Hearts and Flowers

It is 8:30 when I leave the clinic, and snow is shredding down in big ragged hunks. I let the car warm up a little—there’s a skim of frost on the windshield—and I roll my shoulders to loosen them up, and I pull out onto the street.

I turn the lights on and veer into the turning lane; I take a left onto Maple Avenue and head off to Donald’s Doughnuts.

The parking lot is full, and there is a line that edges the door open. No matter, I think; I promised Donald’s doughnuts, and I will bring them home.

But when I push past the door and queue up, I see the reality: the shelves are bare. All that’s left is a tray of glazed doughnuts and a few iced, filled, long Johns. And by the time I get to the counter even those will be gone.

I back out sadly, shake my head at the hopefuls who come after me, and, in the warmth of the car, I text the boyos the bad news.

They send back emojis with streaming tears.

At Kroger, I buy a half dozen supermarket bakery doughnuts with white icing and hot pink swirls. I get some ham, too, so we can make a special scramble on this Donald’s-less day.

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The boyos have the coffee churgling for me, and they help me unpack the bags. Mark chops ham; I beat eggs and heat the old black cast iron skillet, a little slick of oil rolling on its surface. Jim gets plates and silverware out and opens the doughnut box, just, as he says, to inspect things.

While I crack eggs into the old ceramic bowl with its one blue stripe, Mark slides the ham into the pan. It sizzles and pops.

I beat the eggs with a dash of onion powder, salt and pepper, and a little parsley, and take them over to meet the ham. And while I stir and scrape and turn that mixture, Jim grates the last of a little bar of extra sharp cheddar.

Just before the eggs get firm, we turn down the heat, sprinkle the cheddar, and put a lid on the pan.  Jim runs to get his dad; by the time they are back in the kitchen, the eggs are ready.

We pour juice and coffee and brew tea.

The eggs are perfect; we sigh, first with satisfaction, and then with regret when we realize we did not make enough for seconds.

The doughnuts are okay, but they are not Donald’s.

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In that moment between the end of eating and the beginning of clean-up, I slide Valentines onto the table.

Identical looks of realization and horror spread across the boyos’ faces.

“I’ll do the dishes,” says Mark, “and then I have to go out and…get a haircut.”

“Yeah,” says Jim. “And I need to go with you.”

“Hey,” I say, as I pull down the box of wood matches so I can light the fire, “you do NOT have to run out and get me a last-minute Valentine.”

“Excuse me,” says Mark haughtily, “but I need to get a haircut. And what I do with my time after that is up to ME.”

I have 90 minutes of reading time, snuggled up by the fire, before the boyos come back home, bearing a pretty posy of flowers and a bag of delicious organic cheddar cheese popcorn.

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

The snow stops just before noon, and the sun gradually emerges until it is shining brilliantly. When I go out to sweep the front walk, though, I realize how cold it is.

It realize, too, what Valentines Day always signals: Jim’s birthday is days away. I am ready for an outing, and Mark wants to come along, so we head out to walk and shop.

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We stop first at the coffee shop; I forgot to order my two bags last week, and while they are pending, I need an emergency stash. I find dark roast decaf beans and take them to the counter.

The young barista is just that perfect combination of pleasant and professional; he offers to grind the beans for me (we decline), brews up a medium Earl Gray for Mark, bids us a happy Valentines Day as we wander out.

“What a cute old couple,” I imagine him thinking.

Mark, though, is thinking about The Youngest Granddaughter, who has texted him a Valentine wish. His face softens, and he punches in a fast return message.

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

The mall is crowded, which is a nice thing, because sometimes, when Jim and I go there to walk on rainy days, we see very few people. Today, there are special displays. A wonderful inner city mission organization is having their annual fund-raiser auction. Each of the auction prizes involves some kind of chair—a rocker, a camp chair, a child’s plush seat, a bar stool,—and incentives. There are wreaths and gift certificates, dinner packages, locally made snacks, and books and toys and garden tools.

We stroll and look; the auction organizers bustle, and the crowd shifts and explores. We head off from the chairs and circuit the mall, Mark sipping his tea, noting the changes in storefronts. I see a couple deep in conversation with two men, and I realize the woman is a former colleague. She and her husband both wear red Valentine’s Day sweatshirts.  

I remember her confiding that she is twelve years older than ‘the hubs,’ and that many people advised her the union would not last.

They’ve been together, I think, at least 25 years.

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

We end up at the sporting goods store, where we look for a sturdy backpack for Jim; his has gaping pockets where zippers no longer work. We find a confusing welter: there are backpacks now, specially made, for each sport. We wonder as we browse what would happen if you had, these days, a child playing say, softball and soccer. Would that child have to have separate backpacks for each sport to be athletically correct?

We find a tech-friendly backpack on a back wall. As we head to the register, Mark gets another text from The Youngest Granddaughter.

“I got a Valentine from a BOY,” she tells him.

“WHAT????” Grandpa texts back.

“Is she old enough to be getting Valentines from boys?” he asks me.

“That ‘baby’ is 13,” I remind him. He humphs. We thank the nice lady at the counter; she has registered me for the store’s awards program, which gave me 20 per cent off the price of the backpack.

We wend out way back to the exit, and out into the brisk sunshine.

By the time we reach the car, The Youngest Granddaughter has texted again.

“He gave her a teddy bear and chocolate, too!” says Mark. “And his name is SAM.”

I think he likes me, TYG texts.

He might not like you so much after I get done interviewing him, the Grandpa texts back darkly.

No doubt, she replies, resigned.

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

We stop at the hardware store; this year, a right of passage year for young James, he is getting his own tool kit. Mark has clipped coupons; he picks out a sturdy canvas tool bag, and then he examines and rejects and chooses, finding a hammer, screwdrivers, a wrench and pliers, a measuring tape and a flashlight. For a long while, Jim had little time for learning to use tools, but in the past year, his interest has turned. Mark is touched by this, and he takes great care in putting this gift together.

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

At the supermarket, we see a colleague of Mark at the entrance. She shakes her head.

“It is CRAZY in there,” she says. “Be careful!”

The aisles are crowded, largely with grim-faced men pushing carts loaded with flowers, balloons, and chocolate.

We locate the few things we need, round off the birthday shopping with a gift card, and head back to the car. It’s a good walk; I like to park as far away as I can. It gives me the steps I need, and it removes me from the avid competition for the Best Parking Spot.

“I was going,” Mark remarks slowly, “to say something about those last minute Valentines shoppers. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’d better just shut up.’ ”

We laugh. At home, we bundle birthday treasures up the stairs while Jim studiously averts his eyes, and I head off for a walk. Rounding the corner for home, I stop to talk with our lovely across the street neighbor. She has her two pups out to exercise. Caesar, a big boxer, gives me an obligatory bark, then takes care of business. When our neighbor calls him, he bounds obediently into the house.

Little Izzy is not quite so easy, though. Still a baby, she badly wants to be obedient. When called, she heads right over to the mama…circles around her and flies around for another run. Izzy bounds toward me, practically runs up my leg to lick my hand, leaps away and heads back to her mama, again.

“She’s a pistol,” our neighbor says, “but I can’t bring myself to be annoyed with her.”

Watching that pup soar through the yard is like seeing the word ‘joy’ kinetically defined.

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

In honor of Valentines day, James and I watch an episode of Modern Love on Amazon Prime while Mark does some paperwork. Based on letters to a New York Times column, each episode of the show is a rooted-in-truth story (I am especially interested because my nephew, a gifted writer, had an essay published in this column a while back.)

We watch a show about a gay couple who decide to do an open adoption. The birth mother is an offbeat but lovable young woman who cannot settle down; she knows that her homeless, rootless lifestyle is not right for her baby and she likes the fact that the couple are deeply in love.

Paths to important peaks are never, it seems, without brambles, and there is a blow up when she stays with the parents-to-be, and brings home a man she meets on the street.

But everyone persists, and the baby is born, and the parents—all three of them—work through their stubborn beliefs and their prejudices and preconceptions and they provide a loving, stable home. In the last scene, the two dads are reading their daughter, now three perhaps, to sleep, and telling her the story of what a brave woman her mama is.

The shows wraps up and Jim is silent for a moment.

Then, “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says, “but that was pretty good.”

And we realize it is dinner time and head off to pat burger into patties and to air fry shoestring potatoes.

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

Later, sock feet toasting by the fire, I think about this Valentines Day. There is the greeting card ideal, and there is reality…there are doughnut disappointments and last-minute shopping trips. There are beautiful young 13-year-olds flushed with the excitement of their first heart-felt chocolates. There are offbeat, unexpected pairings. Little dogs leap and laugh; some people, aching loss, watch the day go by in quiet and alone.

The glitter of commercial diamonds and the perfection of advertising bouquets do not, really, apply. But the day is a reminder in a world that is gritty with deception and dirty-dealing. Love is real, and love is present, in all its guises and manifestations. That’s a truth, I think, that I need always to remember.

I get a bowl and fill it with organic popcorn, and I pad out to the family room to watch TV with my husband and my son.

Snow Days: Rules of Engagement

It’s dark when I awake at just after 6:00 a.m., dark and quiet. But there is a certain quality to the very air. I sit up in bed for a minute, and then I understand.

I throw off the puffy comforter and run to pull the curtains open.

The ground glows white in the darkness. For the first time since long before Christmas, we have snow.

