Shifting

It is Friday, it is early, and it has rained most of the night. The clouds are pale gray and silver-edged where the sun shyly peeks through. We lace up our sneakers, I push ‘go’ on the coffee maker, and Mark and I head out for our morning walk.

We walk in cool fresh breezes; we see a few other morning walkers; we make a brisk, long circuit; then we head home.

After breakfast—that fresh, hot coffee; a bowl of the new batch of granola—I check grades one last time, add ‘last date of attendance’ for each student, and hit ‘send’ for three classes. I compose a farewell/your grades are posted/best of luck email and send it off.

I log out of the college website, and Mark and Jim get their shoes on. They are going to help me move some furniture, take down some pictures, hang a couple of certificates.

They are going to help me move into my new office.

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

By noon, we’re done. The TV brackets are removed from the wall that my desk, now angled, faces at a slant. A seascape, a painting by a locally renowned artist, covers the spaces where the brackets were hung. We’ve taken other pictures down and stacked them in the unused office at the end of the hall.

We have hung my fancy certificate from the Leadership Academy, and my ‘different drummer’ inspiration piece.

We have discovered that the couch, which is handsome but very hard to eject oneself from, is uncooperative: it does not readily fit through the door; it does not slide nicely down the hallway to be hidden away.

The couch will stay, temporarily tucked against the back wall. We’ll figure that out next week, Scarlett.

But couch or not, the office is ready for occupancy on Monday.

We put our masks back on. Susan comes down to look and gives the furniture arrangement a thumbs up. I have a list of things to buy and a list of things to bring on Monday.  We gather up tool bags, vacuum up a little dust, and head out to start the weekend.

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

It is a catch-up weekend: I do the vacuuming that languished while I was grading final papers, mop the hard floors, shag down cobwebs entrenched in corners. We do a little shopping. Mark works on the basement window he’s replacing. I mow some grass.

Jim, who has gotten his math textbook for Fall semester, does 80 practice problems, just, he says, to get back into the math mind.

On Sunday, I take a pork roast out to thaw, and we head out, under skies that threaten to rumble and then clear for a good bit before reverting.

“Now, WHERE are we going?” asks Mark, and I direct him to the college campus where I have been teaching, thirty miles away. When we get there, we head out for a long rambling walk. I point out landmarks.

“I taught in THAT building,” I say.

“Huh,” says Mark.

“I remember,” says Jim, who would sometimes come to campus, set up in a lounge, and type the morning away while I taught. It was a break from the four walls of home while he waited on job search results. He liked the campus, where the people were friendly and welcoming.

And then COVID crept close, crawled in, entrenched, and neither of us returned to campus again.

Until today.

“I taught in THAT building…” I point.

“I sat with Ben Franklin,” says Mark, walking past a statue on a bench.

Mark and Ben shared a moment on an earlier trip to campus…

“It’s RAINING,” says Jim, and he’s right.

We dash back to the car, not too much damage done.

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

The campus visit was my goodbye lap, my way of recognizing and honoring this transition. We go home then; I rub the pork with olive oil and crust it with herbs. We roast it, and then we eat it with a creamy pasta side dish and crisp, pretty salads. For dessert, I have tried a new recipe for frosted brownies; we eat them with scoops of chocolate chip ice cream.

It is a celebration meal.

The meal, and the trip to the college, are my attempts at a kind of rite of passage.

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

We get up early on Monday; we get a good, stretching walk in through cool and dewy paths. I drink my coffee and eat my granola, and I do the word puzzles in the morning paper.

And then I go upstairs and wash and don dress pants and a scoop-necked, flowered top. I pull on soft black dress sandals and head downstairs again.

I pack up my black bag with my new work laptop and my folders full of notes and reminders. I peel a big carrot and chop it into sticks. I put that in a lidded glass container. I fill a tiny container with mixed nuts, too, and I put a water glass in my lunch bag. I fill a go-cup with the remaining coffee and make sure I have my phone and pens. I kiss Mark and hug Jim. I drive to the supermarket, put my mask on, and run in to buy a clutch of flowers. And I go, for the first time since March 5th, to work.

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

My new job is at a family foundation, where I am the program officer. Foundation funds were amassed through the hard work of the founders, a brilliant and foresighted couple; the funds grew because of their shrewd and savvy investing.

They lived wonderful long lives, those benefactors. He died this spring, two years after his wife passed; he was 98 and had, until his final brief illness, gone into the Foundation office at least twice a week. He tracked the stock market; he traded and bought and sold.

My friend Susan is their daughter, and now my boss; she is president and executive director of the foundation. Her siblings and their children and hers sit on the board of trustees.

Foundation funds are to support community growth, education, the arts and sciences. Part of my job is to get worthy leaders to request support for their worthy projects.

For a year or two after retirement I wrote grants, but I am on the other side of grant-writing now. I may do some teaching about the process, the organization, the scope. I will figure out ways to meet with people, socially distant but still personally, and discuss collaborations. It is, really, a kind of a dream job: helping people committed to making change in firm and positive ways.

I unlock the door of the Foundation office, take my bags to my office, and carry the flowers and two mason jars to the break room. I trim and snip and pull off foliage. I have two beautiful bouquets—purple and gold, red and blue, nestled in lush greens.

I put the mason jar bouquets on a crocheted doily on my new desk, plug in my laptop and pull out my to do list. By the time I meet with Susan at 11:00, the day and the week have taken shape.

This is a place to settle into.

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

I am home a little after one, and the boyos are just eating lunch, so I sit down with them. Mark mentions that he was telling his boss about my new role.

“I told him I think you’re really going to like it, and that you’ve retired from teaching,” he says. He waits—buh dum BUMP—then adds, “For the 78th time.”

It is true, as Jim remarked the other day, that I have had a lot of jobs.

It is true, too, that I have often left teaching and then returned.

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

I look at my college email, just in case, and find that the students can’t see their grades. I check my process, which looks correct, and then I send a message to the guru of the student management system.

That guru is always right on top of things. I find her reply early the next morning; there was a glitch. It’s been fixed.

And with that, the teaching is really done. I send a final note to the guru, telling her, truly, that she’s been a joy to work with.

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

And the week rolls by with early walks and mornings in the office. On alternate days, another Pam, the office manager, is there; she shows me the files and makes me a list of past projects.

Terry, our brilliant tech support coach, comes in and guides us gently, never once rolling her eyes.

Susan and I have a Zoom meeting with brilliant, inspired people.

I learn the history of the Foundation and compile the trustees list and touch base with our web developer. Pam gives me fat files that document projects: a nature refuge for wounded warriors, a Habitat building, educational efforts.  

I figure out the phone system and record a new message. I crunch carrots sticks and read documents that help me begin to see that past and the vision for the future.

