A Big Dose of Valiant, Every Day

I have this idea I really want to write about. I grab my notebook and sketch out an outline. I pull a sheet from my morning pages—a sheet where ideas started forming. I sit down at the computer and open up Firefox and type in some search terms…and I start to think.

I think about talking with a dear friend on Wednesday—oh, what a treat to talk for an hour and fifteen minutes: our first conversation since her catastrophic diagnosis, since the round of specialists began, since chemo didn’t work, since the people at the university medical center said no, clinical trials aren’t for you, and talked about something called ‘comfort care.’

A devastating whirl of events, but she is not giving up. “I want,” she said, “to be there as my grandchildren group up. Does that sound crazy?”

Nah, I said, in my best tough-girl voice. Nah. That doesn’t sound crazy at all. I squished some sodden kleenex onto the table next to the chair where I sat, talking with my dear sweet friend, who sounded strong and upbeat and filled with hope. I’m glad we were not face-timing; I’m glad she couldn’t see my red eyes.

I wasn’t sad, exactly, although I hate this stupid illness and the discomfort and the pain that she has hit head-on. I was more blown away by the courage she’s showing, by her strong, firm, voice, by her strong support system, and by the plan they’re putting together: a holistic, well-researched, hopeful plan.

“Just because science can’t do it,” said my friend’s sweet daughter, “it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

And it hits me again, the courage people show, that quiet courage that lifts up some everyday lives.

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

For instance.

I know a woman whose son is developmentally disabled; he has graduated from his traditional schooling program, and he struggles, each day, to fit himself into the programs that are available. He gets discouraged. It is hard for him to start new things, to meet new people.

He has a great placement; it is a happy six weeks, and then it is time to move on to something new.

He is scared. He is tired of change. He wants to stay home.

His mother bucks him up. “It will be,” she tells him, “okay. You can do this. They’re nice people. Remember we went and met them last week?”

He hangs his head. She helps him pick out his clothes for the day. She feeds him a special breakfast. She packs a lunch that he can look forward to, and when the van arrives, she walks him cheerfully to the door.

He treads, slowly, reluctantly to the van; the driver shifts the door open and the boy grabs a handle and heaves himself in. He plops in a seat and flicks a hand at his mother, who waits, thumbs up, smiling an encouraging smile, in the front door.

It is not until the van is well and truly away that she lets the tears fall. Will her boy be okay?

And yet, she finds the courage every day, to cheer him on, to buck him up, to assure him that a valid, meaningful life is out there waiting for him. They just have to find it, to find the right thing.

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

I have a friend who has had an unimaginable loss, a loss that blindsides her several times a day. It is not the kind of loss you get over; it is not a pain that lessens.

And yet, there she is at lunch, a warm smile on her face. She listens quietly to the swirling talk; she asks people questions about their lives and kids and friends and pets.

And I know that she is aching and gob-smacked, and but she shows up and takes part, showing interest, being a friend.

What does that kind of bravery cost?

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

I have a friend whose child has the disease of addiction and who has, finally, opened her arms to treatment. It is not the first time she’s tried to stop; there have been disappointments and there have been false starts. That girl’s addiction has trampled relationships; she has started ten jobs and lost them. She has lied and she has stolen.

Her mother has sought out support groups and counseling; she has gone with her daughter, and she has gone without her. She has cradled that grown-up, raddled child in her arms and they have cried together. She has told that grown-up child no, and she has stuck to her word, even though the daughter screams and accuses and pleads and threatens.

She has even called the police and watched them take her baby away in a squad car.

She has done all of these things, but she has never given up. It often, she tells me, takes six or eight times at rehab before a recovery program works.

And this, she says now, this is the time that going to work. She goes to the family counseling sessions. She calls friends from her support groups on nights that are dark and scary. She prays; she prays morning, noon, and night.

She believes it is possible, and she believes that this time that magic doorway will swing open.

And if it doesn’t—well, we’ll start all over again, she says grimly. But really; I have a feeling. This is THE time.

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

It stops you, doesn’t it? It brings you up short. The people who get up every day and plunge on anyway, who carry that illness, that loss, that addiction, that disability, that diagnosis, like a bagged-up burden; they march ahead and they balance the weight of that burden with a heavy satchel full of hope.

What was I going to write about again? Ah, well. I’ll get to that tomorrow. Today all that courage—that everyday courage—sits front and center, occupies my mind.

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The Bad Thing and the Thing With Feathers

Definition of hope (Entry 2 of 6)

2a : desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment

***********

She came stomping into the house; she didn’t pause to look at us. I have the sense-memory that I was playing on the floor, maybe building something with blocks, and I jumped up to follow my mother, who hadn’t even said hello to us, upstairs.

“Leave your mother BE,” my father said gruffly, and he grabbed me by the arm. “Her best friend just died.”

Upstairs the bedroom door slammed, and the house hushed.

Now, with hindsight sharpening vision, I realize it wasn’t the first time the Bad Thing happened for my mother.

So it was hard for her to teach us how to hope.

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

In the photo, my mother is three years old, held tightly in the arms of her impossibly handsome brother, Jim. They are with their sister Annie, whose cloche hat shadows her eyes. Annie holds a sheaf of flowers. My mother, dark-haired and taut and leggy, scowls into the camera.

It is 1925. They are standing at the graveside of their mother.

The Bad Thing has happened. Life for these children, and for their four siblings, will never, ever be the same.

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

Another picture; another graveside. My mother stands, face washed of color, in a dark coat, a trowel dangling loosely from her hand. It is, maybe, 1944; her beloved baby, her firstborn, Sharon, lies beneath the flowers she’s just planted.

My mother is twenty-two, and she knows this: if you are not careful, if you abandon caution for joy, the Bad Thing is going to happen. And there is nothing then, she thinks, with a sickening, dread-filled knowledge, that I can do to stop it.

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

It was only slowly that she learned to trust again, to hope, to reach out and make a forever friend.

Who loved her back.

And died.

As if the Bad Thing waited to pop out, taunting, every twenty years.

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

I was a dreamer. I would do something wonderful, something amazing, I thought; I would live a thoroughly unconventional life. I would…. paint pictures. Write books. I would read words, and find words, that changed everything. I would go away to school and I would learn to travel by myself, and I would see the Eiffel Tower and the sun setting on African fields, and poems would well up in me. I would stand in the setting sun with my watercolors and I would capture that exact glow of amber sky, capture it on paper, capture it in words; take it home to keep forever.

I would experience a million daring things and chronicle them. Teachers fed my dreams. My hopes were like living things. I could feel them fluttering, in my chest, in my mind…anxious, growing, forming, getting ready to emerge and take flight.

My mother snorted. She sat on a different side of the fence, teetering in a rickety chair on a slope that gave her a crystal view of dashed and dying hopes. She could hear the groans.

“You can’t afford to go away to school,” she’d say. “Be happy you can walk to the branch. And get a trade. Have something to fall back on. You’ll need it.”

I’d need it, she meant, when, as she knew it would, the Bad Thing happened. Steady work, she said often, with benefits. Wouldn’t, she said, taking tolls on the Thruway be a grand job? When no one was there, you could read. Just sit in your booth and read.

She was so sure, so implacably sure, of what I needed to do.

I grew frightened. I went to the branch. I learned to work at jobs I hated, and I became proud of my ability to adapt.

Hope stopped fluttering so much, and finally settled, mostly still.

I think my mother must have relaxed a little then, glad that I wasn’t standing, hope-filled and unknowing, on some precipice where the Bad Thing lurked in wait.

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. I’ve been trying to pin it down, to define it, to figure out just exactly what hope is, and to decide whether it’s a foolish thing that ought to, as my mother taught me, be replaced with practicality.

Right now, I want badly to open the door wide to hope, but I am afraid of what will come in with it.

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

Hope, the Merriam Webster Dictionary tells me, is “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”

   Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is “the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul…”

Another poet, Langston Hughes, talks about hope in terms of dreams, and echoes Dickinson. Without dreams, he says,–without HOPE—“..life is a broken-winged bird/
That cannot fly.”

Hope, then, is not just a fantasy or a day dream; it’s an expectation. It is not just envisioning what I want to happen but believing that it will happen.

Hope has feathers: given the right conditions, it can lift off, can soar and arc and careen. People on the ground below will shade their eyes, pointing and marveling. Hope is alive and waiting, filled with potential; hope is ready to launch and fly.

