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.

 

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Gifts of Food in a Thankful Season

It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.

I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.

I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.

The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block  in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.

While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.

The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.

But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.

I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.

This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.

I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.

I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.

I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.

The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.

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

We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.

I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.

I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.

Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.

The rain begins again, hard and insistent.

I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.

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

Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.

Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.

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

Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.

Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.

“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”

Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.

“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.

Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.

Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.

The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.

There’s past, present, and future in this meal.

And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.

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

I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.

Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.

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

Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.

Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.

The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.

 

 

 

 

Different Houses, Unfamiliar Places

It is not THIS house, but in my dreaming, it is a place where I’ve been living for a long, long time. And it is empty, except for a few random rags, some paper, a damaged box or two. There are gleaming blonde wood floors, white walls, low, slanted ceilings.

 I do not know what’s going on. Where is my son? Where is my furniture? Where, I realize suddenly, standing there in my rumpled pajamas, are my CLOTHES?

 Mark suddenly appears, beckoning. We climb into a car that is packed full. Jim is in the back seat, much younger, maybe ten, nestled between a television and a narrow cardboard box. He greets me halfheartedly, and then we are moving, on a strange trip that involves meeting people we know, some dead, some living, some nearby, some far away. We also stop to talk with strangers who are quickly woven into whatever story this is.

 Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we get back in the car and drive. Endlessly.

Always I am embarrassed by my bare feet and jammies.

When we finally arrive at the new place, in a town I don’t recognize, it is almost empty.

“Don’t WORRY,” says Mark. “Your clothes are here. Somewhere.”

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

We come home from a shopping trip; I am driving.

“Hey!” I say as we pull up the drive.

Jim pulls out his earbuds. “What?” he and Mark reply, in unison.

“Look at the rhododendrons.”

I stop, level with the bushes, and we look at the row of blooms, magenta and cheerful, among the lower branches.

“Isn’t that weird?” I say. “Rhodies in the fall?”

The boyos make noncommittal, sympathetic noises.

We unpack the groceries and put them away. Just before dark falls, I go out and clip some blossoms, make a little bouquet.

“Weird,” I think again. I wonder if global climate change has even hit my shrubbery.

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

Another dream. With Mark and Jim and—wait. Is that my father???–I walk into my house—which seems, I realize, to be an apartment. It is full of people I don’t know, sitting in a huge living room. We stop, staring at the crowd.

 A woman jumps up, bustles over. She reminds us that we share this space. And she is having a party. She invites us to join in a meal. Puzzled, we decline, and go off to find our rooms.

 We discover the space is in an old city block building. We open a door and walk beyond the finished living space and come into a work area. It smells like saw dust and the kind of oil people use to lubricate heavy iron machines; there are woodchips on the floor. Work tables are lined up throughout the room, hunkered under things like drill presses and enormous table saws.

The saws look scary. I grab Jim’s arm; in this dream, he is about five, I think.

 Mark and my father—it IS my father—yell in delight and they move forward to explore those worktables, to experiment with those tools.

 “Where ARE we?” I ask, out loud, and Jim looks at me, worried.

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

I am driving to teach with the radio on. The President is making a speech…in Wisconsin? In Houston? He says that he will be giving the middle class a tax cut of ten per cent next week.

The audio cuts to commentary, and the newscaster asks an expert if this sudden tax cut is possible.

The expert says, Well, no: Congress is not in session next week.

So he’s lying? Asks the newscaster.

There’s a long pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, the expert says, Well, yes.

They cut back to the tape and we listen to the crowd cheering.

Chilled, I turn up the heat in the car.

Later that week, the promised tax reduction is modified to a probable tax cut resolution.

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

One night I dream I live in a house I inhabited long, long ago, but again, there are people there—and there are animals there—that I don’t know. It seems I am always asking, “Where AM I?” in my dreams these days.

 *************

I avoid it as long as I can, turning the newspaper over when I sit at the table, shifting quickly to academic websites, ruthlessly culling my email, taking a book upstairs to read when the news is on.

I so badly want to pretend, to not know.

But I have to know, of course. On a quiet morning, days after the event, with Mark and Jim both at work, I open my computer and read what happened in Pittsburgh.

“All Jews must die!” shouted the killer as he burst into the Tree of Life temple and unloaded into the crowd assembled there. Eleven people attending the bris, the baby-naming ceremony, died. The dead were between the ages of 54 and 97. The 97-year-old, Rose Mallinger, was quickly reported as being a Holocaust survivor, which was not true. But she was a devoted temple attendee who lived through the horrors of World War II and she certainly did not deserve to die at a gunman’s hand.

Nor does anyone, not any one of us. What is going on?

Six people, including first responders, were injured. The shooter survived several gun shots and will stand trial. The news reported this morning that he pleads ‘not guilty.’

**********

It is a gray, rainy, cold day, and I start a fire in the fireplace. I shut off my thoughts and I wrap up in a blanket, and I open the book I’ve halfway finished. I huddle and I hide.

I am reading the wrong book, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, which takes place in a thinly veiled version of the town we called home for ten years. The pretty people in the book are, some of them, smiling cold killers. It takes me a while before I get it: the legends are true, and the missing may be the dead.

Too close, I think, too close to home. The Florida shooting hurt kids my niece’s kids know. The Pittsburgh shooting is less than three hours away; a friend texts that she was in that neighborhood the day before, that she keeps having these weird grief feelings.

We did not know these people hurt, but their lives rub up against ours; they touched people who touched people we know. And we are, all, interconnected, anyway. Remember the butterfly in Tibet? The same applies to anguish in Pittsburgh.

I am an idiot, an optimistic idiot. I always think it will get better. I always think we’ll be all right. I always think that tragedies have meaning, that they teach us something, that those who are left behind will rise stronger and wiser and more clear-eyed. That we will prevent this kind of hate-filled evil from happening again.

I read about Pittsburgh, and the belief that things will be okay slides off my back like a tattered plastic rain coat. It huddles on the ground and I walk further and further away.

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

I go to sleep, exhausted, and wake up abruptly. Sticky shreds of nightmare cling. I have been in a strange house, I have neglected two dogs and a pony and left them starving in a basement. I put a toddler in a bathtub with the water running and forgot to stay by his side.

How could you?  the head voices say, and I vault out of bed, make tea. I find a different book, a light and wryly funny book, and I sip the tea and read the blurry pages until sleep comes back to find me.

Where am I? I think. What should I be doing?

 Is there any point?

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

I attend the breakfast meeting because I am on the board of an organization that ensures people with mental health and addiction challenges get the help they need. On this early morning, ordinary regular folk like me mingle with criminal justice and social work professionals. There are community volunteers there, and not-for-profit leaders and judges and wardens, sheriffs and nurses and social workers and CEOs.

They talk about grants they’ve received…monies that will help pregnant women with addiction and their babies, that will help inmates with mental illness and the disease of addiction get the help they need while they are incarcerated, and then link firmly to services when they are released. They tell us about specialty docket courts. They discuss intervention programs that keep people with substance use and mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. The programs get people, at least during their first brush with the legal machine, connected to services that can help them become, as one speaker says, productive community members.

Two people get up to speak, respected professionals, and reveal that they were helped by just such programs.

