Season of Change

acorn-on-the-strett

In the early mornings, the little dog Greta goes outside, and she skitters and twitches. Acorns dead-fall from the trees; they land on the street with a pocka pocka. Their hard berets snap off and roll. The dropping acorns make the dog dance.

Some mornings there is fog, too. As Greta steps forward, into the street, out of the driveway, a deer might loom up out of the mist. The dog will turn and bolt for home.

Dark begins to spread at 7:30 PM now; the dog goes outside then, and there are whole families of deer grazing in the gloaming. Greta stands and sniffs, wary. Up on the hill, up by the Helen Purcell home, six deer stop, silhouetted. Two are mature, watchful mamas; two are tiny, leggy, still spotted. One of the inbetweeners has antlers just beginning to sprout. Their heads turn; they gaze at the dog. Their ears rotate like radar panels.

Then they turn and lollop down the wooded hill.

Squirrels dart and scrabble up trunks, clutching acorns in their teeth.  Greta cautiously feels her way in the teeming early dark.

It is autumn, and things are changing.

Jim sets up a work space in the bay window of the dining room; he has a new tall table that just fits into that nook. He plugs in a new laptop, and, once it’s up and running, loads it with new software. He borrows a bedside table from the little guest room and sets up the printer-scanner when it arrives. He has successfully written a grant for this equipment; the local disability services program has funded his purchases.

In the afternoons, from 2:00 until 5:00, he sorts recipes, types them neatly onto pages with headers and footers, creates tables of contents and indexes. He prints and punches and puts things into binders, creating order out of chaos and creating family cookbooks from shoeboxes full of long-kept recipes.

A local advocacy group asks Jim if he might be able to write a skit for them. He attends a meeting, listens as a group of gentle people brainstorm how to demonstrate what it’s like to be an adult with a disability. How can they show children how bad it feels when people are mean and cruel, and also how nice it is when people are kind and welcoming? They percolate a scenario: a boy on a beach, a careening kid smashing into his sand castle. Two possible outcomes.

Jim types it up, adds a strong narrative voice, sculpts the two endings, a sad one and a happy. He emails it to Missy, the group’s facilitator, and her feedback is warmly enthusiastic. They will take this skit on the road.

Jim has his own small business, a daily purpose, and a skit in production. He walks a little taller.

It is autumn, a time when things are changing.

Things are changing for some very dear people.

A lifetime friend texts on her way home from chemo–her second to last session. Done by Thanksgiving: let’s hope there’ll be reasons for her to give deep, fervent thanks. Her illness has forever transformed her life, but surely this treatment will bring change for the better.

A talented friend who has devoted herself to scholarship, juggling family and job and graduate school, pushing, pushing, gets a call with an offer of a dream job. Her hard work has opened doors. How nice, how just and nice: people who deserve to snatch the golden ring sometimes get to do that. She is open, welcoming change.

I have coffee with a friend and colleague. We talk, and I remember what it was like to be young and hurt, bereft and deeply betrayed. I remember what it’s like, first, to learn to trust, and then, to learn to dare. She is going on a date, and this carefully thought-through outing could truly be a game-changer, the first step on a path to new richness.

It’s autumn, when people dare to take chances. They dare to change.

On a cool September Saturday morning, Wendy and I park on the grass beyond a school in a lovely suburban community, and we follow the crowd to the commons. A band plays and an announcer’s voice blares from a dais. Our official numbered tags, with the computer chips glued to the back, are safety-pinned to our t-shirts.  We mill in the crowd; we bounce on the balls of our feet, neither of us entirely sure about our new sneakers. We find our corral, in the back, with the other 10K walkers who are participating, not competing.

Others have long sleeves and layers in the morning cool; we rub our arms and hop up and down, and we are glad when we begin to move.

We’re glad, too, NOT to have layers to peel as the sun burns off the mist and we walk by a sapphire man-made lake, by wooden bridges leading from walkways to golf courses, by sprawling, lavish, pink-bricked houses. And by a violinist serenading us from atop a hill.

We chose the 10K over the half-marathon this time–a challenge still, but not one that required focused, manic training all summer long. We chose to walk just for the sake of walking and not to be timed or ranked. It’s a good push, a worthy walk, and we gather up our bling at the finish line, eat a quartered Asiago bagel each, accept plastic cups of organic chocolate milk, and then we find the car and head back to Zanesville.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

Mark and Jim go to the used book store and come home with three stout boxes of beautiful note-cards, discovered on the clearance rack. They hand them to me, grinning. I open up a pack that night and write a letter to a friend.

At work, one day, I find a basket twined with scarlet and gold silky leaves on my office table; it is filled with squash and gourds and sweet potatoes and apples, all nestled around a round pie pumpkin. There is a little basket of ripe pears.  I think of a home-baked pie, slices of apple and pear, the warm scent of cinnamon, a sugary, flaky crust.

autumn-basket

The next day, outside my office door, two burlap bags heavy with golden and red skinned potatoes wait for me. That night, I coat a chunk of boneless pork with olive oil; I roll it in a thick coating of herbs and spices, and I surround it, in the heavy glass baking pan, with neatly cubed potatoes. I crumble herbs, dash salt and pepper.

They roast for two hours, the potatoes and the pork, perfuming the house with their sizzle, crisping and browning. We sauté up a panful of veggies, the last of the summer squash, onions, carrots, peppers, all fresh from a friend’s bountiful farm. And we feast, that night, on things grown in the dirt of this place we call home.

At a meeting, Terry hands out bags of homemade party mix, salty and sweet and crunchy, and coated in a butterscotch-y glaze. I bring it home to share, but it’s so good, I rue the generous impulse. Mark and I race each other to get to the bag.

I’m glad Terry included the recipe.

It’s a time of gifts and plenty.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

The days are warm still, but not nearly so humid.  The morning word puzzle tells me this: Summer’s heat ripens the apples; autumn’s heat turns them into cider.

On Friday nights, the blare of the announcer–as bland and opaque as the voice of a Charlie Brown grownup–floats up the hill from the football field.

Some mornings it’s too cool to sit outside with my coffee.

My work hours shift.

Fall meetings begin, and Saturday mornings become busy times. The yards need tending; rain has persuaded the grass to grow. Bushes need to be trimmed and flowering plants, their leaf tips browning now as the growing season winds down, need to be clipped for their winter’s dormancy.

We read, over and over, that the Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be a harsh one. Plenty of snow, deep levels of cold.  We clean the coats that go safely in the washer; we take the coats we cannot wash to the dry cleaner’s. We pick them up, soft and fresh in their plastic, bag-tied coverings. We hang them, ready, in the front hall closet.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

And the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores bulge with fat bags of candy sheathed in oranges and browns, candy glitzy in golden wrappers. The frozen custard stand has pumpkin milkshakes.  Panera offers sugared pumpkin muffins. The Riesbeck flyer highlights pumpkin roll, freshly made in their bakery.

Campaign rhetoric grows more rapid and more rancorous. I carve out campaign free zones, places of civility, but there is no doubt that the elections are coming.

It’s autumn, and there WILL be change.

In person and on FaceBook and in letters, many people say this: Autumn is my favorite season. There is a sense of both motion and comfort.

There is a drawing in, as daylight shortens and the growing time ends. The freezers are full. There are gleaming jars, filled by other industrious people’s hard work, of jewel-toned jams and jellies and salsa on my pantry shelves. The long push of summer is done; classes are back in session. Energy seems to lift and settle.

At night, I have the urge to knit.
I begin to plan for holidays.
I turn from the light and frothy books of summer and I settle in with some serious reading.

There is a looking forward to a season of tournaments and holidays and families and friends reuniting.

There is a sense of calm urgency: time to bundle things in, time to clean things up. Time to get ready for the winter.

It’s autumn. It is time for change.

Dressing

I’m wandering down the hallway, past conference rooms and faculty offices, to the open area where the copy machine co-exists with the kitchen and the mail cubbies. My head is down, and I’m mulling the copies I’m collecting and the next steps in the project. I look up to see a vibrant young faculty colleague, who stops abruptly.

She says to me, surprised, “YOU look nice.”

I grin at her implication, and she back pedals.

“I mean, you ALWAYS look nice. But today–” she sputters, and then she recovers. “Well,” she says. “That’s a great color on you!”

I thank her kindly as I gather in the pages of my report; she scoops her mail from its compartment and hurries back to her office.

I know why she was startled. That day, I wore a DRESS to work. It may have been the first time in five years,– or more,–that I went to work in something other than slacks.

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For me–and, I’m guessing, for lots of other women my age–there’s still a hint of victory and empowerment in the freedom to wear pants. In the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the years of my early childhood, women wore dresses–they wore them to school and church and work. They wore them around the house; they wore them to burp babies and mop floors.

Think Beaver’s mama with those pearls and the perfectly baked roast on the immaculate, groaning board when the family gathered for dinner. I came into clarity in THOSE days.

House-dresses: that was what we called the work-in-the-home uniform our mothers wore. The garments were cotton, often, and easily cleaned, although still they needed to be ironed. (Everything needed to be ironed in those days; hence the presence, in every home I knew, of a bushel basket full of tightly rolled clothes and household linens, sprinkled with water from a glass ketchup bottle with holes poked in its lid. Dampened so the wrinkles wouldn’t completely set, the clean laundry waited for ironing day. The basket never really emptied, even though, in that era, we weren’t nearly so profligate about throwing gently worn clothing into the wash.)

