Keep Calm and Cook the Pasta

Pasta is, for all intents and purposes, a comfort food…Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is a culinary connection to our past.

                   Tori Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta,”


Three times in the past week…on a blog, on a cooking site, and on Facebook…someone has written something very like this:

I was stuck at home because of COVID, and I was anxious. So there was nothing else to do but to cook pasta.

And, oh, I get that. Since we’ve been becalmed by COVID, we have discovered new pasta favorites. Pancetta now has a permanent place on our every-third-week pick-up order from Kroger. A serious question we deeply ponder is, “Red sauce or Alfredo?”

Somehow our gluten concerns have morphed and shifted; we still don’t do a lot of bread…but no one best be messing with the availability of our pasta.

Pasta: the anti-COVID complications meal.

The idea of pasta as comfort is nothing new; just look at the wonderful success of Giulia Melucci’s memoir with recipes, I Loved, I Lost, I Ate Spaghetti.

Pasta has made us feel better for a long, long time.


Pasta is…

  • History
  • Simplicity
  • Complexity
  • Economy
  • Spirituality
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Gastronomy


Did Marco Polo really bring us pasta? I go digging and unearth an article by NPR’s Tory Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta.” And there I find that pasta was already piquing palates on the shores of the Mediterranean BEFORE Polo ever left for his monumental travels: another childhood cultural belief busted.

But pasta is descended from Asian noodles; in Asia, they’ve been making noodles, says Avey, for thousands of years. Probably, she says, Middle Eastern nomads first brought noodles to Europe. By necessity, Europeans (not having such things as breadfruit trees or rice paddies, so much) changed the ingredients, using the flours they had on hand.

Italians christened the food; the word pasta, sensibly, comes from the Italian word for paste.

And nearly every culture has its own pasta, Avey writes. Think spaetzle and orzo; think kreplach dumplings.

It was Spanish settlers who brought pasta to the United States and the Americas; then Thomas Jefferson insured its US reception after spending time in Paris, where he indulged in lots, it is written, of macaroni. He brought two cases of the stuff back with him, and rapidly sent forth an order for more.

In the late 1800’s, many Neapolitan immigrants came to the United States, bringing their love of pasta and their tasty recipes. And with that elemental boost, pasta became a staple of American life.


That’s the global history. Each of us, every family, every person, has their own personal pasta history, too.

Penne a la vodka, sausage and peppers, baked ziti, eggplant rollitini, homemade calzones….

Not all pasta but those are the Italian dishes Adolph cooks when he has the time. And of course homemade meatballs and sauce. The kids always say Grandma Rose’s are still the best.

                   Meg Lanza, South Carolina

I may have mentioned that my mother, good Depression kid that she was, tended to cut some ingredients and beef up the cheaper bits in dishes to stretch them, to fill the gaping maws of her always hungry family. We were hard-pressed to find more than two chocolate chips in a cookie, for instance.  (“You don’t need all that chocolate!”)

Her spaghetti sauce was pretty thin; I called it Scottish red sauce. And there was a lot of floury white sauce in her macaroni and cheese.

I remember one family dinner a long, long time ago, when I was very little. It was a Friday night in the Catholic days of “no meat” rules. The hungry horde gathered at the table. My mother put down a thick dish towel and then went back to the kitchen for a huge Pyrex casserole of mac and cheese, crushed crackers burnt on the top. She plunked that down on the folded towel.

There was a steaming bowl of canned peas, too.

We said grace, of course (Blessusohlordandthesethygifts…) My mother stood up and scooped big dollops of macaroni casserole onto our plates. The peas got passed around.

Then there was quiet for a moment. Mom had her head bent, surveying her plate.

“Annie,” she murmured—referring to her sister—, “makes the best macaroni and cheese. People beg her to make it. I ask and ask, but she won’t tell me her secret.”

A pause. Then, “Maybe,” a small, anonymous voice said into the stillness, “she uses CHEESE.”

Every head snapped upward, my mother’s first of all. In the shocked silence, she swiveled her eagle eye, looking for the culprit.

Every face was washed clean of guile; innocence shone at that table.

There was one of those impossible, long moments, and then, my father couldn’t stand it. He laughed.

Then my mother did, too, and then the whole table exploded into that kind of relieved, released laughter that follows a moment of grave danger.

No one was ever stupid enough to claim the cheese remark as their own, though. And it seems to me that, after that, Mom started experimenting with exotic cheeses, like cheddar, in her baked macaroni.

So I did not grow up a huge fan of red sauce or mac and cheese (that would come later), but I did love my mother’s tuna pasta salad. It was tendered as a side dish, but for me, a big cold bowl of tuna pasta salad was summer’s perfect meal.


I like macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I just get it frozen, but I add some truffle oil to zing it up! I also have spaghetti sauce which I make with turkey burger instead of meat.

                   Kimberly Allen, Central New York

Pasta needn’t be complicated. I remember my friend Liza fixing a simple lunch when we were in eighth grade: canned tomato soup with elbow macaroni. It was AWESOME. How simple is that? I thought, and I made the dish for myself at home for a long time after.

This year, family meals loom large during a stay-at-home time, and we’ve gone delving into cookbooks for different methods. A long-simmered sauce is a delight on a cold or rainy day, but, temps grazing ninety, it’s nice to have a simple top-of-the-stove sauce that’s ready in half an hour or so.

We love Alfredo sauce: so easy, and so tasty! And there’s a red sauce in the Joy of Cooking—just called ‘Meat Sauce,’ I think—that’s a ‘sauté the pancetta and onion, open cans of tomatoes, throw your herbs in and wait a minute,’ kind of concoction, and it is GOOD.

The just-right-simmered pasta, the perfect tangy sauces: they don’t have to take forever. It doesn’t have to hurt to make them. Simplicity can be just the ticket.


Mark, though, has a wonderfully rich pasta-history. His old friends will still reminisce: Remember when we went to your house for dinner in college? And your dad made sauce? I can still taste those meatballs; they were the best…

Mark’s father, Angelo, and mother, Pat, simmered many, many pots of Sunday red sauce, and they were complex and wonderful concoctions. There were meatballs, always, but there could be fresh Italian sausage, too. (If there wasn’t, Pat usually sprinkled in dried fennel, to suggest that sausage flavor.) There might be tender pieces of chicken or pork, meat pulling away from the bones, bones imbuing the sauce. There could be pork hocks simmering in that sauce. There could (dear God!) be tripe.

There would be a giant pot of bubbling, salted water; that would produce mounds and mounds of perfectly-cooked pasta.

No matter how many people gathered around that table, enlarged by two or three leaves, no one was in danger of leaving hungry.

In Lenten times, and on Fridays before Vatican II, Angelo would make an array of meatless sauces. Clam sauce just never called me close; instead, it yelled at me to run the other way. And many of Mark’s family loved spaghetti and sardines, which also boasted chunks of hard-boiled egg in the sauce.

A few years before he died, Angelo painstakingly copied down the method for spaghetti and sardines and sent it off to Mark. That letter is a treasured family document.

But I confess I have never followed the recipe.

Acquired tastes, some pasta presentations are, but for those who grew up eating those rich, unique creations, a forkful brings back warm and gentle days.

Mark’s dad’s spaghetti and sardines recipes is a cherished document…


And another good thing about pasta: it’s relatively cheap. I remember being invited for meals during college, at apartments that sported bean bag chairs and cotton Indian-print throws on the walls; I remember sitting cross-legged on pillows and eating plates of spaghetti noodles and red sauce at someone’s coffee table. (How…trendy! How…Asian fused with Italian! How…I hobbled when I finally stood up!)

I remember, too, going out to fancy restaurants with friends in much, much younger days. Half an hour before we were to meet, I would be digging down the back of the seats of my car for enough change to pad the feeble contents of my wallet, to insure that I’d have ready cash to eat a modest dinner, have a glass of wine, and give the server a reasonable tip. Usually I would spend every penny, and always I would order the pasta, the cheapest thing on the menu.

Never once was I jealous of the steaks or cordon bleus that my more prosperous (or frugal) table neighbors might be eating; in that little city, with its heavy Italian cultural influence, the pasta dishes were uniformly GOOD.


Well…sometimes you just need spaghetti and meatballs…

Jodi McKinney, Pennsylvania (

I remember another restaurant, this one in Detroit, Michigan, where Mark and I traveled soon after we were married. The friends we visited there took us to a wonderful, hole-in-the-wall, red-checked tablecloth, candle-in-a-wine-bottle, kind of Italian restaurant. There it was that I had my first taste of homemade pasta.

Whoa! I put down my fork and waited until the angels finished singing.

Where had THAT been all my life?

I swear the eating of perfect pasta can be a spiritual experience.

In fact, it must be, because a lot of Catholic school expenses are offset by spaghetti suppers. Mark and I worked at many of those, when our boys attended parochial schools. Mark did not always agree with the cooking methods, his particular definition of red sauce clashing with the definition of whomever headed the cooking team.

Often, I’d finding him working in the serving line, or bussing tables at those events.

“I had to get out of the kitchen,” he’d say. “I couldn’t watch.

But the eaters ate up all that spaghetti; the dinners racked up dollars for the kids.


We learned a different kind of spiritual sharing when we worked at Hot Meals at our Mount Vernon church; once a year or so, Mark would orchestrate a red sauce dinner, with meatballs and Italian sausage: the kind of dinners his parents proudly served. The guests at those dinners were kind and gentle people with fascinating pasts and incredible adventures who were, for a time, down on their luck.

