On Sodom Pond

Postcards from rural Vermont


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The Slow Moon Climbs

The title here is from a poem by Tennyson, “Ulysses,” which says, “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs…” The poem is about middle-age: “Come, my friends,/’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” It reminds me of what a friend said some years ago when my life fell apart. “The end of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it. Go forth and build worlds.”

The title here is also that of a new book which I saw in The New Yorker the other day and gasped. I have been waiting for this book like for a compelling acquaintance who promised to call but never got in touch. I ordered it right away. I am reading it very slowly. Every page makes my head explode.

Susan Mattern’s new book is a socio-cultural-evolutionary biological look at menopause.

I was 45 when my slow moon began climbing. I had clues. Rising at night, hot behind the knees. Car windows down in winter. And then back up. Like my cardigan. On. Off. On. When I got a letter from my doctor confirming what I knew, I wanted to (or maybe I did) scream NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. It was all finished by the time I was 47.

It was too soon. I was too young. I hadn’t made use of all my biological reproductive options yet (though, really, I had). But not having the choice. Being limited, denied. Like a waiter taking away your plate before you’re finished. That’s what scalded.

As did the moments of discomfort and confusion. Lying comfortably on the sofa reading I would be caught by a slow rise of heat and for a split second, panic that I couldn’t move or breathe. Driving down dirt back roads I would suddenly not know where I was and fear I couldn’t get home. My body expanded into new shapes I didn’t like. Its weather patterns annoyed me.

I woke up every day thinking there wasn’t any point in going on. I broke into tears at a traffic signal. I felt like something had control of me and as its hostage, I was giving up hope.

I read Christiane Northrup and Gail Sheehy and Germain Greer on the “climacteric,” but the medical view wasn’t satisfying. Friends not there yet had nothing to say. Friends who knew told me to take black kohosh (which, thankfully, I did). But what I knew deep down, Susan Mattern is now validating for me in her dense, fascinating study.

Post-reproductive women have an important role to play in society and are the reason why we have survived. For most species, the end of reproduction is the end of life. They do not have a menopause. One rare exception is a Japanese aphid that undergoes, in older life, what entomologists called a “glue-bomb” phase, where their infertile abdomens produce a sticky substance. When a predator attacks the colony, they throw themselves into the battle, sticking to the predators and saving the rest at the cost of their lives. (They are also all females, and clone in “virgin births.”)

For women, the years after fertility are important. “Menopause is probably adaptive…not a mistake or an artifact of modern life whereby women live past some natural test of usefulness.” But it is a puzzle.

I love being a mystery. I love being independent and whole and able to give. I love living in a community where women of a certain age lead the pack with their experience and wisdom.

Our cultural narrative about menopause is that it is beastly, unfair. It makes us moody, hysterical. Menopause is the butt of jokes, including by us, as we become unseen, unheard, undesirable.

The narrative I have always hoped to see–and that this new book is refreshingly grounding me in–is that as post-reproductive women; as people past the age of bearing children; as women now free to turn our talents and skills toward what we must do in  our lives and our communities and our culture; we are, finally, and completely, unbound.

In Japan and other Asian cultures, a woman’s 60th birthday is her most important. Called kanreki, it celebrates a “return to the calendar.” She has completed a full life cycle (based on their calendar) and now begins a new life.

Gifts for a woman turning 60 in Japan are red. The color of power. Of blood. Of fire.

Life.

 

 

 

 

 

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A House of Books

“Books don’t need to be read to be helpful,” I just read in a book. “Their presence affects us.”

I have a lot of books. I am building a library for them in my loft space. But I will still have books on shelves in the living room, on my bedside table, in my study, in piles on chairs. I live in a house of books. Their presence softens my life. They arouse hope and mystery. They draw me to different rooms in myself. I have books here from childhood, from college, from different houses and friends and lovers, books I bought last week or last year or ten years ago and still haven’t read yet but am interacting with every day.

A few years ago I discovered that I have probably been depressive all my life. I used to cry a lot and sometimes a trap door would open inside and I would fall through it like sand. I relied on books to get me out. If I was teaching a class or having tea with someone I would think of a favorite book or writer and I would get enough energy to go on.

When someone comes into my house and loves my books I know there is something we share that I can never name or see. When people are surprised or start talking about how they got rid of all their books I feel sad. I grew up in a house with few books, but I began to get them anywhere I could. They calmed the craziness outside and inside. I have carried books with me from apartment to apartment, city to city, life to life for 30 years. I am going to add to the library a corner “wing” with a reading nook stuffed with pillows and curtains you can close if you want to be alone with your book. I will leave a flashlight.

I buy books freely. I go to libraries and bookstores often. My favorite bookstore in the city was called Diskover and it was around the corner from my house in Allston, then moved to Brighton. It was run by a Peruvian woman with cats. Diskover overflowed with books. There were sections but nothing was organized. You had to dig. There was nothing I liked more than wandering around fiction, self-help, or poetry, listening to the old jazz LP’s she played and petting her cats. The black fluffy one was called Magic. There were old Dell paperbacks you could hold in the palm of your hand. Contemporary novels. Rare books. Odd books.

