‘A green oak grows by a curving shore,
And round that oak hangs a golden chain.’
I am feeling somewhat smug, ridiculous in retrospect, of course, this reveling in my self-professed, intellectual aspirations, as I read Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, having positioned myself in the furthest seat in the back of the mini-bus. I’m in the wheelchair section, technically, where the rattling is profuse at every bump in the frost-heaved, winding road. I squeeze my coffee mug between my feet, tightening my ankles with each abrupt start and stop for the workers now paving Route 100 and putting in a new culvert where Hurricane Irene came through in the form of raging rivers and knocked the old one out. In the pre-dawn, I read by a greenish glow of emergency lighting, glancing up and out at the houses with lit windows passing by.
The bus is filled with who I now know as regulars, the people who spend this hour of travel each day five days a week, starting in the darkness at six in the morning and heading back on the five o’clock shuttle each evening, probably reaching their homes in the next town up from mine by six at night. A twelve-hour day, for sure, beginning and ending in the dark. State workers, mostly, I gather from eavesdropping on their conversations, the three days a week I travel back and forth, to transfer to and from the big bus, the ‘Link’ to the city of Burlington. “Good morning…Have a good day,” we say, each time I embark and depart. Then, “Have a good evening” and “Thanks,” at the end of the day.
Well, you know…how shall I put it? I think everything in the world is bound to change gradually—in fact, it’s changing before our eyes. In two or three or a thousand years—it doesn’t matter how long exactly—life will be different. It will be happy. Of course, we shan’t be able to enjoy that future life, but all the same, what we’re living now is to create it, we work and…yes we suffer in order to create it. That’s the goal of our life, and you might say that’s the only happiness we shall ever achieve. 
Here, as I read Chekhov’s words through the character of the Lieutenant-Colonel, Vershinin, it hits me, this microcosm of life. Dennis, with his curly, brown ponytail sticking out from his backwards baseball cap, sits behind the bus driver, telling her jokes, leaning forward, flirtatious almost in his ‘uniform’, the baggy sweats and dirty canvas coat covering his pudgy, childlike body. I observe her round face in the oversized rear-view mirror, the glasses, the perpetual smile, hear her high-pitched chuckle.
From this point of view, I notice that all the men are wearing baseball caps, except Chuck, who has big bags of skin, Basset-hound like, drooping under his eyes and an egg-shaped, balding head, sparsely covered with beardlike stubble. The tallest one, well over six feet, also aging but more preppy, always plugs in his iPod earphones, so as not to listen, I think, to the woman in her mid-fifties, Irish for sure, with bright orange hair, combed helmet-style, complain as she does every morning lately of the change in the bus schedule that adds an hour to her daily commute. The woman who gets on at my stop—mid-60s, short white hair, tidy in her slacks and jacket, clean canvas bag over her shoulder clasped tightly under her armpit as she enters the bus before me with her deliberate, robotic motions—sits silently in contrast to the boisterous one in the front seat opposite Dennis, exuding wildness, with her curled bangs and long, reddish-brown, wavy hair, dyed for sure because it doesn’t match the creases of her face; she gets fastest-draw, the first to share her smiles and burst out deep, gurgling, guffaws.
Even at this wee hour, en route to work, this handful of strangers hurled together in this half hour of each day are pleasant as can be to each other and the bus driver, smiling and laughing. This foreign world captivates me, this odd camaraderie, as my thoughts dip in and out of the drama that was written a hundred years earlier, that takes place in Russian culture, in the days of drawing-rooms and ballrooms, where you would never find a Dennis or a Chuck, where women’s names end in the letter a, like the three sisters’: Olga, Masha, and Irena. And yet, in the human scheme of things, nothing has changed.
Man must work by the sweat of his brow whatever his class, and that should make up the whole meaning and purpose of his life and happiness and contentment. Oh,how good it must be to be a workman, getting up with the sun and breaking stones by the roadside—or a shepherd—or a schoolmaster teaching the children—or an engine-driver on the railway. Good Heavens! It’s better to be a mere ox or horse, and work, than the sort of young woman who wakes up at twelve, and drinks her coffee in bed, and then takes two hours dressing….
