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Monday, November 21, 2011


          When I was a little girl growing up in New York City, I was fascinated by flip flapping of sheets, blouses, shirts, towels, overalls and underwear taking sail on the wind between buildings. Sometimes I happened on the scene at the very moment that a satisfied-looking woman leaned out of her kitchen window, reeling out her line on a winch.  There would be another winch attached to the building across the way, and a peculiarly melodic sound would resonate as the ropes passed through them, like a jazzy riff on a creaky clarinet.
            I always considered those long lines of sheets and shirts a miracle of hominess expressing something going on in those apartments that I had always yearned for. My own mother, poor soul, hadn’t a clue about how to do laundry. She had been raised with maids and cooks and, undoubtedly, laundresses, but found herself downwardly mobile, raising two children in a tiny apartment on one of those narrow New York Streets, wondering where all the maids had disappeared to. She did the best she could with a bar of fels naptha in the bathroom sink, but I sensed in those triumphantly flapping lines of radiantly clean laundry something permanently beyond my reach.
A couple of years ago my brother and I compared notes about this, remembering how stiff our underwear had always been and how we had itched all over because the soap was never rinsed out entirely.  Besides, our little underpants were dried on top of the radiators and always turned out stiff as boards.
            He had been married to a wonderful young woman for a while when I first went to visit them in their new home.  We were drinking coffee in their kitchen as my sister-in-law took the laundry out of a washing machine that stood within easy reach of the sink and stove.
            “Can I help you,” I asked, awed by the orderliness of her arrangements. As we stood side by side, folding each piece just so, I couldn’t believe how soft their towels and sheets felt in my hands. Was this some kind of miracle!
            “How did they get this way?”
              My brother laughed sympathetically.
            “Isn’t it wonderful! She uses something called softener!”
They have been a devoted couple, head over heels in love with each other for more than fifty years now. At that time in my (itchy) life, nonetheless, I would have married her myself for the way she did the laundry.
My father’s horror when he offered me a baby gift and I asked for a washing machine suggests that our childhood laundry sufferings derived as much from class haughtiness as mother’s ineptitude. Reluctantly, he paid for a gleaming white object from Sears and had it delivered to our first home, a little stone cottage on a college campus.  It had a fenced in laundry yard where I set up an umbrella-style contraption with four layers of lines to pull my laundry towards me and push it away again.  They hadn’t invented disposables yet, but I bought a bottle of softener and had lovely times hanging row after row of fragrant cloth diapers, receiving blankets, little shirts and sweaters out to dry in the New England sunshine.
            You don’t see washing flapping between buildings in New York any more, and I am aware that my childhood fascination with it was na├»ve given the endless drudgery of tenement life in those days. In my wanderings around museums and galleries, however, I have discovered that there are any number of artists inspired by laundry.    
Martin Lewis’s print of an emaciated housewife weakly clasping her clothes line, having reeled it right  into a glowering dusk, expresses the toil and exhaustion from all that heavy washing. Every time I happen upon his depictions of New York in the twenties and thirties I gasp with recognition. In my memory, my childhood seems to have taken place in black and white rather than in color, and his New York noir is  dappled with light and shadow just like mine.
But then there is Egon Schiele’s  cityscape of a European city from much earlier in the century, “Houses With Colorful Laundry”
              Though the houses are bleak and the sky looming over them ominous, someone has  strung up their washing with orderly devotion, like Tibetan prayer flags.
            When we moved into our present home in a Detroit suburb, I noticed that there was a hook for a laundry line on the maple tree and that I could run a laundry line  to a pole discreetly concealed behind some lilacs.  As a writer who sets her own schedule, I have always found it helpful to allot chores to their traditional days of the week — yard chores and household repairs on Saturdays, for example, and laundry on Mondays (I observe the Sabbath by turning off my computer).  I hoped that my neighbors, who were evidently upwardly mobile, would not feel demeaned if I hung out my washing; keeping it to Mondays seemed to insure their toleration.
            When I would arrive home with my brain fried and my nerves frazzled after a semester of teaching, I loved those first warm days of June when I could hang out my wash in my yard. I would lovingly fasten each corner to my line with wooden clothes pins, bury my nose in the fragrance of sun warmed sheets and pillowcases, and discreetly arrange my softened and now capacious underpants among the lilacs,  blissfully reciting Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” to myself:
                        Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
                          Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
                          And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”


