Cluttered Week/Cozy Words

It’s something I never thought about before: the co-occurrence of violence in the home with substance use and dependency. But it makes an appalling, tragic kind of sense, and I note the statistic that my good friend sends me, and I add it to the problem statement part of a grant I am writing. Then I scroll through the data, absorbed, saddened, and a little more enlightened than I was when this project started.

In the grant-writing course I took, one of the first bits of shared wisdom was this: only write grants for projects you care about. And now I see why: preparing a grant is not just writing. It’s reading, too; it’s talking to experts and searching the ‘Net and hitting the literature. It’s watching video and TEDTalks and finding the best sources. It’s taking the information and synthesizing it, until I have a clearer, more lucid understanding of the issues and the data and the details of the thing that I’m writing about.

Then, and only then, can I represent the information fairly and fluently and in a way that honors the organization and the people I am writing this grant with and for.

I love this part of grant writing, the opening of doorways, the deeper and deeper understanding of issues that I am drawn to, that I care about, that I want to see funders supporting. It’s a chance to join my passion with something I’m good at: putting words in documents. I come out of the process knowing more.

It’s a detailed, time-sensitive process, but there’s great satisfaction when the news comes down that a grant has been accepted.

This knowledge hums through my under-consciousness whenever I write a grant. But sometimes, other things are humming there, too.

This week, the grant was due one day and the grades were due the next. And right smack in the middle, I was pledged to teach an eight-hour workshop.

“Do you have your tree up?” a friend asked on Monday, and I sneered at him and said something impolite.

Some weeks are just real busy.

*****************

I have met an amazing crowd of students this semester.

The students in my face-to-face class, 21 of 23 of them, are high school students taking college courses. That means 21 of these guys have never written a five-to-seven page MLA style paper, that in-text citing is an unexplored territory, that the independence expected in college work is new and fresh and a kind of learning they need to assimilate.

The other two students are not that much older, although one has a toddler at home, which weaves depth into life for someone pushing through college courses. They are both bright and thoughtful and very, very patient.

One of the high school students tells me she is glad we have two ‘real’ students in the class.

“It makes it seem,” she says,“more like a college class than a high school class that just meets someplace else. It makes it more official.

The 21 high school students jump up to meet the challenge of college learning. All semester long, I shake my head: how is it possible to award so many high grades for one assignment? And, given the chance to revise, several of the students take their graded work and polish it, sand away the mechanical imperfections, struggle with mastering sentence structure, grapple with wording, striving to be clear and concise—to choose the one best word to say what they mean. They submit their revisions within the designated time frame and they raise B-minuses to B-pluses; they polish an A-minus and make it a solid, as-high-as-you can-get, A.

I have two on-line courses, as well, and those students are deep into their majors, studying things like nursing and firefighting and social work. They are driven, many of them, and bent on success. They exist, to start, as words in emails, and then slowly, as I read their papers and learn their working styles, they become living, breathing persons—albeit persons I have never seen. I know that one has a son who was hospitalized for a big chunk of the first part of the term. Another has a farm in addition to her job and being a full-time student. There are first responders and there are nursing students working in health care already. Many of these students are parents; most have jobs. Some work the graveyard shift and take on-line courses to accommodate their schedules.

There are a few students who need encouragement; there is one who writes to let me know that things have happened and she can’t complete the course. I respond, urging her not to give up, to try again when the time is right. But for the most part, the students write thoughtfully and intelligently and well, and they thank me for guidance about comma splices and subject-verb agreement and how to cite a source in MLA or create an APA-style title page for an academic paper.

This week, as I work through the separate sections of the grant, I am also reading final essays and reviewing submissions and making sure all the revisions have been tabulated and added to the final grades.

Grades are due on Thursday at 7:00

The grant is due on Wednesday at 5:00.

Also on Wednesday, I am co-teaching a day long workshop on mental health first aid. So the grant needs to be wrapped Tuesday night, and I need to spend serious time with the course curriculum; I need to review video and make copies and check in with  my teaching partner who has some great ideas about how to organize the day.

As I work, emails pop up from students.

“Have you graded my final yet?” they ask.

“When will final grades be posted?” they ask.

“If a student gets an 89.5 average, do you automatically raise it to an A, especially if the student has perfect attendance and participated all the time?” they ask.

I set one thing aside to do the other, and then I feel guilty. The other two obligations sit on my shoulders, icy cold; they cramp my shoulders up. When I lift one off and tend to it, the newly neglected obligation crawls back into its place. It sends frosty shoots down into my shoulder muscles. It freezes up my neck.

Sometimes I stand up. I take all three of those frosty little obligations and I throw them high up into the air, one after another, and then I dance and juggle, dance and juggle, until the phone rings, and the woman who was going to let me in to check out the technology I need for the course tells me they’re having interviews in the conference room and we won’t be able to get in there after all, and the doctor’s office calls to remind me of an appointment I had, indeed, forgotten, and Jim asks if we can go to the post office to mail off his package, which needs to be postmarked before the 17th—well, actually, he admits, it should GET there before the 17th,—and the check engine light pops on in the car, and Mark wonders if we have any plans for Saturday.

Then those chilly little obligations plummet down from the sky; one after another, they smack me in the head. Boof! Boof! Boof! And I stagger around complaining and squawking and people I love go running wildly in a far-off direction, and I know there’s only one answer.

It is time to light the fire and brew some Tension Tamer tea, time to pull on soft, elastic-waisted pants and my ratty old comfortable navy-blue sweater and grab my book and read.

************

There’s a special kind of book for a day like this—probably a special kind for each person, but mine are usually set in one of the British Isles. The houses are old and thick-walled, and they don’t always have every modern convenience, but they look out on scenes of gentle beauty. Their kitchens produce the most amazing things—scones and lemon curd, pastries and meat pies, iced cakes that would comfort the bleakest soul.

And the people in these novels—well, they are the people I want to move in right next door. They are quirky, these folks. The women are stalwart and honest, with a brave sense of derring-do; they may give up everything for love, but they discover too, that they can darned well live without it. They can light their own fires and arrange for their cars to be fixed and they always have some kind of interesting work—as travel agents or the owners of charming, funky shops, as night school teachers or the writers of lovely books.

And, oh, the men! They are ruggedly handsome, if a little grizzled, and their faces are saved from the boredom of perfection by a bunged-up nose or a strategic childhood scar.  They LISTEN, these men, and they reflect back thoughtfully. They never turn rugby on and say, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” They are fully present, fully engaged, fully mature, and fully hunky.

All of the men in these books can cook a tasty shepherd’s pie.

And so I warm my frazzled soul by these books, and those pesky obligations, cold-blooded creatures that they are, look in horror at the flames flickering in the fireplace and they crawl away, huffing.

I know they are not really gone, but the cozy book sends them packing, just for a little space of time.

The fire snaps. My shoulders relax. I have opened a door into a whole different world. This is a world where everything, every thing, is going to, somehow, turn out all right.

**************

The next morning, I walk downstairs and see three eager little obligations waiting to jump up onto my shoulders. I bend over to let them hop on.

**************

The grant gets written, and I think, despite some email issues and a very strict character count, that we have collaborated to do a really strong job.

The technology at the mental health course works just fine, and the sound booms through on the video, and all the disasters I imagined vaporize like fog on a sunny summer’s morning.

I check averages twice and then I post grades—and yes, an 89.5 plus extra credit DOES add up to an A-…

Sometimes, there is good news to share.

****************

The frosty little obligations hop off my shoulders, one by one, and disappear; the week wanes, and I finish the cozy book and set it aside. Now I’ll look around and realize how badly the carpets need to feel a vacuum cleaner’s suction, and I will cook a meal that involves more than opening a box, and I’ll start a book that makes me think about the post-Emily Dickinson world and why a nation full of supposed fuddy-duddies would warm so to her unconventional words.

Later, obligations will slip back in…packages to wrap and mail, and cards yet to be addressed, cleaning and cooking and baking and shopping…and I may feel that chill, that tightness, creep back in to my neck and shoulders.

But that’s okay. Hidden in my TBR stack, there are two more cozy novels, two more bulwarks against the cluttered days.

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Why Not Now?

She wakes with the sense of a strong dream—vivid images, dynamic people, important words—receding just ahead of her conscious thought.

Don’t go, she thinks, but the dream whooshes around a corner of her waking mind, just out of reach.

But a memory immediately fills the void. Almost forty years ago, in another December, she was working in a supermarket deli, and she had a young colleague, Kathy, whose father was retiring. Kathy was blond and bubbly, and that week, she was even more effervescent than usual: she and her brothers were going to Florida to help her parents set up housekeeping. They’d bought a little vacation home near the ocean, saved all their lives for it. They’d given up dinners out and treats for the kids and family vacations.

When Dad retires…they’d said, for years, and they spun out tales of the fun they’d have: the whole family would come down to Florida, and they would have the most amazing barbecues.They’d walk to the beach, and the kids would dash into the ocean, and everyone would get sun-toasted. There would be endless beachy days.

So that week, Kathy was giddy with excitement. Her dad would retire that Friday. He and her mom would spend five days tying up loose ends, getting the paperwork in order, making some plans for the old house…and then, the following Saturday, all of them would fly down to Florida.

