The Bernie Mistake

doc-4I have to speak out. The turning point was when a friend of mine, an intelligent person whom I respect and admire, posted a plea on Facebook that we all write Bernie Sanders’ name on the ballot, no matter who the Democratic nominee is. There’s been a lot about this campaign that I find scary and disheartening, but nothing so terrifying as the possibility of a Donald Trump victory brought about by well-meaning Democrats who think they would be making a brave statement by wasting their precious votes in this way.

Maybe we can first agree that Trump as president would be disastrous, a repudiation of all the values we hold dear. The man is dishonest, racist, sexist, irresponsible, egomaniacal, ill informed, mean-spirited, and completely unqualified for the job. He has employed the sensationalist tactics of reality television to gain attention, and he excites support by channeling anger, resentment and hatred. No sense in my going on about this when so many others have said it better. Read this powerful piece by Adam Gopnik, for example, if you need convincing, or any of Elizabeth Warren’s succinct and spot-on comments. Somehow I don’t imagine that Trump supporters are reading this blog post anyway; that just doesn’t seem like my audience. But we all need to face the fact that what began as a concept too absurd, bizarre, and cringeworthy to take seriously is now a real possibility.

Basically I’m talking to thinking, caring, liberal-minded independents or Democrats who are genuinely concerned about the future of this country and the world. I rarely use this blog for political rants, but I’m worried, and I feel it is my duty to use whatever forum I have to speak out. I know many of you are feeling the Bern. I myself understand the appeal of the things Bernie Sanders says and seems to earnestly believe. I too would like to see greater income equality, free health care and college tuition, real punishment of billionaire corporate criminals and a diminishing of their influence. While we’re at it, I would like to see us seriously and effectively address climate change. But wanting and promising these things is very different from the long complicated political and economic processes required to turn sentiments into policy. Simply declaring outrage does not make you virtuous.

Look, I came of age in the 1960s, and that spirit of questioning and searching and protesting shaped me too. I am not cynical. My heart still yearns for peace and justice, and I care passionately about the world.  But let’s try to be level-headed about this and see where our best chances are for progress rather than decline.

First, let’s take a closer look at Bernie Sanders. The plain fact is that Bernie cannot deliver. He may be endearing and compelling, but he is not a credible candidate, and his campaign is mostly symbolic, even if he has begun to believe otherwise. (And good for him for pushing us a little to the left and highlighting important issues that cannot be ignored.) But his proposals are not grounded in reality.

In fact, it is irresponsible and disingenuous to promise programs and benefits without being truthful about the cost and the taxes required to pay for these things. We are talking about what would be unprecedented tax increases, and not just on the rich, but across the board, including the beleaguered middle class.

And it is naïve to think that a Chief Executive with so very little political capital and experience is going to simply glide in and implement radical change anyway. As you know, our government is not a monarchy…and laws are actually passed by Congress, and Congress, as we know, can be quite uncooperative.

Quite frankly, Bernie Sanders has little or no experience in governing at this scale. He has been mayor of Burlington, population 42,284, and has served as both a Congressman and Senator from Vermont, a mostly (94%) white state that had a population of 626,562 in 2014. (There are twenty-four U.S. cities with populations greater than the entire state of Vermont.)

Even if Bernie were on the ticket, it is unlikely that U.S. voters as a whole would elect a self-proclaimed socialist. This label would be an issue with the electorate, believe me. His age would be a factor also. Being president is a grueling job, physically and mentally, and at 75, Bernie would be a pretty old one. Just sayin’.

And Bernie has not been vetted at all. It has been easy for him thus far to remain under the radar while the ongoing GOP attacks against Hillary Clinton continue unabated, as they have for decades, propaganda so pervasive that even Democrats are buying into it.

And yet, Hillary Clinton has kept going. That’s called strength.  (An aside to those who are saying she is no better than Donald Trump, and yes, I have actually heard people say this: ARE YOU SERIOUS?!! God, that’s discouraging.)