They loved Mark’s spaghetti.

“This is like getting pasta in a New York City restaurant,” one woman said to him, coming back for seconds. And Mark beamed.

Eating good pasta is wonderful. Cooking and sharing it is divine.


Maddie loves spaghetti and meatballs. Nothing homemade or fancy, usually no time for that, we just doctor up jarred sauce and frozen milk/egg free meatballs. Noel is not a fan, so I either make a lighter sauce or we make it when he’s traveling. I make extra and send it to school for Maddie’s lunch.

My brother-in-law makes this incredible chicken spaghetti; it’s seriously so good. Not sure exactly what he does, and it’s a little different each time cuz he uses stuff we have on hand. Spaghetti, chicken, a little green and red peppers just for flavor, chicken flavoring; he’ll put chopped up ham in it also if we have some to use up. He threw a little tomato sauce in it last time (but doesn’t usually) and it still wasn’t tomato-y at all.

Chicken penne pasta has always been on our routine dinner menu, but I recently tried this new recipe. It was really good and will replace our original chicken penne. Based on the review comments I used one cup less chicken broth and added extra chicken flavoring for taste. Used dairy free whipping cream and then after everything was mixed together separated Maddie’s out. Baked hers with her cheese and baked ours with mozzarella instead of Gruyere cheese.

The last few years Gabby started doing the southern thing and wanting to have mac & cheese at Thanksgiving. This year we used a recipe that incorporated jalapeno peppers, and it was really, really good. Not something I would make on a regular basis because of Maddie, but definitely something I’ll do for Thanksgiving from now on and anytime it’s appropriate.

Shayne Gutierrez, Florida

And here’s another thing about pasta: you can bring your whole self to it, and you can adapt it to whomever is eating. As I mentioned, Mark’s parents were adventurous about what they’d throw in broth to simmer; we may not do tripe or sardines, or, God forbid, a single clam, but we often simmer pork and chicken in the pot. We’ve cut sliced pepperoni into fine bits and thrown them in when sautéing the veggies, and that’s perked in a bright flavor. Zucchini and yellow squash are lovely in red sauce, too, we’ve found, and I have a friend who sweetens the pot by throwing in a carrot or two.

Different friends use different spices; I have had nutmeg and cinnamon in sauces served by special people, and those sauces have intriguing flavors.

My niece Shayne has a sweet daughter, Maddie, who has food allergies, so Shayne makes pasta with ingredients she’s hunted down: egg-free noodles, dairy-free cheese, and other inventive ingredients. Maddie loves the results.

And I bet if we got twelve of us together in a room, and said, “Okay; what HAS to go in tuna pasta salad?” we’d get a dozen different answers.

When cooking with pasta, personal spins are not just welcome; they’re almost mandatory.


Aaron’s mother’s Italian family spaghetti sauce is my kids’ fave. We will argue over whether we will have thin spaghetti or rigatoni noodles when we make it. Sometimes we end up making both. Homemade noodles are a must for Thanksgiving. Jordee had aprons made for her and me that say “Team Turkey.”

Everyone likes my lasagna even though there is nothing homemade about it. I make some wicked mac n cheese when I have time to stir the sauce. We are a very big pasta family. 😊

                   Dr. Larisa Harper, Central Ohio

That creativity, that experimentation, comes, I think, in large part from pasta’s diverse background. Every culture, almost, has its pasta dishes, from ramen noodles to spaghetti and meatballs to real, Southern, soul food mac and cheese.

Such a wide swath of influences gives us a whole lot of freedom in what to mix in and what to omit.

We’ve been watching a new (to us) cooking show on PBS lately: Somewhere South with chef Vivian Howard. She’s a North Carolina chef; on the show, she takes an aspect of southern cooking and traces it back in unexpected and charming ways. So, on her show, we might meet Southern cooks of color, chefs from Indian roots, those who are descended from Chinese settlers, or those whose cuisine owes its flair to Jewish culture. We meet chefs from European backgrounds and those whose Hispanic cooking tradition came their way via Central and South America. What I have thought of as ‘traditional’ southern cuisine has far-reaching, fascinating, evolving influences.

The other night, we watched an episode about dumplings, which Howard was hard-pressed to define. She went to visit her chicken picker, a young, spunky southern woman, who got interested in Howard’s dumpling quest.

“Well,” she asked Howard, “did you eat chicken and dumplings or chicken and pasta where you were grown?”

They cut to a clip of women assembling chicken and pasta…putting the cooked chicken in a pot, covering it with small squares of translucent pasta, layering more chicken and broth and pasta squares until the pot was full, putting it on the range top to simmer.

It looked delicious. It looked like comfort. That comfort tradition shoots its roots long and deep into our collective pasts.


We had tuna pasta salad today! I sometimes make it with shell macaroni but today I used elbow macaroni because it’s what I had. We love lasagna and Paul decided a couple of years ago that thin spaghetti wasn’t working for him, so we use rotini now. Either way, though…pasta is at the center of many of our favorite meals!

                   Dr. Terry Herman, Central Ohio

None of this would make one tiny bit of difference if pasta didn’t taste so darned good. And, during confused and anxious days, we need to nurture and fortify ourselves.

We need comfort right now. COVID-19 case numbers are spiking in the United States; this disease could be with us for quite some time.

“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” says the Center for Disease Control website.

We shouldn’t use food as a crutch, but a meal, savored thoughtfully, can lift us up. It can connect us with absent people, with different times; it can remind us that one day, we’ll gather around a groaning board again with people we care about. “Comfort food is all about flavors that we associate with some of our most important life experiences – moments that warm our hearts,” say the authors of ilgustononmente (

So it’s no surprise we turn to pasta. It gives us a creative surge; it doesn’t break the bank. It reminds us of special times and special people. At its absolute best, well, yes: it makes my soul sing.

And mostly, mainly, magnificently: it tastes good.

These are weird and unsettling days; they are days when we need to be gentle with our anxious selves.

No wonder so many of us are in the kitchen, planning how to fix our pasta.


To the Foot from Its Woman of a Certain Age

…But this blind thing walked

without respite, without stopping

hour after hour

one foot and then the other,

now a man’s

or a woman’s,



through fields, through mines,

through department stores and ministries,


outside, inside,


this foot labored with its shoe,

it hardly took time

to be naked in love or in sleep,

it walked, they walked

until the whole man stopped.

                   From “To the Foot from Its Child” by Pablo Neruda

It is possible that faces remain taut and lineless, that eyes still sparkle, that hair—by art or by nature—flows lush and vibrant and free of any gray. A person’s countenance might mock and defy the influence of age.

But all an interested on-looker would have to do, to truly know the era of that seemingly youthful being, is to look at her feet.

We don’t need portraits moldering in an attic; our feet reveal the truth.

We ought to be more grateful to our feet.


When I was a child, the feet of adults embarrassed me.

I saw them rarely; they only emerged from their hard, black oxfords or cheap everyday canvas sneakers, on trips, say, to the beach. Parents did not, in my experience, wear toe-revealing shoes, not ever. The feet that emerged when we went to the lake were shocked by the sun, scalded white, looking like something long locked away.

My father would sit on the blanket, after everyone was settled, the cooler parked, towels and over-clothes tossed in a pile and bathing-suited kids running screaming to the water. He would sit on the blanket and unroll his thin black socks; he’d knot the socks into a tight little ball, light a cigarette, and stand up to walk to the water’s edge on feet that looked impossibly long and thin and fragile.

My father worked on the coal pile of an electric company; he drove the heavy machinery: bulldozers, cranes, sometimes the short connector train that picked up the box cars full of coal. He was outside in all weathers, and his skin was burnished like a fine wood by sun and wind and freezing rain—the skin on his face, and neck, and arms and hands.

His feet and his legs rarely saw the sun. In those days, men would come home from work and go out to toss a ball with their kids, still wearing hard black dress shoes, plaid button shirts, and creased and cuffed trousers.

For men like my father, the sun rested on his toes only at the beach. There, his long, thin feet stepped gingerly on the hot sand, avoiding sharp rocks; he parked them in the shallow water where it lapped the edge of land. He stood there, smoking and watching his kids in the water until his cigarette burnt down.

He’d push the stub into the sand of the beach, burying it deep, and then he’d swim out, with long, strong strokes, to the very edge, that place where ‘I’m okay here,’ crashed into ‘This is too deep.’ He’d park there like a sentinel. The bigger kids, the daring, strong swimmers, would join him there to splash and dunk and carouse.

My mother stayed on the blanket in a prim blue cotton gingham one-piece suit. She might venture down to the water’s edge to build a sandcastle or search for tiny shells with a little one, but she did not go into the water. Once, in the faded haze of history, she had been a child who jumped into a crowded pool and plunged to the bottom. Other kids jumped in after her; they knocked her back into the water, over and over.

She thought that she would drown, and when she didn’t, she vowed never to go swimming again.

And my mother’s poor feet! Twisted and knotted from overwork and years of poorly fitted shoes and a family tendency to bunions, her toes overlapped each other. Bones stuck out where they shouldn’t. A barefoot stroll on the beach was an excruciating ordeal.

She stayed on the blanket, a towel thrown carelessly over her toes, or she crouched in the damp sand with her castle-builder, her feet half-submerged.

Looking at my parents’ feet on those exciting summer days shot a chill through the adventure. Those feet had a message.

