Valentines in the Violet Season

“Are you going,” Mark starts tentatively, “to have nutty nuggets for breakfast today?”

I look at him blearily, still fogged by sleep. I lift my coffee mug, open my mouth to answer, and then realization dawns.

“No!” I say, and I put the mug back on the table. “No, of course not! Today, I am making breakfast for you!”

I clatter out the skillets. The sausage links are frozen; I slit open the plastic, tumble the links into the cast iron pan, add a layer of water. I turn on the heat and cover them up. While I whip together eggs and milk and nutmeg and vanilla, while I cut thin slices of Italian bread, those little sausages plump up in their casings.

I pour oil into a hot frying pan and dip the fresh bread into the egg mixture. I slide four slices into the pan. It hisses happily. I drain the water from the sausages and put the pan back on the flame; they, too, begin to sizzle and snap.

The red Fiestaware today, I decide, and we tote thick mugs of steaming tea and coffee, pour cranberry juice into little goblets. I put syrup and a jam pot and the butter dish on the table. We load plates up with French toast and sausage.

By my place, I discover a heart-shaped candy box and a beautiful card.

“Awww,” I say, and lean across to kiss my husband through porky, eggy steam. “Happy Valentine’s day, Bubba.”

It is February 14, the feast of lovers, a day for chocolates and flowers, wine and prime rib, a day of indulgence and joyful celebration.

It is also, this year, Ash Wednesday, tolling Lent onto the calendar with a solemn call to fast and abstain.

“I think,” I say to Mark, “that there’s probably a special dispensation for lovers today.”

“I checked,” Mark answers. “Apparently, not so much.”

No matter. We still, all of us, observe Lent, but it’s been some time since those strictest of rules worked to bind me.

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

I scroll backward through my mental Rolodex, back to Mrs. Clark’s third grade classroom at St. Joseph School. Mrs. Clark was a stern taskmaster, but we had seen her tears spill onto her turquoise dress on the November day that President Kennedy was shot. We knew now a tender, vulnerable heart lurked beneath that austere surface, that her snowy white hair and snapping blue eyes belied a teacher who cared very deeply. She realized we knew her secret; it was like a pact we held close, a hidden knowledge that bound us tightly.

This morning we were working on math—the new math, which only a few of us understood. My paper was worn thin with erasures, and still I could not make the numbers I was given fit into the sets they needed to comprise. And then the classroom door swung open, and the principal, Sister Mary Francis, strode in.

Our pencils slapped down into the little wells at the top of our desks. We hastily, clumsily, screechily, scraped our chairs back and stood at attention on the right-hand side of our desks. Mrs. Clark, half-turned from the chalkboard, nodded slightly.

“Good morning, Sister Mary Francis,” we chorused.

Sister waved her hand royally and bade us sit down, which we warily, noisily did. And then she started, gauzy black robes floating behind her, down each row, inspecting our work.

Everything about the woman was black or white, the black robes and long black veil, the white wimple that framed a plump white face. Her glasses were rimless, her eyes were lashless, and her hands emerged white and pale and powdery from long, long black sleeves. She had strong, thick fingers with short, short nails.

Sister terrified me, and I kept my head down. She used her right hand to smack the back of it as she passed my desk.

“Messy!” she said. Classmates snickered, and my stomach lurched in shame.

Circuit completed, Sister went to the front of the room and commanded us to tell her what we were giving up for Lent. She pointed to the first child in the row closest to the windows.

“Chocolate chip cookies,” whispered Nancy C.

“Chocolate CHIP cookies?” roared Sister. “Chocolate chip? I suppose peanut butter cookies are fine? And help yourself to ginger snaps, is that right?” Her lashless gaze bored into Nancy. “I think,” said Sister sternly, “that isn’t much of a sacrifice. Now, if you were to give up cookies entirely…”

Nancy C, head bent, nodded miserably. The rest of us quickly recalculated our answers. Sister nodded at the child behind Nancy, and the litany continued.

I thought I was safe because my mother, a zealous convert, took Lent very seriously. It was a time of repentance, she told us, a time of cleansing. We needed to make ourselves worthy—not that we could ever really be worthy, but we’d try, imperfectly—of the sacrifice Christ made for us on the Cross. In light of that, we had to give something up that really meant something, and, in my mother’s world, we also had to DO something.

So I was giving up chocolate, which was my favorite thing in the world besides books, and saying a decade of the rosary every night. I thought that would satisfy Sister, but then, two seats ahead of me, Rebecca sat up straight and confidently reported that she was giving up chocolate and saying a decade of the rosary every day.

Rebecca was thinner than I was; her hair was redder than mine, and her freckles were deeper—the kind of freckles that constituted, my father said, a map of Ireland. Her family was holier than mine, too; Rebecca’s uncle was a bishop.

Sister liked Rebecca, and she liked her Lenten sacrifice. She stopped and pointed out how nice it was that a child should choose to give something up and say special prayers during her Lenten journey.

When my turn came, I knew I sounded like a copycat. I muttered that I was doing the same thing as Rebecca, earning me another smack upside the back of my head.

“See that you keep that promise,” Sister warned me.

When everyone’s sacrifice was critiqued, Sister gave us a short homily on the dangers of eating meat, or eating between meals, on days of fast and abstinence. She urged us to go to confession at least weekly, to attend daily mass, and to pray the Act of Contrition at night, in case we should die between the dusk and dawn. An unforgiven sinner would descend abruptly into the fires of hell; we all knew this to be true. And we all knew, and Sister reminded us, that we were sinners from birth and from habit.

We stood to wish her farewell in one greatly chastised voice, and Sister swished toward the door, black wooden beads clacking. I drew my thoughts rigorously away from a contemplation of whether she was bald beneath her headdress, and went, almost with relief, back to math.

That would have been the first day of Lent, 1964. Lent felt, back then, like a long and arduous tunnel that took way too long to navigate.

******

My mother snorted when I told her that Sister had demanded to know our Lenten sacrifices. (Although they never said anything, we sensed that our parents didn’t respect all of the nuns who taught us. “They’re all frustrated,” said my irreverent father, although it was years before I realized just what he was getting at by that.)

Mom had had a strict and pious teacher when she converted to Catholicism; he had impressed stern and narrow dicta upon her. One of these was that sacrifice, announced, was nothing more than self-indulgence. To be valid, to be useful, sacrifices had to be made in secret, a matter only between the person and their God. Mom expected us to give things up, and she expected us to shut up about it.

But even then, I think I realized that there was a glaze of self-interest around any sacrifice, the gloss of self-righteousness, the icing of superiority. You have no idea how damned holy I am, the fervent sacrificer thought, smugly, especially when an erring, hungry sinner swiped a Lenten cookie.

And sacrifice brought pay-off too: the absence, for six weeks, of chocolate made that Easter basket candy taste so, so good.

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

I remember my childhood Lenten church as a frightening place, awash with incense, bereft of music, bathed in a violet twilight kind of glow. The statues were all covered with purple cloth: purple for sorrow. Mary, swathed and hidden; Christ’s sacred heart covered and withdrawn from view. The cloaked figures were frightening in the way that clowns are frightening: clearly something powerful lurked, masked. It seemed sinister and threatening to hide what I knew was there.

Penances seemed steeper during Lent; after Saturday afternoon Confession, I would kneel dutifully at the altar and say my Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s. My brothers would wait for me.

“I’m telling Mom,” they would taunt. “You must have done something really bad to get that long a penance.”

I wondered how their penances were so short, and I wondered if the priest gave boys easier penances than he gave girls. It would not have surprised me, given the state of the church in the 1960’s. In first grade, my two best friends and I set up an altar behind my old barn and played at being priests and giving out communion. That got back, somehow, to the holy folk at church, who told our parents to remind us what Catholic women could and could not do.

It never occurred to me that my brothers might not DO the penance the priest had given them, or that they would abbreviate the prayers to get out of church more quickly. Penance done right was necessary to expunge one’s sins.

You couldn’t breeze through sacrifice: sacrifice had to hurt to be effective.

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

We observed Lent, my mother and my teachers told me, to commemorate the time Jesus spent in the desert, the 40 days before he started his ministry. Jesus fasted during that time, and we would fast, too—we would give up favorite foods. We would abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday. We would eat only lightly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and not at all between meals. (We were happy to learn, as we got older, that unlimited coffee was allowed on these abstinence days, and that one could smoke all one wanted.)

Lenten sacrifice would ready us for the joy that Easter brings.

Why did Jesus go to the desert for forty days? It was not a question I thought to ask. We were not encouraged to read the Bible. We were encouraged to take things on faith. Things that could not be explained—how could God be three persons? How could Mary conceive a baby since she did not know man? How could nuns be Brides of Christ?—were holy mysteries. Good Catholics accepted these things because they had faith. They did not question.

Much, much later, I read that some scholars propose that Jesus did not understand his divinity until his days in the desert. He went into the wilderness with an incomplete understanding; he came out, lean and chastened and having wrestled with his demons, forty days later.

That was a new spin on sacrifice. What if, like Christ, we come to understand ourselves better through sustained and thoughtful sacrifice?

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

Life tumbles us, that’s for sure, polishing our rough edges, smoothing down the bitter points that stick out, in danger of snapping off. As I grew and leaned into periods of self-indulgence, and learned that sometimes I could cheat the system without ever being called to account, my understanding of sacrifices grew too.

I discovered that sacrificing NOW, delaying immediate gratification, can result in wonderful things—pounds lost, money saved, a raft of time set aside for a satisfying, creative pursuit.

I learned that sacrificing time and energy and other personal resources—talent, imagination, enthusiasm,–can (especially when the sacrifices are made in company with other impassioned people) create something rich and new and vital.

I learned that, sometimes, I have to put my own interests and needs and goals on hold to help someone else achieve a more urgent quest.

But I learned this, too: a life composed only of grim and thankless sacrifice produces only a grim and thankless martyr, a dried out, juiceless being, one not fun to be around. A person without joy.

And there should be—there absolutely should be, in a world packed with wonders and nature and people who amaze—there should always be joy. Even in end days, even in times of loss, the tears should tell out the joy that was shared, and not mourn the things blocked from coming to fruition.

It is good, I think, to deny myself, to learn that I am capable of doing without easy resources or an abundance of choice treats—to challenge myself to take the hard road and hone my own pampered skills.

It is NOT good to hide my gifts, to sacrifice the joy of using them. That doesn’t help me, and it snuffs out possibilities for the folks who might have enjoyed seeing my quirky, limited, distinctly individual, light shine.

***********

Thursday dawns, a gray, warm day, and I put the remaining chocolates up where I can’t see them. I pour skim milk onto my nutty nuggets, and I make a new to-do list. It includes mixing up a batch of wheat-free flour, a blend of five different flours that have no gluten, to augment our Lenten eating. “Wheat-free” looms more like a challenge than a dread omission.

Mark packs a simple lunch to take to work, slicing meatloaf, chucking a tangerine in the bag, and Jim cheerfully reports on what he can drink, these forty days, that is not soda pop. I lace up my sneakers and head out for a refreshing, centering walk before the rain falls down in earnest.

It is a cloud-pressing day; the sky feels close, and the ground is sodden with rain fallen and warily waiting for rain to come. I walk down the hill; two cheerful young guys load furniture from the little gray house’s yard into a Re-Store van. We trade good mornings, and the bespectacled one says, “Come to help us, didja?” I make Popeye arms and we all laugh.

“Work fast before the rains come!” I say, and I wave and head around the corner, past the houses on Edgewood where no one, on a wet Thursday morning, stirs outside. I stride past the vacant lot where the old school building stood just last year; it is a puddled and soggy, patchy field now. At the corner, I pause, considering.

I could turn left and take the short way, what we call the Big Block, a half mile rectangle that starts and ends at my door. Or I could turn right and make a real leg-stretcher of this walk, maybe even retracing my steps on the way home, climbing, instead of avoiding, the hill.

I waver, and then I push off toward the right. There’s little traffic, and the birds chitter and call. One sounds like this: Peer, whoo whoo! Peer, whoo whoo! Peer: whoo whoo WHOO! The others are a chirring chorus behind that extraordinary solo. A cardinal flies one way; a blue jay intersects his path. And then a red-headed woodpecker soars and dips and lifts up to the tree I’m approaching.

