An Auto-Grilled-Cheese-ography

Last night—a Saturday night—we grilled sandwiches for dinner. It was a good Saturday, the kind where the whole day just unfolds, and everyone feels energetic, and lots of stuff, as they say in the passive tongue, gets done. So we cleared clutter and scrubbed bathrooms, and continued putting stuff neatly back into our newly blossomed kitchen (although not ALL the stuff; now we have blissfully sparser cupboard shelves and countertops), and we vacuumed, and we mopped.

The boyos went out to shop as men do; they bought essential stuff at hardware stores and at a meat market, and then they treated themselves to a rotisserie chicken, which they brought home and devoured. While they were gone, I had a sweetly solitary lunch of leftover beef stew, which tasted delicious…even more so eaten in a mostly scrubbed, entirely quiet, house.

After lunch, we pitched back in and finished things up, rewarding ourselves with a little late afternoon reading time. And, in the almost-evening, we all trooped out to the mall, where we walked and walked.

So we came home hungry but disinclined to do anything elaborate, culinarily; instead, we decided to grill up some sandwiches.

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

Grilling sandwiches was nice because we could all have the same basic thing, but each of us could indulge our own particular whims. Jim had a traditional grilled ham and cheese on Sunbeam bread. Mark chose whole wheat bread; he cut a little organic tomato into very thin slices, and he nestled those slices between his ham and cheese slices. I used two tender pieces of homemade oatmeal bread to make my sandwich.

The huge, non-stick skillet (a Christmas giftie) offered plenty of playing space for our three sandwiches—no jostling, no usurping, just nice, companionable sizzling.

We flipped the sandwiches and rotated them, making sure each square inch of buttered bread surface was nicely seared, and then we put them on plates and whacked them into portions with the butcher knife. We carried our plates, the sandwiches seeping steam and melting cheese, to the table. We blessed the food, and then we ate it.

The bread crunched; the cheese oozed.

“These,” we all agreed, “are SO good.”

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

Grilled sandwiches can get boring if you eat them too often. They are also fattening delights, and of course, they, by nature, include gluten. But once in a while—oh, once in a while,—a perfectly grilled sandwich is an absolute delight.

And I started thinking, this weekend, sitting with my lovely sandwich, of my life in terms of grilled cheese.

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

I was ten, I think, when I had my first grilled cheese; it would have been around 1965. My mother dropped my younger brother, Sean, and me at Mrs. Wortham’s house right around lunchtime. Mom must have had an appointment, and Sean and I must have had the day off school for some reason. It was not very often–it was, almost, NEVER,–that we were ever babysat.

Mrs. Wortham was warm and welcoming, and she pulled out her silver waffle-making machine and flipped the pads so the smooth sides, not the griddy sides, faced up. While she talked to us, she buttered bread and took cheese out of the fridge and separated it into slices.

She worked quickly, chatting as she moved around the kitchen counter.

“Do you like grilled cheese?’ she asked us.

I looked at Sean and he looked at me. We did not know if we liked grilled cheese, never having had it. But we had been schooled in courtesy, and we knew how to respond.

“Yes!” we answered. “Grilled cheese will be wonderful!”

And, oh my heaven. It WAS.

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

The sandwiches were crisp, flat, little packets of delight. Mrs. Wortham asked if we’d like another.

“Oh, yes,” I said.

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

I rhapsodized about that lunch for days. My mother was impervious.

I mentioned that we had one of those waffle irons, those heavy, thick-fabric-corded beasts that every family of four or more was, I think, in the 1960’s, required by law to own. Ours was hidden on a high shelf in the kitchen closet.

“I HATE that thing,” said my mother, and the subject, effectively, was closed.

But Mrs. Wortham’s lunch had ignited a zest in me, a delight in a sandwich grilled and ooze-y.

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

Is it possible, I think now, that we really never had grilled cheese as kids? Included in a siblings’ group text to celebrate my sister-in-law Mary’s arrival home from the hospital, I slide out the question: Did Mom ever fix us grilled cheese?

My brothers corroborate my memory: we had no grilled cheese sandwiches as children.

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

Did my mother know about grilled cheese, I wonder. And, hey: who invented grilled cheese, anyway, and just when did that happen?

I look it up, and I find that the term, grilled cheese only entered the lingo in the 1960’s…maybe right around the time Sean and I were enjoying Mrs. Wortham’s cooking. But the sandwich concept existed before then, HowStuffWorks.com tells me.

Ancient Romans cooked up a similar dish. The fanciful French offered the croque monsieur (https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/croque_monsieur_ham_and_cheese_sandwich/) at the turn of the twentieth century. And in the U.S. in the early 1900’s, J.L. Kraft mass-produced pre-sliced processed cheese. (His empire would become today’s monolithic Kraft Foods.) The cheese slice was not exotic or artisan, not an uplifting, heart-fluttering treat, the writers at HowStuffWorks.com admit. Instead, “it was, simply, a cheap and salable product.”

Not long after Mr. Kraft’s cheese-y innovation, Frederick Rohwedder invented a slicer for white bread. Now it was easy to have bread and cheese, and people naturally put them together and heated them up—what a good, simple, dish, especially as the Depression thrust its dismal gray blanket over the land. An open-faced toasted cheese made a filling, inexpensive meal.

If people didn’t call the sandwich toasted cheese, they might call it, before the swinging sixties, melted cheese, and there were many ways of cooking the sandwiches. Legend had it that bachelors would even use an electric iron to quickly toast their versions.

I feel fortunate that the terminology and the process had evolved to the point it had when my mother dropped my brother and me at Mrs. Wortham’s house.

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

Although I find it hard to understand, today, why anyone would have left their precious children with twelve-year-old me, a few years after Mrs. Wortham opened up my culinary world, I was babysitting and pocketing cash. The hefty pay-ers at that time shelled out seventy-five cents an hour; usually I was lucky to walk out of a five-hour engagement with two bucks. But still, I had a little disposable income in my pocket, which was a new and wonderful experience.

One of the things my friends and I liked to do—a thing that made us feel independent and worldly wise—was to walk downtown, or to the Plaza, and buy ourselves lunch at the Kresge’s or Neisner’s lunch counter. Some of my peeps got allowance AND had babysitting money.

[“Sheila gets allowance,” I wailed to my mother.

“Sheila helps her mother around the house,” my mother replied tartly, closing that subject for once and for all.]

They could order many things, expensive things, from the lunch counter menus.

I could rarely make the cost of a burger; I looked for other, less pricey treats. So it was at the Kresge’s lunch counter that I asked, “What’s in a grilled ham and cheese?”

The grim woman behind the counter, unhappy in her gold nylon uniform dress, clunky plastic name tag, and stained but frilly apron, looked at me as if I were what my mother called ‘simple.’

Ham,” she replied heavily, “and CHEESE.”

I blushed and ordered it. I had wondered if some kind of sophisticated, subversive ingredients were included…mustard, maybe, or onion, or, God forbid, mayonnaise.

But the sandwich was just exactly what the tired lunch counter clerk told me it was. She brought me a thick white ceramic plate heaped with potato chips, garnished with a pickle wedge, and starring a sandwich, cut diagonally and grilled to perfection on the flat-top.

It was—wow. It was just like a grilled cheese sandwich, only it had HAM in it, too!

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

Thus began a new cooking adventure for me. Whenever I was home for lunch, whenever there was ham in the fridge, I’d just grill myself up a ham and cheese sandwich. And life, as it does, rocketed on, and high school melted into college, and jobs loomed large. One of my late-high school, and at times throughout college jobs, was in a supermarket deli, where I discovered all kinds of wonders. We sliced at least four different kinds of ham; the cheeses were even more abundant. I kept the home-folks supplied with ham off the bone; I brought home little paper-wrapped packets of different kinds of sliced cheese to experiment with.

I loved a white cheese with caraway seeds; that and ham on old-world rye bread made a wonderful grilled sandwich. I brought home baby Swiss and muenster and Gruyere; I tried a cheese that melted like butter. We paired them with Virginia ham and boiled ham and even, sometimes, with thin slices of roast beef or an almost-see-through layer of Genoa salami.

In those days I ate and ran to classes and ate and ran to work and ate and ran to go out with friends; the grilled cheese sandwiches did not stay with me. The calories consoled me, and then, disappeared.

I remember one memorable weekend visit to my friend Patty’s apartment, even now. Liza and I drove up together; Patty went to a college thirty miles away, but, as little mobile as I was in those day, it might as well have been across country. So this was a lovely adventure.

We had a wonderful weekend, even though we were all almost broke. Patty’s sweet boyfriend (and now husband) Jeff took us to a great little restaurant called the Alibi, where the Italian food was delicious, abundant, and cheap. We drank beer and told stories, and laughed and laughed. During the day, Patty toured us around all the places that had become part of new-home college life to her. At night we were drawn to college parties, moths to the flames.

We dragged ourselves up on Sunday morning…little boo-boo heads aching from the weekend adventures. And Patty, seemingly unaffected and completely rested despite our late night, pulled out a big skillet and made us all grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. She was a wonderfully watchful cook, and the sandwiches were thick, gooey, and perfect,–just the right carbs and starch to soak up the residue of a profligate weekend.

And the cheese: this was no ordinary American. I asked Patty about it and she showed me the rectangular package. It was a new-to-me treat called Velveeta. The perfect melting cheese! I thought. And once a month, on payday from the college library, my alternate college job, I bought me some.

Ah. The gourmet life.

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

HowStuffWorks.com taught me other stuff about grilled cheese sandwiches, too. It taught me that Navy cooks filled sailors’ bellies, in World War II and afterward, with TONS of hot cheese sandwiches.

I learned that April 12 is National Grilled Cheese day, and I have marked that on my calendar so that, this year, we can properly celebrate. (https://nationaltoday.com/national-grilled-cheese-sandwich-day/)

I found, to my fascinated horror, that, in 2004, someone bought a partially-eaten, 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the Blessed Mother’s visage seared onto it by whatever skillet it was cooked in. Asking price? $28,000.00.