There has been pain, and it has been hard, they intoned.

Poverty and neglect can twist you around, they whispered.

I felt a painful lump in my throat, looking at my parents’ feet when we went to the beach. I ran into the lake to throw myself on waves where the water came just to my chest.


My mother had a bunion operation, and it went horribly wrong. Nowadays, it’s an in-and-out, healed in a week surgery, but not for my mother. Her bones shifted. One stuck out the bottom of her foot. She’d go to see the surgeon who caused the damage, and he’d perform some arcane treatment. When she came home, sometimes, the pain was so bad she would crawl from the car to the house.

It was a long, long time before she completely healed. There were very few shoes that she could wear.

“You take care of your feet,” my mother would tell me, “and they won’t look like mine.”


My father, on the other hand, believed in the power of shoe-free feet for kids.

“Take off your shoes!” he’d yell, when we came in the house, when we sat down to watch TV.

When the grandchildren came over, the first thing my father would do is pick them up and swing them around. Then he’d sit down with them and pull their shoes off.

“Better for them,” he’d say. Patient daughters-in-law would bite their lips.

Maybe my father’s feet resented their time in his steel-toed work boots, in his hard-soled black shoes.

And maybe, my mother hinted, he remembered his years as a poor kid in the Depression, standing in line for shoes his father couldn’t buy him. The ladies who gave them out, he told me once, treated the kids they favored with hand-me-downs like crap,—looked over and through them, saw not the pinched faces of children in need, but the wonderful glimmer of their own good deeds. 

They weren’t particular about things like fit.

“Those ought to do you,” I imagine one saying absently, handing a pair of old leather high-topped shoes to the scrawny kid that was my father.

He took them home and tried them, and they didn’t really “do” him; they were a little tight already and his feet were growing. But those shoes would last him, oh, two years, maybe; he’d squeeze his feet into them and make them work, because they were what he had.

No wonder he peeled the shoes off the grandkids as soon as they walked in the door.


Oxfords, some doctor told my mother, were the best shoes for growing feet. Good sturdy Oxfords were the thing. So during the years when she could still dress me, my mother made me wear saddle shoes or clunky black tie shoes. They were horrible things. How I longed for a pair of slingbacks.

By the time I got to high school I was babysitting, saving my cash, starting to buy my own shoes. I bought ugly, sensible earth shoes, yes. But I bought slingbacks, too. And I bought four-inch platform soles and clomped around, scraping the sky at about six foot three. I bought pointy-toed narrow heels and minced.

My feet were killing me, but what price fashion? I put band aids over the blisters.

And I bought sneakers for the everyday, sneakers so I could walk. I came late to the land of driving, and I walked everywhere, miles and miles a day. To classes from my apartment in college. To the supermarket where I worked. Downtown to meet friends.

My feet really were my locomotion. Did I think to thank them? Did I soak them and baby them? Did I insist on sensible, comfortable shoes?

Oh, no. Not once.


In college, I discovered Pablo Neruda, and his poem, “To the Foot from Its Child” especially spoke to me. I loved metaphors, and the foot as metaphor for life, the blind appendage, once soft, growing “…into hard horn”…oh, that moved me. The work of it, the grind, the never-stopping-ness, the pleasures those feet hardly took time for.

That, I thought sagely, was an everyday foot, and an everyday life. I would not forget; I would not grow callused. My life would be vibrantly different.


Then there was teaching, where the standing on pointy toed, heeled shoes all day long, slip-slapping down aisles to check work and answer questions and comfort the confused or wailing,—well, that was hurtful. I discovered foam-soled Mary Janes, and those became my teaching shoes.

And then there was parenting, comfy sneakers for backyard play, the arrival of a baby that never, it seemed, slept. Barefoot walking, back and forth, up and down. Shush now; shush now, little one.

And he was quiet while we walked.


That ‘baby,’ thirty now, stared down at my bare feet today as I worked in the kitchen, and said, tongue sharpened by autism-frankness, “Mom, your feet look really weird.”

I gazed at him, trying to formulate a suitable sentence. Thus encouraged, he went on.

“Your big toe,” he said, “it’s like it’s at a right angle. And the toe next to it is bent like a tent.”

“Well, James,” I said, “thanks for that. I guess.”

“Well,” he said. “I’m just saying.”


Later I go to pull on my hiking sandals, the ones that leave my hammer toes gloriously free and unfettered. I look at my feet through other eyes, and I know my son is right.

My feet look really weird.

I have beaten them up many times,—battered them in the name of fashion; pounded them through a half-marathon in shoes I would later learn were a size and a half too small (that adventure caused my big toenails to turn bloody and fall off; oh, my bruised and aching toes. And that was when a petite, impossibly chirpy young shoe clerk told me I’d been wearing shoes that were not nearly roomy enough.

“Our feet get bigger as we age,” she said sagely, in a voice so syrupy with sympathy, I wanted to add a batch of salt to the conversation. But did not. One day she too will feel the unexpected bumps and hollows of age; one day she’ll ignore the flaws and celebrate, as I do, the patina. I wish I could be there to comment, but I, of course, won’t be, more’s the pity.)

My feet have been workers, trudgers, occasionally dancing, sometimes running, kicking through turquoise pool water, scuffing the tennis court, and always, always walking, walking…


These days Connie Fitbit keeps me going, fires up my competitive urges, makes me walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I feel like a shirker on days I only reach 10,000; I like it when my phone peeps with a message: Whoa! Overachiever! You’re 4028 steps over your daily goal…

Damn straight, I think.

But I still don’t think to appreciate my feet.


And there are metaphors there, in the worn and bent feet of my parents, who hoped for better for me and my brothers; there are metaphors in the choices I made that battered my own feet and led me, late but appreciative, to understand.

Similes there be, like the under-accoladed feet are as the under-recognized workers…essential, but not glamorous. Not sexy; not front page news,…but nothing would get done without them.

I am an English teacher; I could go on, but I would never say it better than Neruda. Instead, on this Friday evening, storm clouds gathering, world gentling into night’s darkness, I will draw a hot bath.

I will soak my feet.

I will clip the nails and rub the callouses with a little brick of pumice, and slather my feet with sweet, silky lotion. Then I will let my feet rest while I loll in bed, my hands doing the work of holding up that hardcover book, until I drift off to sleep, mid-chapter.

All that Neruda wrote is true, but I take a mindful minute now to ponder them: my feet, my over-worked, always dependable feet. Thank you, I think, sending that down the line of my body, right down to the toes, which I realize now that I’m paying attention, are just the least little bit sore.

Thank you. Don’t give up on me. Let’s keep on going on, together, a decade or two, or maybe even more.

The Longest Day in a Long, Long Year

It is the end of the longest, lightest day of the year, and, at 9:10 p.m., the world around me is only just beginning to darken. I sit out on the little back porch, on a bench I bought at WalMart thirty years ago. That bench’s shiny surface grew annoying at some point. I roughed it up and smoothed it down and smudged in some black paint on corners and crevices, covered it over with white, and then randomly hit it with the sander so that, in spots, the underlayers show.

Then I layered on a clear matte coat so we could put that piece outside.

The bench has been on the back porch for nine years now. My original attempts at distressing it have become redundant. I lean back on the still sturdy, aging back rest, and I bump up against the mop I laid to dry today, after I washed the kitchen and bathroom floors, along the top of it. I settle the mop handle with my shoulders, and I sit in the cooling, but not chill, night.

I am watching fireflies.


We discovered wonders when we moved here to the heartland; one, the first summer we came to Ohio, was driving through highways banked with sunflowers bobbing and weaving,–miles and miles of them. Someone—some county government, some coalitions of towns,–decided to border their roads with thick, lush rows of sunflowers. Endless ridges of sunflowers, the most cheerful flower I know, welcomed us—uninitiated strangers—to the land.

Fireflies were another wonder-filled revelation; on hot dry nights in late June and early July, our yards would fill with blinking, staggering, emphatic pinpricks of light. It was unexpected entertainment of the environmental variety.

Oh, we had the occasional firefly in New York State. It’s not like they were unknown. As a child, I tried to capture them in old glass mayonnaise jars; luckily, I was slow and seldom successful…and not really avid about getting up close and personal with insects, anyway. My brothers were more adept; their bedroom often hosted sad winged beings in those glass jars whose metal tops were pierced, over and over, by a thick nail. They hoped, maybe, my brothers, for a natural sort of nightlight to gentle them off to sleep.

There, at any rate, fireflies were rare enough that they were kind of a triumph to capture.

But here! Here, the yards host a floating, drifting light show: the magic and the science of bugs that cast an outrageous electrical glow.

So tonight, I sit and watch, and I notice a lone, late robin hopping on the lawn. It waits for long pauses, and then it hops forward, and I suddenly get it (maybe): it’s watching for glowworms to signal their potential mates. Another robin, fat and puffed, lights on the lowest branch of the magnolia bush, head cocked. Soon it is hopping in the grass, too, then stopping and dipping its beak.

If those robins are munching on glow worms, then what a dangerous mating dance this is, and what boldness, what bravery, those fireflies’ partners show: risking everything for one night’s, one moment’s, burst of passion.

(If one eats a glowworm, does one’s belly glow?)


Somewhere, somebody sends off a premature firecracker; just practicing, you know: getting in the swing of things before July 4th rolls around. There’s no little dog, this year, to panic at the booms, to jump shivering into my bed and tremble, panting, on my chest, breathing hot, nervous dog breath insistently up my sleepy nose.

