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.

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,
A bit of history crumbles
on the roadway to
Mount Vernon.


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.


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.


I zigged and I zagged
past horse-propelled folk,
past wooden cart wheels
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.


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.


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


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.

Working With Heart

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old, shared a little of what he is good at doing.   (Quincey Jones)


Sister Mary Theresa: a pale, beautiful face framed by a white wimple.  Her hands, long-fingered and powdery clean, clasped her wooden rosary beads as she swished down the aisles. Her gauzy black veil brushed our desks as she ensured that we were earnestly penciling our letters neatly into the blue-lined spaces of our coarse yellow paper.

We loved Sister Mary Theresa, and when she stood in front of the room and told us to be diligent, we listened.  Work hard, she told us, and learn about your gifts.  Even someone who is six years old might discover her vocation.  And maybe, and Sister’s face would shine when she said this, MAYBE, there’s even a child in here–or two!- who has a religious vocation. Maybe, among us, there is a future priest!  Or a future nun!

Ah, my heart leapt, and I knew that was me, that I was destined for a life of sacrifice and prayer. I read the life of the Little Flower, and decided that nothing would do but to join a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns.  I wrote to them and declared my intentions.  They sent me flyers and literature and good advice: Wait a bit and explore all your options.

The next year, I had a lay teacher and the Beatles came to America, and I realized that I was REALLY intended to be a rock star. I wrote to the Beatles, too, but I never heard back from them regarding my future employment.  And a passing year and an impatient family bore the truth down upon me: to be a musician one needs some kind of musical ability.

So there I was, aged eight, without a clue, knowing only that I was destined neither to be a bride of Christ nor a female rock icon.  But I knew deep in my deepest knowing that I was destined for something: that I had skills and gifts and talents waiting to be discovered…that there was a vocation out there waiting for me.  There was a Pam-shaped niche, just waiting for me to grow up and fill it.

I embraced Sister Mary Theresa’s concept of vocation.


We all know people who are in the absolutely wrong jobs.

There’s the teacher (not the norm–there are great heroes in the ranks of teachers!) who chose the field because it was steady and paid decently, and she could be home when the kids were home. She is using the lessons plans she designed for her math class 15 years ago. Math hasn’t changed in that time; why should the way she does her work?  She grades one class’s papers while another is slogging along, completing that day’s assignment, at their desks.  She always gives quick written feedback, but she often ignores the raised hands and puzzled faces in front of her.  In the teachers’ lounge, she is bitter about cell phones and tattoos and rudeness and administrative decisions. She regularly refers to her high school students as ‘little shits.’  She can tell you exactly how many days there are until summer vacation.

There’s the worker in reception who regards the people he is meant to serve as a gross imposition on his time.

There’s the exhausted doctor whose mind is only on her watercolors.

There’s the government worker who plods along at his job for forty years, racking up the retirement dollars doing work he hates.  He and the wife are saving for their retirement, squirreling away money for a little retirement place in Florida.  He dies the week after he retires, from a massive heartache that explodes with no warning.  His kids, grown now, remember him falling asleep in his lounge chair after dinner, cigarette burning down to a nub.  He was always tired, always, remote, always a little bit sad. Not me, each vows. That will not be me.


But there are the others, too–the people who seem made for their position, who, no matter what it is that they do, elevate the role to that of a true vocation.

There’s the adjunct math instructor dancing in the hallway because a struggling student has finally grasped the concept of derivatives.  The classroom ceiling cracked open, a beam of glowing light poured through on the student’s head, and she dropped her pen and looked up at him in wonder.

“I get it!” she said.  “I GET it!!!”

That’s it, he thinks; this is the job I’m meant to be doing.


There is the woman who has waited tables at the same family restaurant for thirty years.  She has her regulars, and she knows exactly what they want.  She knows the kids’ names and where they are in school and she serves each customer a heaping helping of personal interest along with the scrambled eggs. She makes strangers feel welcome; her quick eyes assess their state–tired, in need of comfort, confused or perplexed, excited to be visiting, here for a reason that involves bad news.  She knows when to suggest a soothing bowl of hot soup and when to grab a brochure of local sites and recommend a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or the sculpture park.

