gifts of the pen

Many years ago, I worked at the New York Public Library as a Planned Giving Officer. My job was to work closely with older patrons and speak with them about how they planned to distribute their estate upon death. Would they consider bequeathing all or part of it to the future of the Library? Every morning on the subway, my boss would read the obituary section of the Times, and if he walked in particularly perky we knew a big donor had died. We would spend the morning reflecting on memories of the person, laughing and sharing stories, but would also be eager to get their Will and see what the Library had gained with their demise. It was a fascinating and slightly morbid job.

The greatest upside of the job, was building relationships with elder New Yorkers and creating wonderful behind the scenes tours of collections ranging from the Lincoln Center Library’s dance video collection to tours of former library caretaker living quarters, tucked into 4th floor attics. On these tours, ladies from 65 to 80 would take my arm and, with a twinkle in their eye, tell me about the New York they lived “when I was your age … oh, how I wish I’d known what I know now … I would’ve taken it all.” For me, I couldn’t imagine how they could’ve have taken more. These were women who had thrived, usually happily single, in the greatest city on earth, in a time when the world was filled with $5 off-broadway shows and Coney Island freak shows and white gloves with pillbox hats, dancing every night of the week, and rooms filled with the sound of electric typewriters creating a new world that we can only romanticize. It was magical.

The most magical memory, however, came on a Spring day when we went to visit the home of one of our favorite patrons. She attended almost every event since I had joined the library, but I had not seen her for a couple months. While she was a delight to interact with, she didn’t care for phone calls- even asking that we only sent correspondence to her. We abided her wishes and hoped we’d see her in Spring- once the winter’s cold lifted and events once more became well attended. However, when the season changed only a letter regarding her Will probate turned up- all of her belonging were to be given to the library.

To get to her 5th floor post-War apartment building in Riverdale, we took the 1 to the end of the line and walked through a neighborhood none of us had previously visited. The building super took us to her apartment and we entered a perfect time capsule. She’d lived alone in a pristine, one-bedroom, one-bath spot that she’d bought, on an English teacher’s salary, 50 years before. The carpet was a deep rusty red, windows were large and looked out onto trees. The kitchen had very little in terms of dry goods or cooking implements. A four piece dish set that looked to have been bought in celebration of owning her own place fifty years before sat in a cabinet. There was a simple cast iron skillet and a couple pots on the stove. And there were books, so many books. Books filled the remaining kitchen cabinets. And her living room shelves- Tall bookcases, stacked two deep, some books had two copies- a lovingly worn, well read copy, next to a pristine first edition- wrapped in archival plastic. In one corner of her living room, there was a comfortable, but not too comfortable, wingback chair with a wool blanket neatly folded over the left arm and a small table to the right topped with a good light that had an easy pull switch. Her bedroom held a perfectly made twin bed and a stunning, mid-Century writing table with a manual typewriter centered just so and a cane back chair. Also, another good lamp, more book cases, a single four drawer dresser and 2 file cabinets.

We quickly knew we had been bequeathed a treasure trove. The next week, we returned with two collections librarians and a mini-van. After looking through the small apartment for 10 minutes, one of the librarians gleefully announced, “We are going to need a bigger truck!” As it goes, people love donating their well-loved collections to the NYPL and while the books are valuable to their owners, they are rarely valuable to the library. This collection, however, was not only impressive in its size and quality, but also uniqueness. We found things like first editions signed by Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye and lesser known titles and cookbooks signed by Julia Childs, but clearly never cooked from, a shame but also a gift. Stashed on the top shelf of her entry closet, was a stack of hundred year old coffee table art books filled with Kama Sutra paintings. Like the cookbooks, they appeared to, sadly, not have been referenced much, but they existed and would reside at the main New York Public Library.

But all of that glory aside, what I wanted to know was, “What was in the file cabinets?” I opened the first drawer and my heart skipped. There were hundreds, likely thousands, of letters corresponding to dates neatly printed on the front of the drawers.

While collections librarians sorted through books, deciding what they would keep and what would be offered up for sale to The Strand bookstore, I sat at her little writing table and I read letters, so many letters. Each a story shared, each representing a mailbox opened and a letter excitedly read to learn the response to a question or the extension of a story started in a previous letter. Her sister had been a librarian who lived in central Harlem and they wrote letters every week, sometimes daily and many were posted with “morning” and “afternoon” mail service- meaning one would write before work and the other would reply after work. Often they would write to agree to meet for lunch and exchange books or finalize plans to catch an off-Broadway play together. The letters spanned decades. The letters were filled with heated debates about books, frustrations about students, or conversations about City politics- the subway or parks. But really, they were heartbeats of two sisters who clearly loved each other as deeply as they loved their City.

