Up on the Rooftop (Thinking Pause)

It’s cold out on this roof. My fingers poke out of tattered gloves, and I wiggle the fiddle curiously. How does one hold it? I think of performers I’ve seen, of hoe-down scenarios, and I snug the gleaming wood instrument under my chin. I drag the bow across the strings; awful, discordant sounds screech out.

I put down fiddle and bow, and I stare out at the silent night, at the velvet, star-studded sky. The street: so quiet. The neighbors’ spotted white cat darts behind the white pillared house across the street. Muted lights glow behind drawn shades and drapes pulled tightly shut. Way down on Linden Avenue, car tires thrum. A buried, throbbing, bass pulses from the college bar a half a mile away, way over in the industrial district. To the south, the Christmas lights on the courthouse flare up: first red, which dulls to rose, then pales to white, then flickers away. Then a blast of green shoots up, fading, fading…It’s replaced by a triumphant golden glow.

Cold, clear, peaceful, I think. And I eye the fiddle again.

Then, “What are you doing out here?” asks Mark. He leans halfway out the open window of the spare room, hands flat on the black-clad roof. He pauses, he ponders, and then he crawls out to join me. The roof here is flat and broad and rimmed with a little railing: no danger of sliding and falling. I sit with my back against the wall, legs straight in front of me, silent fiddle in my lap. Mark slides over to join me. He slips his hand over mine and we weave fingers. We sit, quietly together, looking out over our little world.

And then, again: “Why are you on the roof?” asks Jim, his head out the window. There’s a little pause, and, “Wait,” Jim says. His head disappears.

He reappears a minute later with two warm, silky duvets, which he throws out the window ahead of him. He butt-slides over next to his dad, and we pull the coverlets over us, glad of the warmth, contemplative in the quiet night.

I handle the fiddle to Mark, who shakes his head. He says, “Oh, no. Not me.”

“I’ll try,” says Jim; he positions the fiddle backwards on his extended legs. He presses a finger on the frets, and he draws the bow across the strings. There is a long, sweet, lingering note. It splits the night and fades away. We listen to it disappear, and then we are silent.

Finally, I say it. “Without tradition,” I intone solemnly, “our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!”

We’ve got the fiddle. We’re on the roof.

But we are, all three of us, feeling pretty firm.

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

My December Country Living magazine comes in the mail. It is my guilty pleasure, a full half hour of guaranteed enjoyment: a celebration of home and hearth and hearty foods. This month, there’s a white house on the cover, the kind of house built, maybe, in the 1880’s—sprawling, two-storied, pleasingly gabled. The red front door sports an evergreen wreath with a crimson bow. Evergreen garlands wrap around the wrap-around porch, and two regal collies step off that porch to greet the viewer.

A vintage turquoise pick-up truck, Christmas tree resting on a plaid blanket on its roof, waits in the drive. There is a story here, of family and festivity, of grand preparations and gleeful anticipation of a great day.

I page through the magazine, and the story continues. I visit homes decorated for the holidays—vintage homes with deer heads on walls and hand-hewn tables; homes where a happy young mother plates cookies in the kitchen. A table is set with warm plaid blankets as tablecloth; there are tartan plates nestled on white chargers and tangerines snugged into a pine-bough runner. The old white chandelier shines above an evergreen garland that drapes a broad hutch, and I feel that hushed moment when the house is cleaned and decked and shining—the moment before the guests arrive, crowding in with faces rosy from the cold, shedding coats one-sidedly, juggling their dishes to pass as their host tries helpfully to grab the shrugged-off outerwear.

I look at the vignette and picture the peaceful preparedness shattering into the warmth and bustle of welcome.

The guests will soon arrive, the wassail begin.

I flip through the rest of the glossy magazine, contemplate the recipes, and I think this publication takes our cultural expectations and puts them onto paper precisely. The family homestead. The groaning board. The shining faces gathered joyfully around the table.

That’s the holiday.

That’s the tradition.

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

“I looked up tradition,” Mina says, “and it is supposed to be something that is handed down or done over generations. But my mother calls and says, ‘You HAVE to be here. It’s tradition.’” Mina exhales and looks at her dear confidantes, Corey and Blake. They are all 34; they are old school friends, moms of children five years old or younger. Mina is an assistant principal. Corey is a nurse practitioner. Blake is a CPA. They are smart, savvy young professionals.

“My parents,” Mina continues, “have only been having Christmas at their house since Grandma and Grandpa bought the condo when I was 14. Twenty years! I told my mother that’s hardly long enough to be considered tradition.”

“So, what are you going to do?” asks Blake.

“I caved.” Mina sighs. “My sister called and whined about how it just wouldn’t be the same, and my dad came over to let me know he had the train set up and he reminded me how much Little Barry loved the trains and the tree lights last year…and I just said, Fine. We’ll be there.”

