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A Quest for Quiet and the Ability to Live in it

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

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New Year’s Books and Wishes

Welcome 2021! I know the trouble isn’t over and life will never be the same, but I am so glad to turn the page on the calendar. I greet the New Year, not with bubbly champagne at midnight, dressed in heels or a fancy dress, music playing in the background, but on this bright morning having gone to sleep early after a simple dinner on the sofa and Netflix, cuddled up in front of a fire with my husband and my dog.

jeanne-blasberg-simple-new-years-eveI gained enough wisdom in 2020 to know that is enough. More than enough, and how lucky I am. I learned to stop making plans out in the world, trotting the globe, and to look for solace in my inner life, reading and writing, thinking and listening to audiobooks and walking, just breathing. This year, I will leave the rose-colored glasses behind, the naïve, blind privilege that assumed all my tomorrows will play out as I want them to, of course they will, why wouldn’t they? There is definitely a sadder, subdued flavor to life now and what I foresee in the new year, but in a lot of ways it is truer, more real. The greater forces in the universe have imposed humility on a population that increasingly expected instant gratification and service at its fingertips. This time last year, John and I accepted a spontaneous invitation to celebrate New Year’s in the Dominican Republic, without a second thought. What a luxury to not have a second thought. Remember when we did what we wanted when we wanted, our choices seemingly without consequence? 

Sitting around on a boozy, moonlit night in the DR, I set an intention to practice more patience and to go to bed earlier in 2020. Ha. I ended up having no choice.  But instead of patience, what I think 2020 really taught me was acceptance. The Serenity Prayer embossed on a gold medallion I keep by my computer has never been more poignant – God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. There is such peace in acceptance, to end the struggle against what is.

Acceptance isn’t letting people step on you. Acceptance doesn’t mean I will take shit. Acceptance is finding joy in small things: the way the sun streams through a window and hits the floor at a particular angle, birdsong, the smell of a new bar of soap. I hope to carry an enduring ability to sit and observe into the future, along with a certainty that reading and listening is the best escapism, and, of course, an insuppressible desire to make art.  

jeanne-blasberg-new-year-beginI’m still just that little girl afraid of the dark, wanting one more book before bedtime to ward off the unknown, and the promise of a goodnight kiss. As a grown up, I’ve created my own rituals, both am and pm, which attract eye-rolls from my family. But in the New Year, I will embrace them openly. My morning routine, I know, is responsible for leading me step by step to my writing space for the past nine months, ushering me through the chaos and doubt of a resistant brain. 

Humans are creatures of routine, but we are also resilient. And just like plants turn toward the sun, we bask and grow in love. I have faith we will continue to care and to love. We will survive pestilence and divisiveness, the required muscles becoming stronger for the effort. So, I’m not wishing anyone fireworks or ecstatic pleasure in 2021, just a peaceful way, one on which we make steady progress, some forward motion each and every day. In 2021 let’s prioritize acceptance, courage, and serenity. That would be more than enough. 

PS – You can check out the Review section on my website to see what I’ve read recently, but in the spirit of looking forward here are the titles on my TBR pile:

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

 

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AT HOME before it was a thing…

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Literary Community: The Silver Lining of the COVID Era

I finally had a hair appointment and while the grey is back under control and the cut is cute and bouncy, the best thing about the appointment was somewhat unexpected. The act of reclining back toward the sink to have my hair shampooed brought on a state of near ecstasy I hadn’t anticipated. It wasn’t just the perfect water temperature; it was the caress and massage of another’s hands on my scalp.  I have always enjoyed that part of the process, but it’s possible at a pace of every 6-8 weeks over the past twenty years, I had begun to take it for granted.  Gloved hands working the soap through my hair made it perfectly safe for both of us (of course that was first thing that went through my mind before I could relax into the experience.)  But then it was all about another’s fingers spreading and applying pressure to a head that had been reeling, fretting, aching.

To be touched. It is a primal human need. I’ve gone six months turtling into my shell, shrinking back when others come too close, my circumference of acceptable personal space swollen and awkward.  That shampoo was a Godsend. I know what I have been missing and what might have me come alive again.

Since that afternoon, I’ve been wondering what will be the occasion and who will be the recipient of my first ungloved handshake once this has subsided, in the new-normal?  It probably won’t be planned or foreseen, but I hope it elicits the same awareness I had while my hair was being shampooed and rinsed.  As opposed to never knowing when an interaction with somebody or something is going to be your last, I look forward to being aware of that first.  I vow to be grateful for human touch and the generosity and connection it exhibits. May I never take that for granted again.

