Quite a Character, That Harry

I told Harry not to bother me when I was reading.

********

I  first encountered him at Starbucks. I was with my friend Lori, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We had so much to talk about: friends we’d loved and jobs we hadn’t and how to bake a ham. Seriously, our pressing topics ranged from the life-changing to the family-feeding, dancing over the tops of a dozen other issues in-between.

We tucked ourselves into a corner table in the back, and we bent appreciatively over our steaming brews. Lori had a fragrant vanilla latte; I had my trusty decaf Americano. And we talked. We had just moved into a discussion of her youngest daughter’s exciting summer program (Jorie has a scholarship to space camp) when we became aware of a little man, pacing the length of the coffee shop.

A short fellow, his sweep of reddish hair, peckled with gray, swirled back off his forehead– the way guys used to do it in Brylcreem days. His pale, lashless blue eyes look oversized and uncomfortably close behind thick, thick lenses. His chin receded, but his belly did not, and his tight, short-sleeved plaid shirt did nothing to disguise that fact. His pants—well, he went in big for the Ed Grimley look, that little guy did. He was sort of pixie-ish, and I would have thought, “Endearing,” if he hadn’t looked so angry.

His face was pinched and tomato-red, and he hugged a fancy leather portfolio, papers jutting out at every angle, tight to his chest. He’d stalk up and glare at us and then disappear. We’d lapse back into conversation only to feel the heat of laser-eye glare and look up to see him again.

“Oh, Lord,” whispered Lori, when he’d gone for the fourth time. “Do you remember him?”

Did he look familiar?  Maybe?

Nope. Nothing clicked.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”

“He is a character. He was my advisee at Central State when you taught there,” she said. “He always registered late, and he always wanted to get into your writing class, and it was always full.”

“Well,” I said, dubiously. “I guess that’s flattering. Right?”

“He used to yell at me,” said Lori. “‘Find me a spot!’ he’d say. He’d kind of jump up and down. His hair would flop up and down, like in one big shellacked chunk. He always reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. Once I had to tell him to calm down or I’d call Security.”

She sipped her latte and narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. “Harry Critt,” she said. “That’s his name. I was really glad when I became a director and didn’t have to deal with him one-on-one anymore.”

He was heading back toward us when the barista called, “Harry! Your frap is ready!”

Harry swiveled abruptly and almost ran to the counter.

We decided that was a good time to make our exit; we slipped quietly out the back door, leaving Harry to his pacing.

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

Right around when that happened, I was whining to Mark about not having time to read. Reading, I had thought, would be my retirement default mode. And recently, I had accumulated a wonderful stack of bought and borrowed books. I had Hidden Figures; we had just watched the film and I couldn’t wait to get more background on the story of those women.

And I wondered at the depiction of John Glenn in the film; Glenn grew up,–he and Annie both, actually,–maybe twenty miles from here. So I had a copy of his memoir. Somehow I’d missed one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles back in the day, so when I saw a copy of The Moon By Night on a sale table, I had to pick it up. And I had a copy of Ready Player One, too; it’s a Great American Read book, after all.

And then I read an interview with a woman who lived near Toledo; it was on a reading blog and the woman said she’d become a confirmed reader because of Nancy Drew, and I thought, “Wait. Wasn’t Nancy Drew’s author from Toledo?” So I ordered a copy of Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak; that was the story of the women who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote Nancy Drew, and yes, Mildred Wirt was from Toledo. And the book was fascinating; it read like a compelling novel, and I never had enough time to sit down and just read for an hour.

And of course, I had some nice, light, mystery series volumes to cleanse the reading palette.

But there was always something to write or clean or paint or do; there were rides to be given and cookies to be baked and floors to be mopped and weeds to be pulled. I’d try to read, but unfinished chores pinched and pulled me.

“I thought,” I wailed to Mark, “that when I retired I’d get more reading done!”

And he said, “Well, just take a break and read in the afternoon.”

But I couldn’t, I told him; I couldn’t relax into reading when there was work to be done. The dishes screamed at me; the weeds sang a taunting song; James sighed heavily from in front of his computer, wishing he had a ride to somewhere.

“I can’t stand it,” I said. “I can’t concentrate with all that NOISE.”

“Then go someplace ELSE and read,” said Mark.

I thought that was brilliant.

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

The first time, I went to Panera. I ordered a decaf and a cinnamon scone. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and not very busy, and I found a little two-person table in the quiet back. I put my purse and my jacket on the other chair to discourage anyone who might feel sorry for my solitariness and decide to sit.

And I opened Girl Sleuth and took a big slug of decaf, and I relaxed into the chair, and I began to read.

I was lost in the tale of Edward the genius and Harriet his daughter and Mildred the Iowa girl with gumption when a noisy, throat-clearing rattle jounced me out of that wonderful other world. I looked and there was Harry Critt.

“Pardon me,” he said, with a cocky little half-smile.

I looked at him for a long pause.

“Yes?” I said icily. “As you see, I am reading.”

“You teach writing,” said Harry.

“I DID teach writing. Once. I am retired now, and I barely remember a thing about it.”

“She never got me into your class,” said Harry darkly. “But now you’re retired and you have time.”

He lowered the leather portfolio, broke into a full-on grin, and made to sit down.

I kicked my foot up onto the chair, next to my purse and jacket.

“Don’t sit,” I said bluntly. “I am READING.”

“But that’s what I want you to do!” And Harry smiled. “You can read my work. I have here,” and he flourished the leather portfolio; three papers fluttered out, landing on the table beside me and the floor, “my journal. Wait just a minute.”

Harry scrambled around and got his errant papers; he shoved them back into the portfolio.

“Now today,” he said, “as we don’t really know each other very well yet, I thought The War Years would be a very good starting point. That will tell you a lot about me. And I’d like your advice on the action scenes. I don’t,” he said, and he ducked his head shyly, “know if I made myself seem a little too heroic. Although of course, I stuck completely to the facts.”

“Harry,” I said, “I’m going to be very direct, because I have great respect for writers. I WANT TO READ MY BOOK. I need you to leave me alone.”

He looked at me incredulously.

“The history society might be very interested in hearing about your war years,” I suggested. “And there’s a writers’ group in town that you could join. They read each other’s work and give exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.”

“But I don’t want to work with them,” said Harry. “I want to work with YOU. And I am not leaving until you read at least a page of my stuff.”

I stood up and gathered my things.

“I AM leaving, though, Harry,” I said firmly. “I wish you enjoyment in your writing, but I am not going to read it. Not now, and not another day. Try the writers’ group, Harry.”

His mouth dropped open, and I left him like that. Just as I got to the exit, he warbled, “But you taught a class in personal journaling!”

Goodbye, Harry, I thought, and, mood broken, I went home and made some broth and mopped the kitchen floor.

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

The next day, I was on the stationary bike at the gym, when who should come around the corner of the track but Harry. He had long baggy shorts on, and a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, and a stretchy white terrycloth band wrapped around his forehead.

And he clutched his portfolio, papers streaming.

My son James was on the bicycle next to me.

“That’s the guy,” I hissed loudly.

Jim ceased pedaling and glared at Harry.

Harry stopped. Blood rushed to his face. His eyes bulged. He spun around on one sneakered foot and hurried away.

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

That night Mark and I had a date night dinner at a little roadhouse-y kind of a restaurant. Mark went off to the men’s room, and I went and got the table. I had just nabbed the chair by the window when I saw Harry charge through the entrance and bear down upon me. He waved the portfolio triumphantly.

He almost slammed into Mark, who said, “Watch it, buddy.”

Harry stopped, snorting. And when Mark sat down across from me, Harry actually stamped his shiny black shoe. I could see what Lori meant; he DID look kind of Rumple-y. But he spun himself around and left.

“Is THAT the guy?” asked Mark, and I allowed that it was.

“He looks a little off-balance,” Mark said. “If this doesn’t stop, I think we need to report it.”

I nodded grimly. Then we opened our menus; we forgot all about Harry and had a lovely time.

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

The next day was one of those perfect summer days—75 and cloudless blue skies, and the air was light and fresh, with not one hint of humidity. I spent the morning at the computer and finished up a whole lot of work, and then I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned floors and danced through the house decluttering surfaces. I mowed the backyard, and then Mark came home for lunch.

We ate salads on the patio, and he said, “You know what you ought to do? Take your book and go over to the Garden. You’re always saying you want to do that. You could sit by the pond and read in peace.”

The Garden! Acres of land, carved out of the middle of neighborhoods and alleyways; it had the pond and a waterfall and a rustic Japanese tea house. It had trails and benches; it felt removed, but one was never more than a quick shout away from connection.

“That, my friend,” I said to Mark, “is a wonderful idea.”

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

By 1:30, breezes riffled my hair as I sat on a comfy wooden bench and lost myself in a light summer story about a  Midwestern librarian who also solved mysteries. The water shooshed softly, and, through the buffer of trees and bushes, I could hear the gentle thrum of car tires on neighborhood streets.  But mentally I was sitting in a cool quiet library, where Hattie, the librarian, was conversing with the director of the local history society. Some papers were missing, important ones; the historian thought maybe they’d wound up at the library, somehow.

And then I heard the stomping little footsteps. God help me, there was Harry.

“Finally,” he breathed, as he marched up the path, veering off in front of my bench. “Today you ARE going to read The War Years, and we’ll have no more nonsense!”

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

“Harry,” I said. “This is outrageous. Have you been following me?”

His face went from white to purple in a blink.

“Outrageous?” he spluttered. “What’s outrageous is a writing teacher who won’t teach writing. You don’t need to read THIS—” and he reached out, snatched my book, and threw it onto the grass behind him, “—when you can read THIS!”  He thrust the portfolio under my nose.

“I was READING, Harry!” I shouted, and hot anger swelled up in me. I stood up to push him away and grab my book, and the ground seemed to shift.

At first I thought it was just Harry, bouncing up and down; he was jumping and screaming and telling me that it was time to do as he said. I hit 9-1 with my thumb, and then I realized it wasn’t Harry making the ground move.

It was my book. It had righted itself so it was standing, open, behind agitated Harry, and it was growing. Quickly. It was as high as Harry’s knees, and still he yelled, and it was up to his shoulders, and he screamed at me to take his portfolio, and then it was towering over him.

I reached out a hand, and I think Harry thought I was finally going to take his damned journal. He stopped bouncing and settled, and his expression calmed. He took the portfolio in both hands and began to bestow it on me.

“Harry,” I said calmly. “Harry. If you don’t go away right now, I going to slap you inside of this book and call the cops.”

“No,” he said, and foamy spittle flew from his lips. “No. You are reading The War Years, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Then some kind of addled recognition dawned, and his face froze. “Book?” he croaked.

I swear the looming book told me what to do. I grabbed a cover in each hand and I swung them inwards, trapping Harry inside. There was a snapping, clicking feeling as the pages aligned and the covers pressed them tight together. Harry’s voice, muffled, screeched just briefly, and there was a momentary bulge in the book. And then there was silence.

The bulge smoothed out, and the book fell over on its side, and smoothly, seamlessly, it returned to its proper size.

I picked it up.

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

I walked home, glazed with shock, and I tried to figure out what to do. I paged through the book; the pages were pristine. There was not a spot of blood or sweat. Harry was just gone.

I tried to tell Mark about it later, but he gave me that look. I put the book aside; I stacked twelve heavy books on top of it, and I started reading Ready Player One instead.

But it bothered me; it bothered me and it would not let me go.  Finally, I called someone I really felt would listen and advise, a teacher from my grad school days, Professor Ramming. I used to visit the Prof in his book-lined office. He would often be standing precariously on his wheeled desk chair, taking down a book or sliding one back into place, and his other-where eyes would tell me he was inhabiting whatever place he was just then reading about.

The Prof was a deeply literate man who knew the power of books; my gut said he could help me.

Professor Ramming listened to my story, and he sighed a wheezy sigh.

“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Do you still have the book?”

I admitted I did.

“Get it,” he said. When I returned, he told me to open to where I’d left off.

And, oh, my gawd: there was Harry. Harry stole the papers from the history society: he stole them, and he claimed them as his own War Years journal! I skimmed through the pages. There was a chase scene in the library stacks where the thief was ignominiously tackled by the svelte but fit librarian. On page 192, the local authorities came and took Harry away. He was howling about his story of The War Years as they dragged him to the cruiser.