The five-and-dime had racks of inexpensive house-dresses for five, or six, or (oh, extravagance!) nine dollars; those dresses, which buttoned all the way down the front, had flowers printed on yokes and hems and plackets. They were plaid and gingham and checked and striped. There was a clear attempt by manufacturers to dress up a garment that symbolized long days of unending work.

At home, my mother wore ankle socks to work in, and cheap white canvas sneakers. To go out, even to the grocery store, the rules said a woman must wear hose. Before Mom would drive the tank-like Buick to the Nu-Way to go shopping, she would go trudging upstairs to snap on her stockings.

She favored the kind with seams in the back, still available even though they were passing quickly out of style. She held them up with garters–not at all a risque’ endeavor, as those garters were attached to a iron-paneled girdle. My wiry little mother–5’4″ and 120 pounds–had no real reason for that kind of reigning in.  But women, in those days, wore girdles. A careening child who banged up against a mama’s belly would boomerang; those tummies were tautly stretched trampolines of rayon and elastic.

Hose were also required at church and ladies’ club meetings and at the playing of cards around card tables in polished living rooms. Card club had its requirements, for sure, and ash trays, lipstick, and panty girdles were chief among them.

There were strict gender rules governing dressing, of course. Boys could go shirtless. Girls: never. Boys never wore skirts, unless they were Scottish, like my uncles, who wore kilts for ceremonial events. And kilts, they sternly explained, were NOT women’s skirts. Girls did not wear pants to church, ever; they did wear hats there, always. Boys NEVER wore hats in church. Even when I was very young, the rules seemed random and unfair.

Little girls like me got away with pants at times. I had three older brothers, and I was the glad recipient of hand-me-down blue jeans (we called them dungarees; I don’t know why) and corduroy pants with warm flannel linings. I could wear those out to play in mud and rain and snow. Summer brought shorts. (I don’t remember my mother in pants, in those early days, but she and her contemporaries gladly donned demure shorts in the summer.)

The first chinks in the must-wear-dresses armor that I remember were wool plaid bermuda shorts, which high school and college girls wore to football games and dances. The bermudas were topped by crew-neck cable knit sweaters  worn over shirts with button-down collars.  The outfit required that knee-high socks matched the sweater; those socks must stay crisply up and never slouch. I remember my babysitter, Phyllis, showing me her secret trick: rubber bands. She slipped tight rubber bands under the tops of her knee socks, folding the ribbing over. Just below the knees, she had angry red indentations, but her knee socks never faltered.

Little girls wore anklets or sturdily knit knee highs; wearing stockings was an eagerly sought rite of passage to glamorous teenager-hood. My first adventure into big-girl hosiery involved a panty girdle and stockings that clipped on. That must have been grade six or so; by the middle of that year, the revolutionary new panty hose had hit the scene.

Panty hose were a clear advance, but they were imperfect at first. Colors were sparse–you could have ‘nude,’ or you could have ‘suntan’; forget anything else, no matter your skin tone. Fit was tricky.  To get the waistband accurate, the legs might be too short–awkward!–or too long: puddly. I was devastated by my best friend’s mother’s critique of my appearance as narrator at our sixth grade holiday program:

–Red velvet dress: very nice.
–Panty hose: very droopy.

Manufacturers quickly made improvements, and walking into seventh grade, we were a panty-hose clad girl army.

The mamas  at this time were moving, too–they were, in the aftermath of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and a new movement of women into the workplace, wearing slacks. They were dress slacks, to be sure–I can’t remember Mom putting on a pair of jeans until well into the 1970’s–and those panty girdles were dropped, too, by many. A woman could  look very professional with knee high sheer stockings under the nicely creased pants.

I walked into high school wearing a dress and panty hose, and I walked out wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket.  It was 1969 when I began, and at my small city high school, the dress code still demanded that girls wear skirts. We grumbled and muttered; many parents, my mother among them, maintained that slacks, in those days of mini-skirts, were actually a more modest, less provocative way of dressing.

The next year the school relented so far as to allow pant suits, horrible inventions for the most part. I remember my first one: it was turquoise polyester. The pants had an elastic waist.  There was a voluminous turquoise vest, and a silky, long sleeved  rayon blouse in a wild print. The whole thing was breathless and scary looking, and the pants, when the waistband stayed where it was supposed to stay, were too short.

That era was short-lived, thank goodness. By my junior year, the school had thrown in the towel, so to speak. Long bell-bottom jeans became our uniform–they were best if the legs were so long we trod on the backs, breaking down the fibers with our heels. Scraggly dangling threads trailed behind you if your jeans were long enough for you to be cool. I liked to wear dressy tops–velvet jackets, suede vests, gauzy long sleeved shirts–and glitzy costume jewelry to contrast the distressed denim.

Dresses were for fairly formal events–proms and awards ceremonies, for instance.  My graduation dress was so mini that two years later, in college, I wore it as a tunic. (Another argument for long graduation gowns.)

Fashion, in those wild days of the 1970’s, became a statement of many things. Some august males–priests, pundits, and politicians–snickered at the thought that women felt their clothing was such a big deal. But the ability to wear pants represented new worlds open to women and girls–professionals worlds like police work and manufacturing engineering and piloting and medicine. Close-to-home worlds like Little League baseball and varsity tennis and other sports opened their doors.  There was even  a girl kicker on a local high school football team, a thing that would have been completely impossible just five years before.

Clothes were important. Gloria Steinem reminded us that the political WAS personal. And vice versa, as well.

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I wore dresses, a lot, when I got my first teaching job at a wonderful little inner-city Catholic school.  I shifted more and more to dress pants and jackets as I moved into the post-secondary world, until finally–after marriage and kids and long, long commutes shaped my style in a kind of whirlwind fashion tumbler,–I didn’t wear outfits, very darned often, that demanded a pair of panty hose.

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Even though I’ve left the teaching realm and work year-round, the Fall semester still brings that sense of openness and possibility that ‘back to school’ engenders. There’s a feeling that it’s time to buff up the wardrobe, to get my new fall clothes in line. So this year, I threw open my closet doors to investigate, and I thought–Gosh all get-out, I actually own a couple of dresses. And some suits with skirts.  And a fun plaid full length maxi.

Why, I wondered, don’t I ever wear those?

So I decided that, once a week from now on, I’ll dress up. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d done so until I encountered that young faculty member’s shock.

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I like both things–the dressy, official feel of a jacketed suit, the free-wheeling freedom of a nice pair of slacks.  I feel good–although differently good–in both.  They remind me how much things have changed. They remind me that my generation–and the generations of women that follow us–has a wonderfully dazzling array of choices.

They remind me of the limitations women of my mother’s era, and oh, yea, those eras before, had to function within. They remind me that women in some other cultures don’t have nearly the options I am lucky enough to enjoy. I am the beneficiary of lots of gritty hard work and daring sacrifice by many determined people. (When I think that women in the United States were granted voting rights less than one hundred years ago–that there are women voting now who were born before their mothers had that right!–I am rocked into appreciation.)

The ability to choose, to carefully iron a nice skirt, to pick up a pair of comfortable and decidedly UN-droopy pair of panty hose at Kroger, and to choose a day, once a week, to ‘dress up,’ reminds me that I have a lot of freedom. It’s freedom that’s changed and grown and deepened during my very lifetime.

The personal IS political, isn’t it? So here’s what I’ve decided: every week, one day, I’m choosing to wear a skirt.

Using What We’ve Got

We climbed the sweeping stone staircase into the Carnegie wing of our local library–into the oldest, original part, lovingly preserved through several renovations.  We walked through an arch into a long, high-ceiling, gracious room; it was a room which curved forward and beckoned visitors in and on.  The late afternoon light gentled in through soaring windows.

People mingled, chatting softly; a man bent to sign a guest book on a little table, mid-room, that also offered visitors a dipper of punch and a sweet little nosh. But mostly people browsed and angled, stepping up close to, backing away from, cocking their heads at, exploring from every angle, the colorful art of John Taylor-Lehman. ( http://www.taylor-lehman-studio.com/)

He’s a bottle cap artist, Taylor-Lehman is.  He pounds and flattens, cuts and trims; he molds and he builds up and out.  He works with the colors of the bottle caps themselves; he gradiates, for instance, the bottle-cap blues of a sky, deepening into the almost navy of Bud Light.

Mark stepped close to see how the caps attached to canvas. Nail gun, he posited.

There was a simple flower in a vase–happiness.  There was an intricately realistic sideview of a car (that one was ‘NFS’–claimed, already) On the grand piano, a dog sculpture stood about two feet high, complete with red, lolling, bottle cap tongue. Animals. Flowers. A leering skull, a preying water beast.

We marveled at the creativity.  We joked about the sacrifice many people must have made to empty all those bottles.

On the way out, we stopped to admire a sign Taylor-Lehman made to welcome people. It’s a carved and polished wooden bottle cap, maybe 18 inches round. “Use what you’ve got,” it reads.

I think about that all week.

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I think about, for instance, another local artist, a man known as the “Old Man from the Mountain,” “Blind Sculptor,” and “Boom Maker,” Rick Crooks. Crooks has been blind since age 16, when a gun accident robbed him of his eyesight, but he sees, ironically, things other people don’t. Crooks takes scraps–rusted metal gas cans, spent spark plugs, discarded tools, and he turns them into pieces of art–dragonflies and pelicans, turtles and alligators, tall giraffes and lumbering elephants. He uses the materials at hand. He hones the senses available to him.