So let’s take a quick look at Hillary’s resumé, shall we? Graduate of Yale Law School, a First Lady who helped transform the role of First Lady, a U.S. Senator representing the state of New York (a state with a diverse population well in excess of 19 million people), and Secretary of State under President Obama.

By the way, do you remember back in the 1990s while Hillary was First Lady, she launched and headed a task force on National Health Reform? It was controversial and complicated and eventually abandoned, and she took a lot of flack for it, but the woman was so ahead of her time, and utterly fearless about taking on the hard stuff. Health care reform is what folks were finally ready to talk about twenty years later, and it’s still a rough ride.

As U.S. Senator, Hillary served on committees related to the budget, armed services,  environment and public works, health, education, and aging. She has been a tireless advocate for women’s rights and a dazzling example of what women can achieve. She has met world leaders, handled crises, is known to be an incredibly hard worker.

One friend of mine declared his admittedly lukewarm support for Hillary with these words:  “I’ll vote for her because I’d rather be disappointed than doomed.” Good enough. But you know what? There’s an excellent chance that we’ll end up being proud. Yes, she is controversial and she has made her share of mistakes and misjudgments. But she is brilliant and capable, she listens and learns, and for God’s sake, her flaws are at least within the realm of comprehensible human behavior.

Sure, cast your Bernie vote in the primary if you want, but  a write-in or abstention in November as a misguided gesture of support or your big statement about how much you despise Hillary Clinton or the depth and nobility of your convictions is equivalent to a vote for Donald Trump. It does not make you a revolutionary. It is just naïve. I’d even say there’s an element of irresponsible mischief in it…’cause it’s the same “the hell with it all, let’s just tear it all down” attitude we see in Trump supporters. (It also brings to mind those Nader voters who thought they were making a statement in the 2000 election and helped usher in the nightmare years of W.)

Please, oh please, don’t be lulled away from good sense by writing in Bernie Sanders or not voting or otherwise diverting your vote in the November election. Please don’t be brainwashed by the nearly thirty years of relentless vitriol against Hillary Clinton. She may not walk on water, but she is a solid, capable candidate. (And hey, the woman’s card is optional, but isn’t it time we had one in that office?) It pains me to say it but we are in grave danger of a Trump presidency. We have to stand together here. Bernie is a diversion that could cost us dearly.

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550px-Western_Scrub_Jay-1I woke up this morning to a loud thump on the sliding glass door of the deck outside our bedroom. A Western scrub jay had flown directly into it and was sitting on the ground stunned. It was a hard hit.

Curiously, another jay, slightly smaller and stouter, was perched nearby on the stucco wall that borders the deck and seemed to be waiting for its (her?) partner to recover. The smaller bird was simply sitting on the ledge, occasionally looking down at the fallen one, clearly aware of it. Do birds generally exhibit this kind of friendship and loyalty? This poignant little tableau went on for a long time. I missed their departure but I’m happy that both are now gone.

I imagine the injured  bird’s patient partner coaching him now (“Don’t you recognize our favorite tree?”) and wondering about about his altered personality (“Honey, you never used to like those berries before!”)

And I keep thinking there’s a metaphor in here somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

(Photo above found online at Bird Forum.)

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Glimpses of Portugal

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In the Building Next Door

13096232_10154765837204018_1911706018862590290_nOne of the nice things about travel, and I suppose about life in general if one is willing to play along, is how even inconveniences and detours can yield little perks and surprises. When we arrived in Oxford, the usual room we rent was not available, and our hosts apologetically escorted us to a building next door where they had arranged for us to stay instead. The owner of the building didn’t live there, but there was a tenant in residence, a pleasant young man named Joel who taught at one of the local colleges, and so we would have a flatmate. I invented a secret backstory for Joel; making up stories about people is something I’ve been doing since childhood.

