Saturday, January 27, 2007

Being In Bardo

"We shall begin in exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to return to the place where we started and know it for the first time." -- T.S. Eliot

I am told the Tibetan Buddhists, who of course believe in reincarnation, say that after you die you go to a waiting place, which they call Bardo, for 49 days. Then you are reborn into your new life. So this fall I was under the illusion that once we'd been here a few weeks I'd be released from Bardo. In fact, I am coming to realize that I will probably be in Bardo for some months to come, maybe years. How funny that New England, where I lived the first 27 years of my life, is now my Bardo.

The Buddhists also say that everything is impermanent, everything changes, and that's certainly true for our lives today. My older, wiser advisors are recommending that I just relax, stay in the day, and breathe. They remind me that I will be taken care of, that all my life the universe has been extraordinarily good to me and I haven't been brought me this far just to be dropped.

I am constantly off-balance lately, and struggling to right myself, usually through distraction, prayer, meditation -- sometimes even reading a good book helps. I've been enjoying cleaning house, changing sheets, doing laundry, which is very satisfying in such a small, cozy space. I've also been cooking a fair amount, mostly hearty vegetarian stews -- Angelica Kitchen, among my two or three favorite restaurants in New York City, has a fantastic cookbook -- but also some fabulous sausages from Whole Foods, and last night we made pizza. Cooking is satisfying in the cold weather.

I know regular exercise will also help, but it's a challenge in this kind of weather: It's been cold and windy, with no snow other than an occasional dusting. Just enough to make cleaning off the car annoying. That's frustrating -- we should have gone to Canada after all -- as snow was one of the reasons I wanted to move north, so I could enjoy the cold weather more. A snowy day is useable. You can ski in it, and sled, and walk and oo and ahh. If it were colder longer the ponds would be safer to skate on. Not to mention the plants and trees need some time under snow, and because there's no snow the air is full of topsoil and everything is very dusty.

Little by little, though, we finish researching some project and take some action and make decisions. We decided to buy a 2006 Subaru Outback that came with some extras, like heated front seats (don't tell Lily, she'll be jealous). We called our insurance agent, who called the dealer to set up coverage, and then he got the plates for us. Amazing! They do it all for you. We arranged to wire the purchase money to a local account. We were all set, and the car was supposed to arrive at the lot Friday morning, but ended up in New Hampshire, instead. So we're praying our 1994 Geo Prizm makes it through the weekend and we'll get the Subaru on Monday. It's both exciting and a relief to have that unknown now known. "There are known knowns..."

The primary focus this week was on real estate -- just assume that I continue to scour job listings and send out cover letters and resumes -- and we spent Tuesday looking at houses in north Amherst and nearby Leverett, and Thursday looking in Sunderland, Whately, and Deerfield. We're getting closer to identifying what we want, which is some vague idea of character, but no fixer-uppers, either.

Along those lines, we saw a terrific house, a well-cared-for 1900 Craftsman with loads of detail just off Deerfield Center. No land to speak of, so lots of neighbors very nearby, but the road deadends at a trail up Mount Sugarloaf. The little downtown at the other end has several cafes, a small grocery, an excellent bakery, and a library. It would be ideal for Lily, and I suspect Dave would also enjoy the proximity to town. Deerfield is also kind of central, 20 minutes each from Greenfield, Northampton, and Amherst, right near I-91, and just a half hour from Brattleboro.

This weekend we are looking at more schools. Today was an open house for the Common School, a lovely small school in Amherst. Tomorrow is the Greenfield Center School. Last week was the Smith College Campus School, which also seems to be an excellent school. All these schools stress education but also community and social responsibility, some to a greater extent than others. Monday Lily will spend the day at Bement. Once she's weighed in on what she thinks about all these places we'll see where we might want to apply -- it could be public school, too. And once we have a better idea about school she'll land in, we'll know better where to live.

Today ended up being a good day, although we all had our moments in the early afternoon. Last night Lily's first friend to sleep over went home at 10:00 p.m. because she was feeling ill. Lily was in tears from disappointment and exhaustion, and kept quietly saying, "I really don't want this to happen." This is just a lonely, hard time for her. So Dave suggested she sleep in the living room anyway, where they had camped out, and I got the bright idea that we should join her. She and Dave crawled into sleeping bags on opposite ends of the sofa and I slept in our bedsheets on the blow-up mattress below them. In the morning we all watched Howl's Moving Castle, from the incomparable Miyazaki, and Lily ate popcorn. She was much consoled.

