FRAGILE CALM AND OTHER SOLSTICE THOUGHTS
DECEMBER 21, 2019- Jane Piirto reporting for Essay Daily
7:49 AM. Sunrise in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Latitude 39.9612 degrees north, 82.9988 W. I am coming in and out of my morning dreams, but I am still mostly asleep.
8:20 A.M. 15 hours before the winter solstice.
As she does every day at this time, my 20-pound white Bichon-mix dog Maija Joy Piirto shakes, urging me up. I sit up, on the edge of the bed, and come out of the sleep trance. I don’t know how my dog’s sense of time is so precise. After the change for daylight saving time, it takes her only a few days to recalibrate to 8:20. I punch on NPR on my phone, hear a story about the internet being off in Kashmir, an interview with a (Hindu) professor at the University of Pennsylvania, about it and the dominance of the ruling party discriminating against Muslims in India—a grave problem. I’m very interested in India because of my two trips there. Then an interview with art critic Peter Schjeldahl about his essay in this week’s New Yorker; he is dying of lung cancer at the age of 77, and he makes cracks about end of life issues. I am intensely interested because my own younger sister, age 73, is dying in home hospice of lung cancer at this very minute in South Dakota and I can think of little else. I am interested also because I just turned 78, one year older than Schjeldahl. I shower, fold laundry naked, put on clothes, listening.
9:20 A.M. 14 hours before the winter solstice.
I heat up yesterday’s leftover coffee and go into the front room with my computer on my lap and begin this essay. Still listening. Rape by UN peacekeepers in Haiti. Google activist for unionization fired. I check email. BookBub has one of my favorite books for $1.99, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. I read it when it came out. Whatever happened to Gretel Ehrlich? After she got hit by lightning, she was a lightning activist, but I haven’t read anything by her in years. I order Upton Sinclair’s O Shepherd, Speak for $1.99. I love Sinclair. I picture him pacing in his back yard, as he was wont to do, on the path he made that he did while thinking about his writing. I know this from my voluminous research on creative writers for my many articles and books on creativity and creative writers. They run a story about Somali immigrants in Willmar, Minnesota. I passed through Willmar in October when I drove from Ishpeming to visit my sister in South Dakota just after she went into home hospice. I had a friend in my dorm at Augsburg College in 1960 who was from Willmar. I forget her name, but remember her as earnest. On the Writer’s Almanac, a poem about gratitude. The poem’s speaker is swimming in the sea. Today is the anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 at the age of 44 and the day of the premiere of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Copenhagen in 1879.
I check my bank account and veer to Facebook. Now about 90 people have Happy Birthdayed me for my 78th birthday two days ago, on December 19. I am in the process of thanking them and sending them my annual seasonal poem and letter. They message back with thanks: “I love your poetry.” “I am such a fan of your annual poem—you help bring light into dark.” “Your Christmas poem is simply beautiful.” This year I wrote a sestina. Today I tweak it and begin to send it. My list has several hundred as I have many sets of friends. I switched to electronic delivery last year and saved myself several hundred dollars in printer ink, envelopes, and stamps. Only one of my relatives does not have email, or electronic access.
2019 Seasonal Poem by Jane Piirto
Through 2019 the drive to this effulgent season
went on as sturdy and inevitable as the oak.
His orange blond beak ready, a red cardinal
swoops to the feeder against the gray day
then swoops back to shelter in the green spruce.
Each year’s passing seems more brief.
I watch C-SPAN hearings’ lawyers’ briefs.
It isn’t pretty, all the struggles. I think of that season
when we skied into woods, to find the perfect spruce-
years, years ago. We chopped it in a grove of oak
up on the bluff above Lake Angeline one day.
