Other Days

Some days, you just start out tired.

Some days, you make yourself go for the early morning walk, but it’s more of a trudge, and mean dogs snarl behind high fences, crows cackle cruelly, and other walkers cross the street to avoid you. Social distancing: you know, but still it feels cold and rude, because some days just dawn that way.

Some days you wish you had a nice bowl of granola for breakfast, but you just really don’t feel like making a batch. Maybe later, you think, disgruntled and weary. And you eat a leftover bagel, which you really don’t want, but it lets you wear your scarlet martyr patch– I am eating the leftovers so we don’t throw them away!—right there on your chest.

And you sigh, deep and heavy, because it’s just what you need to do this day.

Some days you feel like you might just fall down under the weight of technological expectations. Do I really need to manage this, you think bitterly, by MONDAY?

And where, you ponder bleakly, is your TECH support?

You send them another email, but you don’t expect an answer, not on a day like this day.

Not when the temperature has dropped twenty degrees in two hours and the clouds are the color of pulsing old dirty lead, and that heaviness is escaping them, falling to earth in straight chilling lines.

Some days the weather app says it probably won’t stop raining until after supper.

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

But then, once in a while, you surprise yourself and figure out, say, how to install Zoom. And you go to your morning appointment, and, another surprise: it’s a good rich Zoom meeting. You scribble notes in your old black-speckled composition notebook, and those rusty doors in your mind open up, and you GET it, you really do.

And one of those people at the meeting proposes an easy work around to your technology issue, and it’s simple and beautiful and doable.

You sign off from the meeting with a clear picture of what needs to be done next, and you realize that what needs to be done NEXT doesn’t have to be done NOW. And you go downstairs and eat a salad, and a leftover pork chop, and a handful of Muddy Buddies, and your husband comes in and says, “Would you like a fire? Just to take the chill off?”

And, “YES,” you say, because once in a while, a fire is the best thing, and you realize this is one of those whiles. And you take your book, and you sit by the fire, and the rain falls in vertical sheets, the wind buffets, and the words take on new meaning. The fire crackles.

You turn the pages of the book and the story makes you think and makes you realize; little walls that used to mark off half-ruined, half-hearted stereotypes crumble completely, and there are clearer, broader vistas in the horizon of your mind.

Some days open doors, and some days you are ready to walk through them.

And you close your book and you drowse by the fire…not really sleeping, just resting and gathering.

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

And you remember, suddenly, a soup recipe that calls for four things you have in the refrigerator—the leftover chunky meat sauce with tomatoes, the beans, the sausage, and the spinach. Some days are soup days, and this day, with the wind barging insistently against the bay window, is surely one.

This is crazy, you think, as you wipe down the counter and lay the recipe, copied from the Internet down flat. Soup made from leftovers?

Come on.

But you heat the oil and sauté the onion and stir in the garlic; you defrost chicken broth while the red peppers flakes simmer and the tomatoes soften. You open cans and measure macaroni and stir broth and white beans into the pot.

You chop fresh spinach—locally grown, farmer’s market spinach,—into thin little ribbons, then turn them around and cut the ribbons into rectangles.

And the boyos come out; they say the mess on the stove smells GOOD, and they say, You know what? We’re going to get some crusty bread!

And they make a reservation for a curbside pick up and head off cheerfully into the rain.

Which, now you think of it, has slowed down quite a bit.

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

When the car pulls back into the driveway, you stir the spinach into the simmering soup pot, and you watch it wilt for a minute. Then you pour in parmesan and stir. And it really, really does smell wonderful.

And the boyos come in with a fresh loaf of tomato basil bread, and the soup is just right, a thick, hearty, peasant-y kind of a brew.

You mop the last juices from your bowl with a piece of good bread, and you agree with your husband: that was just the right soup for a day like this day.

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

And by the time the dishes are done, the evening sun shines, pale and hopeful, and you lace up your sneakers. And it is cool out, but also amazing…flowering bushes and trees preening in the sun, cardinals and robins swooping and darting. Squirrels leap onto tree trunks and fat bunnies find their speed and leave arrogant kitty cats behind and bereft.

