Proof That I Cannot Write A Valentine

I sat down yesterday to write about Valentine’s Day, and this happened. Perhaps another day, I will sit down to write about heartbreak, and a bubblegum pop lyric will erupt. Who knows? This is still not finished, but I’m “airing it out.” Figure if I shake it hard, like a throw rug, the dust and cat hair will fly loose, and perhaps there will be a poem in the end. Eventually there will be a title.

The tide kept changing the cream-colored foam line
in a little, back a little, a subtle dent forming in the sand
where each lick ended and the next didn’t quite meet.

The dull sky and a cold wind, full of wet and salt, a breath
beating on my face, which was good. I had an excuse
to wipe my eyes now and then. It was too hard to speak

so I walked away south toward a ruined jetty, the rocks
floundering in low tide, seaweed flossed between them,
barnacles and crabs contending with a tangle of trash.

The beach was empty except for us, and the seagulls
of course, who found us wanting. We had nothing to give
and they stalked further out into the surf looking for better

for worse, for something alive enough to break the surface
with bubbles of air. The Atlantic rolled tiny black mussel shells
smooth as eyes; a blink of iridescence cupped in my hands.

You reclined on cold sand, long lines of blue and green and white,
a marker left, an x to indicate where beginning starts. And I
turned back into biting wind, and wet salt, and birds crying.

Posted in Kim Hannigan, language, Poetry, Writer | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

There Will Be Spring

January, the month of reckoning. Whatever we have managed to skate by in November and December, the little indulgences that we have taken lightly, entertained, excused…all of those come home, like angry bantam cocks, to roost in our lives. With the calendar change, I brace for the onslaught of car repairs, fuel bills, doctor’s visits, appliance replacements, college book ransom payments (there is no appropriate word for the extortion of one loose-leaf workbook rented for $182.00), and the expected collapse of our bank account. It happens. January, while not the cruelest month, reigns as the month that teaches us the meaning of consequences. Then she drops a foot of snow on us, rains a little, and blows arctic kisses down our backs.

We begin to dream of spring.

Our acre-plus-a-little is carved out of the 20th-century woodland, which 300 years ago was part of the real forest, full of thick hemlocks, oaks, and chestnuts. The trees here are spindly, as you would expect, mostly baby-boomers clustered around sturdier depression-era oaks. Under the canopy, the thick leaf mold cushions every step. If you scrape it away, the decayed mulch barely covers the first layer of rock. Soil is scarce; rocks are plentiful. When the builders excavated the basement, the stones were strewn in a line up the property border, much to the benefit of chipmunks. We call it the rock wall, but it has more architectural affinity with a cairn or a hedgerow. The expanse of land logged for the septic mounds, and the scarce lawn, simply had the trees removed, with no attempts made to improve the top layer. Every year, rocks break through to the surface, through the non-grass cover of ferns, mosses, scrabbly wild strawberries, and clover. Topsoil? None. Pavers? Everywhere.

Nothing grows here, except that which belongs, or those interlopers no one wants. When we bought the house, the previous owners had planted nothing around it. We pried a ton or so of rock out of the perimeter and tried shrubbery. The rhododendron thrived (a pampered cousin to the wild ones populating our gully land), and two mountain laurels would be succeeding if we could just keep the deer from munching their tender bits. But the pretty cypress failed, as did the evergreens, the Andromeda, and various shade-friendly ground covers. Invasive Japanese bayberry and stiltgrass apparently need no topsoil; they grow rampantly anywhere there is a bit of room. The jury is still out on the most recent plantings of hostas and ferns. If we can keep the deer from them, then they might take hold. But again, even with buckets of good earth dumped around them, this place seems fundamentally averse to tender roots or any plants transplanted from a garden center.

vintage-butterfly2-523x1024Yet, when I dream of spring, I dream of seed catalogs. I begin to covet the black trays from Lowes and Home Depot, the entire systems of grow lights and plastic humidity shields, the peat pots and bags of seed starter mixes, the vermiculite. I want to check my growing zone against a Rodale Institute map, and I pull out my ancient copy of a Mother Jones published planting guide. I look at the deer-proof, raised garden plans that should require a building permit from any town council, and with them the equally wonderful chicken coops that anyone (except my husband) must find charming. I think about corn growing tall and thick enough to hide multitudes of scary creatures, I imagine squashes and cucumbers vining around cedar teepees, and I breathe in the reek of imaginary tomato plants and basil, growing into one another with abandon. My seed dreams are Eden come to fruition again.