We hauled it through snow, dressed it in cardinal
bells, bulbs, light strings, and at midnight a Cardinal
in a skullcap sang mass in St. Peter’s Cathedral, brief
brilliance of peace on earth for at least one day,
as when the Silent Night Truce broke out that season
of World War I. Christmas calm salved crumpled oak
leaves, symbolic shards beneath the spruce,
stuck into crevices of crud like tines. We spruce
up our yards, rake them, do not commit the cardinal
sin that loiters within our souls. On the oaks,
squirrels hoard acorns, scampering in a brief
swirl of upside-down tails, and in my season
of life, I thank god I’ve lived another day.
My sister accepts cancer, reclines in her life; each day
it’s hard to be jolly, when all my memory of spruce
reverts to being unable to help in her fated season.
She swoops to God and God to her in cardinality
of supreme faith, in love so deep it has no brief
but endures beyond the solidity of the four oak
trees outside my front window, oaks
found in woods, planted by the former owner
before he succumbed. They sold the house to me a brief
five years ago. This year I will not hang a spruce
bough but set out the antique creche with cardinal
painted lips on baby Jesus. ‘Tis the season
to reminisce, to meditate, to reflect on spruce,
to handle all thought by watching a cardinal
swoop to the feeder. ‘Tis a fragile calm this season.
Jane Piirto © 2019 All Rights Reserved
I’ve been doing this since 1974—writing a poem, sending photos and a letter. Some of my friends have received every year’s missive. In 1999 I made a chapbook of the poems from 1974 to 1999. It was called Silent Midnight Snow Falls Down. I think a publisher might want to publish those poems, plus the ones from 1999 to now, but the cursory querying I’ve done has yielded no interest. One old friend sent me her whole file last year when she moved into an assisted living facility. My annual letter was kind of bland this year, but that’s how life gets when you retire.
Greetings, friends and relations from near and from far:
The news from Jane Piirto’s view of 2019 is rather bland as far as international adventures and intrigue. Retirement has definitely set in, and my quiet life merits little attention, but since I’ve sent this annual missive with poem, since the 1970s, I’ll continue.
I spent 7 months (November to June) in my home in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and 5 months (June to November) in our family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. My life up north is more dynamic than my life in the doldrums of winter and spring. Summer in the Upper Peninsula is beautiful, and I was visited there by my son Steven and by my daughter, Denise. Steven and I did some touring—the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the Copper Country—here he is at the Portage Canal in Houghton after a fine pasty lunch at the Suomi restaurant there. Daughter Denise came up for a couple of days to help me turn the Ishpeming home into an Airbnb, and we do have a few visitors scheduled this winter—snowmobilers, fat tire snow bikers—to help with expenses.
My sister Rebecca and my niece Erin also visited, and between sweatily cleaning out the attic, we had a lot of fun. I volunteer at the Ishpeming Historical Society and I am active in the Marquette Poets’ Circle, attending workshops and reading at open mics. I have old friends there (literally). Our high school class had our 60th (!!) class reunion. In October, I drove with my dog Maija, who just turned 11, to South Dakota, to visit my sister Ruth, who is ill.
In Ohio, I sing with the Columbus Women’s Chorus and participate in a ukulele group, Strings Attached. We just played Christmas songs at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital at an AIDS benefit. Otherwise, I read a lot, write, and watch television. Recent good reads: Circe, Trust Exercises, Nickel Boys, The Pioneers, Testament. Recent good shows: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Dublin Murders, Poldark, Line of Duty, The Crown. I walk my dog. I am content. I like living near my daughter here in Ohio. I treasure her company. My granddaughter Danielle lives and works in New Jersey. She’s coming in for Christmas. Hooray!
In November I attended the National Association for Gifted Children meeting in Albuquerque and presented a couple of sessions. I go mainly to see old friends, and in that regard, I was blessed to see a lot of you. In professional terms, I published some poetry, a couple of chapters in edited books, and every week I am shocked to see my scholarly work still being downloaded from all over the world. This week there were 228 downloads on ResearchGate, including 4 from Lesotho, a country I’ve never heard of. Imagine! 2 ½ years after retiring, there’s life in this old girl’s work yet. Especially since I’ve only edited one book and my research had few co-authors.
