Soup

Image found on Pinterest…

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Tuesday morning: 5:42. Rain pounds relentlessly.

Mark goes off to the gym, umbrella opened as he runs to the car, and I sit in the dining room and write my morning pages. Water sluices down the windows. My all-knowing phone app says that, with a break here and there, rain will fall all day long.

I write, “This is a good day to make some soup,” and I look at my written words and know they are exactly true.

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Summer is not a season of simmering pots, of things diced and sautéed and brewed up together. It is a season of grilled things—meats and veggies both—and of steaming ears of boiled corn. In summer foods are separate; they don’t touch on the plate unless the potato salad dares to encroach on the hot dog bun’s space, or the cowboy beans get overly friendly with the cole slaw. It is a time for sandwiches, for steaks and fillets.

It is a season for whole dinners that don’t require silverware.

I realize, on Tuesday, that I yearn for a big, long-simmered pot of something.

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I take some early steps inside; then I sit at the computer, work on syllabi, and charge Connie, my Fitbit. While I fine-tune assignments and pull up ice breaker possibilities, another section of my mind is weighing soup varieties. There is Jodi’s beef-barley stoup, which is rich and hearty. Kathie’s rice and chicken soup makes another thick, stick to the ribs, kind of simmering pot.

Both of those soups are delicious, but maybe too much for a day that, although the skies are wringing wide open, will still soar into the eighties. I think that I will save those pleasures for autumn, when the air crisps, and there’s a bushel of apples on the bench on the back stoop,—days when the thought of a steaming bowl of heartiness and a great chunk of cornbread, butter melting on its golden brown, crusty top, rewards me for persevering.

Then I remember Wendy’s chicken tortilla soup recipe,which is perfect for a stormy summer day, and I go searching.

I cannot find the recipe in any of my paper-recipe reservoirs; I give up and print it out again. This time, I promise myself, I will three-hole punch this treasure and put it in my newest binder of family favorites.

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I take a rummaging break. I pull two packages of chicken from the chest freezer downstairs. I’ll poach the thighs and shred the meat for soup. I’ll bread the boneless breasts with panko and parm for Jim, who, like many folks with autism, does not like his foods to touch, and does not like the texture of long-simmered veggies.

I bring up the three last frozen blocks of chicken broth, realizing it’s time to make more.

I find a tiny container of chopped tomatoes and a quarter cup of leftover corn hiding behind big jars in the refrigerator. I’ll add those to the canned, diced tomatoes from the pantry shelf and the cupful of frozen corn from the industrial-sized bag in the freezer. There is sweet chili sauce; there are onions and garlic. I debate dicing up one of the jalapeno peppers Mark broke home from last week’s Wednesday night Farmer’s Market.

I line the dry ingredients up on the counter, put the cold things together on the second refrigerator shelf. I have everything I need for a well-simmered meal.

Soup: the scavenger of pantry shelves; the simmering pot that purges leftovers.

At 10:00 there is a weather break; the dampness fades from the streets and sidewalks, leaving pale gray stretches between puddles. I check my phone for permission; it tells me that yes, I can probably squeeze a walk in before the next rain.

I lace up my sneakers and head off, headphones on. I see the burly cheerful guy who’s usually out when I am, early in the morning. We wave as we stride past, and we agree that we have a LITTLE window of safe walking time, and we go marching off in our separate directions.

I crank up the 100 best songs of the ‘70’s playlist and I walk fast. I walk with Elton John and with Grand Funk Railroad, and I hitch a ride with Janis. The sky turns ominous, and I turn back, having fit three-fourths of my usual walk into this rain-free time.

The music is hard and fast and I match my strides to its rhythms and I hurry home. I’m listening to faded rock icons, but I am thinking, “Soup.”

Soup: the promise of warmth and protection on wild weather days.

I soak the boneless breasts in milk; I put the still-frozen thighs in the old, old cast iron skillet. I pour in water, and I put them on the stove, over a medium flame, and I throw in some herbs and spices, salt and pepper, and I go back to work while they simmer. Scented steam sneaks out from under the glass top.

By the time Mark comes home for lunch, the house is perfumed, and the chicken is cooked through.

I lift the thighs from the pan with tongs and set them on a small platter to cool. Mark and Jim look at them longingly, but we slice yesterday’s roast beef for sandwiches.

The rain has come back; umbrella-ed, Mark darts off to work. James and I drive to the mall, where we head off to walk in opposite directions. I can hear the pounding onslaught on the flat metal roof of the shopping center. I weave in and out of families urgently shopping for school supplies, and shoes, and just the right shirt to wear on that all-important first day.

Connie buzzes: I have met my step goal for the day. I meet Jim at the food court, where he shares a cup of hot pretzel nuggets. We stop at a funky store that has an amazing variety of stuff, and Jim finds a lamp that he’d looked at online. Its two black metal dragons face each other, wings half-furled, supporting the base. A tomato-red jewel gleams between them.

“This is just like the one online,” he says, “but it’s twenty dollars cheaper!”

It will look great in Jim’s newly painted, deeply blue room. We buy the lamp and head off in the rain,–heading home to make the soup.

Soup: that magic potion that draws us home.

I dig out the heavy sauce pot. And finally, I can cut and chop.

I dice onions and garlic, toss them into the heated olive oil; their enthusiastic simmering drowns out the rain, once more churned into torrent-force. While the veggies soften, I pull chicken, carefully saving skin and bones to make more broth.

I assemble spices, and I add a little water to the dregs on the bottom of the sweet chili sauce bottle, shaking it to get all the last bits of good flavor excited about going into soup. I dig out the big old can-opener and turn open a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce.

This is a perfect recipe, but like any fine soup, it does not suffer from substitutions or additions. We don’t have a can of condensed tomato soup, but the tomato sauce will do fine. Sweet chili sauce will fill in for chili powder. Cayenne will do for cumin, too.

I nuke the frozen blocks of broth. The onions and garlic are soft and fragrant. The shredded chicken joins them. I pour in the broth, already steaming from the microwave. I stir in spices and potions and the canned tomatoes; I throw in the refrigerated leftovers and the cup of frozen corn.

I stir and stir with my big wooden spoon, introducing all these disparate elements, urging them to get along, to work together to create something wonderful, and bubbling, and new.

I dip the boneless chicken into panko bread crumbs mixed with parmesan, and put them on a tray, and slide them into the oven.

It is four-thirty in the afternoon, and I take my Donna Leon murder mystery to the reading chair. And at that moment I cannot think of a better place to be, my bare feet resting on the old fuzzy gold throw, my imagination traveling on a Venetian canal with Commissario Brunetti, searching for answers. It’s been a good day’s work; my syllabi are almost done; the house is straightened up. Laundry tumbles below me as rain pounds above.

And from the kitchen, a wonderfully perfumed steam emanates.

Soup: an elixir of anticipation.

Mark comes home a little after 5:00, and, “Oh, man. That smells GOOD,” he says, and he heads off to change. I struggle out of the comfy chair and we converge in the kitchen.

Jim puts tots in the preheated air fryer to roast up, crispy and sizzling. I find the block of Vermont cheddar in the fridge, and Mark digs out the cheese slicer. There are whole grain crackers. There is a new bag of crunchy corn tortilla strips.

We pull roasted chicken from the oven, and Jim makes himself a plate of golden treats and wanders off to eat and type.

Mark grabs the old white ladle from the crock, and we fill the heavy white ceramic bowls with soup that is thick with meat and veggies and the exact rich tone of that jewel in the dragon lamp. We sit at the table and slurp; we slice cheese almost so thin we can see through it and we fold it onto those fresh, crunchy crackers.

And the day releases. Goals fulfilled, tensions melt in the fragrant steam.

Soup: the reward at the end of a stormy day.

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Wednesday dawns bright and washed clean. I lace up and head out, seventies music pulsing me along. It will be a busy day, and it will be a hot one. Today, I think, we’ll rub some chops and throw them on the grill, put together a lettuce salad.

It’s a day to gather with retired teachers for an outdoor lunch, to mow the lawn, to trim the iris leaves, browning and curled. Today the air conditioning needs to be invited back on.

Today we will eat summer food, and I will pack the leftover soup into freezer containers. I will label those containers carefully and hide them away in the frosty dark. They’ll abide until the next damp and stormy day, when chill breezes breathe.

They’ll be there, those little chunks of frozen treasure, ready for us, the next time we have a day when we need soup.

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Wendy’s Delicious Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 tsp .oil

I cup chopped onion 

2 cloves garlic, minced 

2 cups cooked shredded chicken 

1 cup frozen corn

1 tsp cumin (or cayenne)

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp chili powder (or sweet chili sauce. Or chopped jalapeno, or red pepper flakes…)

8 cups chicken broth or stock 

1 can diced tomatoes (10 or 12 oz) Diced tomatoes with green chilies add a little zip , but you can use plain 

I can undiluted tomato soup (or small can tomato sauce)

tortilla chips 

sour cream, diced avocado (Nice, but not essential!)

Saute onion and garlic in oil . Add all ingredients  except chips etc. Bring to boil , then simmer 1 hour on stove top or 3-4 hours on low in slow cooker. 

Garnish with crushed tortilla chips , sour cream and  diced avocado as desired. 

Recipe freezes well and is easy to double or triple for a crowd. 

Enjoy !!

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What Happened to My Ladies’ Mags? (Laments the Old Lady)

I read all the time when I was a kid. Well, not ALL the time, of course. But I would have if I could have. I read in bed–read until I fell asleep and again when I woke up, and I brought books to the table, although that was forbidden on certain days and at certain meals. I carried a book with me to games and parties and anywhere there might be a wait time. I took books to the grocery store. When I was big enough for a purse, my purse was generally big enough for a book.

I was not allowed to read while walking to school (some rules just seemed so random to me, but I shrugged and figured my mother must have her secret reasons.) When company came over, I at least had to surface long enough to make pleasant conversation before diving back into a sea of words.

And the words could come from anywhere: cereal boxes, model car packages, Ayds diet candy true testimonials…I was not, as a child, a discerning reader. I just read everything that strayed into my line of vision.

Here’s an Ayds ad I found on tedium.com. As a chubby, chocoholic child, I though a diet based on eating candy was probably the right kind of magic.

Our sterling-quality public library was within walking distance, and, as soon as I turned seven and got my first library card, I made that trek at least once a week. And we had books at home—Dr. Seuss books with pages worn soft as cloth (I would read through Yertle the Turtle, whose power-crazed ambition always put me off,–and I felt so SORRY for poor little Mack!–to get to the story about Lolla-Lee-Lou, who traded her ability to fly for a flashy set of tail feathers. I don’t know why I loved that story so), dog-eared Little Golden Books, cheap kids’ books from the grocery store. There was a book about a boy who yearned, growing up out West, for a ten-gallon hat. There was one about a boy growing up in Africa who did everything wrong. At the end of the book, he stepped splat in the middle of all six (I think) chocolate pies his long-suffering mother had made for him. I wanted badly to defend that boy, feeling, as I often did, that I, too, got just about everything wrong.