Advocates talk about services for those who’ve served in the military forces. People exchange cards and the sheriff thanks the mental health community for the help they provide law enforcement. A swell of thanks rises up, flows back toward him, spreads through the room.

There is a kind of weaving going on, I think to myself; among people of different politics and widely varied beliefs, a net is being fabricated. It will catch a lot of people.

Of course, it is being woven as people are already falling in front of its progress, but the weavers’ hands are flying. The epidemic, the creeping stain, was not predicted, but caring people have banded together, and they are making a significant impact.

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

I drive home slowly, thinking. The streets are slick with rain and empty. Yellow leaves flutter down; one sticks to my windshield wiper, and I let it rest there. I leave the radio off, and I let my thoughts settle.

The pain in Pittsburgh seems like a final pain, the Last Thing before the turning of the corner. It is the splash of vinegar on the dirty window. I can’t help but see it now.

This is where we are.

This is who we are.

I am sick with the need to acknowledge that we are, none of us, safe from hatred and violence. It is not a time for cock-eyed optimism.

But that meeting. That blending of very different people of good will into one tapestry of caring, one active force.

Not a time for optimism, maybe, but certainly a time for action. I will explore this week, discerning just what I can do, and then I’ll find a way to be part of the action taking place.

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

“Where am I?” I think, and I can’t escape that there are terrifying things in the not-too-distant shadows. Can I help to illuminate those shadows?

Maybe I can add my hands to those that are already working, even if, at first, I just hold a lantern to light an unfamiliar place.

Warning Signs

The Hyundai’s tires are cold weather sensitive. Every year, when the temp drops below 32, the “TPMS” light pops on.

The first time that happened, I took it to the tire shop, where they filled the tires and told me that’s what happens to tires when the cold air contracts inside them. They looked at me a little pityingly too (“Ah, poor silly woman….”) so I gracelessly grabbed my keys from the counter and grumbled off into the gloom.

That never happened with any of my OTHER cars, I huffed to myself, and I’ve been driving since before that smart-mouth whippersnapper tire-guy was born.

But at least I knew. Each year, then, as the cold weather came and the TPMS popped on, I would head down to the Speedway and pump air into my tires…air that went from costing a quarter to costing something like $2.75 during the Hyundai’s lifetime.

That would send me off grumbling, too, (Who ever heard of paying for AIR?) but since the air pump was self-serve, no one was the beneficiary of my grumpiness.

I would climb back into the car, put it into gear, and drive off. In about half a mile, the “TPMS” would blink off, and I would relax, knowing my tires were fine.

This year, though, we bypassed the whole “TPMS” ordeal and went right to the flat tire Emoji thing.

Flat tire

It doesn’t quite look like this, but you get the idea of the warning light that glared tauntingly at me from the dashboard one morning this week.

It scared me. I got out of the car and walked around, inspecting tires. They all LOOKED fine.

I kicked them, and they all felt fine, too—in fact, after that, they probably felt better than my toes did.

******

Mark, when I told him about the flat tire Emoji, looked grave, and he dug around in his tool kit for the tire pressure gauge thing. It was broken, so he and James took a ride to Lowe’s. They came home with two bags full of good stuff, and they remembered to buy the tire gauge tool, too.

That night before supper, Mark checked all the tires. The driver’s side front tire, he said, MIGHT be a little soft. He took the car, and a pocketful of quarters, down to Speedway, and he filled up all the tires.

*******

The next day, I drove the forty-odd miles to Coshocton to teach. The Emoji did not blink off. When I parked at the College, I got out and kicked all the tires, and they seemed full.

The day after that, I drove an hour to get to my favorite dentist’s office. Once again, the light stayed on, but the tires seemed all right.

But it troubled me. Maybe there was something wrong with a censor someplace, and the light was just a goof-up. But maybe, in some way I couldn’t see, there was something wrong with one of the tires.

I called the service guys we deal with, and the person I spoke to said, “Sure. Bring it down Friday morning, and we’ll check it out.”

“If in doubt, call the experts,” I thought. I went to sleep that night feeling a little bit better. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, at all, to ignore warning signals.

********

And doing all that driving, I had a chance to listen to talk radio.

One the way to teaching, I listened to a crofter in Scotland talking about farming her land. Last year, she said, it rained all summer, and the crops didn’t grow well. Then the snow, over the winter, was unprecedented for her area. And then, she said, this summer, the drought came. By June, she was feeding her sheep with stored-up hay. Normally, they’d be happily grazing, but the crofter said her grass had turned brown and died.

It’s climate change, she said, and we’re somehow going to have to change the way we do farming, or things will go very, very wrong.

The program switched from Scotland to Florida, where a journalist was in Tallahassee, reporting on the aftereffects of Hurricane Michael. She talked to people who were living in their cars. She talked to the manager of a Walmart in Panama City. The store, he said, was badly damaged and couldn’t be opened yet. But he was encouraging any employee who wanted to, to come in and work. The unemployment, he said, was staggering, and people who had no homes and no income were—no big surprise—getting very depressed.

At least, he said, if people come in and help put the store back together, they’re making money. They feel like they’re doing something.

The journalist cut to an interview with a weather scientist, who, when asked if the severe storms were the result of climate change said, in a surprised kind of voice, “Well, of course.”

Warning signs, I thought, and I sensed a huge wave waiting, pent up and growing, maybe, stronger, biding, pending, watching for a chance. I felt the weight too of corporations and governments who fiddle while Rome burns, who deny weather science to line their pockets…pockets, I imagine, that are already quite full.

They are ignoring the warning signs, and we are, already, feeling the effects.

I turned off the radio in the parking lot, shook my head, and went in to work with 23 very bright young people on position papers. I shoved the global warming warnings way back to the shadows of the bony storeroom in my mind.

**********

On the way home, I couldn’t help myself: I turned the radio back on.

I listened to the latest reports on Jamal Kashoggi’s death.

I heard about a Houston police officer, Amber Guyger, who shot a man in his own apartment. She thought, Guyger said, that he was in HER apartment. Guyger, at the time I was listening, had just been placed in jail.

I learned that three more pipe bombs had been discovered in the mail of three prominent persons,—persons who, along with seven others who’d received similar packages the day before, had been named by the President as his enemies. I learned that some of the President’s more avid supporters claimed that the intended victims had mailed the bombs to themselves, eager to whip up anti-Trump sympathy.

Murder: the final and highly effective muzzling of a meddling journalist. Shootings and pipe bombs and angry accusations.

Warning signs, I thought, and I turned the heat on in the car because I was feeling chilled.

***********

At home, I looked up global warming, and I found some significant things that I can do, that any person can do. I committed to turning things off, to consolidating trips, to trying to eat less meat…I vowed to insulate and layer, lower the heat, and reduce my carbon footprint. I might not be able to change a corporate mind, but I can live mindfully and join with others making changes.

And I can vote, and hope that process is protected and straightforward, that my vote will be counted as it should be. I am not yet ready to let go of the belief that one vote and one voice can make a difference.

But that thought does hover.

***********

On Friday morning, early, I warmed up the car, and I drove it down to the service center. Mike, one of the mechanics, came out to talk to me, and I showed him my Hyundai.

“My wife drives one of these, too,” he said, “and she has the same problem every year. We’ll take a look for you.”