Or, it can crash, wings broken, aching and grounded.

Hope is alive. It’s a choice.

It’s incredibly, fearfully dangerous.

And yet I think hoping is what I am called to do.

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

“I wonder,” my brother Dennis said to me, a few years after my parents died, “what Jim and Jean would think.” We were talking about Mark being in law school, about our little family giving up great jobs and a steady school system to pursue a long-pulsing dream.

I was perched on the kitchen counter of our mobile home in Ada, Ohio, a cramped but homey abode where we’d live for Mark’s law school years, talking to Dennis on a curly-corded phone. We had rented out our hometown house and moved three hundred miles away; we had signed on the dotted line for law school loans.

I had found a job with benefits; Jim had valiantly made the switch to a new school.

Law school had always been Mark’s hope…not just a dream, but an expectation, a living thing that never stopped touching him with its feathery fluttering. The time had finally come, when Matt was safely settled, when Jim was old enough, when I had my master’s degree, when we could grab hands and take that Indiana Jones kind of leap of faith.

“Oh, I think they’d have loved it,” I said to Dennis, “don’t you?”

I said that glibly then, but now I wonder. My mother, I think, would have been horrified.

What about health insurance? she’d have asked. What about your house?

What if something happens? What about Jim?

But that hope was such a force for Mark, and the expectation of fulfillment lived deep and strong in all of us. Once freed, it was almost as if there was no choice. We had to follow where hope soared.

And it’s true that there were no givens. Mark could have had to leave school without a degree for some reason—health or finances or something unseen; Jim could have had a terrible time at his new school; I could have failed to find a job that gave us the insurance and the money we needed to muddle through.

We were taking chances, but, as we always said to Mark when he had his doubtful moments, “You can be fifty with a law degree. Or you can just be fifty.”

He turned fifty the week he got the notice that he passed the Bar.

We all were stunned, for a while, by the power of hope fulfilled. And then that just weaves into life, and we begin to wonder, What else…? What next…?

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

We use the word ‘hope’ for lots of things.

Hope you have a great day.

Hope you have a good trip.

Hope you feel better.

Hope the weather holds off.

We’re not really meaning hope, then, though.

We’re meaning, It will be nice if…

Hope is a bigger, more muscular thing than that kind of simple, daily stuff.

Hope is a beast.

And hope is a choice.

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

And what if, what if, WHAT IF, I hope—what if I put my energy and my being into that expectation, what if I let that living thing free, invest in it, feed it, fly with it—what if I do all that, and The Bad Thing happens anyway?

How in the name of God, then, will I be able to pick up the pieces and survive?

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks.

But the choices are stark, and the choice against hope is to settle for The Bad Thing before it comes to call.

I believe that hope is a living thing. I believe it has feathers and wings and muscles and soaring power, and that I must unleash it in the expectation that the thing I dearly, dearly want is going to happen. It may not match, exactly, the set picture I carry in my mind; hope may trundle in on tired feet, with dirty hands, and have to sit on the edge of the cot a minute before it catches its breath. It may be days or weeks or even years after hope shambles in that I think, startled, My God. My hope came true!

But if I refuse to hope, if I don’t release that power into that crystal air, then I can be sure the expectation will never be fulfilled.

It’s a terrifying thought; it chills me and freezes me, for a moment, in my tracks. And yet I don’t really see a choice. It’s hope, or it’s despair.

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

I have another picture of my mother, in her fifties, wrapped in a fuzzy blue bathrobe, the ever-present cigarette hanging from her lips. She sits at the kitchen table, with a steaming coffee mug and a stack of prayer cards and a handwritten list.

After the flurry of the day’s borning settled, she sat at the table, drank cup after cup of coffee, and she prayed. It was a daily ritual, one she’d kept since my earliest remembering.

She prayed that people she loved who had died were safely in heaven.

She prayed that those who were sick would find healing.

She prayed that money woes would dissipate, and she prayed that her foolish, reckless children would be safe.

She prayed for her grandchildren and she prayed for her friends, and she prayed for her brothers and sister, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews; she prayed for people she’d once shared a hospital room with, for companions at part-time jobs, and for people who’d coached her kids. She prayed for people who annoyed her and people who had hurt her. She prayed for beloved pets.

She prayed, and in that praying, she channeled her hopes.

She may have thought she had closed the door; she may have tried to teach us to be safe instead of daring. But in her morning ritual, she revealed a belief that maybe she did not even know she held.  There’s hope, her prayers said; I know the Bad Thing happens, but there’s hope that the Good Thing will follow.

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

Today I am reaching for that feathered companion. Today I am going to set it a-soar.

Woven Thaws

fro·zen

(frō′zən)

v.

Past participle of freeze.

adj.

1. Made into, covered with, or surrounded by ice.

2. Very cold: the frozen North.

3. Preserved by freezing: frozen meat.

4.a. Rendered immobile: frozen in their tracks with fear…

 (from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/frozen)

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

She sits at the dining room table, sits with her calendar open, spread out before her, with her arms at her sides.

There’s a pen on the table. She lets it be there; she doesn’t reach out to touch it. She doesn’t lift it to make one mark on the calendar.

There are things she needs to do, but, “I CAN’T,” she thinks.

And the quiet house settles around her. It is a long time before she moves.

********

We are packed up and ready to go right on time: 10 a.m. It’s a six-hour drive; By the time we stop for lunch, make potty stops, get gas as needed, we figure our ETA at 6:30 or so.

The ground is dry; the snow is gone. It is, maybe, forty degrees.

As we pile into the car, Mark asks, “Do you want to bring your winter coat?”

“Nah,” I say. “It’ll be warmer there.”

He opens his mouth as if to comment, then closes it again. We slam the trunk shut, put the snack bag in the back seat with Jim and all of his electronic paraphernalia, slide our travel folder into the passenger door pocket. Mark gets behind the wheel, and we all snug our doors closed.

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

These are the projects she has started:

  • She bought the paint for the living room, a bold new color. She bought ceiling paint, too, and pans and rollers and brushes and drop cloths. They have been sitting behind her reading chair for almost a year.
  • She has a quilt in progress, pieces cut out. They are tucked into a box she keeps in the TV room. She moves it to vacuum. It sports a fine layer of dust.
  • She has a big bolt of material in a cupboard. It is the perfect material for curtains for the front porch. She bought it on vacation two years ago.
  • She has a tottering stack of books to be read; she ignores that unwieldy tower and flips through glossy magazines instead.
  • She needs to do a report for a board she belongs to. She needs to prep for a volunteer teaching opportunity she should never have signed up for.
  • She talks about learning to make pasta and knitting some infinity scarves and, she says, she’d like to learn to use oil paints.

But all these things—materials and tools and ideas—all of these things just SIT.

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

We drive south, but the weather goes northern. West Virginia whips snow at us. Virginia shrouds us in thick clouds of fog.

Mark looks at my thin jacket, and wisely, does not say a thing.

We cross into North Carolina. We are greeted by a billboard with a stick man and a stick woman arranged in an equation. They add up to a marriage, the sign tells us.

We look at each other and roll our eyes.

The wedding we’ll attend tomorrow, a celebration of love for a beloved nephew and godson, doesn’t quite meet that paradigm.

I think of the cruelty of people who judge, and I shiver from more than the cold.

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

These are the things she is worrying about, in no discernible order:

  • She is worried that people with disabilities suffer cruelty and mockery.
  • She is worried that ice is melting, melting irreparably, while deliberately ignorant leaders pretend that global warming is a scam.
  • She is worried about her sick friend.
  • She is worried about her own mortality.
  • She worries about guns in public places.
  • She worries that she owes people letters.
  • She worries about tender young people sent off to war.
  • She is worried that, when she gets up to talk in public places, people think she is an idiot.
  • She is worried that she IS an idiot.
  • She worries that she worries too much.
  • She worries that she does not know how to stop worrying.

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

The weather lightens, but the traffic does not. There are miles and miles of construction-constricted lanes as we head into the city. Our arrival coincides with rush hour. We creep.

The fifteen miles to our exit take an hour. Then, though, Siri chirpily takes us on a quick zig and a sharp zag, and we are there: in a quiet cul-de-sac neighborhood of neat brick bungalows. We find ours; the keypad entry works great. We drag bags in and collapse on the comfortable couch.