“Well,” says Corey. “we’re not. Laura is old enough to want to wake up in her own bed this year, and run downstairs to open her gifts. We’re having Christmas in our own home, and I’m cooking a roast, and anyone who wants to come can join us.”

“You rebel,” says Mina. “How many people are coming so far?”

“I don’t know,” says Corey. “No one’s talking to me. Although my brother did call to thank me for ruining Christmas before he informed me we weren’t on speaking terms and hung up. Jeff’s parents will be there, though.” Corey crumbles her roll onto its little plate and turns to Blake. “What about you guys? What are you doing?”

Blake looks a little abashed. “Well, I’m incredibly lucky, I guess,” she says. “This summer, the whole family was at the beach, and my mother got us all together and suggested we figure out a way to celebrate together that didn’t make everyone crazy. So we decided we’d have the Burke family Christmas on Epiphany this year. The 6th is on a weekend, and it will ease up on that after-holiday letdown for the kids.” She looks at her friends almost apologetically. “We’ll go to Matt’s parents on Christmas Eve and then be at home on Christmas Day. My sister and her kids will probably come over that night.”

There is a little silence, and Mina and Corey look at her with a little unbelief and a little jealousy.

Finally, “That’s so cool,” says Mina. “I wish my mother could see that the tradition is about the being together and not so much about a command appearance on a certain day.”

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

Curious, I look up ‘tradition.’ Mina is right: the definition tells me it is a custom or belief handed down through generations. So it has to be pretty darned old, generations old, that custom, to properly wear the mantle of tradition.

So the claim that ‘You HAVE to be home! It’s our tradition!” is, really, a false one.

Because once those grandparents were young parents too, dragging their cranky children to one set of in-laws or the other, eating Edna’s dried out turkey when they’d rather be home with a tasty pan of lasagna and the promise of a family board game after dinner. But they did it—they sucked it up until the grandparents couldn’t host any more—until they moved into assisted living, or moved, tragically, into the green fields of a memorial park.

And then, “Our turn,” those parents sighed contentedly, and gloried in the kids around their own table, the food their own family favorites; they welcomed the grandparents well enough to join them, the kids’ friends with no special place to be. They welcomed the significant others as the kids grew into young adults.

They grew solid in their expectation that Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless every kid was home. Twenty years passed, and it began to seem like they’d celebrated this way forever. Like this celebration was tradition.

But it isn’t really—it’s just the way they’ve done things for a couple of decades, and a year dawns when a different kind of celebration is in order.

Expectation: not tradition.

And unrealistic expectations can overload and sink a holiday.

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

Jim is typing furiously. When he pauses to take a breath, fingers suspended above his keyboard, I ask him what he’s working on.

“A reading list,” he says. “Want to see? First, I want to finish It.” Stephen King’s thick tome sits next to Jim’s computer; the bookmark reveals he has only about an eighth of the book to go. Jim wants to read it through before seeing the movie, which people have told him is not bad, although, of necessity, it leaves out some parts of the dense and intricate book.

Then he wants to read The Wheel of Time series in its entirety; he has read the first four books, but now he wants to start, again, at the beginning, and follow Robert Jordan’s long saga until the very end of the very last book. Then, on to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and more.

It’s an ambitious list, and it does my aging English instructor’s heart good. It validates what we plan to do for the holiday this year, too, adopting an Icelandic custom on Christmas Eve. We’re going to grill steaks, and then snuggle into new flannels and light the fire in the fireplace, and we are going to crack open our new books. We’ll read, cozy in the fireplace glow, the tree lights twinkling, too, and we’ll dip into chocolates,—chocolates from our favorite local chocolatier.

My inner bossy teacher surfaced this November, and I gave each of the boyos a ‘Christmas Wish List’ form to fill out. It asked what books they wanted, and what kind of chocolates. It asked if they wanted any special gift cards, and then there was a category for ‘other.’ The boyos took the lists to separate corners, and thoughtfully filled them out. Their book lists were fairly long; on the ‘other’ list, both Mark and Jim listed only one simple, inexpensive thing.

Isn’t that funny? I thought to myself, and I wondered if we finally have circled around and settled on the kind of Christmas the three of us truly enjoy—with home and family and the permission to slip down into a chocolate-fueled reading binge part of a bona fide tradition from another culture. And with the creaky, crabby old dog safe in her own home, gnawing placidly on her rawhide candy cane, and not anxiously pacing a roomy kennel cage while her people are away.

Which is not to say that we don’t value the gathering with family and friends—gatherings we will try to do at different times and in other venues, preceding the holiday, stretching the holiday, maybe meeting at a restaurant with a broad hearth and blazing fire, and where no tired mama has to put together a meal and then, exhausted, clean up after it, too.