In 2007, I discovered, Kraft Foods sponsored a contest asking people to upload home videos celebrating grilled cheese sandwiches. The next year, Kraft asked people to share their favorite grilled cheese memories. Then, in 2009, Los Angeles hosted the first Grilled Cheese Invitational.

That oozey, melting contest would continue through 2014.

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

And then I remembered, too, that Ohio is home to a restaurant chain dedicated solely to grilled cheese sandwiches and variations on that theme: Melt Bar and Grilled. We have been wanting to go to Melt since we saw it featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and since we learned that there is a Melt right outside of Columbus.

It might seem odd to base an entire menu on a grilled cheese sandwich, but, the website tells me, Melt’s chef-owner, Matt Fish, had a vision. “Where most people saw a quick meal comprised of two common kitchen staples, Matt envisioned the potential for so much more… ‘comfort food, all dressed up,’ as he put it.”

Oh, I get it, Chef Fish, I get it; and so do a lot of other people. The restaurant, begun in Cleveland, now has twelve branches throughout Ohio. (Once I asked my Comp II students to write about a memorable food experience. Three of twenty wrote about eating at Melt Bar and Grilled.)

You can even buy a Grilled Cheese and Crossbones hoodie (designed, I believe, by an artist named Derek Hess) at Melt Bar and Grilled. We look forward to a visit on the wonderful day when we are all vaccinated and eating out can become, again, an anticipated treat. (https://meltbarandgrilled.com/what-is-melt/the-melt-story/)

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

Anyway. Such a simple thing, the grilled cheese sandwich: a couple of slices of bread, a choice of cheese; a little butter. Maybe, for a truly decadent treat, the buttered bread dipped in parmesan cheese before grilling. A frying pan and just the right heat.

Such a treat and such a comfort after a busy Saturday. And who knew what a rich history the humble sandwich offers?

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

Have a warm and wonderful week. And, hey—do you grill a sandwich or two? If so, I’d love to hear about your ingredients and techniques.

Why I Didn’t Have Time to Write This Post

I wish I had been more organized this week, so I could have written a post.

This week just kind of slipped away from me, and every night I would remind myself that I needed to at least start on this week’s blog post. But something always came up…a Zoom meeting, a frantic trip to get Valentines (No! It can’t be February 10 already!!!), a phone call…Each night I would say, Well, TOMORROW then.

Then last night—which was Thursday night—I did have a Zoom meeting at 7:00, but I said to myself I would take the hour before and just sit down and write, already. I was thinking of writing about the snowfall and the kitchen project…somehow trying to connect how the covering of snow transformed the world outside (in good and bad ways) and how the layering of paint Jim the painter applied transformed the kitchen (in all good ways, as far as I can see.)

I was playing with those metaphoric analogies in my mind when Mark came and found me.

“If we leave RIGHT NOW,” he said, excited, “we can get the leftover vaccines from today’s clinic.”

I’ll write later, I thought. I ran upstairs and threw on a short-sleeved shirt for easy shot access, and when I got downstairs, Mark had the car warmed and ready. I hopped in, and we drove to the Health Department, about seven minutes away, and those blessed heroes were waiting for us. Kathy and Tara gave us our shots, and then they kept us company for the 15 minutes we had to wait. I felt awful that we were keeping them late. (“No worries,” said Tara. “I’m just going to sleep in tomorrow!” I think that meant she’d stroll into work at the ripe old hour of 8:30 a.m. What a sluggard she is not!)

But I was so happy we’d signed up for the ‘call us at the last minute if there’s leftover vaccine that day’ list; so happy there WAS leftover vaccine that Thursday; and so happy to be vaccinated—at least to have gotten the first dose. I have never been so delighted to have a needle stuck in my shoulder, and believe me, I know how lucky we are to have the opportunity.

Kathy told us our arms would be sore today and we might have mild, flu-like symptoms.

“Take Tylenol,” she advised, because the other painkillers, anti-inflammatories, can mess with the whole immune process. We gathered all their good advice, learned when we’d be called for the booster shot, and hurried off home, where I was ten minutes late logging in to my meeting.

So it was too late then to write, and the meeting ran a bit later than usual and I said to myself that I would get up early and write in the morning.

I had forgotten, though, that Jim the painter was coming in the morning to finish up. The painting process had gotten delayed on Tuesday; we had a Level Two snow emergency, and our street wasn’t plowed until mid-afternoon. The driveway was pretty much a mess, too. We called Jim early to tell him it might not be a good idea to try painting that day, and he had already come to that conclusion himself. (Nice guy that he is, he spent the unexpected day off blowing the snow out of his neighbors’ driveways. We are surrounded by energetic, unselfish people.)

So Jim came in early this morning and we talked. By the time he got all set up and I quit bothering him, it was time for me to head upstairs. I had a work call coming in at 9, and then a meeting via Microsoft Teams at 9:30. Normally, I don’t work on Fridays, but the people who host this meeting were nice enough to include me, and the information was rich and necessary. And I figured since I was going to be in the meeting, I might just as well take the call, too, and not have to wait till next week, when Monday is, after all, a United States national holiday; the earliest we could talk was Tuesday. I hate to make people wait all weekend and then some, when issues are uppermost.

So, anyway, with the call and the meeting, I didn’t write in the morning. And then, when I went downstairs, Jim the painter was finishing up, and I saw the kitchen with the upper cupboards painted creamy white for the very first time, and oh my goodness, what a transformation.

There were a few tiny things for us to take care of on our end—a magnet, some tape to pull, a potential knob,—and while Jim and I were talking about those, Mark came home for lunch, and we all admired the kitchen. Then Jim the painter packed up all his stuff, offered to sweep the floor one more time (No, no, no, we said), and came back in for his jacket.

We had a little kerfuffle when I tried to give Jim a little gift card so he and his wife could go out for, or get a take-out, lunch, and he insisted he didn’t want anything, and we went round and round. But finally I won by pulling my very, very sad face, and Jim took the envelope and left us to admire the changes he’d wrought.

Jim the son came down from studying upstairs, and we all three put some lunch together and talked about how much we like the newly painted kitchen.

So there was no time then to write, either.

After lunch, we had to take a package and Jim’s Valentines for some very special people to the post office, and, as long as we were out, we figured we might as well go to Riesbecks Supermarket and get some of the end of the week specials. Since we hadn’t gotten out for a walk, we parked as far away as we could at both places, and then we took the longest way possible around the supermarket, and we zigged and zagged among the aisles, trying to add as many steps as we could. So that took a little while.

When we got home, we lugged the bags into the house and put all the groceries away. Jim headed upstairs to do some writing, and I wielded our biggest, sharpest knife and whacked the whole pork loin we just bought into meal-sized chucks, and then debated the best ways of freezer-packing them. When I got that all squared away and the meat in the freezer and the counters wiped down, I finally decided it was time to sit down and write.

So that’s what I did. I typed in a title. “Snowfall and Cabinets,” I wrote, and then I realized that I had left a load of clothes in the dryer before we left, and if I didn’t get them on hangers, they would be crumpled little clothes-balls…little pips to iron, they would be, and I would rue the day. So I ran downstairs and hung those shirts and tops and pants and such on hangers—luckily, they were still warm and fell neatly into unwrinkled simplicity. I switched the sheets and towels from the washer to the dryer and ran a load of casual pants and shirts through the washer.

Then I went back upstairs to write. But, as I walked through the dining room, I thought I would just arrange the red pots and the red and cream and green plaid ceramics on top of the pristine new cabinets. I simply needed to see how they looked.

I realized the pots needed a little lift, so I experimented with making some cookbook bases for them, and it took about half an hour to get everything situated so it looked warm but uncluttered, but eventually I was happy with the result.

So then it was after 4:00, but I thought, “I’ll just drill down and get this written!”

And I would have been fine except that the upper part of the kitchen looked so good and the floor looked so awful. We had decided, early in the week, we’d sweep the floor once a day but not worry about it otherwise during the painting process. So all week we had tracked in salty snow slush, kicking our shoes off as close to the door as possible, but somehow the gray pasty residue spread itself over all the tiles.

It really looked truly terrible, and I figured I could attack it with scrubbing bubbles first and then use my trusty Bona cleaner, and I’d just about have time to get the floor done before Mark came home.

That turned out to be just exactly true.

When Mark arrived, Jim was excited to begin cooking dinner: fresh burgers and fries. And he asked my advice, and I started to help…and you know. One thing and another, and the next thing I realize, we’re clearing up the after dinner dishes, and I never did get a chance to sit down and write.

And on Friday nights, we watch the latest episode of Wandavision, which is something Jim really, really looks forward to us doing as a family. There was no time left to thoughtfully ponder, to try to put words together, to sit down at the computer and write out a post.

So I apologize. Next week, I’ll write something. But I just wanted to let you know why I didn’t write a post this week.

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

Have a wonderful week. I wish you health and vaccine-access and that the next few days, till we connect again, bring you unexpected joys.

Putting Stuff Away

One morning, we woke up to realize we’d been living in our house for nine years.

And it had been nine years since fresh paint had spread itself sweetly onto walls.

Every room was dingy.

“Well,” I thought. “Best get cracking.”

The dining room, we decided, was in the grittiest state, so we went out and bought paint (Roasted Cashew, it was called), and bright, flat white for the ceiling, and semi-gloss white for the trim. I rounded up brushes and bought liners for the rolling pan and made sure we had rollers and roller covers and plenty of clean, soft rags. We got lots of masking tape to line off the edges.

And Friday rolled around and, remembering painting efforts from much younger days, I confidently began, sure that by Sunday evening, the dining room would be gloriously transformed.

Three weeks later, I pulled the final piece of masking tape away. The room looked good; I loved the color, and the paint job wasn’t bad.

But, oh man. It took me so much longer than I had anticipated. And my old bones ached so much more than I was ready to accept.

