew we wouldn’t.

Never mind who will cut my hair now. I will miss Mario. And I will miss being a part of that secret slice of my adopted village. Mostly, though, I will miss Mario.

Interference

May 6, 2014

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We told the swans not to build their nest there. Seriously? We said. You really want to be this close to the parking lot, right off the foot path? You think this is a nice place to start your family, this corner of the harbor where all the trash washes up – food wrappers, water bottles, soda cans? Not my idea of a birthing center. But would they listen?

Sure enough, the next time we walked to the park in the village, the nest was done. The pen was sitting on top, and the cob was tucking a few last reeds into the side. We kept our son’s dog back, so the swans wouldn’t freak out. But we worried that not everyone would be as careful.

The town had stretched an official-looking fence between the nest and the path. But they didn’t include a sign warning against feeding wild water birds.

 

On Sunday, I took a friend to visit the swans. The pen was settled down for the count  — a blob of white feathers, a curve of neck, head hidden under a wing. A pair of mallards and half a dozen Canada geese were hanging out nearby. No sign of the cob.

“See? She’s sitting on her eggs,” a man was telling his little girl. “Want to feed her? She needs food, because she has to sit on her eggs.”

He tossed a slice of bread – not a torn-off crumb, but a whole, hulking slice – over the fence. It hit the bottom of the nest. The pen raised her head, looked around and reached for the bread. Too far.

“Too bad,” the man said.

A mallard swam over and waddled up the side of the nest, coming after the bread. The pen raised her neck as high as it would stretch and opened her beak.

“Did you hear anything?” My friend asked. I hadn’t. But it seemed clear that she was calling for her mate.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Off getting a beer,” my friend said.

Meanwhile, the man tossed over another slice, missed again, and ended up feeding the mallard again.

“Darn,” he said, and threw another slide, this time hitting the swan. She grabbed the bread in her beak , tipped her head back, and swallowed. We could see the bulge moving down the length of her neck.

Enough already, I thought.

But the guy wasn’t done. We watched him throw in slice after slice.  Mostly he missed, but sometimes he didn’t. With each toss of bread, more Canada geese and ducks moved in, and the pen grew increasingly disturbed. We kept waiting for the man to stop throwing bread, or for the cob to show up and and chase the other birds away.

When we left, the man was still throwing bread, and the cob was still a no-show.

Idiots, I thought.

 

As we were walking away, my friend mentioned something she’d read about economic development – how often our attempts to fix a problem end up making it worse. She was thinking the same thing as me, of course – that the man’s hapless attempt to help the swan was actually endangering her eggs.

Later, when I told the story to my husband, I said, “We didn’t say anything to the man.”

That was the first it occurred to me that we might have done something other than just watch. And judge.

 

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We Need Diverse Books Because…

May 3, 2014

There’s a campaign happening online to push for more diversity in children’s books.  Children’s authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and so on are posting  pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “We need diverse books because [fill in the blank.]”

It’s an issue I believe in, and one I think about a lot when I write. But I missed the memo about the campaign. I guess I’m not in the right social media circles. Also, I don’t do Tumblr. And anyway, I’m not much for taking selfies.

But then I was browsing through the children’s department at my local public library today, and I came across Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean.

Big Snow is about David, who can’t wait for it to snow. His mother tries to distract him with one indoor activity after another. But everything David does reminds him of snow, and he can’t stop checking the weather until the storm he’s been waiting for finally arrives. The story is lively, warm, and universal. The text is perfectly structured, with illustrations that alternate between cozy indoor scenes and zoomed-out double spreads that show the progressive  tableaux of David’s neighborhood as the day darkens and the snow falls, accumulates, and drifts.

The pictures are packed full of fun details to discover, from the bird feeder blowing in the wind and the snow-plow clearing the road to the darkening sky and the rising snow drifts. But what I’m interested here are two details that have nothing to do with meteorology.

The first, and much more obvious, detail is the color David and his parents’ skin – medium brown. (Their hair is black and curly.)

The second detail I didn’t even notice until I’d gone through the book a couple of times. It’s the menorah in David’s next-door neighbors’ window.  (It remains unlit until the final spread, when keen-eyed readers will learn that it’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. And there’s a Christmas tree inside David’s house, by the way.)

But wait. This is a book about snow, not religion or race. Why throw in those extraneous details?  Because not every kid is white and not every kid is Christian (or non-disabled, or growing up in a household headed two biological, heterosexual parents).

We need diverse books because kids who don’t fit the dominant demographic need to see characters like themselves. And because kids who do fit the dominant demographic to see characters unlike themselves.

It’s important to have books that explicitly address famous African-Americans, say, or Jewish holidays, or other topics that specifically focus on experiences that makes different kinds of people different. But it’s also important to have books that show people who don’t fit the dominant demographic living ordinary, everyday lives. Because guess what? Jews and blacks and people who use wheelchairs or are adopted or have two dads spend most of their time living ordinary, everyday lives.  And kids need books that show just how every-day and ordinary that is.

Neighbors

May 1, 2014

 

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I used to pass the house that used to be here several mornings a week, driving to and from the gym.

I like to take the scenic route, a tree-lined suburban parkway that curves beside the bay. The houses are substantial, the lawns and gardens well-kept.

Except for the house that used to be here.

