At the All Souls Harvest Supper

list
I am making buckeye bars–those rice krispie treats thick with corn syrup and peanut butter and iced with a layer of chocolate–when I hear the shloop of something substantial sliding through the mail slot.

How odd. It’s 3:30 on a September afternoon; our mail arrived at 10 AM. And the dog, who always goes into manic mode when the postal worker steps up to the door to slide the mail through, is snoring contently, curled into a corner of the couch.

What’s up with THAT, man? I think, and I spread warm, sticky rice krispie mix in a buttered pan, press it down firmly, and wash my hands. Then I go to see what’s just arrived.

I find, on the hardwood floor of the front hallway, a packet the size of a manila envelope. It is parchmenty, the golden-umber color of autumn leaves. My name and address is inscribed on the front in what looks like fountain pen, written in a bold, antique, and just slightly shaky script.

There’s a logo in the return address spot; it has the letters ‘SSCC’ intertwined in a stylized, spiky black script. I squint to see what they represent. Tiny print reads, Society for Super-Chronological Communication.

Huh.

Shades of Hogwarts, I think, curious. I leave the packet on the table while I go to quickly melt the chocolate and spread it on the bars. I soak the dishes .

Then I can get back to my mysterious message. I sit down at the table, slit the crisp, thick envelope open with a steak knife, and pull out a slim sheaf of parchment. The same antique scrawl covers it.

That  scrawl tells me I have been randomly selected to host this year’s All Souls Supper.

“Whom would you invite,” the unknown writer asks me, “if you could invite twelve people, living or dead, to a supper in their honor? Perhaps you’ve been posed that question in an English class or two.

“Now, the exercise becomes reality.”

A little shiver crawls up my right arm.

The missive goes on to explain in great detail. I am to pick twelve people to be guests of honor at a very special dinner on the Friday before Hallowe’en. Those guests may be living people, or they may be ones who have left this realm. Whoever they are, the writer and her mysterious colleagues will arrange for their attendance.

I must arrange for the venue, the dinner, and the rest of the guests–I may invite as many friends and family as I like to meet the Twelve. The dinner must start at 7:00 PM. It will end, promptly, at 9:30.

There are other rules–a long list of why’s and wherefores. I cannot invite immediate family or relatives by marriage who have passed on. There is to be no photography at the event. If people try to sneak pictures on their cell phones, the writer tells me primly, they will be unhappy with what happens to their phones as a consequence.

There can be a glass of celebratory wine at the onset of the meal; beyond that, there should be no alcohol. I should arrange to have meat-free dishes for those honored guests (and others) who need them. The twelve must be seated at a table of honor for the meal. They will not give speeches beyond brief greetings. However, they are happy to mix with the other attendees after dessert has been served.

There should be an appetizer, the entree course, and some dessert choices. Many guests from another realm, the writer informs me, do enjoy a steaming mug of caffeinated coffee.

I should use REAL dishes; there’s to be no paper-ware.

There is to be no mention of the special guests in the general invitation.

No press. No caterers: if I accept this honor, which is offered to only one person, selected at random, each year, I must undertake to provide all the food myself. I can enlist friends and family, but I must not pay for help.

I slide the parchment sheets back into order and slip them into their folder. I put the packet on the dining room table, and I go back into the kitchen to wash up the sticky spoons and bowls from putting the rice krispie treats together. I am being punked, I think.

Then I think, But why not? Why not host a harvest dinner that Friday night for friends and family? We’ll share a meal, we’ll gather in, as the autumn winds bare the trees and scud the clouds across the skies and push the cold weather relentlessly into the nooks and crannies of our little corner of Ohio.

And if twelve very special guests arrive to join us–well, there’ll be a table for them. And perhaps, a brief time of wonderful sharing.

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

prompts
The invitation tells me I must write my twelve choices quickly, without over-thinking them. I can put them, the writer suggests coyly, in my lovely new notebook. My back prickles: how did someone know I’d just received a beautiful new notebook, a gift from a thoughtful friend?

Wait, I think, could that friend be punking me?

And then again I think: What would it hurt? What would be wrong with an autumn gathering?

So I take the notebook from the sideboard, and I pull a Pentel RSVP from my purse. I sit down, and I quickly write twelve names.

******************
I write Michelle Obama, because I wonder what that gifted woman will do after the White House.

I write Bernie Rimland because he was the autism parent and psychologist who dispelled the ‘refrigerator mother’ myth.

I write Scott Russell Sanders because I love his essays, the way he brings the 1960’s Ohio of his childhood to real, clear life, and the way he cares about the natural world.

I write Leonard Cohen because his music moves me.

I write Susan Wittig Albert because I admire her books, fiction and nonfiction, and I admire the fact that she left a highly-paid, high profile, academic job at a large university, trading it in for the life of a writer.

All of those people, as far as I know, are among the living.

I also write Laura Z. Hobson, who is not. Hobson wrote my favorite book, First Papers, about a girl from an eccentric Russian immigrant family growing up in World War I era New York. That wonderful book, I’ve learned, closely mirrored Hobson’s girlhood. She also wrote movingly about being a pregnant, unmarried woman in a judgmental society. She wrote about raising a gay son in a world that didn’t cry, Welcome! I’ve often wondered what Hobson would think of the changes she’d see in the world today.

The little believing imp in my soul leaps. Maybe I’ll actually be able to find out.

I write Victoria Woodhull, because she ought to be in on the build-up to the first presidential race in the United States of America  where a woman has a true shot at winning. And wouldn’t she have a story or two to share during the conversation course of a supper?

I write Dawn Powell, because she hailed from the same small Ohio town as Woodhull, and because she was a wonderful and under-appreciated writer. And yet she wrote, anyway. I want to ask her about that.

Thinking about writers brings Robert Jordan to mind. My son Jim would be over the moon if he had a chance to talk with Robert Jordan. I write his name.

And Mark, of course, would love to talk with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I write his name, too.

If I invite Franklin, I think, I’m darned well inviting Eleanor, also. I suspect that Eleanor and the team of people she used her influence to pull together fast-forwarded the civil rights agenda in the United States by fifty years, at least. Oh, I’d love to talk with her about that. I add Eleanor Roosevelt to the list.

There is one more space. I scrawl the name of another personal hero,  Albert Einstein.

I close the book.

*****************
I reserve one of the common rooms at the College. Marco tells me sure, I can use the culinary program’s kitchen, as long as I leave it sparkling for Monday morning’s classes.

Mark and Jim and I sit down and write up a guest list. I haven’t told them about the invitation; I have the parchment packet hidden under the big box of business envelopes in my desk drawer. I don’t want them to think I’m stark raving bonkers, or, at best, terminally gullible.

If it happens, I’ll pull out the parchment and explain it all then.

But I, am, somehow,–at least a firm little part of me is,–I am starting to believe.

We send off invitations to an ‘All Souls Harvest Supper.’

I talk to wonderful farming friends, to Dan and Kathie and to Randy, about a harvest menu. We simmer up ideas of baked squash, of rich, thick steaming vegetable soup. Slices of grass-fed roast beef for the carnivores. Baskets of bread from Giacomo’s.

I press Terry and Larisa into service to help me plan the dessert trays. (They, bless them, immediately offer to contribute. Terry even says she’ll bake up a double batch of Kevin Weaver’s Mom’s Cookies. Those cookies are a reason to party in themselves.)

That one glass of wine looms large in importance: what kind of wine should I offer? I turn to Susan, who has studied wines, for her expertise.

The responses begin to come in. I am sad that out-of-towners cannot get away. I wish I could TELL you, I think, and then I remind myself that I don’t know what will happen or who will actually arrive.

I shop.

The deadline inches closer.