It seems to me that tradition guides the belief and the value: and we believe that the holidays give us a chance to connect with those we cherish. We would not honor the tradition if we didn’t make the connections, but we don’t have to do it the same way each and every year.

Instead we need to search inside and discern: what are our values? What do we want?

And we need to deal too, with the reality each of us brings to the table—that the autistic personality, for instance, does not do well with intense anticipation, or uncertain travel plans (“Where did you say we are staying???”) or the bustle of gatherings that flow and build with jokes and undercurrents and the puzzle and the mystery of family dynamics. Or that the dog is 14 years old, at least—her birth year uncertain—and that we might well be leaving the white-muzzled beast in a cold, lonely kennel for her very last holiday. Dogs do not care about Christmas, we remind ourselves, but there are dissenting voices arguing in both our heads.

And we love to read, to indulge ourselves with really good chocolate, and to enjoy the comfort and the glow of a warm, clean, cozy home. This Christmas plan, this year, and this place—well, it all seems very right.

But it’s not a tradition—it’s a practice: it showcases how much we value reading, and how much we value home and hearth. (And—all right—how much we value chocolate.) Next year, we may do something completely different—the Yule Book Flood just a practice that fit this year’s needs and circumstances like a warm and cozy hand-knit mitten.

(Whatever next year brings, though, I’m pretty sure there will be books and chocolate involved.)

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

So maybe—maybe—tradition is about the transmission, from generation to generation, of deeply held values, important beliefs? And maybe each of us has to measure that against our awareness of who we are and how we operate within our unique worlds.

So, say, giving is a tradition—a value passed down—caring for others who are in need. Maybe, for many years in our family of birth, people got together and assembled shoe boxes full of goodies to send overseas to children who, compared to our kids, had ridiculously little. And maybe, for whatever reason, we’ve decided that’s not the most effective way to give.

We could change the practice. We could knit warm hats for preemies, or order books for children who have none. We could ring a bell outside a supermarket or serve up a hot, sustaining meal at a soup kitchen. We could write a check to support a cause that touches our hearts. We could visit a lonely elder in assisted living whose family and friends are long, long gone.

There are many ways of giving, and some will bring us joy while others lard our bellies with dread. But if everyone found their own special way, wouldn’t the season be bright?

It’s not the practice that’s tradition—it’s the belief that undergirds it. And Christmas, I’ve been taught, is a time to give. I need to take that concept, and I need to make it mine.

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

My feet, I realize: I can’t feel my feet. They are poking out of the silky duvet. Encased in silly canvas ballet slippers, they are numbed by the frigid air.

“What time IS it?” I ask the boyos, and at that moment, away in the distance, the light show stops and the no-longer-illuminated spire of the courthouse disappears into black night. We sigh and shift and scrunch up the puffy blankets. We lift up the spare room window, the window we’ve left open just a crack—so the house stays warm, and so we can climb back into it.  We shove the blankets through and crawl in after them. Mark draws the window down and latches it securely.

The dog is dancing nervously at the foot of the stairs, her “Where were you?” and “I have to pee!” combination dance. We hurry down to tend to her concerns.

And Jim takes the old fiddle and tucks it away into the worn black leather case. He shoves it back onto the top shelf of the hall closet, and we bustle about to ready the house for the end of the day—coffee set up, dishes away, the table cleared and ready for morning.

There is much to do tomorrow—cleaning and shopping and packages to mail, a birthday surprise for a December sweetheart, trips to libraries, deadlines to meet, and the prep for a long-overdue repainting of the dining room. Tomorrow brings plastering and road trips, the roaring hum of the vacuum, meal-making decisions, and intense computer time.

But all of that is lit by the little spark of joy—a holiday approaches, a special time of celebration. We will meet it with tradition, with the beliefs we have examined to agree: these are things we value.

And we’ll shape our practice to those beliefs, and we’ll gather in the people we love so well.

Someone may coax sweet notes from a fiddle; someone may even make it sing, and toes may tap and arms reach out and the dancing may commence. Feet may pound and music thrum, but the floor, on its strong foundation, will hold firm. Not shaky. Not shaky at all.

We move into the holiday season, illuminated by our authentic knowledge; we move ahead, to celebrate tradition.

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

Here, by the way, is one post about Iceland’s bookish holiday tradition: http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/

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Brown Sauce Broodings

As the light warms the early morning, I take the dog outside. The marigolds blaze in the corner by the driveway; the mums are just starting to blink at the world. Tiny red leaves from the burning bush spatter the dirt and the pavement, and in Sandy’s yard, a thick layer of crisp, leathery leaves stains the grass and seeps out into the street.

Thocka. Thocka. Acorns steadily pelt shingled roofs and metal car tops. A lone leaf detaches from Sandy’s tree and drifts, slowly, slowly, down to join its peers. And, Chicken, I think suddenly. We’ll have chicken for dinner.