Have a wonderful season. I treasure your cards and newsletters. Love, Jane
10:20 a.m. Thirteen hours until the winter solstice.
I’m still messaging my annual poem/ letter to friends who wished me happy birthday. The morning PBS show, Weekend Edition, cycles to what I’ve already heard 2 hours ago, so I ask Google to “Play Christmas music.” “Jazz Christmas” ensues– beautiful.
11:20 A.M. Twelve hours until the Winter Solstice.
I finish sending notes and annual letter/poem to those who took their precious time to wish me happy birthday on December 19 on FB—friends, former students, colleagues, relatives. Now I’m going out to pick up a prescription, to walk the dog, to do some Christmas shopping.
12:20 P.M. Eleven hours until the winter solstice
At this very time, my car is in the yield lane at the second roundabout on Morse Avenue, heading into Columbus’ Easton Shopping area to L.L. Bean to buy my daughter the leather furry slippers she likes. The day is beautiful, 45 degrees, sunny, and Maija and I have hiked into a massive soccer field, Civic Park, which we frequent several times a week. Leashless, she ranged 100 yards away. I blew the whistle around my neck, 1, 2, 3, 4, put out my arms sidewise, and she turned, galloping to me as if in joy. Remnants of when we used to train Labrador retrievers for field trials. There’s nothing like watching an unleashed, free dog tethered by lessons to a whistle, hone into you and stop at your feet. She got a good run, and the weather. The weather! After 18 degrees the other day, today! It’s in the mid-forties. This last day of autumn is freakily pleasant.
1:20 p.m. Ten hours until the winter solstice
I wheel out of Trader Joe’s, having spent too much again—all the stuff for Christmas at Trader Joe’s is so tempting. Paperwhites. Mint chocolate stars. All the $3.99 prices. “This American Life” on NPR has an improv show about Christmas. The freeway’s a bit crowded. I blinker into my lane. I drive the freeways by memorizing which lane I need to be in so I don’t have to switch lanes near my exits.
2:20 p.m. Nine hours until the winter solstice
I unpack the Christmas printed paper bags and put away the groceries. I heat up some Italian wedding soup, sprinkle cheddar cheese and a few broken up pita chips into it, sit at the table, listening to “The Moth.” Today, it’s from Detroit. I love these stories by these storytellers, and these two hours, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, are reserved. One guy’s wife was unfaithful to him and he went to his home in Alaska, devastated, to pick up his large 80-pound dogs, took a walk, ran into a grizzly bear, and he was so mad that his grief had made him so vulnerable—his eyes bulged and his scream screamed and he waved his sleeping bag--and the bear ran away and the storyteller found his strength. I check FB again and a high school classmate has sent me a birthday wish. Five more people have commented on my poem. Instant feedback is addicting. I type this and go to lie on the couch to listen to the rest of “The Moth” and then to take a nap. I listen to radio, tell Google to turn it off, turn on television to see if there are any good sports on, and drowse.
5:20 p.m. Six hours until the winter solstice
Sunset was officially at 5:09 but it’s still a little light out. The temperature is 47 F. I’ve been listening, dozing, watching television. A poetic inquiry friend of mine was on C-SPAN Book TV at 3:00. She is Kimberly Dark and she read from her book, Fat, Pretty, and Getting Old. She does workshops on body image all over the world. I remember when we were in Bournemouth, UK and we had dinner together. My granddaughter was 15 and had traveled there with me. My granddaughter and I went to Stonehenge, and that’s how memory works. Stonehenge. Solstice. Bournemouth. Kimberly Dark on C-SPAN. I also read with her two years ago at the conference at Bowling Green State University, and four years ago in Montreal. Another television show I watched while lying down was the child genius quiz show. Since my academic specialty is gifted education and creativity, I am interested in these bright kids. Today was the advanced math contest, with the last seven contestants. Six of them got perfect scores on cube roots and such difficult mental math. You can’t fake that kind of ability. Anxious parents tutored them. The editing process of the show probably makes the parents seem much more monstrous than they really are. I get up and read the Columbus Dispatch online while the US Olympic swimming open is on. The editorial today is about sexual abuse in the NCAA. “No looking away: Change NCAA rules to keep abusers out.” Ohio State University, the hometown team, is undergoing a lot of self-searching in the wake of the abuse of a medical doctor who committed suicide years ago. Republican Ohio Representative loudmouth Jim Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach then, and he is being accused by athletes that he looked the other way. He says he knew nothing.