But even as my hair grew unruly and turned its natural color while at home, some things became more accessible in the virtual world, including literary events. Of course, they are always more fun in person, but never before did I have the option to attend one every day in locales near and far.  Like a kid in a candy store, I binged on them in April and May, doing my best to support authors who had the shit luck of launching a book during the pandemic. I found new favorites and ordered books from Bookshop.org to keep indies in business.

literary-community-during-covid-family-watching-computer copyThe summer months brought more events, and I was able to drag family members along in ways I never was able to before.  While working on a jigsaw puzzle, my son and I tuned into a Sarah Broom and Thelma Golden in discussion about THE YELLOW HOUSE through the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival.  Our local bookstore featured Colson Whitehead’s discussion of THE NICKLE BOYS and THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and while my adult children went on about their business preparing dinner in the kitchen, they stopped and listened—and then actually read all of Whitehead’s work.  I binged on Europa Edition’s worldwide panel discussions of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the Boston Book Festival’s event with Ella Berthoud, who streamed in from the UK to prescribe her NOVEL CURE

I’ve also taken many classes and attended writing conferences, thanks to Grub Street, The Southampton Writers Conference, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, and Mary Carroll Moore. What’s more, I taught my first fiction workshop, an 8 week generative class on Monday evenings through the Westerly Writers Workshop and the Ocean Community YMCA. What used to be an infrequent respite from a busy life has become a weekly pleasure, filling in the distance between us and the encircling arms of friends.

jeanne-blaserbg-at-computer-for-literary-eventAnd I am not alone. If you are a book lover or lifelong learner, I’m sure you have had similar experiences.  If you want a few tips – please know it is Book Festival Season. I am biased toward the Boston Book Festival, but the Brooklyn Book Festival and the National Book Festival are also coming up with events open to all online.

We are at a strange moment in time, with technology making our world smaller and more accessible even as world events balloon the distance between us. But don’t take it for granted. Indulge now because the pendulum is sure to swing once more.  

Even as I look forward to that first handshake, the next shampoo, the opportunity to hug friends outside my bubble close once more, this communion with fellow book lovers is a different kind of needed touch. For now, may I take as much pleasure in the brief caress of each literary event as I did in that simple moment at the salon. 

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Graced by the Hummingbird: Sylvia Plath’s Legacy

This essay originally appeared on Medium.com.

I propped my head on pillows this morning, listening to the sound of the rain on the roof. Still early, I picked up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and finished it in one last gulp. It’s a classic I rued not already having read, if not for its importance in the cannon of feminist literature, then for its ties to my alma mater, Smith College.

COVID has provided time to address several gaps in my education and I was pulled to Sylvia after references kept popping up in contemporary work. In My Dark Vanessa, Small Fry, The Dollhouse, there she was again and again, a signpost pointing to what to read next. When synchronicities appear, I generally pay attention.

With the rain still falling and a grey morning unfolding, I splayed my copy of The Bell Jar across my chest and felt grateful to have waited the thirty-five years post Smith to read it. Back then, it would have given me even greater reason to despair.

***

John and I had no idea in 2012 when we bought the land and built that house that we would be positioned in the midst of incredible bird life. The osprey nest should have been our first clue, but there are also gulls, swans and herons and duck and geese that flock around us. Last fall bald eagles perched on our pilings. Hawks glide above and I worry sometimes about the puppies alone in the yard. There are swallows feasting on swarms of insects and now hummingbirds sparring for position on the feeders filled with “Perky Pet” nectar aka hummingbird crack. There are red cardinals and yellow goldfinch. The gulls drop fish and crabs on the lawn which the dogs like to scavenge.

This summer, while addressing further gaps in my education, I was reminded our house sits on land inhabited by the Eastern Niantic. Chief Ninigret may have knelt in the spot that is now our yard and peered across the Pawcatuck River to the land of the Pequot and Mohegan. His tribe named this land Misquamicut, the place of plentiful red fish. Misquamicut is also the name of the state beach where people flocked during this summer’s heat, not wearing masks, and the name of our country club.

***

sylvia-plath-legacy-inheritance-hummingbird-jeanne-blasbergSylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 and graduated from Smith College in 1955. She was the beneficiary of a scholarship from the Smith College Club of Wellesley. She died in England in 1963, the same year The Bell Jar was published. Sylvia married Ted Hughes on Bloomsday, June 16. From what I have read, their marriage was troubled early on.

My great-grandmother, Florence Durgin attended Smith College between 1895 and 1897, and then as if our birthright, three generations would follow. Sylvia was sandwiched in between my mother and my grandmother, as a student and later as an instructor in the English department between 1957–1958.