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By the time I am dressed, and the coffee is brewed, by the time I am ensconced at the dining room table with my morning pages, Mark is home from the gym.

The roads aren’t bad, he says, but the snow isn’t stopping. The schools are all closed.

I run out and start the car, come back in to bundle up, and head off to physical therapy. The snow falls fine as glitter as the pale morning sun struggles to rise, but the roads are clear and the car hums comfortably along.

At the clinic, I talk to Ashley about transitioning to an at-home exercise program. She recommends that I get an exercise ball, and we talk about using the rowing machine at the rec center. She teaches me a new stretch, which feels really good, and she prints off the new exercises, and I am home by 8:45, home to a quiet house.

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

I think that maybe it’s not the best day for a long outside walk, and I think of other good ways to get my steps in. So I sashay through the house with a dust mop, and then I retrace my steps with the vacuum.

In an hour, the first floor feels light and clean, and I think that rule number one of snow days should be that my house be nice and tidy.

Then I notice the front walk is iced with white froth, and I think about the mail carrier.  

I pull my jacket on and find the push broom; I clean off the steps, then I work my way down the walk to the street.

I put the broom in the car port and run back into the house for the canister of environment- and pet-friendly ice melt, and I madly sprinkle from street to door.

Maybe rule number two of a snow day should be this: Get my butt outside and make sure nobody’s going to slip  and slide on my patch.

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

“There’s SNOW,” Jim says, a little wonder in his voice; he is in the kitchen, hair still a little owl-y, rummaging for breakfast.

“Yep!” I say, and some of the snow day magic seems to infect us both.

He puts a couple of frozen chicken cordon bleus on a cookie sheet to roast…on a snowy day, he says solemnly, one ought to have a hot breakfast.

I dig out the chicken tortilla soup from the freezer. While it defrosts in the microwave, I work through my email, where I find, to my delight, a long email from a special nephew. I send the soup for another defrostification spin, and I sit to write a long chatty answer (so chatty! Poor Brian!) to that special man.

Hmmm. Rule number three: use my unexpected snow day time to touch base with someone I don’t get to talk to often enough.

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

Downtown Zanesville is like being inside a snow globe, Mark texts, but he’s coming home for lunch, so I pour the defrosted soup into a pot to simmer. It is bubbling merrily when Mark arrives, stamping and huffing, and Jim greets him at the door, almost dancing with the unexpected holiday quality of the day. He gets his dad a thick white soup bowl, and Mark ladles out the fragrant, tangy soup. We break out a new package of tortilla strips, and we keep Mark company as he eats and talks, telling us about the morning and the way the flurries transformed downtown.

And, I think, here’s rule number four: On a snow day, at some point in time, there must be soup.

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

Mark heads back to the office and I tell Jim to get his sneaks on. His face lights up.

“We’re going OUT?” he asks, pleased, and I tell him I need to get some steps in, and I need to stop at a sporting good store to see if I can buy a two-pound medicine ball, so we may as well head to the mall.

And then, I say, we need to stop at Kroger for M&M’s, because it’s a snowy day and we really should make some kind of special cookie.

The snow hasn’t stopped, but the streets are still good. At the mall, we split up and do our individual circuits. Jim plugs in his headphones and bops away; I shoulder my purse and charge along.

The steps rack up; soon, I meet Jim and we head off for the sporting goods store, where they not only have my medicine ball, but it is marked one-third off. We use the outside exit and walk to the car, parked on the other side of the mall, through a light shower of snow.

We buy the M&M’s at the supermarket and then cruise out the back way, avoiding the busy retail section, navigating the back roads in the snow, while Jim plays triumphant anthems from action movies.

We slide into the driveway to the Indiana Jones theme. Appropriate, I think, because of Rule Number Five: On a snow day, we need to go out and have some kind of little adventure.

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

There are many amazing reasons to blog, but the best one is the people you meet. A blogger I really admire has recently published a cookbook.* Lyn is an amazing woman who has traveled and lived in places I visit only in imagination; she now lives back in the States, and, with her wonderful family, she has compiled a book full of recipes that  have been tested by that most reliable group of people: her kids.

She includes recipes from faraway lands (I can’t wait to try making my own sambusas!), recipes passed down by family and friends, and recipes she herself has discovered and perfected. My copy of the cookbook arrived in yesterday’s mail, which seems like a meant-to-be kind of thing. On this snowy day, it’s Lyn’s Monster Cookie recipe I’m after.

I soften butter and peanut butter, shovel out white and brown sugar, measure up a hefty portion of AP flour, and get the rolled oats out. I crack eggs and watch the Mixmaster do its work and slowly pour in chips and M&M’s.

Then I use a one-third cup measure to scoop cookie dough; I roll it into my hands and flatten it, kind of like I’d do to make hamburger patties, onto lightly greased cookie sheets. I fashion the biggest cookies I have ever made and put them in the oven to spread and puff and settle, to turn brown around the edges and golden in the middle: to perfume the entire house.

While they bake, I grade papers (and oh, my goodness; these papers are insightful and thoughtful and organized and well-written.) The students have written about artworks or songs; I stuff my headphones in and listen to songs on links they included. I keep a little list of artists to add to my playlist. I have graded six papers so far, and I have five new artists to listen to. (The sixth paper was about a sculpture.)

I jump up from the computer to shift cookie sheets; I spatula off cookies and slide empty pans into hot sudsy water. I put more sheets into the oven and run back to my grading.

“Holy cow!” says Jim, drawn to the kitchen by the warm aroma of butter and peanut butter and chocolate. “These are like little pizzas!” And he decides that after dinner, he will put a cookie in a bowl and scoop ice cream on top and add a little caramel frosting.

I agree that’s an amazing idea; I dance back to grade another paper.

And then I sidle back to spatula more giant cookies from their roasting-hot trays, to quickly slide those trays into the dishwater, and to practice that fine old art of cleaning as I go.

Papers are graded; cookies are cooling. I wield a wet dishcloth on the countertop; I surround a beef roast with cubed potatoes in a big old Pyrex pan, cover it with foil, and slide that into the hot oven. I feel very pleased to have followed Rule Number Six: On snow days, I must make cookies and roast something wonderful, low and slow, in the oven.

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

By the time Mark arrives home like a triumphant adventurer, the roast is tender, and the potatoes are infused with its spicy juices. We throw little salads together and we fill plates and we pour water, and we gather around the table. We start out in a flow of talk, but our chatter dies away as we lift forks to mouths and savor.

“Perfect,” says Mark. “A perfect meal for a snowy day.”

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

After dinner, we light the fire; James curls up on the love seat with a blanket, turns the TV on, and promptly falls asleep. (A great idea, although not a requirement for a snow day: a long, warm nap.)

There is a full moon in a dark, dark sky.

There is a strange relief in seeing snow in a winter that seems to have been too warm and too dry.

And there is a strange magic in a snow day, a magic that makes ordinary tasks seem special, that imbues the everyday with holiday sparkle, that turns mundane into cozy and comforting. I pull the fuzzy golden throw over my sock feet, and I open my library chick lit, and I read by the fire.

But first I check the weather on my phone. The app says it may snow for the next three days. I take a bite out of a giant cookie, crunchy-edged and chocolatey; I slide my toes nearer to the fire.

More snow, I think. Bring it on.

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*Just in case you’re interested, you can find Lyn’s wonderful cookbook here: https://www.amazon.com/Mom-plus-nine-cooks-ingredients/dp/1794258159/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=cooking+plus+nine&qid=1581124468&sr=8-1

Lady, Who Will Teach You?

Hey, kiddo, who taught you?

Did you slide your toes, all socked-up, onto your Daddy’s shiny black shoes, and dance to Frank Sinatra in the living room—Frank crooning, your Daddy grinning, and you feeling just like the princess, your tiny hands engulfed in Daddy’s big ones, your eyes carefully watching watching every footfall?

Did your mama take you out into the backyard and teach you to bat, taking no mercy, her wiffleball whizzing by you until you learned to connect?

Did you have a baking granny, one with infinite patience, who let you grease the sheets and mix the dough and drop glomping teaspoonsful onto slick greased surfaces…carefully let you spatula off the hot cookies, and let you be the first to taste test?

Did your big brother’s girlfriend fuss over you, braiding your hair and rouging your cheeks and telling you that shade of blue, honey, was surely your color?

Did your teacher, seeing you were quiet and bookish, slip you books…whispering, “I think you’ll like this; let me know!”

Or did your school days make you cringe or blush? Was there more silence than guidelines in those young days? Were your big people better avoided than engaged with?

Did you figure things out yourself?

How did you learn, kiddo, how to be a girl?

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Who taught you to make the transition?

Did you have The Talk in plenty of time; did you put the accoutrements in the closet, looking forward, with intense excitement and almost equal dread, to the big change that was coming? When the day came, did you celebrate or commiserate, or were you just embarrassed?

Did your mother take you shopping, and out to lunch,–someplace grown up and glamorous?

Later, did that brash freckle-faced kid turn his fingers into man legs and girl legs and show you just how they fit together—kind of like Legos! he said—and crash open the glass innocence door, leaving you let down and disappointed at the blunt anatomy of the thing?

Did your coach encourage you to push yourself, to fight to reach potential?

Did the librarian smile when she saw you, telling you about the new books that just came in?

Did boys hoot and catcall when you walked by; did their comments bring you to tears?

