I was driving home from the pharmacy this morning when the rain began. It rained so hard that cars were pontooning—careening toward the center line from both sides of the road, then reeling back as the drivers struggled to find a sweet spot between oncoming traffic and gushing gutter water. The wind whipped up and I gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward, peering through slashing windshield wipers and driving rain.
By the time we got home, the weather had tapered a bit. Jim went off to do his laundry, and I changed into my paint clothes and set up shop, climbing up on the old ladder my father gave me for an engagement present (hint, hint; but it didn’t work), and started the second coat of Roasted Cashew in the dining room. I got engrossed, and I didn’t realize it was lunchtime until Mark came home. He heated up the rest of the potpie while I used up my roller pan of paint.
And then I realized the sun was shining.
James called up from the basement that he wasn’t ready for lunch yet, and Mark took a towel out to the patio and mopped up the table and two chairs. We carried our lunches outside and ate them in a fresh-washed world. A playful breeze gently lifted our napkins, and the potpie was hot and good, and we sat and ate and dissected the morning. Mark needed just a titch more to nosh on, so we went in the house and rustled around, digging out thin whole grain crackers and sharp white cheddar, the little chopping board, and a small, sharp knife, and we ferried all that outside while we talked.
But soon Jim came upstairs and, “Hey! Looks like rain again!” he said, and darkly ominous clouds scudded overhead, and we grabbed napkins and plates and utensils and ran into the house, just ahead of another pelting downpour.
The whole week has been like that: I’m thinking of one thing and another, completely unexpected thing washes over me. I’m thinking it’s a gorgeous day and suddenly I’m trotting home in the rain.
It’s been a tough week to maintain a single focus, out here in the hinterlands.
This week I fell off the ‘read the books on my shelves’ wagon—again—and I brought home a stack of books from the library. I brought home an adult fantasy novel by a YA author that just looked interesting; I brought home Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi, and I brought home Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. These were all books that have spoken to me when I browsed idly through the New Books shelves, waiting for Jim to select a dozen movies— books that I picked up, paged through, and thought, “This might be a good summer read.”
Something happened at that last library visit, something that made me think the time to read those books is NOW.
And I also took home Once More We Saw Stars, by Jayson Greene, a memoir I’ve seen reviewed over and over. The reviews have been uniformly, almost startlingly, good. I’ve picked up this book, too, and put it down, leaving it in the library again and again.
So why did I bring it home this week? And why, after reading the fantasy, did I decide Once More We Saw Stars was the next book I must read? In it, Greene tells the story of his two-year-old daughter’s random and completely illogical death. The baby was sitting outside with her grammy when a stone chunk of building fell off and landed on both of them. The grammy’s leg was hurt, but the baby—Greta—was hit in the head, and she died.
Greene does not so much write about this as he reaches a hand out from the pages and grabs my collar and pulls me in. I am in before I can think, Do I really want to read about this awful, awful pain? Is now the time?
And the words gather into one hard and heavy rock and they drop without pause into the depths, where the Big Sad broods beneath its thick plate of glass. The rock shatters the glass, of course, and the once still waters in that reservoir roil up and seep in, and they soak nerves and tissue and muscle.
And I am crying. Crying for Greta and her mama and daddy, crying for Terri and Patty and Kim and John, crying for Dennis and for everyone who shouldn’t have died, who died too young, who left the earth when the earth still needed them.
I suspect we all carry a Big Sad. It is so tightly sealed it doesn’t even slosh, but it waits, walking with us. It contains all of our sadnesses, the ones that touched us, and the ones we absorbed, and the ones we inherited. It contains the anguish of parents in faraway war-torn countries and the sorrow of bereft friends and it contains the grief my parents suffered when their first baby girl died at just about Greta’s age.
I prefer it when the Big Sad stays tightly covered, but this week, full knowing, I threw that rock right through the glass and let it all wash up.
What was I thinking this week?