Tuesday, October 18, 2011


                                       (Warning! There will be homework!)                      
            I never looked at obituaries until my husband lay dying, when, railing that older people had lived longer than he would while feeling immense gratitude for our forty years together— so much longer than the younger of the newly dead had with their loved ones—I began scanning obituary headlines, wondering what to put for his. When the sad day came I didn’t get to make the decision after all, and the reporter got it backwards—“Author was also Professor”  (Professors become Authors to get their salaries raised).
            In the months after he died I felt as if my nose was pressed to an invisible window that he had fallen out of but which unaccountably held me back from the same abyss. Shaken by timor mortis— abject terror at the realization of mortality—I kept reading obituary headlines, which deftly compress a life in three to six words.
I have always liked set forms— the seventeen syllable Haiku and the fourteen line sonnet —and those obituary headlines, rounding out a whole life in a tidy phrase, displayed a terse and even elegant economy.                                                   

(names changed)

James Woods, 40; Studied Structure of the Universe.
                                                         Now that would be a hard act to follow.
Louise Brooks, Birdsong Dialects Expert.
                                                                                    Specialized, but so compact!
Jeffrey Moore: Rode with Camel Troops 
Annie Kung, Lived in Leper Colony; Was 94
                                                                Fascinating: but rather exotic?

Andrew Eastwood, Credited for Heart Clinic's Strength
Lloyd Sarkoski, 64, dies; Crafted Cozy Restaurants
                                                                           Nice, solid  accomplishments!

Alfred Bearens, Detroit Accountant Put Family First
Ellis Marks, Obstetrician Loved Time with Family.
                                                    Did they? Is someone protesting too much here?

Bud French, 76, Mail Carrier Loved His Family, Cards and Music.
                                                                        Now this shows more balance!

Micah Washnoski: Music he made, Friends he Kept.          
                                                                           My favorite.

And, finally:              

Norbert Tilsley, War Taught Him Its Inhumanity
                 This has to be true -no fluff in it - and suggests an ethical legacy.

            You know where I am going, gentle reader, so throw this down if you don’t want to go there with me—Can you sum up your whole life in three to five words?    

I’ll go first, just to show I’m not (help!) chicken:

Annis Pratt: Commuting Professor Comes to Earth.
                        Or, how about

Annis Pratt: Quit Teaching, Went Kayaking?
Sad, isn’t it? Or is it? There is an exercise like this they do at self-search workshops— write your own obituary; it will help you find out what you want to live for.

So get out your pencil and paper: just your name, then three to five words:

...........   ...........            .................. ................... .............. ............... .................

Try a Professional One:               
                                     ........... .............   .................   ................   .....................

Or a Funny One:                                
                                    .......... .................   .................... ..............   ..................

Show what life has taught you:           
                                    .............   .............    .................      ..............  ………..

            After all, once we figure out what our legacies will have been, we might relish our existence with even more exuberance, since we are still alive and kicking!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