I steer the little dog back home, where I take a container of chicken thighs from the chest freezer. And all morning, the picture of what dinner will be struggles and evolves in my mind.

While I’m doing laundry, I think about last week, when I took Jim to Riesbeck’s market. He ordered himself a fried chicken luncheon. When the clerk asked what pieces he’d like, he selected a breast and a thigh, which surprised me.

“I like the thigh,” he explained, “if it’s FRIED chicken.”

I do not really want the splatter and mess of stove-top fried chicken tonight; I’d rather dress it and put it in the oven. I remember a recipe from a cookbook I ordered before Jim was in school–ABC Cookery, a Gold Medal Flour cookbook for kids. I still have the book. There are instructions in there for oven-fried chicken; we once enjoyed that very much. Moves and schedules, I guess, relegated that method to the past, but today, I decide, I will revive it.

I find the slender cookbook and put it on the shelf next to the microwave.

So the entree is confirmed. We get in the car, running through the sudden, unexpected rain, to pick up Mark, to go to the post office, to stop at Panera and enjoy lunch financed by the last of a gift card, and I am thinking about sides. Green beans, steamed, I think, having had many, many green salads in the last four days. And maybe…rice?

But plain rice is missing something. Then I realize this would be a great day to try out a new sauce recipe.

********

I have been away for four days, and I need to cook.

*********

When we get home, I pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, open to page 54, and I read.

“Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” writes Julia Child, in collaboration with her French cooking comrades, “yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Good, I think, and I flip through the chapter. A brown sauce would be just right, I decide, and I read on, realizing I will need the whole afternoon for the task. But it is just 2:00, and I have time.

I run my finger down the ingredients list, and I take chicken broth from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. I pull out a carrot and an onion and a slice of ham (Ham! I think. That’s a surprise!) I get out my good knife, and I pare away the outer edge of the carrot and I peel off the papery onion skin. I chop and dice while oil heats in the heavy pan. I cut the ham into thin strips, and I dice that, too. Then everything goes into the pot, and it simmers and swirls for ten minutes, before I add the flour.

The flour melts into the oil, coating the sofrito, and I follow the instructions closely and obediently, stirring for another ten minutes. The mixture slowly turns a nice nut brown. I see what Julia Child means: this is not rocket science, but patience, rhythmic patience, is required.

I pour rich hot chicken broth into the pot, and I add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a handful of herbs; I whisk until the paste is melted into the mix, and then I step away to let time do its work. I get out the strainer and a blue ceramic bowl; I set out the pots for rice and green beans. I scoop out the rice, and I pour water into a measuring cup.

I wash the chicken and pat it dry, and I melt half a stick of butter. I mix flour and paprika and salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne. I slide each chicken piece into the butter, then dredge it with the flour. I put the pieces, bone side down, on a metal rack in the glass roasting pan. When I have placed the last piece of chicken carefully in the last space, my fingers are coated, fat with buttery clumps of flour dough.

I wash my hands and I stir the sauce, which is bubbling softly. It is brown and thick and aromatic.

I put laundry in and I take laundry out. I hang dress shirts and tuck matched socks into each other and I fold t-shirts into rectangles and put cold, wet towels into the dryer. I vacuum up dog hair from the carpet in the family room; shedding season seems to have begun in earnest. I answer emails and update my calendar, and I run downstairs to check the still-damp towels, setting the dryer for another cycle. And every fifteen minutes I check the brown sauce. I skim frowsy acid off the surface, peel away the skin that forms, and marvel at the alchemy taking place.

I have no idea what it will taste like. Some of the ingredients are totally unexpected.
But I trust Julia Child, who has never once led me astray. We simmer on.

********

I heat the oven to 425, and Jim comes in to inspect the chicken just as I’m ready to put it in to roast. “Hmmm,” he says, noncommittal; he will wait and see how closely ‘oven-fried’ resembles the fried chicken of his dreams.

I put the rice and the beans on when Mark pulls into the driveway. I grab oven mitts and pull the chicken from the oven; I use tongs to turn it, and Jim and Mark lean in to approve the crisp golden coating. Jim is being swayed. It smells really good, he says.

And the rice cooks up to soft and sticky, and the juices run clear on the chicken. I turn off the heat and I mitt up, hefting the big cooking pot and pouring the sauce into the strainer. “Strain,” the instructions exhort me, “pressing juice out of vegetables.”

I press the veggies. The little dog dances at my feet as I scrape them into a throw-away bag.

***********

The kitchen clatters: plates are pulled from the highest shelf and silverware from its drawer, water is poured, and serving spoons and tongs wrestled out of their jumbled space. The chicken is tender and perfectly cooked,–the crunchy coating, a triumph. The beans are crisp and buttery. And the sauce is thick and rich and savory,–more, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s the magic of time and patience and good things combined.