On my way home this afternoon, I climb the steps of the 4:07 Burlington-Montpelier ‘Link’ and, feeling brave, close to finished with the Three Sisters, decide to sit next to one of my writing students from this morning’s eight a.m. class for which I have to catch that 6:30 commuter. Stirling is a 26-year-old woman with Down’s Syndrome. One of God’s reminders, the kind of wake-up call I need—daily. She attends my class through a special program called “Think College.” Her face close to mine—the slanted, crossed eyes behind thick glasses, the puffy red cheeks, spittle emerging at her chapped lips as she slurs her speech—she is thrilled to show me her afternoon snack, a jumbo Three Musketeers bar and container of chocolate milk. I smile, ask her about her blog, then tilt my head back toward my lap and refocus my eyes on the words. I wish I could introduce her to these sisters: Irena who’s miserable, craving love, hopeless and in despair, wondering for no apparent, significant reason, why she hasn’t killed herself; Olga who complains that “Nothing ever happens as we’d like it to”; and Masha, especially, who’s “depressed” and “bored” with her life and her husband.
Meet Stirling, I want to say. The men, like Masha’s husband, Toozenbach, seem to get it, the big picture, how “the suffering that we see around us—and there’s so much of it—itself proves that our society has at least achieved a level of morality which is higher.” This came in response to Commander Vershinin’s questioning of the meaning of life, how “we’re utterly unable to tell what will be regarded as great and important in the future and what will be thought of as just paltry and ridiculous.”
Stirling, even with her disability, is not suffering. Her being bursts with childlike wonder. And this moment, sitting here with her, the simple act shared words and smiles, this is great and important. And don’t we both, don’t we all—Stirling and Dennis and Chuck and the bus drivers—ponder the same stuff of life, ask the same questions as the characters in Chekhov’s drama? “You know, I often wonder,” says Vershinin, “what it would be like if you could start your life over again—.” Don’t we all have dreams…of going to live in a city, of finding true love, of getting or being happily married, of finishing school or becoming a professor…just like Masha, Olga, Irena, and Andrey (their brother)?
“Have a good weekend…and keep writing,” I say to Stirling as I flip my backpack over my shoulder, scurry to the front of the bus, grab my transfer ticket from the machine next to the driver, say my thanks, and head over and onto the Route 100 Commuter, Modern Drama and pink highlighter still in hand.
In the final scene of Act Four, following the death in a duel of the Baron whom Irena was set to marry, as the soldiers are leaving the sisters’ small village, Masha laments, “We’re left alone…to start our lives all over again. We must go on living…we must go on living….” Irena puts her head on Olga’s breast, and says,
Some day people will know why such things happen, and what the purpose of all this suffering is… Then there won’t be any more riddles…Meanwhile we must go on living…and working. Yes, we must go on working! Tomorrow I’ll go away alone and teach in a school somewhere; I’ll give my life to people who need it…It’s autumn now, winter will soon be here, and the snow will cover everything…but I’ll go on working and working!
I have to look up from the words, not just to see the last of the burnt-orange leaves clinging to the trees, but because Dennis with his ponytail sticking out of his backwards cap has the whole bus—including me, at this point—in stitches. All else fades—my book, my job, the wood that needs stacking, the lack of food in the fridge, my financial responsibilities—as I lose myself in the laughter. How simple this feels, just being happy.
The questions of life, the meaning of life, its lessons and connections…Chekhov’s point in real time, this moment, the here and now. Three Sisters, with its reversals of psychology, brings the author’s profound understanding of human nature to light. In the end, Olga puts both arms around her sisters and says, “maybe if we wait a little longer, we shall find out why we live, why we suffer….” We get it, read between the lines, see the silver lining in the details of this final scene—as one husband enters, smiling with forgiveness, and another, the three sisters’ brother, pushes his baby Bobik in the pram. “If only we knew, if only we knew!” Olga says just before the curtain falls.