No little dog to be frightened of fireworks, or of thunder either; this season brings storms, too, and last week they tore through, scattering leaves and old dry branches, leaving the world cooled, refreshed, and littered.

We were lucky, I had thought: no damage. But this week, I woke one dark night-middle and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I crept downstairs to snuggle in the reading chair and read myself back into nocturnal oblivion. And when I had turned on the lamp and pulled the throw over my always chilly toes, found the page in my book, and begun to read, I realized there was a new, unusual noise. It was a weary whooshing, like a very old Darth Vader’s rhythmic labored breathing, and it was coming from the refrigerator. The noise whooshed me off to sleep.

The next day we checked things out. The freezer was warming up; the whooshing was getting louder. We moved the most vulnerable food to the freezers downstairs, and we pulled the fridge away from the wall. My God, the dust and debris! We vacuumed off every dusty surface, and we turned the chill settings on to high, and the bulky old thing seemed to rally.

But not for long. Soon the respite was over, and the Big Black Box was gasping for breath once more, and we thought about repairs and weighed that cost against a purchase. Last night we went and ordered a new refrigerator, and we got a matching new stove, to boot.

I never considered the why of the fridge’s failure, just thought about appliance age and planned obsolescence and the inevitable fact that when you have a little mad money set aside some compelling reason to spend it will arise. And then my friend Terry texted that her garage refrigerator and freezer were both storm-shocked, and that she and Paul just replaced the two of them.

Do you suppose, I said to Mark, the storm surge hit our refrigerator, too?

He sank his chin into the cup of his hand.

That could be so, he said.

The summer storms have no little dog to scare, but they wreak other havoc,–this particular bit of havoc, thank goodness, easily enough solved.


My friend Wendy texts that the pool in her village will not open this year. She goes to that pool religiously, in season; they reserve an hour, each day, from 5-6 p.m., for ‘adults.’ That technically means anyone 18 and over, but in reality, the kids disappear, and their parents, and the youngish singles, and the senior citizens take over. Those people of a certain age are free to power down the lanes or to drift and chat, to sluice cleanly into the deep end, or to chug along gamely. Or even just to dangle feet in the turquoise waters, idly talking to an equally dabbling friend.

Wendy does laps. When I visit, once or twice a summer, I tag along, and the people who work there, the elders who swim there, have all started to look familiar. That daily hour is an important and refreshing part of summer for Wendy, and I can sense her disappointment when I read her text.

That same day a Facebook post pops up from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg. She reminisces about going to the pool as a girl; she lived on a military base, pool provided, and summer days meant long hours spent in the water.

“We learned to dive, but some of us, I’m not saying who, were too chicken to dive off the high dive. Some of us merely jumped off it with our toes pointed, which we felt was good enough,” Berg writes, and oh, I remember.

I remember, in particular, a trip to Letchworth State Park where, having newly earned my Red Cross swimmer’s certificate (kind of like a swimming license, I thought), I spent hours with my friend Mary Jane, jumping off the high dive into the crystalline water. It was such a thrill: plodding, cautious ME, doing this daring thing.

I jumped and swam to the ladder, padded back to the line. Ascended to the top, jumped, and swam to the ladder.

Once, I think, in a true fit of derring-do, I jumped BACKWARD. MJ (who was always more nimble and athletic), if I remember right, actually DOVE.

On one of my trips back to the line, the lifeguard stopped me.

“You’re getting too tired,” he said. “Take a break,” and he pointed to a bench.

“I’m NOT tired,” I wailed, and my eyes filled with tears, but he was adamant.

I went and sat, disgraced, until ages had passed—ten minutes, probably—and I was allowed back in the queue.

Earlier this week, James and I were driving off to the hospital’s walking trail when we saw a young mother and daughter walking. The girl was maybe six, long haired, lanky, and unhappy. The two stopped and bantered, and the mother grew angry, we could tell. At one point, she grabbed the little girl’s arm, and the child pulled in the opposite direction, pulled with that attitude of complete scorn and negation, and the rigidness of tears very near the surface.

That child needs a long visit to a cold pool, I thought, and then I realized that probably won’t happen this year.

We have hundreds of children who have home-schooled since March. For them, that feeling of endless summer, sculpted on the last day of classes when you say goodbye for now to many and plot adventures with the intimates of your inner circle—adventures that surely and always include SWIMMING—will not happen.

Endless boredom, maybe, that feeling will morph into, having rebelliously completed schoolwork online, aching to escape to something else, and wandering into ennui. And then finding that summer, really, was just more of the same, without the homework.


It is Father’s Day, and the sun shines strong. We drive to the doughnut shop, but the line wends out the door and around the building; cars line up, waiting for a parking place. We know that, if we queued, we’d probably finally arrive at emptied shelves and paltry choices.

We go home, and I make a streusel top coffee cake instead, and we eat it with scrambled eggs studded with ham. Mark opens his cards and gifts, and then we drive to a campus about thirty miles away, and we walk. It is hot on the pavement, hot in the sun; the sun cooks our backs, and the shady spaces feel like blessings. We walk and we walk, and then we pile back into the car and drive home, where, instead of lunch, we each have a thick slab of Father’s Day ice cream cake.

Ice cream: the reward, in summer, for braving the hot outdoors.

Later, Mark grills steaks, and we eat them with hand-cut fettucine noodles and crunchy cut veggies with homemade sour cream and onion dip. That food, too, tastes like summer.


Mark starts a fire at day’s end; it blazes, and we pull our chairs to the windless side and settle in. Across the alley, someone is calling and calling, looking for their dogs. Kids’ voices rise and fall; a basketball smacks against a backboard, and the voices rise again, arguing.

Cars whoosh by in the distance. There’s the sad wail of a siren.

And rain begins to fall, quelling the fire. We move the chairs onto the porch; the breeze blows brisk, and I think that the plants I just put in, butterfly magnets from the Soil and Water District, won’t need watering tonight.

I had forgotten: summer means rain, too, sudden upstart showers, quenching and slowing things down. Soil preens beneath the huge drops that fall insistently. A rich, loamy smell circles.


One of my students wrote in a discussion board post, “This is a crazy, frightening world. I don’t recognize it, and it scares me.” She was talking about the death of people because of the pigment of their skin. She was talking about working in a nursing home and then returning to her family, hoping she wasn’t carrying a virus that would make them all sick. She was talking about having to take all her courses on line, and about not knowing if her kids would go back to school in the fall, if violence would break out at a memorial service, or if it would be safe to visit the zoo this year.


It IS a crazy, frightening world. The fear and the uncertainty settle in us, inhabit our bones, populate our dreams with weird and threatening characters.

And yet: summer comes: the lightning strikes, the pop-up showers, the relentless sun. The solace of a shady spot; the plants that grow in spite of everything.

The cool and dewy mornings when I can’t help it: against all odds, I bask in promise.

The nights when fireflies dance.

Summer bears potential; summer forces growth.


It’s hard to say what’s growing this summer, only that the soil seems to be teeming, especially fertile, and seeds are being planted. Something will surely come forth, strong and possibly unexpected.

We will have to be vigilant this summer, tilling what we can, weeding what threatens, investing our hope that the harvest will be worth the wait.

Something Lithesome This Way Comes

Lithesome describes something that’s graceful and flexible, like a ballet dancer or a willow tree bending in the wind. Use the adjective lithesome when you need a delicate word to describe a person or thing that bends and turns easily, whether it’s a jaguar in the jungle or a young gymnast on a balance beam.



There are things brewing, things I want to write about, but none of them are whole. Some are slithery beasts, like down-deep, from the mud base, pond-water creatures…things that I can’t get my hand around for purchase (and maybe—eeuyewww,—I don’t want to hold onto that slimy thing). Some are just forming, like oobleck in its haze-phase: they are abstract, too insubstantial to explore with words just yet.

I go searching for topic alternatives, and they all run too fast; I flutter forward, but I can only get a glimpse of them, disappearing around a corner far ahead of me.

Then it is Friday night, and I don’t have a topic for my Saturday blog post. I head to my last resort: the prompt jar.


I unscrew the lid and hand the jar to Jim. He swirls the pieces of paper inside; he digs down deep and pulls out a one-inch yellow square. He opens it up and reads, “Lithesome.”

He hands it to me with an interested look.

“Lithesome,” I say. “Huh.”


I know what lithesome means. One day long ago, I WROTE it on that little square, after all. But I take the little piece of paper from Jim, and I thank him, and I go upstairs to the quiet writing place.

And I look up lithesome.


A person that bends and turns easily…I have seen the word used to describe ballerinas and twig-thin models, but never to describe me. Once, back along a rock-strewn road a lifetime ago, I was twig-thin.


But I don’t think I ever bent or turned easily.


At dinner I was flipping through People magazine. I am not even sure why it arrives each week; it must have been a bonus prize for ordering something or other.

When it slides through the mail slot, we snort and discount it. “People?” we say. “Who reads this shlock?” And then we leave it on the table so we can page through it, loving shlockiness, indulging a guilty pleasure.

Beautiful people crowd the magazine’s glossy pages.

“Who is that?” asks Mark, stabbing a finger, and I see that it is Jared Leto and a younger woman, a Russian model. He is 49; she is 26 or so. They have been together for four years, but those four years (the magazine tells me) have not been smooth ones.

