Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.

**********

Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.

**********

Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.

*******

Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.

*********

Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?

**********

And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.

**********

But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.

**********

Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.

**********

And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.

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

Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.

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How Things Look

I have this uncle. His name is Joe. Many years ago, Uncle Joe’s health took a startling turn, and he wound up in ICU in a coma. It was a somber time for his kids, as the doctors pulled them aside to talk about options. There was a point, the medical people said, where the kids would have to decide when to take him off life support.

Time crawled by; there was little change. Things did not look good, and finally, if I remember this correctly, my cousins made the tough call. It was time to disconnect the life support.

So the medical people did that.

And Uncle Joe woke up.

He recovered and went home from the hospital, and ever since then, he told me once, he celebrates a new birthday: the day he woke up from that coma, not the day he was born.

********

I have this friend. She’s one of the bravest, strongest, giving-est people I know. We all met up for our annual Christmas dinner last month, this year in a wonderful restaurant in Columbus: amazing food, wonderful friends, rich, funny talk that swirled and hugged us. We had the best time.

What we didn’t know until a few weeks later, when she texted us, was that our wonderful friend had, just days before, been diagnosed with cancer. She hadn’t wanted to spoil our celebration; she didn’t want to darken our holidays. So she waited until after to tell us that jarring news.

There was hopeful news, too; that surgery might well get it all, and that only radiation might be needed as follow up therapy. We are, all of us, connected in a web of prayer and hope, groping to figure out the best way to be a friend to a strong, proud woman who has mighty supporters by her side.

I just keep thinking about that day at the restaurant, about the real joy on her face at seeing everyone.

*********

Connie, my fit-bit, continues to push. I will steal an hour for reading time, and she’ll nudge me after thirty minutes. ‘Want to stroll?’ she’ll ask. Or, ‘Only fifty more steps to 250 this hour!’ she’ll remind me.

Yesterday, I had a work-at-the-computer, go-to-meeting kind of day. I found myself walking around the block last night at 9:15, getting my final steps in so I’d reach my daily goal. I am not sure what Connie would say to me if I let her down on that.

Today, I decided to forestall her by getting a lot of steps in early. So I laced up my sneakers, pulled on my tomato-red coat, and wrapped my hand-knit, scrappy scarf tightly around my neck. It’s COLD outside.

And I set out for a walk.

The sun was shining in a sky only lightly scudded with puffy white clouds, and barely a dust of snow remained. The day was open and clear and free. I stepped around frozen puddles and navigated by manic squirrels. I laughed when unwieldy crows decided they really would have to flap themselves away: apparently, I wasn’t thinking about yielding the sidewalk to them.

There were some runners out, and a few other walkers, and nice people in cars stopped and waved me across the streets I have to cross.

A bright day, crisp and cold and champagne-clear air. It felt good to swing my arms and stretch my legs.

But there in the back of my mind was this nagging thought: it may LOOK nice out, but weather is brewing. Storm is coming. Tomorrow, I thought, I probably won’t be able to stride along happily. Tomorrow the snow will fall, despite today’s cheerful weather.

Things aren’t always the way they look.

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

I have this other friend. She is also brave and true, and she has been in my life for a long, long time. We were girls together, sweet, silly girls who didn’t know how that life-tumbler arranges to sand down our sharp edges, to polish our facets, to mold us into the people we need to be to meet the challenges we never expected to face.

One of the joys of my life is that, although our paths diverged, we reconnected several years ago, and have grown closer now than we ever were as girls.

This other friend went in for a kind of routine check-up yesterday and got news she never expected to hear. Devastating news, although all the reports are not yet in.

That news rides with me, lodges in the back of my neck, aches like a nasty infection. So how must that news bear down on my very dear friend and the people who love her best?

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

My younger brother Sean texted this week. Uncle Joe was in ICU, he said. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t look too good. In fact, it looked damned serious.

That message came when it was approaching ten o’clock one night.

The next day, Sean texted a photo. Uncle Joe was sitting in bed, grinning. He was holding the hand of a pretty young nurse, and she was grinning, too.

Once again, despite all appearances, he’d rallied.

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

I needed two thousand more steps to satisfy my hungry fit-bit, so later this afternoon, before I drove James to his book club, I went out, again, for a walk. The sky was milky now, thick with clouds. Six deer were in the street; they stared me down for a minute, and then flicked their tails at me and bounded for the woods.

I wondered why they were out in force in the middle of the day, and I wondered if they sensed, somehow, the storm to come.

And I thought of my valiant friends, and my indomitable uncle, and I thought that all I know is that I DON’T know. Things might look great, but there are no guarantees. Things might look bad, but they won’t necessarily stay that way.

What I need to do, I decided, is to stop taking things for granted. I need to cherish this time, and the people put here to share it with me.

Hoppin’, Skippin’, Sloppin’—Eating the Fruits of Every Day

James and I come home from a comprehensive shopping trip just as Mark arrives for lunch. The three of us ferry shopping bags to the house in the pale sunlight. (There was no worry about the ice cream treats I indulged in at Aldi’s staying cold on this crisp Ohio January day. We left them in the trunk while we ran into Kroger to top off the shopping trip with produce and Italian sausage and a variety of cleaning supplies. Then, trunk and back seat jammed with packages, we drove home to enlist Mark’s help in unpacking.)

It feels good to fill the larder again with homely, everyday foods after the rich abundance of holiday treats. Tonight, I think, I’ll release some hot Italian sausage from its casing, and brown it up with a big chunk of burger, stir in the left-over red sauce, and simmer up some chili. There’s a bag of cornbread mix my niece Meg sent in a savory Christmas package; that will be a wonderfully steamy side. And, I decide, I’ll use up some set-aside crumbs in a batch of potato chip cookies.

But first, the three of us thrust and parry and dance, shoving cleaners beneath the sink, running an industrial-sized package of toilet paper to the stairs, hustling cold food down to the freezers, and rearranging space on the pantry shelves. When we finish, Mark returns to eating some cold chicken drumsticks, spiced with a new rub we discovered not long ago and roasted up for last night’s dinner. Jim turns the oven on to bake a couple of chicken cordon bleus he scored at Aldi’s. Chilled from all the outdoors-ing and hefting and sorting freezer food, I decide I want something hearty and spicy and satisfying.

I take the remaining Hoppin’ John from the fridge, scoop a big dollop into a red Fiesta-ware bowl—the Christmas china went back to its ignominious basement hiding place last night—layer a dessert plate on top and stick it in the microwave for four minutes.

While I wait for the beep, I wonder again where the name Hoppin’ John came from.

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

We were trying to remember last week, Mark and I, where and how we learned that Hoppin’ John is good luck food on New Year’s Day. We’d latched onto the idea somewhere, and then my niece sent us a South Carolina cookbook, and there was a recipe. It wasn’t like anything we’d tried before, and we decided it would be fun to give it a shot one New Year’s Day, at least a decade ago.

And we liked it so well, it’s become a tradition, and black-eyed peas, something I’d never cooked with before, have their own reserved space in our larder.

Probably, Mark and I mused, this was not the food served at the big table in fancy plantation houses. While those folks ate their holiday roast from fine china, careful not to spill a drop on the creamy imported lace tablecloths, the people who’d engineered the fancy feast were, probably, finally cooking their own special meal. And they were no doubt doing that with the pieces and parts the rich folk turned their noses up at—the hog jowls, the field peas, the rice, and the leftover tomatoes.

Today, in the lull between lunch and dinner prep, I decide to look up the history of Hoppin’ John.

What’scookingamerica.com answers all my questions. It tells me the dish is fixed all over the South, a traditional New Year’s Day treat, but that it is special to the Carolinas. A quintessentially American dish, it has roots in many cuisines—in French and African and Caribbean styles, all filtered through the materials available to the good Gullah cooks from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and northern Georgia.

The recipe, the website tells me, first appeared in print in 1847, in a publication called The Carolina Housewife. And tradition says that it became popular through the marketing skills of a lame Black man who sold the dish in the winter, on the streets of, perhaps, Charleston—when even southern winds carried a chill to the hearty shoppers out walking in the December air. The man had an odd skipper-y gait, and he…and the dish he so successfully sold…came to be called Hoppin’ John.

There are other possible explanations for the dish, whatscooking.com tells me, but I like the spirit and the success of that indomitable John’s personality. That’s the story I choose to believe.

Each component of the recipe, I learn, has its meaning, and they mostly deal with financial good luck. The black-eyed peas (the recipe is also, sometimes, called “Carolina Peas and Rice”) represent coins. The tomatoes stand for health. Traditionally, the dish is served with collard greens—greens for greenbacks—and cornbread, its golden goodness reminding us of the gold that brings us wealth. Eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, the hopeful legend tells us, brings prosperity in the new year.

And, having savored my leftover Hoppin’ John, I am excited to read that, when you eat the dish as leftovers after New Year’s Day, it becomes known as Skippin’ Jenny. And that means the money-luck, and one’s ability to manage all that prosperity frugally, will certainly last all year.

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

So now I have a face and story to bolster my understanding of Hoppin’ John, and I think of another named-for food: Sloppy Joe. WAS there a Joe, and was he sloppy?

I search, and I discover Sloppy Joes have an even more convoluted history than Hoppin’ John.

It could be, wonderopolis.org tells me, that the saucy sandwiches were named for Joe, a cook at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City in 1930. Joe was used to making “loose meat” sandwiches, legend says, and one day, he decided to change it up by adding tomato sauce to the mix. The sloppy sandwiches were an instant hit, and an American classic was born.