I read my old teacher the part about his exit, and then we both stopped talking for a bit.

Finally, “Professor Ramming,” I asked, “did I just dream this?”

Again with the wheezy sigh.

“No,” he said, slowly. “Harry escaped from his narrative. It happens. It happens when someone gets so involved in a book that the characters become real to them. They see their chance to slip into the real world, to take on flesh and bone, and to exist where blood pulses and food has taste and the warm summer breezes excite their papery skins. But something is always missing for them, and they always wind up revealing themselves.

“For Harry, it was a need to have his journal  validated. He was probably delusional in the book, and he carried those delusions into our world with him. You,” said Professor Ramming, “were lucky to be reading the right book at the right time, my dear. You could send him back.”

We talked a little bit, then, about old friends and classmates of mine who’d gone on to do wonderful things, and we wished each other well, and then awkwardly, as if we hadn’t just discussed something outrageous and wild and pretty much unbelievable, we said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.

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

I put the book in the pile to go to Half Price Books, and I resolved never to read that author again. Harry could pop up in a later episode, and, if he’d managed to escape once, he might just be able to do it again.

That week I discovered a quiet corner of the patio where I could read undistracted, and I built an hour of reading time into most every day.

Mark and I never discussed Harry again. I think he was relieved when I stopped insisting the annoying little man with the war journal was really a denizen of a book. But I marveled in my musing times at the power authors wield, creating people and places and events so real and so true and so vibrant that, for some of us, they jump off the pages; they jump into the real world, and, God help us, they live.

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

And it dawned on me one night, as I turned the memory over in my mind, shook the dust away and tried to find a place to store it on a shelf in the Memory Room in that bony cavern—it occurred to me that Lori was right.

Harry really HAD been a character.

 

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Words in Five Places

Inspiration is absent. I go searching and this is what I find:

From “A List of Topics for Writing Practice”…

Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.

 —Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

 I like this idea. I decide to pick five writing places.

***********

Wednesday.

  1. On the patio, 9:20 a.m.

The roses are gone; that’s the first thing I see. I had thought about cutting them yesterday, thought about sliding them into a slender bud vase and putting them on the bay windowsill to kiss the light that shines into the dining room: two perfect, tiny, pink roses from the valiant tea rose that surges every year in spite of my neglect.

I had thought about it, and then I forgot.

I think our deer friends ate them. Mark called me to the window early, early—mama and her two spindly-legged, spotted fawns were just rising from their rest under our big pine tree. They stretched and snuffled and took care of morning urges (SHEESH! said Mark), and then the babies hopped off in separate directions. Mama corrected that with a guttural click; they lined up behind her, but we could see that one fawn was going to be a handful. Mom led off; Baby 1 followed obediently. They stopped to graze.

But that other baby! Mom took a step forward and it scarpered, on its impossibly skinny legs, heading backward to check out a fascinating patch of something or other by the fence, then sneaking toward the house to peer more closely at Mark and me, peering at it through the kitchen window.

Kuck!!! grated Mama, warningly, and Baby 2 jumped back.

Yeah, yeah, Mama; I’m on board. I’m comin’.

A moment later, though, the curious little creature was tripping through a hole in the hedge, leaving Mama and Sib waiting in the street.

Kuck!!!

***

So, anyway: the roses are gone. The white petunias that I put in the pot on the Angry Little Chef’s head are chomped, too, but the hosta are blooming boldly. Maybe there are so many hosta I just don’t notice what the deer have eaten.

Little Chef.jpg

***

I am sitting at the little round table, on a cold black metal chair, relaxing into cool morning breezes. The sun shines, and birds chatter. On my walk this morning, I saw a funny thing. A lady cardinal and an English sparrow soared as if synchronized and landed on the same little branch. There was a tiny pause; then the cardinal stretched over and pocked the little sparrow sharply on the noggin. The sparrow shook its little head, gathered its jangled wits, and flew quickly away.

Bragging rights to the Woman Warrior, I guess.

But now the birds all sound placid and cheerful, lightly chittering, going about whatever their daily business entails.

***

Neighbors are busy too. Sandy comes out with the pup we call Tati, because she looks and sounds like the feisty little dog that pees on Russell Crowe’s leg in A Good Year. Sandy anchors Tati’s leash to the pretty little shed at the back of her yard.

Across the alley, Neighbor Bob checks out the lay of the morning. I see his white head over the fence, and I hunker down into my laptop.

I enjoy my neighbor’s company, but today, I have to write.

***

And now the back-door swings open and Jim steps out, raring to go. It is Wednesday: it’s our day for mall walking. I pause. The air conditioner, hidden behind the carport in the flower bed, clicks on. A bird trills a comment on that. I finish my typing, close up the laptop.

Time to go.

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

  1. At the Starbucks tucked into Kroger; 10:54 a.m.

Jim’s laptop butts up next to mine on a two-seater wooden table. We’re against the wall, up against a big Starbuckian mural. There’s a handle-less ceramic cup on the table; a bamboo plant, nestled in gravel, grows up out of it. The Carpenters sing over the intercom, sadly ironic:…so much of life ahead….

A retirement party’s taking place on the big tables. Kroger employees ebb and flow; when we lined up for our Starbucks drinks, we disrupted two revelers, who rushed over to take our orders. By the party tables, there’s a shiny silver barbecue grill sporting a big blue bow. There are Mylar balloons. On a rolling cart, a cake box from the bakery is almost closed; a pile of Hallmark cards tucks beneath it. A stack of patio chairs, neatly snicked into each other, sits in front of the cart, another big bow attached.

People in blue smocks wield plastic forks, eating cake from small paper plates. A young colleague, fair-haired and beaming, charges in to inspect the barbecue grill. He wears a button-down shirt and tie; he shakes hands all around and puts a hand on the shoulder of the retiree.

This retiree will be having backyard parties. It looks like his former colleagues hope to attend.

***

The store’s not thick with people on a Wednesday morning. But several people stop at Starbucks and grab a hot drink to take shopping with them. Is that a thing? I have not been aware.

I have become aware, though, of the plastic straw controversy. Starbucks is pledging to stop using any straws at all, by 2020, I think.

I was on a road trip, listening to NPR, when I first heard about the sea turtle who was found, washed up, with an awful, pulsing, facial infection. Rescuers took it to veterinary medicos; they sedated the poor beast and delved into the infection, which was deep-seated in one nostril. And found, embedded there, a plastic straw. It would have killed the hapless turtle had it not been removed. There’s a YouTube video of the surgery, I guess; it is not one I am brave enough to watch.

It’s not bad enough straws endanger animals and sea life; they pollute our beaches and landfills. I forget how many tons of plastic our discarded straws contribute to the earth’s trash problems. It’s enormous, and it’s a tiny metaphor for the changes we need to make.

At the end of that NPR road trip I went to a fun and funky college town coffee shop, and there at the counter was a bucket full of stainless steel straws. I bought three; I keep them in a cup on the windowsill by the sink, and I try to remember to take them when we are in danger of eating out.

And when I forget, I decline the plastic top and sip my drink right from the glass.

Such a little thing. What else can I do, I wonder, that barely inconveniences me and that will make a difference?

I am glad that Starbucks is phasing out its straws, although I wish it wouldn’t take two years.

***

Classic rock songs cycle. OSU T-shirts hang on a display; above them, glossy scarlet and gray go-mugs gleam, proudly stacked. Mid-July: not so long until football season starts again. The Incredibles smile from a kids’ T-shirt display.

The retirement partiers quietly disappear, taking the grill, cake, and chairs with them.  “500 Miles” begins to pour from the speakers.

“Ted and Marshall,” says Jim fondly, thinking of a scene from How I Met Your Mother.

It’s time to get our few groceries and head home to meet the Dad for lunch. Jim runs to grab a little cart, and I type my final sentence, swipe away dark-chocolate covered graham cracker crumbs, and pack up my laptop.

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

 3. Panera, 2:29 p.m.

I have lost my Panera card. The girl at the counter is wonderfully helpful, accessing my account, activating me a new card. We order pastries and drinks; we buy a cinnamon bagel for Mark’s breakfast tomorrow. Jim finds us a quiet corner.

Panera at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon has people, but there are many empty tables. Three women of a certain age bend their heads over a table across the way. Snippets of conversation float by. I try not to listen, but the impression is strong: they are teachers enjoying their summer break, and mourning, already, how quickly it evaporates.

A plump gray mother and her grown daughter, long, curly hair floating, walk by with steaming soup bowls cradled on plates. They look very serious, and they head for the farthest, most private, corner.

An older couple (older, of course, means my age, plus ten) stops, trays in hand; they swivel their heads. “THERE she is!” one says: the relief of completed connection. Their friend jumps up to meet them. She has brought a friend—a MUCH older (my age plus 25) woman. They all settle into a table and the talk, immediately, flows.

My decaf coffee steams; it’s fragrant and rich. Jim peels the paper from his blueberry muffin and sighs in anticipation. (Blueberries. One way to get a glimmer of organic foodstuff into the boyo who proudly proclaims himself a ‘veg-ist.’)

Jazzy Muzak pours from the speakers, and, like more background music, the voices of the workers rise and fall. There is laughter, often. I consider the helpful young woman at the counter and the laughing colleagues in the food prep area. It seems the workers like being here, which makes this a nice place to sit with a once-refilled mug and keyboard-tap away.

James sits kitty-corner, kicking it old school; he is writing with a mechanical pencil on a pad of lined paper. He is spending the summer reading the entire, if possible, Marvel Comics oeuvre; and he is planning original short stories he will write in response to his reading. His conversation, these days, is peppered with references to Thanos and the Avengers, to Ant Man and Ms. Marvel and Namor. His communications class, an online endeavor, keeps him busy; work claims many of his hours. His truly dedicated scholarship, though, takes place in the hours that remain after obligations are met. He is a true student of the Marvel Universes.

***

James was talking, as we walked in, about the graphic novels that 9/11 spawned—the writers and artists who chose that format to work out their grief and fear and anger, who sent tendrils out to the rest of us who were fumbling around, dazed and seeking meaningful, worthy ways to respond. He talked about a story featuring one man, working on the west coast, whose girlfriend worked in the Towers. THAT story had a sort of happy ending; they both survived, but they also had such deep and shocking loss to deal with.

Jim told me about it and left it to float in the air between us, floating an unspoken question with it. I tried to hear the question; I tried my best to answer.

We talked about the real-life salvations that day brokered—people who called in sick, or whose kids were sick and had to stay home, or who had meetings off-site, and so survived. Jim told me actor Mark Wahlberg meant to fly on one of the planes, and his plans changed at the very last minute.

I don’t think, I told Jim slowly, trying to put voice to beliefs I’m not sure are fully gelled, that there’s a God who sits in heaven sorting us: “You—dead. You–alive. YOU have things left to do. You—eh, the world can spare what you’ve got to give.”

No, no, no. I don’t believe it.

Violence, disease, pestilence, environmental disaster: there’s not a God who spins those into being, divinely retributing. But I think the Power lets what humans have wrought come to full fruition.

The tragedies and the losses burden our hearts and break, sometimes, our spirits. Reconciliation begins within. What can I, spared for now when one so much more talented, so much kinder and more compassionate, so much more WORTHY, has been taken–what can I do to validate the rest of my life?

It is a question, maybe, that I should try to answer every morning, before I put the coffee on, before I say my prayers or take my walk or put my pen to paper.

***

3:00. The café fills up. Lots of women of all ages; here and there an older man. Conversation hums and throbs; voices pitch and recede, giving advice, offering sympathetic concern, murmuring, murmuring…a backbeat of connection.

Across from me, James takes the eraser from his pencil, realigns the graphite, puts it all back together. He shakes the pencil; ear buds in, he frowns. But the pencil seems to work now, and his story topics grow. Now they fill almost a full page, a formidable list.

I believe he carries each of those stories, fully formed, in his mind.

I believe his challenge is to transmute those mind-stories into tales that live in the world, that simmer where others can taste them.

And the simmering makes me think of dinner: if we are to defrost chops and rub them, get them ready to grill, basted with Kansas City barbecue sauce—well, if that’s going to happen, we need to blow this popsicle stand. Jim carries his trash—no plastic straw, though; he no longer uses them either—to the bins. I down the last sip of my coffee, and we depart.

