Here's a the first half of my May column for Flint's East Village Magazine. The town is almost exclusively notorious, but the trees in my neighborhood are lovely. For the rest of it, check out eastvillagemagazine.org.
One of my first great losses was not a person, but a tree. It was a maple in the front yard of a parsonage in Ohio. The tree was about 25 years old, with a series of satisfying saddles, and I climbed it with increasing strength and skill for about five years. I vividly remember getting as high as I could on summer days and hugging the trunk, riding a breeze or simply blissfully hanging on, smitten by green. Much later, when I encountered Federico Garcia Lorca’s luscious poem ‘’Green,” I thought of my hours in that tree — “Green, I love you, green.”
Unfortunately for my spiritual development, I blamed the church for the tree’s demise. Denominational bureaucrats in the optimistic boom of the 1950s decided to add on an educational wing. They actually moved the parsonage up the street a block, and my beloved tree was uprooted and chopped up to make way. Seeing the huge hole where the tree had been was my first experience of grief, and I’ve never quite trusted organized religion since.
So I learned a dual lesson quite early — not only that one can have a specific and individual relationship with a particular tree, but that trees can’t be taken for granted. There are always people around who’ve got a better idea than a tree. And they are usually wrong — obscenely wrong.
And here we are 45 years later, experiencing not just global warming but global melancholy, the zone for maples, for example, seemingly moving northward, and the trees that we’ve come to love in peril from all manner of blights, wasps and compromised habitats.
This is all to get to an ode of praise — a tribute (I desperately hope not a eulogy) to the trees of our neighborhood. In my frequent walks from Woodlawn and Burroughs Park east across Sunnyside or Calumet to Pierce Park and back, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen trees.
Some were planted by design, part of a “tree plan” of a city once more gracious in its priorities. Some are there by “accident,” volunteers from seeds dropped by birds or carried by wind. Like the houses and residents on our leafy blocks, the trees have character and individual histories to be known and cherished.
Take for instance the immense silver maples providing the beautiful arbors over Beard, Maxine, Blanchard, Kensington and Linwood. According to Mike Keeler and Sherry Hayden, longtime environmentalists and neighborhood activists who took me on a fabulous “tree walk” recently, these trees are at least 60 years old. They were planted in what former Parks Director George Liljeblad calls the “tree lawns” between the sidewalks and the curb about the time the houses were built, mostly in the mid-1930s.
(Sherry notes that cicadas love the old maples. If you walk along Maxine on July or August nights you can hear them chirping out what, as a poet, I’d say are long summer spondees, aural neon advertising “SEX-SEX-SEX” or iambs like “Love ME. Love ME. Love ME.").....
Eighty degrees on the back porch, I'm sitting in the shade reading rough drafts of student short stories (kids getting lost in fields, car wrecks with no seat belts, creepy neighbors, insane miming clowns, threatened virginity, a lottery winner losing it all -- the usual panoply of the Flint imagination) and the sun moves gradually onto the slate porch floor. I feel its radiance before it gets all the way to my toes, still in their thick winter socks. I'm drinking strong black tea -- nothing fancy this time, just the real goods, pekoe with the bag left in a half hour. Two yellow tulips blooming along the fence; two dozen more buds about to pop. A mourning dove chases his girlfriend around the yard. She stays just a few inches ahead, making quick swerves to the right and left. Eventually he'll catch her: she'll let him. A bee zips by my ear. A bee! Could it be a honeybee? Is it possible they're not all dead?
Since it's the end of April, I allow myself not to be anxious about the heat. It can be 80 degrees on April 22. That's not so unheard of.
When exactly did the sun become the enemy? In my lifetime -- after centuries of reliance and celebration, after centuries of art and poetry and worship. Today, I'm willing to take it the old way, so beckoning, so beneficent. Today it feels like a gift. I watch the oblivious doves -- adorable, panicky bobbers almost put on the "can shoot" list but saved in a Michigan vote. I'm trying not to think about Blacksburg, those unrelenting images of guns and blood and grief. I'm trying not to think about the worst week in months in Iraq -- hundreds die in markets -- in markets! -- those gathering places where there's food -- the one thing we must have to survive, and hope, and communion. I'm trying not to think about Gonzales, and how he can't recall, and can't recall and can't recall and can't recall. But one needs to acknowledge all this: this, too, is the world.
So I get up from the chair, drop my pen on the last draft, and submit. I stretch out on my back on the slate floor, in the sun. For a quarter hour those beams shine on my winter skin. I turn my face to it, my eyes closed, and the bright gold penetrates my eyelids, so that all I see is bursts of yellow coronas. The heat penetrates my black jogging pants. I stretch out my arms and let the rays warm even the pale white undersides. It's audacious, this unmitigated, healing warmth and light. Perhaps I'm old enough now that the warnings don't matter. For a quarter hour the sun feels perfect, my body soaking it in the way we used to. So this is what it comes down to for an old sensualist: indulging in unambiguous sun, an ancient pleasure, while a wisp of nostalgia lurks, just a few inches away, just a few inches, in the shade.
The inimitable Kurt Vonnegut died while I was wrestling with my spring sickness, and, a bit belatedly, I wanted to offer my own small tribute to this American literary genius.
I love his eight premises of Creative Writing 101, in the Intro to Bagombo Snuff Box (he called those early stories "a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.") Here they are:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action. 5. Start as close to the end as possible. 6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I love the earthy concision of these bits of advice. He then says that Flannery O'Connor was the greatest short story writer of his generation, and she broke practically every one of his rules but the first. "Great writers tend to do that," he wrote. RIP, Vonnegut.
Coming out of a tunnel of spring sickness and grateful to feel human again. It hit both of us at our beautiful bed and breakfast in Bellaire three weeks ago: last good night was that luxurious soak in the jacuzzi and the eucalyptus massage that followed. Oh, sweet Jeezus.
But we paid a price: our smiling pores opened up so big they apparently took in the worst infection of the season, and we were laid up for days (and not in a fun way). The day after the jacuzzi, before we realized how bad off we were going to be, I made my husband drive me up to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula: I was bound and determined to see the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and have lunch at Boone's in Sutton's Bay. When we got to the lighthouse we both had serious chills and sniffling, and the low point was my poor patient man had to pee in a frigid outhouse.
Things to note: 1. WHY does the gift shop at the lighthouse use plastic bags? Don't they know it takes a thousand years for these suckers to biodegrade -- if ever?
2. WHY does the B&B (otherwise fabulous in all respects) offer Ice Mountain bottled water? Haven't they heard about the water table deterioration, attributed to this company, in their very own neighborhood?
More later. This is just to say I'm back and okay.
OK, so yeah, maybe it was the relaxation of the deep jacuzzi and eucalpytus massages; maybe it was the plush bed and marble fireplace; or maybe the combination of great taste and kindness of our hosts, Jim and Dave. But when the sickness hit, we were so feverish, about the only thing we could manage to do was lie side by side and snuggle.
Then the most marvelous thing: my husband started writing on my back with the eucalpytus oil. Murmuring that he'd studied the Palmer Method of cursive writing from the nuns way back in Brunswick, Maine, he gently sent me missive after missive. Ah, this sweet man knows I love my language.
It's great being old coots in bed. We get to do anything we want, including the Palmer Method. There's one reason to keep cursive alive.