Jim gets the bedroom with the queen bed; Mark and I have a king. We tote bags, stash bathroom stuff, eat the last of the Fritos. We stretch and we thoroughly check out the place: I plug my laptop in on a table in a little study that probably once was a tiny dining room. Mark takes his book out onto an enclosed sunporch. Jim likes the fact that the comfortable leather couch is longer than he is and that it faces a large screen TV.

We search on-line (the Wi-Fi is GREAT) and find a supermarket within a five-minute drive. For dinner we buy cold cuts and Kaiser rolls, cheese, salad, and chips. We get oatmeal bread and eggs for breakfast; we buy some Oreo knockoffs and some ice cream novelties.

We rummage in the cupboards for plates, and we eat a relaxed throw-it-together dinner.

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

Her house grows cluttered and messy and it bothers her, but she can’t quite make herself care enough to clean it.

She doesn’t see any point in ironing a shirt that is just going to get rumpled.

There are some things she just MUST do, but she does them begrudgingly. She does them with bad grace.

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

In the morning I walk the neighborhood. Tiny brick bungalows, nicely kept, line the street. There is a park in the green space of the cul de sac; it is too rainy to sit on the bench, but not to explore the little free library that stands proudly under a tree. I have come loaded with books to read, so I browse only out of curiosity: Liane Moriarity, John Le Carre, some YA dystopias and gently used picture books. A biography or two. A gardening book and a chef’s memoir. Everyone, I think, could find something here to read.

It tells me a lot about the neighborhood.

Connie pushes me on. I stroll out to the connector street, weave up and down side streets tagged “no outlet,” wind across little alleys that let me explore.

There’s a parked truck that says its owner collects scrap metal. In that yard, there are wonderful sculptures: a bulbous pig made of an old metal fuel container, a rangy dog welded from all kinds of interesting scrap.

I read bumper stickers.  Some tout Trump. One says, “And we thought W was stupid!”

One yard has a palm tree wrapped with twinkle lights.

It’s eclectic, surprising. I wander past other walkers who wave and say hello.

***********

On a Wednesday, she brings in the mail and is surprised to see a handwritten letter among the bills and junk mail. She dumps the other mail onto a pile on the dining room table, takes her letter to her reading chair. She sits down and she opens the letter.

Two scrawled pages and a photo fall out.

It is from an old friend, Tina, who just became a grandma. Tina writes about the joy of that. She sends a picture of herself holding a tiny baby; Tina, that tough cookie, is grinning the goofiest, happiest grin.

“And she wanted to share that with ME,” she thinks, and it’s like the joy radiates from the pages.

That day, she sorts through the stack of junk mail and pays a few bills before she shlepps into the living room and takes an afternoon nap.

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

While I walk, a post begins to pulse. It is not what I’d thought to write about, but its cadence and its meaning pound an insistent beat. I get my steps in—Connie is satisfied—and I turn back into the little bungalow’s driveway and type for an hour.

Then we go downtown and eat at a wonderful burger joint Jim found online. We walk historic roadways that weave between new metal and glass architecture. The sun peeks out. It is fifty degrees.

Who needs a stinkin’ winter coat?

***********

Mark and I dress for the wedding late in the afternoon; Jim settles in, sending wishes with us. The sun is seeping away as we park near the venue.

It is an unconventional ceremony. There are two grooms. The attendants are all female. The minister is a gracious, calm woman who seems to know the wedding couple well. She shares thoughts each groom has written. She talks about celebrating love. There’s an exchange of rings, an exchange of vows. Our godson is a married man.

The dinner is outrageously good; we are seated with a young couple from our old hometown. She teaches on a Native American reservation. He works with a contractor. He tells us about renovating the old Buffalo Psych Center into a fancy hotel and restaurant. He talks with no embarrassment about the ghostly presences he—and his equally strong, stoic colleagues,—felt as they stripped and rebuilt those rooms.

We reconnect with family and old friends.

Music pulses; dancers clap and hoot and gyrate. The noise, we agree, would have been too much for James.

The evening flies by and we make our way out, hugging around the hall, and we head back to our little weekend house.

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

When she comes home from the grocery store on Friday, she sees her elderly neighbor, Ella. Ella is standing in her doorway, clutching her bathrobe closed, peering out. She looks a little frantic.

“Not my business,” she mutters to herself, but, of course, it is. And after she puts her groceries away, she puts her coat back on and goes over to knock on the door of Ella’s house.

The elderly woman is so glad to see her. Her care-giver is late; Ella has not had breakfast. She’s really not supposed to use the stove any longer, not since she got burned.

Ella is frightened.

She takes charge. She brews a pot of tea and makes some toast. She butters the toast and sprinkles a little cinnamon sugar on top. Ella wolfs it down, drains her tea. She figures out, with Ella, how to call the care-giver. She discovers that the care-giver is delayed by a big accident on the Interstate. Things, the care-giver says, are starting to move, though.

She stays with Ella until the care-giver arrives, bustling, apologetic. Ella grips her hand with surprising strength, thanks her profusely.

She goes home and vacuums, and she thinks she really needs to stop in and visit with Ella once a week.

She writes that on her calendar.

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

Saturday brings rain—light enough for my morning walk but pouring down by the time we meet my brother and sister-in-law and my niece and her husband and kids for lunch. They suggested a wonderful café kind of place; I have a fragrant and flavorful bowl of soup; then, feeling righteous, I eat a salted caramel brownie.

It’s too wet to tour the botanical gardens; unlike our northern gardens, these are all outside. But the rain drizzles away and we walk around a charming little town. The kids scramble over a sodden playground; the backs of their jeans are soaked, but they are undeterred. We get take-out pizza and Peruvian chicken and bring it to our little bungalow. It’s a great family visit.

Too soon, the day grinds down to an end.

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

She gets an email from a woman that she used to work with. A bunch of us have a little lunch club, the old colleague writes. Would she join them for a monthly lunch?

She lifts her fingers to tap out her regrets, and then she thinks, “Why not?” She types, instead, “It will be great to see you,” and she throws in a load of laundry so she will have a shirt to iron.

That night, she takes the top book off the To-Be-Read stack, and she wraps herself in an afghan, and she curls up and reads.

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

We drive home in heavy snow on Sunday, a long six hours, and the temperatures drop steadily all the way. I admit to Mark that I wish I’d brought my winter coat, and I dash around rest stops, trying to appease Connie and get my steps in.

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

Home skies are dark and clear when we arrive, but the streets are clogged with crunchy clunks of snow. A jagged, plow-tossed, icy snow-wall guards our driveway. Mark roars over it; the car leaps and lurches, stuck in icy snow. We look at each other.

Tomorrow, we think, and he turns off the ignition and pops the trunk, and we tote the bags and books and baggage into the house.

When we arrive it is three degrees out. As the evening wears on, the temperature sinks to seven below.

The house is warming; we turn the fire on. Then Mark goes up to check the water in the upstairs bathroom.

He stomps down the stairs. All the pipes are frozen, he says; the tub, the sink, the toilet.

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

At lunch, she catches up on what everyone has done since retiring. And she discovers that Sara’s son, JJ, is trying to establish a house painting business. Sara gives her JJ’s card.

She dithers about it for three days, and then she calls him.

JJ is there the next week. He works quickly; he cleans up after himself, and the living room looks even better than she imagined it would. He gives her a big discount, asks if he can leave a sign on her lawn, and if she’ll pass out some of his cards to her friends.

Of course, she says, beaming.

When JJ leaves, she stands in the dining room, hands on hips. What if, she thinks, I painted one wall a deep, rich, chocolate brown?

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

Water in the first-floor plumbing flows just fine, so Mark goes down to the basement to plan his attack. He lines a little heater up next to the pipes that go upstairs. He closes the first-floor powder room door, with the little built-in heater on high.

By bed time, the cold water is running in the tub. The upstairs toilet flushes. Mark cranks the sink faucets open; they stand mute and idle. Not a drop of water seeps.

Mark gets up to check things in the middle of the night. The tub’s hot water is restored, but still, nothing flows to the sink.

The next day, Monday, is a holiday, and Mark gets up and writes things down, sketches out lines, calculates. He moves little electric heaters, closes doors to contain warmth.

The temperature creeps up to a balmy ten.

