Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

Before I ever made it to the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, I’d attended the CUUPs rituals in the Barn Room. Two warm and wonderful Texans I’d met at a public ritual on the Boston Common brought me to my first Yule in the Barn Room. Then later, after I’d left Quick and moved to Cambridge, after I’d reveled in my freedom for a while and dated lots of people, after the rather disastrous end of a rebound relationship, I found myself sinking deeper into depression and isolation.

A woman I met on Craigslist–a recovering Southern Baptist–took me to the rounds of potlucks and parties in the winter. It sounds trite, but those potlucks and parties saved my life. At the time, I was looking up the lethal dosage of my medications, seriously considering death as an option. But I had a party to go to instead. One night, the movie I Heart Huckabees convinced me not to end my life. That same woman started rousting me out of the house on the third Friday of the month for Women’s Sacred Circle. I’d known about the group for years, but was intimidated by the fact that it was closed to new members except for once a year. And Fridays are tough in general, but Fridays in October, the month they open to new members, are brutal.

The community at First Parish was so cohesive and yet so varied. College professors, software developers, non-profit do-goodniks, menstruation rights activists, environmentalists, atheists, pagans, Buddhists, old-school UUs with Puritan pedigrees, a few token queers (I was one), believers and doubters and  folks who showed up for the community and the cookies — all these people came together to the Meeting House for a service where they sang hymns like “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and listened to sermons about Martin Luther King and the importance of comprehensive sex education. It was a place where anyone, even a woman, even a lay person, even me — sinner and witch and lapsed Catholic that I was — could organize a service. It was the first place I truly felt that I belonged since I moved to Boston from Hartford almost 5 years before.

After a year or so, though, the bloom came off the rose. Some members of the thirtysomethings group decided to invite all the “cool” people to a Christmas party the same weekend as one my girlfriend was throwing. I noticed the stranglehold of the current leadership of CUUPs; they said they wanted new members, but they didn’t actually let the new members participate in any planning decisions. Friends paired off, got married, moved off and had babies, never to be heard from again.

Even the Women’s Sacred Circle, with all its magic and mystery, began to feel like a chore instead of a place of union and spiritual growth. During my stint on the leadership council, it was not unusual for meetings to run for five hours. And I realized, as perhaps all of us realize as we push on into our late 30s, that my time and energy were sadly finite. I wondered where else I might be spending it.

I began to direct it elsewhere. Slowly but surely, M and I began the careful steps to bring our households together. Settling in took longer than I thought. I mourned my old life in Camberville: the friends an easy T ride away, the streets, the back way from Arlington to Harvard Square, the Trader Joe’s at the Fresh Pond rotary, the summer meadow just beyond it, next to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, the water itself enclosed in a chain link fence. Some of them I still keep in touch with, but the meetings require planning, long drives. Weeks and months might pass before we see one another. Sometimes one or the other of us cancels, and so more weeks and months pass. We keep in touch on the Intartubes, but there’s no substitute for physical presence.

Nine months after the move, I joined a poetry workshop one of my circle sisters has been attending for years. The critiques were tough, but I appreciated the focus on concrete results — publication — and the practical tips given and shared to help us all achieve the same goal. In December I had my first success: my work was accepted at Lyrical Somerville and will be published next week. In April I read at Porter Square Books, and I am scheduled to read again at the Newton Public Library in October. After the reading, the workshop leader said “you surprised us!” She’d never seem or heard my finished poems, only the unfinished ones I brought to workshop. Buoyed by the praise I’d coveted for so long, I submitted to two journals.

Finances demanded that I take a hiatus from the workshop for a few months. With the world’s sap rising, I find myself composing more and see how my own eye has changed, my writing more careful — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

As I write this, the sun shines in the back courtyard on the forsythia bushes, all yellow in the bright spring light. Birds come and go from the feeder I installed last year; this spring I know most of their names. The leaves and spines of my garden wave in the breeze. The cats wander in and out of the treeline. For the first time ever in my life, I have a room in my home that is three walls open air, the solid brick behind me. The oaks have just begun unfurling their leaves, but for now the sun shines unimpeded on the bed I planted one week ago, on the pots I brought with me from Camberville. A nature-worshipper, I have access to more actual nature than I’ve ever had before. It’s right outside my door, front and back, and yet I’m a five-minute drive from Jamaica Plain, Boston’s answer to Cambridge.

It’s not the same, though. I am too far from my old circles. It’s a distance through both space and time. We’ve scattered and settled elsewhere. The bonds grow weaker. And I’m not sure I have the energy, the strength, or even the inclination, to build another circle from scratch around me here.

I don’t regret the union I entered into when I moved to this new green and alien place. I bathe in it every day, and the water is sweet. But I do regret the interconnected web of existence I left behind in Cambridge.

