Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stormy Weather Memories

 Before the days of orderly alphabetical naming of hurricanes, “The Long Island Express” was one of several names given to the Great Hurricane of 1938, as it was also known. That storm was disastrous to the Jersey shore, Long Island and New England. I was six years old and my brother David was nine. We were in Stone Harbor with our Mother when the storm hit. My memories of the storm itself are vivid, but I am not sure why we were there on September 21—surely a school day—but Mother never had a high regard for perfect attendance. I imagine we had been invited to use a friend’s beach house in the off-season, something that happened almost annually.

I’m guessing the power was out because I remember a darkish house, the wind blowing wildly, and someone telling us the town was flooded. I think the worst of the storm had passed in the night, because the rain had stopped. Mother found a pair of hip boots in a closet, and pulled them on. She told us she had to go out to find milk and other things we needed, and we were to stay inside until she got back. Generally speaking, David and I were obedient children; but we were also curious and adventurous. So, out we went once Mother had gone. I remember that the house was somewhat sheltered at the back by a rise, perhaps a sand dune. When you walked to the top, you could see the ocean, a block or so away. But just as we glimpsed the rolling, gray sea, we were both blown over by a sudden gust of wind coming from the back side of the hurricane. We scrambled down the hill and raced into the house and never told anybody about our misadventure.

My memories of the Ash Wednesday Storm from March 5-8, 1962 are more detailed. It followed a similar path as Irene and was considered the worst winter storm ever recorded. This time I was the mother, with three children under seven. We were living in a rental house on a farm in Lambertville, NJ, close to the Delaware River and some fifty miles from the Jersey shore. My husband Bill was in India on a State Department-sponsored theatrical tour, and I felt very much alone. The gale force winds whipped around my little house most of the day and through the night, and at some point the driving rain changed to heavy wet snow. I laid awake for part of the night listening for the sound of tree branches crashing to the ground. I was worried about the cat—she had not come in for the night as she usually did.

Radio newscasters referred to the storm as hurricane-like. It had formed in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida and moved up the coast packing gale force winds. It arrived on the Jersey shore on a moonless night when the presence of a “Perigian spring tide” (related to the new moon) caused the storm surge to occur on five successive high tides. Beach erosion, flooding, damage to roads, bridges, buildings and boardwalks were reported on the radio, but the storm was so unusual, not much forecasting or advice was forthcoming.

When we wakened the winds were not as strong, and the sky was beginning to clear. We all bundled up and went out to have a look. There was no damage to the house, but lots of tree limbs and branches to clean up once the snow melted. The cat never returned, nor did we find her body; I wondered if she had been killed by one of the trees that fell in the nearby woods.

In September 2002, a year before Bill died, we had a family vacation on Ocrocoke Island. There were seven of us, including my daughter-in-law’s mother Dorothy. She and Bill were both frail and suffering from various ailments. It was gray and windy when we arrived, and we were warned to park the cars on high ground because Tropical Storm Gustav was expected to come ashore the next day. We found the candles and flashlights provided in the rental house and laid in sufficient food. Two cars were parked several blocks away on higher ground, and one left on the highest place in the yard. The next day the storm came, raged, blew and pounded the island with rain. It was frightening in its immediacy, as trees dipped and bent right outside the windows. Fortunately no trees fell nearby.

The next morning we found we were completed surrounded by a moat of water, effectively marooning both the house and the parked car. As we watched a snake swim slowly by in the water that lapped the edge of the porch, Bill wisely declared that he wasn’t going anywhere until he could walk on dry land, adding, “Gustav is as close as I ever want to be to a hurricane.”

In the aftermath of Irene, the chattering classes have been speculating about whether the evacuations and other precautions were necessary. Hurricane specialists agree that the science of forecasting the track of a hurricane is far better than the science of predicting the intensity. Evacuations may have inconvenienced thousands but arguably they also kept the casualties low. We are still learning the extent of the damage to infrastructure from flooding, but the storm has shown us how vulnerable much of it is. The awesome power of nature confronts us in these monster storms and the toll on the people in their wake is always devastating.

My memories of the storms I have experienced are infused with the strong emotions that were evoked at the time; I already know that I would pack up and evacuate if so advised even as I hoped for the best.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Listening to Opera: A Gift From My Father

Last Saturday I listened to Aida, recorded on the opening night of last year’s season of the San Francisco Opera. I am always excited to hear that opera again in part because of the memories it invokes.