              There was a video shown on television the other day of a family in a boat who were cutting the net in which a very large whale was entangled.  It drifted out of their reach again and again and, each time, they eased their boat skillfully up to it and went carefully to work with their cutters on the tough plastic tangle. When it was finally free, it swam about a quarter of a mile off, and then threw itself into a tremendous display of breeching, tail flipping, rolling, and monumental merriment.                
            “Look at that! Look at that,” the television newsman exclaimed, “it’s thanking them!” 
            That last bit is what we call anthropomorphism, which is when we attribute human characteristics to beings that are not human.  Of course, the whale could have been trying to communicate gratitude, but all that we really know is that it was expressing some kind of emotion, its cavorting most likely a self-referential exuberance at being free at last.
            There is one emotion, however, that we do share with animals – curiosity. In his Just So Stories, written for children curious about “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and other animal mysteries, Rudyard Kipling chose “the Elephant’s Child” as an exemplar of “insatiable curiosity.”  In “How the Elephant Got His Trunk” a young elephant, spanked all the time by his relatives for asking too many questions, is determined to travel down to the “great, greasy banks of the Limpopo River, all hung about with fever trees” because he just has to know what the crocodile eats for dinner.
            I should point out that, at this point in elephant evolution (according to Kipling) elephants have only short stubs for noses, which is what the crocodile grabs after answering the little elephant’s question with “Today, I think I will begin with Elephant’s Child.”
   This is the Elephant's Child having his nose pulled by the Crocodile. He is much surprised and astonished and hurt, and he is talking through his nose and saying. 'Led go! You are hurtig be!' He is pulling very hard, and so is the Crocodile” (Kipling’s caption)
           That roil in the foreground is the bicoloured python rock snake, which comes to the Elephant's Child's aid by grabbing his tail and pulling.  As a child filled to the tips of my ears with insatiable curiosity (and perpetually in trouble for it) I adored it when the Elephant’s Child went home and used his new trunk to punish his all his scornful relatives.
            Animals, especially brainy mammals like whales and elephants (not to mention dogs and cats) are exquisitely curious; which is how, as Kipling seems to be suggesting,  they evolved so highly in the first place.
            Late one August when I was ten years old  I was sitting on a beach in Maine wrapped in a towel to warm up from my swim in the icy Atlantic Ocean, when I noticed a whiskery old codger bobbing around in the surf right next to my brother.
            “Who was that?” I asked, when he came ashore.
            “I don’t know—a little old man with a beard?  He kept looking at me!”
            Then my father came down with my brother’s towel, and remarked:
            “Did you see that seal? It’s an old one—it’s almost September. At this time of year, they swim onto the beach to die.”        
              Even with his last gasp upon him, the elderly seal was indulging his curiosity.
              Sixty years later, I had an experience on Cape Cod that confirmed for me, once and for all, how curious animals are:
                                                    SEAL WATCHING
                                                We went out to watch the seals
                                                 outboard motor roaring, bow up,
                                                waves cleft by our wash,  then down,           
                                                as we slowed abreast of the pod.

                                                 Black heads shaped like hammers
                                                 swiveled to watch us, nostrils flared
                                                 as a constant snaffle gasping
                                                 filled the air. There were grey ones

                                                  with oval heads:  females
                                                  and young. There were couples
                                                  and half grown friends, and a gang
                                                  of bachelors rolling their necks

                                                   around each other.  Rubbing noses,
                                                   playing tag, playing “let’s splash,”
                                                   their liquid eyes swung around to us,
                                                   time and again.
                                                   The next day, I walked by the ocean,
                                                    my bare feet cooled by the sand
                                                    where tumbling pebbles turned and gleamed
                                                    and sand pipers skittered and mewed.

                                                   Two boys were leaping about.
                                                   They played tag and splashed
                                                    each trying to jump higher than the other in the air
                                                    while two young seals swam along
                                                    beside them.  Sleek  heads
                                                    raised above the waves at every shout,
                                                    eyes gleamed to follow the play,
                                                    They gazed and gazed. 
                                                    The Dalai Lama says we should regard
                                                    all sentient beings as equals.
                                                    We go out seal watching,
                                                    Seals swim as close as they dare
                                                    bestowing  curious stares—
                                                         It seems to go both ways.


Monday, September 19, 2011


"He looked at it for several minutes, admiring the delicate ears and the curve of its tail, happy with was a wooden mouse with a tarred string tail, a common enough toy but fashioned with such love of mouse that it was almost more mouselike than a real one.  It revealed, so to speak, the essence of mouse, swift and slinking, endearing and alarming all at once. "Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean' s Watch                                                                                                          
S. Stark

            “On the night that you were born,” my mother always used to tell me on my birthday eve, with a kind of lilt and wonder in  her voice, “there was a mouse  in the wastepaper basket.”
            I’ve often wondered about that little creature, sticking his pinkly translucent ears over the rim to see what was going on in the bed. Was he my herald angel? I always liked mice, and I even had white ones with twitchy pink noses for pets. As the smallest child in my class my nickname was “petit souris” until, after some daring exploits in the second grade, I was promoted to “mighty mouse.”
            None of this cheers me particularly when I arrive at my northwestern Michigan cottage every spring to roust dozens of deer mice from their complacency. I draw the line at droppings on my kitchen counters, knawed-over soap, toilet paper shredded for nests, neat stashes of shiny black seeds nestled among my socks in the bureau drawers, and pathetic little dead bodies curled up at the bottom of my coffee cups.

