The National Feast

On Thanksgiving morning I go out with my clippers and cut fat bunches of sage and thyme to decorate the turkey platter. It was a pleasure, when I moved here, to find that these stayed green all winter in Michigan, looking lovely along the walkway, covered with frost.

My turkey platter is a family heirloom, designed  with the traditional scene of the First Thanksgiving: pilgrims standing around looking hungry while Indians bring them corn, pumpkins, turkeys, and other local food. Every year when we go around the table and say what we’re thankful for, one thing that comes up, specifically, is that those first inhabitants met the newcomers with charity, fed them, and taught them how to get on in their new environment. We instinctively want to extend that welcome. It’s not possible to meet a foreign traveler in November, without feeling the urge to gather them into the dining room for the National Feast, and take satisfaction explaining to them the mysteries of cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving is a very weird time for people to be complaining about immigrants and refugees. But it’s been a weird year.

The garden’s quiet in late November. The last bulbs are planted; the last of the expired flower stalks are in the compost bin; more perennials, chosen to provide variety – we might even say diversity – are tucked in with mulch. Monoculture in the garden breeds disease. A good metaphor. I can walk around the yard, at least, with an enormous sense of peace.

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Football, Opera, and Thanksgiving

It wasn’t until I moved to Ann Arbor that I went to a football game. Growing up, my experience of football was to walk through the room where my father was watching it on tv, see two lines of guys in helmets crash into each other, and hear my father yell “Idiots! Idiots!” This was not a compelling reason to sit down and watch the game. Eventually I learned to sit and watch it with Doug, who explained it much better than my Dad did.

But football permeates the air in Ann Arbor. Swaths of blue printed with large yellow block M’s are everywhere, including on people’s heads and chests. Streets downtown become suddenly deserted on autumn Saturday afternoons. You can go to a concert of Beethoven or Mozart and at intermission find half the women in the ladies room checking another kind of score on their smart phones. So when a neighbor offered us tickets to a real live game, I was curious and wanted to go.

It turned out to be a lot like attending the opera: a large stage; an engaged audience intent on letting the players know what they thought of the performance; fans who cared about it more than seemed sane; divas throwing tantrums over actions that were open to interpretation. I thought it was pretty wonderful and, like opera, completely different being in the same building with it, compared to watching a broadcast.

But a few days ago we went to the best football game ever. After struggling in the first two acts, our heroes came back after intermission, um, halftime, to overcome all difficulties in the third. Then in the fourth the magic happened: as it began to get dark, the first snow of the year came swirling down, backlit by tall racks of lights. The big stadium turned into a snowglobe. Snow feathered the teams, the fans; offense and defense threw up rooster tails of glitter while the disembodied voice of officialdom said, “the ball is somewhere near the middle of the field” and cheerleaders lay down to make snow angels. We won; it ended; players sledded, laughing, on their stomachs, threw snowballs, and made snow angels too. The whole sky had opened up in an ovation, crazy, generous. Just like opera.

And just what we needed. We were aching and sore from the difficult, muddy election we all dragged ourselves through, the one where the polls were unanimous that what everyone really wanted was for it to be over, but for the majority of us the end was a heartbreak. Like opera, the game and the snow remind us that setbacks exist to be overcome, that what looks like darkness can brighten in unexpected ways. There’s always possibility, and that’s something to be grateful for.

The Garden and the Election

I’m standing here next to a big pile of mulch, thinking how much it resembles politics: a heap of shredded trash which can work for good or for ill depending on how it’s applied. This election featured a lot of truth getting suffocated while a lot of weeds were nourished. It was discouraging to realize that a woman candidate for President could not be treated fairly. It was hard to see those who never had the experience of hitting their heads against the glass ceiling continuing to pretend it wasn’t there. You don’t see it? Of course you don’t see it, it’s not visible, that’s why they call it a glass ceiling. But if you step back for a good look you can see the supports that hold it up. They were mortared sturdily into place with the architecture of thousands of years of cultural expectations upheld as natural law. But still, each fresh assault weakens them; one day they will collapse. I’m sorry that day was not now.

Autumn stayed warm and beautiful this year right up through election day. Then the results of the election came in and brought with them a killing frost, and all the bright, wonderful, colored leaves fell from the trees. So now my choices are, sit inside moping about the coming winter, or put on my jacket and go back out. I have more bulbs to plant. I have that big pile of mulch to spread – it’s an actual mulch pile, not a metaphorical one, but in either case it’s my job to spread it where it will feed the best elements of the garden and suffocate the destructive ones. I’ll also take notes on what worked and what didn’t this time, because the success of next year’s garden depends on understanding what happened in the last one. This can be a lot harder to figure out than you’d think, or like, or hope. For gardens just like it is for politics.

That Space Between Flying and Falling

I spent last week in Boston, and went to see Rachel Mello’s new work at the Laconia Gallery. The pieces in this show are cut silhouettes of cityscapes painted with clouds, hung from the ceiling so as to cast shadows on the walls, on each other, and on us as we walk through them.

She called the show That Space Between Flying and Falling. I was immediately filled with regret that, as a poet, I had not thought up that phrase. It applied in the first place to the artwork, but then like a good poem it opened out – into the moments full of possibility in anyone’s life. It is the gardener with the seed catalog in her lap, every flower and fruit she’s ever thought of ready and waiting. It is the poet before the poem. The whole world is open at that moment, and you are free, untethered. Your plan might fly, your plan might fall – this is the space where every possibility is open. Even falling can be positive: you can fall in love; you can fall into a run of good luck. Or of course you can fall on your face. But you begin, because you can hold out for infinite potential only so long before it’s time to plant the seeds or lose any garden at all. You begin, and the options of all the other windows start closing.

Rachel’s silhouettes perpetrate the magic of holding that moment open. They are paintings, rich with brushstroke and highlight, but not framed nor on a wall. They are sculptures, meant to be seen hanging in space, but they are flat.

garden gate

Garden Gate, detail with shadow

They are cut in the shapes of urban landscape, but their surfaces are painted entirely with skies. They have one side painted in the full, voluptuous colors of a stormy sunset, but the other side is painted in greyscale. They hold my imagination open, and in the space between flying and falling the garden of my dreams and the poetry of my garden take shape.

If you’re in Boston between now and December 18 you can check it out. The gallery’s website is laconiagallery.com