He ushered me inside, where it was warm and bright and clean, where there were comfortable chairs and a Starbucks coffee machine, and he told me to relax a minute while he looked things over.

I sank into a cushioned chair and opened my book. I hadn’t even finished a chapter when Mike was back, smiling.

“You’re all set,” he said.

He walked me out to where he’d parked the Hyundai. They’d taken a look, and everything was fine, he said. They put a couple of pounds of air in the tires, and he didn’t think I’d have any more problems.

“Now when you fill those tires,” he said, “make sure you set the pump to 32. And you ought not to have any more trouble.”

Mike shook my hand and declined to charge me and waved me on my way.

*******

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I realized the flat tire Emoji had disappeared.

I just felt better with that warning signal gone.

I wonder what other kinds of fixers I can call on to make the other warning signs fade away.

**********

https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming

 

Unwrapping Every Day

Every day is a gift.

—Aretha Franklin

 

I let a big pot of spaghetti sauce bubble all Wednesday, Italian chicken sausage and chunks of pork simmering in its mysterious and fragrant depths.  Late that afternoon, I dipped thinly sliced eggplant in egg batter and an herb coating, and I fried it up in olive oil in the old cast iron skillet.

I piled the crisp, sizzly eggplant on a plate and I wiped the old skillet clean.

Then I swirled sauce in the bottom of that still-hot pan, and I layered the eggplant back in, and I poured more of that bubbling sauce over the top, and sprinkled it with fresh parmesan and grated mozzarella. I put the whole conglomeration into the oven to bake.

The sausage came from Fresh Thyme and the pork came from Kroger. The eggplant was from a generous lady at church whose garden has yielded her a crazy bounty. But the fancy jar of tomato basil pesto sauce that served as a basis for the tomatoey concoction that bubbled all day and thickened all day, perfuming the house so rosy-cheeked enterers said, MMMMMMMMMM…well, THAT, and the cheeses and the spices, came from a basket we won.

And all of that has me thinking about the gifts I am lucky enough to receive.

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

We drove to Marysville on a gray October Friday to meet Terri and Ott at the Half Pint. We’d never been to the Half Pint; we’d never been to Marysville, we realized in surprise. But the town is just about halfway between Terri’s house and my house, and we had a plan to meet up and pick up some baskets.

This is what happened: Terri’s organization, First Step, held its annual blues festival, Soulshine, in September and we couldn’t go. Soulshine’s a wonderful event, and it supports a wonderful cause—helping heal families torn by violence, providing resources to families before they reach that wrenching point. So we bought tickets anyway.

Part of Soulshine’s fund-raising each year involves a rich and wonderful basket raffle. And Terri took the money we sent for admission and turned it into raffle tickets with our names on them.

And we wound up winning two baskets.

We live near the lower east corner of the state and Terri and Ott live near the upper west corner, so making the trip to each other’s homes requires contemplation and a good amount of travel time. But we can meet in between, and then each of us only has to drive for about ninety minutes, and that’s something doable on a cloudy, cozy Friday afternoon.

So we decided to meet in Marysville, and Terri and Ott would bring us those baskets.

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

The restaurant was fun, with pressed tin ceilings and brick walls and scuffed hardwood floors and well-worn wood tables and metal chairs. Not a lot of tables and chairs; just about enough to seat twenty people or so; hence, I think, the name, Half Pint. There were a handful of other diners, but we had a nice corner to ourselves, space to spread out and to pass the deep-fried cheese curds and the pretzel bites and honey mustard dip while we waited for our salads and soups and burgers.

And lunch was wonderful. We ate, of course, but mostly what we did was laugh: Ott is wry and funny, and Terri has a laugh that’s irresistible. When she laughs, everyone around her laughs, too, even if they didn’t hear the funny part. It’s the best kind of contagious.

We shoveled in food in-between, and we shared the latest news, of course, and then, too soon, it was time to go. We reconnoitered parking and the boyos moved two bulging baskets, and a bag of cold food, from Ott and Terri’s vehicle into the trunk of Mark’s Impala. Terri and Ott pulled away, waving, and Mark started the ignition. Jim was untangling his earbuds.

And as we settled in for the trip back home, I suggested that maybe we’d want to go to Marie’s, which was a chocolatier’s shop not so very far away in West Liberty. It was just a tiny hair out of our way; we could, I proposed, all innocence and no ulterior motive, find a treat or two for granddaughters’ birthdays. And the shop, I thought, was not so very far away from an entrance to the interstate.

But no arm-twisting was needed; Mark pulled out according to the bossy phone-directions lady’s dictates, and we cruised country roads, sun breaking through the clouds, clouds breaking apart and fading, to find an old train station turned into a chocolate-lover’s paradise.

Marie’s had something for everything. The old depot was lovingly restored. There was an exhibit of photos that detailed its move, back, I think, in the ‘70’s.

“Look at THAT,” said Mark, poring over the pictures. They showed a huge old flatbed lugging the entire depot. Hard-hatted crews moved power lines. People lined the streets to see the spectacle. And then there were photos of the depot coming to rest, and restorations beginning.

James and I left the dad to look at history. We went to look at chocolate.

We found  chocolate dogs and cats, milk chocolate with white chocolate spots, for granddaughters’ delectation. We found a bag of chunk chocolate that seemed to have Jim’s name on it. A smiling lady came around with a tray of treats—nonpareils sprinkled with scarlet and gray dots, peanut butter meltaways, little chocolate roses.

We sampled, if only to be polite.

We were VERY polite that day.

Mark slipped a bag of chocolate-dipped malted milk balls into our basket. At the counter, we discovered a young clerk packaging something called ‘chimney sweets.’

“What are THOSE?” I asked, intrigued, and she explained that they were square chocolate meltaways topped with a big dollop of caramel. Over that, they poured warm white chocolate, and the resulting confection looked very much like a snow-capped chimney.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked, and of course, I said yes. (Jim demurred. No, no thanks, he said; he really was kind of full.)

Biting into a chimney sweet: oh, my.

Jim, seeing my reaction, said, well, maybe he could fit just one.

We put a slim sleeve of chimney sweets in the basket, too.

Another friendly clerk rang us up and put an advertising flyer in our bag and told us that, if we thought the Halloween and Thanksgiving goodies were something, we ought to come back to shop for Christmas.

“This is a WONDERLAND at Christmas,” she said.

We put the chocolate in the trunk with the other goodies, heading off to let the bossy phone lady lead us home.

*******

And we went home and enjoyed the last weak rays of sun on a day that started out cloudy, and we fixed ourselves a light dinner. And then we brought those baskets from the car and put them on the counter and unpacked them.

And we discovered wonders. Artisan salamis and  chunks of hard cheese—asiago, parmesan,–and a chopping board and graters to make those cheeses into snowy mountains. Jars of pasta sauce, red and white; pastas and pestos. Mixing bowls and colanders and salted caramel biscotti. Spices. Dishtowels and potholders emblazoned with smiling, twirling, mustachioed chefs.

The travel basket had a mini cooler and drink holders and snacks and a fifty-dollar gift card for gas.

We spread the stuff out on the counter; we pulled out the sleeve of chimney sweets and shared them ‘round; and we marveled. And then we got busy putting things away.