It was the first opera I ever heard; I was six years old and I remember sitting on the floor of a narrow second storey bedroom in our rented house along the trolley tracks in Roslyn, PA. Much of the room was taken up with the ironing board and the room smelled of dampness and hot cotton. My father often helped my mother with the ironing if he wanted to listen to something on the radio, Sometimes he wore earphones and would laugh into the silence. But this day he invited me to come and listen, promising to tell me the story about ancient Egypt and an Ethiopian princess named Aida who was captured during a war and was now a slave. She and the captain of the Egyptian guard fell in love. At the end Aida sneaked into the dungeon where the captain was to be buried alive, because he had committed treason. I was familiar with many gruesome things from fairy tales, but I still remember how scary it was to think of the lovers dying together in the darkness.

Even so, it must have been a good experience because over the years I often listened to operas with Daddy and he always told me the stories and dramatized what was going on. When I was thirteen he took me to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, to see an opera for the first time.  It was Madama Butterfly. We sat in the peanut gallery and could only see the bottom of her kimono when Cio Cio San sang “Un Bel Di” from a little bridge in a garden not visible to us. The music and the spectacle—even slightly chopped off—confirmed my appreciation of this art form.

It has been a life-long gift my father gave me; I have gone to operas in many parts of the world and listened to the Met broadcasts most Saturdays. In the early days of getting to know my husband Bill, I was thrilled to discover that he too had listened to those broadcasts as a teenager. During his fifty years of theater work, he appeared in several operas and was stage director for others. When my daughter Melissa was 13, we took her to see Aida in Verona, performed in an open air Roman arena. We sat on stone steps, and what I remember most vividly was the 45 minutes it took for each scene change. It did not bother the Italians, who seemed more like baseball fans. They booed the rare mistakes and cheered for the arias and shouted for encores. Then they ate, drank wine and chatted as scores of men moved scenery, thrones and sometimes animals backstage. An old man in front of us was there with a young boy, perhaps a grandson. During one intermission he told the boy at length about a violin passage coming up at the beginning of the next scene; he hummed it to him between his comments. So when the music started I watched them and listened for the passage, and it was indeed very beautiful; I would probably have missed it otherwise.  It brought back the warmth and wonder of those interactions with my own father.

As I listened to the broadcast last week, my thoughts turned to the Arab Spring and Egypt’s long history. I wondered how many of those centuries had been filled with conquest and warfare. Verdi gives no date for his magnificent reenactment of a triumphant march into the City of Thebes following yet another victory over the Ethiopians. So I applied modern technology to ancient happenings and learned that artifacts show Egypt was first involved in some level of trade with Ethiopia in 3000 BC. Whenever the first conquest happened, it was a long time ago. But with the current struggles in Egypt and the other countries, the enemies are within, and the hoped-for prize is the opportunity to try another form of governance.

I can’t really draw a straight line between the Arab Spring and Aida. Yet somehow, I felt the poignancy of the mostly peaceful struggle of ordinary Egyptians and the willing sacrifice of the rebels in Libya a little more deeply as I was bathed in the beauty of Verdi’s music.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Berlin Wall and Other Divides

August 13 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall. The stated reason for creating this barrier was to protect the East Germans from fascists, but it appeared that the real intention was to stop the massive emigration and defection to the West. The Wall became an iconic symbol of The Cold War.

A year after that wall  became a fixture in Berlin, my husband Bill and I moved into the first house we ever owned. It was the summer of 1962, and he had just started a job with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in High Point, North Carolina. He would be working with both black and white high school students in preparation for school desegregation. We were eager to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the South and hoped to involve our children whenever that was possible.

Our new home had a lovely corner lot with a driveway on the side street and a large play area for the children behind the house. The street in front gave direct and easy access to downtown High Point, but the side street was a one-block cul de sac with modest houses on both sides. Behind the homes across from us was a seven-foot high chain link fence, which separated our neighborhood from a large black neighborhood on the other side. The only reason we could afford this sweet little bungalow was because the location was considered undesirable. Bill dubbed the fence The Berlin Wall.