A family dream was coming true, and we were happy for our colleague Kathy, the rest of us, woven fast into a snow-deep western New York winter. We were happy, and a little bit envious. We trudged out to our cars after work, crunched open doors glazed with sleety rain that had frozen into snow. We turned reluctant ignitions, cranked the heat up as high as it would go, pulled the long-handled brushes from our backseats, and started, in the whipping wind, to clean off our poor vehicles, marshmallowed with snow tufts during our shifts.

Brrrr, we said. Lucky YOU, Kathy! Next week, you’ll be in the sun…

That Thursday, Kathy didn’t come in to work. Her father, our boss informed us, had had a massive heart attack. He died that afternoon.

And the Florida dream died with him. Kathy’s mother couldn’t bear the thought of going without him. She sold the property and settled back in to the old family home—the one that had endured so many sacrifices (We can live with the old linoleum! We don’t need central air! The kitchen is fine for one more year! Just think; next year, we’ll be in Florida…)

In a week or two, Kathy came back to work, the excitement gone, the glow erased.

The door to someday had closed abruptly.

*************

It is one of those perfect Saturdays…they drive to Easterville to spend a good chunk of time at Half Price Books. Joe takes in a bundle of books and movies and videos games; they browse while the staff at the ‘Sell us your stuff!’ desk examine and evaluate. Finally, “Joseph! Your offer is ready!” floats out over the intercom, and he hurries over to hear the news.

He comes back, grinning, with the receipt in hand. He has turned the cache into cash.

They disperse, each to their own pursuits. In the clearance section, she finds two books she’d been meaning to request at the library. Two dollars each! She buys them both, snuggles in to a chair in the store window, waiting for the boyos to finish their shopping.

Later, they go to a local coffee shop where they brew the BEST decaf. They splurge on wonderful cookies, breaking their wheat-fast just for a day.

They drive home, gleaming at their bargains, sated with coffee and looking forward to satisfying reading to be done.

The next morning, as she pours her coffee, she thinks, Someday, I’ll live in a place with a bookstore and a coffee shop, and I’ll walk downtown in the mornings with my perfect book; I’ll go to the coffee shop and order something wonderful, and I’ll spread the book open, sip my steaming decaf, and I’ll read, unencumbered for an hour.  

Maybe even more.

It’s a well-worn dream, soft from handling. Suddenly she sends tendrils out into the future, sends shoots searching for a concrete concept of when ‘someday’ might happen. Those green shoots whip out and flail and roll back up. Empty.

She cannot find the ‘someday’ of her dream, cannot make it real, and a small voice says, piping but clear: Why wait for someday? Why not NOW?

The next morning, she puts Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry and a notebook into the beautiful quilted bag a dear friend made for her, and she drives to the new coffee shop on Poplar Avenue. She orders a slice of quiche, and they bring her a brimming, steaming mug of decaf, and she reads for an hour, the quiet murmur of morning conversations blending into white noise around her.

It is a good way to start the day, and she goes home ready to tackle the long list of to-do’s that awaits her.

**********************

At the supermarket, she runs into a friend, Lisa, from church. She and Lisa are about the same age, and they share a strong interest in services for adults with disabilities. They serve on a committee together, and they stop and talk for a little about the work that committee has been doing.

And then Lisa looks at her watch and grimaces. She has not yet retired, and she needs to get back to the office. Lisa waves and hurries her little cart toward the check out.

She waves back, and she admires Lisa’s outfit: a jeans jacket and a long, ethnic-y, patterned skirt.

When I lose some weight, she thinks, I’m going to get a denim jacket.

She pushes along the dairy section, inspects a carton of free-range eggs, sets it gently in the bottom of the cart. She moves on to the cereal aisle.

Later, as she is mopping the kitchen floor, she thinks, Wait. Why couldn’t I shop for a gently-used jacket? What am I waiting for?

That afternoon, she drives to the thrift shop. She finds a jacket in the men’s section. It is soft and broken in and it fits her perfectly.

She takes it home and launders it. She sews up a couple of fraying seams, and secures some wobbling buttons, and she irons that old jacket briskly.

It is just what she’d been looking for, this five-dollar wonder, and she wears it that weekend with her long, crinkly black and white skirt and a comfortable black t-shirt. Three people tell her how nice she looks.

This does not mean, she tells herself wryly, that I DON’T need to lose the weight. But I love my new jacket today.

*****************

She loves the old cabinet in the dining room. It is not an antique; it’s not even especially well-made. But it is the style she likes and the size she needs, and it fits perfectly into the space. It holds what needs to be held and its broad flat surface acts, when needed, as a serving space or a counter top.

It would be perfect, she thinks, if it were white. Distressed white; she imagines painting it, then hitting it with the sander, softening edges, making the department store cabinet look like a seasoned, heirloom-y piece.

When I get time, she thinks, I’ll buy some chalk paint…and then she pulls herself up short.

After lunch, she drives to the little shop on Overdale Drive, and she buys white chalk paint and a bottle of protective glaze.

That night, she cleans the cabinet out, stacking the contents neatly into three boxes, and she vacuums the dusty corners, pulls out the drawers, and gives everything a good, hot-soapy-water scrub.

The next morning, she gets up and brushes on the first coat of chalk paint. By the time she is done, the decaf has brewed. By the time she finishes her first cup, the paint has dried.

By the weekend, the cabinet is transformed; her vision is realized.

**************

She thinks about faraway people she misses, and instead of longing for a far off time when she can visit, she makes phone calls and touches base, or she reaches out via email, or she sits down and writes a letter.

She takes the clippers out to the back yard and she hacks down the overgrowth on a scraggly old bush that’s been driving her crazy.

She walks every morning.

She has coffee with a friend she hasn’t seen in way too long, and she makes plan for lunch with another.

She organizes a long-neglected sewing project and works on it after lunch, every day, for half an hour.

She sorts through her bookshelves and makes a stack of books she’s been meaning to read. That night, she lights the fire and takes the first book off the stack, opens it, and enters that world.

Once or twice a week, at least, she takes the book and heads down to the coffee shop. Often, she wears her jeans jacket.

***************

Life’s hard edges become more rounded, more pleasing. There’s a little pilot light that flares up at least once a day. She becomes aware of satisfaction, of contentment. She becomes aware at random moments that what she is feeling is JOY.

She carries the memory of Kathy’s young face just under her everyday awareness—Kathy’s glowing face, anticipating; Kathy’s muted face, the dream dispelled. She hopes, wherever Kathy is now, that life has been good, brought her happiness and wonder, given her a long beachy vacation with screaming kids and laughing adults and a wonderfully generous barbecue.

And she schools herself. Whenever she begins to think, Someday…, she stops herself abruptly.

Someday! she snorts. Some day???

Why not now?

No, I said. No, no. no.

I texted Jim and Mark with a picture of two substantial packages I’d just put on the dining room table. Both were marked, ‘DELL,’ and both were eagerly awaited: an early Christmas gift for Jim, whose old MacBook has been wheezing and moaning. Jim was between work and class, and the boyos were out to dinner. But they converted to take out and came quickly home.

 “Sweet,” said Jim, and he and Mark pulled the laptop from its package, then explored the special backpack that came with the deal.

“Nice,” Mark agreed.

They moved the computer to a safe pace and spread out their dinners. Jim said he couldn’t wait to get out of class so he could play with his new laptop.

**************

But it didn’t go well. One of Jim’s definite needs in a computer is to be able to watch DVD’s. He plays a movie whenever he uses the computer; he’ll be typing with West Wing on half the screen; he’ll check his email to the accompaniment of How I Met Your Mother.

It’s one of those quirks of the autistic mind that fascinates me. Jim is so susceptible to distraction: chugging appliances, neighbors having a raucous exchange, someone playing Top 40’s playlists…all of these things can completely derail a project. So in order to concentrate, he supplies himself with a different kind of distraction.

If I tell him something while he’s typing and watching TV, he’ll remember it with perfect clarity hours and even days later. But if I told him the same thing while the dishwasher was chugging and irritating him, the data would have swept out some mental drain, never to be recovered.

So a DVD player was a must, and this laptop promised to provide that capability.

***************

 But that night, Jim eagerly opened the new laptop and brought it to the comfy chair. He put West Wing on the big TV (“Want to watch with me, Mom?”) and began the process of introducing himself to his new technology.

He set up passwords and logged into email.

He downloaded special scriptwriting software.

 He got on line and accessed his subscriptions for streaming sites.

 All of this took a little time, and he was getting a little testy. And then he popped a DVD into the drive.

And it didn’t work.

Repeated efforts did not help.There was a blank gray screen where the film should be playing. Jim’s breathing got heavier, and his mood less rosy, and he start snapping answers to well-intended questions. And then he got up, put the laptop down, and said, “I will have to send it back. They said it would work, and it doesn’t.”

“We’ll look at it,” Mark called from the other room, “tomorrow.”

“No,” said Jim. “It doesn’t work, and I’ll send it back tomorrow.”

He threw himself down on the couch, and watched the end of the episode, sighing. Then he heaved himself up, said morosely, “I might as well go to BED,” and stomped upstairs.

Great, I thought to myself. This is going to become our holiday drama. Just great.