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

Some days, life trudges on and I get crabby, thinking about all there is to be done, thinking about books I could be snuggled up reading by the fire, in the cozy chair. But NO, I think; oh, NO. Instead, I am pulling on my old sneaks to mow the raging onion grass in the front lawn or heading off to a meeting or running out to shop or to pick someone up.

And the rugs gripe at me, reminding me where the vacuum resides, and the weight of ungraded papers swirls overhead, and I am sore oppressed.

Thank goodness life has its own ways of smacking me upside the head when I start moaning my way down that road. It stands in front of me holding a cast iron skillet filled with bubbling cheese, sizzling sauce, eggplant baked into melting goodness.

“Excuse me???” says Life. “What was that you were complaining about?””

And I remember laughter and unexpected bounty, road trips and friendship and sweet tastes and the generosity of people only just met.

**********

Mmmmm,” says my husband, tucking in, and I watch him for a moment through the steam that rises from both of our dishes. And then I pick up my fork and tuck in myself. I think about our many wonders and the few reasons I have to complain, and I resolve, once again, to turn my face to see more clearly the gifts of every day.

 

 

 

 

In a Grain of Sand

Starry mum.jpg

The alarm chirps merrily. I roll over and smack it, and Mark throws off his blankets. Then no one moves. Time pauses—suspends, momentarily.

Then Mark sighs and rolls out of bed, unhooks the C-Pap and turns it off, and trudges off to the bathroom.

Wednesday morning: he is off to the gym before work. I drowse and wake.

“I should get up,” says the brash, panicky person who lives in my head, and I look at the insistent digital screen. 6:20 a.m.

“Or…” replies the calmer, mellower, mind-mate, “I could sleep for another ten minutes.”

I drift away, float into a tiny cloud of sleep, a dimple of time just big enough to let me slip back into dreams.

I wake up, and the clock face reads 6:29.

I am awake. That nine minutes was just long enough.

***********

I pummel the bed into shape. Never one for matchy-matchy linens, I have a nicely woven white sheet on the mattress. I push pillows aside, pull that fitted sheet up, tuck it in firmly. Then I rotate around the bed, tucking in the sides and bottom, until it is satisfyingly taut. I smooth the top sheet—a faded, apple green and blue check—up over it. I bundle up the soft old comforter. I fold the sheet over its top and smooth it down.

I pluck the pillows, one by one, from the chair, and I plump them. Two are clad in cases that match the top sheet. Two are in fine old cases that I scored at a thrift store years ago; these cases are maroon and green, the plaid a lot like that in Catholic school uniforms. These cases always make me smile.

There is one more pillow, the odd one I slide behind my head when I am reading in bed. It is clad in crisp white linen. I center it on the plaid pillows, and step back, and a little something snicks into place.

I feel like Goldilocks. The bed, somehow, just seems right.

**********

The coffee is brewing; my hair smells like apple blossom shampoo. It’s still almost dark out, and the house is quiet. I rummage in the cupboard for my morning pages binder, find my Pentel RSVP pen. I pull out two sheets of loose-leaf and settle in at the table.

“What’s today?” I ask my muddled self, and I slide my phone over and press the home button.

“Oh,” I think, when it lights up to tell me the date. October 10th. Dennis’s birthday.

How old would Dennis be? How long has he been gone? I pull open my letter-writing drawer and find my parents’ address book snugged in among post-its and address labels and packets of refills for long-forgotten ink pens. I flip to the back where my mother meticulously recorded birthdays and death days, anniversaries and the dates of hospital stays and surgeries.

Dennis, her Palmer method handwriting tells me, was born in 1946. He would have been 72 today.

He was 55 when he died. He was the biggest brother. Now all of us, even Sean, the youngest, are permanently older than Dennis will ever become.

Dennis called me not long after we moved to Ada, moved on our big adventure: Mark, at forty-somethin’-somethin’, was going to law school. Some people thought we were irresponsible to up and sell the house, to move into a trailer, to uproot Jim from school, to pursue Mark’s dream, which he had held to, fast and tight, over all the years.

“I wonder what Jim and Jean would have thought?” Dennis mused on the phone that night. He thought, he said, that we were ballsy and cool, but he hoped we wouldn’t drift away, geography trumping relationship. I heard real concern in his voice.

“Never happen!” I assured him, glibly, and he asked me if there was any place to camp near Ada.

We had just passed a neat little RV park that afternoon. Although it had a lake that we, growing up on the shores of Lake Erie, would scoff at and call a pond, it was neat and trim; it had all the amenities.

Dennis and Judy had just gotten a pop-up camper.

“I’ll send you the info,” I said, and Dennis said, “This Fall…”

But by Fall, he was dead, and we had buried him and returned to a life that was different from the one we’d known, and a life that would never, biggest brother missing, be quite the same.

Dennis was sweetly sincere and occasionally arrogant, tender and cynical, haunted and hope-filled. He was newly retired and just getting started, logging in surprising successes. Life was new, and he was out to embrace every possibility.

And then he died.

We didn’t have enough time, I think, smoothing the clean, blue-lined field of my loose-leaf. We didn’t have enough.

And what does THAT mean? answers the smart-ass voice in my head. Maybe you had enough time. Maybe you had plenty. And maybe you just wasted too much.

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

Before I remember the brother I miss in my morning pages, I put a little note on Facebook about his birthday. Sharon, a more-family-than-friend kind of person, replies almost immediately, and it warms me to know that memories are shared. I snap a photo of the address book page and text it to Shayne Dennise, whose birthday is recorded there, along with her father’s, in her grandma’s hand.  We text back and forth for a round or two, and I feel that satisfaction of connection being made.

And then I go out to get the newspaper. I stand on the brick front step and breathe in, deep; the weather is changing. There’s a shivering little breeze and acorns fall audibly. Two deer, chewing contentedly in Deirdre’s front lawn, glance at me without alarm. The mugginess is fading.

I bend to reach the newspaper, flung under a little gray chair that holds a pumpkin, and I see that a perfect, star-shaped leaf has wedged itself into the mum that is just beginning to bloom. It is a perfect image; it is, somehow, just the right image. I pull out my phone and take a photo.

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

I open a brand-new box of granola for breakfast; I pour it into a plaid ceramic bowl and float it in skim milk and enjoy the crunch and the sweetness. I read the morning paper and I do the word puzzles, and what’s jumbled becomes orderly; hidden meanings emerge.

I work through my email and I grade some papers—some stellar papers; sometimes, it’s a joy to grade papers. I happen on a brand-new recipe that will combine the peppers a friend gave me with exactly what’s waiting in my crisper and my freezer. I take things out to thaw for dinner, and I write a letter, and I make out a check and put it in an envelope to pay a bill. Then I walk the half-mile to the mailbox, and I slide the envelopes safely inside, and walk home, swinging my arms.

The weather is perfect, sun sliding out behind clouds, pleasant breeze, pavement drying after a night’s rain. I will, I think, get the Shark out and vacuum the furniture and the carpet on the stairs; I will grade a few more papers. I’ll make sure Jim is up in time to shower and eat before work; and I stop for a moment, thankful to the core that the boy has found work he loves and is taking courses that help him grow.