Joel really did have a mass of curly dark hair, a girlfriend in Italy, and a motorcycle. These are the facts. Sometimes we would cross paths with him in the kitchen area as he finished his tea and dashed out the door, and occasionally we would hear him in the front room playing his guitar, but mostly Joel was gone, and that’s as far as he figures into this blog post.  (I took the picture above of a few of his defining artifacts.)

Still, the unexpected relocation was like a flashback to student days in the 1970s, when you’d rent a cheap room in a big old house with just a mattress and a beat up chest of drawers to call your own, maybe an Indian print bedspread for decor, and of course a shared bathroom and a kitchen stocked with motley stuff of ambiguous ownership and uncertain identity. In the cupboards here in our temporary flat there were brown paper bags with bulk tea and and unfamiliar spices, jars of crystallized honey and instant coffee, and open packages of dried apricots, ramen noodles, and dusty looking muesli. It even smelled like the 1970s: some vague essence of cannabis, patchouli oil, and laundry detergent.  “Well, here we are, being young again,” I thought, and pretended it were so. (Making believe is another skill I honed in childhood.)

Two flights of creaky stairs led to the attic room that was our base, but there were bookcases all along the way, and they were filled with an impressive assortment of reading material. They were the kinds of books an academic would have purchased for classes: text books on art history and design, esoteric discussions of philosophy, hardbound volumes about science and poetry. It would be hard for me to generalize what exactly was the owner’s special interest, but I surmised that the books of more than one owner and field of study had been pooled here.

opies-skippingA title caught my eye: Children’s Games in Street and Playground by Peter and Iona Opie. I picked it up, and browsed it over the course of a few evenings. That’s all. But it was fascinating. How did I not know about the work of the Opies? They were a husband and wife team of folklorists whose particular interest was in the play of school age children (mostly in the United Kingdom). They weren’t interested in formal games and sports supervised by parents or teachers but rather in “the rough-and-tumble games for which nothing is needed but the players themselves.” They recorded the rhymes, chants, and folk terms that accompany play, described the games that they observed, in all their variety and disorderliness, and organized them in categories such as chasing and catching, seeking, hunting, racing, dueling, exerting, daring, guessing, acting and pretending. They discussed the concepts of designating someone as “it”, of declaring certain materials or boundaries as “safe”, and the play-acting of good versus evil dramas, all of which are universal. I recognized many of these games and rituals from my own 1950s childhood in Brooklyn. (And the settings were wherever we happened to be.) This kind of play hones resourcefulness, imagination, the ability to solve problems, entertain oneself, and get along with peers.

By the 1960s concerns were already emerging about children becoming too addicted to spectator amusements and reliance on adults for materials, ideas, and oversight. The issue is even more extreme in today’s era of helicopter parenting, computer games and parental desire to fill kids’ days with organized activities. The Opies pointed out that children are quite capable of self-organization and that these kinds of child-led games are essential to their development. “However much children may need looking after,” they wrote, “they are also people going about their own business within their own society.”  I fully agree. The Opie book led me not only on  a journey into nostalgia but also, in the words of one Guardian reviewer, “into a sharper recollection of the uncramped imagination and brilliant nightmare of childhood.” Well said. We need to have more faith in kids.

Anyway, here I am, still playing and pretending, and I enjoyed this particular little detour so much that I when I came back home I did a bit more searching and googling about childhood games, rhymes, and songs, and the work of the Opies in general. I was delighted to discover this recording of children in England demonstrating their songs and discussing playground games with Ione Opie. There’s something so sing-songingly familiar about it.

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Quite Possibly What It’s All About

DSC05132I told you I experienced a few truly wonderful moments in the course of my travels, and in today’s post I will elaborate on two more of them. One took place at a lunchtime gathering at my cousin Luisa’s house in Boscoreale. Luisa is an extraordinary cook, even by Italian standards, and this was one of those meals served in installments, each dish sufficient as a meal in itself. Several of my warm, funny, good-natured relatives were seated at the table, and I drank some red wine, enjoying each course as it appeared, and really not thinking about anything else. I appreciate a culture that allows for long lazy lunches that go on and on, and I appreciate these loving people who have always welcomed me.