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

Thursday comes, and the end of this particular work week. Mark has been to his office to pick things up; he reports that, because of this and because of that, he’ll be working from WORK on Monday. He’ll be back in the office for the first time since March, too.

Jim’s classes start, in person as far as he knows, on August 24th.

Suddenly, the fluid days are structured days, days with walls and bridges.

I think to check my college email, just in case there are any crises or calamities. There are not, but two special students have taken the time to write thank you notes, wishing me well on my new adventure. One of the students I know from a previous real time class. I know her face, and I have seen the faces of her precious children proudly displayed on the broad, flat screen of her phone.

I feel a pang knowing I will not teach her again; this is a young woman who has traveled a long way in life, from a country with another language, from a country where her religion was the predominant one, from a place where she knew the social cues and the shops on the corner and the holidays and  rhythms. She learns like fire burns: voracious, undaunted. Take me out of the classroom and throw me into an online universe? I will make it work, she vows.

It has been almost eerie to watch how much and how quickly she has mastered English writing; she has moved from writing determined, halting paragraphs to crafting seven-page papers with references in less than a year.

I do not know the other student’s face; we are virtual entities to each other. I know that she is a hard worker, someone who asks questions when she needs to understand better. I know that she is determined, too, and that her goals for herself and her family drive her hard.

Their emails remind me how satisfying teaching is, and what good, good work it can be.

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

And yet.

The new job unfolds, its creative possibilities compounding. We talk about logos and I research mission and vision statements, and I open folders and see sincere notes of appreciation. We served X number of children this year, the writer says, and we could not have done that without your support.

“This is my inheritance,” Susan says of the Foundation. It is an amazing legacy; it is an exciting honor to be part of this team.

And now it is Friday afternoon, and there are no papers to grade. No student waits for me to open next week’s work in the virtual classroom; no one has written to say their assignment is delayed because of sick kids or to ask if they can rewrite the paper on which they received a grade they were disappointed in.

There is no planning to do for next week’s class; instead, the weekend looms, unstructured, with time for painting basement walls and mooching around the farmers’ market, masked and distancing. There will be time for walks, for mowing and mopping, and for settling into the reading chair with my current book.

I feel odd; I feel almost guilty not to be creating a rubric or writing feedback to a student paper. It will be good to submerge into this kind of free time.

My five-months’ wardrobe of t-shirts and capris gives way to slacks and tops; I think about coordinating necklaces and which purse to carry. I open the new bottle of perfume I’d placed behind the closet door in the bathroom.

The flow has quickened.

There are right times for passages; I will always, I think, be a teacher, but I am other things, too, and this job now in this place feels like just the right thing. I feel tangles un-knotting, and I say goodbye to the teaching life.

The 78th time, I think, is the charm, and I end the week with no regrets about leaving what was before and with excitement for what’s to come.

Searching for ‘New Normal’

Normal (adj): conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. (google.com)

The sky, full and gray, has pushed down, threatening to touch the earth, each day this week. Everything is wet—the puddled pavement; the red, chenille strands that fall from certain trees and lay sodden and slippery on the sidewalk; the thin young robins, who run when they see me instead of flying.

It has not been the best walking week. But I think of my friend Wendy, that stalwart New England transplant, who says that weather is weather, whatever. She bought herself a waterproof case for her phone after drenching it too many times during rainy walks. She puts the cased phone in the pocket of a rain slicker and heads out anyway, water be damned.

I think of Wendy, and I walk anyway, too. Luckily, the early-early hours have offered, each morning, a sort of safe zone; if the rain doesn’t stop, it tamps way down. As long as my glasses aren’t obscured by rain, I huddle in my jacket and I walk.

And I notice the flowering trees and shrubs, which are, this year, magnificent. In our yard the rhododendrons, ancient bushes that seemed, the last few years, to be failing, have roared back into life. Maybe it was the mild winter; maybe all this rain encouraged blooms. Maybe it was Mark lopping deadwood last year.

Whatever: the bushes are loaded with beautiful magenta blooms, more blooms than ever before.

It’s not normal.

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

On Thursday morning, there’s a message on my phone: the books I requested online at the local library are ready to be picked up between 3 and 6 p.m. I get my schoolwork done; I eat lunch with the boyos; I vacuum and I work on this week’s shopping list. And finally, three o’clock arrives, and I head out to the library.

There’s only one other car in the south lot. Kim, one of our favorite library staff, waits, masked and gloved.

I show her my library card, bar code out, through the window.

She takes a picture and texts it to a colleague inside. Then she runs in to get my books.

While she is gone, I open the trunk, glad that the rain has tapered.

Kim comes back with five books in a sturdy plastic bag. She puts them in the trunk and backs off; I jump out and slam the lid shut. We wave and I pull out of the lot. I can’t wait to get home and sort through those books, decide which one to read first.

I haven’t been this excited about getting a library book since I was seven and could finally—finally! My local library made us wait FOREVER!—have my own library card and walk to the library myself, and make my own weekly choices.

This just isn’t normal, either.

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

I look in the cupboards and the fridge and I realize I have everything I need to make a peanut butter pie, a little end of the week treat. And Jim has a request: could we have it, he asks, in a regular pie shell (a “flaky crust,” he calls it) instead of a graham cracker crust?

Why not? I say. Let’s see how it tastes. I have balls of pie dough in the freezer; I defrost one and roll it out, bake it golden brown in a small pie tin.

While it cools, I mix peanut butter and cream cheese with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. When that is smooth and well-combined, I fold in whipped topping, stirring and stirring, until the mixture is velvety, rich, and fluffy.

I take my big rubber spatula, and I push the filling into the ‘flaky crust.’ I smooth it, spreading right to the edges.

I put a matching pie tin, upside down, over the top, and I wrap the whole thing with aluminum foil. And then I put the pie in the freezer, where it must reside for, the recipe says, “…at least three hours.”

Later that night, dinner cleared away, the house quietening after a busy day, we have peanut butter pie. We drizzle Hershey’s syrup onto dessert plates and cut thick wedges of pie to place on top. We drizzle a little Hershey’s on top, too.

I take mine to the table; Mark and Jim take theirs into the TV room.

No one speaks as forks dip and scrape and lift; then, “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,” Jim calls.

“GOOD,” echoes Mark, agreeing.

It IS good. It’s different with regular pie crust. It tastes wonderful, even though it sure isn’t what you’d call normal.

But then, this year, what is?

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

I’ve told you this, I’m sure, that back in the day, when things were chaotic (as they often were), my mother would make promises. “We’ll go,” she might say, “when things get back to normal.”

She would count a beat, like a savvy comic, then add, deadpan: “Whatever THAT means.”

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

Because really, what IS normal? A friend in the mental health community maintains that “normal ain’t nothin’ but a setting on a dryer.” I long, in these COVID days, to get ‘back to normal,’ as if it’s a place I’ll return to.