Some people might be overwhelmed at Diskover or at my house even, and though I am prey to this feeling often, I can’t locate it around books. I loved driving up to Diskover on a winter night and arriving at its book- and light-filled front window not knowing what I would find. It was my speedball, my rocket ship, my Orient Express, my jam session, my orgasm, my prayer, my cross-country trip in the back of a Greyhound with a bunch of strangers I have yet to meet.

One night years ago I met a hobo in the cafe car of an Amtrak going from Chicago to New York. He was young, like me, mid-20s. We were going home for the holidays. He was reading and he raved about how he loved getting lost inside a novel. How his life became, while reading it, those places, those people, those emotions. Someone else I know said she didn’t read fiction because she didn’t want to have the feelings. In the morning, the hobo left me a note on a piece of sparkly red stationery and envelope, which I still have and think I will put somewhere in the new library or maybe in the reading nook. It left no name or address. It said only: Slip through the cracks and disappear.

I am trying. I want to disappear in books, in life, and now writing my own books, too.


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Late afternoon

Sitting by the fire, socks off, kittens curled on the hearth rug, and then I read this by Joan Didion: “A globalizing impulse…the fallback position of the depressive.” I couldn’t help but think of all of us fighting despair like the flu.

Beware! Do not blow this up. Do not fall prey to doom. Do not, as a friend seems to be doing, let your mind lock in interminable loops of injury. “But they’ll…” “But they…” “But….”

What’s important is getting to the truth.

“No analysis can absolve you of your own responsibility.”

There is still time to find the truth.

And then do what you must.


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Be the Water

This waterfall sits behind my cabin. It’s a pretty powerful thing see–and hear–every day. Waterfalls are sudden drops in a stream. They fall over harder rock, seeking softer rock below. Waterfalls have powered textile mills and power plants. Like all sources of moving water, waterfalls release negative ions, which increases serotonin levels in our brain. So waterfalls have an anti-depressive effect. They are also aesthetically pleasing, relaxing, and good for respiration as they are usually in places of clean air.

It’s a good time to channel the waterfall’s anti-negative properties. After last week’s election, it’s easy to be angry and hopeless. But we must get moving and not stop. Like the falls. Keep reaching out. There’s lots to do. They say the softer stones get shaped by the force of the water, but it’s not time to be a stone. Be the water. Roar.


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Summer II

Is it true that one short season can sustain you for the other three (or if you live in Vermont, with seasons of sticks and mud, five)?

Is it true that you can lose all sense of time so that the one short season then feels like the longest?

Is it true that one can be fed so fatly on green and sun and cool that one loses all memory of ice and frost and fire?

Is it true that if you live fully just one 24-hour period of this short season it will come back to you later when, groping in dark, you need it?

Yes.

Drink deeply and believe.
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Summer

IMG_20140614_144537022Simple, he tells me. I don’t make plans. Let’s plant something in the yard. What do you want to grow?

My head is filled with camping trips, beach runs, climbing Camel’s Hump. Why do the days feel longer when they’re actually getting shorter? Why do the high clouds in the blue sky make me sad? Why does no one ever say, “We’ll have a winter to remember!”

You’ve got apples, he says, pointing at little fists of green in the trees. What do you want for dinner? He stands in the glow of the charcoal flame and the smell takes me back to diving for pennies in the above ground swimming pool we had as kids, my mother’s marigolds, badminton wars with my brother, and the low murmur of my father’s baseball game on the radio as he sat after dinner smoking on the porch.

The ginger-haired gentleman feeds me creamy red potatoes, silky stalks of asparagus, fat steaks. Sticky marshmallow and bitter chocolate, the sweet-salt crunch of graham crackers. It’s all there.

Here.

Summer.


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Young and easy under the apple boughs

MAY 26 WALES 002Today Pamela Petro talked about the power of place to reveal…things we cannot tell…or see….what’s the key that unlocks the invisible? What’s out there? What’s in here? What’s real? What’s imagined?

Then off to Fern Hill, where Dylan Thomas spent boyhood summers on his Aunt Annie’s farm. It’s all there: the lane, the house, the post box.MAY 26 WALES 017MAY 26 WALES 023MAY 26 WALES 020 “Fern Hill” was then read to us in a lilting Welsh accent: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs….”  We heard chiffchaff warblers and saw blooming black locust trees.

The lane was inviting. I wanted to walk down it. We’d come up it in the tour bus so I knew what was there. But it still was a mystery. I am having this feeling often in Wales: of both obscurity and view, embedded and free, fire and stone.

We drove on down a lane so narrow we feared the bus mirrors would snag in the hedgerows.

“Everyone’s a Williams,” says the guide.

A colleague’s voice sounds like a sheep baaa’ing in the wind.

There are more kinds of lichen in Wales than anywhere in the world.

At Bristol Channel I dip my toes into the warm sea. Expired jellyfish dotted the sands.

After dinner a poet read to us by heart, adding songs on her ukelele.

I retire yawning. Outside I hear sheep, a moped, men on their way home from the pub howling in the streets.

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