Maybe. The classic might have been born years before that, in in 1918, when, Jen Wheeler writes on chowhound.com, Jose Abeal y Otero opened Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, Cuba. Otero’s space, Wheeler suggests, was maybe a little less than pristine, and it may have been his friends who suggested the name for both his bar and the sandwich he invented. It wasn’t exactly the sloppy joe we know. Wheeler writes that Otero’s sandwich combined “…two Cuban classics—ropa vieja (shredded meat in tomato sauce) and picadillo (ground beef with spices.)”

OR—the sandwich could have come from a Key West bar that Ernest Hemingway liked to frequent. In fact, he named the place for his friend, owner Joe Russell. Russell, who shows up in To Have and Have Not as Freddy, the bar owner and captain, first called his place The Blind Pig. That didn’t work, and he changed the name to The Silver Skipper. It still wasn’t just right, and, at Hemingway’s insistence, Russell finally named his bar after Otero’s bar in Havana. Another Sloppy Joe’s was born.

As far as I can tell, the Key West Sloppy Joe’s still exists and still maintains that the great American sandwich started THERE. Wheeler quotes Donna Edwards, Sloppy Joe’s brand manager. “We took it,” Edwards said in 2015 of that Cuban-style sandwich, “and Americanized it by making it THE sloppy joe and not just a loose meat sandwich.”

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

Hmmm. At least we can be sure of whom one food, a food we learned Mark and I were mis-naming for most of our lives, was named for. Johnny Marzetti, a baked combination of ground meat, tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta, is named for Teresa’s brother-in-law. (That dish is not, as our peeps in western New York might believe, called “goulash.”)

Elizabeth at ohiothoughtsblog.blogspot.com, wrote a nice essay about Johnny Marzetti in 2013. Teresa Marzetti opened a restaurant on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio, in 1898, the year she and her husband immigrated to the States. The family place was so successful, they opened another. The Broad Street site closed in 1942, but the other restaurant remained opened until 1972, the year Teresa died. The dish called Johnny Marzetti remained one of its most popular offerings.

“We will start a new place and serve good food,” Elizabeth quotes Teresa as saying, way back at the beginning, “at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will serve good food.”

The hearty combination of meat and sauce and pasta sold for 45 cents a serving, and I can just imagine it warming the bellies and the spirits of hungry people during hard times. Johnny Marzetti obviously fulfilled Teresa’s vision of good, good food.

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

On this ordinary Friday night, the holidays slowly sliding behind us (we will take the tree and the nativity, our only remaining symbols of the feast just celebrated, down on Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany), I chop and stir to make that chili for dinner. I dice a little onion and throw it into a deep skillet with “loose meat’—the untethered hot Italian sausage, the ground beef. I sprinkle minced garlic.

When everything is richly browned, I pour in spaghetti sauce from Tuesday night’s meal. I open a can of kidney beans and another of tomato sauce. I stir.

The mixture, homely and simple, begins to bubble, and I turn down the heat and gather the ingredients for cookies. I’m using a recipe from 1901, from a state fair in Kansas, I think, that calls for crushed potato chips. We have two little Tupperwares full of the ends of chip bags; I will crunch them down and mix them in, into the dough that contains my home-mixed AP flour substitute and a little oat flour and just a smidgen of whole wheat flour. I’ll use the end of a bag of semi-sweet and milk chocolate and white chips, and a new bag of semi-sweet morsels. By the time Mark comes home, there will be cookies cooling on the sideboard and that thick rich Central American-inspired stew thickening and heaving on the stove top.

Ordinary food. Food invented by some ordinary genius who asked herself—or himself—“What would happen if I added beans to that?” or “What can I do with these leftover potato chips? The kids won’t eat them, but I hate to throw them out.” They experimented—sometimes, no doubt, they failed miserably, but sometimes they had amazing successes. Those successes got passed down, and the people who received them used the ingredients THEY had at hand, morphing them even more.

There are times, of course, for grand dishes named for grand people—for Napoleons and Charlottes and Wellingtons,—even, for fancy Sandwiches. And then there are times for ordinary foods, for the kinds of nourishing concoctions that people without many means developed—maybe on their own, maybe morphing the dish passed down to them by another wonderful cook.   

Sometimes, that humble inventor’s name—or the name of someone they loved—got itself attached to the dish they perfected.

And I love the treat, once in a while, of the fine and the fancy. But when the high feasting days are over, it’s a comfort to go back to soups and stews and casseroles—to go hopping and slopping and skipping through the cookbooks.

It’s a comfort and a pleasure to celebrate the abundance of an everyday dish.

Thank You, Little Voice

All the consciences I have ever heard of were nagging, badgering, fault-finding, execrable savages! Yes; and always in a sweat about some poor little insignificant trifle or other–destruction catch the lot of them, I say!
– Mark Twain, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut”

**********

The squirrel sits on top of a garden boulder like a fuzzy black statue; it is frozen but quivering with alertness. As I round the corner, it leaps into the empty street and runs up onto the grassy hill beyond, its little legs splayed, its gait awkward but speedy.

There are all kinds of squirrels—gray, black, and brown; well-padded and rangy–out and hustling this warm December day; they dig and recover and run, mouths clutching acorns. They scamper and skitter up tree trunks.

A dozen sleek black crows hop arrogantly in a yard as I pass by, and I see the red darts that are cardinals zipping high up in the tree tops. Leaves lay, crisp and brown, across the sidewalks. A guy with a hat pulled down over his ears walks by me, smiling. His almost-white blond hair springs out beneath the knitted tuque; his eyes crinkle behind thick lenses.

I try to decide who he reminds me of as I smile back and say hello.  

A little like Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

A little Elton John-y.

A heavy-set young woman with long dark hair and shiny, opaque, ear gages, flits her eyes away from mine and walks far around me, slipping a little on the muddy grass. She does not respond to my morning greeting.

Toward the bottom of the sloping hill, neighbors, the couple from the big old house around the corner from ours, stride out of a side street. They single file it to make room for me on the sidewalk. They smile and wave.

I love the morning for walking…love connecting with what’s going on in nature; love seeing the other walkers and runners cheerfully (mostly) up and about.

But sometimes, it’s hard to motivate myself. There is housework to be done; there are classes to be planned; there is writing I should not be ignoring. I could, on cold December days, light the fire in the fireplace and sit at my computer, basking in the comforting snap and glow. I have to push myself to lace up my sneaks, pull on my jacket, head off into the chill.

I love the sense of accomplishment in walking, too,–in taking a walk that chalks up, oh—maybe, two miles, maybe more. I use my phone’s health app to track the distance. One day I figure out exactly where I’ve reached 1.5 miles; then I turn around; I arrive home having completed a brisk three-mile walk.

The next day, though, I take the same exact walk, and I check my distance on the phone…and it tells me something different. It tells me I’ve only gone 2.75 miles.

What’s up with that? I demand, and not quietly. Does it depend on where I put the phone—if it’s in the coat pocket or my jeans pocket? Does it depend on how I stride? How can it be different when I walked exactly the same route?

Mark shrugs and rolls his eyes. He’s heard it before. And he’s heard my motivation laments, too.

For Christmas, he gives me a solution: I unwrap a FitBit. That night, we sync it to my phone and the computer, and I set what it tells me is a reasonable starting goal: 8,000 steps a day. I’ll do that for a week or so, develop a rhythm, and then ramp up to where I should be: 10,000 steps.

And then we’ll see.

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

The Fitbit stays with me almost all the time; it knows when I am sleeping, and it knows when I’m awake. It buzzes little reminders to get up and move when I sit at the computer for long stretches. It tells me, sadly, toward the end of the afternoon, when I haven’t met my hourly expected rate of stepping. Then I sigh and log out of whatever work I am doing and pull on my jacket, wave to the boyos, and head out for another, longer walk.

I hit 8,000 steps on the way back; my Fitbit friend explodes into congratulations, gently buzzing my wrist, tiny fireworks shooting across its little screen. I tingle with accomplishment.

It tells me other things, too, that little gadget. When someone texts, her name and message scroll across the Fitbit’s face. It jumps and shudders when a call comes through.

It’s like a little finger poking me in the shoulder, like a little voice that says, “Gonna walk some more? Gonna answer that? Gonna keep sitting?”

“Sitting is the new smoking, you know,” I imagine the devious little device whispering as I turn a page in front of the fire.

And I realize Mark didn’t just gift me with a fitness tracker.

He gifted me with a verbal output machine for my conscience.

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

Growing up Catholic in 1960’s America, and growing up the daughter of an avid convert to the religion, meant developing, early and firmly, a nagging conscience. I tried lying, for instance, to get out of trouble when my mother stomped through and thundered, “Who….??????”

I learned not only that it did not work—she had eyes in the back of her head, that woman. (Why did she ask, though, if she already knew?)  I learned that if I lied to get out of trouble, I would suffer that night, when the weight of my venial sins would start pressing on me, jumping up and down on my chest, demanding my attention.

“How COULD you?” my conscience would demand, and then it would brush the bouncing sins away and sit, heavy and cross-legged, on my chest. It would enumerate all the other times I lied, and all the craven excuses I used for uttering those mis-truths. It would point out that I never learned from my sins, that I always said I’d go forth and sin no more; that that in itself (nudge, nudge, poke, poke), that errant pledge, was a lie.

My sleep would come slowly, and it would be roiled when it arrived, and I would be first in line at the confessional that Saturday, waiting to give my itchy conscience a nice little bath.