Still, I thought maybe painting Jim’s room would be easier. And that refreshing the little box room, turning it into a study, would be a breeze.

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

We painted the two rooms upstairs. They look good. Jim chose jewel-tone colors, and I was surprised at how perfectly they worked in the tiny rooms, at how precisely the crisp white trim outlined the rich wall color.

But once again, I was surprised at how thoroughly exhausted I was by the painting process. And one night, I had a dream, and in the dream, a wise mentor said to me, “You don’t have to paint your own walls.”

The words reverberated in my head on waking. (What a T-shirt they would make!) And that morning, I said to Mark, “Let’s hire someone to paint the kitchen.”

Mark, who was never too keen on us trying to paint the cupboards ourselves, readily agreed.

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

Some people are talkers, and some people are doers. I tend toward talkiness, but Susan, my friend and boss, is a definite do-er. So when I mentioned wanting to have the kitchen painted, she brought it up with her husband, Tom, who has his own contracting business.

By the middle of the next week, a very nice man named Jim was in my kitchen, unpacking his painting gear.

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

And all of this is to say that we had to swiftly pack away everything in the kitchen….the foods on the shelves above; the pots and pans and appliances, the onions and the storage containers, that have long nestled long below. The coffee maker and the coffee grinder; all the packages of tea. The cereal boxes. The go-cups and the cake pans. The snacks that love to lounge on top of the refrigerator.

Everything, each thing from every cupboard, from the tops of the cupboards, from the shelf that runs across the wall over the stove and refrigerator and appliance station—it all had to be packed away.

We used baskets and boxes and canvas bags; we stowed things in the dining room, in the family room, in Mark’s side porch office. The sheer density of STUFF—nine years worth of stuff, some of it never disturbed,—was numbing.

We packed it. We stacked it. We walked by it, looming on top of tables and shelves, and we looked away.

Jim the painter was coming on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Not knowing quite where my spices were, or my chopping boards, having lost track of my skillets and my cookie sheets, I declared those three days a cooking-free zone.

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

Jim the painter is friendly and hard-working. When I came home from work on Tuesday, the little kitchen glowed with the light and warmth of a pristine white ceiling. The upper cupboards had morphed from a kind of dark espresso color to a sweet, fresh cream.

Every day brought changes. Jim took the doors from the cupboards and toted them downstairs to paint the backs. He painted the walls above the chair rail. He painted the walls below the chair rail. He started on the glossy white trim.

On Thursday, when he packed up to leave, I asked Jim about putting stuff back in the cupboard.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Oh, sure. I bet you can’t wait to get stuff back where it belongs.”

And so James and I waved Mark off to work on Friday morning, and we began the mindful process of putting things away.

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

James (James the son, not Jim the painter) volunteered to arrange spices, herbs, and meds—the denizens of the bottom row of the upper shelves on the left side of the sink. He slid two little sort of plastic-coated stair-steppy type things to the back of the cupboard, and then he started with the tall spices in the back.

“We have a LOT of herbs and spices,” he said after a very quiet five minutes of setting them out on the countertop. He decided to put them in rows by height. Within each row, he’d try to alphabetize them for easier access.

After another bout of intense quiet, he asked, “Do you have any idea how many things of parsley you own?”

I remember back in early winter making out shopping list after shopping list  and thinking, “Oh! Parsley!”

I may have stocked up five or six times.

Fortunately, that herby kind of stuff gets used before it can lose its punch.

Then Jim switched to organizing meds. He discovered several aging prescriptions, which we put away to take to the pharmacy for disposal, and he lined the over-the-counter stuff up by frequency of use and by size.

When he finished, the bottom shelf was a work of organized art.

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

Meanwhile, I started on the silverware drawers and on putting away the pots and pans.

And I discovered…

…thirteen spoons my mother gave me in 1976, one for each original colony. (“Cool!” said Jim.) Somewhere, probably down in the basement, there is a wooden spoon display rack. Jim thinks we need to dust it off and hang those historic spoons.

I put the spoons in the dishwasher without making a commitment.

…the whole set of extra silverware, the Paul Revere pattern. Mark and I both had a set of that to combine when we got married. I had a vague notion that it was still in a fancy wooden silverware storage box, with a drawer for the pistol-handle knives. We’d opted to use the more ornate Michelangelo design for some reason and forgot where we put the other stuff.

Every once in a while, through the years, I would say, “I wonder where we put the other set of silverware when we moved in?”

And Mark would say, “Is it, maybe, in the closet in the little room?”

We would look at each other and shrug. We didn’t NEED it; we just wanted to know it was there, somewhere.

And it was, right in the silverware drawer on the left, sorted and stacked in its own red organizer, and buried under tongs and turkey baster, candy thermometer and old potato peelers (never know when you’ll need an extra), a couple of stray cookie cutters, and a whole bag of never used wooden shiskabob skewers.

….a whole stack of disposable pie tins, from several indulgences in Mrs. Callender’s kitchen of treats over the years.

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

So. I empty a bin, once been used to hold Christmas ornaments, now filled with kitchen items. I wash big things by hands; I run small things through the dishwasher.

I decide to move the flat cookware—cake pans and 9×9 pans, my glass roasting pan with the metal griddy-thing that let the meat juices drip and the veggies caramelize; even my Bundt pan is flat enough—into the bottom pull-out drawer. It fits there so much better; it’s so much closer to hand.

I sort through cleaning supplies and stow them under the sink. I empty almost-used-up containers and clean them for the recycling bin.

I put the big pots in the little bottom cupboard by the window. I drag the cooler, filled with baking supplies, into the kitchen and carefully put flours and sugars, oatmeal and cake mixes, tubs of frosting and a can of blueberry pie filling, back into the cupboard next to the sink.

I return the Fiori-ware plates and the mish mash of measuring cups and the dessert plates and Fiestaware saucers to their places in the cupboard above.

And all the while, I am culling. I pack the old Christmas ornament bin right back up. There is an old crockpot in the basement; I wash that up and pack it away, clearing a space on basement shelves for Mark’s portable smoker: now, it suddenly makes sense to keep all the barbecue stuff together, out of the kitchen, on a basement shelf.

I put one of the two giant roasting pans in the bin. I offload pie tins, stacks of dish towels that I don’t need, potholders that have only just seen the light of day after ten years of kitchen drawer slumber. The roomy bin quickly grows full.

And I think to myself, “All this STUFF!” I give myself a lecture on learning to ruthlessly throw things away, on not attaching to THINGS. I tell myself if I don’t need it and it doesn’t give me joy, it needs to go.

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

But other things, forgotten things like the bicentennial spoons with their family-gift connection, with Jim’s delight in sorting and examining them, DO give me joy.

I find an ancient nutcracker and a matching nut pick that were in my childhood home. That nut pick never, to my knowledge, was used to dig a nut meat from a shell. It might have been used, back in the day, to pry a wedge of dried catsup from the bottle-neck grooves the catsup top screwed onto; it might have lightly traced words on a cake being decorated for a brother’s birthday.

The nutcracker was set out at Christmas, next to a bowl of nuts in the shell. Nobody used it, until, after the holidays, my mother would methodically crack the nuts and chop them, sprinkling them on top of a yellow cake, maybe, with chocolate butter cream frosting.

The bowls of nuts, I guess, was just a nice, Christmassy thing to have.

The little set, inexpensive but pretty, were never used for their true purposes. But now, finding them tucked into the mash-up of things from the thing drawer, they make me smile. THESE, I’ll keep.

Things are just things, of course, but some of them trail a smoky, sparkly, gust of memories.

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

We get a lot put away on Friday, James and I do, but not everything. It’s okay: on this pandemic weekend, our social schedule is pretty much open, and I will spend my early Saturday sorting and exclaiming, examining and disdaining, culling the keepers and filling the recycling pile, the trash bag, and the Goodwill bin.

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

Jim the painter will be back on Tuesday; by Thursday, I think, the kitchen will have completed its transformation. I have a stack of favorite things—deep red pots, plaid ceramics, a tray, a tin, ready to go up on top of the cabinets.

I am thinking about plates to put on the shelf opposite the cabinets.

I am picturing how nice the kitchen will look with its new facelift, and how nice it will be to cook in there, with its lightened load.

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

It’s good to purge; it’s good to appropriately dispose; sometimes, it’s good to keep and treasure.

And it’s good to have someone—a friendly, efficient, seasoned painter—paint the kitchen. Maybe now, we’ll tackle the downstairs bathroom and the back hall. Or the upstairs hallway, the walls around the stairs…maybe that’s next…the next job for someone who is not ME to tackle with brush and roller.

My job will be to keep opening drawers and climbing up to look on closet shelves, marveling at the things I find, donating what can be used, saying goodbye to what should never have been stored in the first place, and renewing a relationship with things treasured but forgotten, hidden away, just like the memories they evoke, in a dark, quiet corner…

A Month, a Book, a Word

January can be a flat, gray incline—a month with just enough of an uphill slope that, after a few days, my thigh muscles start to clench and complain. January’s the beginning of the race, where I’m struggling to establish the pace that will get me there—efficiently, just as quickly as possible given my limitations, but with enough verve left that, when I arrive, I can set up camp and get things done.

In January, the high, frenzied energy of the holiday season suddenly drains away, and I look for the sweet spot, the sustainable movement, the rhythm that could help me shape a productive year.

I line up projects at home and at work. I eyeball and judge: realistic? Worthwhile?

Bar too high?

Bar too low?

If so, in January, I still have time to move that bar up or down a rusty notch, to set my goals for a level that challenges without crushing.

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

I plunge, with Jim’s help, into transforming the box room, and, foot mostly well-healed, I determinedly re-commit to a daily walking routine. Mark and I imagine changes in the kitchen, which is badly in need of an uplift. Our fingertips draw invisible walls where doors now stand; we conjure up cupboards to hold scattered appliances. With a hand flick, we remove the last set of cabinets and snug the refrigerator into that open space.

And, then.

Stove: here.