Did someone tell you to reach, to stretch, that you could do it, that success was coming? Did someone tell you seven ways to reach your goals?

Or did someone laugh when they heard your plans; getting above our raising, are we, did they say?

When your dreams floated to the surface, was someone there to pop them, or did someone help you locate a breeze to float them on?

Did you find it in a book, in the advice from a cute but superior boy, or figure it out yourself?

Young woman, who taught you to be a teen?

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

Who took your hand to teach you?

Did you feel soft palms or brusque bruising?

Did your first shy explorations meet with respect or ridicule, trust or lust?

Did you have a long, evolving relationship that let you bloom and grow? Did you have brief, abrupt encounters that left you a little sick, a little longing?

Did you settle in or turn away?

Lovely one, who taught you how to be a lover?

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

Did someone feed your dreams and say, of course you’re smart enough, strong enough, brave enough? Did someone point out that you have all the markings of a leader?

Did you find expansive teachers, or did you crash into closed doors, stumble on high hurdles?

Did you reach and reach and reach? Did you have to believe, at last, that the time had come to settle?

Did you try one path only to realize it was heading the wrong way, and then forge a whole new journey?

Did you love the life you chose, or did you nurse regrets?

Who helped you to realize what it means to be a woman?

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Did you find true mentors? Did your work satisfy? Did you choose to raise children, tend a home, to open yourself up to fur babies, to the world of nurture?

Did you learn to cook so well that others angled for invitations to your groaning board?

Did your work energize you? Did you stumble with tiredness some nights?

Did you deepen your friendships and spend happy nights dealing out cards, pouring some wine, singing along with the tape deck, confiding over thickly iced slices of chocolate cake?

Were there lonely midnights when you wondered why and why not?

Did you develop the fine art of letting go, of saying farewell with kindness and joy, of waving that dear one off with a grin and a thumb firmly up before returning to a newly solitary place?

Did you have shoulders to lean on, wise guides to whisper truth, faithful ones who let you be you, scars and gifts and all?

Or did you think, bitterly, I guess this is all on me, again?

How did you learn to be the grownup you always wanted to be?

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

And now, dear friend, how will we learn to age, to wrap up our career dreams and settle into our family realities and cope with our aches and the pains…and our losses? Can we uncover the new joys that a new age brings?

Is there a teacher out there dancing, drawing, painting, singing…one who has gone a ways before us, but who will come on back to extend a hand?

How will we explore this unknown land?

Who will teach us to be old?

A Feeble Flapping at the Edge of the Quagmire

I stop to talk with a few of my students—the older ones, the ones who are not quite so sure they’re going to explode with guaranteed success on some future scene —and then I walk across campus to my car. I toss my book bag onto the floor on the passenger’s side; I snug my water cup into the drink holder. I take my phone from its purse pocket and put it in the crook of the arm rest, and then I start up the engine.

I listen for a minute, appreciating—it is good, this responsive power—and then I turn on NPR and pull out of the parking lot on this chill gray day.

And, from the radio, I hear this:

Rant rant venom

Rant rant venom

The impeachment trial has begun. An august senator is almost spitting in his rage at the other team.

I give it a minute, but he doesn’t waiver from his course. He doesn’t talk about the facts of the case or try to counter what’s been presented; he simply sticks his hand into a bucket of hot tar and smears, smears, smears.

I am sickened, and I turn off the radio. I get on the four lane and wend through the edges of this small gray city. It is quiet. I miss the interesting afternoon chatter of NPR, the only station that reliably comes through where I’m driving.

I think I should remember to get a book on CD to listen to while I’m driving.

I think it might also be worth looking into subscribing to a radio service.

Cityscape quickly melts into broad country fields and farms, and the silence gets to me. I turn the radio back on.

The other team has the field now, and this is what I hear:

Accuse whine whine

Accuse whine whine

So much for that. I turn it off in disgust., thinking there is no one here to be proud of, no dignity on display, and no compassion for the people these folks are pledged to represent.

I imagine the floor of the Senate opening, kind of like the dancing scene in It’s A Wonderful Life; I imagine all the senators falling into a swimming pool and flailing away.

I picture the floor closing back up and new people coming in. These people—there’s a rainbow of tones and gender and ages and accents here—shake hands and sit down together at long tables. They share information that often makes them frown and sigh, but they struggle together, trying to understand the truth, the right, the meaning. They are sitting at these tables until they can figure out the best way forward.

That fragile daydream pops softly and disappears as I pull off the four lane onto familiar home town streets. It’s replaced by a feeling of sickness, by this thought: There is nothing good here.

I am by nature a foolish optimist. I don’t want to believe in the absence of good.

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

I make the short trek from carport to house, and I see a scuttle of bugs zipping and flying. Bugs in Ohio in January. This is outlandish.

This is because it hasn’t gotten cold enough to send those bugs away.

This is because of global climate change.

My stomach clutches, and I climb up the two steps to the back door and wield my key.

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

I ponder, as I wash out my lunch dishes, what to do. Nothing is surely not an option, but what option will make a difference?

I can write letters; I am good at writing letters., and I think I will do that—write to my senators, one on either team,–and tell them of my distress.

I realize the letters will be read by some team member and never make it to the senator’s view. But I’ll do this, even if it’s only symbolic.

What else? What else? What action can make a true difference? If a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can lead to a hurricane in China, how can I flap my wings? How can I direct my energy toward a more specific spot—toward Washington, where contention simmers and the work of the people—for the people—doesn’t seem to happen?

I can’t think of one single thing that might make a difference. I go downstairs to poke around in the freezer, think about dinner.

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

Jim is at home, at loose ends. He started this young year with high hopes for a great-fit job; but the organization interested in him opted, finally, to adopt a software solution instead of a human one, and Jim didn’t quite know how to process that, his filters tentative and undeveloped. It took him a week to work it through…to struggle from disappointment and anger to a realistic acceptance. There is grief in the emotional mix; there is a blow to confidence and self-esteem.

But he is back at it now, considering different kinds of jobs; his high hopes have fluttered down to a hard-nosed reality.

“I just want to WORK,” he says grimly, and he and his job coach scour the postings for anything remotely suitable.

And the days at home, waiting, are long. Jim creates projects and organization plans and tries to keep himself busy. By the time I come home, he is pacing, the walls of the house closing in.

Fuel to my malaise: why are so many disabled people sitting in front of flat screens, pushing the buttons on their game controllers, when they could be out there contributing?

HR Magazine tells me that 66 per cent of adults with autism are not employed…and that the 34 per cent with jobs are subject to a rising workplace bullying culture. And, the article adds, 500,000 more young people with autism will launch into the job market this year.

These are quirky people with varying levels of challenge, but people with considerable computer and organizational and other skills—people who could be enjoying detail-driven repetitive jobs that neurotypical folks abhor. To hire autistic adults, though, means shifting workplace attitudes and rules and culture.

While this is happening in some places, those places are all too rare.

What world is this I live in? I wonder, and I am angry and sad, and deeply, deeply frightened when I imagine the future.

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

I bag up the garbage and take it out to the bin, and I toss in the bag—made of compostable plant products. The week is half over, and there is just one other bag inside; since we started being plastic-aware, we have reduced the amount of trash we create by more than half. That at least is a hopeful sign, I think. We’re doing better, and we’ll keep figuring out how to do more.

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

“Do we have any outing-and-abouting to do?” Jim asks hopefully, and I consider quickly. This was buy-a-new-dishwasher week; there is not much disposable cash to be spent. But we could go to the library. And, I remember, Mark found a Panera gift card in the thing basket. There’s fifteen dollars on that, and I think I have another one in my wallet, with a buck or two left to spend.

We decided to take a trip to the library and then stop at Panera. We’ll buy a little treat for a gray afternoon, and we’ll get us each a bagel or two for tomorrow’s breakfast: something for now, and something to look forward to.

In the car, Jim gets music ready on his phone, and says, “Hey. There’s an email.”

It’s from Kelly, a creative job coach in the program that works with Jim. She wonders if he can send along his resume and a letter of recommendation from his supervisor at the college library.

His eyes light up.

“Why do you think she wants that, Mom?” he asks, and I tell him what I believe: that Kelly and her team have some possibilities in mind, that they are exploring new routes and different employers with the potential to become Jim’s workplace.

“But, remember,” I say, “this can take some time.”

“I know!” he says, but there’s a flicker there, like the pilot light has come back on. He picks a sprightly Abba song to play; we bop along to the library, while Jim talks about the Mama Mia movies, which, despite his penchant for fantasy and horror, he really enjoys.

At the library, he fills a bag with manga and DVD’s. On top of the stack is that wonderful redemption film, Chef, with Jon Favreau.

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

At Panera, the young cashier checks the gift card from my wallet. It has $1.45 left on it.

We choose carefully. Everyone likes an Asiago bagel; we get three of those. Then we choose an everything bagel for me and cinnamon crunch bagels for Mark and Jim. We ask the cashier to throw in a little tub of cream cheese. That takes care of breakfast.

For a sweet afternoon treat, Jim opts for a frosted cinnamon bun. I order M&M cookies, one each for Mark and me.

The cashier rings us up, and grins.

“That’s $16.45,” she says.

And that’s exactly, to the penny, the amount on the gift cards.

“What are the odds?” I say to Jim, and he shrugs and rolls his eyes, offers to get the bag, and we shlepp home the spoils, where Jim gets out a video game, and I light the fire and take my cookie and a book to the reading chair.