Late in the afternoon we ended up skating on a small, local pond -- ponds, swimming holes, and walking trails are as ubiquitous as bodegas in New York -- with her new friend from skiing who lives nearby. The mom is a new friend of ours, too, and we ended up staying for dinner. They live in a house in a condo village, a simple but gorgeous Douglas Fir-beamed house with wood and built-ins and lots of that elusive stuff we've been calling character. "I know it when I see it." The 59 houses in this complex are located in a grove of old pines, and while the idea of living in a condo again does not appeal, this was a great space and there are lots of neighboring kids. We'd definitelytake a looksee if something goes on the market.

Lily got along really well with this new friend, who had another friend over, too. They both seem like the kind of kids Lily used to be friends with in Brooklyn. They are friendly and thoughtful and interesting, they still play pretend, and they welcomed Lily as one of their own. And she's coming over to our place on Thursday!

The skating was amazing and just made me want to learn how to skate even more. I practiced, hesitantly, until I fell and landed on my knees, which slowed me down. But the ice was smooth and clear and Dave kept commenting how different it was from rink ice, harder and more solid. Bubbles and dried grasses buried deep inside made me realize that frozen water is organic; the bitter cold and the dying light reminded me that I am alive. Any day above ground, as they say, is a good day. Or should that be, any day above ice?

I kept thinking of Hans Brinker. Occasionally I would watch Dave longingly as he skated out of the cleared area and across the pond through the light covering of snow. "I wish I had a river I could skate away on..."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Amherst in a Box

Here's some examples of what our days are like here: Saturday morning came with a bitter wind, so I took Lily to a playdate and went to visit a friend. I had the car so Dave stayed home and made soup and read the paper. On my way back that afternoon I picked up a small microwave for us, something we've been meaning to get for some time now. When I took the microwave out of the box we saw that it was dented. So I killed Lily at Brooklyn Monopoly -- I'm always the Wonder Wheel -- and Dave took the thing back and did some more shopping. He came back with a gorgeous black jacket thing, kind of a fancy Polartec, from EMS, as well as a healthy, cheaper microwave, which he plugged in next to the stove. Now I can heat up my soup without having to dirty a pan.

Sunday morning we read the Times and then we all cleaned the house. One nice thing about this house, which is pretty small but extremely cozy, is that the three of us can clean it thoroughly in about an hour. Lily is very into cleaning. She particularly loves scrubbing the toilet - go figure. She is also very good at emptying the trash baskets in all the rooms, and sorting laundry. We did not spend much time outside. The last thing I did was mop the floors so they would dry while we went over to a nearby house where Lily was administered a test called the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Childen.

Yes, the WISC tells us her IQ, unfortunately -- no, we won't tell her what it is -- but more importantly it identifies what kind of learner she is, one who processes information better through hearing the information or seeing it, auditory or visual. This test is a requirement of The Bement School, which we toured on Friday and are applying to for next fall. They don't require a certain percentile or IQ level, they just want to know how each child learns so they can address his or her specific needs more carefully. I'm down with that.

Then we did a little grocery shopping and Dave cooked dinner while Lily practiced violin and I helped and kept her company. While we were at the Big Y I returned our bottles in their recycling center, yet another new experience. It's the little things like this that remind me I am no longer in New York City. We used to put our bottles in plastic grocery bag and hang it on the fence in front of our building. Someone, we always figured they were homeless but that's not necesarily so, would take them and return them for the deposit money. This time I put each one into a machine that crushed them and gave me a slip with a credit on it, which I cashed in inside the store.

This afternoon we took Lily to her new pediatrician to check on some things and then ran more errands. The line at the CVS across the street was short. The line at the post office, at five to five, was also short. Both were efficient. I could then stroll over to the music store Dave had found and meet him and Lily as they bought a music stand so she can practice her violin more easily. Small differences, but telling. The shelves in the stores are actually stocked, the employees are more efficient and probably less harassed, and through the beauty of cars, we didn't have to stand on a bus with our bags, or walk home 15 or 20 blocks in the lightly falling snow.

