Notes from the Hinterlands: Random Thoughts in a Random Week

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

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

And then I realized the sun was shining.

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I thinking this week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ate half the pie, and that was piggish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my seventies.

I mean, sorry, but holy shit.

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

Those, I thought would be nice for writing letters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Now, Black Cow

This was a new house, I realized, and it was nestled inside a fence. Inside the fence, outside the house, there were five animals—sheep, maybe? Goats? Whatever those hazy creatures were, the grass was just fine for food, thank you.

When I came out of the house, they surrounded me, jostling, gentle and happy to be there.

And then the cow came, jumping in, I think, where the wooden fence, in front of the house, was lower. What a beautiful animal it was; sleek and black and healthy and HUGE. I was nervous, at first, but it didn’t seem hostile or dangerous.

It didn’t want to be petted or fussed over, either.

But, unlike the other animals in that paddock-y yard, the cow needed more than grass. It would jump outside the fence and snort, and it would not come back in until I brought it food from inside the house. It liked, I think, homemade bread and jam.

And then another person arrived, a nice, opaque woman whom I didn’t trust. She had a basket; she may have been selling eggs. She was long-haired and lean-faced, a weathered kind of person, and she had that kind of frozen serene aura that makes me want to shatter it, to shout and scratch and dance around. A woman of the earth, she was, and she offered to take that black cow back to her farm, where it would be fed and brushed and treated very, very well.

I looked at that sleek and hungry, gleaming black creature and something shifted inside me.

“No,” I said to the opaque woman. “I’m going to keep this cow. I need this cow at home.”

“Well,” she said, and her face scrunched disapprovingly. “Well. Then you’d better learn how to feed it.”

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

Often I wake up and my dreams will linger in shreds and snippets, but that black cow was very, very vivid. What does it mean, I wondered, to dream about a cow?

I remembered the story of Joseph the dreamer in the Old Testament…Joseph, who’d been thrown into jail, and there, had a dream of seven sleek and beautiful cows. Then seven lean and mangy cows appeared, and those ugly creatures devoured the healthy ones.

Joseph knew what his dream meant—seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine…those seven lean years would eat up all that had been gained.

He shared his dream with the overseer, and his dreams bought his freedom and granted him prestige.

So, hmmm. Could my one black cow signify a year of plenty?

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

Ages ago, someone gave me a dreamer’s dictionary, which was, I thought, a very cool thing. But it sat on my shelf for years, truly; once in a while, I’d pick it up and look up some dream image, and I’d share what it said with someone—Mark, or a friend,–and we’d laugh at the crazy randomness of all that.

And then for some reason, at some point, I decided to start a dream journal; I must have thought there were hidden nudgings I needed to address. I kept a notebook by my bed and scrawled down the dreams first thing on waking, and later in the day, I’d pick out images and look them up.

At first it was just fun: oh, I’m dreaming of dogs, and dogs symbolize friendship and protection. That’s nice, I’d think. But a day later, I’d have a vivid dream about something completely unrelated, and I’d look that up, and the book would relate that image, too, to friendship.

Patterns emerged; it was fascinating. What do you know about THAT? I would think. Friendship is clearly on my mind. Or, my dreams are telling me I’m feeling anxious. And I would think about the why behind those patterns.

And then, for some reason—marriage? Motherhood? The need for that deep-sucking kind of sleep that precludes dream remembrance?—I stopped writing down my dreams.

In some move or other, the dreamer’s dictionary got left behind.

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

So I look up ‘dreaming about black cows’ on line, and behold, there are millions of hits. Cows are, as Joseph could have told us, ancient dream symbols. Auntyflo.com says that “…the cow itself is a powerful animal and symbolic of nurturing and of a new life.”

Dreaming of a cow, she tells me, entwines with abundance, and grace, and protection of the soul. Dreaming of a cow talks of caring and of nurture.

I like that, so I dig further, and Aunty Flo tells me that a black cow in a dream tells us of hidden thoughts and talks to the dreamer of connectedness with others. A black cow, she says, hints at possible transformation. “There is also,” says Aunty Flo, “a focus on being mature when you don’t have to be.”

Hmmm, I think. Permission to be indulgent? That doesn’t sound so bad.

I rove over to dreamlandia.com to see if there’s more on the black cow of my dreams, and I learn this:

The black cow represents “…a deep unconscious desire to progress in life.” Often, Dreamlandia says, the cow appears in our dreams to deliver an important message.

I don’t like what it tells me about feeding the cow, though: this, says the source, suggests the dreamer will have to face people who envy her—that there will be damaging gossip that could cause conflict.

I can’t think of reasons for envy or fodder that might fuel gossip. But still. That’s a little chilly.

Dreamlandia also tells me that a dreaming of a healthy, well-fed cow is a harbinger of ‘functional changes,’ of an opportunity to alter the way things are. Be careful, warns the site, not to miss your chance…

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

Huh, I think, and I am darned glad I didn’t let the opaque lady take my cow from me.

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

That night, I head to bed early and slip soundly into deep sleep, but the morning leaves me with no memory of dreams. But I take the notebook out of my nightstand anyway, and make sure there’s a working pen.

What the heck, I think. I might as well start writing down my dreams again. Because, while of course, I don’t believe in all that hocus-pocus stuff—of course I don’t—if that black cow’s got a message for me—if there’s a transformational moment tipping toward me,—well then. I sure don’t want to miss it.

And maybe, in my dreams, I’ll learn how to feed the cow.

Rainy Days and Doughnuts Never Bring me Down

Rain was beating down when I woke up on Thursday morning.

We had been so lucky. Our days had been mostly sunny or gently overcast, while all around us, people weathered bruising storms. A little town less than ten miles away endured a tornado. No one, thank heavens, lost their life, but many people were displaced by crashing trees and destructive winds.

And there I was, leisurely mowing the lawn, planting flowers, meandering along on my morning walks…sitting at the patio table to do my morning pages, enjoying gentle skies and refreshing breezes.

And then, on Thursday, nature sent a little, “We didn’t forget YOU,” message. Rains battered; winds whipped.

Mark was already at the gym when I got up at 6:00, dressed, and stood gazing out the window. Water was sluicing down it, and the downpour beat a crazy cacophony.

‘Maybe,’ I thought, as I moved away to pour water into the coffee maker and grind some beans, “maybe, I’ll take the morning off. Maybe I’ll skip my morning walk and relax with my coffee and my newspaper, do the morning word puzzles, then finish my frothy summer book.”

That sounded like such a wonderful plan. But when Mark dashed into the house, soaked through running the few feet from carport to door, I was lacing up my sneakers.

Sometimes, a conscience is a darned inconvenience.

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

I walked on the indoor track at the rec center, where 12 circuits make a mile, and where there’s a nice selection of weights to take on a walk. I grabbed the pretty blue ones and set off, swinging my arms.

All around, people were doing crazy contortion-y workouts, lunging and lifting, tossing and stretching. Some would jump on the track and run hard for a time or two and then rush back to their machine of choice.

It looked hard. It looked painful.

I wished I’d brought my iPod to lose myself in music.

I walked on, as rain lashed the floor-to-ceiling windows and then died away for a breath, as people puffed and grunted, sweating and red faced. I walked the same circuit a couple dozen times or so, and I thought about the changing vista of my outdoor walks—squirrels with their balletic road crossings, the sight of a crimson cardinal on a faded green fence, the brazen robin that stood its ground, head cocked, as I walked toward it. The mama deer with the wobbly-legged baby; the tumbling, pugnacious raccoon triplets. The fresh breeze, the smell of cut grass.

I like walking outside better than anything, but there is a soothing sameness rhythm, I realized, to walking the indoor track once in a while.

And I walked for 45 minutes, took a short ride on a stationary bike, and then went home, where Mark was dressed and ready for work. Just after I walked in, the skies opened again, and the boyo gripped his umbrella, took it out onto the back step, opened it wide.

“Yikes,” he said, and headed off to work.

I dished myself up a bowl of dry granola, poured some coffee and juice, and sat reading as rain battered the house.

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

Mine was the only car in the parking lot at the haircutter’s, and Don waved me into the shampoo room even though I was ten minutes early.

The rain picked up again by the time he was drying my hair and brushing the little pricklies off my neck.

“Look at it out there!” I said. “Don’t worry about the drying.” As I ran out to my car, the rain drenched Don’s careful work.

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

At home, James was eating his cereal, deep in a book, and I ran up to don dry clothes. Then I settled at the computer to work on a grant. And the tattoo of beating rain ebbed and swelled, inspiring deep concentration and an appreciation of indoor working time. By noon, the grant was drafted.

Mark, home for lunch, opted to heat up some pulled pork, a hot meal for a rainy day, before he headed back out into the wet and the fray.

And the sky lightened a little, and James was pacing, so we drove off to the mall for another walk indoors.

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

By the time we got back home, the sky was glowering again, pushing down, closing in. James grabbed his laptop and set up shop in the family room, feet up in the lounge chair. I took my book to the reading chair, and finished it as the winds swept up again, and then I closed my eyes and slept, which is, I think, a rule on rainy days.