*****************

The semester creaks slowly to a close, and that, of course, brings papers. Two of my classes had nine pagers due last week, and I have been slogging through the grading. Every morning, I open the program, pull up a paper, and copy a rubric onto the screen. Then I read through the paper for content and tone and just the feel of the thing before I run it through the rubric.

I believe that every writer has strengths, and I consciously try to school myself to see them. It’s easy for us picky English teacher types to lose the thread of an excellent argument in a sea of comma splices, for instance. I try to give clear feedback, noting strengths and pointing out opportunities for improvement.

I am not a fast grader. I once tried tutoring on line, and I could not meet the required twenty minutes per paper that the company, a textbook publisher, demanded.  My feedback time was more in the 45 minute range.

So yesterday, I dragged myself to the computer and sat myself down, and pulled up the college’s website and started opening all the docs I need to grade papers. “I will never get finished with this,” I said to myself, and the gradebook opened up before me.

And looky there, I thought sheepishly. I only have one more to do.

******************

I’ve been living in the land of negative self-talk. Time to up planks and move.

******************

And right in the middle of all this, I had to put together a kind of sample paper for my Comp I students to react to…something that would allow them to add transitional phrases where they thought they were needed, and then practice the art of writing a satisfying conclusion. For some reason, as I strolled through some on-line info, looking for a topic, I landed on coloring.

“I’ll write a short paper on the benefits of coloring for adults,” I decided, and I did a little search. I found two good websites, created a Works Cited page, then wrote the first four paragraphs of a classic five paragraph essay.

The sources supported that coloring relieves stress and enhances creativity, and then—how about that?—one also said that coloring was a way to shut down negative self-talk. Here’s what Erika Befumo wrote on colorit.com: “When we color, it brings out our inner child. We are reminded of the days when life was simple and our biggest worry was watching our favorite cartoon show.”

*************************

That night after dinner, I cleared off the table, and brought out three sheets of copy paper, and I drew designs for this nifty Christmas surprise I can’t tell you about. (But it is, I hope, cute and clever, and I’ll tell you later how well it goes over.) It involves a pun of sorts, and I envision tags that contain pictures that illustrate the pun, and a little poem that explains it.

I got my crayon tin out and I sharpened a pencil and I sat down to draw and color.

*************************

I think I got my design down. And I stepped out of the scary world for a little while, lost myself in sketching and erasing, considering and adapting, outlining and coloring in. I moved from practical time into drawing time, and I got lost in the creative process.

When, finally, I was done, I looked at the clock and was shocked that only 32 minutes had passed.

I remembered using Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book by Betty Edwards, in a grad class about the teaching of thinking. The class itself was a paradox. The professor taught it in a kind of formal style: we read; he lectured; we took tests. But the tests were on material that told us lecturing and testing weren’t always the best ways to teach…weren’t, in fact, often the best ways. And our reading opened us up to all kinds of wonderfully unexpected theories about how students learn to think. My best takeaway was that writing and thinking skills are inextricable.

 But I really liked the Betty Edwards section, too.

In her book, Edwards predicted what I’d just experienced: immersing in a creative process actually changes the way we experience time. I’d forgotten about that.

And I realized that Erika Befumo also was right: fresh from a drawing binge, I was hopeful and positive. I even liked the designs I’d created, and I got excited about putting packages together.

*******************

Later, after a long computer screen interval, I realized I was feeding that negative talk again,–that below the surface of my thoughts, a little banner was running, like the ones we see on news programs. While the newscaster is talking, the ribbon scrolls below, saying things like, “School cancellations for tomorrow: Ada Central Schools,two hour delay; Bluffton Local schools, closed; Cambridge elementary, closed….”

And much as I want to pay attention to the news on the big screen, my eyes are drawn to that scrolling ribbon.

So my thoughts were telling me the work was done and this was great and there was time to read.  But scrolling below that, there was this kind of chatter: Do I think I really taught those students anything? I don’t know why I bother; no one reads my emails anyway. Am I going to have enough time to finish this? Can I afford this holiday?

You can guess which one I was listening to.

******************

So here’s my unproven premise. Excess screen time opens us wide to the daunting effects of negative self-talk. Rich creative time blocks the negativity and puts us firmly in touch with the good stuff going on.

I’m going to see what the experts say; I’m going to explore this whole idea more deeply. And I’m going to look for ways to get myself, and my family, away from the screens once in a while.

*****************

The Comp II papers are graded. The Comp I final papers are in, though, but I’m actually kind of looking forward to reading those. And the end of the semester is crawling around my feet and purring, rubbing against my legs and leaving college-y cat hair all over my slacks. Vacation is coming, it reminds me, bringing holiday celebration right along with it.

Today, James and I took a ride to the bulk food store and bought interesting things—non-gluten flours, white chocolate for dipping, chocolate chips, mixed nuts, and tapioca. We stopped at the A and W so Jim could get himself a bag lunch, and, while there, he also got his dad a little apple pie blizzard-type thing. (Mark loves himself a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and this seemed to Jim like a wonderful combination.)

When we came home, Jim ate his lunch, then opened the new laptop. I was working on some grading and not paying attention when Jim shouted.

“Can you HEAR that?” he asked, and I stopped to listen. It was the theme music from West Wing.

“That’s on my new LAPTOP,” Jim said. “They downloaded software overnight, and the DVD drive WORKS.”

He ran over to give me a fist bump.

“I think I LIKE this new computer after all,” Jim said.

*******************

So the holiday is not shadowed by the Ghost of Technology Disappointing, and the grading load is completely manageable, and…I can’t even remember what else I was expecting to be dire and dreadful.

What was I thinking?

I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what. I’m off to go draw and color.

Shaken. And Stirred.

As I zipped along gray roads, under gray skies, to Coshocton, I listened to NPR’s food editor talk about planning Thanksgiving feasts.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “to mess with tradition, to shake things up a little.”

Hmmm, I thought.

Then she added, “But don’t shake EVERYTHING up. Some things are meant to be on the Thanksgiving table.”

She went on to talk about how they still fixed creamed spinach just the way her father had; it wouldn’t, she said, be Thanksgiving at all without Granddad’s creamed spinach.

Hmmmm, I thought again.

We have some spinach in the fridge, but I didn’t see creamed spinach being a hit at our Thanksgiving table.

It’s just as well that everyone’s tastes are different and therefore special.

************

But the food editor’s words gave me the permission I needed to stretch the lines. And my doctor’s injunction against wheat and gluten made stretching the lines a necessity.

So, we bought the turkey, a sassy little fourteen pounder. We got Idaho potatoes and frozen green beans and a jar of whole-berry Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. I even bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing because I couldn’t for the life of me think of a wheat-free alternative…and it would be blasphemy worse than that editor’s not creaming the spinach to skip the stuffing.

I bought the world’s tiniest pumpkin pie…none of us (sorry, pumpkin lovers) really cares for it. But still, it is not Thanksgiving to Mark without a crusty bit of pumpkin with a fluffy dollop of whipped topping. He enjoys that one small piece…and then spends the week after trying to get someone—anyone!—to take the rest of the pie off his hands.

So we were ready. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and put on my hard-core cooking clothes—long-sleeved black t-shirt, black plaid flannel pants,—and went downstairs to sauté up some bacon.

Most of the bacon went onto a plate where Mark and Jim picked at it while they scrambled up eggs in the pan drippings. I rescued a good sized chunk, though; it was one odd, solid piece and both the boyos looked at it funny anyway. I hid that away for my shaking it up green beans.

And then, boyos out of the kitchen, I went looking for my pecan cookie bar recipe, and I couldn’t find it.

That put me in a little panic. The recipe is from an old, old Betty Crocker cookbook that my younger brother and I bought for my mother with carefully hoarded dimes and dollars way back in the late sixties. I remember feeling that zing of pure pleasure, knowing we had gotten something for Mom that she would just purely love, and I remember knowing just how precisely we had hit the mark when she opened it and didn’t say anything for a minute.  Then she said, “Oh,no! You shouldn’t have spent so much!”

Which we translated into, “I really, really like this.”

I inherited the book after Mom died, and the first recipe I made was the one for pecan pie bars. They were good; they were so good that, when I pot-lucked them, I was inevitably asked for the recipe. I took it out of its official three-ring binder so many times that the holes turned from islands into peninsulas, and the page itself grew soft as cloth. I folded it several times, and the bottom of the page just detached itself and floated away, and I stuck that cookie bar recipe back in the old cookbook, right up front so I’d always know where to find it.

And then, this Thanksgiving morning, I opened the book’s cover, hanging by a thread to its binding, and the recipe just wasn’t there. I pawed through other cookbooks—maybe I stuffed it in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook! Maybe I put it in with the handwritten recipes. Joy of Cooking? Julia Child?

But, no; it was gone. And it was Thanksgiving Day, and we needed a reasonable facsimile of pecan pie that I could make with my homemade AP flour substitute, and the bar recipe had the authenticity of family history.

Damn. I was kind of upset.

Finally, I got online and searched “Becky Crocker pecan pie bars,” and I pulled up a recipe. It was not THE recipe. It put granulated sugar in the crust instead of powdered; it added corn syrup to the filling. I printed it out, debated with myself a minute, and then harkened back to the NPR food editor.