I pass the tree, walk past the big lot by the big white house, and suddenly the low gray sky cracks open and the street is filled with golden light. “That’s IT,” I think. That’s what I am trying to say.

Choosing to take the longer way, the harder way, didn’t, of course, tease the clouds to open or the sun to shine. But, if I hadn’t decided to turn right, to push myself a little, I would never have had that sun-breaking moment.

I walk in the unexpected sunshine for maybe another quarter mile, and then I turn back. I don’t turn off at flat and easy Norwood Street; I march back to Normandy Drive and I push myself up that steep-sloped hill.

By the time I get to my door, I am panting, and the clouds are sliding back together, the golden light seeping away, and it’s time to get things together and drive to Westerville.

It will be a busy day. Within its weave, there will be moments of simple sacrifice; there will be moments of doing more. And those moments open up possibilities: on what seem like ordinary, even dismal, days, the path I choose may put me, for a joyful moment, basking in the golden rays of an unexpected shot of sun.

 

 

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An Unexpected Week

So Mark’s car was back, shiny and pristine, and drenched, inside, with that patented new car scent. We took it on a road trip on Sunday, and then, of course, he drove it to work on Monday.  It rode, as they say, real good.

That night we grabbed a quick dinner, and then Mark took off for a 7:00 meeting. James and I settled in to watch some episodes of ER; I left my phone, muted, on the dining room table. Jim left his upstairs.

I pulled my knitting out of its bag and settled in to see if Carter and Susan were really going to make this relationship work, and if Mark and Elizabeth’s baby would be okay, and how they were going to handle the whole thing with Rachel. We weren’t even halfway through the episode when the back door swung open and Mark stomped in.

“Don’t you people EVER answer your phones?” he barked. Turned out he’d blown a tire about a quarter mile from the house and had spent the last half hour waiting, pulled off to the side of a snowy, busy street, for Triple A to come pull off the flat and put on the doughnut.

I grabbed my phone to find no fewer than 12 texts and voice mails…11 of them from Mark.

Sorry, Bubba, I said. This was unexpected.

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

In the quiet pause of Tuesday morning, after Mark had gone off to take his car  to the tire place and get a new tire put on, I made my to-do list. I had a writing project to finish, and some planning to do for the last weeks of a lit class I’m teaching on-line. I wanted to do a little research for a grant possibility, and the kitchen floor was bugging me…the dragging in of salty snow had left cloudy tracks all over. So I needed to get that mopped, and then I wanted to finish spackling the dining room walls.

A good day’s list, I thought, and I finished my nutty nuggets, did the required morning word puzzle, washed up the dishes, and headed to the computer. And then my phone buzzed.

It was Mark.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here,” he said, a trifle grimly. “Can you pick me up?”

I scuffed into my duckies and threw on my jacket and drove to the tire store. Mark climbed in, scowling. Not ONE tire, but two, and they needed to be aligned. And the tie rod was broken. The bill was going to be a wee bit more than anticipated. We shared a moment of stunned silence.

Geez, we agreed. Didn’t see that coming.

**********

So I dropped Mark off at work, and we agreed he’d call when the tire place let him know the car was ready. He thought it might be 10:30 or so. I went back to the computer with the phone at hand; at 11:00 I still hadn’t heard, and finally, about 11:45, I called to see if he wanted to come home for lunch, regardless.  Jim thought he’d go for a ride to get his dad, just to get out of the house, so we took the Hyundai downtown. Mark was waiting outside his office.

“The car’s ready,” he said. “They just called.”

We took him back to the dealership and headed home to heat up some beef stew for lunch.

After lunch, Mark headed off for work and Jim reminded me that our library books were due, so we headed back out. We returned books and DVD’s and browsed a bit, and then we headed back home. As we were getting out of the car, Jim said, gesturing at the back seat, “Hey; is that your phone?”

“What?” I said. “No. My phone’s in the phone place in my purse.”

Just then Jim got a message, sent from his dad’s IPad. “Did I happen to leave my phone home?” he texted.

“Why, yes,” Jim replied. “Yes you did.”

“Do you think you guys could bring it to me?” Mark asked.

By the time we got back from that trip downtown, it was 2:30. My classwork, at least, was done, and I figured I’d jump in and get some spackling done before I started dinner. When 5:30 rolled around and Mark was pulling into the driveway, I only had two things checked off my to-do list.

This is NOT how I pictured this day rolling out, I thought. But at least we’ll have an adventure tomorrow. Mark was taking Wednesday off; we were going to the city to a gallery that has a quilt exhibit. To my surprise, it was something both Mark and Jim were interested in seeing, and so we planned a road trip, complete with a gallery browse, lunch, and maybe even a stop at the Apple store to get new batteries in our phones.

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

I woke in the middle of the night to a tap-tap-tapping on the windows. Freezing, sleety rain was falling in sheets. The world was glazed. When we woke up, the neighborhood looked like it was glass-coated, and it was clear we weren’t going anywhere that day.

So we made a big breakfast and I did mop the floor and that afternoon we lit a fire in the fireplace and brought clean fluffy throws up from the dryer and wrapped up in cozy chairs and read.

It was not the way Mark pictured his vacation day shaping up, but it turned out to be a nice day, nonetheless.

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

And then little things kept coming up. I mixed up the crust to make apple pie bars but found the apples had turned beyond redemption. I froze the crust and made trifle for dessert instead.

I went to print the papers I needed for a meeting, and suddenly my printer had developed dire problems; I had to shut it off and run out to get my printing done.

The book I’d reserved turned out to be an audio CD. The program I had been watching sporadically disappeared from the Netflix line up. Unexpected glitches seemed to pop up at every turn.

The unpredictability simmered, brewing. I was feeling a little persecuted, frankly.

**********

And on Friday night I went to a gathering of people—people who have loved ones with mental illness. And one man told the story of his son, who’d been a bright boy, a shining boy, a boy with friends and skills and hopes and glorious, golden promise. And all that wonderful promise came crashing down when the boy went to college, when the voices started taunting him, when the world outside became too much for the boy to bear alone.

That was almost twenty years ago. The boy left college, came home, and stayed in his room, and the family writhed and changed. They went from shock to disbelief to action, to helping that once-glowing boy find the help he needed. Years passed without much progress, and then slowly, slowly, in tiny, terribly painstaking stages, things began to happen.

The boy learned to drive again. A new medication started to have a profoundly good effect. He decided to work with a job counselor, and he took a part-time job at a print shop. It wasn’t all clear sailing; there were a lot of adjustments, but he worked it out.

Then he met a young woman who knew what he’d been going through; she’d been on a similar journey. They circled each other warily for months, and finally decided to give dating a try. Slowly, cautiously, they built a steady relationship, not rushing, just putting out tentative feelers, seeing how this would go. And it turned out to be pretty good.

And just this year, the father said, the boy—now a 37-year old man—had accepted a full-time job at the print shop. For the first time, he had benefits. For the first time since his college life crashed around him, he was earning his own way.

The father leaned back in his chair and there was a deep and profound silence. Hands were still and eyes glistened.

And then the father continued.

“Sometimes things don’t work out the way we expect them to,” he said. “Things happen that you don’t ever see coming, and you just have to deal with that. And it’s not the way you expected things to work out.

“But,” he said, and his voice crackled, “they do work out. You have to hang in there. You might not get what you expected, but what you get can be pretty damned good.”

*********

A flat tire.

A lost phone.

A dirty floor.

An ice storm in the night.

A man who thought his life was going to look one way, but whose life, because of mental illness, and because he persevered, and because people cared and helped him, looked very different indeed.

A chance to gain perspective on a week that, though unexpected, wasn’t really a bad week at all.

 

Returning the Truck

There’s a reason why American men drive big pickup trucks: women dig them.
        —Tom Purcell
 Mark and truck

“You know,” I said to Mark at breakfast this morning, “You’ve never given me a ride in the truck.”

There was a pause, and then Mark clunked his mug deliberately down onto the table. He sighed, and he turned his head toward the carport, where the big-ass silver Chevy Silverado hunkered like an elephant in a dog house. He stared out the bay window for a long minute, and then he turned his head and looked at me.

“Okay, yeah,” he said, and his mien was smooth, but his voice was laced with either bitterness or grief. “Oh, yeah. NOW you like the truck.”

Wait, I thought, startled. Did I ever say I didn’t like the truck? But before I could pursue the subject, Mark heaved himself out of the chair and headed off to iron himself a shirt. I turned the page of the newspaper, and I happened on a big spread, an ad for new trucks. A truck like the one Mark is driving, I learned, would cost, brand-new, just about what we paid for our former house.

It probably wasn’t, I considered, the best time to point this out.

**********

This started when Mark came home from the rental car company driving his loaner, the vehicle that would get him through until his Impala was repaired. We’d expected a nice small to mid-size car,–a Chevy Cruze, maybe,–but here he was with a gleaming pickup.

“Whoa!” Jim said when he saw his dad pull in, and he slammed on his shoes and ran outside. I watched as the two of them hopped into the cab and out of the cab, and then they hopped back in. Then they got out so Mark could snap some pictures and send them off to friends and brothers…and to his first-born, Matt, who replied immediately.

“Dad!” texted Matt. “You got a TRUCK! I am so proud of you!

It was deflating, I think, for Mark to respond, letting Matt know it was only a loaner. But still: look at that truck in the driveway.

Right after dinner, Mark and Jim came up with a plausible reason to go to Kroger, and they ran out and took off in the truck.

The next day, Mark came home for lunch and said, jokingly, that one of the women in his office had asked if I was going to let him keep the Silverado.

“Hey,” I said, “you can drive whatever you want, as long as you can afford it.”

“Oh, sure,” said Mark (and, come to think of it, maybe that was the first time I heard that little edge in his voice.) “Oh, sure. It always comes down to THAT, doesn’t it?”

The body shop folks called that night and said it would be a good two weeks until the car could be fixed. Mark, his voice appropriately regretful, told them that would be fine, and he told them not to worry.

And certainly, not to rush.

Suddenly, there were tons of essential errands to be done using that silver pickup, and suddenly, Jim was kindly offering wing-man services.

***********

On Saturday, while the boyos efficiently prepared to do their weekly recycling and visit to the big-box hardware store followed by lunch, I asked Mark if he’d mind running my car through the car wash while they were out. We were picking up a friend to go to dinner the following day, and the car was crusted with street salt and splashed with dried slush.

Both Mark and Jim froze on the cellar steps, each with a foot poised to ascend, their hands clutching handles of big blue plastic recycling totes.

“Take the HYUNDAI?” Mark asked. He and Jim looked at each other.

“Well,” I said, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

There were sighs and mutters, and they slammed out the door, slammed the bins into the car, peeled out of the driveway. The idle Silverado stared blandly at me from the carport. The boyos were home in record time; the Hyundai was sparkling, and they quickly remembered something they’d forgotten to do.

As they backed the truck tenderly into the driveway, I swear the Silverado was smirking.

What IS it with men and big-ass trucks?

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

I remember  watching tiny, pre-verbal James picking up a Matchbox car, or a Tonka truck, or a box approximately shaped like a sturdy vehicle, to drive it down roadways worn into the carpet. “Vroooom,” he would mutter, totally absorbed. “VROOOOM!” And the truck would accelerate, taking sharp turns with ultimate skill. (What did little boys play in the days before Henry Ford?)

Sometimes Matt would hunker down with Jim encouragingly, racing another vehicle toward him. Sometimes Mark would get down there too, and three male voices would be rumbling along the faded peach carpet in the living room. “Vrooomvrooomvroom.”

A primal sound: something, it seemed to me, unlearned, inborn. An inarticulate articulation, a way of saying, at a tender, budding age, “I love trucks.”

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

Explain this to me, I think, and I type, “men and pickup trucks” into a search engine. Oh, the results are deep and multitudinous. I wade in.

Tom Purcell, in the online version of the Athens Banner-Herald, writes about a survey a company called Insure.com conducted in 2015. They asked 2000 people what an attractive potential romantic partner would drive.

When women discussed attractive men, the results were pretty specific: they’d drive a big, black, Ford truck.

