Wait. WHAT Was That You Said?

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Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.

Margaret J. Wheatley  at  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretj283927.html#DW7KqoIsDM1uGJif.99

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A Woman of Words in A Time of Reprieve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…shop for clothes?

…shop for gifts?

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

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

Pick three heroes and talk about them!

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

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

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

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

What do you wish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parsing the Puppy: A Tale Told to Family

Image taken from open Internet source
Image taken from open Internet source

By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”

“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Yes, darlin’?”
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.

 

 

Martin’s House of Books

Most days she loved her work. She loved the ‘standing on the threshold’ tentative bravery of the sixth graders she taught: their readiness to explore new territory. She liked searching out accessible translations of classic works–a modern Odyssey, perhaps,– and sorting through the latest young adult offerings to find the finest, most meaningful, most compelling pieces to share with her class. She even liked grading their essays, although with two a week, it was a never-ending chore. But she saw their growth, in thought, in craft, in expression.

That was most days. Some days nothing clicked and many things grated. The students snickered and tweeted; parents complained; the school administration badgered her with reminders of soon-due reports and the necessity of administering state-mandated testing during precious class time.

On those days, she looked at her students, who were not looking back, and doubted she was even making a dent. She pondered how to respond civilly but cogently to the note from the parent who thought her son’s English homework was taking precious time away from his basketball participation. She got out her big paper calendar and tried to see how she could fit the damned tests into the schedule of lessons and still cover all the essential topics. And she wondered why she was pouring herself into this thankless, thankless job.

On those days, she wished life came with a backdoor which she could just walk out for a while, leaving all the hassling behind.

On those days, she packed up her things after the school day ended and went to Martin’s House of Books.

She’d leave her car at home, dumping the heavy bag of schoolwork in the corner by the china cabinet, and put her canvas shopping bag, neatly folded and waiting on her desk for just these excursions, into her purse. And then she’d walk the half mile to Martin’s, down the hill, past where the neatly creepy gothic manse perched, and onto Alder Avenue, a working class street with bars and resale shops, automotive supply retailers, convenience stores, and sturdy old family homes.

It was in one of those sturdy, broad-porched houses that Martin Dempsey had his bookstore.

She always stopped on the porch to look at the clearance books; they stayed on the little shelf centered in front of the picture window until they sold. Some had been there since the day she discovered the shop. She’d open one of them–a vintage copy, say, of James Michener’s Hawaii–and hold it up to her nose: musty and crisp all at once. The pages were yellowed with age, and finely spotted.

She’d pull on the screen door and go inside. The house had no vestibule. A step through the door took her right into the first common room. The stairs stared right at her; Martin sat at his desk just to her right. And everywhere there were books.

The cookbooks lined the facing wall, and she always browsed through those first. She could spend an evening with a good cookbook, and if it was a cookbook memoir–well, she’d turn off her phone. She loved the classic food memoirists–MFK Fisher, Gladys Taber–and she liked the sassy new blogger-type writers–I Loved I Lost I Ate Spaghetti; Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes.

She’d say hello to Martin and survey the cookbooks, checking to see what was new. Well, new to Martin–all of his books were used, of course; rarely did he offer anything printed in the last year.

While she looked, Martin would slide off his stool behind the desk, and, as he put it, “pop into the kitchen.” He’d put the tea kettle onto his gas stove. This was Martin’s actual kitchen; he lived in the bookstore, and often she could smell a delicious roasting dinner. He lived alone, Martin did, —alone with thousands of books— but he believed in what he called “real meals”, and he made good use of the cookbooks on his shelves.

By the time she had explored the cookbooks–maybe setting aside a Jacques Pepin or something by Alice Waters–the tea was steeping in Martin’s little turquoise ceramic pot, a pot which had been his mother’s. He would bring out two sturdy mismatched mugs from the local pottery–one might have hand-painted pansies, the other a rustic plaid pattern,–and a delicate china plate. One of the things she liked so much about Martin, one of the things they shared, was a reverence for everyday objects with history. He used his mother’s dishes, things he’d eaten from as a child, that reminded him of that special woman. He made his living sharing the literature from the past century–sometimes, his books were even older than that.

There’d be two cookies on the china plate, large flat cookies, golden, sugar-studded, crispy brown on the edges. The cookies crunched and exploded; they were all butter and sugar, outrageous flavor. Martin made them once a week and shared them, he assured her, only with his most cherished customers.

They would settle in, with their mugs of Earl Grey, for a chat; she sat on a folding chair on one side of the counter, and he climbed back onto his stool behind it. One of the cats (there were two; the other was a woman-hater) came and curled up under her chair. It would yowl softly, hopelessly, wanting a chunk of cookie, knowing that would probably never happen. The tea and the food sat next to the adding machine he used for a cash register. He took cash and he took checks, Martin did; he didn’t deal in plastic. She could leave her credit cards, her debit card, at home.