Okay, I thought. This will be another shaking it up dish.

I warmed up the oven and baked the crust with the organic, gluten-free flour mix I made from flours bought at the bulk store. I poured gooey, corn syrupy, nutty filling over the hot crust and baked it again. I watched the bars carefully, and as soon as they looked brown and set, I pulled them out and put them on the old wooden chopping board to cool.

Then I slathered the turkey with olive oil and stuffed its poor empty belly with fresh herbs, rained salt and pepper down on it, tented it with foil, and grappled it into the hot oven.

Let, I declared, the cooking time begin, and I pulled out onions and celery and carrots, garlic and some almost-gravy-thick turkey broth made on Tuesday from the frozen remains of the last bird we’d enjoyed. I sorted through herbs and spices and gleefully pulled out jars and tins and plastic tubs and stacked them on the counter.

I made the stuffing in the cast iron skillet, redolent of bacon residue. The breading and the veggies sucked up a cup of that turkey broth, and, as the bird developed its own pan drippings, I scooped some out to drizzle on top. I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil,and Jim decided a crisscross potato might be even better than mashed, so I directed him in that preparation, (“Like this?” he said. “Am I cutting it right? How much butter? Is that too much paprika?”) and we found an old metal cake pan and got that potato dish ready to roast, too.

And, here we go! I thought. Time to shake up the green bean casserole, too!

I chopped a whole onion and put it on to caramelize, and I mixed up some bechamel with the non-wheat flour—which thickened, I was happy to see, right nicely. I grated some Vermont white cheddar into that, and I chopped the funny chunk of bacon and threw those tasty bits in with the browning onions. I poured the French-style green beans into the big metal mixing bowl and shook in the sautéed bits and shlupped in the thick sauce, and stirred it all together, thinned it just a titch, and spooned it into a casserole. My counters were dotted with casseroles and waiting pots, and the turkey was starting to get all kinds of fragrant, and there was nothing to do but wait until just the right time to start loading pans into the oven, reeling things out, hoping everything would be done on time.

And the turkey baked on, as we remembered to take the brown-n-serve rolls out of the freezer and put them on a pan, where Jim slathered their butty little tops with butter. And we remembered, this year, to decant the cranberry sauce into a pretty glass dish—some years we’d get halfway through dinner, and think, Wait.  What’s…missing? and one of us would run to get the can opener.

And the turkey roasted up juicy and tender, and everything thing else bubbled right into the perfect finished state at just the right time, and we spread the brown and red plaid cloth onto the table, and Jim picked out fall-colored Fiesta ware, and Mark carved the turkey and, then, after hours of preparation, we ate.

In less than fifteen minutes, we were all full…full and happy. The dinner was just right. Traditional, with a twist or two, but all the things were there that connected us to Thanksgivings past, to stories we always have to tell, and to people we love and miss.

************

My sadly beaten phone hummed and buzzed from Wednesday afternoon through Friday; hummed with catching up texts and Facebook messages and emails and tweets. On Wednesday, two beautiful cards from lifelong friends dropped through the mail slot.

I grabbed the colored chalk and wrote “Giving thanks…” above the picture window on the chalkboard wall in the kitchen.  Every now and then, I added thoughts. “…for homemade spaghetti sauce,” I wrote once. And another time, “…fireplace fires.”

The next time I went into the kitchen, the list had grown. “Family,” it said. And, “love.”

Jim came in to put his blue plastic cup into the dishwasher.

“Hey,” he said. “I just thought: well, somebody ought to say it.”

By Thanksgiving morning, he’d added a couple things more.

**************

On Thanksgiving night, we went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. A boy stopped us to rip our tickets; he was silent and a little surly, and I didn’t blame him.

“Thank you,” I said, “for working on Thanksgiving.” A smile broke out all over his face, and he was a little jaunty handing me back the tickets stubs.

“Theater TWO,” he said, “and I think you’re gonna like it.”

Is that little appreciation enough? I thought; just that little bit?

He was right; critics be darned. We enjoyed the movie.

***************

We fixed up a full divided plate of Thanksgiving feast for Mark’s mom, and the next morning, Mark got up and packed up the car and took off: back home, to see his mom and his siblings, to see Matt and Julie and the girls. I ate leftover green beans for breakfast and lunch. And then they were gone. Jim had turkey sandwiches for brunch, lunch,and snacking. The mail came with a letter and a magazine that was all about the holiday light shows in Ohio, and we went to the library, where I couldn’t help it: I brought home three more books.

I divided up my schoolwork and tackled three papers, and Jim spread his math book and notebook and scratch pad on the kitchen table and worked his way, conscientiously, through two lessons.

For dinner, a little woozy from all that turkey, we stir fried pork and veggies and tossed them in General Tso’s sauce. And Mark texted to say he’d arrived, and Terry texted a picture of special memorial blocks in the newly opened tunnel at the Toledo Zoo; Shaynie sent me a message, and Larisa texted to say she had wound up the day and was warming her toes with a fuzzy blanket and her innards with a little sip of wine.

It struck me, just then, that, just like the dinner, everything had turned out just right.

*******************

When I was a child, I looked forward so eagerly to Thanksgiving: everybody home; even Dad, a lot of the time, didn’t have to work. I’d get up in the morning, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be on, and I’d watch for a while, floating a bit on the fumes of the enormous turkey my mother had stuffed and put in the oven. But, although I hated to admit it, the parade was kind of…well, BORING, and I would wind up in a chair with a book.

Many years, we would make Turkeys From Hell out of apples and toothpicks, raisins and green olives with pimento gobblers—one for each place. But that was pretty quickly done, and then what?

I waited for dinner, which we ate in the dining room, a lace cloth on the table, and somebody always slopped gravy on it, every year. And then dishes and everyone disappeared…to watch football, out to see friends, into a bedroom, and a long quiet lull reigned before everyone would have digested enough to eat dessert.

There’s nothing to DO, I’d complain to my mother, and she, who’d been DO-ing all day, snapped, Go take a walk.

And I would pull on my jacket and tie on my sneakers and slough down the sidewalk, thinking, drenched deep with disappointment, Where’s the HOLIDAY part of this holiday?

******************

But now, finally and belatedly, I think I get it. There’s the chance to be grateful, of course; the opportunity to count blessings. And all tied into that, woven together with it, is the awareness of bonds…to new friends and old friends, to family here with us, and to family gone on.

So, traditions…a recipe from my mother’s book, a visit to a much-loved place, a pie baked like no other can bake it, –well, they are more important on this holiday. And all the communications, –a letter, an e-card, a phone call, a Facebook post, –they are all drenched in meaning. The TIME of Thanksgiving is no-pressure time; I don’t have to be gifting or caroling,partying or volunteering. I am free to make a phone call, free to remember, free to stare into the fire and search deep down for the better self that surely is hiding, way down there.

**************

That food editor was right, I think. It’s good on Thanksgiving, to give traditions a little shake.

But just a little one. Shaken too much, the beautiful meaning behind those traditions might just be obscured.

The Day the Season Begins

There is no fixed date; the season chooses its own arrival. But when it comes, I know; I honor it. I do what needs to be done.

We wake, early, to a frozen world. There is talk of two big accidents on the expressway; Mark pulls his IPad toward him, and searches grimly: he learns there has been a tragic death in the slippery early hours.

“Be careful today,” he says, and he searches for school closings. The high schools in the town where I teach, 45 miles away, are closed or delayed. But colleges rarely close.

By the time I leave, I assure him, the roads will have been tended. But I stick close by my computer, checking periodically, that little kid’s hope banked but burning: could this be a snow day?

But at 11:30, James bundles himself into the car, and I pack up my book bag, and we head off. There is a slow, cold, steady rain. The burning bush at the end of the drive has lost all its scarlet leaves. Each spindly branch is encased in ice; each red berry gleams as if shellacked.

It is warm enough—34 degrees–that the sky spits rain, and just cold enough that the dark time’s ice has not yet melted.

I drop Jim at the side door of the college; then he doesn’t have so far to run in this relentless downpour. He bolts inside without his usual wave, and I head north to drive to the Coshocton campus.

**********

The car warms up, and I turn on NPR, and I settle in to the ride. I’d sent my students an email: I’ll be there, I said, but don’t panic if I’m a little late: I am taking my time.

I discover, though, that the roads are fine. I clip along at the speed limit or thereabouts, and I arrive half an hour early. Several students are already in the classroom, and many have stories of ice-skimmed back roads and dicey drives. Josh started out to walk the almost five miles to class because his car had died; a neighbor picked him up at the crossroads, and he arrived two hours early.

“Dedication,” I murmur, and he waves the thought away.

“No sense staying home,” he says.

It’s a good class. The students present group position papers, and then they ruminate and rank each presentation. They are kind; that is something I’ve noted about this group of students from the very start. Their comments are thoughtful, and the rankings are generous.

We talk about the steps to analyzing the group presentation and morph those into peer review steps, and I randomly assign pairs. But then we notice that the rain has turned to snow. Right now, the streets are still dry. I have them exchange email addresses and send them off to work on each other’s drafts electronically, safely at home.

Only Josh groans.

“My ride’s not coming till 3:00,” he says.