6:20 p.m. Five hours until winter solstice.
The phone rang and it was my niece, Erin, a Montessori teacher in Minneapolis. She had called me on my birthday, and it went to voicemail, and so she called back now. She is at my sister’s in Sturgis. My sister has four beautiful and talented daughters. All four sisters will be there for Christmas. Erin’s sister Rachel and her husband and three children have moved to my sister’s from Oregon, to help take care of her. My sister was unable to talk to me as she was sleeping. She is now on oxygen. Even though I had a good talk with my nieces, I am sad and my heart hurts. Nothing to be done. I feel so helpless.
7:20 p.m. Four hours until winter solstice.
I cook chicken breast, brown and wild rice in the instant pot. Antiques Roadshow is on. A 1930 Rockwell Kent-illustrated 3 volume edition of Moby Dick is valued for $12,000-$15,000. My most valuable first edition, I think, is Setting Free the Bears. I put the bowl down on the floor and my dog eats the last few morsels. Now she will go into the kitchen and eat her own supper. She is my daemon, I think—we feel it physically when we are apart from each other. I am watching the weekly episodes of the HBO series, His Dark Materials, based on the novels by Phillip Pullman. I saw the play at the National Theatre in London in 2005 and was immediately enamored of his thought and work and read the Lyra novels, e.g., The Golden Compass. Last week’s episode was about severing the children from their daemons. Right now Maija is sleeping beneath my chair, even though she has several other perches in this room.
8:20 p.m. Three hours until winter solstice.
HBO. Movie. (2019). The Sun is Also a Star. Jamaican -immigrant girl meets Korean American boy. New York City. I have been on those streets and in those subways in the five years I worked in Manhattan as the principal of Hunter College Elementary School. I love how the film is showing the city I love. “The sun is a benevolent star. It’s our only giver of hope.” This is a quote suitable for the shortest day of the year, for tomorrow hope starts growing again. Not for my sister, though.
9:20 p.m. Two hours until winter solstice.
Rom Com movie The Sun is Also a Star is almost over. The heroine has to leave New York as her family is deported to Jamaica. This was a fitting movie to watch on this day with all the sun and fate talk. Thanks, HBO programmers. My email contains a group letter from Steven Aizenstadt, the leader of a dreamkeeper’s workshop I once took in Santa Barbara at the Pacifica Institute.
On this day/night of the Winter Solstice I want to reach out and offer a simple, yet abundant, “Greetings.” As a community of dreamers, we have supported one another over the years in befriending many “living images” who journey the lunar landscapes of our dreamtime. As you bring heartfelt care to family and friends over these next weeks, may I also offer you my support in tending to the beloveds of your dreamtime. You have come to know many of these visitants as dear soul companions. In a community of the caring, let’s reach out to one another and say, “Yes.” In a world of so much, let us affirm the beauty and elemental presence of what and who lives between the veils of light and dark. "Let the beauty we love be what we do." Wishing you a fulfilling Solstice and an ever-deepening journey through the portal of the dreaming.It’s fitting to receive this letter from the professor of the workshop while watching the dream of a movie, the dream of a dream on this day holy to our ancestors. Well done, Steven. (P.S. He has no idea who I am. I only usually get brochures advertising workshops and requests for money. When I approached him during the workshop I took—for a lot of money—he brushed me off. What is a “fulfilling Solstice”?). But dreams are indeed important to me. I get a lot of poems from my dream notebooks.