A Few Notes About April, National Poetry Month, and Related Topics

A few notes about April, National Poetry Month, and related or tangential topics:

  1. April is the cruelest month because it is neither one thing nor another. Especially in Boston, it is neither the callused braw of midwinter, nor the soft (and — thanks to climate change — rainy) flower-fest of spring. In February we laugh at freezing weather, we don our extra layers and our vaselined lips as a matter of course. In April, lulled into a sense of false security, we open our petals into the sunny breezes, decide to take out the summer dresses and the short-sleeved shirts. And then freeze and shiver in temperatures that felt warm to us in February.
  2. T.S. Eliot is a fussy little busybody who thought that shirtsleeves were sordid.
  3. This April, I want the fields to lay fallow. I walk the wavering line between abandonment and overpruning of my poetic garden.
  4. The sap rises up and I write, write, write, accumulating pages and pages of white, letter-sized writing pad, the blue lines running undercurrent beneath my  handwriting, sometimes scrawl and sometimes legible.
  5. The sap rises up and I want to run through the bogs screaming, expounding. The sap rises up and I rise with it, and then I return to the couch, or the breakfast table, looking at the birds who congregate at the feeder outside, along with the squirrels.
  6. How much longer can I keep both the squirrels and the woodpeckers — two downy, two red-bellied, none red-headed, in spite of the red head of the red-bellied woodpecker — in suet?
  7. The worst thing to do with the seedling is disturb it. Let it lay there, half in and half out of the ground. But when they start to crowd thick and green (because you never obey the seed-packet’s instructions, always spacing them too far or too close), then you must pluck and choose, which one will stay and which will go. Otherwise, they all die out, competing for the same scant patch of dirt and sun and rain.
  8. The squirrels and the chipmunks — and your own damn cats — will likely devour many of the flowers, even in their bloom. Look at the crocus, who finally bloomed only to become scattered-pink the next day, scattered and tragic petals among their white-and-green-striped arrow-leaves.
  9. Plant them anyway.
  10. Trust the wisdom of the numbered list.
  11. Stay in touch, whether casual, constant, or connubial, with those who understand the importance of a turn of phrase, the difference between Joe Green and Guiseppe Verde.
  12. Take it moment by moment.
  13. Remember to be of service — in both the meaningful work and the work that pays the bills.

Tiny Gratitudes

  • Sunflowers painted on the ceiling of an ultrasound exam room
  • Getting to an appointment 10 minutes early so I can sit in the car and stop rushing
  • Living in a place where the trees are taller than the buildings
  • Mentholated cough drops: bits of eucalyptus trees born thousands of miles away, soothing my throat and my lungs
  • A tiny white pill that keeps me from breaking into tears every 15 minutes
  • Miracle cures that ease cold symptoms, even if they do need to be taken again and again again
  • The rain washing down the windshield of the car, softening edges and smearing lights
  • The Fort Point Post Office, open 24/7/365, even at 7pm on the Sunday before Christmas
  • Working in an industry where skills matter as much as connections

30 Days of Thanks Starts on Day Nine

Forget April. November is the cruelest month for me, mashing rust-colored leaves in the raw days of no-sun clouds. A good month for a long slog, and long slogs are always easier in the company of others.

This year, I’ll be slogging on the gratitude train, with 30 days of thanks. Which starts on Day Nine for me, apparently, since this is the first I’ve heard of it. I’ll spare you the story of what I was doing for the first eight days of the month.

Gratitude opens new holes in the swiss-cheese brain of possibility. So here’s some gratitude for today:

  1. Star moss peeking out from beneath snow-patches, over rust-colored leaves
  2. The prodigal sun returns from in absentia
  3. Tom Robbins’s books led me enchanted through jungles of wordplay when I was 15 years old
  4. How extra glad I am to be the protagonist in my own novel, and not one written by Tom Robbins
  5. My thumbs work
  6. It is Friday.

30 Days of Thanks

The God-Shaped Hole, the Still Water

the god-shaped hole
must remain empty
so that god can pass through

it widens like the ozone
the world ends
and begins again

the guard opens the gate
and you make your way
to the pond with its
face of glass stillness

once before you came and sat
until the birds darted
over the gulf between bushes
and a red-winged
blackbird winked at you

now the water itself gulps
and returns to stillness
in the empty space of the evening

Through the Gates, in July, Something Different

you step through three gates of trees
expecting to see something different
and you always do

today, a turkey
almost to the end of the boardwalk
through the swamp, just before

a stream-bed that’s mostly mud
with the one big stone you’ve hopped
a thousand times

where you can glimpse
one of the huge houses
whose owners have been building again

you stop long enough to regard him
and he calls to you, or to
a well-hidden mate, you can’t determine

his gobble uniquely his
and nothing really like
the english word we made for it