There was laughter and animated conversation, even an argument between two brothers, a rising volume that peaked and dissipated. “È normale,” said my aunt, with a smile and a shrug. “Lo fanno. Fratelli.” It did seem normal, and the fact that they felt no need to conceal their fighting made me feel even more like I belonged.  Dessert appeared.  No one was obsessing about what time it was or how fat we were getting or what would happen next. All we were doing was being here together, and  I was in the moment, at the same time realizing suddenly that it was the kind of moment that might well be what everything else is about.  I saw too that  these people can be my family if that’s what I want. I accepted the mythology. I inhabited the story. I claimed them. And I felt completely present and filled with love.

Another of the truly wonderful moments occurred with my daughter, as we sat side by side on a couch in Aljezur, Portugal. It was a non-event, really. We were just sitting there looking at pictures and gossiping and reminiscing and stalking people we once knew on Facebook and just being silly…in a sort of middle school way.  We laughed ourselves giddy, laughing until we had tears in our eyes. That’s all. But it had been such a long time since we laughed together like that. And you know? If that had been all that really happened the entire trip, it would have still been worth it to me.

Before I embarked upon my travels, my friend Dan had written to me, “Have a great trip, and please pay attention.” See? Sometimes I really did.

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Seeing Mr. Harbor


While in England I went to visit Mr. Harbor, my son-in-law’s grandfather.  I’ve written about Mr. Harbor on this blog before: here, for example, here, or here, and over the years I have made a point of sending him cheerful cards and little notes to let him know he is not forgotten. I simply believe that elderly people (and anyone, really) enjoy getting personal handwritten mail: brightly stamped envelopes to open with care or eager haste, acknowledgement that someone thought of them and took the time to render the thought tangible. It’s a small good  deed and an easy one, and a practice I recommend if you have any faraway acquaintances who don’t get out very much and might be lonely.

Mr. Harbor is now ninety-six years old and recently moved into a care home near Oxford. His daughter visits him frequently, but I decided that while I was in the area, I should come by too.  I admit I had trepidations. There is something depressing about these facilities: the vaguely institutional smells, the muffled, mustered-up cheeriness, the frail and baffled residents. Indeed, although this place was excellent, its ambiance immediately evoked memories of my mother’s long stay in the one in California, which churned me up a bit. But I also remembered how happy she was when a friendly visitor appeared at her door. It was a special occasion to her, a bright moment in her dreary stretch of limbo days. So we opened the big double entry doors, walked down a corridor, and entered Mr. Harbor’s room.

I had not expected him to look so small and fragile in his bed. He was pale and hollow-cheeked, his glasses were off, and his voice when he spoke was barely audible. His daughter whispered to me that he was sleepy and not as lucid as he had been the day before.

“Look who has come to see you,” she told him. “All the way from California. Remember Cynthia?”

“Ah, yes,” he said. “I do indeed.” And as I leaned in closer to him, he kissed my hand.

It was such a touching and gentlemanly gesture. Had be been upright and in street clothes, he might well have drawn his cane and tipped his hat. He was dapper Mr. Harbor after all.

I’ve had a handful of moments in the course of my travels that were sufficiently wonderful in and of themselves to justify all the trouble, expense, and discomfort involved. This was one of them.

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Reflections and Consolations

DSC05365One evening when we were in Lisbon (which in itself sounds so very romantic and amazing to me) I decided to stay in the apartment by myself and take a bath while the others went out for dinner. It was a wise decision, one of the few times when I opted to have some time alone. Outside, the night was just beginning to unfold: fragments of voices and laughter rose from the narrow cobblestoned alleys and streets, lights blinked on, scooters sped by, heavy doors creaked open or slammed snugly shut. But I didn’t feel that I was missing anything. My solitude encircled me in a gentle way, like an old friend. Hello again.