We carry Mark’s bagel, we carry somber awareness, we carry a sense of purpose, out to the car, and we head home.

**********

Thursday.

  1. At the John McIntire Library, 9:42 a.m.

The library buzzes. I find a table toward the back of the main space, by the first shelves of YA books, with the Reference desk, an open arc-ing area, to my right. There’s an octagon of computer terminals kitty-corner in front of me; a young man leans in, connecting with a computer. He grins and grimaces, hitches and hunches. Then he finds something that compels him. He leans forward, goes still. Just his fingers move, guiding the mouse. His head is locked, his eyes focused.

Several people sit at tables in the Periodicals area; an older gentleman, casual in T-shirt and jeans, spreads the Columbus paper in front of him. He bends his head, intent on the day’s news. People wander through the DVD’s, stopping and plucking, considering, rejecting, selecting. An older couple comes in, tired faces, leaning on each other. They disappear into the stacks.

A young man, coughing, steers himself toward the YA stacks, hovers before the books, then sits at the table behind mine. He has a backpack. He wears sandals and thick white socks, sweat pants, an orange T-shirt. He sports a baseball cap. He pulls out a tablet, settles in.

Two people browse the Large Print New Books. They curve themselves into commas, looking; they do a fancy little dance, sashay and slide past each other, making certain not to miss, either of them, books in the middle section.

The phone rings at Reference; the clerks at the front desk answer questions, sign up a family for library cards, retrieve reserved books.

A grim-faced woman leads a bespectacled, round-faced teenager into the YA stacks. They murmur. They are picking out a book for the teen, who does not seem thrilled to be forced into reading. The woman proposes tersely; the teen wards off her suggestions with soft parries. But I hope that they will find a magical book, a transporting book. I hope the teen will fall into that book like it’s a haven or a safety net; I hope the older woman’s face will relax.

Perhaps she’ll find a magical book of her own.

Voices rise and fall, technology cheeps and trills. Doors open and close, and people chirp surprised greetings. Staff members listen and consider, search and suggest.

A skinny child walks slowly through the children’s stacks, one frail index finger extended. She strokes the spines of book after book. She slides out the right book, hugs it to her chest, goes off to find her Person.

The computers, I see now, are all filled: a citizen, even more senior than I, sits at the one closest to me. She bends one long, thin arm on the shining desk surface; she leans her chin on her head. Tentatively, tentatively, she begins to click.

Someone told me once that libraries are living rooms for the community, especially for the homeless.  Lifelong universities, these wonderful institutions, offering access to technology, escape through story, connection through engaged staff, and community involvement through programs and reading challenges.

And distraction, for me. I sit, trying to type, and I hear the whispering voices of books unread. A woman with an oxygen mask, undeterred, strides by. As she passes a shelf, I spy an interesting book, and I realize this is not a place for me to write. The temptations are more insistent and more accessible than the hot chocolate chip cookies at Panera.

And I decide to pack up.

  1. The Zanesville Museum of Art. 10:38 a.m.

I thought I’d sit among the 73rd Ohio Annual Exhibition works, but they were too present, too compelling, too demanding. If the library books whispered, these works of art shout boisterously. I could not sit in their midst and pretend I didn’t hear. So I wandered the galleries, looking for a writing spot.

I light on a bench next to a railing, overlooking the first floor and the entrance to the Linn Auditorium. Light pours in through floor to ceiling windows, and the sculptures on display are ones I’ve visited before. They are restful and patient. They know I will be back to visit; they do not demand that I look at them RIGHT NOW.

I put my laptop on one end of the bench and lean over it, sitting side-saddle, feeling awkward. And then I think, Duh: laptop. Computer nestled on my lap, I spill my words onto the electronic screen.

Below me, a quiet bustle of people: this is a busy place, a humming place.

But where I sit, it’s also calm. Energy simmers in other rooms; there are displays and exhibits I really need to come back and see. But for now, for this writing challenge, on this comfortable bench, in this late morning environment…this is a place where I can let my fingers fly.

The pieces around me are modern and classical and ancient.  The works in the exhibit I just left push beyond those categories into something new and more.

A pretty woman, on a mission, comes smiling up the stairs. I meet Dan, ZMA’s Marketing Coordinator/Finance Administrator, and we talk for a moment about the Museum’s different spaces and the sense of welcome they engender.

I settle in; unseen climate control machines hum, and here and there, and once in a while, a voice murmurs.

I remember other art museum adventures.

I think of visiting the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, where, so engrossed in a work, wanting to see it up close and then, from further and further away, I backed up slowly—backed right into a bench and fell backwards into a group of art students. Who bent to peer at me, my feet on the bench, my head on the floor, flaming with embarrassment. I peered back up at them, thanking the wardrobe gods I had not chosen that day to wear a dress. (There is a reason my high school gym teacher called me Amazing Grace.)

I think of going to the OTHER Chicago art museum with my nephew Brian; we lost ourselves for hours in a Picasso exhibit.

I think of wandering the Columbus Museum on no-admissions Sundays, and people-watching—seeing families of all shades and accents, and elders and hipsters, and sketching students.

And I think of discovering this museum, with its astounding treasures, soon after moving to Zanesville.

Art museums are amazing places, drawing in a vibrant montage of lookers. They open windows to people; behind those windows, other possibilities pulse.

And on Thursday morning, this art museum is a thoughtful, compelling place to be.

There is a piece here that I have to visit; it draws me in no matter how many times I see it. It is William Saling’s (American, 1945-2004) Peg the Ideal Waitress, a Friends purchase in 1994. Peg is wooden. She is life-sized. She has plank saddle-shoe feet and miniature flour bag earrings. She carries two plates, one above her head and one in front of her. The plates are loaded with wooden burgers, fresh cut wooden fries.

Peg’s face is lined and weathered; her eyes are knowing, and her thick brows sweep sardonically. I can see she’s been slinging hash for a long time, Peg has. And yet there’s flair and verve in how she hefts that over-the-head platter.

Her chest is two drawers of a black-painted apron. Her boxy flowered dress is drawer-ed too.

Something about Peg, her knobby knees, her bold ordinariness, her spunky spirit, perks me up. There’s beauty, she reminds me, in everyday things, and in everyday people. Dan tells me she’s one of his favorite pieces, too.

So I visit Peg for a bit, and then I close my laptop and go down to see the new exhibit.

Peg

****

I am reading Old in Art School, by Nell Painter, a PhD professor, a lauded historian, who, in her mid-sixties, goes back to school to become an artist. Painter talks about what it’s like to begin again, in classes with people 46 years younger than she is. She talks about that heady life-changing adventure, and she talks about artists and how they dress and how they drink and the works, unleashed, that they produce.

And she writes about what’s considered, in a given age and time, to be ‘good’ art; about how figurative painting is frowned upon, and how representational and abstract work is lauded. She ponders that, and so do I, liking the crisp accessibility of what we call, at home, the ‘real-life’ paintings in the exhibit. But I am drawn, more and more, into paintings that blur textures and graphics and swirling movement into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

And here, in this exhibit, amazing paper structures suspend from the ceiling on gossamer threads, paintings tug me along the walls, three-D works and sculptures hum on pedestals. Each one is amazing; together they are an orchestra, a symphony of color and texture and soaring lines and bold statements.

The clock is goading me; I have an appointment, a place I have to be, but I know I will need to come back to this exhibit and just live in it awhile, and I’ll bring the family back to visit with these artworks, too.

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

Routine is a wonderful thing; it frees me to forget surroundings and concentrate on tasks, and sometimes that is just what I need for writing.

But sometimes the same-old produces nothing but the same-old. Then I need to heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice and change it up. I need to sit outside and listen. I need to grab a coffee and watch. I need to be where books and art draw people to visit, to stretch and to savor, to rest and to be inspired. I need to appreciate the associations place dredges up, to pluck memories out of the murky depths and consider their meanings in the now.

And I need to appreciate the richness of place, the diversity of being, the treasure of community spaces.

I need to do all that, and then I need to stumble forward, trying to write it all down.

 

 

 

 

 

Marbled Paint

She wakes up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, propelled by a sense of urgency.

“What…?” she thinks, and then it floats in to her: she and her brother are finalizing their parents’ gravestone today.

And then she realizes it is happening again: a story is unspooling in her head, demanding her attention. She swings her feet over the edge of the bed. Leans back on her hands. And listens.

There is a little girl, Lucy: thin and brown with snapping eyes and long dark hair. She must be…third grade?

“I’m eight,” Lucy says to the old lady. Lucy is sitting next to the old lady’s bedside. The old lady, she sees now, is called Mae, and she is, maybe, Lucy’s great-grandmother.

Mae holds out her hand and Lucy puts her tiny brown hand into it. Both so delicate, both so fragile. And yet. The hands grasp, and the bond is strong.

“I’m 93,” Mae is saying, answering Lucy’s question. “That’s’ very old! It’s old enough, in fact.”

“Are you dying?” Lucy asks, baldly, and Mae answers in the same way.

“Yes, I am,” she says. “But I think we have enough time to really get to know each other.”

Her phone rings—at 6 a.m.?—and she lets Mae and Lucy go, reluctantly. They slide away; a door snicks shut, but doesn’t lock; and she answers Devin’s call. No, she says; not today. Today is the gravestone day. Don’t you remember?

Clearly, he does not, but he backtracks quickly, promising to call her later, and she clicks off and heads off to take her shower.

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

Lucy and Mae dance in the back room of her consciousness as she dresses and makes breakfast. She sees that Lucy is troubled, does not fit in at school; that she is smart, but maybe not in ways teachers appreciate. She sees to the core of a person, Lucy does, and she reacts, and acts, according to what she sees.

Mae is much the same way. She sees that Mae has lived a controversial life…there may have been many men, many leave-takings. Mae did not stick around if falseness ruled; she insisted on honesty and integrity, and when they were absent, so was she. She has a picture of Mae, much younger, and a little girl who is crying. They are getting on a train, porters are stashing their luggage, and Mae is explaining, softly, to the girl, who seems inconsolable.

**********

Her brother is at her door at 8; they climb back into his car. It is almost a three-hour drive to the cemetery where they have finally decided to inter her parents—her father, who’d died of a sudden heart attack two years ago. Her mother, who’d had a harrowing cancer death four years before that. They’d each been cremated, at their request, and they had left no demands about the final disposal.

Before her mother had died, she’d said, “Whatever you decide to do, make sure I’m with your father.”

And her father, whose death had taken him by surprise, had only joked.

“What do I care?” he’d said. “I’ll be dead.”

When he was dead, shockingly dead, she and her brother were frozen. The cremation went forward as decreed, but they couldn’t, in that moment, make a decision. It had taken time and distance to see that, of course, the place to put their parents was with their brother Danny, who’d died from leukemia at age ten and was buried in the city where they’d all lived at the time.

She had been twenty when Danny died; her brother had been 22. Danny had been a beloved surprise.

The city was three miles away.

***********

Her brother drives and rain falls softly and she leans back into the seat and dozes. And there are Lucy’s parents: she is fair and has a tumble of reddish hair; she is Rachel. She calls him Zeus; Lucy gets her coloring from him. He is sharp and dark. Electric things—love and tension—crackle between them.

They are arguing about Lucy and Mae.

“What happens when Mae dies?” Zeus demands. “Where does that leave Lucy?”

“It leaves her having had one more person who loved her,” Rachel retorts. “One strong, amazing person. It’s better to have Mae for a little while than never at all.”

Then they are hugging; he rocks her, and she murmurs, “It’s too late anyway. We can’t ask Lucy to unlove her.”

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

A raw, ripping sound bolts her upright. She turns to her brother, who looks sheepish.

“Sorry,” he says. “Getting hungry.”

They turn into an Applebee’s so he can grab a bite to eat—her brother, the champion belcher.

Rachel and Zeus fade; it’s like they see her watching, and each reaches out a hand to softly close heavy doors. The doors come together with a smooth and final shush, and they are gone.

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

The stone is lovely. It says ‘O’Malley,’ in bold letters across the top, and has each parent’s name below, with their birth and death dates. The names are punctuated by a beautiful Celtic cross, and a line reads, Together: still, again, and forever.