And then it was time to put the roast in a pan and peel potatoes to nest around it, and to put all that in a hot oven, and to mix up a pan of chocolate chip bars to slide onto the rack below. Rainy days call for naps, but they also call for hot cookies. I started, as they cooked, the next in the series of my new favorite murder mysteries,–perfect reading for a day that glowered and threatened.

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

The weather pushed, and I bowed to its demands and stayed inside for the rest of the afternoon, chopping and cooking, reading, writing in my journal.  An interior kind of a day:  we ate the roast and its long-cooked, caramelized potatoes, enjoyed a salad, and then gathered in the family room, each of us pulling knit throws down from the back of chair or love seat, snuggling in to watch some Netflix.

Riding out the storm.

I called it an early night, took that mystery novel up to bed, and fell asleep to the sound of wind and rain.

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

Friday morning dawned storm-washed and clear, and I looked forward to my walk, anxious for the outdoor time after the day inside. I laced up and set off. The world was cool, the sun gentle, the birds calling a crazy chorus after weathering the wild wet.

Anything, I thought, could happen on a day as promising as this one; only the darkness of yesterday made that apparent.

And I rounded the corner from Yale to Dresden, and I saw, to my surprise, Mark’s car heading slowly toward me.

That isn’t, I thought, the way he usually comes home from the gym, and then I figured he must have short-cutted over Adams Lane.

But he slowed as he drew near, the street empty at 6:30 a.m., and his window slid down. Carefully, slowly, he showed me just the edge of a large white box.

I stopped and stared for just a moment. And realization came.

“YOU,” I said, “stopped at Donald’s Doughnuts!”

He smiled slyly and gave me a thumbs up, slid the window shut, and drove quickly away.

I walked off quickly, too, knowing that, at the end of my walk, there was a cake doughnut—a very special cake doughnut—waiting for me.

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

Anything is possible, I thought, when the storm is past, and I headed off, up the hill, wondering what else this new-washed day might bring.

Oublie, Doublie, Good

James has committed, for the summer, to planning and fixing family dinner every Wednesday.

This week, he made pork sausage patties and Belgian waffles. That dinner, I have to tell you, tasted pretty darned good.

The pork sausage started as a package of ground pork in the ‘freezer pack’ we now get every six weeks or so from a local supermarket with a wonderful butcher shop. I call up and order freezer pack #9; I ask for the fresh meat, not the frozen; and the next day I pick up a boxful of meat, enough to last us a month and half.

It’s a good deal, pound by pound, and the meat is neatly wrapped in paper.

And the freezer pack offers a couple of things I’d seldom buy, like the ground pork. We can get a little creative, be a little different, in our cooking plans. This month, Mark suggested mixing the ground pork up into sausage; we found some recipes and techniques online. The sausage patties Jim served up with Wednesday’s dinner were sizzling, seared on the edges, and perfectly seasoned.

But the waffles, puffy and hot, with butter and syrup or jam melting into the indents of their grids, were the real stars of the show.

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

We bought Jim a Belgian waffle maker for Christmas, with a couple of fancy packs of waffle mix. We ate up the red velvet waffles that last week in December, served them with a white cream cheese glaze, and they were good, but to our surprise, they didn’t delight us as we’d expected them to.

It was the ‘regular’ waffles, the rich, light, flavorful Belgian ones, the traditional breakfast kind of waffles, that really made us smile.

Jim has been fascinated by Belgian waffle makers since he was seven or so and we stayed at a hotel that offered a free continental breakfast. One of the options was to make your own waffles. Jim poured pre-measured batter into the hot and ready waffle iron; he closed the top, locked the mechanism and flipped it. Within seconds, really, the light would pop on, he’d flip it back to open it, and there would be a lovely, light, perfect waffle.

Jim liked eating the waffles, but even more, he loved using that machine. He made a waffle for himself. He made waffles for Mark and me. He made seconds and thirds for himself…which he then offered to Mark and me to eat.

He offered to make waffles for any random stranger heading in to get their breakfast. (Not all those strangers thought he was adorable.) Mark finally had to carry Jim out of there, and one of Jim’s hands was reaching, reaching: Don’t separate me from my new favorite machine!

It’s a surprise, I guess, that it took us over twenty years to gift him with his own waffle maker.

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

I grew up in the era of heavy, silver waffle makers. They looked kind of like metal alligator jaws. My mother had one; she sometimes (but not very often) got it out and flipped the plates so the smooth sides were up; she’d use it to cook up pancakes.

Ebay shares this image of a vintage GE waffle-maker…

Fascinated by the backsides of those inserts, by the unlikely ability to create something exotic, I’d beg Mom to flip the plates, to turn those pancakes into rectangular, grid-marked, syrup-sucking waffles.

This is what she said:

No.

I understood that a little better after Mark and I got married, and I found, deep in his cupboard, a very similar, very heavy, old waffle maker. Newly married, rosy with culinary bliss, I thought, “I’ll make pancakes for Mark and Matt!”

There was a box of mix in the cupboard. I followed the waffle instructions carefully. I greased the waffles plates just as directed. I heated them as per the dictates on the box.

I poured the batter onto the sizzling grids; I closed the lid and waited the requisite time, tamping down the temptation to peek.

And when I finally opened that lid, there was a kind of sucking, ripping sound. There were no waffles; instead, the top lid and bottom lid were coated with ragged, cooked waffle batter, stuck in all those little indentations. Strands of hard, cooked, waffle mix hung or stood, stalagmites and stalactites. They made the gaping maw of the waffle iron look like the unclean inside-mouth of some disgusting beast.

The waffles could not be pried off.

We had scrambled eggs that morning. My culinary blissiness settled down to a low flicker.

When the waffle iron cooled down, I scraped the grids clean, inserted them back into place, and stuck the whole contraption back into the depths of the cupboard. I never tried to use it again; I thought of my mother’s simple, blunt, “No,” and I got it.

I bought frozen waffles, which the boyos liked, and I didn’t. I donated the waffle-maker, finally, to a church yard sale.

I dabbled in pancakes, making my own batters, and I thought I was happy.

But the ability to make waffles at home opens all kinds of new doors.

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

We are, all three of us, fascinated by Guy Fieri’s show, Dinners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and there is one episode that features a waffle restaurant called, I think, Funk and Waffles, in, I think, Syracuse, New York.  The boyish owners mix up some innovation and some tradition. Jim liked the looked of the fried chicken and waffles. Mark’s eyes grew large when he saw that young chef pile moist turkey stuffing mix into his big waffle maker, close the lid, wait a few moments, and then pull off a savory stuffing waffle.

The chef piled the stuffing waffle high with mashed potatoes and tender sliced turkey, poured his homemade gravy over the top, added a big dollop of whole-bean cranberry sauce and offered it to Guy.

“Oh,” Mark breathed. “Oh. THAT looks good.”

Well, one really can find almost anything on the Internet. Here’s a photo of the stuffing waffles from Funkandwaffles.com

I have stuffing mix in the cupboard. As soon as I can figure out how to buy a turkey without plastic packaging, I think we WILL try that, kids, at home.

Now we have a waffle iron I can work with.

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

All of this got me wondering about waffles. Where did they come from—Belgium, maybe? How did they start?

I found answers in an article called “A Brief History of Waffles” on mentalfloss.com; everything I share here originates there.

In ancient Greece, no less, cooks made obelios from a kind of wafer-y type batter poured onto two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle. The cook, I surmise, would smack the plates together and use the long handle to insert the batter over or into the fire. The results, says my source, were not particularly sweet.

But.

They evolved.

By medieval times, in Europe, the Church had grasped control of this technique. They took flour and water and made a batter; they had plates that had holy scenes raised onto them; church cooks would cook up wafers that people would eat, as a blessing, at the end of a meal.

For a time, only Church-approved cooks could create these wafers, which the venerable organization called “oublies.” Then Church leaders decided, for whatever reasons, to go ahead and allow any old cook to make the oublies.

An oublie-image from Wikipedia. This doesn’t look like a Church-y one to me.

Creativity abounded! Cooks started impressing family crests into oublies; they made oublies with scenic impressions of special landscapes. And, as the aesthetics advanced, cooks took liberties with the very basic recipes.

Those were the days when Crusaders were bringing wonders back from their eastern expedition…wonders like cinnamon and ginger. Why not, cooks must have thought, add a little pinch of this and a little pinch of THAT to the batter? What if I put in some CREAM? Some BUTTER? How about we sweeten things up with a little bit of honey????

The new dough was thicker and sweeter, and some ingenious cooks experimented with leavening. Someone dubbed the delicious, cake-y results, ‘wafels,’  which probably had its wordy roots in the term wafer. But luscious wafels were far from wafery.

And, as the batter grew thicker and puffier, the plates used to cook it had to change. Rectangular waffle-plates, with the grid pattern we know and love, emerged from 1400’s Holland; the author of the article I read posits that the grid design may have been a clever way to stretch a small amount of batter over a larger amount of space.

