Deep in the summer, when Susan’s schedule changes — she works longer days but spends every other Friday at home — the alarm clock goes off earlier than usual. The dog is still asleep, the cats are still asleep, I’m still asleep. A splash of pre-dawn light filters through the window over my dresser. For a long time, I rolled over and went back to sleep, but lately, I’m getting up with her, which is not like me. It’s five in the morning and I hate five in the morning, especially if I’ve slept fitfully, which I often do when I’m in the throes of anxiety or the after-effects of excess. (This is usually an attempt to stave off the aforementioned anxiety and frankly never works. Fuel on fire.)

Lately, I find myself looking forward to these early mornings. Most days I lay in bed and read — actual books of the actual paper variety — until seven or so, and then I get up to feed the wild hordes and walk Petey around the block. I make myself a cup of coffee and sometimes a hard-boiled egg, I check my email and try not to get sucked down the wormhole that is Facebook, and then I get down to work: I re-read the previous days writing and pray that it propels me forward which, if the stars are aligned, it sometimes does.

I’ve been reading a lot of morning poetry lately, before I’m even upright, drawing from a stack next to my bed: Mary Oliver, Marie Howe, Hafiz, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Jane Hirshfield, and always, Mark Doty, who many years ago showed me that the line between exquisite prose and poetry was gossamer. I picked up Heaven’s Coast after two of my best friends, a couple, died of AIDs within a year of each other in the early 1990s, leaving everyone who knew them staring into an abyss, broken and wordless. I watched Peter and Tim — kind men and practiced meditators who, every day at their country cottage rose before the sun to sip tea in their garden — shrink and fade into vague glimmers of themselves, aging before my eyes as their lives became a litany of cocktails and T-cell counts and hospital visits. One by one, their friends began to die, their beautiful upstate New York weekend houses in bucolic places like Saugerties and Mount Tremper sloughing off cherished possessions like skin. Couches, dressers, dining room tables were passed around until there was nobody left to pass them to; estate sales and auctions turned up familiar place settings, and first edition leatherbounds that might have been read three years earlier in front of a fireside dinner party. I have pictures of Tim in my first Manhattan walkup apartment from the years before he and Peter got sick, ebullient and beaming over a blue and white Conran’s planter that I bought for his birthday, which he used strictly to grow Genovese basil on his Chelsea windowsill. And I have his last Christmas gift to me: a small wall sculpture in the shape of an angel.

So I clung to Heaven’s Coast like a blanket, and I let its words and its sorrow fill my ears and knit my heart back together. This is what good writing does; it’s a balm for grief. And when Susan and I were still in the earliest phase of our relationship — she had just gone through a breakup and we were emailing but hadn’t yet met (although we had first set eyes on each other in Central Park in 1986 back when we were mere children in our twenties and thirties) — and she told me that she was spending a lot of time in the early mornings sitting in her kitchen reading Donald Hall’s Without, that was it for me. That was all it took.

It’s been a very noisy few months here, filled with the clatter of uncertainty, of not knowing: my mother’s accident and her sudden need for eldercare; my cancer scare; politics so loud and unhinging that steadying myself has become a full-time job; writing my next book, which actually is my full-time job. So the need for quiet, for an anchor, for psychic ballast, is ever-present in my home. Waking early before dawn to read poetry grounds me like almost nothing else except, perhaps, cooking. It’s a genetic thing: when my grandmother died and my mother cleaned her apartment out, she found Gaga’s Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, copyright 1915, its spine shattered and held in place with silver gaffing tape. When she couldn’t sleep, my grandmother paced her Queens living room from one end to the other while reciting Evangeline mostly from memory until the sky turned red, the book clutched in her hands.

Getting up before the day is what she used to call it. Waking before the noise, windows open, sweetness in the air, up before the din. It’s soothing and restorative to hear good sounds; like poetry, it’s music to my ears.

Tim’s Pesto 

Admittedly, the world does not need another pesto recipe. This is the first one I ever made and it is good, if elemental. Tim and Peter were vegetarians and ate this tossed with pasta, as one does. When they weren’t looking, I often left out the cheese, thinned it out with a little water, and drizzled it over hard-cooked eggs or the freshest white fish I could find — Halibut or Black Sea Bass — which I still do today, all these years later.