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

This is not to say the world still doesn’t stink. Free bagels and vague possibilities don’t add up to serious solutions to big problems. There is evil and there is tragedy and there is a huge and sucking quagmire of self-interest and power-craziness and the absolute pressing need to be acknowledged right at all cost. Children die and people are mistreated, and instead of howling in grief, we howl in blame.

I cannot hide my head and avert my eyes; I have to do something. I need to face each thing I encounter and think it through, find a way to act that contributes to healing instead of chasms.

It makes my stomach churn; it keeps me awake at night.

There is a heavy, pressing bank of clouds. There’s a dirty, pouring rain.

But there is, too, a tiny crack in the cloud bank, an infinitesimal suggestion that hope is still possible. Light pours through that crack, and, at certain angles, I’m pretty sure a small, bold rainbow shimmers.

Tonight I am writing letters,—a tiny wing flap. But I’ll know I’m adding to a greater flapping—to the actions of caring, concerned, and committed people, people who stand at many vantage points and have many different views of the situations we face. People, these are, whose hearts are good and whose concern is real.

They are people who can band together for the good of all.

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

There is work to do; I know that, and I know that what I have to offer is not very much. But hope tells me to offer it anyway.

And evil, I believe, triumphs only when hope is hidden away.

A Change in the Menu

What to eat: that’s the whole point here (eventually).

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

This is the year, by gum, that I stick to my New Year’s intentions. And one of those is to be much more organized.  The first thing I did, on New Year’s Day itself, was to clean out the pantry shelves.

Those cluttered shelves, lodged in a tall, skinny, little closet-type cabinet next to the cellar doorway in the kitchen, have been making me antsy. I always save things like paper bags that can carry a lunch and plastic bags that can hold a loaf of home-made bread. (We don’t bring home as many of the plastic bags these days, as we make most of our bread at home. But there are some weeks where Jim gets a craving for CWB—Cheap White Bread—and we indulge. When that store-bought loaf is gone, I shake out the bag, and stuff it into the second-from-the top pantry shelf, against the day.)

But these are habits from a different life.

Mark comes home, now, almost every day for lunch; he doesn’t need a paper lunch bag. I carry my lunch on teaching days, but I use an insulated carry-all. The ranks of our unused, lunch-sized, paper bags have swelled, swallowing up shelved boxes of aluminum foil and wax paper, rolls of compostable, plant-based garbage bags, and a very long tube of parchment paper.

The plastic bags were doing the same to bottles and jars of sauces and condiments on the shelves below.

I needed to clean, but the shelves are high, and I dislike clambering on a chair to reach the tippy-top, to see to wipe things down, to remove long forgotten treasures, and to decide what to do with the flotsam.

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

That reality led me to the thought that one needs the right tools for the job. Jim was thinking along the same lines; he had acquired a lot of books and many DVD’s at Christmas. He has shelves downstairs with his collections organized by genre, and his new stuff mandated that he take things off shelves and reorganize.

Jim likes reorganizing; it’s one of his joys, but even the most joyful reorganizer gets weary.

So he clears off, say, five shelves, towering books on his desk and chairs, and then he works diligently to incorporate the new tomes. He considers and he places, and shelves slowly fill up, and Jim slowly slows down. After an hour or two, he will trudge up the stairs.

“Time for a break,” he will mutter, and go off to, perhaps, play a video game.

Meanwhile, there are still book towers on his desk, hovering over and thwarting his attempts to sit at his desktop and write reviews.

“You need,” I said to him one day in late December, “a rolling cart.”

Jim turned, three books in hand, and his face was illuminated. “Yes!” he said. “Like at the library! Then if I don’t finish, I can just roll the cart out of the way!”

That weekend, I went with the boyos on their regular Saturday excursion. We recycled, and we went to the ReStore and mooched around. (I bought sweet little fancy dishes to hold some wonderful, handmade soaps a wonderful friend sent as a complete surprise.) Then we went to the farm supply store.

James bought a sturdy cart, kind of like a three-tiered red metal wagon, to sort stuff on. I bought a sturdy step-stool, which doubles as a seat in the kitchen.

That weekend, I cleared off the shelf over the microwave and stove—a shelf that is just a pain in the neck to reach on a dining room chair. And then, on New Year’s Day, I cleaned the little pantry. (That little step-stool makes a big, big difference.)

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

I cleaned, and I found amazing stuff. I cleared shelves off, putting everything into a big basket, and I sorted the stuff on the counter. I found three boxes of matches; I crossed ‘matches’ off the shopping list. I found boxes of taco shells, rices for risottos, and three bags of egg noodles. Way in the back, I found some Chiavetta’s barbecue sauce (a local delicacy from our childhood hometown) we’d forgotten all about. That was exciting until Mark noticed the use-by date, which was 2014.

Glug, glug, glug.

James, who loves to watch Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, went through an exotic sauce-buying stage a while back. Among the bottles and jars and boxes, I found Tandoori sauce, Shawarma marinade, and Peanut Bangkok sauce. Those sauces were all still healthy, and Jim’s eyes lit up.

I wiped down the shelves and put everything back neatly. Then, Mark and I went through the shelves leading down the stairs to the cellar, and we put all the bottles of sauce in the pantry, and the canned veggies in the cellarway, and stood back and took a look.

The canned goods and other staples were beautifully arranged and easy to grab. That was when I decided I needed to go back to my old, old habit: creating weekly menus.

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

I sat down on Friday to make a meal plan. I checked through the freezers to be sure I knew what meat was on hand; I looked at the calendar, seeing who would be where when. I flipped through some recipes, made out a shopping list, and I wrote down menus for the next seven days.

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

For Friday night dinner, I thought we’d have sloppy joes. But I forgot that Mark was traveling that day to New York State; he’d stay until Sunday and spend his mom’s birthday with her. Jim doesn’t like sloppy joes; it was silly to make them for just me. So Jim and I heated up a frozen pizza; I made a side salad, and we ate and watched Big Bang—a nice little break in the routine.

The next day, Saturday, Jim and I drove to Westerville, where we had the six-buck lunch at Dairy Queen. We mooched around the library and walked around downtown. We were hungry by the time we got home.

The menu read ‘cubed steaks.’ Perfect, I thought; I pulled the package of steak from the freezer. There were six in the package, separated by squares of butcher paper. I only needed three.

I’ll pry them apart, I thought, with a steak knife, and put the other three back in the freezer.

I smacked the meat down on the chopping board and stabbed the knife between the top two steaks. They were bricklike; my stab sent the meat shooting one way and the knife shooting into my finger.

“Bleaaaahhhhh!” I yelled, and ran, dripping blood, to the powder room for band-aids and antiseptic ointment.

“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll just have a ham sandwich.” I re-wrapped the cubed steaks and put them back into the freezer. I crossed the Saturday menu suggestion off the list, too.

On Sunday, I took a chuck roast from the freezer. Beef stew: that was the plan. Mark would be arriving home sometime in the late afternoon; a simmering pot of stew would be ready whenever he was hungry.

But then I felt bad. Jim doesn’t eat stew, and I hadn’t fed him very well that weekend. I’ll switch, I thought, to oven-baked pot roast, roasted with potatoes until they soak up the beefy juices and brown crisply around the edges.

Mark arrived home just before the roast was done, which was perfect.

I crossed ‘Sunday: beef stew’ off the weekly menu, too.

On Monday, Jim excitedly sauced his boneless chicken with Tandoori sauce. I doused two leg quarters with barbecue sauce and baked them for Mark and me. When they were done, we carried our plates to the kitchen table, and Jim went off happily to the family room with his meal.

“Oh muh GUG!” he yelled a moment later. Turns out his Tandoori was hot, hot, hot. He had a ham sandwich instead, and I packed up the rest of his boneless chicken.

On Tuesday, the literacy association was having a fund-raiser at Freddy’s. Support reading? Well, YEAH. Ignoring the menu, we drove to Freddy’s, where we not only had a splendid dinner, we sampled the frozen custard, too.

I just wasn’t feeling it on Wednesday; I crossed that night’s plan from the menu, and we had breakfast for dinner: crisp-edged French toast, sizzling brown sausages.

The way of things was clear. On Thursday I threw the menu away. I took out the Tandoori chicken, rinsed off most of the sauce, and made a big, bubbling pot of chicken tortilla soup. Jim put a Devour meal in the microwave.

The soup, recipe gleaned from a close, close friend, was hot and tangy and delicious. It was even better for lunch the next day. And that night, we ate those cubed steaks, which I had wisely taken out to defrost quite early.

I did not write out a menu for the week to come.

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

There was a time, when kids were young, and budgets were tight, and schedules were outlandish, that a menu was the only way to ensure that a hearty dinner made it to the family table each night.

Those days, with all of their action and frustrations and delight, glow far back on the timeline.

THESE days call for a different way of planning things entirely.

It’s not that I’m not organized; it’s that this time of life calls for a different kind of organization. So this week, I’m cleaning out the hall closet and sorting the bed linens, donating the neglected and never-used blankets and sheets to a local homeless shelter. I have my teaching days. I have my days for recycling and for food shopping. I have my appointments on the calendar.

But I don’t have a menu. These days, I have the luxury of rolling ideas around in my head, considering what’s in the refrigerator and what’s in the freezer, and deciding, finally, what to fix that night for supper. Sometimes, we might even opt to eat out or order in.