And I know, deep in my knowing, that there is no going back.

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

But even in calm, healthy, unmemorable times, the days are not really normal,–not same or typical or immutable. What’s normal is that things are, always, changing. We get things lined up just the way we want them, the job, the house, the family, the clothes, the car.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…we say. Just right.

And life is good.

But then…

The industry changes.

Enrollments fluctuate.

Technology morphs and things that were once essential become anachronisms.

And the job we loved just…vaporizes.

OR: we get the degree or the certification; or the company loves us and wants us to transfer to a bigger plant, to a more important position.

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

Which means we’re moving, for joyful reasons or sad ones, so the house goes on the market.

But maybe this time, we’re going with one less person, because that beloved child is 21 and in her own apartment, happy in her own job, with her own friends…in her new normal. We’ll need one less bedroom in the new place.

And we’ve been so busy we lost weight; or we’ve been stress-eating and gained weight. The clothes don’t fit.

And when did the car get so old? With all this traveling, we might be better served to buy a hybrid anyway, or to get a truck so we can transport big stuff back and forth…

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

Wait. What’s normal now?

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

On Thursday, Jim gets two email messages about jobs. He forwards them to his job coach, who emails back: I don’t think these are requests for interviews. I think these are job offers.

Normal for Jim has become being at home, trying to keep busy, embarking on projects, trying not to think of what happened to his job hunt in COVID days.

And now…

He is excited. He walks a little straighter.

“I’d better get a haircut,” he says, and he looks ahead to a life that could be anything but the old normal.

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

I get an unexpected job offer, too; it’s a chance to work with people I admire and respect, and an opportunity to do good work in the community.

“I’m going to need some grownup clothes,” I say to Mark, as if clothes are a measure of change. Like Jim, I am excited.

Life is changing in some ways that are good, even while we try to balance on the fulcrum between personal growth and a disease-ridden world.

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

A friend texts about a young man she knows who had a car detailing business, which, in the pandemic, ground to a halt.

And then he thought to morph his work into a car sanitizing business. Now he’s busier, maybe, than he was before, having quite deliberately changed his normal.

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

Meat prices sky rocket; gas prices stabilize. We talk about shrinking the meat we eat and growing the side dishes, the veggies, the soups and the casseroles.

I go three weeks without needing to pump gas.

Restaurants cautiously open, but none of us have any desire to eat out.

We order groceries online and set up a pick-up time. We’ll keep getting our groceries this way; we save money and we save time.

We shop at a locally owned meat market, and we mask up and go to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning.

Some things are missing from supermarket shelves, and I order them online. I get a brick of yeast. I get a gallon jug of vanilla extract. I get a three-pound tin of baking powder.

We used to hunt and gather one way. Now another is evolving, and we won’t be going back to normal. But the way we do things now will begin to seem normal.

Until they, too, have to change.

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

And through it all, we’ll remember this: people are sick. People have died. Lives and families and communities have been irrevocably changed.

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

Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years, “It isn’t that the changes aren’t difficult. Of course they are. It’s only that, for my own sake, difficult as they may be, I cannot allow them to become terminal. Life goes on, and I must, too—but how?”

And she talks about styles of coping.

There are those who refuse to admit that any change has happened. They become angry and remote; they lose touch with a life that swirls on by.

There are those, writes Chittister, who allow that change has happened, but they are not happy. They function, but “…they begin to punish the world around them for the situation they’re in.” Everything that’s happened is somebody’s else’s grievous fault. “Their souls,” writes Chittister, “spoil in their shells.”

Other people may seem to move forward, but wherever they land just doesn’t measure up. Nothing is as good as the old days, and these folks keep looking for, and never finding, a way to return to their lives before.

And there are those, she writes, who embrace change, who respond to difficulties with what she calls “aplomb and courage.”

“They handle pain,” writes Chittister, “by replacing it with new joys.”

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

I am seeing, as our world visibly changes daily, all of these responses. I see all of those responses in other people. I see all of those responses in ME.

Normal is gone; normal will never come back. I have to build New Normal to replace it.

And I have to realize that as soon as New Normal is built, it begins to change, to evolve, and to decay.

I want to be the last kind of person, acknowledging the pain of loss, but brave enough to embrace new joys. I hope that I will do that most days, because I know this: normal is gone, and change is happening.

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

I go walking in the morning, and the rhododendrons are even fuller and more beautiful than they were yesterday.

There must, I think, be hope.

Stood in Place. Changed.

Life will be different for quite some time to come, and maybe in some ways that are permanent, but also in ways that are good.” Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, speaking about life after the stay-at-home order.

What I took with me when I left the house on Tuesday morning, March 3rd:

  • Book bag
  • Cash
  • Wallet
  • Comb and brush
  • Purse
  • Recreational reading book for lunchtime
  • Phone
  • Packed lunch bag
  • Go cup (coffee)
  • Go cup (water)
  • Keys
  • Change of shoes
  • Extra socks

What I took with me to leave the house on Tuesday morning, April 14th:

  • Phone
  • Hanky
  • Two cough drops

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

The days settle into a routine.

There’s no need to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym; the gym is closed. We don’t set the alarm clock. We get up when light floods the bedroom, when the birdsong is too insistent to resist.

My Fitbit, Connie, is delighted with this. Before the stay-at-home order, she would give me disapproving sleep reports. “Five hours, 11 minutes,” she would tsk. “Fair.”

Nowadays, Connie pats me on the head. “Seven hours, 28 minutes!” she crows. “Good!”

I feel better, more centered, calmer. Sleep, as a wise one once said, is good.

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

In the mornings, Mark and I both get our work done: I grade and respond to student emails, send out notices, make sure the next week’s work is out there, clearly labelled. I send follow-up emails to make sure students understand what is due when, and what’s expected of them.

Mark fields phone calls and goes to virtual meetings; he reads the latest rulings and helps interpret them. Often he has webinars, presentations on different topics, many related to understanding and working within a pandemic.

By late morning, though, it’s time to disengage from desks for a bit. Jim tugs his sneakers on, and we all head out to the car, bundled or breezily dressed as the day dictates.

Usually we drive to the college campus and walk; sometimes, to change things up, we go to the hospital’s fitness trail. Wherever we are, Jim untangles his earphones, plugs in, and marches off in one direction. Mark and I go the other way. We meet somewhere in the middle.

Most times we wave and walk on, finishing our loops, meeting at the car.

Sometimes though, Jim, a thought having occurred that he needs to talk out, takes the ear buds out and walks along with us. “Have you heard this?” he asks, and he shares a tidbit of news from the movie industry. Or, “Did you ever see this movie?” he’ll inquire, and he’ll be off, providing the background, critiquing the director.