And you walk in the waning sun and breathe in deep gulps of fresh, cold air and you think that some days, you need to stop careening, all crazy and thoughtless, down some steep and nondescript hill. You need to veer off the path and sit on a rock and look to see how far you’ve come.

Some days are all about action and other days are all about perspective.

And some days, you just need to rest.

A Walk in the Rain

I’m a walkin’ in the rain

Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain

A wishin’ you were here with me

To end this misery

And I wonder…

—Del Shannon, “Runaway”

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

The week dawns, cool and gray, and I am determined to be more organized. I will, I decide, take my first walk of the day before I have my first cup of coffee. So, as the sky lightens, I pour fresh water into the coffee maker and put a brown paper liner in the basket. I scoop coffee into the grinder and make it hum, shaking it up between grindings.

The ground coffee (the beans come by mail from a wonderful roaster in Clintonville) smells rich and hearty. The odor wafts through the kitchen; it’s the scent of the start of day, with all the mysteries and possibilities that entails.

I pour the coffee into the filter, and I lace up my new walking shoes. I slide into a light jacket, and just before I leave, I hit ‘brew’. As I close the back door gently behind me, I hear the coffee maker gearing up with a sigh, and a pause, and a hiss.

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

This is finals week, and I think about my classes as I push off around the block. We started off face-to-face, building the kind of momentum that meeting in a group and talking in person brings. And then there was spring break, and we returned to a different kind of environment: an online one.

This was especially hard for my gen ed students, taking a first writing class to get ready for the one that bears transferable credit. Everything was new to that small group: college expectations, college pacing, and definitely college technology.

There were hiccups as we morphed to a new kind of class delivery, but the students hunkered down and worked it through. And now, in the last week of class, most of them have found their way and their voice.

Their work has amazed me.

I round to the right, onto a larger street. Squirrels are manic this morning. I walk under a bank of shady, mature trees, and a black squirrel dithers on the sidewalk before me, maybe twenty feet away.

It sees me, freezes, then throws up its little arms.

It puts its head down and runs toward the street. Then it stops and scurries back to the sidewalk. It bounces, jittery, from side to side.

Finally, when I am less than ten feet away, it decides. It runs off into the yard and leaps into a tiny sapling, swaying the trunk as I plod on by.

Sometimes, I think, I act exactly like that, frenetically dithering.

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

I meet my two ‘women of a certain age’ walking buddies; we stop and talk, keeping six feet between us. They hold their hands out, palms up, testing. They say they think they feel some drops.

My weather app didn’t say anything about any morning showers, I think. And they head off south while I push on.

I reach my turn-around point, waving to a hefty young guy softly jogging across the road, and I veer around an older couple in crisp cloth jackets. They are slowly walking a white-muzzled, red-haired, shaggy beast. Another jogger, sleek and intent in fitted, matching black tights and jacket, is going the way I will take up when I turn. I go an extra block or so in my turning around so we don’t have to navigate the courtesies of shared space in the outdoor COVID universe.

And as I turn around, finally, as I head back, I feel the first energetic plop of rain.

By the time I get home, my hair, missing its wonderful haircutter’s touch anyway, is a thick, wet, unruly, flattened mass.

Just because the weather app didn’t mention it, that doesn’t mean it WON’T rain.

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

I spend the morning grading exam essays: it’s a good endeavor, with unique work and evidence of mastery, and I am in the happy position of awarding very high grades to almost every paper. But finally I reach a limit; my neck is aching, and I need to stand up, feed my Fitbit, and check messages.

When I grab my phone and unhook it from its charger, I see a message from the kind of friend who is almost family. Her son is a rising young professional, enthusiastic and gifted. Today, writes my friend, he has been furloughed indefinitely from a job he loves. His industry, too, falls victim to the pandemic.

I think about what it must be like to be a young person, starting a career, having done it all right—earning the degrees with great GPA’s, scooping up every chance to get the right kinds of experience, making those essential connections, landing just the right job.

And then the world is blindsided by COVID-19.

I walk to the back door and open it.

The unpredicted rain is still falling, heavy and cold.

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

On Wednesday, the weather app warns of possible early showers. I get my morning walk in with no problems, though, and the little weather-app pictures under “11 a.m.” show clouds but no droplets. That’s when Mark and Jim and I head off to the college campus.