Letter writing is a life of loving shared in the simplest way.

We are filled with Facebook and texts and emails now. I miss the feel of a letter and, while I’ve let dozens of letters go, I am so glad I have lugged around a box of treasured letters that span the decade of my twenties. They are a permanence of the impermanence of shared memory.

Writing is a magical practice and pen to ink is a gift of the heart that matches no other. Letters tip into the heart of the receiver- you’ve taken time to sit down and construct a gift of your thoughts.

Do this for me, for yourself, for someone you love. This week, take 15 minutes and write a letter. It will be found in 5, 10, 20 years and freshly cherished.

image from The Australian

only the raven

“What is that? Is someone trying to break the glass?,” I ask with a slight panic.
With his usual calm, Tim says, “No, it’s just the raven fighting his reflection.”

I step out of the room where we are editing video to look for the raven. A two-story plate glass wall opens to a wide preserve of ancient oak trees surrounding a large pond. The pond, once full from a deep natural source, is half empty under the strain of new development encroaching on the area. Offices stretch from either side of the glass wall, all opening to the same grand view, while hallways and studio spaces line the windowless front exterior wall of thick Texas limestone. It is a beautiful space, designed in a such a way that seems the employees’ happiness may have actually been taken into consideration when it was created so many years ago. It is the first time I’ve been in the building that Tim has worked in for over twenty years. As I look across the expanse of trees and wide sky I consider that space has surely done some part in shaping his calm and measured personality.

The banging shatters my thoughts and I see the raven is standing near the door that is cut into the glass wall. His enormous body reflecting purple-black prisms as he struts, large head jutting side to side, pausing momentarily to punctuate his stubbornness before he resumes his assault on the imagined nemesis. Banging his huge beak into the glass and cawing with increased intensity, the sound reverberates shockwaves of noise through the empty building.

“It’s horrible. What do we do?,” asks my daughter.
“I’ll go down in a bit and scare him off,” Tim says while finishing his work without pause.

On the late Sunday afternoon, we are using a deserted conference room to film her half of a scene for the much anticipated annual fifth-grade play. During this unprecedented period of COVID-19 lockdowns, the play is to be produced by assembling the video work submitted by each of the kids (and their cooperative parents). All of the scenes will be joined with technological prowess or a split screen and a good dose of humor. As the saying goes, “the show must go on.” As we finish our work and re-set the room, the banging continues every minute or so, my daughter worries aloud that the sound is so bad she is afraid the bird will hurt himself.

“No, he does this regularly. There are usually just more people to stop him.”

As we head downstairs the huge raven I saw strutting in front of the glass wall seems even bigger. He cocks his head at our arrival and bangs the glass once more. We get close and he seems unfazed, banging again. Tim opens the door, and the bird seems to step forward.

“Get out of here!,” he says as he waves his arms at the bird. After a moment of consideration, the bird chooses to take flight, huge wingspan spreading and one flap pulling him to the top of a nearby oak.

“That was crazy!,” my daughter says, “Can’t he tell he’s not hurting anyone but himself?”
“He does it almost everyday, so it seems he can’t,” Tim responds.

Later, I think about that bird. Ravens are considered one of the smartest animals- their logic ranking upwards with chimpanzees and dolphins- yet we heard and watched that majestic avian repeatedly bang against its reflection in physical and vocal fight against a great foe believed to be encroaching his territory when, in truth, he was acting as his own worst enemy.

How often are we our own worst enemy? How often do we do that very same thing: Fight our own reflection? Other people see in us so much, but we look into ourselves and only see the lesser, the negative and beat down what could be great. We see the flaws and imperfections and peck at ourselves- keeping our lives small when the only thing to lose is greater experience and possibility. Why do we fight ourselves and sabotage, or not even consider, paths that could lead to more?

I am not talking just about goals and success outside of ourselves, but the inner peace we all deserve. We bang our heads against toxic relationships, bad jobs, and hold onto grievances rather than cutting loose or letting go. Our fears often cut off our dreams because it is much safer to stay in your head than take action and risk rejection or potential failure. Why strive for greatness when “good enough” will get it done?