10:20 p.m. One hour until winter solstice
I’m drinking my usual evening wine and watching the Paul Winter Consort’s 2018 solstice concert on YouTube. I attended several of their winter solstice concerts at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The Cathedral is a vast and still incomplete Episcopal Cathedral on the high Upper West Side. It’s stone and the sound is spectacular. When the concert begins, the lights go out. There’s a spotlight on Paul Winter in the balcony playing his soprano sax, and then his musicians begin to play from throughout the echoing depths. These concerts have been done there for 40 years. It’s jazz and new age and contemporary.
WINTER SOLSTICE at this longitude and latitude.
Welcome winter, welcome light. The sun has turned. Hallelujah! The concert is right on time, and Paul Winter plays the season out with his plaintive, soulful saxophone. “We invite you to close your eyes and journey with us through the longest night.” I close my eyes, silently blessing my sister, lying in her bed surrounded by her four daughters, husband, sons-in-law, and 9 grandchildren, breathing oxygen and god.
Jane Piirto is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor Emerita from Ashland University in Ohio. She is the author of 21 books, both literary and scholarly. Among her awards was the Mensa Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Association for Gifted Children Distinguished Scholar Award, the Torrance Creativity Award, Individual Artist Fellowships in poetry and in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University, and others. More information and samples of her writing are on her website: https://janepiirto.com
SARAH E. RUHLEN
I fall asleep to its purr
December 21, 2019
Sarah E. Ruhlen
Mostly, air moving.
The box fan in the bedroom is on high to block out other noise. Meanwhile, warm air moves through the furnace ducts. Unusual amounts of warm air this morning, because it was 9° F last night. The note of the air moving in the air ducts is roughly C♮. I know because I checked with a pitch pipe.
In the kitchen the elderly and asthmatic fridge roars. The kitchen clock goes clack clack clack.
My mother told my sister and I, when we were little, “Listen.”
We stopped and listened. A humming fridge, a fluorescent bulb buzzing. A tractor in the north field discing the spring clods.
Mom said, “It’s never totally silent. There is always the sound of some machine around us.”
The fridge clicks off. From where I’m sitting in the living room, I can still hear the kitchen clock. An SUV passes on the street outside. Some rumblings and grumblings further away that I can’t make out over the tinnitus. Somewhere out there, a high whine, perhaps of a late snowblower, although it seems unlikely. This neighborhood is aggressively prompt about snowblowing. We’re usually the last house on the street to get our drive clear.
At different times I have felt differently about my Mom’s fact. At the time, curiosity. Later, in my 20s, I thought it was a shame. I thought we should all return to our roots and live in silent nature. (N.B. Nature is not remotely silent. Take it from a kid who grew up in the precise geographical center of no-where. There’s always some bird or coyote or wind raising a ruckus.)
The thermostat clicks and the furnace rumbles, begins pushing warm air again. I had not noticed that it stopped.
The decondensation pump kicks on! I love the decondensation pump. It clicks, groans a low A♭ for about seven seconds, then shudders off with a quiet gurgle. I dig the decondensation pump because I learned what it is and how to make it happy a few years ago. I had come home to water all over the basement, appearing to leak out of the HVAC system. A YouTube video told me, improbably, to pour bleach into a pipe leading to a small droid-shaped box on the floor. Hey presto, a rubber tube cleared out and the water dried right up. Now when I hear the complaint of the decondensation pump, I feel smug because I know what to do with it.
Water in the electric kettle hisses and plops its way to the boil. The coffee grinder sings a high F♮ while the coffee beans crackle around for eight seconds, timed to the clack clack clack of the kitchen clock. There is no coffee maker to hiccup, gurgle, sigh. The French press is non-automated and therefore silent. The electric kettle clicks as it cools.