Before the pandemic, Jim was reluctant to get outside. Now the late morning walk is a highlight for all of us.

I speculate on whether we’ll continue morning walks after the stay-at-home order lifts.

“Oh, yeah,” says Jim. He talks about how good that fresh air feels.

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

I had a little extra time last week, so I poked around in the hall closet, rearranging and organizing. There in the back, behind the vacuum and the fat bag o’ rags, I found my old carpet sweeper.

Hey, I thought, and I took it out and stood it behind a chair in the dining room. Now, instead of muttering about messy people flinging crumbs on my nice new rug, I just pull the carpet sweeper out after meals. The rug stays cleaner, and I simmer down, calmer and sated.

It’s a little thing, but it’s a change that wouldn’t have happened without the time to poke around in the depths of that closet.

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

It is hard to believe that it’s been almost three weeks since our last big grocery shopping, although we did stop and pick up bags of spring lettuces, spinach, and green onions at the farmer’s market last week. On Sunday, we’ll get groceries at the Kroger curbside pickup. We spent last weekend carefully compiling a list.

It’s a long list, and, at first, the final price tag smacked me upside the head. “Seriously?” I thought. “THAT much money for groceries?”

But we have not made our usual mad dashes to Kroger. I think of filling out the online surveys that net us 50 fuel points. How many times this month, the survey will ask, have you shopped at Kroger?

I always skip right by the ‘once or twice’ option and check off ‘five or more.’ And each of those times we entered the store, we spent 15 or 20 dollars. That’s on top of a big shopping.

When I think about it, the one lump sum for Sunday’s cache doesn’t seem bad at all. And it’s true: there is money left in the checking account that, before the stay-at-home order, in the, ‘Oh, let’s go to the store and grab something’ days, would never have been there.

As a family, we talk about this. Meals have become mini-events, pulled together times. We look at what we have and think of what we like. We experiment with rubs and marinades, sauces and gravies. We make soups and stews and quiches. We try recipes that have been buried deep in the someday pile, and we find new ideas on line. Friends send directions for things they’ve been cooking and liking during quarantine.

We talk about the changes we’ve made. We won’t go back to shopping the way we used to.

We don’t miss eating out.

The foods we’ve been eating are healthier.

These are changes we will keep.

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

There is time, now, for reading, and, when my To-Be-Read stack starts to dwindle, I shop the house or arrange touch-free book exchanges with friends. Each afternoon ends with reading time, and books are freshly good when their words are not crammed into narrow niches between obligations.

I read murder mysteries. I read about saving and releasing an irascible, intelligent blue jay. I read history books and American Dirt. I read memoirs about mental health and I read light, enjoyable novels. I read books I have had on the shelves, waiting for that day when time allows.

Time allows now; the day has come. And in the stubborn quiet of this time, words find, again, their majesty, and reach me in deep places. I haven’t enjoyed reading so much since college breaks, when the pleasure of reading something just because I wanted to was unequaled.

I’ll protect my reading times, whatever the days ahead bring.

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

These days, even doing laundry is a pleasure, and Mark and I both hustle downstairs when the dryer sings. Soft, newly folded washcloths, still warm, are a sensuous treat. I love that one of my favorite dish towels is always ready in the towel drawer. My best socks are neatly bundled together, a pair waiting for to start every day.

Folding laundry can be a joy when time isn’t breathing heavy on my neck, when the pleasure isn’t diluted by the thought of ten other things competing, waiting to be done.

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

In Ohio, there is tentative talk of tentative steps to modify the stay-at-home order. Things, our leaders (who have led us cautiously and effectively in a quest to flatten the curve) tell us, will not go back to ‘normal’—whatever ‘normal’ was. We’ll build a new normal, find new ways of being, and wait for the day to celebrate: the day when a vaccine conquers COVID-19.

And some of the change, as Dr. Amy Acton reminds us, will be good change—although, as a people, we’re surviving sickness and mourning death, we’ll emerge into new habits, new practices, new meaning.

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

Maybe the new normal starts now. Maybe now I stop reflecting on what I’m missing, on how life used to be, and I learn to celebrate what is.

Plan B

I’ve been thinking lately about the possibility of change, and how I need to be open to the thought that people can do it.

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

For instance. Once we took a trip and stayed at a place that did not live up to its hype at all. The beds were hard and lumpy; there was a yawning cellar that puffed out musty breath, and there was evidence that once, cats had made that place their own. By the time the sun rose on our first night’s stay, the boyos were sneezing and miserable.

We had to cancel that reservation and move to a hotel. This really bothered my son, James, who is on the autistic spectrum, and who likes very much to know what is coming next.

Then we went to an event that was loud and bumptious and crowded. There was music and strong cooking smells and raucous laughter. The noise ramped up, the rooms filled up, and James grew whiter and whiter around the gills. Finally, I had to take him back to his hotel room.

He never quite gained his travel equilibrium, and we cut that trip short.

Last minute changes of plan, Mark and I agreed, are tough.

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

But. Not so very long ago, we took another family trip—this time to Toledo.

Originally, I had us booked from Friday through Sunday, via a rental provider, into a private home, where we’d have our own little apartment. And I had researched Toledo attractions. I thought we’d visit the Toledo Zoo on Saturday afternoon. I found a classic family restaurant that has been in Toledo since 1948. That’s where we would eat on Saturday night, I thought.

It felt good to have a firm schedule. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, or anything, but I do like, when I’m traveling, to have things planned.

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

So late on Friday afternoon, we drove into a historic Toledo neighborhood and pulled up in front of a grand old painted lady. It nestled next to a neighborhood park with blooming roses and fresh green grass and a trim little gazebo with shaded benches.

“Nice,” we agreed, and Mark popped the trunk, and we lugged bags upstairs.

The apartment looked just like its online pictures—a beautiful little living room, its AC unit chugging cheerfully away; a tiny sitting room where two comfy chairs overlooked the little park. The bedroom doors were open, and beautifully made beds enticed. We explored; Mark and I parked our stuff in the room with the queen bed. Jim had a pleasant room with a double bed and a quiet, strong ceiling fan.

It was gorgeous and pristine…and then we went into the dining room, with its pretty, sturdy, carved table and chairs, and discovered plaster on the floor and builder’s tape dangling from the ceiling.

Clearly there’d been some recent water damage. We took photos and texted them to the owner, who was out of town.

She responded, shocked, immediately. She’d have her roofer come over and check; if we chose to stay, she’d give us a discount.

The kitchen was fully up-to-date with Victorian ambience. There was a sweet butler’s pantry.

We found a broom and cleaned up the plaster. I thought about getting up in the dawning hours and walking in this beautiful neighborhood.

We conferred, the three of us, and agreed: we’d stay. I texted our host.