There were so many torments—nasty thoughts about people who thwarted me, tiny bits of beef in soup served by a friend’s mother on a meatless Friday. (This issue was in a gloomily hazy area. My mother told me that it’s better to sin than to offend a friend. But, oh: beef on Friday! My conscience smugly smacked me, parroting the words of my current nunly teacher back to me. I suspect it would have smacked just as hard if I’d refused the soup. “Nice,” it would have said. “Hurt HER feelings, didn’t you?”) Lies of commission and lies of omission. Gluttony. And sloth.

I watched Pinocchio and wished my conscience were a little more friendly and peppy, a little more like Jiminy Cricket.

I watched my friends, who were blithe and unrepentant in pursuit of certain goals. I wished I could shrug things off like they did, and I began to wonder if my conscience was not, perhaps, on steroids.

As I grew, it kept pace, my guilt-meter, my remorse machine. I could not find the switch that controlled its volume.

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

In middle school and high school, I began to read Mark Twain,–starting of course, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the juvenile version of which I got for Christmas when I was twelve. I discovered that Twain had lived in my town for a time when he was a young man; he had edited a paper called the Censor, and he had not been happy in the doing of it. His fleeting local-ness was fascinating.

I struggled through Huckleberry Finn, which I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I read it again in college, and I discovered the movie version of The Prince and the Pauper, which, for some reason, I loved. That led me to the book. And then I discovered Twain had a treasure trove of short works.

In high school, I came across an essay by Twain on the subject of conscience, a topic, I think, that troubled him even more than it did me. In this work, Twain described taking his conscience and beating it to death, throwing it into the fireplace, and feeling no remorse.

“I wish,” I thought, and I began the Twain-ian effort of toning down my conscience. Practice, I figured, would make perfect, and so I began to work on it.

“Of course, there will be parents at the party,” I told my mother.

“I would NEVER drink alcohol,” I assured my dad.

“Ick. Who would ever want to smoke cigarettes?” I queried.

“I don’t know what happened,” I said to my professor. “I was sure I handed that paper in, and now I can’t find my draft.”

My conscience railed and railed, but I was relentless. Finally, it rolled over and slept for a bit.

But it would wake up in the darkest, most vulnerable hours; it would wake up and it would wake ME up. At 3 AM I’d be sitting upright in bed, wrestling with questions of how could I….

I visited the confessional less and less often, finding the comfort it had once given was more and more diluted.

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

So I trudged reluctantly into adulthood, dragging a bound and muffled, but never quite abandoned, conscience that kicked and squirmed behind me.

Teaching and marriage, loss and parenting, all the unexpected tumblings of life, taught me to see and feel new layers and permutations of guilt and remorse.

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

I began to think about what the whole concept of ‘conscience’ means. The root word, science, means knowing. The prefix, con, means with. So the word itself meant ‘with knowing,’ the doing of a deed with full awareness of what that doing connotes.

And then I stumbled across a book on mindfulness, and I started wondering how much of life I sleepwalk through, and I started seeing the value—well, the necessity, really—of being awake and aware. Is THAT, I wondered, what a conscience really does? It calls me back to awareness, brings me to the present moment, asks me to acknowledge that I know what churnings the course I contemplate might agitate?

If that was a conscience’s job, maybe it was not such a bad companion. Maybe I could get acquainted with my conscience again, ask it to help me really inhabit my time. We began a cautious renegotiation of roles, my conscience and I. One of the things it recommended that I do is write about it to fully understand it. I wove my conscience into my morning pages. We started, I like to think, a kind of waltzing get-to-know-you dance.

This dance, I believe, continues to this day.

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

And, “Okay!” says my FitBit as I type this. “Time to get up and get moving!”

And I heave myself out of the chair, think longingly of making another short pot of decaf, of helping myself to a piece or two of the locally-famed chocolates that a lovely friend surprised me with last night. But I trudge upstairs instead to pull on my new Sock Monkey socks. It is time for the First Walk of the Day, time to lace up my sneaks and venture forth into a gray world where squirrels scamper and birds shrill,–where, just an hour ago, a deer played peekaboo with Mark, popping its head up and down from behind the bushes as Mark grinned at it from the dining room’s bay window.

The Fitbit tells me this, but it is telling me only what I know: that action is good, that my heart needs me to move and needs me NOT to grab another goodie from the sweetie tray. The Fitbit is just another tool to help me achieve awareness, to guide me into mindfulness. I stare out the window and I acknowledge this as I twist my thoughts so that, “Oh boy! Let’s walk!” shows up on the screen.

I should be thanking my smug little Fitbit, firmly leading me by the wrist. Maybe, I think to myself, I should give my new little friend a nickname.

I reject the first one that comes to mind. ‘Fit Bistird’ just doesn’t seem appropriate.

Maybe I’ll call it Connie.

Three Things, Unrelated

The Avon Nativity
  1. At Work, Sometimes They Give You Presents

Jim comes charging out of the library door, head down, backpack strapped to his back, something in his hand. When he looks up to wave, I see that he is grinning. I start the car and turn on the heat and wait while he navigates the walkway inside the walled courtyard, then emerges to take the cement walk that zigs, then zags, toward where I am parked. When he’s twenty feet away, he starts to run.

“I had a GREAT day,” he says, opening the door to shove his backpack into the back seat. “I finished the inventory of the YA books and then I just hung out and socialized. That was OKAY,” he adds quickly, seeing the question on my face. He slams the back door and climbs into the front seat. “They loved their gifts,” he says.

**********

We had seen an idea on Pinterest: someone took nice, smooth glass jars and glued three buttons on their fronts. They filled the jars with white-chocolate-dipped pretzels and tied little scarves around the lids. They looked like jolly snowperson-bellies, whimsical and fun.

We saved some pretty jars; they’d held some special sauces Jim had bought. I bought Gorilla Glue and sorted through Grandma’s button box, coming up with three sets of three, just the right size. We debated what we could dip in white chocolate to fill the jars with tasty white goodness. Tiny pretzels, of course. Jim thought he’d remembered seeing some miniature oreo-type cookies at Kroger. What about, Mark said, double-dipping malted milk balls?

I got a giant bag of white chocolate dipping discs at the bulk food store, and we bought all three—pretzels, tiny cookies, and malted milk balls,—at the supermarket. We experimented. On the first run-through, I melted the discs too hot, and I poured the malted milk balls in. Their chocolate began melting, and I chased them through the steamy, murky depths with a spoon. When I finally scooped them up onto waxed paper to cool, the white chocolate was marbled with milk chocolate fronds. I dumped half a bag of the little sandwich cookies in the melty mess and fished them, too, out to harden.

That was our testing batch, we rationalized, and we discovered they were irresistible. Eating one just made us want to eat a handful. “Cover them up!” we wailed, until the plate was empty, which didn’t take too long.

For the gifting batch, I melted the white fudge half as long, and dipped the malted milk balls, one by one, on the tines of a fork. The whiteness stayed white; the candy had smaller puddles. They were still delicious. We dipped all the candy and the rest of the cookies and handfuls of the pretzels.

The next morning the goodies were fully dry, and we layered them in the buttoned jars right up to their very tops. I had three little striped scarves I had knitted the year before—scarves to go around the necks of wine bottles (the tiny stocking caps are still in the drawer.) We knotted the scarves jauntily around the lids and packaged them up in pretty gift bags.

It was, I realized, Jim’s first experience of a holiday at work. When we had bundled everything into the car, he flumped into the front seat and paused before fishing out his ear buds.

“Do you want to come in with me when we get there?” he asked.

I look at the pile of goodies. It wasn’t too huge.

“We’ll see,” I said. “If you need help carrying.”

But when we got there, it was clear James could manage the load himself. “Okay…” he said, unsure, but I waved him toward the entrance.

“Have a great day, bud,” I said. “Tell the women of the library I said hello!”

“Bye, Mom,” said Jim, and he turned and trudged toward the library door.

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

“So they liked the snow-bellies?” I ask now, and Jim says, “OH, yeah. I think Janelle was over the moon. And Mom,” he says, reaching in a pocket, bringing out an envelope only slightly crumpled, “they got ME something, too.”

He shows me a handmade card with a note from his boss, thanking him for his detail-oriented work. “Not everyone could do what you do,” she has written.

“And look,” he says. He has a gift-card to a nearby restaurant, close enough that he can walk there from campus. He is beaming.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that the people he works with might give him a gift.

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

Ralphie watches Christmas seals…

2. The Names Are All Changed

Daisy used to walk everywhere; I’d see her on the streets of my old hometown. She used a cane, and she wore long patterned skirts that came down to her ankles and a shiny, puffy, blue jacket that was a little too tight. Her eyes were icy blue and lashless; she never wore a spit of makeup. Her hair, though, was long—down almost to where she could sit upon it,–and it was a delightful, unlikely shade of blonde. I wondered aloud to a friend one day about how old Daisy might be.

“Fifty?” I ventured.

The friend snorted. “More like seventy,” she said.

Daisy lived in a dilapidated apartment house right downtown; she’d been there a long time. I saw her at the supper my church served for people in need every other Wednesday. She often brought someone new with her, ushering them in, introducing them, showing them the ropes.

I heard that when her building was too cold,–the heat all controlled by one lone thermostat– it was Daisy who called the landlord and set him straight about how warm people needed the temp to be set at to be comfortable. And at least for a week or so, the landlord would comply. New renters wound up in Daisy’s apartment, where she would advise them.

She was kind of a house-mother, Daisy was.

She held us accountable in the church kitchen too; she often asked about ingredients and where we’d gotten things, and she did not want to eat anything cooked on aluminum. Things leeched out of aluminum, she said; poison things.

Because of Daisy, we didn’t use very much aluminum foil.