My mother brought home classic kid reads from rummage sales—Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins books.

And there were newspapers, twice a day—the first city paper, the Courier-Express, in the morning; the second city paper, The Evening News, in the afternoon. The local paper arrived after school, too. The newspapers all ran interesting things—they had comics, of course; human interest stories that were sometimes very interesting; horoscopes; police blotters; and daily puzzles.

And, every once in a while, my mother would give in to a frivolous impulse and subscribe to a ladies’ magazine. How I wanted her to subscribe to McCall’s, which featured a Betsy McCall paper doll each month. There was a story about Betsy, too, and she always had exactly the right clothes to wear.

Vintage Betsy McCall page from etsy.com

One of my friends had a mother who subscribed to McCall’s; that friend cut the paper dolls out and brought them to school along with their clothes and allowed us to look, but not touch.

“They’re VERY fragile,” she would say, haughtily. Filled with longing for those dolls, I wanted so much to grab them away from sour Miss Stingy and dress Betsy in her perfect yellow rain slicker. Looking was not much fun.

The other place Betsy turned up was in the doctor’s office, where old, old copies of the magazine moldered on formica-topped end tables. I would open to the Betsy section and dream that I could take a scissors and clip and snip, making Betsy mine. (Maybe I would paste her onto an empty cereal box and cut her out; maybe I would reinforce her clothes with scrap paper. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so fragile.)

But there was a rule about doctor’s office magazines—a commandment really, invented late because magazines didn’t exist when Moses was climbing up that mountain. The commandment was this: Thou shalt not deface magazines in waiting rooms.

Sometimes, during a long wait, my mother would take out a pen and copy down a recipe from a magazine. She might sigh over a really good coupon, but she’d close the magazine and leave it intact. She hated getting deeply engrossed in a magazine article and then flipping to page 182 for the finale, only to find some fiend had used a fingernail to carve out a 25-cent coupon for Crest or Heinz beans, carving out the end of the story, as well.

“LOOK at that,” she’d say, in disgust. “What kind of worm does such a thing?”

When my mother called someone a worm, things were pretty dire. I swallowed my suggestion that maybe we could ask the receptionist if I could take the Betsy pages from a really old magazine. And I learned to live with the disappointment of knowing Mom would never order McCalls to be delivered to our home.

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My mother DID, however, subscribe to Redbook. Redbook was a thick magazine with interesting articles—there was always a true-life story, kind of a ‘how I solved this dilemma’ kind of thing. I remember reading a mother’s story about her tiny ill child, a child who had been perfectly healthy but then began wasting away. The child grew thin and lethargic, and the mother was frantic to feed him. She would squeeze oranges and serve the baby that healthy juice, pouring it into a fun glass from a brightly-colored pottery pitcher.

They had bought the pitcher in another country; the glaze was lead-based. Finally, a doctor recognized the child’s desperate dilemma as lead-poisoning, and finally the mother identified the pitcher as the source of the lead.

The moral of the story was not to use pottery unless you were sure it contained no lead.

Redbook was known for its controversial, thoughtful articles on civil rights, which was unusual for a ladies’ magazine in the 1960’s, and it ran more fiction than any other magazine in its genre. At the back of the issue, printed on rough, newsprint-y type paper, there was always the condensed Redbook novel. I read Anne Tyler’s A Slipping Down Kind of Life (I was struck by Casey’s song at the end, when he queried plaintively, “But the letters were carved backwards. Weren’t they?”) in Redbook, and then I followed her writing as I grew older. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People was a Redbook novel. And every year, in July, I think—just in time for summer reading,–they would have a special fiction issue, jam-packed with short stories.

I LOVED Redbook. Of course, it was my mother’s magazine, so I had to wait, not very patiently, while she worked her way through it in the nooks and crannies that life allotted her for reading. (Woe to me if I snuck peeks early and moved or lost her bookmark. I would be the worm, then.) But when she was done, I could take the magazine to my room and devour it. I met writers like Gail Godwin in those pages, writers who have remained favorite authors for forty years.

Redbook changed hands, I think, and changed format, and the fiction disappeared; the magazine became more glossy and more focused on the challenges of modern married women. But I left Redbook before it left me, anyway; I left it for a glossy, glitzy periodical aimed right at young, independent, free-spirited women in the 1970’s: Cosmopolitan.

I worked at a supermarket during late high school and for many of my college years, and one of the real perks of being there was knowing when the new Cosmo came out. My monthly treat was the thick new issue, and a giant Nestle’s Crunch bar, and a block of time long enough to completely digest both.

I came to Cosmo AFTER Burt Reynolds posed his famous pose, and I really did read the magazine for its articles. Many of those dealt with risqué topics that addressed young independent women who washed ashore on the second wave of feminism. And those articles were interesting, of course, but the one that sticks with me was one by a single professional woman whose apartment was a mess. It was such a mess, she wrote, that her dates left in horror and never once called her back.

She railed for a time, raging that in these days of liberation, women—smart, professional, busy women!!!—should not be judged by their slovenly homes. But gradually she came to see that cleanliness could co-exist with independence, and her habits changed. As they did, her apartment morphed into a place of comfort and beauty and sanctuary for HER.

She learned self-care.

She learned to be house proud.

It probably says something about me that the article I most remember from racy, scandalous Cosmo was the one about learning to keep your house clean.

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Later, after college, I discovered Country Living, a magazine all about home and creativity and life in the not-so-urban areas, just like places where I lived. That, I think, was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, and its arrival day carried the same charge as those days when I had discovered the new Cosmo on the supermarket displays.

I still enjoy paging through Country Living, although, like all ladies’ mags, it’s had its own evolution. And today I look forward to regional magazines—Midwest Living, Ohio Magazine—sliding through the mail slot. Some of my favorite recipes have come from the pages of those two publications. We’ve discovered fascinating places to visit, too,–places we would not have found without reading those magazines.

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But I fear for paper magazines, just as I fear for local papers. Because I don’t HAVE to wait for a periodical to arrive for inspiration; I can hop online and read commentary, find a recipe, research paint colors. There are, alas, as far as I can tell, no longer any women’s magazines that carry the kind of rich, new fiction that Redbook used to feature.

But I think there’s still a place for the monthly magazine, a slow, delighted, reflective kind of place, where we step off the conveyor belt and settle down in the reading chair. It’s a place where we can let ourselves be inspired, shocked, challenged, or validated by what we read and encounter—essays and articles, great photography (Scavullo, by the way, shot Burt Reynolds, whose arm was very discreetly positioned in that famous photo. Or so I heard, anyway, back in the day), unbiased reactions, and yes, really good recipes, accompanied by photos and stories.

I’m exploring, these days, OTHER magazines, not just-for-women magazines, that offer that fresh, smart, relevant content. I know I will find the one that clicks, that tells me, “Yes! Here I am! I am YOUR magazine!’ And then I will subscribe, and I’ll wait, excited, for each monthly issue to arrive.

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In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, of course. I have a tottering stack of to-be-read books. We still get a paper copy of the local paper, every day. I have a file in my email called ‘Interesting Stuff’ where I archive articles and essays and links family and friends send; once a week I try to clear time to feed my soul on what’s in there.

And even if I should someday run out of that kind of reading material, I’m not worried.  I still have plenty of cereal.

So Fuddy Me No Duddies; I’m Going Back to Read My Book

When people care enough to recommend a book, I find, it always pays to read that book. Then I get the benefit of the writing, the knowledge, and the imagination or the exploration, of the author. And I learn something about the recommender and what she cares about, or what he finds fascinating.

So just now, I am reading a wonderful book, A Gentleman in Moscow, at the suggestion of a wonderful friend.

Amor Towles wrote A Gentleman in Moscow; it follows his debut novel, Rules of Civility, which was a New York Times bestseller. That was a great read, too, but A Gentleman in Moscow is very different. It’s set, of course, in Moscow—in one hotel in Moscow,—and it spans the time from 1922 until 1964 or so. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I believe that, within its pages, our hero, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, former poet and count, never leaves the hotel once he has been, at the very outset of the story, sequestered there under house arrest.

And yet, there’s no sense of ‘stiflement’ or constriction. Instead, it seems that the Count has discovered an ever-expanding world within the five floors of his realm.

Very early on in the book, someone suggested that the Count might be a little set in his ways. In fact, the term ‘fuddy-duddy’ was used to describe him.

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Fuddy-duddy rang in my cranium for the next couple of days, driving me, finally, to look it up and figure it out. Where on earth did a phrase like THAT come from, and how did it enter into common usage?

So I search the internet and find an interesting discussion at phrases.org, a UK site. They define fuddy-duddy as meaning, “a stuffy or foolishly old-fashioned person,” and I suppose one could see how a member of royalty, confronted with the people’s revolution, might be assumed to be longing, foolishly and nostalgically, for the old ways…although that’s not the case here, in this book’s hero.

And where did fuddy-duddy come from? Turns out, says phrases.org, that it’s a United States term with Scottish roots. Along the line somewhere, someone put together two Scottish words and came up with a meaning unrelated to either of them.

For example…

Duddy is a Scots term for raggedy clothes. ‘Duds’ has been in use since the 1400’s, meaning rough, worn garb (a bit different from the way we use that term today, as in, “Nice duds!”)

Fuddy is a Scots term for a part of human anatomy located in the back, rear region.

So a fuddy-duddy, literally translated, would mean, if you’ll excuse me, a raggedy ass. (Cumberlandians, in 1800’s England, called a raggedy fellow a ‘duddy fuddiel.”) We don’t translate it literally, clearly: we know that no self-respecting fuddy-duddy would be caught in public in raggedy clothing. They might wear the SAME clothing over and over, but it would be impeccably pressed and mended.

So somehow the terms slipped over to the States and got misunderstood, or someone used them in a different context and another someone assigned the term a whole wrong meaning. There followed cartoony kinds of characters named Fuddy and Duddy who were horrified at any kind of progressive change, and later, certainly, Warner Brother’s Elmer Fudd, the quintessential stick-in-the mud, represents the meaning we’ve come to apply to fuddy-duddy.

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fuddy-duddy.html

And what about stick-in-the-mud? If one doesn’t like to have that fuddy-duddy derriere connotation lingering when describing a hidebound person, resistant to change, one might prefer ‘stick-in-the-mud.’ This term, the grammarist.com tells me, harks back to the 1700’s, as a mild admonishment: ie, “Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud.”