1 large bunch (2 heaping cups) Genovese basil leaves, washed and patted dry

2 cloves garlic

1/3 cup pine nuts (or 1/4 cup walnut meats)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for storing, if necessary

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano

 

In a food processor or blender, blitz together the basil leaves, garlic, and pine nuts until coarsely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil and continue to process until smooth. Taste and correct the seasoning, and add the cheese. Continue to pulse until smooth. To store, place in a lidded container and top with a slick of more oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We have been living here for thirteen years. It sometimes seems like we just moved in; other times it feels like we’ve been here forever. Four books written by me, hundreds of books designed by Susan, roughly eighty books edited by me. Three dogs, seven cats, although thankfully not all at once. Over the years, we have lost all of Susan’s aunts (there were five when I joined the family in 2000, out of a total of eleven siblings), her Uncle Bob, her mother, my father, who passed two years before we arrived here from Litchfield, and my cousin Harris, who died in 2008. Between our younger cousins, nine babies have been born, four on my side; we have met all but one of them, a handsome blond boy who was named for my father. Early on in our time here, we considered having children of our own, and for reasons both biological and not, we didn’t.

In the evenings, we look across the table at each other; we have gotten a little heavier and a bit grayer. We earnestly, often frenetically, try different diets: Mediterranean, Whole 30, Paleo. We drink less: only on the weekend, or Saturday night, or Friday and Saturday night. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. We have accumulated: too many pounds, too much stuff, too many things. We have skinny jeans, fat jeans, the hiking clothes we never wear because we never go hiking, six pair of golf shoes, two sets of clubs, (piles and piles of) books, small appliances (a soda maker, a spiralizer), half a dozen sets of wedding china for twelve from the aforementioned aunts, two sets of silver, thirty-two knives that used to hang off a magnetic strip under the pot rack that holds a dozen or so pans from my life as a professional food person (whatever that means), twenty-seven red-striped cotton Ikea towels that we have stockpiled over a decade, handmade patchouli goat-milk soaps that spawn like bunnies under the bathroom sink, a plastic crate of expired medications for long-healed illnesses, old computer equipment including three non-working printers, my father’s SX-70 cameras for which film is no longer available, my uncle’s pristine Yashica-Mat twin-lens reflex for which film is available, a 1927 Underwood typewriter originally belonging to Susan’s Uncle George, a 1939 Remington Noiseless that had been my Uncle Marvin’s high school graduation gift from his parents and passed along to me by one of his daughters, to whom I no longer speak.

There have been thousands of meals cooked in a kitchen that is still a work in progress. Hundreds of bottles of wine have been consumed, ranging from expensive Bordeaux opened for a birthday celebration to the cheap plonk that my grandmother would have Germanized as pishwasser. I remember only a handful of the good ones; they have retained their importance by connection to an event or to the people with whom we drank them. For years, we saved the corks in a massive green glass jar, as if someday, in our dotage, we might sit down of a quiet evening and review them the way one might look through a photo album: This was the Bandol that we had with Lisa. This was the Brunello that we drank with Porter. This was the Sauternes that we had with Gale. Recently, we discarded the jar and its contents when we realized that the memories were more important than the corks, which were just another thing to keep, although at one point, we did consider making a trivet from the better ones.

We have an issue with things in this house; I attribute it in part to being adult-only-children-without-children (AOCWC), and to the fact that over the last few years we have lost so many people that it sometimes feels incomprehensible.

A small, personal holocaust, a friend of mine once said. You woke up and they were suddenly gone, taken away in the middle of the night.  And so, without siblings in whose faces we might see our pasts, and without children who reflect back to us ourselves and our future, we cling to the representational, the inanimate, the stuff to which we attach memory and meaning.

But there comes a point when this detritus of life begins to pile up; it becomes dangerous. The accretion of things makes it impossible to walk a straight line, to put anything away, to see anything else but history.

Did you just move in, a contractor asked me the other day when he had to check our water tank. When I told him how long we were here, he seemed alarmed.

To be clear: we do not have a Collyer Brothers problem. But when I went downstairs to our basement a few nights ago to get something out of our freezer and found myself face to face with a small, gray nylon sack — the sort a rock climber might use for chalk; I’d never seen it before — filled with ancient pottery chips purloined by Susan’s ex on a southwestern camping trip twenty-five years ago, my heart stopped. A familiar, cold clamp of anxiety seized the back of my neck: I could instantly recall how I felt when this woman threatened our relationship when it was in its infancy. I could actually feel my slightly nauseous response to the every-Saturday-night-at-eight phone calls from long ago; the moments when I’d see her name come up in my email with a coy Hello darlin’ in the subject line; the promise to me that she would never, ever leave us alone, even though she and Susan had broken up years earlier.