However I live on this shadowy, rocky land with rules of its own. The reality will be, again, sturdy plantings in pots of tolerant species that demand little sun. The pots will be on the deck where, if we are lucky, six hours of sunlight might be captured, or the front porch where the morning sun falls for only three hours. I will spray Deer Off almost daily on the hostas and astilbe, the day lilies and the coneflowers – all were heavily pruned by the deer last year, so I may lose this particular war. I will start no seedlings, though I will probably buy a packet or two of basil and cilantro. They will languish, unopened, in the garage waiting for enough warmth, and I will forget that I have them. Sometime in August, I will happen upon the dusty envelopes while looking for something else, perhaps the elusive jug of evergreen fertilizer, and I will plant the seeds too late to amount to much more than the first true leaves. I will buy a Thai pepper plant, and nurse it obsessively until it fades due to the fact that nothing is less like Thailand than our back deck.

Oh, the rhododendron will put out new foliage, and perhaps the mountain laurels will slowly regain their leaves as well, if we keep them caged in boxes of deer netting. Rich will pull up the newly born stones from the weedy lawn, and still miss a few, which will dent the lawnmower blade anew. The mosses will suddenly brighten the dark places, and Rufus will nose and nibble on tiny, red strawberries. It will be spring, come whatever January and the rest of winter throws at us. There will be spring peepers singing love songs from the damp hollows, and brown bats will slip in and out of the crack by our chimney to flit among the oak and hemlock limbs. The world around us, these difficult woodlands, will be as full of life as can be imagined, though little of it will have anything to do with me or my labors. For that is what I have learned living here: much of life is simply a gift, unearned, unplanned. The farmer inside me yearns to make my imprint on this land, and yet I am over-ruled. I can only appreciate and protect, and take time to wonder at things beyond my ability to control.

January settles deeply about us. Tomorrow another half of a foot or more of snow will cover the glacier forming in our back yard. We are not through this, not even halfway. The woods sleep; the trees groan and complain in dreams. I wonder about the trickles of melted ice that slip between the rocks and freeze far below the surface, and the things that will be moved about by the simple cycle of thaw and frost. I ponder the sleeping world beneath the ice, the grubs and hibernating creatures, the realm that has been stopped, almost, and the amphibian hearts caught between beats. Everything waits, in this pause of winter, but in that rests all the stored energy of spring. Waiting.

Spring cannot arrive fast enough for me.

mt airy june 3

Mountain laurel, June.

Posted in gardening, Kim Hannigan, Musings, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , | 11 Comments

High Time to Skip the Pleasantries

First, I watched the entire 19 minutes and 17 seconds of Michelle Wolf’s speech.

Clearly that was something that the vast majority of the people talking about it did not do.

Then, just to be clear, I checked the most expansive definitions of “roast” in the context of humor, and “satire.” A precision with words might help when discussing a piece of art made entirely by words.

Roast, it turns out, has more of a range of meaning than I thought. Conventional old Merriam Webster says that it can mean “to subject to severe criticism or ridicule” or “to honor (a person) at a roast.” So that covers just about any humor from Lenny Bruce to your drunk Uncle at his boss’s retirement party at the VFW. The Urban Dictionary is less broad; to roast is to “humorously mock or humiliate someone with a well-timed joke, diss or comeback.” No honor involved in the more street-cred definition.

swiftSatire, an old friend of mine, always brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Yes, that essay where the satirist suggested curing poverty and that damn Irish problem in a two-for-one solution of eating Irish children, who were described as very tender meat at the age of one. (Luckily for Swift, the reading public of his time did seem to actually read his essay before trashing it and him, unlike the current viewing public that is too busy to spend 19:17 to verify what was said by a comic satirist.) So according to the venerated Oxford English Dictionary, stodgy olde satire is “(a) poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.” To be fair, I also checked the Urban Dictionary to see if any new meanings have evolved. I was surprised at the restrained tone it presented by defining satire as “(t)he art of sarcasm typically directed from events that take place in the world. Much like a caricature of the human race. Usually it is done through comedy, but sometimes it is just as serious as the event itself.”

By now you might sense where I am headed.

First, clearly Michelle Wolf roasted a wide variety of people during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats – she ridiculed them severely, she humiliated them, she roundly dissed them. Her monologue however was not of that second definition from Merriam Webster; she came to praise no one. So she cannot be compared to the gentle nudge-nudge, wink-wink comics that ruffle no feathers while telling the masses that the powerful are “just like us.”