That always made me imagine a big old branch upended in a thick, muddy swamp, but here, the ‘stick’ is verb, not noun. It refers to a person so mired in habit that he or she can’t budge.

https://grammarist.com/idiom/stick-in-the-mud/

Two other terms, Mark suggested when I brought up the fuddy-duddy debate, for those of the ‘don’t make me change’ variety, might be party pooper and Debbie Downer. So I looked those up, too.

NPR’s show, “That’s What They Say;” with experts Rena Miller and Anne Curzon, looked at party pooper’s origin. It is also a US invention, and, they say, it first shows up in the 1940’s. In fact, it became so used in that decade that Newsweek declared ‘party pooper’ to be taking the place of terms like ‘wet blanket’ or ‘wall flower.’

There’s some confusion over party pooper’s origins, too. The ‘poop’ part could mean exhausted, as in, “I’m staying home from the party; I’m pooped!”

Or it could be a term of derision, as when someone pooh-poohs a concept. That would look more like this: “Oh, pooh. I’m not going to THAT party.”

Or it could, grammarist.com tells me, circle back to that derriere kind of connotation as in, “Oh, poopy. No parties for ME.”

Eeeuw.

https://www.michiganradio.org/post/etymology-party-pooper

Maybe calling someone a Debbie Downer is safer. That originated in the US, too, on Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s. Rachel Dratch famously placed a character named (duh) Debbie Downer, who had a saddened, deflating retort for every bit of good news relayed or every possible next step suggested.

In the very first sketch, Debbie ruins a family reunion at Disneyworld, and the result is so hysterical that seasoned actors can’t help but break the wall and laugh. (If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to watch the Debbie Downer debut here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfE93xON8jk )

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But a Debbie Downer isn’t exactly a fuddy-duddy. Debbie’s intent on bringing everyone else down to her level of maudlin sorrow, and a fuddy-duddy is intent on preventing change.

And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that all these terms originate in the US? Do we have a particular intolerance for those who linger longingly in the land of tradition? Or for those who just aren’t FUN?

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At any rate. I can tell you without, I think, spoiling anything, that Alexander Ilyich Rostov is far from being a fuddy-duddy, a stick-in-the-mud, a party pooper, OR a Debbie Downer. In fact, he’s one of the most amazingly flexible and adaptable characters I’ve ever met in fiction. A Gentleman in Moscow demonstrates that it’s not distance or geography, but personal depth, that creates a universe and then peoples it with characters both ordinary and amazing.

So I am going back to steal a half hour’s reading time before dinner. I’m awfully glad Kathie recommended this book.

What I Might Miss When I Dismiss White Magic

Magic. n. (esp. in stories for children) the use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible: a tale of witchcraft and magic

Magic is also the skill of performing tricks to entertain people, such as making things seem to appear and disappear, or the tricks performed: My daughter loves doing magic.

A special, exciting quality that makes something or someone different and better than others: As an actress, she has lost none of her magic, and she still is thrilling to watch.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/magic

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I shook the stones from their gauzy yellow, ribbon-tied bags, and spread them across my desk.

Chunks of rosy quartz looked sugared, like candy. The kyanite was smooth and glossy, striated blue and gray. One facet of each of the seer eggs was polished smooth; the rest of the rounded rock looked cloudy and rough and opaque.

I looked each up on-line, and discovered…

…rose quartz carries soft feminine energy, encouraging things like peacefulness and compassion, the giving of nourishment and comfort, the achievement of healing. This rock, I learned, promotes unconditional love—its receipt and its extension.

…blue kyanite enhances meditation; it calms the entire being. The stone fends off negative emotions, warding away frustration and confusion and stress, and it clears things that are blocked. It has a special connection, I read, to the throat. Holding blue kyanite near promotes honest, effective speech.

…the seer eggs have a smooth facet for the holder to gaze into. Then she’ll be connected to, and understand, the past, present, or the future. (Some say that there’s a way to use the eggs to transport the beholder to one specific time.)

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I bought these pretty baubles at The Lavender Hour, bought them to share with friends who couldn’t attend the opening of the wellness center and yoga studio. This enterprise was Terri’s dream; when she died in March, her daughters vowed to make it happen. And the whole family pitched in…and damn. Didn’t they just pull it off?

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The rocks are beautiful. But do they really carry any potent, magical powers?

I don’t know. We may be as ignorant in our ways as those unschooled people in fables who are awed by the appearance of fire, or by a soda can dropping from the sky. Years from now, scientists and scholars may well establish links between certain minerals and different kinds of well-being.

But the creation of the concrete interpretation of a wonderful dream…well, that, to me, IS magical.

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I was warned, as a child in a Roman Catholic school in the 1960’s, against tinkering with anything magical. The nuns, stern, often humorless, and absolutely certain of what they taught, were a little confusing on the topic.

There was, they told us, no such thing as magic. But if there WAS a thing called magic,—well, it would be the devil’s doing.

A brave child raised her hand and asked about what Jesus did—the turning of water into wine, the raising of a dear friend from the dead. Weren’t those things magical?

Our teacher was appalled. Those were MIRACLES, not magic, she intoned, and only God could perform miracles. Jesus, of course, could do this because he was God. The apostles, the saints…sometimes God worked through them, and miracles happened as testament to God’s great power.

But other things—Ouija boards, for instance—were either fake, shallow party games, or connected to dark forces.

We were NOT, Sister told us, to dabble in or even wonder about magic. And she firmly closed the door on that topic.

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I let go of the idea of magic—a comforting story, magic was, for fairy tales and Harry Potter books—but not something connected to real life. I did not, though, relinquish the concept of miracles.

I prayed for miracles when relationships foundered painfully, when catastrophic illnesses struck, when people I held dear struggled with insurmountable problems. The nuns had taught us that one must be pure of heart and free of sin to have prayers answered. But some of the kindest and best people didn’t get their miracles.

The idea that healing came to deserving ones—or that attitude and optimism inspired remission—well, I came to see that was false. Stalwart people who believed that worth determined miracles would have to believe that they had failed—that they weren’t good enough, or upbeat enough, or something enough, to have their prayers answered.

I did not think there was a God meting out horrible diseases as punishment or test.

Instead, I believed that much of the disease that we suffer is human-made, environmental, caused by who knows what—lead paint on plastic bread bags, maybe, or toxins released into fresh-water creeks, or fertilizer particles floating randomly through the fresh Fall air. Human free will created and released those things; our complex genetics determines who would be felled by them.

Modern science, we are told, is searching for the miracle. There is no magic cure for sorrow and pain and death.

But sometimes, I am coming to see, there is a kind of everyday enchantment, the kind of magic that shines lights in the darkness, and that, sometimes, (for short periods, anyway), can make the awful losses bearable.

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

There are talismans, like the stones I brought back from The Lavender Hour.

I keep a crystal Terri gave me in the pocket of my purse. I bring it out and roll it around in the palm of my hand sometimes. It’s something she selected, and holding it brings back memories of a wonderful friend.

My son James carries a variety of talismans in his wallet. He, too, has a crystal Terri gave him. His Health professor gave him a shiny bit of decorative glass at the end of the last semester; he likes the way it looks and it feels, and he carries it with the crystal. They nestle with a tiny rosary—a solid piece of metal with round knobs that a small person might slide over a pinkie finger—that Jim’s grandfather Angelo gave him.

I don’t believe Jim invests any of these items with mystical properties, but they have the power to remind him of special people—some living, and some whom he’s lost. And there’s no sacrilege and no disrespect in the religious icon mingling closely with the earthly ones.

If I package up the little stones this week, and send them, with the on-line explanations of those minerals, to special people, those people won’t say, “Hey! Magic!”  

But I hope they’ll feel the power of connection, and the enchantment of special memories.

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

There are places that extend their magic.

Wetlands have been created on the farm where Terry’s son John grew up playing. His dad’s family lived on that land for generations; its mysteries introduced the boy to the passion for wildlife that would become the man’s career. Now that acreage is a living text that scientists and students will study to learn about the birds and the water creatures, the snakes and the reptiles, the warm-blooded furry creatures, and the cold-blooded, scaly ones, the flying ones, the creeping ones, the ones that slither and the ones that swim, and that inhabit a special place.

The wetlands are beautiful, teeming with life, busy, but—to the uninitiated observer, at least,—serene. There’s a magic in their creation, in the energy and passion of one young man inspiring a center for study and preservation: and a place where those who loved him can go to celebrate him, and maybe to feel close.

The same kind of magic stirs in the Lavender Hour where Terri’s children bring her vision of a healing place into clear, real focus. We arrived late at the grand opening last Saturday; a free yoga class was underway, with Terri’s daughter Kate leading it. In the long, long space, so many people took part that scant inches separated yoga mats. There is the magic of a dream fulfilled, and a lasting love expressed in concrete ways.

Even the city paths I walk each morning have their soothing magic. They bring me smiling familiar faces: the man who always heads to the corner to catch the bus when I am trekking; the young man on his porch who waves vigorously, grinning, when he sees me walking by, and when he’s waiting, with his burly patient dad, for the bus to arrive to take him to his work experience. The lady with her dignified little dog. The guy with his two mismatched, rambunctious, caramel-colored hounds.

The walks bring me adventures into the unexpected, too—four ducks waddling down an inland street, the pungent smell of a recently visiting skunk, the fleeting visit of a bluebird on a wire. And all of this—the expected and the surprises—is wrapped in nature…in the fog or the heat, the slickery mud, or the dusty, dry pavement,…that every day brings. It’s a magical merging of the mundane and the mysterious.

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

There’s the enchantment of books—the true magic when I find the book that opens exactly the door that needs opening right now, or that provides the comfort and respite to enable me to take a short refuge in its pages, and then to jump back, refreshed, into the fray.

There are photos and letters and emails, gifts received whose meanings withstand the onslaught. A ring worn thin and smooth, worn for fifty years or more; a favorite mug. A funny card.

These are just things, of course; but they are magical in what they represent.

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

And of course, there are the people—the ones who cheer us on, who catch us when our knees shake loose and we begin to go down, down, down. Sometimes, the call comes at just the right moment, or the card slides through the slot at precisely the time we need exactly what they share. And what could be more magical than that?

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

The nuns taught me well. The only horror novel I ever read was The Exorcist; even the memory of that terrifying tale makes me reach to snap on a light in the darkest part of night. Black magic—well, that’s nothing to mess about with, and nothing I want to learn more about.