I noticed it right away, the first year we lived here. Three stories. Yellow vinyl siding. Attached, two-car garage. Fenced-in yard.

It was a house that had started out very much like its neighbors, but it had fallen on hard times. The lawn was never cut. The cars in the driveway were rusty. The chairs set outside were indoor chairs.

I started watching for it, gathering whatever clues I could catch at 35 mph. I wondered about the people who lived there. I only saw them once, sitting out front on those indoor chairs. I want to say two men and a woman, maybe in their late twenties or early thirties. But I might be remembering wrong. I do know, for sure, that the day I saw them sitting out there was the first time I saw that a Confederate flag they had tacked to the vinyl siding, between the living room windows.

The next time I drove by, I saw that the attic windows were masked with what looked like metallic foil. One of the windows was outfitted with a make-shift vent, sort of like a clothes-dryer vent. But sort of not. I had to wonder what they were cooking up there.

The fire happened not long after that. It didn’t burn the house down, but it did melt the vinyl siding. I want to say the worst damage was on in the attic but I might be making that up to fit my theory. I want to say there was police tape. But I could be making that up, too. It’s been five years, maybe six, and I’ve had other things on my mind.

I do remember that plywood replaced the broken windows, and that a series of official notices came and went from the front door. At least a year after the fire, the garage doors were replaced with heavy metal plates that looked like they were meant to secure a vault.

Driving by, I was glad I didn’t live next door and across the street. I thought about police investigations. Insurance claims. Estate settlements. A tangle of bureaucratic procedure keeping the house in a state of suspended animation, with no end in sight.

And then, the other day, it ended.

I missed the actual demolition, but I did see a shovel scooping cement rubble into an enormous dumpster. Today, all that remained was the garage floor, the garage foundation walls, and five concrete steps.

I wonder who owned the place before life there fell apart. I wonder about the people were who put up the Confederate flag. What was going on in the attic? How did the fire start? Where is everyone now – Locked up? Dead? Baking designer cupcakes for the princess-pink bakery that just opened in Pawtuxet Village?

I could ask the lady at the post office or the guy who cuts my hair. This is the sort of place where people know, and talk. But I’m afraid that the answers they’ll tell me won’t be nearly as intriguing as the ones I’m imagining.

Some Poems for Passover

April 15, 2014

IMG_6311The power of the Passover seder lies in the fact that it’s always the same. And always different.

 

In our family, certain foods are non-negotiable – Big Grandma’s matzo ball soup, Little Grandma’s chremsels, Manischewitz. Other parts of the menu vary. Lately I’ve been substituting Yeminite charoset for the Ashkanazik standard. I’ve eliminated tzimmes and added matzo crunch.

 

Likewise, each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated to a newer edition. We wouldn’t abandon these old books for the world. The pages are stained with the wine and charoset of Passovers past, and four separate volumes are marked up with the names of the loved ones, many long gone, assigned each year’s parts – first in my father’s hand and then in mine. You couldn’t ask for more tangible connection to tradition.

And we would never dream of changing or omitting the core texts, like the blessings, the four questions and Chad Gadya, to name just a few. But lots of the translations and footnotes feel dated, or just like missed opportunities to explore something more.

So while we stick with the old, I sometimes add something new. This year it was poetry. Early Monday afternoon, between cooking the chicken and setting the table, I scoured my bookshelves, and picked out four poems to augment the traditional seder text. I marked the pages, and scattered the books around the table, alongside the Haggadahs, and at the appropriate time, asked someone to read.

Karpas

The first thing you eat at the seder is a green vegetable dipped in salt water. In our house, it’s parsley. Sometimes at this point we read the note in our Haggadah about springtime and renewal. Sometimes we read lines from the Song of Songs about winter being over. This year, we read this: 

 

The First Green of Spring

David Budbill

 

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

This sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

To a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

 

Harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

 

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

 

Plagues

There are lots of ways to bring to life the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered before the Israelites fled. I read on Facebook that my rabbi was using ping pong balls to simulate the seventh plague, which is hail. I chose this:

 

Hailstorm

Kay Ryan

 

Like a storm

of hornets, the

little white planets

layer and relayer

in their high orbits,

getting more and

more dense before

they crash against

our crust. A maelstrom

of ferocious little

fists and punches,

so hard to believe

once it’s past.

 

 

Pharaoh: Arch-Tyrant

After we recite the plagues, I like to read a section from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New Haggadah, in which he expands on the concept of the Pharoah. Kaplan writes, “….Pesach means more than that first emancipation the Israelites won from Pharoah when they left Egypt…It means emancipation wrested from the yoke of conquerors, freedom from the bonds of slavery, and the right of peoples to self-determination.”

 

This year I augmented that reading with this poem:

 

Democracy

Langston Hughes

 

Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.

 

I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the Land.

 

I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

 

Freedom

Is a strong seed

Planted

In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.

 

 

Hallel

Shortly before the meal, we recite a series of Psalms praising God. I included my fourth and last poem here.

 

Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton

 

There is joy

in all:

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

un the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.

 

All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often I forget,

to give thanks,

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.

 

So while I think of it,

let me paint a thank-you on my palm

for this God, this laughter of the morning,

lest it go unspoken.

 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.

 

I’m hanging onto these poems for next year. We’ll probably read at least some of them again, just like some of the recipes we’ve added over the years, and have become a part of our tradition.

 

 


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