This week I bit the bullet and started painting the dining room. I moved the furniture and Mark got the electric sanders for me and I smoothed down the spackling I’d done months ago, and I wiped down the walls and ceiling. I taped up the base of the light fixture and I got out new brushes and rollers and I just rolled past all the objections in my head, and I started.
Two days, I thought. Two days, and I’ll be done.
Even though the ceiling was white to start with, it needed two new coats of white to cover. That was the first and second day, and by their end, I was cramped and crabby and dappled white. The hair on the top of my head was hard with paint because I had bumped up against the ceiling so many times from my ladder perch. The ceiling had all these scalp spots that had to be repainted.
On Day Three I finally got to open the color and brush it onto the edges of the wall, roll that color into those outlines to fill them in. The walls went from tepid and tired to warm Roasted Cashew, but it was immediately clear that One Coat Coverage! was a lie in this particular case.
But the painting, even with aching shoulders and a hip that said, “I am NOT going back up that ladder! I am NOT crawling around on the floor!” made me happy. A little bit of transformation happening; a little bit of reconnection.
Because we grew up painting rooms, in all the rental homes my parents moved us to after they sold the first big house we lived in, the first house I remember, where we lived from my infancy until I was ten. We rented comfortably shabby, lived-in houses, and we scrubbed them furiously and made repairs and got the paint and claimed those spaces.
And then, a year or two later, for whatever reason, we would move again.
It was a pattern my mother grew up with, when her mother died and her father left, and she and her siblings formed a brave little household of their own. They would move, the oldest of them 16 the first time ‘round, into an apartment or house, someplace near aunts and uncles and cousins. And the uncles, who were cabinet makers and painters, would come and help them get the place in shape. They would, all of them, paint the walls, and the painter uncle would sand and paint the warped floors and then he would spatter them with odds and ends of paint he had left over, until they looked, my mother said, like costly linoleum. He would clearcoat those floors until a household of seven orphaned and abandoned kids was hard-pressed to do them harm.
And then, some months later, something would happen, and they’d be moving again, cleaning again, painting again. Some kind of search for something better, some kind of quest for transformation, was kicking in again.
We relived that cycle many times when I was just a girl.
But there is a real, firm joy in making a dull and dingy room warm and vibrant. Painting is a lot of work, and I am insulted that my aging, creaking body moves more slowly, aches more quickly, and takes so much longer to do what once would have been a weekend sprint.
But each layer of color amps up the appreciation and the excitement.
This week, I am not done, but transformation is well underway.
I am not, I said this week, going to let things molder on the counter or in the fridge until it’s past time to throw them out. So I went searching for a banana bread recipe that I saw in a foodie memoir, and I couldn’t find it. I’d thought I’d seen it in I Love, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, but no.
I looked through the copy of Baked my niece Meggo sent one year and found banana espresso muffins, but I had in mind a soft, moist banana bread, studded with nuts and big chunks of semi-sweet chocolate.
Finally, I gave up on my recipe books and got online. I found a recipe called “Janet’s Rich Banana Bread” on AllRecipes.com. That would do for the two bananas slowly turning black on top of the bread box. While I was searching recipes, I printed one called “Favorite Chicken Potpie” from Taste of Home.
That afternoon, I mashed bananas and scooped out the remaining quarter cup of sour cream; I cracked eggs and I whisked flour and leavenings and added seasonings. I stirred things together and I folded things in, and I spooned the dough into a greased loaf pan and put it in the oven to bake.
While that was baking, I cleaned out the refrigerator a little bit. I rolled out a bottom crust and gentled it into the blue ceramic pie pan, and then I took the two pieces of leftover chicken and chopped all the meat from the bones…and saved the bones, put them in the freezer, to make broth. I chopped up half an onion that was languishing, and sliced up two carrots, and I found two containers that had leftover peas and corn.