But there’s a white magic that generates hope, that shares joy, that supports and uplifts. We can find it in the icons and talismans of everyday life; we can feel it when we walk through spaces imbued with special meaning. It zaps us with its power when the people we love generate it; we strive to nurture that power, to shoot it right back at the times the originators need it, too.

This is not a magic that will swell and roar, not one that will fell the Bad Ones, or heal the ill ones, or bring us back the ones we miss so dear. But it is a kind of magic that comforts and rocks us, that helps us hold on when our fingers are slick and tired with the effort.

I’ll take that white magic in whatever homely ways it presents itself; I will take and it and use it and try to absorb its strength. And I’ll hope that when I’m called on to send that helping power, that I’ll be ready—ready with a word, or a walk, or a rock—whatever small white magic I can share that might have the potential to lift that special one’s darkness just a little.

Waiting for the People’s Hour

“Look,” whispers Mark, and I join him at the back door, where we peer through the glass at what could be a day care center for deer.

Light is just breaking; four spotted babies are curled up comfortably in the middle of the backyard. One of the mommas conscientiously concentrates on eating every single bud and blossom from my little tea rose while the other snoozes way back under the pine tree.

We think one of the mommas has triplets, and that the other, smaller, doe is a first-time mom. Three of the fawns are curious, exploratory, nudging; the other is shy and skittery.

We think the shy one is the first-time mom’s baby.

I wonder if the triplet mom is also the momma to the little doe, and so the grandmomma to the shy fawn.

As we watch, three of the babies raise their heads, stretching their long necks, looking around. The fourth sleeps on.

Mark opens the door slowly and steps quietly out onto the stoop. He gently wiggles his cell phone out of the pocket of his shorts, and he lifts it to take a picture.

The biggest fawn jumps to its feet. Mark raises the phone and snaps.

The baby fixes him with a look and, sure that it has Mark’s attention, deliberately stomps its right front foot.

“Look at THAT,” Mark says softly. He stares back at the baby; he stomps HIS right front foot.

The baby leaps, shocked, and sends some sort of signal. Two more fawns jump up to join it, and they drill their gazes into Mark. And the rose-eating momma, message received, ambles over to join the little ones.

They face Mark down while the smallest one sleeps on.

Mark, once again, stomps his right front leg.

Momma and the big fawn stomp right back, and they peer at him intently.

I can almost see conversation bubbles over their heads.

“What is YOUR deal?” they are asking. “This is not your time, human. This hour—when the sun awakens and the darkness broadens into gray, then into dawn, is still part of the Night Domain. This is OUR yard until the Hour of the People begins.

“Wait your turn, Buddy. And leave us alone.”

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

Mark puts away his cell phone and gets his car keys, and he backs out of the carport, heading to the gym. I gently close the door behind him and go into the dining room. I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet and find my seven-year pen. I’ll write my pages first, then walk.

For a while I was walking during the transitional hour, thinking, “I’ll get my walk done first thing! It’ll be cool and pleasant, and I can sit over my morning pages when I come home.”

So my walks and Mark’s gym forays aligned; when I came back, I’d start the coffee and join him at the patio table. I’d date the page and begin to write, but, inevitably, I’d put down the pen in favor of conversation.

My pages weren’t getting written when I walked in the transition time.

And things happened then that reminded me that that hour—that gray and glistening time—does not belong entirely to people. During that hour, the world slides slowly, and sometimes reluctantly, away from the Night Domain.

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

It IS cooler at 6:00 a.m. on hot summer mornings—so cool, sometimes, that shreds of fog cling. The air feels good, but I found I needed to step it up, to walk briskly, to stay warm enough then.

And I had to watch where I was walking. As the curtain pulls back and day emerges, there are denizens just retreating.

One morning, I rounded the corner and there, mid-street, stood a one-antlered buck. He loomed tall out of the morning fog; he owned the road, and he was not inclined to share.

I stopped and gazed at his asymmetrical head. Why only one antler? I wondered.

He stared at me, unamused.

It was a long looking moment, and I, of course, faltered first.

No reason I can’t walk the other way ‘round the block, I reasoned, and I reversed course and turned away.

When I had gone about twenty yards, I looked back. He was still there, the one-antlered buck, owning his corner and his misty hour of morn.

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

It may have been that morning that I became aware that a robin seemed to be following me. I was on the straightaway and several yards ahead of me, a robin stood his ground in the sidewalk. Maybe he had seen the deer best me and thought he’d do the same. He stood, unflinching, mid-sidewalk, head cocked, one round black eye meeting mine.

I walked closer and he stayed still.

Come on, I thought. I am not giving up the sidewalk to a little bird. Move, buddy. MOVE.

I was less than six feet from the valiant little creature when he threw in the towel. He fluttered into a nearby tree, and he hid in the leafy branches, and, honest to gawd, he YELLED at me.

I walked on, fast—not scared, mind you, just setting a brisk pace in the morning cool.

And every 600 feet or so, I’d look up, and there would be a robin on a branch ahead, eying me. Same size, same attitude, same posture: one ebony eye-bead fixed on my face.

Are you FOLLOWING me? I demanded, and then I looked around, quick, hoping no other morning walkers were near enough to hear me interrogating a bird.

The bird just held its gaze.

I walked.

And six hundred feet later, there he was again.

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

Maybe he was sending progress signals to his paisans. She’s just about to turn on to Yale, he might be telepathing.

And the one-antlered deer would shrug and say, Let her come.

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

One early-early I interrupted two small raccoons deep in conversation in the alley. I swear the closer one held up his hand to halt the other’s narrative; he swiveled his head and stared at me as I walked past.

It is quiet, quiet, in the transition hour. What do little raccoons discuss then?

That day, they froze and watched me out of sight, and, until I reached and turned the corner, awareness prickled down my back.

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

Another early-early,—and I am not making this up—a man was walking a passel of tiny jumping dogs. There were eight little yippers, at least, each on its own leash. They moved as a body, the yippers bouncing. They looked like a strange great spider.

The man himself looked like the Christopher Lloyd character in Back to the Future—a shiny pate, a shock of silvery hair, a face that was lined and on the gaunt side. His belly, though—that protruded, and it was more noticeable because he was sporting a long, belted, leopard-skin robe. His skinny white legs ended in red crocs.

Clearly he wasn’t used to encountering other humans at that hour. The tiny dogs bounced and barked and leashes tangled, and the man muttered, eying me and trying to get his herd to edge away.

The little dogs ignored him.

Finally, he yelled, “BATHTUB!”

The tumult stopped and the dogs organized themselves, and the man gave me a look—that look, the same ones the animals gave us: What are YOU doing HERE NOW???? And the whole entourage turned and made their regal way up a narrow side street.

I watched a while and I itched to take a picture, because I wanted to be sure I had seen this.

But I thought picture-taking was rude, and a part of me thought that maybe the encounter was a function of the transition hour, a shape-shifting kind of trick, and the man was really going to morph back into a spider with a leopard-print body, and the dogs into tiny aphids attending him.

And then I shook my head and stepped up my pace. It can get fanciful, walking in the transition time.

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

One day, in my early-early walking week, I turned the corner to head home, and came upon a thick-furred black and white cat that crouched, motionless and ready, on the sidewalk. It flicked its eyes, and a whole venomous message came sniggling right at me.

Go AWAY, the message said.

Don’t you dare interrupt this, the message said.

I stopped and turned and I saw, frozen in the alley that leads to the back of my house, a rabbit, stiff with fright, huge eyes rolling wildly.

The cat stared at the rabbit, and I stared at the cat.

Run AWAY, bunny! I said, but the rabbit was paralyzed. The cat all but hissed at me.

I thought of the deer. I stomped my right foot.

I clapped my hands.

I yelled.

And the bunny leapt; it bounded off, finally released from that awful feline hypnosis.

The cat was disgusted. It gave me a pursed-face, meaningful look—again with the message: What are YOU doing here? This is not your time!

With great and august dignity it rose, floofed its plumy tail at me and ambled, not one to hurry, away.

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

That was the morning I decided I had had enough of walking in the hour before the Night Domain receded. I brewed my coffee and sat with Mark on the patio, and then the day got underway.

That night, I mentioned that I was going to reverse the order—do the pages first, then walk.

It’ll just work better, I explained. The day rolls much more smoothly when I get those morning pages written.

Uh huh, said Mark. I get you. Makes sense to me, he said.

And so that’s what I’ve been doing. Writing those morning pages—well, it’s like sweeping cobwebs from the bony chambers of my mind. It’s best to do them first thing.

And if my human presence no longer intrudes on transition time, if I wait for the Hour of the People to pop my earbuds in and do my walking,—well, of course, that’s simply incidental.

And there’s nothing wrong, after all,—nothing one could say, “Fraidy-pants!!” about—with walking AFTER the Night Domain recedes.

Plan B

I’ve been thinking lately about the possibility of change, and how I need to be open to the thought that people can do it.

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

For instance. Once we took a trip and stayed at a place that did not live up to its hype at all. The beds were hard and lumpy; there was a yawning cellar that puffed out musty breath, and there was evidence that once, cats had made that place their own. By the time the sun rose on our first night’s stay, the boyos were sneezing and miserable.

We had to cancel that reservation and move to a hotel. This really bothered my son, James, who is on the autistic spectrum, and who likes very much to know what is coming next.

Then we went to an event that was loud and bumptious and crowded. There was music and strong cooking smells and raucous laughter. The noise ramped up, the rooms filled up, and James grew whiter and whiter around the gills. Finally, I had to take him back to his hotel room.

He never quite gained his travel equilibrium, and we cut that trip short.

Last minute changes of plan, Mark and I agreed, are tough.

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

But. Not so very long ago, we took another family trip—this time to Toledo.

Originally, I had us booked from Friday through Sunday, via a rental provider, into a private home, where we’d have our own little apartment. And I had researched Toledo attractions. I thought we’d visit the Toledo Zoo on Saturday afternoon. I found a classic family restaurant that has been in Toledo since 1948. That’s where we would eat on Saturday night, I thought.

It felt good to have a firm schedule. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, or anything, but I do like, when I’m traveling, to have things planned.

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

So late on Friday afternoon, we drove into a historic Toledo neighborhood and pulled up in front of a grand old painted lady. It nestled next to a neighborhood park with blooming roses and fresh green grass and a trim little gazebo with shaded benches.

“Nice,” we agreed, and Mark popped the trunk, and we lugged bags upstairs.

The apartment looked just like its online pictures—a beautiful little living room, its AC unit chugging cheerfully away; a tiny sitting room where two comfy chairs overlooked the little park. The bedroom doors were open, and beautifully made beds enticed. We explored; Mark and I parked our stuff in the room with the queen bed. Jim had a pleasant room with a double bed and a quiet, strong ceiling fan.