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

That evening we located a supermarket and did some shopping. We cooked up some cubed steaks we’d gotten from a special butcher shop—they were tender and juicy—and we made sandwiches and salads and helped ourselves to chips. After dinner, Mark took a newspaper out to the sitting room.  I plugged in my laptop and worked on my Saturday post at the kitchen table.

Jim was comfortably in the living room, typing away.

Internet access was fast and good.

We were content in our little home away from home.

By 10:30, everyone was tucked up, drifting away; it strikes me as odd that spending a large chunk of day driving or riding—just sitting—can be tiring, but, for some reason, it always is. So the house quietened quickly and off we nodded.

Until 11:00, when a four-foot chunk of dining room ceiling crashed to the dining room floor.

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

By 12:01 we were in a downtown hotel, on the 13th floor. Jim’s room overlooked the Mud Hens stadium. We wheeled the luggage cart to his door.  He opened it and surveyed.

“This is a cool hotel,” Jim said, and he shut his door on us.

Mark and I had a panoramic view of the Maumee River meandering into Lake Erie.

The rooms were clean, and the beds were comfy, the pillows plumped.  The rental owner had responded quickly and given us a full refund.

This wasn’t the original plan, but it worked.

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

We had a good night’s sleep and, in the morning, we took a wonderful long exploring walk around the Toledo waterfront and the Hensville neighborhood. Hours melted away, and soon, it was time to head for the Toledo Zoo. The sky was a little gray—“Might rain a bit,” Mark said thoughtfully—so we were thinking the Zoo’s Natural History Museum was a good indoor destination.

Five minutes before we arrived at the Zoo, the clouds opened.

They opened full throttle.

We pulled into the zoo parking lot and watched people stream out of the gates, their hair plastered to their faces, their soaked clothing molded to their bodies.

Their umbrellas were not helping.

We sat in the car. Water beat on the roof and sluiced down the windshield. Cars veered by, careening up great plumes of water. In those cars, unhappy people huddled, dripping, their faces turned from each other.

We contemplated parking the car, walking to the gate, then walking to the natural history building.

Jim sighed.

Mark said, “No.”

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

We wound up, instead, spending the afternoon browsing in a wonderful little used bookstore called Nevermore.  Mark and I were delighted to find the exact books we’d been meaning to read. Jim scored two full bags of fantasy novels. By the time we were done mooching around, dipping into shelves, selecting, paging, and reading, and talking with a very nice clerk, the rain had stopped completely.

The sun was even peeking out a little.

“Well,” I said. “At least we can relax over dinner and laugh about the rain.”

We pulled up the directions to the restaurant on the phone, hoping it wasn’t going to be too busy. We drove through a beautiful university district, until, “Turn LEFT,” said the Siri-like voice. “And the destination is on your right.”

“Doesn’t look too busy,” said Jim, optimistically.

It didn’t look busy at ALL. In fact, there were no cars in the parking lot.

There was a sign, though. It said, “Closed today; death in family.”

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

Silence.

Then Jim said, “Jeez. I feel bad for that family.”

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

We ate dinner that night at the Maumee Bay Brewing Company, a block away from the hotel. I had a great bowl of gumbo, Mark tore into a Lake Erie fish fry, and Jim opined that the French dip-prime rib sandwich he ordered might be the best sandwich he’d ever tasted.

Jim did a little research the next morning and suggested we try the Glass City Café. It turned out to be not far from where we stayed. It had brick walls and half curtains and a menu full of homemade comfort food. The wait staff were friendly and attentive but not intrusive. It was GREAT.

“Can I pick ‘em?” asked Jim, and we allowed that, for sure, he could.

And then we drove home. When we arrived, dragging suitcases and cooler and sundries into the house, Jim stopped a minute.

“That,” he said, “was a great trip.”

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

Later, when we were settled back in, I pointed out to James how well he’d handled all the changes in plan—a midnight move to a new place to stay, a completely unexpected afternoon adventure, a restaurant not even near the one we’d hoped to visit. I reminded him about that other trip, when the outcome was not so good.

He offered me a fist bump, and said, grinning, “Well, look at me. I’m changing.”

And he is, maturing and growing and learning how better to absorb those random twists life lobs at him.

There’s a lesson there. People DO change; people continue to grow. People surprise us.

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

I release my choke-hold on the Control the Travel Agenda throttle for a minute, and I ponder. Do you suppose control freaks mellow, too?

How Things Look

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

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

So the medical people did that.

And Uncle Joe woke up.

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

********

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

And I set out for a walk.

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

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

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

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

Things aren’t always the way they look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Houses, Unfamiliar Places

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

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

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

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

Always I am embarrassed by my bare feet and jammies.

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” I say as we pull up the drive.

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

“Look at the rhododendrons.”

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

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

The boyos make noncommittal, sympathetic noises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So he’s lying? Asks the newscaster.

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

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

Chilled, I turn up the heat in the car.

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

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

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

 *************

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

I so badly want to pretend, to not know.

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Is there any point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where we are.

This is who we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of a Sudden: Mid-August

Leaves in the grass

I wake to the rattle of the spare room door. The wind, blowing in through the screened window, is shaking it. And a hard rain is driving down: the outdoor world a cacophony of discordant sounds—pelting and blowing and shaking.

I stumble over to prop the spare room’s door open. Then I crawl back into bed, pull the sheet up to my chin, and drift back off to sleep, oddly lulled by the dissonance.

In the morning, I slip my old shoes on and go outside. The grass is beaded with silver dew, and the little tree, the one by the kitchen window, has lost many of its leaves, pounded off by that insistent rain. They lay curled on the ground; they are golden and brown. They are harbingers of autumn.

It is August, the eighth month—the august month of portent and change.

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

The library calls; the book I’ve requested is waiting for me. So Jim and I take an afternoon swing over, and, while he pores through the DVD’s, I take Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to a table. This is an old, old book, with a third copyright date of 1968. There’s still a pocket in the front to hold a library card, and stamped dates march up and down the page. The oldest reads “FEB 79,” and it was taken out many times after that, too.

I flip to the first page of text and read, “It was a quiet morning…You had only to lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.” And I get to know Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, whose summer vacation is just beginning.

The novel takes place in 1928, but it describes a universal whoosh of “Welcome, Summer!” I felt it, this year, the first time I sat with my coffee at the wobbly patio table—maybe late in May—and realized the summer was opening up before me. There was so much I wanted to do, so many people to connect with. There were places to visit, meals to cook, and chronicles to write.

I gave myself up to that feeling of endless summer, and I  plunged: I did many of the things and saw many of the people. I visited some of the places, and I chronicled a tale or two.

And then, slick and sly, the pedestal whipped into a sudden turn, whirled me around a bend, and I looked straight into the eyes of August. Mid-August: that corner season.

August stared me down.

“Things are changing,” it said to me, and it turned its back and marched on.