The very next article, by Linda Holmes on NPR’s site (“I Like Big Trucks and I Cannot Lie: Cars, Trucks, and the Lady Brain”) cites the same survey. I look at the next two articles on the list. They refer back to that survey, too.

Women like men with big trucks, says the survey, but I think now that maybe that was a given before those results went public.

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

I morph the search slightly and open an article called “How the Car You Drive Impacts Your Image/Vehicles Reflect a Man’s Style.” It’s on realmenrealstyle.com, and it reiterates that people judge men–that, in particular, WOMEN judge men,—by what they’re driving.

And now I remember back to the law school days, when everyone was broke and struggling along, and when one of Mark’s young classmates showed up at school in the only car available in an emergency situation and in his price range: a cute, tiny, purple Ford Escort. He was a tall man, that classmate; driving along, he looked as if his knees were brushing his chin in the little car.

His classmates, male and female, were merciless in their glee; they laughed and laughed and made jokes about grapes and about fragile masculinity. I can’t remember that sweet young man’s name. I remember his ride, though. It was not what you’d call a chick-magnet.

I think, too, of young men I’ve taught, gallant boys who were scraping through college on tiny incomes from late-night jobs, taking heavy course-loads to get done sooner, shouldering loans and going hungry, giving up burgers in the cafeteria, borrowing textbooks from the library on long-term loans, and living with their moms and dads because they couldn’t, while the degree was pending, afford rent. I would see those dedicated students in the parking lot after class, where they would rear up and take off in loaded, crew-cab pickups. They HAD to have those pickups; they saw no irony in the fact.

The article on realmenrealstyle.com digresses when the unnamed author shares a picture of a Chevy truck that looks just like the one Mark is driving. It has a double cab, with room for six people, great hauling capacity, and the ability to navigate through all kinds of weather. “Chevrolet–if you’re reading–email me,” the writer suggests.

Then he adds some advice about selecting a vehicle. Keep it simple, he says–no weird, off beat colors (lime green is bad, and so, he says–woe to that young law student,–is purple). Keep it clean; piles of aging debris are not sexy. And keep it practical.

“Buy the right car for your lifestyle and take care of it, as the vehicle reflects your image,” realmenrealstyle advises.

But, as that author himself demonstrates, there is more to vehicle ownership than practicality. On therichest.com, an article called “What These 8 Cars Say About The Men Who Drive Them” (Debbie Bruce), tells me this: “…a man’s passion for his vehicle is typically primal and unwavering. The relationship between males and their cars is an intimate experience that is blissfully low pressure, undemanding and pure.”

(A truck, I guess, unlike a wife, does not pose annoying questions. Does a truck ever say, “Well, can we AFFORD it, honey?” I am quite sure it does not.)

So the vehicle makes a statement, and that statement reflects upon the man who drives it. And that vehicle needs to be worthy of that man’s love and respect.

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

How long, I wonder, has this been going on, this man-car relationship, this reflected and shared machismo? I pull up “The Illustrated History of the Pickup Truck” on http://www.caranddriver.com. The author introduces a historical slideshow by saying, “It would be hard to argue that any type of vehicle is more uniquely American the pickup truck.” So add a veneer of patriotism to the reflected glory and the love United States drivers feel for their trucks.

The illustrated history tells me that Henry Ford marketed the first pickup truck in 1925; he came up with both the concept and the term ‘pickup.’ Ford and his assembly line had put the Model T in the reach of many average Americans from 1912 on. Those who were farmers, or builders, or people with a regular need to carry large loads, had immediately set about morphing their cars into vehicles with hauling capacity.  When Ford followed suit, he quickly sold 135,000 of his new pickup trucks, “beginning,” the article says, “an American love story and putting untold numbers of horses out of work.”

A component supplier, Marmon-Herrington, offered, starting in the mid-1930’s, to convert Ford pickups to four-wheel drive. Many people took them up on that offer, and manufacturers took note. Dodge’s 1946 Power Wagon offered 4WD as a standard feature. Military personnel returning home from World War II had learned to love four wheel drive, and they welcomed it in their personal trucks. And men, it was clear, didn’t have to be in a line of work that required heavy hauling to want to drive a pickup.

As pickups continued to “find their way off the farm and into the suburban driveway,” The Illustrated History of the Pickup Truck tells me,” buyers began to demand more style and amenities.” So in 1955, a Chevy pickup lost its rear fenders, sporting, instead, sleek, smooth sides. Inside, its upholstery was wrought in two vivid colors, it had armrests, and sun visors shaded both the driver and the passengers–truck luxuries unheard of until then.  Ford and Dodge jumped in to update their designs, and by 1960, pickup trucks all offered the same sleek styling.

International Harvester, I learn, was the first company, in 1957, to offer the crew cab. Their three door truck could carry six people with no problem. Soon Dodge added a crew cab to its line. At first, the expanded seating allowed crews to travel together back and forth from work sites, but families soon adopted the crew-cab truck as their vehicles of choice. By the late 1960’s, many manufacturers were building trucks with four doors, front and back seats, and all the bells and whistles a fancy car might offer.

Big block engines were first installed for folks who wanted to haul trailers or campers; Silverado added the powerful engine to its regular line in 1990. Others quickly followed. As the manufacturers ramped up their engine capacities, they incorporated aerodynamic details, too, until, in 2004, the Dodge SRT-10 could easily travel at more than 150 miles per hour…and it could go from a dead stop to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. (“When would you ever need to DO that?” I ask Mark. He looks at me pityingly, and he shakes his head.)

I read about diesel engines in pickups, convertible pickups, and pickup-SUV mash-ups, which turned out to be fad rather than innovation; by 2013, that was over. I learn that the Ford F series has been the bestselling brand of pickup trucks since 1982…but that there are many other pickup trucks a man could learn to love.

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

The body shop calls, mid-week, to say that the Impala will be ready on Friday. James and Mark are sad. That night, they take the truck out to do an errand, and, heading back, Mark figures he may as well fill the tank. When they come in the house, both the boyos are stunned, whites showing all the way around their pupils.

“Do you know what it costs to fill the tank of a Chevy Silverado?” Mark chokes out. I do not know, but I can see this startling fact might make it easier to send that truck back to the rental car store.

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

So Mark navigates the end of the week in a little haze, the kind of fog that descends when one knows a well-loved friend, after a wonderful visit, must soon depart. He is trying to enjoy these last days of the truck, but the knowledge of separation flavors every ride.

I understand, I want to tell him: that vehicle is his reflection. But the Impala: well, that’s a good looking, efficient ride, a smart car to drive with a hint of luxury built in. Good-looking, efficient, smart–much like the man who drives it.

And maybe, if we start saving now, there could be a truck in his future, perhaps even a splurge to celebrate a smart, good-looking, efficient man’s retirement.

But I turn to see Mark, unguarded, staring out the bay window and sighing. And I hear Jim’s echoing sigh from the living room.

“A man’s passion for his truck is primal and unwavering,” I remember, and I clamp shut my mouth, putting a comforting hand on Mark’s shoulder, and I head off to rub the pork roast.

Mark and Jim and truck.jpg

Of Fox and Geese and Gadding Freely

Yeah, let’s do something crazy…

—Leonard Cohen, Waiting for the Miracle

Yard tracks 

I open my eye a slit; the clock tells me it is 5:48 AM. I realize the cell phone alarm will burble in twelve minutes, and I really don’t want it to. I slip out of bed and pad over to the shelf where the phone charges; I log in and un-set the alarm. Then I slide back into the bed, thinking smugly, “This morning, I am sleeping in!

Ten minutes later, Mark sighs and throws the blanket back. His bio-alarm has rousted him out of bed thirty minutes before the clock would have called him. He trudges off, quietly, to shower. When he opens the bathroom door and heads downstairs, I get up and move off to meet the day.

It is 6:30 AM, and I have lolled in bed for a whopping thirty minutes longer than usual. A wild woman, that’s what I am.

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

The snow fell pretty steadily for twenty-four hours, and the backyard was a deep white field. Too lazy to sit down and tie up my boots, I slipped into my waterproof duckies, which leave my ankles bare. Greta and I plunged into the whiteness, and soon I was whining; my ankles were wrapped and bathed in cold.

The little dog snuffled. She pulled a snow-covered face from the pristine snow and considered, and then she prissy-footed a long loop around the yard before finding just the spot she wanted. Business taken care of, she buried her snout in the snow again before picking the best path back to the door.

The next time we went out, I laced up my boots, but Greta trotted obligingly into the path she’d broken before. Later, she made a similar looping path in the front yard. For the ten days that the snow was deep, she stayed faithfully in the paths she’d trodden.

She wasn’t the only one; the mail carrier wore a snow-way across the yards from Sandy’s house to my front door. The deer splashed their tracks in the same loping direction every night.

It made me think of Fox and Geese, a game I loved to play in the snow when I was a child. We scribed paths in the new snow, then spent careful time packing those paths down, making a maze in a newly frosted wonderland. Then the game began, and the paths were our world: one mustn’t deviate.

If you left the path and struck out into the virgin snow, you were It.

If you stayed on the path, and It caught you, you were It.

Slow and indecisive, I was It a lot, but I loved the clear, bright orderliness of the paths, the finiteness of choice. My brothers, not so much. They got bored with the ease of making me It; they went and built snow forts and stockpiled arsenals of snow balls and had a different kind of fun: less scripted and more spontaneous and a wee bit dangerous. Anything could happen in a snowball fight.

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

I look at the tracks in the snow—dog’s and man’s and deer’s—and I think that it must be natural to be drawn to routine, to establishing a path, and then following it, day in and day out. Routine gives my days a structure, a pleasant predictability; it helps me maintain a rhythm and a flow.

Routine is, in many ways, a comfort.

I think of when James was little, before he had an autism diagnosis. His way of perceiving the rules of the world already confused and baffled him. A therapist gave us a book that extolled the magical properties of routine. Spontaneity be damned, it said. Kids with special needs want to know what comes next.

And so we built a simple bedtime ritual, with a warm bath and a stack of books and a night light to shine in the eyes of greedy monsters. We had a morning ritual, too, and we looked at the calendar on Sunday nights, preparing for anything different the week might bring. We even committed to getting up at the same time every day; the weekends, the book warned, can be just long enough to slog off the carefully built schedule and cause extreme angst on Monday morning. And let’s not even talk about changing things up on extended holidays.

Routine is a way of ordering chaos. For people with autism, for people for whom the rules of the world around them seem random and changeable, routine is more than comfort. It is the sturdy scaffolding that allows them safe purchase; it is a necessary structure. Only when routine is in place can leaps be made.

Routine, usually, benefits all of us. Settling into a schedule, I know that the house will be cleaned and the bills will be paid and that there will be food in the cupboards. Money will arrive when expected, plumping up the checking account; a little leak will dribble regularly into savings. There will be things to look forward to on the weekends—meeting up with friends and taking day trips and once-a-month splurges, maybe, at a nice restaurant. I work at creating this routine, and in time, the externals become internalized, and I almost don’t have to think about the things I do, or the order in which I do them.

A well-oiled machine: that’s my popular and positive metaphor: routine in place, things happen just as they should. No foul-ups.

But I’m working with a book I love, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Years and years ago—when James was a baby, I think—I discovered Cameron’s program for unlocking creativity, and using the tools she described became a part of my routine. So I get up each morning and do morning pages. Whenever the weather allows, I walk; I try to take a longer walk on weekends. I set up my mornings so that writing time is neatly bracketed in place.

Now, re-reading the book, I realize there’s one tool I have let slip: the artist date. Cameron challenges readers to set aside one hour a week to do something solitary, enriching, and fun. It could be wandering through a fabric shop and looking at the riots of color and pattern in the thickly stacked bolts. It could be visiting the new ceramics exhibit at the art museum or paging through crockpot cookbooks at a bookstore. It could be sitting in the park pavilion, listening to the chattering birds.

It must be something just for me, something that refreshes and restores. Just sixty minutes, once a week.

But it’s so hard to take that hour, to wrest one hour of time for refreshment from the 168 hours of week at my disposal. I can’t, I say, pleading busyness, pleading some essential obligation that only I can fulfill. (I WON’T, whispers the tiny voice. It’s different, and I’m scared.) And then routine has taken control of me, and I have let it.