She quells the rude without offending and she reaches for crying babies and she makes sure the coffee cups are never, ever empty.  She can’t think of another job that would give her the same joy.  This kind of serving–well, it’s her vocation.


There is…

…The haircutter who makes sure every client leaves feeling as if she looks her absolute best.

…The coach, industrial foreman by day, who inspires kids to stretch, to grow, to push themselves and find out just what they are capable of doing.

…The guidance counselor who plants and harvests dreams.

…The stay at home mom who juggles diapers and library trips and dirty clothes and satisfying dinners day in and day out and makes her life look like a gift.

…The factory owner who knows the names of each of his 200 employees.  He spends at least one day, every two weeks, on the factory floor.  He asks about the kid who applied for a scholarship; he wants to know if the mother-in-law is out of the hospital. His people love him and love working for him.  His business withstands pressures that sink other enterprises.

These ones have found the work that makes their souls sing.

Maybe–although I don’t completely buy this–there’s not a mystical niche that was created for each of us before we were born.  But each of us has our own special formula of gifts and leanings, weaknesses and blind spots, abilities and potential. Tapping those particular talents and attributes taps into happiness.

So a young man we know, Noah, who has a pretty severe development disability, is happily employed at a family-owned diner.  Noah’s job coach realized that he was meticulous and orderly and loved to organize things into neat bundles.  So Noah does the job the wait staffers at the diner hate to do: he wraps silverware into linen napkins and places them in a big plastic bin. Noah never puts an even vaguely dirty fork into a pristine napkin.  He will set aside any piece of silverware that has the slightest hint of residue, and when he is done with his napkin rolling, he will take the suspect pieces back to the kitchen and wash them by hand.  He greets regular customers, his face lighting up; his joy is part of the warmth that draws them back to that diner three or four times a week.

Noah has found his niche, his calling.  (Oh, the wisdom of that job coach!)

So a young woman who loves working with kids, who just wants to help kids find their own niches, takes some social work classes while she is remediating her GPA: she needs a 2.75 to get into the education program.  But a funny thing happens. She falls in love with social work.  Knowing that it is a gritty, demanding field, and knowing that she will never make top pay, she plunges into a wholly unexpected course of study.  She loves her internship.  She gets a job at an inner-city children’s program and earns her MSW in the nooks and crannies of time.

She sees pain and heartache and often is called on to offer comfort.  But she sees, too, gleaming moments of triumph.  And she knows that this–this work, this exhausting and consuming work,–is what she is meant to do.

Self-knowledge is not taught in schools, but it should, maybe, be our first and continuous learning–its blossoming our ultimate goal. It is painful to see the unemployed woman, tender and slow and patient, talk about wanting to work in a fast-paced, high pressure office,–the exact kind of environment that will ignore her skills and sap her energy.  It is frustrating to see the child, awkward and clumsy but gifted with artistic skills, talk about his only consuming passion: to be a fast-moving, dexterous professional basketball star. And it is annoying to work with the real estate broker who goes through the motions, checking his text messages when he could be pointing out the possibilities.

There are tests that show our aptitudes and our communications styles, free tests that we can take, and then wrestle with the knowledge unpeeled by the results. {See links at the end for a couple of examples.}

There are the things that people say to us, offhand remarks–Nobody bakes pies like you do, Carrie! or,–Whenever I want to build something, Calvin, I come to you for help planning.

There is the thread revealed by the journals we keep: Look at how many times in the past six months, Frieda thinks, I wrote about repurposing! Perhaps the clues are there, bread crumbs on the trail, waiting to be picked up.