In a hundred years, we still don’t know. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. In the meantime, we must listen to the music of the laughter…hear the band. We must keep getting on that bus destined for happiness.
 Anton Chekhov. “Three Sisters, A Drama in Four Acts,” in Modern Drama, ed. by Anthony
Caputi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966.
Learning to Love the Gerund
It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living fire, in measures being kindled
and in measures going out.
I sometimes sit in a public place or stare out the bus window, observing closely someone walking by, putting one foot in front of the other. I am, at once, amazed and reminded of my own humanity, how I, myself, am getting there in small steps, daily increments, but also how it’s taking me a long time to accept one of my mantras, that always life begins again. One foot in front of the other. Simple but never easy. Two decades after my first husband ended his own life and close to one decade since I ended my second marriage after discovering infidelity, simple life observations connect me to salvation. And I am, again, astounded by the comprehension that I’m not alone, not the least bit extraordinary in this need to embrace my trauma, sadness, anger, grief, the loss and endless questioning. With such insight, I’ve come to love the gerund, that verb form I once found distasteful, the one I would tell my composition students to avoid. Get rid of the –ing, I used to caution them.
We often teach what it is we ourselves need to learn most.
Life is cruel. Life is absurd. Especially when it comes to death.
Life can turn without presage into a twisted board game, strangers at the door with a note you couldn’t have concocted in your wildest dreams or a distant voice on the other end of a phone telling you something you don’t want to hear, projections that suddenly become your own. Life can morph in a split second from calm to raging current, causing it passengers to capsize, dragging us down, even threatening to drown us…always prodding us with that age-old dare…go with the flow. Yes, it’s tough to be human sometimes. Most times. In the best and worst of times.
In my own process of teaching and writing and remembering—three gerunds joined hand-in-hand, literally, through what Wallace Stevens calls that “palm at the end of the mind”—I’ve gleaned understanding that living fully is about being real no matter how that feels. I’ve discovered through everyday struggles, as we all may do, that there is happiness—or at least contentment—in the very essence of the here and now, not in the past nor in the future, but—as the metaphysical theory of Heraclitus implies—in the moments of becoming. Change is the only constant. With this understanding, after many years—as garnered through the life experiences and blind circumstances in these pages—I’m just beginning to wrestle with a penchant for running. Always toward or away from something. I’m on the cusp of finally being able to cultivating that other voice, the one that says, it’s okay to be doing nothing. Sit. Be still.
I’m hoping that you, reader, will relate readily, see yourself in the pages to come. Consider my stories self-help of sorts—yours and mine. Here, in Rabbit Tales, through camaraderie and commiseration, living firsthand the craziness of my own attempts at survival and mishaps in the search for contentment, may you gather courage for your own daily auditions and life performances. May this, my simple act of sharing these personal tales and snippets from journal entries and cards that begin and end with love always to and from me—the girlfriend, lover, wife, and mother my late husband called Rabbit—be the balm for whatever wounds you. May these stories of my sometimes pathological endeavors to survive remind you that, whatever has befallen you, whatever your briar patch and in the face of shaken faith, eventually, somehow, somewhere, you, too, will be O.K.—as Peter wrote to us, family, Jenny, Alex, Olivia, Luke + Hunter in his suicide note—with or without whatever it is you’ve lost or gained.
Living is learning. Dying is, well, dead and gone, at least in this lifetime. Forgiving is a way to move forward and keep going on.
We can only figure it out as we go, try to remain in one place, to reside in the very emotions that stab us, resist the knee-jerk reaction to push the most distressing memories and painful feelings away, or even worse, back down inside. I keep telling myself that, in choosing to live, one must let what burns inside kindle itself, rise to the surface, and dwell in consciousness. One must remain open to the little perks popping out of nowhere from a place least expected. Be okay with being, not lonely, but alone. Be truthful. Get real, I’ll tell myself. But even more so, be real, which takes time and, yes, staying power, what the Buddhists call shenpa.