Although my DNA did not physically overlap with Sylvia’s, the mood conveyed in The Bell Jar certainly did. Struck by her description of Esther Greenwood’s mental state, I recognized the darkness that creeped into my chest while living in Northampton. It was a loneliness, probably not unlike what most young people feel when first away from home, but it was exacerbated by the lack of typical college-age distractions and a feeling I did not fit in. There was just me and the work and an uncertain future looming in the distance. Immersed in athletics, I spent many hours inside my head. When I starved myself in an attempt to exert some control, my father said he would pay my tuition only if I kept a standing appointment with a psychiatrist. So I showed up dutifully at the health center once a week where a nurse inquired as to whether I might be pregnant, did I need any birth control?

***

We have a pair of binoculars in the kitchen with which to watch the osprey traverse from their nest among a small outcropping of rocks in the river to a grove of trees across the cove. Bass are plentiful and in summers when they have mouths to feed, we listened to the babies cry for more. The babies will be kicked out of the nest before summer’s end and I wonder if they know what is coming, if they worry about their prospects in the world. How they know where to go?…

Continue reading Jeannie’s reflections on Sylvia Plath here.

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“Are you in a pantry?” My Office during COVID Quarantine

This essay on my quarantine office was originally published on Medium.com

Because when we built the house, the room behind the kitchen represented the structure’s fulcrum,

Because I became enamored with the bright layout in a design magazine (or maybe it was Pinterest or Housz) representing a bespoke moment of well-rendered functionality, a desktop that at first glance was no more than a continuation of the kitchen’s long, white, marble counter,

jeanne-blasberg-office-covid-isolation-workspace-pantry-work-from-homeBecause a workspace in the pantry was domestic aspiration, enabling a seamless glide between ideas on my laptop and soup simmering on the stove,

Because it would house the coffee and espresso makers and a cute little appliance that froths milk, drawing in family members through morning ritual, with an inevitable good morning to me,

Because in an empty nest, the hum of a refrigerator and the dog lapping from his water bowl make a comforting soundtrack by which to work,

Because a pantry doesn’t take itself too seriously, messy with shopping lists and unread mail, and old photos of the kids jumping from boats,

Because this would be a summer house where we lived on fresh veggies and seafood, because we ate out with friends, and the pantry shelves were another luxury, haphazardly stocked with tea and candied ginger and nectar for the hummingbird feeder.

But on the vernal equinox, March 21, 2020, this summer place would become our port in the storm and the pantry would become command central.jeanne-blasberg-office-covid-isolation-workspace-kitchen-pantry-work-from-home

And the adult children would return to fill more than coffee mugs, looking to me and my pantry for three square, that would make five adult appetites folks, fifteen meals per day plus snacks going on eighteen weeks now.

And in my daughter’s despair she expressed a desire to adopt a puppy, and I said “okay,” and that it would make the most sense to contain this little creature at my feet, in the pantry,

And before I mastered virtual backgrounds, people I met with on Zoom would ask, “Are you in a pantry? Please mute yourself.”

And I would provision the pantry shelves with military precision, but also guard them…

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Reopening (Our Hearts) After COVID

This post was originally published on Medium.com.

 

My children are my best teachers. Having been in quarantine, in isolation, and cohabitating with them now for what is going on four months, I truly appreciate their perspective and ability to suspend judgment over what has been a very difficult period. My son was quick to evoke “The Parable of the Horse” early on and it has been a good reminder as we have moved forward, doing our best with what life is handing us.

The old Taoist story goes something like this:

An old farmer worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Who knows what is good and what is bad,” said the farmer.

The lesson is that assigning meaning to everything that happens to us just invites suffering. It’s better to suspend judgment until we know (that’s assuming we’ll ever really know) what there really is to be thankful for and what is inconsequential.

Sometime in March, while my sons were abandoning their apartments and offices and my daughter was leaving her college campus, I heard Bill Gates say that he believed there was a spiritual reason in the universe for why things unfold as they do. That made me pause. I wouldn’t have expected a statement like that to come from him…

 

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The Life-Changing Art of Letting Go: A Midlife Reckoning with my Stuff

This essay was originally published on Zibby Owens’ We Found Time.

I once took a class in the art of memoir where the assignment was to write about an object and its meaning. I bristled at the prompt. Objects are only objects, I told myself, and imbuing them with meaning was materialistic and shallow. It was akin to idolatry, which is against my religion, by the way. Besides, I was a mom trying to keep up with the stream of macaroni art, woodshop creations, and paper-maché coming through the door.