I chop and peel and bake. I freeze whatever I can make ahead.

And then the day arrives.

*****************
I don’t sleep much the night before, my head full of what-ifs. But I am buzzed by anticipatory energy: even if this is just a wonderful gathering of folks, many of whom have never met,–well. What’s even remotely wrong with that?

I iron an outfit that can both work and play. I dig out the apron Cris made me.
I pack up the car with the help of the boyos. We meet Terry and Larisa at the College at 5 PM.

Randy brings a load of small pie pumpkins and pretty little gourds. As the soup simmers in what is darned near a cauldron and the beef roasts in the big convection oven, we set the tables. I pull a huge one–a round table that seats twelve,–into the room’s center. If They don’t show up, well–we’ll put all the people who helped so much at that center table.

Radiating around it are six smaller tables, eight chairs at each. I have made, following Pinterest instructions, round tablecloths from canvas drop cloths. They are nubby and  natural looking. Susan comes to see if she can help, and the seven of us–Mark, Jim, Randy, Larisa, Terry, Susan, and me–gather Randy’s lovely produce and arrange it prettily in the middle of each table.

Mark and I have haunted yard sales and junk shops and local pottery outlets. We have gathered a fun, eclectic mix of wine glasses and enough Fiesta ware, added to what was on our home shelves, for sixty. I have staggered the arrival time: They are expected to arrive at 7; the rest of the guests, I told 7:15. If the guests of honor don’t materialize, I will slightly change the seating plan. And if that’s the case, this banquet will darned well become a buffet.

I bustle back into the kitchen, stir soup, open baskets, lift out rainbow stacks of soup bowls. I open the ovens just, really, to smell the fragrant roasting beef, checking temperature, breathing in the rich aroma. I move desserts to one long counter. There are seven pedestaled dessert servers–the pedestals are actually big, upside-down, Fiestaware coffee mugs. They are topped with broad wooden platters, tightly glued on.

I look at the clock: 6:15. My heart does a jumpy little dance.

Everyone helps. We plate seven different kinds of cookies, cut luscious looking cheesecakes into small squares–those, we decide to keep in the walk-in cooler until serving time. We polish apples, separate grapes, put them in wooden bowls with bananas for those that prefer a healthier dessert.

Mark sharpens a carving knife. I pull out dessert sized plates for appetizers. We have a wonderful slaw with thinly sliced carrots, radish, onion, and cabbage (red and green) and a piquant sauce and sunflower seeds. We have baskets for whole wheat crackers and hearty cheddar cheeses that need to be sliced. We slide tiny yeast rolls into the oven.

We pull them out just before seven, and we begin transferring small plates to the table.

And then it is seven o’clock, and They arrive.

Michelle Obama appears first, extending a hand to shake, identifying me as the host, thanking me for the opportunity. Carrying a tray of appetizer plates, I usher her to the head table. Mark, looking a little shocked, rushes over to pull out a chair.

The Roosevelts arrive,  apparently separately, converging from different directions. They greet each other with warmth, then turn to Mrs. Obama. Mark looks faint. Jim, the whites showing all the way around his pupils, leads Robert Jordan to the table. Leonard Cohen is at the doorway, doffing a fedora. He is talking to an attractive, pugnacious looking woman—Woodhull, I wonder? A short, round woman with a serious mien joins them. Dawn Powell, I realize, my knees feeling weak.

Laura Z Hobson, whose face I recognize from her book jacket, slides in. She carries herself imperiously; she slips off a decidedly politically incorrect stole and looks around. Scott Sanders approaches her, and they are soon immersed in conversation.

And then I realize, too, that the food is waiting to be pulled from the oven, stirred on the stove top, plated, delivered. I sprint to the kitchen and finish the appetizer plates.

Other friends have arrived, and there are helping hands to deliver the first bites.  When I pull my head from the steam and poke it into the dining room, I see that all twelve seats are filled at the head table. Those occupants are engaged in lively conversation, heads bending close to each other, forks waving in the air.  Most of the other seats are filled too, and just a few people are sliding in, slipping off coats, joining a table.

Each table has a bottle of good wine; Mark pours for the guests of honor. Eleanor Roosevelt stands with the ease of one who has done this many times before and she thanks me for founding the feast. I nod, rendered thoroughly mute, and the former first lady then offers a toast to health and harvest and long, long life. Glasses are lifted. There’s a cry of “Here, here!” and then the conversation rises and thrums and people dig into their food.

I rush back to the kitchen and begin ladling soup into bowls on big trays, which we put onto two of Marco’s sparking silver carts.  Seven people rush in to help. We roll the soup out to the tables, place bowls in front of each guest without mishap, clear away the first course serving ware, scurry back for the roasts and the squash, to place pats of butter, to arrange serving spoons and forks and to tumble red potatoes into bowls, dousing them with butter, sprinkling them with parsley.  Another rush to serve, and then I slide into the one empty seat at the table closest to the kitchen. I eat two spoonsful of soup, a tiny roll, but mostly I am listening as each of the special guests rises, introduces himself or herself, and says something of particular meaning to the people gathered in this place, at this time.

And then I realize it is time to clear again. I hurry back to the kitchen, stow empty trays
onto carts and smile in appreciation as James comes rushing in to help. Others join him; we look like a team that has always worked together, that has done this before.

The main course paraphernalia gets cleared away, and we begin potting the coffee and carrying it around, putting cream and sugar and a fresh mugful of spoons on each table. And now people are starting to move.

I see Heather Shepherd and Terry Herman and Eva Bradshaw talking with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Einstein. That conversation, I am sure, is all about girls in STEMM fields.

Susan Wittig Albert and Larisa Harper are standing, laughing, gesturing: two former high-ranking college administrators who choose different ‘next paths,’ I can only imagine all they have to share.  Bernard Rimland is talking with a young mom I know whose autistic daughter has just started kindergarten, and FDR is holding court for a group that includes Mark and Kristina Hawk.

Kim Osborn is deep in conversation with Dawn Powell and Eleanor Roosevelt;  Jason  and Jenn, Kay and Brian, are talking with Leonard Cohen, and Kathie, Dan, Randy, and Scott Russell Sanders are deeply, animatedly, engaged. Marcie Moore is bent over, laughing, next to Victoria Woodhull.  Jim has opened his laptop where he is seated with Mr. Jordan on the rim of the party; their faces are illumined by the screen, and Jim is listening intently as the honored author talks.

And I need to get dessert out. The cheesecake squares are waiting to be put onto plates, and the plates need to be delivered. Coffee should be refilled–I’ll just put fresh pots on each table–and then I can join in, talk to the amazing people–both special guests and ‘regular’ ones–who are sharing this wonderful night. I want everyone to have a chance to talk, and so I do not ask anyone for help with this step of the banquet. There is not so much to do.

I begin delivering the sweets to each table; people smile and press my arm, and rich, hearty conversation swirls around me as groups change and hands are extended and warm new connections are forged.

I refill insulated pots with steaming Italian roast coffee; I head out one more time. As long as I am there, I gather several trays of used dinnerware, stack the cart full, and push it to the kitchen.

And I look at the clock, which says 9:30, and realize how badly I’ve misjudged the time. I run to the dining room just as there is a ping–a sound much like the announcement of an email on my smartphone. And just like that, they are gone, my special guests.  They are just not there.

The rest of the people ebb into the empty spaces; barriers broken, people who didn’t know each other before the evening began are sharing stories and laughing, nodding at points well made, sipping coffee, and thoughtfully adding their insights to the mix. I am glad, glad, glad that they are enjoying such good company.