And still, I can’t resist the movement, even the slightest swivel of my body—like the swaying back and forth I used to do when pregnant or holding one of my four babies—as life keeps going, spinning all around me. I’m trying, a lifelong endeavor for sure, to accept each moment of being as, at once, continuity and change, harboring the difference between being and becoming—a debate older than Plato. My conclusion, at least for now, is that being is becoming. Stasis and motion—simultaneously. The trick to not letting adversity win is strong footing in the sometimes babbling, other times raging stream of life’s continuous momentum. The test is to grasp reality and fight the urge to run away or, often worse, that often futile attempt at total control.
This, I am learning not only from what I experience daily but from what I remember. Enduring the hard knocks necessitates recalling those soft moments of sustenance, the sentiment, I love you, Rabbit, that continues to weave itself through my life tales. This need I have, don’t we all, really, to syncopate past with present—and future.
What choice do I have, I used to ask myself regularly, but to be strong?
With each life occurrence—each stumble and fall—we must lift ourselves up, and hold steady. This, I am learning, to trust what I know and accept even what is false—blindness, just one, yet my greatest tragic flaw. From trauma, heartbreak, disappointment, mess-ups, and even those little boo-boos of life, I’m always recovering. And that, in this simple –ing verb, in many of life’s gerunds, I’m not alone. Because in waking and walking through each day, we all face a recurring challenge: To find that balance between the searching and letting go, to know when and how to stay and when it’s time to go forward, to embrace the predominant emotions of love and fear in our living and our dying, suddenly or daily, always in our being and becoming real.
Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.
“An Absurd Reasoning”
I’m on my last two legs, literally, exultant to have ditched another horsefly, plodding up the steepest of inclines straight into the sun in ninety-degree heat. Sweat stings my eyes, so I tilt my sunglasses onto my forehead, grab the bottom edge of my t-shirt and tug it upwards toward and across my lids and brows. The stinging ceases. I can see again, and just at the crest of this hill, emerging from behind the stone pillars that mark the back entrance to Bennington College, come two peers walking slowly, calmly downhill toward me. Okay, not peers, fellow writers, really, friends of sorts—whose ages combined equal less than mine, whose feet stop while one lights a cigarette, the other already trailing smoke from his fingertips.
“I know, I know…” I rally a slight yell in synch with my slow-moving arms and feet, just before we pass in opposite directions. “A bit masochistic,” I blurt between huffs and my own streams of perspiration. Okay, gasps, really, my uphill, tortoise-style struggle countering their snail-like gravitation.
“You read my mind,” says Jimmy, who in passing, in a blink, reminds me of a modern-day Midnight Cowboy as he spits a laugh, then smiles. Okay, smirks, really. And I know exactly what he’s thinking. That absurd woman.
I know, says the voice inside my body, too deplete of energy to expend one more word. I need to keep going, keep hoping to be able to keep going, through those pillars, back into marked campus territory, back to my temporary dorm-room home.
“You’re my hero…,” says another young woman out for a post-workshop stroll, as I run by, no, jog, really and barely. I’ve been given a reprieve now in the slight downhill arc of the pavement and shade of a row of thick maples dividing pasture from road, allowing me in this brief moment to make it look like a breeze, “…to be running in this scorching heat!” she hollers.
“Gotta do it.” My words cascade in her direction, dissipating behind me. A smile cracks across my face, when up pops a corny punchline from some drawer of my past. Why? Someone got a gun to your head? One of my fear-motivated mantras snaps on its heal, in synch with my feet, an age-old imperative, recent admonishment from my eighteen-year-old’s mouth, iterated to me as I was zipping my last bag for this final ten-day residency, four days after his high-school graduation. “Never rest on your laurels, Mom.”