Rustic farm table with plenty of room to roll out a pair of fruit-filled pies? Here.

With one broad gesture, I re-floor all the way from the kitchen through the family room.

We see it all in our minds’ eyes, and we ponder and nod and suggest and adjust.

We’ll start, we think, with paint on walls and paint on the sturdy cupboards. We break projects into steps, and we think about how to make those invisible, imaginary outlines real.

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

I search cookbooks for recipe ideas. We are in another food slump; we need new dishes, healthy recipes that taste good and that satisfy on cold dark winter nights. We need experiments—discoveries—that, when the first taste hits the tongue, surprise the taster. We want to the taster to look up, smiling; to say, “HEY. That’s GOOD.”

I ordered thinly sliced boneless chicken breast, fingerling potatoes, leeks.

We grab the wheel, and, despite some fierce resistance, we set about turning this faithful old ship. It creaks and complains, but it follows, slowly, our lead.

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

January is cold, and wind chills make walking a bitter challenge. So James and I become mall-walkers in the afternoons after I come home from work. We mask up and hit those shiny floors. He trudges along gamely, bypassing older, slower, walkers: the only young guy in a field of senior citizens, plodding along.

Having walked, we run our errands and then go home to contemplate dinner.

I try making baked rice, which we all highly approve. I dredge and pan-fry the slender chicken breasts. We make crisp salads, such a treat in deep winter, from a blend of artisan lettuces.

It is dark while we eat, and after dinner, after dishes are cleaned or stowed, the dark enfolds the house. We defiantly turn on lamps, light the fire. That’s my time to read.

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

Two Christmases ago, James gave me a special book, a compendium of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea chronicles. I used a LeGuin book in my master’s thesis. I read her memoir, No Time to Spare, just before she passed, and I pondered her thoughts on growing old.

My non-fiction read this week is an interesting book called The Writer’s Library, which features author Luis Albert Urrea, among others.  To my delight, Urrea reminisces about meeting Ursula LeGuin. He was a college student; he had written a story about bringing his father’s body back across the Mexican border to the United States. His professor gave the piece to LeGuin, and she asked to meet the author of it.

Urrea remembers going to the apartment where LeGuin, a visiting professor, was staying, and knocking.

“…This tiny woman opens the door,” he says. “She was smoking a pipe in those days, and she had a highball or some kind of whiskey in her hand, and I thought, This is the coolest person I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

She drew Urrea and his professor in, and she drew the student out; he told her about himself, about his writing, about his dead father.

She became a coach to him. Urrea says she was tough with him, but very, very kind. And she insisted he read women authors, read feminist writing. He says he learned about authentic women’s voices and about the mistakes—the sometimes flat and clanging notes—some authors who are men make when they conjure female characters.

“I always think of Ursula when I write,” says Urrea.

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

Jim knew I savored LeGuin’s writing and so he gifted me with this magnificent book: one thousand pages, a fine cover, a silky wine-colored ribbon bookmark attached. I had read the Earthsea books long, long ago; I had expected them to be like the Narnia books, or like Lord of the Rings.

But they were not. They were different in a challenging kind of a way, and I wasn’t entirely sure I liked them. I read all three books in the original trilogy, though; I was working at a bookstore then, and many people came in and asked about them. I thought I should know the background, be able to discuss intelligently.

Now, I’ve decided to read one of the books in between each of my ‘new’ reads. A novel; a non-fiction; an Earthsea: that’s my winter pattern.

Sometimes the WHEN of a book–the WHEN of when you meet it–makes all the difference. I re-read A Wizard of Earthsea, and the importance of confronting your own sweet, flawed self is clear and obvious.

I re-read Tombs of Atuan, and I reflect on the essential task of questioning (keeping them, maybe, but surely questioning) those rituals and beliefs I grew up accepting without review.

And, this week, I finish The Farthest Shore. It is a book about magic leaving the world; it is a book about the high price of bringing it back. The villain offers people eternal life, but the immortality they think they’ve gained is gray and joyless.

The Farthest Shore is a January book; it is a NOW book.

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

Jim’s gift, The Books of Earthsea, is heavy. My arms tire, holding it up; I bend my knees and rest the book there against them, and I have to grab my glasses to see the tiny, precise print.

The thoughts LeGuin presents for my consideration are weighty ones, too. I want, I realize, the magic to come back. A gray life, plodding and unthinking, is not a life to live.

I think of WandaVision, the Marvel show we’re watching on Friday nights. The first episodes are in black and white. Wanda and Vision are fitting into the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, United States suburbia. But events happen; danger comes closer, and so does joy.

And as the couple embrace the happiness and the peril, color seeps back into their world.

I realize that a gray life, even if it’s a safe life, is not a real life at all.

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

So I adopt my word for the year: realize. This month, I set the pace; this month I decide what I am working toward. And realize encapsulates what I want to achieve: it means, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “to become fully aware of (something) as a fact; to understand clearly.” This year, I commit to reading, exploring, fully understanding…whether the something in question is a controversial political question, the value and use of Microsoft Publisher, or how melatonin works to entice sleep.

Realize also means, the Dictionary tells me, to “cause (something desired or anticipated) to happen.” Here, we’re talking about realizing potential, about making a dream or a softly ignored plan, a wish, a hope, a thing we need…we’re talking about making it real.

My job this year is to be mindful, to understand the things that encounter and engage me, and to reach through the dream membrane and to bring those hazy gray ideas that need completion into technicolor truth.

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

“Can you believe,” Jim says to me, “that January is almost over?”

This month reared up and galloped. But things happened within this first, limbering lap; I may have found my pace. I’ll slog on into February, hoping to keep on at this level, knowing that I can adjust if needed. Whatever happens, whatever turns I need to take, I’ll meet them head-on. I realize that.

I’ll decide what tasks to embrace, and then I will throw my whole self into them…and I’ll know that, at the end of the day, a comfy chair, a good book, the chance to learn and dream some more, await.

This Week, Squared Away

“Today feels like a different day, a new one. Our troubles are far from over, but hope and joy no longer seem ridiculous.”

Critic Craig Morgan Teicher on npr.org

The week begins; I am reading an interesting book. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal is a culinary history of the Great Depression. I started reading it when I decided to explore how our food tastes were shaped. Since Mark’s parents and mine grew up during the 1930’s, we know that the Depression shaped how they ate then and how they shopped and ate moving forward.

I read the book, and I remember stories my father told about his big family—fourteen kids, when the count was completed—, the challenges of feeding all those mouths,  and the humiliation of standing in relief lines. My father, who had a fierce work ethic, called the supplies they received ‘hand-outs,’ and the shame of that childhood necessity shadowed his face. One of the highest compliments he ever paid another was this: “He (or she) is a damned hard worker.”

Mom told stories about the food adaptations her frugal family made. They raised chickens in the city, and they used every part of a cow or pig. She talked about visiting one of the dour old aunts, opening the front door and being assailed by the smell of hot urine. Kidneys were simmering on the stove; pot after pot of simmered water was dumped down the drain until the organ meat no longer smelled like its original function. She didn’t like the resulting dish—steak and kidney pie, maybe, or just kidney and potatoes,—but, being hungry and well-disciplined, she cleaned her plate.

My mother told us about ‘Depression cookies’—a recipe that involved cutting stale bread into cubes, soaking the cubes in sweetened condensed milk, dipping them in coconut flakes, and baking them. That sounded good to me; in my world, both sweetened condensed milk and coconut were luxuries, not staples. I wanted to try making those cookies, but my mother shuddered and said, ‘No.’

It was a long time before I realized the truth: that my parents and so many others grew up hungry in those Depression years. They never starved, but during those tenuous years, they never had quite enough to eat, either.

My father went off to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He didn’t talk much about it; he just said, “At least we got three square meals.”

The book echoes that, too, and suddenly I think, “Why a SQUARE meal?”

I go online to look that up, and I find a legend that the term comes from the British Navy,…from the trenchers, wooden and square, on which, historically, sailors were served their meals. The food must have been ample for this myth to have arisen.

But phrases.org.uk tells me the myth is wrong. ‘Square’ doesn’t just mean the shape; it also means honest, forthright, dependable. So we had square deals; we squared things up; problems were squared away. A trusted person might be described as a square shooter.

And it is that definition that’s applied to food. A square meal is satisfying, nutritious, and known.

As this week begins, thinking about things that are honest, forthright, and dependable is comforting.

It’s comforting, too, to read about hard times that were surmounted.

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

The week starts with a commemorative day; Mark and I are both off on Monday, remembering the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We spent the weekend clearing out the little room upstairs.

On Monday, James and I paint the little room’s ceiling. We mask up and head off to Office Depot, where James picks the paint color—a deeply vibrant green—for the walls.

We’ll freshen the woodwork with white semi-gloss. I’m thinking we’ll buy insulated white curtains to add bright splashes against the dark green.

We clean and sort the clutter the little room had attracted; it became kind of a box room, and objects that had no particular port landed there. We consider each one, now; we recycle and donate and repurpose. We stop one day and buy painter’s tape, and today we will tape edges and touch up the ceiling, so that tomorrow we can paint the first coat on the walls.

It feels good to be freshening up and renewing a room.

It feels a little bit like hope.

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

On Tuesday, James starts a class he’s very excited about—a lit course that covers drama and poetry. He attends by going to his desk in the basement and clicking into Microsoft Teams…maybe not the best way to attend a class, but he’s enthusiastic. And he’s in the company, however virtually, of an impassioned professor and other enthusiastic students.

“Class was great,” he says when I get home from work.

And work was great, too; I feel a sense of renewal, and I talk to people committed to their projects and causes. I organize projects into binders; I read up on things as diverse as reverse scholarships, mobile shower units, and organizations that offer support to non-profit managers. And these efforts, too, speak of hope and possibility.

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

On Wednesday, Mark and Jim come to the office at lunchtime. We turn on the big screen TV in the conference room, connect to the internet, and live stream the inauguration. President Biden delivers a message of hope and unity, and an impossibly young woman, our poet laureate, recites a poem with poise and passion.