The stubborn upstairs sink faucets are silent all day.

Late in the afternoon, Mark takes the little heater upstairs, cleans out the cabinet under the sink, shoves the heater in, and turns it on.

“I don’t know where they’re freezing,” he says. “I don’t know if this will do any good.”

A few hours later, he jerks up from his book.

“Hey!” he says. He runs upstairs, where water gushes from both faucets into the sink.

“Was it moving the heater?” I ask him.

“Hell,” he says. “I don’t know.

***********

She is watching TV one night—a program she really enjoys, about Queen Victoria—when she realizes that she has pieced eighteen squares for her quilt. She is going to take it to her friend Deirdre’s house; Deirdre is one of her old colleagues. She never knew, when they worked together, that Deirdre quilted.

She is discovering that those old colleagues are pretty interesting people.

She is discovering that her neighbor, Ella, has a rich and textured, fascinating, past. She enjoys their weekly coffee klatches.

She is still warmed, too, from the get-together she had; nothing big, just coffee and dessert on a Thursday night, but she wanted to show off her refreshed living room. Sara came, and Deirdre, and JJ and his wife. She brewed up fresh ground coffee, and she served, with ice cream, a pie she’d made. You’d have thought she’d given those people something really, really special. They acted like that pie was just the best thing they’d ever eaten.

She is remembering how good it feels to feed people, to entertain.

She is volunteering at the senior center.

Her calendar is full.

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

Sometimes conditions are right—or wrong—and things freeze up. People freeze with indecision, with fear and sadness. Joy and creativity dwindle to a trickle, then die away entirely.

Or the weather chills, chills until surfaces grab bare fingers and crunchy ice adheres to shoes and pant legs. Pipes freeze. Water doesn’t move.

We try everything then—movement and warmth and blankets and heaters, embraces and sharing and lightening the load.

We try all of that, and time.

**********

We’ve never really sure just what flips the magic button, but always, always, things start to thaw.

A Meditation

It’s 2019. Why haven’t you started meditating, already? Why hasn’t everyone?

—Farhad Manjoo

“You Should Meditate Every Day,” The New York Times

First, notices started to pop up in my Facebook feed. “The Value of Meditating Daily,” they might say, or, “Why You Should Meditate,” and, “How to Meditate at Home.”

“Hmm,” I’d think. “That’s interesting.” And then I would hide that post and scroll on, looking for pictures of grandkids, grandnieces, and grandnephews, searching for news about friends and about family.

Then I went to a NAMI support group, and Tara, my favorite fitness coach, was there. She talked about exercise ‘snacks,’—about how, instead of having a handful of chips, you could get up and lunge down the hallway. Or do some toe touches. Or walk around the block.

I tapped Connie the Fitbit and smiled when she suggested that—a few more steps toward the daily total! But then Tara added something surprising.

“You could,” she said, “set a little meditation time aside, too.”

She talked about the physical and mental benefits of a meditative practice.

I, of course, agreed wholeheartedly with everything Tara said. I went home and instituted her walk-around-the block snack idea into my daily routine. But the meditation? Not so much. I was looking for ways to get up and get moving, not to stay down and start grooving.

Two friends, apropos of nothing, sent me links to articles on meditation. “Thought you’d find this interesting,” both wrote.

I never DON’T read links that friends send. And they were right: the articles WERE interesting.

But still. Moving, not sitting.

And then yesterday—this is not a lie—my copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are fell right off the bookshelf when I was looking for another book entirely. It fell off, and it opened at page 101, which is called, “Part Two: The Art of Practice,” and is all about starting out on a daily meditative path.

And, “All RIGHT!” I thought—I kind of mentally snarled it, actually; I was feeling pushed and prodded. “I get it; I get it. I need to start meditating.”

I decided I’d start this morning.

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

It’s not like I’ve never meditated.

When I taught sixth grade at a wonderful, parochial, inner-city school, I was always searching for techniques that were calming and centering. Poring through a publisher’s books at a conference, I found one called something like Meditation for Middle-Schoolers.

I bought that book and took it home and read it cover to cover.

The first thing it said was this: you can’t teach kids to do something you don’t do. If you want to teach meditation, you’d better meditate.

So I did. At night, when the bustle wound down after 9:00, I would clear the dining room table, light a candle, and turn off the lights. I’d sit in a comfortable chair, my hands relaxed in my lap. I’d look at the candle flame flickering, and I would focus on my breathing.

I didn’t have visions. I didn’t enter a trance-like state. Often, my thoughts would go careening and I’d have to chase them down, sit on them, and will myself to concentrate, again, on my breathing.

Look at the candle.

Breathe.

Breathe.

The fifteen-minute interlude was like a step outside time. When I stepped back in, I was refreshed.

The boyos, to my surprise, never barged in, and they never snickered. They quietly left me to my flickering flames and gentle breathing.

Maybe I was a little bit nicer when I meditated.

Maybe they just liked being in control of the TV remote every night at 9:00.

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

When I had developed what I could call a meditation practice, I started teaching it to my rambunctious sixth grade class at prayer time. We sat in the corner of our sprawling classroom; we dimmed the lights and lit a candle.

“Listen,” I’d say. “what do you hear?”

“Nothin’!” they’d say. Or, “Billy is scratching himself.”

I would challenge them to get really, really quiet and really, really listen. We started with three-minute stints. By the time we got done, they could settle in for ten full minutes.

I don’t think they were centering, so much, though. I think they were competing to catalog the noises they could hear. When the ten minutes faded away, I’d call them back and blow out the candle. And one student would say, “The clock, the heater, and the fourth grade going to gym!”

“Fire truck!” another would add, victoriously.

“AND,” an uber-listener would crow, “Mr. Domst reciting poetry!”

Listening contest or meditative time, it was for me, a quiet moment in a careening day.

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

Nothing’s static, of course.  Households change; cheerful kids turn into teenagers with sneakers the size of canoes; babies get born and parents forget what six straight hours of sleep feel like.

I’d try to meditate; I really would: lighting the candle, squeezing out a few minutes after supper. And Mark would wake me up, tap me on the head that was resting, as I drooled, on the table. The time I put the candle out with my forehead was the last time I tried to meditate during James’s restless infancy.

And then life just kept barreling on, and I never quite got the practice back.

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

This morning, after Mark went off to work, I cracked Jon Kabat-Zinn back open to page 101, and I read about sitting meditation. And then I turned off the dining room light, got myself situated and set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes. I sat up, straight but comfortable; I let my hands relax on my lap.

And I breathed.

I looked straight ahead, at my three stacked Crayola tins that are my current side table centerpiece. I started thinking about burnt sienna and midnight blue and

“Back,” I told myself sternly, and I concentrated on my breathing.

And I realized now I saw not the curtains, but THROUGH the curtains, the birds fluttering by in the chilly air, crisp, frozen leaves skittering.

“Back,” I said, and I breathed.

Suddenly, a lost part of last night’s dream cartwheeled into my consciousness, and I examined that curiously: what was I doing, dreaming about a fat mailer filled with T-shirt samples that I wasn’t sure whether to keep or mail off?

“Back,” I said sternly. (But wasn’t it interesting, I thought, that a little quiet breathing time lets forgotten dream bits return?)

I focused, again, on my breath and let the quiet room surround me, and I was startled when the phone’s timer beeped.

It wasn’t, for sure, a perfect session, but I was refreshed.

I will do it again tomorrow.

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

So from now on, you’ll often find me lunging down the hallway, marching round the block, getting my 250 steps in every hour and a long, long walk each day, too….feeding my Fitbit. “Moving moving moving,” I hear Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi singing as I stride, “keep them dogies moving!”

It feels GOOD to be up and pushing forward.

But once a day, you’ll find me, too, sitting in a quiet room, quietly breathing, quietly chasing down rampant thoughts and getting them to be still.

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

The universe has a way of bringing what I need to my attention. It gave me, after all, a Fitbit to insure I’d get off my duff and move each day.

And then it sent me reminder after reminder about meditating. It posted and it texted and it emailed me. It sent a messenger, and then, when all else failed, it threw the book at me.

Never let it be said, after all, that I’m slow on the uptake.

********

Here’s Farhad Manjoo’s article to check out: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/opinion/meditation-internet.html

Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.

**********

Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.

**********

Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.

*******

Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.

*********

Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?