I round the corner and leaves are falling; Sandy’s tree always goes first, and she has a spreading gold stain in her side yard. Our sweet gum tree has begun to eject leaves; some float lazily, right now, down into the yard I just mowed. And more will meander off the tree and into the grass, but it will take them until December to be well and fully shed.

And, suddenly, almost physically, it strikes me that it’s enough. Today is enough. I know that there will be striving and discontentment and problems; I know that people will dissemble and back out of their promises, and that, sometimes, I will be one of those people. There will be disagreements.

Adjustments will need to be made.

But maybe it’s wisdom whispered from a brother speaking from another realm: this morning, the colors are true and the outline is clear and the picture is fully realized. Tomorrow (even, maybe, later today) I will enter the fray again. I will struggle with responding authentically to environmental warning, and I will try to determine my role in a political landscape that seems lunar in its strangeness. I will rail against responsibilities I undertook freely, and I will lament lack of time, lack of money, lack of understanding and ambition.

I know all that will happen, but this morning, kicking away the crisp leaves and the rubbery sweet gum pods as I walk back up the black-topped driveway, I feel as if everything has clicked neatly into place. For this one morning, this one moment, I realize: everything is in focus. This is, for right now, enough.

Lightening Strikes

September is a nice month. I like September.

But this year September was a little…grindy.

September was a new routine, a return to teaching in earnest after a time away. September was writing tests and creating assignments and acclimating to a whole new learning management system. September was figuring out rides and fitting walks in, in-between, and grading big batches of papers.

And September was a big event, a master responsibility, that grabbed the month’s hem and stuck a pike through it, pinning it down firmly. September said, “I’m holding you here, right here, until you get this planned and shopped and communicated and executed.”

“No shirking,” said September, “and no time to waste.”

September, a bossy, belligerent month, grasped my wrists and pulled me along, dragged me over pot-holed roads, and didn’t care when I pleaded with it to slow down.

I like September.  But, gee.

So I slogged along; what else, after all, can we do? I learned all the students’ names, and I got to a point where I could ramble reasonably through their on-line course world. I graded papers; that rhythm kicked in. And paychecks came in—paychecks: oh, boy! I filled the freezers and lined the pantry and shoved cleaning supplies under the sink. The house was stocked, and James was rolling along in his new fall schedule, and Mark was getting up three times a week to hit the gym.

 
And then, all of a sudden, that event was over.

And one morning, I woke up and stepped out the back door; the five deer nibbling on the frail bushes at the back of the side yard looked at me, mildly curious. I waved to them, and I thought, “Something is different.”

And I realized the air was lighter and fresher, the sky was softer and closer, the leaves were trembling and turning.

October, I realized, has come.

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

I round the corner, heading home, and see the flower pots on the little gray chairs at the side of the house. The flowers—red and yellow-orange and white—that we nurtured along all summer (flowers that went along with us, sort of good-naturedly, but never really sprang into ecstatic bloom),…well, those flowers are dead. I park in the carport and wander down the brick path on the side of the house; I grab the black plastic pots and drag them out behind the carport. I trundle the little chairs to the front, put one on either side of the front door, and James and I go shopping. We buy two fat pumpkins to sit on the chairs. We buy two hearty mums to sit in front of them.

I take the summer wreath, with its soft violet flowers, from the door. Later that day, I splurge on a new wreath, one with pine cones and wheaten sheaves, little orange gourds and pumpkins,–one twisted with bronze and golden autumn leaves.  I hang the harvest wreath on my door.

Across the street, one neighbor has filled her window-boxes with tiny orange pumpkins, and another has hay bales and scare-crows in her front yard. October! says the neighborhood, and we all relax a little because the grass slows down. The lawn doesn’t need to be cut every day that it doesn’t rain, and we can sit outside, in the cool wash of the early evening. We can sip a coffee, read a book, and not be nagged by that thought that I really should mow…

The larder is full. Some deep urge impels me to buy things I might ordinarily pass by—leeks and potatoes, squash and beans. The freezers are filled; the pantry is stocked.

It’s October now, and I wake one Sunday morning and think: STEW. I pad downstairs, barefoot; pad down another set of stairs to the basement. I root in the well-stocked freezer until I find a boneless beef roast, and I set it out to thaw.

That afternoon, I cube the meat and shake it in a plastic bag, coating it with oat flour and a fine dusting of potato starch, and I sauté it in a thin pool of sizzling olive oil. I add onions, sliced thin; garlic, crushed; and carrot coins. I defrost beef broth and pour it in. I crumble herbs between my palms and sprinkle them over the bubbling pot; I toss in a bay leaf. I shake salt and pepper. A concoction, I think, and I feel like maybe I should be waving fingers over the pot, chanting about toil and trouble. It is October, after all.

I turn the heat down, and, later, I add the potatoes; the rich stew simmers all afternoon. We eat it from thick white ceramic bowls as the sky darkens on that Sunday night, sitting at the scarred oak table, feeling safe and sated and secure.

I give in, again and again, to the impulse to cook big pots of chili, of spaghetti sauce, of stew, of soups. Harvest time: that sense of completion, of reaping the benefit of our hard work during the growing season.

The sky is navy blue velvet, deep and secretive, by 7:10 p.m. I am drawn to reading fat books, to carefully plotting out my sewing projects. I gather in birthday gifts for October’s special people. I write letters, and I use the stamps with the scratch and sniff popsicles—summer’s leftover stamps,—to pay the bills.

One afternoon, I go through my syllabus and realize that it is midterm, and that we have, next week, a midterm break. I feel that lightness in my shoulders; I remember the student joy of break time. I think about planning a solitary October adventure on that magically unlocked day.

I get my calendar out and realize that there’s a treat built into every week of October. There are lunches with friends. There is Mark’s birthday coming. There is a hay ride (how is it that I, growing up in western New York farm country, have never been on a hay ride? Forty years later, I’ll make up the lack). There are road trips and get-togethers, and there’s the impending fun of trick or treaters.

Thanksgiving, I think. Christmas! I make lists. I start ordering books for our December book flood.

I think of baking apple crisp, and I plan to stop at the farm market on my way home from the far-flung campus. But a storm breaks, clean and sudden, just before I round that corner; I come home without apples.

But it’s okay: there is time.

**********

And that’s the message of October, isn’t it? There is time now. Take a breath.

The hot scramble of summer is over; the hard and grinding September slog is past. I stride briskly on my morning walks. Acorns pocka pocka all around. Each day, more leaves accept their autumn gold, their last-legs crimson. The trees hold on tight for one last minute; they sigh and then release. I walk and leaves float down around me, and I am glad of the warmth of long pants, of my long-sleeved shirt.

The air has lightened, and it swirls.

The harvest is in. Some ancient rhythm quells my rushed thoughts, whispers that the harvest is safe, the animals are snug. The braw, boisterous work of the year is coming to an end.

The urgency and the burden of completion have lifted, and a door has opened into a restful, thankful time. September has ground away the rough edges; October bathes us in clear amber light. We settle in, the striving over for a little time. For now, it’s time to savor what we’ve wrought.

The winds blow; rain clatters at the windows. I grab my book and head for the reading chair.