And then Mark and I go back to work, and Jim studies poetry, and the day surges forward.

Later, though, Mark comes home from work and says, “I can’t believe how physically relieved I feel.”

I know just what he means. I feel it, too: lightened, loosened. There was no violence, only a decorous beginning. And a tension carried for many long years begins to un-knot.

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

The week winds down; we eat homemade chicken soup and have sour cream bundt cake for a treat. Those seem like honest, forthright foods. I am delighted that the supermarket is accepting plastic bags for recycling again. James and I make several runs: to Kroger with bags of bags; to Goodwill with boxes of stuff gleaned from the little room. We recycle cardboard packing cases, and I feel better and better about the emerging uncluttered space.

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

And the term “a square deal” keeps thrumming through my mind, so I go online to look it up. I discover it was a term not coined by, but often used by, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt used it to mean fairness and equity for all; he applied it when he treated bosses and workers equally at the end of a coal strike in 1902.

Roosevelt used the term to apply to race relations. He talked about the people of color he’d fought beside in the Spanish-American war. “If a man is good enough to have him shot at while fighting beside me under the same flag, he is good enough for me to try to give him a square deal in civil life,” said the President in 1903. He advocated for voters’ rights and for judging people as individuals, not by ethnicity or race.

Roosevelt extended the concept of the square deal to his policies, saying his administration stood for “a square deal all around.” The term became so closely connected to TR that historians have capitalized it and made it into a program, according to the theodorerooseveltcenter.org; the concept is most closely linked with Roosevelt’s anti-trust measures.

Roosevelt served years before women would get the vote; racial inequities, and other inequities, weren’t defeated during his presidency. His leadership was not perfect. But a square deal for all is something we could all embrace today.

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

A square deal: a measure built in honesty, forthrightness, and dependability. That sounds like a deal I can live with right now; it sounds like a deal that will let me relax and look forward.

It’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as a new administration begins its leadership.

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

This is one of those weeks where the present, the past, and the future have collided. It’s a week where unacknowledged anxiety, mixed with an undercurrent of dread, drained off, replaced by relief.

Our past, good AND bad, informs us, but the present has its comforts and blessings. And the future seems opened up: there are challenges to be met, but the possibility of successfully meeting them looms large.

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

Maybe, just maybe, a time has begun when we can square things away.

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

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/square-meal.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_(slang)

https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Politics%20and%20Government/The%20Square%20Deal

If Sleep Will Come

Insomnia is more common in women, especially in older women, than in men.

“Insomnia,” on womenshealth.gov

It is three a.m., and the light is on in the backyard…a deer friend is grazing, perhaps, or that elusive little fox is dancing through. It could be a skunk or a squirrel or a raccoon, even a bird—any number of active wildlife species inhabit ‘our’ yards when daylight ends, when the People’s Realm closes down for another night.

The glowing motion-sensored light, though, when I wake and notice it in the depth of the night, ensures that I come fully awake. I throw back the covers and pad off to the bathroom. The door fails to latch, and I mutter and try to slam it shut quietly.

Through the bathroom window, I see the security light wink out. Before I am finished, though, it twinkles right back on.

My monkey mind twinkles back on, too. As I walk softly back to the bedroom, I am thinking that we need aluminum foil and that I should buy skinny egg noodles and try that rice pilaf recipe in Joy of Cooking… that’s something, I think, that we’ll ALL like. And if we had crusty bread, I could make French onion soup tomorrow.

Should I make some New York Times No-Knead Bread?

Should I stop at Giacomo’s and buy a loaf of Country French Bread?

Thoughts fwap down like wet pages.

I need to go to whatever office that is downtown and make sure my title is registered.

I have to bundle up my Kohl’s returns and get them to the post office.

We need to get started on the little box room, convert it to a kind of an office for James. Will the green desk fit in the nook by the window in my bedroom?

I lay down and pull the blankets up to my chin.

I rearrange the pillows so I can sleep on my back.

But are my toes cold?

I think my toes are cold. I get up and pull the quilt from the footboard, cover the bottom half of the bed, and crawl back in.

Mark sighs and rustles. His C-PAP machine breathes, regular and gently noisy. When he turns toward me, cool, damp, expelled air rushes into my face.

I pull the bedspread up to make a little wall.

Suddenly a memory from a long-ago job, a job that I held briefly twenty years ago, pops into my head. A distantly connected colleague was very, very rude, and I was much too pliable in responding. I wish I could go back and say what I should have said! I would tell him, boy.

No, I wish I could let that useless memory go. It is 3:35 now. Mark’s alarm will jingle its merry tune in two hours and twenty-five minutes. I need my sleep. I have a lot to do tomorrow. Did I mention the box room, the post office, the title process? Oh, and I should make some snickerdoodles; I’ve been promising to do that.

If I mop floors tomorrow, I won’t have to do it on Saturday.

And what was that idiot’s name…?

If I don’t fall asleep now, I am going to be exhausted…

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

It is almost five a.m. when I finally fall back into a fretful sleep. An hour later, when Mark, who has his phone alarm set to that obnoxiously cheerful, diplomatically intrusive, sprightly tune, sighs loudly and throws the covers back a little too energetically, I want to thunk him.

I try to squinch my eyes and force myself back into sleep for half an hour. But there’s no going back. After five minutes, I sit up and read until the boyo is done in the bathroom.

Later, I check my Fitbit, Connie, which informs me I have slept for five hours and twenty minutes. And that says Connie, gets me only a ‘fair’ rating.

(Once I spent a sleepless night and logged a whopping two hours and twelve minutes of sleep. Connie called that ‘fair,’ too. In Connie-world, I believe ‘fair’ is another way of saying, “Well, THAT sucked.”)

Ah, young girl, behold your future. You may think you’re a champion sleeper. You may think it will never come looking for you.

But here we go: insomnia happens.

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

I go online looking for an explanation. (An apology would be nice, too.) “Older women,” womenshealth.gov tells me, “are at a higher risk for insomnia.” It cites “unique hormonal changes” as one compelling reason.

It hardly seems fair. The site tells me that one in four women suffers from insomnia, compared to one in seven total adults. And lack of sleep affects everything…work, school, self-care, relationships.

No wonder, when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I start to worry about not getting back to sleep.

And worry, of course, leads to insomnia.

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

There are two kinds of insomnia, I discover on womenshealth.gov. Primary insomnia is a diagnosis, an affliction, all on its own. Secondary insomnia, though, is what so many of us experience. It is caused by other things—by another condition, by the meds we take for another condition, by trauma, or by stress.

People who are depressed or anxious or who have PTSD have trouble sleeping. People who have thyroid issues might not be able to sleep. The symptoms of menopause (which I have long been waving goodbye to; they are far away, tiny specks in the rear-view mirror) cause sleeplessness, too.

And, gee, what, these days, could be making us anxious? Political strife? Threats of violence? Climate disaster?

Maybe there’s a little pandemic brewing in my neighborhood? Maybe people I know are sick? 

Of course, I am anxious. What I need is a good, deep, solid night’s sleep to buoy me up and help me cope.

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

Womenshealth.gov has ideas for ways to achieve that restful sleep, too.

Limit, it tells me, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.

And that advice just makes me bitter. I have rudely shucked all three of those vices from my life: I stopped smoking before I got pregnant with thirty-year-old Jim. I think we might have had some wine with Christmas dinner; that was probably the first alcohol that crossed my lips in five months. And, at the behest of a doctor four or five years ago, I sadly turned my back on my last, great, sincerely savored, vice: caffeinated coffee. (I did, though, find a wonderful coffee roaster in Clintonville, Ohio; they roast dark, rich, decaffeinated beans and send them to me in fragrant bundles. Every morning, I grind some of those beans fresh and rejoice in the fact that they come in packaging I can compost in my backyard.

So the taste of coffee is still here in my life; the powerful kick of the caffeine is not.)

So that advice–the no alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine edict–is not, to me, helpful.

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

But womenshealth.gov’s number two recommendation says to look at my sleep environment: is it restful?

I’d probably be wise to move my phone far enough away from the bed that I can’t grab it and scald my sleepy eyeballs with its unforgiving glow. And I could clear my little nightside table off; there’s a stack of books there, clamoring to be read. There’s an old digital alarm clock that’s only right half the year, too; the buttons no longer depress to allow me to change the time.

So right now, it’s an hour ahead. And when I wake up in the night’s thick middle, I look at that clock and think, “Four-thirty a.m.! It’s almost time to get up!”

Really, of course; it’s only three-thirty a.m., and I have plenty of time to fall back into peaceful slumber, but by the time I have reminded myself of this, my mind has clicked into high alert.

De-cluttering and making the sleep environment more soothing: that is definitely something I can do.

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

I’m also advised to exercise during the day. Doing this too close to bedtime, the site tells me, can make sleeping more difficult; I should limit strenuous exercise in the five or six hours before I go to sleep.

That feels counterintuitive, but, since, right now, the sun sets around 5:30 in the evening, I am not tempted to head outside for my exercise of choice, a good brisk walk, in the late evening hours, anyway.

I think I’m good in this exercise realm, and, since I have recently taken up my daily walks again after the foot surgeon cleared me for take-off, I have great faith that their effects will soon kick in.

Related to the exercise exhortation is an interesting fact: I need 15 to 30 minutes of time outdoors each day. The natural light helps my natural rhythms. So—even when it rains or snows, I need to push myself to do this, to get outdoors and try to glory in even the austere, wet, cold, natural beauty.

Hmmm.

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

Don’t eat, womenshealth.gov advises me, for at least two or three hours before bedtime. This is something I’ve been trying to do; I’ve read elsewhere that the simple act of fasting for twelve hours each day has all kinds of good effects on bodies…helping regulate weight and essential bodily functions.

My skinny little doctor agrees. Don’t eat, she recommends, after six p.m. or before six a.m.