We soon learned that our neighbors were mostly mill workers and the households depended on two incomes. A few worked second or third shifts and slept during the day. There were a half dozen or so children roughly the ages of my three, and I was the only stay-at-home mom. Our yard was often full of kids after school, and I dispensed many a Band-Aid and lots of lemonade and cookies. Everyone got along well, and the neighbor children quickly learned I would send them home if they got into fights.

We had been there about a year when Bill decided to invite his AFSC colleagues home for lunch. The staff was interracial and it simply didn’t occur to us that there might be repercussions. One of the men, an African American, had a van, and most of our visitors rode with him; the rest came in Bill’s car. We had a jolly time and all too soon, the lunch hour was over and they loaded up to go back to work. The van driver backed across the narrow street and partially into the opposite driveway in order to make his turn. Almost immediately the phone rang, and Bill, who was just leaving, picked up the phone to hear, “I don’t like what just turned around in my driveway.”

 “I don’t understand what you mean,” said Bill.

After using an epithet to describe the driver of the van, the neighbor hissed, “If he ever does that again, I’ll shoot him.”

We continued to entertain black friends, and Bill was active and often visible in demonstrations and other efforts to desegregate movie theaters, restaurants and the town swimming pool.  Gradually our neighbors stopped greeting us and avoided contact, although after school when no one was home, their children still came to our yard to play.

When we decided to take a position in Guatemala with AFSC, we needed to sell our house, but none of the realtors would take the listing. Finally, one of them told us that we should go to a black realtor and gave us a referral. We learned from a close friend—a Quaker lawyer—that there had been a secret agreement among the white realtors that our neighborhood was a likely place for the much-needed expansion of homes available to black families. After we struggled with the decision, Bill went and talked to the neighbors to explain our dilemma. Eventually the house was listed with a black realtor who rented it to a white family for a year until he had several listings in that community. Then the change began. Many years later when we went back to have a look, the chain link fence was gone.

In 1968 the Fair Housing Act banned discrimination in real estate sales. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Germany was reunited, and the Cold War ended. For a time, it seemed that the world was headed in the right direction.

The stories and commentaries on the radio and TV about the Berlin Wall last weekend were mixed in with coverage of the Iowa Straw Poll, The new political polarization in our society was evident in the speeches I heard. Immigration, gay marriage, abortion debates, global warming, offshore drilling, health care policy: these and many more issues divide us and we build walls of words.

Sunday morning I listened to “On Being” with Krista Tippitts. Her guest was a pro-choice activist who for many years has sought dialog with those who have a strong stand against abortion. She commented that it is virtually impossible to find common ground when people take absolute positions. Rather, the beginning of civil conversation comes when you can acknowledge what is good in the position of someone you disagree with.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Randomness: Life, Weather and Wind

At 6:30 this morning, I took my dog Nigel for our short early walk, which is currently the only one we take. The wind was blowing hard enough to whip and bend the trees and make a robust sound, one that always excites the dog and energizes me. The sky still showed traces of sunrise and small cumulus clouds raced before the wind. I have always loved windy days.

The day before I went to Asheville for my surgery, my friend Janey brought me a book called How To Be Sick. It is a Buddhist guide for those with chronic illnesses. Although a total knee replacement is not technically in that category, it is true that it might feel like it during the year following surgery. The book never made it out of the trunk of the car during my time in the hospital or the rehab center. However, last week I remembered it, rescued it from the car, and began to read it. Why now? It’s because somehow I strained the tendons in the heel of the foot that supports my revised knee. The radiology report was “No fracture; swollen soft tissues” and the treatment is, “Rest, ice, elevate, and back off weight-bearing exercise.” In this phase of my rehab, much of my physical therapy is walking plus a range of weight-bearing exercises. I knew it was a definite bump in my road to recovery and the right moment to read Janey’s book.

The author, Toni Bernhard, writes out of her experience of ten years with a debilitating chronic illness.  In an early chapter she tells a story drawn from the Nicolas Cage movie, The Weatherman. Cage’s character is a weather reader named Dave whose information is provided by a meteorologist. One day he tells Dave that it might snow or the storm may move to the south and miss the area. Dave protests that viewers want more certainty than that. The meteorologist responds that weather prediction is guessing. “It’s the wind man, it blows all over the place.” Bernhard found that comforting and analogous to the concept of impermanence, that anything can happen anytime.