What happened to Sister Mary Theresa, that beautiful young nun in the early 1960’s? Not many years later, the mysterious habits morphed into practical polyester suits, the swishing veils into pill box hats with short, bouncing plackets. Many, many nuns in those turbulent times tied up their sensible oxford shoes and marched out of the convent into secular life, into marriages and relationships and public schools and not-for-profit management.

I wonder if Sister Mary Theresa found, in those years of discovery, that her definition of vocation underwent a change. Because that’s a possibility, too–that the job that fits exactly when we’re 20 is not the right fit when we are 32.  That our vocation can grow and change as we do.

A constant awareness, I think, must be maintained.

Imagine, though, what life would be like if we encouraged and  cultivated that kind of self-knowledge. Imagine a world where everyone picked up the bread crumbs.

Imagine a world where every person was engaged in work that made their heart sing.


Some free online  inventories:

Find your strengths:

What’s your communications style?


(My) Life of Pi(e)



Randy sends, in our CSA basket, a fat baggie of plump blueberries.  Hmmm. Muffins?  I ponder.  There are not enough berries for a whole pie.

Then we have dinner with our old friends from Mount Vernon, and wonderful Larry hands me a gift bag as we are leaving.  When we get home, I unpack it and discover a quart of sweet cherries.

Oh, that’s cool, I think: we can make a patriotic pie like the one I just saw on Facebook.  One fourth of the pie has blueberry filling; the other is red fruit.  On top, there are sugared pastry stars and stripes.

The cherries prove too tempting for Mark, though. By the time Friday–and baking leisure–rolls around, only a cup or so is left.  We have blueberries, we have cherries, and we have a couple of apples.

Let’s, suggests Mark, put them ALL in a pie.  So, aided and abetted by Joy of Cooking, which supports all kinds of adventurous fruity filling combinations [and inspired by our friend Wendy, a renowned pie-baker: Wendy visits each summer, scouts the farmers’ market and combines what’s ripe–peaches, maybe? Blueberries, perhaps?–into one glorious and unforgettable pastry-baked treat], we do.  There’s actually enough filling for TWO pies, once all the mixing and seasoning is done,–two smallish pies in pie tins saved from store-bought pie experiences.  The cherry-berry-apple pie is GOOD.

Mark takes one to work to share, and people like him for it.  Debbie, who works in his office, says the pie is fine, but she really likes the crust.  Tell Pam, she says, to try making pinwheels sometime…to pat the crust and butter it and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar…

See there, I think.  Pie is not just a dessert; it’s a theme and it’s a thread.  It’s past and present all rolled up and hog-tied into one. Mark, too, has fond memories of leftover crust, buttered and cinnamon-sugared, and baked until it’s crisp…sweet crunch of innocence and youth…

We all, I think,  have a story, we all have a LIFE, of pie.


The crust was the thing for my mother; she couldn’t get the knack of a rich, flaky crust.  Hers were sodden and heavy, though the fillings were wonderful.  We each had favorites.  My father [insert groans and gagging noises] cherished minced meat pie, which he generally only got at Christmas–that must have had childhood connotations for him.

My skinny, bespectacled brother Dennis was renowned for his pie-eating ability, but he was especially partial to cherry.  And he was known, too, for finding the one lone pit left in a cherry pie.  He became so well known, in fact, for crunching on the cherry stone that a friend’s mother–the kind of freckled, outdoorsy woman who wore one piece gym suits to energetically clean house, grocery shop, and herd children–decided to make a joke.  She put a cherry pit into a cream pie and marked the piece.  When serving time came, she made sure Dennis got the pitted piece.

To her horror, he broke a tooth. But his cherry pit legend grew and grew.

Some of my brothers liked apple pie, and others liked chocolate pudding pie.  I was partial to lemon meringue.  If my mother didn’t have the knack for crusts, she certainly mastered meringues–hers were high and fluffy, dewed with sweet drops and limned in golden brown.

Often we would eat the filling and leave the crust, as if it were a cozy, inedible, legless chaise lounge on which the filling had sat.

