Sense Of Something Coming


Here is a sketch, from a few years ago, of my son at leisure. He is now leading a busy life teaching, writing, and painting, and is gifted for all three, yet restlessly wondering what lies around the next corner. For his birthday today I post this poem. Happy Birthday, dear Devin, and take heart.

I am like a flag in the center of open space.
I sense ahead the wind which is coming, and must live
it through.
while the things of the world still do not move:
the doors still close softly, and the chimneys are full
of silence,
the windows do not rattle yet, and the dust still lies down.

I already know the storm, and I am troubled as the sea.
I leap out, and fall back,
and throw myself out, and am absolutely alone
in the great storm.

—Rainer Maria Rilke


Many happy cookies, and the flowers on a queen


Today is the birthday of writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), born in San Francisco, California, but transplanted to the East Coast where she attended university and eventually settled with her husband in Vermont, raising a large family but all the while continuing, somehow, between PTA meetings and making hamburger casseroles, to write.

Many readers have probably been introduced to Jackson through her short story, “The Lottery,” once a classic of the high school English syllabus, which when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948 evoked overwhelming response exceeding that of any previously published New Yorker story.

Jackson came to my attention, however, through the books my parents owned: her collections of dark, evocative, seemingly plotless short stories that are typical to this day of New Yorker fiction (probably a contemporary literary parallel of Abstract Expressionism that nevertheless persists into the 21st century); and her similarly eerie, compelling novels. As a child, I was fascinated yet rather baffled by Jackson’s fiction.

What I really liked, however, were her memoirs of her children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which I read and re-read, the pages yellowing and held together with Scotch tape. Her unsentimental, low-key, definitely politically incorrect descriptions of ordinary daily life with her four bright, imaginative children, her hovering-on-the-fringes professor husband, and their cats and dogs, in their book-stuffed rural Vermont farmhouse, made me laugh again and again. When I grew up I read the books to my husband and offspring, and now they read them to one another. Into our common family vocabulary have effortlessly crept quotes from the various children (see title above).

This winter, when you and your family are all abed with the flu, read aloud the chapter, “The Night We All Had Grippe.” Laughter is healing. Happy birthday, Shirley Jackson, many happy cookies, and thank you ever so for the years of healing episodes.



I don’t know what life in Japan is like for grown-ups, but for little children it looks pretty idyllic. Once young Japanese reach The Age of Reason, expectations for academic achievement and responsible, community-oriented behavior are quite high. But until then, Japanese (and other) children are cherished, admired, and doted-upon. Storekeepers, gas station attendants, and truck drivers keep handy stashes of sweets and tiny toys should some little one toddle by. Children are dressed in impossibly adorable clothes. Mothers are experts at the “distract and re-direct” method of discipline rather than giving the outright NO. It’s a world of bliss. When we visited our son during his stint of teaching in Japan, our daughter, then age eight, was so relentlessly and universally coddled that it’s a wonder she was willing to return home with her mean old parents.

Today is the Japanese autumn festival of Shichi-Go-San, which translates as “Seven-Five-Three.” It is a rite of passage for children. On this day (or the nearest weekend), girls age seven, boys age five, and boys and girls age three dress in traditional garb, perhaps for the first time (although this is unfortunately giving way to Western clothing) and visit Shinto shrines with their families to pray for good health and long life. Afterward the children are given “thousand-year-candy” packed in wrappers decorated with turtles and cranes, both symbols of longevity.

We weren’t visiting during Shichi-Go-San (although when I was seven and living in Japan I did attend the festival, appropriately attired in kimono and obi, but that’s another story). So I post this sketch of a little girl from one of my son’s classes, with the typical seven-year-old gap-tooth smile, playing one of their English-language games.

Something there is that loves a wall

I post this hastily drawn very poor sketch of my son in Paris in honor of King Philippe-Auguste of France (sorry, Your Majesty), whose birthday it is today.


Years ago, when we lived in Paris, I encountered Philippe-Auguste (1165-1223) in a roundabout way, by means of the wall that he had constructed around the city for its protection between 1190 and 1215. The Gaulois had probably had a palisade around their village on the island of Lutetia (as Paris was formerly known), and a rampart certainly existed under Roman occupation of the Parisii as protection from barbarian invasion, but Philippe-Auguste’s wall was a great leap beyond these.

His wall, built of two outer walls of dressed stone and filled with rubble, grew to be twenty to twenty-five feet high and about ten feet thick at the base, with a walkway on the top, and along it were interspersed 77 towers and eleven gates (four more were added later). At the same time he built a fortress on the left bank of the Seine to defend from invasion by water. Little did Philippe know that one day eight million foreign invaders annually would traipse through his fortress (now greatly expanded in size and function) to stare at the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.

People tended to build residences up against such city walls, making use of them for the back of the house. Voilà! one less wall to build! and a sturdy one besides!—trés commode. As the population grew, houses were also built up against the outside of the city wall (although citizens abandoned these homes and retreated within the walls during sieges). Eventually there were so many new people and structures that a new wall had to be built outside the old one. And so on.

Paris had a succession of these walls, a few reminders of which survive today. The Porte-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, for example, was built in 1672 to celebrate one of Louis XIV’s military victories. It actually replaced a medieval gate in the wall built by Charles V between 1364 and 1380 (one of the towers of which was the Bastille). But the medieval wall itself is long gone. Only Louis’ fancy newfangled gate remains to laud him and to recall the ghost wall. Some of the grand boulevards follow circuits of disappeared walls. But generally earlier walls were removed to make way for new construction.

But, because they tended to be incoporated into structures rather than replaced by roads, some fragments of Philippe’s 12th century wall survive. For some reason this wall has always fascinated me. Or, rather, what remains of it. Some is invisible, woven into the foundations of modern Paris (which exists above the level of the medieval city). But numerous fragments are visible, like this one on the rue Clovis, behind my son. Others can be found within buildings, down hallways, through shop windows. One lives in an underground parking garage, surrounded by Renaults and Peugeots. And a long stretch (now part of a lycée) stands on the rue des Jardins St.-Paul, and includes one of the 77 towers. There is a wonderful website with photos of these fragments.

Paris, like other continuously inhabited ancient cities of the world, is an architectural palimpsest, and perhaps that’s the source of fascination to one who grew up in an American suburb. Happy Birthday, Philippe-Auguste! You builded better than you knew.