I love the structure of my week, and I love that dinner isn’t mandated by a menu; instead, it’s a little spot of adventure, a little element of surprise, in otherwise ordered and sedate days.

Across the Dark Lake

Little by little, Christmas disappears.

The day after New Year’s, I clean off the mantel-piece, pack away little holiday figures—Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his pink flannel bunny-jamas, the ornamental Luci squishing grapes, the roly poly little BB1 orna-bot. I wrap glass bells in newspaper and slide little holiday houses into the box.

The mantel looks bare.

The next day I pack up all the nutcrackers from the mail table in the dining room, and all the Santas from the shelves in the family room.

I dust and polish the newly empty surfaces. They are sleek and clean and stark.

That night, snow falls for the first time since mid-December. The outside world looks festive and Christmassy.

I feel a little blue.

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

I spend some time each day planning classes. Suddenly, I see a new angle: the analysis assignment could be based on a painting or a song. Since the course theme is ‘An American Experience,’ I pull up an image of “American Gothic.”  And for the song, we’ll deconstruct “This Land is Your Land.”

I find authoritative on-line bios of Grant Wood and Woody Guthrie. I make a worksheet with the painting’s image and a link to a history of the work. I find a site that talks about different types of music, and some articles about the historical context of Woody Guthrie’s song.

My class will be a diverse one—it includes high school students and retirees, military veterans, a mom of six. There are people who grew up and spent their lives within ten miles of the college and people who relocated to the United States as young adults. There is, in other words, room for many interpretations of what an American experience means, and I look forward to what these students will derive from these two pieces of United States art.

In spite of myself, almost, I’m getting excited about a new semester.

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

There are just a few cookies left in the tins; they are rock hard and unappealing. I tumble them into the waste basket, and wash the tins, put them away in the basement. I can’t believe there is fudge left over: Mark takes a plate to work, and I squirrel the rest away, tupperwared, in the freezer.

Then I take the leftover Christmas chicken from the freezer and chop it up to make chicken salad, which Mark and I eat for lunch.

We celebrated our anniversary at a pretty inn the day after Christmas. I brought a box with a meaty shank of lamb and some parmesan risotto home. I ate the risotto for lunch the next day but put away the lamb bone.

Now I pull the meat from it and put the bone in a pan with an onion and some fading celery, two chopped up carrots, and a garlic bulb. I sprinkle in dried rosemary and crumble up some Greek oregano from the garden. I toss it all in olive oil, shake in some salt and pepper, and roast those bones and veggies in the oven. That afternoon, I simmer broth that is rich and aromatic, and the whole house feels warm and comforting.

The next day, I take the ‘twice-baked mashed potatoes,’ also leftover from Christmas dinner, from the freezer, and I pull out Joy of Cooking. I follow directions, chopping and sautéing, sprinkling flour, mixing in the rich broth. I spread the potatoes over the top of the thick concoction in the cast iron pan, and I put it into a hot oven.

We have shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. It is good, good, good.

So holiday food is pretty much gone, and Jim says, “Could we make some regular cookies one of these days? Like Snickerdoodles or something?”

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

After I mix up the cookie dough, I lace up my sneakers, pull on my tomato-soup colored jacket and my new fuzzy white gloves, and I head out for a walk. The snow is gone from all but the deepest, shadiest places. The sidewalks are dry, and the traffic is light.

At the big, half-timbered house, Santa, riding in his wagon, and the life-sized sleek brown horse that pulls him, have disappeared from the front yard. They’re headed back, no doubt, to the North Pole.

It is 4:30 in the afternoon, but still full light, and I realize that the days are truly getting longer.

When I get home, we put bacon in the cast iron griddle, gather ingredients for BLT’s or bacon salads for dinner, and, after we eat, I make the Snickerdoodles.

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

It rains on Saturday, so we wait until Sunday to take down the outdoor decorations. Then James and I carefully pull the ornaments from the tree, and Mark brings up the big box. We unspool lights, wrap them around cardboard, and then dismember the tree. We turn it upside down to flatten it, and we wrestle the pieces into the box.

Mark ties up the box with heavy cord while James and I lean on either end, and then the boyos drag the tree down to its most-of-the-year resting spot.

I pull out the vacuum and suck up any evidence of fake needles.

The spot in front of the living room window is weirdly bare, and even with the fire crackling, I miss the soft twinkle of the tree lights. I feel one-sided when I read.

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

I wash the new sheet set, and that night, I make the bed with crisp new sheets and a puffy comforter—Mark’s cozy present for Christmas Eve. A new year, a fresh new bed, I think.

I realize there are balances on some of the gift cards I used to shop for Christmas. I order mundane necessities—ice melt and potholders and measuring cups.

The measuring cups, while infinitely practical, are not completely work-a-day, though; they are shaped like Russian nesting dolls that break apart into six measures. The doll’s tops hold 1/3, 2/3, and 1 full cups; their sturdy bottoms offer up ¼, ½, and ¾ of a cup.

A little bit of whimsy—why not???—to lighten the late winter months.

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

I am a grown-up; of course, I am. But on January 5th, I nudge the wise men and their camels toward ceramic Baby Jesus.

The next morning, Epiphany day, the accommodating shepherds move around to the other side of the manger, nestle in with the ox and the lambs, so the Magi can get close. Mary stares adoringly at the Baby.

Joseph hovers, arms folded, wary and protective.

The kings lean in, offering their gifts, and the stable animals ignore the flamboyant camels.

That night, after everyone has gone upstairs, I pack up the ceramic figures and put the box into the closet.

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

On Wednesday, James and I take a road trip. We drive to a campus where I won’t be teaching this term and drop off an office key. Then we swing over roads we haven’t traveled in years, taking the back way in to a favorite butcher shop.

Boneless chicken breasts are on sale. I buy two ten-pound bags, and the butcher wraps up cubed steaks and English roasts, pork chops and ground chuck. We find a package of ham salad for Mark; we throw in some cheese curds, too.

As we head over the hills for home, Jim talks about marinated chicken breasts; he’ll resume his Wednesday cooking duties now that we’re back in ordinary time. I think about stir-fries and stews, sizzling fajitas, and cheese melting on sandwiches: everyday food that is hearty and comforting.

At home, I make tea and eat Snickerdoodles, and sit down to plan my classes.

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

It’s like this, I think: the year’s end draws close, and we find ourselves trudging more and more slowly,—walking, because we have no choice, into the darkness. It’s an inky darkness, cold and still, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if our companions are nearby, or if we are alone.

And then: a weak flicker of light, a glint, and we realize we are at the edge of a vast lake. Coming towards us, there is some sort of boat.

The light it brings brightens, for the sturdy wooden boat, round and high-riding, has holders on its rails for thick, glowing candles.

The boat glides silently to the sand where we wait. It lowers a landing plank, and we all—I see now my companions are truly close by—we all climb on.

The landing plank pulls up, silent and sleek, and the boat steers away from the beach and heads out into the inky unknown.

But here is the thing: I am gathered here with people I care about, and, for each one of us, there is a glowing candle in its niche. We ride through the darkest of the nights together, huddled close, knowing we’ll be safe, believing there’s another shore.

In the darkest of the dark, we hold the candles aloft and we sing our faith. The boat moves smoothly on.

We sleep, we eat, we talk; we enjoy the fellowship of this midnight time, the vibrant light our candles, shared together, makes in the depths of the year’s night.

And then one day, there’s an almost imperceptible lightening, and a gentle voomph as the boat slides up, again, onto a shore.

There is a pause; there is pondering, and then the boldest of us takes her candle and gently kicks the landing plank.

We watch her candle flicker as she heads off to explore.

And suddenly, the thought of leaving the closeness of this little ship is irresistible; I wrestle my candle from its wooden holder, and get in line, for all my companions are suddenly eager to put their feet on dry land.

I step out onto the dark sand, and, above a line of dense trees far ahead, I see a glow that promises daylight is coming. I head toward the glow.

The sand turns into hard dirt; in the new, dusky light, I see a pathway forward and a low stone wall. Lined up, flaring, on that wall are the candles of the people who started before me.

I follow that glow until I see where the wall ends, and I see that the road curves into unknown space…but there is light now, enough to see my way.

I put my candle on the stone wall, leaving a light for those who still come forward, and I find my people, and, together, we head off into this new place.

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

The holidays, I think, are just like that: the warmly lit vessel that carries us through the darkness and into the new year. And despite the darkness, despite the losses, the pain, the heartbreak and disillusionment we carry like bruises on our hides and in our hearts, that moment of debarking swells with promise.

A new year, an unknown adventure—time to engage, to hone my kindness tools…time to link arms with fellow travelers and walk out to explore.

A Mindful Kind of Kindness

Its bitty, beady eyes demand a serious response…

The sidewalk sheens with midnight rain that passed through; neighbors’ holiday lights, and our holiday lights, glow in the darkness. The air is warm and fresh.

I lace up my sneaks and go out, in the dark of very early morning, to get the newspaper. It is teetering on the tip of the step before the street.

The lights, the pierced darkness, the freshness breathing: all these remind me of the Christmas vigil we attended at the church of friends. I was standing in that service, soaking in haunting violin music, when a thought rolled in and opened up.

“This year,” the thought said, “you must work harder to be kind.”