And that can be a danger…if routine forces us to say, No, thanks, when a friend calls with tickets to a movie I have been longing to see. I can’t because it is Thursday night, and I never go to movies on Thursday. And so the chance to do something fun slips by, the opportunity to spend time with a well-loved friend and the opportunity to watch a film that might make me stretch and think and grow vanishes. I will probably never see that movie at the theater; I’ll wait until it’s seasoned, out on Netflix, watch it from the safety of my family room, snug in my jammies, never leaving the house.

I should control the routine; I should have mindful authority. And I have let the routine become an entity—one that tells me what to do.

There is danger in letting routine become too important. I remember a character in, I think, an Anne Tyler novel,  who cooks up a precise batch of chili every Sunday afternoon, measures it into six identical containers, and freezes them. On Sunday, he eats a bowl of chili. And then the next six days, he takes a Tupperware from the freezer at 6:30 PM; he nukes it for five minutes. He sits at the table and he eats it, and then he goes into the living room, turns on the TV, and watches Wheel of Fortune. On Fridays he shops; on Sundays he cooks: another batch of chili, packed into the well-cleaned Tupperware.

Routine has taken over. He sees no friends, takes no outings, on weeknights.

A fictional character, yes, but a cautionary tale for me: would I jump at the chance if a wonder presented itself on Wednesday night at 7:02, or would I plead inability because Routine tells me that is silly? I contemplate my untaken artist dates and reflect.

And of course, things change; then routines should, too. Kids grow into teenagers, and the bedtime ritual has to morph accordingly. People change jobs—or jettison jobs—and there’s a need to examine why I’m still dressing and eating and rising the same way I did when the office beckoned.

There can be bad routines, too—overeating can become a routine, or drinking too much, or spending too much time playing goofy games on line. I need to be protective and discerning when I let activities become part of my routine.

Because routine does make life rich for me: it insures that things get done, it keeps me from re-inventing the wheel, it gives me a way to dole out the time that is ‘extra,’ to decide what else I can do. But I create the routine, and one of the joys of having it should be breaking it, doing something different and fun—maybe even, once in a while, doing something a little bit crazy.

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

I look at the fox and geese snapshots I took, the regular tracks in the snow, and I remember what fun it was to trammel the clean, new snow. There is comfort in the following; there is excitement in breaking ground. I need to find the balance.

Writing my morning pages, keeping my everyday commitment to myself, I acknowledge this: I need to make myself an artist date. I start thinking about how to spend an hour, a bubble floating away from my routine, that could be just for fun.

Of Sticky Webs and Sturdy Cords and How We Keep in Touch

It was a busy day—first a road trip that encompassed lunch, and then a quick return to take part in a 2:00 webinar. And when that was done, I went right to Facebook, anxious to see what was going on with a former student I’ll call William: I was his art teacher when he was in middle school, way, way back in the day.

The word that always dropped into the bony cavern of my mind when I saw William-the-boy was valiant: he was tough and brave and, always and ever, kind. He grew up into a man who worked and played hard, who treasured his friends and family and cherished his wife and spun words into magic. I have two of his published volumes of poetry, and each year I collect another. Sometimes, when he and Elizabeth pass through town on the way to see her parents, we meet them for breakfast, and William signs a book for me.

This morning, when I got up very early, I saw that William’s mom had posted a request for prayers. William was having emergency surgery at 7:30 AM.

Hundreds of people responded, letting Alicia know that they were praying, praying, praying for her son. I joined them.

And then the force of the day took over; James barreled downstairs, ready for that road trip, and we marched off to meet our obligations.  But I was anxious all day, that surgery knowledge simmering, and at 3:00, I clicked out of the webinar and onto Facebook.

Where Alicia had shared the good news that surgery hadn’t been necessary, at least at this point, after all.

Hallelujah. I typed up a response to that good news. I’ll be watching Facebook for more information, and I know hundreds of us will still be praying until we’re sure that William’s out of danger.

And I thought: Thank God for Facebook. Without Facebook, I never would have known.

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

There’s a flip side to the wonders of Internet communications, though. Mark ran into a totally unexpected example this week because someone ran into him.

It was last Thursday; I was just thinking about putting some lunch on the table when Mark called. He was driving through an intersection when a woman, probably distracted, ran a stop sign and plowed right into the Impala. She hit the passenger side, thank goodness. And Mark wasn’t hurt, thank goodness. The crashing woman, too, was fine.

They called the cops and filled out the forms and exchanged insurance information. Mark drove his dented car home for lunch, and just yesterday we dropped it off at the body shop.

Then we drove over to pick up the rental vehicle the insurance provides while the car’s in the shop. James and I drove home; fifteen minutes later, Mark pulled up in a big-butt silver truck, grinning like a maniac. He parked the monster in the drive and started snapping pictures to send to all his buds.

“Driving me a TRUCK,” he texted.

That was a good thing that came out of the T-bone incident.

But then the phone calls started coming. They were from certain practitioners and health professionals who’d read on line that Mark had been in an accident. They had the name of the woman who hit him. They had the name of her insurance company. They assured Mark—the first two times, when he, thinking they were work-related, actually answered the calls—that the lady’s insurance company would pay for all his treatments, and was he sure he didn’t have any ill effects, any aches and pains, as a result of the incident? Why didn’t he just come on down and get checked out?

Mark stopped talking to callers from unknown numbers, but the messages started piling up, and he called a friend who specializes in liability law. She told him that this was just the beginning. Watch your mail, she said. You’ll be getting solicitations that way, too, from practitioners who found the accident information on the Internet.

Sometimes, Internet information is just a little too accessible.

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

There’s a reason they call the Internet the World Wide Web; it fans out, sprawls across time and space. Its sticky strands capture a whole lot of people and a whole lot of information.

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

So I have been thinking about communication, spurred on by a couple more things.

A cartoon, this one in the back of the AARP newsletter, is titled, “The Last Laugh.” A woman stands in a doorway as her husband peers at a computer screen, fingers on the keyboard.  She says to the man, “I need a more interactive you.”

Another woman in a cartoon, a woman of about my age, is sitting on her couch and remembering. In one panel, her teen-aged self is on the phone, snuggled in a chair, the curly cord wrapped around one hand, rolling her eyes as her father complains about the time she is spending on the family line. In the next panel, there she is, all grown up…and sitting on the couch, ignoring her husband, texting.

I look at the two panels and think wryly that it might be true: I probably spend as much or more time using my phone now than when I was 16 and my brothers swore that I always got a long and necessary-to-answer call at night just about the time dishes were ready to be washed.

And then I think: no cord, now, though.

And the idea of the cord reminds me of the expression someone used just the other day. We were talking about a surprising piece of information that came to light, and asking her how she’d heard it. She looked puzzled and shrugged and said, “Just through the grapevine, I guess.”

Heard it through the grapevine, I ruminate, thinking of the saying, and thinking of the song, and then wondering where that expression came from, anyway. I look it up—on the Web, of course.

A British website (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/heard-it-through-the-grapevine.html) tells me the saying dates back to 1844, when Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph and changed the way people communicated. The telegraph was the modern, fast way to get news, but, in communities, it wasn’t necessary. Word spread without it.

That spreading of news from person to person came to be known as the ‘grapevine telegraph,’ and the expression, “I heard it on the grapevine,” came from that way of distinguishing spoken news from electronic news.

The grapevine, too, is a kind of physical cord image, a ropy, tactile link from one person to another.

I can remember getting in very hot water as a child when I told friends about some trouble one of my normally angelic brothers got into. My mother hauled me into the kitchen by my scalp hairs and informed me in no uncertain terms that we did not air our dirty laundry in public. I immediately had a picture of bright clean clothes, freshly washed, flapping innocently from the clothes line….although I didn’t think that was the perfect time to share my imaginative visioning with the mama.

But there was that clothes line: a cord again in a communication metaphor.

And how about phone chains? I remember, pre-Internet, hearing the news about school closing—oh, happy day!—from a colleague who phoned. I had a person to call, and she would call the next person on the list. The final call recipient called the principal back, and the loop was closed, the chain forged and complete.

We say, Let’s keep the lines of communication open.

Chains and lines and ropes and cords—thick cables that involve one person being present, hands-on, and then actively sharing the information received with someone else—being there to see or hear that someone else’s reaction. Cords and webs are very different.

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

The web, I think implies a large sending out of information (as I think this, I see Spiderman squirting web from his palm, a sticky mass that flies far afield and clings to all kinds of surfaces,–some, perhaps, that Spidey didn’t plan to hit). Internet information dispersal doesn’t imply a response. The data flies all over; many, many people catch it. Some make a note. But we’ll never really be sure, completely, who the recipients are, or what they do with the information received.

There is, though, absolutely a place for Internet communication. It is wonderful to type in, ‘grapevine etymology,’ and instantly have answers to the question of where and how that expression originated. It’s amazing to be able to put a whole college class on-line, to have people who would otherwise be challenged by work and childcare and transportation be able to sit in their jammies at 11 o’clock at night and dive into a course they need to complete their degree—a degree that will help them get a better job, provide a better life, feel better about life as a whole.

And it’s wonderful to keep up with beloved friends and family online, to see photos, to hear about accomplishments, to know, quickly, when someone needs good thoughts and sincere prayers. And social media, at least, gives us a way to respond, to close the loop.

The blogosphere is an amazing place. I’ve met people there who have become fast and wonderful friends. Without these folks, people whose work I look forward to reading each week, my life would be much less rich.

I am not completely a Luddite; I love my technology.

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

But I think we actively need to practice the other kind of communication, too,–the kind where we sit over steaming cups of coffee and talk it out, connecting in real, face-to-face, present time.

Or the kind where we actually talk on the phone to distant friends, sharing the news and the woes and the joys. There was a cellphone commercial not long ago where a narrator intoned, “Remember when we used our phones to TALK?” I was a little abashed—I still use my phone for TALKING, and, no doubt, always will.

Cords can be maintained by texting, too, and by emails, and oh, the ties that handwritten, thought-filled letters bind between sender and recipient!

The cord means that all the people on the line respond to someone else. Information is passed; information is acknowledged. In this process, we learn to talk to each other. We learn courtesy and diplomacy, and the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.  We learn that people we love and care for can have opinions and positions quite different than our own.

Even when we know they are wrong, we can stretch to understand why and how they arrived at that mistaken conclusion. It is easy to dismiss Internet strangers who disagree as crackpots and idiots; it is easy to begin to think that all the right people, the GOOD people, feel as I do. We edge a little further away, I fear, from empathy and the need to understand.

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

The web connects us.

As with any web, sometimes random things stick. The spider doesn’t want those dried up leaves or shards of gum wrapper. But their webs being webs, those things adhere, too. Hackers who try to impersonate me and leverage my contacts may stick to my web until I shake them off. Random old dudes posing as wealthy widowers and sending Facebook friend requests may try to get purchase, too. People hawk dubious wares; people try to wheedle our personal information and access to our accounts.

I need to keep up with updates, to be aware of the audience my posts and tweets are reaching.

I need to be vigilant and to monitor my own web.

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

The cords tie us together.

It is so easy, often, to put a general post on Facebook, and say that communicating’s done—to grab my book and light the fire and snuggle in. Ahhhh, I might think; objective accomplished. But I need to constantly inspect those cords for signs of wear and weakness. I do this by making the call or taking the trip, by meeting for lunch and catching up in a place where I can see that precious person’s face and judge for myself whether all is truly well.

I keep the cords strong by remembering that listening is at least as important as sharing. I bring myself back to the conversation. I shut off the monkey mind and try to really, really, be right there. I have to push myself, to remember how important it is to keep this cord dynamic and strong.

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

Certainly they are both essential—the immediate information, the real-time messages that keep me aware and informed, and the deeper, more questing conversations that maintain the essential connections. The web and the cords—I need them both, and I need to master their ways.

Some Principles of Broth

Antique dealers may respond hopefully to dusty bits in attics, but true cooks palpitate over more curious odds and ends: mushroom stems and tomato skins, poultry carcasses, celery leaves, fish heads, and knucklebones.