It was gorgeous and pristine…and then we went into the dining room, with its pretty, sturdy, carved table and chairs, and discovered plaster on the floor and builder’s tape dangling from the ceiling.

Clearly there’d been some recent water damage. We took photos and texted them to the owner, who was out of town.

She responded, shocked, immediately. She’d have her roofer come over and check; if we chose to stay, she’d give us a discount.

The kitchen was fully up-to-date with Victorian ambience. There was a sweet butler’s pantry.

We found a broom and cleaned up the plaster. I thought about getting up in the dawning hours and walking in this beautiful neighborhood.

We conferred, the three of us, and agreed: we’d stay. I texted our host.

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

That evening we located a supermarket and did some shopping. We cooked up some cubed steaks we’d gotten from a special butcher shop—they were tender and juicy—and we made sandwiches and salads and helped ourselves to chips. After dinner, Mark took a newspaper out to the sitting room.  I plugged in my laptop and worked on my Saturday post at the kitchen table.

Jim was comfortably in the living room, typing away.

Internet access was fast and good.

We were content in our little home away from home.

By 10:30, everyone was tucked up, drifting away; it strikes me as odd that spending a large chunk of day driving or riding—just sitting—can be tiring, but, for some reason, it always is. So the house quietened quickly and off we nodded.

Until 11:00, when a four-foot chunk of dining room ceiling crashed to the dining room floor.

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

By 12:01 we were in a downtown hotel, on the 13th floor. Jim’s room overlooked the Mud Hens stadium. We wheeled the luggage cart to his door.  He opened it and surveyed.

“This is a cool hotel,” Jim said, and he shut his door on us.

Mark and I had a panoramic view of the Maumee River meandering into Lake Erie.

The rooms were clean, and the beds were comfy, the pillows plumped.  The rental owner had responded quickly and given us a full refund.

This wasn’t the original plan, but it worked.

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

We had a good night’s sleep and, in the morning, we took a wonderful long exploring walk around the Toledo waterfront and the Hensville neighborhood. Hours melted away, and soon, it was time to head for the Toledo Zoo. The sky was a little gray—“Might rain a bit,” Mark said thoughtfully—so we were thinking the Zoo’s Natural History Museum was a good indoor destination.

Five minutes before we arrived at the Zoo, the clouds opened.

They opened full throttle.

We pulled into the zoo parking lot and watched people stream out of the gates, their hair plastered to their faces, their soaked clothing molded to their bodies.

Their umbrellas were not helping.

We sat in the car. Water beat on the roof and sluiced down the windshield. Cars veered by, careening up great plumes of water. In those cars, unhappy people huddled, dripping, their faces turned from each other.

We contemplated parking the car, walking to the gate, then walking to the natural history building.

Jim sighed.

Mark said, “No.”

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

We wound up, instead, spending the afternoon browsing in a wonderful little used bookstore called Nevermore.  Mark and I were delighted to find the exact books we’d been meaning to read. Jim scored two full bags of fantasy novels. By the time we were done mooching around, dipping into shelves, selecting, paging, and reading, and talking with a very nice clerk, the rain had stopped completely.

The sun was even peeking out a little.

“Well,” I said. “At least we can relax over dinner and laugh about the rain.”

We pulled up the directions to the restaurant on the phone, hoping it wasn’t going to be too busy. We drove through a beautiful university district, until, “Turn LEFT,” said the Siri-like voice. “And the destination is on your right.”

“Doesn’t look too busy,” said Jim, optimistically.

It didn’t look busy at ALL. In fact, there were no cars in the parking lot.

There was a sign, though. It said, “Closed today; death in family.”

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

Silence.

Then Jim said, “Jeez. I feel bad for that family.”

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

We ate dinner that night at the Maumee Bay Brewing Company, a block away from the hotel. I had a great bowl of gumbo, Mark tore into a Lake Erie fish fry, and Jim opined that the French dip-prime rib sandwich he ordered might be the best sandwich he’d ever tasted.

Jim did a little research the next morning and suggested we try the Glass City Café. It turned out to be not far from where we stayed. It had brick walls and half curtains and a menu full of homemade comfort food. The wait staff were friendly and attentive but not intrusive. It was GREAT.

“Can I pick ‘em?” asked Jim, and we allowed that, for sure, he could.

And then we drove home. When we arrived, dragging suitcases and cooler and sundries into the house, Jim stopped a minute.

“That,” he said, “was a great trip.”

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

Later, when we were settled back in, I pointed out to James how well he’d handled all the changes in plan—a midnight move to a new place to stay, a completely unexpected afternoon adventure, a restaurant not even near the one we’d hoped to visit. I reminded him about that other trip, when the outcome was not so good.

He offered me a fist bump, and said, grinning, “Well, look at me. I’m changing.”

And he is, maturing and growing and learning how better to absorb those random twists life lobs at him.

There’s a lesson there. People DO change; people continue to grow. People surprise us.

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

I release my choke-hold on the Control the Travel Agenda throttle for a minute, and I ponder. Do you suppose control freaks mellow, too?

Hymns in Ordinary Time

Ordinary: (n.) What is commonplace or standard

               (adj.) With no special or distinctive features; normal.

—the Oxford Dictionary online

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

When Mark and I come home from picking up the rug, the floor has dried to a soft, rejuvenated sheen. We cut the thick band of transparent tape the clerk—a rather manic and annoyed young man—wrapped vigorously around the 7 by 10 foot area rug at the store before he thrust it at Mark and hurried away. Now, Mark wrestles it to one end of the dining room.

We unroll the rug as if we’re part of the Fixer Upper crew—Mark gives it a neat kick, and we watch it spill out over the newly polished floor. The end that lands by me, though, the edge that’s right near the kitchen, is kind of crunched under itself.

I run and grab stacks of books. Jim comes to help, and we position heavy tomes all around the edge of the rug to flatten it. Any resemblance to Fixer Upper has ended right here.

We waggle-walk the heavy oak table onto the new carpet. Jim and Mark bring in the old chairs. The curtains are tucked away in the guest room; I retrieve them, and we slide them onto rods and hang them.

There is more to do; there are small jobs that will keep me busy for another few days, but the dining room is restored—drop cloths whisked away, table a clear, clean space.

I pause a minute, taking in the newly painted (“Roasted Cashew”) walls, the fresh white ceiling and trim, the softness of the white curtains and sheers, the colors of the framed posters—an antique map of Sicily, a photo of a worn blue rowboat beached in northwestern Scotland—that still need to be hung. Mark comes in and we stand together, assessing.

“I LIKE this room,” he says. And I agree.

Tonight, we will eat, altogether, around this table. So we chop and slice poultry and veggies, and we measure and steam rice—a chicken stir fry, a family-cooked endeavor. We pour sauces and stir and sample and soon declare rice and chicken and veggies perfectly done. We heap plates and carry them into the dining room, where we eat together for the first time in about three weeks—since I started the dining room project, since the drop cloths appeared.

Jim cleans his plate and sits back and sighs.

“This is like the old days,” he says. “This is like…ordinary time.”

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

Ordinary time. The phrase tolls loud in memory, loud from a Catholic childhood. In ordinary time, there are no feasts and there is no fasting.

I know just what Jim means: eating in the dining room is part of everyday life, ordinary, expected, taken for granted. And ordinary days, as the dictionary definition says, have no distinctive features; they are commonplace and not special.

Ordinary days are normal.

A memory heaves up through the flotsam. I am asking my mother if we can do something—go shopping, go visiting,–something.

We can do that, she agrees, as soon as things get back to normal.

She pauses, then adds, “Whatever THAT means.”

So this is an ordinary dinner, an ordinary evening.

Whatever THAT means.

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

I think about ordinary time, and I think about distinctive changes. There have been some in the last year: Jim has gone back to college, has gotten a job he enjoys very much in the college library. This summer, with renovations anticipated in the library, Jim is not working, and he struggles to create orderly days without the structure of work. 

This summer probably seems to Jim like the old days, but he has created for himself a new kind of ordinary time.

This year, every weekday morning, Mark gets up before 6:00 a.m., and he drives himself over to the rec center and works out for 45 minutes. I drag myself out of bed, too, and I lace up sneakers and take myself a good stretch of a walk. This is new; I can’t remember when we decided on these new practices, but they were certainly not ordinary when we wrestled them into our lives.

Now, if the day doesn’t start with exercise, we get antsy. The gym, the walking—it’s part of our new normal, a thread in the weave of what is now our ordinary time.

Ordinary time has to do with the pattern of the days, I think: the waking and rising, the steaming mugs that start the day, the work undertaken, the meals shared, the everyday things accomplished. The waning hours are important, too: sharing, maybe, a Netflix movie, a show on Hulu—a segue, always, into time spent with a book.

The shape and heft of each day seems, basically, same, and we try to remember. Did we go to the library Monday or Tuesday?

Are there markers we can use—that was the day AFTER the doctor’s appointment, right? And that appointment was on Monday, so the library MUST have been Tuesday.

We leave tiny blazes on the trail, but mostly, days are pretty predictable.

And then an event or project—painting the dining room, say—inserts itself, and the rhythm is shaken. I forsake regular housework to get this job done…and I discover that I don’t work as quickly as I used to do. I estimate the painting as a three-day job; but I am still doing touch-ups three weeks later.

The slowing is a change from what I think of as ordinary; the slowing is my new normal.

In the interim, tables and cabinets are covered with cloths, and chairs are shoved up against the bookshelf in the living room. The chaos bothers Jim; he takes his meals down to the basement, eats at his computer. Mark and I grab quick meals together, sliding the table cover back far enough to clear space for two plates, dragging two chairs into the dining room, putting them back when the meal is done. The paint paraphernalia does not invite lingering after a meal.

On nice mornings, we take breakfast outside and ignore the dining room altogether.

Through the bare windows, anyone passing by can see the old wooden ladder, which has, seemingly, become a permanent dining room fixture.

And just when the clutter and chaos start to feel ordinary, the painting is done; the floor is scrubbed and polished. The new rug, soft and pliant, accepts the table; the room is put together.

It is NOT the same; but using the space once again in the way we always have feels like a return to normal. It feels, as Jim says, like ordinary time.

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

But days can return to the regular pace—days can be times without feast or fast—and still not feel normal. This week, we pack to travel to Toledo, to attend an anniversary memorial service for a dear friend’s son. This son, a talented, vibrant 40-year old husband and father and college professor, died a year ago from an invidious, virulent cancer.

I know that my friend’s days may have returned to a routine in the year that passed. But I am quite sure those days will never quite seem, again, like ordinary time.