Was the monologue satiric? Did she use humor and irony to exaggerate, expose and criticize prevailing immorality and foolishness? Yes. Did she present a caricature of the human race? Yes. And under it all, was it serious? Yes.

If you have watched it, you will know that the entire monologue, surprisingly, was not about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, nor was it about her looks. (There was a joke about Chris Christie, and it was about his looks, his size. He laughed.) If you are relying on the reporting about the event, you must assume that Michelle focused almost entirely on the women of the Trump administration: Kellyanne, Ivanka, and Sarah. That leaves out her jabs at Congress, Hillary Clinton, pussy hats, Ann Coulter, Jack Tapper, CNN, Fox News, Harvey Weinstein, the Me-Too movement, Roy Moore, Michael Cohen and $130,000, Reince Priebus as a porn star name, Trump’s economic worth, Trump’s virility, white nationalists, arming teachers, Mike Pence, Bear Stearns, Al Franken, Ted Kennedy, Starbucks, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Democrats, Scott Pruitt, Sean Hannity, MSNBC, Mika and Joe, Rachel Maddow, Megyn Kelly, print media, the general media, immigrants, and Flint, MI.

For the almost three minutes that Michelle spoke about the women in the Trump administration, there was a definite theme: lying, active deception, and how facts/truth are treated (note, this is where the criticizing “prevailing immorality or foolishness” part of the definition plays well). There were swipes about appearance for both Ivanka and Sarah, but how Michelle used it was interesting. Ivanka was not criticized for being lovely, but for using her loveliness to hide political corruptness. Sarah and Kellyanne are major players in the current destruction of the public’s belief in facts and truth as norms. The “smoky eyes” comment wasn’t about makeup, or Sarah’s face, it was about her role in the immolation of truth. The swipe about resembling Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was accurate, because she does resemble the actress, and it was potent because Aunt Lydia’s character is a repudiation of wacked out fundamentalist beliefs. If evangelical Sarah had taken a page out of Chris Christie’s playbook, a smile might have won some critics over to her side. But the Trump White House is at its core an administration of thin skins. They love to toss insults, but don’t like to have any lobbed back.

Especially at the womenfolk.

Yes, this was bound to come around to that. You can talk trash about the men, but leave the ladies alone. That is what I have been seeing from the conservative side ranting about this monologue. How can we tolerate a Woman being Humiliated Publicly this way? And a Christian Mother, at that! How Noble that she took the Humiliation, and was so Brave, so Stalwart! (No comment on how if she had been a man, then she would have shrugged it off, because men have to suffer the slings and arrows, after all.) A Woman Must Be Protected! So many valiant men are frustrated that they could not get up and just shut that damn woman up. (Women are, after all, fragile things, tender things, dare I say snowflakes?)

“Yeah. You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” Michelle warned. And “don’t count your chickens!”

But there is more criticism of her monologue coming from a certain uncomfortable liberal camp. It turns out that the problem was that Michelle did not uphold core ideals, including civility. Liberals, especially ones who are firmly rooted into the mainstream power grid, are having trouble with a woman satirically roasting women. It does not feel pleasant. There are few enough women who have clawed their way into national office in our country; currently 23% and 19.3% of the US Senate and House of Representatives are women. And it is a safe guess that not a single one of them got there by getting “into someone’s face” or “getting down in the dirt” like your average male politician might. And here was Michelle, going after successful women, treating them with exactly the same intensity of jokes that have been lobbed at successful men forever. Why was her joke about McConnell’s neck being circumcised (yes, he’s a dickhead) not as offensive as Sander’s smoky eyes being created by ashes of truth?

Liberal women cannot do certain things to other women, it turns out.

Michelle Wolf spoke for a little over 19 minutes about the state of our political world, to a gathering of journalists, and yet the most important bit, the part when she spoke about the way that news has failed us, has received less attention. (Cue the video up on your computer, and go to about 17:37; listen.) This has been bothering me increasingly over the last few years. We live in a media saturated world and hear almost none of the news. “Trump has helped all of you,” she says, noting that the money generated by reporting about his dumpster fire administration has made the media millions in profits. Spokespeople for the administration – yes, Kellyanne and Sarah in predominant roles – keep the news cycle spinning along with outrageous complicity from the press. Rather than keeping journalistic eyes trained on the real, sometimes non-porn-related news, CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and the rest are off chowing down on the buffet of Trump scandals.

“Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”

That is the real news.

Oh where is a great satirist when you need one?

 

Sources:
CSPAN. “Michelle Wolf COMPLETE REMARKS at 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (C-SPAN).” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Apr. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDbx1uArVOM.
“Roast.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/roast.
“Roast.” Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Roast.
“Satire, n.” Satire, n.: Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/171207.
“Satire.” Urban Dictionary, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=satire.
“Women in the U.S. Senate 2018.” Women in the U.S. Senate 2018 | CAWP, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-senate-2018.
Posted in feminism, Freedom of the press, Kim Hannigan, language, racism, religion, Satire | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A Butter Dish, Cats, and Mr. Updike

I ate a piece of salt-rising toast today and forgot to set the cover back on the butter dish. We have a charming teal green cow-shaped butter dish, so for an hour or two the cow reclined next to the green base. When I walked through the kitchen I noticed the butter and the tell-tale rounded gouge at the end. Exactly as a cat’s tongue would work the soft butter. Exactly as Seneca’s tongue, I should specify. And Seneca, satiated, slept in his cat tower dreaming buttery dreams.

seneca sleeps on a cookbook

Seneca curls up on Julia Child.

I tell everyone that I am both a cat person and a dog person. I believe that to be true. But when it comes to writing about my life, I find that the cats always own more pages than the dogs. It isn’t original of me to note that cats are intrinsically literary beasts. Their bodies, so elegant and expressive, even suggest alphabets and punctuation. I find myself speaking of the comma of a cat’s sleeping body, the exclamation point of a tail, the fluid S of a purring beast wrapping around my ankles. Cats and books also get along tolerably well. The best used bookstores have resident cats sleeping on stacked inventory. In my house, any book worth reading is also the book worth sleeping on, or sitting in front of, preferably when a human is trying to read it. Cats recognize the importance of the written word.

Perhaps because of that, just about everyone seems to write about them.

Today I read “The Cats” by John Updike, published in The New Yorker over twenty years ago. Updike is not one of the pillars of my literary world, and I do not remember when I last read something he wrote. Perhaps the reason for my disinterest is that I find it hard to give a damn about his characters; they always seem to be white men, suburban men, and frustrated middle-aged men. So I had forgotten the reasons he is a modern literary giant.

“When my mother died, I inherited eighty acres of Pennsylvania and forty cats. Eighty-two and a half acres, to be exact; the cats were beyond precise counting.”

With that, he got me. I fell into his story of a white, middle-aged, now-suburban man dealing with the death of his mother and his inheritance of a tidal wave of cats, which grew symbolically into the threatening, inundating, and yet nurturing nature of rural life. As I read the rather longish short story, I thought, “This is why I cannot write.” When people ask me, as they do, why I’ve never amounted to a hill of beans as a writer, it is right here in this story, in these words. Updike is spinning an entire universe of a life within a short story. Read it slowly, and then reread it. You will see what I mean.

When I reached the end of “The Cats,” I rejoiced that nothing tied up neatly. In that, the great mid-century novelists made their stories true. Things don’t end with the sun setting and problems resolved. Protagonists learn something, and that’s enough. The world is not going to end well, at least not for most of us. These cats are not going back to the halcyon days of yore. But oh the words he uses! The poetry of simple, direct language, and the sounds that are made! And through it all, I can see the cats clearly:

“As I drifted across the lank grass, a few shadows filtered out of the orchard and flickered toward the house, eagerly loping. Several more materialized from the direction of the woods. The cats had survived. They thought I was my mother and good times had returned.”

Perhaps it is time to revisit the Updike novels on my shelves.

.

Source for quotes:
Updike, John. “The Cats.” The Big New Yorker Book of Cats. New York: Random House, 2013. 77-90. Print

Posted in cats, Kim Hannigan, language, Writer | Tagged , | 1 Comment

For the Love of a Dog

“I have the perfect dog for you,” the earnest volunteer said. “He’s an old soul dog. You will love him.”

Rufus came into our family on a mucky, cold December day. His ears were down, but he dutifully walked into the circle of humans and wagged his tail for us. “I am a good boy,” he said, as clear as anything, for anyone who can speak Dog. I am as fluent in that language as it is possible for a human to be. I am that person who meets you and your dog on the street and only sees the dog. I often retreat at parties to the room where the dog is sleeping, and we happily spend time together. I cannot help myself. My fingers reach out to scratch ears through the fences that separate us. I sit on floors, just to keep our eyes level. I accept that my neck must to lickable, if another’s head must be kissable. I will pound my hands on the floor and stick my butt up (always regretting that I have no tail to wag), if it means that a dog will experience the absolute joy of knowing a human being is trying to speak Dog.