He is dark, thin, bearded. He looks intense. She is fair and slender. (“She looks anorexic,” Mark says. “Too thin!”)

She smiles at the camera with a certain kind of energy that suggests she is probably bendable. She looks lithesome.

For some reason, that jogs Mark’s memory.

“Have you ever heard of the singer, Lizzo?” he asks.

I have not.

He tells me that she is a beautiful young woman who is NOT lithesome. She is large, Mark says, and quite happy with it.

She is the kind of woman, he ruminates, quite comfortable wearing a bikini. And if you don’t like it, don’t like the way she looks, she’ll just tell you to go away.

I look Lizzo up on-line. She is a beautiful woman, and she is a big one. “Lithesome” was not coined to describe her, but I bet she bends and turns easily, too.


This week the first hot-hot day came, upper nineties, bringing that pending, just-you-wait feel with it. I walked early, did a little yard work, then holed up in the air-conditioned house, catching up on classwork.

The sun beat down, and the air shimmered.

Toward late afternoon, clouds began to gather. The heat grew closer, pushed down, moist, and the air was like a gasped breath, never expelled.

As we ate dinner, the wind began, softly at first. The small leaves on the tree by the kitchen began to tear off.

The wind grew stronger and bolder; those fallen little leaves were scooped up and tossed. A laughing, wicked spirit was playing.

All the trees joined in then; soon the rain began, hard, furious; it pounded while the trees thrashed.

The small tree by the kitchen bent and swayed; it was lithesome.

The big trees out front flailed and wrenched. Branches flew down, and nosegays of leaves; sweet gum pods detached and bounced through the rain popping in the street.

Those big trees knew how to bend and turn, but they didn’t make it look easy. Each wrenching movement cost a little piece of tree-something.

The next morning, the yard and the street were scattered with tree detritus, and most of the little tree’s leaves were on the ground.


It’s funny. I have been thinking about trees lately, quite a lot more than usual. We walk on the new path at the college on hot days, the Joe’s Run Trail. We wander through a shady woods; we cross a sturdy bridge over a sparkling brook, and then the path turns woody again, paralleling the road for a ways.

The trees there have personalities; they make me think about blowing the dust off my sketch pad and sharpening a pencil.

There is a big tree, a wise old tree, with interesting silver bark. In places the bark has seized up and made scarred shapes. I walk by and neck hairs rise, just a little; it looks like this tree has a graven eye; it looks as if it this tree is eying ME. And then the silver bark settles down again, smooths itself.

The smoothness has been irresistible to people with pen knifes. The silvered trunk is trusted to tell the tales of old lovers, to remember dates of events we can only guess at, to testify that this certain person was, once, here.

And then the shiny, almost metallic, surface splits again, and a resigned, etched eye peers out.

That tree would be “The Watcher.”

There is a tree with the bark blown away in a swirling swoop; burnished wood slopes down into a plunging root. It looks, for all the life of me, like a proud, sturdy woman showing off a well-turned ankle.

I could sketch that tree and call it, “The Flirt.”

There is a slender tree with long, long branches. One wraps around a nearby companion, holding it back from the fray. Another branch reaches toward the path, as if signaling.

I’d call a drawing of that tree, I think, “The Crossing Guard.”

The Crossing Guard is the only one that qualifies as lithesome, but all the trees feel like they are ready to move and to bend.

And maybe they do when we’re not around.


I am reading, oddly enough, a novel about trees: The Overstory, by Richard Powers. He starts by throwing out the stories of different people, different families. There are immigrants and travelers; there are happy, well-adjusted folk, and there are seekers and strivers, the ones who can never quite sit still.

There is, for each of those characters, a tree connection, that slowly, slowly—almost as slowly as a tree might grow,—brings those folks together.

There is a beautiful lithesome character in the book. I will not tell you her fate.


Lithesome! Early this week, Mark and I headed out for an early walk; the world was dewy and cool, and in the semi-circle of iris plants just before the foot of the driveway, a tiny trembling fawn nestled.

It startled us; we startled it.

The tiny thing’s nose quivered; that trembling nose was outlined, I was surprised to see, with a scant row of white fur.

“Where is your MOTHER?” Mark asked it, and then we both thought to fumble for our phones, to take the baby’s first photo.

It looked at us, perplexed, and then suddenly, it was air bound, running away, pointed, in the space of a breath, completely  in the other direction. Liquid, fluid, other.


We keep looking for that little furry one to come back. We haven’t seen it yet.

“I hope,” says Mark, “that baby found its mother.”


Life, this year, has certainly moved and bent. One week, we are shopping, stopping for a nosh at the coffee shop, planning an outing, getting ready for a face to face class, thinking about travel.

The next week, we are at home and hunkered down, ready to face a long-sequestered spell.

When, finally, things seem to be ready to ease up, we are planted, facing an entirely different horizon than we previously contemplated.

What, we ponder, will life grow to be like now?


And, thrust into our thinking, a senseless act of brutality anchors our gaze on things we would not look at. Here it is, the tragedy says. This is racism. Stay and see. We cannot look away.

The times demand bending, moving, changing.

The changes won’t be lithesome; frozen limbs will creak, will groan. There will be snapping and discomfort and laments.

But change has to come.

Or maybe it has to be here NOW.


I will seek, this week, to appreciate things lithesome, and to accept that I will never join their ranks, will always be an appreciator. But, bending, moving…those are movements I can aspire to, as I flash an arm down to capture that slippery, elusive thing, as I blow cool breath on the haze and help it grow whole.

And Life Goes On

It was a warm Memorial Day, warm and muggy. We tried to make it seem like a holiday, like a day to remember. In these work at home COVID days, though, the at-home days blend, and  that can be a challenge.

But we worked outside, and then we barbecued some burgers.

That night, we all piled into Mark’s car and took a ride down by the river.

While we were riding, George Floyd was dying.


I heard about it the next morning. I had to read the article twice.

“What?” I said. “WHAT???”

“Yeah,” said Mark. “Yeah.”

How do you even process something like that?


But my students had submitted their analysis papers, and the papers needed to be graded. The bathroom floor ached to be mopped, and I had a long-awaited hair cut appointment. In the afternoon, I had a tele-meeting.

I went about my day. I enjoyed getting four months’ worth of scruff sheared from my head. The meeting was productive. The papers were amazingly well-written.

The bathroom floor preened itself and gleamed.

And the little voice kept demanding attention.

“WHAT????” it asked, plaintively. “What?!!!!”


And the protests started; of course, there were protests. But in some places—some close by me—there was breaking and fires and looting, too.

“Well,” people said. “THAT’s not right.” And the damage became the focus.

I did load after load of laundry. I baked cookies, a special recipe: flat and crisp edged, these cookies are meant to sandwich a big shmear of ice cream. We liked those cookies, and we liked those ice cream sandwiches.

I inventoried the freezers, and I started thinking about what kind of meat we might eat in the days of COVID shortages. How will this change our cooking, I wondered?

“What?!?!!” said that little voice.

“I know, I know,” I answered it. “But I don’t know what to do except keep on doing what I’m doing.”


There are events that don’t get national traction. My Facebook friend Kim posted an article about police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who knelt before protesters in a show of support and sorrow. Houston police chief Art Acevedo went out and marched with the protesters in his city. Others did, too.

In Mount Vernon, Ohio, my friend Kathie took part in a protest on the square.

“All ages were present,” she wrote. “Families with young children, teens, people in their twenties, elderly in wheelchairs and with walkers. They sat on the square. Some had signs.”

And the Mount Vernon police, on that hot day, came in with coolers. They handed out water bottles, dripping with condensation, and they stood with the protesters.


On June fourth, my friend Terri would have been 65, would have retired from her life-changing domestic violence work, would have been broken-hearted at the death of George Floyd,—would have, if she hadn’t died, suddenly and heartbreakingly, from cancer a little over a year ago. I started the day thinking of Terri and her family and sadness seeped into all the porous places.

But the papers still needed, darn it, to be graded, and assignments had to be written. I had a tele-meeting in the afternoon that went really well; I went back to grading while chicken roasted in the oven on a day that had a roasting sun, too.

And then I got a text from my friend Sharon.

“I just stood for the 8 minutes 46 seconds with the congregation,” she wrote. “So powerful.”

While I went about my everyday in Ohio, mourners gathered and remembered in Minnesota. In New York State, my sweet friend Sharon stood with them, and she remembered, too.


And life goes on. Of course, it does; I still have to go out and get the newspaper, empty the dishwasher, wrestle the vacuum out of the closet, pour detergent into the washer.

Life goes on. It goes forward.

But it doesn’t have to go on in the same complacent, destructive old way.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

“What?” asks that little voice, and I know it’s time for me to do something, time for me to answer. Time to find the best way forward.

How will we answer? What will we do? When the outcry dies down, and life again settles in, how will we be different?

My friends, can we talk about that?


Bored at Home? Try Traveling in Time

It started with a bedspread, back in December.

On Christmas Eve, we gift each other with books and chocolate and something warm and snuggly—a morphing of a childhood tradition of getting fuzzy, warm flannel jammies to wear to bed, to try to sleep in on a night when eyes won’t close.

Sometimes, now, we still get jammies, or, at least, plaid flannels with soft, knit long-sleeved shirts.

Sometimes, there may be a sumptuously cloudy blanket with satin binding.

Sometimes there are slippers so finely lined with lambs’ wool that the feet in them feel like they’re hugged and floating all at once.

