May 24, 2021

A Prayer for Restoration

    One day two years ago, I stood on the porch of a crumbling house, the hoarding owner recently dead, and bargained with an estate-sale lady over an ancient, eight-foot-long church pew. Within moments I faced the next challenge: how to get the pew home in a tiny Prius? 

   I left my pew at the sale, with instructions to safeguard it until my return. Nobody paid any attention to me; the pew sat there, forlorn in the rain, its splintering structure suffering further the indignities of neglect, time, and abuse. 

    I sped over the bridge to home, to measure our Toyota Highlander. The pew wouldn’t fit. Moments later, as serendipity would have it, I ran into my neighbor Karen, who owns a truck. Everyone should have a friend who owns a truck. She offered to pick up the pew for me. 

   Last week, after two years standing on its side in my garage, the pew came down. I ran to Home Depot to buy a bigger sander, and I spent two days – with the able assistance of my youngest son – sanding the thing. One must pretzel oneself into all sorts of shapes to sand a long old pew, and I did, which resulted in some injury to these aging bones. The pew was looking far better, and I was the one covered in the dust and damage of its dereliction.  

    The next day, I went out to water plants in the garden. I bent over to get at the roots of a big, blooming bridal-wreath spirea, and my legs crumpled out from under me. They creaked. They cried out in agony over those same indignities of neglect, time, and abuse.

    My son, the backup sander, ran out of the house and dragged me in. He took off my shoes, because my body wouldn’t bend to do it myself. He brought me a glass of water. He called out to my husband for help. 

    I am hurting, it’s true. But like my old pew, parked on my porch, sanded and cleaned to a new beauty the years collectively bestowed, with a little care – a bit of stroking and soaking and icing and cautious use – these cranky bones will be as good as new.

   If you have a story of resurrection, write it, tell it, share it with me. I’d like to hear it. 

Friends and dear readers, if you’d like to share this blog with anyone, please do. No need to ask!

May 17, 2021

The Fruits of Poetry

One day, when I was hardly taller than an armchair, my teacher, Ms. Ewald, who taught us songs in German, or was it Sister Joseph, straight-backed, black-habit serious yet the kindest woman to ever grace that old NYC school’s hallowed halls? No matter, one of those excellent women set forth on my lift-top wooden desk a small volume that would change the way I looked at words. 

  The title was “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.” 

  Back then, we had reading time scheduled every day. Once the prescribed reading was done, we could read whatever was offered in the classroom. That day, I read “Reflections.” A book compiled for children. A knee-high doorway into the paradise of poetry. The book’s pages grew worn under my thumbing fingers. I folded over the edges of my favorite poems, which I was forbidden to do because the book was the school’s, not mine, committed to a pristine handing-over to the next student the next year.  I was a precise student, a methodical, careful one. But love is messy. And I had fallen in love. With a book of poetry.

    As I grew older, I moved on to other poems and other poets, to Elizabeth Bishop and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. To Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.

    But I never forgot my first love, the one that introduced me to rhythm and rhyme, to melody and meter. To joy and sadness expressed through the glory, the romance, the power of words.  

   If we look, we find poetry in the everyday. “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” reminds me of the importance of doing so. Here’s the title poem from this wonderful book, and I hope you are able to stop to see, today, poetry where it awaits:

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity

By John Tobias

During that summer

When unicorns were still possible 

When the purpose of knees

Was to be ‘skinned’

When shiny horse chestnuts 

(Hollowed out 

Fitted with straws

Crammed with tobacco 

Stolen from butts in family ashtrays)

Were puffed in green lizard silence

While straddling thick branches 

Far above and away

From the softening effects of civilization;

During that summer

Which may never have been at all;

But which has become more real

Than the one that was;

Watermelons ruled. 

Thick pink imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched suns

Dribbling from chins;

Leaving the best part

The black bullet seeds,

To be spit out in rapid fire

Against the wall

Against the wind

Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,

There was always another bite;

It was a summer of limitless bites, 

Of hungers quickly felt

And quickly forgotten 

With the next careless gorging. 