Bernard wordA good dog, yes, but a perfect dog? I had lost a perfect dog, and waited for a year and a half before even considering another. After a horrific ice storm in Kansas City, when Conor was barely out of toddlerhood, we found Bernard in a crate of puppies at a shelter meet-and-greet in a mall hallway. He was the saddest, biggest black-and-white puppy I had ever seen, and so he came home with me. His parentage was suspect, but the shelter folk thought there might be a chance that his father was a St. Bernard, hence explaining his size, and our name for him. His father might have been many things, but not that. Part Border Collie (the stare!), part German Shepherd (the fur), part Labrador (most of his face), and part Everydog – that was our Bernard.

Maggie and Reba, our two resident Grand Dames, took one look at the pup and said, “What were you thinking?” Bernard peed on the floor that first night. Scandalous glances between the lady Labradors! This would not do! They marched him outside first thing in the morning, one leading the way, the other behind him to make sure he was paying attention. They were prodigious markers of territory, these old girls, and they spent a great deal of time pointing out all the best places to Bernard. He never had another accident. In fact, he took their instruction to heart so much that for the first few years of life, he never peed anywhere other than our backyard. We could walk him for hours through the neighborhood, past come-hither shrubs and well-marked street posts, and the dog would race into our backyard to finally get relief.

Between Bernard and I stretched an invisible cord. He could not leave me, and in the end I could not leave him. People would joke about it – his being my shadow, the way he would watch me across a room, the fact that he never had to be trained to stay with me in an unfenced yard. Bernard was comfortable, and so was I, as long as he could be with me. We inhabited the same spaces, and often I would look at him, while I was busy at some small task, and I would think that he was working very hard to speak into my head, to commune directly with me. Soul mate. I don’t believe in human ones, because quite simply we are such a critical species, so quick to judgement. But with Bernard I experienced a canine soul mate. I was loved for everything about me. He loved the way I smelled, the way I felt, the way I looked. And I found that the same reactions filled my heart. No other dog had ever been more delightfully fluffy and soft. His fur smelled amazing, and I would bury my whole face into his thick neck ruff. How perfect he was in every way!

I do not write about the day he died. Simply: the worst of days. After, my life was haunted with empty corners. I found myself being surprised daily by utter absence. I understand the concept of abyss now, and vacuum, and bereft. There is a wooden box in the bottom drawer of my nightstand, still wrapped in the white paper from the crematorium. With it, the nice people sent a card and a little plastic bag filled with snips of Bernard’s fur. They probably thought this was the kind thing to do, this abomination of fur left over, separate from the wondrous dog himself. I cannot touch it, but I also cannot throw it away.

Rufus reflection edited

Rufus sleeps in a puddle of sunlight on Duncan’s bed. We do not have a cord between our hearts, this sweet pup and I. His fur is not fluffy, but slippery sleek. I love the way that I can see the sinews of his legs through the short velvet hair. I trace the ink patterns of his brindle. When he looks up, his brow wrinkles and all the folded brindle stripes make him look so puzzled. This dog always seems to ask us questions. How far? How long? When? Now? He sighs, and puts his head back down. “The sun is so warm and delightful, you could join me, you know.” I kiss the top of his knobby head, and he licks my arm. He smells like corn chips.

Rufus teaches us about joy. He experiences it utterly, with abandon, when he runs. There is an open field near Mount Airy Casino, right before the trail enters the woods, where Rufus races. I unclip his leash, and whisper, “Run!” And his taut body springs away from me, one fluid crazy motion. Rufus runs on the veld. Rufus skims through the tall grass, graceful as an antelope. He leaps over the trail, and whirls. Again and again. Joy. I am an acolyte of joy; Rufus has attained perfect knowledge of it, my Yogi. I find myself laughing while he runs, just experiencing some small part of the ether he exists in.

And I will be taking all that away from him in the months to come.

Unknown to us, hiding from the blood tests, and unfazed by preventative medications, heart worms have mined Rufus’s heart. Born in Georgia, Rufus started life in the epicenter of this particular scourge. Tests do not detect one life stage of the worm, and so we were blindsided last week to find out that our previous negative test became a positive one over the past year. He has no symptoms of the disease. We only found out because it was time to get the new year’s supply to keep the heart worms away. Now we face treatment. A series of three shots, which are always described as particularly painful, and months of bedrest. No jumping. No running. No walks. No excitement. No joy, because joy can kill. Because a heart beating too hard can dislodge a clump of the dying worms and cause a dog to go into cardiac arrest.

