Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Song of Reverse Innocence

It's been over a month since I have written.  As for the delay, I can catalog events and reasons, such as a well-needed trip East to see Greg's homeland and some friends in New York City, a new job promotion, which means running a cooking school, but this is taking more of my time. Therefore, my early mornings are spent either planting or exercising, but really, perhaps my pause from posting is as simple as: I had a birthday.

I have written before about the myths and stereotypes of poets, but as I have admitted before, some of these images can be true. Like most people, poets have birthdays, but for some a birthday is a good passing in your craft, unless you are Keats or Hart Crane. In poetry, age isn't really working against you. Frankly, poetry is an art that takes so much time to be even sightly okay at. Really, I try to tell myself that getting older is actually better for my writing. I tell myself two words every birthday: Elizabeth Bishop. I say her name with reverence for her work and for the girth of her years she dedicated to writing poetry and to perfecting her craft. Yet, I must admit, another birthday sometimes reminds me of yet, another year without my book published. 

Like most people, I try to set goals. I have my everyday to do list, but secretly there are other to do lists, like say, be the poet laureate someday, publish from Copper Canyon Press, go on a book tour and not look so eager. Some of these goals might be too abstract, too lofty or too unobtainable.  But I bet most people have some sort of list around either their desk or in the depths of their minds they want to some day cross off or feel like they are getting closer to reaching.

So this past birthday, I turned 35. Yup, the mark of what some might say, middle age. There seems to be a desire to not fall into typical patterns of say, well, most middle aged people. Such as, changing your dress from designer denim to say, L.L Bean ensembles. But I am not speaking about shallow changes, per say. Most of us don't want to really admit that there might come a time when birthdays shift in focus from celebration to contemplation. Most of us don't want to think that turning a certian age might start to worry us, or say, make us reflect more on being old than being born. Maybe even start to make you think about also, what you wear or really how you see yourself, both physically and mentally.

The idea of birthdays has started to become, for me, a notable notch on the imaginary plaque I have hung above my head that says my name in a changing font from say, balloon shaped letters with squiggly y's to one more bookishly legiable. The once Emily now looks more like, Emily. This past year, my name has changed too from Miss Emily to Mrs. Emily Seitz. This change from seeing yourself, as once just a name being called off on a roster in an English class to seeing your adult name in blank type on an envelope for a gas bill. This shift from youth to well, maturity seems perhaps normal. This sudden awareness that you're seemingly older, maybe not as wise as you had hoped by your age, but certainly well, matured is perhaps a result of just being on the planet another year longer. Yet even regardless of your sex, you find yourself perhaps looking in front of a mirror and seeing a slightly changed version than the person you saw a year previously. As if you stand in front of the mirror, feeling like you need to introduce yourself, "why hello, perhaps you met my younger sister?" Maybe this all seems too typical, too expected to act shocked by becoming older, especially coming from the voice of a woman.

I never thought as a woman I would start to worry about age. Sure, I have now finally started being serious about sunscreen. I recently colored my hair to somehow slow the inertia of grey surfacing out my my skull, and yet it is not the physical elements of age that daunts me. It's the recognition of youth in others. No, not the girls in droves in short shorts parading towns in long summer afternoons or the thirteen-year old boys on bikes carving themselves in trails and pedalling into some sense of freedom. No, these are typical images of youth that are expected and also revered. What is surprising to me are the people who you thought would always be older, dermatologists, divorce lawyers, police officers, most of the profession you hope to land on if you are playing LIFE the game. These are the people who shock me in all their tight skin and bright eyes of youth.

I had my birthday before Greg and I headed East, but this thought of people getting younger around me occurred while we were flying. When we landed in Maine and while leaving our plane, not a small puddle jumper as we call them in Michigan, an actual jet, I noticed the pilot. It had been a very smooth ride from Detroit to Portland, Maine. The pilot's voice sounded calm and assuring and he didn't carry any strong accent through the static. Yet, as we exited and thanked the stewardesses and pilot, I noticed above the starched, short sleeve button-up and ironed navy slacks rested the face of a boy. Not a nervous vein, nor a hesitant smile. Just a boy of man nodding, thanking us all, giving good eye-contact after having completed his probable route he could have done in his sleep. I couldn't stop thinking of his face. He didn't look like anyone other than the hundreds of pilots I have thanked in the past, but what seemed so shocking to me was how somehow while I was sipping ginger ale and reading through the in-flight magazine, it was I who had aged, who felt, older.

As we waited at the baggage claim, for our luggage. I said to Greg, "Hey, let's start playing a game. It's called, "you know you're old when" and then you fill in the blank. For instance, you know you are old when the pilot looks like your nephew. " I waited for his eyes to stop circling the carousel for our now matching luggage. (It's just one of the many perks and standards in getting married. Greg likes to tell people, "we may have eloped, people, but we still have matching luggage." Needless to say, Greg's eyes stayed on the revolving suitcases. Greg didn't find this game as amusing or as fun as I thought he might. But really, it's kind of, well not fun. Greg is two years younger than I and at times likens comments, jokingly of course, by saying, "you know Emily, a woman your age...." And usually I laugh. Age is something we both don't feel haunted by, joke about really, but we know we are amoungst the older crowd of newlyweds. 

And this was one of the reasons we were in Maine. Despite the fact that we are newlyweds by almost a year, we went to Maine to meet family friends, relatives, have a clam bake (thanks to Greg's mom) But mostly we wanted to visit Greg's grandma of 93, Audrey Thibodeau, who goes by Doddie. Doddie lives in Presque Isle, Maine about five hours north of Portland in what is known as Aroostook county or "The County." Doddie still lives in the same house she has for nearly forty years. From my part of the world, we would call her home a manor, but really stepping into Audrey's home is like stepping into, "Doddie's World." Yes, there is Elmo's World and now there is a new version for adult audiences. 