We eat and we talk, and the chicken disappears; Mark and I split the very last piece. We scrape the juices from our plates, mop up the last bit of sauce, eat every morsel of sticky rice. A good meal, simmered and slow-roasted in the time provided by this post-work era. A good meal, providing the time to catch up, to family up, after having been away for four days.

We are reluctant to leave the table, but the little dog begins to dance, and a home-cooked meal offers up a sinkful of pots and pans to scrub, and there are chores to be done, plants to water, runs to be made. We are fueled and fortified, though.

There’s a metaphor, I think, in the making of a long-simmered sauce, in the surprising combination of sturdy everyday ingredients into a mixture once unthought-of. There’s an analogy in the thoughtful preparation, the dicing and the sauteing, the careful addition and nurture of the flour, and the long, slow, vigilant bubbling. There’s a lesson to be drawn.

And maybe tomorrow, I will draw it. But tonight I am lulled and comforted by the hearty food, enjoying the re-connection with the boyos, the lazy walk at dusk with the slow-footed little dog. We step back into the house, into a kitchen still rich with the smells of roasting and simmering. It is right, it is good, to be home.

A Slippery Grasp on History

We were in Buffalo, New York;  we had a little extra time after our last museum exploration–after standing in the room where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, hearing the sonorous, recorded voices of re-enactors creating the scene for us–and before we were due at the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub for dinner.

“Hey,” I said, “I wonder where Perkins Place is.”

I pulled it up on my cell phone. The house–29 Perkins Street–was only six minutes away. I hit ‘go’ on the directions tab, and Siri took over. Mark followed her instructions, and suddenly we were there, stopped on a skinny, cluttered street, avoiding the eyes of gaunt and angry-looking people who stood in their front yards, arms crossed, and stared at our idling car.

It was a small house next to its neighbors, with a kind of faded taupe siding. The windows were boarded with wood gone gray. The aging plywood over the door sported a garish, spray-painted, red ’29.’ The tiny front yard was littered with cigarette butts and bunched-up papers and shards of plastic grocery bags.

We sat in silence for a minute, and then Jim took his ear buds out and asked, “What is this place?”

“This,” I said, “is where my mother lived when she met my father.”

“Yikes,” said Jim, and he put the buds back in his ears and looked away.

***********

“The first time I met your mother,” my father often said, “she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”

He was working then,–at a dockyard, I think,–with a couple of Scottish boys named Innes. And one night they brought him home to the house they shared with their siblings. And there my father met my mother, who was indeed, she would always agree when the story was told, washing the kitchen floor.

He was in his early twenties; she was right out of high school. It must have been just about 1940. They had both lost one parent to death and the other to one kind or another of abandonment. They were each one of seven siblings, although my father knew his seven half-siblings, too. My mother’s father had disappeared, and she wouldn’t realize she had half-siblings herself until after his death, twenty-five years later.

The details of what happened after that first introduction are sketchy. Was it love at first sight? Was there wooing and pursuit? Did one shy away while the other knew–just knew, bone-deep,–that this, THIS one, was the partner for a lifetime?

Whatever, however, the die was cast in that moment of meeting, and a love, a partnership, a bond was forged–one that would shudder from, but survive, war and separation and unimaginable loss. I trace my history back to that moment.

And the sadness of that blank-eyed, neglected little home tumbled that history toward me.

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

“I feel,” said a new colleague not so very long ago, “as if this was meant to be.” She had stumbled on just the right opportunity at just the right time, she said, applied, breezed through the interviews. She’d gotten a job doing exactly what she hoped to be doing at this point in her professional life.

“I believe that,” said someone else. “I believe things happen when they’re meant to happen, that someone is watching out for us.” People around the table nodded solemnly.

I smiled and kept quiet.  I am not so sure fate is quite that settled. What becomes history has so many variables. The storm clouds could have lingered, the game been postponed, and then the home run–well, it might never have happened.

Maybe that stupendous success was a simple matter of placement in line, or of what big-shot the family happened to know.

What might have happened if, say, they’d decided to take the long way ’round instead on that memorable day?

What if, what if, what if.

What if Dad hadn’t gone home with those particular buddies–if he had gone instead to another friend’s house, met another friend’s family? What if he’d gone to a bar that night, had one too many, gotten into a fight? Would the moment of meeting have just been postponed, the introduction taken place at another, later day, and the forging of that partnership begun as it was meant to, just a little further down the line?

Or could life have been completely different?

History is slippery, I think, not iron-cast.

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

The story teller at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial site told us that Teddy had been very concerned for the widowed first lady. President McKinley had died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. (And what if Czolgosz had never gotten close enough? What if someone bumped him in line and felt his gun, or what if his trolley had been late?) McKinley was laid in state in another Buffalo mansion, and government officials hurried to find Teddy, who was staying with his friends, the Wilcoxes.