But. The special ones are gone, and I spent the entire time in the kitchen. I never got to talk with Laura Z Hobson, to ask her what she thought about the way things have shaped up; I never had a chance to talk with ANY of them, really. My throat gets tight.

And then Jim comes in, and there is a glow in his eyes that I have not seen since he was seven and discovering dinosaurs.

“That was AMAZING,” he says, and I realize that, in the days to come, I will hear all about his long conversation with the Wheel of Time creator.

Mark will tell me about FDR, and I can’t wait to get Kim’s take on Dawn Powell and Laura Z.  In fact, it will take me a year, I bet, to learn about all the conversations that have taken place, the information shared, the understanding shaped and formed.

They may be gone, my Twelve, but I have days and weeks and months to discover just what they left behind. I look at the messy kitchen, and I look at my incandescently lit son, and I throw the towel on the stainless steel counter. We can clean up later.

“Come and tell me all about it,” I say to Jim, and we find two empty seats at a cluttered table, and he begins to talk.

Advertisements

Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

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

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

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

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

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

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

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

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

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

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

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

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

A Woman of Words in A Time of Reprieve

Kim, one of my pet projects is reading Ohio writers and pondering why Ohio produces so many. You’re a woman of words who grew up in central Ohio. Can you reflect on how your childhood in this place shaped your life and/or career?

I love central Ohio … now. But when I was in my 20s, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. Somehow, I was born with a politely radical, liberal, slightly bohemian, alternative and adventurous bent. Add to that shyness, poor self-esteem (thanks, parents), introversion, and high sensitivity, and I just didn’t fit in here. I left in 1984 to seek more accepting environments. Had great fun and adventures, my first article and photographs were published, don’t regret any of it, matured greatly, inexplicably came to miss Ohio, and returned in 2005. But during my (first) time in Ohio — B.E. (Before Escape) — books saved me. They were a lifeline, a life jacket, a lifeboat. I found them at the little Utica Library and those books shaped me, comforted, enlightened, educated, made me see that there was another world out there, a place where I actually, truly belonged.

I recognize that the natural world of central Ohio also shaped me profoundly. We were always outside, we played in a huge field across the road that had an old barn and a Civil War-era cemetery and wild plants to identify, my father was always bringing home mushrooms and arrowheads and elderberries, we went camping. I bonded with nature, which seemed to have such deep empathy. And in all the states I’ve visited, none has trees like central Ohio! I adore Ohio’s trees. They touch my soul and have influenced my writing and my spiritual life with their own deep spirits.

We’ve often talked about that Golden Age when Dorothy Parker met up with her compatriots at the Algonquin, when Fitzgerald and Hemingway went on benders together…and you once said you should have been born in those days! How were you introduced to the Golden Age writers and artists? If you can talk a little bit about the ones that speak most directly to you, that would be great. And–what is it about this era that draws you?

Oh, the Golden Age. I discovered it and its writers at the Utica library in the 60s and 70s because – bless them – the library had little money for new books so they kept the ones they’d had since the 20s, 30s, and 40s. And those old books introduced me to short stories (still my favorite genre) and modern poetry, and thereby the work of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, O. Henry, Robert Benchley, E.B. White, the New Yorker, and on and on. I don’t like to think what might have happened if that tiny library had had plenty of funding. I used to wish I’d been born earlier so I could have been part of the Golden Age … this feeling has grown dimmer with age but was powerful in my youth. New York must have been a magical, safe, vibrant place then. The literary scene there during that era really speaks to me, thanks to reading those old books. Such a rich, rich period.

From James Thurber I learned essays and humor (“Humor is both a sword and a shield,” he wrote). From Dorothy Parker I learned sharp, quick wit and short stories and that poetry can be pithy, wry, and can mean what you feel. From O. Henry, the art of the twist ending, that most delicious of forms. From Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash, Franklin Pierce Adams, and Alexander Woolcott, the art behind sly humor. It must have truly been a golden time of intellect, humor, fun … and highballs (they were always writing about highballs, which we now call cocktails), when writers were respected, as those folks should certainly have been. Even when they were tipsy.

If you could design tomorrow as an absolutely perfect day, how would it roll out?

A perfectly designed day would start with the adoption of an elderly cat who came along via pure serendipity and grace. I haven’t not had a cat in more than 20 years. Because I have eventually-terminal cancer, I can’t handle raising a rambunctious kitten or puppy. But having an elder feline spiritual advisor, friend, and companion with whom to share our last years together – gently, comfortably — and take care of each other as we age and grow more infirm … that would be marvelous.

The perfect day would also have to include a Greek fish dinner at Athens Greek Restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon, Ohio. The dish is expensive, but on a perfect day such as this, we daren’t think too much about finances and reality. Therefore, dessert would be two bags-full of cotton candy.

The remainder of the daylight hours would be spent walking and poking around in the little shops in Mount Vernon’s downtown, especially the antique stores. And the evening hours would be devoted to Reading and Study in their many glorious forms: books, online news, social media, recipes and cookbooks, magazines, the mail. And writing a real hand-written letter to you, Pam Kirst! Then, please, blissful sleep without weird dreams.

You have been, since I’ve known you, involved with the Hot Meals program at the UCC. Can you talk a little bit about that? What makes that particular program stand out from others that are similar?

You, Phillip Chandler, Sunshine Larry Raabe, and your open-hearted acceptance drew me to Hot Meals. When I was new at First Congregational Church – which I love because it’s the most open-minded, liberal church in all of Knox County – the idea of a free meal for those in need grabbed my attention. I wrote a lot of articles about the Hot Meals program, trying to get the word out. I also am enamored of the program because it is ecumenical, eight churches working together to serve a free hot meal seven nights a week. How amazing is that?

When I was a reporter at our small-town newspaper [insert swear words and wails of lamentation here, Pam] I earned $8 an hour, barely over minimum wage and not enough to pay for both rent and food. I started going to Hot Meals to eat and discovered there a sort of alternative, parallel, even underground culture existing in our town. The honored guests (as our friend and radical hospitality mentor Phillip called them) were a bit raggedy, a little rough around the edges, not always clean, and didn’t like meeting the eyes of strangers. The young people had babies whom they sometimes clearly didn’t know how to parent. The old folks squirreled away food in their bags so they could eat it later. Many of the guests exhibited signs of mental illness. And yet, they accepted me in their midst, at their tables; me wearing the bright blue London Fog raincoat a friend had given me for free. I didn’t really fit in because of that coat, and yet they accepted me.

When I finally, thankfully, lost that newspaper job and started a business, things got better. But not for them. I am blessed with the ability to land on my feet … but for grace, I might have ended up the way they did. I began volunteering at Hot Meals. But it seemed to me that although the cooking, serving, and cleanup of food was important, the making of connections, the treating of our honored guests as equals and friends, even just for an hour or so, was much more important. I committed to eating with them at their tables, being part of their conversations, drawing out their stories (not always easy). I model this part of Hot Meals, hoping other volunteers will follow.

Because I live on the edge of downtown Mount Vernon and because I ride the Knox Area Transit/MOTA buses (I don’t have a car), I see our honored guests often, some every day. Maybe “ministry” is the right word … it’s become my ministry to be friendly, welcoming, accepting, and natural with our folks, to be at ease and treat them as just another friend.

But you know what? It has literally taken years to break even a crack in the protective shells with which they conceal themselves from the rest of society, Years later, although many folks will say hello and converse, many still pretend they don’t see me and won’t speak. These folks are my special challenge and I persevere while at the same time respecting their boundaries. But my goal remains breaking down the invisible but sticky barrier between the two “social classes,” treating everyone, every single person, as a human being, a beloved child of God, and way, way, way beyond worthy. It’s working, very slowly, but with such tiny dents. Can you tell I’m passionate about Hot Meals and its honored guests?

