I was reaching sleepily for the second or third sip of coffee this morning when a loud thud out on the porch interrupted my efforts to fortify myself for the last day of 2013. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose was a sip or three ahead of me, and so she joined me out on the porch to investigate the source of the noise. To my considerable consternation, we discovered that the family masterpiece of recycled art, Moby-Dick, had fallen from the wall on which it had hung, proudly and without incident, for nearly ten years. Careful inspection revealed no damage to the painstakingly assembled pieces of Lake Michigan beach glass that make up the jaunty white whale, but a sawtooth hanger on the back of the frame had given way, causing the fall. Whether the culprit is rusty nails or weakness in the decaying frame I cannot at the moment say. WFKG and I will figure it out, though, fix it up, and get the picture back on the wall where it belongs. That’s a good project for the approaching new year: small, doable, but satisfying.
Things fall. Things fall apart. That they should do so on the last day of a year that has seemed so damaged and damaging is convenient for a lazy writer in search of an easy metaphor but not surprising. Things happen. Shit happens. Timing is meaningful only to those who believe in patterns and portents. There are no coincidences. It all fits together. See? I told you everything is getting terrible.
I don’t believe in patterns and portents, but every picture tells a story. My father, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was not an artist. He was a department-store accountant, a mild-mannered guy who kept his head down and smoked a lot of cigarettes to get through the days on his tedious job. He played the piano, beautifully and by ear, but his taste was more Broadway than Bach, middlebrow all the way. Moby-Dick was his only foray into visual art. He produced it in the early 1980s, because my mother ordered him to do something with the piles of beach glass he kept bringing in to their home on Lake Michigan. He would walk the beach for hours, head down, Baggie in hand, scanning the ground for the rare bits of lavender and red scattered among the truckloads of green and brown glass that seemed to gather at the water’s edge. He would come home and show off his findings, brimming with the excitement of all the world’s treasure hunters. My mother and I were partial to the striking pieces of cobalt blue that would turn up from time to time. We theorized, as the poet Amy Clampitt did, that such beauty could only have been produced by Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottles that somehow ended up on the beach and then got broken and polished by the water into delicate chunks of loveliness that would catch my father’s eye.
The glass piled up and up in the ever larger jars my mother would buy to contain them. I wasn’t there when some of the jars got emptied out and turned into Moby-Dick, but I’m sure it was a winter project, perhaps undertaken on one of the many New Year’s Eves my parents spent at the lake. Did they collaborate in its making? I doubt it. I see my father, hunched over the kitchen table, carefully considering the placement of each piece of green glass comprising the piece’s sparkling foundation, wrestling with where and how to place the boundary between water and sky. My mother comes in from time to time and leans over the table, chatty, trying to be helpful, asking why he’s put that odd pale patch between the green and the brown in the lower right and suggesting that the small tail is out of proportion with the massive body. Also: It’s a lake, Lindy. There are no whales here. He is too absorbed in the work to offer anything but a grumble by way of reply. Get me another cup of coffee, Patsy. This is going to take awhile. The moment when he glues the triangle of red into place as the whale’s delighted eye is, I am confident, one of the happiest of his life. A Midwestern Lily Briscoe, he had had his vision and executed it to the best of his abilities.
I don’t recall how or why I came to possess Moby-Dick by the mid-80s, but he graced a wall in the first home WFKG and I ever shared, a funky little cottage on Barnegat Bay that we took because it comported with our fantasy of where writers and scholars would live and was, somehow, affordable for a couple of non-trust funded grad students. Kitschy as he is, he is one of my most cherished objects, a constant, visible reminder of things I learned from and loved about my dad: whimsy, patience, discernment, a willingness to try something new. He taught me to trust silence and my own instincts. He taught me to love a soft yet genial smile. He taught me that a strategically placed spot of red might be just the thing to bring a composition together. (What did I learn from my mother? Find out here.)
All years are a mix of good and bad, hard and easy, delightful and disheartening. By the numbers, 2013 seems to have been a fairly awful year. For me it has been a year of challenge and uncertainty on the professional front (nothing you need to worry about, I assure you) and sadness and anxiety on some personal fronts, as the chatty woman referred to two paragraphs ago slips further and further into the twilight of dementia. Will 2014 be “better”? Oh, it’s pretty to think so, isn’t it, darling, and we cling to that hope as fiercely as Robert Redford clung to his pathetic little sailboat in that great big storm. I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Meantime, I practice that other skill I learned from my father of keeping my head down and carrying on, without the cigarettes. If there are battles raging in the blogosphere, I am avoiding them, because I don’t have the time, the energy, or the inclination to hurl myself into them right now. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, though it might mean I have begun to have doubts about whether these little first-amendment machines are worth having in our laps after all. Mostly, though, it just means I am tired and expending my limited energies where they are most needed.
Here’s one thing I do know for sure, though, so I’ll offer it up as an out with the old year/in with the new year observation: Kindness might not save the world, but unkindness will surely damage it. If you have a choice, choose kindness, not because it will magically resolve conflicts and turn hell into paradise but because it stands the best chance of not increasing the world’s or your own soul’s supply of misery. Simple, right?
And on that not entirely upbeat note, I bid you a fond farewell for 2013. My minimal hope for 2014 is that nothing will fall off the walls. Happy fricking new year, Madpeople at Your Laptops. I raise my glass to each and all.