This year, Mark and I got a bedspread to replace the worn green cloth one that we looked at in November and suddenly SAW. It was nubby in places, and, after several washings, much smaller than it was meant to be. The under blankets stuck out, and it tugged vainly up toward the head of the bed; it put me in mind of Abe Lincoln’s gnarled hands sticking out from his too-short sleeves.

Homespun and whimsical, I suppose, but geez.

Not very warm.

“How long have we HAD this?” Mark asked, smoothing it down one chilly morning as we put the finishing touches on changing the bed.

Film clicked and rattled in my head, and I saw that spread packed and shipped from house to house.

“I think we got it when we lived in Mayville,” I said.

That was about 25 years ago.

“Huh,” said Mark.

And that was when I thought: new comforter for Christmas.


So I got us a good one: white and fluffy and warm warm warm.

And that was great until a couple of weeks ago when the weather got warm to match. Then I went looking for a summer bedspread to take over duties from the cold weather comforter.

I found lots of ideas online, but the one I kept coming back to was a medium blue in what a quilter would call a wedding ring pattern. It wasn’t quilted, though: the pattern was picked out in little tufts of chenille.

I called Mark over and he looked.

“Chenille?” he said, and his mouth quirked a little. He looked at the picture, silent for a moment, and then finally, “Oh, hell,” he said. “Why not?”


The bedspread arrived about a week later; I gave it a quick run through the washer and dryer, and then I wrestled the puffy comforter, which seemed to have expanded, back into its heavy plastic zipper bag. I put fresh sheets on the bed and gently unfolded the bedspread on top.

And suddenly, the motions came back to me. It was like my fourteen-year old hands settled gently on top of my 64-year old ones. I pulled up the spread so it covered the foot of the bed but didn’t drag; I smoothed it all the way up to the pillow line.

I folded it over and stacked up the pillows, two sets, two high; chucked the bedspread underneath them; and then smoothed it over their tops.

Those were motions—that was a routine—I’d performed over and over again as a teen. The soft nubbins of chenille beneath the palms of my hands (craggy and calloused now, dewy and hopeful then) opened doors. Memory and emotion came flooding back in, hopes and joys and secrets, and scary, scary fears.

Standing there, touching that old fashioned bed covering, I felt the protective membrane grow thin. Time swirled around me; then touched now.


Mark felt it later, too. He started talking about chenille bedspreads he’d known as a boy.

“We were always getting in trouble,” he said, “because someone would lay there in bed and systematically pull out all the chenille.”

An image of trim little twin beds,—three, or perhaps four,—grew in my head. They were neatly made with matching, boy-colored, chenille spreads. One spread grew thinner and thinner as the Chenille Picker wrought his destruction.

Then: an angry voice; a wrestling of those bed-covers to the washing machine. A placing of the balding bedspread on a different bed entirely.

A creeping denuding as another bedspread lost its fluffy tufts.

Before long, matching ravaged bedspreads, prey for a plucker’s hand.


Chenille, I think, cries out for that in some small heads; yells, “Pick me, pick me!”

And some bright-eyed young person of mischievous intent shrugs and thinks, “Don’t mind if I do.”

Now that Mark mentions it, there was a Chenille Picker lived at our house, too.


So that was the first instance of then and now colliding.


Then, I was out walking on Tuesday morning—a warm, sunny morning, and an hour or two after the Garbage Dudes had crashed and clanked their way through the neighborhoods. It was early, and most people were not yet up to rescue the big plastic garbage bins flayed and sprawled across the sidewalk.

I berthed them as wide as I could; many were pungent in the morning sun. And then I walked by one that was pungent in another way.

It smelled like…melted vanilla ice cream bar with melted chocolate coating. It smelled like Dunkirk Ice Cream.

And the smell, and the time of day: just before 7 a.m., just when I would have been getting off from work, back in the summers when I was 19, 20, and 21…well, they took me back there.

I thought of friends—of Liza and Patty and Debbi, of Mary Catherine and Becky and Kathy.

I thought of how we’d start out, at midnight, pristine in our cheap white polyester, perky and energetic.

I thought of how we’d droop home, our whites stained with a rainbow of popsicle juice or fudge melt, seven hours later.

We worked so hard those summers; the demand for ice cream raged, and sometimes we’d go three weeks with no day off. But it wouldn’t stop us from partying, or from stopping, on payday, at the only place in town, a little bar in an old couple’s living room, where they’d sling us a beer and a burger and cash our miserable paychecks.

We toughened up, we innocent college girls. We learned to talk like the Lifers, the people who busted their butts all year round, except for a month in January or February, when production was down and all but a choice few got laid off. The missed month of work kept them from acquiring seniority; when they returned in March, they started out like a newbie, like a college kid, bottom of the barrel, working their ways up.

But there was something seductive about that place, about the clang and the danger of the shiny silver Vitalines churning out their products, about sneaking popsicles to the ten-year-olds who gathered at the screened back door, behind the biggest machine, on hot summer nights. They had snuck away from camp-outs in the back yard, maybe; they could get in deep trouble if they were caught, and so could we. No giving away the product! we were told.


…a clandestine popsicle on a summer night when it’s too hot to sleep, slipped to you by grown-ups at the ice cream factory, and eaten sitting, oh so casual, on the banana seat of a sting-ray bicycle… Who could resist the appeal of making that happen?


I walked by that garbage can on a hot, sweet morning, and that hot, sweet, cloying but not exactly icky smell brought it all tumbling back.


Maybe once the membrane has thinned and stretched to opening, it’s hard to close it back up.

“Let’s watch Superman,” suggests Jim, and he slides in the Christopher Reeves version, circa 1978. Mark and I were both fresh out of college, both growing and learning in marriages to other people.

Mark was a daddy already when Reeves first flew across the screen.

And in a different kind of time, there was a different kind of superhero, not flawed and quirkily human, but really, and nobly, super.

There is a scene in the movie where Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the fifties and sixties TV series, sits on a train with her young daughter. The girl is the only one who sees young Clark Kent running faster than the train. The child crows about the fast runner; her father tells her to stop lying, and Neill tells her to be quiet and read her book.

“I MET her,” Mark says to Jim, and tells him about a time when Ms. Neill came to speak at our college.

“NO WAY,” says Jim, impressed.

We watch the movie through 1978 lenses, tinted by all the knowledge of today.


And James, for some reason, plays “Winchester Cathedral,” as we’re driving in the car one night. “Oh-bodey-oh-doe,” I think automatically, and I remember.

And a vintage ad pops up online for Turkish taffy, the flavored taffy you could freeze and slap; it would crack into shareable shards. It was a longed-for treat, and not one my mother deemed worthy of purchase. I remember.

I live on the surface, marching around, all eyes and upper awareness. Now, I think, NOW is the important thing, the only thing, the building time.

And the past, of course, is past. But then the membrane stretches, and I realize the past is still right here: really, it’s all here, crowded, clunking, banging around inside of me.

All it needs is a touch, a scent, a lyric; a picture; a breeze blowing just the right way…

Then crashes into now, doors open up, and there it is, and there I am.

I step through those doors and travel a ways down that deserted road.


And I come back refreshed, back to a world I never could have imagined, but one that somehow, by all that’s happened and all I’ve known and all the silly, mean, half-assed, risky, difficult, kind, and glorious things I’ve done, I’ve been given the tools and the peeps and the wherewithal, to navigate at will.

Searching for ‘New Normal’

Normal (adj): conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. (

The sky, full and gray, has pushed down, threatening to touch the earth, each day this week. Everything is wet—the puddled pavement; the red, chenille strands that fall from certain trees and lay sodden and slippery on the sidewalk; the thin young robins, who run when they see me instead of flying.

It has not been the best walking week. But I think of my friend Wendy, that stalwart New England transplant, who says that weather is weather, whatever. She bought herself a waterproof case for her phone after drenching it too many times during rainy walks. She puts the cased phone in the pocket of a rain slicker and heads out anyway, water be damned.

I think of Wendy, and I walk anyway, too. Luckily, the early-early hours have offered, each morning, a sort of safe zone; if the rain doesn’t stop, it tamps way down. As long as my glasses aren’t obscured by rain, I huddle in my jacket and I walk.

And I notice the flowering trees and shrubs, which are, this year, magnificent. In our yard the rhododendrons, ancient bushes that seemed, the last few years, to be failing, have roared back into life. Maybe it was the mild winter; maybe all this rain encouraged blooms. Maybe it was Mark lopping deadwood last year.

Whatever: the bushes are loaded with beautiful magenta blooms, more blooms than ever before.

It’s not normal.


On Thursday morning, there’s a message on my phone: the books I requested online at the local library are ready to be picked up between 3 and 6 p.m. I get my schoolwork done; I eat lunch with the boyos; I vacuum and I work on this week’s shopping list. And finally, three o’clock arrives, and I head out to the library.

There’s only one other car in the south lot. Kim, one of our favorite library staff, waits, masked and gloved.

I show her my library card, bar code out, through the window.

She takes a picture and texts it to a colleague inside. Then she runs in to get my books.

While she is gone, I open the trunk, glad that the rain has tapered.

Kim comes back with five books in a sturdy plastic bag. She puts them in the trunk and backs off; I jump out and slam the lid shut. We wave and I pull out of the lot. I can’t wait to get home and sort through those books, decide which one to read first.