An important thing about your life right now is that you have cancer, but it does not seem to me to be the defining thing about you. Would you be comfortable talking a little bit about your disease and how you have balanced your life?

This may sound odd or unbelievable, but cancer has improved my life in a deep and spiritual way. Strangely, it has been a real gift. When you discover you’re not going to live much longer – and once you get used to the idea and get over the shock, fear, depression, and confusion of diagnosis and nasty treatment — life and the world open up brilliantly, the perception of them changes, and they take on a new urgency.

There is literally no time to waste. The natural world looks new. Life seems precious. I see details of the natural world better now … every spring violet and tulip, every autumn leaf, every squirrel looks amazing, miraculous, awe-inducing.

I made a list of adventures I wanted to have. But I practice voluntary simplicity and lead a simple life, so on that list there are no items about climbing Mount Everest or jumping out of an airplane. Just simple things, like visiting Franklin Park Conservatory, marching in a pride parade, eating wonderful food in really good restaurants, and tasting absinthe. And I’ve accomplished almost all (the absinthe seemed like not such a good idea after all), and now there’s only one item left: getting arrested for civil disobedience. A friend said I’ll have to move to New York City for that, as nothing ever happens around here, but we’ll see.

It’s interesting too that this new life urgency does not translate to a hectic lifestyle. Somehow I feel the urgency but can easily sit still and read, listen to classical music, or meditate. I’ve been given this gift of spiritual balance and am deeply grateful for it.

I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer, the most virulent form of breast cancer, with a mere 30 percent survival rate. After surgery and treatment (the three medieval cancer weapons: cutting, poisoning, and burning), the cancer came back on my skin. And yet, after four and a half years, it hasn’t spread anywhere else. The oncologist has no explanation. Maybe Tai Chi and Chi Gong help, maybe it’s luck. But I choose to call it a miracle of grace, The Reprieve. I enjoy every day, every step, every bite, and every breath. And I’m ready. I guess that in this unexpected way the cancer *has* defined me, but positively. The Reprieve has given me time to plan a good death, wrap up business, enjoy friends, and achieve clarity. But when the cancer finally starts to spread, and it will, I’ll be ready to go on to the next level of existence.

If you could be the Great Recommender, giving advice on where or what to [_______] with a little note of explanation, where/what would you recommend someone…

…eat out for lunch?
For lunch, I recommend the Athens Greek Restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon. They’re always creating or adding new dishes and promoting them on their Facebook page. It’s fun to get a notice of a new dish and hurry down there. And the dishes are served looking just like their photos.

…shop for food?
I encourage shopping for food at the Farmers Market. Not only can you make friends with your farmer but you can ask questions about the absence of chemicals, and other matters. The food is fresh, locally grown, tasty, and reasonably priced and you’re supporting your own economy and your community’s real people and real families. And it’s also the right, ethical, and social-justice thing to do. Plus Farmers Markets are a lot of fun!

…shop for clothes?

…shop for gifts?

For clothes and gifts, Goodwill, garage sales, and thrift shops and church rummage sales. I’ve purchased my share of new clothes and accessories but now I believe it’s the wrong way to live. Every dollar we spend is a vote for what the sale supports or affects. Buying new supports rampant capitalism, the consume- throw away- consume economy, huge corporations that don’t pay their taxes, worker poverty, and sometimes even worker slavery and abuse and child labor.

…go to hear great music?
For great music, I spend a lot of time listening to WOSU Classical 101 out of Columbus. I’m not much for crowded halls or night-time drives to the big city. Kenyon College, however, is a great resource for arts performances and most are free. Unfortunately, I live car-less and the buses don’t run at night. That’s a bummer.
…read, if s/he had to choose only one book?
One book only? Aacckk. There are so many to choose from, but a book that will powerfully affect one’s thoughtfulness, lifestyle, care for the earth, vision of the future, peace of mind, and happiness is Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. I’ll bet you thought I was going to name a work of literature, didn’t you? There are just too many!

Pick three heroes and talk about them!

Only three heroes?! I have many heroes, but I’ll whittle the list down to three. Just know I don’t intend for these to seem “more than” the rest. One is Wendell Berry, poet, novelist, author, philosopher, environmental and agricultural activist, prophet, bearer of the old ways of farming and family heritage, and so much more. I got to interview him once … one of my best writer memories. So nervous, I didn’t do very well yet he was so kind, down-to-earth, a real person and not a celebrity. He has a gift for speaking truth thoughtfully, without anger, expressing strong opinions with a fleeting tiny grin playing about his lips. He does great good in the world and writes eloquently. My favorite of his many poems is “The Mad Farmer’s Manifesto.”

Emily Dickinson, because she lived her life and did her work just the way she wanted to. Fortunately, her culture made it acceptable for her to be a recluse and remain unmarried and live in the family home, all of which gave her time and energy to spend on writing. I’m intrigued by the way she tentatively shared her work, that it was found after her death and saved by her sister, that it finally saw the light of day, and that she’s a bit of a mystery.

And her poetry is incredible. A modern scholar theorized that her use of dashes indicated epileptic seizures. That’s just silly. Emily was writing music … the dashes provide the rhythm, the percussion. My church published her “Hope (is the thing with feathers)” poem in a recent bulletin, but someone took out her dashes and ruined the music. As the proofreader, I’m afraid I raised a bit of a stink, not only for ruining her music but for daring to change a genius’s work. The church office listened, though, and the final draft had Emily’s version straight out of her collected poems. Hooray. And when the congregation read the poem aloud, together, the beautiful words sang as they should. I’ve been to Emily’s Amherst, Mass., home and grave. A miniature rosebush climbed the wrought-iron fence around the grave. I admit to breaking off a bud and taking it home to dry. It’s still in my keepsake box.

Desmond Tutu is a treasure of humanity. Not only is he brave, bold, and self-sacrificing, putting himself in danger during the revolution against apartheid, he’s also impishly funny, a wonderful writer and speaker, devoted to social justice. Although he is an archbishop emeritus of the Anglican church and deeply religious, he’s not a fundamentalist. Instead, he opens love of God and humankind to all without dogma, makes spirituality accessible, and wants to gather all people around him to celebrate and love God together. He’s the perfect combination of righteous indignation and playful humor. My favorite of his books, which I return to often, is Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho Tutu, also a priest. He taught me about Ubuntu (“we are all one”), a concept with the power to change everything. I was privileged to interview his daughter Naomi, another wonderful speaker.

What do you wish?

What I wish is deeply personal and ties into the next question, about writing. It is that my parents would have known what to do about me. I was born very sensitive and easily wounded, almost pathologically shy, imaginative, and literary. In other words, I was weird. They didn’t know what to do with me and apparently school staff didn’t either.

Those were the days when young women were expected to get married and have babies, nothing else. My parents, children of the Great Depression, had no foresight about the way the world was changing around them and the life skills and confidence their children would need. No mentor ever came along for me.

Years passed before it even occurred to me that I could be a writer (even though I was writing), then more years of struggle with the anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame of thinking that I had the audacity to do that. I could have written and learned so much more if I could have started sooner. But this wish has to be tempered with positivity too, because that’s the wisest way to look at life: I’ve been published over a thousand times. And now, in the last stages of life, something’s brewing again inside my spirit. I can feel it. I hope stories are working their determined way out. I suspect The Reprieve might involve writing as well as living. We’ll see.

[Kim’s work is still alive and still being referenced, as this link proves:

http://www.sdjewishworld.com/2014/12/10/case-wolf-temporary-secretary/

It’s the story, as she writes, of “…one of my literary adventures with an English novelist living in New Mexico in exile from Ireland, as written by a guy from Boston who lives in Taiwan.”]