Martin, who was cranky, opinionated, and very, very kind, would prompt her. “What,” he would ask, “are the little shits up to now?”

She would talk it through; Martin had taught high school history for 25 years, and he would guide her so that she didn’t stumble down into the land of misery. She would start out bemoaning the woeful receptivity of modern children to literature and thoughtful inquiry. And he would agree. But by the time she was finished, she’d be acknowledging that the latest project, in which the children wrote letters to characters or illustrated book jackets, was actually working quite well.

Martin would listen carefully. He was an odd looking man with parts that didn’t quite match. He was tall, but his face was round except for a jutting chin. He had slender shoulders and strongly muscled arms. His eyes were the piercing blue found in the Irish isles he loved so much. He had straight lank hair, gray and brown and white, and it fell, a limp bang, into his eyes.

These days, he seldom left his shop; a friend came in on Wednesday mornings and spelled him so he could take his big old muscle car out, do his shopping, pay his bills,– which he did in person, not by mail, if possible. He went to St. Nicholas Church’s 8 AM Mass on Sundays. In his youth, he had served in Viet Nam, and afterwards, he had not come home; he had gone to Ireland, to the Pacific Northwest, to Nova Scotia, back to Ireland. Had there been someone special there?

She wondered.

He came home finally, got married, got his schooling, took a teaching job. They’d never had children, and somewhere in that net of years, his wife had left. He retired early to care for his mother; she had left his father, too, but she moved into a house–this house–two doors down from the old man.

Martin kept his father updated throughout his mother’s illness. The old man brought the dog to visit and took care of his wife’s garbage and yard work. She slipped away in the middle of one night, without fuss or bother, as Martin nodded beside her bed.

He started sorting through her things, through her hundreds and hundreds of books, and then just gave up, moved into the house, built shelves, and opened a used bookstore. In the beginning, he closed on Thursday and Friday and traveled the state, going to sales and thrift shops, collecting even more books; now, people brought their books to him; his inventory grew and shifted, ebbed and flowed, and he stayed closer and closer to home.

She’d learned all this through the course of several visits. He would also tell her of some specific teaching disaster that would make her laugh–one time, he said, his students were so angry at a pop quiz (given because he had been so angry at their lack of preparation for his class) that they stormed out of the school when the bell rang and somehow hefted his Volkswagen Beetle onto the roof. It made a fetching sort of hood ornament, he allowed now, but in the day, he had failed, pretty much, to see the humor.

They had, he said, a helluva time getting it down.

He had refused, of course, to press charges, and some of those ‘boys’ visited the shop monthly now, small children, older children, grandchildren, in tow.

As they talked, they would savor their cookies, crumbs bursting onto counter and books, and she would lick her fingers and pick the crumbs up and eat them. The cat would sigh. When the tea was gone, Martin would clear his throat and clear their dishes away; conversation time was over. She would prowl through the shop.

Children’s books rested in and around and above the fireplace on the wall to the right of Martin’s desk–lots of Beatrix Potter, and an odd jumble that delighted her–every episode of the Babysitter’s Club; Anne of Green Gables; Lois Ehlert picture books; a series she especially liked by a British author about a boy named Tom and his stuffed monkey, Pippo; a random copy or two of a Hunger Games volume. The classics–Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Secret Garden,– were jammed onto shelves right inside the fireplace itself, paperbacks, hard covers. She often chose her next class read-aloud from inside Martin’s fireplace.

Then, ignoring the really old books and first editions housed behind Martin’s desk, she’d move back into what must have been his mother’s dining room. He had shelves from floor to twelve foot ceiling, and the room was a cave of fiction, with one wall of nonfiction and biography. She always found something there to soothe her–a Rosamund Pilcher or a Marcia Willet, Maeve Binchy, Jane Austen–something light and faraway, with likable, believable people and troubles that resolved by the end of the book.

She would take the books she’d chosen and leave them on the counter; Martin, who was reading, would grunt. And she would head upstairs, to where the paperbacks waited, in two old bedrooms, on wire racks that turned. High, unwieldy stacks crowned each rack, so that she didn’t dare actually turn them; she would snake through. She had a couple of mysteries she liked; Lord Peter Wimsey was a good read, and she liked the exploits of Dame Frevisse. There was a contemporary series about knitters in a seaside village that seemed to be a breeding ground for murders; those were fun and required no literary criticism or unraveling of symbolism on her part.

The back room held spy thrillers, cowboy series, military books. She didn’t usually go in there. Through a door on the back wall, always cracked open, she could see Martin’s Jenny Lind style bed, gleaming wood, chenille bedspread tightly pulled and tucked under the pillows. On the wall above, two pictures hung: a red toned Jesus with his sacred heart; the blessed Mother all in blue.