But on the first floor, in this inn converted to college classrooms, there is a den with comfortable leather chairs and a snapping gas fire in a broad hearth. Josh hefts his backpack and heads down there.

I sit in the quiet classroom and tally up the rankings for each group. The totals are within one point of each other, all within the low A/high B range. They have been generous, but they have made astute remarks and suggestions, too.

I have high hopes for the peer review process.

I pack up my supplies, bundle into my coat, and reassuringly text Mark, who wonders how the drive was. I head downstairs and out to my car. I wave to Josh, who is nodding by the fire.

***************

On Thursday nights, Jim has a two-hour break between work and class. Mark picks him up at the college. Then they select a restaurant; there they can eat, they tell me, as men do. Sometimes, a little time left over, they pop in at the house to say hello.

But tonight, Jim is anxious to work on some homework before class, and Mark texts that he’ll be joining some Bar Association peeps at Weasel Boy’s.

The house is quiet,—quiet and clean. I am glad I ran the vacuum in the morning, de-cluttered messy surfaces, and flicked the duster over the ceilings. No little clutter clumps chastise me; I am greeted by warmth and order.

I light the fire, and the rain pours steadily down outside. The furnace burbles below me, chugging and huffing. I kick off my shoes, place them in front of the fire to dry off, and find my book. I turn on my reading lamp, slide into the chair, and grab the knitted blanket. I wrap my feet, mummy style, pull the satiny edge up to my chin, and open my book.

As the flames flicker and their glow warms my feet, I read Bella Figura. Kamin Mohammadi, in this chapter of her memoir, is staying in Florence in August, while those who live there head off in many directions to the sea. It is hot in Florence, she tells me, and her beautiful apartment has no air conditioning. She suffers a bout of sunstroke after a long afternoon walk and learns to go to the market in the earliest hours of the morning. She spends the rest of the August days inside, writing, and ventures out again as the evening cools, meeting other ex-pats at a café around the corner.

The fire snaps, and I imagine its warmth is like the Italian sun’s; my book transports me. The clock ticks noisily; the rain pours down outside, but for this moment in time, I am warm and dry with an imaginative world open before me.

The reading season, I realize, has begun.

************

In the reading season, my mind seems, contrary to the weather, to thaw and open. I am captured, at the library, by strange new offerings. I take home novels that, in the rest of the year, I might consider too dark for recreational reading, and the stories move me and make me realize how lucky I am, how protected. I borrow memoirs by unlikely people—some celebrated, and some just damned interesting.

I take home a book of essays.

And, at home, I search my shelves, uncovering neglected books, books I purchased and brought home, and then thought, for whatever reason, No. Not now. I find the true story of a lady doctor in the 1800’s, a lady doctor who lived and worked in my last hometown before this one.  I’d bought that book at Kim’s enthusiastic recommendation, and then Kim’s illness and death made me too sad to read it. But now it feels like a connection rather than an aching reminder, and I put it on my TBR stack.

I find some Willa Cather, and some Dickens, who always seems to mesh with this season. I add them to the pile along with Ready Player One and The Last Painting of Sara DeVos, the book the art museum group is discussing this month.

There’s a satisfying stack to one side of the ottoman, and I light the fire, and I take the top book, and I plunge.

**************

In other seasons, waiting books would distract and dismay me; I would feel a pull away from the pages in front of me. To be polite to my current book, to give it all my attention, I would have to dismantle that stack of books to be read, and secrete them, discreetly, in waiting spots throughout the house. Then I could finally concentrate on the words that danced before me.

But, when the reading season begins, the books seem to coexist with bubbly good cheer. The book I am reading compels and uplifts me, and the joy I take in that bodes well for the joy to come in the reading pile. Sometimes I read two books at once… a biography and a novel, maybe, and always, some pings of shared knowledge will arise. The biographer describes the very place in France where the novel’s current chapter takes place, and my understanding of both stories, the true and the imagined, bursts open.

Sometimes I crave a poem, and the emotion it evokes shimmers its way into the book I am reading, shimmers and matches and expands.

In the reading season, Jim comes upstairs and asks if he might connect his video game system to the big TV in the family room. Mark is ensconced in his own reading chair in the living room, and I am mind-traveling by the fireplace, and we both encourage James to help himself.

And he will play for an hour or so, his crows and muttered curses a counterpoint to the words we’re absorbing. But Jim, too, succumbs to the season; sated, he’ll shut down the game, and grab a graphic novel, and head to bed to read.

The reading season arrives and sets up camp and opens doors we didn’t even know were there.

**************

Friday morning, I determine to frontload my day. I organize my grading and then plan what needs to be done around the house. I throw in a load of laundry, sweep the kitchen floor, and heat a cup of vinegar in the microwave. When that has frothed and bubbled, I take a soft cloth and wipe the little oven’s insides clean, and I shovel baking soda down the sink’s drain in the little half bath.

I dump the hot vinegar down after it and I hear the satisfying hiss and simmer of serious cleaning taking place, deep in the pipe’s bowels.

I vacuum the living room, make sure Jim is waking up, and get ready to meet some wonderful friends for lunch. The house settles around me, approvingly; its back scratched nicely, it can relax.

The boyos are going to Westerville for an appointment; they will, again, eat in a favorite restaurant; they might stop at Fresh Thyme and pick up lovely organic bargains. They’ll come home around seven or so, toting bags and brimming with stories of the day’s adventures.

And after lunch, I will lug packages to the post office, do a little necessary shopping, and come home, again, to a quiet house. Then I will grade three papers. That’s my ticket to the reading chair, where I will spend the rest of the quiet time, lost in a book, the afternoon darkening around me, the fire snapping its ancient message of warmth and protection. I’ll take some soup from the freezer, nuke it up for my supper with a crisp salad and a thin sliver of sharp cheese.

Alone in the house, I will read while I eat, and then quickly clean up my dishes, so I can slip back into the reading chair, and learn more about the fictional Sara De Vos.

****************

The events and obligations of life are grouted together tightly by little strips of time. But the reading season comes, with cold and damp and inside comfort, and those little time-strips seem to expand. The work gets done, and the grades get posted, and we prepare and enjoy family meals. I go to meetings, and do my research, and I cut out the shapes for my book shelf quilt.

In the other seasons, all of that might fill a day, and I might find myself snugged up in bed, asleep before eyes travel down the first page.

But the reading seasons works its magic or its physics, and time’s doors, like my mind’s, open wider. There is always a comfortable space—in the late afternoon’s gloaming, in the quiet dark of our Ohio at 8 PM—to push back and page up.

And for a time, the reading spaces are natural, accepted, taken for granted parts of the day. But time will surge forward, and some day, on a timetable not available to my notice, the season will change, and life will shift, and other priorities will weigh down the need and the time to read.

I know that will happen, but, as I welcome the sudden onset of rich book time, I don’t care. The reading season is here; the books are hushed and waiting, and that, for now, is plenty for me  and more.

 

Gifts of Food in a Thankful Season

It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.

I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.

I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.

The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block  in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.

While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.

The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.

But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.

I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.

This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.

I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.

I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.

I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.

The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.

************

We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.

I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.

I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.

Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.

The rain begins again, hard and insistent.

I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.

**************

Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.

Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.

****************

Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.

Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.

“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”

Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.

“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.

Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.

Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.

The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.

There’s past, present, and future in this meal.

And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.

****************

I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.

Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.

****************

Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.

Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.

The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.

 

 

 

 

Different Houses, Unfamiliar Places

It is not THIS house, but in my dreaming, it is a place where I’ve been living for a long, long time. And it is empty, except for a few random rags, some paper, a damaged box or two. There are gleaming blonde wood floors, white walls, low, slanted ceilings.

 I do not know what’s going on. Where is my son? Where is my furniture? Where, I realize suddenly, standing there in my rumpled pajamas, are my CLOTHES?

 Mark suddenly appears, beckoning. We climb into a car that is packed full. Jim is in the back seat, much younger, maybe ten, nestled between a television and a narrow cardboard box. He greets me halfheartedly, and then we are moving, on a strange trip that involves meeting people we know, some dead, some living, some nearby, some far away. We also stop to talk with strangers who are quickly woven into whatever story this is.

 Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we get back in the car and drive. Endlessly.

Always I am embarrassed by my bare feet and jammies.

When we finally arrive at the new place, in a town I don’t recognize, it is almost empty.

“Don’t WORRY,” says Mark. “Your clothes are here. Somewhere.”

************

We come home from a shopping trip; I am driving.

“Hey!” I say as we pull up the drive.

Jim pulls out his earbuds. “What?” he and Mark reply, in unison.

“Look at the rhododendrons.”

I stop, level with the bushes, and we look at the row of blooms, magenta and cheerful, among the lower branches.

“Isn’t that weird?” I say. “Rhodies in the fall?”

The boyos make noncommittal, sympathetic noises.

We unpack the groceries and put them away. Just before dark falls, I go out and clip some blossoms, make a little bouquet.

“Weird,” I think again. I wonder if global climate change has even hit my shrubbery.

*******************

Another dream. With Mark and Jim and—wait. Is that my father???–I walk into my house—which seems, I realize, to be an apartment. It is full of people I don’t know, sitting in a huge living room. We stop, staring at the crowd.