Endless summer, I knew in that moment, had ended.

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

August is rain. I open the weather app on my phone. Three of the next six days have thundercloud icons; two show suns peeking behind puffy cumulous-nimbuses. Only one day promises a clear sky and a pleasant temp.

It has rained almost every day this week; the crab grass which suddenly appeared this summer is tall and taunting.

I need to mow.

I need to spray a new coat of blacking on the metal patio chairs.

I need to hunker down and dig up the grass that is inching inward, overtaking the disappearing pavers that lead to the alley out back.

I plan to do all that in that one sunny day, and bowing to the season, start prepping the dining room to paint. August means working inside.

A memory pops up: my mother, keening at the window as rain streaks down the screen.

“It always rains on your vacation,” she says to my father.

My father manages my brothers’ little league team. Their season goes from May until July—longer if they make the play-offs, and they often do. There is no point, my father says, in taking time off until baseball season is over.

So August is vacation time, and we talk about trips to the lake and marathon backyard wiffle ball games. My father plans to paint the trim and change the oil and fix a couple of electrical things, outside.

But, my mother is right: it is August, and it always rains. My father sighs, and shrugs, and lights a cigarette. He turns a page of the newspaper in the quiet house.

And the rain pounds down.

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

The newspaper is full of county fair news. The fair starts on Sunday, and, for 4-H kids throughout the county, a long year’s work is coming to its culmination. Fair week is competition week—kids will show their chickens and sheep, their goats and hogs and cows. They will shampoo and comb and coax; they will lead and prompt and try not to stumble. Solemn judges will watch and inspect and hand out ribbons and “master showman” honors.

People will bid on the livestock. Our butcher shop may have a sign: We purchased the best-of-show steer from Joey Shlagelholdt!

The winning kids’ hearts will leap—joy and pride, and sorrow, too, as they groom and stroke that winning creature one last time—preparing for the hand-off, knowing what it means.

In the buildings, other judges study handmade goods. They gently finger soft, knitted blankets, kneel down to peer at hand-painted pictures. They examine fragile antiques and vast collections. Some lucky judges slice into tall cakes on milk glass pedestals, cut into sugar crusted pies that ooze blueberry syrup.  Ribbons appear—yellow, red, and the royal blue ones. Ribbons that say, “Best of Show.”

The air is rich with steamy, fragrant, scents—Italian sausage, peppers and onions. Yeasty, cinnamon-y, fried dough.

The fair is the midway, too—the clash and grind of the rides, the whirling and spinning and laughter and screams. The people who travel with the fair seem rootless, disconnected; they open a curtain to let us look quickly into a different world, a mobile, ever-changing one. They carry a scent of the exotic, a little glint of danger. Middle school kids crowd the rides, in love with the mystery and their own daring.

August is the blatting of the loud-speaker, the harmonies of Montgomery Gentry and Jo Dee Messina, the free stickers at the political parties’ booths.  August is the county fair.

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

I need, I decide, a cooking day. One late morning, I buy two huge packages of ground chuck at the little supermarket—such a great deal, and so many things we can do with it! After lunch I dig out recipes—“Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs,” “Best Ever Meat Loaf,”—and I pull the big blue polka dot pasta bowl down from atop the cupboard. I make bread crumbs in the food processor: I measure milk and grated cheese and I crack eggs. I slide my wedding ring off and put it on the window sill, and I splay my fingers. I plunge my hands, wincing, into the cold, wet, eggy mess.

There is no other way to mix the meatballs.

I shape a tray full of big, bold meatballs for spaghetti. I make a tin of tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

While they roast in the oven, I pat meatloaf into pans, shape fat, hearty burgers, and stuff the remaining two pounds of meat into Tupperware. I carry a wobbling tower of packages to the chest freezer and pack them in.

When the meatballs are done, I pack them up and let them cool, and I think it’s a shame to waste an already heated oven.

I pull out dark brown sugar and dark and milk chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and butter, vanilla, and baking powder. I mix up a batch of cookies, drop lumpy balls onto cookie sheets, read a friendly novel while they bake.

I spatula golden, brown-edged cookies onto the broad old metal pizza pan, and when they are cooled, I stack them in my two plaid cookie jars.

It is August, and something deep within calls me to fill the larder, to preserve the fruits—to prepare for the darker days ahead.

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

I sit next to a solemn young Boy Scout at a board meeting; he must attend, for a badge, a public forum where differing opinions may be heard. He must write up a detailed report. He opens his notebook, writes, “Notes” at the top of the page, and neatly numbers down the margin.

“When does school start?” I ask him, not thinking, and his face darkens.

“Some day next WEEK,” he mutters, and I see that the joy of his endless summer has begun to leech away.

It always seems early, the mid-August back to school here in Ohio. It dazzled me, when we first moved here, to hear people say, on July Fourth, “Ah, summer’s almost over already!”

“What do you MEAN?” I wanted to chivvy them. “Summer’s not over until Labor Day.”

But, calendar be damned, summer ends when teachers report back for Preparation Days, when the football teams trot out onto the field and sully their pristine leggings with grass-stains, when the cross-country runners span out over the edge of the highway—fleet to fledgling,–and when the kids go back to school.

So summer ends, here, in August. Summer, as I thoughtlessly reminded my young colleague at the meeting, ends next week.

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

I come home from another meeting to find packages on the front steps—new black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a floaty black top. Back to school clothes, for me, for the first time in several years. This Fall, before the end of August, I will be back in the classroom, teaching at two different colleges, trying to rub the love of words into a hot incense between my palms…and then, opening my hands, I will puff, trying to diffuse at least a little, tentative breath of that heady brew into my students’ beings.

I know I won’t always be successful, but sometimes—oh, sometimes—those tendrils reach out and find a welcome.

And I am caught in the excitement of preparation, in what some of my colleagues over the years have called Syllabus Hell, a time of sitting with the calendar and looking at the assignments, ticking off the holidays and fitting the semester’s expectations into a neatly plotted chart. A time to craft and tweak assignments to elicit, if not outright excitement, then thought and reaction and a spill of words onto a page. Or many pages.

My inner child geek still lives on, loving the smell of new loose-leaf paper and the first bloopy scrawl from a virgin ballpoint pen, and the fun of planning the term.

And this year, post-retirement, I am reporting to a smart young professional, at one of my schools, who used to work with me—who has graduated from adjunct to full-time faculty, to program coordinator, and now to the overseer of adjunct faculty at a different college entirely. Creative, compassionate, energetic, she embraces the role, and I sit across the desk from her and sign the forms she passes my way and accept the textbooks she hands me.

I am retired and teaching because I want to. I am retired, and I get to exult in the trajectory of people I’ve mentored who go on to do wonderfully unexpected things.

August is a time of year, but I realize it is a time of life, too.