Uncivil Liberties

After a long string of HOT, it was a beautiful day for a walk. I let my arms swing, and the wind blew the hair back out of my eyes. There were lots of people out this morning: I said hello to other morning walkers and to kids and their moms and grandmas and caregivers who were waiting for school buses. I stopped to talk with a dog walker or two, and then, on the home stretch, I ran into a woman—call her Geraldine–I know because she works hard for worthy causes all over town.

We stopped to chat for a moment.

“How are you?” asked Geraldine.

I opened my mouth to reply.

“Oh, I KNOW,” she said, quickly jumping into the void. “It’s hot, isn’t it? That’s why you’re out here in the morning. Better to be in the house, in the air conditioning, in the hot afternoons.”

I realized I hadn’t told Geraldine I was teaching this semester, so I opened my mouth again. But Geraldine got there first.

“Did I tell you we spent a month in Florida this summer? My daughter had twins and we were happy to help. But HOT? Oh, my goodness. We never left the house except to get into the air-conditioned car and go to an air-conditioned restaurant or supermarket. But those babies! They are so cute. And healthy, thank God.”

Geraldine cocked her head and looked at me expectantly. I started to ask her whether the twins were boys or girls or both, when she looked down and tsk-tsk-ed.

“Wouldn’t you think,” she said, “the city could FIX these sidewalks. How many times have you almost tripped on this jagged cement? I know,” she said before I could answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. “dozens, right?”

She patted my arm. “Well,” she said. “I’d better run. Chet will be wondering where I am.” She marched off, but then she turned around and smiled back at me.

“So nice,” she called, “to talk with you.”

I smiled faintly and waved and thought, But you didn’t talk with me. You talked TO me.

I like Geraldine, I really, really do. But our exchange—or her monologue—was the last in a list of creeping incivilities that I’d been totting up all week.

I walked home wondering whether people have lost the art of listening to each other. Perhaps it’s a skill no longer taught…but that doesn’t explain Geraldine, who’s (I think evilly) a good ten years older than me, went to school when listening was a learned skill, and should know better.

Too much exposure to media that demands one-sided interaction, maybe?

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

I’ve been thinking of dear Kim, lost to cancer at age 62; her birthday would have been this month, and she’s been on my mind. Kim and I cooked up some schemes together that flew (we talked our church into sponsoring a fun food-sculpture activity to benefit the hungry way back in the day, for instance. I moved away shortly after that, but Kim turned the event, which she dubbed Can-Do, into a tradition.) And we dreamed some schemes that never came to pass. One of those was a newsletter we’d call Civil Discourse, a place where we’d demonstrate that we all can listen to each other, agree or disagree with each other, and do it in a respectful, intelligent, courteous, meaningful way.

We talked about that concept a lot and sent each other articles and wrote up paragraphs that might seed some ideas, and we kept the email lines buzzing with our thoughts. But we never got that cumbersome craft to lift off from the sticky grounds of our imaginations.

We agreed, though: something needs to be done. The art of civility is fast disappearing.

I miss Kim.

And I miss the chance to talk with her about the rules of discourse, and about the niceties, the things we once took for granted (oh, I’m sounding old), that become more and more rare.

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

At home, I pour myself a coffee, and before I can sit down, the mail slides through the door. I go to fetch that tumble of paper and I stand by the table, sorting.

There is junk mail. I stack some for the recycle bin, immediately. I snip the ones that offer one or all of us instant credit cards. Preapproved! No annual fees! (I would prefer that no one searching through the bins of paper find a credit opportunity in my name. Snip. Snip, Snip.)

There are ads with coupons. I cut away the ones we’ll use and put the remainder in the recycling pile.

Jim has two slim packages.

There are—oh, joy!—two handwritten envelopes, and the handwriting is familiar and much-loved.

And there is an oversize, glossy postcard. It has a distorted picture of a gubernatorial candidate, an ugly close-up, on the front. The text on the back tells me why I should spurn, hate, and vote against this man. It goes beyond hype; it plunges into vitriol.

I examine the card for a return address. (When similar hate mail appeared before the special election not long ago, I wrote and asked the responsible party to stop sending those missives to me. Tell me the good things about YOUR candidate, I wrote, but don’t send me poison to taint the opponent. I’m not reading mail from the haters. The postcards stopped coming to me. They still slid through the mail slot, though, addressed to my husband or my son, instead.)

There’s a vague mention of a committee. There’s no address. When I go on-line, I can’t find that special committee to contact them.

It’s a little chilling, this anonymous, hate-filled doggerel, sleek and expensive looking, floating through my doorway, tainting my day.

Remember our mothers wagging fingers and saying, “If you can’t say anything good…”?

Remember the rules of civil engagement?

Remember when the candidate whose team leveled low blows would be accused of taking cheap shots?

I believe that we need a fair press that honestly reports the good and the bad, the outstanding and the indifferent, about those who want to lead us. I’m tired of the hateful half-truths and innuendo.

I want the candidate’s team to tell me what their person’s qualifications are. I don’t want to know how well they sling their mud.

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

After lunch, I pulled up my college email. There are several messages from students.

Three of them have no subject line, and no message. Each sports an attachment.

I carefully compose an email to those students.

“I see you’ve sent me an email with an attachment,” I write. “Would you please re-send this? I would appreciate it very much if you’d put your class number and section as the subject. Then, please write a message telling me what you’ve attached, and what you’re hoping I will do.”

I end with thanks for their time and attention. I hope I am teaching a little email etiquette.

I have teaching friends who delete subject-less emails. I have teaching friends who will not respond to emails with attachments but no messages.

Email is a relatively new technology, yes, but it’s been around long enough that we can develop some expectations about e-courtesy.

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

At school the next day, I park far enough away that I can stretch my legs walking to the building, and I head across the crosswalk. There is a yellow sandwich board in the middle of this intersection; it sports a red-lettered sign that reads, “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS.”

I step out into the road, but the gleaming black SUV barreling down at me is clearly not stopping. I leap backward, and try to make eye contact with the driver, a woman of about my age. She keeps her gaze straight ahead and does not meet my glance.

She ignores me pointing to the sign that tells her to stop.

So does the silver pickup that streaks by, blowing the hair back off my forehead, and the little white sedan. Both of those drivers, too, keep their faces rigidly focused on the road ahead, carefully not catching my eye.

In class that day, working with my college students, we share a treat of cookies and grapes—it’s Nat’s birthday, after all. Every single student stops to thank me for the goodies, and each of them wishes Nat a happy day.

My spirits lift a little.

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

Because I have been getting discouraged. What’s happening to us?

We often don’t listen. And maybe, after the need for water, food, and shelter, one of our most basic human needs is to be heard.

Our politics are polarized; fact and reason give way to emotion. I picture two raucous camps divided by a wall so high that we can’t see each other. It’s not so high, though, that wall, that we can’t fling our garbage gleefully to the other side.

And then, imbued with righteousness, we are deeply insulted when steaming, stinking bags of rubbish come flying back.

I want to find the dignity of debate and engage in a real search for truth and understanding.

Our daily interactions are rushed and abrupt; we are tense and intent on our own needs, and we studiously avoid considering the people we rush by.

We seem driven. We’re unhappy.

Civility, I mourn. Where have you gone?

Something, I think, needs to be done.

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

I am sitting at my computer desk when Jim begins telling me a long story about a show he’s been watching. I start out smiling and nodding, but my right hand soon creeps to the mouse. I click and open.