**********

And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.

**********

But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.

**********

Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.

**********

And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.

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

Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.

How Things Look

I have this uncle. His name is Joe. Many years ago, Uncle Joe’s health took a startling turn, and he wound up in ICU in a coma. It was a somber time for his kids, as the doctors pulled them aside to talk about options. There was a point, the medical people said, where the kids would have to decide when to take him off life support.

Time crawled by; there was little change. Things did not look good, and finally, if I remember this correctly, my cousins made the tough call. It was time to disconnect the life support.

So the medical people did that.

And Uncle Joe woke up.

He recovered and went home from the hospital, and ever since then, he told me once, he celebrates a new birthday: the day he woke up from that coma, not the day he was born.

********

I have this friend. She’s one of the bravest, strongest, giving-est people I know. We all met up for our annual Christmas dinner last month, this year in a wonderful restaurant in Columbus: amazing food, wonderful friends, rich, funny talk that swirled and hugged us. We had the best time.

What we didn’t know until a few weeks later, when she texted us, was that our wonderful friend had, just days before, been diagnosed with cancer. She hadn’t wanted to spoil our celebration; she didn’t want to darken our holidays. So she waited until after to tell us that jarring news.

There was hopeful news, too; that surgery might well get it all, and that only radiation might be needed as follow up therapy. We are, all of us, connected in a web of prayer and hope, groping to figure out the best way to be a friend to a strong, proud woman who has mighty supporters by her side.

I just keep thinking about that day at the restaurant, about the real joy on her face at seeing everyone.

*********

Connie, my fit-bit, continues to push. I will steal an hour for reading time, and she’ll nudge me after thirty minutes. ‘Want to stroll?’ she’ll ask. Or, ‘Only fifty more steps to 250 this hour!’ she’ll remind me.

Yesterday, I had a work-at-the-computer, go-to-meeting kind of day. I found myself walking around the block last night at 9:15, getting my final steps in so I’d reach my daily goal. I am not sure what Connie would say to me if I let her down on that.

Today, I decided to forestall her by getting a lot of steps in early. So I laced up my sneakers, pulled on my tomato-red coat, and wrapped my hand-knit, scrappy scarf tightly around my neck. It’s COLD outside.

And I set out for a walk.

The sun was shining in a sky only lightly scudded with puffy white clouds, and barely a dust of snow remained. The day was open and clear and free. I stepped around frozen puddles and navigated by manic squirrels. I laughed when unwieldy crows decided they really would have to flap themselves away: apparently, I wasn’t thinking about yielding the sidewalk to them.

There were some runners out, and a few other walkers, and nice people in cars stopped and waved me across the streets I have to cross.

A bright day, crisp and cold and champagne-clear air. It felt good to swing my arms and stretch my legs.

But there in the back of my mind was this nagging thought: it may LOOK nice out, but weather is brewing. Storm is coming. Tomorrow, I thought, I probably won’t be able to stride along happily. Tomorrow the snow will fall, despite today’s cheerful weather.

Things aren’t always the way they look.

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

I have this other friend. She is also brave and true, and she has been in my life for a long, long time. We were girls together, sweet, silly girls who didn’t know how that life-tumbler arranges to sand down our sharp edges, to polish our facets, to mold us into the people we need to be to meet the challenges we never expected to face.

One of the joys of my life is that, although our paths diverged, we reconnected several years ago, and have grown closer now than we ever were as girls.

This other friend went in for a kind of routine check-up yesterday and got news she never expected to hear. Devastating news, although all the reports are not yet in.

That news rides with me, lodges in the back of my neck, aches like a nasty infection. So how must that news bear down on my very dear friend and the people who love her best?

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

My younger brother Sean texted this week. Uncle Joe was in ICU, he said. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t look too good. In fact, it looked damned serious.

That message came when it was approaching ten o’clock one night.

The next day, Sean texted a photo. Uncle Joe was sitting in bed, grinning. He was holding the hand of a pretty young nurse, and she was grinning, too.

Once again, despite all appearances, he’d rallied.

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

I needed two thousand more steps to satisfy my hungry fit-bit, so later this afternoon, before I drove James to his book club, I went out, again, for a walk. The sky was milky now, thick with clouds. Six deer were in the street; they stared me down for a minute, and then flicked their tails at me and bounded for the woods.

I wondered why they were out in force in the middle of the day, and I wondered if they sensed, somehow, the storm to come.

And I thought of my valiant friends, and my indomitable uncle, and I thought that all I know is that I DON’T know. Things might look great, but there are no guarantees. Things might look bad, but they won’t necessarily stay that way.

What I need to do, I decided, is to stop taking things for granted. I need to cherish this time, and the people put here to share it with me.

Hoppin’, Skippin’, Sloppin’—Eating the Fruits of Every Day

James and I come home from a comprehensive shopping trip just as Mark arrives for lunch. The three of us ferry shopping bags to the house in the pale sunlight. (There was no worry about the ice cream treats I indulged in at Aldi’s staying cold on this crisp Ohio January day. We left them in the trunk while we ran into Kroger to top off the shopping trip with produce and Italian sausage and a variety of cleaning supplies. Then, trunk and back seat jammed with packages, we drove home to enlist Mark’s help in unpacking.)

It feels good to fill the larder again with homely, everyday foods after the rich abundance of holiday treats. Tonight, I think, I’ll release some hot Italian sausage from its casing, and brown it up with a big chunk of burger, stir in the left-over red sauce, and simmer up some chili. There’s a bag of cornbread mix my niece Meg sent in a savory Christmas package; that will be a wonderfully steamy side. And, I decide, I’ll use up some set-aside crumbs in a batch of potato chip cookies.

But first, the three of us thrust and parry and dance, shoving cleaners beneath the sink, running an industrial-sized package of toilet paper to the stairs, hustling cold food down to the freezers, and rearranging space on the pantry shelves. When we finish, Mark returns to eating some cold chicken drumsticks, spiced with a new rub we discovered not long ago and roasted up for last night’s dinner. Jim turns the oven on to bake a couple of chicken cordon bleus he scored at Aldi’s. Chilled from all the outdoors-ing and hefting and sorting freezer food, I decide I want something hearty and spicy and satisfying.

I take the remaining Hoppin’ John from the fridge, scoop a big dollop into a red Fiesta-ware bowl—the Christmas china went back to its ignominious basement hiding place last night—layer a dessert plate on top and stick it in the microwave for four minutes.

While I wait for the beep, I wonder again where the name Hoppin’ John came from.

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

We were trying to remember last week, Mark and I, where and how we learned that Hoppin’ John is good luck food on New Year’s Day. We’d latched onto the idea somewhere, and then my niece sent us a South Carolina cookbook, and there was a recipe. It wasn’t like anything we’d tried before, and we decided it would be fun to give it a shot one New Year’s Day, at least a decade ago.

And we liked it so well, it’s become a tradition, and black-eyed peas, something I’d never cooked with before, have their own reserved space in our larder.

Probably, Mark and I mused, this was not the food served at the big table in fancy plantation houses. While those folks ate their holiday roast from fine china, careful not to spill a drop on the creamy imported lace tablecloths, the people who’d engineered the fancy feast were, probably, finally cooking their own special meal. And they were no doubt doing that with the pieces and parts the rich folk turned their noses up at—the hog jowls, the field peas, the rice, and the leftover tomatoes.

Today, in the lull between lunch and dinner prep, I decide to look up the history of Hoppin’ John.

What’scookingamerica.com answers all my questions. It tells me the dish is fixed all over the South, a traditional New Year’s Day treat, but that it is special to the Carolinas. A quintessentially American dish, it has roots in many cuisines—in French and African and Caribbean styles, all filtered through the materials available to the good Gullah cooks from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and northern Georgia.

The recipe, the website tells me, first appeared in print in 1847, in a publication called The Carolina Housewife. And tradition says that it became popular through the marketing skills of a lame Black man who sold the dish in the winter, on the streets of, perhaps, Charleston—when even southern winds carried a chill to the hearty shoppers out walking in the December air. The man had an odd skipper-y gait, and he…and the dish he so successfully sold…came to be called Hoppin’ John.

There are other possible explanations for the dish, whatscooking.com tells me, but I like the spirit and the success of that indomitable John’s personality. That’s the story I choose to believe.