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

My much-missed friend Terri had a practice of choosing a word each year. She would try to live that word, to put it into action. So one year, for example, her word was ‘joy,’ and throughout that year, she sought joy in everything she did, and in everything that happened.

I love this idea, and so I adopted it, too. Sitting next to this computer is an oval rock Terri painted for me two years ago. “Transformation,” it says, and it came to me in the year of retirement.

This year, I’ll search out another flat, smooth stone and paint the word ‘kindness’ on it. And I’ll think of Terri as I do it. (Who knows? She may have sent that thought spinning toward me on Christmas Eve.)

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

I keep seeing the quote from Jennifer Duke Lee’s blog (https://jenniferdukeslee.com/world-can-anything-kind/) that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It is a lovely thought, and it is a blog worth reading.

And, I think, I really need to define for myself what being kind means.

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

I start looking for a definition online, and the Oxford dictionary tells me that kindness is the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. It offers a long list of synonyms, and the ones that jump out to me are altruism and decency.

The definition does not say ‘sweetness.’ Nor does it say ‘honesty at all costs.’

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

I know, and I bet you do, too, people who wield kindness like a crazy shillelagh. They swing kindness in a high arc over their sweet-faced heads, and they bring it down, crashing, onto our skulls.

They are so pleasant, so concerned, so awfully, terribly giving, that they get away with the unkindest things.

They are the brutally honest friends who tell us, for example, about the blatant infidelities of a partner long lost to the past…and they tell us in a time when our life is settled, when our relationship is healthy, when that painful time is long over.

Their words heave up the pain like deadly rocks in a psychic earthquake. They transport us back there, back to where we hurt, where we were vulnerable. We learn, maybe, that he did it with our BEST FRIEND at the time. The day he was taking us out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary, he came, freshly showered and shaved, from that woman’s arms.

The bitter juice of betrayal wells up again, even though that relationship has long been put to rest, even though he is someone we haven’t thought about in decades.

“Well,” our kind friend says gently, her face a smooth mask of compassion, “I just thought you ought to know.” And she pats our hand and walks away, leaving us to digest this new, unnecessary gall.

Or they critique our wardrobes; they comment on our new furniture, and pass judgment on the accomplishments of our children.

They tell us unflattering stories their parents told THEM about our parents, who are long dead, just, you know, in the interest of honesty.

And when they do something egregious, something hurtful or betraying that we may never learn about (they lose or break the perfect gift we spent months searching and saving for; they share the secret we abjured them never to tell; they go to our ex’s party and then lie to us about it) they feel compelled to call us and to let us know.

They transfer the burden. They wound and they walk away, healed themselves, and happy in their righteousness.

And they may be righteous, but they are not kind.

It is not always kindness to be honest to a fault.

And that kind of painful honesty’s a club, I realize, that I have sometimes raised myself.

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

So there’s an essential decision in practicing kindness, I realize: do we share or do we shut up?

Shutting up is the right thing to do, I think, when the truth won’t change anything. What good does it do to rake up past infidelities, for instance (and do we really think the person doesn’t, on some clear and lucid level, know those bitter truths anyway)? Even current infidelities should be considered very, very deeply before sharing.

Maybe the deciding question should be this: Does telling benefit the person to whom we want to be kind?

Or—does telling just put points in our column, raise our own sense of self-esteem, clear us of a guilty burden we’d rather not bear?

Just because a thing is true does not mean it should be shared.

Sometimes kindness tells us to clamp our teeth together and stop the words from flowing.

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

At other times, though, there are hard things that need to be said. I’m thinking, for instance, of gifted people who’ve been fired from places that I’ve worked.

Those people were hired because of their gifts; they continued to be employed because their gifts advanced the purposes of the organization. But there was something…something…that was off-kilter enough about their actions to make others pause.

Maybe, for instance, the gifted person always felt compelled to play devil’s advocate, to comment on the negatives in any proposed plan. She was, maybe, trying to be helpful, or maybe, she just had developed the bad habit of being the pointer-outer of potential catastrophes. Her words bothered people and discouraged people; they made people unwilling to meet with her.

Those people complained to her supervisor, but that boss just couldn’t figure out a way to address the issue without being confrontational. And so, they let it go on.

Or maybe the gifted employee said inappropriate things at company meetings, speaking up when criticism was not welcomed or called for. Someone, say, gives a presentation on an exciting new project, and our gifted one talks about another place she worked where THAT didn’t work. (This might, actually, be useful information, but it might also be best shared in a more private venue.) Or a recent gathering is discussed and our gifted one feels compelled to talk about how much better it would have been if Jo had remembered to plug the coffee in.

The assembled roll their eyes and grumble.

Again, someone approaches the supervisor, and again, the supervisor just can’t think how to best address this contentious behavior.

But then one day the bothersome behavior crosses the line. The negative reaction appears to be generated by an unacceptable bias, even though our gifted one is truly an equal opportunity pooh-pooher. Or the shared-in-a-group criticism falls firmly, heavily onto the shoulders of the boss, who is humiliated and angry.

And our gifted one is suddenly clutching a briefcase and her favorite picture, standing on the sidewalk peering through the blank, unfriendly windows of the place she used to work. She is wondering what just happened.

The unchecked behavior has finally reached catastrophe level. The kind thing would have been to have a conversation when the behavior was merely irksome.

And this, again, is something I have sometimes failed to do.

Some things are hard to talk about, but kindness tells us to talk about them anyway.

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

It’s the difference, I think, between commenting to someone on a too-tight shirt or on a shirt that’s partially untucked.  The person wearing the tight apparel already knows, clearly, that the garb doesn’t fit. They’re probably feeling frustrated about a recent weight gain and hoping no one notices those gaping buttonholes.

And they’re stuck, for the time; they can’t run off and change. Pointing out the misfit will only make them feel even more awkward and uncomfortable. This is a time to shut right up.

But if the person’s shirt is partially untucked, a quiet word will save embarrassment, allowing them to quickly amend the situation, no one else the wiser. This is the time for me to speak.

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

Then  there are the everyday acts of kindness—letting the harried young dad with the sobbing toddler jump ahead of us in the checkout line, for instance. And telling the staff at the post office how much we appreciate, on crowded, cranky days, their unfailing pleasantness. And holding the door, at that post office, for an elderly man so burdened with packages he can barely see through the peephole he’s made.

That kind of kindness should be hard-wired into me; when it’s not, I need to update my programing. I need to raise my eyes from the mucky mire of my own concerns and notice.

My son James, conscious of the need to be courteous and kind, and conscious that his autism does NOT make this second nature, works hard at this. He says thank you and you’re welcome, always; he tries to address people by name. He offers his place in line, he helps people carry heavy items, and he holds doors open.

One day, leaving the library, he saw a woman who was headed toward the door but still quite far away. So he stood and patiently held the door open for her.

She was a short, head-down kind of person, and when she finally got to the door, instead of thanking Jim, she glared at him and stomped off.

He was thrown by this, and we talked about it in the car. And what we settled on was this: when kindness requires a response, it becomes reciprocity and maybe is not so kind. So Jim’s standing there and holding the door made this woman, who was clearly frazzled and rushing anyway, rush even more, so HE would not be kept waiting. Instead of being kind, his courtesy became a burden.

Kindness should never be a quid pro quo. And it should never take away from one to give to the other.

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I am even considering my ‘organizational’ kindnesses…time spent in meetings and working for causes, the donation of goods, the contributions of money. If I do these only to promote my sense of how wonderful I am, they are not kind.

If I give my time outside the home and short-change my family, I am not being kind.

And if I leave myself with no time to read, to write, to ponder and to dream, I am being unkind to myself, generating internal resentment at the very acts that should be selfless and fulfilling.

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Being kind is not quite so simple as it at first appears.

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So now, I scoop up the newspaper and wheel back toward the house. The ceramic penguin on the steps glares at me, its bold, bitty eyes ablaze with yellow light. Its piercing gaze demands response.

“This year,” I think, “I must work harder to be kind.” And to do that, I know, I need to explore the boundaries wherein kindness lives.

The penguin seems, for now, satisfied, and its bold stare is a reminder of a promise made.

The Oh-So-Patient Baker

Patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you’re waiting.

                                                —Joyce Meyer

Mark and I agreed, finally, that a loaf of home-baked  bread would be a good thing for him to bring to an office-type holiday potluck. The hosts took care of meats and cheeses. Usually, Mark said, several people brought crock-pot meatballs, and others brought steaming pots of cheesy potatoes. Someone had signed up to bring a veggie pizza, another person was bringing a big tossed salad, and someone else was bringing a hot dip and chips. There was always, he sighed, such wonderful food, and so much of it.

So we decided that an apple streusel loaf would be a good thing, with a little tub of whipped-up butter; if there was leftover bread, Mark could take it back to his office for the next day’s breakfast.

The potluck was on Monday, so I set Saturday, which felt like the first full day of Christmas break, aside for baking. We got up and had a leisurely breakfast; we did the dishes and neatened up the house. Then the boyos loaded recycling baskets and bins into Mark’s car and headed off for haircuts and a tour of the Re-Store and maybe Home Depot, a visit to the recycling trailer, and the five-buck lunch at DQ.

I polished off my email and got ready to start baking.