They’d argued about that. She wanted something funnier—her father had always said that bit about being in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. Maybe, she thought, they could adapt that somehow, but her brother won out. Simple, he said. Dignified. We can share the funnier stories another way.

Finally she’d agreed, since he wasn’t budging anyway. And now, she admits it looks just right. They would like it, and like the thought of sharing a green, peaceful spot with little Danny.

The woman at the monument maker’s office is actually an old friend of their mother’s. She tears up, working with them, but they complete the paperwork speedily, handle the payment, work out the details of installation. She wants them to come to her house for coffee or a meal.

She nudges her brother in the heel with her foot, and he declines in his best charming way.

“Sis has to work tonight,” he says, “and I promised my wife I’d be home in time to tuck the little one in.”

The woman flutters; her brother shows her baby pictures. Finally, they depart, disentangled from tearful hugs.

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

She drives home; her brother snores. And she watches the road—she really does—but Lucy and Mae come back to her. Mae, it seems, has been pared away; she is leaner—she is LESS—than when she saw them talking this morning. And Lucy knows what’s happening.

“I don’t want you to go,” Lucy says, and Mae’s frail hand reaches out to take the girl’s. There is strength in the clasped hands.

“I know you don’t,” says Mae. “I’m not really excited about going, but I think it will be all right.”

There is silence between them, and then Mae says, “Did you ever make marbled paper?”

Lucy looks at her, puzzled. And Mae says, “YOU know. You put paint on a piece of paper. Different colors. And you put it in a shoe box. Then you thrown in a few marbles, and you put the top on and shake it. Have you ever done that?”

Lucy nods, slowly.

“Well, we’re like that,” says Mae. “You’re one color, and I’m another, and we’ve been shaken up together. When I leave, I’m taking part of you with me. And when I go, part of me will stay here with you. Our colors have blended. We’ll be in different places, but we’ll never be really apart.”

Lucy puts her other hand on Mae’s and they are both crying now.

And her brother snorts awake, and Lucy and Mae fade away.

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

He plays with the radio; she cracks the window open to get a little fresh air in the car. She is going a comfortable five over the speed limit. A huge SUV roars past them, and she smiles.

“I don’t know if he’s fatter than me or faster than me,” she says, and they both laugh.

“Both, I’d say, maybe,” says her brother, and then they are quiet, remembering. That had been a Danny-ism. He’d been three years old, and they had taken him to the playground, where he’d had, with another kid about the same age, a long conversation. Finally, Danny had come over to talk to her.

“He wants me to race him,” he whispered loudly. “That kid.”

“Well,” she said, “do you want to race?”

“I don’t know,” Danny whispered urgently. “Is he fatter than me, or faster than me?”

It turned out the kid, like the SUV, was both, and the line became a catch phrase they invoked before making risky decisions. Although they had stopped saying that after Danny died; it seemed to hurt them all too much.

***********

But it feels right to say it now, and she sees a streak of paint spreading across a piece of paper: green for Danny, young and hopeful.

***********

It is just after three when he drops her off; she does not have to work until six, and she settles in to the comfy chair with a book; she closes her eyes and lets the day seep in. And there are Rachel and Lucy, both wet-faced. She knows that Mae must have died.

Lucy asks Rachel where people GO, and Rachel says she doesn’t know.

“But,” she says, “physics tells us that you can’t destroy energy. And so the energy that was Mae has got to be somewhere. I don’t know, baby, if that’s heaven or something else, but I know she’s out there someplace.”

“Never really apart,” murmurs Lucy, and Rachel is puzzled, but she gathers the little girl in and they huddle, comforting each other.

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

She gets off work at 2 a.m., and she comes home and types the story of Lucy and Mae. She prints it out and puts it in the story box she keeps.

The next day she buys marbles and acrylics and she puts a piece of parchment paper in a shoe box. She pours in smears of paint. Blue for her mother and red for her dad. Green for Danny. Purple for her brother, a balanced mix of hot and cold. And orange for her, because she stills simmers, hot and unsettled.

She throws in five marbles, puts the top on, and rolls them around.

She does that nine times, and she lays the papers on her kitchen table.

The next day, before work, she picks the one she likes best, and she gets out her matting machine and an ornate old black frame. She cuts the matte, and she trims the picture, and she puts them in the frame. She turns it over to look; there is a riot of intersected color, uproarious, blended. Sometimes, one color will track away from the others, separate, but changed by the contact.

Perfect, she thinks, and she slide the cardboard backing in. She pencils onto it, “Marble painting. Never really apart.” She initials it and adds the date.

She pounds a nail into an empty space of wall right above her bread box.  The painting adds a bright splash of color.

She cleans up her project detritus, and then she gathers her things and goes to work.

 

 

 

 

Fare and Loafing in Ohio

The art of bread making can become a consuming hobby, and no matter how often and how many kinds of bread one has made, there always seems to be something new to learn. —Julia Child

Bread 2

 I sit in an old school gymnasium—now occasionally a staging area for a landscape contractor—on a rainy Saturday morning. I was here yesterday, too. I am helping a talented young mother, Melissa, who coordinated this indoor yard sale event to benefit a support group for young people with disabilities. Melissa rounded up an amazing assortment of donations; she pulled together volunteers to set up, staff the sale, and tear it down; and she arranged for all the leftover items to be donated and delivered to a shelter for women and children in crisis.

Now there are two more hours until the sale ends, but already, we have raked in over $700.00—all pure profit, all of it going to the young people’s group. And the doors open, and another round of avid shoppers pours in. I shake my head and marvel at Melissa.

I marvel, too, at the bread machine—marked at a mere five dollars and looking untouched/brand-new—that keeps beckoning me, and that no one has even glanced at. I get up and go over, again, to look at it, to run my hands over its sleek sides, to pull out the baking pan and twitch the paddle around.

Once we had a bread machine very much like this one.

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

We jumped on the bread machine bandwagon when they first appeared, somewhere around the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. The boyos, I think, got me one for Christmas, and at least once a week, I would layer ingredients into the bread pan, slide the bread pan securely into the machine, and set the timer. Then I would wake the next morning to the smell of baking bread; I would waft out of bed on those steamy aromatic tendrils, float downstairs to start the coffee, and, hands safely hot-mitted, I would pull the pan from the machine at the first ‘ding’ of doneness.

I’d dump the golden-crusted loaf onto the wooden chopping board and gingerly, at knife-point, pry out the mixing paddle. Then we would slice and eat the bread, spread thick with melting butter.

What breakfast could be better than that? It didn’t even matter that the middle slices had paddle-shaped holes right in their very centers.

We burned through at least three bread machines in a decade. The first summer after Mark went back to school, he didn’t work outside the home. He and Jim, who was eight or so at the time, spent long lazy summer days together. They swam, and they mowed, and they walked in the creek; they took rides to the supermarket and the hardware store; they went to visit grandpa and grandma. They went to the library, and they took breaks to read amazing books. They cleaned, and they fixed, and they cooked.

And just about every night, when I came home from work, Mark would proudly decant a wonderful loaf of bread from the bread machine. He’d change it up, too: sometimes he’d set the machine to proffer a loaf of cinnamon bread for my breakfast. Sometimes he used the machine to make a batch of pizza dough. Sometimes, he’d mix up some French bread dough in the bread machine, and then shape it himself, baking it on a cookie sheet in a hot, hot oven. The crust would snap lustily, exploding luscious crumbs; the inside of the loaf would be soft and elastic, full of holes that begged to be filled with melting butter.

It wasn’t long after that summer that we moved, and the last of our bread machines sputtered out of usefulness. When we went looking for a replacement, we discovered they were no longer ubiquitous. In fact, they’d become downright hard to find.

And there was a wonderful bakery in our small town…

We gave up on the bread machine and began to buy our bread.

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

But my stomach rumbles, just from the memories of those steamy, comforting loaves of long ago. I give Melissa a five-dollar bill. During a lull, I lug the bread machine out to my car.

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

Once, when I was pretty little, I made a batch of wonderful bread dough, and I got myself into trouble. I don’t think I was more than seven; I probably had brought one of those kids’ cookbooks home from the library—the kind of cookbooks that said, right up front, Kids, always check with a parent before trying any of these projects. And always have a grown-up with you if you are using sharp knives or a hot oven!

 But I was already, at that tender age, of the “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” persuasion. And so I helped myself to ingredients and tools, and I mixed up a batch of bread dough, shaped it into sweet little buns on a battered old cookie sheet, and I baked them in a 350 degree oven.

I remember a few things about that yeasty roll experience.

I remember that the rolls were GOOD…the outsides golden brown and dusted with flour, and only here and there a grubby fingerprint. (Ah!!! I smacked myself in the head. You’re supposed to WASH YOUR HANDS first!) I pulled them apart; the middles were steamy and yielding. I spread them with butter, and they were amazing.

I think that was the first time I’d ever had homemade bread. I was stunned by the comforting revelation.

I remember the pride I felt: who says a kid can’t cook?

And then, of course, I remember the yelling and the spanking. Probably I had left a messy, messy kitchen; probably I had used too much of the flour that was reserved for cookies and pies and gravy thickening. The budget was tight, back then, leaving little room for childish experimentation.

Certainly, arguing for the wonders of surprise, I had not asked permission. But I remember being shocked at being punished; I hid in the back hall, afterward, behind the coats and on top of the pile of burlap bags the potatoes came in; I hid with my indignant tears and the last of my beautiful rolls.

The recipe probably only made a half dozen. In defiance, unjustly berated and beaten, I winkled all of them out of the kitchen, and I methodically ate each one.

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

Perhaps the God of Wheat was appalled at my youthful gluttony, because that was the last time my bread efforts came out light and airy. Until the bread machine arrived, my attempts at homemade bread were hard and flat and heavy.

I tried making bread, but my loaves could prop open heavy doors. I tried making pizza crust, and the boyos threw it at each other. When they hit their mark, it HURT.

How I envied people who had the knack of making bread with exploding, crunchy crust and tender, softly chewy, innards.

My father-in-law, Angelo, talked about his mother—whom everyone, no matter the generation, called ‘Ma,’—and her Saturday bread-baking. Ma would bake enough bread to last her hungry family for a week, and a little extra, which she would pat onto big cookie sheets. She made sauce on Saturdays, too, and lunch would be homemade pizza, with Ma’s yeasty, incredible crust.

I could picture Mark’s grandma’s hands, capably, almost nonchalantly, kneading and shaping the dough, as she calmly talked to one of her many kids, maybe helping him wrestle out a problem as she wrestled the bread dough into shape. That’s what I wanted—that competence, that nurturing ability…all the wonderful sustenance that a maker of bread provides.

And still, the dough I made puffed up briefly, then sank heavily  into itself.

Bread was the stuff of life. And I didn’t make homemade bread; I made homemade bricks.

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

And isn’t bread-making one of the ways that other mothers,–better mothers than I am–since time immemorial, showed their families they cared? And how long ago is time immemorial anyway?

So I get on line to read about the history of bread.

History.com (see link below) tells me that, far back in prehistory, humans were mixing grain and liquid in an oatmeal-ly kind of concoction. That morphed into a paste that, spread out thickly onto a hot, flat rock, would produce a flatbread. Lots of cultures still treasure their flatbreads, of course—their pitas and naans and tortillas, for instance.

But leavening: that takes the concept of bread to—oh, gosh, I’ll just say it—to a whole different level. And the most-often preferred leavening agent, yeast, floats in the air. History.com posits that some must have floated down into an early human’s bowl of bread dough, and then, by golly, didn’t that bread rise?

And didn’t those prehistoric diners say, “Wow! Isn’t this great?”

(The yeast, they probably did not know, gobbles up the sugars in the dough. Then it excretes CO2, creating airy pockets in the resulting dough. Belching bacteria bubble up our bread???)

As far back as 300 years before the Common Era began, professional bakers were turning out hundreds of loaves daily in Egypt’s earliest commercial kitchens.

The family of man has valued its bread, and broken its bread together, for a long, long time.

And then, of course, there are sandwiches. PBS.org shares the story of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who in the late 1700’s had spent a rigorously exhausting 24 hours at cards. He was famished but couldn’t leave the table. So, the legend goes, he, or his cook, slapped some cooked meat between two slices of bread, and he ate as he played.