The bites are fewer now. 

Each one is savored lingeringly,

Swallowed reluctantly. 

But in a jar put up by Felicity,

The summer which maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved. 

And when we unscrew the lid 

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on our tongue:

Unicorns become possible again.

May 10, 2021

A Morning in the Garden

   One day this past week, the sun called to me. Its still-cool rays unfolded my peony-flowering tulips’ tissue-paper petals, their first year strutting in my garden. Green daggers shot up from beneath the whirling winter wheat of native grasses; time to trim back the dead to allow for the new. A worm lay in the middle of the brick path. Was she sunbathing? Was she dead? Why was she in the proverbial middle of the street?

    Much happens in the sunshine of a spring morning. I stepped outdoors with my little notebook. The lettuce-green leaves of the Norway maple wiggled in the breeze. A squirrel stood on her hind feet in the driveway, nibbling on an acorn the wind saw fit to blow off the oak across the street. Pine cones, male and female, gathered on the lawn, recently spit from the Eastern white pines that line the borders of the yard. The straight trunks of the pines soar to the skies, their open canopies slipping the sun’s rays onto the scraggles of green stalks that count for grass this year. 

   I said to myself, 15 minutes. There was much else to do inside, but for 15 minutes I pledged to pull on my work gloves and pick through the dead bulb stalks, compost the winter mulch from the roses, trim back the lavender that held on through the frostiest days.

     Committing to 15 minutes in the garden is like pledging to eat one potato chip. 

     In the garden, I measure the intentions of a life. I recite poetry. I talk to the plants. Fifteen minutes slipped into an hour, then two and three. The garden spoke. Be out here with us, it said, where every moment much happens. Inhale that heady, intoxicating scent of the hanging lilacs. Drink in the blood red of the early-blooming rose. Waken your winter-weary fingers on the tulips’ velveteen petals. 

   A garden encourages hope, promise, the understanding that there is more than meets the eye. “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it is going to be a butterfly,” R. Buckminster Fuller said. 

    Discovery is the nature of Mother Nature. Head out and see for yourself.

— Jane

For the purposes of this blog, take extra notice today of an object, a person, a facet of  nature, and write about it. Describe the movement, the smell, the feel, the look of it. Share it with someone. If you’d like to share it with me, please, send it along. 

May 3, 2021

Old Wood

            We are out to dinner in Massachusetts, my husband, his brother Aaron, and Aaron’s wife. We are talking about furniture.

Aaron took home the coffee table, a coveted Mid-Century Modern piece, when my in-law’s Manhattan apartment sold. He wanted only a few items. Pieces of memory, he said.

            Called Long John, the table was a creation of man commingling with Mother Nature, whorls of walnut cut cleanly from the umbilical cord, shaped with miter saw and bench chisel, slimmed with block plane and sandpaper, massaged with oil. Shiny on the showroom floor. 

            Sixty years ago, my father-in-law lugged it uptown from downtown on the subway. He christened it with a cup of coffee he set, still steaming, on the glowing wood. Heat left a ring. My mother-in-law’s cigarette left a scar. Actors, directors, singers and stage managers left candles to burn. They smoked joints, spilled Scotch, and scraped high heels against its bronze body. The gloss faded to a soft shine, then to a rawness that revealed the years. A life of memory in a coffee table.

    Beauty is so individual; what we love differs depending on who we are. 

    Aaron is telling a story. The moving guys broke one of the table’s legs. Aaron took the table to a furniture repair guy near his home in Amherst. Two months later he went to retrieve it.   

      The furniture repair guy carried it in. The table glowed. 

    “It had all these burns and scrapes,” he said. “I refinished it. Isn’t it great?” 

     Aaron stared, speechless.

     Sometimes a favor is an infringement of faith. What we love differs, depending on who we are.

This week, I ask you to think about – and perhaps write about – objects you keep that are more about the beauty of nostalgia than the need for usefulness. Share what you write with me, and if you are so inclined, take a photo of the object and send it along too.