Just as they won’t for Ott, or Debbi, or Kathy or any of us who have lost people so closely woven into our lives that the fabric is unutterably altered.

If ordinary means with no distinctive features, then ordinary is gone. Each day bears the very distinctive feature of loss and absence.

And what of those, I think, who have endured illness or accident and come out changed—unable, maybe to live quite the way they did before? They must create a new ordinary; their normal has moved to a  very different point.

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

Even healthy, happy changes—new relationship, new job, a move—even these things, in their joyful transformations, morph our ordinary times.

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

“Ordinary time” seems to imply a return to what has always been usual, to the way we always lived before the monumental event happened. And how, I think, can that ever be? We are not the same people we were before the event. We are older; we have changed. We may be sadder or wiser or filled with the joy of accomplishment or we may be feeling any number of ways, prompted by the Thing that happened.

We may share our thoughts with the same people we talked to before. Or we may find that the Thing changed relationships, too. We may live in different places.

I open my laptop and look up “ordinary time—definition,” and I find that, although those times in the Church are indeed times without feast or fast, that is not the reason for their name. The Church weeks derive their name from ‘ordinal’; they are numbered and counted—the first week of ordinary time…the fourth week of ordinary time…

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

We may do same things, we may celebrate the same holidays, we may walk the same path, year after year. This Christmas, once again, we will hang the old ornaments on the tree—the stuffed mouse my mother made; the ‘best teacher’ ornament a special sixth grader gave me back in the eighties, Jim’s ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ orb. We’ll hang picture ornaments of grandkids and grand nieces and nephews—and the kids in the pictures have round cheeks and wide eyes. The kids in real life have tall, slender frames and independent streaks. Because they have grown and matured and changed; that is what is ordinary now.

Tradition reminds us, but it doesn’t paste us in place. Ordinary life has an ordinal bent—we are in our 35th year of marriage; I am in my 64th year of life. We have been seven years in this house. The dog has been gone, Mark realized today, for just over a year.

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

And yet. I know what Jim means—know the comfort in restoring the thing that’s askew to its original purpose, in returning the function to a room, in connecting with the people with whom we love to share certain times and holidays and events.

Because there is loss and there is awful wrenching pain, and there are even unforeseen joys that take our breaths away and alter the way we live. Of course these things change us. Of course they do. They must.

But maybe it’s the ordinary things that help us make it through—the yearly visit, the planting and the harvesting, the celebration of birthdays, the shopping for winter boots.

The meal shared around a family table.

There is a comfort in that, in knowing that, despite us and without us, some things—things that are important to us and to others,—will continue. We will never be the same; we will never unknow what we know now, what we didn’t know last year.

But in the threads of custom, of tradition, in the search for some kind of daily grace, there is safety. No matter how tenuous they may be, I find I still seek shelter in the ordinary times.

Steaming

I spread my stuff—clipboard with loose-leaf paper, phone, coffee mug, seven-year pen, cloth napkin—out onto the little round patio table. A pleasant breeze riffles. A bird flutes, its call like metal tubes rubbed thoughtfully together. Except for the muted bird chatter and occasional tire thrums, the neighborhood is quiet and calm.

The coffee in my mug wafts steam into the morning air. It is 69 degrees right now, at 8:00 a.m., and the heat is climbing. We’ve gained three degrees since I set out on my walk just before 7:00. In less than an hour, my phone tells me, we’ll notch up another seven degrees. And the heat will keep climbing until the mercury stops, uncertain, just below the 90 degree mark.

Maybe, it will decide to keep on climbing.

The humidity is 90 per cent. This will be another in a string of Hot Muggies…another steaming day.

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

 Mark was doing dishes last night and he called me over.

“Look at the air above the garage,” he said.

And just above the garage’s peak, we could see the air. It shimmered and twisted; it danced in the evening sun. It became a lens that changed the look of everything beyond it.

Five days into summer, the air was doing its heat dance. Just over a week ago, before walking in the morning, I pulled on my jacket and was glad to find thin knit gloves in the pockets.

Then the world spun; the solstice happened, and summer fwumped down, damp and heavy and hard to budge.

“It’s HOT,” I said to Mark, as we gazed out the kitchen window.

“It’s steaming hot,” he agreed.

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

This morning, looking for a topic or a theme, I shook my prompt jar, pulled out a random yellow slip of paper.

Steaming, it read.

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

I write my pages; I move inside to eat my oatmeal toast. Mark comes down, fresh from the shower, crisp and lawyerly in blue-striped shirt and khaki pants. We step out onto the back stoop and the air assails us, thick, heavy.

“Yikes,” he says, and he runs a finger under his freshly ironed collar. “Already…”

He drives off to work and I lace my shoes back on and head off to the haircutter’s, where the water steams and the scissors snick, where the clippers whirr.  I decline hairspray, which turns, on my thick head of hair, gummy and unbreathable on days like today. At home, I run to the shower, wash away the tiny hairs that sprinkle down the back of my neck—annoyances at any time, but screaming burdens in steaming heat.

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

Last weekend, in the quiet kitchen of an Airbnb, I pulled up the Internet and got distracted by a story of how Santana came to record the song “Smooth” with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. It’s kind of a magical tale: the thought of the song, the seeds of the song, floated tentatively in fragile bubbles passed through many hands. Each set of hands created one concrete piece from the air around the seeds, until finally, the song snapped together; it sprang, fledged and full, into delighted cultural consciousness.

I watch the official music video embedded in the article. It shows the band and the singer in two venues. They make music together inside, in a bar maybe, relaxed and loose-limbed. They play outside, too, on a city street, in the summer sun. People gather and dance and sing along; their clothes soak through and their skin sheens and the music pulses.

“Man, it’s a hot one,” Rob Thomas sings. In the video, city-dwellers, one a beautifully mysterious woman, lean out of upper story windows. Fan blades whirl; the window leaners search for a breath of cool air. The street dancers writhe, and the musicians, immersed, play on.

It’s a perfect summer anthem; it ear-worms. Walking in the morning, even with the good sounds of Leonard Cohen crooning in my ear buds, I hear a pulsing, rhythmic refrain: Let’s don’t forget about it…

Street dancing, I think, and I remember block parties and festivals on summer nights back in the day. Sometimes it was so dense and hot and so tense that fights broke out and our small city police force would charge in and send everyone home.

“Man, it’s a hot one.”

Sometimes it’s steaming.

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

My mother died one April. That summer, my father, desperately lonely, desperately grieving, came to stay with us in our little house near Chautauqua Lake. I was working half days somewhere; Dad decided he was going to paint my garage.

It was a brutally hot summer.

“Don’t,” I would say as I left, “work outside in this heat.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” my father would agree, waving his cigarette airily. He was whippet-thin; he drank mug after mug of coffee, smoked cigarette after cigarette. When he thought no one was looking, his vision turned inward, seeing things he wouldn’t share.

Every day, after I left, he’d pull out the ladder and the scraper, the paint buckets and the brushes. He’d go to work in the relentless sun.

“I like it,” he told my brother. “It makes me feel useful again.”

Stepping forward to remonstrate with him once again, I pondered that, and I stopped.

After a couple of hours of work, Dad would shower and get in his big old boat of a car (he bought himself his first brand new car that spring) and drive downtown to Grace’s Café. There, the waitresses called him honey and poured coffee without asking, bringing him little plastic lidded cups of cream and the sugar bowl. He drank his coffee and smoked, picking at his meatloaf, sharing jokes and quips with the kind women who worked there. He sank into the air conditioning, before he came home to take a nap.

Later, we would sit in the dining room before I started dinner. I would dump ice cubes on a cookie sheet, point a box fan behind it towards my father, push dewy glasses of water toward him.

We had no air conditioning then, neither central nor window units. We considered it an over-the-top luxury.

“It’s summer,” we’d say to kids or each other. “Go sit in the shade.”

And we steamed and sweated, and my father grieved.

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

I browse through a lovely little second-hand bookstore on my trip this weekend, and I find a copy of The Thornbirds. After Colleen McCullough died, one of my favorite bloggers, John Lauck, wrote an essay remembering her. (https://jlauckhouston1.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/colleen-mccullough-an-appreciation-2/)

I read John’s post and realized I had forgotten many details, characters, and plot lines from The Thornbirds. It is a summer book in my memory; it is one of those books I brought home during the summer break, when I worked at the ice cream factory. Relationships steamed in that book; so did the Australian weather.

It was one of those books my father picked up while I was working, read the opening, became intrigued.

We read The Thornbirds in tandem; the book had two place markers. I remember reading it on hot summer nights, in my bedroom at my parents’ house, sitting near the window on the pristine linoleum (which, on hot, humid nights, ripped bare skin like Velcro), imagining Australian heat.

Several summers later, as a young teacher in the company of other teachers, I watched the film version on video at a colleague’s house. She was one of the first people I knew to own a VCR; we sat and watched the whole miniseries on her flower-bedecked patio. She brought a fan outside to riffle up the scarce and heavy evening breezes. We drank iced tea and winced at the pain we knew stalked Meggie.

Our school was a Catholic school, and this tale was considered unseemly and altogether too steamy by many of the administration. But we had all read and enjoyed it; we watched the film version avidly.

I bring the book home with me after my weekend trip, and I add it, along with Summerland and One Summer, to my hot weather must-reads.

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

When I was a child the heat drove me outdoors, to the shade of big trees, to walks in the Little Woods not far behind the house, to—on very memorable days—a sandy Lake Erie beach, or to any spot where a tiny breeze niggled and twisted. Summer was leisure after chores were done, and it was books to read on sun-dancing days—days when heat attached to bare limbs like sticky webs, and the only thing that drove it completely and temporarily away was a long soak in the lake or in the big claw-footed tub.

In those days, the heat sent me outward, dancing along the edges of the hotness, which spread like a seeping stain, spread faster than my feet could dance away from it. Now, the heat turns me around, sends me inside. Now I am old, and I cannot sleep past 6 a.m., no matter how I try, and I walk when the morning hasn’t yet been glazed, and I sit outside to drink my coffee until the sun chases the breeze away.

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

By the time I carry my clutter of stuff into the house, the central air has kicked on, and I spend two hours at my desk. Then James accompanies me to the recycling center and to the little dollar store, where we can buy toilet paper rolls individually wrapped in paper, not in plastic. The car blasts artificially cold air; I park as far away as possible from store front and recycling trailer, getting some extra steps in.

James walks with me, gamely, remarking politely and tentatively, though, that it IS pretty hot… He is glad to get home to the central air, to do his vacuuming and disappear into the basement to get some typing done.