Early in the 1700’s, someone in England added that second -f to the word, and the current use of ‘waffles’ was born. And across Europe, countries and their cooks put their own spins on waffle production. The German made coffee waffles. The French, says MentalFloss, added cloves, wine, and lemon zest. And the Prince of Liege, in Belgium, had his chef craft a waffle encased in a caramel sauce glaze. That delicious innovation may have won Belgium the bragging rights to ‘Belgian waffles.’

Waffles were still not particularly a breakfast food, though; people enjoyed them as snacks or as desserts.

And then they came to the United States and met a new soul mate: maple syrup. (And if you don’t have a source for wonderful maple syrup, you have to check out our friends’, Dan and Kathie’s, amazing offerings at Bonhomie acres: https://www.bonhomieacresmaplesyrup.com/). Early in the life of the States, people would have parties they called ‘wafel frolics.’ Thomas Jefferson, who embraced such modern cuisine delights as macaroni and cheese and ice cream, served up waffles to treat his Monticello guests.

This antique, stove top waffle maker must be very similar to the one Cornelius Swartout designed. (Image from Everythingbutthehouse.com)

People loved waffles, but they didn’t become really mainstream until Cornelius Swartout of Troy, New York, created a cast-iron, stove-top, waffle iron in 1869. And in 1889, the Pearl Milling Company marketed a pancake and waffle mix. In 1918, GE offered an electric waffle maker—probably much like the alligator I wrestled. Waffles were a part of everyday cuisine,… in some homes, anyway.

In 1932, the Dorsa brothers—Frank, Anthony, and Samuel,—formed the Eggo company in California, and their wares evolved to the creation of a machine that could mass-produce waffles to be frozen and sold by the millions. (These, originally, were called ‘Froffles.’)

But the European ideal remained a fond dream—light, fluffy, topped, if one liked, with whipped cream and strawberries. And the recent proliferation of Belgian waffle making machines on the market has certainly helped everyday Americans bring that kind of waffles to their dining tables. (If you search ‘waffle makers popularity,’ Google will offer you 1,740,000 opportunities to read about waffles and waffle makers in today’s society.)

Here’s a dream waffle from Pinterest…

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

James and I went shopping yesterday, and he carefully perused all the different waffle mix boxes and selected one that hit the sweet spot between sensibly priced and delicious sounding. He is hinting about making air-fried chicken (the air fryer was his culinary gift LAST year) and waffles.

I could live with that. And I have plans to experiment with whole grains, and with gluten-free batters, too. Waffles, I think, are still evolving, and what fun: we can all be part of the next phase.

And I’m thinking chocolate. And maybe some ice cream. Or caramel sauce and toasted pecans.

Imagine your dream waffle. What would YOU pick????

Hair Nets, Hugs, and Nurture: Heroes in Everyday Places

Today, I am making Lunch Lady Brownies. They’re from a recipe on a blog called “Life in the Lofthouse” ( https://life-in-the-lofthouse/lunch-lady-brownies ); the brownies are in the oven right now, and the house smells richly, tantalizingly, chocolatey.

The recipe surprised me just a little. It is full of ooshy-goooshy, yummy things—a cup of melted butter (REAL butter, mind you: none of that wimpy margarine stuff); four eggs; and two cups of granulated sugar, for instance; but there is no leavening—no baking soda or baking powder—involved.

This is not, you might note, a health food recipe; it’s more of a comfort food recipe.

The boyos decided the brownies would reach full potential with a scoop or two of fudge ripple nestled on the plate…

And when I saw it, I thought, my gawd, another school lunch ladies reference. Just the other day, my nephew Brian wrote a post about a special lunch lady on his Facebook page. And he used a piece of art that I THINK is from the presenter of one of my favorite TED talks, a talk I used this spring with my face-to-face comp class. I mentioned this theme to friends and they shared lunch lady memories. And all of this weaves together just after my recent high school excursion…

So I decided I was meant to try those brownies out.

And I have been thinking about lunch ladies and other unsung heroes.

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

Not so very long ago, I went with an amazing colleague, Misty, to do a presentation at the high school here in town during lunch period. We were scheduled to talk about Mental Health First Aid; we were going to focus on anxiety, which is by far the most prevalent mental health diagnosis in the US of A.

And I have to tell you, I felt a little anxious myself: I remember high school lunch period, which was a mayhem capsule in an otherwise time-challenged, uber-structured day. I have worked with high school students in other settings and enjoy their passion and enthusiasm and knowledge-quest attitudes. But I wasn’t sure they would let those attitudes shine en masse or at lunch.

I needn’t have worried. Those kids were GREAT. We worked with about ten students who brought their lunches in, just wanting to talk about anxiety and mental health, and their experiences, and how people really should act and react when dealing with mental illness. It was a rich, rich session.

And we got to see their lunches (which, back in my day, would never have been allowed to leave the cafeteria).

“Is that hamburger gravy?” I asked, and the students, tucking in with forks and spoons, allowed that it was.

After they’d gone, I said to Misty, “That was my FAVORITE school lunch.”

She looked at me in pleased surprise.

“It was mine, too!” she said.

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

So that got me remembering. I went to what were probably the last of the neighborhood schools as a child; first, a parochial school, and later, two public schools, School Number Five and School Number Four. None of them had cafeterias, although the kids who lived too far away were allowed to bring their lunches and eat them in, I think, the gym. The rest of us walked home. We must have had at least an hour for lunch.

So I didn’t really have a lunch lady in grade school—unless of course, I count my mother, who made us a pretty standard rate of fare: Campbell’s soups (vegetable beef or chicken noodle; tomato on meatless Fridays) and bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Some Fridays she mixed up egg nog, telling us all the nutrition we needed was in that tall glass. Egg nog was something I really wanted to like but never could. (Years later, I would realize that egg nog was a desperation, didn’t-have-time-to-shop-for-groceries, kind of meatless lunch.)

Mom always had a jarful of cookies, plump and fluffy: molasses or oatmeal or peanut butter, and, very rarely, chocolate chip. My mother raised an eyebrow at cooks who followed cookie recipes to the letter. She believed that all cookie recipes needed extra flour, so her cookies were softer and rounder than others; she also believed that you could double the recipe and halve the chips. It was a banner day when I found THREE chocolate chips in a cookie. I would nibble all the doughy parts away and save the chocolatey bits for last.

Back at school, my lunch-toting friends would tell me what they had eaten. They had amazing things in their lunches, like tiny, house-shaped cartons of chocolate milk, hard-boiled eggs with little waxed paper twists of salt and pepper, and cold pizza. Sometimes, their moms would put store-bought cookies like Oreos, or even chocolate bars, in for dessert.

Oh, that sounded exotic and romantic; I was always pre-disposed to like school lunches.

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

Funny. I went to a big centralized junior high school. It was too far from home to walk, so I must have eaten there, but I cannot remember one detail about the junior high school cafeteria. That is, maybe, a comment on the jarring jumble that the junior high years can be, or maybe, there was just nothing memorable about those lunch times.

I remember high school lunches, though. I remember the cheering that rose up spontaneously whenever a poor soul dropped their tray; that student would rush to get cleaning supplies, red-faced and shamed. I remember the gentle younger boy who sat with us often; he had a photographic memory and knew the entire phone book inside and out. If we wanted to know a cute boy’s phone number, he would obligingly tell it to us and we would write it down, but only the most daring among us ever actually made a call.

I remember another outcast guy who was allowed to sit with some of the jocks. When they had finished with their lunches, they would pass this boy their leftovers. He would stir them into one big mixed up mess, and then, for his table’s amusement, he would wolf down that mashed up food. His tablemates would pound the table and chant his name. Unthinking heathen that I was then, it never crossed my mind that maybe that obliging boy was HUNGRY and that he paid for his food by being table entertainment.

The lunchroom culture was barely-controlled chaos, but the lunches—well, they were wonderful. I remember the lunch ladies as being tired and patient. By the time my lunch period met, they had served two raucous flights already. But they were pleasant, and they appreciated courtesy.

And they cooked up wonderful things. I loved institutional mashed potatoes (no lumps!!!), and they made the thickest, richest hamburger gravy. They made something called pork gravy, too, which probably started out in a can, but I didn’t care. I loved it, loved the veggies they scooped out and put on the side, loved the ice cream sandwiches we could buy for an extra dime. Those sandwiches never had a chance to mellow; they were so fresh, the wafer still crackled.

Food never tasted so good as in that high school cafeteria. It was a dangerous place to eat wonderful food, and the lunch ladies, stolid, long-suffering, anonymous in their white suits and hair nets, made it all happen, day after day.

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

This semester, searching for a shortish TED Talk I could play for my Comp students, something relatable they could use as a practice text for quoting and paraphrasing, I found this: Jarrett Krosoczka’s “Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes.” (https://tedsummaries.com/2014/10/08/jarrett-j-krosoczka-why-lunch-ladies-are-heroes/Bottom of Form)

Krosoczka writes children’s books, and when he went back to his old grade school to talk about that, he discovered his own former lunch lady was still there. And she even, kind of, recognized him. She talked to him about her kids and grandkids, and it made the author realize that those essential people—bus drivers, teachers, aides, lunch ladies—that we take for granted as kids are regular people with whole, full lives.