“He’s an old soul dog. You will love him.”

I am a harsh critic of the human race, but I do give us credit for one attribute of the human soul. It can love, over and over, opening itself up for endless pain in the process. Perhaps it is this that dogs sense about us, when they are overlooking all our other shortcomings. It is the one common ground they have with us. Because I love Rufus, I will put him through this hell. Because he loves me, he will forgive me. He will lick my arm, my face, my ears. He will ask me why over and over, but he will understand that I’m mute, deaf, and have a very bad nose. He knows that there is a Bernard shaped hole in my heart that dwarfs any of the worm tunnels in his. And he knows that he has found the Rufus shaped space I’ve made especially for him. What won’t we do for the ones we love?

Posted in dogs, Family, Kim Hannigan, Musings | Leave a comment

Vacation People

We were not vacation people. In my photo album there are a few black and white shots of somewhere called Christmas Park, and a year later more from Lollypop Farm. Both were amusement parks in western New York that did not require Dad to drive very far. In my first eighteen years of life, I can remember only three road trips, and two of those were disasters. There was the grand tour of Gettysburg, Washington, DC, and Williamsburg. Dad did not want to mess with any sort of guided tour of the battlefield, so I have a hazy recollection of standing in a large field. I was glad to be out of the car, but it was just a field. When we got to Washington, Dad attempted to drive around to see the sites. Again, he opted for the do-it-himself mode of vacationing. Washington gridlock, and L’Enfant’s evil diagonal avenues defeated him. We never got out of the car. When he untangled himself from the city, we simply drove away. I have a clear memory of being very, very quiet because Dad was so angry. I think everything must have gone better in Williamsburg simply because I do not remember it at all.

The other two road trips have a shared theme: taking the family to places where Dad built incinerators. If there is a rule about places that need incinerators it is probably that they are not also good vacation destinations. Perhaps this is because in the 1970s incinerators were often being built at landfills. Mom and I did a solo trip to visit Dad on location in Virginia. We travelled past miles of paper mills spewing sour, car-sick-inducing fumes. Then we spent a week living with dad in a motel room, while he went to work each day. We were on vacation, Hannigan-style, which basically seemed to mean that while we did not need to do housework, we also could not do much of anything else.

When my sisters and I were teenagers, Dad once again decided it was time to hit the road. He felt that it would be good to show us his latest job site, and this one had potential. He was working in Welfleet, MA, along the narrow neck of vacation paradise known as Cape Cod. I had never seen the ocean or walked on a beach, and neither had my older sisters. My Dad had been working on and off at the landfill over the past year, so he also knew that in-season prices were much higher on the Cape than preseason ones. So his plan: go over Easter break, when all of us were out of school. Easter came early that year, grim and cold and wet. Add to this three moody teenaged girls, over ten hours of driving, and someone having to ride in the middle of the back seat. We stumbled out of the car into the maw of a northeaster, sleety rain blowing sideways. I was in such a stubborn funk of 13-year-old gloom that nothing could penetrate. We staggered up over the swell of the dunes and saw the sullen dark Atlantic. But that sight was proof of the power and fury of a full-blown sulk. I stood in the presence of greatness and saw nothing. Easter breaks were not long, so two days later we drove back to western New York, and never vacationed on the road again.

lake postcardBut you cannot keep a man from dreaming. For my Dad, a good vacation did not involve a car at all. It involved a lake. And it did not involve meeting new people and learning about exotic locations. It meant having a guy named Louie living just down the lake a bit, a guy you worked with and even travelled with to all those landfills scattered around the country. The lake should be a small one, and there needed to be a row boat for fishing, and a dock for the kids to jump off. He did not worry too much about what the cabin looked like, or if Mom was going to enjoy all the cleaning and cooking that a vacation at a lake would entail. His cohort, Louie Wheeler had a place on Demmon Pond, and so for two years the Hannigan clan became Lake People.