Crooks’ work has been featured in private galleries. At the Y-Bridge Art Festival in Zanesville, Ohio, this August, his art won The People’s Choice award. Crooks takes what anyone else might call trash, what anyone else might throw away,–he takes the things he has– and he makes them into something compelling. (https://www.whiznews.com/2011/08/a-blind-artist-a-clear-vision/)

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I think about a wonderfully crafted, historically rich, mystery novel by Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club. Dallas tells the story of a group of women quilters in Dust Bowl Kansas in the 1930’s. They are farm wives and widows, mostly, or the businesses their husbands run depend upon the success of local farms to stay afloat. It is a time of parched drought and dangerous winds.

Queenie is the narrator, a valiant, young woman, buoyed by the love of a good man. Which is essential, because she has lost everyone else–parents dead, no extended family, and the baby she and Grover tried so hard to conceive born early with no chance of survival. The women of the Club surround and protect her, and still she is lonely–lonely for spark and adventure and youthful fun.

And that’s when Rita, the flashy, big city wife of Tom, Grover’s best friend, enters the scene.  Rita is rash and blunt and perfectly turned out.  She doesn’t understand the kind of life these women endure–the daily grind of farmwork appalls her.  And yet she tries to fit in, to match her hurried, slapdash stitches to the careful artistry of these women who have been quilting together, in one configuration or another, since the oldest of them received a gift of Persian Pickle fabric from her brand new husband years and years and years ago.

Rita comes to the quilters’ group with her mother-in-law; she admires the work of the women. She says that she wants to be a quilter, too, and she says she thinks that she’ll send Tom down to the five and dime to pick her up some  fabric so she can start.

There is a careful silence; the women don’t want to offend this hot-house flower, this exotic creature with whom Queenie longs, so deeply, to be friends. And then they reach into their bags of scraps, each of them, and they snip off bits of fabric.  They pass them to Rita. They tell her stories of where that fabric came from–whose dress, which shirt, which bridal bower. They anchor the swatches in time and place.  They give Rita the history of the bits and snippets of cloth they pass her way.

Because they know something Rita, for all her city ways and worldly knowledge, does not. They know that true art is created by salvaging the usable parts from the finally unredeemable dress, saving the scraps from the careful piecing of a shirt made for a hard-working brother, cutting the sheet–worn thin in the middle, into pieces for the scrap bag. Real art is made by taking these and crafting them into a blanket, a thing of beauty and vision.

Real art, Queenie knows, but cannot find the words to share with Rita–real art is made by using what you’ve got.

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Quilting wasn’t invented in the United States, but it seems to me a representation of the best kind of American spirit–that frontier, figure-it-out, what’s on hand, kind of passion and ingenuity. So you have the amazing creations of the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated hamlet that somehow encouraged generations of poor women to create bold, imaginative, out-of-the-box creations celebrated in a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.(http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers)

You have the bridal quilt, carefully folded and wrapped in tissue, kept in an aging cedar chest–a gift to a young bride in 1890 from her new mother-in-law.  Made from scraps, made into what most women recognized as the wedding ring pattern, the quilt warmed the marriage bed, soothed sick children, flapped on a clothes line in an autumn wind, became a treasured heirloom.  A thing created from leftovers, castaway bits, become a family treasure.

Now we try to buy that quality, rather than creating it.

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Don’t get me wrong. There is something wonderful about purchasing a piece of art from a creator like John Taylor-Lehman, about proudly displaying one of Rick Crooks’ sculptures on the family shelves. But it seems to me we’ve lost that urge to improvise, that creative spark that says, Hmm. What do I have that I could use instead?

So we watch Chip and Joanna Gaines uncover and celebrate the ship-lap paneling in an old Texas house, and we think, “I want that!” And we go out and buy ship-lap paneling to apply to, say, our northeastern walls. And it looks great, probably–it’s wonderful to recreate a warm and welcoming household ambience.

But.

The point of a ‘fixer-upper’ is to fix what you’ve got. Maybe I should be thinking, What’s under MY wall?

I think about artistic friends, Kay and Brian, who renovated an old gas station into an amazing sprawl of a funky, innovative, smile-making home.  In their little bathroom, parts of the plaster wall have chipped away, revealing the brick beneath. Brian and Kay, instead of patching or covering, have celebrated and highlighted the exposed brick, and the bathroom’s charm benefits incredibly.  Exposed brick: the north’s answer to ship-lap?

Only if you’ve got it. Use what you’ve got.

There’s a reason we loved MacGyver so much, loved that he cracked an egg into an overheated radiator to plug up its leaks and make his escape in a rusting, supposedly useless, beater he leveraged in an arid southwestern town.  MacGyver could take what was on hand, spread out his choices, pick and choose and cut and trim to fit. He could make machines work and messages fly and bad guys stop.  MacGyver had that thing we called ‘Yankee Ingenuity.’

If he didn’t have what he needed, he used what he had to make it.

These days, we’d often just go out and buy it.

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I’m missing something, I think, when I do that. I’m missing something when I run out of disposable wet-pads for my Swiffer and think, Well, I can’t wash the floor! Then I run across a pattern on Pinterest that tells me how to knit Swiffer pads, and I think: Wait a minute. I go searching for my rag bag, and I pull out a batch of soft white t-shirts, worn thin and holey in the armpits, that Mark has just let go of.  I trace a Swiffer pad onto the stack of t-shirts. I cut the soft cloth, which fits snugly onto the cleaning tool. I mix up a batch of cleaning potion, and I dip the improvised Swiffer pad into it.

Huh.  Looky there. I AM able to clean my floor.

I slip old socks onto my duster instead of buying disposable refills for that, too.

I amaze myself by being able to clean without shopping.

Use what you’ve got, I think.

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And what else could I be doing? We need baskets for the eternally messy cubbies in the dining room, and I think about running to the home store to buy them. And then I remember the stack of boxes in the basement, shoe boxes and packing boxes–boxes that, when I bring them up and slide them into the openings, fit perfectly into the cubbies.  They’re not pretty, though, and they don’t match, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to make them do.

I think of mod podge and my stack of glossy magazines and I think I can morph those boxes into organizing containers that fit snugly into the currently messy spaces.

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I find a children’s book in a stack in my closet. It’s boldly illustrated in blacks and reds and yellows–the colors, in fact, are the same colors I favor in my kitchen.  The book is old and tattered and not worthy of sharing with a child, and I could throw it out. Or–I could dig out the old picture frames and my matting tools, buried under those boxes I want to re-purpose. I could cull the prettiest, brightest pictures. I could matte and frame and hang them in my kitchen.

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I’m thinking of using the sad, limp veggies in the crisper to make some broth.

I’m thinking of crunching up the last of the frosted flakes to make tiger cookies, a recipe I loved as a child.

I’m thinking of long-simmered stews and casseroles and skillets that deftly, tastily, combine the things we have on hand.

I’m thinking of gift wrap and greetings and the yarn patiently waiting in my big craft basket.

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I’m thinking, this week, of quelling the impulse to shop out my needs.

I’m thinking of how to embrace the challenge.

I’m thinking I need to get better at using what I’ve got.

Once: A Whiter Shade of Pale in a Coppertoned World

The prompt in my writer’s book of days instructs, “Write about a chronic failure.” The slip of paper from my prompt jar (I’m greedy, I know: I always take two prompts, in case one is just awful) suggests “sun.” The two converge, and, I realize, this is the story prompted, needled out: that tale of a youth spent chasing a suntan.

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This summer, for the first time in decades, I pulled on my granny bathing suit and went to the swimming pool.

I was visiting a dear friend, a swimmer, who lives in a town with a community pool. And that community pool has what I like to call a ‘maturity hour,’ from 5 till 6 PM, when everyone under 18 is ejected.  The ejection of children means the young parents leave, too, and the ejection of pretty young women means all the interested young men exit voluntarily, as well. What’s left is the senior contingent, a gentle, friendly, group, non-taxing in terms of fitness or fashion.

While there were some eye-rollers–like the saggy, 80-year-old scrawny man in a Speedo–in that group, mostly there were people in modest suits, people of indeterminate body shape, varied skin tones, and different degrees of outdoor exposure.  There were a lot of people, I was gratified to note, whose legs, like mine, shone pale and white when we climbed out of the pool and into the shaded Adirondack chairs as the youthful horde was re-admitted at 6:00 on the nose. It was nice to be in company with some proudly pale–nice, because it certainly was not always thus.

******

“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

Someone would say that, and my mother’s head would pop up smartly. She’d march over to where I sat in the comfortably fuzzy red armchair, reading, maybe, one of those little biographies of historical people, or the story of Mrs. Mike, or a compelling tale about Freddy the Pig. She would pluck the book from my longing hands and point me abruptly outdoors.

Somedays, I’d be able to smuggle a book outdoors with me. I’d read in the shade of the scrubby old tree by the old brown, rickety garage–positioning myself BETWEEN tree and garage, so if Mom looked out, she wouldn’t see that I’d just moved my activity of choice to a place with rough bark and biting spiders.

Somedays, there’d be a wiffle ball or a kickball game in full play, and I would be allowed in, allowed to join the game that took place in our backyard ball field, where the base paths and pitcher’s mound were irrevocably pounded clean of grass and dandelions–bare dirt paths, always, despite determined seeding.