The clouds are broody gray when we park, but, hey: the app does say mostly cloudy. I help Jim untangle his ear bud cords, and he heads off to walk the front way. Mark and I decide we’ll walk through the quad and then circle around.

Mark starts to tell me something the governor said in yesterday’s briefing. He stops.

“Is that a drop?” he asks.

We keep on, though, but in ten yards or so, we have to admit there are MANY drops.

And then it is truly raining. We turn around to retrace our steps and see Jim, too, is running toward the car.

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

At home, I use the extra time to finish up grading and check student messages. I get a follow up email from a student who had written the day before. She’d said she’d been in bed for two days with a high temp, unable to eat or talk or concentrate.

I shot an email back and said, Call your doctor RIGHT NOW, even though I suspected her support system must have already insured that happened.

Today’s email says she is still very sick, and the bad news is she’s tested positive for COVID-19. She is sorry she can’t get her final exam essay in on time.

I reply, telling her we can work out an incomplete. I let her know the college has extended the incomplete period, and not to even think about it until she feels better.

I ask her if it’s okay if I pray for her.

I feel a physical thud in the floor of my gut; I push the chair away from the computer, and I step out on to the back porch.

I think about this student, very young, separated by an ocean from her family, suffering from a scary, little understood illness. I feel the dragon moving, feel the worm shift and nudge, and realize the beast is not so very far away at all. We can try, and we can follow all the rules and guidelines, we can do our best. We hope these things will help, but we none of us are guaranteed immunity.

And I watch the rain fall.

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

Thursday’s early morning walk is droplet-free; in fact, the sky is brightening like the sun might just crack through those crowds. I send off grade-posting day emails to both my classes, check averages, populate grade columns. Mark comes out of his office at about 10:45.

“Should I get my shoes on?” asks Jim, and I reflect that two months ago the boyo would not have gotten so excited about taking a daily walk. It’s a good change.

“Look how bright the sky is getting!” I say, and we agree this day is working out to be a little nicer than expected. I gather up my phone, my hanky, my keys, and join the boyos on the back porch.

They turn to me with bland faces. Someone grabbed the metallic edges of the sky-doors and pulled them open with a rusty squawk.

And, heavens opened, the rain pours down.

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

So Thursday’s walk turns into a drive. As Mark pulls out of the drive, I dig my buzzing phone from my pocket. A lifelong friend has left a message. I’ll listen and call her back when we get home.

Heavy rain sluices down the windshield; James plays songs from a sixties play list. Mark pulls us out onto Route 146.

“We’re exploring,” he says before I can ask.

The rain flickers; the rain strengthens. Mark turns onto a road we’ve never taken, a meandering road that winds past a state nature preserve and opens out into other options, not all of them paved.

Wet cows stand stolidly in fields. We pass mini-mansions with broad sweeping grounds. We pass working farms. We pass bedraggled tiny homes with half a dozen rusting vehicles clogging their drives.

We crunch onto gravel, and Jim’s face clouds.

“I think I’ll listen on my headphones,” he says.

Wind gusts; rain sputters. Mark drives on, a grin tweaking the corners of his mouth. This is just the kind of exploration he enjoys.

Gravel gives way to dirt, which is quickly turning to mud. Jim pulls the ear buds out.

Annnnnnnnnd…there’s no signal,” he sighs. “We’re in a DEAD zone,” he tells his dad.

I am just about to suggest the map app when Mark sees a sign. “I know where we are!” he says triumphantly, and ten minutes later we are pulling onto a four-lane, half an hour from home.

Jim, relieved, shares some classic rock, and the rain surges and stops, surges a little less confidently, spits at us, and then takes a break.

Rain is falling when we got home, but kind of half-heartedly. A good time, we agree, for a leftovers lunch.

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

Then I call my dear friend from my little study upstairs. We have a good talk, about keeping busy and active in a quarantine, about the differences between our two states’ rules and guidelines. She shares the wonderful news that her daughter is expecting. Being optimistic, she is planning a shower for summer’s end, hoping that gatherings can take place in four months’ time.

I tell her about my sick student, and she tells me about her good friend whose mother died on Sunday night.

