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QUINTESSENCE

Faces in the Crowd


IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
- Ezra Pound, 1913

As the holidays conclude and the airports fill and empty with travelers, I am reminded of the opening sequence of the film "Love Actually." The narrator, observing the flow and shift of crowds at the arrivals gate, speaks of the comforting presence, the reminder even, of human connection reflected in the anonymous faces that seek out and greet loved ones from the throngs of strangers. As I read the brief lines from Ezra Pound, I thought of the connections among strangers in a fresh and unexpected way - individual blossoms among the branches of the human tree.

This Friday, when I take my son and daughter back to the airport to return east to school, I too, will make it a point to observe the many hugs and tears and smiles among the strangers in the milling crowds. My family is but one group of petals in a bushfull of abundant love stories. All the arms and smiles that connect one loved one to another, connect strangers as well. All of us stand in the midst of love. To quote from the film mentioned, "Love is, actually, all around."
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21 Nutcrackers


When the snow falls the flakes
spin upon the long axis
that concerns them most intimately
two and two to make a dance

the mind dances with itself,
taking you by the hand,
your lover follows
there are always two,

yourself and the other,
the point of your shoe setting the pace,
if you break away and run
the dance is over...

- from "The Dance," William Carlos Williams, 1949

On Saturday night my daughter, a senior at college, and I went together to her 21st Nutcracker Ballet. That night the concert hall was lit from within by brightly burning chandeliers, light pooling through the tall windows, bands of gold fanning across the velvet dark. We mingled with grandmothers in vintage fur, couples strolling the grand balconies in evening jackets and ball gowns, little girls in satin bows, fathers and daughters sharing candy canes in the foyer. I bought my daughter a glass of champagne.

The ballet, performed exquisitely here in Spokane by the Memphis Ballet, retells the familiar story of Clara and her Nutcracker dancing her dream of Christmas. What held my thoughts all night however was a vivid body memory. You know what I mean, memory you can feel in your bones and heart. I was thinking of Katy at the age of two at a long ago Nutcracker Ballet. Her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail and bow, she whirled about the foyer in her sapphire velvet dress and lacy ankle socks, giggling at the way her dress ballooned out around her. This ballet was a big production, we lived in Boston. The orchestra tuned in the pit. My little one was enchanted, clicking her red Mary Janes together at the heels as she sat on my lap and waited for the show to begin.

And now here we are. She is grown, beautiful and accomplished, her dreams set on a not too distant future. Her way clear before her. And I feel as though I am still in the dark holding her again close to my heart, lightly, feeling her about to take wing.

I began attending my own Nutcrackers at about the age she is now, and through successive seasons of pas de deux, stunning bravura solos, the delicate, elegant corps de ballet under stage snow falling through the spot lights, I envisioned a future with my own children: the Christmases coming to the Nutcracker ballet, humming the Tchaikovsky score, the music sweet and dear. Laying down the bricks of our own sparkling road of Sugar Plum memories. It's a distinct feeling, the clarity of retrospection. To be of an age where the patterns of our lives begin to reveal like magic ink exposed under black light. The sense of awe and "ah!" that comes with our revelations of the dance that life has been. Snowflakes two by two. Hearts, two by two. The years twirl down and down, and a satin toe shoe spins among them, memories flying and tumbling about the dancer's feet.

Twenty-one Nutcrackers. A little girl finds her way to becoming a woman. Another woman with experience in her years holds her family in her heart, quiet in the dark of the audience. How we have grown. Where will the dance take us from here?
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The Field of Competition


each sweep and gesture
trained and various
echoing the other's art
- "The Great Tree," Michael Ondaatje, 1998

On Saturday I joined in on a great tradition in the city of Philadelphia. A football game held between two military academies meeting in the spirit of rivalry and brotherhood on the green of a football grid. Played in Philadelphia, halfway between West Point and Annapolis, America's finest young men suited up to battle in sport. At their backs, their comrades in service, young men and women, Midshipmen and Cadets in dress uniform, standing in honor as they cheered on the effort displayed on the field. This was my first Army-Navy game. The 111th meeting of these two academeis in the "oldest football rivalry in the history of our country."