Eschewing sentimentality, I had been known to sweep entire table tops of clutter into garbage bags. Oh sure, I’d hang my children’s masterpieces on the refrigerator for the requisite number of weeks, but they’d eventually get sent to the circular file…wink wink.

In hindsight, I’ve realized that curation is a luxury for late middle-age, when the kids are out of the house and the mind is quiet. In my thirties and forties I’d vacillate between two extremes, either going on a rampage of throwing things away or pasting mementos from obvious milestones into albums. Now in my fifties, I fear I memorialized the wrong things and tossed the right ones. What I wouldn’t give for more samples of my kids’ poetry or handwriting. I wish I had recorded the peal of their laughter, their voices in the backseat of the car, the knock-knock jokes, the potty humor.

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Pass the Vegan Meatloaf: Navigating Thanksgiving Traditions

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase through one of these links, I may make a small commission (at no additional cost to you), which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

jeanne-blasberg-thanksgiving-turkeyIn Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, We Are the Weather, he reports that “Ninety-six percent of American families gather for a Thanksgiving meal. That is higher than the percentage of Americans who brush their teeth every day, have read a book in the last year, or have ever left the state in which they were born.  It is almost certainly the broadest collective action… in which Americans partake… forty-six million turkeys are consumed on the third Thursday in November every year.” Although Foer goes on to make a larger point about what makes a movement, I use his findings to emphasize something about the holiday menu: turkey is Thanksgiving. 

Dietary changes in our family mean that a majority of us now adhere to vegetarian or vegan regimens. So, in an effort to provide something for everyone, my husband suggested a vegan option this year.  He asked one son to make the mashed potatoes, one son to make the squash casserole, our daughter to make the Brussel sprouts, he’d stuff and roast the bird, and when it came to my assignment (and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly) he said  something about a vegan meatloaf.

“What? Read me the recipe,” I said from the couch, where I was steeped in a novel.

Everyone was listening as he put on his reading glasses and listed the ingredients: tofu, lentils, oats, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce….

jeanne-blasberg-family-thanksgiving-traditions-turkey-vegan-meatloafNow let me say, that while my husband was the one to suggest this addition, it seemed I would be the one making it, the one to go down in infamy. (read: Mom always takes blame)  John’s dad had reminded me of this fact only earlier that day. Despite his battling the same heart disease that plagues all the men in his family, that very morning we were making plans for his 92nd birthday party at his favorite Chinese restaurant. 

 “When you call to make the reservation,” he had said to my husband. “Make sure you let them know about Jeannie’s dietary issues.” 

You might think his mentioning “my” dietary issues as a sign of his concern and  thoughtfulness, but in it I heard the reminder that for the past thirty years I’ve been the one imposing all brands of “picky eating” on his poor son.  

As John handed me the instructions for the vegan meatloaf,  I cleared my throat. “No way.”

“What?”

 “I am making the executive decision to nix the vegan meatloaf.”  The reason I gave had something to do with keeping it simple, but there was also something of not wanting to be the spoiler mixed in there too.  What Foer writes about is real – the Thanksgiving meal is like a heavy, warm blanket. Even for vegans, a proper Thanksgiving buffet provides a certain visual that is comforting. I knew vegan meatloaf on the Thanksgiving table would not be like an orange on a the Seder plate – rather it sounded like the punchline to a stupid joke.  

As a mom (and a daughter-in-law entrusted with the meal),  it has become increasingly clear that the greatest thing I can offer my family, what everyone really craves, is stability and tradition. After the schlepp home, weary from the cruel, cruel world, the Thanksgiving menu does more than fill one’s stomach.  The kids look forward to, and indeed get a boost from our adherence to the prescribed menu. Tradition was hard enough to sustain during the years we lived overseas where finding a turkey was near impossible and we had to assign our eldest son with smuggling Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix and ocean spray cranberry sauce through customs on his way home from boarding school.  Certain staples of our menu are tributes to mothers who are no longer with us. Even the squash rolls take on importance. My father-in-law orders them weeks ahead and stands in line to pick them up at a farm stand on the Cape.

jeanne-blasberg-thanksgiving-dinner-traditionReading the figures in Foer’s book suggests we aren’t the only family clinging to tradition.  Even as we Blasbergs are accepting of change and differences in other aspects of our lives, I was surprisingly suspect of letting change creep onto my Thanksgiving table.  I mean it’s not like we weren’t going to have the turkey too… John just suggested adding a dish. You may accuse me of just wanting to read all afternoon (true), or avoiding the additional dishes that would need to be washed (true), but there was certainly something about the aesthetic of a brown log, and the taste (soy sauce??)…  and the feeling like I didn’t want to risk even one little crack in our tradition. Maybe there was also a tinge of that fear that since my children have all left home there might be a time when they don’t return – “she actually made a vegan meatloaf one year.”  