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

I read my Bradbury and mourn for that endless summer feeling, but a little fizz of excitement bubbles, too: new students, cooler nights, celebrations. I will go out and buy new pens and spiral notebooks; I will get a pair of sensibly stylish black shoes. I’ll goad the boyos into an autumn wardrobe contemplation, and we’ll think about, maybe, an October adventure.

There are things to be done and things to be planned, and the last, tastiest dregs of summer to be shaken from the bottle, mixed up with clear, cold water, and enjoyed.

It is August, with that clear-cut sense of what is ending, and the mysterious promise of what might be about to begin.

 

 

 

Traveling Without Siri

I hadn’t walked very far this morning when a swoosh of movement caught my eye; that amber flash was a mama and baby deer, scooting up a neighbor’s driveway. The drive is bordered by a hedge, and, as I started down the hill toward it, the baby poked its head up over the bushes to watch me. It was all liquid dark eyes and twitchy black velvet nose and huge, pointy-oval, radar ears.

I cocked my head one way and it cocked its head the other, and we stopped and eyed each other like that for a moment. And then the mama keck-ed, deep in her throat, and the baby deer sprang away. The two of them were grazing side by side in the neighbor’s backyard when I walked by. They raised their heads to look backwards at me, and I waved.

Around the corner, ungainly bumblebees were busy at the wonderful shrubs that border a lush lawn. I call them doll-skirt bushes; the huge blossoms start out tightly fisted and deeply pink, and as they unfurl, their color gets lighter and the petals swirl out like the kind of outrageous pleated outfits trim dancers kicked around in, in 1940’s musicals.  The flowers turn a creamy white. By nightfall, they’ve curled into tubes and fallen off—limp and dirty cigars laying sadly on the gravelly shoulder. Derelicts, fallen to the curb after a splendid day’s showing…

The bees sent one of their comrades my way on reconnaissance. The fat thing burbled menacingly around and around my head; I had to stop and turn slowly along with it until it got bored and went back to nectarizing.

I pushed on to Dresden Road and headed north. I stopped again at the big white house, which has gone from neglected to sparkling. It’s huge–during the long interval it was on sale, I think we read in the listing that it has six bedrooms. It has a newly painted in-the-city farm barn, appropriately bright barn red, and all the accoutrements–the wicker furniture on the sprawling porch, plant stands, outside wall art–pop in that same deep color.

In the front yard, there’s a real, old-fashioned wooden sledge, the kind horses might have drawn in the northern backwoods in 1880. Some days, it’s being pulled by pink flamingos.  Some days, the flamingos are sitting on the wicker on the porch. Today, the flamingos shared the driver’s seat, and one had the reins on its beak.

Satisfied that I knew where the flamingos were, I pressed on until I’d walked about three-fourths of a mile, and then I turned to head back. I like to walk on Friday mornings, just a little bit of a stretch to start the weekend. The weekend, I thought, and felt the heady absence of work in the three days ahead.

And then I had one of those moments. It was just like when I’m using Siri for directions, and I willfully make a wrong turn.  There’s a pause–I always think she’s biting her electronic tongue to keep from barking obscenities at me–and then she snaps, Make a U-turn! Make a U-turn! And then, when I don’t, I imagine Siri’s digitized sigh, and the whole picture shifts, swings around, encapsulates a brand new vista. I was heading back down Dresden, and my horizon just completely morphed. It was almost physical, like picking up my foot and expecting it to touch the ground as usual, and finding it hits the ground someplace else entirely.

Because,–although the weekend is still two days, of course,–I DON’T have to go back to work on Monday. I’m taking Monday off, and then, on Tuesday, I am officially retired.

So, although I will not ever be a lady of leisure–neither by inclination nor by financial reality–it could be true that I never actually ‘go to work’ again.

*********

Whoa. The hard cement wall called Work-On-Monday just burst, and time went flooding over it.

**********

My father retired in his mid-50’s on disability, and he was lost without the schedule and the sense of being needed work gave him. For the first months, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around, helped her make the beds. Asked what was next. Then he hit his stride and started doing woodworking and refinishing furniture. But it was a tough transition.

I have other role models, though, who make me think this change won’t be so hard. Take my friend Teri, who wasn’t even 18 when, a skilled high school graduate, she slid into a civil service job. Teri retired at 50 and never looked back. Now she works when she wants to and does amazing things at home. She mothers her still-at-home teen-aged daughter. She travels.  In the last years, she’s become a grandma with all the joy and busyness that entails.  She savors the pension she paid into from the time she was a young girl, and she embraces the after-working life.

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

I was picking up some signed certificates in the president’s office this week and talking to my colleagues Brenda and Kathy. Kathy will also officially retire on Tuesday, and Brenda asked the two of us, “What are you going to do with all that time?”

I looked at Kathy and she looked back, and we shared a charged understanding.

“I’m going,” Kathy said to Brenda, “to do all the things I’ve been putting off until this day arrived.”

Amen, Sister! I thought, and I slid my certificates into their manila envelope, waved them merrily, and went off about my way.

***********

I went walking later than usual this morning because James and I made an early trip to the library. It occurred to me I could stop making excuses and plan a weekday trip to the Clark Gable birthplace museum in Cadiz, Ohio, about an hour and a half from here. So, while Jim was browsing the DVD’s, I found a Gable biography and began reading about his early years in Ohio. I grabbed a copy of the Mutiny on the Bounty DVD too: there’s time now, to do a little research.

Later, I checked the weather on my phone and was pleased to see happy little sunshines–and reasonable temperatures–next to the next five days. This weekend, I’ll finish painting the car port–where the ceiling fan looks so festive and moves, still, so glacially.

I can clear out the weedy old flower beds and put in last minute annuals, schedule the planting of bulbs and seeds and pretty hydrangea bushes.

James and I will sketch out a plan for his bedroom, move him into temporary quarters, and repaint–the ceiling blue, like a limitless sky, the walls a fresh cream.

I will uncover my neglected sewing machine, and it and I will become, again, partners in creative projects.

And in the quiet of the morning, I will write.

Those are the top bullets on a long, long list of things that have been waiting, sighing and patient, for the time to come when there’s time to act.

I’ll start, I keep telling my family, as I mean to go on: with a schedule and a plan.

And then I’ll walk forward into loosely woven days–the only deadlines or restrictions ones I’ve chosen to embrace.

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

It’s going to be different, retirement. It’s the first time I’ve left a job without another to step into, and I feel daringly untethered, a little bit anxious, a whole lot excited. Time now, to step into the next phase, and to determine the shape of things to come.

This Year, It All Looks New

Bedroom re-do

The Spring sun shines through the bedroom windows, through crisp, newly washed drapes.  We have painted one wall–the window wall, the wall you see when you walk up the stairs and glance in the room–a light and sunny yellow. We have moved the bed: it was facing the windows; now it’s flanked by them.