 —The Joy of Cooking

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

Broth

I clip the leash on the dog and we march out into a balmy January day. Over the river, the sun is rising, a beautiful band of liquid gold poured gently onto the horizon. It is almost sixty degrees out, and my jacket swings, jauntily unzipped, as Greta and I head out for a long sniffing walk. We wander past Sandy’s house; we meander up the drive by the Helen Purcell Home. The snow has melted, and the old dog, blissfully energized, chortles up wonderful scents.

But there’s an undercurrent to the breeze, and clouds begin to gather as we wander, and by the time we are back in the driveway, drops are falling. It will rain all day, the weather app tells me, and, along about four o’clock or so, the rain will turn to snow, and the streets will freeze, and travel will not be a smart or easy thing.

I think that it’s a day to make broth, and, after tending to the little dog’s need for treats, I turn the oven on to warm. I hunker down, refrigerator door open, searching.

I pull out the carcass from the turkey we roasted this week. In the crisper, half an onion waits in a baggie, nestled next to celery and carrots and the end of a bag of salad. I pull all these out, swivel them up to the corner and turn back to search through shelves.

I uncover a little container with a scant serving of green beans. I find a little bit of broccoli, and, behind the milk and the plastic jug of orange juice, I discover the end of a bag of spinach.

I gather these things and stand up, stretching, and I lay everything on the counter and survey.

Then I pull the old black roasting pan, its bottom raised and indented to form its own built-in roasting rack, from the top of the cupboard. I rinse and dry it, and then I begin.

First, of course, the turkey bones, which I crush slightly. I cut up the onion, and three celery stalks and two fat carrots, and I put them, too, into the pan. I scrape the leftover veggies into the mix and consider. Then I cut up another small onion and add it to the mess, and I throw in three peeled garlic bulbs. I drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle on a generous helping of dried herbs—herbs that Terri sent me, herbs that were grown and harvested and dried and blended on the farm of her dear friend. I believe, I really do, that all that care and attention comes out in a delicate, decided flavor.

I throw in a bay leaf, a teaspoon of pepper, enough coarse salt to make a one-inch pile in the palm of my hand. I toss it all together, and I slide the pan into the warming oven.

Rain, now, is lashing the windows. The scent of the roasting veggies and bones begins to rise almost immediately.

Jim stomps down the stairs, still sleep-stippled. “What’s cooking?” he asks. After I tell him what’s in the oven, he says, “It smells GOOD. People should bake that up when they’re trying to sell their house.”

He’s right; the roasting bones and veggies smell like warm and homely comfort. I wait fifteen minutes before I pull them out and stir.

The veggies begin to caramelize; the shards of meat and the bones turn a beautiful brown. In an hour, I pull the pan from the oven and take it to the sink. I let the water run steadily until the pan is almost full, and then I stagger beneath its weight back to the stove. I set it down in the center of the stovetop and turn the middle burner on. I adjust seasonings and walk away, letting the alchemy begin.

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

I can’t remember when I discovered that I didn’t have to buy broth to make soups and stews and gravies: I could use the homeliest, most neglected of orts and bits to make a wonderfully tasty stock. I pored through cookbooks, gathered recipes, sought advice. I tried and I erred, and I learned, finally, how to concoct a workable, tasty, effective broth.

The process pinged with me. I learned that many neglected items—veggies and bits of bony meat—scorned as leftovers or snacks, are welcome ingredients in a pot of broth. I learned too, that broth is not a place for the moldy or the spoiled, for things I wouldn’t serve to others or eat myself in the condition in which they now existed. Broth is a place to bring together misfits and healthy outcasts, but not a place to hide the flavors of unhealthy companions.

Broth is a living representation that sometimes, the resulting whole is bigger and better and more robust than the sum of its parts.

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

There are principles to making broth, I think as I settle back in my reading chair, letting the contents of that burgeoning pot warm and evolve and grow hot enough to simmer.

Like, “Don’t overlook anything, no matter how tiny or inconsequential.” Those little bits of green bean, that lonely clove of garlic—they don’t look like much, for sure. In fact, you might pass them right by, be inclined to discard them. But the broth would not be quite the same without their contribution—each player, no matter its size, adds something—zing or zest or depth or freshness.

Like, “Sometimes the things that seem obnoxious on their own are perfect and essential in combination.” I mean, onions, really—who wants to take a big bite of a raw onion? Who really likes to chop them, tears streaming, fingers getting pungent and tangy? An onion is not always a refined dinner pal. But we need onions in our broth; we need their pungent, earthy flavor. Overpowering when solo, onions rock in company.

Like, “It’s not going to happen in 15 minutes. Patience is a necessary ingredient.” I like to make the time for the roasting step, although it’s not absolutely essential. The caramelization, the roasty brown bits: these add deep rich color, and deep rich flavor, to the broth. And the long simmer is the learning process, where the flavors leave their own little spaces and merge, blending, extending, exploring, accepting. This cannot be rushed.

Like, “You must have some common denominators, but every batch of broth will be different in some way.” The bones, of course. The onion, a given. But I’m not always going to have the same stuff in my refrigerator. What goes in the pot will depend on season and feastings, appetites and energies. Every broth I make will be the same in some ways, and it will be different in others. The complexity makes each meal exciting.

Like, “Use the end result adventurously.” This broth, with chopped kale and orzo and tiny meatballs, could give me Italian wedding soup. It could also be the base for chicken tortilla soup, or build a roux for a pot pie. A few tablespoons of that tasty broth could flavor the next batch of homemade hash, and the rest could go into the white sauce for Alfredo pasta. Broth is a base, a beginning. And the end results can be excitingly varied.

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

I was naïve; I thought the process was nothing more than putting leftovers in a pot, heating them with stock or water, and—voila, soup! Eventually I realized that it’s necessary to learn some simple techniques for maximizing flavor: how to make a good broth; how to begin a soup with a base of softened vegetables and herbs; and how to add either a single vegetable, for a pure and simple soup, or a combination of many vegetables (as well as pasta, meat, or fish) for a more complicated soup. The variation is endless.

 —Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food

 

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

My son James loves to watch shows—Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, even The West Wing—in which oddly fitting individuals come together, perhaps against great odds, to form a wonderfully cohesive whole. So the stunning blonde former cheerleader adds life and humor to a group of introverted physicists. The popular girl winds up, years later, with the geeky archaeology doc. Jocks and intellectuals, extroverts and shy guys, wealthy types and penny-pinching strugglers, all contribute to the wonderful whole they create. Quite often, the loss of a character, even a seemingly minor one, will change the show’s whole flavor.

Maybe some of those brothy principles apply to the congregation of people, too.

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

My cell phone bounces,  jangling. It is my partner in crime, Becky, calling to sadly say she thinks we ought to cancel our first class meeting tonight. I check the weather. The temp is down to 34 degrees; there’s a brazen red banner across the weather website. All this rain is going to freeze. And then the snow will come.

I can hear it happening already. The rain drops that were gentle, then lashing, are pecking now, crashing against the bay window in metallic waves.

Becky and I divide up the list of participants, and we each make calls.

The news channel tells me local schools all dismissed early. Mark pops in from work at 2:55, sent home by his boss. I drag the reluctant dog outside to take care of business before ice glazes her pathways. She sticks her snout skyward, blinking,…wondering, I bet, what happened to our balmy morning weather.

And inside, the whole house is broth-perfumed. Jim is right: all other things being equal, the wonderful scent might sell a house.

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

The light wanes and the temperature dives and we start the fire. The dog curls up, snoring, in one arm of the couch. We light lamps and pull out books and settle in. I think that a family has some things in common with a broth, disparate characters coming together, creating an unexpected, essential whole. The principles, above, apply.

The rain is morphing. First comes the sleet, and the world is glazed. In the neighborhood, the cars are pulled into the driveways; the lights are on. No traffic sullies the quiet.

And then, abruptly, the sleet becomes snow; the icy world turns white and silent. And inside, the fire snaps; a dog and a boyo snore, cozy in their perches. And on the stove, a deep, rich broth simmers.

 

Now That I Know Your Backstory, I Love You Even More

It was early on a frigid day, one in a long string of ‘em. The house was cleaned and polished; the walks and drive were shoveled. The afternoon stretched ahead, as untrammeled as new snow.

The boyos, who had been avoiding the face-freezing air for several days, were restless. They decided to pack up and drop off the recycling; then they would go out to lunch. They stomped up and down the basement stairs and gathered things together, sliding boxes and bins out onto the little back porch, bundling themselves into bulky jackets, pulling stocking caps down to cover their exposed and tender ears. They hugged and waved and slammed out the door, and the house settled in.

And, oh the quiet! I put the teakettle on to boil; I would infuse a pot of rich decaffeinated coffee. I lit the fire, and pulled my old fuzzy blanket from the TV watching chair. I gathered up my books and put two cookies on a plate, and I placed all that on the table next to my reading chair.

The teakettle whistled. I poured steaming water over freshly ground beans, swirled a wooden spoon to start the alchemy. I wrapped a towel around the French press, and I went and warmed myself in front of the fire while I waited.

Finally, I slowly, slowly, pushed down on the infusing filter, and then I poured rich, dark, fragrant coffee into my special Christmas mug. I wrapped my hands around it and I lowered myself slowly into the reading chair.

Books and quiet and a crackling fire. I lifted the cup and bent my nose to pull in the wonderful scent.

“You and me,” I whispered to the coffee as its warmth spread through my palms. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend this time with.”

We go back a long, long way, me and coffee. Coffee knows all about my history: how I started drinking it when I was twelve or so; how I turned to beer and cigarettes in my fast and furious college days, and coffee became the taken-for-granted reliable friend who always picked me up on the mornings after, who provided a soothing counterpoint while I puffed foolishly away.

Coffee was with me in times of midnight worry and when a baby cried in the deep of night. It prepared me for long journeys and revived me on the way.

Coffee stayed with me, even when a cold, hard doctor dropped the word, “Decaffeinated,” from his uncaring tongue.

Yes, coffee knew all about my past and my present. But, staring into its chocolate-brown depths, I realized how little I knew about coffee.

“We’ve been together 50 years now,” I murmured. “Don’t you think it’s time I learned a bit about your past?”

The brew was unforthcoming. I sipped and sighed, and I decided I’d have to do my own research. I had come to a point where I needed to know more about this old companion’s roots.

Turns out a lot of folks on the Internet were eager to spill the beans.

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

Long, long ago, “About Coffee” (www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/History-of-Coffee) tells me, a goatherd named Kaldi pastured his flock on a plateau in an ancient Ethiopian forest. And he noticed, Kaldi, did, that the goats would nibble on the berries of a coffee bush, and then they would be so bouncy, so energetic, that they could not settle down to sleep.

Kaldi took this revelation to a local abbot, and the holy man brewed a drink with the beans and drank it. And, oh the joy for the abbot! Now he could stay awake during evening prayer!

He shared the brew with the other monks, who hallelujahed its praises.

The bracing story of coffee, from its simple beginnings of buzzed up goats, would percolate ‘round the world.

***********

The Arabia peninsula, the website tells me, is where the mindful growing and trading of coffee began in the fifteenth century. It started in Yemeni; it spread to Persia, Egypt, and Syria by the sixteenth century. And everyone who tried coffee, it seems,  wanted coffee.

Coffee houses sprang up in the Middle East; they became important social enclaves where essential information was exchanged, and where dynamic discussions took place. The coffee shops were known, says “About Coffee,” as schools of the wise.

And pilgrims came to Mecca, drank coffee, went home, and spread the word about it. By the 1600’s, coffee was in Europe, and a furor was taking place. The clergy in Venice didn’t like the new coffee-drinking trend; they didn’t like it one bit. (They must not have had any trouble staying awake for evening worship.)

Venetians were not inclined to listen to their pastors on this account. A controversy brewed, and the Venetian clergy decided they’d call in the big gun, someone their flock would not dare dispute. They took the question of whether coffee was wholesome and proper to Pope Clement VIIII.

The Pope asked to have some coffee brewed.

He drank it.

He loved it.

He approved it.

The Venetian clergy were vanquished; the faithful of Venice rejoiced at the holy sanction of their java.