Each component of the recipe, I learn, has its meaning, and they mostly deal with financial good luck. The black-eyed peas (the recipe is also, sometimes, called “Carolina Peas and Rice”) represent coins. The tomatoes stand for health. Traditionally, the dish is served with collard greens—greens for greenbacks—and cornbread, its golden goodness reminding us of the gold that brings us wealth. Eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, the hopeful legend tells us, brings prosperity in the new year.

And, having savored my leftover Hoppin’ John, I am excited to read that, when you eat the dish as leftovers after New Year’s Day, it becomes known as Skippin’ Jenny. And that means the money-luck, and one’s ability to manage all that prosperity frugally, will certainly last all year.

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

So now I have a face and story to bolster my understanding of Hoppin’ John, and I think of another named-for food: Sloppy Joe. WAS there a Joe, and was he sloppy?

I search, and I discover Sloppy Joes have an even more convoluted history than Hoppin’ John.

It could be, wonderopolis.org tells me, that the saucy sandwiches were named for Joe, a cook at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City in 1930. Joe was used to making “loose meat” sandwiches, legend says, and one day, he decided to change it up by adding tomato sauce to the mix. The sloppy sandwiches were an instant hit, and an American classic was born.

Maybe. The classic might have been born years before that, in in 1918, when, Jen Wheeler writes on chowhound.com, Jose Abeal y Otero opened Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, Cuba. Otero’s space, Wheeler suggests, was maybe a little less than pristine, and it may have been his friends who suggested the name for both his bar and the sandwich he invented. It wasn’t exactly the sloppy joe we know. Wheeler writes that Otero’s sandwich combined “…two Cuban classics—ropa vieja (shredded meat in tomato sauce) and picadillo (ground beef with spices.)”

OR—the sandwich could have come from a Key West bar that Ernest Hemingway liked to frequent. In fact, he named the place for his friend, owner Joe Russell. Russell, who shows up in To Have and Have Not as Freddy, the bar owner and captain, first called his place The Blind Pig. That didn’t work, and he changed the name to The Silver Skipper. It still wasn’t just right, and, at Hemingway’s insistence, Russell finally named his bar after Otero’s bar in Havana. Another Sloppy Joe’s was born.

As far as I can tell, the Key West Sloppy Joe’s still exists and still maintains that the great American sandwich started THERE. Wheeler quotes Donna Edwards, Sloppy Joe’s brand manager. “We took it,” Edwards said in 2015 of that Cuban-style sandwich, “and Americanized it by making it THE sloppy joe and not just a loose meat sandwich.”

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

Hmmm. At least we can be sure of whom one food, a food we learned Mark and I were mis-naming for most of our lives, was named for. Johnny Marzetti, a baked combination of ground meat, tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta, is named for Teresa’s brother-in-law. (That dish is not, as our peeps in western New York might believe, called “goulash.”)

Elizabeth at ohiothoughtsblog.blogspot.com, wrote a nice essay about Johnny Marzetti in 2013. Teresa Marzetti opened a restaurant on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, in 1898, the year she and her husband immigrated to the States. The family place was so successful, they opened another. The Broad Street site closed in 1942, but the other restaurant remained opened until 1972, the year Teresa died. The dish called Johnny Marzetti remained one of its most popular offerings.

“We will start a new place and serve good food,” Elizabeth quotes Teresa as saying, way back at the beginning, “at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will serve good food.”

The hearty combination of meat and sauce and pasta sold for 45 cents a serving, and I can just imagine it warming the bellies and the spirits of hungry people during hard times. Johnny Marzetti obviously fulfilled Teresa’s vision of good, good food.

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

On this ordinary Friday night, the holidays slowly sliding behind us (we will take the tree and the nativity, our only remaining symbols of the feast just celebrated, down on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany), I chop and stir to make that chili for dinner. I dice a little onion and throw it into a deep skillet with “loose meat’—the untethered hot Italian sausage, the ground beef. I sprinkle minced garlic.

When everything is richly browned, I pour in spaghetti sauce from Tuesday night’s meal. I open a can of kidney beans and another of tomato sauce. I stir.

The mixture, homely and simple, begins to bubble, and I turn down the heat and gather the ingredients for cookies. I’m using a recipe from 1901, from a state fair in Kansas, I think, that calls for crushed potato chips. We have two little Tupperwares full of the ends of chip bags; I will crunch them down and mix them in, into the dough that contains my home-mixed AP flour substitute and a little oat flour and just a smidgen of whole wheat flour. I’ll use the end of a bag of semi-sweet and milk chocolate and white chips, and a new bag of semi-sweet morsels. By the time Mark comes home, there will be cookies cooling on the sideboard and that thick rich Central American-inspired stew thickening and heaving on the stove top.

Ordinary food. Food invented by some ordinary genius who asked herself—or himself—“What would happen if I added beans to that?” or “What can I do with these leftover potato chips? The kids won’t eat them, but I hate to throw them out.” They experimented—sometimes, no doubt, they failed miserably, but sometimes they had amazing successes. Those successes got passed down, and the people who received them used the ingredients THEY had at hand, morphing them even more.

There are times, of course, for grand dishes named for grand people—for Napoleons and Charlottes and Wellingtons,—even, for fancy Sandwiches. And then there are times for ordinary foods, for the kinds of nourishing concoctions that people without many means developed—maybe on their own, maybe morphing the dish passed down to them by another wonderful cook.   

Sometimes, that humble inventor’s name—or the name of someone they loved—got itself attached to the dish they perfected.

And I love the treat, once in a while, of the fine and the fancy. But when the high feasting days are over, it’s a comfort to go back to soups and stews and casseroles—to go hopping and slopping and skipping through the cookbooks.

It’s a comfort and a pleasure to celebrate the abundance of an everyday dish.

Thank You, Little Voice

All the consciences I have ever heard of were nagging, badgering, fault-finding, execrable savages! Yes; and always in a sweat about some poor little insignificant trifle or other–destruction catch the lot of them, I say!
– Mark Twain, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”

**********

The squirrel sits on top of a garden boulder like a fuzzy black statue; it is frozen but quivering with alertness. As I round the corner, it leaps into the empty street and runs up onto the grassy hill beyond, its little legs splayed, its gait awkward but speedy.

There are all kinds of squirrels—gray, black, and brown; well-padded and rangy–out and hustling this warm December day; they dig and recover and run, mouths clutching acorns. They scamper and skitter up tree trunks.

A dozen sleek black crows hop arrogantly in a yard as I pass by, and I see the red darts that are cardinals zipping high up in the tree tops. Leaves lay, crisp and brown, across the sidewalks. A guy with a hat pulled down over his ears walks by me, smiling. His almost-white blond hair springs out beneath the knitted tuque; his eyes crinkle behind thick lenses.

I try to decide who he reminds me of as I smile back and say hello.  

A little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

A little Elton John-y.

A heavy-set young woman with long dark hair and shiny, opaque, ear gages, flits her eyes away from mine and walks far around me, slipping a little on the muddy grass. She does not respond to my morning greeting.

Toward the bottom of the sloping hill, neighbors, the couple from the big old house around the corner from ours, stride out of a side street. They single file it to make room for me on the sidewalk. They smile and wave.

I love the morning for walking…love connecting with what’s going on in nature; love seeing the other walkers and runners cheerfully (mostly) up and about.

But sometimes, it’s hard to motivate myself. There is housework to be done; there are classes to be planned; there is writing I should not be ignoring. I could, on cold December days, light the fire in the fireplace and sit at my computer, basking in the comforting snap and glow. I have to push myself to lace up my sneaks, pull on my jacket, head off into the chill.

I love the sense of accomplishment in walking, too,–in taking a walk that chalks up, oh—maybe, two miles, maybe more. I use my phone’s health app to track the distance. One day I figure out exactly where I’ve reached 1.5 miles; then I turn around; I arrive home having completed a brisk three-mile walk.

The next day, though, I take the same exact walk, and I check my distance on the phone…and it tells me something different. It tells me I’ve only gone 2.75 miles.

What’s up with that? I demand, and not quietly. Does it depend on where I put the phone—if it’s in the coat pocket or my jeans pocket? Does it depend on how I stride? How can it be different when I walked exactly the same route?

Mark shrugs and rolls his eyes. He’s heard it before. And he’s heard my motivation laments, too.