It's easy and relaxing, but also productive. We've been here just about two months and while we are all still a bit lonely, we are settling in. I feel as though the Pioneer Valley is welcoming us with open arms, saying, Welcome! We've been waiting for you! While it's stressful trying to make the right decisions about cars and houses and schools and realtors, we are very clear that these are definitely luxury problems and we are grateful. We are finding what we need, and we are being taken care of. Lily is holding up, it's finally snowing outside, another calf has moved in next door, and all is right with the world.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On houses, schools, and Brooklyn

Researcher that I am, my mother is in town and this week she and Dave and I are looking schools public and private. Last week Dave and I looked at houses in Amherst, and next week I hope to look at some more, both in and out of Amherst. Maybe it's the reporter in me: Research helps me feel safe, whether it's chatting with friends, meeting with a realtor, or walking around a school.

I never take notes at this stage of the investigation because I want to be as present as possible, to be aware of how I feel when I walk into a place, or when I meet someone, or when I observe something happening. We have not looked at all our options yet, but I had a strong sense, for instance, that Lily would really like Marks Meadow Elementary School in North Amherst, should we end up buying a house in that catchment area. Those are the kinds of reactions I am looking for at this point. We will narrow our options and then bring her into the discussion and look with sharper eyes.

The thing is, we might not buy a house in her current school zone, or even in Amherst, and if possible we'd like to put her in a school she'll thrive in. Leverett is a lovely town, with an impressive school, food coop, library, and librarian, although I wonder if it's simply too much in the country for my family. I think we'll have to look at a house or two to get a better sense of that. Pelham was also very friendly and welcoming, as is everyone in this valley.

We've been here long enough that we now go places and do things repeatedly. I've become accustomed to my routines -- grocery shopping yesterday at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's while Dave and Lily hung at the Jones Library; running errands today in Amherst while Dave and Lily went on their weekly ski trip, then bopping over to Northampton to meet a friend.

Beforehand I got some hiking boots at The Mountain Goat in Northampton. The guy helping me told me about a terrific short hike to a porcupine cave in Sunderland. He says this trail is kind of secret, but you hike up to a huge ledge and the cave is off that. His home is near the Connecticut River and he watches bald eagles nesting nearby. It's too cold to go this weekend, I think, but I plan to make this hike soonest.

We talked a bit about New York City, and I mentioned that years ago I went looking for the Vermont square dancers who lived there. I knew they existed because everything I could ever want was in New York -- well, except clean air, and stars. Sure enough, I found them. Hearing my interest, my helper advised me not to miss dancing at the Greenfield Grange, which welcomes beginners, and said to watch for the men wearing skirts. He said they chose to wear skirts because they are so confident in their dancing.

Later we went to a bookstore and noticing Teacher Man by Frank McCourt I mentioned to my mother that he was my friend Alyssa's high school English teacher. The man waiting on us was impressed, and I remembered that this is not New York City where everyone knows someone or worked with someone or waited on someone or sat next to someone -- Sam Waterston and his daughter at The Public Theater last year -- or was taught by someone, and that is just so refreshing. Not everyone has bald eagles living in their backyards.

And on that note, I was remiss in posting this Sunday, as planned, because we were in Brooklyn this weekend, my first time back to the city I lived in for 18 years. Although I had readied myself, it was emotional in ways for which I wasn't entirely prepared. Dave and I were nervous wrecks as he drove us the three-plus hours to Fort Greene on Friday morning to close on our condo, turning over a total of eight sets of keys to the new owner. What a momentous occasion! I lived in that apartment for the longest time of my life besides my childhood home, and now it is gone, as is our last chance to ever live in Brooklyn again, at current prices.

Afterwards, feeling a bit lost, we drove over to Fifth Avenue so Dave could deal with the checks and Lily and I could celebrate by having our nails done at our usual salon across from Key Food. Phew! Something familiar at last. Then we had dinner with our friends who live across the hall from our former apartment, bumping into the new owners at the same time. When we went outside after dinner to walk home I could not believe how bright the lights were, and how many people were on the streets! I knew that Brooklyn would feel foreign to me eventually, but I wasn't expecting it to hit me so quickly. As Jody Foster says in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More," weird.