“I thought,” he says in his talk, “that she lived in the cafeteria with the serving spoons,” and the whole encounter made him think about unsung heroes—especially the ones who are feeding our kids. Lunch ladies (and lunch gentlemen), he reminds us, feed 30 million kids every day in the USA alone.

So Krosoczka started writing a new series—a graphic novel series, in which the heroes are all hair-netted lunch ladies, who, after they have puzzled out the mysteries and bagged the bad guys, always say, “Justice has been served.”

After the series took off, he went back to his old grade school, and he declared there should be a day to honor the lunchroom staff. When the day happened, he took his old lunch lady some gifts, including an original drawing from his Lunch Lady books.

The custom of having a Lunch Staff Day spread throughout the country, with kids making…well, you can see what they made if you watch the TED talk, which I warn you, always makes me tear up, just a little. Especially when Krosoczka talks about going to the lunch lady’s funeral two years later and discovering, prominently displayed next to her coffin, the picture he’d given her.

The recognition, the thank you, was essential to her.

And that was what my nephew Brian, a gifted dramatist and writer, was thinking this Mother’s Day week when he wrote about a lunch lady named Sue from his high school days. Brian loved records and the record player from his earliest knowing; one of his first words was, “Broke,” which to him, meant a record album, because someone was always telling him  that, if he didn’t put the record down, it would get broken. So records were brokes and the record player, that wonderful machine that took those platters and morphed them into music, was the all broke. From his earliest days, Brian, a sensitive, creative soul, was spinning records and spinning words; he still does that today.

And about Sue, he writes this: Sue did odd jobs around the Catholic school I attended – maintenance and bus driving, garbage collection. My senior year, she took a regular position in the kitchen and made sure that I was the student to help out in the cafeteria for the last 10 minutes or so of lunch period. This got me a free daily meal and meant I could spend the $ my parents gave me for food on records.

Sue, Brian thinks, recognized that he was gay; she told him stories about wonderful gay friends that she loved. And she watched out for him liked a protective mama lion. “She went to the principal of the school twice to make sure that I was safe and felt protected,” Brian writes.

Brian was gone like a shot after high school; he went to college in Chicago and never looked back at his rural home town. But, he writes, “…lately I have often wished I had reached out, thanked Sue for all she did for me. I’ve often wanted to let her know how vital she was to my preservation in those thorny teen years and that I’ve thought of her fondly as I’ve grown.”

And the image that Brian used to accompany his wonderful post is, I think, from one of Jarrett Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady books.

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

When I mentioned to my friend Terry that I was writing about lunch ladies, she texted back that she remembers the lunch ladies at her first job in education, an aide position she held during college, as “…magicians. They lived to feed everyone in the building. I could bank on going down to the kitchen at 10:00 a.m. any day for hot, delicious chocolate chip cookies.”

Mmmmmmmm. I remember the lunch ladies at my first teaching job, too. They also made a green young teacher welcome, and they the most amazing pizza, and their meatloaf was so good my husband would drive 25 miles to ‘drop in’ and have lunch with us on meatloaf days. And those women were stern but loving; they knew every kid’s name, and they knew who had enough to eat and who didn’t, and they made sure they balanced that scale.

They also made sure naughty kids settled down and sad kids got attention.

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

At the end of his TED talk, Jarrett Krosoczka talks about saying thank you. A thank you, he tells us, can change a life. It changes, he says, both the receiver and the expresser of thanks.

And all of these lunch lady references make me think about the workers that we take for granted…the people whose life is service and who get little recognition for it. They could be lunch ladies or sanitation workers or store clerks or building cleaners. They could be factory workers or home health care aides or early childhood assistants; they could be wait staff or maintenance folks or they could be in any number of the service-related roles our society depends upon.  They work with their hands, and the work of their hands nurtures and nourishes, brightens and clarifies, comforts and orders.

They may not get paid much, but their work really, really matters. They make our lives better.

I’ve missed, I realize, so many chances to say thanks. So I’m saying it now, paying it forward…and hoping they know how vital and how appreciated they are.

Trials and Triumphs: Everything in One Trek

The Trials.

It is probably just a little bit bigger than a grain of sand, but the pebble in my shoe is relentless. It rocks beneath the tender skin below my little toe, nagging, nagging. I shake my foot, and it relocates.

Ahhhh… I sigh, and then, after a few strides, it resurfaces, poking the fleshy soft spot in the middle of my sole. No amount of foot gyrations dislodge it, and when I get to the retaining wall by the field that once was home to a school and soon will become a park, I sit down (the concrete is still a little damp from mid-night rains) and untie my shoe.

I shake it out thoroughly. I run my fingers around every inch of the shoe’s interior, and I rub down my sock, too, just in case that little culprit is caught in the knitting somewhere.

Then I slide my foot back into the shoe, and I lace it up snugly, and I take a little, mincing, shoe-store-y, How does THAT feel? kind of a walk.

It feels GOOD, I answer that imaginary shoe clerk’s voice, and I walk away from the retaining wall, heading north on Dresden Road, swinging my legs and my arms. Pebble-free.

For about 600 yards. Then suddenly, there’s an interloper, a tiny nagger, roiling around the insole of my lovely new sneaker.

How does a rock get INTO the shoe, anyway?

These are new shoes; there should not be a hole or a cavity or a tunnel in the thick, soft soles.

Perhaps I kick it in? One foot dislodges and kicks up grit and the other foot catches it?

But wouldn’t I see that happen? Wouldn’t my ankles complain about unregistered entrants?

I don’t know where the pebbles come from, but I know they are a nuisance. I lift my foot, and I Hokey-Pokily shake it all about, and a carful of early travelers swivel their heads to look at me oddly.

That’s what it’s all about, I think grimly, and they swivel their heads back forward, and they forge off on their morning mission.

The pebble hides itself someplace innocuous, and I stop my gyrating and walk back into my morning pace.

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

It has been a wet spring. That is, maybe, why the flowering trees and bushes have fragrant blossoms that are so long-lasting and so very splendid this year.

It is also why there are mud slicks on many stretches of the sidewalks I pace in the mornings.

I know where they are by now, and I don’t mess with them. I give them a far berth, arching around telephone poles in the hell strip, preferring to sully my pristine new white sneakers with grass stains than to play slip and slide in the mud.

A while back, I decided to extend my walk a little, and I thought I’d just tiptoe carefully through a shiny muddy patch heading up a southbound hill. And then, quickly, I found myself on my hands and knees, slickly connecting to that thin skim of mud.

The mud had grit in it, and my left knee burned as I crouched there on the pavement. “Damn,” I thought, and a car slowed down; its driver looked at me inquiringly.

I sprang to my feet, gingerly, and waved him on, and I stepped off the sidewalk into the soft grass.

And that was the last time I told myself I could just tiptoe across a mud slick.

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

There’s a black SUV waiting at the cross walk as I approach, and I slow down to see if they notice me. Usually folks wave me across, and I wave and smile, and they smile back.

But not always. If the driver doesn’t make eye contact, I stop and wait, because that, I think, signals this: If I don’t meet your eyes, I can ignore your existence.

Sure enough, the sleek black vehicle roars off in front of me, making a fast left turn, the driver’s eyes locked straight ahead.

The little white sedan waiting after the SUV beeps at me. The lady behind the wheel smiles and waves me vigorously on.

Most people are just that lovely.

But I’ve learned that it always pays to stop and check it out.

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

 I turn onto the curved road that starts at the top of the hill and then swings back around to meet Dresden Road again in about three-fourths of a mile. It is a pretty neighborhood, and I like to alternate different sides of the street as I walk, getting different perspectives. Today I take the far side, and I remember the house almost at the end had two bumpus hounds who used to come rollicking out and bark at me, bark seriously enough to make me scurry across the street and hope there’s an invisible fence in play. I haven’t seen them since before the snow fell, though.

But, damn. Aren’t they there today? And as soon as I hove into view, they begin—and their barking sounds vicious to me, their rangy bodies pressing forward.

Come on. Come ON! they dare me.

I decline the challenge, and I hurry across the street. They stay in their yard, but they eye me, vocally, until I hit the main road again. From my heels to my neck, I feel cautionary prickles. I turn to look back before I turn south. They are watching, watching, and their barking is still relentless.

And deep in the backyards of the houses I will pass by, I hear more amp-ed up woofing. The bumpus hounds have awakened the barking chain.

They’re all securely leashed, I assure myself; I feel for the phone in my pocket, just in case.

It’s FINE, I reiterate, quelling the frantic voice that rises up.

But there are goose bumps on my neck until I leave the barking far behind.

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

The Triumphs.

It is a chill morning, but all the promise of spring backs up that coolness, a shy sun promising more warmth, and the trees preening in full fledge, and the birds, who are busy, busy, busy.

