The Burn Pile

Last night the wind was still and the weather mild so we lit our burn pile and pulled up a couple of chairs to tend it and sit together to watch the life in the fire.  This time we were burning some of the last of the combustible pieces of the eleven years of accumulation here on the farm.

In the October soon after we’d moved here, we sat together around a similar bonfire and listened to a pair of Great Horned Owls sing their love duet from the tall cottonwoods on the east side of the garden. That was a moment of magic and optimism. We dreamed aloud to each other about our future here, the farm stand we would have, the vegetables we would grow.  We named the farm that night. It was an inside joke. Now, we are burning the hand painted white, red, green and blue signs we made to direct passers by to the farm. We saved just one. We’ll leave it in the back of one of the stalls in the barn for the new owners to come upon when they’re exploring their new territory. F.A. Farm, they might wonder. What was that?

Now we are wrapping up our lives here, divesting of almost everything. We’re down to a pile of boxes in a stall in the barn, some essential garden tools, our two old bikes and the furniture we need to live until we leave the house and lock the door.  Orion has danced over the barn as the fire has burned lower and the coyotes are yipping off in the near distance, a pack of them after some mice or a stoat they’ve flushed. No owls tonight.

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The Reunion (Part 2)

The voice of my father. This is the voice of my father.

There is no distance in space now between us despite the weight of the receiver in my hand, the recognition of three thousand miles. His voice is sitting right inside me, the intensity wiping away everything else. There is no wall of separation. The wind of this energy is passing through us both.

“Yes, you’re my daughter!  It’s you! We’ve been waiting, hoping for this call for years. But we didn’t really dare think you would want to contact us; would find us. It was too much to ask.”

“Tell me about yourself? Where do you live?” he asks.

“I live in Vancouver, Washington…”

Before I can go on he says,

“Oh, yes! That’s marvelous. Washington State! Marvelous! Are you alright?”

“But of course you are! I can tell. Wait, let me tell you about you!”

“You’re tall. You’re blond with brown eyes. You’re beautiful and intelligent.”

Relishing this paternal embrace in a way I had never anticipated, I hear myself saying, “Yes! Yes, that’s right”, inwardly blushing at the “beautiful,” almost wanting to stop him.

“You were born at Lenox Hill Hospital. Your mother—her name is Toni—just like you — I can’t believe it — held you for three days. This didn’t usually happen if the baby was being given up, but the nursery was being painted. She was heartbroken to give you up.”

“How did your parents keep that name? How did they know? How did they have the generosity?” are his next questions.

“I don’t know. My mother said that it was just something she just knew, something she knew was essential to keep. She insisted, even though my father thought she was crazy to keep it. He bowed to her.”

“What an incredible act of intuition, of pure resonance! Your mother, Toni, gave you the name as a tiny thumbprint of her love for you.  She never expected your adoptive parents would keep it. Never. That was unthinkable.”

My God, I think, they’re married. They’re still together. These are my parents, together.

“And you have four siblings, three brothers and a sister. They all know you exist and they’ve been worried about you ever since they found out you existed. Your mother told them on your eighteenth birthday since we knew you were old enough to have access to records and could try to contact us. We talk about you. They’ve worried that you were out there and we didn’t know if you were alright.”

A molten volcano has been smoldering in my chest. Now I feel it begin to reach my throat, my eyes, the top of my head. I had never dared to imagine brothers, sisters, some kind of genetic compatriots.

“Let me tell a little more about who you are.”

He is rushing ahead, as if he, too, has thought out all he would tell me if he had the chance, as if the connection to my mother and history must be established immediately. We’re both a bit giddy with the silliness of this rampant story.

“Your mother’s family is pure WASP. She’s a Robinson. They go back to the Mayflower, for God’s sake.  Your direct ancestor was Cotton Mather, which may or may not be a good thing!”

Here began the surreal.  I already had had connection to a grandmother who was Polish, warm and fat and smelling of coal and butter from the kitchen–a peasant, whose lap I could sit on in a rocking chair. This new family seemed more foreign to my experience than if I were told they were Sami with a herd of reindeer still grazing back in the old country.

“And then there were the Knoxes of Knox Hats. You go back to Charles Knox who came over from Ireland in the early 1800s and started his own hat factory. They started with beaver hats and then came up with the stove pipe hats that became all the rage in the nineteenth century. They made a fortune. Abraham Lincoln wore Knox hats!  Their daughter married Hannibal Robinson who went off to the wilderness selling hats. And then somewhere along the way around Civil War times there was American Flag Knox.  You’re just swimming in WASP-y history. You could even become a member of the DAR! My God! I hope you don’t mind!”