What I hadn’t remembered about travel is that no matter how lightly we pack, we haul around an awful lot of baggage.  All my ghosts accompanied me, all my guilt and fears and sadnesses weighed me down,  and even in the midst of delightful distractions, troubling memories abruptly appeared and rolled over me. My mother’s birthday came and went, and Mother’s Day, and I was surprised to realize how raw and unhealed I still was about her dying and all the other sorrows connected to it. I felt fragile, and this fragility was exacerbated by general exhaustion, the lack of a single comfortable base, and the emotional pressure of trying to reconnect with my daughter in such a limited time.

I’m not complaining. It is a great privilege to be able to travel abroad as we do, and it would be obnoxious not to recognize that with gratitude. I’m just saying that sometimes the reality of this trip was not as I had hoped, although sometimes it was wonderful, and I’ll write about those moments too. But for now, I was in an apartment in Lisbon all by myself, reflecting. An important rule for travel: take some time to be alone. It doesn’t matter what you do with this time out or what your state of mind, it’s just essential to recalibrate and not relate. It had been a hot day but the hot bath was soothing. I sank into it with an audible sigh. I leaned back and looked up at the high white ceiling. It was a 19th century building, recently renovated, with a steep stairway, various levels, and very few right angles. It’s funny how we notice things more when no one is around, how aloneness seems to alter our environment.

Hello again. And who have you become? These days I am free of ambition and need only grant myself a pardon for this and view it as a state of enlightenment rather than a deficiency. I am retired from teaching and I don’t miss it. I am a writer, but barely, and I make occasional forays into the world of the functioning but I am not relevant anymore. I am a woman with glasses and circles under my eyes and the beginnings of an old crone neck and chin. I have no power. I try to be nice. I understand that I am mortal, formerly a remote and abstract fact, now something I am aware of right down to my osteopenic bones.

I look at my daughter sometimes and think how little she really knows me and the tragic and complex history of my family, but then I feel pleased to have transcended and not shifted it to her. She comes from such an indulged, secure, and happy place. There are so many stories she doesn’t know (and doesn’t want to know), and so many memories of people that will disappear with me. But despite my ongoing efforts to transcribe, preserve, and tell, this vanishing is the way of the world.

I’ve had trouble concentrating on long novels or challenging reading material lately, but I’ve been gleaning in bits and pieces, some from a book called Consolations by David Whyte.  It is filled with wise and eloquent thoughts. Here are a few that I copied into my journal:

The great measure of human maturation is the increasing understanding that we move through life in the blink of an eye; that we are not long with the privilege of having eyes to see, ears to hear, a voice with which to speak and arms to put round a loved one; that we are simply passing through.

The courageous life is the life that is equal to this unceasing tidal and seasonal becoming: and strangely beneath all, stillness being the only proper physical preparation for joining the breathing autonomic exchange of existence.

Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

It’s how I feel. I am only now just beginning to understand (some) things, almost too late, in a few matters already too late, but struggling to shape a meaningful life worthy of this beautiful and astonishing world through which I have been given the gift of passage.

After my bath, I wrapped myself in a big towel, walked into the front room, gazed toward the window, and saw a woman in a strapless white gown watching me. She looked as if she were going to a ball, but there was something pale about her, like a dream or apparition, and something familiar. In a moment I realized the woman was me in my gown of white bath towel. Reflecting.