May 10, 2021

A Word about Words

   One day, when I was as tall as an armchair, my teacher, Ms. Ewald, who taught us songs in German, or was it Sister Joseph, straight-backed, black-habit serious yet the kindest woman to ever grace that NYC school’s hallowed halls? No matter, one of those excellent women set forth on my lift-top wooden child’s desk a small volume that would change the way I looked at words.

  The title was “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.” 

  Back then, we had reading time scheduled every day. Once the prescribed reading was done, we could read whatever was offered in the classroom. That day, I read “Reflections.” A book compiled for children. A knee-high doorway into the paradise of poetry. The book’s pages grew worn under my thumbing fingers. I folded over the edges of my favorite poems, which I was forbidden to do because the book was the school’s, not mine, committed to a pristine handing-over to the next student the next year.  I was a precise student, a methodical, careful one. But love is messy. And I had fallen in love. With a book of poetry.

    As I grew older, I moved on to other poems and other poets, to Elizabeth Bishop and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. To Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.

    But I never forgot my first love, the one that introduced me to rhythm and rhyme, to melody and meter. To joy and sadness expressed through the glory, the romance, the power of words.  

   If we look, we find poetry in the everyday. “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” reminds me of the importance of doing so. Here’s the title poem from this wonderful book, and I hope you are able stop to see, today, poetry where it awaits:

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity”

By John Tobias

During that summer

When unicorns were still possible 

When the purpose of knees

Was to be ‘skinned’

When shiny horse chestnuts 

(Hollowed out 

Fitted with straws

Crammed with tobacco 

Stolen from butts in family ashtrays)

Were puffed in green lizard silence

While straddling thick branches 

Far above and away

From the softening effects of civilization;

During that summer

Which may never have been at all;

But which has become more real

Than the one that was;

Watermelons ruled. 

Thick pink imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched suns

Dribbling from chins;

Leaving the best part

The black bullet seeds,

To be spit out in rapid fire

Against the wall

Against the wind

Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,

There was always another bite;

It was a summer of limitless bites, 

Of hungers quickly felt

And quickly forgotten 

With the next careless gorging. 

The bites are fewer now. 

Each one is savored lingeringly,

Swallowed reluctantly. 

But in a jar put up by Felicity,

The summer which maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved. 

And when we unscrew the lid 

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on our tongue:

Unicorns become possible again.

April 5, 2021

Up in the Air 

I first stepped on an airplane in my late teens, when I flew from New York to Missouri for college. From then on, I flew all over the country to visit friends I’d made in that college: Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Spokane. 

    Then my friends began to expand their reach. Three of them flew to China to work for Xinhua, the government-supported news agency. One flew to Vietnam to ride a motorcycle with her boyfriend. Others flew to Venice and Vienna, Paris and Pamplona. 

   I worked, raised kids, and vacationed, every so often, in Martha’s Vineyard or the Jersey shore. 

   But I never once set a step off this continent. The ribbons of responsibility kept me here, in my homeland, yearning to see more.

   I wanted to see where Caesar walked. I wanted to see where Michelangelo painted. I wanted to see where the hunchback of Notre Dame lived, even if he existed only in Victor Hugo’s imagination. 

   I wanted this for my children, and I wanted it for myself.

   In sophomore year of high school, my daughter flew for two weeks to France for a school trip. My eldest son, four years later, flew to Moscow for a college semester abroad. My next son flew to Florence for a semester abroad. When it was over, he flew throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. 

    I drove them to airports, hugged them before they piled onto planes, watched them race down the runway and float into the air, away from me. I went back home, back to work, back to the business of paying bills, never having enough to go anywhere but the grocery store. With four kids, even that was a financial risk. 

    I knew the days were passing; I knew my knees were getting achy. A person needs knees to travel. 

    One day I put my foot down, so to speak. When I turn 50, I said, I am going to Rome. The people I loved looked up from what they were doing – a son from his computer, my husband from the newspaper – and then looked down again. Sure, I heard them saying to themselves. Sure.