Somewhere along the way I had begun to laugh. Now we both were laughing. The absurdity of it all. His voice, deep and rich with a foundation of unwavering confidence, left no room for disbelief, just overwhelming joy at having found this man of such fluent intelligence, such wit, such generosity of spirit–qualities not unlike those of the father who’d raised me. It was a moment splitting with things to come, like a ripe seed pod with seeds ready to fly. But at that moment, the laughter gave me more of a sense of freedom, the headiness of delight. My senses were alive.

“And then there was my family,” he is continuing.

“Somehow, none of the kids look anything like them, thank God! You probably don’t either. They were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to this country in the early 20th century. They lived in New York and my father managed to buy a small grocery store he ran till his death.  My aunt (your great aunt) immigrated to Israel at the end of the war.  She ended up starting the first Kibbutz there — Kibbutz Don. She was quite a powerful character, with a face like a catcher’s mitt. The kids have all been to Israel at different times.”

Here was the upside down history. My adoptive mother’s lineage—Eastern European Jews coming to Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century—setting up small businesses, getting through the Great Depression—this was also in my paternal genes, somehow hidden. What a funny man this was, de-ordering all I knew.

There was a pause just long enough for me to think of what else needed to be said. “You have two grandchildren.” I say.

“Oh, God! Really?  Tell me about them!”

“There’s a girl aged four and a boy a year old.”

“You’re kidding! We have two granddaughters about the same ages!  Your brother Evan’s girls. The youngest brother. He dotes on them. What about yours? Are they healthy? I would imagine you’re a wonderful parent.”

I told him a bit about each – my daughter’s pre-school, my son’s yellow curling hair. He asked about a marriage and I told him, yes. We talked a bit about my husband.

He proceeded to tell me a little about each of my siblings, three brothers and the youngest, a sister. Brothers. A little sister.

“They’ll all want to meet you as soon as possible. You will love them all. They are all unique, sharply smart and sensitive in their own ways. I’m sure you’ll find you have things in common. ”

It begins to dawn on me that I am actually being invited to become part of this family. Ah!

I ask, only partially in jest, “Will it bother David as the eldest that he suddenly has an older sibling?”

“God no! He’ll be so relieved to give up the position. It’s not an easy one! He can tell you.”

“It’s been a difficult stretch for your mother. This will cheer her no end. You don’t know what a wonderful thing you’ve done by calling.” Again, I blush and stammer something about how it was a force rather than a matter of choice.

He continues, more soberly. “You don’t know how long I’ve been trying to make up for your loss to your mother. All this time. So many ways.” There is a short pause on the line. A breath.

We began to discuss how we would be able to meet. He quickly insisted he would be the one to fly out to see me first, as the forerunner, as soon as he could arrange it.

“It will give your mother time to absorb things. I’ll be able to tell her what I experience and she will be able to absorb it first through me. Seeing you will have such an enormous impact for her.”

“Likewise,” I say.

This was the man I had sung to as a child, whose image I had created out of bits of story and intuition–whose love I had conjured up for myself.  It seemed in some way he was this man and not this man. There certainly was the experience of a powerful love, the importance of family.

I recognized, as my mind began traveling back from this intensity of moment to the practicalities of life, of children to be fed and retrieved, I had always shied from imagining my mother as deeply.  Now I had a mother in whom I might see something of myself. What was that?

As we gathered ourselves, made a plan for Toni to contact me later that day and, as my son began to cry in his bed where he was waking, I breathed in the impact, gathering my sense of self into my body, settling my mind, getting ready to move through the rest of the day. Something of great moment had happened. Something that was not only a shift in my own life, but a bigger shift.  We said goodbye, he adding,

“You don’t know how good it is to hear your voice. This changes everything.”

I wondered and then I thought, “It may. Yes, it may.”

The Swans are Gone

February 10th

The Trumpeter Swans are gone from the fields. In the sunset sky, the sky is empty of the flashes of light they make as they fly across the greying clouds towards their nighttime roost at the lake. They must be on their way back to Alaska, earlier this year than we’ve ever seen.

In response, there is a sense of absence, of loss in the atmosphere.  Now we’ll have to wait for the return of the song birds to hear such penetrating song, and for the blooming of the daffodils to replace the flashes of light.

The variety of songs in the March air diminishes each year. The daffodils bloom earlier, even in the dark, rainy days of a spring that never really seems to come until we recognize the season has turned to summer and the days are hot and the sun rises at 4:30 am. But there is a young Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of Peregrines who now have claimed the territory around the farm.  Working in the garden, the idiosyncrasies of their acrobatic flight will become intimately familiar, transmitting some sense of the joy of riding the movements of the air.