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May Morning, Oxford

DSC05297 (2)At the start, it was like stepping out into a poem. The air was cold and the morning sky still dark as ink above the rooftops and chimneys, with a fading white sliver of moon. My daughter and her husband waited for us outside the flat where we were staying, and all four of us, bundled up in scarves and heavy jackets, walked up the street towards the center of town. Many others were also up and out, dribbling from the side streets to converge along the Cowley Road, their numbers increasing as we drew closer to the Magdalen Bridge. There was something magical and incongruous about this procession, friends and strangers walking in the pre-dawn hour, drawn like pilgrims to the same event. The mundane streets were transformed, and it seemed ancient and mysterious, oddly exciting.  I kept thinking of these lines from a favorite poem of mine (by Alden Nowlan) called “Great Things Have Happened”:

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

Yes, that’s how it was. We were all silly with sleepiness, and everything was strange without being threatening.  But then the mood began to shift, because in this country, there were way more than the three or four of us.  In fact there were soon hundreds of people clogging the Magdalen Bridge, many of whom were for sure half-tipsy but not necessarily with the wonder of being alive. I began to feel claustrophobic and curmudgeonly as the crowds pushed and shoved.

May Morning in Oxford is a tradition that goes back over five hundred years. It officially begins at 6 a.m. with the Magdalen College Choir singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower. People gather under the tower along the High Street and on the Magdalen Bridge, which is as far as we were able to get. After the singing come festivities of all sorts, including music, Morris dancing, and generalized revelry.

But for now (as you will have seen from the video if you clicked the link above) we were standing on the bridge awaiting the singing, and when it began, it was haunting and lovely, especially at moments when there weren’t loud voices talking over it, or people knocking against me in their efforts to get closer or walk back in the opposite direction.  I’m a country girl with city origins, singularly ill-equipped to deal gracefully with such situations. My rural sensibility starts sending panic signals: Too many people! I need some space! My urban instincts meanwhile render me paranoid and irritated, and not so willing to endure it in silence.

no jumping“Seriously?” I asked in an intentionally audible whisper. “Why are these people even here if they don’t have the respect and courtesy to shut up, stand still for a few minutes, and listen to the choir?” I was a teacher for many years too, and my comment may have contained a touch of instructor tone.

“Well, to be fair,” explained my son-in-law, a long-time Oxford local, “some of them are drunk.”

“That explains it,” I replied. “Drunk means a-holes on steroids.”

I said a-holes, using the letter “a” instead of the word “ass”, perhaps out of some vaguely British restraint, but still. I said it in a crabby mutter while a string of noisy youths were elbowing through the crowd in which most of us were already immobilized with barely enough room to breathe.  All the while the singing in the tower continued, the singing that I imagined as distant angel voices, sweet and elusive.

But now my daughter was mad at me, surprisingly protective of the drunken revelers, her ire directed exclusively towards her mean, judgmental mother. And I felt…well, maybe a teeny bit contrite, but mostly hurt. Why can she never take my side? Why can she not feel a little empathy for her weary mother, still discombobulated by travel, sleep-deprived, out of her element, and not exactly young? I’d fallen out of the poem. I just wanted to get off that damned bridge.

We made peace, my daughter and me, or drifted back into it, as we do. She and I are prone to sparks and outbursts, fierce words and feelings, but love is the foundation, and I’m pretty sure that’s a constant. When the singing concluded, the great river of people slowly moved forward along the bridge to the High Street and spread out in the center of the city. It was still ridiculously early, but daylight now, and a party atmosphere prevailed. There were people in flower wreaths, glitter, and costumes, and there was trash all over the streets, and fiddle playing and dancing, and long lines for coffee. It was a happening. And I am now a woman who has been to May Morning in Oxford.  I’m glad I went. But I’ll not likely ever go again.