As I pretend to be listening, I am focused instead on a rousing game of Forty Thieves.

Jim winds down.

“I’ll stop bothering you,” he says, and heads downstairs.

Nice message you gave that boy, I think to myself.

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

I am cleaning out my email and I groan a little bit because there’s a message from an awkward acquaintance, someone who has a funny way of expressing herself, who always seems to be on the offensive. But I open it, and sure enough, she makes several suggestions I could implement to improve myself and my methods.

It’s hard, of course, to read tone into emails, but I do it, anyway, ascribing her motives.

“Beee-yatch,” I think automatically, contemptuously, and then I reign myself in, appalled.

This is a person, after all, who deserves my respect, and who, despite her clumsy communications, truly does mean well.

I close the email without an immediate response; I will wait until I can respond with kindness and with clarity.

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

We are at lunch and Mark is telling me about a thing that happened that morning. All the while I am making just the right sympathetic noises in the pauses that demand them, I am running through my to-do list in my head. I am envisioning shopping and errands, trying to decide when I will have time to, finally, paint the dining room.

The conversation winds down and I can’t remind one thing that we said.

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

I am not, always, civil, myself. And before I start complaining loudly about the state of the world, I need to consider the state of my life.

More and more I think, as I decry so many things—the state of the environment, the nastiness of politics, and the lack of general civility,—the only place that I can make a start is HERE.

So I bring my stainless steel straws to the restaurant. I pack my re-usable shopping bags when I got to the supermarket.

I write letters, honest letters, questioning letters, mournful letters, to the people who’ve been elected to represent me.

And I shut my mouth. I take my reluctant fingers off the keyboard, I place my hands in my lap, and I try, very hard, to make contact. I really, really work on my listening.

I remember to remind myself that every person has inherent dignity; I try to head off my knee-jerk derision before it occurs.

When I hear the voice of a chatty, opinionated acquaintance in the supermarket, I do not run to dive down the nearest unpopulated aisle. I shop along and when we meet, I smile and say hello and stop to talk for a minute that does, indeed, last longer than I’d like. But it’s not an interlude long enough to harm me or my comfortable life.

I resolve to be civil myself before I demand that others meet my highfaluting standards.

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

It is not enough. It is far from enough. Our broken, jagged-edged world needs much more healing; there are so many sharp edges that can grab at our fabric, rip our soft and unprotected skins. My efforts are not much more than fluttering, but I cannot demand great, sweeping changes when I’m unwilling to change myself.

I can’t be marching and carrying a sign that says, “Clean up our common space!!!!” when my own room is hopelessly cluttered.

There is so much more to do, but I am not sure what next steps to take, what might help and what might make a difference. So today, while I am trying to figure it out, I’ll just keep trying to pull myself back to the present, to attention, to kind and compassionate response.

Today, just to begin, I will keep my ears open. And I will try to keep a civil tongue in my head.

Have Yourself A Party (A Loolie Tale)

“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”

She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.

I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.

Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.

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

We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.

We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.

Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.

Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.

The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:

“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”

Borges Quote

“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”

She studies the paper and she grins.

“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”

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

Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.

As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.

“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.

“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”

Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.

“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”

“Oh, NO,” I said.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”

She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.

“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.

“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.

“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.

“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.

“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”

“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”

There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.

“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”

TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.

“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.

“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.

“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.

“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”

Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.

“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.

“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”

We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.

“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going  to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”

We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”

“So much better,” I agree.

We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.

Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.

We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.

Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?

But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through.  It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.

And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.

I never learned those tricks.

And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.

You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.

You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.

I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.

But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.

I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”

“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.

Piecing It Together: Making a Start

You didn’t just go out and buy all the fabric even if you had the money, which most of the members did not. You made quilts out of what was on hand, like flowered feed sacks or pieces remaining when you cut out a blouse, or from trading scraps with one another. You got pleasure knowing this piece was left over from your high school graduation dress or that one was passed down from your grandmother.

—Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club

Squares.jpg

A gray and glowery afternoon. The house is fairly clean, my grading is pretty well caught up, and my head is pounding. I take my book and sit in the reading chair.

I am asleep before I get through the first paragraph.

I wake up, abruptly, a scant twenty minutes later. There’s a command clearly lodged in my mind: Work on your quilt.

So I stand up, quickly, to comply. Time, at last, to make a start.

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

Image result for bookshelf quilt image

Bookshelf quilt image from Pinterest.com

I think my friend Theresa first sent me a picture of a bookshelf quilt; since then, I’ve seen them on line many times. The squares look like books—neatly standing, straight up; leaning; stacked flat; toppling. The background is black. The borders are brown, like shelves.

So cute, I thought, and then I studied the pictures, enlarging them, looking at the detail. I could DO that, I realized, and I thought about a quilt as big as a bedspread, –a queen-sized quilt with fabric images of all the books we love.

What would be better than that to snuggle under with a book on a raw and windy winter night?

I began gathering and collecting material.

***********

I have made one other hand-pieced quilt, long ago, back in the 1990’s. My boss’s wife, a skilled seamstress named Jannie, invited my colleague Lisa and me to make simple quilts with her. We would cut fabric into triangles, match the triangles to make squares, and put the squares together in strips. We’d sew the strips together and decide on backing and borders. And, in the doing, we’d have crafting time together—time to talk and savor the feeling of creation.

Jannie and Lisa went out and shopped carefully for material; they were making quilts for their daughters, ten years apart in age: an off-to-college quilt; a now-you’re-a-big-girl quilt. I went home and went through drawers. I found old curtains I’d made in college, blue jeans gentled by time into suede-y softness, leftover material from projects long completed or abandoned. I got out my sewing shears and cut away seams and hems and created squares just the size I needed.

It was Mark’s first year of law school, and money was stretched so thin I could see right through it. I didn’t have the cash to go out and buy fabric, so I’d make myself a vintage quilt, a snuggle-while-watching-television quilt.

I cut away worn spots, and carefully saved the buttons I picked off, sliding them into the button tin—buttons from generations of thrifty women,—my mother had given me. I saved pockets; surely there was something fun one could do with old pockets.

I sat and sewed with Jannie and Lisa and created a crazy quilt top. I quilted it onto a soft old blue blanket. I bordered it with brown calico scraps. We hung that quilt over the back of the lounge chair in the living room, and, for years, and in four different homes, one or the other of us grabbed that soft, warm covering on chilly nights—snuggled up under it and watched us some TV. Last year, the fabric scraps finally wore thin; the blue blanket, pilled and sad from one too many washings, poked through.

There were holes in places. The dog tried to nestle the quilt into a cozy bundle and got her claw caught in one. The claw bent backward; the dog howled piteously; and I realized it was time, at last, to throw that threadbare blankie OUT.

But I didn’t feel bad; the blanket had been a new life for old cloth, old garments. Quilted, they lasted about 15 years longer than their original purposes would have let them live.

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

Toward the end of her life, my mother made quilts. I have the first one she made, with Sunbonnet Sue embroidered on it, and solid, brightly colored patches alternating with pretty, country patterns. Some of the patches are worn to gauze; the quilt has been used and used and washed and used again. I save it, now, afraid of its frailty, not wanting to let it go.