Pondering all this all got me wondering about how long pie has been around, and I went to a site called What’s Cooking ( to gather some background.  I found there that the concept of a pastry crust as food container has deep historical roots.  I discovered that, for hundreds of years, the pastry was just the thing that held the filling–more of a dish or a carrying case than a tasty part of a pie.  In fact, the author tells me, early pies in England were called ‘coffins’ after the pastry encasement (‘Coffin,’ the author points out, meant box or basket at that time, not a repository for a carcass. Although, now that I think about it, if we’re talking about a meat pie, maybe ‘coffin’ is not so far off.)

A pie without a top crust was known as a trap.

Crusts were thick and pretty unappetizing–made to stand up to hours of baking, and to travel and time.  Crusts were, originally, basically just disposable baking pans. (I don’t know if that knowledge would have comforted my mother.)

What’s Cooking tells me that the making of pies goes back, far back, in human history–back, at least, to Egyptian cuisine in 9500 BC. In early United States days, it was pretty common for pioneer housewives to serve some sort of pie at every meal—think of those hard-working farmers devouring a big slice of apple pie with their bacon and eggs before heading out to hitch up the mule and plow the back forty.

Pie has global roots, but the United States has embraced pie, has made it a national icon; we jealously guard it as a national treat.  Mark Twain–and one doesn’t get much more American, quirks and all, than Twain–was a dab hand for eating US pie, and a scathing critic of European versions. (He once wrote a recipe for English pie; the last step, he said, was to seal it up and let it petrify, then serve it to one’s enemy.)

(Perhaps it was Twain who coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.”  I am pretty sure, though, that exquisitely wonderful pies exist outside these red-white-and-blue borders, Twain’s opinion or no.)

As I grew into cooking age, I found I longed to master the art of flaky pastry.  It would be a score for me in that mother-daughter cooking competition. Our first friendly battlefield was the art of the chocolate chip cookie.  The second could be the pie crust. Later, I was motivated by the fact that my significant other’s ex had a pie-baking reputation.  I vowed, vain young person that I was, to equal or surpass her mark.

I learned about using ice water and about chilling your shortening.  There were decided schools of thought about lard versus butter versus plain old shortening. Advice bounced and conflicted on what sort of mixing tool to use–forks or knives or wooden spoons, or maybe, even fingers. I found a wire pastry cutter in a bin at a second hand emporium; that proved to be the perfect mixing tool for me (and it was so well-made that I still cut the fat into the flour with that very same tool today).

But every pastry recipe would adjure me: handle lightly.  Dough becomes tough with excess handling.  There was something that went against my grain in not kneading a dough into a smooth, firm ball.  I suspect my mother had the same challenge.  I just HAD to work the dough excessively.  And it was always tough.

And then came the day I poured out my plight to a lovely friend, Gretchen.  And Gretchen shared a recipe she’d gotten from her friend Karen. This recipe incorporated a splash of vinegar and  an egg, and one batch made enough crust for FIVE pie crusts.  This crust was flaky and good no matter how long I man-handled it.

This recipe (shared at the end of this post) remains my go to crust recipe today.

So, I had a crust method that worked, and I went through long pie-baking phases.  I saw a photo in Country Living magazine thirty years ago; it showed a pie with the top crust decorated with pastry roses.  For a long time, I topped my pies with sculpted pastry glued to the crust with eggwash, shining with sugar.

I had a lattice crust phase.

I had my crumb topping era.

After a gentleman at a church potluck commented that no one made it from scratch anymore, I went through a militant meringue period.

But I calmed down eventually.


Today, I try to keep a batch of Gretchen’s pie dough on hand, in the freezer.  Just in case, say, there are leftovers enough to make a chicken pot pie, lush with tiny onions and plump peas.  Just in case sweet friends send over a variety of fruits and berries.

 My friend, this summer, I hope crusts are flaky and fillings satisfy. This summer, I wish you all the happiness of pie.