Please talk about your writing.  How would you describe your writing?  What’s the most satisfying project you’ve worked on to date?

I’ve written so many different things: short-short stories, a travel guidebook, website content, creative non-fiction, newspaper articles, magazine stories, brochures and press releases, ad copy, even a romance novel (it was bad). I’ve learned to tailor the writing to the publication or genre. That’s a good skill to have. An editor once called me her generalist.

But my writing is almost always about people. I love listening to their stories, interviewing them, the way they open up and trust me with their tales, and then I turn what they said and how they looked when they said it (their eyes twinkle, or they get choked up, or they laugh or tell what once was a secret) into a retelling they’ll be proud of and that others will want to read (when people say they can’t stop reading it, that’s success!). I like taking their candid photographs too, which is another way of telling a story, to accompany the words.

I hate to say that my most satisfying project was at the world’s worst newspaper (which shall remain unnamed). I was the lifestyle/features writer and put this gift of mine to good use telling peoples’ stories. And the readers responded with delight. They sent thank-you notes, flowers, gifts, encouraging feedback. Their response was heartening, even as the employers’ response was tepid except when it sold newspapers and made them money. I do believe that everyone just wants her or his story heard. I got to do that and even though the employers and work atmosphere were dangerously toxic, the work was wonderful.

You suddenly have the temporary ability to share one important truth with people.  What one truth would you want everyone to embrace?

If such a miracle would happen, I would tell everyone on earth this profound truth: every one of us is a child of God, with the spark of the divine burning inside us, that we are therefore worthy, and honor-and gratitude-bound to live out our talents and our dreams. And that we can and must do this, for God’s sake because God loves us unconditionally — even when no one else does — and for our own sake and for the world’s sake. There’s a mysterious plan in place for each of our lives and we must discover it, even if it takes years. Don’t let anyone stop you! Not the naysayers, the parents, teachers and professors, relatives, friends. Believe in yourself, because God believes in you.

Ah, Happy Feast of St. Nick!

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20niholas#1

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20nicholas#1

December 6th is, most places, celebrated as the feast of St. Nicholas. Maybe there’s something to be learned from a saint dead yea, these 16 centuries.

In my own experience, St. Nicholas was a capricious kind of saint.

Some years, on December 5th, my mother would remind us: “Put your shoes by the fireplace!” The next morning we’d get up, and there would be a little something there–a game, a coloring book, and maybe some foil covered chocolate coins (wrapped securely in plastic—we were often directed to find them on the side board–to protect them both from the prowling dog and from the stinky insides of the well-worn shoes.)

Other years, the day would slide by and somewhere around December 15th, someone would say, “Hey, isn’t St. Nicholas Day around now sometime?”

“Hmm,” my mother would say.  “You must not have been very good this year.”

I could always, as a child, find enough guilt in my hidden thoughts to explain the saint’s missed visit.  Only later did I imagine my harried mother, having said her prayers, climbing into bed just before midnight on December 5th, the house finally neatened and quiet.  I picture her just getting settled down…then bolting upright to say, “Oh, BALLS! [That was her favorite cuss word; I often wonder what exactly she thought was expressing when she used it.] St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow.”

And my half-asleep father would rumble, “Ahhh, don’t worry about it.  They’ve been little yi-yi’s, anyway.”

The years St. Nick DID come though, it was kind of a mini-miracle, the better, I think, because it was one that could not be depended upon.

At Catholic school, we learned about the saint, intrigued by some blood-soaked legends. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century.  He is, Wikipedia informs me, the patron saint not just of children, but also of coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers.  Quite an assembly for kids to be hanging out with–no wonder we loved the guy!

St. Nicholas also had many miracles to his credit.  Most famously, he saved three daughters of a poor family from what the nuns described as spinster-hood by tossing sacks of dowry gold down their chimney one night.  The chimney tossing is explained as either the saint’s personal modesty or his discretion–an anonymous gift is harder to refuse, after all, than face-to-face charity.  Legend variously has it that the girls had left their shoes by the fire and the money fell into the shoes, or that they’d hung their socks to dry from the mantel.  One of the flying money bags, it is said, slipped smack down a stocking, stretching out the toe.

The kindly gesture explains the tradition in some countries of putting shoes by the fire, and in our own country, of hanging stockings, on Christmas Eve. And good St. Nick, of course, morphed over many long years into Santa Claus.

I only read later,—the nuns never mentioned this particular wrinkle—, that, had the three poor virgins NOT gotten the dowries, they might have been forced into lives of prostitution, the only available work for unmarried women of the day.

So that was a very nice miracle, with very nice traditions growing from it, but there was a different miracle story we all clamored for in the second grade classroom at St. Joe’s. I remember it as the story of a traveller staying at an inn owned by an unscrupulous butcher.  In the night, the butcher attacked the man, chopped him up, and put the pieces in the pickle barrel.  The next day, St. Nicholas came to call, and asked about the missing visitor.  The butcher was all unknowing innocence, but, at a few words from the Saint, the traveller jumped from the pickle barrel, intact and unharmed. Woe to the greedy butcher!

When I looked the story up to get the details straight in my mind, I was surprised to find that the most common versions have the butcher chopping up either three children or three clerks.  The children went into the pickle barrels, but the clerks, on the advice of Mrs. Butcher, were baked into meat pies.  But again, a visit from the Saint, the power of prayer: victims restored, butcher’s guilt established.

What a horrible tale to tell children!  How we loved it! In the early ’60’s, in my Catholic school, saints and martyrs were our rock stars.  We reveled in their ultimate and gory sacrifices.

One of the churches we visited occasionally had a statue of Saint Lucy with her luminous face raised to heaven. [We’d go there  for the later Saturday confessions when we missed 3:00 confession at our own church.  I hated confessing there, because the priest gave whole decades of the rosary as penance. My brothers would taunt me–What did YOU do?  It took you half an hour to say your penance!  But they were only done faster because they went first…and then they abbreviated.]   She was holding a plate on which her eyeballs rested.

One of the reasons it took me so long to say my penance was that I knelt and stared at those glassy eyeballs.  The story was that Lucy, determined to live a virginal life as a bride of Christ, removed her eyes to give to a suitor who’d admired them.  An extreme  interpretation of “If your eye offend you, pluck it out,” for certain.

But I digress: St. Nicholas. When Jim and Matt were little, and when I remembered, I got them usually-banned sugary cereal as a special St. Nicholas Day treat–Christmas Lucky Charms, maybe, or red and green colored Cap’n Crunch.  Or sometimes, when I happened upon them in the store, I’d surprise the boys with those foil wrapped coins on the morning of December 6th.  We never made a big deal out of it, never left shoes by the fireplace; there was no disappointment when the Saint didn’t visit.

That was fun and low-key and a nice way to honor the Saint’s gifting tradition.

Revisiting the story, though, I am drawn by the saint’s anonymous distribution of dowry funds; his method of helping was one that enabled the parents to be the benefactors of their daughters’ good luck.  I like the dignity given to the family in need.

Several years ago, in a different town, at a different church, we were involved in a wonderful project the youth group put together. We shopped for an unknown family every Christmas. We put together a meal and gifts based on information from the family’s adults, who then were able to pick it all up and put it under their tree, serve it at their own table.  That’s how it should be–no strangers’ expectant faces waiting to be properly thanked; just a warm and loving, I hope, family holiday.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way, this year, in this town, to toss a bag or two down an unsuspecting chimney.

So, anyway. Happy St. Nicholas Day!  Whether you put out shoes, hang stockings, or go through your day unhampered by the fact that the Bishop of Myra had it named for him 16 centuries ago or so, I hope this season of light brings lots of little miracles your way.