Like my dad, I love lakes. There is something comforting about the constant lap of water against the shore, the grumbling of the docks, and the light breeze that lifts hair off hot, sweaty faces. Bored kids can spend time just looking at a lake, if need be, and see things worth seeing. A lake is malleable. You can poke it with sticks, digging deeply into the muck to uncover all kinds of creatures. You can lob big rocks in it, or try to skip the flat ones across it. You can build little rafts of woven grass to set bouquets of dandelions adrift. And no matter what you do to it, the next morning the lake will have undone everything. Nothing is new since the ice-age at Demmon Pond, and yet each day the lake stretched out before our toes as virgin territory to be explored.

The cabin was dark, heavily paneled, with an awful scratchy plaid sofa. My Mom arrived with enough cleaning supplies to conquer the slums of Bombay. I am sure that we helped her some, but before long she kicked us out, with orders to go play until she called. Carol Wheeler and her two brothers lived just down the shoreline from our cabin. They spent every summer at the lake, so they took pity on our lack of important lake knowledge. The first lesson (and the only one I remember now) regarded Clem. Clem, a massive basset hound, loved children with his entire smelly soul. When a child walked out a cabin door, I believe that the small hairs in Clem’s nose started to vibrate. When the child walked down to the edge of the water, Clem’s legs began to move until he had accelerated to a full gallop. Nothing could stop him. Clem had no brakes. So the first important rule the Wheeler kids imparted was this: Run into the water and get out deep enough to make Clem float. If you did not go deep enough, this drooling puddle of a dog would knock you flat on your ass, and love you beyond endurance.

Even during our lake holidays, Dad never really stopped working. He took a couple of days off, but mostly travelled back and forth with Louie to work at the plant in Wellsville. When he did relax at the lake, he went fishing. One memorable day my sister, Cheri, and I went with him. Two sun-browned girls out for a day with their Dad. What could go wrong? By this point, I had learned that I did not take walks in the woods with my Dad, because a shotgun always came along for the journey. I loved the furry and feathered creatures that my Dad saw as pests and/or dinner. But I was not overly fond of fish, particularly when they brushed against my legs when I was swimming. So I could go fishing with Dad with no fear of tears.

But that day the fish weren’t biting. Bobbers rocked with the waves, but didn’t jump with any fish nibbles. It looked like there wouldn’t be fish for dinner, and that disappointment weighed heavy with my Dad.

Antique-Frog-Image-GraphicsFairyUntil he had an idea. He rowed the boat over into a weedy, shallow area of the lake. The water was murky there, full of green fronds, and some flat lily pads. This was where all the insects lived as well: mosquitos, gnats, water skaters, little green flies, and big hairy black flies. Cheri and I were smacking bugs off each other, and beginning to whine. But the man who had challenged Washington traffic paid us little attention. He stared at the water and reached for his net. Quick as can be, the net slipped through the water and caught a frog. It is important to note that while I did not love fish, I did love frogs. Children learn all about frogs, from pollywog to tadpole and beyond every year in science class. Even the names of the frog life stages are cute, cuddly words. I did not know until that day that frogs could be food.

My father, always the outdoorsman, masterfully killed a host of frogs that day, slicing their legs off and tossing the remaining bodies back into the lake to feed the bottom dwellers. The legs went into the fish pail. He did not stop until he had enough for dinner, and then cheerfully rowed back to our dock. I do not remember if we screamed, or cried, or yelled at him. I remember looking away, focusing on points on the shore, birds in trees, anything other than the water and the bottom of the boat. Always the optimist, my Dad told us that we would enjoy eating the frog’s legs, and then he showed us how they “jump” when salt hits the flesh. He ate his dinner with relish; I did not touch the frog’s legs. Mom made an exception from the “you eat what is in front of you” dinner rule. I probably had a peanut butter sandwich. And I never went fishing with Dad again.

Vacation people know how to go to strange places with a graceful acceptance that they are not at home anymore. Vacation people try new cuisines, and dare themselves to step outside of comfort zones. We Hannigans could not help but drag our home behind us whenever we attempted to explore the world. My Mom always found herself cleaning strange rooms. My sisters and I took our own street gang with us, and spent every day fighting the same battles that raged on Highland Avenue. And my Dad, who loved us with all his heart, never stopped working. When he took us somewhere, what he wanted most was to show us the things he already knew, to explain himself to these little girls he could not understand. Our travels mapped out Dad’s singular perspective, pulling the horizons close to home. No, we were not vacation people.