I haven’t been this excited about getting a library book since I was seven and could finally—finally! My local library made us wait FOREVER!—have my own library card and walk to the library myself, and make my own weekly choices.

This just isn’t normal, either.


I look in the cupboards and the fridge and I realize I have everything I need to make a peanut butter pie, a little end of the week treat. And Jim has a request: could we have it, he asks, in a regular pie shell (a “flaky crust,” he calls it) instead of a graham cracker crust?

Why not? I say. Let’s see how it tastes. I have balls of pie dough in the freezer; I defrost one and roll it out, bake it golden brown in a small pie tin.

While it cools, I mix peanut butter and cream cheese with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. When that is smooth and well-combined, I fold in whipped topping, stirring and stirring, until the mixture is velvety, rich, and fluffy.

I take my big rubber spatula, and I push the filling into the ‘flaky crust.’ I smooth it, spreading right to the edges.

I put a matching pie tin, upside down, over the top, and I wrap the whole thing with aluminum foil. And then I put the pie in the freezer, where it must reside for, the recipe says, “…at least three hours.”

Later that night, dinner cleared away, the house quietening after a busy day, we have peanut butter pie. We drizzle Hershey’s syrup onto dessert plates and cut thick wedges of pie to place on top. We drizzle a little Hershey’s on top, too.

I take mine to the table; Mark and Jim take theirs into the TV room.

No one speaks as forks dip and scrape and lift; then, “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,” Jim calls.

“GOOD,” echoes Mark, agreeing.

It IS good. It’s different with regular pie crust. It tastes wonderful, even though it sure isn’t what you’d call normal.

But then, this year, what is?


I’ve told you this, I’m sure, that back in the day, when things were chaotic (as they often were), my mother would make promises. “We’ll go,” she might say, “when things get back to normal.”

She would count a beat, like a savvy comic, then add, deadpan: “Whatever THAT means.”


Because really, what IS normal? A friend in the mental health community maintains that “normal ain’t nothin’ but a setting on a dryer.” I long, in these COVID days, to get ‘back to normal,’ as if it’s a place I’ll return to.

And I know, deep in my knowing, that there is no going back.


But even in calm, healthy, unmemorable times, the days are not really normal,–not same or typical or immutable. What’s normal is that things are, always, changing. We get things lined up just the way we want them, the job, the house, the family, the clothes, the car.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…we say. Just right.

And life is good.

But then…

The industry changes.

Enrollments fluctuate.

Technology morphs and things that were once essential become anachronisms.

And the job we loved just…vaporizes.

OR: we get the degree or the certification; or the company loves us and wants us to transfer to a bigger plant, to a more important position.


Which means we’re moving, for joyful reasons or sad ones, so the house goes on the market.

But maybe this time, we’re going with one less person, because that beloved child is 21 and in her own apartment, happy in her own job, with her own friends…in her new normal. We’ll need one less bedroom in the new place.

And we’ve been so busy we lost weight; or we’ve been stress-eating and gained weight. The clothes don’t fit.

And when did the car get so old? With all this traveling, we might be better served to buy a hybrid anyway, or to get a truck so we can transport big stuff back and forth…


Wait. What’s normal now?


On Thursday, Jim gets two email messages about jobs. He forwards them to his job coach, who emails back: I don’t think these are requests for interviews. I think these are job offers.

Normal for Jim has become being at home, trying to keep busy, embarking on projects, trying not to think of what happened to his job hunt in COVID days.

And now…

He is excited. He walks a little straighter.

“I’d better get a haircut,” he says, and he looks ahead to a life that could be anything but the old normal.


I get an unexpected job offer, too; it’s a chance to work with people I admire and respect, and an opportunity to do good work in the community.

“I’m going to need some grownup clothes,” I say to Mark, as if clothes are a measure of change. Like Jim, I am excited.

Life is changing in some ways that are good, even while we try to balance on the fulcrum between personal growth and a disease-ridden world.


A friend texts about a young man she knows who had a car detailing business, which, in the pandemic, ground to a halt.

And then he thought to morph his work into a car sanitizing business. Now he’s busier, maybe, than he was before, having quite deliberately changed his normal.


Meat prices sky rocket; gas prices stabilize. We talk about shrinking the meat we eat and growing the side dishes, the veggies, the soups and the casseroles.

I go three weeks without needing to pump gas.

Restaurants cautiously open, but none of us have any desire to eat out.

We order groceries online and set up a pick-up time. We’ll keep getting our groceries this way; we save money and we save time.

We shop at a locally owned meat market, and we mask up and go to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning.

Some things are missing from supermarket shelves, and I order them online. I get a brick of yeast. I get a gallon jug of vanilla extract. I get a three-pound tin of baking powder.

We used to hunt and gather one way. Now another is evolving, and we won’t be going back to normal. But the way we do things now will begin to seem normal.

Until they, too, have to change.


And through it all, we’ll remember this: people are sick. People have died. Lives and families and communities have been irrevocably changed.


Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years, “It isn’t that the changes aren’t difficult. Of course they are. It’s only that, for my own sake, difficult as they may be, I cannot allow them to become terminal. Life goes on, and I must, too—but how?”

And she talks about styles of coping.

There are those who refuse to admit that any change has happened. They become angry and remote; they lose touch with a life that swirls on by.

There are those, writes Chittister, who allow that change has happened, but they are not happy. They function, but “…they begin to punish the world around them for the situation they’re in.” Everything that’s happened is somebody’s else’s grievous fault. “Their souls,” writes Chittister, “spoil in their shells.”

Other people may seem to move forward, but wherever they land just doesn’t measure up. Nothing is as good as the old days, and these folks keep looking for, and never finding, a way to return to their lives before.

And there are those, she writes, who embrace change, who respond to difficulties with what she calls “aplomb and courage.”

“They handle pain,” writes Chittister, “by replacing it with new joys.”


I am seeing, as our world visibly changes daily, all of these responses. I see all of those responses in other people. I see all of those responses in ME.

Normal is gone; normal will never come back. I have to build New Normal to replace it.

And I have to realize that as soon as New Normal is built, it begins to change, to evolve, and to decay.

I want to be the last kind of person, acknowledging the pain of loss, but brave enough to embrace new joys. I hope that I will do that most days, because I know this: normal is gone, and change is happening.


I go walking in the morning, and the rhododendrons are even fuller and more beautiful than they were yesterday.

There must, I think, be hope.

A Couple of Comments from the COVID Cloister

Cloister; verb: Seclude or shut up in or as if in a convent or monastery.

(From the Oxford Dictionary on-line).

I am reading the books on my shelves, and books that have come to me by magic (like the fantastic magic of a friend sending me a book), and all right, yes, books that I have ordered during this strange time when both book shop and library are shuttered. I pile about ten books on the old shelf in the dining room, and then I read them in the order they’re stacked.

I generally stack them by size, but sometimes they just happen to fall together in a kind of theme-based order. This month, for instance, I read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and Shameless by Nadia Bolz Weber, and now I am about halfway through In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

That’s three books about women and religion.

Feldman, who now lives in Germany, writes about growing up in, and escaping from, a strict Hasidic sect in Brooklyn. (My son, Jim, told me about a great Netflix series based on the book; the watching led to the reading.)

Bolz Weber, whom the BBC describes as “…a foul-mouthed tattoo-loving Lutheran pastor who was once a Pagan, an alcoholic and a stand-up comedian,” writes about how religion can shape…and warp…a person’s sexuality and thus, their sense of themselves.

Godden, who died in 1998 at the age of 91, is an English novelist who wrote—if my math is on target—22 novels for adults. In This House of Brede is one of those novels; it deals with Philippa, a savvy, 42-year-old, successful woman in the 1960’s. She is compelled to chuck all of her success and enter a cloistered convent. So Godden’s writing has a woman fleeing TO a house of religion, which is a dramatic switch from the first two authors’ perspectives.

I cheered Feldman on when she escaped from her repressive childhood culture.

I fist-bumped Bolz Weber (“Right on, sister!”) when she explained that some religions despise sexuality because they see it as a competitor, another doorway to the Spirit.

But the Godden book…well, that brought back memories from my very Catholic childhood.


At St. Joseph School in 1961, we had a beautiful young nun for our first-grade teacher. I can’t remember her name, but her influence was profound. She taught us to pray for Vocations, for more boys and girls to enter Holy Orders. And many of us girls looked at Sister, regal, fragile, and dignified in her black robe, her wimple-d face glowing with a love of something bigger and greater, and we decided that, surely, we were among the called.

And that year I read a first biography of The Little Flower, St. Theresa of Lisieux. St. Theresa entered the Carmelite convent at (I think) age 14. She died before she was thirty. She created beauty from humility and sacrifice, eagerly taking on the work of infirm sisters, bearing cruelty from those who resented her selfless ways, and spending long hours in prayer for all those in need. After she died, she promised to send roses from heaven to those who prayed to her. Miracle after miracle followed.

A cloistered nun! A quiet life devoted to God and books! An influence from the Great Beyond!

I knew that the Carmelite way was the life for me. (Their name even tasted good, almost like caramels, one of my ten favorite candies.)

I wrote to the nearest Carmelite nuns I could find; I think they were in New York City. (I wonder, now, how I found their address, with no Google to type key words into. Did the nuns at my Catholic school provide it? Did I have access to a ‘Nuns of America’ reference book, where I looked under ‘C’ for Cloistered Carmelites?)