The fridge growls awake at C♯. Makes what we call “ghost ice.” When we first moved here we thought the fridge had an ice maker because it makes noise like a fridge dumping new-made ice into a bucket. But there’s no ice maker in the fridge. It’s not hooked up to anything that would allow it to make ice if it wanted to. We’ve never figured out what causes the sound. All the ice it makes is ghost ice.
The dishwasher door makes a quiet shriek when I open it up.
When we were students we had a countertop dishwasher. It hooked up to the kitchen faucet. It was so unbelievably loud that we couldn’t run it when anyone was sleeping or trying to talk.
Water glugs in the drain as the current, relatively quiet dishwasher moves to the next cycle. The machine falls silent as it thinks through its next move. After a moment it grunts and hisses. Then it begins swishing. The hiss ceases as it reaches some internal threshold. Now it’s all swish, swish, roar, swish.
Meanwhile, the toaster oven ticks. The ping when it finishes is the start of a few moments of mild but genuine anxiety, as it triggers the window of time when the toast is hot enough that the peanut butter will spread nicely.
Ain’t it awful. We can never get away from the sound of machinery.
Christopher wakes and the house livens up. I print something and the printer makes a little song: E♭ for three beats, then three C♮s at one beat each. E♭-- C♮ C♮ C♮, E♭-- C♮ C♮ C♮. (I don’t have musical notation software. It’s a little waltz.)
A stove burner spits and crackles moisture from under a pan. The hi-fi hums although no music is playing. A laptop makes absolutely no noise because it’s solid state. Or does it breathe quietly? I feel that there is noise when it is on that is not there when it is off.
Shower noises. The car motor. We play Beethoven Trios on the car stereo on the way to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to pick up our order of pierogis, gwumkis, and sausage. We are not Ukrainians, nor Orthodox, nor Church people, but the annual bake sale is perhaps our favorite holiday treat.
We stop at Walgreens on the way home. Christopher stays in the car so he misses out on the maniacally jolly holiday music in the Walgreens. When I get back to the car he’s switched from Beethoven to Tom Waits.
Back at the house the popcorn popper screeches when it’s first turned on. The motor that turns the metal arm objects to the grease of a thousand Saturday afternoon movies. The ten-year-old DVD player rattles and grinds and shudders over Anthony Asquith’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The popcorn popper says pop pop poppoppoppop poppapoppoppoppapoppapoppapop pop po…p.
An airplane, high overhead.
When 9/11 happened, there were no airplanes for three days. When, finally, late on the third day, I heard a motor high overhead, something inside unwound that I did not know had gotten wound up so tight.
In the next room, Christopher’s keyboard clicks. He thinks I’m napping but I’m looking up that waltz on my phone. Not La donna è mobile but another waltz that I think of whenever Algie and Earnest start singing Rigoletto. It takes a good hour because I can’t remember the name or the opera or even the composer but I find it. Libiamo ne' lieti calici. It is possibly one of the most joyful tunes I know, and I am grateful that my phone can find it and play it for me ten times in a row.
The stove starts crackling again, this time under pierogis and gwumkis. The steam in a pot of sauerkraut whistles through the pot lid like a miniature siren. Allen Toussaint sings on the hifi, Everything I do gonh be funky from now on! My new favorite manifesto! We are bobbing around the kitchen like a couple pierogis in a pan! We may not be the funkiest house on the street tonight, but we sure are the loudest!
In my studio at the back of the house there is a constant low hum at G♮. It’s louder when I open the closet door. The hum comes from the fan in the radon removal system, which runs constantly to protect us from lung cancer. It’s quiet when the closet door is closed, more like a low purring vibration than a sound. When we have houseguests, my studio is turned into the guest room, and I worry that the hum will bother them. But when I am in here, the sound is soporific and enveloping, as though I were in the belly of a giant cat. It says, “All is well.” The electricity is on, and we are being protected from a ghastly fate. It is the sound of love.
At bedtime, prop plane hums low over the house.
Sarah E. Ruhlen’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Boiler Journal, Slipstream, RHINO, I-70 Review, Coal City Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and the Kansas City Star, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Hobart and was anthologized in Essay Daily’s June 21, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.