PBS (link below) has some doubts about the actual veracity of the legend, but certainly, sandwiches did come into their popularity just about the time of John Montagu’s marathon card game.

And some sweet mama, some GOOD baker mama, probably made the bread.

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

And then came the day my doctor urged me to give up gluten. My doctor, although she has a child who has graduated from college, looks as if she is about 16…which, coincidentally is probably the number of inches that her waist measures. Clearly, she knows whereof she speaks, and I sadly went home and booted gluten from my diet. I bought spaghetti squash (which we found quite tasty), and I bought pasta made from rice (which we did not.) I discovered that there is a huge gluten-free industry, and I discovered, too, that usually I would rather just go without than try to savor a gluten-free substitute.

I freed myself from gluten all of a long fall, and I found, to my surprise, that my joints ached less. I should have lost weight, too, but I consoled myself for loss of bread with milkshakes and dark chocolate bars.

And then Christmas came, and I churned out Christmas cookies, and I decided that no ONE, not even the tiny doctor I so respect, was going to tell me that, at Christmas, I couldn’t have a Scottish shortbread cookie, golden brown around the edges, sweet and buttery.

And so I did have one cookie…I had one cookie many times over, and by the time the season ended, I had fallen off the gluten free wagon with a loud and resounding SPLAT.

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

Thank goodness, cooler heads, if given time, always seem to prevail. Embarked, as I am, on a daily walking regimen, I have also given up most eating between meals and most baked sweet treats. Once again, my joints ache less. My energy is soaring. And perhaps…oh, I dare to hope…my clothes are feeling a little bit roomier.

I eat a lot of salads, a lot of soups, and nice stir fries. I like them, too.

Considering the whole picture, considering that I am married to a man of Italian extraction and that one of last year’s favorite Christmas gifts was a pricey pasta maker, and considering our unhappy reactions to the substitutes we’ve tried, I slid wheat pasta back into our diet. We don’t eat it every day, but we do have it, maybe, once a week. I never have more than one helping. My joints don’t seem to suffer.

And, oh, we savor those servings.

I eat my nutty nuggets (which have wheat bran in them. Is there gluten in wheat’s bran? Probably…) for breakfast. I concoct great protein-laced salads for lunch.

And once in a while, I mix up a batch of seven-grain dough in the bread machine. Today for lunch, Mark (who is in the middle of a very challenging legal project) and I had big bowls of leftover chicken corn chowder. On the side, we had thick sandwiches, sliced cheddar melting into its milder American cousin, all held together by thin slices of dense, homemade seven grain bread, grilled to a hot and satisfying crunch.

Dinner will be roasted chicken and veggies. I may not have another slice of bread for many days.  But once in a while, I realize, once in a while, I need me a slice of bread.

And it’s so much better if the bread I eat on those occasions is made at home, with fresh ingredients and no preservatives, bread I mixed up in my handy machine, and maybe, baked or shaped by hand. The comfort is there; bread’s history, after all, is a long history of comfort and sustenance.

I am, for real and for true, a very much gluten-reduced individual, but on occasion, I indulge. And thanks to my five-dollar bread machine, the bread I make for those rare times is bread that’s worth the eating.

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

https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bread

http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-sandwich/

 

 

 

Time Travel Tuesday

Tow path

“I remember,” I think as I leave Columbus behind me, heading north on US 23.

I am passing places I haven’t thought about in years, not since we lived in Ada and Mark was in law school. There’s the exit for Route 30; I drove that road in all kinds of weather to get to my first college job in Ohio. I discovered the treachery of black ice on that pavement when I found myself, on a crisp winter’s day, doing high speed doughnuts in the middle of the road.

Fortunately there was no traffic; fortunately the car righted itself before leaving the blacktop. I was able to correct, to maneuver, to get the wheels pointed in the right direction, and to head home. I drove much more slowly. I did not trust that any inch of pavement, that day, was not glazed with invisible ice.

Now, almost twenty years later, on a hot summer day, my stomach clenches with the same muscular fear. Things forgotten are not necessarily things disappeared.

I remember our first trip from Ada to Mount Vernon, the town we lived in and loved for ten years. We took Route 229—I pass the turn, and I remember how strange Mount Vernon seemed: a mystery that would unravel for us slowly, revealing good and bad decisions, creating the possibilities of lifelong friendships, sculpting memories and revelations. Mount Vernon was joy and sorrow, relationship and change. Mount Vernon was knowledge gained in wonderful and challenging ways.

As my tires hum past the turns that would take me there, the emotions that Mount Vernon engendered course rapidly. I am left breathless. I pop a cough drop and take a deep inhale.

I pass the Marion exit, and I can hear the voice of one of my favorite students; I think about the night my class was displaced and had to take the final in an unfamiliar room in a completely different building. I remember how, thanks mostly to a student who had the ability to see the positive in any situation, the class took the challenge with good humor and affection. I remember how they all stayed after the exam was done, unwilling to leave the community the class had created. How they left, finally, after giving hugs, sharing email addresses, and thanking each other for the experience.

And then the landscape changes to one of places visited, not inhabited, and then, finally, to new vistas.

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

I arrive in Grand Rapids—the Ohio one, not the Michigan one—an hour earlier than expected, but Ron, the host at the B and B, cheerfully opens the door. He gives me keys and shows me my room, tells me about local restaurants, recommends a walk on the towpath. We set a time for breakfast, and he goes back upstairs, to the apartment he shares with his wife, Kathy.

And I explore.

The building is an old flour mill, converted, Ron says, to apartments in 1953 or so. The indestructible floors—tiny slats of wood tightly spliced—were once bowling alleys. They are smooth and soft and gentle to bare feet.

Room

Two of my bedroom walls, the outer walls, are warm brick. The ceiling and the other walls are softly polished wood. The iron bedstead is covered with a quilt, and there’s a hand-stitched sampler on the wall. It’s dated 1883.

Everything is gleaming clean, and the bathroom boasts all the conveniences of 2018.

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

I set out tomorrow’s clothes and walk next door to the pizzeria. I take my dinner to the back patio and sit in the cool breeze, munching and eating.

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

Canal

After dinner I take Ron’s advice and walk the towpath. It’s right behind the mill, between the canal and the Maumee River. And it’s easy to see why a canal was needed; the Maumee is shallow and pocked with little islands. The water runs quickly and erratically.

I pass a trio crouched on the grassy berm, taking cell phone photos. Look! they say, and I step off the path to see what we think is a goose egg, nestled next to a feather. Doesn’t it look like someone placed it here? asks one of the photographers. Is this an example of bad goose parenting—we look at the geese waddling rapidly down to the canal—or of human artistry?

Is that egg from Kroger?

Nestled next to the egg is a long, glossy goose feather, mostly black with touches of grey at the tips. We ponder; I walk on.

Everyone I pass smiles and greets me. The picnic pavilions have potted flowers on the sturdy metal filigree tables.

I walk until the pathway ends at a pretty little town park. A family of five, all of them in cut off jeans, white tees, and flipflops, are splashing in the river, just below a fast moving waterfall.

Dam

It would have been tough for boats to navigate this stretch of river, but the canals, when they came, opened up possibilities.

I pass a tiny dark-haired woman holding the hand of a dancing, dark-eyed child. She is speaking rapidly into a flip phone, talking in a language I don’t understand, but she catches my eye and smiles warmly.

I walk by the egg still nestled in the grass and circle back to take a shot of my own. The goose feather is gone.

Egg

The sky darkens with clouds and I hurry back to my cozy room, thinking about Ohio canals.

I pull up the Ohio History Central webpage (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Ohio_and_Erie_Canal) and refresh my memory; it’s been a long time—fifteen years or so—since I worked as a historical interpreter at the little canal town of Roscoe Village. Ohio History Central reminds me that the Ohio canals started functioning in 1830, and that all parts were up and transporting by 1842.

Travel was slow—my three-hour drive, earlier that day, would have been an eighty-hour trip for a canal boat traveler. But it was cheap at $1.70 a passenger. And the canal boats thrust open the frontier; they brought goods that made frontier life possible. They pushed westward expansion.

The canals weren’t perfect; their usefulness wavered with floods and drought, and winters brought ice that caused damage. Canal maintenance was guaranteed employment.

And then the railroads came, faster and farther and carrying greater loads. The canals lasted until the late 1800’s, and then most of them subsided into pretty memories—although, the website tells, there’s a little stretch right near my new home town that still remains in use.

I put my laptop on the dresser and stretch out on the bed with my book, and I think about the unhurried ride people took on canal boats, the hoggee—the young boy, who received, maybe, $20 a month for his efforts,– and his donkeys walking the towpath, pulling the flat-bottomed boat along. Watching for obstructions or challenges.

A different life, a more strenuous, muscular life, but, in some ways, a life that included more fluid time to enjoy what’s passing by.

I fall asleep suspended in time, feeling the history of 150 years ago, feeling my family history, the story of the journey that brought us to where we are now. On Wednesday, I will drive to Bowling Green, to a little coffee shop/used book store, and meet my friend Terri. Forty-five years ago, in a different state entirely, Terri and I punched out a weekly column (“Dunkirk High Highlights”) on one of our portable Olympia typewriters. We corrected the mistakes with White-out and ballpoint pen, folded the parchmenty pages into a business sized envelope, and one of us walked it down to the Evening Observer, to run in the Saturday edition.

That June we graduated and went in separate directions, and then life’s current (and the wonders of Facebook) brought us back together decades later. Now we collaborate on writing projects again, but they are grant apps and blogposts for the domestic violence organization Terri directs.

Our visit will be a kind of time travel, too.

Maybe, I think drowsily, maybe I’ll take the back roads tomorrow, drive home through Marion to Mount Gilead to Mount Vernon, run the tires of THIS car on the roads my old Vibe knew by heart. It would be good to drive that country, to re-open those memories.

The bed is cozy, the ceiling-fan whirs, and I fall into a wonderful deep sleep.

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

By dinnertime the next day, I am back at home. Lunch was wonderful. The trip was a re-opening, my senses aware, again, of the forces and decisions that brought history to this turning point…global and national decisions, personal and family decisions.

Sometimes it feels like, as I walk forward, the past slips off my back like a poorly tied cape—something I leave behind, cast-off and forlorn and un-needed. And then a day like yesterday comes, and I am immersed in memory and history, and I remember. The present is just a point on the continuum.

The times and the memories do not disappear; they ebb and flow through us. They create us and they bruise us and they uphold us. I cannot hold them, always, in the forefront, but I need to keep them accessible.

I need my time travel Tuesdays, occasionally, to remind me of my past.

 

How Cool is That?

“Better get the yard mowed before it rains again,” I thought reluctantly yesterday afternoon. The clouds were so low, so full, and so gray, I felt like they were rubbing the top of my head. And by the time I got done mowing, I was sodden, wrung out, panting.

I pushed the mower over to its gravel home and straightened up. A hint of breeze danced around my cheeks, and I stopped for a moment to savor. “Ahhh, cool,” I thought. Reluctant to go inside, into the artificial chill of the air conditioning, I sat on the back stoop and cleaned up our little repurposed chef statue-plant holder and filled the pots I spray-painted black with lovely organic garden soil. I planted the pots with marigolds and vinca and petunias. (At least two of those three are flowers our deer disdain. I’m hoping they will last the summer on the south side of the house.)

Then I did go inside, where the comfy air felt like a cold blast after the sun’s heat, and I got on-line to order tickets for the minor league baseball game we’re attending Sunday. Mark has been wanting to go; Father’s Day seems like a perfect day to enjoy a home game, a hot dog or two, and a seventh inning stretch.

“I got those tickets,” I said to Jim, in passing.

And he responded, “Cool.”

Later that night, I checked the weather app to see if we were still expecting thunder storms in the wee hours (the storms, I’m happy to say, passed us by), and I noticed that Sunday’s temps are expected to be in the nineties. So it will be cool to go to the game, but it won’t actually BE cool.

And then I thought about about finding cool breezes and finding cool things to do, and I got wondering about when, why, and how we started calling things that are wonderful to experience, ‘cool.’