Mom's first quilt

Mom decided she would make quilts for all the grandchildren, from the oldest on down, and so Brian and Jason got their quilts. Then her health started to slip, and hospitalizations began to happen. Mom would take her graph paper and colored pencils to the hospitals; when she was well enough to concentrate, she would sketch out quilts.

She made one for Shayne, and one for Meg, one for Matthew, and one for Ben. She had Jessica’s all planned out when she died. I have that soft and flannel-y piece of graph paper somewhere; when I come upon it again, I will send it to Jess, who did receive one of her Grandma’s other quilts. It was a flying geese pattern, made, maybe, when my mother knew that her own flight was imminent and unavoidable.

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

I decided that, for the bookcase quilt, too, I don’t want to buy fabric. I want my fabric books, like my real ones, to have been touched, to be a little worn, and to have a history. I’m going to sort through old clothes, cut them carefully apart, make neat and even squares. I have some old black patterned bed clothes (what phase was I traversing when I decided black sheets would be chic? Sheesh. But I’m glad I have them now.) The pattern is soft and faded, and those will be perfect for the dark background the books will rest against.

I have a pair of brown slacks that just never fit right, and I have some brown pillow cases whose feel I just never liked against my cheek. They will become the shelves that frame the books.

I iron out and cut apart an old Hawaiian short of Jim’s. It is blue with beige flowers picked out in black. I cut away the collar, turn my scissors up the side seams. I take the sleeves off.

The hems of the shirt are fraying. I snip away the tattered edges, and I clip off the buttons to save. I salvage a pocket, which I think I’ll use in wrapping a gift for a child— the three-year-old son of a young colleague of Mark’s. I’ll glue the pocket onto the wrapping, which will hold a book; I’ll slide a bookmark, and perhaps a lollipop, into it.

And then I have flat pieces of Hawaiian print material. I take out my template and cut as many 8.5 by 8.5-inch squares as I can get. I stack them in a box, and I trim up the smaller pieces and put them in a basket. The edges and scraps, I put into a plastic shopping bag. I wonder, briefly, if I could use them as stuffing, tie them into a rug, or create a scrap fabric wreath. But I wrench my attention sternly back to the job at hand.

I envision the fabric books, and I realize I need fabric with tiny stripes to look like pages. We have purged all of Mark’s striped shirts, taking the ones that don’t fit, the ones he wouldn’t wear, to thrift shops or donating them to a clothes closet. But I see exactly the kind of stripes I need in my mind’s eye.

I slip on my shoes, and I drive to Goodwill and buy five striped shirts for eight dollars. They are perfectly page-patterned. I search out and throw away all their labels and price tags, and I throw the shirts into the washer.

Shirts

The bookshelf quilt is growing real in my mind.

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

I pull out my beautiful quilted bag to carry my books to class. Terry made this bag, a masterpiece in its autumn colors. The quilting is more detailed and expert than any I will ever accomplish; I have to let that go and know that my funny, homespun attempts will be a different kind of special.

Terry

Terry gave several of us, all of us leaving the same place of work at the same time, quilted bags. When we get together once a month, old colleagues now retired or working at different jobs, one of us usually has her Terry bag with her. The bags are sturdy, creatively made, practical and lovely at the same time. They bring to mind, now I think about it, their creator.

There’s another work connection quilt, one that rests, neatly folded, on the end of my bed. Just before three of us retired, our younger colleague Barbara invited us out to lunch. She wrestled us for the check, insistent she would pay, and when we walked out to climb into our cars, she stopped us. From her back seat, she pulled three beautiful quilts she’d made, in colors that made her think of the receivers. She placed them in our arms and shushed away our thanks and drove off with a smile and a wave. We stood there, we three women of a certain age, jaws open, arms full, light-headed with shock and delight. The quilts were incredibly lovely.

Barb

I couldn’t resist playing with a quilt metaphor, silently, for the three of us so gifted were retiring from positions that would no longer exist. Our work was being spread out and carefully cut apart. Certain patches would be sent to different offices. Some pieces—although we’d thought that fabric was sturdy and strong—would be tossed away.

It was part of the process of leaving, to see what was become something new, but for each of us, it was hard in a different way.

So it is good to meet each month, now, and to spread out the new pieces we’ve acquired, to see a new, upbeat, resilient pattern emerging.

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

One of my favorite books, The Persian Pickle Club, centers on a group of women who quilt together during the Depression in dust-bowl Kansas. They are old and young and in-between, married, single, and no longer wed. Some would face starvation if not for her friends, and some have the wherewithal to be generous. All have their sorrows, and all have a fierce loyalty to the other members of the club.

PPC.jpg

And then comes Rita, who has married Tom, the son of one of the quilters. Rita is a city girl. She can type and she can do the latest dances; she can write newspaper articles and she can walk into a room of strangers without a qualm. But her country skills—cooking from scratch and scrubbing a floor, keeping a fire hot and piecing a quilt—those are sorely lacking.

And she doesn’t understand; Rita doesn’t see the pattern or understand what weaves things together. The first time she meets with the Pickles, the women, although Rita’s stitches are looped and sloppy, encourage her to take up quilting. And Rita, to be polite, says, sure. Sure she will. Maybe, she says, she can get Tom to take her to the department store, where she’ll buy enough fabric to make a quilt.

There is a shocked silence. How can the women tell her that one doesn’t BUY fabric to make a quilt; that one uses what one has? One rejuvenates the worn-out sheets and tablecloths; one spreads out her dearly loved ‘best’ dress, worn now beyond all patching, and cuts away the finest parts to savor in a quilt.

Every quilt they craft is a kind of living history. The women don’t try to explain this to Rita. But they each reach into their quilting bags, and they pull out pieces of fabric, squares and scraps and shiny silks, and they pass them down to their new friend. They tell her the stories behind each swatch she receives. When she leaves that day, she has enough quilting material to make a baby blanket for a friend.

And she begins, just faintly, to get a glimmer of the pattern the other women had grown up seeing.

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

The weather turns; the 90-degree days slide off, backward. Clouds tumble together, thunder rumbles, and the temperature plummets. The AC clicks off and stays off. We open the doors to the screened-in porch. Rain-sweetened air rushes in, and the house is lightened.

I spend my free time wrestling with material. I wash it and iron it; I clip it and I smooth it out onto the dining room table. I trace squares and I save buttons; I pick out seams, and I notice that, even when the seams have been cut away, the buttons and collars removed, there is still a trace and a clue of what’s been before. I can look at squares from the old black pillowcases, smooth them out and know where the sweet spot was, the place our heads rested most of the time. I can see the vibrant, almost new colors of the fabric that waited, tucked away, folded inside the case.

I work at it for days, growing impatient, wanting to get to the creative, fun, pretty part, but wanting, too, to build a strong foundation for the blanket I see more and more clearly in my mind.

I’m just beginning the process, creating the pieces that I’ll put together; making sense of what no longer worked, revitalizing fabric I can’t bear to give away. There is something here, I want to say, about reducing things to their original parts in order to give them a whole new kind of life.

There is something here about making a new thing and honoring the past that made it possible.

I make my templates; I snip away the tatters, and I plan. This phase will be done—soon, I hope,–and then I can begin.

Piecing it together.

Trying to see the pattern.

Creating something new.