Why am I so afraid, that if I let up—or, God forbid, let go—for more than a second, something bad will happen? Because it has. Because it did. And yet, some small rational component of my brain consoles the elegist in me, smothers the pathological would-have-been cravings, stifles the could-have-been confabulations, douses perpetual rememberings—nostalgia snuffed in fits and starts by those seconds of clarity that come from miniature, daily victories and acceptance of the downfalls. I couldn’t have prevented my first husband’s death nor stopped my second from philandering.
If you want to make God laugh, I used to tell my kids, half-hurting, half-joking, just tell Him your plans for the future.
It’s dark. I’m semi-conscious. And I can’t figure out what that noise is. My phone, yes, it’s coming from my phone. I sit up, reach for the pair of reading glasses with one wobbly stem resting on the table next to my bedside lamp. The glowing digital numbers read 4:28. In the morning.
I hear Livy’s voice, spewing apologies, potent with relief. She’s at the Paris airport, right, yes, that’s what day it is, the day I head for Montreal to pick her up after her five months living with a homestay family and studying abroad. She’s explaining to me, half out of breath, that she doesn’t have enough money in her bank account to pay for her luggage.
Next second, I’m listening to instructions coming from a male voice with a French accent and my bare feet slapping against the hard wooden stairs as I head down, nightgown half unbuttoned, to locate my bag, my wallet, and a credit card. I’m looking at the small rectangle of plastic in my palm, and he’s telling me to read the numbers, and I’m thinking, no problem, until my half-broken bedside glasses fall off my face, twice, and the light in the mudroom isn’t bright enough for me to read the silvery brail-like numbers no matter which way and at what angle I tilt the card, so I go into the kitchen to turn on a brighter light and the bulb flashes and dies before my tired eyes, and I keep saying, “Okay, okay…let me just get this…hold on, I’m getting it….the number is…” I feel my way back up, step by step in morning darkness, the sound of my own laughter echoing in the stairwell. That absurd American.
Relieved to climb under my covers that night, Livy safely home and tucked in hers in the room on the other side of our shared bathroom, I’m sure I must be dreaming when what seems like seconds after I’m dismissed to sleep, I hear my cell phone ringing. The upper half of my body bolts upright. It’s one-thirty in the morning.
Alex is stuttering, “Mom…Mom…Mom….”
My eyes widen as some invisible bar bell presses against my chest bones. I recall instantly that his two younger brothers—lookalikes often mistaken for models in Abercrombie or Hollister catalogues, affectionately called ‘the Gro Bros’ when all three wandered the halls of the same high school—are there somewhere, in Providence, on the hill, at Brown, staying at my college senior’s off-campus apartment for some pre-graduation partying. Oh, God, oh, no, something’s happened.
“Everyone’s fine, Mom. It’s Dad. I’m thinking about my dad. How he’s not here. He won’t be here to see me graduate from college.” His voice hits a high pitch before coming to a halt. At the rare if ever sound of my 21-year-old’s sob, my two hands cup the phone closer to my ear, elbows tense, arms crossing more tightly against this upright torso.
“It’s good to cry, buddy,” I say, believing this with all my heart while enlisting an army of muscle and willpower not to start in myself. “And of course you miss him….” My heart grips itself. My gullet tightens.
“And I love you so much, Mom, so much, you don’t know…” Weakened in this moment, droplets form at my eyes and, despite my lips’ resistance, the sputtering wins.
We alternate talking, giggling aloud at ourselves between deep breaths, muffled sobs, and unabashed sniffles. Wide awake now, I can hear the laughter of the party in the background, and suspect Alex is half-bombed as I conjure the image of that keg he and his roommates keep cold and tapped, even though it consumes more than half the inside of their fridge.
“Your dad’s already missed a lot,” I say in consolation that feels lame, “and he’ll miss a lot more…and it’s healthy for you to feel sad about that, to miss him….” I continue rambling as melancholy and giddiness intermingle like the strands of my pillow-tousled hair, sparks of emotions igniting inside like the glints of streetlight across my bedroom floor. I get that his need for processing the loss of his dad four months before his fifth birthday—this emergence of lucidity—is just beginning.