CARA BLUE ADAMS
December 21, 2019
The temperature is 21 degrees, chance of precipitation 0%, humidity 60%, wind 3 mph.
Outside the window, an ice formation: a sheath, one long dagger. The sky is clouded over, white-gray, and the air is still. Walking past the orchard, the snow refracts light. The gate is closed, the trees asleep, waiting.
Below, the white apple barn. Down the hill and past the second barn, weather-beaten door marked by an X, to the river, where the water moves beneath the thin ice, making a soft rushing noise. The hills rise beyond, stone walls built so that there is an opening, and there is the opening on either side, where the walls connect to nothing. An opening, or maybe not an opening, but a beginning or an end.
On Margate Sands
I can connect
nothing with nothing
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
The white-gray of the sky, the white-gray of the stone.
Down the icicle, a thinning. The glass point poised—almost—to break.
Cara Blue Adams's work appears in Granta, American Short Fiction, Epoch, and other magazines. She was a 2018-19 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow and has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the New York State Council on the Arts. She is presently completing a short story collection and a lyric essay project called “Weather.” She lives in Brooklyn and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University.
How on the Solstice I bailed on my 10K trail run in part because in part because it was the third straight day of rain in Seattle and in part because I have no mental fortitude. And my friend. And a movie. And a book.
1. 10K Race:
By 7:30, I had eaten my banana and peanut butter and coffee-ed up. Clouds lightened by 8. I had all dressed up with a Santa Baby hoodie and a red Santa hat. It had been raining for three days.
But I still went to this peninsula sticking out into Lake Washington named Seward Park and hundreds of other people came to. Everyone looked determined in their rain jackets. I carried an umbrella to give to my husband.
Three two mile loops filled with puddles and slick boardwalks and I bailed out on the first loop as everyone, everyone seemed to rush past me. They were the wind. And I was literally walking through mud. I am 62 and in the category of it’s great you’re out here but, climbing out of the first loop, I’d had enough. I wanted to be more than it’s great you’re out here.
Smiling husband was at the turnaround, dressed warm in long johns, and I bailed. As soon as I bailed, I regretted it and I realized the problem was no mental fortitude. Tired of being last, or tenth from last. Of this day, shortest of days.
I’m exhausted and literally don’t think I can move from my sofa. Can we rain check and meet up when you get back? I’m not doing super good and kinda don’t wanna move and really wanna just rest. How was your run?
Hey! Of course we can rain check! But I could come by and whisk you off to have some pho at the place near your house and deposit you back home.
Perfect. See you.
We hugged hard in the restaurant full of happy eaters and she hadn’t slept in two weeks because of her son and her mom’s dementia was worsening. And work, of course, work. And a fight with another friend who eighty percent of the time can be so nice but then turns so mean. And we didn’t even have pho but she had phad thai and I ate a slurpy vermicelli bowl. And we hugged and she went home to sleep.
I pay for lunch because it feels that’s all I can do for her.
3. Drive home:
The weather was still for shit with the rain mist flying up on the freeways. Gray—sky to ground. A postal semi-truck tailed me coming back and wove in and out of traffic like a madman. The rush to deliver packages? It’s a long drive that everyone else also seems to be taking.
4. Home, briefly:
Curled on the couch, depressed about not finishing the race.
Knives Out at a theatre with new red plush seats. The movie started strong. I wanted to know who did it or if anyone did it, if it was a suicide or fake death. But an hour in, it began to bore me, like all Agatha Christie’s. The flat faces. The long twisted chain of improbable, illogical events.
We walked out of the movie and it was 6 o’clock and dark and I wept in the darkness.
Sushi, which was fair, but the place was quiet, the waitress friendly, and on the way home we had a fight about the influence of Dr. Spock on my mother’s abysmal parenting. No excuses, I cried. No excuses, he quietly agreed.