Those  officials wanted him to come back to the house where McKinley lay and be inaugurated immediately, but Teddy said no. First, he said, he would go and pay his respects to the slain President, and to Mrs. McKinley.

Then he would come back and be sworn in as president at the Wilcox mansion. He did not want to deflect from the solemn vigil at the other house with an inauguration.

So they did it Teddy’s way: respectful, solemn, considerate of a widow’s feelings and the concerns of a nation.

But it didn’t have to happen like that. I think of photos of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on a plane, Jackie Kennedy propped beside him, glazed and grieving in her blood-spattered suit. Johnson insisted on that in-flight inauguration, they say, on having the slain Kennedy’s widow by his side, and he wouldn’t wait for a different venue.

If he had insisted from the beginning on respecting Mrs. Kennedy’s grief would Johnson’s presidency have started–and continued–entirely differently? Or would it have been the act of a different man to defer to a widow’s public, aching sorrow?

Whatever. Both TR and Johnson, I think, were controversial, but one was also wildly popular, and the other widely vilified.

There were many other variables in their presidencies, of course, but so much history, so much understanding, pivots on a choice. And choices, once made, cannot be undone.

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

It could always have been different. What if someone hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm, if the weather had changed, if a person had acted altruistically instead of selfishly? There is a literature built on this, on what life might have been like, say, if the South had won the Civil War, if Kennedy had not died. If the kick had been good. If the verdict had been different.

When things work out just perfectly,–when we get the job, meet the man by happenstance, pick up the lottery ticket at just the right time and place,–we feel, sometimes, as if we were chosen by fate, singled out for blessing: beneficiaries of what was meant to be.

And then what-ifs are the stuff from which we weave regrets. If only I’d kept my mouth shut! If only I’d stayed home that night! If only I realized how sick he really was…

Maybe then it is easiest for me to believe that history has a meant-to-be trajectory, that things were rolling along–lumbering along–propelled by the heavy weight of all the things that came before, heading exactly to where they had to go. No course deviations possible. Or that events were guided by the hand of a higher power, making my choices and mistakes, or the choices and mistakes of those much more powerful and meaningful than I, irrelevant or inevitable.

This moment, though, will be history one day. And I have my choices right now.

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

My younger brother Sean, who works in Buffalo now, had texted me a picture of 29 Perkins Place, so I knew what it had to look like. The reality was somehow, though, different from the knowing.

How could the little house look so sad, so neglected? Didn’t people know that an important little bit of history happened here?

What did I want?

Maybe a plaque by the door that reads, “Here, on an ordinary workday in 1940, James met Jean, insuring that, one day, Sharon, Dennis, Michael, John, Pamela, and Sean  would come to be…”

Maybe for the house to be a cherished cottage with curtains at the windows, a freshly painted front door, children playing, a neatly mowed yard.

But that house, that neighborhood, has its own history. There are no do-overs, history-wise. (Think of the literature on that theme–de Maupassant, Stephen King, The Butterfly Effect… We firmly believe, it seems, that going in time back to undo the bad creates horrible repercussions, and that history is not a thing to be messed about.) The shuttered windows do not detract from the truth: an event happened once, in that sad and shabby house, that made my being possible.

Maybe it could have been different, the moment skewed differently, and the whole existence of myself and my siblings thrown into jeopardy.

Maybe that moment of meeting was graven in time, meant to be, written by a celestial hand.

Chance or fate–the what-ifs behind the history–do not matter. Unchangeable, events have brought me to this now, this time when my choices are important, when my actions can be done or left undone, when a word can be swallowed or spoken. In the messy, mutable now, we may be encountering things that are fated, but we still have the choice of how we’ll react. And how, then, we’ll shape history.

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

It fascinates–the chance, the happenstance, the slipperiness of history. What if, what if, what if…

But if I dive too deeply down that rabbit hole, I just may detract from now. I’ll deal with the effects,–wonderful, tragic, and all shades in between,–with which my history pummels me. And I’ll pray, and work, and angle for the mindfulness to fully live my now.

Rummaging

Rummage stuff
Books tower and teeter. James and I wield fine-point Sharpies, writing tags. So, Traveling Mercies, we might write. Hard cover. Fifty cents.

I cut a supply of one-inch stubs of masking tape, hang them from the table’s rim, use them to affix tags to the appropriate books.

We write and tape and pile, getting ready for the rummage sale. When we have a reasonable stack, I wrap it with green twine, tie a tight knot, swing it into the far corner of the family room, and we begin again.

Some of the books are used books, books that we gleaned, crowing triumphantly, from clearance racks or community sales or library bookstores. Those books may have names written inside, and inscriptions. When there are identifying characteristics, addresses or phone numbers, we take the Sharpie and blot that out. But sometimes the inscription makes us pause.

“Matt wrote in this book,” Jim says, “for Dad.”

He moves that volume to the keeper-after-all pile.