For Christmas, he gives me a solution: I unwrap a FitBit. That night, we sync it to my phone and the computer, and I set what it tells me is a reasonable starting goal: 8,000 steps a day. I’ll do that for a week or so, develop a rhythm, and then ramp up to where I should be: 10,000 steps.

And then we’ll see.

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

The Fitbit stays with me almost all the time; it knows when I am sleeping, and it knows when I’m awake. It buzzes little reminders to get up and move when I sit at the computer for long stretches. It tells me, sadly, toward the end of the afternoon, when I haven’t met my hourly expected rate of stepping. Then I sigh and log out of whatever work I am doing and pull on my jacket, wave to the boyos, and head out for another, longer walk.

I hit 8,000 steps on the way back; my Fitbit friend explodes into congratulations, gently buzzing my wrist, tiny fireworks shooting across its little screen. I tingle with accomplishment.

It tells me other things, too, that little gadget. When someone texts, her name and message scroll across the Fitbit’s face. It jumps and shudders when a call comes through.

It’s like a little finger poking me in the shoulder, like a little voice that says, “Gonna walk some more? Gonna answer that? Gonna keep sitting?”

“Sitting is the new smoking, you know,” I imagine the devious little device whispering as I turn a page in front of the fire.

And I realize Mark didn’t just gift me with a fitness tracker.

He gifted me with a verbal output machine for my conscience.

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

Growing up Catholic in 1960’s America, and growing up the daughter of an avid convert to the religion, meant developing, early and firmly, a nagging conscience. I tried lying, for instance, to get out of trouble when my mother stomped through and thundered, “Who….??????”

I learned not only that it did not work—she had eyes in the back of her head, that woman. (Why did she ask, though, if she already knew?)  I learned that if I lied to get out of trouble, I would suffer that night, when the weight of my venial sins would start pressing on me, jumping up and down on my chest, demanding my attention.

“How COULD you?” my conscience would demand, and then it would brush the bouncing sins away and sit, heavy and cross-legged, on my chest. It would enumerate all the other times I lied, and all the craven excuses I used for uttering those mis-truths. It would point out that I never learned from my sins, that I always said I’d go forth and sin no more; that that in itself (nudge, nudge, poke, poke), that errant pledge, was a lie.

My sleep would come slowly, and it would be roiled when it arrived, and I would be first in line at the confessional that Saturday, waiting to give my itchy conscience a nice little bath.

There were so many torments—nasty thoughts about people who thwarted me, tiny bits of beef in soup served by a friend’s mother on a meatless Friday. (This issue was in a gloomily hazy area. My mother told me that it’s better to sin than to offend a friend. But, oh: beef on Friday! My conscience smugly smacked me, parroting the words of my current nunly teacher back to me. I suspect it would have smacked just as hard if I’d refused the soup. “Nice,” it would have said. “Hurt HER feelings, didn’t you?”) Lies of commission and lies of omission. Gluttony. And sloth.

I watched Pinocchio and wished my conscience were a little more friendly and peppy, a little more like Jiminy Cricket.

I watched my friends, who were blithe and unrepentant in pursuit of certain goals. I wished I could shrug things off like they did, and I began to wonder if my conscience was not, perhaps, on steroids.

As I grew, it kept pace, my guilt-meter, my remorse machine. I could not find the switch that controlled its volume.

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

In middle school and high school, I began to read Mark Twain,–starting of course, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the juvenile version of which I got for Christmas when I was twelve. I discovered that Twain had lived in my town for a time when he was a young man; he had edited a paper called the Censor, and he had not been happy in the doing of it. His fleeting local-ness was fascinating.

I struggled through Huckleberry Finn, which I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I read it again in college, and I discovered the movie version of The Prince and the Pauper, which, for some reason, I loved. That led me to the book. And then I discovered Twain had a treasure trove of short works.

In high school, I came across an essay by Twain on the subject of conscience, a topic, I think, that troubled him even more than it did me. In this work, Twain described taking his conscience and beating it to death, throwing it into the fireplace, and feeling no remorse.

“I wish,” I thought, and I began the Twain-ian effort of toning down my conscience. Practice, I figured, would make perfect, and so I began to work on it.

“Of course, there will be parents at the party,” I told my mother.

“I would NEVER drink alcohol,” I assured my dad.

“Ick. Who would ever want to smoke cigarettes?” I queried.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said to my professor. “I was sure I handed that paper in, and now I can’t find my draft.”

My conscience railed and railed, but I was relentless. Finally, it rolled over and slept for a bit.

But it would wake up in the darkest, most vulnerable hours; it would wake up and it would wake ME up. At 3 AM I’d be sitting upright in bed, wrestling with questions of how could I….

I visited the confessional less and less often, finding the comfort it had once given was more and more diluted.

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

So I trudged reluctantly into adulthood, dragging a bound and muffled, but never quite abandoned, conscience that kicked and squirmed behind me.

Teaching and marriage, loss and parenting, all the unexpected tumblings of life, taught me to see and feel new layers and permutations of guilt and remorse.

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

I began to think about what the whole concept of ‘conscience’ means. The root word, science, means knowing. The prefix, con, means with. So the word itself meant ‘with knowing,’ the doing of a deed with full awareness of what that doing connotes.

And then I stumbled across a book on mindfulness, and I started wondering how much of life I sleepwalk through, and I started seeing the value—well, the necessity, really—of being awake and aware. Is THAT, I wondered, what a conscience really does? It calls me back to awareness, brings me to the present moment, asks me to acknowledge that I know what churnings the course I contemplate might agitate?

If that was a conscience’s job, maybe it was not such a bad companion. Maybe I could get acquainted with my conscience again, ask it to help me really inhabit my time. We began a cautious renegotiation of roles, my conscience and I. One of the things it recommended that I do is write about it to fully understand it. I wove my conscience into my morning pages. We started, I like to think, a kind of waltzing get-to-know-you dance.

This dance, I believe, continues to this day.

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

And, “Okay!” says my FitBit as I type this. “Time to get up and get moving!”

And I heave myself out of the chair, think longingly of making another short pot of decaf, of helping myself to a piece or two of the locally-famed chocolates that a lovely friend surprised me with last night. But I trudge upstairs instead to pull on my new Sock Monkey socks. It is time for the First Walk of the Day, time to lace up my sneaks and venture forth into a gray world where squirrels scamper and birds shrill,–where, just an hour ago, a deer played peekaboo with Mark, popping its head up and down from behind the bushes as Mark grinned at it from the dining room’s bay window.

The Fitbit tells me this, but it is telling me only what I know: that action is good, that my heart needs me to move and needs me NOT to grab another goodie from the sweetie tray. The Fitbit is just another tool to help me achieve awareness, to guide me into mindfulness. I stare out the window and I acknowledge this as I twist my thoughts so that, “Oh boy! Let’s walk!” shows up on the screen.

I should be thanking my smug little Fitbit, firmly leading me by the wrist. Maybe, I think to myself, I should give my new little friend a nickname.

I reject the first one that comes to mind. ‘Fit Bistird’ just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Maybe I’ll call it Connie.

Three Things, Unrelated

The Avon Nativity
  1. At Work, Sometimes They Give You Presents

Jim comes charging out of the library door, head down, backpack strapped to his back, something in his hand. When he looks up to wave, I see that he is grinning. I start the car and turn on the heat and wait while he navigates the walkway inside the walled courtyard, then emerges to take the cement walk that zigs, then zags, toward where I am parked. When he’s twenty feet away, he starts to run.

“I had a GREAT day,” he says, opening the door to shove his backpack into the back seat. “I finished the inventory of the YA books and then I just hung out and socialized. That was OKAY,” he adds quickly, seeing the question on my face. He slams the back door and climbs into the front seat. “They loved their gifts,” he says.

**********

We had seen an idea on Pinterest: someone took nice, smooth glass jars and glued three buttons on their fronts. They filled the jars with white-chocolate-dipped pretzels and tied little scarves around the lids. They looked like jolly snowperson-bellies, whimsical and fun.

We saved some pretty jars; they’d held some special sauces Jim had bought. I bought Gorilla Glue and sorted through Grandma’s button box, coming up with three sets of three, just the right size. We debated what we could dip in white chocolate to fill the jars with tasty white goodness. Tiny pretzels, of course. Jim thought he’d remembered seeing some miniature oreo-type cookies at Kroger. What about, Mark said, double-dipping malted milk balls?