I round the corner and I am surprised to see two very active robins; they are happy, hopping, hopping, and yelling at each other when their little bird beaks are not avidly attacking whatever goodie they’ve discovered. I imagine bird seed or a split-open package of crushed cheese and crackers. The birds hop reluctantly into flight as I get very close. They light on a fence which is not so very far away, and they cock their heads and watch me.

I imagine they are trying to give me birdie-threatening looks, that they’re sending me warning thoughts: Leave our bootie alone, Sister!

And I look as I pass to see what they’ve been enjoying so much.

It’s a banana peel.

As soon as I am three feet away, they’re right back at it, pecking at that peel, screaming at each other with first-morning pleasure.

Robins like bananas. Who knew?

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

When I walk, I see the changes: the day the blossoms begin to fall and a brisk breeze makes that little corner kind of a like a fleeting visit to the inside of a snow shaker…only this ‘snow’ is not so cold, and oh, it smells so sweet. I see the hosta shooting up like tightly rolled cigars and then opening, opening, a little more each day, allowing themselves to be coaxed by the sun. Finally they settle in, their leaves wide open, the plant equivalent, I imagine, of a green, oxygenated, all-encompassing, hug.

And I see human-made changes as well. One day, a lawn will be thick and high and dense with dandelions; the next it will be trimmed and preening. That smell—fresh-cut grass with a hint of gasoline—lingers pleasingly.

Mulch appears where weeds were yesterday. New-planted pansies turn their blank, shy faces to the sun.

And one day the big brick house with the White House-style portico has a For Sale in front of it. I snap a picture and send it off to Mark, and before I am home, he has researched everything about that house, from square footage and number of bathrooms to current asking price and the price the current owners paid seven years ago. We feel like we’re members of the Insiders’ Club: most people don’t even know it’s for sale, and we can tell you how many cars will fit in its garage.

We are not in the market, but we ARE in the know. And there’s a silly satisfaction involved in knowing FIRST.

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

There is wildlife. Sweet but foolish big-eyed bunnies freeze as I approach them, nibbling halted, thinking, I am sure, that they have frozen themselves into invisibility.

“Runaway, Bunny,” I murmur, and sometimes they do.

One day I see a substantially-sized bird on the sidewalk as I round a corner. I walk a little closer and realize it’s a mama duck, and that Dad is right there, too.

Dad yells at Mama as I approach; “WOCK!” he says.

“Wockwockwockwockwock,” she mutters and they show me their tails, waddling away much faster than their broad bottoms and flat feet would seem to make possible.

It’s a long way from the river or a pond, and I wonder what brought those two travelers this far inland. I hope they haven’t set their sights on raising kiddies in one of Spring’s capacious puddles.

Nah. Ducks are too smart.

Aren’t they?

A little further down the street, I feel that ripple in the force, and I look around to see two mama deer staring at me solemnly from under a majestic evergreen. I stop a moment and we just look at each other. Then, before I can wish them good morning, they turn in unison, and they bound away, gracefully disappearing into the foggy backyards.

And I remember I don’t own these streets and that, in addition to our oh-so-important human dramas, there are other lives playing out every day, only steps away.

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

The cool air pushes me to walk faster, and I am almost home when I see the dew-bedazzled chapel veils hanging from the branches of Phyllis’s pine tree. Lacy, intricate, glistening: they are works of grandeur and fleeting beauty. I stop and try to capture an echo of their glory with my cell phone camera.

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

And then I am home, and the coffee has churgled itself into being; the boyos are pouring cereal and laying out plans for the day. My gears switch and a new kind of engagement kicks in.

But the morning walk informs it, and the trials and the triumphs build a foundation, a solid, thoughtful platform, on which to build this day.

Peeling Away the Layers

“This is a surprise!?!”

I blurt out the acknowledgement. It is the last night of class—the night of the final essay exam—and I haven’t seen Elgin* since snow was on the ground.

I tell him, as gently but as directly as I can, that there’s no point in his taking the final exam.

He hangs his head. “Well,” he says, and he looks up at me, testing, from under a sheath of hair, “I just thought I’d check…”

I know he is waiting for me to come up with a miracle plan. Here, Elgin! Just do this, this, and this in the next two days, and you, too can pass this class.

Instead, I wish him sincere good luck, tell him how much he’ll benefit from repeating the course, and usher the other students into the computer lab next door so they can complete their final.

A little voice nags. If only you’d been clearer! If you’d created a more welcoming learning environment! If you’d reached out to Elgin more insistently! If you’d been a better instructor, that student wouldn’t be failing the class…

I pass out the final exam, and I quietly and individually remind each of the students who did NOT submit their final papers by the deadline that I cannot take them after noon tomorrow. And the voice blathers on. Why are so many people handing in late papers? That must be your fault. You should be tougher. You should be more compassionate. You must have done something wrong…

I sit down and pull up my online class’s page, and I open their final paper portal and I begin grading as my face to face students work quietly. The room settles into concentration, with sighs and shuffles and the clicking of computer keys.

“Can you tell us what ‘ABC’ stands for?” asks Daisy sweetly, referring to a research acronym, and, “No, I can’t,” I tell her, and my sunny smile matches hers. She reaches for her notebook, and I look at her in complete surprise.

“This,” I say, “is a no resource test. The only resources you need are the knowledge and skills you’ve garnered this term.”

She grunts something unintelligible which might or might not be quite rude, and which I do not ask her to repeat. She settles into taking the test.

If only you’d—Oh, SHUT UP, I tell the little voice. And it subsides, my students sink into their writing, and I settle into getting some grading done.

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

Twenty-four hours later, I am done with the grading—all the final papers, all the position papers, all the PowerPoints: graded. I have checked back among the assignments and made sure every submitted assignment has a graded response.

I pull up the grade submission site; I check my math again, and then I fill in all the blank fields. Many of the students, but not all, have done very well. I re-check the columns, and then I hit submit.

And hallelujah, the semester is over, and the door swings open into a non-teaching summer.

Things have been piling up. But now, one layer has been peeled away.

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

I check my watch and wake my son so I can drive him to work early and keep my haircut appointment. He grumbles but lurches out of bed, and in 15 minutes, he is eating his crunchberries and waking up, his thoughts coalescing, his conversation rising and weaving around the crackling of his cereal and the clinking of the spoon. He gathers up his work things cheerfully; we drive off to the college and he exits the car with a wave and a “See ya, Mom!” as I do a U-turn and head off to see Don, who cuts my hair.

Don is a brand-new grandpa, and we admire pics between the shampoo and the clipping. He tells me all his hopes and dreams for the sweet new baby, whom he’ll babysit every Wednesday.

He wishes every day was Wednesday.

We compare notes on the joys of grandparenting and the wonder of seeing that kid turn into a loving, careful, dedicated PARENT…that instantaneous, amazing change.

“No spray today!” I implore, and he acquiesces, reluctantly. I write my check, and Don hands me an appointment card, and I run to the car to head home and get ready for a presentation at the high school.

Hair cut: check. Another layer peeled away.

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

At home, I discover, after I shower away the tiny, itchy hairs on my neck and dress for the presentation, that I have almost an hour of flex time. I’ll do my Title IX training, I think, and I pull it up on the college website, click on the link and begin. It is not a bad presentation, even though, my mind grumbles, I helped design the training at another job, and of course I know all this.

The online presentation is engaging and interactive. At the end, I hit the Finish button, and the friendly narrator voice assures me I have completed my obligation to the college. I have to reluctantly admit I learned a few things and clarified some hazy areas.

And I even have time for a cup of coffee before I head off.

Title IX training: done.

I hear the Velcro rip of another layer of obligation tearing away.

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

At the high school, Misti, a wonderfully caring and effective community leader in the mental health and addiction field, meets me at the office. I am talking with the pleasant, professional, and thoroughly charming high school principal; she heads the team that surveyed student opinions and interests; that survey led to setting up this mental health awareness week.

Misti and I will talk about mental health first aid, and we head up to the library with Willa Marie, the guidance counselor who has arranged these talks.

We walk up just as classes are shifting, and there is a subdued roar in the hallways. Students dart glances at us from under disguising bangs and hurry by. I have taught high school students in college classes; there, they desperately wanted to appear to be college kids.

Here, in these bustling walls, there’s a whole different culture. My belly churns. Will they listen? Will they care?

But I needn’t have worried. The group of students we meet with are polite and knowledgeable and agreeable; they complete the activity we set before them, and they freely discuss their drawings, and the bell rings and they are off: the session melted away. One bright young student lingers, talking talking talking on his reluctant way out the door to his after-lunch class.

Misti and I wait a few moments to see if anyone else will arrive with questions. When no one does, we pack up and head downstairs. The hallways are quiet now, with classes in full swing. We sign out and part ways. (I, of course, have parked as far away as possible to give ol’ Connie some extra steps to chew on.)

And just like that, the high school presentation, which has been tumbling around that bony Worry Box all week, is completed.

Another layer just evaporated.

