On birds, and letters, and opera.

january-blue-birds

The letter, were I to write it, might open this way:

What a year this has been, right from the start… In January we had the craziest weather. One weekend it snowed; the next it was sunny and 70 degrees. Almost every night ended with an outrageously vibrant, pink sunset.

Inside the confines of our aging house, the wear and tear of daily living manifested in the sudden and unexpected  death of our dishwasher.  The upside of that event was washing dishes together after dinner, to a soundtrack of 9th grade Latin recitation and 7th grade joke invention (“What’s a Jamaican’s favorite piece of furniture? … Otto-mahn.”).

Our four-legged friends, either in blind exuberance or empathetic frustration, devoured not one but both of my perfectly-broken-in, black, leather clogs, leaving behind only soles and staples, which were spat, one-by-one, in a trail alongside the dogs’ bed.

Meanwhile, at the unholy mess of my writing and art table, I spent every available weekend and late-night hour drawing and carving and printing and carving some more. Birds, flowers, windows, trees, and more birds. So began 2017.

Except, of course, that come December there won’t be a Christmas letter, not from me. Even in years of manic Christmas card making and dispatch, of which there have been many, I’ve never included that separate, careful accounting of the year, printed on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, tucked in the fold of the card, and mailed to a close circle of friends. Given that I’ve shared with total strangers the fairly intimate details of our ordinary family life, almost every week for five years, my eschewing an annual Christmas letter borders on comical.

I was thinking about all of this – Christmas cards and letters and ordinary life – during the annual late-January ritual of clearing out Christmas. The pile of accumulated cards – and a few letters –  is always the last evidence to be filed away. These freeze-frames and joyful words disappear not to the trash or recycling, but to either a specific, black, label-less box or to the first random repository that presents itself. Which of these two options wins is entirely dependent upon circumstance.  Some years I am simply more present than others.

There is no rational explanation for why I’ve kept this old mail, why I continue to keep it. I want to have it, all of it, and that is that. I don’t actually need even a single card in order to remember Kevin and Jeanne on their fourth Christmas in Texas, or Max, when Jack was just a baby.

In the collection of photographs and paragraphs, dogs have come and gone; marriages, too. There have been cross-country moves and trips to Rome, collages of Labor Day dove shoots, beach sunsets and new bicycles. Peace. Love. Joy.

I don’t know precisely what date Kim or Margie or Warren left this world for the great beyond, but I know exactly the year I stopped receiving their Christmas posts. I couldn’t, with any accuracy, place Attila the Hun in the right century on a history timeline; but if you asked me some obscure detail from a saved Christmas letter – what year a son started marching band, or a roof collapsed, or a family anniversary was celebrated in Paris – odds are good I’d know the answer without ever having to lift the lid of the archive that has moved from house to house, shelf to shelf, largely undisturbed as its holdings have grown.

Because I was looking for something else, in my recent art-making fury, I recently had to open that Pandora’s box of secret histories and rifle through its contents. For an hour, stretching into two, I sifted through a collective coming of age, heartened by how much I did, in fact, remember.

There are no announcements of Nobel Prizes or patents in this stockpile of annual correspondence. My uncle Mel gave my mother a star one year, which she noted in her card to me. But everything else is more mundane, the simple comings-and-goings of life: pets, babies, weddings, vacations, hobbies, reunions, from the pre-Tiny Prints year of 1989, when I started saving them, right up to 2016. There are missing chapters, as I mentioned, years when sweeping the pile into the box was beyond my bandwidth at the time. But the narrative holds together even without them.

It is a saga of small victories and deep companionship, a long tale of nothing and everything, tiny highs and lows with no ultimate peak, no bottomless abyss. It’s a chronicle of exceptional privilege: the freedom to think, to write, to question; to have lovers and children and friends and opinions; to work, to travel, to invent, to choose.

I found what I was originally looking for – a Valentine card from 1996 – in another black box, one that holds mostly cards and prints of my own, along with a few of the more special, non-Christmas cards and letters received over the years. I closed both boxes, returned them to their shelf.

That was almost three weeks ago, but I’ve been thinking about those cards and letters every day since. They seem hardly significant in light of a foreign government’s interference in our election, threats to our independent judiciary and free press, Syria…. Pictures of lemonade stands and trips to the ice-skating rink are insignificant by comparison.

But without them – the small stories and memories behind them – what would be the point? Sharing details of our little, ordinary lives, celebrating nothing more or less impressive than the ability to wave at a camera from a mountaintop, these things are dear. They are worth fighting for.

The February section of my own letter, were I to write it, would mention the early onset of spring here, evident as the morning sky gets lighter and lighter, earlier each day. I see the morning sky either through my windshield, driving carpool, or from my porch, waiting for carpool pick-up. This is, in all likelihood, the last February of driving my son to school. He and his mates will all be 16 soon, will all drive, will all start leaving the nest.

One morning last week I lingered on the porch to read the paper before heading to work. I got a call from my friend David, the ornithologist. He rang to talk about opera, because even though he knows the world is overpopulated and warming and depleting its resources and dying, he has an unquenchable thirst for beauty, and opera is one of his favorite beautiful things.

“How odd; I was just thinking about you,” I said when I answered. “I was sitting on my porch, listening to all the birds and wondering if it were owls calling back and forth nearby.”

He imitated, perfectly, the sound I’d heard. An ornithologist who is an opera lover can do such a thing. “Yes! That’s it!” I said.

Ah, mourning doves, he responded. They do have a lovely, sad song.


Food | Week of February 13, 2017

Fried Egg Salad

Pasta with Gorgonzola & Arugula

Roast Provençal ChickenSicilian-Style Citrus Salad

Ricotta Gnocchi with Parsley Pesto

Chipotle Pork Tacos

14 Comments

  1. The problem, of course, is: one never gets a Christmas letter from a person one would actually like to get a Christmas letter from. I’d enjoy one from you. But this will do. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes. Lovely. My words could never quite hit on it right, but this is just so, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you.

    Like

  3. Wendy

    I save them too. Every. Single. One. And I love that I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it interesting that history is filled with mighty deeds, acts of aggression, terrifying discoveries, but in the end as you point out it is the simple things enjoyed by everyday people which matters most: a smile for one’s neighbor, a letter to one’s far-away friend, a shared meal with a stranger. Thank you for your beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have saved these letter/cards since the same year, 1989. Wow! And I come across them, like yours–– in boxes, in cubbies, tucked away, and remember it all. I will save this post, with the letters, to remind myself of what they mean.

    I have always written a card/letter, even before the kids came. However, the past 4 years I’ve struggled to do it. Dealing with stuff and trying to make sense, it’s hard to send something cohesive out. I just sent this year’s… a Valentine. 😉

    Like

  6. […] letter, were there to be one (which there will not), might continue this […]

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