We had arranged for Lily to have lots of time with her friends, so Dave and I were pretty free much of the weekend. We saw friends, read, had Thai food in Cobble Hill and walked back to our hosts in Prospect Heights, yakked, and slept. I was eager to head home, and felt, without forcing it, that Amherst is my home now. It might end up being a different town in the Pioneer Valley, but this is home now and I welcome it. Lily does not, unfortunately; as I walked her to a playdate on Sunday afternoonshe asked if we could move back. Oh well. I trust that will change.

It was a big weekend. In addition to the closing, the other major event of the weekend was going to the first preview of "The Polish Play" on Saturday night, the first production by the new Katharsis Theater Company. That's the company Henry Wishcamper and I founded in May 2005. It was odd being anonymous in the audience -- no one except the designers knew who I was -- since I had worked so hard with Henry to establish this company. I was and am immensely proud of Katharsis and its initial production. I urge everyone to see it, and not because I say so. It opens on the 19th but has already received a terrific review in the N.Y. Theater Buying Guide. Henry is brilliant, a wonderful director and a fabulous person to boot, and it's exciting to be associated with him and with this production.

It's been frigid this week, the windows in the kitchen covered with sheets of ice for much of the day. Bundle up, wherever you are, and be sure to come visit us. I hear spring is nice, here, too.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

It's a girl! It's a boy!

Our cow delivered this week and we have twins! A boy and a girl. Well, she isn't our cow, and they aren't our twins. But we feel like godparents, at least, because they live right next door.

Lily got to name the boy calf. It's Boq, after the munchkin in Wicked. These twins are in the B line of names -- Boq's sister is Bloom and their mother is Belize. They have other relatives named Boston and Brighton and Bismark and Beyonce. Cow-naming is very complicated, apparently, if you are going to register your cow. You are required to have certain prefixes and identifying letter-codes, so there's not much room for the actual name. Boq, if it sticks, is great because it's just three letters.

These twins are lucky to be born to these particular owners. I forget the technical term, but when cows have twins the male hormone is dominant and almost always, 87 percent of the time, makes the female twin infertile. No one wants to bother taking the chance of raising an almost certainly infertile female. And no one wants bulls much, anyway, although this little guy is pedigreed, so if he lives he'll be a stud bull. Our neighbor has spent the last four days nursing these two baby cows to life, rather than selling them -- again, there was another technical term I can't remember. But the basically they're lunch.

So these two babies came home this afternoon tucked inside feedsacks and riding in the cab of the pick-up. We spent about two hours visiting with them, and when I first got there they had been fed an hour earlier -- they drink cow's milk from oversized babybottles -- and they were still in their sacks, each with a head on the lap of a girl, being stroked and cuddled.

The bull is particularly frail and scrawny. Why is he walking en pointe? Lily's friend asked her dad. In fact, that's just what he looked like, walking around on tiptoe on his hooves. It seems his feet were bent under him while he was still inside and when he first came out he was walking around on his knuckles. Walking on his tiptoes is progress.

Lily has been invited to halter-train Boq and she walked him around awhile this afternoon, or rather he walked her around and she periodically hollered for help. He is about as big as she is, and for a runty calf he's still mighty headstrong. The girls finally got them to lie down and snooze in the hay outside the barn where they will be sleeping. They were all curled up, looking like puppies.

We did not have calves in Brooklyn. We felt we were special because our next-door-neighbors had bullfrogs, which would thrill us every April by announcing that spring had arrived. Calves are something else, indeed. I thanked our neighbors profusely, said it was awfully kind of them to have twins so that Lily could have one, too. They didn't even know they were having twins until after the first one had been delivered. I guess no one does ultrasound on a cow, even a pedigreed one.

Monday, January 01, 2007

About schools and chickens

The question that keeps me up at night these days is Lily and her schooling.

Early on Friday evening the three of us gathered in the living room -- the room least used by Dave and me because the computers are in the other room on the first floor, and the room most used by Lily because it has the TV in it.

Anyway, even though the living room is directly above the furnace and thus the warmest room downstairs, it was still freezing, so we huddled together on the sofa, each with our own throw blanket, to watch the BBC version of The Witch, the Lion, and the Wardrobe.

The movie only confirmed my distaste for the Narnia series. But Lily enjoyed it, particularly Aslan's wonderful fur (there were some nice costumes), which she kept commenting on. Finally she just sighed, and said, completely unself-consciously, "I long to bury my hands in his mane."