 A woman jumps up, bustles over. She reminds us that we share this space. And she is having a party. She invites us to join in a meal. Puzzled, we decline, and go off to find our rooms.

 We discover the space is in an old city block building. We open a door and walk beyond the finished living space and come into a work area. It smells like saw dust and the kind of oil people use to lubricate heavy iron machines; there are woodchips on the floor. Work tables are lined up throughout the room, hunkered under things like drill presses and enormous table saws.

The saws look scary. I grab Jim’s arm; in this dream, he is about five, I think.

 Mark and my father—it IS my father—yell in delight and they move forward to explore those worktables, to experiment with those tools.

 “Where ARE we?” I ask, out loud, and Jim looks at me, worried.

*************

I am driving to teach with the radio on. The President is making a speech…in Wisconsin? In Houston? He says that he will be giving the middle class a tax cut of ten per cent next week.

The audio cuts to commentary, and the newscaster asks an expert if this sudden tax cut is possible.

The expert says, Well, no: Congress is not in session next week.

So he’s lying? Asks the newscaster.

There’s a long pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, the expert says, Well, yes.

They cut back to the tape and we listen to the crowd cheering.

Chilled, I turn up the heat in the car.

Later that week, the promised tax reduction is modified to a probable tax cut resolution.

******************

One night I dream I live in a house I inhabited long, long ago, but again, there are people there—and there are animals there—that I don’t know. It seems I am always asking, “Where AM I?” in my dreams these days.

 *************

I avoid it as long as I can, turning the newspaper over when I sit at the table, shifting quickly to academic websites, ruthlessly culling my email, taking a book upstairs to read when the news is on.

I so badly want to pretend, to not know.

But I have to know, of course. On a quiet morning, days after the event, with Mark and Jim both at work, I open my computer and read what happened in Pittsburgh.

“All Jews must die!” shouted the killer as he burst into the Tree of Life temple and unloaded into the crowd assembled there. Eleven people attending the bris, the baby-naming ceremony, died. The dead were between the ages of 54 and 97. The 97-year-old, Rose Mallinger, was quickly reported as being a Holocaust survivor, which was not true. But she was a devoted temple attendee who lived through the horrors of World War II and she certainly did not deserve to die at a gunman’s hand.

Nor does anyone, not any one of us. What is going on?

Six people, including first responders, were injured. The shooter survived several gun shots and will stand trial. The news reported this morning that he pleads ‘not guilty.’

**********

It is a gray, rainy, cold day, and I start a fire in the fireplace. I shut off my thoughts and I wrap up in a blanket, and I open the book I’ve halfway finished. I huddle and I hide.

I am reading the wrong book, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, which takes place in a thinly veiled version of the town we called home for ten years. The pretty people in the book are, some of them, smiling cold killers. It takes me a while before I get it: the legends are true, and the missing may be the dead.

Too close, I think, too close to home. The Florida shooting hurt kids my niece’s kids know. The Pittsburgh shooting is less than three hours away; a friend texts that she was in that neighborhood the day before, that she keeps having these weird grief feelings.

We did not know these people hurt, but their lives rub up against ours; they touched people who touched people we know. And we are, all, interconnected, anyway. Remember the butterfly in Tibet? The same applies to anguish in Pittsburgh.

I am an idiot, an optimistic idiot. I always think it will get better. I always think we’ll be all right. I always think that tragedies have meaning, that they teach us something, that those who are left behind will rise stronger and wiser and more clear-eyed. That we will prevent this kind of hate-filled evil from happening again.

I read about Pittsburgh, and the belief that things will be okay slides off my back like a tattered plastic rain coat. It huddles on the ground and I walk further and further away.

****************

I go to sleep, exhausted, and wake up abruptly. Sticky shreds of nightmare cling. I have been in a strange house, I have neglected two dogs and a pony and left them starving in a basement. I put a toddler in a bathtub with the water running and forgot to stay by his side.

How could you?  the head voices say, and I vault out of bed, make tea. I find a different book, a light and wryly funny book, and I sip the tea and read the blurry pages until sleep comes back to find me.

Where am I? I think. What should I be doing?

 Is there any point?

*****************

I attend the breakfast meeting because I am on the board of an organization that ensures people with mental health and addiction challenges get the help they need. On this early morning, ordinary regular folk like me mingle with criminal justice and social work professionals. There are community volunteers there, and not-for-profit leaders and judges and wardens, sheriffs and nurses and social workers and CEOs.

They talk about grants they’ve received…monies that will help pregnant women with addiction and their babies, that will help inmates with mental illness and the disease of addiction get the help they need while they are incarcerated, and then link firmly to services when they are released. They tell us about specialty docket courts. They discuss intervention programs that keep people with substance use and mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. The programs get people, at least during their first brush with the legal machine, connected to services that can help them become, as one speaker says, productive community members.

Two people get up to speak, respected professionals, and reveal that they were helped by just such programs.

Advocates talk about services for those who’ve served in the military forces. People exchange cards and the sheriff thanks the mental health community for the help they provide law enforcement. A swell of thanks rises up, flows back toward him, spreads through the room.

There is a kind of weaving going on, I think to myself; among people of different politics and widely varied beliefs, a net is being fabricated. It will catch a lot of people.

Of course, it is being woven as people are already falling in front of its progress, but the weavers’ hands are flying. The epidemic, the creeping stain, was not predicted, but caring people have banded together, and they are making a significant impact.

******************

I drive home slowly, thinking. The streets are slick with rain and empty. Yellow leaves flutter down; one sticks to my windshield wiper, and I let it rest there. I leave the radio off, and I let my thoughts settle.

The pain in Pittsburgh seems like a final pain, the Last Thing before the turning of the corner. It is the splash of vinegar on the dirty window. I can’t help but see it now.

This is where we are.

This is who we are.

I am sick with the need to acknowledge that we are, none of us, safe from hatred and violence. It is not a time for cock-eyed optimism.

But that meeting. That blending of very different people of good will into one tapestry of caring, one active force.

Not a time for optimism, maybe, but certainly a time for action. I will explore this week, discerning just what I can do, and then I’ll find a way to be part of the action taking place.

*******************

“Where am I?” I think, and I can’t escape that there are terrifying things in the not-too-distant shadows. Can I help to illuminate those shadows?

Maybe I can add my hands to those that are already working, even if, at first, I just hold a lantern to light an unfamiliar place.

Warning Signs

The Hyundai’s tires are cold weather sensitive. Every year, when the temp drops below 32, the “TPMS” light pops on.

The first time that happened, I took it to the tire shop, where they filled the tires and told me that’s what happens to tires when the cold air contracts inside them. They looked at me a little pityingly too (“Ah, poor silly woman….”) so I gracelessly grabbed my keys from the counter and grumbled off into the gloom.

That never happened with any of my OTHER cars, I huffed to myself, and I’ve been driving since before that smart-mouth whippersnapper tire-guy was born.

But at least I knew. Each year, then, as the cold weather came and the TPMS popped on, I would head down to the Speedway and pump air into my tires…air that went from costing a quarter to costing something like $2.75 during the Hyundai’s lifetime.

That would send me off grumbling, too, (Who ever heard of paying for AIR?) but since the air pump was self-serve, no one was the beneficiary of my grumpiness.

I would climb back into the car, put it into gear, and drive off. In about half a mile, the “TPMS” would blink off, and I would relax, knowing my tires were fine.

This year, though, we bypassed the whole “TPMS” ordeal and went right to the flat tire Emoji thing.

Flat tire

It doesn’t quite look like this, but you get the idea of the warning light that glared tauntingly at me from the dashboard one morning this week.

It scared me. I got out of the car and walked around, inspecting tires. They all LOOKED fine.

I kicked them, and they all felt fine, too—in fact, after that, they probably felt better than my toes did.

******

Mark, when I told him about the flat tire Emoji, looked grave, and he dug around in his tool kit for the tire pressure gauge thing. It was broken, so he and James took a ride to Lowe’s. They came home with two bags full of good stuff, and they remembered to buy the tire gauge tool, too.

That night before supper, Mark checked all the tires. The driver’s side front tire, he said, MIGHT be a little soft. He took the car, and a pocketful of quarters, down to Speedway, and he filled up all the tires.

*******

The next day, I drove the forty-odd miles to Coshocton to teach. The Emoji did not blink off. When I parked at the College, I got out and kicked all the tires, and they seemed full.

The day after that, I drove an hour to get to my favorite dentist’s office. Once again, the light stayed on, but the tires seemed all right.

But it troubled me. Maybe there was something wrong with a censor someplace, and the light was just a goof-up. But maybe, in some way I couldn’t see, there was something wrong with one of the tires.

I called the service guys we deal with, and the person I spoke to said, “Sure. Bring it down Friday morning, and we’ll check it out.”

“If in doubt, call the experts,” I thought. I went to sleep that night feeling a little bit better. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, at all, to ignore warning signals.

********

And doing all that driving, I had a chance to listen to talk radio.

One the way to teaching, I listened to a crofter in Scotland talking about farming her land. Last year, she said, it rained all summer, and the crops didn’t grow well. Then the snow, over the winter, was unprecedented for her area. And then, she said, this summer, the drought came. By June, she was feeding her sheep with stored-up hay. Normally, they’d be happily grazing, but the crofter said her grass had turned brown and died.