Sitting in the stands within a sea of Navy colors and caps worn proudly by the veterans, the parents, and the active duty cheering on their own, I suddenly felt keenly aware of the difference between this game and any other. Spectacular? Yes. The cadet and mishipmen march-on, lining up on the field company after company to salute their fans, was an unforgettable visual. A black and gray sea of precision and erect bearing, youth and deternination. But the difference was not this; nor the presence of the miliatry brass, the parachute jumps to the 50 yard line by the Navy Leapfrogs (SEALS) and Army Golden Knights, not the flyover by the Jolly Roger F-18s or the battle helicopters in perfect formation across a cloudless sky.... None of these things in and of themselves make this event more than an astonishing spectacle.

What makes the game, why fans and family come year after year, is this simple fact: each and every mid or cadet, in the stands or on the field, is on active duty. Whether standing at attention for the entrance of their brethren who have run the game ball 36 hours overnight to Philadelphia - arriving at center field to the cheers of all - or on duty, standing watch back at the academy, or perhaps seeing a familiar face in the crowd, attempting to cross three tiers of packed stands to say hello to a little brother or a parent in the nosebleed section... All of these young men and women serve active duty in our country's great military academies. These men and women first and foremost took an oath of office to protect and defend our country and its principles. What happens on the football field is sport. What happens in their lives is serious, as real as it gets. And with that knowledge in my heart, their sportsmanship is keenly beautiful in its translucent goodwill. On this field they growl and cheer and glorify in a contest of athletics, but on the battlefield you know the comraderie is absolute - "I've got your back, you've got mine."

At the end of the game, a great and awesome show of team force on both sides, Navy carried the day. But what brought me to tears was each team marching to the other's side at the end of the game to stand in respectful attention during the playing of the opposing team's academy song. The lump in the throats of all were real. This game is done, but god speed them all in what lies ahead.
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Hush all the fields


NOW CLOSE THE WINDOWS
Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
It will be long ere the earliest bird;
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.

- Robert Frost, "A Boy's Will," 1913

An "Arctic blast" has swept in from northern Canada, blanketing the Northwest in snow and below zero temperatures. The storms are to continue on through the next few days, hopefully then to break into sun on Thanksgiving. As I write, the blizzard winds have ceased, and in their wake, a silence, heavy as the berms of snow banked against the house. The path worn by the dog chasing the gray squirrels that feast on the red fruit of the crab apple is erased. Blanketed under drifts of sharply angled snow.

Last night we shoveled in the bitter cold, bundled in hats and gloves, wooly mufflers softening our laughter as the dog ran under foot nipping at the edge of the snow shovels. The night sky was something to behold. Black as glass. Shards of ice scintillate in the vast dark. This the drift of distant galaxies? One falling star but one of a thousand diamonds lost. The dog is laughing now, his beard a carpet of snow balls. Our work done, the cocoa cups put away, the fire damped and boots drying by the door, the house falls asleep as the wind settles into the eaves. As the storm rages over our heads and the timbers of the house creak in the cold, I snuggle into the warm breath of love and think, This, this is joy.

The morning house smells of ginger cookies and warm oatmeal. The quail in the back yard search for seed, kicking the snow into sprays of white mist. Sun glints from the snow fields. The dazzling white blinds me as I pause, again armed with the shovel. I think, This, this is joy.

The days of gathering in the kitchen are upon us. We come together, preparing a feast of love, a feast for loving, a feast for thankfulness and the presence of grace. I count blessings, looking up as white-bellied geese skim the tips of the pines, beating away into an impossibly blue sky. Hush all the fields, and listen.
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Veterans Day Salute

"The deepest words
of the wise men teach us
the same as the whistle of the wind when it blows,
or the sound of the water when it is flowing."
- "Rebirth," Antonio Machado

Today is a Thursday in the chill and gray month of November. It is Veterans Day. My thoughts this morning turn to the family heritage I honor: one of service and sacrifice. Like many families around our country this day, we salute the bravery, the dedication, the commitment and as may be, the ultimate sacrifice made by those we love. At this moment there are American soldiers on the front lines of conflict around the world. There are American soldiers on missions of rescue and mercy. And American soldiers miles apart from all they know and love, watching the seas and skies for our safety. My message today is heartfelt, and simple. Thank a service member, remember a Vet, acknowledge your family's generations of sacrifice. Freedom for any of us, whether those serving or those supporting or left behind, has a cost. Today we acknowledge the price paid.