Somedays, friends would come over, and we would venture into the fields out back, to a little rise we called “the island,” and we would act out stories from books–Swiss Family Robinson adventures, maybe, or the lives of made-up lady explorers patterned on people we’d read about in our aging geography texts at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.

But it didn’t matter. I could be outdoors from dawn till dusk, and the next day, a visitor might say it again.

“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

********
I didn’t care about my paleness until the summer after eighth grade  That year, I lost a great deal of weight. That summer I became aware of rules of attractiveness and attractivity.

That summer, in the waning years of the 1960’s, a time of Coppertone ads and aggressive tanning all based on the actual sun,–that year, I began to want a tan.

Back then, my red hair was natural, and I had a redhead’s pale, milky-blue skin. One of my brothers told me that I was actually a rare kind of albino–there are only a few, he said, that have red hair and pigment in their eyelashes; only a few, and they tend to die very young. Probably, in fact, he said, around age 14,–and I, of course, was almost 13 then.

As gullible as I was ashen, the knowledge of my doom kept me awake for about a week. Finally, tiredness etching purple circles even more deeply under my eyes, and my mother wondering if perhaps an emetic of some sort might be in order, I confessed to her my imminent demise. She went tearing through the house in search of my helpfully informative brother. Relieved to know my paleness didn’t signal an early death, I went back to yearning for a golden, sun-kissed glow.

It was not a time of SPF’s or sun-blockers; it was an era of baby oil and foil reflectors. We made the reflectors ourselves, covering torn chunks of folded cardboard boxes with aluminum foil filched from the kitchen cupboard (“PAMELA!!!!  Where is my foil???????”), holding them under our chins so the friendly sun would bounce up to warm our winter-white faces, intensifying the tanning purportedly taking place, unenhanced, every place else.

Maybe those foil reflectors worked.  Some of my friends had perfectly tanned faces. Some had batches of freckles (“the map of Ireland,” my father called those friendly spots) that intensified; they threatened to connect, they were so dense.

My face burned a bright vermilion. I would take off my glasses at night, and the shape of those glasses would still be there, crisp white lines etched perfectly onto the burned skin.  I would rub Noxzema lotion into my hot red cheeks.  Friends told me not to worry; their burns always morphed gently into tans.

Two days later, my face would once again be pale.  My legs remained resolutely white.

Someone suggested, or a book somewhere opined, that mixing iodine into the baby oil would call out a tan.  I used babysitting money to buy a bottle of iodine at West Drug, walking downtown one exciting morning on this quest.  I mixed my potion and placed my blanket down in the backyard–scrupulously regular, in those summers before working obligations messed with tanning time–between 11 AM and 2 PM each day.  I wanted the sun’s peak rays.  I wanted to evenly offer up both sides to the possibility of sun-kissed skin.

Sometimes, I imagined Looney Tunes vultures circling high above, squinting at my oil-soaked body and trying to decide if what they saw was indeed a giant slice of well-marbled bacon. I endured the visits of the boy next store, a nice guy with a unibrow (“He has a crush on you,” my mother insisted, but I knew he pined deeply for my dear friend Sandi), who always threatened to get the hose and soak me.

The iodine seemed, maybe, to increase my chances of burning. And I never seemed to get the equal toasting of each side correct.  Often my front would be raging red, while my nether parts were forlornly white. Sometimes my shoulders would burn so badly they blistered, and the wearing of dainty underwear was a socially necessary torture.

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I discovered tennis. I became passionate about the game and about the nice group of people who hung around the tennis courts. They were mostly a year older than I; they were oh-so-nicely tanned–some had natural sun streaks in their flippy hair. They were mostly boys, cute and smart and funny. I spent hours on the tennis courts, falling in and out of love.

The courts were new. They glinted in the sun, reflecting its rays–someone told me they were an environmentally friendly mix of paving materials and ground up glass. A miracle happened: by the beginning of July that summer, my legs had warmed to a soft creamy beige. My friends still laughed as they stretched their bronzed limbs beside mine.  But there was color there–color like the hue of a teaspoon of coffee mixed with a cup of skim milk.

It gave me hope. See? I thought. If I just work diligently enough, sun-warmed color IS possible.

There followed years of foolish pursuit–of nights, in the college years, spent working at the ice cream factory, and days falling asleep beside my good friend’s swimming pool. Water, they say, intensifies the burning power of the sun.  I would wake up hours later, the baby oil baked away, in pain and howling. One side would be neon, with the other side looking like unbaked dough.  And then I’d rush home to pull on painful white polyester work clothes and go to the land of popsicle packing.

One night during that particular summer, after a long day of sun-sleep, parboiled and aching, we went to dinner, some of us, at our friend Polly’s.  Polly was a complete original, short and round and fearlessly magnetic. Long before it was a practice, she was living with her fiance, and too bad if her parents didn’t like it. You didn’t dare Polly, and you knew, if there was a new and dangerous thing to be tried, she’d be the first in line for the trying.

That night,–that humid, 90-degree night,–she had decided to cook a full-out turkey dinner in her stuffy upstairs, un-air-conditioned, apartment. And we, because being in Polly’s circle was so much fun, we trooped up to eat turkey, despite our sweaty trepidations.

I was especially taken by the stuffing, which had a zingy herbal shimmer, and Polly, glinty of eye, delighted in spooning more onto my dish.

We ate the dinner; we quaffed, unwisely, a chilly glass of wine or two, and we took it in turns to don our work clothes in Polly and Ken’s tiny bathroom.  And then Polly asked, moments before we trooped down the stairs to work our graveyard shift, just how we’d liked the stuffing.

“It was good!” I said. “It was different.  What kind of spices did you use?”

Polly beamed. “Marijuana!” she said. “I sautéed marijuana in the butter with the onion.”

I thought about the six or seven helpings she had scooped onto my plate.  A little bubble of panic rose.

“Ah,” I said.

And then the panic bubble softly popped. Behind it rose a cluster of giggles. We bustled down the stairs; we punched in at the factory floating a few inches above the popsicle-slicked floor.

“Ladies!” greeted our brusque, rough boss.

“Ah,” I replied softly and I positioned myself in front of the rows of marching popsicles. That evening I played those pops like a Fantasia symphony, flipping and packing them, gentling them beautifully into their boxy cardboard cradles. When people spoke to me, I smiled and answered with a whispered, “Ah.” The work shift floated by, and I went home to sleep, and then to wake with a horribly raging sunburn I hadn’t much noticed the wafty night before.

I  decided against repeating the pot remedy for sunburn  pains; I was smart enough, at least, never again to report for work, in that scary place of immense sharp chopping things, under that kind of influence.

At last I determined, instead, to try to fake a tan. Coppertone’s QT–that was the product then, guaranteed to turn legs a satisfying shade of beautiful bronze.  One rubbed it on; one waited a mere three hours. Color began to bloom.

Permanent and un-staining, the color was guaranteed to last a week.

Don’t do it! friends warned. It will turn your skin an awful shade of orange. And they cited sad examples.

I looked at the tube. I looked at the mushroom white of my uncooperative skin, and I thought that ANY color would be better than no color.

I slathered my legs with QT, and I waited to orange up.

Three hours later, my legs were the same sheltered shade of white they’d been when I had started.

It was time, I finally realized, to give up. I was never, by any means, going to achieve a glorious golden tan.

And then the connection between skin cancers and overtanning became widely evident, and I could feel a little justified in my white, white tones.  I cultivated gauzy, soft, pants; I explored floaty shirts with three-quarter length sleeves.  I swam, of course, with kids and students and at family get-togethers.  I swam, and then I covered up.

And then the vortex of the middle-aged years swept in, and even family swimming in the midst of busy summers ceased happening. Reasons to be abashed by my whiteness in a sea of healthy tans just up and disappeared.  The quest for even a pale, fine tan: it fizzled out and faded away.

Until this summer, when swimming in the company of other unconcerned people brought those memories roaring back.

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

It is good, I think now, good to be at an age when I can gently laugh at my young yearning for some kind of physical perfection,–something, of course, that is always out of reach. How nice–how wonderful–to be so far beyond those days that the things that were the underlying pleasure–like the splash of chilly water on a muggy, scalding day–can be appreciated without self-consciousness.  Enjoyed merely because it’s refreshing–and not because I look good doing it.

What I had then, my friend, was a failure to tan, and an unwise worship of an unrelenting sun.  My quest was always doomed to failure.  I think I must have learned something from it, something about individual style and being happy with who I was–and something about always asking Polly for a list of ingredients before eating anything she fixed.

Now I enjoy my outdoor times early in the mornings and in the last warm glow of summer nights. I can sit and listen to the cicada harmonies and smell the spice of Ohio outdoors after a lovely summer rain; I can stretch my long, white, battle-scarred legs, propping my feet on the coffee table Mark made from an old swinging door, and I can be content. I am who I am; we glow how we’re made. It’s enough.

************
And anyway. I’ll always have  that one, glorious, tennis-playing summer when I, actually and proudly, achieved beige.

And to Think That I Saw It On the Drive to Mount Vernon!