I go to sleep thinking about that bird and myself. I consider, what are the glass walls in my life? What is it that I time and time again find myself banging up against, trying to beat down, only to realize that it is my own stubbornness and fears that I am fighting?

When I wake, that damn bird is still with me, but it occurs to me, “Maybe he was not fighting his shadow.” Maybe that bird understands more than we are seeing.

Maybe he was trying to shatter the glass or open the wall so as to enter and exit freely- the way the two-leggers do. They bring out food and, on hot days, a cool breeze follows them out of their cave. In winter, it is warm in their cave. They leave every sixth and seventh day, but food remains inside, as does material for nesting and shiny trinkets sit on the planks that they sit behind. Maybe that raven is being the smart bird he is known to be. Perhaps he is not fighting himself, but stubbornly banging down the obstacle that stands between him and a plethora of possibilities.

“Oh,” he ponders, “What a glorious day it will be when I break into their cave.”

creating place

I am not a woman who wants to stay in one spot- who nests and is comforted by constant routine. I would much rather be traveling and moving- experiencing this world and all that is has to teach. If I had my druthers, I would travel near constantly- setting up in a place for three or six months to soak up the sounds, taste and histories. I would record as much as I could before moving on to gather new stories and share new experiences from another place chosen by the muses’ whisper in my ear or random spin of a globe I found gathering dust on the shelf of a diner. There would be no set agenda in my wanderings. My ambitions only to talk to people; finding my way into kitchens and learning about food customs; spending days listening to the oldest residents share how the place had changed. Days structured only by mornings filled with writing, afternoons of found conversations, and evenings of processing what had occurred would guide me through this world.

For now though, and forever, I am a mother. I co-parent my child so for eighteen years I will likely stay in one city and the change I crave must be found in different ways. My child and I travel when we can and that is a joy for both of us on so many levels that I never considered. Watching her take in the world is an adventure in and of itself, for my child has shown, from her earliest days, the gypsy blood of her mother shares a strong channel to her heart as well. A wanderer even in her own body, she moves constantly, fidgeting even when sitting still- locked into dreams of travel as she watches National Geographic videos or learning about the world through avenues such as Vox and Now This. Her access to “what’s out there” is beyond what my imagination could handle at her age of eleven. More beautiful is that she has let it be known the videos are not enough- she wants to experience those places. She tells me she wants to find a job that will let her be on the road, but before that she wants to start working as soon as possible so she can save money for travel and buy a “short bus.” She will convert the bus for living and travel that she will do for at least a year before having to get a job after college.

She has told me, “Mama, I want the kind of exciting life you have had, but even more.”

The world is our heart, but for now, here we sit wings clipped by COVID-19. Not by conscious choice, we have both stopped talking about where we want to travel or what new adventures we can go on over the next long weekend. She will be dancing around the house and occasionally just groans really loudly and growls, “I want to go somewhere!” I will ask her where and there is no real answer, “Just anywhere. I need to travel.” I will tell her I understand the feeling and it is hard to be unable to move, but we know that it’s safer for the present. Then we dive back into cooking or reading or writing- searching out microcosms to explore within our confined space.

She often lays on the couch- staring into space, fidgeting with a pillow. When I ask what she’s thinking, the reply is, “Nothing, why do you aways ask me. I’m just sitting here.” I see she is a tween finding her own thoughts and I must patiently wait to be let in. So I am learning to wait. On other days she lays staring, fidgeting, and will let me into her thoughts, “Mama, how much money do you think people spend on sales tax in their lives?,” which leads to a conversation on tax percentages and the fact that our nation has many socialist values, even in the midst of declaring we are capitalist society, and how there is a variance to all political structures. Then she tells me how many tax dollars Trump has spent on putting up his personal guests in his hotels and she wants to know if he’d go to jail if we did ever get to look at his tax records. On another day, she wants to understand why kindergarten isn’t called grade one, because it is really school, so maybe it should be called grade zero because that’s the start of the number line. Her mind is a fertile field of adventures in questions and possibilities.

++

We are about to move from a house-share situation into a 624-square foot cottage, situated on a steep hill, with a back porch built of stone blocks, and a yard full of more weeds and rocks than workable soil. I didn’t find this cottage, my daughter did. After days, no weeks, of pouring over real estate listings. She had shared dozens of properties with me and we had long conversations about why different houses could be wrong or right for us. One day, I finally told her the timing was too far out and I couldn’t handle discussing more houses, I was exhausted by the discussions of “what if.” But she kept up the search. She came to me the next day.