The early Pacific coast edition of Saturday Night Live with Eddie Murphy and Lizzo. And a book, The Book Thief, with death as the narrator. My husband falls asleep as I am reading and snores until I turn him to another side. His breathing calms, soft and gentle. I don’t make it till midnight, the words on the pages drifting away from their meaning. I turn off the side light and leave the heroine, Liesel, after she steals her second smoldering book.
Born and raised in Mississippi, but have lived in Seattle for 25 years. Lived many lives, as a librarian, poet, public health researcher, and now attempted solstice essayist.
A. E. WEISGERBER
A half-hour with Val
It’s a pretty drive to Valerie’s place, passing through Liberty Corner, the USGA, the Leonard J Buck Gardens, Moorland Farms and then through Far Hills past the King of Morocco’s old estate, Natirar. There is a hoar frost on all the fields. It’s 22 degrees Fahrenheit, but it doesn’t feel that cold. I left the house wearing a hoodie and tights. I like Valerie a lot. We’re the same age but she’s very focused on fitness and wellness.That's her sentence. I am sentenced to sentences. I worked out with her years ago, and then things got heavy with life and responsibilities and paying three college tuitions so I stopped working out. That’s always a mistake but it was kind of a financial must, too, so looking back I’d probably do the same thing.
When I called Valerie last July, I was so glad I didn’t wait another minute to get back in shape. It was as if we didn’t miss a beat. She said, this is like the scene in Blues Brothers where Jake says… “We’re getting the band back together,” and the waiter says, “No way,” and Elwood adds:“We’re on a mission from God.” That was July, and I am back in shape.
She has a vintage gym (dumbells, barbells, kettlebells, bodybars, chains, sandbags, heavy bags) in a barn behind her property. I have solo sessions with her twice a week. If there is one thing I learned writing a novel, is that all that seat time is murder on your back and neck and shoulders.
Today's workout: 15-lb body bar to warm up. Ten each: twists, good mornings, shoulder presses, rows, lunge, squat. Val comes up the barn stairs, and puts on some music.
She's always laughing and upbeat. I told her I'd be writing down today's routine, so that will be my recovery between sets:
12kg each, kettlebell double-suitcase deadlift. That’s about 54 pounds.
10kg kettlebell racked squat, 30 seconds each side.
She usually has the Lithium station on, but today it’s classic vinyl. We talk about Aerosmith, and that show The Voice, and Freddie Mercury’s teeth.
12kg alternating cleans for 60 seconds
12kg suitcase deadlifts with a row at the bottom, 60 seconds
10kg racked squat and press, 30 seconds each side
This is a good workout. The bells are cold, but I’m warm and toasty in my hoodie.
10kg dead clean to press, alternating sides for 60 seconds
10kg tactical lunge (that’s the one where you pass the bell beneath the forward bent leg).
We both used to watch our mothers do Jack LaLanne workouts. I was thinking how vintage workouts like this connect one to the past, how it’s still an excellent routine. How it’s like a basic body language. How the workouts she does are arcane, like flash fiction. She tells me I’m strong.
10kg lunge to press, 30 sec each side
8kg snatch to lunge, 30 seconds each
10kg Triple crush.
That triple-crush is where you squeeze the bell down front, curl, lift to an overhead press, and then do a triceps extension. It’s one of my favorites.
8kg clean, squat, and press
Finished with a 10 kg snatch, alternating sides.
It’s a different workout every time. This is the first time I bothered to write one down. I don’t need to be an expert on any of this if I know one. Valerie is pretty amazing. She just came back from a competition in Portland. I’ll see her again Christmas Eve. Off to Macy’s.
A. E. Weisgerber is a 2018 Chesapeake Writer, 2017 Frost Place Scholar, 2014 Reynolds Fellow, and Assistant Series Editor for Wigleaf's Top 50. Recent work in Yemassee, 3AM, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matchbook Lit, and The Alaska Star. Follow @aeweisgerber or visit neutralspaces.co/aeweisgerber
Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will
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