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Image uploaded by Timfly

The apple streusel bread is what I’d call a picky recipe. First, I took the butter out to soften. I peeled and cored apples; I chopped them fine and tossed them, with a couple of tablespoons of flour, into a bowl. I measured out pecans and chopped those, too. They needed to be divided: two-thirds go in the bread itself. The rest goes into the topping.

I measured out milk and added lemon juice to sour it.

I got more measuring cups and scooped out flour and sugars; I gently nudged two eggs up against the meat slicer, far from the counter’s edge. I plucked spices from their cabinet. Finally, everything was lined up neatly, just like on a cooking show, and the milk had curdled and the apple had synthesized with its flour, and it was time to cook.

It took five or six minutes to cream the butter and sugar. I cracked the eggs and beat them in.  When that was fluffy, I started adding, alternately, the flour mixture and the curdled milk (How many alternations? I always wonder. The recipes never say, so I fall back on three, which seems like the perfect number; two would be abrupt. Four would have me adding pretty small amounts. But a little doubt always worms. Would the end result be better batter if I did alternate four times?)

When the batter was well mixed, I stirred in apple chunks and chopped pecans and spread it in the greased loaf pan.

Then I melted more butter (a nice, light treat, this is NOT) and mixed in cinnamon and brown sugar and more nuts and made a streusel to sprinkle over the top.

And at last, it was ready for the oven, where it would bake, long and slow, for at least 50 minutes.

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While it was baking, I took my book to the chair. The fire was snapping.

I was happy to read and wait.

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In 45 minutes, I started testing the bread, every five minutes or so, with a toothpick. It took a long time for the little wooden pick to emerge batter free.  When the bread was finally done, I took it out and let it rest for five minutes on the cooling rack.

There was a time when I could not have waited those five minutes, when I would have had to pull that bread from the loaf pan and make sure all was unburned, perfectly formed, well baked. I have learned a little restraint over the years, and I have learned that manipulating freshly baked bread can be to manhandle and deform it.

So I listened to the recipe’s voice, and I waited the requisite time.

There was a time, too, when—if the bread hadn’t been baked as a dish to pass in the first place—I would have grabbed a hefty cleaver and whacked off a big, hot slice, unable to wait to taste it. This recipe cautions me not to do that. This recipe says to wrap the cooled loaf and let it rest a day before slicing.

This recipe wants me to be patient.

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We have our traditional Christmas recipes…Italian chocolate balls (the kind with cloves and cinnamon and chocolatey glaze; I use a healthier recipe than the one that calls for a tub of pure lard, even though the flavor’s probably not quite on the mark); shortbread cut-outs; Grandma Kirst’s famous fudge. And every year we try something new to see if that unknown, cutting-edge recipe might become a keeper, too.

This fall, I kept seeing recipes for a Twix-like cookie; I downloaded one from Pinterest and showed it to the boyos. There’s a shortbread crust that we’d cut into rounds. That’s topped with melted caramel, and THAT is topped with melted chocolate.

Maybe, said Mark, we could make the shortbread in bars rather than circles…

I stocked up on the necessary ingredients, and Saturday, after the bread was cooling, I began.

If I thought the bread begged my patience, I wasn’t quite prepared for the patience needed for the Twix bar cookies. I started them early in the afternoon, softening butter once again.

When the butter was ready to play nicely with the flour and confectioner’s sugar, I put them all into the Mixmaster bowl and blended them together. I pulled the mat from the drawer, floured it, and clumped out half the shortbread dough on top. I rolled it out, and sliced it into rows, and then cut across, making approximately Twix-sized pieces. Some of the pieces, of course, were ragged and edgy.

I used the long metal flipper and arranged the cookies on a baking sheet while the oven was heating.

Then: roll out the rest of the dough and repeat.

While the cookies baked, I washed up dishes and pulled out big flat platters. As the sheets came out of the oven with their golden-brown cargo, I relayed the baked cookies to the trays.

Boyos wandered out to the kitchen, drawn by the buttery, bakery smells. I limited them to the ragged edgy pieces. They did not complain.

Let the cookies cool completely, the recipe says, and so I reluctantly found some housework to do while I waited.

Later, James and I drizzled caramel, melted slowly over a medium flame, onto the bars. And then we waited yet again for that oozey caramel to set, and then, finally, we could pour melted milk chocolate over the top.

I finished the last step of those constructed cookies at about ten on Saturday night, and then (although some people would ignore this injunction), I had to let them sit overnight so they’d be ready to eat. (DO NOT, the recipe tells me, put these cookies in the fridge. The chocolate will discolor.)

I washed up the chocolatey bowl and spoon and spreading knife, looking longingly at the cookies, but pulled patience into play. I grabbed my book and headed to bed.

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Patience. Images of saintly, glowing faces, touched by beams of golden ethereal light, waiting.  Those saintly folk–well, their waiting is not ragged or fragmented by furious longing. It’s serene and uncluttered, a long, slow, melting process. They do not become agitated or frustrated. They’re patient.

Their patience and my patience are very, very different.

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“Do you really DO that?” I remember an old friend asking. I was reading a recipe that said I should chill the dough before baking the cookies. I might have been 25, and NO, I did not do that.

I added a little flour if the dough was too sticky, and I baked those cookies, right then.

But later, when years had passed, I discovered there was recompense in following the directions. The cookies, once made, had a better texture if chilled instead of flour-added.

And during the waiting period, I got all the mixing clean-up done. The work area, for the actual scooping and baking portion of the exercise, sparkled like a cooking show kitchen.

The act of baking wasn’t a fast endurance test; it was a progressive event, with breaks and books and visits thrown in between.

That kind of patience, I can cook with.

There are other things to cook, though, that cannot be broken into segments to be parceled out.

I have a friend, for instance, who cannot make fudge or candy—the kind where the recipe says to bring the mixture to a hard boil, and then boil for five minutes exactly, or boil until the sweet syrupy concoction reaches the hard ball stage or until it reaches a certain number of degrees Fahrenheit. My friend just cannot wait. She will turn up the heat and boil the sticky mess FASTER; she will bring a glass of cold water to the stove, drizzle syrup into it, and convince herself that the result,  a soft, dissolving mush, is in reality a hard ball.

And then she’ll pour the bubbling mess into a buttered pan where it will never, ever set. (It will become, though, a delicious ice cream topping.)

And she’ll bemoan the fact. “I did exactly what the recipe said!” she’ll wail, although, no, of course, she did not.

I can hear one of my elders’ voices, smug and starched and wafering up from a stern childhood memory: You left out the most important ingredient. You left out PATIENCE.

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Why does it seem so many people are in a fiery hurry to just get finished? I wonder if there’s some atavistic urging in us, sense memories from our long-ago pasts, that push against patient waiting.

I ponder, for instance, two theories I read about how dogs and humans came to be domestically intertwined. The first theory,–the one we humans like best, I think,–says that dogs began to follow tribes of man in prehistory, and that, when man left the remnants of a meaty dinner, dogs would swarm in and gnaw on the leftover meat and bones. And then they’d fight to protect their benefactors.

The other theory is just the opposite…that hungry little knots of people followed herds of dogs and grabbed up the leftovers from the DOGS’ feast. I have a shivering little picture of this, of fragile, vulnerable, pock-fleshed humans creeping out to the bone pile while the dogs snored. I see those people pinching away bones that had shreds of meat left clinging. But other carnivores may have followed that dog pack, too, so those starving people were always glancing behind, ready to scarper.

“Hurry up! Hurry UP!” I imagine them thinking. “Let’s get out of here before the big cats come back…”

An argument, for sure, for getting in there, taking care of business, and disappearing. Who CARED that the cooking process wasn’t started, much less finished? Eat and run, baby; eat and run.

If that kind of experience was true for our ancestors, it wouldn’t make for much hard-wired patience.

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I had a friend once who lived in trying straits. Everything that adds up to balance in a life—love and family, job and material well-being, spirit and hope and bodily health, all those things of hers—had tatters and rends in them. She could not cut a break, could not reach a place where she could say, “Well, at least I have a warm place to stay,” because that was the week the landlord let her know the kids were moving back to town, and, so sorry, but could she be out by February?

And this dear friend would pray for patience.

And more awful things would happen, stretching the boundaries of her already taut-enough-to-snap endurance to its very, very edges.

Finally, she went to a trusted spiritual advisor and said, What the hell?

And he had her explain what she was doing and what kinds of things were happening, and when he understood the whole situation, he said to her, “Well this is easy. Stop praying for patience.”

My friend told me she sputtered and ranted. She NEEDED to learn patience she said, because all these trying things kept happening.

And her advisor begged to differ. She needed to stop asking to learn because otherwise, she’d keep getting sent opportunities for the learning to take place.

Oh, she said.

She started praying for wisdom instead, and the patience-threatening events slowed down to a manageable trickle.

And she never, she admitted freely, acquired that golden, saintly, waiting glow. She endured the things that bid her be patient; she smoked and cussed and sometimes poured herself a big glass of scotch, forget the rocks. She complained, but she got through.

My kind of patience, I’m afraid, is a lot like THAT kind, with a little more whining thrown in.

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It’s good to have the value of the virtue demonstrated in sweetly tangible ways…in the delicious course of a recipe, for instance. If only I can truly embrace the metaphor: clamp my mouth shut when I’m anxious to finish someone’s sentence; take my time when a scattered driver changes his mind about turning and forges on ahead, upsetting my personal driving plans (I often wonder what’s on that person’s mind. He might just NOT be an eejit; he might have just gotten bad news, for instance, and wouldn’t I feel terrible if I added to that with a thoughtless gesture?); ignore the cranky shopper who shoves ahead of me triumphantly at the check-out. LISTEN, really listen, when someone is talking.