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Anniversary of a Reunion

I heard the voice of my biological father for the first time exactly thirty years ago. For months–years really– I had been preparing myself for the moment I would pick up the phone and call.  My mind had travelled to these moments of contact since I’d been in grade school, and after I’d turned eighteen, I began weaving plans and moral arguments pro and con.

The path was relatively easy. That wasn’t the trouble. His name had somehow mistakenly appeared on the court records my adoptive parents kept for me. Although she’d probably gotten it second or third hand, the social worker at the adoption agency in New York had told my adoptive parents the story of my biological mother and father and the reason they had given me up for adoption.  The clues were all in plain sight. It was even a good story.

As it went, my father was finishing his medical residency in New York at the time of my birth. He and my mother were not yet married. They had met the year before and fallen in love, but their romance was star-crossed since his parents were orthodox Jews, hers, goyim. Not only was she a shiksa, but an actor to boot, an abomination in their eyes. So my parents had chosen to give me up, the story continued, in hopes my grandparents would accept her as an “unencumbered” love match and my parents would be able to marry with their eventual blessing.

My adoptive parents were also a “mixed” marriage, but in the opposite pattern. My mother was the one from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and my father from a Polish Catholic family in the down and dirty coal-mining region of Pennsylvania.  Both sets were well-educated, middle class, and intellectual, with ties to Eastern Europe.  Bingo! Match. The adoption agency in New York was inexplicably Methodist. Several months later, when I became “available” they returned to have a look, be interviewed some more for their qualifications to parent and eventually take me home on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when nothing was open in Brooklyn.

My parents, educated middle-class people that they were, followed modern psychological advances and made my adoption part of the whole narrative of growing up. They even had a two-volume boxed set, one book for them and one for me, about coming into an adoptive family.  The children’s bedtime story book version was that I was a special child, particularly blessed since I had been specifically chosen by my parents—picked from a line-up, so to speak. I was the one with the great smile, the twinkling eyes– alert, blond, a pretty baby. I wasn’t like kids in other families who were stuck with the one that came out of the mom’s womb.  So as time progressed and I was able to grasp the concept, I knew I hadn’t come out of the mother whose hand I held, who took me to nursery school at Columbia University on the subway, who made me oatmeal every morning, sat with me in the kitchen and nagged me about hats and sweaters. These things are a delicate matter with one’s parents. It’s all an above-board secret.  As a kid, you’re aware something’s askew—unique–about your position in a family, a story you could exploit with other kids in fifth grade who were envious since they knew they couldn’t possibly be the child of the parents they got stuck with and probably had some wonderful people out there with greater understanding and wealth who would someday come to claim them. I had that story clinched. But the down side was the chemistry was just wrong.  The problem was my wiring just didn’t make sense, especially to my mother. Their love was huge and for the most part without limits, but they were bamboozled about who the heck I was. This state of affairs was probably not unlike most parents, but for me it seemed to have a twist—Alice in wonderland, perhaps, dropped down the rabbit hole into a world where the characters did things that defied logic.

For years, I had thought there was no need to make actual with the parents whose DNA I carried–too important to define myself on my own without leaning on the knowledge of my mere physical matter.  I wanted to make sure I was complete enough in myself that I needed nothing from them. I wouldn’t come as a supplicant but as someone who could give to them. I’d sung to them as a child, yearning, but now I was an adult.

I had a short conversation in my young adulthood with a man who has been one of the dearest friends of my life. He was then eighty-two. We were travelling in a van-load of people outside of Toronto and the van had broken down. Sitting and waiting on that summer day, the doors of the van open as cars went by on a quiet road, and conversation strayed to the topic of families, I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to look for my biological parents. His answer was considered.

“It’s very important to see and embrace the people who gave us birth. They’re our connection to the earth, the very matter we’re made of.  The connection can be very painful or very joyous, or both at the same time, but it’s there and has to be honored.  Find them if you can. It will ground you. That’s my advice.”

I told him I was worried that my birth might have been a secret that could hurt them and their families. He said,

“Be respectful, but they’re adults. They made choices. Let them handle that.”

Then he went back to being grumpy about his insistence that one of his choices to stay longer and thank someone at our last stop had caused us to have this breakdown.  Bad mood.

So, after I’d had thought about this conversation for another set of years and had my second child, it suddenly came to me one winter day, with my baby at home and my daughter in nursery school, that it was time to just call.  Knowing it was coming, I had even written a script like a flow chart—he says this then I’ll say that. If not that, then I’ll say this.  I’d tracked him down through the Medical Registry to a solo practice in a small town in upstate New York.  I didn’t know who he was married to, or whether he was married—just that he had a practice.

With my baby napping, I picked up the phone and called the number, like a plunge from a rock into a cold, running stream.

The one thing I hadn’t banked on was an aggressively protective nurse receptionist.  When I asked to talk to him, she said,

“Are you a patient of his?”