(This makes me think, for some reason, of that sassy papal rejoinder to obvious queries, as in…

“Do you enjoy chocolate?”

“Huh. Is the Pope Catholic?”

From now on, I’m going to replace that. When a silly question is posed, I’m going to snap back, “DUH! Does the Pope drink coffee???”)

Driftawaycoffee.com tells me that coffee shops appeared in Damascus and Constantinople and Vienna in the 1500’s. The Viennese were the first to add sweeteners to their brews.

Coffee shops appeared in England in 1652, and by 1700, according to my friends at Driftawaycoffee, there were somewhere between one thousand and eight thousand coffee shops flourishing in Britain. Coffeehouses were GOOD things, say the authors; they promoted sobriety. Water was not very potable in the days before public sanitation. To avoid the germs and illness available drinking water provided, people drank beer and ale instead. That, of course, led to its own set of problems.

Coffee’s brewing process also eliminated the unsavory ingredients in drinking water. But, instead of promoting drunkenness, it promoted thought and conversation. English coffee shops became business hubs, public houses where clearheaded commerce could take place.

But what England’s coffee houses were NOT, back in the day, was female-friendly. Women were not allowed in coffee shops unless they worked there. Their “Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” says Driftawaycoffee, was “mostly tongue-in-cheek, but does provide this lively description: ‘…the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.’”

Maybe excluding women from the coffee craze is one reason many English still prefer their tea.

On NewYorkseriouseats.com. I find a section called ‘Coffee Chronicles in America.’ This notes that the Tea Act of 1773 pushed colonials to consider coffee as a serious hot beverage contender. Before the Act, Colonists mostly used coffee for medicinal purposes; it was pricey and rare.  But by 1793, coffee beans were roasting  in New York City, and the beverage had taken hold in the USA.

According to the Coffee Chronicles, a Coffee Exchange was established in New York City in 1882, and coffee quaffers were then guaranteed a certain standard of bean. The Exchange was a response to the great coffee crash of 1881, when unscrupulous sorts tried to corner the coffee market. They were unsuccessful, and we are still the beneficiaries of healthy competition among coffee-growers, insuring all tastes are amply provided for.

Satori Tato, a Japanese-American chemist, developed instant coffee in 1901, I learn from talkaboutcoffee.com. Two years later, German coffee trader Ludwig Roselius was stuck with a batch of ruined coffee beans. Roselius decided to experiment. His staff noticed that the water that soaked and ruined the beans also leached away their caffeine. They deliberately repeated the process, coming up with Sanka. The first commercially available decaf was born.

And coffee laced itself through United States life, bolstering business discussions and card parties, becoming a morning ritual for millions of folks. When Prohibition became law in 1920, United States citizens turned to coffee (in addition to their bootleg liquor) for beverage stimulation. It heartened soldiers and fortified those they left behind. It was a staple in break rooms and private kitchens.

Starbucks placed the coffee shop in the mainstream of United States society in the 1970’s; its own shops, and responses to them, proliferated.

The coffeeguide.org tells me that decaf coffee, my brew of choice, has had its challenges. It’s been embraced; it’s been rejected. A quick internet search offers a cacophony of competing decaf views. I read about health benefits and I read about the dangers of decaf. I read that decaf coffee still contains caffeine. I read about different processes, some of which are healthier than others, the writers report.

I think about the 60-point drop in my blood pressure, and I think about my ability to have a steaming cup of joe every morning, and I stop reading.

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

I write this on another cold morning, and as I write, I steadily drink my morning pot of medium roast decaf. And I realize there’s an awful lot to learn about my old friend, Coffee; my Internet ramble has not even scratched the surface of its depths. I remember, for instance, learning that coffee was used to treat hyperactive children in the 1970’s, before other drugs were identified; I remember reading that coffee may be one effective tool in individual arsenals that help people deal with depression.

I remember reading that agricultural coffee workers are victimized. Does coffee production harm the environment? There are sustainable, organic, free trade products I can buy. And there is much I still don’t know about my lifelong companion.

But my relationship with coffee emerges from my brisk study undamaged. We are still tight, coffee and me; we still share our mornings, our social times, our after-dinner dessert moments. I know that I’m not the only one; coffee has helped millions of people over hundreds of years enjoy and savor, and stay awake for, life. I can live with that. I can share.

Knowing coffee’s history just makes me love it more.

 

 

 

 

After the Long, Crazy Slide: A Time to Rest

The little dog sleeps, snuffling softly, in the comfy chair in the family room. The living room clock tocks boldly. The microwave hums and the furnace ka-chunks as it warms up, but these are not noisy noises. These are background noises to the quiet that comes after Christmas.

***********

I think of this holiday sequence in sledding terms. There is the long, hard slog up the hill, tugging a heavy wooden flyer with its runners waxed and gleaming, and sometimes there are people sitting on that sled, catching a ride. They make the slog up a little more work, and they make it a little more fun, too. Sometimes, they even help pull.

And it seems like it takes forever, but finally, panting, we hit the peak. We position the sled, one person holding the back in place as it teeters, ready, if we’re not careful, to careen away without us. Mittened hands hold that flyer steady on tipsy terra snow-covered firma, though, and the whole crew climbs on board, making room for each other, hanging on to each other, jostling each other. There are comments and kickbacks, but somehow, finally, everybody’s on that old sled.

And then there’s that moment—that break in chronological time—where the sled is not sedentary, but it’s not quite moving, either. It’s poised at the peak. It’s giving us all a chance to look at the packed white vista below. “Look,” that moment says to us, “look at where we’re headed!”

And we suck in our breaths, slammed at the beauty.

And then we’re off, and if we’re lucky—as so often, we are—the ride down is amazing, a blur of wind and snow and screams and laughter and undistilled wonder, and after all that long hard work getting to the peak, it seems like milliseconds before we’ve reached the shiny flat bottomland, and we’re looking at each other, jaws dropped, howling.

“Oh, man,” we say. “Oh, man.

We know nothing will ever be quite that great again, but some of us may brave the hill a few times more.

Then after, there’s the cozy après-sled part, where mittens crusted with snow are defrosting on the radiator, and boots are thawing on the twisted old rug in the backroom. There are the hot chocolates and the steaming mugs of coffee; someone passes cookies around, and someone is retelling the story of the riotous blur down the hill. The ride becomes faster and more dangerous with each telling and no one who rode on that sled begs to differ; we are all remembering, trying to recreate and recapture, that veil-lifting moment on the peak.

And people warm up, and gather up their things, and slowly, comfortably, disperse, until I am left—I am left by the fire with a steaming mug of joe, a piece of fudge or two, and a wonderful, unread book.

**********

The slog, of course, is the preparation for the Christmas holidays, and then Christmas Eve is the struggle to climb onto the sleigh, with that beautiful moment of sheer appreciation right there at the tippy-top. Christmas itself, with its excited gathering and gifting and glorious meal, is the wild ride down.

There’s the getting-together in the aftermath, and when that winds down, there’s the quiet respite by the fire.

**********

Today is my quiet respite by the fire time. It’s a time to spread out the holiday, look it over, rearrange a piece or two so they slide neatly into the way things really were.

**********

“This,” Jim said to me on Christmas night, “is one of my three best Christmases ever.” He was staggering under a load of books, epic works of graphic literature. The biggest and fattest is something like 1500 pages; that night, Jim’s bookmark was already a third of the way in.

Jim’s dad was in the cozy chair by the Christmas tree, reading.

We appropriated, this year, the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading them, wonderful chocolates close at hand. We woke up on Christmas morning and opened a few non-book gifts, exclaimed over stocking stuffers, munched on coffee cake. We roasted Cornish game hens for dinner, and we watched Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, snuggled in toasty throws, as the Christmas sky purpled into night. We ate grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner, and then we all read some more.

It was simple, quiet, fulfilling, and festive. Jim said he didn’t experience attacks of tension like he often does at holiday times,–and holidays can be pretty tough for those with autism and mental illness. This morning, he posted on Facebook. “I hope nobody minds me bragging about what I got for Christmas this year,” he wrote, “but I got some really cool graphic novels.”

When your mom’s an English teacher, this kind of post does her heart a whole lotta good. I completely forgot to ask about the other two Christmases.

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

This Christmas had that solemn, festive tension, that miraculous wonder of God-made-human. We talked with and texted and messaged far-away dear ones, making sure connections stayed warm and solid. Home celebration was all about the books and all about the chocolate. And it was a little bit about the non-human among us, too, the aging little dog and the cats across the way.

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

Jim said, one morning last week, “Did you see Greta’s leg, Mom? It looks like Holmsie’s did, just before she died.”

I looked; on the back of the joint on the dog’s left rear leg, there was a big purple-y red knot, the fur all worried away. Mark said he’d noticed her nipping at it.

I called the vet’s, and they said to bring Greta in that morning.

The vet who examined the dog looked about 18; she was pretty and mop-headed and firm of hand. She quickly determined the knot was not an infection, and she took the reluctant little dog back to draw some fluid. She looked at it under the microscope but couldn’t determine what, exactly, was present.

“We’ll send it off,” she said matter-of-factly, “and if it’s cancer, we can cut it away. Although,” she mused, “there’s very little skin left there to close the gap.”

We went home with new pain medication, which helped. Greta no longer worried the knot when she snuggled on the couch. It didn’t bother her when we went out walking. On these cold, cold days, she wanted to walk farther than I did.

“Such spirit for a 13-year-old dog!” one of the nice ladies at the vets’ reception area had said. She was right, but on arriving back home after a spirited walk, Greta sinks into sleeps so deep I often get up to check her breathing.

Don’t be cancer, I think, but the old dog is warm and comfortable; she likes to fall asleep on the couch, face bathed by the lights from the Christmas tree. She knows she is loved. We will navigate whatever happens next.

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

The cats across the street don’t have the gifts that Greta has: they are not warm and comfortable, and they have had no folks to love them.

Something happened over there—a break or a catastrophe of some kind, and suddenly the neighbors were gone. Baby toys remained in the yard, but the house was dark, the vehicles were never parked in the drive, and we never saw them walking with their newly adopted daughter after the dinner hour. Something happened. No one knew what.

But the cats were there—the black cat with the white smudge on the nose, and the little gray and black tabby. They paced the little cement porch. They slept behind the vertical slat of the porch swing, a little protected space. They meowed pitifully.

Those neighbors had been animal lovers; their big hearts attracted all the neighborhood pets. It was impossible to think that they would leave their cats. Maybe, we thought, these cats were strays that they’d been feeding.

I made some calls. It is hard to initiate a kitty rescue.

Finally, I opened a can of tuna, dumped it into an aging Tupperware dish, and walked it across the street. The little black cat jumped up hopefully, the tabby darted in, and I put the dish down. Then suddenly, three more cats were there. One, a huge brute, twice the size of the others, ate all the tuna.

I went home and said to Mark, “We need to buy some kibble.” That night we got a big bag of inexpensive cat food, filled two old dishes, and set them out for the cats—enough for all, enough to share.

The next day, I went to refill the dishes, and there were two new ones set out, filled to the brim. Jim said he’d seen a young girl running over to feed the cats.

And then it got cold. Really cold, and there were ads warning against leaving pets outside, and the dangers of this kind of weather for our furry friends.  We dug out old blankets and lined a couple of boxes, ran them across the street, tilted them toward the wall, away from the wind. Someone put out another box. Someone else covered the boxes with old rugs.

The food kept getting refilled.

And then one day, the neighbor’s truck was back, the lights were on, and the cats were again in the hands of an animal-loving host. Thank goodness.

And thank goodness we live in a neighborhood where people’s kindness extends to the neighbors with fur. Sitting in my comfy, warm chair, setting down my book, my eye rests on the ceramic nativity scene, with its sheep and oxen and camels, sheltering with the people on what we think was a cold, clear night. Christmas comes, I realize more and more, in all kinds of ways.

**********

I fall back into my book; the afternoon wanes. The boyos come home, just a little sheepish. Their afternoon jaunt has taken them right past our favorite used book store; everything, even the books on the clearance racks, was twenty per cent off. They each have a fat bag of treasures which they add to their Christmas bounty. Jim goes off to re-organize his graphic novel collection. Mark slips into the chair in the corner by the tree, opens his book, and closes his eyes.