And then she would go downstairs, put her paperbacks on top of her other finds, and Martin would tot up her costs. She’d pull out her canvas tote, and they’d pack up her loot and say goodbye.

At the door, she’d always turn slightly and Martin would give her this funny little salute, first touching the index finger of his right hand to his right eyebrow and then pointing at her. She would smile and let the door slam gently behind her, swinging her bagful of books, swinging down the porch stairs, out onto the sidewalk.

Those were ‘can of soup’ nights; she’d heat one up on the gas stove, and eat at the table with a book splayed open next to her. She’d forgo doing any schoolwork, instead running a hot bath, soaking while she read. Often she’d finish the book in bed.

She’d think about Martin and his students and wonder–she, who was a relative newcomer to this town–if any of her sixth graders had descended from those boys who muscled that little car up onto the high school roof.

The next day, she’d walk back into her life, and always it turned out to be better. She was relaxed, the kids were in tune, the obstacles and irritations were bearable. She loved her work, even knowing that a different day would roll around, maybe next week, maybe next month. Knowing, too, that Martin’s House of Books was there, a doorway into a different world, an escape hatch when she needed it.

In Prose and Thanksgiving

Mark on the River

 

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

I know, I know, said Pete;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales told to strangers

The receptionist called her son. She picked up her book–Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch–and settled in to read. This was a week with a house full of guests, and this was a book she’d been longing to read. The hour of wait time while her son saw the therapist seemed heaven-sent.

Sun poured through the windows on both sides of the waiting room, and she moved to another chair, against the wall facing the reception desk. There was only one other wait-er, and he was facing the windows.

But when she moved, he turned to face her and said, Yes. The sun.

It was, she knew, choice time. She could smile, tightly and politely, open up her book and end the conversation. Or she could swing the door open a little wider and let him talk.

She said, I can’t complain about the sun after all the rain we’ve had.

His face relaxed and he began to tell her about his garden. She studied him, and Humpty Dumpty came to mind. Not because he was fat–he was tall and rangy, long white arms emerging from the gray sleeves of a t-shirt emblazoned with a local high school’s emblem, long white knobby-kneed legs emerging from gray knit shorts. But his head, face and scalp, was absolutely hairless, oval and shiny.

He shinnied as far as he could to the side of his chair, put his elbows on his legs and clasped his hands. He leaned toward her, and spilled a torrent of information about his corn and zucchini. He told her about making his own bruschetta with every damned thing from his own garden, which was something, he’d tell you, his kids loved but couldn’t be bothered to do themselves. His wife–

Here he stopped to explain that she was in seeing the therapist. They’d just come, he said, from the emergency room. Couple days ago, she was sewing and she poked herself a good one. Didn’t tell him though. And then this morning the thumb was as big as his chin, and tight and hot.

So the emergency room doc took one look and he lanced it wide open, and you would not believe the stuff—

She moved sharply here, and he veered. The wife, he said, was sensitive, and after all that, she couldn’t stop crying, and so he’d brought her here, and they was going to get her calmed down.

And where, he asked, do you buy your meat?

Well, she said, startled, we watch the sales and go to several different places.

Well, he replied, don’t be going to Kroger. That meat ain’t no good. Now Campbells, that’s the place to go, or even Mattingly’s–you can get a rib eye at Mattingly’s some weeks for 4.89.

The trick to it, he said, is to marinate. And the marinade has to have something sweet, something sour, something oily. His kids–they love it when he grills.

This other day, he tried something different, he said, and he sluiced his eyes at her, wondering maybe how she’d take this bit. He had a friend ’bout twenty miles north whose truck had a problem, and he himself was a good hand with fixing an engine, so his friend asked him to come take a look.

Well, this friend makes his own shine, Humpty confided, and the problem with the truck seemed to be that someone had maybe drove it into a ditch, and maybe that someone’d been drinking his own shine and didn’t want anyone to know he’d been driving under the influence.

He was able, he said, to get the truck running pretty good again, and his friend gave him a pretty good payment, and he sent him home with a good jar of shine. And by the way, ma’am, do you know how to tell if shine is safe to drink?

He cocked his shiny head toward her and she shook hers slightly. Looking pleased, he said, Well, here’s what you do. You take a little capful of the shine and pour it on the ground. Then you throw a lighted match on it.

If it burns blue, why you’re good to go. If it burns yellow, don’t you drink that shine–it’s poison.

His friend’s shine was good, though, and he made himself a moonshine marinade.

Trying new things, he allowed, was good, and his daughter had a website–write this down, he told her, or remember it so you can check–MissyDelishy. She got all these great recipes for marijuana. Yes! He learned about that from his daughter; she made brownies and chili and marijuana butter–

Mom? said her son. Ready to go?