One winter we started a book discussion group—all women—and we read memoir-type books by other women involved in church life. Maybe it was discovering a book, the one by the woman who worked at a food pantry in a big city church in California, on the shelf that made me think of Daisy this week. She came to the group the day we discussed that book; she came and sat, listening quietly, while we talked about the California church, and the people who resisted allowing “those people” into the church, who were happy to GIVE to a food pantry, but who didn’t want it in their front yard.

There was a pause in the conversation, and Daisy, suddenly, spoke.

“When I was a child,” she said, “my mother made us stay in bed for all but two hours a day. We had to lay there, every day. Lay there and be quiet. If we didn’t, we got punished. We learned just to be still.”

There was silence around the circle; we all gazed at Daisy.

“Even when we went to school,” she said, “when we came home, she would meet us at the door and march us off to our bedrooms. We were allowed to come out and eat, but that was it. For the rest of the day, we stayed in bed.

“Why,” she asked us, “would a mother do that?”

We stared at Daisy. Dancing behind her crumpled, weathered, shiny-clean face, I could see the face of that little girl, the little blonde girl who wanted to go out and play, or who wanted, maybe, to sit with her mother in the kitchen and talk. I was horrified, and I had not a clue what to do.

But my friend Regan, who was sitting beside Daisy, did.

“Oh, Daisy,” she said, and she reached over and took the woman’s hand. “Daisy. That was BAD.”

Daisy nodded. She was calm and settled, but tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“It WAS bad,” she said. “Those people in California: that was bad, too. Did they ever let the food pantry stay?”

We slowly steered our way back into the book discussion, and Daisy grew quiet once again, nodding when she agreed. We had coffee and brownies afterward and Daisy stayed and chatted, and then she struggled into her blue jacket, gathered up her cane and a cloth bag, said her goodbyes and left.

She went back to her apartment, where she wrangled with the landlord and made it a point to meet the new tenants and help them. She went out every day, Daisy did, walking down to the market for a loaf of bread, visiting friends, stopping, some days, for coffee.

It’s been almost twenty years since the last time I saw Daisy, and I wonder if she’s still in her apartment, or possibly, she’s in a facility. If so, I hope it’s warm and clean, but if it isn’t, I bet that Daisy is letting the management know what she and the people who live there need.

It may be, too, that Daisy is gone, passed into another realm where maybe she’ll finally get the answers she needed, the answers that eluded her, her whole life long.

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

Who doesn’t love an elephant?

3. Setting Up the Little People

He may be 28 years old, a man with a job and a college career, but Jim still likes to set up the little people at Christmas. I love that he’s unashamed of that, that he’s willing to let his inner kid shine through.

The little people cluster this year on a dresser we’ve repurposed for the living room. There is the irresistible little Avon nativity set—Mary in pink, Joseph in blue, a bright-eyed, brown-haired baby. There are three roly-poly, jewel-toned wise men, and three attentive farm animals: donkey and lamb and cow. They are just the size to fit in a child’s hand and just the thing to distract a toddler bent on playing with the porcelain nativity. One of the wise men, in fact, bears the scars of having been gnawed by an enthusiastic young worshipper.

There’s a Native American nativity, too, with a dark-haired, dark-skinned family; it is ceramic, and candles can slide into slots behind the Holy Family. So much wax has melted onto that little tableau and been scraped off, though, that we just don’t burn the candles anymore.

Jim spends a good thirty minutes digging figures out of the box and setting them up.

“Remember those three little wooden nutcrackers?” he asks. “I made them into wise men by the Native American Christmas, ‘cause one of them is carrying a gift. And I put Arthur there too, because, hey. Who doesn’t love an elephant, and somehow, I don’t think Jesus would mind. Do you?”

Arthur is Babar’s nephew. I pull a Babar book from the shelves and stand it up behind the tableau,–behind Charlie Brown dressed as  a wise man, and a Santa Pez dispenser, behind Snoopy asleep on his dog house, and BB-8, and a sledding penguin and snow-covered Christmas trees that are shorter than many of the figures that surround them.

It is a wonderful, eclectic, bizarre display; each figure has a history and a story. Each piece says something about family and about friends who’ve been important.

And the fact that Jim still wants to set them up, weave a story behind their arrangement, welcome that history into his heart—well, that’s important too. The little people, I think, are my favorite Christmas decoration this year.

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

I don’t know how these three things mesh; I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning among the three stories that rang, clear and strong as tolling bells, through my conscious mind this week. But whatever festival of light you celebrate, whatever people you walk with in this time and place, I hope there’s warmth and light and fellowship. And I hope your blessings are many, and your troubles, very, very few.

Cluttered Week/Cozy Words

It’s something I never thought about before: the co-occurrence of violence in the home with substance use and dependency. But it makes an appalling, tragic kind of sense, and I note the statistic that my good friend sends me, and I add it to the problem statement part of a grant I am writing. Then I scroll through the data, absorbed, saddened, and a little more enlightened than I was when this project started.

In the grant-writing course I took, one of the first bits of shared wisdom was this: only write grants for projects you care about. And now I see why: preparing a grant is not just writing. It’s reading, too; it’s talking to experts and searching the ‘Net and hitting the literature. It’s watching video and TEDTalks and finding the best sources. It’s taking the information and synthesizing it, until I have a clearer, more lucid understanding of the issues and the data and the details of the thing that I’m writing about.

Then, and only then, can I represent the information fairly and fluently and in a way that honors the organization and the people I am writing this grant with and for.

I love this part of grant writing, the opening of doorways, the deeper and deeper understanding of issues that I am drawn to, that I care about, that I want to see funders supporting. It’s a chance to join my passion with something I’m good at: putting words in documents. I come out of the process knowing more.

It’s a detailed, time-sensitive process, but there’s great satisfaction when the news comes down that a grant has been accepted.

This knowledge hums through my under-consciousness whenever I write a grant. But sometimes, other things are humming there, too.

This week, the grant was due one day and the grades were due the next. And right smack in the middle, I was pledged to teach an eight-hour workshop.

“Do you have your tree up?” a friend asked on Monday, and I sneered at him and said something impolite.

Some weeks are just real busy.

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

I have met an amazing crowd of students this semester.

The students in my face-to-face class, 21 of 23 of them, are high school students taking college courses. That means 21 of these guys have never written a five-to-seven page MLA style paper, that in-text citing is an unexplored territory, that the independence expected in college work is new and fresh and a kind of learning they need to assimilate.

The other two students are not that much older, although one has a toddler at home, which weaves depth into life for someone pushing through college courses. They are both bright and thoughtful and very, very patient.

One of the high school students tells me she is glad we have two ‘real’ students in the class.

“It makes it seem,” she says,“more like a college class than a high school class that just meets someplace else. It makes it more official.

The 21 high school students jump up to meet the challenge of college learning. All semester long, I shake my head: how is it possible to award so many high grades for one assignment? And, given the chance to revise, several of the students take their graded work and polish it, sand away the mechanical imperfections, struggle with mastering sentence structure, grapple with wording, striving to be clear and concise—to choose the one best word to say what they mean. They submit their revisions within the designated time frame and they raise B-minuses to B-pluses; they polish an A-minus and make it a solid, as-high-as-you can-get, A.

I have two on-line courses, as well, and those students are deep into their majors, studying things like nursing and firefighting and social work. They are driven, many of them, and bent on success. They exist, to start, as words in emails, and then slowly, as I read their papers and learn their working styles, they become living, breathing persons—albeit persons I have never seen. I know that one has a son who was hospitalized for a big chunk of the first part of the term. Another has a farm in addition to her job and being a full-time student. There are first responders and there are nursing students working in health care already. Many of these students are parents; most have jobs. Some work the graveyard shift and take on-line courses to accommodate their schedules.

There are a few students who need encouragement; there is one who writes to let me know that things have happened and she can’t complete the course. I respond, urging her not to give up, to try again when the time is right. But for the most part, the students write thoughtfully and intelligently and well, and they thank me for guidance about comma splices and subject-verb agreement and how to cite a source in MLA or create an APA-style title page for an academic paper.

This week, as I work through the separate sections of the grant, I am also reading final essays and reviewing submissions and making sure all the revisions have been tabulated and added to the final grades.

Grades are due on Thursday at 7:00

The grant is due on Wednesday at 5:00.

Also on Wednesday, I am co-teaching a day long workshop on mental health first aid. So the grant needs to be wrapped Tuesday night, and I need to spend serious time with the course curriculum; I need to review video and make copies and check in with  my teaching partner who has some great ideas about how to organize the day.

As I work, emails pop up from students.

“Have you graded my final yet?” they ask.

“When will final grades be posted?” they ask.

“If a student gets an 89.5 average, do you automatically raise it to an A, especially if the student has perfect attendance and participated all the time?” they ask.

I set one thing aside to do the other, and then I feel guilty. The other two obligations sit on my shoulders, icy cold; they cramp my shoulders up. When I lift one off and tend to it, the newly neglected obligation crawls back into its place. It sends frosty shoots down into my shoulder muscles. It freezes up my neck.

Sometimes I stand up. I take all three of those frosty little obligations and I throw them high up into the air, one after another, and then I dance and juggle, dance and juggle, until the phone rings, and the woman who was going to let me in to check out the technology I need for the course tells me they’re having interviews in the conference room and we won’t be able to get in there after all, and the doctor’s office calls to remind me of an appointment I had, indeed, forgotten, and Jim asks if we can go to the post office to mail off his package, which needs to be postmarked before the 17th—well, actually, he admits, it should GET there before the 17th,—and the check engine light pops on in the car, and Mark wonders if we have any plans for Saturday.