I heat the oven, slide in a quiche, and the smells of roasting cheese and bacon greet me when I bring the little dog in from her late afternoon foray. I love this quiet time, poised between the glorious Christmas celebration and the contemplative New Year’s observance. A little time to rest at the end of the year, and to let the tension go and open spaces so we can look ahead. Fueled by this rich, warm time, we can explore what needs to be done.

A new year pushes at the edges; it’s a year in which we will change and grow, make decisions, and take bold steps to enact them. There will be surprises, and there will be challenges, reunions, and partings. This quiet time helps us prepare, gather up the strength, enter in with hope and courage.

Happy New Year, my friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Matter of Christmas Cards

Marianne has a rule for herself: she never opens a Christmas card until she has sent hers out.

Cards start to arrive in the first week of December, and she puts them in a special basket which she keeps on the little half-moon table by the front door, handy to the mailbox. That week, she helps her daughter Phyllis settle in.

Phyllis is 36 and has recently left a bad marriage–to a lazy, lying man who has taken advantage of her for many years. Marianne has watched her sweet daughter grow grimmer and grimmer, watched her usual dance through life become a burdened trudge. She has wanted so many times to say, “Leave him! Come home and rest and get ready for something better!”

But all she said was, “If you need me, I’m here.” Marianne’s own first marriage was a mistake that had to be lived through; she did not appreciate people who pointed it out at the time. Her mistake, her decisions to make. She wanted to treat Phyllis with respect, give her some dignity. Leave her some hope.

Because after she finally gathered up the energy to leave that first man, Marianne had thought her chances of happiness were shot–that her life would be a single one, a working one, one in which she’d hope for invitations to a niece’s house so she could experience a family Christmas once in a while. And she had set about building a worthwhile, solitary life, plunged into work and joined a gym and found a church that spoke to her. And she was happy and not lonely at all.

And then she met Hank, Phyllis’s father. They had, in their mid-thirties, produced Phyllis and her younger brother Danny. Danny was a graphic designer who worked far away, on the other coast. Marianne and Hank had taken the train out to see him the year Hank retired; they meandered across the country, and spent two weeks in a cottage helping Danny settle in, exploring his new town.

Two years later–which was, Marianne realizes now with a bolt of shock, three years ago–, Hank had a sudden, swift heart attack. He clutched his chest, looked at her in total surprise, and was gone.

So, although she doesn’t rejoice in the reasons for it, it is still a joyful pleasure to have Phyllis with her this holiday season. Phyllis is a sweet, strong woman, sturdy and affectionate. She works at the library, 9 until 6, Tuesday through Saturday; she gives Marianne a certain sum each month, and Marianne puts it in a special savings account. She’ll give it right back to her at some point, all the money that accumulates, but it’s good for the girl to feel like she’s paying her way.

And Marianne has a life: she goes to the gym four days a week; she has a book club.  She plays cards. She meets friends for lunch, and she sews and crochets. She has her housework down to a science, and every year, she redecorates a room. She never stops missing Hank, but her life is full.

Still, it’s awfully good to have Phyllis with her.

So the first week in December, the two of them fix up Phyllis’s old room. Phyllis asks if, maybe, she could turn the spare room into an office space, and Marianne thinks that a great idea. They spend a bustle-y couple of days cleaning and moving furniture up and down the stairs, from basement to second floor; back down again with rejects. They survey curtains and ponder color.

After Christmas, Phyllis says, maybe she’ll paint both rooms. If that’s okay with her mother.

And Marianne, who loves the transformation of an underused space into one that’s vibrant, says that of course it’s all right.

She did get out the Christmas cards–two hefty boxes of beautiful cards; she’d bought them at an after-holidays sale last year, seduced by thick, creamy envelopes with a little golden inlay under the flap. One has a vintage Saint Nick on the cover; the old saint looks both jolly and wise. And the other has a madonna and child. Marianne’s cards aren’t usually overtly religious, but this rendering just spoke to her: the young mother’s face illuminated and alive, not saccharine or saintly sweet. She looks strong and scared and filled with wonder…which is pretty much, when you get right down to the bottom level, Marianne thinks, the human condition.

The baby sleeps in the young Mary’s arms, his dark eyelashes long on plump cheeks. The picture called to Marianne, and she bought the two boxes of cards and put them in the armoire where she keeps gifts and things to save.

Now the boxes sit, waiting, on her bookshelf.

In the second week of December, Phyllis’s church has a benefit for a children’s program they sponsor. It’s a wonderful program, providing before and after school care for kids whose parents can’t afford it. The kids get hot meals and transportation; the church insists on homework time before play, but they provide tutors and materials. Marianne has tutored math there, her accounting background coming in handy. The church makes everything fun, a challenge. The kids learn to cook in teams of five, and a different team makes dinner every week, and they can stay at the church until 9 PM if their parents work late.

It’s a tremendous program, a make-a-difference program, and it needs lots of money and resources to keep up.

So during the second week, Marianne bakes batch after batch of cookies. Julia, the director of the early childhood program at the church, drops off a garbage bag full of pretty quilted materials. Marianne takes that, and scraps and remnants from her own old projects, and she designs and sews fifty Christmas stockings. It’s like working again: she gets up at 6:00 each day, and by the time Phyllis leaves the house at 8:30, Marianne is at work, too. She breaks for lunch and finishes up just about 4:30, when she contemplates what to fix for dinner.

The pile of cards in the basket by the front door grows.

Marianne does get her Christmas card list out from the drawer. She opens it up at lunch one day, and spreads it out onto the table. It’s in alphabetical order; the list marches along with the names in her address book. And the very first name is Lisa’s: Lisa, her friend since she worked in New Concord, twenty years ago. Lisa, who died in April after a long and valiant fight against a cancer that started in her uterus and slowly, slowly, poisoned all the healthy parts of her body.

Lisa A. Marianne looks at the list smoothed out in front of her and folds it back up. Lisa’s name is not the only one that needs to be removed from the list this year.

Marianne goes back to her sewing.

Phyllis notices by the third week in December.

“Mom,” she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t done your Christmas cards yet! You’re always the harbinger of the holiday season!” Phyllis, in her quiet, organized way, has sent her cards out. She set up her computer and printer in her new office; she printed out labels for the cards she had ordered from the office supply store. She had her name printed on them, then added little personal notes on most.

Marianne liked to do her cards by hand; and there was never a question of sending cards out from “Marianne and Phyllis.” Phyllis was not a dependent child; she was a strong and independent woman who had her own life and friends.

“I’ll get to them,” Marianne says to her daughter now. She goes as far as getting the address book from the side table. She puts it next to the card boxes.

The address book is thirty years old, probably. Bits of envelope stick out–bits with addresses that have changed and that Marianne hasn’t yet had time to record. Some of the pages are thick with change. When she can, she cuts the address label off the letter and tapes it over the old address. Some people–Jenny Cobb, for instance, the student intern who worked with them twenty-five years ago, and has stayed close and in touch ever since–have moved several times. Her little address spot has a lump where six new labels have been carefully cut out and taped in.

The address book is a lot fatter than it was when Marianne picked it up at a clearance sale at TJ Maxx. She was out Christmas shopping that day, she realizes–out shopping with her beloved Hank.

**********

That week they decorate; they pull the tree boxes up from the basement. They lug the heavy plastic bins that hold wreaths and garland, ornaments, and the pretty ceramic nativity set Marianne’s Aunt See had made her when she was in high school.

They dust and polish furniture. They exclaim over statues of Santa and ceramic penguins and ornaments painted by Phyllis’s and Danny’s young hands.

The basket by the door is filling up; each day brings at least two or three more cards. After her initial comment, Phyllis says not another word, treating Marianne with the same respect she’s given. But she looks at her mother with concern.

And Marianne faces the fact: she’s got to get those cards done. So on Saturday, when Phyllis goes to work, she gathers everything–the list, the address book, a yellow highlighter, a green ball point pen, a black gel pen, a waxed paper envelope with three books of Christmas stamps. She gets the boxes of cards from the shelves; she puts them on the table. And she sighs–she feels reluctance; she feels dread. But she sits down, and she picks up the black pen, and she starts.

She pulls the list to her; she takes the highlighter and draws a firm line through “Lisa A.” She opens the address book and runs her finger over the three addresses she has for Lisa A–the first, with the partner who broke her heart, the second for an efficiency apartment. Finally, Lisa stayed at an assisted living complex that gave her the right proportion of independence and increasing care. Marianne remembers all the visits she made there; she remembers that Lisa had a big bulletin board where she pinned all the cards and letters she received. There was a whole section, Lisa had showed her proudly, just for ‘Stuff From Marianne.’

Marianne takes off her glasses and stands up. She goes to the powder room and brings back a full box of tissues. She takes her first weeping break with Lisa A.

She uses the whole day to do her cards, paging through the address book, looking at the history there. There’s a place in the beginning for ‘This belongs to…’ and ‘In case of emergency, contact…’ It still reads ‘Hank Byers’ there. She picks up the highlighter, but her hand hovers; in the end, she can’t quite highlight Hank’s name away.

She cuts out address labels and pastes them in place for an aunt who has changed retirement communities, and for friends who have adventured out to Arizona, snowbirds happily ensconced in an RV community nine months of the year. Nieces and nephews, young former colleagues–all of these entries are thick with change and exciting new events–many have added spouses and children’s names to their entries, along with new homes at new addresses.

She consigns some entries  to the natural attrition of change–people who were present and important at one stage and era, and, that era having ended, who faded into their own busy lives, tenuous cords severed. Others names have reappeared–important friends from high school and college who have re-entered her life.. That, Marianne thinks wryly, is the joyful side of FaceBook.

She takes a weeping break at David’s name, too–Hank’s stalwart best friend died of cancer early in the year. After Hank passed, David and Annie had made sure Marianne was included in parties and adventures, had holiday invitations to their big, raucous family events–she never went, feeling an invader among the tumble of kids and grandkids, and last year, the first great-grand, but the fact of having an invitation to turn down had been a comfort many days. David came over at midnight once to chase a bat, and helped her connect to a company that would do that, too– “If ever,” he said, not yet knowing, “if ever I’m not available to do that for you.”

She thinks of Annie’s first Christmas apart, remembers how hard that is. She blows her nose and swabs away the dampness on her cheeks and writes a special note.

And Rita–oh, cancer has taken its relentless toll this year. Rita from her card club, tiny dynamo Rita, who often derailed the game with a wonderful story. No one could tell a story like Rita did, tell it at her own expense, making herself a hapless, Lucille Ball-style heroine, hoisted on her own petard. She would have them gasping with laughter,and when they were done, they had to think for 15 minutes to remember whose turn it was to lead a card. It’s so hard to accept that an elemental force like Rita’s has been quenched.

She finishes just before Phyllis walks in the door, and Phyllis hangs up her coat, puts down her purse, and comes in to see her red-eyed mother, hand flat on the last page of the address book, sitting at the table with three stacks of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed, and ready to mail.

“Pizza!” Phyllis suggests, but with a kind of firmness that doesn’t brook no for an answer. “Pizza and a trip to the post office.”

Marianne rinses her face and changes her shirt and grabs her coat. She closes the address book, folds up the Christmas card list and slides it inside, and they are off.

On Monday she begins to open the cards stacked in the basket. She reads each one, and she clips new addresses from envelopes if needed. And then she uses baby doll clothes pins she’s had since Phyllis outgrew doll-play; she hangs the cards from a tough green cord she’s strung over her picture window.

Many of the cards yield photos–smiling families, loved and missed; growing kids. Some folks include pictures of new houses or beautiful pets or vacation delights. Marianne carefully writes a description on the back of each photo. She pins these to a big canvas that hangs in the family room; after Christmas; she will sort through and put the keepers in a special photo album for Christmas card treasures.

Some of the cards have letters–newsy form-letters or handwritten scribbles, catching her up on what the year has brought and wrought for special people. There have been losses; there have. But there have been weddings and births, new jobs and new friendships. An old friend, at age 63, is headed back to college for the degree she always wanted and lamented. Another is taking an exciting trip through Europe. There are seven retirement announcements.