She picked up her book and held her hand out to the man. He shook it, half-standing up.

As she turned to leave, he said, his voice almost pleading, I’m only 51, you know.

They walked to the car, opened the doors to stifling heat. As she ramped up the air conditioning, her son asked, Why’d he tell you how old he was?

I’m not sure, she said, thoughtfully, but I think he wanted to know there was enough time left.

Left for what? her son asked.

That I don’t know, Buddy, she answered. They headed home to their company, the unopened book resting on the back seat.

********

The Motor Vehicles Bureau was jam-packed. Normally, she’d just renew by mail, but the way the pays fell this month, it was better to show up in person and renew her registration. She took a number and found an empty place against the wall at the end of a bank of seats.

A boxy woman with sawed off hair and steely glasses was in the last seat, one leg pumping anxiously. She had a brown jacket in her lap; on the jacket was a badge with a garage’s logo, and the name ‘Enid’ was stamped beneath.

I never had to do THIS before, Enid told her. I always come in and took care of it, but this time, they tell me I gotta have my husband with me. Truck’s in his name. So I called him, told him to get his ass down here. Now I’m just waiting. Soon’s he comes, I get back in line and you can have my seat.

Enid paused, and then snorted. My business, she said, is towing unregistered vehicles to the police compound. Guess it wouldn’t do to be driving an unregistered truck.

Enid contemplated that for a minute, and then heaved herself out of the chair. There’s the old goat now, she said. You sit. You got you a wait.

She sat down and put her book on her lap, and the woman next to her turned and said, Can you BELIEVE this? I just come down to get my husband’s motorcycle registered. I didn’t expect to be here an hour. I just got out of work,– and she gestured, Vanna-like, to her flowered scrubs. She had a name tag that said, ‘Ana B’.

I work, Ana B. said, couple days at a rehab for old folks. It’s not bad, and I like the old folks. They remind me of my mother, before she passed. And hey, she said, a little fiercely, we all need someone when we get up there, right?

Ana B was probably pushing 60, she thought. Her husband, standing so the women could sit, came over to check on her. Gray cropped buzz cut, pale eyes behind rimless glasses, he leaned over her. Want anything, Mother? he asked. Need a drink?

No, no, Ana B told him, shooing him away; don’t fuss.

That man, she said to Ana B, clearly adores you.

Ana B paused, then, Yes. Yes he does, she allowed. It’s been a tough row, and so I’m glad he can get him a bike. Last time he had one was before the babies, so that was almost forty years now.

They had five girls, and they were all doing okay. But the baby–he was a boy, and he was right around 21, and he was–Ana B turned to her, and her eyes were bottomless–that boy is rotten. I’m not kidding. He is ROTTEN, she said, and she shimmered with sorrow.

They lived in the city, Ana added, and she was a city girl, but their place burned down and the insurance only paid them enough to rent an apartment down by the train terminal, and they would wake up in the night to gunfire. Pimps and hookers, drug deals on the corner, she said, and every day it seemed, one of the kids would be there: Can I borrow twenty bucks? And they were soft touches, both of them; they’d dole it out.

We got sick of it, said Ana B, and we looked around and bought us 85 acres out in the country. No neighbors, no gun shots, no drugs. And when the kids call to ask for money, she says sure. Come out here and get it.

And they say, MOM. It would cost me thirty dollars to drive there. And Ana B says, Oh, honey. Better not, then.

That’s a big change, she said, city to country. Do you like it?

Ana B was thoughtful again, patting her long hair–wavy lengths of gray, brown, blonde and white, behind her back. I cried every night for two months, she said. And then I thought I’d try a garden. You have a garden? That garden saved me. I love my garden.

92? shouted a clerk, and she held up her ticket, got up, and wished Ana B the best. The husband, seeing her rise, inched over to sit next to his wife. He grabbed Ana B’s hand.

Think of us, Ana B said, whizzing down those country roads on this man’s new toy.

—-

After dinner, dishes done, guests snug in the family room watching The Grand Budapest Hotel on DVD, she grabbed her IPod, pulled on her sneakers, and went out for a walk. But she pulled the ear buds out before the first song played, needing the quiet, needing to let the voices of strangers play out in her mind.

Her husband sometimes joked that she should have ‘Sap’ tattooed on her forehead.

People, he’d say, will tell you any damned thing.

She thought about that, about the tales told to strangers in a waiting room. Crazy stories, sad stories, stories that made her want to laugh, ask questions, give advice–although that was not what the tellers wanted or needed.

She thought about the rotten son, about MissyDelishy’s website.

And then she put her earbuds back in and headed out for a vigorous walk.