Pie Crust Recipe Shared by Generations of Women (from Gretchen, who got it from Karen, who learned it from her grandmother…)

Mix with a fork:

1-3/4 cups shortening, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour.

In a separate bowl, use the fork to stir together  1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup of water.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into a ball. Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into five portions. Each will make a top or bottom crust for a standard pie. It can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen. It’s always tender, even with excess handling…




Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem


Sometimes, things break.


It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!


The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.


It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?


Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.


Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.


She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.


Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.


She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.


Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.


The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.


Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.


Sometimes, things break.

The Cat Came Back (He Never Was A Goner)

maxie 2

“Is that,” Mark says, putting down his hot cup of tea and moving the curtain so he can see better, “MAX????”

I join him at the window and we stare across the street.  A mostly black cat sits on the brick stoop at Barbie and Ken’s–a cat with a triangular white fur bib and a head like a squashed softball.  THIS cat, though, appears to have a smear of white on his nose. Did Max have a smear like that?

We can’t remember.

We don’t think so.


Mark goes out to check, to see if this porch-snuggled visitor might really be our intrepid buddy Max.  The cat disappears.

That’s un–Max-like.



I grew up in middle America in the 1960’s,  when neighborhoods were static things, and a move out or a move in, a major event.  In fact, my family constituted the event more than witnessing it–we moved three times between my fourth grade year and the start of high school, moved so much that other people raised their brows in alarm at our rootless ways.

Most people we knew stayed put, sent down roots, raised a family in a place where the kids’ “2 years old” heights were marked off on the same basement pole as their “16 years old” heights.  That dent, a friend might say, pointing, is where Dickie fell off his bike and his noggin hit the porch.  The accident might have been ten years past. Houses, back then, held family histories within their architectural quirks.

But today, neighborhoods are more fluid things, with some stay-ers and some move-ers making a constant ebb and flow.  People buy starter homes when kids are little, planning, by the time those little ones hit junior high, to be in a bigger house, with more bathrooms and more yard, and maybe, just maybe, a paved drive and a basketball hoop.

And so the cute little house across the street has seen changes in tenants in the almost-five years we have been here. First it was Kim, who rented.  Then it was Julie, who bought.

Julie moved out and her tenant, a very nice person named Ann, moved in, and therein ties the tale of Max.


Kim, who was tall and lean and tanned and had that kind of curly hair that peaks at a high point above the middle part of her head and fans out just above the shoulders (a Triangle Do, I call it), whose age was impossible to guess–she could have been thirty, and she could have been sixty,–had been a fixture in the neighborhood long before we moved in.  She introduced us to Shirley, and Sandy, and  to Colleen and Terry, and to Phyllis, and to Pat.

She invited us to throw the branches and leaves and twigs piled up after vigorous gardening down the steep bank behind her house.  Natural mulch, she theorized.

She showed us her beloved Corvettes, which she kept in a garage behind the little white house she’d rented. She toured our house after the workers had transformed it from a highly floral wallpaper palace to a calmer venue with less vocal walls.  She pronounced it good, and heartily approved the placement of a half-bath in the storage room by the back door.

And she discovered that the little white house she’d rented for twenty years or more was shifting on its foundations,—was in danger, in fact, of sliding off and down that steep, mulchy bank. When the long-term landlord wouldn’t fix things, Kim up and moved away.

As new as we were, we could tell something intrinsic to the neighborhood culture left with her.


And then the little white house stood empty for a couple of seasons, before some flippers with construction skills came in, lifted the thing right off its foundations, and fixed its sliding woes.  They put it on the market then, and Julie–pretty, dark-haired Julie with her mini-me dark-haired daughter named Natalie–bought it and moved in.


Julie worked at the hospital, and we would encounter her in her colorful scrubs running to her SUV at odd hours, heading off to work.  Often her inside cat would sit in the picture window while she was gone, curled up on what was surely the back of a couch, patient and waiting.  That cat never came outside; it was only noticeable popping up in excitement when Julie’s car moved up the street.