   At 49, I began checking fares. I began reading the N.Y. Times Travel section, to figure out how to get the cheapest ones. I was only buying one ticket, after all. 

    At 49 and a half, I sat down one day at the breakfast table and said to my husband, I’ve researched fares and I’ve settled on this one. I’m buying it. Here are the dates I’m going. 

   This time he put down the paper. What? He said. You’re serious? 

    All of a sudden, wheels were moving. I, my husband, and two kids were now going.  One day, we heard from a friend who was planning to be in Rome at the same time we were. Did we want to stay with him and his girlfriend and respective children at her villa in Umbria?  Did we want to stay in his apartment in Florence while he visited Rome?  

    Was he kidding?

   We flew to Italy. We ate and drank out every night. We turned into random churches – a Rafael there, a Michelangelo here, an Ecstasy of St. Teresa over there, how is this possible? – and touched the crumbling concrete of the Colosseum. 

    I wanted to go to the Vatican, I said. Not so much because I was raised Catholic. Not so much because I wanted a glimpse of the Pope. Not so much because the Vatican is this massive, famous building jam-packed with history and art and I wanted to be sure I breathed the air of it. 

    I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel.

    To my two younger boys who accompanied us, the trip was a vacation. For my husband, it was a repeat of a world tour he had taken when he finished college. For me, though, traveling to distant lands was an opening into a new world – a world about which I had read for years in books, in newspapers, in National Geographic, a world that lived in photos and descriptions by others. Over the years, friends would say, ‘Don’t go here or there.’ And I would respond, ‘I want to be able to say that. I want to be able to say, oh, don’t go to Venice. It’s drowning.’ Or whatever. 

    We walked into the crowd of the Sistine Chapel, as jammed as a pre-pandemic Monday morning at Grand Central Station. I froze in place, breathless, ecstatic, enthralled. I envisioned the mystery of Michelangelo painting upside down. I gazed at the chapel ceiling and felt the weight of it; the extraordinariness; the majesty. I wondered who had to clean up all the paint he dropped on the floor.  

    Tears rolled down my cheeks. 

    My sons saw this and moved quickly away from me. Mothers can be so embarrassing. My husband was off in a corner, viewing a fresco. Other visitors glanced sideways, shrugged, moved on. I stood in the center of the room, eyes upward, weeping from years of wishing. Salt tears trickled down the sides of my face onto my white cotton sweater, where they left watery dots. 

    Through the entire Vatican, I cried into a tissue a sympathetic woman handed me in passing. And that was how I was the rest of the trip, a watery mush awash in tears, a weepy tribute to wanderlust unleashed. Escaped. Overflowing. Joyous. 

   As soon as I can get on a plane, I’m out of here. 

   Think about your first time on a plane, and what that experience was like: the sights, the sounds, the smells. If you could go anywhere safely, where would you go? Write about why you want to go there. Share your thoughts with someone; if you have been or are a participant in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send your work to me. I’d like to read it.

CV

JANE GORDON JULIEN

Writer, Writing Coach, Editor

http://www.janegordonjulien.com

janegordonjulien@gmail.com

860-918-2229

Engaging, articulate, creative writer and writing coach and teacher seeking to bring intelligent and enthusiastic writing instruction to students.

EXPERIENCE

Contributing writer, columnist: The New York Times, Associated Press, Northeast Magazine, The Hartford Courant, The Connecticut Mirror, Connecticut Business Journal (please see comprehensive publications listing at janegordonjulien.com)

Writer, Editor and Bureau Chief: The Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT

Editor: The Birmingham Post-Herald

Journalism adjunct instructor: University of Alabama-Birmingham

Guest lecturer: University of Connecticut

Writing workshop teacher: River Bend Bookshop, Glastonbury

Speechwriter, college essay coach, communications consultant for non-profit organizations: Jane Gordon Julien Communications

OTHER EXPERIENCE

Director of Communications, University of New Haven

Senior Writer/Editor, University of Connecticut Foundation

EDUCATION

Master’s Degree, creative writing, Sarah Lawrence College

Bachelor’s degree, journalism, University of Missouri-Columbia