(With apologies for mine  to you know wheuuusss…)

I was driving, on a Sunday,
in my car, down Maple Street,
anticipating conversation
with good friends
I sped to meet,
When I spied a cheery figure,
her magenta hair in rows,
and her boisterous sky-blue tunic
topping vibrantly pink hose.
She clutched a fuzzy puppy;
she had her neon laces loose
And I thought her a creation
from the pages of Doc Seuss.

Girl
It occurred to me
as I sped by
my Hyundai’s wheels a-turnin’
That I never know
what I might see
while driving to Mount Vernon.

Down by the mall
I saw a man
A pullin’ on a cart
emblazoned with a Bible verse
to chill the sinner’s heart.
He pulled the cart
He marched along
Flags, behind, unfurled.
Stared straight ahead,
His visage grim,
A message for the world.

Cart man.jpg

I drove on past
that messenger
his public passion burnin’
There really is a lot to see
While driving to Mount Vernon.

And then I left the busy streets,
Turned onto country roads
All empty but occasional
big trucks with
heavy loads.
In a clearing,
on my left,
old schoolhouse, sagging roof.
A bent-back building where once,
I think,
young scholars sought their truth
Ghosts of teacher, rowdy kids,
wisps:
mischief,
industry,
learnin’,
A bit of history crumbles
on the roadway to
Mount Vernon.

School

I passed an old Impala
that was Pepto-Bismol hued,
and a confederate-flag-decked
pick up truck:
rear-view message, RUDE.
And I passed a sky-blue Prius–
bumper sticker: “Co-Exist.”
And I guessed that Mr. Pick-Up Guy
Would read that,
and be pissed.

Truck better

So I saw a lot of slogans
Presenting varied
bents and turnin’s.
There’s LOTS to notice
if I look
while drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

And I passed some country churches.
Some just humble.
Some, big-steepled.
And it was Sunday morning, after all:
those places were well-peopled.
And I like to read
the signs out front.
One offered,
“Baked steak supper!”
Another told me
Jesus is
The Quicker Picker-Upper.

Sign

Quite unsure
what that
meant to mean,
I hoped
the steak-bakers
had great earnings,
and I pondered different kinds of faith
As I was drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

I rounded a curve, slid windows up:
the air was getting muggy.
And it was getting sort of perfumed, too,
behind an Amish buggy.
The girls and women,
headed for church,
their horse, sedately clopping.
But up ahead,
the men raced fast,–
one on horseback.
They weren’t stopping.

Women

I zigged and I zagged
past horse-propelled folk,
past wooden cart wheels
turnin’…
I saw many different
modes of life
While drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

And so I arrived a little late;
those sights had made me pokey.
I tumbled out to talk about
Michelle Obama’s karaoke
and well-read books
and recipes
and thoughts on faith and living,
About leaky pipes
and petty gripes
(these dear friends are forgiving.)

The talk meandered, rich and deep,
just what I’d been yearnin’;
A wonderful gift,
a great reward,
for drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

A Freshening

Bathroom Map 2

I dismiss the basement half-bath when we move in.  It is a scary little space, tucked into the back of the basement, behind the stairs. It is cobwebbed and dank, with thin walls abetting its cinder-block sides. It hints of other, lesser beings–spiders and blind-eyed crawling things, rodents, and unknown invaders–who might have taken up residence.

I shudder, and Mark uses the space to store the many shutters we remove from the windows throughout the house. He stacks and leans them inside the ramshackle wall.  There is no door; the only privacy comes from an old pink patterned shower curtain that pulls across a sagging bar. As nice as it would be to have three working bathrooms in the house–imagine, three people: three commodes!–I write off the little space and walk off into busyness and forgetful time.

Some years pass, and Jim grows into young manhood, and he becomes interested in the basement, a warm, dry, claimable space–a space that could be a suite, an efficiency apartment, almost. We start thinking about possibilities.  Mark moves his tools and his workshop out to the unused garage, rigs up a fan, cleans and organizes.

Jim moves his desk and TV and video game systems into the basement.

We go to funky restaurants and look up at the bare-beamed ceilings with their industrial style pot lights, urban, hip, and fun, and we think: our basement ceiling is made of beautiful beams.  It could look like that. We could create this look, this feel.

To make it a fully functional space for Jim, it would be great to have a little kitchen, and it would be great to have a working bathroom, too. And so, one day,–after Mark confessed that he often went downstairs to iron a shirt of a morning and availed himself of the little commode,–“Works great,” he said,–I thought: Okay. Let’s clean it up.

We have, after all, dozens of pails of paint left over from our initial transformation of this house. There is a lovely sky blue, especially, in quantity.  And there are tubs and tubs of glossy white.

So I pull on some plastic gloves and Mark moves the shutters, stashing them under the basement stairs. We throw out the old mouse bait (I tuck fresh bait up into the rafters, just in case); we plug up some suspicious holes with steel wool, and we fill a tall kitchen trash bag with various stuff that had been moldering.  I fire up the shop vac and rid the space of a thick patina of grime and detritus, the nasty, hanging-down fuzziness of neglected basement.  Cleared and open, the space seems safer, more possible.

And now I can fill buckets with steaming soapy water and scrub–scrub walls and ducts and sink and toilet, scrub floor and cinder blocks and pipes.  With my hands in the hot water, wielding the rags, rubbing the outlines of the essential components of this small, forgotten space, I begin to know it. I begin to see what it could really look like, how it could be made to feel.

This could be more than functional, I think.  This could be clean and fun and welcoming.  We could–and then I think: We WILL–transform this space.

And so, of course, we go to Lowes. We buy high-powered, darned near explosive stuff to put in the toilet tank, stuff guaranteed to blast off years of grime and and crud. (It works.) We buy a pristine white toilet seat to replace the translucent gold one, the one that has triangular floating shapes frozen into its amber, a look I sort of remember from friends’ homes way back when, new builds in the 1960’s.

We look at sinks to fit the little niche where the tiny, vintage, corner sink is now, working but rusty. We buy, instead, a paint kit to rejuvenate the aging, perfectly-sized ceramic fixture.

We buy kick-butt cleaner, and we buy cement floor treatment.

Armed, we go home and work.  We paint the upper walls blue. We paint the duct-work and the cinder blocks (real cinder blocks, black and powdery-dense on their insides) a bright white. We scrub the sink. We sandblast the commode. We soak all the fixtures in a pungent solution of sanitizing bleach.

The little bathroom, like a sad and matted, neglected beast, seems to stretch and sigh and expand. We are rubbing away the filthy false layers. We are honing in upon the true.

And, oh, it feels good to do that.

*********

I know this to be true: I was an odd child. I did not dream of horses or get lost in the dressing of my dolls.  But when we drove, each summer weekend, to Cassadaga Lake to swim, I would watch for the little shack that perched on the side of a hill, jutting out from a new-growth woods, and I would virtually engineer its transformation. Thick plaid blankets, I would think, could insulate the walls against the snow-bearing winds of winter. I would imagine innovative heating–fireplaces made from stacked stone–, and rustic beds, and hand-hewn furniture. I would imagine a comfortable life in the woods on that hill, in a space that others had overlooked and dismissed. I would ponder possibilities in a space reclaimed, re-imagined, transformed.

That was the activity that engrossed me, the silly, childish kind of daydream I had buried until transforming the little bathroom woke it up.

***********

From beneath my cluttered craft table, in a box of treasures to one day be formatted, matted, and framed, I pluck three plastic maps. They are bas-relief geology maps; the mountains punch up, rivers snaking through them to the broad blue sea. I found them years ago in the trash-bin of a geology classroom that was being repurposed; I begged permission, and then I took them home to ponder them.

Now I think they might be the perfect artwork for a young man’s bathroom.

Mark buys wooden molding, and we find a tin of rich mahogany stain on the paint room shelves, and Jim treats the wood.  Mark takes it out, when dry, to his garage workshop. He uses his scary, venerable chop-saw to miter corners and build us some frames.

The maps, framed, transform the bathroom space.  On the blue walls, they stand out, capture interest.  They say, ‘This is a cared for space.’  At a junk store, we find a kind of wooden pillar to hold rolls of toilet paper. We rescue the goofy ceramic moose toothbrush holder from its stashed-away obscurity. We remember a couple of decorative shelves we can mount, and a painting that would be perfect to lean on the ledge. The tiny neglected powder room, tucked away in the recesses of the basement, begins to glow.

At odd times, in moments of sudden quiet, I run downstairs to visit it.

I scrub the floor with the special cement treatment, and I paint it a battle-ship gray, covering splots and scratches. The clean new floor transforms the space completely.

Visiting a friend, hitting a wonderful second hand store, I find rugs and a thick white shower curtain to provide privacy until Mark frames out the new doorway. I throw the old pink monstrosity into the wash (drop cloth!), and I soak and scrub the chunky shower curtain hooks. At night, images of the floor float in my mind.  Could I use paint and sharpie and polyurethane to create faux tiles?

**********
The little bathroom is reborn, and I see an article in Country Living about a laundry room, transformed, and I go down and eye the side of the basement that houses the washer and dryer.  Stashed in the paint room is the indoor-outdoor rug I had in my former office, a cheerful expanse with splashy green and purple and orange asterisk-stars emblazoned.  Wouldn’t that look nice?

I grab Mark. We head to Lowes.

*******

Because if we can transform these little places, these inanimate things, what else could happen? If our labors peel the layers and reveal these potentials–well, think of it.  Well else might we be able to do?