Then Natalie added a new cat friend to the household. That cat was Max.

Natalie’s best friend was going off to college, and Natalie’s friend’s father was NOT a cat-lover.  He was a hunter, though, and he matter-of-factly informed the friend that, as soon as her car was out of the drive, he was getting his gun out to kill her cat.

The friend was horrified and broken-hearted; Natalie was pro-active.  She grabbed Max, threw him in her old white jeep, and brought him home to Julie.

And so Max, with his squashed-looking head and loud vocals, his white-toed feet and insistent manner, came to adopt (and rule) our neighborhood.

Max preferred the outdoor to the in, probably to the vast relief of Julie’s indoor cat, with whom Max communicated through the window.  Max would sit on Julie’s porch table; Indoor Cat would be on the back of that couch, and they would stretch and paw and bat at each other.  All the while, Max would be warbling, telling his long sad tale of woe (“Can you believe that dude was going to SHOOT me???”) to his indoor kitty counterpart.

We could, of course, not hear the reply,which was probably something like, “I’m glad my food dish is INDOORS and yours is out.”

Max only went inside Julie’s house when the temperatures were so cold he would literally freeze to death if he stayed out.

But he loved going inside Barbie and Ken’s.


Max, once arrived, immediately started working the neighborhood.  He scored a bed in the window well at Shirley’s house. Shirley, who thought he was a stray at first, put food and water out for him everyday.  That practice didn’t end when Shirley met Natalie and discovered Max was ‘homed’ but thoroughly independent.  By then, Max’s morning breakfast was part of the routine of Shirley’s AND Max’s lives.

Max sat in Sandy’s yard sunning himself while she gardened, and he tormented her excitable little dogs, resting just beyond their chained reach.  He would calmly inspect his sharp pointy claws while they jumped and strained, choking their little selves in their anxiousness to pounce at him.

We often thought we saw cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Max’s head.  In Sandy’s yard, when the dogs were yipping and straining, Max’s bubble  contained the words, “Ho hum.”

Max adopted Mark, who is NOT a cat-lover, running up the driveway warbling his sad tale of woe whenever Mark embarked or arrived.  Mark would stand and wait for his cat-buddy. Max would twine around Mark’s legs, often leaving hairy evidence of a black kitty neighbor on lawyerly khaki pants.

Mark would usually run back into the house to snatch a bit of frozen turkey from the freezer, offering it to his cat friend.  Max preferred his meat defrosted; he would bat the tidbit away, complaining (Thought bubble: What? You don’t have a microwave???), and then come back later to eat it.

When the weather got cold, Mark the Great Cat Hater took my old fishing basket and lined it with a snug, worn rug, and slid it under the bench on the porch–a refuge from wind and snow.  Just, you know, in case.

Often, there was evidence that something had slept there.  (We may have been sheltering neighborhood raccoons, but it was relieving to know there was shelter from the storm for our buddy Max, if he needed it.)

But when Barbie and Ken moved in across the street, right next door to Julie, Maxie fell in love.  One of their trucks would pull into the drive and Max would come bounding from wherever he was in the neighborhood, yelling.  He’d leave Mark, mid-warble (“Chopped liver, that’s what I am,” Mark noted, sadly), or he’d stop stalking the mouthy black squirrel in the tree down the street, and he would bolt to see those new neighbors whom he idolized.

Once we watched the crazy cat leap into Ken’s arms, a feline rocket so big, so heavy,  and so fast that Ken, a hefty guy, staggered backwards.  But he held on–Max’s affection was completely requited by Ken and by Barbie.

They would crate their dogs, who wailed, and let Maxie in, and Max would make himself at home.  He knew, Max did, that he lived at Julie’s; he returned there time after time, but Barbie and Ken’s house was his favorite place to be Inside.