The recipe called for whole milk, and I had fat-splurged that week and gotten two per cent (the boyos were ecstatic) instead of skim; I thought the presence of one cup of cubed butter in the sauce would probably make up for the lack of fat in the milk. The white sauce mixed up velvety thick and rich and pungent with spices, and I folded all the veggies and chicken into it and spooned that into the pie shell. When I covered it with the top crust, it was clear this was going to be kind of a mountaintop pie.
Mark and I had Favorite Chicken Potpie for dinner that night, and we looked at each other and shook our heads. It was SO good. Why, we asked each other, had we never made this before?
We ate half the pie, and that was piggish.
The next morning, we had slabs of banana bread for breakfast. We ate potpie for lunch for the next two days.
Some days it rained this week, and some days the sun shone. One morning it was so cold I wore mittens on my walk, and one day it was so hot and muggy I changed into shorts for the first time this season. A mixed bag is kind of what this week was, a rambling, shook up, tumble of time.
But this week’ tumble of time was upheld by home-baked comfort food. I three-hole punched the two new recipes and put them in my favorites binder.
This week I got some things I had ordered in my quest to become more and more free of single-use plastic. One, that I paid twelve dollars for, is a seven-year pen. It made me kind of nervous, spending that much money on one ballpoint pen, but just think: that’s a mere $1.70 per year on ink, and no ink-pen plastic waste for that righteous number of years.
If I don’t lose it. If I don’t loan it without thinking.
Now I keep that pen on my desktop, afraid to put it in my purse and use it like any other ink pen. So I kind of think I’m missing my own point.
Maybe I’ll buy one each month until I have what feels like an abundance, and then I can stop my fretting.
Maybe, I thought, I would get them for people as gifts, and I pondered giving one to a young teen granddaughter, and I realized that she might be out of college by the time her pen ran out of ink. I pictured giving them to grandnieces and grandnephews even younger than Kaelyn and imagined how they might use them in fourth grade and fifth grade and beyond, and then how they might actually write their high school graduation thank you notes with those same pens.
I thought that, if my pen lasts as long as it’s supposed to last, and if I last as long as I hope I will last, I will be in my seventies when it finally dries up.
In my seventies.
I mean, sorry, but holy shit.
Suddenly that pen became imbued with time-laced dreadful import, and I pushed it away with my left index finger. I will, I thought, just use up my other pens before I start on that. And I dug in my purse and the thing drawer and rescued six or seven pens—Bic Clics and Pentel RSVPs and nice pens that came our way as advertising for some firm or store or other. I found a blue gel pen and a green gel pen.
Those, I thought would be nice for writing letters.
The seven-year pen had rolled on its side. It felt like it had its little back turned to me.
Then I felt bad about that new pen, whatever its time-morphing propensities.
But I still don’t want to lose it. So now I use my seven-year pen to do my daily morning pages, and I shove those other, disposable pens in my purse or my pocket, and I put one on the nightstand next to my bed.
I’m not sure one can recycle ink pens; I’m checking that out. But I certainly won’t have to worry about recycling this week when it comes to my new, seven-year pen.
This week I started keeping a dreamer’s journal and I mailed off some long overdue notes and I made a new to-do list, and every day, about 3:30, I ran upstairs and shampooed paint out of my hair. And I read my book, and let my heart ache, and got good news from a friend and did a little goofy happy dance, and I worked on not being wasteful, and I thought about time.
And in the mornings, when I went walking, signs of yesterday’s weather greeted me—bright blooming flowers, dusty dry sidewalks, broken sticks and branches that one night’s wind blew out of trees. Puddles and slick spots. I just had to be ready for anything.
I couldn’t find a theme this week, which makes me anxious, and I thought, some weeks are just like that, random and varied. Maybe, the farther back I step, the more a pattern will appear, but maybe, sometimes, there is no pattern.
Maybe some times, and some weeks, just are what they are.
That’s how it seems out here in the hinterlands. That’s what I’m thinking today.