I put spaghetti sauce on to simmer all afternoon; Jim will stir it every half hour while I am gone to meet a former student who has become a current friend, and who is struggling with some major changes life has tumbled into her path. We meet at a restored canal village 40 miles from home; I park as far as I can from the coffee shop and walk the brick paths, appreciating the shade trees.

We have a wonderful, catching-up kind of talk, and I return home to find the sauce well-tended. I take the pizza dough from the fridge where, even in that coldness, it has doubled in size, and I roll out two thin crusts onto pans oiled and dusted with cornmeal. I fill the pasta pot with water, blurp in olive oil and sprinkle in salt and put it on to boil.

The oven heats, and Jim comes up to help dress the pizza crusts with swirls of hot red sauce, handfuls of snowy grated mozzarella, a full component of sliced pepperoni.

The water begins to bubble; the oven dings: proper temperature has been reached, and we can slide the pizzas into the intense heat.

Even with the AC, the kitchen grows warm. Steam rises from the pasta pot. I crack fettucine noodles in half, stir them into the simmering water.

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

James takes his pie slices down into the cool of the basement to eat; Mark and I settle in at the dining room table. The air conditioning chugs and heaves, but it does its job, and we devour steaming servings of pasta in the coolness it generates.

“The heat,” says Mark, “just takes it out of you,” and he sits in his reading chair after the dishes have been settled, opens a book, and shortly begins to snore. But he wakes after twenty minutes, shakes the cobwebs off and heads outside, glad he has installed a temperature-instigated fan in the little garage he has turned into his workshop. He has projects to complete.

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

And today, hot as it seems, will be the coolest day this week, the least marked pearl on a sultry string.

Summer is here, and its air is thick and moist. And we dance out to greet it, barefooted and bare-legged, moving more languidly than we moved on crisp, clear, spring days. Our limbs are liquid and relaxed, and the season’s possibilities seem endless. Time is fluid and sinuous; and the dropping of the sun promises cool relief.

And then the morning comes. The sun rises. And soon, the day steams.

Quiet. And Alone. And Then Back To It.

Found in Quotesgram.com

Sometimes, the way we identify ourselves might be situational. But in the end, the label might not be all that important.

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Once a wonderful colleague, someone who was fast becoming a valued, trusted friend, told me about a book. The book was called Quiet by Susan Cain, and in it, Cain, a lawyer, speaker, and self-described introvert, suggests a new understanding of introverts.

My colleague, who was a sociologist, had just read Quiet, and she’d really gotten a lot from it. She thought I would enjoy it, too.

I was intrigued, and I reserved the book at the library. I surmised my colleague had been fascinated by the book because she herself is introverted, and that she recommended it because she saw qualities of introversion in me.

I got the call the book was waiting for me the next day, and I went and picked it up, put my current tome aside, and started reading. Quiet fascinated me. I especially thought about what Cain said in terms of teaching a classroom full of varied persons.

Quiet made me pat myself on the back for some of my teaching practices—I always tell students that they are free to pass, with no penalty and no explanation required, on things like reading aloud or sharing their writing, for instance.

But I had to re-think some other things, like groupwork, which I loved to pieces and used copiously in the classroom. Cain says that introverts do not excel in groups, that often the student with the most dominant personality just takes charge, or the student who cares most about the grade simply does all the work. And the quiet folks just sit back. Quietly.

Which sounds a lot like learning is not being shared, and the goal of the exercise is not being met.

I mulled this over and thought that maybe groups are not intrinsically awful for introverted members, but that not defining the actual work expected of each member could be. Each group member should know exactly what they are expected to contribute. That way, introverts could complete the work on their own; those who wanted to work cooperatively could do that too. And all the work could be blended, at the end, into one group project.

I could, on reflection, see the benefit of this kind of clear definition, because I often like to just go off and do my own work without assistance or interference.

Which was one more attribute that reinforced my long-clutched belief that Introverts-R-Me.

Quiet was making me think, making me empathize, making me understand.

More people should read this book, I thought, and if they did, some of the challenges for introverts might lessen.

I took that book to work one day when I had almost finished reading it. I showed it to another friend. And that friend said, “Oh, I’ve read about that book. I think it’s doing wonderful things for introverts.”

And then she added, with true curiosity and absolutely no irony or snarkiness, “Why are YOU reading it?”

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

I muttered something about understanding our students better and wandered away, a little stunned.

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

“Why are YOU reading it?”

That mind-wormed me. Was it possible my introverted qualities were not apparent? I claimed introversion as a genetic trait. I remember, for instance, asking my mother, when I was quite young, what her idea of a perfect vacation would be.

“I’d like,” said my mother, “to take a suitcase full of books to a nice hotel, and just stay in my room and read.”

“That’s cool,” I said. “How long would you stay? And who would you take with you?”

“A week,” said Mom. “And no one.”

That ‘no one’ brought me up short (WHAT??? You wouldn’t want your darling daughter along so you could discuss what you are reading???), but I loved to read, too, and the idea of a reading week was very appealing. To an introvert like me, I qualified back then. To someone like my mother.

I was also a very shy child, and I was pretty sure that shyness and introversion were different names for the same trait.

So I grew up convinced I was introverted. But, despite my shyness, I was lucky enough to have several friends, and I loved to see them all. One of my favorite things, in high school, was to arrive early and walk the halls with besties and stop and chat with everyone I knew—I loved talking with younger students and with unique and interesting characters.

I also liked acting in school plays, playing tennis, and planning parties. I liked co-hosting the high school radio show, and I enjoyed reading aloud, and I spent long hours talking on the phone.

I liked parties, although I was awkward if I knew few people there, and I worried that I glommed onto the one person I recognized, who might like to be more sociable than I was. But usually I would meet people through the glommed-on person and the party would wind up being a lot of fun.

When I was in college, dithering about a career path, several people I liked and trusted suggested I really should consider teaching. I didn’t quite understand WHY they thought that, and I really, really wanted some kind of exotic, kind of feminist, kind of ground-breaking, kind of career. 

“I will never,” I declared, fist thrust upward, “teach or type for a living!”

Two years after graduation, I was teaching junior high English at a warm and welcoming parochial school. Over term breaks, I typed exams to earn a little extra money.

And of course, with minor time outs, I’ve been doing teaching of one kind or another ever since. And enjoying it, too: that raucous, messy, planned but not scripted, laced with the unexpected, people-peppered kind of work.

Okay. So maybe I am not a poster child for introversion.

Maybe, in fact, I’m the opposite.

Maybe nurture provides a patina of sorts, and nature, if it doesn’t like that patina, inevitably swells up and busts it wide open, flakes it right off.

I’d still like to take a stack of books and retreat to a quiet place and put my feet up and read to my heart’s content.

Because one doesn’t have to be an introvert to enjoy being alone.

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

I think that, like many mothers of children with special challenges, time away, alone, is a dream goal for me. (It may well be that a few days without a carping mama is a dream goal for our children, too.) Once or twice a year, I will pick a destination close to friends and find a place to stay that’s a little off the beaten path. I will load bags with books and journals, a laptop, pens and markers; I’ll pack clothes and chargers, and I will head off for an adventure in which I am just Pam, not Mom, not Instructor, not Wife.

I have stayed at amazing places on these solitary adventures: in apartments carved from the grand rooms of Victorian edifices; in an old mill where the brick walls of my room were warmed by hand-pieced quilts and beautifully stitched samplers; in tiny houses in  nice, ordinary neighborhoods where the neighbors I don’t know smile and greet me.

I arrive at my nesting spot and unpack my car, put my salad and my cheese in the fridge, fold my clothes into drawers, stack my toiletries in the pristine bath. I explore the outdoor space to see if there’s a porchy kind of writing spot. I figure out the Internet connection.

And then I kick my shoes off, pull the books from my bag, and test out the couch, the bed, the wicker chair, and I find the most conducive reading spot.

And that first night, I read. I read while I crunch down my salad. I think about my book while I take an exploratory after-dinner walk, and then I come back to the nest, and I read some more. If there’s a soaking tub, I fill it with steaming water, and I read while I soak, then I read in bed until my eyes give up on print.

It’s so good; I think to myself, “I understand EXACTLY what my mother meant by a week away to read.”

But the next morning, I am ready to roll. I take my early morning walk and explore the neighborhood; I fix myself some sort of healthy breakfast, and then I do my best to get presentable, and I go out to see friends, to check out bookstores, to explore museums and take hikes, to sit over never ending cups of coffee and catch up on essentials with very dear people I haven’t seen in way too long. I will read again that day, of course, but reading will go back to its essential role in my life: being the mortar that chinks the rest of the lived bits together.

I like, and I need, a certain level of interaction, of action, of being out there, of connection, of give and take.

Damn. I am an extrovert. I might as well own that.

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

And I think the distinction might be valuable in helping me teach more sensitively, in helping me understand the reactions of others, in helping me be mindful and aware of what drives me and what things I need to hum along, content and inspired.

But I think too that some kinds of introversion and extroversion are situational; others are learned responses; and that we all have places where we shine socially, and places where our light diminishes and flickers away.

How valuable are the labels?

What I think might be valuable is finding the strengths in both styles and recognizing and applauding them. What I think might be valuable is finding the areas where we happily overlap, and dwelling in those spaces whenever we can.

It’s good to have self-awareness, and it’s good to be aware of the styles and traits of others. It’s interesting to think that nurture can incline us, while our intrinsic nature can define us.

I think about a really good friend I had in middle school. We would often spend the afternoon together reading. Reading separately, each of us engrossed in a book, seldom talking. But the experience was enhanced, somehow, just by being together, by exploring plot and character and setting while a trusted friend did the same a few feet away.

I think that friend, who grew into a thoughtful, intelligent, vastly accomplished adult, might qualify as an introvert. But during those reading afternoons, it really made no difference. We were just friends sharing a past-time we both loved then and still love today.

Notes from the Hinterlands: Random Thoughts in a Random Week

I was driving home from the pharmacy this morning when the rain began.  It rained so hard that cars were pontooning—careening toward the center line from both sides of the road, then reeling back as the drivers struggled to find a sweet spot between oncoming traffic and gushing gutter water. The wind whipped up and I gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward, peering through slashing windshield wipers and driving rain.

By the time we got home, the weather had tapered a bit. Jim went off to do his laundry, and I changed into my paint clothes and set up shop, climbing up on the old ladder my father gave me for an engagement present (hint, hint; but it didn’t work), and started the second coat of Roasted Cashew in the dining room. I got engrossed, and I didn’t realize it was lunchtime until Mark came home. He heated up the rest of the potpie while I used up my roller pan of paint.

And then I realized the sun was shining.