Then those chilly little obligations plummet down from the sky; one after another, they smack me in the head. Boof! Boof! Boof! And I stagger around complaining and squawking and people I love go running wildly in a far-off direction, and I know there’s only one answer.

It is time to light the fire and brew some Tension Tamer tea, time to pull on soft, elastic-waisted pants and my ratty old comfortable navy-blue sweater and grab my book and read.

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

There’s a special kind of book for a day like this—probably a special kind for each person, but mine are usually set in one of the British Isles. The houses are old and thick-walled, and they don’t always have every modern convenience, but they look out on scenes of gentle beauty. Their kitchens produce the most amazing things—scones and lemon curd, pastries and meat pies, iced cakes that would comfort the bleakest soul.

And the people in these novels—well, they are the people I want to move in right next door. They are quirky, these folks. The women are stalwart and honest, with a brave sense of derring-do; they may give up everything for love, but they discover too, that they can darned well live without it. They can light their own fires and arrange for their cars to be fixed and they always have some kind of interesting work—as travel agents or the owners of charming, funky shops, as night school teachers or the writers of lovely books.

And, oh, the men! They are ruggedly handsome, if a little grizzled, and their faces are saved from the boredom of perfection by a bunged-up nose or a strategic childhood scar.  They LISTEN, these men, and they reflect back thoughtfully. They never turn rugby on and say, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” They are fully present, fully engaged, fully mature, and fully hunky.

All of the men in these books can cook a tasty shepherd’s pie.

And so I warm my frazzled soul by these books, and those pesky obligations, cold-blooded creatures that they are, look in horror at the flames flickering in the fireplace and they crawl away, huffing.

I know they are not really gone, but the cozy book sends them packing, just for a little space of time.

The fire snaps. My shoulders relax. I have opened a door into a whole different world. This is a world where everything, every thing, is going to, somehow, turn out all right.

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

The next morning, I walk downstairs and see three eager little obligations waiting to jump up onto my shoulders. I bend over to let them hop on.

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

The grant gets written, and I think, despite some email issues and a very strict character count, that we have collaborated to do a really strong job.

The technology at the mental health course works just fine, and the sound booms through on the video, and all the disasters I imagined vaporize like fog on a sunny summer’s morning.

I check averages twice and then I post grades—and yes, an 89.5 plus extra credit DOES add up to an A-…

Sometimes, there is good news to share.

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

The frosty little obligations hop off my shoulders, one by one, and disappear; the week wanes, and I finish the cozy book and set it aside. Now I’ll look around and realize how badly the carpets need to feel a vacuum cleaner’s suction, and I will cook a meal that involves more than opening a box, and I’ll start a book that makes me think about the post-Emily Dickinson world and why a nation full of supposed fuddy-duddies would warm so to her unconventional words.

Later, obligations will slip back in…packages to wrap and mail, and cards yet to be addressed, cleaning and cooking and baking and shopping…and I may feel that chill, that tightness, creep back in to my neck and shoulders.

But that’s okay. Hidden in my TBR stack, there are two more cozy novels, two more bulwarks against the cluttered days.

Why Not Now?

She wakes with the sense of a strong dream—vivid images, dynamic people, important words—receding just ahead of her conscious thought.

Don’t go, she thinks, but the dream whooshes around a corner of her waking mind, just out of reach.

But a memory immediately fills the void. Almost forty years ago, in another December, she was working in a supermarket deli, and she had a young colleague, Kathy, whose father was retiring. Kathy was blond and bubbly, and that week, she was even more effervescent than usual: she and her brothers were going to Florida to help her parents set up housekeeping. They’d bought a little vacation home near the ocean, saved all their lives for it. They’d given up dinners out and treats for the kids and family vacations.

When Dad retires…they’d said, for years, and they spun out tales of the fun they’d have: the whole family would come down to Florida, and they would have the most amazing barbecues.They’d walk to the beach, and the kids would dash into the ocean, and everyone would get sun-toasted. There would be endless beachy days.

So that week, Kathy was giddy with excitement. Her dad would retire that Friday. He and her mom would spend five days tying up loose ends, getting the paperwork in order, making some plans for the old house…and then, the following Saturday, all of them would fly down to Florida.

A family dream was coming true, and we were happy for our colleague Kathy, the rest of us, woven fast into a snow-deep western New York winter. We were happy, and a little bit envious. We trudged out to our cars after work, crunched open doors glazed with sleety rain that had frozen into snow. We turned reluctant ignitions, cranked the heat up as high as it would go, pulled the long-handled brushes from our backseats, and started, in the whipping wind, to clean off our poor vehicles, marshmallowed with snow tufts during our shifts.

Brrrr, we said. Lucky YOU, Kathy! Next week, you’ll be in the sun…

That Thursday, Kathy didn’t come in to work. Her father, our boss informed us, had had a massive heart attack. He died that afternoon.

And the Florida dream died with him. Kathy’s mother couldn’t bear the thought of going without him. She sold the property and settled back in to the old family home—the one that had endured so many sacrifices (We can live with the old linoleum! We don’t need central air! The kitchen is fine for one more year! Just think; next year, we’ll be in Florida…)

In a week or two, Kathy came back to work, the excitement gone, the glow erased.

The door to someday had closed abruptly.

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

It is one of those perfect Saturdays…they drive to Easterville to spend a good chunk of time at Half Price Books. Joe takes in a bundle of books and movies and videos games; they browse while the staff at the ‘Sell us your stuff!’ desk examine and evaluate. Finally, “Joseph! Your offer is ready!” floats out over the intercom, and he hurries over to hear the news.

He comes back, grinning, with the receipt in hand. He has turned the cache into cash.

They disperse, each to their own pursuits. In the clearance section, she finds two books she’d been meaning to request at the library. Two dollars each! She buys them both, snuggles in to a chair in the store window, waiting for the boyos to finish their shopping.

Later, they go to a local coffee shop where they brew the BEST decaf. They splurge on wonderful cookies, breaking their wheat-fast just for a day.

They drive home, gleaming at their bargains, sated with coffee and looking forward to satisfying reading to be done.

The next morning, as she pours her coffee, she thinks, Someday, I’ll live in a place with a bookstore and a coffee shop, and I’ll walk downtown in the mornings with my perfect book; I’ll go to the coffee shop and order something wonderful, and I’ll spread the book open, sip my steaming decaf, and I’ll read, unencumbered for an hour.  

Maybe even more.

It’s a well-worn dream, soft from handling. Suddenly she sends tendrils out into the future, sends shoots searching for a concrete concept of when ‘someday’ might happen. Those green shoots whip out and flail and roll back up. Empty.

She cannot find the ‘someday’ of her dream, cannot make it real, and a small voice says, piping but clear: Why wait for someday? Why not NOW?

The next morning, she puts Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry and a notebook into the beautiful quilted bag a dear friend made for her, and she drives to the new coffee shop on Poplar Avenue. She orders a slice of quiche, and they bring her a brimming, steaming mug of decaf, and she reads for an hour, the quiet murmur of morning conversations blending into white noise around her.

It is a good way to start the day, and she goes home ready to tackle the long list of to-do’s that awaits her.

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

At the supermarket, she runs into a friend, Lisa, from church. She and Lisa are about the same age, and they share a strong interest in services for adults with disabilities. They serve on a committee together, and they stop and talk for a little about the work that committee has been doing.

And then Lisa looks at her watch and grimaces. She has not yet retired, and she needs to get back to the office. Lisa waves and hurries her little cart toward the check out.

She waves back, and she admires Lisa’s outfit: a jeans jacket and a long, ethnic-y, patterned skirt.

When I lose some weight, she thinks, I’m going to get a denim jacket.

She pushes along the dairy section, inspects a carton of free-range eggs, sets it gently in the bottom of the cart. She moves on to the cereal aisle.

Later, as she is mopping the kitchen floor, she thinks, Wait. Why couldn’t I shop for a gently-used jacket? What am I waiting for?

That afternoon, she drives to the thrift shop. She finds a jacket in the men’s section. It is soft and broken in and it fits her perfectly.

She takes it home and launders it. She sews up a couple of fraying seams, and secures some wobbling buttons, and she irons that old jacket briskly.

It is just what she’d been looking for, this five-dollar wonder, and she wears it that weekend with her long, crinkly black and white skirt and a comfortable black t-shirt. Three people tell her how nice she looks.

This does not mean, she tells herself wryly, that I DON’T need to lose the weight. But I love my new jacket today.

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

She loves the old cabinet in the dining room. It is not an antique; it’s not even especially well-made. But it is the style she likes and the size she needs, and it fits perfectly into the space. It holds what needs to be held and its broad flat surface acts, when needed, as a serving space or a counter top.

It would be perfect, she thinks, if it were white. Distressed white; she imagines painting it, then hitting it with the sander, softening edges, making the department store cabinet look like a seasoned, heirloom-y piece.

When I get time, she thinks, I’ll buy some chalk paint…and then she pulls herself up short.

After lunch, she drives to the little shop on Overdale Drive, and she buys white chalk paint and a bottle of protective glaze.

That night, she cleans the cabinet out, stacking the contents neatly into three boxes, and she vacuums the dusty corners, pulls out the drawers, and gives everything a good, hot-soapy-water scrub.

The next morning, she gets up and brushes on the first coat of chalk paint. By the time she is done, the decaf has brewed. By the time she finishes her first cup, the paint has dried.

By the weekend, the cabinet is transformed; her vision is realized.

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

She thinks about faraway people she misses, and instead of longing for a far off time when she can visit, she makes phone calls and touches base, or she reaches out via email, or she sits down and writes a letter.

She takes the clippers out to the back yard and she hacks down the overgrowth on a scraggly old bush that’s been driving her crazy.