I’m guilty of blowing apart various aspects of my children’s lives, but I’ll draw the line when it comes to Thanksgiving.  Plant-based, low-carb… forget about it or pick around it. God forbid I fall into the category of a family member who once insisted our only stuffing option be gluten-free…  My family has a long memory when it comes to such transgressions and can be pretty unforgiving. No, a vegan meatloaf wasn’t happening on my watch. We vegetarians would survive on side dishes (and a guaranteed late night snack).

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Confessions of a Boarding School Mom: Let Someone Else Play Bad Cop

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

teen-boy-and-girl-by-bonfire-confessions-of-boarding-school-momThe school year may have just begun, but many families are already in the process of thinking about “the next school.” If that consideration includes boarding school, read on. Even though my recent novel, The Nine, portrays a mother’s harrowing experience as her son navigates boarding school, I still believe boarding is worth considering. While scheduling interviews, touring campuses, and filling out applications, there’s an additional data point I’d like to offer.

First, I should say that although we had three children attend three different boarding schools, I wasn’t always keen on letting my children leave home. When my future husband first told me he had attended boarding school, I was surprised. “So what’d you do wrong?” I asked. You see, I attended a large public high school in Southern California and assumed anyone who’d been “sent away” had been a problem child. He explained that a rigorous boarding school outside Boston had been his choice. Twenty years later, boarding would be our children’s choice as well (although none of them would choose my husband’s alma mater.) It was new territory for me, and I had to come to grips with the separation, the distance, and the changes to our relationship.

I’d also have to come to grips with rule books, signing pledges that I would support the policies which could fill up inch-thick tomes.

We’d drop our kids off freshman year, preaching a strict adherence to the various rules. Administrations were notoriously inflexible, and did not accommodate rule bending or extenuating circumstances. And even though our kids heeded our warnings for the most part, there came a time, somewhere toward the end of junior year or the beginning of senior year when my husband and I would suck in our breath each time the phone rang, wondering if our luck had run out.

What had once represented independence as a fourteen year old felt confining once they were eighteen, like cartoon characters with smoke exploding from their ears, I could sense they were also ready to blow. Besides, we’d seen a lot by then — one of our children’s disciplinary hearing, as well as seemingly minor offenses by schoolmates that came with serious consequences. Then there were kids who committed similar offenses but received drastically different punishments. We’d seen administrators with a range of temperaments, and rules broken due to misunderstanding rather any intent to do something wrong. It could feel, often times, inconsistent and confusing.woman-checking-phone-call-from-kids

My stomach would drop, speaking to our sons or daughter on the phone each week as they reported a new crop of disciplinary cases announced at all-school assemblies. So, our mantra became, “If you need to misbehave, come home.” This was an obvious departure from the rules-enforcing parents we’d started out as, but boarding school brought about a shift — a desire to avoid what seemed like the inevitable.

Boarding school turned us into our kid’s cover, creating a sort of good cop, bad cop dynamic. The schools could play the heavy so we didn’t have to, and as such, we found ourselves on the same side of the law as our children. While this required walking a fine line, there were definite upsides to our relationships with our kids. They would confide in us more because we weren’t the ones coming down with the blanket rules. Of course we were busy setting other expectations, but when it came to curfews, parties, or spending time with the opposite sex, we were now viewed as reasonable. Imagine that!

parenting-teen-boy-boarding-schoolThere are certain times in a child’s life when you want to lock them in a padded room for about six months– sort of like when they are learning to walk and every sharp-edged piece of furniture is an opportunity to take an eye out. The end of high school years felt like that for me. Why do the stakes have to feel so high!?!

This parenting dynamic isn’t one that’s often talked about openly — who wants to admit to being permissive, to being lenient? Then again, who wants to be the enforcer for four straight years? I can’t say being their ally was optimal; and it was hard to shift gears into disciplinarian during the summer months, but boarding school may have improved our relationships with our children. Their schools were more strict than we could ever be, and we were glad not to be in the position of policing their every move. Relieved of that duty, we could talk to them like the adults they were blossoming into, about making choices, accepting consequences, and the benefits of healthy behavior. It might seem like a slim silver lining, but as my kids have grown into young adults they know they can always confide in us and we will respond with reason.