Let’s hope that, in human interactions, too, I have learned a little restraint over the years, learned that manipulating words and responses too quickly in relationship can be to manhandle and deform them.

But you know, I don’t always remember my own injunctions. And sometimes, I have to be patient with MYSELF.

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It is a season, this Advent time, this Christmastide, with lessons in patience built in. Remember the sleepless nights of sugar plum childhood? Remember the sleepless nights of founding the feast? Remember the sleepless nights of loss and yearning?

All of them, all of those hard-to-make-it-through scenarios, are magnified in the anticipation of a special holiday.

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So I bake. And I chill the dough and wait for the loaf to cool and remember that three people don’t need twelve dozen cookies; I don’t need to turn the kitchen into a frantic, frenetic, flour-dappled Keebler tree.

And, I hope that, even at this advanced age, I learn; I hope that, even if the golden light sluicing down reveals my knotted eyebrows and a grimace, I am acquiring patience, one cookie, one Christmas, and one circumstance, at a time.

Beginnings and Endings

The student’s email reads, in part, “I am just checking, because I know grades have to be posted by 5:00 p.m. today…”

I laugh, a little smug; it is 2:30 on Thursday, and grades, of course, are not due until TOMORROW afternoon. But something niggles, and, just to be sure, I pull up the announcement from the registrar’s office. And by gum, here’s a shock: the student is right. There WAS a Friday due date, but it was LAST Friday…and that was just for grades for graduating seniors in this winter term.

All the rest of the grades are due TODAY.

It is a good thing all my late papers are in and graded.

I quickly scroll through each class record, through each discrete assignment; I make sure I haven’t missed grading a paper or neglected to record a bit of homework. Then, thanking my lucky stars for helpful tabulating technology,–and for that nudging student email– I post my grades.

Then I bundle up my class paraphernalia, put it all away in my sturdy school bag, and run upstairs to get ready for my meeting.

It doesn’t sink in until I am driving home through dark streets, through weary neighborhoods where, still, tree lights shine through windows and jolly inflatables bob on bare, tiny, front lawn patches. Headlights blare at me as swift cars careen around curves, and I turn the wheel, slow and sure, and I think, sudden realization blooming: This semester is OVER.

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I signed myself up for way too much to do this Fall…for too many classes, too many obligations, too many commitments. They ate up my time, all those ‘yeses’ that I said. They sucked the leisure out of the days like a vacuum sucks up M&M’s dropped heedlessly on a carpet…the opportunity for sweetness and fun tarnished and then vanished.

By the time I realized that, it was too late to renege, to say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t think I’d be THIS busy. Never mind!”

But I gave myself the sternest talking to. Things, I admitted, have got to change. Just let me get through this semester intact, I vowed, and then we’ll make a new plan.

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For my Comp I final, I ask my students to imagine they are writing to a person contemplating enrolling in the class but unsure if they’re ready for the challenge. I ask the students to reflect on each facet of the course, to think about what we did and why we did it, and to think about how—or whether—they have grown as writers.

One of my best and brightest students decided to go a step farther and to wax poetic about the instructor. This is what, in part, that student wrote:

I will use this chance to tell you about my English Composition teacher. Her name is Ms. Pam. She is a very nice teacher. The funny thing is, the first time I saw her, I thought she was an elderly woman so she will get tired easily. But oh my goodness!

I read that and thought, Wait—what? An elderly woman??

And then I realized, damme, she’s right: I qualify for that description…even if I am what some call a “junior senior”…even if I retired early and haven’t quite reached the full, platform-shifting, age of 65.

I remember those bright young faces—not all 18, mind you (some a great deal older, several meaningful years younger)—looking at me warily on day one, and I realize that, behind one of them at least, thoughts like this were running: “Man, she’s OLD. Will she have enough energy to teach me what I need to learn? Will she stay awake long enough to do that???”

I am glad I earned that “…oh, my goodness!” But I have to admit the writer had some insight: I did get tired. I have to admit, too, that my Superwoman days, if indeed they ever existed, are firmly and decidedly over.

It is time to recalibrate. This old barge can’t plow along in the same way it’s been used to doing.

Which doesn’t mean we’re docking; oh, no, far from it. It just means that some time in port is needed to spread out the maps and adjust the journey.

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If someone asked me to create a cutesy plaque for the newly retired, I think I’d write these words on it: Don’t say yes to everything.

By saying yes to too many things, I wound up saying no, partly, to all of them.

No, I don’t have time to give this my full attention.

Yes, I will be there, but no, I won’t be entirely focused.

No, I won’t be able to give my home and my family the energy I want to expend on them if I commit to all these good causes.

There are so many good causes, but I can’t give them all my due diligence. It is hard to accept that I can only be effective by focusing and selecting.

Even junior seniors still have things to learn.

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The Christmas tree is up. We got that done last Sunday, squeezed the traditional festooning in between a hearty ham dinner and grading papers. I did a quick clean-up with the vacuum and duster; the boyos carried the heavy white bookshelf away from the window, and put it, at least temporarily, against the bare wall in the dining room. They lugged the long heavy box up from the basement, and we pulled out tree sections, and we assembled and fluffed.

Then Jim and I decorated while Mark added lights to the outdoors display.

“Aww,” Jim would say. “I forgot about this!” or, “Is this the one Aunt Dot gave me?” He would hold up a handmade pine cone Santa, one google eye missing, or a Hallmark ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ globe from 1990. We would talk about origins and debate just the right place to hang such a treasure.

Jim had Christmas tunes playing in the background.

I was thinking, When this is done, I’ll do five more papers.

I was thinking, Christmas cards will have to wait till next weekend.

We finished the tree, and I moved on to the next thing on the list.

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Last night, turning out the lights, extinguishing the fire, Mark said, “You know, that’s a pretty nice tree.”

And I looked at, really looked at, it for the first time.

It’s a beautiful tree.

This morning, I woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. I crept downstairs and lit the fire, and I turned the tree lights on. I put coffee on to drip and picked up a wonderfully frothy book—about a young English woman in dire straits who loses her London flat and whose only recourse is to travel to the wilds of Scotland with her sweet, mute son. On the shores of Loch Ness, she’ll work in a bookstore, and she’ll struggle to make a difference in the lives of three sullen, unloved children, and, of course, she will fall in love. Dusty drapes will be pulled aside, light will stream in, and miracles will happen in a warm, braw, heathery, British Isles kind of way.

I take a break when Mark comes down, and together, we chop ham and whisk eggs, make toast and pour juice, and, before 6 a.m., we eat a hearty breakfast. Mark is headed to the city, off to a conference lousy with lawyers; he needs fortification. He needs to go out into the cold morning protein-fueled.

I wash up the dishes and wipe down the counters, and, after Mark has sped out into the still-dark, I grab that book and slip back to the reading chair. Sandwiched between glow of tree and fire, I read the story, read until I reach the end; I know what will happen, but there are twists and turns along the way, and getting to that endpoint is a perfectly satisfying accomplishment.

I need these times, I realize: an hour spent inside a cozy, homey book with no pressing must-dos bobbing, like the smiling reminders on a newborn’s mobile, around my head.

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Somehow, in the last weeks, we have cleaned surfaces and set up the nativity scene, with its choir of mismatched angels cheering on the baby. We have hefted boxes of Christmas dishes from their shelves in the basement, made room in the cupboards and china cabinet, filled the sink with hot suds, and scrubbed down plates and bowls and mugs. The wreath on the front door sports a plush penguin, and a large ceramic penguin sits grinning on the brick step below. At dusk, Mark turns on the lights, and that ceramic penguin’s eyes gleam maniacally in the dark December night. Lights festoon a tiny tree that snuggles behind the maniac penguin, and lights encircle the big holly bush, and lights drape along the carport wall.

I don’t remember quite how we got all this done (some if it happened while I was squinting at a computer screen, typing notes on student papers), but the house is happily holiday-settled.

Today, we will unpack the Santas and put them throughout the house. After our trip to Columbus for Jim’s appointment, after dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant, we’ll come home and turn the lights on, light the fire once again, and enjoy the flickering warmth.

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There are things to be done, even while the happy, homey, holy holiday season beckons. There are Spring syllabi to be created, though for only half as many courses. There is shopping and baking. There are those cards to spread out, so fresh and new and inviting, and there are messages to write on them.

There are people to remember, people who cannot be with us this year. There are voices that are stilled and laughter that has stopped, and I must think of ways to honor those that are dearly missed.

Some night soon I must get my a calendar out and take a hard, long realistic look at it, and at plans and dreams and fripperies and must-do’s—spread time and tasks all out  like puzzle pieces, and see what fits into the picture, and what must be discarded. I must open up my journal and write down what I’ve learned, write stern messages to future self, reminding me to balance.

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But, in the nooks and crannies of now, I celebrate the ending to a busy time, and teeter on the brink of this year’s holiday season. I’ll cling, for today or a couple of hours, to this fulcrum, to this time of clarity and insight.

And then I’ll forge ahead, elderly, yes; worn a bit, maybe; but not too tired to be excited about what comes next and how to pare the layers down to reveal the shining nugget of possibility, just waiting to be nurtured.