My Drum Roll of Honor:

*Midshipman David G. Grunzweig, United States Naval Academy (my son)
*Kenneth A. Grunzweig, A1C, USAF, Vietnam era (my husband, deceased)
*Lt. Col. Thomas H. Burgess, USAF, career officer SAC Command, retired (my father, deceased)
*Louise W. Burgess, active duty military spouse (my mother, deceased)
*James Waugh, enlisted US Army, Korea (my uncle)
*Lt. Jeremy Tinder, USAF Reserve (nephew), and Kristin, his spouse
*John Loudon, enlisted former USAF Survival Instructor (brother-in-law) and Julie, his spouse (my sister)
*Lt. Col. Harland F. Burgess, US Army, career officer Calvary, WWII Pacific Theater, POW, decorated hero, KIA (my grandfather)
*Marion d'Ullay Burgess, active duty military spouse, widowed WWII, school teacher (my grandmother)
*Col. Walter Burgess, career officer USAF, Commander Recognizance Mission, Equador, WWII, KIA (my great Uncle)

Thank you.  Read More 
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More than Normal

"So let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget, and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand."
- E.M. Forster

One of the real pleasures of my time in the Big Apple was the theatre musical NEXT TO NORMAL, staring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. This is one of those story lines in which describing too much gives away secrets and surprises important to the drama. Music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, NEXT TO NORMAL is truly one of those stunning artistic surprises. Difficult and dramatic subject matter - tender and furious at the same time - this musical drama eviscerates contemporary life in a way I have not seen often done: honestly, candidly, compassionately, searingly truthful. Think Chekhof sung on stage. The music - sharp, lilting and strong - carries the vulnerable dramatic performances of Mazzie and Danieley, who play a middle-aged wife and husband struggling to deal with family life, loss, and raising teenage children. What seems like an "everyday everybody" story turns out to be heartbreakingly personal.

The darkness of the theater, the willingness of actors to meld their souls to their roles, affords us a rare opportunity to see our own lives reflected on stage. There is true intimacy in the theater. The interaction between play, actors, and audience is immediate, honest, and often palpable. At points in NEXT TO NORMAL, I looked around the audience: there were tears on faces fixed on the stage. What other artistic medium invites us into the performance, witnesses to our own lives played out before us?

I support the arts: good, bad, or simply indifferent. The arts represent our dialog with ourselves. What we think about life, feel about our hopes and losses, make of our dreams. The arts are brave. And even when they are bad, they are worthwhile I believe, because the subject matter nudges us to think and reflect and understand. And when they are great, we are transformed. Do you have plans for the weekend? Buy a ticket to something on stage...enjoy the richness of our complicated humanity. Read More 
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Secret Machine

“My loneliness is a secret machine,
a flying feather bed in the blue
of a hydrangea…”
- “Galileo,” Christopher Howell

A word on the solitary heart... The reality of life, we are led to believe, is that we row our little boats alone. Loneliness something we are more or less always aware of, there in the secret rooms of our memories. I've found something else to be true: we are truly part of a parenthesis in eternity - a set of those we come from and those that come from us. I think one reason our children can break our hearts just in looking at them, is that we feel ourselves in their innocence, reflected in their laughing eyes. Holding the kids on our laps, or leaning shoulder to shoulder with a grown son on a log by a beach fire, we look down the length of them: recognize our own bony feet in theirs, laugh at the slightly longer second toe. In the shadows of our parents, our grandparents, our children, we experience ourselves as unbounded in the universe. Something of us spools in from the past and through us, forward.

I love this poet's imagery, the idea loneliness takes wing as a secret machine. A trapeze, a buggy, a spaceship, a bed flying blue through dark skies. We are the machine, our secrets safely stashed in our hearts. When loneliness swims up inside, cling to the faces of those you love, anchor to the weight of the old dog’s head on your foot. Love is the skin, the silver, the fierce aluminum, the slingshot of hope that catapults us through space. Space, the blue of wild hydrangea.  Read More 
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Comfortable with the Crazy

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”
- Mark Twain

My son has returned east for his second year at the Naval Academy, my daughter has returned to Yale for her senior year. What is left in their wake are the sandals and dog-eared books and rumpled leftovers of these few rushed, splendid weeks of summer. The last few “summers at home”… Today the empty rooms are chock full of ghosts and I close bedroom doors with a tightening heart: I leave untouched on his desk his scribbled notations on a song he was writing, her gym bag perfume remains tossed in a ratty running shoe. The dog eyes me with soulful sadness. Where has the pack gone?