*********

Mike Vuolo, in “The Birth of Cool,” (please see http://www.slate.com/articles/life/cool_story/2013/10/cool_the_etymology_and_history_of_the_concept_of_coolness.html) notes that we English speakers have been using temperature words to describe other, less concrete concepts, for a long, long time. So we might say, “He was hot under the collar,” when we describe someone who’s lost his temper; we might say a particularly attractive individual is “hot.” And we might say that someone who wantonly disregards other people’s feelings is cold, cold, cold.

But it’s a compliment of the highest order to be called cool, even though, nowadays, it’s a little bit of a status symbol to say, “I’m doing it anyway, even though I know it’s not cool.”

When did ‘cool’ come to mean suave and slick and admirable to the nth degree? Vuolo has a theory.

He believes that the word cool itself slipped into English, borrowed from similar forms in the German and the Dutch, back in the ninth century, And, as early as Beowulf, Vuolo says, cool was used to describe emotions. (Certainly, Shakespeare perpetuated that. Here’s a snippet of Hamlet Vuolo quotes:

Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper

Sprinkle cool patience.)

By the sixteenth century, writes Vuolo, cool had attached itself to other abstract concepts. Thus, we have cool customers and cool outlooks, and keeping our cool becomes a thing to be envied.

But cool as the aspirational state of being, cool as in Snoopy’s Joe Cool, comes later. The first actual mention in that regard may be in 1884, in Washington and Lee professor James Harrison’s article, “Negro English,” in which he shares the phrase, “That’s cool,” without saying much about what it means. (The English language, again, benefited from the diverse peoples who speak and shape the tongue.)

By the 1920’s, says Vuolo, ‘cool’ was part of jazz language. In the 1930’s, Zora Neale Hurston, writing in dialect, says, “What make it so cool…” in her story, “the Gilded Six-Bits.” By the 1940’s, awesome people were called ‘cool cats.’

And sometime after that the concept of cool and the use of the word cool seeped into everyday language—a synonym for wonderful, delightful, and/or very, very charismatic. It’s hard, writes Vuolo, to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but do we need an exact date?

I don’t think so. It’s cool.

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

That got me thinking about the funny expression, ‘cooling our heals.’ We use it when we are kicking back, taking a break, maybe biding our time and waiting for something to happen.

“Cool your heels, and I’ll get it for you,” one might say.

I picture the one who waits grabbing a seat, slipping off shoes and socks, stretching their hot feet into an icy tub of water.

Ahhhh. Waiting.

Barrie England, at https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/50198/where-does-cooling-your-heels-come-from, proposes a sensible “cool your heels” etymology. When we work, he says, or when we walk, our feet get hot. Then, when it’s time to take a break, we want to change that, to cool those hot feet down. England says “coole their heeles” first showed up in English language print in 1606, and it referred to horses getting rested. Not long after that, though, England writes, a reference to humans cooling their heels popped up in Chapman’s translation of The Iliad.

***********

So then I wonder, following this colder temperature theme, why do we call that common illness we all dread a ‘cold’?

First, I look up the definition of the common cold. Merriam-Webster tells me that it is “an acute disease of the upper respiratory tract that is marked by the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, eyes, and Eustachian tubes, and by a watery, then purulent, discharge…” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/common%20cold)

Eeeuw…no thank you right now, please. But why cold? Many of those symptoms—inflammation, for instance, and the fevers folks often get in conjunction with their colds,—actually seem HOT. (Imagine this: “What’s wrong with you?” she asks her sneezing companion. “Oh, nothing,” he says. “I just have a common hot.”)

Amanda Haig, writing on Quora, says that the early Greeks and Chinese, in developing their medicinal practices, thought of heat as excess and cold as absence or deficiency. So, when the body doesn’t have enough strength, healing power, immunity against whatever illness can penetrate,…well, then the body was said to be in a state of ‘cold.’ Ironically, that condition converted to excess…excess heat when fever is present, excess congestion, excess phlegm.

On the same site, Clara Hamilton suggests a simpler solution to the use of the term ‘common cold’: she writes, “…a cold has a lot of the same symptoms as being exposed to cold” does.

Both explanations make sense to me.

https://www.quora.com/Where-did-the-phrase-common-cold-in-the-English-language-come-from

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

Whatever. I slip into old shorts and a paint-spotted t-shirt on Thursday morning and go rummaging to find my paint supplies. These are clothes designed for lightness, breeziness, clothes to wear when heat is high. They are definitely not ‘cool’ clothes. I look, in my well-worn, shapeless paint togs, decidedly UN-cool. But I’m not worried about how I look to paint the trim on the sun-porch.

And, while I pant, I ponder packing water bottles for Sunday’s outing, wondering if the stadium lets us bring our own, and I think it’s a happy happenstance that we do have aisle seats. I think about buying those little battery-operated mister fans, the portable ones people can carry with them.

Would that be cool? I do not know.

These hot-edged days haze the horizon, and they blur the vocabulary, too. It is middle June in central Ohio. The temperatures are high; the air is muggy. And I, although trundling into my golden years, despite disdaining conformity and convention, I am, all the same, still in pursuit of cool.

 

The Last Days of Greta the Dog

the-great-gretzky

I sit bolt upright in bed.

Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky.

The dog is pacing again, pacing on the hardwood floor at the bottom of the stairs. My head is fuzzed with sleep; the clock reads 3:04 AM.

I will her to settle down, to curl up on the couch, to sleep until morning. But the tick-tacky accelerates, and then stops.

She is padding up the stairs; she is nosing open my bedroom door.

“What is it, Greta?” I ask softly. “What is it, pup?”

She paces around the room.

I grab Mark’s old bathrobe and pull it on, and the dog and I go downstairs. I let her out; I feed her. I give her pain meds and an anxiety pill. Eventually, about 5 AM, she circles around, makes a nest in the blanket on the couch, and falls into a deep, snoring sleep.

Tired but wired, I contemplate returning to bed for an hour.

In the last month, the dog has slept through the night just once…and then she was up at 5 AM. We are drained and dragging and very, very sad.

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

“Remember,” says Mark, “when we would take her to the ball field?”

Oh, I remember. She had just come to us, Greta had,–a rescue dog who might have been, different vets told us, nine months old or who could have chalked up two years already. She carried a bad history in her frightened eyes and flinching bones. We got her used to walking on a leash, and we would take her for long, long walks. Still, we could see the energy poised in her muscles, poised and held back.

So on Saturdays and Sundays, out of season, we would take her to the ball field, unclip her leash at home plate, and yell, “Go, Greta; go!

She would run the bases, madcap, blurring, her little legs pumping. We would stand in the baselines and she would dart around us, triumphant, tongue lolling, a laughing dog. She would run and she would run and she would run, and we would see something in her face that she lacked in everyday life: joy.

After eight or ten or twelve pulsing revolutions, she would slow down, and then finally she’d come to rest, back at home plate. We would take an old Tupperware bowl and fill it at the outdoor faucet and she would lap the water noisily until it was gone. Then, exercise-sated, she would trot along beside us, hop into the car, and head home, relaxed and calm for a little time.

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

One Saturday, not long ago, we took a family road trip. We walked the dog before we left; we filled her water bowl and her food dish. When we locked the door behind us, she was sleeping on the couch, the deep, almost paralyzed sleep that has characterized her daytimes for the last few months.

It was a good trip, and when we came in, recapping and happy, setting treasures on the kitchen counter, we were surprised that the little dog didn’t greet us.

She wasn’t in any of her accustomed places; we searched for her downstairs, and then I heard her labored breathing.

Greta was at the top of the carpeted steps to the second floor, panting and quaking. She would not come down, and when I went up to get her, stench assailed me. She had soiled the light green carpet in Jim’s bedroom—soiled it thoroughly and monumentally.

We got the dog downstairs, dug out bags and rags, filled a bucket with warm water, pulled the carpet cleaning potion from under the sink. Mark and I scrubbed and cleaned and deodorized; we took bags outside to the garbage can. We opened windows and started fans, and we sprayed antiseptic. We scrubbed some more, until the mess had disappeared, and only pungent cleaning smells remained. Then we went to find the dog, who was shivering uncontrollably in a corner of the couch.

“Oh, Greta,” we said. “Oh, pup.”

It took a sedative and a pain pill and hours of stroking to get her calmed down.

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

And then we counted the sleepless nights. We thought about the fact that panting and quaking—in fear? In pain? In both?—was now the little dog’s default mode. She couldn’t hear us very well; her eyes were ebony marbles, fogged with white. I called the vet almost every week; he worked with us, adjusting medication.

Maybe a bigger dose of anti-anxiety medication would help.

Maybe a hormone tablet would stop the piddling she’d begun to do in the house.

Maybe a stronger sedative would get her through the night.

We looked at the little dog, standing in a corner of the kitchen by the big window, staring blindly at a world she couldn’t see, hear, or comprehend.

That Monday, we went to talk with the vet, a young man, compassionate and kind; we did not take Greta with us.

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

Dogs are not people, of course, but they do share some commonalities with humans. Like us, they are shaped by their earliest treatment.

We didn’t know the story of Greta’s early days, but we knew they weren’t good. But if we just love her enough, we thought, love her and care for her and show her the good world—well, then she’ll come around.

She came to love us, Greta did,–our little family of three humans. But she needed constant reassurance, a constant sense of safety. She was terrified of mail carriers, remote controls, and loud noises of any sort. She dragged her food dish beneath the kitchen table and only ate after dark, when no one was watching. Thunderstorms sent her into spasms, and, when visitors came, she backed up, barking and snarling.

Years of love and firmness didn’t reassure her. One vet said, “Their early lives shape them, for sure. But they are also, as we are, born with personalities and challenges.”

We stopped trying to change the little dog and gentled her into the safety of three. She lived with us, protected and beloved, for 13 years.

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

Our vet sat with us, rolled out the evidence, and told us gently that it was time. We knew he was right; we knew the little dog was in pain and befuddled, unhappy and suffering.

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

There is a room in my mind that I try so hard to avoid, but no matter what corner I turn, there it is, first entrance on the right. The door is cracked invitingly; some warm light beckons from within.

I call it the Second-Guessed Room, and I have explored it to my rue.

The floor, which looks concrete, is viscous. If I enter without thinking, I find myself sinking, trapped, caught, mired in what-ifs. Maybe I shouldn’t, I’ll think, and the sharp-edged issue I’ve been dealing with becomes fuzzy at the edges. It’s no longer clear just what the best path might be. It’s no longer clear that there is a path, at all. My decisions unravel, and progress stalls.

We came home from the vet resolved. We would get through the weekend; on Monday we would make that appointment.

But every time my thoughts wandered, they came to that door. Sometimes, they couldn’t help but go in.

And the voices lured them deeper. “Who are YOU?” the voices taunted. “What right do YOU have to decide…?”

And below that, gentle voices would be murmuring: She’s not that bad! She’s just a little old! She’s not suffering.

And I would waver, then realize I was up to my ankles in quicksand. It would take a hard, sucking effort to extricate myself, to clamber back into the hallway and slam that door shut behind me.

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

The worst part about the procedure was the sedative. They took Greta back to give her the shot; when they returned her, she was shaking but bright eyed, pleading, pleading. She headed toward the door, turned her head, begging: Home home home.

And then the back legs gave out and she folded to the shiny floor, and her head wobbled, and she was falling.

And I projected everything I didn’t want to see into her eyes—read, “Please!”

Read, “Don’t do this!”

Read, “You’ve betrayed me!”

Then even the wild eyes were quelled by the drug.

They settled her on the table, on a soft and comfy rug, a fleecy blanket folded under her head, and we held her as the needle went into her hind leg. Like a giant sigh, the tremors left the little body.

And the little dog left us on a peaceful swell.

The tech was red-eyed; the vet stepped outside. I couldn’t bear to look at my husband: one hand soft on the dog’s still head, the other groping for a Kleenex.

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

They told us everything we knew but needed, still, to hear: she was suffering. We did everything we could. We had to help her. It was time.

It was time, I agreed silently. It was time. And then I thought, Tonight, maybe I’ll sleep.

We walked out into bright, affronting, sunshine and drove, gob-smacked, home.

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

That night, at just about three AM, I bolted upright, listening for what woke me up. The house was quiet.

No pacing on the carpet around our bed.

No padding feet on the stairs.

No tick-tacky, tick-tacky, tick-tacky, of dog claws on the hardwood.

Nothing.

Although the Chicken Wasn’t There…

Where, oh where, is the boneless chicken breast?