Posted in Family, Kim Hannigan, travelling | 2 Comments

Losing God

There is no date set in stone here. While my ecstatic adolescent diaries noted every reaffirmation of faith, every rededicating of my life, every hearing of a call to serve God that rocked my young life, I never wrote down “today I stopped believing.” Belief for me had been cataclysmic, always full of emotional wrangling and release. Nonbelief was gradual, like the erosion by wind and water that lays bare the granite hearts of mountains.

17_BestOf_ClaudiusSmithRockLoopSo perhaps I should start on a bald patch of Precambrian rock, somewhere along the Hudson River near Nyack College, a staunchly Evangelical school where I spent two years being a square peg pretending to fit into a round hole. Professor Ault, a wise volcano-loving geologist, took us on a fossil gathering trip that lead eventually to me standing on the most ancient of bedrocks. Rocks fascinate me. I go to the mineral and gem exhibitions at natural history museums and skip the gems. At any given time, there are small pebbles stored away in jewelry boxes in my dresser drawers. So meeting the grandmother of all rocks, standing on her old round shoulders perhaps changed something in my mind. I felt the depth of her age, and oddly for me at the time, I felt the inherent feminine that all ancient peoples recognized in the Earth.

The feminine. To be a woman, to hear as a woman, to speak as a woman, all within a religion based at its core upon a creation myth that denigrates a woman. By being raised within a fundamentalist church, I was burdened with the whole text of the Old Testament, and required to take the stories as truth not merely metaphor. But increasingly I found trouble with parts of the New Testament as well, particularly in some of Paul’s letters to the rowdy new churches where women were taking active roles. I remember a particularly heated Sunday School class where I decided I didn’t accept the analogy of Christ being the head of the church as a husband was the head of his wife. I asked the person leading the discussion if we unmarried women were then headless. And the best answer came back that women would be wise to look to their fathers or other men of authority. I never went to Sunday School again.

But I still believed. I made excuses for the texts, and dismissed Paul as a deeply closeted homosexual who distrusted both his own nature and the nature of women. I became more Anglican in my approach to the ancient myths. Misogyny in Genesis reflected more of the character of the particular nomadic peoples that created the tales than on the nature of God. Notice how neatly that explains away the disturbing unfairness that is exhibited over and over in the stories! Abel clearly was not chosen of God because he grew plants, and nomads hated agriculturists. Certain stable settlements who fought with the nomads worshipped female deities represented by snakes: bingo! Eve was off the hook! It was only important to take the broader message of the myths, and not the pesky details. We humans had always fallen short of God’s plans for us, and required redemption and forgiveness. I borrowed from one of my saints at the time, C. S. Lewis: the story of Jesus was the myth that came true, the one that all the other myths had pointed to repeatedly through millennia.

How amazing the strength of those little dribbles of water working down through the thin lines in the rock. How persistent the cold winters, that swell those veins with ice and pop flecks of dust off once smooth faces. To be a woman, to hear as a woman, to speak as a woman, I read as a woman. I distrusted texts, pulled them apart, lifted the covers to find what cobwebs might be between the sheets. I examined belief itself, as I found it in me. Clearly the emotional ecstasy of my early years had a sexual component. Catholics were not the only Christian sect with a “bride of Christ” problem. Could I rework my beliefs to contain all that was becoming clear to me, to manage to keep God but change the story around him to make belief possible? I still believed somehow, but could no longer put the words into any context that had foundations. I clung to the mystical.

And then I didn’t.

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The Earth is old, and older still the expanse of our Universe. Unlike Abraham and Moses, our eyes have seen the images of galaxies scattered like grains of sand at distances almost beyond human comprehension. And in seeing them, we have looked through the vastness of time itself, we would-be god makers. Nothing out there points toward or away from god. Nothing out there indicates that one species on our breath-taking, beautiful little world represents an image of god any more than any other species. In fact, in this Universe, all worlds are significant and insignificant; we are, and we are not. Dark matter and energy trumps our little rocky planet, and all the other bits of gas and matter. If there is a god there, then it would perhaps be better not to meet.

So I continue on this exploration of what it means to be a woman, to hear as a woman, to speak as a woman. When I stand in the dark Pennsylvania woods, listening to the sound that wind makes in the boughs of trees, I hear the music and sense the joy that my heart feels, not because of any god, but because this is home. The only sacred place, this home, does not require the existence of a god to be sacred. I feel this is a piece of feminine wisdom that I can trust, a foundational truth, that I first sensed standing on a worn, deeply metamorphosed outcropping overlooking the Hudson River.

 

 

Posted in feminism, Kim Hannigan, language, religion | 1 Comment