Marianne takes her time, opening five or six cards over her morning coffee, savoring the artwork, pondering the choices and what they reveal about their senders, absorbing the news she’s been sent. Opening that once-stuck door, reveling in reconnection.

She opens the last card on Christmas Eve, shows Phyllis a new-baby photo, clips the address and sticks it in the drawer with her address book. And then she runs up to change.

Phyllis has twisted her arm; she’ll go to church services, bask in candleglow and sweet music (tonight, Phyllis assured her, is a sermon-free zone). They’ll come home and have their annual toast and open their gifts to each other. Tomorrow, they’ll Face-Time Danny. And they’ll have an unexpected crowd around their table–a neighbor, Sis, who’s had a falling out with her family, will join them, and Joey, a young colleague of Phyllis’s, who can’t get back to Buffalo because of the blizzard his hometown is enduring. And Jannie and Kevin, Phyllis’s oldest friends, who had a miscarriage this year, have decided they wouldn’t go to Detroit for the riotous family Christmas.

Marianne and Phyllis have warned them all: they are cooking their shared favorite meal: a giant tuna casserole. Kevin said he was bringing a sliced ham to augment it, and Sis is bringing bread and a green salad.  Joey commented on their motley-crewness, and asked if it would be okay if he brought a Rudolph DVD. It’s a film he watches each Christmas, and maybe, he said, they could relate to the Island of Misfit toys. Of course, said Phyllis, and she touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

It will be a Christmas laced with the knowledge of loss, thinks Marianne, pulling on a velvety blue tunic and fastening her silver snowflake necklace. She will not be able to look too long at her daughter’s face as the carols play and the candlelight flickers in the church, to know the aching pain of her little girl and not be able to assuage it. She will reach across the miles to her baby boy, hoping he is safe and happy.

She will ache, remembering the people she cherished and laughed with, cried with and leaned on,–the people she will never see again.

And they’ll eat their unconventional dinner; they’ll learn about their guests. They’ll watch a silly movie and maybe play a rousing round or two of Apples to Apples, or deal out some cards. They will laugh and hug and share a day together.

And later, she and Phyllis will look through Christmas card photos, share this year’s news from both their batches of holiday greetings, pondering the ebb and the flow and realizing they can’t make sense of it. The pattern–if one is there–only emerges, she thinks, when the tapestry is completed, and Marianne is in no hurry for that to happen. She is lonely; yes, she is, but she is filled, too–with love for her children, with the need to contribute, with the potential of new friends and new discoveries.

She may well be sending Joey a Christmas card next year–who knows? He might be one of those ‘keeper’ people, someone she thinks of every time she hears Burl Ives warbling about holly jolliness. Other friendships may deepen; other losses may accrue. Her arms may be needed for comfort and her smile for celebration.

Her address book will fatten a little. Marianne knows that this is the truth; she dreads it and she welcomes it, and she runs downstairs to let her daughter take her to church.

A Creature of Habits

…”Coffee-guzzling chocoholic,” reads the brief intro on my Twitter. Hah: THOSE were the days.

Because here I am, dancing ‘midst the debris of my lost, lamented habits….

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Don’t feed whole grains to your autistic dear one, the article said, citing all kinds of recent research at reputable hospitals and teaching universities. Whole grains just are not digestible by the autistic gut.

Huh, I thought. In an effort to get fiber into Jim’s diet, we had bought whole grain breads and cereals and pastas. Maybe, what we thought was so good for him was really not so very.

We put white bread and sweetened corn flakes and semolina pasta back in the pantry, and I printed the article. I sent it off to our new doctor, who is smart and cares for  someone on the spectrum and who is vitally interested in nutrition and diet and exercise. Have we been feeding Jim all the wrong things? I wrote. I look forward to talking with you about this at my next visit.

A few months later, I went in for a check up; everything was fine, and we started talking about the whole grain thing, and she said yeah, probably pulling the heavy duty whole grains from the boy’s diet was a smart plan. We talked about vitamins and supplements, essential in the diet of one who will not eat anything leafy, green, or orange. And then we talked about wheat and how everything, it seems, has some kind of wheat by-product in it, unless it’s overtly marked ‘gluten-free.’

She told me that she’d been going without gluten for a long, long time, and she feels, really, much better–she’d been getting downright sodden there for a while, sick and dragging.

I told her about my former colleague who jettisoned grains and lost a whole slew of weight and gained a jetpack of energy.

We talked about wheat bellies and the importance of protein and all the wonderful attention that’s being paid, in cookbooks and on cooking shows, to the creative possibilities vegetables offer, culinarily. And then it was time for me to go; I pushed down my sleeves and slid off the table and grabbed my purse.

The doc handed me my papers to give to the women in reception, and she said to me, “So, are you really ready to do this?”

I looked at her, puzzled. “Do….?????” I began.

“Go gluten-free!” she said, smiling big. “No more wheat!”

Wait, I thought. Me? “No more WHEAT?” I repeated.

“GREAT!” she said, squeezing my shoulder. “You’re going to feel SO much better. I’ll get you back here in three months and we’ll see how it’s going.”

I took my papers to reception and I wrote out my co-pay check and I toddled out to the car, where I sat with the key in my hand, tracing the conversation backward.

“No WHEAT?” I thought, and I swore to myself I would never send my doctor another interesting article about my son’s diet, ever again.

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I have been wheat-free for over a month now, with one tiny apple pie indulgence, and I have to admit it: I feel better. My joints don’t ache, and I have more energy. I may even, maybe, have lost a little weight.

But, oh, I miss my nutty nuggets, my go-to cereal, crunchy little pellets of wheat and bran. Sometimes, up for a change, I’d get me a box of wheat chex, pour my skim milk on that in the mornings, sprinkle a little sugar on top and chow right down while I read the news and did my word puzzles. But now—goodbye wheat chex. And nutty nuggets: no more.

Now I eat an egg for breakfast, fry up a little ham. And I purchased a stick blender and the stuff to make breakfast smoothies. Sometimes, even, I have a morning salad.

And I’ve been exploring cereals–there are many, I know, that are gluten free. But I miss my old nutty nugget habit.

It’s not the only habit these grown old years have stripped from me.

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The worst habit, of course, was smoking, which I did from the time I was about 14, newly skinny and desperate to be cool. It was the Virginia Slims era, and my friends and I practiced gracious gestures, waving the long thin cigarettes in our long thin fingers. We thought it was especially effective, as the oldest among us acquired licenses, to drive around after school, past where certain young men hung out. Our elbows would rest on the open window ledge. Our hands would wave the lit cigarettes. Our gazes would be elsewhere, not noticing those boys who often yelled rude things as we trolled by. The essence of smoky cool, we were.

(I couldn’t stand that I wasn’t REALLY dangerous, edgy, daring–that I was in fact, just a very young version of the English teacher I would grow into.)

And the prop soon became an addiction, for me. My weight stayed down, but I was very quickly buying a carton of cigarettes a week.

I smoked through college (where, in the early seventies, so did the professors. Classrooms would be blue-hazed caverns of smoke, and ash trays sat on desks in every office.) I smoked through jobs and a brief first marriage; I smoked long past giving up the other vices college opened doors to, and I was still smoking when I was 29 and married Mark, who had asthma and allergies.

And I smoked anyway, for five more years, even though, more and more, I wished I didn’t. But it wasn’t until I had my gallbladder plucked,–I stayed in the hospital for 72 hours and kind Doctor Conti said to me, “You haven’t smoked for three days. The worst of the physical effects are over. Are you strong enough, mentally, to let it go?”–that I decided it was time, for real, to quit.

Of course I am strong enough, I assured that wonderful doc. Of course I will not smoke again, I told Mark.  And I went home to clean the nicotine residue from the television screen and the windows, to wash curtains yellowed from years of smoking, and to ponder the loss of that habit.

Hmmm, I thought, passing through days without the ritual morning cigarette, drinking my coffee without the plus of a ciggie in my hand, talking on the phone unassisted by nicotine. Hmmm, I thought: who am I if I don’t smoke?

I wasn’t one hundred per cent in love with the answer. I imagined going back to work, sitting in the break room and grading papers, and I could not see how to do it without the aid of a cigarette.

And a month or so went by, and Mark went away to a conference, and Matt went away to his mother’s, and I went away to the quickstop shop and bought myself a pack of Winstons. I had a thirty mile drive to get to where I needed to be, and I waited until I was out on the highway, and I lit up a smoke. I put it to my mouth. I breathed in, and I put it out.

Because two thoughts had occurred to me.

The first was that it really didn’t taste good. In fact: yuck.

The next was that, in all the brouhaha about the surgery and such it hadn’t occurred to me to remember to mark my monthly cycle. And just then I realized: I, who was never, ever late, was now late by at least three weeks.

And pregnant women should not smoke.

That was the last time I lit a cigarette. It was the last time, too, coincidentally, that I was thin.

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But I baked. All the way through the growing up years of two special young men, I baked and baked: chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, brownies. I prided myself on a full cookie jar, and I was my own happy best customer. And there’s nothing like a home-baked goodie washed down with a steaming mug of high-test dark roast.

The nicotine cravings subsided. The coffee cravings did not.

And then,–fast forward many, many years,–a light-headed episode propelled me to a doctor’s office, and the doctor said to me, “YOU have high blood pressure.”

What???? I do NOT have high blood pressure, I protested. My blood  pressure is–always has been—LOW.

And the man in the white coat showed me my test results, and this is what he said: No more caffeine.

Aaargh!!!

I slunk, sadly, away, and I stopped at Kroger and I bought a pricey bag of decaffeinated beans. And I ground those and began mixing them with the sumptuous, high-test Italian roast nestled in my freezer. The first week, it was half and half; the next week, three fourths decaf. An on it went, until the Italian roast was gone, and I was drinking 100 per cent decaf coffee. It tasted good, although there was a buzzy little humming effect that I missed.

And my blood pressure dropped by 60 points. I had to admit the no-caffeine regimen was good for me.

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And at least I still had chocolate, right? My only vice, I often said. Well, that and cookies.

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And a day came when a different doctor solemnly pronounced the word, “prediabetic.”

PREDIABETIC! I said. What do we do about that???

You can find diets online, he advised me, less than helpfully. I went out and did some reading, and I discovered the low glycemic index, and I began to jettison foods there were not on it. Foods like–oh my—milk chocolate.

No more chocolate??? But, the diet guidelines assured me, a little dark chocolate now and then was permissible.

I sat down and thought about that. First the nicotine. Then the caffeine. Now the milk chocolate.

Exactly WHO, I wondered, exactly who am I NOW? I poured myself a cup of hot decaffeinated coffee. I buttered a slice of good, fresh, crusty bakery bread. I munched and I pondered.

And then of course, we found our wonderful new doctor, and I found that darned article and sent it to her.

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Yesterday, a little package arrived in the mail: one pound of King Arthur, Measure-for-Measure, gluten-free flour. I like that it has a kind of Shakespearean name. I like that it promises me I can substitute it for wheat flour in any of my recipes.

I’m going to bake up a batch of Italian chocolate drops for the boyos, bake ’em up and then glaze ’em, hot from the oven. The house will smell wonderfully of chocolate and cloves.

And then I will mix up a batch of gluten-free Scotch shortbread, and roll it out into cutout cookies. There are some traditions–some habits–that are very hard to let go.

But there are others, I am finding, that I can do just fine without. I look fondly at photographs of my silly, younger self–Ooooh, look: here’s a shot of me and a giant hot fudge sundae! I am grinning widely in that diner booth, bathed in smoke from the Winston smoldering in the ashtray besides the ice cream confection. Once, I couldn’t imagine life without a cigarette or a fudgy sundae–let’s not even mention life without bakery bread.

De-caffeinated, non-nicotined, unchoclified , gluten-freed…I am striding into a future that looks, despite those changes,  bright and rich and full. It’s amazing the things one can let go. It’s amazing the discoveries one makes when one does.

So, yes, I am dancing midst the debris of some unlamented habits…feeling a little lighter. A little brighter, maybe even. Who knew, that, at this late date, having jettisoned a few more unwanted habits, I would get to be excited I have a chance to discover just who I am NOW.