A Flabby Granny Hits the Gym

I walk in behind a beautifully togged, perfectly lean, runner. Her bouncy blonde hair is swooped up in a pert pony tail, and her form fitting ‘wick-away-the sweat’ polyesters are fluorescent rose and black and pink.  Her socks and running shoes, of course, match her outfit. There is not an ounce of fat on the woman.

She slows at the door, strides in, crows, “SIX today!” and high fives a petite brunette, who breaks from her dainty, darned near a split, stretching to reach out a congratulatory hand.  They bounce on the balls of their feet for a minute, then head off together to the members’ locker room.

A grizzled, toned gentleman runs down the stairs and leaps in front of me to the desk, where he leans on his elbows and grins at the attendant.  She hands him a thick white towel, and he tells her just how many crunches and lifts and other absurdly painful rituals he has performed today.

The gym: it is not a place for the faint of heart or the less than enthusiastic of spirit.

And yet: here I am.

**********

I am here because I get a twenty-five per cent discount at this gym from my place of work and, since this beautiful new facility opened a year or two ago, the price of membership has dropped by about half. Now even my tight, frugal heart can embrace the cost.

I am here because, as a family, we have realized that the long winter past has snugged our britches and broadened our butts…and that another cold dark eating  season approaches.

I am here because this summer has been so hot, averaging well over ninety degrees, that taking a nice brisk three mile walk is a major production, complete with iced water bottles and warnings about symptoms of heat prostration.  This gym, now: it is air conditioned.

I am here because, in exactly one month, my walking buddy Wendy and I will be striding proudly in a walking 10-K, and I want to be practiced and ready.

I am here for my health, and my family’s health, and to stave off those nasty cramping effects of aging.

I am here for many good reasons.

But I don’t have to like it.

*********

My son James has embraced the concept of the gym, and he accompanies me today.  We swipe our membership key cards under the laser, catch the red band, and hear the “Peep!” that means we’re good to go.  We bound upstairs to where a vast field of exercise machines are encircled by the track (twelve laps = one mile).

James and I, we like the treadmills, and we spy two at the end of a long row. We walk down an aisle, between haughty, lean people in spanky exercise gear; on our left, they’re on machines that have their feet marching up and down and their arms reaching up and down and surging back  and forth. The treadmills are on our right, and excessive young idiots have them turned up to 15 or something, and they are RUNNING.  On the treadmill.

“Show offs,” mutters Jim. Then he looks innocently away when a dapper young runner turns his head sharply.

We march down the row and find our treadmills.  I pull my Ipod out of my pocket and unravel the ear buds, and turn it on.  First I pull up the fitness app and hit the button for “Walking.”  (I don’t need no stinkin’ Fit Bit.)  Then I turn the music on, and push the buds into my ears, and Dave Matthews croons that I must be an angel.

I straddle the belt and turn on the machine, which hums slowly into life at a speed of about ‘1’.  I step on the track and start ramping up the pace until I am walking at a speed of ‘3.6’.  I have no idea what that means,–3.6 whats???– but my goal is a 15-minute walking mile, and this pace gives me a 16 minute mile–right there in the neighborhood. I stride along; and Dave Matthews gives way to Leonard Cohen, reminding me we’ll take Manhattan before we take Berlin.

James is happily walking along on the machine next to me. He, more tech savvy than his mother, has downloaded his play list onto his smart phone; he bops to, no doubt, bands like Metallica and the Beastie Boys. James has retro, hard metal tastes.  I haven’t yet asked him to transfer my playlist from IPod to IPhone, so I have the phone in one pocket, the music in the other.

I stride.

The bank of TV’s in front of us offer all kinds of intellectual fare, from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ episodes to the movie, ‘Ted.’  My mind wanders. Am I, I wonder, the only person in this place with pockets in my shorts?  I am wearing a pair of older denim shorts and a baggy T-shirt emblazoned with the name of my undergrad school. Both have touches, here and there, of paint.  I love to transform rooms and furniture with cheerful coats of innocuous latex.  My husband claims that I am a paint magnet, though; he says I could paint a border on the floor and wind up with paint on top of my head, on the shoulders of my shirt, and on the waistband of my pants.

All of my leisure clothes sport paint, even ones, I swear, that were in the drawer while I was painting.  I don’t care, but I do notice, now I think of it, some of those spanky-clad people looking at me a little pityingly.

James, next to me, is blissfully, unconcernedly, clad in his hot weather uniform: a Hawaiian shirt (base color maroon) over an orange T-shirt, and khaki cargo shorts. His Nikes are old and comfortable and he pulls his socks up to his knees. One of the gifts his autism gives him–and really, there are gifts aplenty, if one looks–is a total unconcern for the subtle pressure of peers or the imminent threats of committing fashion faux pas. Should someone say to him, “I think those shorts are last year’s style,” he would simply reply, “I LIKE these shorts,”  and continue on.  It’s one of the many qualities about the boy I greatly admire.

But perhaps we do make a quaint pair at the trendy new gym.  I noticed last weekend, when Mark came with us to work out, he grabbed a stationary bike about a half mile away from our tread mills.

***********
My dashboard tells me I have completed 1.5 miles, so I chug down to a barely moving speed, turn off my machine, and head off to the track.  I notice, as I walk, trying to maintain a pace close to ‘3.6’, that there are, really, lots of regular folks among the tanned and lean and incredibly fit denizens.  There’s a sweet couple on the tread mills, maybe seventy or so, who reach out and hold hands every once in a while.  They smile and wave every time I pass them.  I round the curve and pass the weight area; an anguished looking plump man presses iron under the watchful eye of what must be his fitness coach–a service that comes with the premium membership, or for which you can pay extra.

Hah.  One of our adjuncts, Kendra, who is absolutely wonderful, and probably weighs now about what she weighed in fifth grade, is a fitness coach here.  She did a wonderful wellness series for the employees at the College, too.

She scared the horse hockey out of me.

Before each session, she would plunk down her little electronic scale and fire it up, tapping people as they arrived, making them step on it, and recording the read out. “No flipping way,” I’d think, hiding around the corner until it was time to begin, and, after searching the hallway once last time, Kendra reluctantly grabbed the scale, put it in her bag, and dragged her equipment into the classroom.  When she was well and surely in, I would sprint down the hallway, push through the door, and, trying to exude that aura one has when she’s been busily doing some terribly important, apologize for being late AGAIN.

“I’ll catch you after class,” Kendra would mouth, but I always had to run off immediately to a meeting.

Kendra talked to us about diet; and I perked up when she said eating healthily did not mean giving up treats.  Thank God! I thought.  Kendra passed out recipes, and I looked at the first. Carob Balls, it read.  They had nut butter and flax seed, and if you really HAD to have that extra sweetness, a soupcon of honey, and Kendra confessed that sometimes she had TWO Carob Balls at a time. In the photo on the recipe, the balls appeared to be about the size of one of the beads on my necklace.

How many calories do you need to expend to burn off the gigundo sized Heath Bar Blizzard? I wondered to myself. And I gathered up my stuff, readying to run away as soon as fitness class was over.

At the gym, Kendra teaches things like Hot Yoga and Spinning and Pounding and Cycling.

I like to walk, but I am thinking that, if I am feeling greatly daring later this month, I may sign up for something as exotic as water aerobics.

***********

I walk past the overview that looks out over the two pools and watch people churning the water.  I think I’d like to get into shape enough to do water laps.

Maybe by November.

But for now, I walk, enjoying the movement, the camaraderie with my son, the sense that we are taking a step into a healthier lifestyle. I am sleeping better, and I’m feeling more energetic, and I’m confident now that I won’t let Wendy down when we walk our 10-K on 9/11. Eighteen laps melt away; Jim waves and slows his machine down. I wind down and wait for him.

As we leave, some of the spanky people on the machines smile at us and wave. Well, heck, I think, they’re kind of real people too, aren’t they? and I grin back and give them a thumbs up.  The nice attendants call us by name, tell us they’ll see us tomorrow maybe.  I give them a thumbs up, too.

I have joined gyms before, and quickly backslid, but this time, I think it’s working.  I’m committed; I have a goal. I have companions on the journey. I even have new shorts coming, via UPS, any day now.  They’re gray and they’re baggy, but they have not one drop of paint upon them, yet.

And I feel the magic of regular exercise working.  My clothes fit a little better.  My legs feel a little stronger.  I might, I think, take my walking and turn it into running.

And at just that moment, I see Kendra rounding the corner, and I think, Maybe today’s the day.

“Come on, James!” I challenge, and we bolt out the doors, into the warm night, heading for the safety of the car.

An Ordinary Week, Triumphant

 

I clip the leash on to the little dog’s collar and we step out into pale morning sunshine.  This early, the air is cool, and I think I will bring my coffee and IPad outside and sit on the repurposed chair, with its plush new cushion, and write this morning. I’ll pour steaming coffee into my Hartstone mug, the one with the pansies–but first, the insistent little dog needs her morning walk.

We head down the driveway, and we veer to the left.  Greta sniffs and grumbles among the rocks in Shirley’s landscaping, tippy-toeing around the plantings, investigating last night’s rich residue of smells.  In the hard, caked dirt, there are exactly round drill-holes, the evidence that the cicadas were here, vividly present for much of May and June. Now the offspring of those noisy, vanquished conquerors have begun their long slow burrow below.