            One glorious May day, delighted to be back Up North, I popped a nice piece of raisin bread into my toaster, only to be assailed by the musty odor of toasting mouse. That’s why I thought it was roasting mouse I smelled when I cooked my first meal in the oven. I didn’t come up with a single baked mouse when I searched inside, but every time I turned the oven on the smell filled the kitchen, so I called the appliance man.
            “Mouse all right. Not mouse mouse, I mean—mouse urine.”
            He had settled down for the long palaver beloved of northern Michigan workmen, so I gave him a cup of coffee.
            “Thing is, it’s the insulation along both sides—they like to pee in it. Get in there,  pee over and over down the sides with your insulation, all winter long. What you need, see, is a spray bottle. You could try bleach, or maybe white vinegar? White vinegar, I think—one part in four. That should do it.”
            That did it, and very nicely indeed. When I turned up the oven for my meat loaf the odor had vanished, so, after disinfecting every counter top and drawer with Lysol and plugging mouse zappers into every room, I settled down for a mouse-free summer.
            A mouse zapper is an electronic device (therefore of no use in the winter when the electricity is turned off) that emits exquisitely high pitched sound waves inaudible to human ears, but excruciating to mice’s. Since they refuse to enter a room with a zapper in it, these are nicely humane devices to make sure they stay outside of my cottage, all summer long.
                                 ♬ ♬
            Then I discovered that the acoustical sensitivities of these very same deer mice (the leaping ones with tawny fur and darling white tummies) extend to musical accomplishment. Very late on a moonlit spring night, a researcher who was recording bat sonar picked up a lovely trilling melody. Almost supersonic, it was the mating aria of a male deer mouse, singing his little heart out at the edge of the forest. After an interval (was she assessing the musical quality of the love song and comparing it to others she had heard?) a female took up her part in the exquisite little duet.*
            I was struck with worry about what my zappers might be doing to the fine-tuned ears of these lovely little creatures, not to mention the havoc I might be causing to their romantic arrangements. Nevertheless, I left the zappers plugged in, since the only alternative was my far less merciful method for cutting down on mouse mayhem—a trip made from a large plastic bucket with three right angled entry tubes set in the lid. I fill it three quarters full of sunflower seeds and put it on my kitchen floor. The poor little things crawl in and eat themselves silly, perishing by dehydration.
            In some cultures there’s a belief that, when you die, your soul escapes through your mouth in the form of a mouse.  The terrible spring when my husband lay dying, I got a brief weekend away from the hospital to open the cottage. (There was no hope and all, and before the week was up I had to remove his life support). So there I was, emptying my mouse bucket over the wood pile on a bleak Easter morning just as the sun was coming up, offering words of regret and apology over the pathetic little corpses.  Imagine my joy when a tiny grey soul aroused itself to scurry away into the safety of the forest with the Easter dawn shining through the golden veins of its translucent ears.



Wednesday, August 3, 2011


                           When August leaves me breathless, so close and hot
                           That my mind becomes sluggish and my spirits melt
                            I come where the river runs too cool for thought,
                            So clear that the willow shadows bend and sway
                            On its tawny bed where smolt and minnows play.
                             I strip off my clothes, dive in and flail away
                             Among all that dazzle and cold, let myself get caught
                             With the current against me, all for naught.