It’s just a thing, Susan said, when she saw my face. I’ll get rid of it. 

But why do you even have it, I asked. Why is it still here?

Susan pointed around the basement.

Why is any of this stuff still here?

There was my father’s blue metal screen on which he last showed home movies at our house party in 1971, before he knew that his best friend, drinking Scotch in the kitchen with my mother and a neighbor, was driving me alone to an abandoned park every day after school; there was a dust-caked, roll-top cassette case, holding the Memorex tapes of upstate New York shamanic healings that my ex and I made for each other in the 80s; there was a Jack Kramer Pro Staff wooden tennis racquet with a peeling pink gauze grip that, when I picked it up and inhaled, smelled like sweat and Dentyne and the hot clay I kicked up on the courts at Milton Academy, where I played the summer I was sixteen.

Piles of shopping bags sit everywhere: here are framed photographs of my father’s family, that lined the entry way to my studio apartment in Manhattan, where I lived for nine years. When you walked into the foyer, they were the first things you saw: This is my family, the wall said. This is my blood. I am not alone. Stacks of Susan’s family photos are piled up on our old couch between the oil burner and the washing machine: the aunts are still alive in those pictures — Ethel in her white mink stole on the 1962 Atlantic cruise where Arthur Miller apparently made a play for her; Phyllis in her kitchen, a calendar in Polish hanging over her shoulder; devoutly religious Millie and George at the Connecticut shore in 1937, wildly, carnally, in love. If they are here with us, surely, then, they must still be alive. My college lacrosse stick rests alone on a shelf; I pick it up and cradle it in my arms and it’s 1982. I am nineteen and my father is not yet sixty, and Harris is eight years old. My cousins, alive, dead, no longer in communication, are here with me. Susan’s aunts are here with her.

As long as we have the stuff — the photographs, the tapes, the bits of ancient pottery, the corks — time is anchored in place. Or so it seems.

A few weeks ago, we had the entire interior of the house painted. Susan loves color. When I first moved to her house in the country, every room was a different shade of pastel: peach, green, yellow, like a basket of Easter eggs. When we moved in here, she painted individual rooms herself: butternut squash for the kitchen, the guest room a wrought iron gray, the bathroom a weird taupe that never worked with the pea green 1970s tile. After a decade, it felt busy and distracting, a background for the things in our lives that gathered dust in every corner of the house, but mostly in the basement, where no one could see them but us.

I wanted every room to be painted the same color. I wanted the trim the same color, the wall alongside the stairs down to the basement the same color. I wanted my office to be the same, the kitchen to be the same, the den with its brick fireplace: the same. We argued about it. And then we hired painters, who moved everything we owned — the things we carried into our life in this house and dropped like an anchor — into enormous piles in the middle of every room. The walls were painted a bright white, as though the entire house was dipped in promise. After two weeks, it looked clean and fresh and uncluttered, like the beginning of new lives belonging to other people. The things of our pasts, obscured with drop cloths, were suddenly invisible; our stuff was gone, and all we had was ourselves, our home, our name. A blank slate.

After the painters left, we began to put things away. We stopped. It was overwhelming. A week went by. We couldn’t face the task. What to keep; what to weed out.

What are the memory triggers that bend our hearts? What are the things that break them?

I unpacked my office, since it is where I work every day. We hung our entry way mirror and the massive 1929 Italian poster that we bought for the wall above our basement stairs. We put away our pots and pans, and Susan attached a single magnetic knife strip to the wall next to our stove, to hold just five knives, not thirty-two. Everything else is still in boxes. We’re almost afraid to reopen them, to be dragged back into the past and unable to see the future.

I spent yesterday in the garden, weeding around the raised beds and the four roses that are suffering under the strain of the Virginia Creeper that threatens to strangle and siphon away their nutrients.

Let the Creeper climb the fence, a master gardener friend once told me. It’s beautiful. 

But it’ll overtake everything, I said.

You just have to pay attention to it, she said, and not let it get out of control. 

We refuse to use garden poison for fear of tainting our vegetables and our ground water. It might kill something we need, something we love. It’s a balance: what to keep, what to pull, what to release. The living versus the dead, the past versus the future. A constant battle against chaos.

What we have, Jane Kenyon once said, is the present. It’s all we ever had, really, except for memory. 

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