She turned it into what she called the “Weather Practice”: when something unexpected happens she says to husband, who is her caregiver, “…life and weather: just the wind, man, blowing all over the place.” It’s the best answer I know to my own inevitable questions of “Why this? Why now?”
The pain and the swelling in my heel came on gradually and I never had an ouch moment of sudden pain to indicate an injury. It seems more likely that it came from over-use as I walked on a gravel drive to get to the road and did strengthening exercises, steadily increasing both the time and the intensity. But the injury feels random, and it is easier to think of it as something the wind blew my way, and then work with the constraints and possibilities that this new circumstance opens up. And, of course, that’s where the “weather practice” actually begins for me. For the past three days I have concentrated on resting and elevating, and today I met with the therapist to revisit the exercise plan. I want to heal, of course, but I also don’t want to lose ground as I rebuild my strength and flexibility. This definitely calls for both mindfulness and acceptance.

Even as I write, I am aware of the wind still churning the trees, opening spaces for the sun to come through and quickly closing them. Without glancing up from the computer screen I can see the changes of light as it plays across my desk. I realize that I am smiling in appreciation of the wind and remind myself that wind is not always benign.

During my early walk today, I thought how welcome is the slight breeze that cools my cheeks on a hot day, how exhilarating is the strong, playful wind that makes the trees dance, and how terrifying is the spinning of a tornado or the gale force wind of a hurricane as it makes landfall. All are random. Yesterday on NPR I heard the story of the college graduation ceremony in Alabama where six students who had died in the Tuscaloosa tornado received posthumous diplomas. Anything can happen anytime.

How to Be Sick by Toni Bernhard is published by Wisdom Publications (ISBN 13:978-0-89171-626-5)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summertime Staple: A Good Book in Your Hands

 Last week I wrote about libraries and my own rediscovery of the joy of reading. I mentioned a book that was integral to that process.  Continuing that theme today, I share a little of my interaction with that book.

This past winter on Tybee Island, I was mesmerized as I listened to the audiobook performance of actress Hope Davis as she read the lyric and evocative prose of Michael Ondaaje’s novel Divisadero. It was so intense that occasionally I had to turn it off for a short time while I thought about a passage I had just heard. I knew I would have to buy the book and read it.

Tonight I will be presenting Divisadero to the Celo Book Group for discussion. In preparation I have been reading about the author, watching a short interview with him, and reading reviews. I have also been asking myself why I have been so fascinated by this strangely-structured novel. Is it merely the craft and the art of his writing or is there a resonance somehow with my own life experience that has made it compelling?

Elizabeth Wadell ended her review of this book online in The Quarterly Conversation on Outskirtspress with these words, “Divisadero is beautiful; like one of {Ondaaje’s} characters losing or finding herself in someone else, I read myself in this book.”  Anna, who is the central character in the book, had lived on Divisadero Street in San Francisco and explains that the word has two meanings. The first is division and the second is “a point from which you can look far into the distance.”  This book is such a point as it enables the reader to look into the distance of past and the present; the distance of place; and the distance of the sometimes scarring interactions between people who care deeply for each other.

I think I didn’t find myself in the narrative of the book so much as in the experience of reading it. At this time in my life I have been focused on living in the moment. I have been cultivating a contemplative approach, rooted in mindfulness. I felt that Ondaaje was asking his readers to pay attention and expected that they would participate in the story. That was confirmed for me in the little interview I watched in which Ondaaje said that he likes the active readers and commented about their participation with the writer.

At the start of each summer, NPR will offer several features on vacation reading. Typically they are page-turners in which the plot propels the reader from one chapter to the next at high speed. I’ve read my share of mysteries, suspense and other summertime fare and enjoyed them, but they rarely make their way into my hands these days. I was, however, pleased to discover that Divisadero is also a good choice for summer, especially if you take it outside with a cup of tea or a glass of sherry in the late afternoon as it begins to cool off a little. It is not a book to read with distractions such as a radio in the background or traffic going by. It is all too easy to miss something lovely, or a bit of information that will be the key to unlock a surprising incident that turns up later.

The experience of listening to the audiobook read by such an accomplished actress was distinctly different from reading the book some months later when I found a much deeper level of involvement with both the imagery and the narrative. Whatever the reason, reading Divisadero reawakened in me the craving for the interaction of reader and writer and the immense pleasure of being totally absorbed in a really good book.