I flex those times to seven p.m. and a.m. (sorry, Doc), but I do try very hard to maintain that twelve-hour fast.

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

There’s a real benefit too, the site tells me, to a regular, soothing, bedtime routine. A hot bath, a book in bed, soft music, meditation…whatever the quieting activity, at the same time every night, may open the gates and let slumber roll softly in. This is a stricture I have no trouble complying with.

It notes, too, that separating from those glowing screens is an important component of a soothing routine…no email right before head hits pillow. No TV.

No picking up the bright little phone to just check messages one more time…

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

Finally, the “Insomnia” article advises, if I don’t fall asleep, I should get up and do something restful until I do feel sleepy. And that makes sense. I can take my comforting book to my comfortable chair and simply glory in the extra time to read—I am always complaining that I don’t have enough time to read. Maybe I need to push my bedtime just a titch later and enjoy the time for my books…

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

I realize there are other, safe things I can try, too: Jim, like many people with autism, has sleep challenges. His doctor recommends melatonin; Jim feels that works for him. And even if taking one has a total placebo effect, if belief sends me off to sleepy land, what’s the harm?

I’ve bought myself a package of Sleepy Time tea, too, with the only drawback that, while it makes me sleepy, I’ll probably have to get up at that deep dark hour to pad on off to the bathroom.

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

And don’t forget, a friend reminds me, about the power of prayer.

Things happen that are out of our control: violence flares; sickness spreads. We do what we can to control our little corners, but the insulation in those corners isn’t thick, and cold worry swirls through the cracks and around the edges.

Prayer—whatever that means to you and to me, whether it’s scripted words or spontaneous ones, meditative time, rhythmic movement, or loving actions—is one way of handling the stress, of sharing it, of expressing our faith that this, too, shall pass.

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

I’m thinking the worst thing I can do about the sleepless empty hours is to fret about them, to add them to my sledge of concerns and drag them, heavy and recalcitrant, along behind me,–to slog through my day, burdened by the thought that, “Jeez, I only slept four hours last night, and tonight,–well, tonight probably won’t be much better.”

That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever I wrote one.

So I will take my windy, gray day walks, and I will detach from the news before dinner; I’ll declutter my sleeping space. I’ll work on building a little meditative time into the evening end of my day.

I will counter insomnia with good and healthy practices.

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

And I’ll be comforted by this:  if all else fails, there are naps…naps with a book, in the chair, by the fire. There’s a place where I know that sleep will come.

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

https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/insomnia#18

What Stands

We can’t not watch.

The crowd: the taunts, the jeers, the threats. They push past the police line. They scramble up walls.

They chant.

Again and again, the police give way, scrambling for a further place to stop and turn.

Windows break and the crowd surges—insurgents surging inside. A confederate flag stalks the floor of the Capitol building. A leering person sits, feet up, at Nancy Pelosi’s desk. (Later, we’ll learn that he stole a letter from her desk, took himself a piece of official business. He told a journalist he paid for that letter, leaving behind a little pile of change and a threatening note.)

There is smoke and there are screams; there is chaos.

There is rabble.

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

“It’s going to be all right, Mom, isn’t it?” Jim asks. He is dread-fascinated before the unbelievable, unfolding scene.

I dig deep to find my comforting voice.

“It is, Buddy,” I say. “It is going to be all right. Help will come. They’ll take care of this. Let’s turn off the TV.”

But I can’t reassure myself so blithely. Things fall like dominoes…truth, integrity, respect…toppling before absurd denial, self-interest, greed.

Things fall and fall. The big things are falling.

And when it seems like everything falls, what stands?

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

Mark, who believes in the system, who has staked his career on the system, comes home early, angry, and turns on the TV again. When dinner is ready, I ask him to turn it off, and we eat a quiet meal.

Afterward, Jim retreats to the basement, works on his computer, and Mark suddenly starts to tell me about a young colleague who came to see him. She wanted his opinion on a program she thought would help victims of violence.

She unspooled her plan, thoughtful and clearly defined, while he listened. Mark talked about her determination, of the flame that leapt when she described what’s needed, what could be done.

There was knowledge and empathy and passion there, he said.

And when things fall, I realize, passion stands.

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

I take refuge in work, in working at a place that, by its very nature, affirms that life can be, will be, better. I speak with a woman who believes that all children can learn, that books can open doors, that magic can happen when good people come together and craft a solution.

She’s a little beleaguered, this believer,–but she has a clear vision of how the load could be shared and the work distributed so that no one is overwhelmed and so that the magic still bubbles.

She has a firm handle; the only thing I can offer is an appreciative ear and affirming voice.

When the call is done, I ponder her heart for her work, and her determination not to give up, and her complete lack of concern for herself.

And I think that when everything seems to be falling, selflessness stands.

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

In the afternoon and through the evening, texts and messages arrive. They are thoughtful and measured; they are grieving, but resolute. They offer faith—that young people watching the chaos unfold will insist on a land where such things do not take place, and that healing, still, will happen.

I realize that, even isolated, constricted, masked and distanced, we are never so far away that friendship fails.

Amid the toppling and the crashing, friendship stands.

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

I see the foot doctor this week, and he’s happy.

“Any restrictions?” I ask, carefully, so I can report back truthfully to Mark, and no, he says; no: just use good judgement.

So today I judge that it’s time for my first official outdoor walk, post-surgery, and I lace up my big-toe-boxed sneakers and zip up my fleece, and I head out.

It is a gray day, and cool; it’s cold enough to snow, but nothing comes down from the heavens. As I walk, the sun emerges, pale and wintry, but golden-true.

And I find my pace and swing my arms and I walk to where an old dog runs out to greet me, barking a warning (protectiveness, loyalty…), and I turn back.

It feels so good to walk; it feels a lot, I think, like meditation.

Where the old school used to be, on the corner where I turn to head for home, the lot has been scrolled with paved pathways. In the spring, a park will spring up.

Today, a father and his daughter are there. I am guessing she might be six; she is all arms and legs and flying blond hair, as thin as a jittery greyhound, and gusting along on high roller skates.

She rushes; he follows, one hand ready to catch. Hoodie, tattoos, ripped jeans: she may be a fragile princess; he’s an edgy, bow-legged, cowboy rock star.

She brakes abruptly on the far path; she turns to him and pleads. He runs to catch up. He helps her unzip her jacket, pulls it over her fluttering hands (talking, talking, talking), tucks it under his arm.

All that skating; she must be getting hot. Off she flies again, and off he follows, patient and protective.

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

If I encountered that young man, all alone and all unknowing, on a dark street, I’d make up an excuse and cross to the other side. I’d be seeing from the fear side of the lens, and I would never know that what makes him move, what propels him forward, is the kind of patient love he shows for his little girl.

Things fall. They fall and shatter. But love—of course, love stands.

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

This is not to say that things are all right. They are not.

Things are broken, and they need to be fixed.

Hatred has been unleashed in the world, and it spreads like an inky, rotten stain, and how do you fix that?

But the small decencies of everyday make a difference.

And the big integrities of everyday—those make a difference, too.

And when we live in a world where there’s selflessness and love…well, then there is hope.

The stain will remind us, and we will move forward, changed and wary.

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

For now, I need to realize this: even when it seems like everything falls, things stand.

Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

These dishes set the tables of our past, and today they connect us to a culture of resourceful cooks who prepared year-round to feed their families. Many of these recipes were considered too mundane to merit writing down. Now they risk being forgotten.

From those traditions, the recipes grow from simple things you might make on a weeknight to more elaborate dishes I serve in our restaurant.

—–Vivian Howard, Deep Run Roots (“Don’t You Dare Skip This Introduction?”)

Almost three on Christmas afternoon, and the magic of the day has settled in, saturating. There is, as a writer of lyrics once said, a marshmallow world outside. Green Christmases are pretty common here, so the fluff of snow,—white, pristine snow that creates a glowing, freshened palette—is a holiday card-kind of treat.

And this morning, during the Gifting, Jim tore open the wrapping on a new appliance—a combination air fryer/convection oven/ toaster oven. We were all taken with it, and with its possibilities, and we halted what we were doing to drag it into the kitchen. Mark and I wrangled it onto the counter where appliances reside, removing two venerable specimens, which will go into the rapidly filling Goodwill box.

But Jim stood, staring out into the side yard through the big window.

“Look,” he whispered, and finally, plugs fussily plugged in, new oven situated just so, we did.

We saw something we’ve never seen here before: a fox hopping and snuffling in the snow. We gathered at the window; Mark and I pulled out our phones to click photos. The fox, surely sensing us there, seemed unconcerned.

It became clear she was wearing down a mole; the new snow now is full of tracks and splot marks where the little canine ran and leapt up and then landed full force in the snow. The mole was cagey; it burrowed and disappeared, and the fox looked up, perplexed.

Then it stuck its trim red snout into the snow; its fat tail wagged, and a tiny black creature surfaced, running, and disappeared again.

The fox leapt, and the chase continued.

It was focused and intense.

I didn’t watch to see the end of the hunt, but Mark says the mole finally, despite its courage and cunning, met its end.

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

He posts a fox photo online, and someone comments that sighting a single fox is good luck. We’ll take that little bit of magic, that Christmas visitation, as an omen of good tidings at the end of a most distressing year.

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

On the dining room table, where Jim is diligently working on lists—cataloging the new books he got for Christmas, creating pairings of superheroes that he might use in a short story here and there—the Christmas candle, lit first thing this morning (before the coffee started brewing, or the cinnamon buns went into the oven) burns steadfastly. That’s another harbinger, we believe, of good luck: a candle burnt, on Christmas, to its socket.

And wonderful smells emanate from the oven. This year, we are roasting a standing rib roast. I’ve only done this once before, so I have been frantically searching recipes. I could put the roast in the oven at 375 for an hour, I discover, then turn the oven off and let the meat sit in its waning heat for three hours. Then, I would turn the oven back on for another hour’s roasting.