Add to the unsettled feelings that out there in the big world it has been “that kind of day.” Crazy in spades. A day thrown in the spin cycle. Our digital world means not only do events happen in a split second, but so do their consequences. A banker pushes a wrong button and economies collapse. A clerk forgets an input function and someone on the cross-town bus loses an interview. Today’s energy is all about these human vortexes - action and reaction, cause and effect - and I am struck by the enormous amount of bureaucratic puppeteering it takes to resolve the most practical issue. Emails wing across the prairies.

As I stand in the midst of the wreck of my day, holding pieces of fallen plaster from what normally passes for a sane and practiced routine, I accept the chaos. I accept my inability to do much about it. I accept my family world is transitioning to one of individual independences. And with that thought comes a deep breath. Mark Twain is my inspiration. I can be comfortable with this chaos if I have my own permission. I imagine Twain’s remark refers to a more profound, inward approval - that of the conscience, the wrestling match between morality and an uneasy heart – not my struggle to find balance in upheaval. But for today, it is enough to just throw up my hands, yield to the crazy and be okay with it. I don’t have to fix the world. I can just be…comfortable with the crazy.  Read More 
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Life 101

“We have met the enemy and they is us.”
-Pogo

A week or two ago my phone rang at the crack of dawn. (Children and emergencies have no time zones.) My daughter, fully distraught, had found herself in an academic crisis during an intensive summer science course. Being my daughter, her first response was to emotionally dissolve. I am her “safe place.” I know from experience that within a day, perhaps just hours, she will have vented the bad stuff and settled down into her ever-so-capable cranium and begun to solve her way out of whatever dilemma she has found herself in.

But what greets me on the phone is a serious wobble. The world is out of tilt. Here we go, I think. I can sense the tears trembling within her words. But for the first time I am not whirling around in her tornado as I usually am, but listening, knowing she is far more equipped to handle this than she realizes. That she can, and will, resolve things in a positive way, and soon. In my double-decade span of parenting, I’ve come to call this resting within crisis “the sweet spot” - when the right touch somehow finds the right wisdom and lands perfectly in the heart.

Sure enough, within a few hours she had recouped her composure, contacted the professor, and together they unearthed a massive classroom computer error. I enjoyed the rest of my morning quiet in my office, content to watch the rain, thinking how, as Pogo so cannily observed, we are our own worst enemies. Perhaps this "supportive detachment" is an echo of the universe toward chaos amongst our human souls on earth?

We are more equipped to handle life than we realize.  Read More 
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Trusting

“Then the real work of motherhood will begin,
the job of waking into each morning, trusting.”
“Planning the Future,” Dorianne Laux, What We Carry, 1994

Sunshine floods the room and the dog rests near the door, blinking in his sleep. The rains that washed away the colors from the mornings this last week are gone and we bake in light - clear, warm, yellow light. If July had a feeling, it would be eight o’clock on this morning.

Today I am aware of the odd dissonance of mothering in heart only. My children, nineteen and twenty-one, are out there in the world, making their lives. Strong, capable, passionate and independent, they are eager and open to what life may bring. I wonder, do they ever think of me more than two thousand miles away worrying about them? As Dorianne Laux writes, one mother, among many, “waking into each morning, trusting”? I trust in their innate sense of self-preservation, in their intuition about themselves and others, and in their ability to weather the waves that pound, as well as uplift. I find that my beingness as a mother is not affected by what age they have attained, nor by any distance. My mothering is hobbled from action and placed into faith.

I embrace this beautiful Friday, hoping that for my children the day is beautiful where they are too. If I could make it so, I would. My love is an anchor, a pin dot on the map on which we three are joined. Wherever they may be, whatever they may be doing, my love anchors a place for them in the universe. The fact that I love them is the first intention I place in the world. The second intention is that this should be enough somehow, always. Read More 
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