I got a giant bag of white chocolate dipping discs at the bulk food store, and we bought all three—pretzels, tiny cookies, and malted milk balls,—at the supermarket. We experimented. On the first run-through, I melted the discs too hot, and I poured the malted milk balls in. Their chocolate began melting, and I chased them through the steamy, murky depths with a spoon. When I finally scooped them up onto waxed paper to cool, the white chocolate was marbled with milk chocolate fronds. I dumped half a bag of the little sandwich cookies in the melty mess and fished them, too, out to harden.

That was our testing batch, we rationalized, and we discovered they were irresistible. Eating one just made us want to eat a handful. “Cover them up!” we wailed, until the plate was empty, which didn’t take too long.

For the gifting batch, I melted the white fudge half as long, and dipped the malted milk balls, one by one, on the tines of a fork. The whiteness stayed white; the candy had smaller puddles. They were still delicious. We dipped all the candy and the rest of the cookies and handfuls of the pretzels.

The next morning the goodies were fully dry, and we layered them in the buttoned jars right up to their very tops. I had three little striped scarves I had knitted the year before—scarves to go around the necks of wine bottles (the tiny stocking caps are still in the drawer.) We knotted the scarves jauntily around the lids and packaged them up in pretty gift bags.

It was, I realized, Jim’s first experience of a holiday at work. When we had bundled everything into the car, he flumped into the front seat and paused before fishing out his ear buds.

“Do you want to come in with me when we get there?” he asked.

I look at the pile of goodies. It wasn’t too huge.

“We’ll see,” I said. “If you need help carrying.”

But when we got there, it was clear James could manage the load himself. “Okay…” he said, unsure, but I waved him toward the entrance.

“Have a great day, bud,” I said. “Tell the women of the library I said hello!”

“Bye, Mom,” said Jim, and he turned and trudged toward the library door.

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

“So they liked the snow-bellies?” I ask now, and Jim says, “OH, yeah. I think Janelle was over the moon. And Mom,” he says, reaching in a pocket, bringing out an envelope only slightly crumpled, “they got ME something, too.”

He shows me a handmade card with a note from his boss, thanking him for his detail-oriented work. “Not everyone could do what you do,” she has written.

“And look,” he says. He has a gift-card to a nearby restaurant, close enough that he can walk there from campus. He is beaming.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that the people he works with might give him a gift.

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

Ralphie watches Christmas seals…

2. The Names Are All Changed

Daisy used to walk everywhere; I’d see her on the streets of my old hometown. She used a cane, and she wore long patterned skirts that came down to her ankles and a shiny, puffy, blue jacket that was a little too tight. Her eyes were icy blue and lashless; she never wore a spit of makeup. Her hair, though, was long—down almost to where she could sit upon it,–and it was a delightful, unlikely shade of blonde. I wondered aloud to a friend one day about how old Daisy might be.

“Fifty?” I ventured.

The friend snorted. “More like seventy,” she said.

Daisy lived in a dilapidated apartment house right downtown; she’d been there a long time. I saw her at the supper my church served for people in need every other Wednesday. She often brought someone new with her, ushering them in, introducing them, showing them the ropes.

I heard that when her building was too cold,–the heat all controlled by one lone thermostat– it was Daisy who called the landlord and set him straight about how warm people needed the temp to be set at to be comfortable. And at least for a week or so, the landlord would comply. New renters wound up in Daisy’s apartment, where she would advise them.

She was kind of a house-mother, Daisy was.

She held us accountable in the church kitchen too; she often asked about ingredients and where we’d gotten things, and she did not want to eat anything cooked on aluminum. Things leeched out of aluminum, she said; poison things.

Because of Daisy, we didn’t use very much aluminum foil.

One winter we started a book discussion group—all women—and we read memoir-type books by other women involved in church life. Maybe it was discovering a book, the one by the woman who worked at a food pantry in a big city church in California, on the shelf that made me think of Daisy this week. She came to the group the day we discussed that book; she came and sat, listening quietly, while we talked about the California church, and the people who resisted allowing “those people” into the church, who were happy to GIVE to a food pantry, but who didn’t want it in their front yard.

There was a pause in the conversation, and Daisy, suddenly, spoke.

“When I was a child,” she said, “my mother made us stay in bed for all but two hours a day. We had to lay there, every day. Lay there and be quiet. If we didn’t, we got punished. We learned just to be still.”

There was silence around the circle; we all gazed at Daisy.

“Even when we went to school,” she said, “when we came home, she would meet us at the door and march us off to our bedrooms. We were allowed to come out and eat, but that was it. For the rest of the day, we stayed in bed.

“Why,” she asked us, “would a mother do that?”

We stared at Daisy. Dancing behind her crumpled, weathered, shiny-clean face, I could see the face of that little girl, the little blonde girl who wanted to go out and play, or who wanted, maybe, to sit with her mother in the kitchen and talk. I was horrified, and I had not a clue what to do.

But my friend Regan, who was sitting beside Daisy, did.

“Oh, Daisy,” she said, and she reached over and took the woman’s hand. “Daisy. That was BAD.”

Daisy nodded. She was calm and settled, but tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“It WAS bad,” she said. “Those people in California: that was bad, too. Did they ever let the food pantry stay?”

We slowly steered our way back into the book discussion, and Daisy grew quiet once again, nodding when she agreed. We had coffee and brownies afterward and Daisy stayed and chatted, and then she struggled into her blue jacket, gathered up her cane and a cloth bag, said her goodbyes and left.

She went back to her apartment, where she wrangled with the landlord and made it a point to meet the new tenants and help them. She went out every day, Daisy did, walking down to the market for a loaf of bread, visiting friends, stopping, some days, for coffee.

It’s been almost twenty years since the last time I saw Daisy, and I wonder if she’s still in her apartment, or possibly, she’s in a facility. If so, I hope it’s warm and clean, but if it isn’t, I bet that Daisy is letting the management know what she and the people who live there need.

It may be, too, that Daisy is gone, passed into another realm where maybe she’ll finally get the answers she needed, the answers that eluded her, her whole life long.

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

Who doesn’t love an elephant?

3. Setting Up the Little People

He may be 28 years old, a man with a job and a college career, but Jim still likes to set up the little people at Christmas. I love that he’s unashamed of that, that he’s willing to let his inner kid shine through.

The little people cluster this year on a dresser we’ve repurposed for the living room. There is the irresistible little Avon nativity set—Mary in pink, Joseph in blue, a bright-eyed, brown-haired baby. There are three roly-poly, jewel-toned wise men, and three attentive farm animals: donkey and lamb and cow. They are just the size to fit in a child’s hand and just the thing to distract a toddler bent on playing with the porcelain nativity. One of the wise men, in fact, bears the scars of having been gnawed by an enthusiastic young worshipper.

There’s a Native American nativity, too, with a dark-haired, dark-skinned family; it is ceramic, and candles can slide into slots behind the Holy Family. So much wax has melted onto that little tableau and been scraped off, though, that we just don’t burn the candles anymore.

Jim spends a good thirty minutes digging figures out of the box and setting them up.

“Remember those three little wooden nutcrackers?” he asks. “I made them into wise men by the Native American Christmas, ‘cause one of them is carrying a gift. And I put Arthur there too, because, hey. Who doesn’t love an elephant, and somehow, I don’t think Jesus would mind. Do you?”

Arthur is Babar’s nephew. I pull a Babar book from the shelves and stand it up behind the tableau,–behind Charlie Brown dressed as  a wise man, and a Santa Pez dispenser, behind Snoopy asleep on his dog house, and BB-8, and a sledding penguin and snow-covered Christmas trees that are shorter than many of the figures that surround them.

It is a wonderful, eclectic, bizarre display; each figure has a history and a story. Each piece says something about family and about friends who’ve been important.

And the fact that Jim still wants to set them up, weave a story behind their arrangement, welcome that history into his heart—well, that’s important too. The little people, I think, are my favorite Christmas decoration this year.

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

I don’t know how these three things mesh; I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning among the three stories that rang, clear and strong as tolling bells, through my conscious mind this week. But whatever festival of light you celebrate, whatever people you walk with in this time and place, I hope there’s warmth and light and fellowship. And I hope your blessings are many, and your troubles, very, very few.

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.