Post #91: “Let Us Choose Those Pearls”

IMG_1510Ah! Cocooned, nutshelled, encased, enrobed. I’m here, I’m here, I’m home at lingeringly long last. Fortressed, buttressed, I move tentatively from room to room reacquainting myself, finding myself. The Bibendum ashtray, the Trumpet Call harmonica, the tiny pile of stubby Blackwings. Each object, though odd and unassuming in and of itself, is an essential key, a part of my own soul, my own secrets and my own story, transporting me back in time and place in the wunderkammern of my own little world. I can feel myself unclench as I finally am looking at, connecting to what my eyes should be seeing every day. But please no recriminations. I am looking now. Remembering.

The open arms of my day stretch expansively before me. But then the must dos, should dos, could dos lists start to fulminate and burble in my head. I can feel my heart tighten and my breath quicken. Damn! Must we always be doing something important? Can we sometimes drift, to meld into the world without a thought or a care? Can I be brave enough to allow the world to warm me once again, to nourish me as a steaming cup of hot chocolate?

Like soft caramel, the strands lingering, I pull away.

I bundle into my coat, hat pulled firmly down to my ears, a scarf securely wrapped round and round my neck, a tightly tied up package. Each pocket is carefully checked and filled with emergency rations and supplies: ginger candies and peppermints to the left, notepad and extra pencils in the right, spare change, dried cherries, a collection of acorn tops. All the essentials for survival. My hands are deep in my pockets lightly fingering, checking, rechecking.

The Magellan of the North, I set sail for places unknown.

In a few moments I am standing on the train platform, my feet feeling the bumps and nodules of the edge. In the distance I can see a tangle of bare branches, the limbs reaching upward, a silent trembling yearning for spring and warmth and nuanced greenery. The pigeons swoop in unison, arching towards the overpass as the train itself, sinuous and massive, hums into the station. As if responding to my silent command, the doors slide wide open.

I corner myself next to a window as we set off. The buildings blur before me but my eyes are on the clouds. Today they knot and roil in the sky, softly pummeling the air above, truly an Ice Capades of the air.

As we draw into the terminal, I am buffeted in with the others, unconsciously falling into step, all of us strangely solitary amidst the crowd in our rhythmic march. And yet, when one of our number, a woman with her arms burdened with packages, unknowingly drops a bill from her pocket, a boy leaps forward out of formation to snatch it up, to quickly press it into her hand, then retreat back to continue his path. The day begins.

The streets are still damp from the snows, glowing with a winter garden of neon reflection, the cerulean, the sage, the magenta curling and bursting forth with riotous electric bloom. My feet splashing, I make my way to the library, cosseted safely between the twin lions, Patience and Fortitude. Up the marbled staircase through the carved doors to find a seat at the table, a warm corner. My hands smooth to the polished wood of the chairs. Heads bent over wide open volumes, bathed in the light of the golden reading lamps, thoughts seem to twist and promenade though the air itself, sentences cavort, the words hover and float. It is a joy to join the dance.

Later, an old couple sits together at their luncheon table. He wears a beige sweater, she a beige scarf. She serves him the best portions from the platter. He generously pours out the wine. There is little talk but then really, how much is needed? When it’s time for dessert each digs deep into the sweetness.

Soon enough I find my way downtown, drawn to this place as always. If my eyes lovingly caress the bookshelves, the unruly piles and jumbled stacks that form the essential cartography of my home, this place, this temple to what I love best forms a magnetic bond to my soul. I am at The Strand, home to miles and miles of books. There they are. Shelved shoulder to shoulder in their tattered jackets, brave and stalwart. These second hand volumes, each with a story beyond the story between the covers, are what Virginia Woolf calls “the wild books, the homeless books.” As always, they fairly leap into my arms, grateful once again to be remembered and repeated and most of all read. They are rescued. I am revived.

This is what the day has brought. Marvel upon marvel. Joy upon joy. But I wonder, do I only wish to see what’s beautiful before me? If so, is that wrong? Do I, can I, recreate the world each time I interact with it?

“Let us choose those pearls,” writes Virginia Woolf in Street Hauntings. Quite so. Find what gives you joy, cling to what gives you comfort, spot beauty in unexpected places.

Today I chose to find what Woolf calls “a seat in the warm corner, ” refilling the wunderkammern of my heart, my home, my mind. Wander then and go forth to choose your own pearls.


Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Street Hauntings: A London Adventure published in The Art of the Personal Essay,: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate


Post #90: Skimming the Cream from the Day

IMG_0732Here I am. The ever tenacious scriblerian, attempting once again “to skim the cream from the day.*” It’s a greedy thing to do. But I don’t care. My thoughts have been so jumbled lately, exploding every which way like one of those British Christmas crackers.