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

In the afternoon, I take Jim to the next town over for his physical therapy session; I read about Venice while a kind, burly young man leads Jim through series of back-strengthening exercises. When my eyelids get a little heavy, I put the book aside and take a short walk around the waiting area (I am the only wait-er there) and then I just sit and let my mind wander.

And here is where my mind goes: I feel so much LIGHTER! it tells me. And I sink into that, with grades submitted and obligations completed, my shoulders are not quite so buckled under what I kept telling myself was a heavy load. Then I remember that, this morning, I took a container of boneless chicken from the chest freezer; I carried it to the kitchen counter and put it on thick plate to defrost.

And I thought, “Oh, Lordie, I’ll have to do SOMETHING with that for dinner.”

Stir-fry, Jim suggested, but we’ve been having stir fry once a week; I am tired of it, but uninspired.

When we arrive home from the physical therapist’s office, I declare an hour of quiet time. And this time, snugged in my chair, when my eyes grow heavy reading that Venetian tale, I let them close. When I open them again, Mark is pulling into the driveway; it is 5:00, and I know for a fact that stir fry is not where we’re going tonight.

I pull out the chicken cookbook and page through it; Jim wanders behind me, peering over my shoulder, grunting when I stop at pictures of beautiful dishes showing colorful veggies nestling with their chicken anchors. But then I flip to a page that showcases Parmesan crusted chicken cutlets.

“Oh, YEAH,” says Jim.

And Mark cuts the chicken into thin slices and Jim puts the pasta water on so we can have a little Alfredo on the side, and I whisk egg wash and pulse bread crumbs and mix together Parmesan and Asiago cheeses. And the pasta water boils, and the olive oil spits and sizzles in the big skillet; we slide cutlets into that hot pan and stir noodles and heat corn on the cob. Jim gets plates out, and Mark pours ice water, and we eat a meal based on a new recipe, and it is GOOD. And there are leftovers, so we can follow the cookbook’s suggestion and make sandwiches tomorrow.

It is a dinner that wouldn’t have happened with too many layers in the way.

I am energized after eating, and I decide to do a little shopping—to replenish the olive oil stash with a big metal gallon container, and to stock up on evaporated milk, having just used the last can. “Shopping!” say the boyos; they run to find their sneakers, and we gather up bags and head off.

And I think that the peeling of the layers unleashed some energy, some creativity, and some enthusiasm.

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

There is, of course, more to do. There’s an Event tomorrow, a fun and social kind of thing with catered food and shared interests, and I need to shop it out, pick up a few essentials, and do the lunch with as little plastic as possible. And on Tuesday, there’s a day-long class to teach, and bases to touch beforehand and things to do to get ready.

These are obligations, yes; they are also things I enjoy, and things I have committed myself to do. They are layers I have placed willingly, but layers nonetheless.

And soon they, too, will be lovingly peeled away, and Wednesday will dawn, and the work will be done, and I can start planning the next thing.

And I am sure I will do that. Because what happens when I peel ALL the layers away? If they are ALL gone, I have to look and see what remains. Stripped of all obligations, relieved of all the must-do busyness, what remains?

What will I see?

Maybe decisions to be made are waiting there to be uncovered, and I will have to stop avoiding and make them.

Maybe I will root around in that bottom-basin basket and confront flaws and issues I really need to address.

Maybe I will find emotions waiting for me in the open, uncovered space. Maybe, for instance, I’ll have to deal with the sadness and grief I have so carefully buried out of sight.

And maybe I’ll find some wisdom.

I’ll hope I’ll tap into wisdom—the wisdom to remember that piling on the layers doesn’t make the real, pulsing things below go away. The layers just flatten and toughen and preserve those things. They are waiting there; if I ignore them too long, they will bubble up. They will seep upward, staining the fabric of my layers. They will head relentlessly to the air at the top and emerge, changed by the journey; they may come to me in a format and a flavor I don’t exactly like.

This summer, I hope, I will find the wisdom to find the balance: to tackle the things that bring me joy, and to deal with the pulsers that lay beneath. I will take this non-teaching time, and I will relax into it, and I will pray for the time and the grace to be mindful.

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

I will do that, I know, as long as I don’t cover my intent with too many layers of obligation.

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

*Names and situations have, of course, been changed.

A Cinnamon Kind of a Day

I waken at 3:12 a.m. and pad to the bathroom in the dark silence. And in the bathroom, which is closer than the bedroom is to the roof, I can hear the rain, battering the shingles, hard and insistent.

I go back to bed and draw the blankets tight around me. I fall back into sleep, and I sleep, tightly cocooned, 45 minutes later than usual. When I have dressed and organized my head and gone downstairs, it is almost 7 a.m.

Mark is at the gym; the house is quiet. I pour filtered water, grind glossy decaffeinated beans, set the pot to brew. I take my thyroid medicine, and I put away the dishes left to dry overnight on the sink.

Outside, the world is new-green and sodden, and the rain continues its relentless pelting.

I get out my loose-leaf notebook and find a good pen, and I sit down to start my morning pages. I take my two sheets of notebook paper out, and I pick up my pen, and I think, “Cinnamon toast.”

Hot coffee, hot cinnamon…probably an early charm against bad weather.

I open the refrigerator to take out a loaf of homemade bread, and I spy, on the top shelf, a tube of cinnamon buns. I set the oven to 375, grease my thick old cake pan, and put the buns into bake.

Mark comes home and gets out the small frying pan and scrambles up some eggs. The coffee maker chortles; the tea kettle screeches, and we get out plates and load them with bright yellow eggs and cinnamon buns, oozing butter cream. We pour juice and take our bounty to the table.

The rains still drums, but we are quiet, just the chink of silverware hitting stoneware breaking the silence.

“Mmmmmmmm.” Mark says finally. “CINNAMON buns.”

It is, I think, a cinnamon kind of a day.

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

And Mark goes off to work a half day, and I roust James out of bed. When he’s polished off the remaining cinnamon buns and brushed and shaved, we dash off into the downpour. Today is the best/only day for him to complete his foray to the rec center. He has to document his activity there for his instructor.

I snap shots of him walking the track, curling a dumbbell, leaning his hands against the wall to stretch, and I email him the photos from my phone.

The we dash back out to the car, stop for gas, and take a little road trip to Granville. Jim has to return his Granville Library DVD’s, and I am on a mission: I need to buy a tea cup. It’s a necessity for an end-of-the-year ritual I am involved in; I have left this purchase far too late.

At the library, Jim returns his DVD’s and then looks through the stacks. Finally, he just shrugs.

“I just don’t see anything that looks good,” he says.

Little do I realize not seeing anything good is going to be the morning’s theme.

The stationery shop, where I thought a tea cup might be nestled, is closed. I hope to find a wordy kind of tea cup at the book store, but they have mugs only. The owner suggests a shop or two, and we thank her, hurrying off for a trek through the friendly little downtown. Each shop we visit has a wonderful collection of coffee mugs, but none has tea cups.

The clerk at the last store suggests the chocolate shop. “They sell vintage and gently used in there, too,” she said. “I bet they’ll have a tea cup.”

They have wonderful things at the chocolate shop—all the stores do, in fact, and I promise myself a return visit. But they do not have a tea cup. James and I buy ourselves some chocolate as consolation, and hug it to ourselves, protecting it from the rain, as we head back to the car.

The windshield wipers beat time to Jim’s music as we drive home, and I slow as we approach a new coffee shop-gift shop on the road to Zanesville.  Maybe, I think…

The shop, again, has wondrous things, but the only tea cups come with built in mustache protectors, and the lady for whom this cup is intended has little need of THAT.

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

Jim is done with drifting with me through fancy gift shops, and I drop him off and head out onto the highway in a different direction. The pottery store, I’m thinking. It is 10 miles away, and in its little enclave, there’s also a home goods shop and a Christmas emporium.

And none of them have tea cups.

But the nice man at the Christmas store says this: “Try the antique mall. They’re sure to have one.”

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

The antique mall is just a titch down the road, and it looks promising from the start. Outside, there’s a stack and a tumble of furniture and dishware, things made of tin and things—old bicycles, interesting carts,–on wheels. Inside there’s a white bearded man at the counter, eating his fragrant soup; he waves me to the room on the left with a steaming spoon.

And there, in the middle of the room, I find them…tea cups and saucers. There are pure, translucent white ones; there are a variety of tea cups with flowers and vines, limned in gold. But the one that catches my eyes has a bold red and white design. I turn the cup over and read, ‘Wedgewood.’ It’s in pristine condition.

I put it back, then pick it up again. Maybe the roses….? I think to myself.

But the bold red pattern wins.

At the counter, the bearded clerk has finished his soup. He runs my card, and asks, “You a teacher?”

I laugh. “Can you TELL?” I ask, but he chuckles and says no, something came up about it when he ran the card.

He offers me a doughnut, which, though they look wonderful, I decline, and he tells me a story or two about what a bad kid he was, back in the day.

“You’da been glad I wasn’t in your class,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “But—look at me now.”

I clutch my cushioned, bagged tea cup safely to my chest and bid the former hellion farewell, and I head gingerly to the car. Having scored, finally, the perfect tea cup, it would not do to drop it now.