James called up from the basement that he wasn’t ready for lunch yet, and Mark took a towel out to the patio and mopped up the table and two chairs. We carried our lunches outside and ate them in a fresh-washed world. A playful breeze gently lifted our napkins, and the potpie was hot and good, and we sat and ate and dissected the morning. Mark needed just a titch more to nosh on, so we went in the house and rustled around, digging out thin whole grain crackers and sharp white cheddar, the little chopping board, and a small, sharp knife, and we ferried all that outside while we talked.

But soon Jim came upstairs and, “Hey! Looks like rain again!” he said, and darkly ominous clouds scudded overhead, and we grabbed napkins and plates and utensils and ran into the house, just ahead of another pelting downpour.

The whole week has been like that: I’m thinking of one thing and another, completely unexpected thing washes over me. I’m thinking it’s a gorgeous day and suddenly I’m trotting home in the rain. 

It’s been a tough week to maintain a single focus, out here in the hinterlands.

********

This week I fell off the ‘read the books on my shelves’ wagon—again—and I brought home a stack of books from the library. I brought home an adult fantasy novel by a YA author that just looked interesting; I brought home Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, and I brought home Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. These were all books that have spoken to me when I browsed idly through the New Books shelves, waiting for Jim to select a dozen movies— books that I picked up, paged through, and thought, “This might be a good summer read.”

Something happened at that last library visit, something that made me think the time to read those books is NOW.

And I also took home Once More We Saw Stars, by Jayson Greene, a memoir I’ve seen reviewed over and over. The reviews have been uniformly, almost startlingly, good. I’ve picked up this book, too, and put it down, leaving it in the library again and again.

So why did I bring it home this week? And why, after reading the fantasy, did I decide Once More We Saw Stars was the next book I must read? In it, Greene tells the story of his two-year-old daughter’s random and completely illogical death. The baby was sitting outside with her grammy when a stone chunk of building fell off and landed on both of them. The grammy’s leg was hurt, but the baby—Greta—was hit in the head, and she died.

Greene does not so much write about this as he reaches a hand out from the pages and grabs my collar and pulls me in. I am in before I can think, Do I really want to read about this awful, awful pain? Is now the time?

And the words gather into one hard and heavy rock and they drop without pause into the depths, where the Big Sad broods beneath its thick plate of glass. The rock shatters the glass, of course, and the once still waters in that reservoir roil up and seep in, and they soak nerves and tissue and muscle.

And I am crying. Crying for Greta and her mama and daddy, crying for Terri and Patty and Kim and John, crying for Dennis and for everyone who shouldn’t have died, who died too young, who left the earth when the earth still needed them.

I suspect we all carry a Big Sad. It is so tightly sealed it doesn’t even slosh, but it waits, walking with us. It contains all of our sadnesses, the ones that touched us, and the ones we absorbed, and the ones we inherited. It contains the anguish of parents in faraway war-torn countries and the sorrow of bereft friends and it contains the grief my parents suffered when their first baby girl died at just about Greta’s age.

I prefer it when the Big Sad stays tightly covered, but this week, full knowing, I threw that rock right through the glass and let it all wash up.

What was I thinking this week?

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

This week I bit the bullet and started painting the dining room. I moved the furniture and Mark got the electric sanders for me and I smoothed down the spackling I’d done months ago, and I wiped down the walls and ceiling. I taped up the base of the light fixture and I got out new brushes and rollers and I just rolled past all the objections in my head, and I started.

Two days, I thought. Two days, and I’ll be done.

Even though the ceiling was white to start with, it needed two new coats of white to cover. That was the first and second day, and by their end, I was cramped and crabby and dappled white. The hair on the top of my head was hard with paint because I had bumped up against the ceiling so many times from my ladder perch. The ceiling had all these scalp spots that had to be repainted.

On Day Three I finally got to open the color and brush it onto the edges of the wall, roll that color into those outlines to fill them in. The walls went from tepid and tired to warm Roasted Cashew, but it was immediately clear that One Coat Coverage! was a lie in this particular case.

But the painting, even with aching shoulders and a hip that said, “I am NOT going back up that ladder! I am NOT crawling around on the floor!” made me happy. A little bit of transformation happening; a little bit of reconnection.

Because we grew up painting rooms, in all the rental homes my parents moved us to after they sold the first big house we lived in, the first house I remember, where we lived from my infancy until I was ten. We rented comfortably shabby, lived-in houses, and we scrubbed them furiously and made repairs and got the paint and claimed those spaces.

And then, a year or two later, for whatever reason, we would move again.

It was a pattern my mother grew up with, when her mother died and her father left, and she and her siblings formed a brave little household of their own. They would move, the oldest of them 16 the first time ‘round, into an apartment or house, someplace near aunts and uncles and cousins. And the uncles, who were cabinet makers and painters, would come and help them get the place in shape. They would, all of them, paint the walls, and the painter uncle would sand and paint the warped floors and then he would spatter them with odds and ends of paint he had left over, until they looked, my mother said, like costly linoleum. He would clearcoat those floors until a household of seven orphaned and abandoned kids was hard-pressed to do them harm.

And then, some months later,  something would happen, and they’d be moving again, cleaning again, painting again. Some kind of search for something better, some kind of quest for transformation, was kicking in again.

We relived that cycle many times when I was just a girl.

But there is a real, firm joy in making a dull and dingy room warm and vibrant. Painting is a lot of work, and I am insulted that my aging, creaking body moves more slowly, aches more quickly, and takes so much longer to do what once would have been a weekend sprint.

But each layer of color amps up the appreciation and the excitement.

This week, I am not done, but transformation is well underway.

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

I am not, I said this week, going to let things molder on the counter or in the fridge until it’s past time to throw them out. So I went searching for a banana bread recipe that I saw in a foodie memoir, and I couldn’t find it. I’d thought I’d seen it in I Love, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, but no.

I looked through the copy of Baked my niece Meggo sent one year and  found banana espresso muffins, but I had in mind a soft, moist banana bread, studded with nuts and big chunks of semi-sweet chocolate.

Finally, I gave up on my recipe books and got online. I found a recipe called “Janet’s Rich Banana Bread” on AllRecipes.com. That would do for the two bananas slowly turning black on top of the bread box. While I was searching recipes, I printed one called “Favorite Chicken Potpie” from Taste of Home.

That afternoon, I mashed bananas and scooped out the remaining quarter cup of sour cream; I cracked eggs and I whisked flour and leavenings and added seasonings. I stirred things together and I folded things in, and I spooned the dough into a greased loaf pan and put it in the oven to bake.

While that was baking, I cleaned out the refrigerator a little bit. I rolled out a bottom crust and gentled it into the blue ceramic pie pan, and then I took the two pieces of leftover chicken and chopped all the meat from the bones…and saved the bones, put them in the freezer, to make broth. I chopped up half an onion that was languishing, and sliced up two carrots, and I found two containers that had leftover peas and corn.

The recipe called for whole milk, and I had fat-splurged that week and gotten two per cent (the boyos were ecstatic) instead of skim; I thought the presence of one cup of cubed butter in the sauce would probably make up for the lack of fat in the milk. The white sauce mixed up velvety thick and rich and pungent with spices, and I folded all the veggies and chicken into it and spooned that into the pie shell. When I covered it with the top crust, it was clear this was going to be kind of a mountaintop pie.

Mark and I had Favorite Chicken Potpie for dinner that night, and we looked at each other and shook our heads. It was SO good. Why, we asked each other, had we never made this before?

We ate half the pie, and that was piggish.

The next morning, we had slabs of banana bread for breakfast. We ate potpie for lunch for the next two days.

Some days it rained this week, and some days the sun shone. One morning it was so cold I wore mittens on my walk, and one day it was so hot and muggy I changed into shorts for the first time this season. A mixed bag is kind of what this week was, a rambling, shook up, tumble of time.

But this week’ tumble of time was upheld by home-baked comfort food. I three-hole punched the two new recipes and put them in my favorites binder.

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This week I got some things I had ordered in my quest to become more and more free of single-use plastic. One, that I paid twelve dollars for, is a seven-year pen. It made me kind of nervous, spending that much money on one ballpoint pen, but just think: that’s a mere $1.70 per year on ink, and no ink-pen plastic waste for that righteous number of years.

If I don’t lose it. If I don’t loan it without thinking.

Now I keep that pen on my desktop, afraid to put it in my purse and use it like any other ink pen. So I kind of think I’m missing my own point.

Maybe I’ll buy one each month until I have what feels like an abundance, and then I can stop my fretting.

Maybe, I thought, I would get them for people as gifts, and I pondered giving one to a young teen granddaughter, and I realized that she might be out of college by the time her pen ran out of ink. I pictured giving them to grandnieces and grandnephews even younger than Kaelyn and imagined how they might use them in fourth grade and fifth grade and beyond, and then how they might actually write their high school graduation thank you notes with those same pens.

I thought that, if my pen lasts as long as it’s supposed to last, and if I last as long as I hope I will last, I will be in my seventies when it finally dries up.

In my seventies.

I mean, sorry, but holy shit.

Suddenly that pen became imbued with time-laced dreadful import, and I pushed it away with my left index finger. I will, I thought, just use up my other pens before I start on that. And I dug in my purse and the thing drawer and rescued six or seven pens—Bic Clics and Pentel RSVPs and nice pens that came our way as advertising for some firm or store or other. I found a blue gel pen and a green gel pen.

Those, I thought would be nice for writing letters.

The seven-year pen had rolled on its side. It felt like it had its little back turned to me.

Then I felt bad about that new pen, whatever its time-morphing propensities.

But I still don’t want to lose it. So now I use my seven-year pen to do my daily morning pages, and I shove those other, disposable pens in my purse or my pocket, and I put one on the nightstand next to my bed.

I’m not sure one can recycle ink pens; I’m checking that out. But I certainly won’t have to worry about recycling this week when it comes to my new, seven-year pen.

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This week I started keeping a dreamer’s journal and I mailed off some long overdue notes and I made a new to-do list, and every day, about 3:30, I ran upstairs and shampooed paint out of my hair. And I read my book, and let my heart ache, and got good news from a friend and did a little goofy happy dance, and I worked on not being wasteful, and I thought about time.

And in the mornings, when I went walking, signs of yesterday’s weather greeted me—bright blooming flowers, dusty dry sidewalks, broken sticks and branches that one night’s wind blew out of trees. Puddles and slick spots. I just had to be ready for anything.

I couldn’t find a theme this week, which makes me anxious, and I thought, some weeks are just like that, random and varied. Maybe, the farther back I step, the more a pattern will appear, but maybe, sometimes, there is no pattern.

Maybe some times, and some weeks, just are what they are.

That’s how it seems out here in the hinterlands. That’s what I’m thinking today.