May we be miracles for each other during the darkness, too.

A Frable

Framma and Frappa Frantastic had five frabulous children: Freddie, Fralph, Frieda, Frannie, and the baby, Frappucina.

The Frantastic Family
The Frantastic Family

As each child came of age, Framma and Frappa presented him or her with a house. That way, each child learned how to clean and how to cook, and they each had a chance–and a space in which–to develop his or her own skills.

Freddie learned that he loved to work with wood. He made tables and chairs, desks, and picture frames. He taught all his friblings how to measure, saw, and hammer without error.

Fralph found he was a cook. When he simmered his stews, he drew the whole family to his house. He loved having them all around his table. He loved to feed them, and he loved to teach them his culinary secrets.

Frieda decorated! She could make a lovely display out of things she found in the woods, laying on the sidewalk, or in her junk drawer. She had an artistic eye and an imaginative soul. Her family praised her creations, and all of her friblings loved working on special displays with her.

Frannie threw herself into working with plants, indoors and out. She could make a tiny seed shoot up six feet high. She sang to her plants, and she said they sang back to her.

“Teach us those songs!” her friblings begged.

The Frantastic kids had many talents
The Frantastic kids had many talents

When Frappucina came of age, Framma and Frappa presented her with her house. Then they gathered all five children for an announcement.

“Now that you are all grown, and can take care of yourselves,” began Framma…

“…we are taking our long awaited world tour,” finished Frappa.

“It should take us four or five months,” Framma added, helpfully.

The Frantastic children were stunned. Five months? But then they thought, How wonderful. How wonderful for Framma and Frappa. And how wonderful that they know we can take care of ourselves.

The children helped their parents pack, and they waved them off with barely any tearful goodbyes.

It was a little weird at first, living without the tender strong center parents provide, but soon they found they were quite liking the novel sense of autonomy. Every day they worked together, shared their skills, and created new things…furniture or food, decorations, floral displays…

And they were all watching to see what Frappucina’s special skill would be.

So far she seemed to love doing everything, but not to be particularly brilliant at anything.

The days rolled on into weeks. Framma and Frappa sent cards and called every three days. The weather changed, the leaves brightened, and then the leaves fell, and one morning, when they met in the courtyard to plan their day, the Frantastics found fluffy white snow on the ground

They knew what that meant: the Feast of the Fruminaria was fast approaching!

They began to get ready.

Freddie made each of them a wooden frame to put outside their homes. Frieda gathered pine cones and vines and made a very pretty display on hers. She twined twinkle lights throughout, and it was very beautiful.She shared her supplies with the others and they each had fun making a display.

Ralph invited them all over to decorate the cookies he had made. Frieda’s were frilly. Frannie’s looked like flowers. Freddie’s were well-constructed. Fralph’s were delicious to taste, and delicious to behold.

Frappucina’s were, frankly, a little bit odd-looking, but she had so much fun with the frosting and the sprinkles that she made them all laugh, over and over and over again.

It was a good day. They went off to their little houses tired, excited, and happy.

The next day they had a surprise visitor. It was their cousin Drano from Drabulatia.

They all liked Drano, even though he was a little bossy.

They liked Drano despite his bossiness
They liked Drano despite his bossiness

The first thing he did was check out their decorations.

“This is the only GOOD one,” he said when he came to Frieda’s. “Why don’t you let her do all of yours?”

The Frantastic kids looked around. Suddenly they saw their decorations through outsider eyes.

Drano was right. Except for Frieda’s, the decorations were all–well, they were just frappy-looking.

“I’ll be happy to do yours over for you,” Frieda said to all of them. At first she was kind and sweet. Then she got a little crazy. They weren’t all sure they liked the creations she put in front of their houses, but she and Drano insisted they were brilliant.

They had a coffee break and Drano tasted their cookies. He said Freddie’s were clunky, Frieda’s and Frannie’s were too francy, and Frappucina’s were just plain weird. Fralph’s were the only good ones, he said. They looked at each other, then they looked at the cookies they’d thought were so wonderful only the night before.

Each one, when he or she thought no one else was looking, slipped their particular not-quite-right cookies into the garbage. Except for Fralph, of course…Fralph got just a little high and mighty about being the King of Cookies.

Drano decided Freddie had the only comfortable furniture.

He said Frannie was the only one whose landscaping was worth a frit.

And he said it didn’t seem like Frappucina had any special skills at all.

“Too bad,” he said. “I guess there’s one in every family.””

And then he left, whistling and skipping a little, clutching a bag of Fralph’s good cookies.

The friblings sat. They couldn’t think of a single thing to do that might be fun. Before it even got dark, they drifted to their own houses. Each went to bed early, and each tossed and turned discontentedly.

But the next morning brought a wonderful surprise: Framma and Frappa were home—home just in time for the Feast of the Fruminaria!

They had had a wonderful time, and they had stories to tell and gifts to share. Together, Framma and Frappa fixed a big, wonderful breakfast, and as they ate their first meal as a reunited family, the Frantastics all began to cheer up.

The children were anxious to show their parents what they’d done while they were gone. Framma and Frappa admired Freddie’s new chairs,and they asked what the other fribs had made.

They loved Frannie’s planting, and they looked for the plants at the other houses. They liked Frieda’s decorations, but they were puzzled when they looked at the other children’s.

“This just doesn’t feel like it’s yours,” they said to each one.

It was the same with Fralph’s cookies…Framma and Frappa loved them, of course, but they were sad not to see their other children’s creative hands in that fun and tasty project.

“Did we tell you,” asked Freddie, “that Drano was here?”

“Ah,” said Framma to Frappa.

Frappa was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Let’s open presents!”

What a lovely lot of things Framma and Frappa brought them–fripperies and furbelows, francies, funny faddy things, and frodaciously frumptious frivolities. The Frantastics were ecstatic, and they played together and ate together and laughed together all day.

They had so much fun. It was almost impossible to say who enjoyed it most, BUT–Frappucina had the widest grin and the loudest laugh, and the way she trilled and carried on made them all smile, inside and out.

That was a wonderful day. And, as the sun dropped behind the horizon, each of the Frantastic kids kissed the parents, hugged the friblings, and wandered off to bed—except for Frannie. Right at the end, Frannie had gotten thoughtful; she’d gotten quiet. And she waited.

When her brothers and sisters had all drifted off to their homes to sleep, she went to her parents and asked the question that was fracking her heart.

“Do you think it’s really true,” she asked, “that Frappucina isn’t good at anything?”

“Ah, Frannie,” said Framma, and Frappa gave Frannie a great strong hug.

“Everyone,” said Frappa, “has many, many gifts. Finding them is your life’s work.”

“But,” said Framma, “you are all on your way. Already–

“Freddie is a carpenter; his gift is to shape the wood.

“Fralph is a chef; his gift is to fricassee and fry and to feed us with his lovingly cooked food.

“Frieda is a decorator; she combines elements to make us feel happy and at home.

“YOU are a horticulturist; you coax even the most reluctant plant to grow into glossy beauty.

“Frappucina is going to grow into many wonderful skills and gifts, but right now she has discovered one of the very, very best: she is an enjoyer.”

“An enjoyer,” said Frannie thoughtfully.

“Did you ever notice,” said Frappa, “how Frappucina’s laughter makes us all laugh? How she reminds us how good breakfast tastes or how nice it is to all be together?”

“She does,” said Frannie. “She does do that!”

“Each of you is brilliant at your big thing”, said Framma, “and because of that, we all appreciate those things a little more and a little better. Frappucina’s big thing is enjoyment; she makes us all enjoy EVERYTHING deeper and better.”