Most of the time, though, Max ruled the neighborhood and beyond.  We would see him wandering far afield when we drove home, doing his rounds, Mark said.  Julie, not wanting to be responsible for a world populated by second and third generation Maxies, took him to the vet.  There, Max’s manly valves were permanently wrenched into the ‘off’ position.

Maxie came home, spent a single day recuperating, and was back on the prowl.  His amorous instincts may have been permanently dulled, but the cat remained a mighty hunter.  Mark was forever knocking on the front window.

“MAX!” he’d yell.  “Put down that baby bunny!  Put it DOWN!”

And Max, who knew when he was being chastised, would turn his head toward the window.  His face would be all innocence.  The thought bubble would read, “Bunny?  What bunny?” even as the wretched baby twitched its last in the cat’s iron jaws.

Julie and her new boyfriend, a funny, wonderful guy named Terry, would smack their heads.  Mark would wander over to commiserate with them, where they sat on Julie’s front porch, enjoying a brewski in the evening cool.

“What are we going to do with that cat?” one of them would say, but acceptance and vast affection swirled with the chagrin.

The neighborhood rodent population sank rapidly.  Squirrels became wary tree-toppers.  Bunnies poked their noses out to their own peril.  We never saw a chipmunk while Maxie roamed the streets.

And then, their relationship having deepened and matured, Julie and Terry decided to throw their lots together and form a new household.  They would move to a home out in the country, surrounded by nature’s beauty.

“Max the mighty hunter will love THAT,” we agreed, a little sadly. We wondered, though, about Max’s tendency to hunt down people to talk with as well as rodents to terrorize.  We wondered about his love affair with Barbie and Ken.

But, just shy of Memorial Day, the UHaul pulled up, and Julie and Terry and Natalie and a vast and varied crew of helpers took Julie’s household apart and put it into the truck.  There was a pile of junk at the curb; there was a cat in Julie’s SUV. And there was Max, looking unhappy (Thought bubble: What the…????) in the front seat of Natalie’s jeep.

They waved, vigorously.

We waved back.

Silence fell into a little, lonely vacuum.

“I’m gonna MISS that cat,” said Mark sadly, as he turned to go into the house.  He paused.

“And Julie and Terry and Natalie, too,” he added, “of course.”

Ann, who is very nice, moved in with her quiet teen-aged son, and the neighborhood settled into its post-Max persona.  Chipmunks returned to Normandy Drive, and the squirrels climbed down their trees and frolicked in the yards, boisterously.  The bunnies grew bolder; on Sunday, Mark and I stood by the window with our steaming morning beverages and watched two of them alternate clover-munching with a gleeful game of rabbit-run tag.

Later, I walked the dog, who snuffled in Shirley’s ivy and scared off a couple of tiny black-furred moles.

The rodents didn’t miss that cat. But everybody else did.

And then this morning–the black cat on Ken and Barbie’s porch.  That nose, though, that smear of white…I pulled up a photo of Max, and we compared:

Head: check.
Bib: check:
Nose smear: UNcheck.

I walked out the back door to see if I could spy that kitty, and my eyes lit on the plastic bowl where I’d been soaking a white-paint brush in cold water.  The water was completely and thoroughly gone. I had a vision of a cat lapping up the water and rubbing his nose on the painty white brush.

“OH, my gawd,” I said.  “Mark!  Do you think he drank…?”  I ran to cross the street and check the cat–couldn’t ingesting latex paint make a kitty badly ill? But as I hurried out into the yard, Barbie’s white truck pulled out.  Inside, I was sure I could just see the swishing tip of a black tail, and a floating thought bubble that read, “REALLY?  Paint in my water bowl????”) I imagined him purring, reunited with his beloved Barbie. I imagined her driving him the five miles to Terry and Julie’s house, returning him to his family.


By lunchtime, the rodent population of Normandy Drive had breathed a collective sigh of relief and were frolicking on the lawns.  But I wonder if they’re not a little premature.  That cat’s smart and he’s intrepid. I bet we haven’t seen the last of our friend Maxie.