I am staring into the depths of the chest freezer. There are tan plastic grocery bags concealing wonders—roasts and chops and fish fillets and French fries and assorted bags of frozen veggies. There are little one-pound plastic tubs—the same kind of tubs I am SURE I put the chicken in—that hold translucent amber bricks of homemade broth and dark red textured blocks of beef burger.  There is a bag of those white freezy things we put in the cooler when we travel with perishable food.

I do not see the chicken.

I move packages, and I plunge my hand, seeking; I stagger frozen food items precariously, searching for the elusive chicken. Food towers sway and my fingers start to ache, and I think hopefully that maybe I put that chicken in the freezer upstairs, the above-the-refrigerator freezer where I store things I want to easily grab.

Upstairs, I open the freezer and pull out two foil-wrapped frozen yellow cake layers.Then three lonely Nathan’s hot dogs. Two chunks of pie crust about the shape and size of nasty, meant-to-hurt, snowballs. There’s half a package of soft tortilla shells, several containers of chicken enchilada soup, and two packages of dark roast decaf. That’s what I can see. More hides in the depths of the freezer; it’s amazing, actually, how much food I can pack into this relatively small piece of frozen real estate.

And it’s amazing how hard something, once securely wrapped and relegated to either freezer’s depths, can be to find. I still can’t see the chicken. And I am thinking chicken stir fry for dinner.

And all this time, a persistent little thought has been running anxiously up and down the corridors of my mind, banging on every door. But my faithful mind-keeper has been one jump ahead, leaping from room to room via hidden passageways, leaning hard against those locked doors, calling sweetly, in a cleverly disguised falsetto, “Go AWAY! There’s NO ONE here!”

But the little thought does not give up. It runs the mind-keeper down, rags her till she’s weary, weary, weary, losing her gusto and her grip, and one of those doors finally opens a tiny crack. It is just enough for the thought I didn’t want to entertain to slip through and demand attention.

And there it sits, plunk in the middle of that bony cavern, right where I can’t avoid it:

“You need to inventory your freezers!”

That’s the thought I didn’t want to acknowledge, because that’s a cold, hard job I hate to do. But—sigh—it clearly is time.

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

I get out a clipboard and a yellow legal pad. I grab a Bic Biro. I put away the dishes that were drying and clear off the counters. I take a deep breath, open the upstairs freezer door, and I begin.

Everything comes out, every single rigid and frozen package. I spread them on the counter, one by one, and when the freezer is empty, I take my dishcloth and I wipe away all the detritus…coffee grounds and desiccated, frozen, tiny green peas, wisps of plastic packaging. I wipe down the little shelves in the freezer door, and then I turn to the patient frozen friends waiting on my counter.

I find a lot of containers—old cottage cheese tubs and the kind of ersatz Tupperware that some cold cuts are packaged in—full of kale. I know it is kale because my thoughtful past self wrote that very clearly on the lids.  What I did not write was the date I sealed that kale up and stuck it in the freezer.

How long ago, I wonder, did I last bring kale home? Was it last year’s CSA? Wait—did we even HAVE a CSA last year?

I open a container and contemplate the pretty ice crystals clinging to the dark green leaves. I contemplate, too, Mark’s response to kale.

“Oh,” he would say. “Oh, joy.”

I find an empty shopping bag, and I begin popping frozen pucks of kale into it, slapping the empty containers into the dishwater to be washed and recycled.

When I am done, there are five aged dark green vegetative disks in the bag.  How did I ignore that much kale for two whole years? I sigh in wonderment, tie the shopping bag firmly, and run it out to the garbage bin.

I list other forgotten treasure, such as…

half a pound of turkey bacon.

…three hamburgers.

…two bags of corn and one of peas.

…half a box of Steakumms.

…a package of cooked boneless pork.

…a package of cooked boneless chicken.

…a single serving package of Edward’s cheesecake. (How did THAT escape notice?)

I put everything back, neatly—the veggies on one side, meat on the other; the nice flat packages on the bottom, the lumpier, bumpier packages on top. I make neat little corridors so we can see what waits for us in those frigid depths.

On the door, I put the coffee, the pie crust, the forlorn and neglected hot dogs. And when it is all put away, I acknowledge that there was no uncooked boneless chicken in this freezer.

I take my clip board and head downstairs.

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

The chest freezer holds more food and offers more challenges. I line things up on the stairs, and the more I dig out, the farther I lean into the frosty depths. There’s detritus here, too, but it’s not so amenable to being swiped out with a flick of a dishcloth. I try, but little dots of broccoli, errant corn kernels, unidentified hard green things, and shreds of paper and plastic elude me.

Finally, dodging the frozen exhibit on the cellar steps, I run upstairs to get the handheld vacuum. Then I suck those shreddy little buggers out of the freezer. I wipe it down, set the vac aside, and begin replacing items and noting them on my list.

I write…

…raspberry lemonade.

…green beans (x2).

…3 pkgs. ham.

…thick cut bacon.

…one slab ribs.

…chicken broth (x15).

…Swedish meatballs.

pork shoulder blade roast.

…corn on cob.

…stir fry veggies (x2).

And on it goes, until all the food has been sorted and neatly stacked into the newly tidied freezer.

There is no boneless uncooked chicken. There just is not.

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

That afternoon, I look at my list, decipher the things I wrote too quickly with cramped, frozen fingers, and I discard the idea of a stir fry. Instead, I take the boneless cooked pork and the cooked boneless chicken from the upstairs freezer. I left it defrost just a little and then I slice all of it, as thin as my best knife will make it. I defrost, too, the soft tortilla shells.

I shred lettuce. I roughly chop, and then I caramelize, a whole onion. I grate cheddar cheese.

When the boyos come home, I sear the pork meat in one frying pan and the chicken slices in another. I brush the tortilla shells with olive oil and let them puff quickly in a hot skillet. Jim sets out the plates and Mark chops a pepper, and I realize I have used just about every frying pan or skillet that I own.  But we have a wonderful fajita bar.

We load the tortilla shells up with the things we like. Some of us take everything. Some incline toward only carbs and meat and cheese. We pour tall glasses of water and carry our plates to the table and we take the day just past, spread it out, fit our pieces together, and wrestle it into sensibility.

Mark pours hot sauce; I go back for the last scoop of onion. Jim asks, “Does anyone care if I finish off the pork?”

We eat every bit of fajita food, and, “Man,” says Mark. “That hit the spot.” He volunteers gamely to wash the stack of pots and pans.

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

After dinner, I sit down with the clip board. I cross off, “half frzn pepper,” “pkg cked pork,” and “pkg cooked chkn.”

And I contemplate. What could we do with one boneless beef steak? How could I use a pork chuck roast? Maybe I could chop one of those packages of ham into a steaming casserole of scalloped potatoes. Maybe, for a treat, we could have Lee Brothers Mac and Cheese and barbecued ribs on Sunday.

I have that filled-in feeling, that recognition of what is there. It’s out in the open; it’s clear. I know what I have to work with.

Now I can plan.

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

If I were one of those annoying, aging English-teacher types, I’d say there was a metaphor here, something involving bringing stuff out of dark corners, discarding what’s stayed past its use-by date, and unleashing imagination on those everyday ingredients that had been hidden away. Thank goodness—right???–thank goodness I’m not one of those!

Coming Back

Rosy and relaxed, I pushed the bedroom door open after my bath. There, sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, was Greta the dog.

Over six months ago, the dog abruptly stopped sleeping in our room after fourteen years of habit. Suddenly, she would come upstairs with me, circle around, sniff at the doors of the closets, angle her sad eyes my way, and then sigh deeply. With great effort, she would heave herself forward and head downstairs, where she’d fall soundly asleep on the couch.

Then I would wake to her wet nose snuffling at my face in the deepest hours of the night.

She’d be hungry.

She’d need to go out.

She would want her meds.

Sometimes I would get up; sometimes Mark would. Seldom would Greta sleep throughout the night…and so, of course, our sleep was constantly broken, too.

We took her to the vet.  We talked about sudden changes in habit and what that could mean. We talked about humans’ broken sleep and irritability.

The vet checked the dog for any signs of physical ailments and found none. That was good news, sort of, but it also meant that Greta’s issues were probably cognitive. At 14 human years of age, she was no doubt developing some kind of doggy dementia. We started her on meds, and slowly we increased them, adding a sedative. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the nocturnal wakings.

And then last night, there she was, in her once-accustomed place on the bedroom rug. I tiptoed around her, read in bed for thirty minutes, watched to see if she would wake when I turned off my lamp. Like there had been no interim, she slept for a full, uninterrupted, six hours.

And I slept, too, only realizing then that I had been on high alert every night, listening, even asleep, for the click click of her nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, ready (even if reluctant) to get out of bed when needed.

I got up early this morning, and Greta followed me downstairs; we went outside together in the gray light, came back in, both had breakfast. I felt as if something had clicked back into place. The dog, too, seemed strangely content.

Greta is still old. Her eyes are still cloudy, her focus still slipping. She may never sleep upstairs again.

Or she might. I’ll call her tonight when bath time looms, beckon her up behind me, see if the strange interim of spending the deep nights downstairs has come to an end.

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

I drop Jim off at the side door of Elson Hall, in the 15-minute parking space. He gathers his back pack and laptop bag from the back on the car, waves casually, and heads into the university, where he is taking a first-term philosophy class this summer.

He loves it. He respects and likes his teacher, a bright, engaging woman with a British accent who shares his love for Monty Python. (They can both recite the lyrics to “The Philosophers’ Song.”) She shows interesting video clips, such as one of George Carlin busting on the concept of God: Jim is particularly fascinated by the arguments for and against God’s existence.

He reads his textbook at home, does his homework, and downloads the lecture notes from Blackboard. He asks us our opinions on different philosophical constructs, wonders aloud about logical fallacies. He emails his advisor, his instructor, the financial aid director. He likes to go to campus an hour before class start—just to hang out and get ready, he says.

In the second summer term, Jim will take a health class. Then, in the fall, he’ll have a more robust part-time schedule.

It has been several years since Jim gave up on taking college classes, said, “No more,” after accumulating almost enough credits for an associate degree. He felt, he said, like he was spinning his wheels. He believed he would never be able to master the math needed. He wanted, he decided, to just get a job and work.

The job search was not fruitful, but two or three years ago, Jim did begin a small home business,–a business that helped him learn about responsibility and accountability, how to talk with and communicate with clients, and how to schedule work to get done in a timely way. And then, after the New Year, Jim mentioned that he’d like to explore going to college.

He connected immediately with a wonderful advisor, warmed to the director of disability services, felt comfortable finding classrooms and dealing with unexpected class changes and the vagaries of financial aid. And then the thing that had eluded him for years—a job—fell squarely into the deal. The disabilities director put him in touch with an opening for a student worker; James starts his job on Tuesday.

Classes that challenge him. A student job in the very field he hopes to pursue. James is back in school after a long, dry spell, excited and hopeful.

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

I trim the front hedge with the clippers, not trying for strict symmetry, but for neatness. Mark surveys. The hedge, he opines, kind of looks like a caterpillar.

A caterpillar, I think. That reminds me, somehow, of the bricks painted like books that I’ve seen on Facebook. I think of Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I say that, if you got a copy of that book, you could make eyes and antennae for the bushes. I say you could paint a paver to look like the book itself.

You could make, Mark says slowly, a kind of readers’ garden, and the idea takes hold.

I request the Carle book on line and get a call the next day that it is in. James and I drive over to the library and pick it up.

At home, I study the cover. I find a thin piece of plexiglass and cut it in half, and search in the basement for paints. I draw eye shapes on the clear plastic and fill them in green and yellow paints. I like the way they turn out.

Mark finds me a plastic lid; we cut it to make the caterpillar’s nose.

And I go outside and heave up a big cement paver, a paver that mimics the shape of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. I wash it off. I brush a thick coat of white paint onto it and leave it to dry overnight.

The next afternoon, decks cleared, I gather things together—little pots of latex enamels from the basement, a thick package of art brushes that I have had forever and never opened. Pencils and Sharpies and a cup for water. Rags and a paint stir-stick. A screwdriver to lift the glued-on lids from the jars.

I do a quick sketch of the book cover, and yes, it seems like it can be done. I grab an old plastic bowl for the mixing of paint, and I head out to the patio to paint a paver.