In a month or two, I got back a kind, handwritten note, telling me to pray for discernment and not to jump to any life decisions until I got a little older. But they enclosed some brochures studded with beautiful pictures of a gentle, reverent, secluded way of living.

I would be perfect at that cloistered life, I thought; I could read to my heart’s content, and no crabby person would ever say, “Get off your lard butt and GO OUTSIDE!” I had a kind of vision of a special reading nook in a brick alcove, cushioned and ample, where I would hole up with a stack of books, waving speechlessly to the other nuns as they walked, their brown gowns whispering but themselves silent, by.

I forgot that I loved being the boss of things, that I loved to eat, that I loved taking trips—on my bike across town or in the family car on rare excursions. Humility, sacrifice, seclusion…it all sounded grand.

I tucked those brochures away. I tucked the cloister dreams away with them.

In years to come, I would write to the New York Yankees, to the Beatles, to wonderful colleges, to famous authors. Often I received amazing replies. And always my dreams of what I might be When I Grew Up altered and morphed: a librarian! The first female Beatle! An actor! An editor! A person on the TV news!

Those visions moved me far, far away from my dreams of a holy cloistered community.

Many years later, having discovered a love of clothes and boys and a fast-paced life, I came across the Carmelite brochures. I sat down and I looked them through. I laughed and put them in the recycling.

A cloister? I said. I don’t think so.


And yet. Here we are, in a cloister in a kind of a way.

In Rumer Godden’s book, when the nuns just can’t stand being controlled or compelled for one minute longer, they escape, during their precious free time, outside. They walk up and down and up and down, filling their lungs with outdoor air, walking off the stress of being enclosed with the same few people, day after day.

Now, I am not saying that the people I am enclosed with are in any way annoying (those lovely boyos), but I get the magic of the walks. And we walk every day, too. I get up and take my early, long, walk, pushing the button on the coffee maker as I walk out the door, wending my way through the back roads to the Avenue, striding up to where the sidewalk ends and taking the long way ‘round, then coming home to coffee and contemplation.

Later, we all walk together at the college or the fitness trail, doing one full circuit, getting away from work at home minutiae.

A walk is such a simple thing but, as the nuns found, it brings calm and health and perspective.


Phillipa, the aging novice nun in Godden’s book, settles into the life, but she often thinks, “If only I could have a hot bath! If only I could have a cigarette!” (Those of course, were the days before we knew the connection: cigarette=lung cancer risk.)

I have my hot baths, and I no longer miss the smoky tang of a cigarette, but I understand what she means. When things are not available, they loom large.

So I’ll be doing the dishes, say, and an almost palpable image will come to me of being in Vidler’s Five and Dime, in East Aurora, New York. I’ll long to mooch through the organized jumble of that vintage store, discovering toys and kitchenware and candy and chewing gum that were everyday staples of life in the 1960’s or ‘70’s, things that are exotic oddities now. I’ll think of brushing past,with no thought to social distancing, a young mom jiggling a baby, or of smiling at an older fella waiting patiently, hat in hand, for his shopping wife.

We could, I’ll think longingly, go to that little snack bar nearby, the place where they had what might have been the best beef on ‘weck sandwiches in the whole wide world.

And then we could go to East Aurora’s Roycroft campus, where the Arts and Crafts movement thrived and grew, starting in 1895 or thereabouts.

We could explore, I think, and then I realize that exploration is not going to happen any time soon.

I’m okay with that; we need to be careful and we need to be safe, and we can learn to enjoy the nooks and the crannies and the wonders of home.

But oh, I miss our little trips. No traveling from the cloister.


And, in Phillipa’s cloister, everyday errands are plotted: the trip to the post office, the ride to the grocery store. There is no room for spontaneity in a cloistered life…not in Phillipa’s House of Brede, and not, really, in COVID’s 2020.

Now we shop for weeks at a time; we schedule our grocery pickup three days hence; we accept that what we’ve forgotten to buy will be missed until the next expedition, four weeks away.

We buy absolutely necessary things online…books and belts and batteries. We leave the boxes, when they arrive, outside to be sure they’re not infected.

Life in the COVID cloister is much more scripted than life before; we have to create little niches for spontaneity in the midst of a structured everyday life.


And there are things, at home, that have to be done. There is the outside work we do at home; there are the everyday jobs of keeping a home comfortable and livable. There are meals to plan and fix and cookies to bake.

There are common times, when the three of us gathered here gather together for food and for Netflix.

There is boredom and there is irritation, but thankfully, not so much.

I realize, now more than ever, that the cloistered life is not a natural life for me, but there’s one good thing: there’s time to read. The reading chair sits in for that bricked in alcove, and no somber sisters rustle by. I put my feet up on the ottoman and pull the fuzzy gold blanket over my toes, and I travel, vicariously, to Berlin and to Denver, Colorado, to the wild back country of England, or to a fantasy world that exists only in an imagination and a book. Feet planted, I travel, and I hope my mind expands.

It’s not a life I would choose, this COVID cloister, but it’s one that is needed and one that has its very definite benefits. It is, for now, a good life.

And somewhere, I bet, my first grade teacher is smiling a big, ironic smile.

Other Days

Some days, you just start out tired.

Some days, you make yourself go for the early morning walk, but it’s more of a trudge, and mean dogs snarl behind high fences, crows cackle cruelly, and other walkers cross the street to avoid you. Social distancing: you know, but still it feels cold and rude, because some days just dawn that way.

Some days you wish you had a nice bowl of granola for breakfast, but you just really don’t feel like making a batch. Maybe later, you think, disgruntled and weary. And you eat a leftover bagel, which you really don’t want, but it lets you wear your scarlet martyr patch– I am eating the leftovers so we don’t throw them away!—right there on your chest.

And you sigh, deep and heavy, because it’s just what you need to do this day.

Some days you feel like you might just fall down under the weight of technological expectations. Do I really need to manage this, you think bitterly, by MONDAY?

And where, you ponder bleakly, is your TECH support?

You send them another email, but you don’t expect an answer, not on a day like this day.

Not when the temperature has dropped twenty degrees in two hours and the clouds are the color of pulsing old dirty lead, and that heaviness is escaping them, falling to earth in straight chilling lines.

Some days the weather app says it probably won’t stop raining until after supper.


But then, once in a while, you surprise yourself and figure out, say, how to install Zoom. And you go to your morning appointment, and, another surprise: it’s a good rich Zoom meeting. You scribble notes in your old black-speckled composition notebook, and those rusty doors in your mind open up, and you GET it, you really do.

And one of those people at the meeting proposes an easy work around to your technology issue, and it’s simple and beautiful and doable.

You sign off from the meeting with a clear picture of what needs to be done next, and you realize that what needs to be done NEXT doesn’t have to be done NOW. And you go downstairs and eat a salad, and a leftover pork chop, and a handful of Muddy Buddies, and your husband comes in and says, “Would you like a fire? Just to take the chill off?”

And, “YES,” you say, because once in a while, a fire is the best thing, and you realize this is one of those whiles. And you take your book, and you sit by the fire, and the rain falls in vertical sheets, the wind buffets, and the words take on new meaning. The fire crackles.

You turn the pages of the book and the story makes you think and makes you realize; little walls that used to mark off half-ruined, half-hearted stereotypes crumble completely, and there are clearer, broader vistas in the horizon of your mind.

Some days open doors, and some days you are ready to walk through them.

And you close your book and you drowse by the fire…not really sleeping, just resting and gathering.


And you remember, suddenly, a soup recipe that calls for four things you have in the refrigerator—the leftover chunky meat sauce with tomatoes, the beans, the sausage, and the spinach. Some days are soup days, and this day, with the wind barging insistently against the bay window, is surely one.

This is crazy, you think, as you wipe down the counter and lay the recipe, copied from the Internet down flat. Soup made from leftovers?

Come on.

But you heat the oil and sauté the onion and stir in the garlic; you defrost chicken broth while the red peppers flakes simmer and the tomatoes soften. You open cans and measure macaroni and stir broth and white beans into the pot.

You chop fresh spinach—locally grown, farmer’s market spinach,—into thin little ribbons, then turn them around and cut the ribbons into rectangles.

And the boyos come out; they say the mess on the stove smells GOOD, and they say, You know what? We’re going to get some crusty bread!

And they make a reservation for a curbside pick up and head off cheerfully into the rain.

Which, now you think of it, has slowed down quite a bit.


When the car pulls back into the driveway, you stir the spinach into the simmering soup pot, and you watch it wilt for a minute. Then you pour in parmesan and stir. And it really, really does smell wonderful.

And the boyos come in with a fresh loaf of tomato basil bread, and the soup is just right, a thick, hearty, peasant-y kind of a brew.

You mop the last juices from your bowl with a piece of good bread, and you agree with your husband: that was just the right soup for a day like this day.


And by the time the dishes are done, the evening sun shines, pale and hopeful, and you lace up your sneakers. And it is cool out, but also amazing…flowering bushes and trees preening in the sun, cardinals and robins swooping and darting. Squirrels leap onto tree trunks and fat bunnies find their speed and leave arrogant kitty cats behind and bereft.

And you walk in the waning sun and breathe in deep gulps of fresh, cold air and you think that some days, you need to stop careening, all crazy and thoughtless, down some steep and nondescript hill. You need to veer off the path and sit on a rock and look to see how far you’ve come.

Some days are all about action and other days are all about perspective.

And some days, you just need to rest.