That was exactly right, Frannie thought; what Framma and Frappa said was right and true. Frappucina DOES add spice and life to every occasion.

But,– “Why did Drano make us all feel so BAD?” asked Frannie.

“Well,” said Frappa, and he looked at Framma, and he smiled and shrugged. “Drano may be my nephew, Frannie, but when it comes to enjoyment, I’m afraid he’s a little,—a little,— What is it I’m trying to say, my dear?”

“CLOGGED,” said Framma. “When it comes to enjoyment, we’re afraid Drano is a little CLOGGED.”

“Ah,” said Frannie. “I think I see. But if Drano is clogged, do you think he will ever discover his special thing?”

“Let’s hope,” said Framma, “he is lucky enough to spend time with a creator and time with an enjoyer, and to keep his eyes open and his mouth closed. It’s the very best way to get unclogged.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” said Frannie, and she hugged her parents, and she skipped back to her own little house, thinking about the treasures the next day could bring.

Frappucina

A Day All Pies Would Fly

This week, WordPress’s daily challenge (http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/pie/) was to write about pie…That and the upcoming holiday remind me of a story my youngest son used to demand over and over again. It is a true story, but I told it to young James so many times that memory and embroidery morphed and blended.  I got so I wasn’t sure what was real, and what I’d added–but Jim, aged two, knew every  told detail and would brook no changes. Others who were there might argue things happened differently…and they might just be right.  But…here is my pie story.

******

I put the Tom and Pippo book on top of the stack.

“That’s it,” I tell my almost three-year-old. “Seven books. Time to sleep.” I am aching for that half hour, the time when the boy is asleep and there is absolutely no pressing work to be done, when a book or a TV show is a beacon at the end of the day, a luxurious choice.

But.

He looks up at me with big brown pleading eyes—beneath eyelids that are not in the least bit heavy. “Tell me a story, Mama,” he pleads.

I sigh–a martyr in the making–and say, “What story would you like? Pete Pete with the Stinky Feet?”

“Tell me,” he says, “about when the pies fly.”

Again. Ah, me.

I squelch another mama-martryr sigh and begin.

“It was Thanksgiving day, and your grandma–the grandma who’s in heaven now–had been cooking all day. There were stacks of cutout cookies shaped like turkeys and autumn leaves on one counter.”

“With sugar topping,” murmurs my boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “The cookies were frosted and sprinkled with colored sugar–orange and red and yellow: autumn colors. And next to them were two big beautiful pumpkin pies. They were a rich orange-y brown; there were little beads of moisture clinging to their shiny surfaces. The crusts were just that right kind of gold-y-brown, ready to explode into buttery flakes.”

“You didn’t like it.”

“That’s true–not all of us liked pumpkin pie, but the ones that did,–well they couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come when they could eat one, two, three–maybe even four!–pieces. The house smelled wonderfully of turkey roasting and other good things, and we pottered around in the living room, watching the parades on TV, playing games, reading, until finally Grandma called me to set the table.”

“There was a tablecloth,” he prompts.

“Yes, there was,” I agree. “There was a lace tablecloth the color of pale, weak tea. We used the special plates, the ones with fluted edges and old-fashioned scenes on them–Cousin Shaynie has those plates now, and she still uses them every Thanksgiving.

“We put water glasses by each plate. We used the fancy salt and pepper shakers, the special platter with a turkey painted on it, and the big people–Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Dennis–had wine glasses by their places.

“For the Duck,” he says, knowingly.

“Yes! Cold Duck was what Grandma thought, back then, was a really special drink, and she bought it every holiday. So there’d be TWO birds on the table,–a turkey and a duck.”

He nods. “What else?”

“There was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, white and piled up like soft mountains. There was a pat of butter melting on the top. There was another big bowl of stuffing, straight from the bird; it smelled like celery and onion and sage, turkey and bread, all jumbled up.There was a sizzly casserole of orange sweet potatoes. There was a bowl of steaming peas—”

“CORN,” he corrects, impatiently.

“Ah, you’re right,” I agree. “It was corn. That had butter melting on it, too. And there were two baskets of crescent rolls; that was the only time we ever got those, and we thought that was a really big treat.

“Grandpa came in from his half day at work at the power plant; he washed up and changed, and came right down and carved the turkey. Your uncles started drifting in from the living room or their bedrooms or wherever they were, and Grandma made people pour water and wine, get the cranberry sauce from the fridge, and put serving spoons in all the good food. It was time to eat.”

I look at my boy. He is quiet now, but bright-eyed, waiting for the good part.

“We said our grace and Grandpa passed the turkey, and we loaded our plates with potatoes–making a little hole in the middle so we could pour in a lake of turkey gravy. We dug in to corn and stuffing.”

“But you didn’t eat the sweet potatoes.”

“I didn’t. Back then I was a kind of picky eater, and I didn’t eat sweet potatoes. OR the cranberry sauce.

“We cleaned our plates and we filled them again, and we all said how good, good, good everything tasted. And when we were done, we helped clear the table. The tablecloth was splotted with gravy, and I bundled it up and tossed it down the cellar stairs. Grandma would wash it the next day and iron it and put it in the cabinet drawer until the next feast at Christmas. And we helped with dishes.”

“Uncle Dennis washed,” he says.

“Yes, he did,” I agree. “And Uncle Mike dried. Your Uncle Sean and I put away, and Uncle John helped Grandpa take the trash out. Grandma, for once, got to sit and read.

“Pretty soon, all the mess was cleaned up, and everyone drifted…some went for walks and some watched football. I drew pictures at the kitchen table. Grandma read her book.”

“An hour passed, or maybe two,” he whispers, the cadence of the tale memorized.

“Yes. Time passed. Grandma put her book down and came out to the kitchen. She plugged her little handmixer in, and she took two little cartons–they looked like little houses–of cream from the fridge. She poured those into a big metal bowl–a bowl that had a little ring to hook your thumb through, so it wouldn’t fly away when you used the electric mixer. She added a capful of vanilla and a couple of heaping spoonsful of powdered sugar, and she beat up frothy peaks of whipped cream. It was beautiful.”

“It was time for pie,” he says, a grin beginning.

“Yes!” I say, “and everyone was ready. Your grandpa came out and put the two pies right in the middle of the table. Grandma handed him the bowl of whipped cream, and he joked that maybe he’d just take a spoon and eat the whole bowlful. ‘No!’ everyone yelled. Grandma got out the knife and the pie server, and the little dessert plates, and she cut pieces of pie for everyone but me and Uncle Sean.”

“He didn’t like pie either,” says my boy, and I hear in his voice, at last, the edges of sleep tugging.

“He did not,” I agree. “So Grandma cut pieces for everyone else, and plopped little clouds of whipped cream on top, and put a fork on each plate, and when everyone had a piece, they each picked up their forks, sliced down to cut off a big bite and they raised the forks to their mouths, closed their eyes, and tasted…”

“And it was awful!” he crows.

“It was! There was no sugar in that pie! Grandma had been in a hurry and she mistook her big bag of salt for her big bag of sugar and those pumpkin pies were salty, salty, salty.

“There was a huge and deafening silence. My brothers and my father were frozen. They did not want to hurt Grandma’s feelings–but they sure did not want to eat that pie.”

“And then GRANDMA said–” he nudges, hurrying toward the good part.

“GRANDMA said,” I continue, “‘Dennis, I know how you love pumpkin pie. Here. Have mine.’ And she scooped up the piece of pie–the piece with one bite missing–and she threw it at your Uncle Dennis!

“Uncle Dennis froze in shock, and the pie hit him on the side of his head, right above his ear!