She walks every morning.

She has coffee with a friend she hasn’t seen in way too long, and she makes plan for lunch with another.

She organizes a long-neglected sewing project and works on it after lunch, every day, for half an hour.

She sorts through her bookshelves and makes a stack of books she’s been meaning to read. That night, she lights the fire and takes the first book off the stack, opens it, and enters that world.

Once or twice a week, at least, she takes the book and heads down to the coffee shop. Often, she wears her jeans jacket.

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

Life’s hard edges become more rounded, more pleasing. There’s a little pilot light that flares up at least once a day. She becomes aware of satisfaction, of contentment. She becomes aware at random moments that what she is feeling is JOY.

She carries the memory of Kathy’s young face just under her everyday awareness—Kathy’s glowing face, anticipating; Kathy’s muted face, the dream dispelled. She hopes, wherever Kathy is now, that life has been good, brought her happiness and wonder, given her a long beachy vacation with screaming kids and laughing adults and a wonderfully generous barbecue.

And she schools herself. Whenever she begins to think, Someday…, she stops herself abruptly.

Someday! she snorts. Some day???

Why not now?

No, I said. No, no. no.

I texted Jim and Mark with a picture of two substantial packages I’d just put on the dining room table. Both were marked, ‘DELL,’ and both were eagerly awaited: an early Christmas gift for Jim, whose old MacBook has been wheezing and moaning. Jim was between work and class, and the boyos were out to dinner. But they converted to take out and came quickly home.

 “Sweet,” said Jim, and he and Mark pulled the laptop from its package, then explored the special backpack that came with the deal.

“Nice,” Mark agreed.

They moved the computer to a safe pace and spread out their dinners. Jim said he couldn’t wait to get out of class so he could play with his new laptop.

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

But it didn’t go well. One of Jim’s definite needs in a computer is to be able to watch DVD’s. He plays a movie whenever he uses the computer; he’ll be typing with West Wing on half the screen; he’ll check his email to the accompaniment of How I Met Your Mother.

It’s one of those quirks of the autistic mind that fascinates me. Jim is so susceptible to distraction: chugging appliances, neighbors having a raucous exchange, someone playing Top 40’s playlists…all of these things can completely derail a project. So in order to concentrate, he supplies himself with a different kind of distraction.

If I tell him something while he’s typing and watching TV, he’ll remember it with perfect clarity hours and even days later. But if I told him the same thing while the dishwasher was chugging and irritating him, the data would have swept out some mental drain, never to be recovered.

So a DVD player was a must, and this laptop promised to provide that capability.

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

 But that night, Jim eagerly opened the new laptop and brought it to the comfy chair. He put West Wing on the big TV (“Want to watch with me, Mom?”) and began the process of introducing himself to his new technology.

He set up passwords and logged into email.

He downloaded special scriptwriting software.

 He got on line and accessed his subscriptions for streaming sites.

 All of this took a little time, and he was getting a little testy. And then he popped a DVD into the drive.

And it didn’t work.

Repeated efforts did not help.There was a blank gray screen where the film should be playing. Jim’s breathing got heavier, and his mood less rosy, and he start snapping answers to well-intended questions. And then he got up, put the laptop down, and said, “I will have to send it back. They said it would work, and it doesn’t.”

“We’ll look at it,” Mark called from the other room, “tomorrow.”

“No,” said Jim. “It doesn’t work, and I’ll send it back tomorrow.”

He threw himself down on the couch, and watched the end of the episode, sighing. Then he heaved himself up, said morosely, “I might as well go to BED,” and stomped upstairs.

Great, I thought to myself. This is going to become our holiday drama. Just great.

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

The semester creaks slowly to a close, and that, of course, brings papers. Two of my classes had nine pagers due last week, and I have been slogging through the grading. Every morning, I open the program, pull up a paper, and copy a rubric onto the screen. Then I read through the paper for content and tone and just the feel of the thing before I run it through the rubric.

I believe that every writer has strengths, and I consciously try to school myself to see them. It’s easy for us picky English teacher types to lose the thread of an excellent argument in a sea of comma splices, for instance. I try to give clear feedback, noting strengths and pointing out opportunities for improvement.

I am not a fast grader. I once tried tutoring on line, and I could not meet the required twenty minutes per paper that the company, a textbook publisher, demanded.  My feedback time was more in the 45 minute range.

So yesterday, I dragged myself to the computer and sat myself down, and pulled up the college’s website and started opening all the docs I need to grade papers. “I will never get finished with this,” I said to myself, and the gradebook opened up before me.

And looky there, I thought sheepishly. I only have one more to do.

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

I’ve been living in the land of negative self-talk. Time to up planks and move.

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

And right in the middle of all this, I had to put together a kind of sample paper for my Comp I students to react to…something that would allow them to add transitional phrases where they thought they were needed, and then practice the art of writing a satisfying conclusion. For some reason, as I strolled through some on-line info, looking for a topic, I landed on coloring.

“I’ll write a short paper on the benefits of coloring for adults,” I decided, and I did a little search. I found two good websites, created a Works Cited page, then wrote the first four paragraphs of a classic five paragraph essay.

The sources supported that coloring relieves stress and enhances creativity, and then—how about that?—one also said that coloring was a way to shut down negative self-talk. Here’s what Erika Befumo wrote on colorit.com: “When we color, it brings out our inner child. We are reminded of the days when life was simple and our biggest worry was watching our favorite cartoon show.”

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

That night after dinner, I cleared off the table, and brought out three sheets of copy paper, and I drew designs for this nifty Christmas surprise I can’t tell you about. (But it is, I hope, cute and clever, and I’ll tell you later how well it goes over.) It involves a pun of sorts, and I envision tags that contain pictures that illustrate the pun, and a little poem that explains it.

I got my crayon tin out and I sharpened a pencil and I sat down to draw and color.

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

I think I got my design down. And I stepped out of the scary world for a little while, lost myself in sketching and erasing, considering and adapting, outlining and coloring in. I moved from practical time into drawing time, and I got lost in the creative process.

When, finally, I was done, I looked at the clock and was shocked that only 32 minutes had passed.

I remembered using Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book by Betty Edwards, in a grad class about the teaching of thinking. The class itself was a paradox. The professor taught it in a kind of formal style: we read; he lectured; we took tests. But the tests were on material that told us lecturing and testing weren’t always the best ways to teach…weren’t, in fact, often the best ways. And our reading opened us up to all kinds of wonderfully unexpected theories about how students learn to think. My best takeaway was that writing and thinking skills are inextricable.

 But I really liked the Betty Edwards section, too.

In her book, Edwards predicted what I’d just experienced: immersing in a creative process actually changes the way we experience time. I’d forgotten about that.

And I realized that Erika Befumo also was right: fresh from a drawing binge, I was hopeful and positive. I even liked the designs I’d created, and I got excited about putting packages together.

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

Later, after a long computer screen interval, I realized I was feeding that negative talk again,–that below the surface of my thoughts, a little banner was running, like the ones we see on news programs. While the newscaster is talking, the ribbon scrolls below, saying things like, “School cancellations for tomorrow: Ada Central Schools,two hour delay; Bluffton Local schools, closed; Cambridge elementary, closed….”

And much as I want to pay attention to the news on the big screen, my eyes are drawn to that scrolling ribbon.

So my thoughts were telling me the work was done and this was great and there was time to read.  But scrolling below that, there was this kind of chatter: Do I think I really taught those students anything? I don’t know why I bother; no one reads my emails anyway. Am I going to have enough time to finish this? Can I afford this holiday?

You can guess which one I was listening to.

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

So here’s my unproven premise. Excess screen time opens us wide to the daunting effects of negative self-talk. Rich creative time blocks the negativity and puts us firmly in touch with the good stuff going on.

I’m going to see what the experts say; I’m going to explore this whole idea more deeply. And I’m going to look for ways to get myself, and my family, away from the screens once in a while.

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

The Comp II papers are graded. The Comp I final papers are in, though, but I’m actually kind of looking forward to reading those. And the end of the semester is crawling around my feet and purring, rubbing against my legs and leaving college-y cat hair all over my slacks. Vacation is coming, it reminds me, bringing holiday celebration right along with it.

Today, James and I took a ride to the bulk food store and bought interesting things—non-gluten flours, white chocolate for dipping, chocolate chips, mixed nuts, and tapioca. We stopped at the A and W so Jim could get himself a bag lunch, and, while there, he also got his dad a little apple pie blizzard-type thing. (Mark loves himself a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and this seemed to Jim like a wonderful combination.)

When we came home, Jim ate his lunch, then opened the new laptop. I was working on some grading and not paying attention when Jim shouted.

“Can you HEAR that?” he asked, and I stopped to listen. It was the theme music from West Wing.

“That’s on my new LAPTOP,” Jim said. “They downloaded software overnight, and the DVD drive WORKS.”

He ran over to give me a fist bump.

“I think I LIKE this new computer after all,” Jim said.

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

So the holiday is not shadowed by the Ghost of Technology Disappointing, and the grading load is completely manageable, and…I can’t even remember what else I was expecting to be dire and dreadful.

What was I thinking?

I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what. I’m off to go draw and color.

Shaken. And Stirred.

As I zipped along gray roads, under gray skies, to Coshocton, I listened to NPR’s food editor talk about planning Thanksgiving feasts.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “to mess with tradition, to shake things up a little.”

Hmmm, I thought.

Then she added, “But don’t shake EVERYTHING up. Some things are meant to be on the Thanksgiving table.”

She went on to talk about how they still fixed creamed spinach just the way her father had; it wouldn’t, she said, be Thanksgiving at all without Granddad’s creamed spinach.