In Doddie's World the world is interesting and vast, yet not distant to her. In Doddie's world, there exists one gas station which she goes to and she believes regardless of what time or day, someone will come out and pump her gas. The gardens around her home are lush and green and surrounded by a history so thick, you'd expect mositquitos to be constantly circling. But no, in Doddie World, she doesn't carry the weight of history with a bitter tongue or a sense of saddness for being one of the only remaining in her family. Doddie is busier and more full of the future than most people I know who are middle aged or say even twenty-one, and, even some second graders.

As you walk into her open home with relics and antiques, she has projects in piles, paintings which hang from all over the world--with cursive lettering on the back telling of the location and date the piece had been either given as a gift or picked up as a souvenir from countless travels around the world she went on with her husband, Tibby. Yet, what struck me the most about Doddie's World was not her petite frame, the mass of black hair she still carries on her head, nor her physical health, but her spirit. Her spirit to want to participate in life. At 93, Doddie feels busier now and more excited by her projects than I can recall when five and days were all Legos and barefoot exploring. In Doddie's World, her to do list is constantly growing and she makes darn sure, goals are also constantly being crossed off.

Doddie is trim, agile, and bright-eyed with the clearest diction I have ever heard. She knew every back road around the dales of northern Maine and could tell you the history of each house and its occupants along with the location of some of the best ice-cream I have ever had. Doddie's stories aren't indulgent or random, she tells stories that are interesting, have direct meaning to context and if she doens't know something, she refers to her Encyclopedia Britannica that dates back to 1972. She said, " I know you kids have that web, but I like these. You know, you just don't know where the question might take you."

And she's right, we sat looking up a question we all had about tapioca and later found ourselves delving into the life-cycle of plants. Sure, this might sound boring to some, but for me, I was in heaven. I have always felt comforted by the slow assurance of being around older people, who are often slower, but more careful with their words. For some older people, it's as if they out grew their ego and decided to hell with it anyway. Maybe it's the simple fact that I feel they are willing to take the time that I myself sometimes need to take to explore ideas. My Woody Allen outlook on life is a tiresome act for some, but with most older people, I fit right in. For example, Doddie had numerous clippings from newspapers and wanted to discuss a recent article she read about prisions in America and their cultural purpose. She said, "you young people read this and tell me what you think." All of us, Greg, myself and Ann, Doddie's sixty-five year old daughter, is still thankfully part of Doddie's young people. While we all chatted about the article, I was engaged, spirited too, and adored Doddie even more for her ability to be interested in the world which seems in many ways, years away from her Aroostook county.

Our day was spent exploring northern Maine, going into antique shops, gazing at the border of of a river and eating French Canadian food. We were all tired by the day and when we went to bed, we all went upstairs to our rooms. Doddie was in the lead and I asked if she needed some help, she smiled and shook her head. She said, "Most people tell me, Doddie how can you live in that big house with all those stairs." She said turning to look me straight in the eye.  "I tell them, you know these stairs are keeping me alive. I go up them about eight times a day and they are keeping my knees, well, keeping my knees working. So I tell them it's actually these stairs that are keeping me alive." And she's right. Doing the daily tasks that get us from each point keep us moving, maybe it cannot keep us our young, but it keeps us living. As we all reached the top Doddie turned to me and say, "You know, stairs also get where you need to go. And I'm tired. Good-night."

The next day before we left, Doddie told me a story about having some members of a Russian orchestra stay at her house. She told me the pianist had stayed and could play some of the finest Rachmaninoff she has heard. She said she waited for him to finish and when he stopped she asked him, "Do you know any Boogie Woogie? Sure enough, he did," she said bright eyed and almost dancing, "you know, he played some of the best Boogie Woogie, I have ever heard. Right here, in the house." I believe it. And I bet she even danced too.

When it was time to leave, Doddie held my arm tight and just smiled looking at me and saying nothing. I found myself almost crying. Maybe it was the fact of just being in the presense of someone so alive, maybe it was the fact that it was Greg's 93 year old grandmother, but I'd like to think it was because of a simple fact: here was a woman who sings the song of reverse innocence. She doesn't seem slightly worried at all about age. Someone who still climbs stairs and likes it. No, she doesn't do it for some midwest martydom of "no, don't worry about me. I can do it. I'll get there, it just might be slow. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine." No, she climbs stairs because well, "it gets me where I want to go," to use Doddie's words. I like to think of her like Sisyphus, Camus's version, who doesn't just push the rock up the hill over and over again, he pushes and chooses to smile.

So as I turn older, middle age and slightly wanting to avoid the fact of time, I have a new female image to reflect upon. One that I'd like to say is spirited by youth and stays mentally active with what interests her. So maybe it is another year without my book published, but I have more stories and female roles to keep me focused. To keep me writing. This villenelle is old, but seems so fitting for Doddie. Times when I like to remind myself of how getting there is sometimes up stairs and getting old doesn't have to be all ego and wrinkles. Enjoy.

How To Get There

I walk alone to where I want to go
Each trip I take, I always travel light.
Alone, but never lonely with my shadow.

Traveling in groups, you're forced to follow,
compromising your future or flight.
I walk alone to where I want to go.

In streets, under the sun and slight glow,
I walk into the last hours of light
alone, but never alone with my shadow.

In an open field, forest and meadow
wildflowers open to the young light,
I walk alone to where I want to go.

On treks, journeys, hikes, I travel solo.
I don't leave a trace or track in sight.
Alone, but never lonely with my shadow.

For directions, never trust your ego.
Follow your shadow, you won't lose sight.
I walk alone to where I want to go.
Alone, but never lonely with my shadow.