And just like that, I am painting, after years of not.

I like the result. It is far from perfect. The colors are wonky. I have lettered the text with a black Sharpie, and the porous, bubbly surface of the cement has played havoc with my printing. But there is no doubt of what I am trying to suggest; the paver actually looks like the cover of Eric Carle’s book.

I let it dry and coat it with clear enamel.

Caterpaver

This weekend we will wire the eyes, nose, and antennae onto the hedges. I dig out five pairs of old sneakers and set them aside to paint brown; they will be the caterpillar feet. We’ll take the very hungry cater-paver and prop it up in front. We’ll hope that passing children will be surprised into smiles—that moms and dads and grandmas and grandmas will remember warm cuddles with a special book.

We talk about garden books.

We could do, Mark suggests, an Iris Murdoch cover on a brick, put it by the irises. I find a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I put a base coat of blue on a brick…I’ll paint the flowers in tomorrow.

We’ll make an herb garden and paint bricks to look like Harry Potter volumes—herbology, you know. What about a cover for a Wordsworth tome in a bed of daffodils? What about a paver that looks like the children’s book Chrysanthemum tucked into the flower bed?

Could I recreate the cover of Charlotte’s Web to sit next to our statue of Babe the Pig?

I sort and stack paint, gather supplies, make sketches. This is fun. Why has it been so long since I’ve done this kind of project?

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

Transitions happen. Habits break. Dreams defer. Pleasures get back-burnered.

There isn’t room for everything. Sometimes, the jettison is a necessary thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary that the ending be permanent.

But sometimes, a dog creeps back into a favored spot and settles into a satisfying sleep. A young person takes a leap of faith and discovers needed skills to navigate the new path. Or a hand picks up a brush and joy re-awakens.

Some doors close forever, mourned, perhaps, but set aside. But sometimes, even if only for an interlude, that lost thing can be recaptured. There’s a special joy at times like that, I’m learning,–at times when things come back.

 

 

The Art of Smiling

Smiling
Opens doors
And locked faces
In all sorts of places.

He was standing by the library entrance, by a stack of construction debris—orange cones and yellow printed tape and dusty gray piles of pillaged, man-made rock. His cloth coat, unrumpled and clean, looked warm for the sunny day. He pulled a cigarette and lighter from one pocket, contemplating.

This was not my city; he might have been a regular there, but he was not my regular. I smoothed my face to blankness and stepped forward to stride on by.

“Good morning!” he said, and his modulated voice shattered my smoothness. “Isn’t it a beautiful day!” He grinned, pleased at having busted the blankness, and I couldn’t help it. I grinned back and gave him his own good morning.

“And a beautiful smile, too,” he said. I hurried into the building, wearing the smile he’d just blessed.

Smiling
Tosses ropes
Across chasms
Rescuing former strangers.

I explored the library, a place that, I hoped, would reveal secrets of past lives…pin down my parents, give me some clues to their whens and wheres. I sized up the ground floor, visited the Mark Twain exhibit on the mezzanine, and went up a floor higher, just to see. And then I got on the escalator to ride back down to the local history room.

Escalators! I looked at my feet on the step, my sneakered toes pointing over the edge of thin metal strips, and I remembered once a year shopping trips to this very city, half a century ago. Then, Christmas time meant a foray into wonder, to snowy streets where department store windows glowed and danced with magical images. And going on into the stores themselves, with piped carols and glossy displays and the begged-for rides: those ribbed metal steps popping up from the floor, inviting me.

Escalators. I sighed into my memories, riding down, and then I heard it.

“Who’s got a smile for me today?”

The woman in front of me, a tiny, plump person in a tailored tunic and aqua polyester pants, jerked her head up. I jerked my head up, too, and stared into the bold face of a grinning woman, slender and vibrant, with long, curling gray hair. Again, I couldn’t help grinning back.

I saw my downward companion’s shoulders relax, too, and her posture straighten, proudly.

“Aww, I got TWO of ‘em,” the gray-haired woman said, her riser passing ours as she headed upstairs. “It’s a two-smile day. God bless you ladies!”

Smiling
Informs awkwardness
Allowing understanding
Where none could thrive before.

I was looking for a book, the first in a series about western New York poorhouses, and I wanted to buy it at a bookstore I love. The Dog-Eared Page is a community bookstore, a not for profit enterprise that shares space with a money-making coffee shop. We parked up the perpendicular street; the big front window showed us steaming drinks and talking friends and intent people, heads bent over books. We entered into a bookish wonderland.

But I couldn’t find mine. The once I’d been there before, the poorhouse books had been in a big display. Foolish, I’d expected it to be permanent, as if books didn’t have seasons, as if those seasons didn’t change. There was a volunteer at the checkout (all the clerks are volunteer), and she was busy doing something that looked a little intricate, a little urgent. I hesitated, hovering, and she raised her eyes, reluctant.

And then I saw a framed photo—a chubby girl-child playing with a black-haired, curly, jumping dog. The dynamism, the pugnacity, portrayed in that picture made me smile. The clerk’s face softened; she followed my gaze and explained. Her granddaughter. New puppy. A photo so cute she had to bring it with her.

We talked about the wonders that granddaughters are and we talked about the excitement and potential of puppies. And we found my book series, although the first volume was all sold out, and I wouldn’t be in town long enough to wait for a special order to arrive.

I bought Volume 2, promising to order the first one on-line, promising to visit the next time I was in town, looking forward to the chance of seeing Catharine Marie again. Like me, Catherine Marie was a Catholic school alum, a reader and a retiree, a dog-lover and a gran. Catherine Marie was a no-longer stranger, someone I’d be happy to talk with another time.

Shared smiles, and communication hurdles vaporized into puddles.

Smiling
Shatters stubborn
Once-boundless barriers
And walls of sullen silence.

Once I’d eaten a butterscotch sundae at Parkside Candy; it was long before Robert Redford and Glenn Close filmed their memorable scenes there for The Natural. I must have been very young, and I remember being in painful, scratchy clothes. Details come back: it was, perhaps, the day of an uncle’s funeral; we were being rewarded for behaving at the church and the reception. The memory offers glass cases and swivel stools at a snack bar, sweating metal milkshake vessels for my brothers, and a tulip dish with a jaunty swizz of whipped cream and a cherry that I handed to my mother. I remember the rich warm butterscotch, the hush and the almost furtive enjoyment on a solemn, solemn day.

And now I was back, opening the door into coolness, the gleam of the black and white tiled floor surprising me with its familiarity. Yes—the glass cases, and the well-rubbed, glowing wooden shelves and displays. Towers of boxed chocolates; crisp cellophane bags of colorful candies. Hand lettered signs, and a magnificent, wood-arched soda fountain.

We sat at a little round table, on chairs with heart-shaped metal backs, and a brisk and wiry man—perhaps my age? Perhaps a great deal older?—came and welcomed us and quietly took our orders. I toyed with the idea that he could have worked there all those years; it could have been he who made my butterscotch miracle, yea, those many years before. It could be the same hands concocting my small hot fudge sundae today.

And then I looked toward the back, toward a wonderful little alcove, just room enough for a table and six chairs. On the chairs sat six women, a timeline of ages: pretty thirty-somethings, dignified matrons of a certain age, and a scary, scary dowager, high cheekbones and paged hair. The dowager turned as if I’d called her, and she stared at me as if I’d been pugnacious; she stared and then she humphed silently, and she turned her head away.

For just a minute, I felt wrung out, leeched, discarded. And then the waiter brought our sundaes—tall, not small, in their classic tulip glasses.

This time I ate the cherry, and I lifted the graceful, slender spoon to dip it into the thick hot fudge, to layer on another memory. Anticipation and nostalgia intertwined, and I couldn’t help but smile. I lifted my eyes and the dowager lifted hers, too, and we caught, for just a minute there. I hoisted my spoon, sweet with ice cream, toward her. There was a wobble and pause, and then her fine old face cracked open, and we shared a sundae smile.

Smiling
Surprises joy
That had been buried
Where no one knew it waited.

It was the first real spring-like day, and we ate at a hot dog stand: casing dogs, grilled to bursting; curly fries, crisp and hot. The food offered up a taste of summer, and we decided, after dinner, to do a summer thing: we would go watch the sun set over the lake.

We pulled into the Park and Ride lot across the street from the park; we waited patiently while cars and semis roared by, riffling our hair, hinting at the chill that the sun’s setting would bring in just a half an hour or so. And then we hurried across the street to claim a front-row seat, a park bench looking out to the horizon, where the sun was waiting for her audience so she could put on her show.

Below us, on the smooth surface of the lake, three kayakers fished, maneuvering and casting, hovering and then relocating. One kept getting bites. He’d pull a flapping fish from the water, detach the hook, and throw it back. They seemed to be big fish. Were they the wrong kind? Did he keep catching carp when he was looking for trout? Or was it just a catch-and-release kind of sport?

I pondered the impact of slicing sharp hooks on tender fish mouths, and a large young woman, hair dyed pink and shirt a neon, tie-dyed masterpiece, ambled up to the fence. She smiled at us, acknowledging, and then, leaning on the fence top, she began to talk, her words soaring out to the setting sun.

“Hi, baby!” she crooned. “Are you OKAY? Are you doing okay? How’s my baby tonight?”

She’s talking to…the sun? I thought, and then the girl turned away from us and hurried down the pier to join her friends. We exchanged looks and shrugs, and the sun continued sinking toward the water.

A dark-haired man in a plaid cotton shirt took the tie-dyed girl’s place. Next to him, a fragile young woman, big eyes, freckles, long, long red hair, shivered in the darkening breeze. They leaned against the fence for a moment, and then the man turned to us.

“Have you seen the duck?” he asked.

The duck?

We jumped up to look, and there, in the grass beyond the fence, was a brooding duck, gray and black, fat-cheeked, sloe-eyed, unmoving on the nest that boasted her own downy feathers. She’d been there, the man said, for at least a couple of weeks, and they came down every night to check on her.

I grinned and told him about the girl just gone—the girl I thought had been offering baby talk to the setting sun. If I’d gotten off my butt, I said, I might have realized she was talking to the mama duck. He smiled, too, this new companion; he smiled and his shoulders relaxed and he beamed down at the duck he’d come to visit.

The sun inched a little closer to its plummet, and we stayed leaning on the fence, the mama duck bathed in light growing rosy, and I talked about what a treat the beautiful day had been, a perfect spring day, and now the gift of the hopeful mama and a sun sending a rosy trail from horizon to shore—bathing the hapless kayaking fisherfolk in her waning rays.

“I’m Dakota,” the man offered, “and this here’s my daughter, Dana. I’ve moved around the city a lot, but now I live near here. So we come down every night to check this mama duck.”

We speculated on how long it would be before ducklings hatched, and we looked at the steep cliff between the nest and the lake, and we wondered how that mama would shepherd her babies down that imposing slope to the water. We pictured the mama leading little fuzzballs, all of them carefully hopping, hopping down the rocks, and all of us smiled again.

And, “It’s my birthday,” Dakota said suddenly. “And it hasn’t been the best of years.”

There was a silence, and then, fumbling, I said, “But this day. This perfect day. And here you are, and this mama duck. What is she, if not a symbol of good things yet to come?”

“Yeah,” said Dakota. “Yeah.” And the sun dipped into the lake, and we watched the color spread across the glassy waters.

“You know what?” he asked. “I’m going to come down every night this summer, maybe this whole year.” He raised his cell phone and snapped off a sunset shot. “I’m going to take a picture every night. And at the end, I’m going to put them all together and think about what’s changed.”

And then the lake sucked up the rest of the sun; the breeze grew colder. Fragile Dana shivered and we all turned to head back to our cars. First, though, we gave them hugs, two strangers seeking something, two people with a story we’ll never know, although I hope the ending’s splendid. Travelers who shared some time with us through the doorway of laughter and smiles.

***********

And later, I pondered the people I pass each day, my face smoothed over and unwelcoming. I thought about their faces—haughty or brash, sleep-muddled or defiant. Hopeless sometimes. Sometimes angry. And I acknowledged my ignorance of the paths that led to each face’s condition.

I thought too, about the day’s events, about the passing of strangers who became something more—became warm memories, glued into place by the simple adhesive of a smile.