This method sounds intriguing and the recipe-writer says it’s guaranteed to produce a succulently juicy roast…but: there can be no opening of the oven door once the process begins.

I think about side dishes, and I finally settle on the method outlined in my New Cookbook (itself a Christmas gift, once many years ago). I roast the meat low and slow. I boil some golden potatoes. When the meat reaches a certain temperature, I pour the potatoes into the roasting pan with a half cup of water, and I stir until they’re coated with juices. They start turning a beautiful golden brown almost as soon as I shove the roasting dish back into the oven.

Mark and Jim waft into the kitchen now and then like cartoon characters uplifted by aromas. All that remains is to throw salads together and to decide if we want garlic bread.

“Look at those potatoes,” Mark says, peering in the oven during one wafting.

And I think there’s a kind of magic, too, in the foods we eat on holidays.

And, really, there’s magic in the foods we eat in general.

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

I’m thinking about this—about the magic and the specificity of food—because last Saturday, I declared it was a Scottish cooking day. I made a loaf of oatmeal bread (it was so good, or it had been so long since we had homemade bread, that we fell upon it with serrated knives when it was fresh from the oven. We ate big slabs with butter melting on them. We ate much of the loaf in fifteen minutes.)

I made a batch of Scottish shortbread for cookies; I rolled out half the dough and cut it into shapes and baked them up.

“Can we use the Christmas sprinkles to decorate them?” Jim asked, and I said sure. But the cookies went the way of the oatmeal bread. When I opened the plastic tub I’d put them in on Sunday night, there were two cookies left—a Santa and a Christmas tree, un-iced but delicious. I put them in a container and took them in my lunch the next day. On Christmas Eve, we rolled out the rest of the dough, and James and I cut out a new batch of cookies. They may or may not live to be frosted.

And, that Scottish cooking day, I made a batch of Chocolate Fudge Delight, my mother’s celebrated recipe. She found it, I think, in a magazine in the late fifties or early sixties (I have a copy of a letter she sent to my brother Dennis’s friend Jim’s mother; in that letter she enclosed a copy of the fudge recipe. That letter is dated 1962; she’d been making the fudge for a bit at that time, but I do remember, as a very young child, the excitement of that new find, that wonderful fudge that would become a staple into the next generation and beyond.)

The fudge recipe is not Scottish, but my mother certainly was, and so creating a batch of that fudge, for me, constitutes Scottish cooking.

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

And I’m thinking about the magic and specificity of food because Mark got me copies of Vivian Howard’s two cookbooks, Deep Run Roots and This Will Make It Taste Good, for Christmas. Howard, who is talented, personable, and not afraid to be quirky, has two shows on PBS. Mark and I grew addicted to watching her; we cheered her successes and laughed at her foibles (she laughed at them, too) as if she were a beloved friend or a family member. We looked up her recipes online and tried things—tried combinations and ingredients—we’d never ever thought of using before.

When we exhausted every episode of the show, I felt unexpectedly bereft, as if Howard was one more person we couldn’t see in person because of this damned pandemic.

I was excited to get the books, and I stayed up late last night to finish my library book, which was really good, but which had a disappointing ending. Now, I thought, I can read me some Vivian, and after the morning’s Gifting, that’s exactly what I did.

Deep Run Roots has recipes for sure, but it’s also a story book. In it, Howard explains that she grew up in Deep Run, North Carolina, counting the years, then months, then days, until she could escape. She made good her plan; she went to boarding school as a teen; she took advantage of internships and courses that drew her away from her birthplace. She went away to college, and then she went to New York City to work.

She had no plan to become a chef, and she had no inclination to be a chef in the town where she grew up, but that’s what she did.

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

Howard tells us that her New York City odyssey started in advertising and ended in the restaurant business. After burning out in the advertising business, she took a job as a server in a restaurant devoted to authentic southern food; she rose to line cook.

She didn’t think, though, that “southern food” meant HER kind of southern food, which she took for granted and kind of shunned. And then life, as it does, drew her back to her family and to her region. She and her husband started two restaurants; she had the opportunity to do a PBS program; she grew as a cook, and she and the restaurants and her book won awards.

Along the way, she grew to appreciate the foods of her region and the cooks from whom she grew up learning. Now, she uses the ingredients that are available to her in her corner of North Carolina; she studies the methods of the best cooks she knows, including her mother; and she puts her own unique spin on those things in her restaurants.

She rebelled against her culinary roots and then she embraced them, and in doing that, she created her own individual cuisine. That’s something that, it occurs to me, we all do on one level or another.

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

It’s funny: I think the kind of cooking I grew up with is the default cuisine; I can, if I choose, explore to choose a fancier or a less elaborate ‘font.’ But I’ve seldom thought about the influences on the food I eat, and ate; I just accept it as the foundation and build on that.

So today I look up Scottish cooking; I find a post on matador.net that claims to showcase the best traditional dishes of Scotland. Mark reads over my shoulder as I scroll through.

We agree that we probably would NOT enjoy haggis, black pudding, or clootie dumplings. We agree that we would probably try kedgeree and porridge. And we both think we’d probably really like Cullen skink, fish supper, and cranachan.

I think I’d like bannocks and Scotch broth and Scotch pies, too.

I think about the foods my mother cooked when I was growing up, and I see the influence. We used a lot of oats; I have a recipe for oatmeal cookies tucked away that I think are probably very similar to oat cakes and that may have come from my grandmother, who died when my mom was only three.

My mother would often make things like boiled dinner, which was maybe Irish in origin, but followed Scottish cooking methods. We grew up loving Scottish shortbread. Our meals were often plain, always substantial, and seldom featured lots of spice or long-simmered sauces.

Of course, much of that came from my father’s preferences. Dad’s background was German and Irish; he did like cabbage and sauerkraut, which a quick look online associates with those two cuisines. But he grew up in an orphanage, and when he was finally allowed to return home—his father had remarried—his stepmother was a very good nurse, and a very bad cook.

“Her idea of fixing dinner,” my mother would tell us, appalled still after thirty and forty years, “was to send one of the kids to the corner store for white bread and cold cuts.”

My father liked things plain. He liked meat and potatoes. His preferences, of course, also shaped the family cuisine.

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

As did the times. Depression kids, my parent grew up in a time when the government, an article in The Atlantic tells me, got involved in what people were eating. In 1929, when the impact of the Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was president, and he invoked the famed resilience of the American people, declining to set up support programs.

U.S. citizens, he believed, would figure it out. Using Yankee ingenuity, they’d weather the economic storm.

But then Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and then drought and disaster hit the farmlands, drying up food sources. Roosevelt created FERA—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The USDA then had a branch—the Home Economics branch—that was an all-woman department; they were charged with figuring ways for US housewives to feed their families using what foods were available.

FERA had five million pounds of dried beans to distribute, for example. A USDA spokesperson called Aunt Sammy went on the radio to tell Americans just how to cook those beans.

The government began telling people what and how to eat. The thirties were when, for instance, the five food groups became a commonly held concept. The idea of ‘scientific eating’ arose. Eating for pleasure was dismissed; the much less appetizing prospect of eating for health was introduced.

Ethnic food and the spices that made it appealing were on the government’s bad list. (So, I read with horror, was caffeine.)

On the government’s good list, the Atlantic article tells me, were things like prune pudding, canned-meat stew, veggies casseroles with lots of butter and cheese, Jello salads, and dishes made with canned creamed soup and canned tuna.

I see the influence of that on the foods I grew up with.

I see the influence of food trends that countered those methods—Julia Child was a big instigator—beginning in the 1960’s.

I see the influence of convenience embraced by our parents. Howard writes that her mother, who grew up on a farm and had to participate in creating almost all of her childhood food by hand, loved the wonders of buying ready-made foods at the supermarket. And my mother, who remembered her grim aunt decapitating chickens in their city backyard, was a grand advocate of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken.

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

We are informed by the ethnicity of the places where we grew up—my hometown boasted many people of Italian descent and many people whose families had Polish roots. Wedding buffets, for instance, might feature both baked ziti and golumbki, and no one would think that odd at all. A little German snuck in with sliced beef sandwiches on kimmelweck rolls. It was a frugal Italian mama who came up with Buffalo-style chicken wings.

We are informed by the places we visit and the new places we live; even just fifty miles of separation can encourage whole new dishes and different styles of eating.

And there are, of course, the preferences we have, and the preferences of the people we eat with.

We, each of us, and each unit we eat with, develop our own cuisines.

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

My mother never once fixed a prime rib dinner. Even when she and my father retired and their finances settled down and they became ‘comfortable,’ prime rib was not a dish they’d think to fix at home. It was, by reputation and habit, a cut of meat that was just too expensive.

For a long time, I absorbed and accepted that point of view, and then opportunity and adventure nudged me out of it.

We eat a lot of things now we didn’t grow up eating. But we celebrate a lot of things that were part of our culinary upbringing, too.

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

Dinner is delicious. The potatoes roasted in the pan juices almost melt. Jim insists on demonstrating that the meat is fork tender. We eat crisp salads and we crack apart a loaf of cheesy garlic bread.

We have a cookie jar full of the kind of cookies Mark’s grandma always kept on hand for her grandchildren. We have a plastic tub full of Scottish shortbread. There’s a little bit of fudge left, and there are special cookies and savory mixes gifted to us by colleagues and neighbors.

It’s a heady, extravagant mix of new and old and beloved and experimental.

The food of Christmas is a little bit of the holiday magic.

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

“This,” says Jim as he wanders by, on his way to the family room, “has been a GREAT Christmas.”

He is right: we are healthy; we are together; we have been blessed with all kinds of plenty even in the midst of a year ravaged by a pandemic. The early dark settles on the fresh snow, and I hope that the part of the magic that remains is a sense of how lucky—how blessed—we are, and the awareness that there are ways to share our blessings.