“Mama, can you just look at this one house? It’s new and $100 dollars below our budget.” I moaned in her general direction.
“Make it quick, kid.”

The cottage was so sweet. Built in 1958, clean lines, renovated to reveal high ceilings that followed the roofline, painted white throughout, beautiful hardwood floors and so many windows. Also, very close to the junior high she will attend in fall- hopefully with real-life classrooms and teacher interactions and all the activities she needs to keep her active mind and body engaged. We decided to drive by and look in the windows- after being stuck in our house for weeks, it was at least something to do. The yard was huge and totally unkept. The cottage was so very small, not a grand space to be filled, but a respite to return to at the end of the day. It has so much potential to be an oasis. I wished we needed it at the start of May, but we couldn’t move until the first of June. As we walked to our car, a man came toward us.

“Can I help you with anything?”

I told him we were just looking in the windows of the place- it was for lease. He said, “I know, I am the owner. You want to look inside?” We did. It was perfect. He was delightful and loved that she was about to attend the school down the road- that we wanted a place for at least three years. I told him it seemed perfect, but the timing was wrong. We wouldn’t be ready to move for another six weeks. He said he would talk to his wife and maybe it could work. That weekend we signed a lease. We could move at the end of May and he was okay with me working on the yard in the weeks between. It will be a place we can create adventures even when we can’t travel.

++

Gardening is about creating an oasis- a place to travel into other spaces without leaving the place you are rooted. Within the oasis, a garden grows and with time, you work with the land to create a space that will cycle through its own replenishment. With time and attention, additions of food and scraps that have broken down into nutrient rich compost, you turn dusty rocky soil into fertile planting beds. With gardening, you go nowhere physically, but create new worlds that are always evolving in place.

At this new space, we have be given the opportunity to start building our oasis before we actually move-in and building have we begun. At the front of the cottage, every time I turn over the soil, my shovel hits rock after rock. I am collecting the rocks, stacking them aside, making more room in the ground for rich soil to build itself. The rocks will become edges and we will paint them to make bright markers amidst the plants- warnings that things are growing there so please don’t mow them down. With time, I hope there will be nothing left to consider mowing. We will put in herbs and butterfly beauties and rains will come. Water will seep into soil and plant roots will stretch into the gaps and push into new space. With time, turning over the dirt, adding the nutrients, and water, the earth will call new insects and grubs will know it is a place they can breed and they will add to the land as well. With time, there will be new deep, rich soil in which to grow more and varied plants. We will see new butterflies and more birds, maybe a possum will drink from the saucer of a potted flower. We will eat the foods that grow and reserve a few of their seeds- allowing them to dry and wait out the season before the next season sees them set into the ground. Then, as we give back to the earth, we will ask, in return for our work as her custodians, for another season of growth.

We will read together and learn about herbs for food and healing. What does this part of Texas grow without interference? What do those plants have to share with us? What plants can handle the harsh conditions we have here? What are we willing to nurture and protect because it has a valuable property, but might not appreciate the intense heat that beats our summers down? What is not native, but grows around the world in climates like ours? Where can we travel in the garden we grow?

Like our travels, the oasis we create will not have a set agenda or borders. There will be a few “must do” plants, such as citronella and basils and squashes, but others will be experiments and some are both. The Hill Country okra seeds I just planted is one such experiment. I’ve planted it in front of my bedroom window, not just because it is a great producer, but because it grows tall enough that it will act as a cover for the bottom half of my window. By the end of summer, I hope to look out and see it’s bold flowers and purple streaked pods of green. I will say “thank-you” as I pick them, chop them, and braise them with tomato sauce and thyme taken from another corner of the yard- that spot that could erode, but will become stronger for the roots of the herb. Our little oasis won’t be everything we need, but as I envision what it can be I am not so anxious to find new destinations. As I walk around the yard that is three or four times larger than the little house, I envision the plants taking root, and can almost hear laughter from friends gathered to eat on the back porch- there is no room inside for a large table. Cool breezes rolling down the steep hill that cocoons the back of the property will ease us into staying for another glass of tea and just one more story. In all of this, maybe, just a little bit, I can see a side of me that might be okay with staying in one place for longer than a season.