It’s climate change, she said, and we’re somehow going to have to change the way we do farming, or things will go very, very wrong.

The program switched from Scotland to Florida, where a journalist was in Tallahassee, reporting on the aftereffects of Hurricane Michael. She talked to people who were living in their cars. She talked to the manager of a Walmart in Panama City. The store, he said, was badly damaged and couldn’t be opened yet. But he was encouraging any employee who wanted to, to come in and work. The unemployment, he said, was staggering, and people who had no homes and no income were—no big surprise—getting very depressed.

At least, he said, if people come in and help put the store back together, they’re making money. They feel like they’re doing something.

The journalist cut to an interview with a weather scientist, who, when asked if the severe storms were the result of climate change said, in a surprised kind of voice, “Well, of course.”

Warning signs, I thought, and I sensed a huge wave waiting, pent up and growing, maybe, stronger, biding, pending, watching for a chance. I felt the weight too of corporations and governments who fiddle while Rome burns, who deny weather science to line their pockets…pockets, I imagine, that are already quite full.

They are ignoring the warning signs, and we are, already, feeling the effects.

I turned off the radio in the parking lot, shook my head, and went in to work with 23 very bright young people on position papers. I shoved the global warming warnings way back to the shadows of the bony storeroom in my mind.

**********

On the way home, I couldn’t help myself: I turned the radio back on.

I listened to the latest reports on Jamal Kashoggi’s death.

I heard about a Houston police officer, Amber Guyger, who shot a man in his own apartment. She thought, Guyger said, that he was in HER apartment. Guyger, at the time I was listening, had just been placed in jail.

I learned that three more pipe bombs had been discovered in the mail of three prominent persons,—persons who, along with seven others who’d received similar packages the day before, had been named by the President as his enemies. I learned that some of the President’s more avid supporters claimed that the intended victims had mailed the bombs to themselves, eager to whip up anti-Trump sympathy.

Murder: the final and highly effective muzzling of a meddling journalist. Shootings and pipe bombs and angry accusations.

Warning signs, I thought, and I turned the heat on in the car because I was feeling chilled.

***********

At home, I looked up global warming, and I found some significant things that I can do, that any person can do. I committed to turning things off, to consolidating trips, to trying to eat less meat…I vowed to insulate and layer, lower the heat, and reduce my carbon footprint. I might not be able to change a corporate mind, but I can live mindfully and join with others making changes.

And I can vote, and hope that process is protected and straightforward, that my vote will be counted as it should be. I am not yet ready to let go of the belief that one vote and one voice can make a difference.

But that thought does hover.

***********

On Friday morning, early, I warmed up the car, and I drove it down to the service center. Mike, one of the mechanics, came out to talk to me, and I showed him my Hyundai.

“My wife drives one of these, too,” he said, “and she has the same problem every year. We’ll take a look for you.”

He ushered me inside, where it was warm and bright and clean, where there were comfortable chairs and a Starbucks coffee machine, and he told me to relax a minute while he looked things over.

I sank into a cushioned chair and opened my book. I hadn’t even finished a chapter when Mike was back, smiling.

“You’re all set,” he said.

He walked me out to where he’d parked the Hyundai. They’d taken a look, and everything was fine, he said. They put a couple of pounds of air in the tires, and he didn’t think I’d have any more problems.

“Now when you fill those tires,” he said, “make sure you set the pump to 32. And you ought not to have any more trouble.”

Mike shook my hand and declined to charge me and waved me on my way.

*******

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I realized the flat tire Emoji had disappeared.

I just felt better with that warning signal gone.

I wonder what other kinds of fixers I can call on to make the other warning signs fade away.

**********

https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming

 

Unwrapping Every Day

Every day is a gift.

—Aretha Franklin

 

I let a big pot of spaghetti sauce bubble all Wednesday, Italian chicken sausage and chunks of pork simmering in its mysterious and fragrant depths.  Late that afternoon, I dipped thinly sliced eggplant in egg batter and an herb coating, and I fried it up in olive oil in the old cast iron skillet.

I piled the crisp, sizzly eggplant on a plate and I wiped the old skillet clean.

Then I swirled sauce in the bottom of that still-hot pan, and I layered the eggplant back in, and I poured more of that bubbling sauce over the top, and sprinkled it with fresh parmesan and grated mozzarella. I put the whole conglomeration into the oven to bake.

The sausage came from Fresh Thyme and the pork came from Kroger. The eggplant was from a generous lady at church whose garden has yielded her a crazy bounty. But the fancy jar of tomato basil pesto sauce that served as a basis for the tomatoey concoction that bubbled all day and thickened all day, perfuming the house so rosy-cheeked enterers said, MMMMMMMMMM…well, THAT, and the cheeses and the spices, came from a basket we won.

And all of that has me thinking about the gifts I am lucky enough to receive.

************

We drove to Marysville on a gray October Friday to meet Terri and Ott at the Half Pint. We’d never been to the Half Pint; we’d never been to Marysville, we realized in surprise. But the town is just about halfway between Terri’s house and my house, and we had a plan to meet up and pick up some baskets.

This is what happened: Terri’s organization, First Step, held its annual blues festival, Soulshine, in September and we couldn’t go. Soulshine’s a wonderful event, and it supports a wonderful cause—helping heal families torn by violence, providing resources to families before they reach that wrenching point. So we bought tickets anyway.

Part of Soulshine’s fund-raising each year involves a rich and wonderful basket raffle. And Terri took the money we sent for admission and turned it into raffle tickets with our names on them.

And we wound up winning two baskets.

We live near the lower east corner of the state and Terri and Ott live near the upper west corner, so making the trip to each other’s homes requires contemplation and a good amount of travel time. But we can meet in between, and then each of us only has to drive for about ninety minutes, and that’s something doable on a cloudy, cozy Friday afternoon.

So we decided to meet in Marysville, and Terri and Ott would bring us those baskets.

*************

The restaurant was fun, with pressed tin ceilings and brick walls and scuffed hardwood floors and well-worn wood tables and metal chairs. Not a lot of tables and chairs; just about enough to seat twenty people or so; hence, I think, the name, Half Pint. There were a handful of other diners, but we had a nice corner to ourselves, space to spread out and to pass the deep-fried cheese curds and the pretzel bites and honey mustard dip while we waited for our salads and soups and burgers.

And lunch was wonderful. We ate, of course, but mostly what we did was laugh: Ott is wry and funny, and Terri has a laugh that’s irresistible. When she laughs, everyone around her laughs, too, even if they didn’t hear the funny part. It’s the best kind of contagious.

We shoveled in food in-between, and we shared the latest news, of course, and then, too soon, it was time to go. We reconnoitered parking and the boyos moved two bulging baskets, and a bag of cold food, from Ott and Terri’s vehicle into the trunk of Mark’s Impala. Terri and Ott pulled away, waving, and Mark started the ignition. Jim was untangling his earbuds.

And as we settled in for the trip back home, I suggested that maybe we’d want to go to Marie’s, which was a chocolatier’s shop not so very far away in West Liberty. It was just a tiny hair out of our way; we could, I proposed, all innocence and no ulterior motive, find a treat or two for granddaughters’ birthdays. And the shop, I thought, was not so very far away from an entrance to the interstate.

But no arm-twisting was needed; Mark pulled out according to the bossy phone-directions lady’s dictates, and we cruised country roads, sun breaking through the clouds, clouds breaking apart and fading, to find an old train station turned into a chocolate-lover’s paradise.

Marie’s had something for everything. The old depot was lovingly restored. There was an exhibit of photos that detailed its move, back, I think, in the ‘70’s.

“Look at THAT,” said Mark, poring over the pictures. They showed a huge old flatbed lugging the entire depot. Hard-hatted crews moved power lines. People lined the streets to see the spectacle. And then there were photos of the depot coming to rest, and restorations beginning.

James and I left the dad to look at history. We went to look at chocolate.

We found  chocolate dogs and cats, milk chocolate with white chocolate spots, for granddaughters’ delectation. We found a bag of chunk chocolate that seemed to have Jim’s name on it. A smiling lady came around with a tray of treats—nonpareils sprinkled with scarlet and gray dots, peanut butter meltaways, little chocolate roses.

We sampled, if only to be polite.

We were VERY polite that day.

Mark slipped a bag of chocolate-dipped malted milk balls into our basket. At the counter, we discovered a young clerk packaging something called ‘chimney sweets.’

“What are THOSE?” I asked, intrigued, and she explained that they were square chocolate meltaways topped with a big dollop of caramel. Over that, they poured warm white chocolate, and the resulting confection looked very much like a snow-capped chimney.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked, and of course, I said yes. (Jim demurred. No, no thanks, he said; he really was kind of full.)

Biting into a chimney sweet: oh, my.

Jim, seeing my reaction, said, well, maybe he could fit just one.

We put a slim sleeve of chimney sweets in the basket, too.

Another friendly clerk rang us up and put an advertising flyer in our bag and told us that, if we thought the Halloween and Thanksgiving goodies were something, we ought to come back to shop for Christmas.

“This is a WONDERLAND at Christmas,” she said.