Simple moves, simple expedients, and the entire room is changed.  The very size of it feels different–lighter, brighter, roomier.  The colors–a soft sky blue, the gleaming white trim, the gently beaming yellow of the window wall,–combine with the sandy color of the carpet to suggest to me, “Beach.”

It gives me summer thoughts; it makes me smile. I grab my empty coffee mug and I thump downstairs to where Mark is gathering his gear for work.

“I can’t get over that room,” he says.  “Finally, it’s the way it SHOULD be.  Who knew?”

I agree.  “What other little changes can we make?”

We look around the dining room, a room that collects the morning sun, and that also collects the clutter: Jim’s lists and books and DVD cases; Mark’s tax papers and work documents; my books and notebooks, pens and craft stuff.  There are chargers and cords–all the paraphernalia of modern electronic life.  The Sunday New York Times, which we never quite finish reading during the week after it arrives, waits hopefully on a side chair.

I want to pull up the rug like a cartoon wizard and snap it, watch items fly up into the air and then fall smartly into their very right places.

Or watch them disappear.

I smile at Mark, who is seeing his own vision of the room.  Perfect organization may not happen as easily as in my animated fantasy, but we’ll whip this room into shape.

There’s a lesson in the simple bedroom changes, a lesson about using what I already have to make things new, that I need time to ponder and absorb. I think this might be part of it: Things change.  Bad times pass.  Spring, always and eventually, comes.  But listening, seeing, processing, and then acting, is required.

********

It is just before noon, and it is a treat to sit at Giacomo’s in a corner booth, checking my email, and to see Susan’s sleek black SUV pull in. She’s got the rear-view camera; I always enjoy watching her back smoothly into a parking place.  (Me, I try to find a place where I can park facing out–no backing required, arriving or leaving.)

And it’s so good to see Susan, who retired in December, and who has been on the move– down the coast, across the country, over the ocean to that mythical island state–ever since.  A lunch hour won’t give us enough time to cover everything.

I meet her at the counter. I gather up a lovely spinach salad–those healthy greens are festooned with bacon and red onion and accompanied by slices of baguette (the crust crackles and explodes; the bread inside is fresh and tender), and my loaf of take-home sliced french bread. Susan gets her soup and sandwich.  We convene to the corner booth; we commence  the necessary work-information sharing.

Then Susan talks about her grand-twins, Cleary and Will, the tiny, sweet children of Laura and Josh. Barely over a year old, they are finally on the growth chart at their pediatrician’s.  Granted, they’ve just climbed on to that chart, topping out at two and three per cent, but they’ve arrived at that comforting ‘normal’ range.  (I think of how small Jim, in the 98th percentile for length and weight, seemed as a baby, and how fragile; I try to imagine parenting such amazing little morsels of humanity.)

After a very chaotic first year of life–a year involving long hospital stays, feeding crises, surgery, care issues, and, I know, nights and days of pain and worry for their parents and grandparents,–those babies, like any other babies their age,  are walking.

The sun shines in, and Susan and I move on to talk about what we’re reading, but there’s a happy grounding to our talk. I think about those miracle babies.  And now: a new chapter in their young and exciting lives begins.

What a nice lunch.

I head back to work.

*******

New chapters and new babies are on my mind tonight after I pack up my desk, and, driving home, I wonder how things are going in Maryland. That’s where Alison is making my friend Sandee–my friend who first knew me in Grade Five, when a tiny nun half our size and twice our ferocity terrorized us both (Oh, we could tell you stories…)–a first-time grandma.

Alison and John’s baby is a boy; the delivery’s a scheduled C-section; the name will be revealed on FaceBook. That tiny boy will be a new life, of course, and he’ll create new lives for Alison and John, who become, in that twinkling when they hear his first affronted wail, Mom and Dad.  And Sandee and Don take on new personae, too–they’re suddenly Grandma and Grandpa Hulihan, and they’re parents, now, of Mama Alison and Auntie Colleen.

And, here he is!  Welcome, Matthew Philip!
And, here he is! Welcome, Matthew Philip!

********

After dinner, Jim pulls out the vacuum, I get the duster; Mark carts some extraneous office furniture out to the sun porch. I organize the dining room, the cubbies, the shelves–tackle some of that clutter.  We’re getting ready for a special visit. Mark’s Mom, Pat, arrives on Saturday. It will be her first visit to Zanesville; it will be her first Easter as a widow.  A new kind of life for Pat, too.

We will show her the wonders of our adopted homeplace–the Y Bridge, the gardens, John Glenn’s boyhood house, the restaurant built with barnwood from Agnes Moorehead’s farm.  We’ll take road trips, we’ll hit book stores (Pat, whom I met when we worked together at the Book Nook, is a voracious reader), and we’ll watch movies in the family room; we’ll cook up big meals, and we’ll visit some of our favorite funky eateries.

We’ll talk and drink coffee,  maybe play some cards, and we’ll get to know Pat in her new role. Pat, after Angelo’s death. Pat, grieving, but moving forward.

**********

Just itching to open...
Just itching to open…

The daffodils have pushed up quickly and insistently, so fast, in fact, it seems like we watched them grow in Disney stop-action.  The first tentative blooms have opened.  By Sunday–Easter Sunday,–we’ll have a Wordsworth sea of those nodding yellow heads.

After a tough, dark winter: the Spring,–a time of rejoicing, and a time of somberly marking what’s been lost to the cold, cruel season.  A time to celebrate–first cries, first steps.  Anticipated blooming. Unexpected change.

I love the contemplative time January 1st offers every year, the fillip at the end of Christmas, the beginning of a new cycle.  But this time, this season, this Eastertide, always feels to me like the real beginning.  Here we emerge–sometimes from a cozy, dark quiet; sometimes from a deep and abiding sadness; and sometimes, from a season that handed us both–into the light.

Interior growth stirs; it inches; it parallels the real and raucous blooms of spring–the first bold yellows of daffs and forsythia mellowing into the lavendars of hardy lilacs and tender violets, the many tulip hues, the bold scent of lilies.

We’re launching, now, into future.  We must go forward,–no choice–, even when that means leaving something precious behind.  But it means, too, celebrations of new life and new progress; it means embracing new roles and seeing new possibilities.

Some years those changes, those beginnings, are subtle; I have to search for them; they’re like violets shying into the uncut grass.

This year, my head spins with all the loud, proud, joyful shouts of Spring, of time’s changes, of new life. This year insists I take time and be with this. I hope I’ll be awake and brave and strong enough to take this season’s lessons all the way home to my heart.

Whatever holiday or holy day you acknowledge, whatever seasonal joys you lift your face to, I wish you all the blessings of this amazing season.