When I told her no, she replied sternly, backed by the growl of her Brooklyn accent.

“Well, he doesn’t talk to people who aren’t his patients. What’s the purpose of your call?”

My throat closing rapidly, I managed to say my parents were old friends of the family and I wanted to get in touch.  She said,

“Well! I’ll give him your name but I doubt he’ll have time to call today. He has a full schedule.”

I left my name and number.

I put down the receiver, tears squeezing out of my eyes. I took a deep breath, thinking,

“It’s done. It’s in his court.”

As I went to make some tea, berating myself up for not taking a more indirect route, the phone rang. It hadn’t been five minutes.

“Hello. Is this Toni?”

It was a rich, vibrant, low voice, with, to me, the music of Manhattan.  It was the voice that anyone would want to hear at their bedside, waking from a fever dream.  Able to barely get out the beginning of my prepared speech, “Yes. I was born in 195__ in New York City…”,  when he said,

“I know what this is.  We’ve been waiting so long for this call!”

Before these words had completely formed, a channel of pure energy had opened through those phone lines across the continent.  The force that surged through it nearly knocked me down.

 

 

(to be continued)

A Dream and a Walk

After the holidays this year I was sick for several weeks with some sort of respiratory gunk. Since I rarely get sick (or maybe in spite of that), I felt useless. My ability to sustain a thought was so dull that I found it almost impossible to write or to connect emotion to cognition. Somewhere deep there was an inchoate grief lurking.

One morning I dreamt I was an amateur clown with an act at some sort of summer fair. It was the first time I had performed an entire solo routine.  I was excited and nervous. Dressed in a sketchy mime-like outfit, I sang a song without sound, did a dance to the wind and tried to communicate all this to the small, scattered audience. They went along with me and were vaguely amused, but it was only a beginning. Encouraged that I’d at least been able to organize the effort and put myself forward, I was packing up the site when a man who was evidently a professional clown walked up.  He said he was next on the billing and began to set up with the help of an assistant. The beginning of grey around his temples marked him as a man at least beginning middle age, but there was the energy and look of vigorous youth about him. I liked him immediately, but was somehow wary. He was foreign with slightly olive skin and dark hair, perhaps from Montenegro, dapper and polished. As I continued to pack, he asked

“Are you from some kind of religious group?”

“No” I replied.

“Just an aspiring learner then?”

“Yes” was my response.

Finishing my packing in his presence, my self-consciousness began to return.The gap between what he knew and my own experience was so wide.  How could I even hope to achieve the artistry he possessed, especially so late in my life. He was a “mountebank” I knew, but I still might learn something interesting by staying to watch. I woke up as a decision was still settling in my mind. Continue down this path, or choose another? Does it matter which, as long as you are willing to risk everything?

With the dream still clear in my mind, I got out of bed and found that space was finally beginning to clear inside my mind. Still swimming, as some large fish navigating through murky waters with occasional brilliant flashes of sun, I struggled through the day until I felt an overwhelming need to move, to see something new but familiar.  A walk somewhere near and untraveled would help. There’s a trail nearby that leads to a small beach on the Georgia Strait—a place to listen to the woods and the ocean and see what they have to say about the whole matter.

At this edge of the continent, the water was a blue that was colder than the warm turquoise of the Mediterranean, but so wide and deep that it encompassed everything. The ducks floated here and there, one suddenly disappearing, another suddenly appearing on the surface. Each disappearance was a revelation of the world under the water, waving ell grass and weaving herring—a world extending infinitely downward and outward, joining the sky that extended infinitely upward and out and out. Each duck had its own idiosyncratic way of digging in under the surface. One had a little jump upward and then head a bit flat to the water as it dove. Another a graceful turn down of its bill and a gentle glide down, propelled imperceptibly by an underwater stroke of its wings.  Their combined movements, patterns ever-changing, were a counter rhythm to the music of the ocean. I breathed in the light and the heat of the sun through my nostrils and into the center of my chest where it radiated outward into the ocean and sky. Then I imagined breathing in and out through my ears, drawing in the sound of the moving water, the small waves and the larger crests, breathing out the quiet sound of the water sucking the round rocks. The imagining became actual, my breath making channels through the stuffiness in my head, clearing space.

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I stayed, rapt, for much longer than I had anticipated, remembering from time to time that there was nothing more pressing to be done. I stayed until the sun sank almost to the horizon, watching the light change the water to shades of indigo and purple and the wave-tossed logs on the beach a deep golden. On my way back to the trail, I passed a grandmother, her daughter and her grand-baby enjoying the dying light, taking photos of each other against the sinking sun, the baby’s face pale and perfectly open in the aura of his warm bear suit, eyes open wide to everything existing within their scope.