We put the chocolate in the trunk with the other goodies, heading off to let the bossy phone lady lead us home.

*******

And we went home and enjoyed the last weak rays of sun on a day that started out cloudy, and we fixed ourselves a light dinner. And then we brought those baskets from the car and put them on the counter and unpacked them.

And we discovered wonders. Artisan salamis and  chunks of hard cheese—asiago, parmesan,–and a chopping board and graters to make those cheeses into snowy mountains. Jars of pasta sauce, red and white; pastas and pestos. Mixing bowls and colanders and salted caramel biscotti. Spices. Dishtowels and potholders emblazoned with smiling, twirling, mustachioed chefs.

The travel basket had a mini cooler and drink holders and snacks and a fifty-dollar gift card for gas.

We spread the stuff out on the counter; we pulled out the sleeve of chimney sweets and shared them ‘round; and we marveled. And then we got busy putting things away.

************

Some days, life trudges on and I get crabby, thinking about all there is to be done, thinking about books I could be snuggled up reading by the fire, in the cozy chair. But NO, I think; oh, NO. Instead, I am pulling on my old sneaks to mow the raging onion grass in the front lawn or heading off to a meeting or running out to shop or to pick someone up.

And the rugs gripe at me, reminding me where the vacuum resides, and the weight of ungraded papers swirls overhead, and I am sore oppressed.

Thank goodness life has its own ways of smacking me upside the head when I start moaning my way down that road. It stands in front of me holding a cast iron skillet filled with bubbling cheese, sizzling sauce, eggplant baked into melting goodness.

“Excuse me???” says Life. “What was that you were complaining about?””

And I remember laughter and unexpected bounty, road trips and friendship and sweet tastes and the generosity of people only just met.

**********

Mmmmm,” says my husband, tucking in, and I watch him for a moment through the steam that rises from both of our dishes. And then I pick up my fork and tuck in myself. I think about our many wonders and the few reasons I have to complain, and I resolve, once again, to turn my face to see more clearly the gifts of every day.

 

 

 

 

In a Grain of Sand

Starry mum.jpg

The alarm chirps merrily. I roll over and smack it, and Mark throws off his blankets. Then no one moves. Time pauses—suspends, momentarily.

Then Mark sighs and rolls out of bed, unhooks the C-Pap and turns it off, and trudges off to the bathroom.

Wednesday morning: he is off to the gym before work. I drowse and wake.

“I should get up,” says the brash, panicky person who lives in my head, and I look at the insistent digital screen. 6:20 a.m.

“Or…” replies the calmer, mellower, mind-mate, “I could sleep for another ten minutes.”

I drift away, float into a tiny cloud of sleep, a dimple of time just big enough to let me slip back into dreams.

I wake up, and the clock face reads 6:29.

I am awake. That nine minutes was just long enough.

***********

I pummel the bed into shape. Never one for matchy-matchy linens, I have a nicely woven white sheet on the mattress. I push pillows aside, pull that fitted sheet up, tuck it in firmly. Then I rotate around the bed, tucking in the sides and bottom, until it is satisfyingly taut. I smooth the top sheet—a faded, apple green and blue check—up over it. I bundle up the soft old comforter. I fold the sheet over its top and smooth it down.

I pluck the pillows, one by one, from the chair, and I plump them. Two are clad in cases that match the top sheet. Two are in fine old cases that I scored at a thrift store years ago; these cases are maroon and green, the plaid a lot like that in Catholic school uniforms. These cases always make me smile.

There is one more pillow, the odd one I slide behind my head when I am reading in bed. It is clad in crisp white linen. I center it on the plaid pillows, and step back, and a little something snicks into place.

I feel like Goldilocks. The bed, somehow, just seems right.

**********

The coffee is brewing; my hair smells like apple blossom shampoo. It’s still almost dark out, and the house is quiet. I rummage in the cupboard for my morning pages binder, find my Pentel RSVP pen. I pull out two sheets of loose-leaf and settle in at the table.

“What’s today?” I ask my muddled self, and I slide my phone over and press the home button.

“Oh,” I think, when it lights up to tell me the date. October 10th. Dennis’s birthday.

How old would Dennis be? How long has he been gone? I pull open my letter-writing drawer and find my parents’ address book snugged in among post-its and address labels and packets of refills for long-forgotten ink pens. I flip to the back where my mother meticulously recorded birthdays and death days, anniversaries and the dates of hospital stays and surgeries.

Dennis, her Palmer method handwriting tells me, was born in 1946. He would have been 72 today.

He was 55 when he died. He was the biggest brother. Now all of us, even Sean, the youngest, are permanently older than Dennis will ever become.

Dennis called me not long after we moved to Ada, moved on our big adventure: Mark, at forty-somethin’-somethin’, was going to law school. Some people thought we were irresponsible to up and sell the house, to move into a trailer, to uproot Jim from school, to pursue Mark’s dream, which he had held to, fast and tight, over all the years.

“I wonder what Jim and Jean would have thought?” Dennis mused on the phone that night. He thought, he said, that we were ballsy and cool, but he hoped we wouldn’t drift away, geography trumping relationship. I heard real concern in his voice.

“Never happen!” I assured him, glibly, and he asked me if there was any place to camp near Ada.

We had just passed a neat little RV park that afternoon. Although it had a lake that we, growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, would scoff at and call a pond, it was neat and trim; it had all the amenities.

Dennis and Judy had just gotten a pop-up camper.

“I’ll send you the info,” I said, and Dennis said, “This Fall…”

But by Fall, he was dead, and we had buried him and returned to a life that was different from the one we’d known, and a life that would never, biggest brother missing, be quite the same.

Dennis was sweetly sincere and occasionally arrogant, tender and cynical, haunted and hope-filled. He was newly retired and just getting started, logging in surprising successes. Life was new, and he was out to embrace every possibility.

And then he died.

We didn’t have enough time, I think, smoothing the clean, blue-lined field of my loose-leaf. We didn’t have enough.

And what does THAT mean? answers the smart-ass voice in my head. Maybe you had enough time. Maybe you had plenty. And maybe you just wasted too much.

**************

Before I remember the brother I miss in my morning pages, I put a little note on Facebook about his birthday. Sharon, a more-family-than-friend kind of person, replies almost immediately, and it warms me to know that memories are shared. I snap a photo of the address book page and text it to Shayne Dennise, whose birthday is recorded there, along with her father’s, in her grandma’s hand.  We text back and forth for a round or two, and I feel that satisfaction of connection being made.

And then I go out to get the newspaper. I stand on the brick front step and breathe in, deep; the weather is changing. There’s a shivering little breeze and acorns fall audibly. Two deer, chewing contentedly in Deirdre’s front lawn, glance at me without alarm. The mugginess is fading.

I bend to reach the newspaper, flung under a little gray chair that holds a pumpkin, and I see that a perfect, star-shaped leaf has wedged itself into the mum that is just beginning to bloom. It is a perfect image; it is, somehow, just the right image. I pull out my phone and take a photo.

************

I open a brand-new box of granola for breakfast; I pour it into a plaid ceramic bowl and float it in skim milk and enjoy the crunch and the sweetness. I read the morning paper and I do the word puzzles, and what’s jumbled becomes orderly; hidden meanings emerge.

I work through my email and I grade some papers—some stellar papers; sometimes, it’s a joy to grade papers. I happen on a brand-new recipe that will combine the peppers a friend gave me with exactly what’s waiting in my crisper and my freezer. I take things out to thaw for dinner, and I write a letter, and I make out a check and put it in an envelope to pay a bill. Then I walk the half-mile to the mailbox, and I slide the envelopes safely inside, and walk home, swinging my arms.

The weather is perfect, sun sliding out behind clouds, pleasant breeze, pavement drying after a night’s rain. I will, I think, get the Shark out and vacuum the furniture and the carpet on the stairs; I will grade a few more papers. I’ll make sure Jim is up in time to shower and eat before work; and I stop for a moment, thankful to the core that the boy has found work he loves and is taking courses that help him grow.

I round the corner and leaves are falling; Sandy’s tree always goes first, and she has a spreading gold stain in her side yard. Our sweet gum tree has begun to eject leaves; some float lazily, right now, down into the yard I just mowed. And more will meander off the tree and into the grass, but it will take them until December to be well and fully shed.

And, suddenly, almost physically, it strikes me that it’s enough. Today is enough. I know that there will be striving and discontentment and problems; I know that people will dissemble and back out of their promises, and that, sometimes, I will be one of those people. There will be disagreements.

Adjustments will need to be made.

But maybe it’s wisdom whispered from a brother speaking from another realm: this morning, the colors are true and the outline is clear and the picture is fully realized. Tomorrow (even, maybe, later today) I will enter the fray again. I will struggle with responding authentically to environmental warning, and I will try to determine my role in a political landscape that seems lunar in its strangeness. I will rail against responsibilities I undertook freely, and I will lament lack of time, lack of money, lack of understanding and ambition.

I know all that will happen, but this morning, kicking away the crisp leaves and the rubbery sweet gum pods as I walk back up the black-topped driveway, I feel as if everything has clicked neatly into place. For this one morning, this one moment, I realize: everything is in focus. This is, for right now, enough.