It’s still raining. I turn on NPR, listen to a discussion of Joe Biden’s candidacy, and I drive home through the rain.

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

The house still smells of cinnamon when I come home. Jim pumps a fist when he learns I found a tea cup, and Mark comes in, shaking his umbrella out the door behind him. He heats up some soup as I grade a paper and a final essay exam. Then the boyos pack up for a trip to Columbus. They’ll pick up parts for a project Mark is working on. They’ll go to see Jim’s doctor. They’ll wrap up the evening with a dinner out, eating, they say, as men do.

I will go to the mall and walk; then I’ll come home and have lunch and grade a little more.

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

There are spaces close to the Penney’s entrance, so I pull in there, dancing around puddles to enter the mall through the JC Penney’s store. As I hit the mall proper, I fall in ahead of two other women of a certain age who are there, on this rainy day, to walk. We exchange hellos, and then I pump it up a little, trying to hit a strong stride.

And then I feel a buzzing on my wrist, and Connie tells me I’m getting a call.

I pull the phone from my jacket pocket and see the call’s from Sharon, and so, of course, I answer. And Sharon tells me she has submitted her one month’s notice to the job that has grown toxic; she is moving back to the county where we grew up. She has bought herself a doublewide that has three bedrooms and two baths and a little plot of earth.

She can decorate to her heart’s content; she can grow flowers and maybe a veggie or two, and she can be happy in a place of her own. During the last twelve years of her working life, she has lived in professional quarters on a sumptuous estate, but this small home, she says, feels much more like luxury to her.

I find a bench, and we talk, and Sharon confesses that she’s terrified. She’ll have to find a job she says; she’ll have to figure out things like insurance. But, she says, she couldn’t look down the road and see herself, in two years, still working in the same poisonous place.

“Seize the day,” I say to her. “Seize the day and no regrets.”

I think about Terri and the curriculum she would have written, the wonders of knowledge and thought that winked out of this world when she breathed her last, and then suddenly, my old friend Sharon and I are both crying. People in the mall look at me and scurry away, and the precariousness of time and opportunity center firmly on Sharon’s, and my, shoulders.

There are no guarantees, we agree. There is only NOW.

And we hang up, finally; Sharon is off to interview her possible replacement, and I turn a corner and walk into the middle of a cake auction. A crowd clusters around the stage, and I sidle by them to look at the cakes that are lined up on long rows of tables. There are ordinary, lovely cakes, and there are masterpieces: one that looks like a sleeping cow. A many layered cake with a top that looks like a shoebox with an edible stiletto-heeled pump perched atop. A round cake that looks like a smiling M&M character eating a waterfall of real M&M’s.  Artistry.

The auctioneer booms out his patter and helpers come and grab another cake to display on stage, and I stride off to get my steps in.

When I am done, when I dart out, again, to the car, it is still raining.

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

And at home, I heat myself some of that good soup, and I put a pot of decaf on to brew, and I catch up on my grading. And I notice the rain has stopped, so I pull on my sneakers, zip up my jacket, and head off around the little block. I get my steps in for the day.

Back home, I pour myself a steaming mug of coffee and I pull out a little plate, and I choose three cookies from the cookie jar. I take the cookies, the coffee, and my new book—a book about a murder in an opera house in Venice—to the reading chair. I snuggle up in the soft, fuzzy blanket, and I spread the book open on my lap, and I take a bite of a cookie.

A snickerdoodle cookie. A cinnamon-y cookie. I settle into the chair, and I spread out the little gifts this day has given me.

The sun, suddenly, pours in through the open drapes, and I sip my coffee, and I crunch my cookies, and I lose myself in the glamorous world of Venetian opulence. The quiet house settles around me, and I relax, with some things accomplished, some exciting things to come, the rain abated for the moment.

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

Not many moments later, the sky darkens and scowls, and the rain returns, driving and horizontal. I pull the blanket tight around me and warm my hands on the mug. This is a hard world, and a cold one, sometimes. People get tired, and people get lost, and there are, sometimes, wrenching, unbridgeable chasms. Rain will pelt and threaten.

So I’ll take what comforts are on offer on a cinnamon kind of day.

Pieces of April

I’ve got pieces of April, I keep them in a memory bouquet.

                             —Three Dog Night

Suddenly there are dandelions, bold and yellow, brash and arrogant, next to the violets nestled quietly in the rich green grasses of Spring. A yellow season—the bobbing daffodils, the outspoken dandelions.

I remember, randomly, picking dandelions for pay. There was an old lady—Wait. How funny: she was probably not much older than I am now, but in fourth grade, that gray-crowned, stern person seemed ancient, mysterious, threatening, and venerable. Her name was Mrs. Aitch, and she lived in the house across the street, lived there by herself: a widow.

Mrs. Aitch, most of the year, yelled at us: to keep our wiffle balls out of her flowerbeds, to keep our dogs off her lawn, to wipe our chalk off her sidewalk. But in spring, she recruited us to pick dandelions. She would buy as many as we could pick, and she’d give us a penny a plant. We could pick a lot of dandelions for that kind of incentive, and so, each spring, we had a temporary truce. She’d inspect the baskets full of brassy-headed weeds, counting carefully, biting her thick lower lip, and she would pat our heads. Then she would get out her change purse and count out our earnings as carefully as she counted the dandelions.

I was too shy to ask what she used all those bushels of dandelions for. Someone spoke knowingly about a kind of fritter their grandmother liked to make, the bitter greens dipped in egg wash and breadcrumbs, fried in olive oil, sprinkled with parmesan. Maybe, someone said, dandelion jelly—the flowers boiled in a big old pot until they relinquished their sweet essence. The older brothers were pretty sure she made dandelion wine, bottles and bottles of it, and drank it, maybe, all by herself, as she watched TV, and the neighborhood, from a chair in her front room.

We had never been invited inside her house. But from that chair, we guessed, she could spring to the door and yell in a shrill voice as soon as a child toed onto her lawn.

I imagined her slapping down a thick, dewy tumbler filled with amber liquid and heaving herself out of an old flowered chair, and hurrying, on thick legs, to push open her screen door.

One night, deep in cold February, deep in the heart of the night, there was a fire in our duplex. We threw on clothes randomly selected, caught the coats our parents tossed us, and shivered on the sidewalks as the firetrucks blared down the street.

The whole neighborhood came out, and, because it was not a bad fire, and no one was hurt and nothing was lost, it became a grand adventure. I huddled with my friends and speculated; my aunt and uncle drove down from their house, six blocks away, ready to take us all back with them, to find us makeshift sleeping places until the house situation could be assessed.

The adults gathered and conferred in low, serious voices, and Mrs. Aitch opened up her front porch door and slowly walked to join them. I don’t remember how long we watched the fire fighters ply their trade, or where I slept that night, or what I wore to school the next day. And I don’t remember the aftermath, except for the vague sense memory of fading smoke-smell permeating the house.

But I remember Mrs. Aitch hurrying across the street to join the grownups, her gray hair in a long, long plait that reached below the back of her knees.

Those are the memories dandelions unlock.

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

Two years ago—maybe three—the city planted trees all the way down the hell-strip on Yale Avenue, from Dresden Road to Normandy Drive. And this year those young trees, having rooted and acclimated themselves, having decided, “This is where I live now; might as well make the best of it,”—well, they all burst into glorious bloom.

Their blossoms were snowy white, and they wafted a sweet light fragrance.

It seems like they bloomed on Monday, and on Tuesday, the petals began their slow drift to the ground. It was, sort of, like walking in a make-believe snowstorm, the kind where I can enjoy the drift without worrying about the consequences. And it made me think for some reason of crowning the May Queen back in the day. The weather was a little slower there than it is here; early in May the fruit trees were just blooming, and we could be pretty sure, in western New York State, that the snow was finally gone.

And May was the month of Mary, the Blessed Mother, with feast days in her honor—the Annunciation, the Visitation. And it was a month to pray for peace, one of the Popes had decided, and Mary, of course, was the Queen of Peace.

At St. Joseph School it was the month to crown the May Queen.

The girl chosen to crown the Queen was always a third grader. The selection process was mysterious and much muttered about, and to my shock, I was chosen, that one year, to do the crowning.

It was a tradition, probably, that predated Christianity, that sprang from roots we would have called pagan, that celebrated the blooming of flowers and the fertility of the world. But to us it was a solemn, beautiful day, one of the few in that old Church devoted to the Holy Feminine, and we loved its pastel, fragile power.

If the weather was good—and that year, it was,–the Crowning took place outside. A big statue of Mary was propped on a tall base, and wooden stairs were placed behind it. Surrounding the array were tubs and urns and vases of flowers—hothouse blooms and blossoms cut by grubby hands, placed in Anchor Hocking glass by patient mothers, and carefully carried on the long walk to school.

The awful priest led the prayers, and the black-robed nuns led us in song…and voices swelled the air because, dammit, when the nuns said SING, we sang. Mothers lined the sidewalks in nice dresses, unusual for a weekday, their hands clutching the straps of big purses.