I do the same when I find a book with Kim’s name on the fly leaf, written in her unique and lilting hand–Kim, gone this past spring, loved and greatly missed. She wanted me to have this book. She wanted me to read it. I put it with the keepers.

But still. By the time we are done, James and I have bundled up many, many books, marking those old friends ‘.50’ or, ‘$1.00.’ There are clean spaces on the bookshelves, which Jim undertakes to organize–fiction in the living room, non-fiction in the family room.  He swoops and dances, formatting alphabetically by author. As he works, the shelves transform from groaning boards, homes to jumbled, jammed-in stacks of random, anonymous volumes, to pleasing, inviting vistas.

We just have too many books.

*****

My friend and colleague Cindi sent out an email: Would you have any interest in participating in a yard sale to benefit my daughter’s swim team?

It seems like a pretty sweet deal. We pack up our stuff according to a firm style-guide provided by the planners, who stipulate size of tag, and placement of info, and how to affix the tags to objects. We drop them off at the school between 9 am and 7 pm on the appointed night. We’ll sort and place on drop-off.

Then they’ll sell our stuff. There’s a five dollar fee to take part. If we work a volunteer shift, we’ll get 80 per cent of the take from our items. If we don’t volunteer, we’ll get 60 per cent. And, sale over, the planners will send all things unspoken for to appropriate charities.

It’s a win-win-win.  We support the swim team. We make a little cash.

We get rid of stuff.

*****

I pull old electronics out of a drawer and jumble them all together in a box. I’ll have Mark go through them, determine which components, if any, we might ever need again. Then I’ll ask him to determine which components someone else might ever need again.

We’ll tape tags onto those that others might possibly use: N600 WiFi Dual Band USB Adapter….50 cents. A landline set with two phones. A tiny tape recorder. A long-since needed modem.

Why did we keep all this stuff?

Why did we buy it in the first place?

*****

We sort clothes according to strict instructions. Hangers hooks must go to the left, like a question mark. Shirts must be buttoned. Every item of clothing–even shorts–must be on a hanger. Labels should be safety-pinned to the upper left-hand front.

We joke that we have an evilly magic closet or two: when our clothes go in, they fit. And then, one day, they don’t fit.  Obviously, the closets shrunk them.

We put hangers into twenty odd men’s dress shirts, size 16 and a half–33/34. We button them up; this sale won’t brook any shirts missing buttons. There are shirts in every hue and stripe–peach and mint and navy, black and gray and blue. When the back of a chair fills, Jim takes them downstairs and hangs them on the drying rack, where they wait to be delivered.

Dresses. Slacks. Skirts. Shorts.

*****

We package up office supplies–three boxes of perforated name tags, unopened, that could be printed via laser-jet. Two thick stacks of USPS stamps for use with a home postal system. We no longer have that service.

Three hole punches. Mechanical pencils.

We put loose items into sturdy storage bags and mark them, “Assorted office supplies. 50 cents.”

We pull mismatched china, glasses, old pots and pans, from their storage shelves, mark and pack them. I take table linens from a drawer, iron them neatly, place them on hangers.

********

We stack the goods in the back corner of the house, by the door we seldom use. The piles grow to shoulder height.

I feel satisfied and accomplished: we are purging, clearing space. This feels good.

But then I think: we just have too much stuff.

******

I remember going to a conference where a Native American Catholic nun spoke. She was wearing a blue dress. It was one of her two dresses, she said; blue to honor the virgin Mary. The other dress was red, and it reminded her of Christ’s sacred heart.

She bought both dresses at thrift stores. She didn’t need more, she said; one to wear and one to wash. Any more would slow her down.

I look at the growing stack of stuff in the corner. I think of  money spent, time involved, storage space clotted with unused things. There is something, I realize, something overdone and obscene about this.

We have cleared spaces. We will take those things to a place where they may do some good, where they will be donated if they do not sell.

But how long will it take us to fill the empty spots on the bookshelves, the open spaces in the drawers.

How much do we need?

How much does what we have slow us down?

I have to turn my back on the stack of rummage sale goodies.

*****

Rummaging: lightening the weight of stuff.

Now

The coffee steams, scent rising. The sky lightens, the leaves of trees a dark lacy tracery against a sky that’s milky, midnight blue. One bird trills and silences; another picks up the refrain, tattering. Then, after a tiny silence, there’s an answering warble.

The dog curls up under the chair, and settles in. Her panting subsides.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

**********

At work, the pile of documents to be shredded outside my office teeters. We all add to the stack, shoving our papers down. We each hope not to be the one that tips the balance, sending papers spewing, sending the clear message that here is a job that needs–right NOW–to be done.

No one likes to do the shredding.

Today, I pack up the basket and fill up some bags, chopping the wobbling tower in half. I head across the street, to the duplicating office where a high efficiency, industrial shredder is available: first come, first served. There is a little hint of martyrdom in my madness.