Birds call; a robin pulls a tidbit from the dirt on the other side of Shirley’s lawn. I just read something about birds and their relationship to dinosaurs, and now I can’t help but picturing T-Rex with feathers. Or seeing hidden meaning in the bright, bold glint of a robin’s eye. This one ignores me, hopping into clumsy flight, its morning treat dangling from its beak.

****

I think, as I wander alongside the exploring hound, about last night’s presentation at the Gant House, where Anita Jackson, with a simple prop or two, made the character of Anna Maria Gant come alive.  Love’s difficult when you’re enslaved: that was a big part of Anita’s message, and she told the story of the Gants in the mid-1800’s, owned by different people but united in lawful marriage.  When Nelson’s owner died and left him free, Anna Maria was still someone’s personal belonging. Nelson worked all summer to earn a thick bundle of bills; he came and put it on the mistress’s table.

And she, Anita showed us, laughed at him.

Nelson persevered, and he finally purchased his wife’s freedom; they started a family, and they left a legacy, spiraling from the building where we sat, watching Anita bring them back to life. We looked at the transom over the door, with ‘NT GANT’ etched into the fine old glass, and we thought about their triumph.

We listened to a local lawyer share a tale with a different ending, of a man from the same era who’d escaped slavery and settled into Zanesville. Who, after three years of freedom, was returned back into slavery by the local sheriff.  That sheriff argued that he was bound to uphold the law, the lawyer said, but he was excommunicated by his church, which held that God’s law supersedes man’s.

Too late for the slave, though, who disappeared back into the system of bondage.

We listened, Mark and I, and then we talked to friends afterward in the full and milling room.

This week, we remembered that history also burrows into the ground where we walk–that tragedies and triumphs both have led to this time now.

*****
We reach the end of the morning’s forward march, Greta and I, and turn back so she can start to re-snuffle all the things she’s just explored. And I think about the visit yesterday, in the building where my office is, of a wonderful group of adults from the local disability services center.  We’ve partnered with them, our little college, providing rooms for meetings and an aud for a movie and a venture into adapting technology at the IDEA Lab.

Those partnerings have provided times of fun and laughter and opportunities for thought and growth; they have been gifts in themselves, the events, but the folks involved wanted to thank the college a little more tangibly. They brought in little glass jars. Each one was labelled with a letter, spelling out ‘FANS’…an acronym for friends and neighbors. Our visitors filled the jars with candy, with Twix and  Milky Ways and Snickers bars. They set a pan of home-baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter, and they provided paper plates and napkins.

The display was resplendent (we eyed the goodies greedily), and the providers turned from it with happy smiles, proud and generous.

“I LIKE your purple shirt!” Miss J said to my colleague Jaime, and when I asked if I could snap a photo on my phone, young Mr. B. ran over to give Jim, our CHRO, a big, spontaneous hug.

JIm and Mr B

The hubbub drew a few faculty from their offices and a few interested students from the lounge on that late summer day, and there was a warm little group to appreciate this lovely act of giving.

We focus, Missy Hartley, who coordinates the outreach, told me months ago, on people’s strengths, and not their weaknesses–a person-centered philosophy. People with disabilities have a lot to share, in tangibles and in other, deeper, ways. 

This week I was reminded of that; and in the loving acts of this gentle group, I saw a different kind of triumph.

*****
Greta and I reach the car port; I stash the evidence of our walk in the trash, unhook her tether, and we go inside to get her treat. I gather up my coffee and my aging technology, and I head outside to the cool and quiet patio. I cast my thoughts back over this ordinary week. This week we joined, after much dithering and indecision, a beautiful gym on the college campus.  It’s a gleaming two story building across the road, on the furthest reach of the College drive, nuzzling up against the nature walk.  It has two pools and it has an indoor track.  There are treadmills and stationary bikes and coaches and classes. We vowed, this time, to use our memberships regularly.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, my son James got up in time to come to work with me at 7:00.  He left his book-bag in my office and he took his laptop over to the gym and he came back, grinning, 90 minutes later.

“I walked on the treadmill for 36 minutes,” he said proudly, “and burned off 96 calories.”  He wedged his laptop up in front of him, he said, put it where one might rest a book, and he typed as he strode on the moving belt.

“It was pretty cool,” said my autistic son, for whom new people and unfamiliar places can be pretty daunting challenges, and he allowed how he can’t wait to go back.

*****

Maybe, now I think about it, triumph’s all around me.

*****
This week, a friend is feeling better after the latest round of chemo has rassled its way through her system, broadening the part in her hair, wreaking havoc with her digestion, but doing, we pray each day, its harsh and hopeful work.

This week another gutsy friend dared to put her vision out there, to interview for a wonderful new job. It’s a position where she could take her gifts and broadcast them wholesale, helping thousands instead of hundreds, sending ripples far out in our endless sea. A dreamer, a do-er, she cast her longing out there into highly competitive waters. We’re praying her power links slickly and solidly with the enterprise that, surely and certainly, needs her wondrous talent.

But, even if that doesn’t happen, there is power in the daring.

This week, we used the bounty of Randy’s fields to cook up a pot of veggie soup, to swirl together an imaginative stir-fry, and to simmer a big batch of tangy chili. We are learning about using peppers–Hungarian, banana, and jalapeno. We are circling around the habaneros, wondering if we’ve got what it takes to appreciate them fully.  And we are enjoying the sunshine in the flavors, and the zest of locally grown foods.

New tastes. New explorations. A little culinary triumph.

*****

In fact, I realize as I write this morning, there’s been a lot of the triumphant in this mundane and ordinary week.  One little, hardly unusual, barely remarkable week: but fully triumphant.  Seeds were planted. Seeds flourish. Hardship is endured to bring on the next stage, the blossoming.

Is this ALWAYS there, I wonder today, amid the bustle, below the bellowing, these real and vibrant, important things? Prayer forms: Please keep me awake–don’t let me miss it.  Help me strong-arm the frou-frau off the table and help me see the triumphs–triumphs past, and new, and brewing–triumphs that are surely there, just as now, in every ordinary week.

Finally: An Outsider, Again

A book, outside.jpg

A breeze touches my cheek, and I put down my book and listen.

A shrilling up-swells, a screeching of cicada reminiscent of early summer’s seventeen year infestation–but these must be the ordinary garden variety of the insect, not a plague.  From across the street and over the hill comes the WAHwahWAHWAHWAH of a Charlie Brown-grown-up voice. The announcer at the Smiling Goat is bringing on the rock band. Crowd noise tinsels and thrums, and the bass pounds hard in the summer night, back-beating a song I cannot discern.

Cars swish by on still wet streets–it rained once, twice, three times today. Once, the sky converged into darkness and hail preceded pounding rain and the little dog cowered in her corner refuge by the basement door. It was serious weather, frightening.  Sad to leave the trembling dog alone, we switched on lights and turned the TV on to PBS–a constant undercurrent of conversation–when we left for Jim’s appointment in Columbus. But by the time we’d had our pizza and come home, the urgency had resolved, and the rain had pounded away much of the humidity. The dog was glad to see us and happy to run outside.

Now birds call and respond calmly; the pounding rain has left them settled, too.  And the air is cool and pleasant–the first real, natural spot of cool after a week of blistering humidity.

I have vowed, this summer, to spend the end of each day–that thin slice of time after the dinner is cleared away and the dishes done, bills paid, calls returned, outfit for the next day sorted and ironed, the moments the sky sucks in a breath before darkening–outside on the old brick patio behind the house.  I will take my book and I will remember what it is like to rejoice in summer and the chance just to be, outside.

*********
The last time I remember living without air conditioning was the day we moved into the mobile home that was our haven during Mark’s law school years. We convoyed up to the trailer park in the late afternoon of the hottest day of the summer–97 degrees, high humidity; somehow, among the three of us, we needed to unload a UHaul’s worth of household into that trailer.  Thank God, we said, and it wasn’t just a saying, thank GOD, we’ve got central air.

We unlocked the metal doors of our new home and creaked open the windows to let the mustiness escape, and Mark went in and turned the central air on.  A blast of cold air jittered out, and then the machine’s whirring shuddered to a stop.

It never ran again. We learned, on that interminable, sweat-soaked day, just how hot a rectangular metal building sitting in full sun can grow.  We finally quit lifting, unpacking, organizing, when it grew dark, and we threw blankets on the living room floor, turned on a fan, and slept, exhausted and fitful. And the next morning, we went to Lowe’s and bought four window units that worked for the rest of the hot season, and for the whole of our stay in that mobile home, efficiently chilling those 720 square feet.

The houses we’ve lived in since then have working central air.  The weather gets warm and we set the dial to automatic, and all summer long–parts of spring and fall, too–it chugs into life whenever the house even threatens to get hot.

***********
But.

There was a time when the warm weather was a friend, and its coming something to be celebrated.  The day–oh, that wonderful day–when the mother pursed her lips and deemed that, yes, you could go outside without a jacket–that was the day the warm weather season began.  The warm weather season was like a big pool of adventure, and I learned to throw myself into it, finally, after years of hearing this:

Get your nose out of that book and play outside!

I DID like to play outside.  I liked the endless games of kickball and wiffleball that wore our backyard grass down to hard dirt, laying bare the batter’s box, the pitcher’s mound, the base paths.  I liked to kick the ball and hit the ball; I was not so good at catching or throwing.  In today’s more specific world, I’d be a designated hitter.  Then, I was both gift and liability.  Someone was always assigned to run over and cover my right field area in the rare event a hit came my way.