I have since found another poem worth sharing for May Morning, this one by Vera Brittain (1893-1970) written specifically about the event in the early part of the 20th century, and the darkness, loss and heartache of the First World War that came soon after.  She wrote:

The rising sun shone warmly on the tower;
Into the clear pure heaven the hymn aspired,
Piercingly sweet. This was the morning hour
When life awoke with spring’s creative power,
And the old city’s grey to gold was fired.
Silently reverent stood the noisy throng;
Under the bridge the boats in long array
Lay motionless. The choristers’ far song
Faded upon the breeze in echoes long.
Swiftly I left the bridge and rode away.
Straight to a little wood’s green heart I sped,
Where cowslips grew, beneath whose gold withdrawn
The fragrant earth peeped warm and richly red;
All trace of winter’s chilling touch had fled,
And song-birds ushered in the year’s bright morn.
I had met Love not many days before,
And as in blissful mood I listening lay
None ever had of joy so full a store.
I thought that spring must last for evermore,
For I was young and loved, and it was May.

This is me again, inserting myself right in the middle of Vera Brittain’s poem, wondering if I should include it in its entirety, because it does go on, but in a tone far removed from the sweetness and innocence of the long-ago May Morning of which she speaks.  As the terrible war escalated, our young poet delayed her degree at Oxford to volunteer as a nurse. Her fiancé, two close friends, and beloved brother Edward were all killed in the war. She became a writer and lifelong activist for peace. And so her poem concludes:

Now it is May again, and sweetly clear
Perhaps once more aspires the Latin hymn
From Magdalen tower, but not for me to hear.
I toil far distant, for a darker year
Shadows the century with menace grim.
I walk in ways where pain and sorrow dwell,
And ruin such as only War can bring,
Where each lives through his individual hell,
Fraught with remembered horror none can tell,
And no more is there glory in the spring.
And I am worn with tears, for he I loved
Lies cold beneath the stricken sod of France;
Hope has forsaken me, by death removed,
And Love that seemed so strong and gay has proved
A poor crushed thing, the toy of cruel chance.
Often I wonder, as I grieve in vain,
If when the long, long future years creep slow,
And War and tears alike have ceased to reign,
I ever shall recapture, once again,
The mood of that May Morning, long ago.

It is May again indeed and now still May, and I am back home where the hills have gone from green to maize. I am getting myself reoriented, still baffled by the distances we cover in so little time, by how big the world is and how small, by how relentlessly things change but remain the same.  Reporting back to Vera from the future: war and tears alike have not ceased to reign. But there is both promise and fear in this springtime. We try to harbor hope.

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DSC05163Shortly after the end of World War II, one of my grandfather’s brothers sent a letter to him describing impoverished conditions in Southern Italy and asking if my grandfather would send a decent pair of shoes for his daughter Rosaria. My grandfather had left the port of Naples on a New York-bound steamer decades earlier, in 1905, and as far as his relatives knew, he had been living the American dream ever since. In truth, he too was struggling to get by, but his pride would not allow him to admit this to the family he had left behind. Instead, he asked his eldest son (my father) to respond.

My father good-naturedly took on the task. He wrote a letter in Italian, explaining that shoe sizes in the United States were different, and that someone should draw an outline of Rosaria’s foot on paper and send it back to him. When he knew what American size to buy for her, he would happily do so. Simple. He did not treat it like a big favor. Soon he would be shipping her a brand new pair of shoes.

I know this because Rosaria (who is now in her 80s) kept the letter and showed it to me many years later when I first came to visit, a trip that neither my grandfather or my father was ever able to make. Speaking in Italian with someone translating, Rosaria told the story and placed the long-cherished letter in my hands. There in blue ink was my own dear father’s familiar penmanship, and it felt as if he were in the room with us, a full-circle kind of moment, with tears and hugs.

Fast forward another thirty years, and I was again in Italy. This time my young cousin Luca appeared to have been assigned the job of showing me around, a duty which he dispatched with humor and patience. One morning he took me along as he made his rounds of various properties he manages in Scafati, and then we stopped at a little sandal and shoemaker shop called Mastrogio, where his friend is a master craftsman. The concept was to choose a style, customize with whatever ornaments appealed to you, and have it specifically fit and made for your foot. The shelves were stocked with soft colorful moccasins and samples of sandals suitable for goddesses. Behind the counter were supplies and equipment, and on the wall a clock and crucifix. It was the setting in which a true artisan worked, and it smelled of good leather.

