One day last month I was lucky enough not only to have dinner with both of my sons, who now live far away from me and each other, but also to hideously embarrass both of them, as is family tradition.
The other day I was visiting a good friend who has been in bed for over a month with a back problem. I mentioned to him that years of yoga has helped me stay a little ahead of my own decaying skeleton.
He nodded. Everyone says it’s great for relaxation.
Immediately I began to splutter. Though it is my preferred form of exercise – one of the only ones I can manage with my barely functional knees – yoga is one of the biggest sources of irritation in my life. As much as I love a good vinyasa workout, I usually leave class fuming.
What the hell!?! said my friend, laughing, so I explained.
Every morning from the bedroom window of the condo, I watch the sun rise over the water. Most days begin as smears of coral against a wash of night-blue, then bring on the drama in pink and peach as the fireball edges into view. Cloudy days take a more minimalist approach: misty layers of gray, a golden shimmer on the water. The first silhouettes on the beach are the fishermen, posted up in folding chairs, their lines stretching out into the calm morning sea. They are followed by the dog owners, wearing billed caps and carrying coffee cups, some with their pets trotting ahead of them, others with puppies or nervous new rescues on leashes.
Note: This piece is in the style of the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan during the 990s — one of the world’s first great personal essayists, who thought she was only keeping a diary. Her lists have titles like “Things That Make The Heart Beat Faster,” “Occasions When Time Drags By,” “Hateful Things,” “Adorable Things.” They give an amazing window into the culture of her time and place, but just as strikingly illustrate the unchanging aspects of human nature. “One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking that it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.” “It is quite late at night and a woman has been expecting a visitor. Hearing finally a stealthy tapping, she sends her maid to open the gate and lies waiting excitedly. But the name announced by the maid is that of someone with whom she has absolutely no connection. Of all the depressing things this is by far the worst.” I sometimes give students the assignment to make a Shonagon-style list, but I never made one myself before. Excerpts from the original are here and here.
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When one returns to one’s small gray car just in time to see the huge SUV parked in front of it back into one’s front end before pulling away, one is relieved to find that no serious damage has been done. One does not expect to see, after driving home, that one’s Toyota hood ornament was jarred loose by the impact and has now fallen off. A depressing black oval remains.
In the first years of life, babies change so fast. The milestones are so clear, so important, so closely and nervously monitored, so joyfully celebrated. What better show does nature put on than the transformation of a squirming, squalling creature in a blanket and a nursery cap into a person, an ever bigger and more definite one? (As my mother used to love to crow in all kinds of situations, quoting a Shake N Bake Chicken commercial from the 1970s—”And I helped!”)
As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve been collecting stories about pets from my neighbors here in this little corner of North Baltimore. You may have read the sad and unusual story of Jupiter, a dog who was killed by a cop. Here are two more from the growing pile, one dark, one light.
Last week, I received an email from Carrot Ink, the company from whom I purchase supplies for my printer. GET READY FOR MARDI GRAS, it urged in puffy purple letters festooned with GIF confetti and wagging carnival masks. 18% off all ink and toner with coupon code PARTY18.
Today can’t be Mardi Gras, was my first thought. It’s Thursday.
Followed immediately by my God, has it come to this?
Readers: I wrote the following essay a long, long time ago. Whether you are raising small children now or whether you are, like me, looking in the rear view of an empty nest, it could make you feel better about things. Yours truly, M. Winik, setting the low bar on parenting since 1988.
I see a couple with a tiny baby at a party; they are so happy. I go over to ooh and aah at the baby, and ask to hold him. I have two boys, I say.
Oh, really, how old?
Two and four.
Is that hard?
They exchange looks. Is this a depraved person to whom they are speaking, or is it the voice of doom resonating from their future?
Toward the end of last year, I was down in Virginia visiting my 92-year-old ex-mother-in-law Joyce, and Jane, her sister-in-law, a former ambassador. Joyce reads the Washington Post from cover to cover every day, while Jane reads the New York Times with equal thoroughness, though she eschews the Thursday Style section. I asked these avid and perspicacious followers of politics to give me their takes on the Democratic presidential candidate options.
At Thanksgiving dinner, as we went around the table saying what we were grateful for, my daughter Jane gave thanks for leaving home, for the excitement of starting a new part of her life on her own. For a second, I thought about being hurt by this, but she assured us that she meant it in the nicest way, going on to thank everyone at the table who had helped her get to this point.
Once I thought about it, I realized I too should give thanks for her departure.
Before I was struck down by my rebellious appendix last summer, I had started a new writing project, collecting stories about pets in my three-block Baltimore neighborhood, Evergreen, founded in 1873. Many of its original residents were the construction workers and tradesmen who helped build Roland Park, the elegant, affluent quarter that surrounds us on all sides.
Marion Winik just released her latest memoir, “The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” out from Counterpoint. This week we publish an excerpt from the introduction of the book, which is a compilation of essays about people she’s lost. Marion approaches the touchy subject of death with emotion, wisdom, and humor as only she can. If you’re a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, you’re in for a treat. Read on. – S.D.
During the spring of 2007, in the dark days towards the end of our marriage, my second husband and I managed to get ourselves invited to a small house party on the South Coast of Jamaica, held over the weekend of the Calabash Festival, a major annual literary event with writers from all over the Caribbean and the world. I had just begun writing The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, the predecessor to this volume.
The first morning, all the guests went up the road to Jake’s, the resort where the festival is held, in our hosts’ van. We heard readings, paged through books on sale, sipped frozen drinks. My husband and I sipped many of them. The group went home for lunch, planning to return in the afternoon, but storm clouds massed and broke and no one wanted to go back in the pouring rain.
Since Jane has not yet been gone for a month, it’s a little early to call it. “It” being the long-dreaded experience of the empty nest. The nest in question had been in operation for 32 years, if we count from the day in 1986 when I quit drugs, drinking, coffee and everything else I knew as the staff of life to begin the absorbing process of having babies and raising them, ultimately sending off into the world three biological progeny and two stepbabies. In the process, enriching the coffers of numerous educational institutions, now including Bard College in New York State, where Jane is currently renting calculus books and eating farm-grown vegetarian meals.
Now, for the first time ever, I am living alone. Living alone is not something I ever aspired to and at times imagined almost as a punishment for something you did that made you unbearable to others. I mean, many people get to this point in life with a partner in tow, but I’m two husbands down with no replacement in sight.
The following is a letter I have composed for my son’s girlfriend, Shannon.
I just received an email asking me to rate my recent experience–July 13-15, 2018–on a scale from terrible to great. As there is no option that adequately describes my experience, please bear with me while I explain.
The story starts one year ago, when I threw a surprise birthday party for my boyfriend in Brooklyn in a building that, once all the guests had arrived, turned out to be nonexistent. I live in Baltimore and many of the 25 guests came from out of town, so perhaps you can imagine how devastating it was that the event space I had booked for $800 simply was not there, nor was there an answer at the phone number, nor could Airbnb provide any suitable alternative venue. (Further appalling details in attached copy of previous letter.)
Have you heard of Car Seat Headrest? Neutral Milk Hotel? Nilüfer Yanya? Tay-K? Alt-J? Milo, the rapper who references Nabokov and Aristotle, rhyming “axis” with “praxis”? These are some of the musicians we listened to in the car Tuesday night coming home from the Taylor Swift concert. My daughter Jane, who turned 18 last month and got a tattoo and a vape to celebrate, is a big girl now. As I write this, she will only be living at home for another 28 days and then she will be off to the Catskills to attend a school that advertises itself as “a place to think.” She is ready for that. She acquired her notebooks even before her shower caddy and extra-long twin sheets.