I pull a chair next to the shredding machine, and I empty the basket and the bags onto it, stacking the papers high. I open the shredder door and check the heavy duty garbage bag in its thick square bin inside; it is three-fourths full. I snug it back in, secure the door, wake up the machine, and begin.

And it is not so bad. The machine chomps and whirs. When the pile has diminished by two inches, I check the bag, rearrange the snowdrift, secure the doors again, grab more papers. Feed the hungry beast.

Finally, the machine refuses to go on. A blinking icon tells me the garbage bag is full. I pull the heavy bag out of its big square container. As it slides away from its constraints, tiny pieces of paper float and settle.

This is the part that everyone hates: changing the bag, then cleaning up the mess.

I wrestle the full bag into a corner, make bunny ears, tie a snug knot. I fit in a new bag, and then I take the dust pan and brush, and I kneel down on the floor to catch the errant shreds. I almost fill the dust pan, and I dump the flyaway paper back into the bin.

And I realize this is not so bad. This finite job, with its definite progress, has a certain clear-cut satisfaction. The pile of paper relentlessly shrinks. Sweeping the mess from the industrial carpet, yielding clear space, becomes a metaphor. I breathe deep. I savor the chance to do a simple job, a no-pressure job.

When my colleague Brenda comes in to pick up her mail, we talk about kids and summer and a wonderful graduate who’s gone on to success…and who is a thrifty wizard at yard sales. I seldom get to see Brenda; I enjoy the chance to catch up.

The stack of paper waits patiently until we are done talking.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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

The sky is soft with clouds that do not threaten when James and I leave for Granville, our Wednesday ritual: a trip to the library, a visit to the coffee shop.

“Can I DJ?” he asks, another part of the routine.

We listen to Ewan MacGregor and Emma Thompson sing “Be Our Guest,” and Jim tells me that MacGregor’s first attempt at a French accent made everyone think he was Mexican. This is funny, because MacGregor’s wife is French.

We listen to Jerry Oerbach and Angela Lansbury sing the same song, and we can’t decide which version we like best.

We listen to several tunes by Imagine Dragons, and Jim tells me about the movies those tunes are featured in. The tires thrum, the music rolls, and the miles melt away.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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

I put the boneless chicken on to parboil, and then I gather up the veggies. I rinse and chop fresh broccoli and put it on to steam; it quickly turns a bright, luscious green. I snap the ends of the sugar snap peas, peel off the rugged fibrous thread, give them their seconds in the pot. I take out small, jewel-like onions, a bulb or two of garlic. I take a whole jalapeño pepper from the freezer. Two carrots from the crisper; sliced almonds from the cupboard.

Mark comes home and changes clothes and slides the bamboo chopping board towards him, sharpens his favorite knife, and begins to turn the carrots into slender orange matchsticks. I mix the rice with water and drops of oil, sprinkle in some salt, put it on to steam. I slice the chicken and toss it into a hot cast iron pan; it sizzles, and smells rise and mingle–the sautéing onion, the searing meat. The snapping oil crescendos when the other veggies, crisp and wet, join the mix. We move around the kitchen, stirring and lifting, filling the sink with hot, soapy water, wiping down surfaces, comparing notes of the day.

Jim comes in to wrestle plates down from the top shelf, dig his teriyaki sauce from the back of the refrigerator, tell us about a scene in the episode he’s just been watching. Which reminds him of a joke from the joke tape, and we laugh although we’ve heard it many times before.

And the rice is plump and soft, the chicken seared golden brown; we mix General Tso’s sauce into the veggies and we say a family grace.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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

The supermarket is quiet on a Wednesday night, floors gleaming, shelves picked over. But all the items on our list are also on the shelves.

A tired young mom wheels her cart slowly through the aisles; her path crisscrosses ours.  Her little boy, sleek head, hair as smooth and brown as an otter’s, points and points and begs. She murmurs, and he keens.

We select small, firm apples and pretzel rods, coffee and tea; we score the last loaf of Nickle’s bread and the last dozen brown, cage-free eggs. I put two thin bars of sea-salt dark chocolate in the cart. Mark adds a tube of cinnamon buns. We sort coupons. Jim stacks his own groceries in a corner of the cart; he will pay, proudly, for his own food.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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

And there is Guy Fieri on the flat screen; there is an unexpected email to answer, and there is just time to do a little writing and reflection. The dark draws back over the sky and the house seems to settle. The dog sighs and slips abruptly into sleep; her feet twitch and she makes noises deep in her throat, dreaming her doggie dreams.

This moment; this day. We have what we have. We know what we know. Everything we’ve done, all the people we have met, all the thoughts we’ve entertained…all bringing us to this–this fulcrum moment, balancing between past and future, clad lightly in the fragile glass of now.