Luca and I manage to communicate pretty well with the help of a translator app, our own sincere efforts to talk in one another’s language, and at times a congruity of interest and ideas that makes me wonder if there might be something genetic going on here. (Our grandfathers were brothers.)  Luca is always in motion, always seems to have something going on, someplace to be, an idea up his sleeve.  But now he had a surprise for me. “We want to give you a pair of sandals,” he said. “Choose the ones you like. See if there’s a pair that fits.”

This of course was too generous. Even so, I might have considered it and graciously accepted but for the fact that I have the world’s ugliest feet, with bunions and bumps and broken-nailed toes splayed out like a fan. I do not wear sandals at all, let alone sandals for goddesses who possess lovely feet that can step out nearly naked.

“Perhaps a pair of moccasins then,” said Luca’s gentle friend.  I picked up a bright blue one, felt its softness, tried to imagine myself wearing it, even dared to remove my own shoe and attempted to slip my wicked stepsister foot into it.  This one was too far too small, and another far too big, and the gift in general seemed too extravagant anyway.

There was a bit of discussion in Italian. “He can do this for you,” Luca said. “We draw an outline of your foot on a piece of paper, leave with him, and he make a shoe fit just for you. Your perfect size.”

But there wasn’t time, which didn’t matter, because wasn’t this moment gift enough? It was a full-circle kind of thing.

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My Island of Inglese

DSC_0099We have just returned from three weeks of travel, which included time in England, Italy, and Portugal, and I’m still in the strange, disoriented twilight state that inevitably follows. I am resolved, however, to try to make sense of my journal jottings and write up a few blog posts in the days ahead.

Since I am arbitrarily beginning with an Italian moment, I’ve chosen the picture above. It’s special and meaningful to me because I took it in the region where my grandfather was born and lived until he emigrated to the United States. That’s Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

So…one evening I went to a party with my cousin Luca in a town near Pompei called Scafati, a surprise birthday celebration for a man turning forty. We arrived early, ascended two floors in an elevator the size of a phone booth, and entered a bright white-walled apartment, cheerful and immaculately clean. Guests ranged in age from senior citizens to little children.

The countdown began after the birthday celebrant rang the buzzer downstairs. The host (his sister) turned off the lights, we waited with hushed giggles, and everyone shouted “Sorpressa!” when he entered. He went around the room greeting each guest with kisses and hugs…there was a wonderfully unrestrained sense of affection and friendship and family.

And there was food, of course, the Italian way, a sequence of courses like the chapters of a novel. I drank a glass of wine, devoured a serving of memorably delicious baked pasta, and then, unable to find a seat, stood awkwardly in a corner of the living room trying to arrange my face into a pleasant expression and look like someone who belonged there.

The problem was entirely mine. All around me the air was filled with Italian conversation…Neapolitan, to be exact…and I was stranded on my island of Inglese. Italian was of course my grandfather’s native tongue and a language my father spoke fluently, but although I have dabbled in it often over the years, I have never approached it with the kind of discipline and immersion that would have been necessary to master it.

Now and then some kind soul with a few words of English would take pity on me, attempt a bit of chit-chat, grow understandably bored and wander off. Occasionally I would catch a glimmer of meaning in the Italian I was hearing, a word or phrase I recognized, a clue as to the subject, but no thread I could follow. I felt isolated.

But it began to seem like an altered state of consciousness. Voices rose and fell in liquid mellifluent vowels with small clatters of consonants, and sometimes there was laughter. I started thinking about the miracle of language, how words convey meaning and create worlds, how they join us together or keep us apart, and the sounds in themselves became a kind of music, as indeed Italian tends to be, and even without understanding there was something beautiful about the waves of conversation encircling me.

So I stood on my island and listened.

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