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Uncle Dennis recovered and said to my mother, ‘I could never leave you pie-less. Please. Take mine.’ His pie flew through the air at my mother, but she was quick and ready, and she ducked. The pie hit the wall, quivered for a moment, and slid.

“And then it was flying pie day. Your uncles and your grandpa threw their own slices of pie, and then they grabbed the pies left on the table, and the battle was on. I ran out to the living room–I didn’t like to eat it, and I didn’t want to wear it–and I hid behind the ottoman while the laughing and the splotting went on.”

“Finally it got quiet.”

“Yes, it did,” I say. “In the kitchen they couldn’t stop laughing, all those crazy pumpkin-covered people. But when they finally did, they took turns in the bathroom, washing the pumpkin off themselves, and we all helped clean up the kitchen. And then Grandma made a pot of coffee and we all sat down and ate those wonderful sugary cookies.”

“It was the day of flying pies,” he says, satisfied.

“It was the day of flying pies,” I agree. “And now it is the night of sleeping boys.”

He yawns at me and grins, too tired to argue. The eyes flutter closed, and I escape into the living room, where I pick up my waiting book,–and fall instantly, soundly asleep.

 

My First Komen

We got off the shuttle, my good friend Wendy and I, and found the statue of young Lincoln, the spot where we’d meet Kate and David later on. A pink crowd pulsed on the green, ebbing into and flowing out of long tents. We plunged in.

The tents housed tables; the tables were staffed by vendors, healthcare professionals, and representatives from not for profits. We made our way through, smiling at people in their official ‘Race for the Cure’ t-shirts—pink for survivors, white with a pink logo for us, the supporters. We gathered freebies—water bottles, lanyards, pink shoelaces, literature—chatting with the folks behind the tables. And then the music swelled up and a voice called us all, over the loud speaker, to come watch the survivors’ walk.

Wendy led the way; she’d done this before. We stationed ourselves by the walkway leading to the stage, a spot where Kate would see us cheering when she came through. An enthusiastic young emcee introduced the Boobalicious girls, dancers in magenta wigs, oversized pink sunglasses, and bubblegum pink cheerleader costumes. Music pulsed, the Girls started to dance, and the first survivors strode through an archway of bright pink balloons.

The crowd began to applaud, and the applause turned to rhythmic clapping. The breast cancer survivors moved to the music. They surged toward the stage, where the emcee, the mayor, representatives from the Cancer Treatment Center, dignitaries of every sort, stood waiting to greet them. A teenaged girl, bald and sassy, one string of pink metallic beads around her neck, rolled her eyes at her teary mother. She rolled her hips to the music.

Behind her bobbed a woman we’d talked with on the bus, 89 years old, sporting 35 strands of beads. And behind them came tall women, short women, plump and thin women, women of every imaginable hue,– and men, too. Five strands, they wore; ten strands; one.

They danced and they hugged; they reached out for people in the crowd. They laughed. Tears ran.

As the first survivors reached the stage, reached the point of hugs and congratulations and official well-wishes, progress slowed. One lone woman, tall with long dark hair and a quadruple strand of pink beads, waited silently just in front of where we stood. She eyed the stage, thoughtful, patient, head high, hands at her side. As people jumped and crowed around her, she emanated calm and cool grace.

And then “I Will Survive” started to play.

At first I was afraid
I was petrified…

The song began its slow warm up, the crowd began to keep the beat, and the brunette survivor began to move, pumping a muscle on, And I grew strong…and I learned how to get along…

By the time Gloria Gaynor sang, Go on now go, she was in full dance mode, the song carrying her. She pointed with her long slender finger; she shook that finger tauntingly: Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?

And she jumped into the words I will survive! with hands flailing, hips swinging, lips parted in a huge and triumphant grin. The survivors around her made a circle; she danced their fear, their joy, their pain, their resurrection.

Wendy stood very still. My throat felt thick and frozen.

The last stanza rolled around; the crowd, survivors and supporters, was chanting it, belting it out. Did you think I’d lay down and die? OH NO NOT I! And the survivors again began to move forward. The brunette dancer looked a little startled; she resumed her slow promenade to the stage, coming to herself, no doubt a person who didn’t normally dance for a crowd of thousands. She caught my eye and gave me a quick thumbs up.

The song ended, the moment passed, the dignitaries had their say, and Wendy and I—Granny Brigade that we were—went hunting for the porta-potties.

We met our vibrant young friend, Kate, her husband, David, and their supportive entourage by the Lincoln statue, and we walked the cordoned streets of the city. It was a slow and dignified walk, past grand old homes, through medical complexes, down streets with trendy shops and open-air cafes.

It was not a race—though it was billed as a race for the cure—it was not a competition; it was a slow, steady surge of support and belief. It was an affirmation. Whatever happens, these people—these thousands of people—seemed to be saying, we are going to make it. From those of us there to walk in support, to those with one, seven, or 37 strands of survivor beads, to the family members with the smiling picture of their beautiful mother and her birth and death dates emblazoned on their custom T-shirts, the message was clear: the spirit can’t be quenched.

Whatever happens—WHATEVER happens,–the crowd carried the message forward: We will survive.

In Prose and Thanksgiving

Mark on the River

 

This morning I talked with my colleague Pete
About a sobbing student, who said
She didn’t know you needed Internet to go to college.
Life was a whole lot easier, she told me, in prison.
That was not a metaphor.

I know, I know, said Pete;

my friend…
Hometown boy, in for twelve years:
Now all he wants to do is go back.
It’s sad, so very sad, we both agreed,
And thought about the little we could do.
But you never know what rocks, said Pete,
Hope might push up under,
might twine around.

And my colleague Roy, this morning,
showed me how to share folders
In the cloud. Simple. Elegant. Almost magic.
There’s always a new wonder to explore.

I sat with Cris this morning,
Packing brown paper bags—
“Survival kits” for adjuncts.
It’s the last Wednesday Cris will work
After 42 years—
Next week she retires, and her Wednesdays are her own.

Tiffany, an adjunct, poked her head in the door,
And wound up staying
To stuff pens and pencils
And 8 gig flashdrives
And Life Savers,–of course!–
Into survival kits.

We listened to Cris tell stories of grandkids and gardens,
Of the College long ago,
We watched as she continues to loosen, fondly and gently,
42 years’ worth of ties.
We packed the bags, we shredded twine
And threaded it through gift tags–
A communion of colleagues
At different points on the continuum.

I took the afternoon off and had lunch with my son James
Whose autism gives him fierce focus:
He told me facts about the author Stephen King,
Things I would never otherwise have known.
On this hot day, Amy, the waitress, unasked,
Brought us each a travel cup of our chosen drink-
Cool you off in the car, she said.
(And that worked very well.)

I changed into grubbies to mow the backyard
Steering the mower carefully around the cleome patch
Springing up, volunteers, in front of the garage window.
The deer eat my roses, and the cleomes rebound.

And Mark came home early so we could ride the Lorena,
The paddlewheeler,
Down the Muskingum River on a warm July night;
Eating prime rib and sipping iced tea on the top deck,
Digging into peanut butter pie,
Talking with Dorothy, who shared 26 years of healthy retirement
With her husband, before he died.
She told of offspring in the city and by the sea
Of grandkids leading international lives.
Children on the banks of the Muskingum waited to wave
Although they must have seen this paddlewheeler churn past
Tens of times before.

Different view of life, trolling down the river:
We put our phones away; stopped taking pictures,
Used our eyes, felt the breezes,
Breathed in the warm and muddy scent of water.

I must say thanks to Whomever made this day
And ask,
When tomorrow brings crisis, confusion, chaos,
That S/He help me reach inside and find the vessel
Where this day’s pure, calm, jubilant
joy
Is stored.

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.