That was okay; the standing and watching, throwing in an occasional encouraging yell, and then wandering in, when the three outs had been achieved, to another round of at bats–that oddly welcome vacuum of time was a joy in itself.

There was a seasonal right of passage in those days called ‘taking down the storm windows.’  (It reversed itself each fall, when the ‘putting up’ occurred.) Dad would get out the big extension ladder and circumnavigate the house, unscrewing and lifting off the heavy wood and glass winter windows.  He’d take them down and wash them, and he’d put away in the loft of the old garage.

Then he’d hose down the screens; when they were dry, he’d drag them up the ladder, one by one. It frightened me to watch him, far above, using both hands to fit the screen window into its space.  He was surefooted and unfazed by the height, but I got dizzy just watching and had to retreat–maybe to the cool of the porch and the call of my book.

But when he was done, fresh air began to swirl through the house, and a sense of openness and possibility prevailed.

In summer, friends would come over to play; for a brief period, three of us girls, in a first religious fervor, decided to build a mock altar in the little lot behind the garage.  We gathered glass jars and old plates and stones and leaves and pretended we were Catholic priests saying Mass and distributing communion.  It was the 1960’s; one of our righteous altar-boy brothers quickly impressed upon us how blasphemous we were being–women at the altar, indeed.

We went on to other games, diligently trying to weave grass mats for our Swiss Family Robinson-style hideaway on a dry rise we called The Island behind the seed company. What if, we thought, we washed up on an uncharted island and had to start life from scratch?  We gathered essential gear from throwaways, brought cookies out in paper bags to sustain us, arranged and re-arranged our living quarters, and defended ourselves against vicious fictional animals and real, live, intruding boys.

Night-time was tag-time: freeze tag, or sometimes my absolute favorite, flashlight tag.  My uncle might bring a carload of cousins over, probably shooed off by my exhausted, work-weary aunt. It was such a sweet treat to be allowed out after dark;  the sound of child voices calling was my dotted line to the safe brightness of the protected world of grownups inside.  Hiding behind the rosebushes, up against the rough wooden shingles of the porch on a summer night, the air beginning, abruptly, to cool–oh, there was mystery and promise in that outdoor kind of life.

We had no electric fans.  We slept with windows open, positioning ourselves to catch a breeze. I couldn’t bear to sleep without some kind of covering, kicking off everything but the top sheet, pulling that up to my chin and tossing. Waking in the morning to a tangle of damp fabric and a new, hot day.

Only rare buildings in those days (schools were not among them, up north where I lived) were air-conditioned: some, but by no means all, stores, restaurants, doctor’s and government offices.  Going into that chill air was a treat, but we all somehow felt that living in it would be wrong, effete, an admission of a serious weakness.

Instead, we clamored to go swimming at the big sandy Lake Erie beach in the next city over, and later, at the newly built community pool.  We could stay in the water indefinitely, until our lips were blue and our skin was rough with goose bumps, and we would deny that we were cold or tired or ready to come out.

On swimming days, the cool stayed with me, a sense memory coating my entire skin, and sleeping came easily.  Swimming was the ultimate perk of being able to be outdoors, free, in the warm weather months.

***************
Not so long ago I visited friends who live near that same lake.  They had no air conditioning.  So I rediscovered the strategic action of positioning a box fan for maximum effect; I recalled the Velcro separation of bare, sweaty skin from wood made sticky by humidity.  I remembered the joy of finding the breeze, for there always is at least a faint one, when sitting or walking outside.  The air feels dense and weighted and oppressive, and then…I become aware of a curling breath that makes it all good, all bearable, all desirable, even.

I remembered how good it was to NOT live in constant air conditioning, to breathe the warm, laden air of summer.

And we went swimming; we went to the community pool in the late afternoon when anyone under the age of 16 was banished for an hour.  Harried mothers packed their swimmers off to home and dinner–many would return after the exile was over,–and the elders converged. Very few people under the age of forty remained, and the rest of us–ladies of a certain age with bathing suits that resembled modest little granny dresses; gentlemen in various guises of swimsuits, some (and we averted our eyes) rocking out their Speedos at age 75 or so–eased ourselves into the water. We swam-walked gently through the crystal water, talking and sharing, arms delineating watery pathways, fingers growing pruney.

It was bliss, childhood joy remembered, and we squeezed every ounce of the special coolness out of that hour, then retreated to the shade and an Adirondack chair’s comfort when the elder hour ended and youth began to seep back in.  Cracking open books, letting the gently settling evening breezes waft over still wet skin–this was the treasure of summer days I’d forgotten all about.

I’d forgotten the outdoor joy of summer, traded it in for the easy–for the ENTITLED, nasty, apt word–life of a chill-house flower living in central air.

*******************
So, I decided, I need to carve out an outdoor space of time, each day. I need to remember that being outside is joy and not burden.  I needed to stop scurrying, at least for a little patch of time each day, from air conditioned work to air conditioned car to air conditioned house.

So I nudge the little dog out after dinner, and we wander up the street and up the hill by the old folks’ home, under the shade of the big trees where the grass, even after a harsh and dry July, is still lush and green. The air feels damp and heavy, but as we walk, we feel the eddies and the swirls; coolness comes to find us.

And then I take the dog home and grab my book and head back out for a thirty minute respite. In the absence of the central air white noise, I notice sounds and see neighbors out to  weed and water, and I hear the chug and thrum of ordinary outdoor life. Rabbits and squirrels and an occasional sleek black mole skitter, hop, and tremble; insects come to explore this new large being. A deer couple often tiptoes into the yard in search of that night’s bed and gives me disapproving, disappointed looks.

I get some reading done, but what I’m really doing is recalibrating, adjusting my body to the realities of the season, finding nature’s comforts and solutions by abandoning, for a little bit, man’s.

Oh, I am no purist.  You know that I will slip back into the house as the darkness obscures the printed page.  I’ll bake cupcakes in a kitchen cooled by central air; I’ll sleep, sheet still pulled up to my chin, under the gentle ruffling of a ceiling fan stirring that air conditioned air around us.

But just for that little window of time, I’ll remember.

This is why we looked forward, so avidly, to summer.

This is how we rewarded ourselves on humid, hard-working days.

This is when our neighbors emerged and we re-connected, our pale, winter selves glorying in the short-sleeved sunny days.

For just a little bit of every busy day, on the patio on fair days, on the little covered porch when it rains, I will link my arms with nature’s and realize its hot weather gifts.  I’ll raise my face from my book and let the small breezes buffet it; I’ll shift to find the cooling space.  I’ll read, and I’ll listen.  For a little pocket of day, I’ll be an outsider again, remembering, finally, just why that feels so good.

Talkin’ Trash in the Kitchen

Finished Trash.jpg

Ah the sun is full out: Sunday morning.
I am fresh back from taking my walk.
My coupons are stashed
and my dishes are washed
and I’ve already pottied the dog.

The boys have a task set before them,
A mission that took them to Lowe’s.
The outdoor faucet is beat;
Plants need juice in this heat:
So the boys will re-able the hose.

But I’m pounding chips in the kitchen
The remnants from several sacks;
Pretzels come next;
Yes, I’ll see them compressed.
I am trying a recipe called Trash.

Bags

It’s a recipe Mark saw on Facebook;
We decided to give it a try.
So I’m making Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

********
The butter melts quick in the big pot.
But the marshmallows stick to the sack.
They’re all glommed up and tricky,
Yuck–my fingers are sticky.
I’m too entrenched, though, to take that mess back.

I stir and I stir and I stir them;
They finally consent to melt down.
Not a cuss word I utter;
Just stir in peanut butter,
swirl together sweet white and nut brown.

And then it is time for the salty.
I mash in the pretzels and chips.
The mess is released
to a pan that is greased
(Only tiny, wee tastes pass my lips.)

And the boys struggle on in the basement;
Here an oath, there a triumphant cry.
While I’m spreading Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

Faucet fixing

************
Well, the thing comes together in last steps,
So I sprinkle on M and M candy.
I press on one quarter cup.
Having MORE than enough,
I devour the remains (which is handy.)

Sprinkled Trash.jpg

And then I fill a bowl full of chocolate,
and microwave-melt it to drizzle.
Ah–sweet melty slop!
I adorn the treat’s top.
(Can I cut these? I might need a chisel.)

So the treats are congealing and chilling,
As the boys labor over their chore.
I wash out the pot;
I might like these a lot.
And I surely will make them some more.

And the drill grinds away, then is silent,
To be followed by a joint victory cry
And I’m writing Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

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

Trash Treats

(from Delish.com…)

3 tbsp. butter
1-16 oz. bag marshmallows
2 tbsp. peanut butter
4 c. potato chips, crushed
2 c. pretzels, crushed
¼ c. M and M candy
½ c. chocolate chips, melted

Grease a 9 x 11 inch pan.  A small cookie sheet would do well, too.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large pot.

Add the marshmallows; stir until melted and smooth.

Add the peanut butter; stir to combine.

Turn off the heat, and quickly stir in the chips and pretzels.

Press mixture into greased pan. (I find that wetting my fingers, and shaking off the excess before pressing, helps in the pressing process.) Sprinkle with M and M’s; press the candy into the surface of the treat.

Drizzle the bars with the melted chocolate.

Let harden before serving, about thirty minutes.