Hmmmm, I thought again.

We have some spinach in the fridge, but I didn’t see creamed spinach being a hit at our Thanksgiving table.

It’s just as well that everyone’s tastes are different and therefore special.

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

But the food editor’s words gave me the permission I needed to stretch the lines. And my doctor’s injunction against wheat and gluten made stretching the lines a necessity.

So, we bought the turkey, a sassy little fourteen pounder. We got Idaho potatoes and frozen green beans and a jar of whole-berry Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. I even bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing because I couldn’t for the life of me think of a wheat-free alternative…and it would be blasphemy worse than that editor’s not creaming the spinach to skip the stuffing.

I bought the world’s tiniest pumpkin pie…none of us (sorry, pumpkin lovers) really cares for it. But still, it is not Thanksgiving to Mark without a crusty bit of pumpkin with a fluffy dollop of whipped topping. He enjoys that one small piece…and then spends the week after trying to get someone—anyone!—to take the rest of the pie off his hands.

So we were ready. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and put on my hard-core cooking clothes—long-sleeved black t-shirt, black plaid flannel pants,—and went downstairs to sauté up some bacon.

Most of the bacon went onto a plate where Mark and Jim picked at it while they scrambled up eggs in the pan drippings. I rescued a good sized chunk, though; it was one odd, solid piece and both the boyos looked at it funny anyway. I hid that away for my shaking it up green beans.

And then, boyos out of the kitchen, I went looking for my pecan cookie bar recipe, and I couldn’t find it.

That put me in a little panic. The recipe is from an old, old Betty Crocker cookbook that my younger brother and I bought for my mother with carefully hoarded dimes and dollars way back in the late sixties. I remember feeling that zing of pure pleasure, knowing we had gotten something for Mom that she would just purely love, and I remember knowing just how precisely we had hit the mark when she opened it and didn’t say anything for a minute.  Then she said, “Oh,no! You shouldn’t have spent so much!”

Which we translated into, “I really, really like this.”

I inherited the book after Mom died, and the first recipe I made was the one for pecan pie bars. They were good; they were so good that, when I pot-lucked them, I was inevitably asked for the recipe. I took it out of its official three-ring binder so many times that the holes turned from islands into peninsulas, and the page itself grew soft as cloth. I folded it several times, and the bottom of the page just detached itself and floated away, and I stuck that cookie bar recipe back in the old cookbook, right up front so I’d always know where to find it.

And then, this Thanksgiving morning, I opened the book’s cover, hanging by a thread to its binding, and the recipe just wasn’t there. I pawed through other cookbooks—maybe I stuffed it in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook! Maybe I put it in with the handwritten recipes. Joy of Cooking? Julia Child?

But, no; it was gone. And it was Thanksgiving Day, and we needed a reasonable facsimile of pecan pie that I could make with my homemade AP flour substitute, and the bar recipe had the authenticity of family history.

Damn. I was kind of upset.

Finally, I got online and searched “Becky Crocker pecan pie bars,” and I pulled up a recipe. It was not THE recipe. It put granulated sugar in the crust instead of powdered; it added corn syrup to the filling. I printed it out, debated with myself a minute, and then harkened back to the NPR food editor.

Okay, I thought. This will be another shaking it up dish.

I warmed up the oven and baked the crust with the organic, gluten-free flour mix I made from flours bought at the bulk store. I poured gooey, corn syrupy, nutty filling over the hot crust and baked it again. I watched the bars carefully, and as soon as they looked brown and set, I pulled them out and put them on the old wooden chopping board to cool.

Then I slathered the turkey with olive oil and stuffed its poor empty belly with fresh herbs, rained salt and pepper down on it, tented it with foil, and grappled it into the hot oven.

Let, I declared, the cooking time begin, and I pulled out onions and celery and carrots, garlic and some almost-gravy-thick turkey broth made on Tuesday from the frozen remains of the last bird we’d enjoyed. I sorted through herbs and spices and gleefully pulled out jars and tins and plastic tubs and stacked them on the counter.

I made the stuffing in the cast iron skillet, redolent of bacon residue. The breading and the veggies sucked up a cup of that turkey broth, and, as the bird developed its own pan drippings, I scooped some out to drizzle on top. I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil,and Jim decided a crisscross potato might be even better than mashed, so I directed him in that preparation, (“Like this?” he said. “Am I cutting it right? How much butter? Is that too much paprika?”) and we found an old metal cake pan and got that potato dish ready to roast, too.

And, here we go! I thought. Time to shake up the green bean casserole, too!

I chopped a whole onion and put it on to caramelize, and I mixed up some bechamel with the non-wheat flour—which thickened, I was happy to see, right nicely. I grated some Vermont white cheddar into that, and I chopped the funny chunk of bacon and threw those tasty bits in with the browning onions. I poured the French-style green beans into the big metal mixing bowl and shook in the sautéed bits and shlupped in the thick sauce, and stirred it all together, thinned it just a titch, and spooned it into a casserole. My counters were dotted with casseroles and waiting pots, and the turkey was starting to get all kinds of fragrant, and there was nothing to do but wait until just the right time to start loading pans into the oven, reeling things out, hoping everything would be done on time.

And the turkey baked on, as we remembered to take the brown-n-serve rolls out of the freezer and put them on a pan, where Jim slathered their butty little tops with butter. And we remembered, this year, to decant the cranberry sauce into a pretty glass dish—some years we’d get halfway through dinner, and think, Wait.  What’s…missing? and one of us would run to get the can opener.

And the turkey roasted up juicy and tender, and everything thing else bubbled right into the perfect finished state at just the right time, and we spread the brown and red plaid cloth onto the table, and Jim picked out fall-colored Fiesta ware, and Mark carved the turkey and, then, after hours of preparation, we ate.

In less than fifteen minutes, we were all full…full and happy. The dinner was just right. Traditional, with a twist or two, but all the things were there that connected us to Thanksgivings past, to stories we always have to tell, and to people we love and miss.

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

My sadly beaten phone hummed and buzzed from Wednesday afternoon through Friday; hummed with catching up texts and Facebook messages and emails and tweets. On Wednesday, two beautiful cards from lifelong friends dropped through the mail slot.

I grabbed the colored chalk and wrote “Giving thanks…” above the picture window on the chalkboard wall in the kitchen.  Every now and then, I added thoughts. “…for homemade spaghetti sauce,” I wrote once. And another time, “…fireplace fires.”

The next time I went into the kitchen, the list had grown. “Family,” it said. And, “love.”

Jim came in to put his blue plastic cup into the dishwasher.

“Hey,” he said. “I just thought: well, somebody ought to say it.”

By Thanksgiving morning, he’d added a couple things more.

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

On Thanksgiving night, we went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. A boy stopped us to rip our tickets; he was silent and a little surly, and I didn’t blame him.

“Thank you,” I said, “for working on Thanksgiving.” A smile broke out all over his face, and he was a little jaunty handing me back the tickets stubs.

“Theater TWO,” he said, “and I think you’re gonna like it.”

Is that little appreciation enough? I thought; just that little bit?

He was right; critics be darned. We enjoyed the movie.

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

We fixed up a full divided plate of Thanksgiving feast for Mark’s mom, and the next morning, Mark got up and packed up the car and took off: back home, to see his mom and his siblings, to see Matt and Julie and the girls. I ate leftover green beans for breakfast and lunch. And then they were gone. Jim had turkey sandwiches for brunch, lunch,and snacking. The mail came with a letter and a magazine that was all about the holiday light shows in Ohio, and we went to the library, where I couldn’t help it: I brought home three more books.

I divided up my schoolwork and tackled three papers, and Jim spread his math book and notebook and scratch pad on the kitchen table and worked his way, conscientiously, through two lessons.

For dinner, a little woozy from all that turkey, we stir fried pork and veggies and tossed them in General Tso’s sauce. And Mark texted to say he’d arrived, and Terry texted a picture of special memorial blocks in the newly opened tunnel at the Toledo Zoo; Shaynie sent me a message, and Larisa texted to say she had wound up the day and was warming her toes with a fuzzy blanket and her innards with a little sip of wine.

It struck me, just then, that, just like the dinner, everything had turned out just right.

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

When I was a child, I looked forward so eagerly to Thanksgiving: everybody home; even Dad, a lot of the time, didn’t have to work. I’d get up in the morning, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be on, and I’d watch for a while, floating a bit on the fumes of the enormous turkey my mother had stuffed and put in the oven. But, although I hated to admit it, the parade was kind of…well, BORING, and I would wind up in a chair with a book.

Many years, we would make Turkeys From Hell out of apples and toothpicks, raisins and green olives with pimento gobblers—one for each place. But that was pretty quickly done, and then what?

I waited for dinner, which we ate in the dining room, a lace cloth on the table, and somebody always slopped gravy on it, every year. And then dishes and everyone disappeared…to watch football, out to see friends, into a bedroom, and a long quiet lull reigned before everyone would have digested enough to eat dessert.

There’s nothing to DO, I’d complain to my mother, and she, who’d been DO-ing all day, snapped, Go take a walk.

And I would pull on my jacket and tie on my sneakers and slough down the sidewalk, thinking, drenched deep with disappointment, Where’s the HOLIDAY part of this holiday?

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

But now, finally and belatedly, I think I get it. There’s the chance to be grateful, of course; the opportunity to count blessings. And all tied into that, woven together with it, is the awareness of bonds…to new friends and old friends, to family here with us, and to family gone on.