It’s time to unjumble them. Snuggle down. Let’s begin.

Unmasked, I stretch yearningly forward into a quiet that soothes me with the thick secure warmth of a down comforter on a frigid night. My fists unclench, my toes uncurl, my chest untightens. I’m breathing? Of course I am. But now each new breath feels like some luxuriant renewing elixir flowing through me. At last.

Had my breathing really been so shallow before? Had I really been so knotted and snarled?

Out in the world, attempting as always to conquer with a smile, to marshal support with a few agonizingly well chosen words, to acquiesce, to admire, to accede. Exhausted, my eyes squint with the effort, my head and my back tense with the oh so necessary shoring up of the facade.

The cream of the day is a balm and a salve, a hidden but oh so necessary respite. For a few private, precious moments I am the person on the other side of the photographs.

But time is almost up. Once again, stack the bricks to the barriers. Snap shut the shutters to the eyes. Soon out the front door and back to the front lines.

The soft sweet nougat center armored in a delicate chocolate shell, I am not who everyone thinks I am. Oh please. But then who of us really is?

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Post #64: From the Tips of My Fingers


The universe spun from the tips of my fingers. It loomed large in a tiny room at the museum.  All it took was a few cranks to set it in motion!  The solar system itself would start to whirl and swirl  and spin as all the planets would begin their personal pirouettes from speedy Mercury to sluggish Saturn.  All around the sun, calm and gracious, but always and ever unmoving.

I’ve been home for a long time. I wanted to be here. I was lucky to be here.  A loved and lovely slightly tumbled down house.  Lived in and deeply beloved.   Miraculously held together with duct tape and spit, scrambled full of everything from pop-up books to Pokemon cards. A warm cooky smell  always clinging to the air.  If you listened carefully you’d hear an entrancing cascade of crazy rhythms,  the gentle strumming of a mandolin or perhaps the low down sound of the blues.  Enter through the red door to find us all.  You’d know just where to find me.  I’d be at the center of everything, stirring at the stove.

But the planets keep moving, as just they should.  So exquisitely beautiful to watch them all spinning!  But just to watch?

What’s out there to find? What’s out there to see? What’s out there to do?

Open the door, down the steps, around the path. You have to look up. Of course  I look up.  There it  is!   The warm  embrace of the sky. Oh! It’s as if time stretches and pulls itself open before me.

Will it destroy the laws of physics if my heart and mind remain at the center of my private little universe yet still soar on their own?

Perhaps in this case, the sun does in fact move.

For the first time, in a long time I wake up in the light.  And my head, my head is suffused with dreams!

Post #62: Wunderkammern


Oh she was sublime! Bubbly Judy Holliday was at once like every one of us and at the same time like no one else. Blond and vivacious, wacky and lovable she ignited the big screen like a brilliant bauble in everything from Adam’s Rib to Born Yesterday to Bells Are Ringing. But I love her best in a small, quirky little movie, It Should Happen to You.

Have you seen it? Oh come on! You must!

It is not fancy movie, no grand pretensions. It’s not even a musical, although there is one lovely little number when Judy croons “Let’s Fall in Love” with a piano playing Jack Lemmon.

It Should Happen to You is a story of deep yearning. A twentyish New Yorker named Gladys Glover, buffeted and bruised from the humdrum of daily living, determines that for a moment, for a heartbeat, for an instant she will rise from the ranks of the insignificant and become known. That her name — Gladys Glover — will be on everyones lips.

And so she gathers her life savings of a thousand dollars and purchases a billboard in Columbus Circle with her name in gigantic letters. She is thrilled. For one week, the name of Gladys Glover is spoken about, wondered about, gossiped about. She has done it. She is famous. She is thrilled.

Until she is not.

This week I unexpectedly find myself temporarily anchored in the city I’ve loved for a lifetime. The lights still beckon. Towering night lights from my window soothe me still.

So many years ago like so many others I cartwheeled head over heels into the arms New York. Like a skittering handful of jacks spilled from a cupped palm we hit the ground hard. What a place! We would make names for ourselves. We would be famous! The city would be ours. We craved it. We loved it.

Look up, we’ll see the lights of the Empire State, of the Citicorp, of the Chrysler! Look down we are expert at spying lucky pennies to scoop into our pockets. Hurrying hurrying hurrying we scurry furtively from street light to street light, huddled into great coats, slogging through slush.