                              Most people swim upstream, like my guests
                              Who love to thrash like mad around the bend,
                               In displays of aquatic prowess.
                               Not me: I flip on my back, surrender
                               My self  entirely, let the river render
                               Me willy nilly~ aimless, cool and blessed.


by Annis Pratt

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Time's Winged Chariot

                                 And at my back I always hear
                            Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
                                And yonder all before us lie
                                      Deserts of vast eternity.”  
Andrew Marvell

When they feel mortality catching up with them, some baby boomers decide to cross-train for immortality.  On a trail near Aspen, David Brooks describes an old geezer coming up behind him with a  

whoosh…like an incoming F-18. You’d turn around and see this little nugget of Spandex. It was one of those superfit old guys who’d decided to go on a fitness jihad in retirement. He’d be coming at you at ferocious speed, wearing weights on his wrists and ankles and a look of fierce determination on this small wrinkled face. You’d be huffing and puffing on the mountainside, and this superbuff Spandex senior would whiz by like a little iron Raisinette.”*                                   

              Although most of us don’t indulge in that level of geriatric athleticism, we have a tendency to declare our retirements “rewirements” and devise copious lists of what we want to do and where we want to travel “now that we have the time.” In no time at all, we replicate the 24/7 scheduling of our previous careers, indulging every minute of every day in fervent jihads of post-retirement activity.  
            All through our working lives, we understood “keeping busy” as the supreme virtue, from which it followed that not being busy was a vice—and something to be ashamed of. I’m not immune from this  misconception.  A couple of years ago I was so troubled by my frantic pace that I devised this crazy chart:

          Was all this busyness my way of avoiding the “vice” of just sitting still, doing nothing, and contemplating the meaning of life? When I curled up my toes at last, would I find that I had squandered all my precious time on less important pursuits than attending to my soul?  

There comes the day when your busy little self discovers that it can’t do anything at all. You have cancer, a stroke or a heart attack or are waiting for a liver transplant and you haven’t the strength to lift a finger. You just sit there, stunned to your core. When this happened to theologian James L. Kugel he felt extremely small, contracted to the narrow space of his failing body,  while the “background music” of his ordinary, day-to-day life fell silent. #
            When you feel really sick, your fondest hope is to be able to transcend the pain and tiredness to accomplish a single thing in the day—write a brief note, get yourself onto the porch for some fresh air, take a shower, wash one or two dishes.  There go your to-do lists; all you have left is this contracted, “be-ing” surrounded by that vast, unnerving silence.
            Sitting in my chair during my bout with breast cancer, impressed that I’d gotten there from the bed at all, I was ruminating about World War Two. In the dark of those New York City evenings I used to sit on the floor next to the short wave radio, leaning against its vibrating warmth so that I could actual feel the  thud of bombs raining down on London. But that was 1942.  This was 2002!    The decades reached back and back until I felt like a rubber band, stretched way too far. How could I have lived so long and, if I had, why? How much longer could I  keep it all up without snapping altogether?
            If we are lucky to survive deadly illnesses, we just love having another chance to fill our crowded engagement books and I phones and blackberries with with lots and lots of things-to-do today and things-I-ought-to-have-gotten-to-yesterday. But is this mindless busyness going to give us the “meaning of life,” that being so very sick made us crave so fiercely?
            I recovered, and dived right into “making up for lost time.”  But I had spent so much time, for the first time in years, not being busy in that  place where the music of daily life falls silent, that it seemed important to find some “time out.” So I cancelled my weekend newspaper delivery and turned off my computer and television on Sunday mornings to sit in my chair and read contemplatively. What I mean by that is taking in a paragraph or two of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Paul Tillich or Rebecca Naomi Remen or Karen Armstrong think about human life and the inevitability of death and what other human beings through the ages have said about these issues. Is there a God? Does life have meaning? Do we have souls? If so, what do they consist in?  Then I put the book down and think about what I have read. 
         Amazingly, I  can get my elderly mind around complexities which I never grasped before. All this is so exciting that I have joined discussion groups where such questions are also batted about:  “What is existence?”   “What is the good?  “Do we have free will?”   “What is integrity?” “What is a virtue, and what is a vice?”
            This, too, will grind to a halt someday—later, I hope, rather than sooner—and if I don’t drop dead on the spot I may find myself a little old lady sitting in a little old rocking chair at the window of a nursing home somewhere, the skin on my shoulders prickling as my feathers break through and  I  stretch my wings for that last, great wind.

*David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011. 361

# See James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (and their connection to a certain, fleeting state of mind).  New York: Free Press, 2011.