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

https://matadornetwork.com/read/best-traditional-dishes-scotland/

https://www.executivethrillseeker.com/executiveblog/traditional-german-food-to-try-in-germany

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/

Pinpricks and Seedlings

It is dark when Mark heads out to work in the morning; when he comes stomping in at the end of the day, it is, again, dark. And yesterday the snow fell, focused and steady, all day long.

I miss our walks. (It will not be long now; very soon I can lace up my regular old shoes and retire the surgical boot, and then, if the day is nice and the sidewalks aren’t icy, I can head out. I miss moving and stretching; I miss seeing neighbors and friends who are also walkers; and I miss the fresh air and the pale winter sunshine.)

It’s easy to understand why people fall prey to seasonal affective disorder when their only glimpse of the daylight is out the window of their workplace.

If their workplace has a window.

It is winter. It is dark. And that seems like a metaphor in so many ways.

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

I am reading a lovely book called Wintering : the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. May turns forty, and her husband is stricken with a sudden, very serious, illness. Their young son decides he doesn’t want to go to school; it is an unexpected but violent preference. And, as her husband slowly heals, May herself grows sick—so ill she walks doubled-over, and she spends much of her time in bed, sleeping.

It’s a winter time in her life, May writes, and she divides the book into winter sections: October, when the darkness comes creeping closer; November, when the cold settles in. The deep of December. The magic of the lights of the aurora borealis that flit through January’s darkness. February and the snow.  March, and she balances industry and rest.

And then the blooming begins, and the dark season wanes, as she knew it would.

But some seasons are longer than others (think Game of Thrones) and some darkness is hard to penetrate with battery-powered flashlights, lights carried with the cringing hope that the batteries are fresh enough not to flicker and fail.

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

I know what May means about winter seasons in life; sometimes, loss and grief, illness and disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of mis-belonging settle in deep. Sometimes, we just have to hunker down and see it through, drowse by the fire, escape into a book with no literary value—candy for the mind. Start no new projects. Place a moratorium on making energetic plans. In the winter times (the dark times) it is, often, enough to endure.

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

The pandemic, of course, is part of the darkness. We’re thankful, now, that my brother Sean, sister-in-law Nora, and two of their children are on the mend.

Four or five months ago, we sat in the middle of a series of concentric circles. Way out there, far off on the outer ring fringes, were some people who were sick. We didn’t know them personally, so much, but we knew someone who knew someone.

Then there was a slow creep. The virus jumped to the next circle, still comfortably far away, but now we KNEW that person.

And then we had to quarantine because the virus was staining our safe little no-man’s land, creeping, seeping closer.

Now the disease bubbles madly in the circle right next to ours. We pull our masks up tight, wield hand sanitizer like a weapon, like a torch. We stand back-to-back in our tight little space, hoping to ward off the enemy with our tiny stash of lights.

We worry about the people we know who are affected. A friend’s elderly mother can’t have visitors in her nursing home isolation, and struggles with the illness and the loneliness. A niece mourns her husband’s mother and brother, both gone so quickly.

Schools close. People argue about masks and gatherings and curfews and lockdowns—bitter and angry arguments. There’s a brooding, simmering discontent.

It is a dark time, a dark, dark time.

And then the vaccination arrives, a tiny pinprick of light, a wee small sigh of hope whispered on a horizon.

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

And dark politics roil up, too,–vicious, contentious simmering…dangerous and threatening. Helpless, we watch from the sidelines. Voting done, there is no action to take but to pray that law prevails.

It is a wintertime, as May writes so eloquently. It would be a wintertime even if the sun shone close to the earth and the temperature soared to a hundred and four. These are days when sometimes the best I can do is light a fire in the fireplace and reread a book that’s like an old friend…words so well-worn they require no mental effort, no new thoughts.

We plod along, getting ready for the holiday. We mail off cards and packages to people we would rather see in person, to people we haven’t seen (or hugged) in far too long.

This winter has been a really long one.

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

One morning, de-cluttering for Christmas, I reach into a drawer and pull out a baggie. Seeds! Terry’s family’s heirloom tomato seeds! I had rejoiced to get them, and then I had put them aside, and, in the hustle and bustle of life, I never planted the precious things.

Instead Mark went out in the late spring and bought five little tomato plants; he put them in our kitchen sink garden on the patio, and he nurtured them.

They flourished and bloomed, and then heavy little tomatoes appeared, green and hard.

Mark watched them eagerly.

“Tomorrow,” he’d say, “that one should be ready.”

And tomorrow would dawn, and that one would be gone: a raccoon’s snack, a deer’s hors d’oeuvre. Not a single tomato made it to our plates last summer. We had to buy our ripened fruits at the farmer’s market.

Now I wonder if we could grow some tomatoes inside. I wonder if I have left these seeds too long, and if they’ve lost the will to sprout.

But we have a paper egg carton with 18 egg-crannies, and we have a bagful of seed starter, and here are the seeds. I am afraid I’ve wasted this potential, but I think, “Why not? What will it hurt to try?”

We fill the egg-crannies with the good rich dirt, and we sprinkle the seeds. I put the carton on a tray and nestle it on the old treadle sewing machine, next to the front window.

Every morning I water the dirt gently.

In a week there are two sprouts.

I am excited out of all proportion. I wait for more to emerge. The two tender seedlings soldier along, but nothing else seems to happen.

Maybe, I think, the light is wrong. I move the tray next to the Advent wreath, onto the cabinet in the bay window, where the pale winter sun sighs through the sheers from 8 until five. I water them in the morning.

When I come home, there are seven brave green shoots, bowing toward the light.

We light the Advent candles at night, and the seedlings seem to stand up straighter, reaching toward the flames.

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

Jim suggests that, as a nod to Christmases past, we re-watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies in the evenings. For three years, we made seeing the films a part of our Christmas day. Mark and I had both discovered the books in high school, and we both re-read them at least once a decade. And Jim fell wholeheartedly into the films, immersed and fascinated.

So for three Christmases we eagerly awaited the latest film. When the series was complete, we bought the boxed sets and re-watched them at home, and we waited for Jackson to film The Hobbit trilogy so we could start another Christmas movie habit.

Now, at first, Mark and I go along with the suggestion to humor Jim. We watch half a film a night; we’re energized by Jim’s delight.

And quickly, of course, the well-wrought stories draw us in.

I am getting ready for bed one night when the word valor falls firmly onto the bony floor of my mind. We had just watched a scene where Legolas, fearing there was no way to win the battle, told Aragorn he would follow him anyway.

What is valor but the decision to hope when hope seems like the least possible path?

Last night we watched the final film in the series, The Return of the King. The landscape, in many scenes, was beyond desolate. The enemy’s army was a horde. And yet, in that bleakness, there was honor, there was courage, and there were deep, abiding friendships. There was hope simmering beneath dread.

I think of this quote, from the movie and the book:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

We live in a time of pandemic, of violence, of climate catastrophe.

And yet.

These are the times that are given us. What can we do with this time?

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

After the seeds started sprouting, I started looking around. When Jim was four, Mark had a kidney surgery, and his officemates sent him a plant. We have repotted and separated it time and again, and here, in this house, we have two of its descendants. They were growing long and tangled.

I cut the longest tendrils and stuck them in glasses of water on the kitchen windowsill. And: magic. Roots sprouted.

This week, I filled pots with dirt and started three new plants. Three plants from a 26-year-old, well-traveled, mama! The rooted shoots took a day or two to think about the dirt they were stuck in, and then they decided to thrive. Their leaves are glossy; they are turning toward the light. They drink up all the water I can offer.

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

Our sweet neighbor Deirdre left a tiny plant on my front steps last spring; its pot was maybe an inch in diameter, and the little plant was loaded with tiny flowers. It put it, too, on the windowsill by the sink, and I pretty much forgot about it.

The flowers faded; when I thought to water the tiny thing, they came back. And then their season must have passed, but the sturdy little plant hung in there, green and paused, and grateful for what little attention I offered.

And now, I had the potting soil out; I had an extra pot. So I repotted the tiny plant, and it caromed swiftly into a growth spurt. It’s sitting on top of the bread box in the big kitchen window, its healthy leaves reaching four and five inches into the air.

It may be dark winter, but things are growing, and not stealthily, either. This is raucous, joyful clamor.

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

Deirdre, in fact, texted me this morning. She attached a cell phone photo of our house; it looked like a holiday postcard in the untrammeled snow that flatters everything. The Christmas tree lights shone from the front window onto the lawn.

“I love your tree!” she wrote. “I love looking outside and seeing your lights.”

I think that it is possible, in simple cheerful ways, to share light with others during dark days.

And tonight, Theresa, a former student, called to touch base. As she was signing off, she said, “Have you read about the Christmas star? Be sure to look up on the 21st!”

I looked the star phenomenon up online to find that Jupiter and Saturn will align, and a star will shine as it hasn’t shone for 2o years—a great and unusual conjunction. And maybe, a symbol we need right at the time when we need it.

(https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2020/12/16/what-this-weeks-impossibly-rare-christmas-star-on-the-solstice-tells-us-about-the-origin-of-the-star-of-bethlehem/?sh=517ee7f32f93)

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

Last night I woke at 3 a.m., and the room was brightened. I pushed the curtain aside; moonlight reflected off the pristine snow. The glow enticed and allured; I could not close my eyes. I sat up and turned on the lamp, and I read into the even wee-er hours, buoyed by the light.

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

In the week to come, we’ll celebrate a feast of light during the darkest days of the year.

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

Winter comes, bringing darkness and cold and sometimes, a thick layer of snow. Sometimes there is nothing for it but to hunker down, to stay close, to brew the coffee, to pull the blanket up, and to drowse by a flickering fire.

Sometimes the darkness and the cold seem pervasive, and it’s hard to imagine any kind of miracle.

But seeds sprouts, and lights flicker, then grow strong. In the clear dark night, a baby cries, and his parents comfort him with work-hardened, loving hands.

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

I may not have chosen this time, but I can choose how to live within it.

I may need to winter a while, but I know there is growth, and warmth, and light.

Hope abides in this dark if I just have the valor to believe.