Based on my observations, I'd say this is unusual language for someone who just turned eight. Lily is the true writer in the family. Is it reasonable to expect a public school to take on the task of nurturing her talent for language and imagery? Or do I put her in private school? Or do I follow the lead of some Brooklyn friends, recently transplanted to Vermont, which is supplementing public school with riding lessons and a theater class and lots of free time. They have a very bright child, too, who went to an even better school, in some ways, than PS 261. And until I started questioning our experience, at least, they have all been happy with theirs.

Currently, that's what we're doing: Lily is taking skiing and violin and working with clay (yikes! How did that happen? we didn't intend to overschedule). And she can't wait for the library's book group for kids to start up again next Tuesday. "Four weeks away is too long," she said tonight as we drove home from a delicious New Year's Day dinner at Dave's wonderful cousins in Newton.

I have to ask myself if my concerns about and desires for Lily are just my ego talking. A friend who works at a superb private school in Manhattan pointed out that the pressure for our children to succeed and exceed is extraordinary in New York City, but I like to think I've made my peace with those competitive types. I think I had to, or else I'd go crazy. A parent we knew was bragging because her two-year-old son was reading. Really reading, and doing math, too. I, who had always heard how advanced my two-year-old was, felt miserable until my mother, the former second-grade teacher, said, "Lots of kids are smart. But can they use those smarts? Helping them use their brains is the real job." I realized I wanted to help Lily follow her interests and develop new ones, not get an A so I could brag about her on the playground.

It's not that the kids at PS 261 were so erudite, or the teaching so significantly better, although Amherst parents were buzzing this fall because a teacher in another elementary school had gone to Bank Street, hardly a rarity in our Brooklyn public school. It's just that there was so much to do, intellectually, not to mention socially and emotionally. Lily had a half-dozen take-home projects in second grade. Every student in every grade practiced intense, focused writing every day at her school. There was always more to do, more to learn, further she could go. I suspect what she misses most about Brooklyn, other than friends, is the stimulation, and PS 261 was the focal point of that. While she grumbled about homework every night -- and it is nice to have hardly any, here -- she soaked up every bit of noise and grit and emotion she could latch onto. She thrived on it.

I'm sure this is heresy but truly, I could care less if Lily even goes to college, never mind where she goes. Not that she's going to be loafing around mooching off me, mind you. She'll have to get a job and paddle her own canoe and all that. But I believe someone can find meaningful work and be useful to society without going to college, or by going to college when they are older and more focused. Having graduated from Wellesley at 27, I am living proof.

I know Lily will get a good education in Amherst. The high school here is by far the best in the Pioneer Valley, and the top kids go to the Ivies and the Sisters, as well as the excellent public universities, small private colleges, and so on. But I worry that Lily is like I was: She's smart and will do the minimum of what's asked and no more. I am also living proof that if I had had more discipline, either self-imposed or externally, I might have a more intellectually fulfilling life. I'm not complaining, mind you; my childhood and young adult years were complicated, I did the best I could, and today my life is glorious. But sometimes I want more for my child -- if she wants it, that is.

And then I keep coming back to, there are worse things for her than to have an easy, relaxed year here, settling in, making friends, grieving her losses of Brooklyn and PS 261. It has gotten better. Tonight in the car she let me play Wonderwheel by Dan Zanes on the iPod and although she warned me she would cry, I was the one who couldn't choke out the words because of my tears, not her. ("All the best friends that I know are on the wonder wheel...") In this past month she's made a couple of good friends that I think she'll keep even if we move away. One or two more like that and she'll be okay.

She spent Saturday afternoon with one of them, the fourth grader from next door. She's learning how to live in this new strange place. It was bitter cold but the two of them spent the afternoon mucking around in the frozen mud and collecting kindling for their woodstoves -- the family heats almost entirely by wood. Lily had refused to dress warmly, even though Dave, who was helping the father put up some fencing, had warned that it was chilly. Eventually she came back, hands like ice, and I bundled her up with gloves, scarf, and hat.

Later, I looked out my door and there were Lily and her friend herding Rocky the Rooster and his half-dozen hens back to their coop on the other side of the fence. They like to root around in our yard, for some reason. I suppose we have more interesting bugs.