So, traditions…a recipe from my mother’s book, a visit to a much-loved place, a pie baked like no other can bake it, –well, they are more important on this holiday. And all the communications, –a letter, an e-card, a phone call, a Facebook post, –they are all drenched in meaning. The TIME of Thanksgiving is no-pressure time; I don’t have to be gifting or caroling,partying or volunteering. I am free to make a phone call, free to remember, free to stare into the fire and search deep down for the better self that surely is hiding, way down there.

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

That food editor was right, I think. It’s good on Thanksgiving, to give traditions a little shake.

But just a little one. Shaken too much, the beautiful meaning behind those traditions might just be obscured.

The Day the Season Begins

There is no fixed date; the season chooses its own arrival. But when it comes, I know; I honor it. I do what needs to be done.

We wake, early, to a frozen world. There is talk of two big accidents on the expressway; Mark pulls his IPad toward him, and searches grimly: he learns there has been a tragic death in the slippery early hours.

“Be careful today,” he says, and he searches for school closings. The high schools in the town where I teach, 45 miles away, are closed or delayed. But colleges rarely close.

By the time I leave, I assure him, the roads will have been tended. But I stick close by my computer, checking periodically, that little kid’s hope banked but burning: could this be a snow day?

But at 11:30, James bundles himself into the car, and I pack up my book bag, and we head off. There is a slow, cold, steady rain. The burning bush at the end of the drive has lost all its scarlet leaves. Each spindly branch is encased in ice; each red berry gleams as if shellacked.

It is warm enough—34 degrees–that the sky spits rain, and just cold enough that the dark time’s ice has not yet melted.

I drop Jim at the side door of the college; then he doesn’t have so far to run in this relentless downpour. He bolts inside without his usual wave, and I head north to drive to the Coshocton campus.

**********

The car warms up, and I turn on NPR, and I settle in to the ride. I’d sent my students an email: I’ll be there, I said, but don’t panic if I’m a little late: I am taking my time.

I discover, though, that the roads are fine. I clip along at the speed limit or thereabouts, and I arrive half an hour early. Several students are already in the classroom, and many have stories of ice-skimmed back roads and dicey drives. Josh started out to walk the almost five miles to class because his car had died; a neighbor picked him up at the crossroads, and he arrived two hours early.

“Dedication,” I murmur, and he waves the thought away.

“No sense staying home,” he says.

It’s a good class. The students present group position papers, and then they ruminate and rank each presentation. They are kind; that is something I’ve noted about this group of students from the very start. Their comments are thoughtful, and the rankings are generous.

We talk about the steps to analyzing the group presentation and morph those into peer review steps, and I randomly assign pairs. But then we notice that the rain has turned to snow. Right now, the streets are still dry. I have them exchange email addresses and send them off to work on each other’s drafts electronically, safely at home.

Only Josh groans.

“My ride’s not coming till 3:00,” he says.

But on the first floor, in this inn converted to college classrooms, there is a den with comfortable leather chairs and a snapping gas fire in a broad hearth. Josh hefts his backpack and heads down there.

I sit in the quiet classroom and tally up the rankings for each group. The totals are within one point of each other, all within the low A/high B range. They have been generous, but they have made astute remarks and suggestions, too.

I have high hopes for the peer review process.

I pack up my supplies, bundle into my coat, and reassuringly text Mark, who wonders how the drive was. I head downstairs and out to my car. I wave to Josh, who is nodding by the fire.

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

On Thursday nights, Jim has a two-hour break between work and class. Mark picks him up at the college. Then they select a restaurant; there they can eat, they tell me, as men do. Sometimes, a little time left over, they pop in at the house to say hello.

But tonight, Jim is anxious to work on some homework before class, and Mark texts that he’ll be joining some Bar Association peeps at Weasel Boy’s.

The house is quiet,—quiet and clean. I am glad I ran the vacuum in the morning, de-cluttered messy surfaces, and flicked the duster over the ceilings. No little clutter clumps chastise me; I am greeted by warmth and order.

I light the fire, and the rain pours steadily down outside. The furnace burbles below me, chugging and huffing. I kick off my shoes, place them in front of the fire to dry off, and find my book. I turn on my reading lamp, slide into the chair, and grab the knitted blanket. I wrap my feet, mummy style, pull the satiny edge up to my chin, and open my book.

As the flames flicker and their glow warms my feet, I read Bella Figura. Kamin Mohammadi, in this chapter of her memoir, is staying in Florence in August, while those who live there head off in many directions to the sea. It is hot in Florence, she tells me, and her beautiful apartment has no air conditioning. She suffers a bout of sunstroke after a long afternoon walk and learns to go to the market in the earliest hours of the morning. She spends the rest of the August days inside, writing, and ventures out again as the evening cools, meeting other ex-pats at a café around the corner.

The fire snaps, and I imagine its warmth is like the Italian sun’s; my book transports me. The clock ticks noisily; the rain pours down outside, but for this moment in time, I am warm and dry with an imaginative world open before me.

The reading season, I realize, has begun.

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

In the reading season, my mind seems, contrary to the weather, to thaw and open. I am captured, at the library, by strange new offerings. I take home novels that, in the rest of the year, I might consider too dark for recreational reading, and the stories move me and make me realize how lucky I am, how protected. I borrow memoirs by unlikely people—some celebrated, and some just damned interesting.

I take home a book of essays.

And, at home, I search my shelves, uncovering neglected books, books I purchased and brought home, and then thought, for whatever reason, No. Not now. I find the true story of a lady doctor in the 1800’s, a lady doctor who lived and worked in my last hometown before this one.  I’d bought that book at Kim’s enthusiastic recommendation, and then Kim’s illness and death made me too sad to read it. But now it feels like a connection rather than an aching reminder, and I put it on my TBR stack.

I find some Willa Cather, and some Dickens, who always seems to mesh with this season. I add them to the pile along with Ready Player One and The Last Painting of Sara DeVos, the book the art museum group is discussing this month.

There’s a satisfying stack to one side of the ottoman, and I light the fire, and I take the top book, and I plunge.

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

In other seasons, waiting books would distract and dismay me; I would feel a pull away from the pages in front of me. To be polite to my current book, to give it all my attention, I would have to dismantle that stack of books to be read, and secrete them, discreetly, in waiting spots throughout the house. Then I could finally concentrate on the words that danced before me.

But, when the reading season begins, the books seem to coexist with bubbly good cheer. The book I am reading compels and uplifts me, and the joy I take in that bodes well for the joy to come in the reading pile. Sometimes I read two books at once… a biography and a novel, maybe, and always, some pings of shared knowledge will arise. The biographer describes the very place in France where the novel’s current chapter takes place, and my understanding of both stories, the true and the imagined, bursts open.

Sometimes I crave a poem, and the emotion it evokes shimmers its way into the book I am reading, shimmers and matches and expands.

In the reading season, Jim comes upstairs and asks if he might connect his video game system to the big TV in the family room. Mark is ensconced in his own reading chair in the living room, and I am mind-traveling by the fireplace, and we both encourage James to help himself.

And he will play for an hour or so, his crows and muttered curses a counterpoint to the words we’re absorbing. But Jim, too, succumbs to the season; sated, he’ll shut down the game, and grab a graphic novel, and head to bed to read.

The reading season arrives and sets up camp and opens doors we didn’t even know were there.

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

Friday morning, I determine to frontload my day. I organize my grading and then plan what needs to be done around the house. I throw in a load of laundry, sweep the kitchen floor, and heat a cup of vinegar in the microwave. When that has frothed and bubbled, I take a soft cloth and wipe the little oven’s insides clean, and I shovel baking soda down the sink’s drain in the little half bath.

I dump the hot vinegar down after it and I hear the satisfying hiss and simmer of serious cleaning taking place, deep in the pipe’s bowels.

I vacuum the living room, make sure Jim is waking up, and get ready to meet some wonderful friends for lunch. The house settles around me, approvingly; its back scratched nicely, it can relax.

The boyos are going to Westerville for an appointment; they will, again, eat in a favorite restaurant; they might stop at Fresh Thyme and pick up lovely organic bargains. They’ll come home around seven or so, toting bags and brimming with stories of the day’s adventures.

And after lunch, I will lug packages to the post office, do a little necessary shopping, and come home, again, to a quiet house. Then I will grade three papers. That’s my ticket to the reading chair, where I will spend the rest of the quiet time, lost in a book, the afternoon darkening around me, the fire snapping its ancient message of warmth and protection. I’ll take some soup from the freezer, nuke it up for my supper with a crisp salad and a thin sliver of sharp cheese.

Alone in the house, I will read while I eat, and then quickly clean up my dishes, so I can slip back into the reading chair, and learn more about the fictional Sara De Vos.

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

The events and obligations of life are grouted together tightly by little strips of time. But the reading season comes, with cold and damp and inside comfort, and those little time-strips seem to expand. The work gets done, and the grades get posted, and we prepare and enjoy family meals. I go to meetings, and do my research, and I cut out the shapes for my book shelf quilt.

In the other seasons, all of that might fill a day, and I might find myself snugged up in bed, asleep before eyes travel down the first page.

But the reading seasons works its magic or its physics, and time’s doors, like my mind’s, open wider. There is always a comfortable space—in the late afternoon’s gloaming, in the quiet dark of our Ohio at 8 PM—to push back and page up.

And for a time, the reading spaces are natural, accepted, taken for granted parts of the day. But time will surge forward, and some day, on a timetable not available to my notice, the season will change, and life will shift, and other priorities will weigh down the need and the time to read.

I know that will happen, but, as I welcome the sudden onset of rich book time, I don’t care. The reading season is here; the books are hushed and waiting, and that, for now, is plenty for me  and more.