Judy Holliday looked up and unexpectedly saw the lights in the eyes of Jack Lemmon. I looked way up and unexpectedly found mine in a pair of warm, kind eyes behind a pair of round tortoise shell glasses.

How many times had we walked obliviously right by each other, on 2nd Avenue? Amsterdam? 72nd Street? And yet, finally together we were swirled into a wunderkammern, our own cabinet of exotics and wonders, filled to the bursting with baseball cubes and board games, subway signs and teapots, pokemon card after pokemon card and book after book after book after book. So so many and never ever enough. Our lives together are a wunderkammern – a collection of weirdnesses and wonders, jumbled together in a way that makes sense to no one but us. But it’s ours.

My name flickering in lights? Why? Why when there is so much else?

In the way it was meant to happen it happened to me. In whatever way it is meant to happen then, it should happen to you.

Post #61: Sprung from Joy

img_9756So naturally, against all odds of sanity, I went and did it.  Tossing aside the whole curriculum for day:  ruminations about Scout and Atticus gently pushed aside, Socratic discussions about the military prowess of Hannibal and the ethical conundrums of Cato and Carthage quietly reburied, mystical revelations of the Sistine Ceiling  temporarily shrouded.  We all needed it.  A screeching halt to the studies of the present for a zip line into the past.

With a snap of a switch the room was mote filled and dusky. My class comfortably settled into their seats like souffles sweetly deflating by an oven door opened a few moments too soon. An old movie. A perfect film.  A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version, 1951.

Over three full class periods,  we were all swept back in time to Dickens’ 1840s London and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a tale worth telling again and again.

You know the story as well as I do.  A crotchety, miserly old man, furious with with life and with the world around him,  is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. And he is changed.

At last with a whirr and a click,  the movie ended. I left the lights low. There wasn’t a sound.  And  suddenly from the back of the room, from the darkness a voice rang out, “So you tell me, Mrs. Frank, just what took that man so long to figure out how to be good?”

Hmm. To tell you the truth, I was wondering the same thing.

So here we are, hardwired into the present.  I’m late to work, I’m fussed about getting to the grocery store, I should have responded to that last phone call, I haven’t cleaned out that closet.  I meant to read the book.  That bill is late, the gas gauge is on empty, I need to make  dinner, I must fold the laundry.

Where am I going?  Who is mad at me for what? Where are the cats?

Most readers or viewers think, I think, that Scrooge was terrified into reforming his ways and living life as it was meant to be lived by the glimpse into his dank and horrible future.  But what if  it’s the return to the the loving and warm memories of his sweeter past that  truly changes Scrooge?  Perhaps Scrooge changes because of the reminder of love. Not the specter of fear.  In other words, it’s the memory of beauty and kindness that allows Scrooge to live and be embraced by his present and to move him forward.

Was Scrooge’s error to flatten his life,  making his present all encompassing, instead of what it truly is, a breath, a heartbeat, a mere whiff of time narrowed between past and future?

So what took him so long?  What takes any of us so long? 

Mired in the present, I push myself toward memory a lot. I think about memory not because I’m afraid of forgetting the happinesses past. Wrapping myself in the afghan of memory for me is a celebration of the joy of remembering. I remember to recapture joy.  Moreover, I am an expert at sieving memory, retaining all that is meant to be retained. And that joy is what hopefully catapults us toward the future.

So in the new year, a season of hope and of light. join me and raise a glass and  toast to the goodnesses of the past and to power of memory.  Be bold, be brave. Recreate your past world to create the world anew. Fling yourself forward, sprung from past joys!

Post #60: Darwin on the Porch

img_1469I pry my eyes wide open. For safety’s sake  I’m sleeping in my glasses. I always sleep in my glasses.  I need to see. I desperately need to see.  But it’s so dark I might as well have kept my eyes closed.

It’s so dark! It’s so, so dark!

I catch my  breath. Then the little thoughts  begin to pelter me like hailstones, icy little balls rat-a-tatting  at me.

I should have called him.

I started to read but I stopped.

Why didn’t I do the dishes last night?

That picture has been crooked on the wall for a week.

The crags of unfolded laundry are piled higher and higher. Unputaway

The cobwebs reach delicately, achingly from corner to lamp and then arch back again.

“I want this!  I need this!  You’re late!!”

I’m already afraid for the mistakes of the day I’m yet to make.

I struggle from the swirled tidepool of my bedsheets.

Down the stairs, into my coat, out the door,  onto the porch.  Once there I stop. For a moment or two I can’t even breathe. But I can hear it.

It’s so long since I’ve really heard silence.

The air is moist, comfortingly heavy and sweetly enveloping.  Each breath feels as if I’m swallowing rich mouthfuls of a malted. I breathe slowly — not to be too greedy.