“But you seem so happy,” people say to me, the common reaction upon hearing the lowlights of my life saga. Yes. And yet, my conscious processing, the trials—and sometimes futile attempts—of transcendence are never ending. And yet, it’s all good. Well, maybe not good, exactly, but healthy. Or necessary. Because this father’s death was not simply sudden and tragic, but suicide. That absurd way to die.
And still, I believe more than hope—except for the occasional pot of pasta or annual turkey dinner for homecomings, a credit card number, or some emotional consoling, all four will be fine. They are fine. I’m the one most likely to be trodden by that stone of possibility I’ve been pushing uphill all these years—almost twenty now since their dad’s sudden downfall and self-inflicted demise, my determination full throttle just to keep things going. To live. To love. Until now. Until they’re as if suddenly gone from this place of safekeeping, the proverbial nest. Until the moment I am able to let go.
I can’t give up, never do, never will. Never did.
“Push, Jen, now…I can see the head, the baby’s coming, yes, again…and one more time.” Four times. Okay, two, really, of that vaginal kind, but four altogether including the two C-sections, one scheduled, the other emergency—and each time that sound, the blue-ribbon cry, the hours of labor done, the lives begun.
I was blind to fear back then and far from its hardening factor.
“I’ve never been so happy,” I said, or so my Mom would remind me, repeatedly, periodically, as their birthdays accumulated at each milestone—one, five, ten, thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one.
“It’s certainly not how you planned it, how you hoped it would be,” she’ll say to me on the phone, immediately following my fourth solo venture to and from yet another first-year college parents’ weekend.
I stand in the cozy circle of parents and assorted relatives as the three dads of Alex’s apartment mates who introduce themselves just that way—as Clancy’s dad, and Geo’s dad, and Brian’s dad—toast our sons. Knowing the inevitable is coming, I take a gulp and swallow hard before taking one step forward and raising my red Solo cup half-filled with champagne. “I’m Alex’s dad and mom,” I begin, glimpsing across the hors d’oeuvre platter at what I hope to be an approving smile stretching amidst my first-born’s beautiful combination of inherited genes—beneath his father’s thick brows and my own serious, deep-set, hazel eyes.
I’ve just conquered another hill, and continue, taunted by that scorching sun as I pass the campus-security station, take a shortcut across the grass onto the road behind the library—and head downhill. In this vocation of rapture, my lungs fill to capacity with liberty. My legs move effortlessly now, down, down, in pure delusion of self-control, along the broken pavement, then onto and around the potholes of the gravel parking lot. I have one last, steep incline to tackle—a snakelike sidewalk with a seventy-five-degree uphill tilt—before crossing the lush, flat green. My body heat heightens one last time to rival an afternoon temperature approaching one-hundred degrees. My heart swells with the pain of joy, my mentality intoxicated with irrationality, thinking—no, believing—the completion of toil is near.
In the shadow of a pine, perpendicular to a low stone wall, I lunge to stretch. One leg extended straight behind, my arms straddle the bent knee, first one, then the other, fingertips spread and sinking slightly through blades of grass, grounding themselves in the moist dirt, bolstering my body. Heart-rate receded, dazzled by endorphins, from this mass of yeast rises the understanding that the best endings are only temporary and better yet—as I evoke the one closed door is another one opening theory—those tagged as new beginnings. Feeling amorphous, a golem of sorts, I forgive hubris, and revel, again and as much as ever, in the burden—the boulder itself—this human capability of loving what can crush us. In these, the most absurd of moments, I imagine myself happy. No, not imagine. I am… okay, if not happy, at rest, at least. Able to laugh again and often. At last, content to let that rock roll.
 “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.” Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 107.
To exist is to change,
to change is to mature,
to mature is to go on
creating oneself endlessly. ~ Henri Bergson
Writers don’t find themselves; they create themselves. ~ Michael Larsen, partner in Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency and co-founder/director of the San Francisco Writers Conference