Same old love

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The picture above is of a Christmas postcard from Anne Spencer to Langston Hughes, postmarked 1943. Of course, I’m thinking about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville a year ago; I’m also sick about the escalating damage the current administration is doing to people and the planet. But I don’t have anything fresh or wise to say on those subjects, so here’s a little out-of-season love instead.

As of this past Tuesday, my husband and I have been married twenty-five years. I’d say “happily married,” which is true, but cliches mute the ups and downs. Figuring out, in our twenties, how to be good to each other while being good to ourselves was hard, and the math on that is always evolving. Raising kids is hard. Finding good employment in the same region for two ambitious people is really, really hard. Illness, dying parents, house floods, a host of other crises–well, you get the idea. Now one kid is twenty-one and the other nearly eighteen, so Chris and I celebrated our milestone on a July trip, while both children were away. We forgot on the actual day until my mother texted congratulations. In the middle of a mixed college-visit/ research trip, Chris and our son were doing a tour in Massachusetts when my mother reminded me of the date. I was reading Anne Spencer’s correspondence, some of which is archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

There were a couple of specific research questions I would have liked answers to, but I didn’t find them. Instead I enjoyed watching Spencer’s friendship with James Weldon Johnson unfold and deepen over many years. He encourages her to write and submit her work, staving off discouragement. They recommend books and articles to each other: Johnson suggests, for example, that Spencer read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and she responds with enthusiasm about what she’s found. Spencer encourages Johnson and his wife to visit for spring flowers and Christmas festivities, noting she feels more alive when she can look forward to their conversation. There’s plenty of politics in the letters but also ordinary stuff, like worry about Spencer’s children. It was especially sweet to notice how the salutations evolved over time: from the relatively formal “My dear Mrs. Spencer/ Mr. Johnson” to “Dear Anne” and “darling Grace-‘n’-Gem.”

The surviving correspondence between Spencer and Langston Hughes adds up to a much slimmer folder, but there’s also a lot of warmth and play in it. Spencer tells Hughes, for instance, about naming birds in her garden after distant literary figures. There’s “one named Langston–quite too proud of his black and gold-bronze plumage…and Mencken so yclept because of a certain spurious bitterness–mostly pose.” What a lonely world she lived in, and yet so populated. It’s not totally unlike writer-friends in far-off places now, messaging in ways that will be difficult to archive.

For all the violence in Spencer’s time and ours, there was and is a lot of love zinging around. I hope we can keep protecting it from the general heat. Write from the saving coolness of it. But it’s so, so hard.

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Paternity suit

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Father’s Day used to be a hard one. When my father was alive, I knew he wanted to be fussed over, but he was an unpredictably mean-spirited person who’d praise my intelligence one minute and mock me the next for my unattractiveness, my career choices, or my politics–and he was doing the same to my siblings and worse to my mother. There were times he and I weren’t speaking, but most years I shopped for funny rather than sentimental cards and kept the peace. Like everyone else he knew, as far as I can tell, I was relieved when he died.

So, like plenty of other ambivalent people, I watch all loving posts from friends about their sweet fathers with some wonder. It’s only the past few years that I can do so without grief at what I missed. I even used to feel jealous of my own kids, who (rightly) adore their dad.

For whatever reason, I’m okay now, and more genuinely able to feel glad for people cherishing that relationship or remembering it fondly. The more love in the world, the better. Plus I enjoy my kids’ enjoyment of time with Chris, which helps, too–one thing I definitely didn’t screw up as a parent was marrying him. This weekend he and I stayed overnight in Washington, D.C. visiting my daughter, who is interning at the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation. It was fun to take her commute from Foggy Bottom to the Hill and see the garden where she eats lunch (when she’s not in the Senate cafeteria), and just to catch up with her about the good work she’s up to. We ate well, too, and saw a decent play (The Remains at the Studio Theater), but I was especially grateful for museum time. For a palate cleanser after hanging around the Senate, we visited the Obamas in the National Portrait Gallery. Chris took the shot above, in which you might be able to spot Madeleine taking her own picture of the Chuck Close portrait of Clinton. The images below are mine of James Weldon Johnson, Marianne Moore with her mother, and Paul Laurence Dunbar brooding behind Gertrude Stein.

Today, lots of people are also posting about the ironies of celebrating Father’s Day even as our government is brutally separating parents and children at the border–a devastating continuation of a long history of destroying families, as the U.S. did through enslavement and the American Indian boarding school system, not to mention the dangers to children now from gun violence, rising addiction rates, unjust public education systems, and many other crises. I want to be able to talk about U.S. human rights abuses in the past tense–admitting them, trying to heal and make a better future, but also firmly locating them behind us–like I can in a personal way with my father. Clearly, that’s not yet. I hope it’s more possible when our own kids finish growing up and help vote some of these jerks out of office. I see a lot to hope for, in the generation beginning to come of age.

In the meantime, here’s a poem about other fathers that I never managed to publish anywhere–from 2011, when my father was in his final downward spiral. Some of the poets I cite were good fathers to me, and a couple not so much, but they all shaped who I am.

Paternity Suit

My father Langston hands his camel jacket to the coat-check lady.
He lifts his menu with a flourish and says now you order anything, anything.
My father Thomas Stearns says use your inside voice.
Embarrassment beads his forehead.
My father Ezra chants a grace to drive the waiter mad.
My father John Keats urges a scalpel between cork and bottle.
A candle-flame repeats in glass, wine, his hectic cheeks.
My father Walt pries open mollusk after mollusk, grooves on his thumbs adoring the grooves of each inky shell.
My father Allen insists I eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli and the outrageous curry of hilarity anoints his beard.
My father James Merrill, tortoiseshell-buttoned, conserves naked chicken bones for broth.
I will bathe them, he says, with bay leaves, peppercorns, and whole onions quartered through paper to root.
When the liquid alchemizes I will strain its gold and measure in cubes of potato, crystals of salt.
This soup will be for you.

My father father sits with another family in a dining room I have never visited.
I used to peer downstairs at two in the morning, when only the streetlight shone into the kitchen;
he hoisted bergs of chocolate ice cream to his mouth with a shaky hand.
My father wore short pajamas, cotton striped with lines so faint I only imagined I could read them.
Maybe I heard the clink, clink of his spoon.