I wore a floaty green and white dress, the exact colors of apple trees in the spring; I think it was a hand-me-down from my cousins in Buffalo. My contrary hair had been threatened and corralled into submission by spiky pink curlers kept on the whole painful night (it was GOOD to sacrifice for things spiritual) by hard little plastic cages. My too-short bangs curled briskly onto my forehead, and I wore white ankle socks and white patent leather sandals that hurt my feet and blistered my heels.

At the exact, certain time, my teacher prodded me in the back, and I climbed the wooden stairs and laid a wreath of flowers carefully on Mary’s cement head. At the moment of contact, I swore I felt a buzz of power enter my fingers and zzz up my arms.

And then it was over, my moment of glory; I climbed back down, and we went into the school gymnasium. We had dixie cups of juice and a cookie each, and then school began again. Mary wore her crown all that day; I checked on her before I walked home from school. But the next day, the statue and all the flowers were just gone….gone as surely and completely as my fleeting sense of fame and importance.

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

Scents crescendo this week as I walk, and, approaching the first intersection on my morning wander, mulch tangs. But suddenly, the breeze brings me something else—something sweet and tender. It’s the smell of lilacs, and I love lilacs so.

In my first growing-up house, there was a bank of lilac bushes back by the old garage. They made a kind of safe corner, a place to sit and read on days when my mother said, “Get your lard butt OUTSIDE!” I would take my library book and head outside, drag an old chair into the shadow of the lilacs and read and dream until something stopped me. The sand box my father built was out there, too, and when the lilacs, their season so temporary, went by, their tiny lavender petals would stain the lake beach sand.

There was an impossibly young nun who taught first grade; I think her name was Sister Mary Theresa, and she loved us and Jesus and the Blessed Mother, and she believed we would grow into loving, devout people capable of great spiritual sacrifices. We loved her, too, and we tried very hard to fill the magnificent outlines she drew for us.

At the end of April, we did an Art Project; we created flower baskets from triple-layered construction paper. The baskets had handles designed to hang on the front door.

We were to smuggle them home, fill them with flowers, and hang them on the door of a special person on May 1st. Then we were to ring the bell and run away.

The special person, Sister said, would come to the door and find a wonderful Mayday basket. And because we had hidden, we would get the extra blessing of doing a lovely thing anonymously.

I filled my basket with lilacs, which were perfectly in bloom on May 1st that year. I had to twist and turn them off the bush, having no scissors or clippers, and the stem ends looked a little frayed and woody, but they made a lovely display in the construction paper. I had to hurry, though, because the paper was getting wet.

I hung the basket on the front door for my mother. I rang the doorbell hard, and then clambered off the porch.

Hiding breathless behind the rose bush, I could hear my mother stomp to the front door, fling it open, and stop.

“What the HELL?” she said, and the door slammed as she went back inside.

I waited a few moments, and then I crept out to look.

The May basket still hung there; looking at eye level for a PERSON, my mother hadn’t seen the basket.

I took it in to her, and she humphed a little (“Flowers from my OWN bushes,” she muttered), but she pulled a heavy green glass vase down from the way high up shelf and filled it with water. She trimmed off the frayed ends, and she put the lilacs, a truly magnificent bunch, in the center of the dining room table. I think they made her happy.

I loved the bushes even after the flowers faded, loved the tangled, thin trunks and the heart shaped leaves. This year, I think, we’ll take the old holly bush out from the corner of the front yard—its poor leaves have blacker spots than old Jack Sparrow. We’ll enrich the soil and put in a lilac bush. There’s room in that space for a sturdy outdoor chair, and a little bit of privacy for an outdoor read.

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

I walk down Yale this morning, and the petals are all on the grass and sidewalks; the little trees are completely greened. The world around me has changed from Monday when I wore my winter coat to walk, to today when Mark said, as I pushed off, “You know, it’s almost MUGGY.”

I have walked through the blooming and the budding, through the birds’ raucous chatter, through thoughts of what this summer will bring and through memories long-buried. Aprils present, past, and future contributed their pieces, surprising and touching me with this week’s bouquet.

The End of the Fast

And then suddenly, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week. Lent, this season of my plastic fast, is over.

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

The house smells, tonight, like dish soap. We bought a manual pump at Home Depot this weekend, and tonight, Mark pried off the cap on the tub of dish detergent, hooked up the pump and filled two repurposed shampoo bottles with Palmolive.

I will use the leftover home-mixed dish cleaning concoction, a mild and gentle blend, to water plants. My mother taught me that; she would scoop out the dishwater and use it on her garden in the summertime. The soapy water didn’t bother the flowers, but it definitely deterred the bugs.

We’ll use the Palmolive to scrub the pots and pans. It will cut the grease, which my home brew couldn’t do. Since most of the dishes get cleaned in the dishwasher, the five-gallon tub of Palmolive, used only for hand-cleaned dirty dishes, will last us a long, long time. I won’t be putting one empty dish detergent bottle in the recycling every week, not knowing where it will end up.

I am not living a zero-waste life, but I am contributing a whole lot less than I once did to landfills and trash heaps.

Lent is over, but my plastic-free lifestyle quest is not. I am just starting to understand how to live mindfully, and how not to contribute to rampant plastic waste.

I see now that letting go of single use plastic is a journey, not an event.

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

Trying to shop without using plastic has been frustrating at times. Once, a deli clerk angrily packed my cheese in a plastic bag and practically whipped it across the counter at me; she acted as though there was something wrong, something nasty or shameful, in my request for paper packaging.

Or maybe it was just a bad day for her. As a result, though, I looked further for places to shop, and I found two sources for fresh meats and cheeses, wrapped cheerfully in paper.

An older bagger resented my request to use my own bags one afternoon; he growled and slammed things and pounded my groceries into my cart. Maybe he was having a bad day, too.

Mostly, though, people in stores have been accommodating, and some have been downright sympathetic and supportive.

And this plastic-fast has changed the way I shop. I don’t do a huge shopping all in one store any longer. I know where I can go to buy certain things. These days, I’ll travel to get what I need, and have it packaged in a way I can countenance.

Sometimes, I shop by mail: for my giant tubs of cleaning liquids, for the coffee that comes from the roaster in a town an hour away. I know the first name of the guy who roasts my dark, rich decaf beans.

The rich aroma of those beans introduced me to our mail-carrier; after we talked, he decided to order the tub-o’-detergent, too. Now instead of friendly, distant nods, we exchange ideas about mindful shopping, about buying in bulk, about how we can maybe save a little money by shopping a whole new way.

Those savings can offset the extra I spend on butcher shop meats, which are fresher and more local and less infused with added chemical mysteries.

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

So I shop differently.

I cook differently.

The way I clean my house has changed.

I got a notification today that the cosmetics I ordered from Lush, a company committed to sustainable packaging, are on their way. The shampoo bar I ordered from them has NO wrapper; they call it ‘naked’ packaging.

My niece Meg sent me a link about Lush. She got it from Michelle, a woman she’d gone to grammar school with. Michelle is committed to living a responsible, sustainable life, and she often posts about it on her Facebook page.

Michelle is one of my former sixth graders; I taught her almost thirty years ago. After getting Meg’s message, I sent Michelle a Facebook friend request. I learned that she is now a sixth-grade teacher, too, although her subject is science, not English.

We promised that we would send each other ideas or breakthroughs or connections to new products.

I also connected with some bloggers who have been pursuing a plastic-free lifestyle, and followed new folks on Twitter, and some of them followed me back.

Because of the plastic-fast, I have connected and reconnected and made new connections. That is a wonderful benefit I couldn’t foresee.

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Mark wanders over as I type this. “I wonder,” he muses, pondering the dish detergent and the laundry soap, “what else we could buy in large quantities.”

If we buy big, if we buy bulk, we cut way back on packaging waste. We don’t shop as much. We save money.

We decide we’ll take a trip to a wholesale store a little closer to the city and see what we can find.

The boyos were tolerant and sometimes unamused when I started the whole plastic-free thing. But now I think they’ve come around, at least in certain areas.

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Lent is over; the time of fasting is almost at a close. On Sunday we could, if we liked, go back to the old habits.

But unlike swearing off chocolate bars, or beer, or soda pop, this Lenten experience has been a game-changer. This foray into a different kind of living was a skim on the surface, an exploration, and it’s leading to a deeper, more permanent plunge into the process of really making changes.

So this is my last Wednesdays-without-plastic post, but it won’t, of course, be the last time I mention, in this blog, my hope to live more mindfully and less wastefully. It’s not a special program anymore; it’s woven into everyday life. I’ve learned a lot this Lent. And one of the things I’ve learned is this: when I undertake to make one true change, unexpected others will ensue. This makes me wonder what else might shift, what other surprises are waiting to be discovered.

It seems like an appropriate discovery, even at my advancing age, to make as Easter approaches, as Spring surrounds us. New life is there, relentless sometimes, even when we don’t want to acknowledge it. And as long as I am here to do it, I might as well learn.