I know this place so well.  The ragged hedge, the tufted and tousled  grass, the barebranched trees jubilantly stretching their limbs, grateful to  at last shaken free the leaves that form a crunchy carpet below.

It’s all solid, all respectful, all tolerant. How can a place feel patient?

But here for a few moments, nothing is asked of me. I am not judged. I am quietly welcome.

That’s all there is. But then, that’s all I wanted.


In December of 1831 Charles Darwin boarded The Beagle to begin a five year voyage of discovery that would take him from the Canary Islands to the Galapagos to New Zealand.  Was he equal parts exhilarated and exhausted,  roiled by the ocean, burned by the equatorial sun, embraced by the arms of the sky?  The only naturalist on board FitzRoy’s vessel, he was separate from the seamen, always alone, straining to hear the sounds of quiet.  Away from the onslaught of the world, through jungles and trauma and terrors,  he still possessed one of the greatest luxuries: he had time to think.

After returning home in 1836  Darwin spent rest of his life was spent sorting his thoughts. His period of separateness and quiet was the seedbed of his greatness, of all that came afterwards.

I have not traversed oceans, nor clambered up mountains, nor soared through the skies. So many times , like today,  I cannot make myself step further than my front porch. But for me, at least this time, it’s far enough.

A few moments of quiet and my mind leaps forward too!

READING THE CLOUDS: The secret to telling time by the sky. Post number 28.


If tales are true, my great-grandmother, Rachel Leah (z”l) could tell time simply by looking at the sky. She knew the time right to the minute just by a glance at the clouds.

What a marvelous, wonderful, amazing thing! What would it be like, I wondered, to be so in tune with the world, so keyed into its rhythms, that you could literally read the sky? There had to be a secret! Of course there was a secret.

I didn’t know how she did it. I never had a chance to ask Grandma Rachel Leah how she learned to tell time by the sky, to read the clouds. But I so wanted to do this. There just had to be a way.

Part 1.

On warm summer days when we were small my sisters and I would lay out on the grass in front of our house and watch the soft, puffy clouds lazily move across the sky.  Of course there was a game: you had to be first to spot a shape in the cloud and point it out before it drifted apart. Did we play for minutes or was it hours? I never knew.

Part 2.

Staring at clouds? What an utter waste of time.   Pretending a cloud was a bunny that morphed into a cowboy that transformed into an ice cream cone was of no use whatsoever. I was too old, too dressed up to lie in the grass anyway. I could get a reasonable weather forecast, and pinch a few jokes, from Sonny Elliot on Channel 4 instead.

Part 3.

If you look carefully you’ll see that my left forearm is deeply tanned. Not so my right. I spend so many hours driving this one and that one from one place to another that the sun has baked my left arm into what’s known in select circles as a true trucker tan. But I am not a trucker—just a mom behind the wheel.

I rarely look up. Why bother? I have my watch. I really love my watch. Besides. I can’t risk misreading the time—I can’t let anyone down by being late.

Part 4.

How odd that I can’t stop looking at the sky. I love the clouds the best. It’s a proud parade, a stunning Shakespearean drama, a breathtaking pageant that is so enthralling I’m afraid to miss even a moment.I sneak glances, and then find myself staring up at the clouds throughout the day. I can almost feel the texture of certain clouds; I love the interplay as they dance across the sky. I love that I can recognize cloud types but the array of clouds across the sky is constantly changing. I’m afraid to stop looking or I’ll miss something once-in-a-lifetime magnificent.

Old habits die hard. I search out and study the names of the clouds, Altostratus, Contrail, Fibratus. I learn what they mean. Some sightings such as Cumulus and Stratus are quite common. Others, like the Kelvin-Helmholtz or Asperatus are so rare that one could live a lifetime and never spot them. I think about the works of Jean-Honore Fragonard and J.M.W. Turner, two of the greatest painters of clouds and know that as beautiful as their works are what they were interpreting was far more astounding. I look up and think about the scores of people who have been swept up by the beauty of clouds since the beginning of time. But really I don’t want to pontificate on the clouds, I want to luxuriate. So I do.

In his book, The Story of My Heart: An Autobiography (1883), English essayist and nature writer Richard Jeffries says, “for artificial purposes time is agreed on, but really there is no such thing.”

If tales are true my Grandma Rachel Leah could tell time just by looking at the sky. I cannot. But then maybe her secret was that with an appreciation of clouds, of nature, of the world itself, time has no real meaning.

Look up and see the sky. Beauty suffuses—it lingers – it lasts.