It isn’t the first recent loss for this friend; the lady across the street passed on Easter Sunday. Unable to meet, the neighbors sowed their front windows with white fairy lights, and they turned them on at 8 p.m. on Easter Monday to honor the passed one’s memory and warm her widower with their caring. The widower’s siblings and family heard of this, and they drove to the neighborhood. They stood in the dark, six feet apart, holding candles.

And the neighbor who’d lost his wife stood in his window and soaked it all in, the glow and the warmth, the grief and the love.

My friend says the web went into action for this second loss. She got calls: Could we do this again? And so they repeated the vigil, the lights and the candles, the silent and separate ceremony. The solidarity even when they couldn’t stand together.

She says, wryly, that they seemed to have developed a COVID way of creating memorials. She hopes that few people struggle with a loved one’s death during these strange days. But, if people do, my friend says, maybe this is a way to mark that passing.

She has been my friend since high school; she has always been the one who can defuse tension with kindness, who reads the need in a person’s very posture and instinctively, compassionately, does just the right thing to make even something horrible a little bit better.

I am pretty sure the lights and the candles and the just-right way of sharing in grief in COVID days come from the caring imagination of her warm heart. But, “Ahhh, it was everyone,” she says. “Everyone together.”

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

After we talk, I tromp downstairs and post my grades. Restless, I pull on my walking shoes and my jacket and step outside. The rain has stopped, but dark clouds bank to the west. In the east, though, it looks as though the sun is still fighting to shine through.

I check the weather app on my phone. Thirty per cent chance of rain, it says. I stand uncertainly for a minute, but, really, what can I do? I step off the porch, and I start out on a walk.

Soup

Image found on Pinterest…

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

Tuesday morning: 5:42. Rain pounds relentlessly.

Mark goes off to the gym, umbrella opened as he runs to the car, and I sit in the dining room and write my morning pages. Water sluices down the windows. My all-knowing phone app says that, with a break here and there, rain will fall all day long.

I write, “This is a good day to make some soup,” and I look at my written words and know they are exactly true.

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

Summer is not a season of simmering pots, of things diced and sautéed and brewed up together. It is a season of grilled things—meats and veggies both—and of steaming ears of boiled corn. In summer foods are separate; they don’t touch on the plate unless the potato salad dares to encroach on the hot dog bun’s space, or the cowboy beans get overly friendly with the cole slaw. It is a time for sandwiches, for steaks and fillets.

It is a season for whole dinners that don’t require silverware.

I realize, on Tuesday, that I yearn for a big, long-simmered pot of something.

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

I take some early steps inside; then I sit at the computer, work on syllabi, and charge Connie, my Fitbit. While I fine-tune assignments and pull up ice breaker possibilities, another section of my mind is weighing soup varieties. There is Jodi’s beef-barley stoup, which is rich and hearty. Kathie’s rice and chicken soup makes another thick, stick to the ribs, kind of simmering pot.

Both of those soups are delicious, but maybe too much for a day that, although the skies are wringing wide open, will still soar into the eighties. I think that I will save those pleasures for autumn, when the air crisps, and there’s a bushel of apples on the bench on the back stoop,—days when the thought of a steaming bowl of heartiness and a great chunk of cornbread, butter melting on its golden brown, crusty top, rewards me for persevering.

Then I remember Wendy’s chicken tortilla soup recipe,which is perfect for a stormy summer day, and I go searching.

I cannot find the recipe in any of my paper-recipe reservoirs; I give up and print it out again. This time, I promise myself, I will three-hole punch this treasure and put it in my newest binder of family favorites.

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

I take a rummaging break. I pull two packages of chicken from the chest freezer downstairs. I’ll poach the thighs and shred the meat for soup. I’ll bread the boneless breasts with panko and parm for Jim, who, like many folks with autism, does not like his foods to touch, and does not like the texture of long-simmered veggies.

I bring up the three last frozen blocks of chicken broth, realizing it’s time to make more.

I find a tiny container of chopped tomatoes and a quarter cup of leftover corn hiding behind big jars in the refrigerator. I’ll add those to the canned, diced tomatoes from the pantry shelf and the cupful of frozen corn from the industrial-sized bag in the freezer. There is sweet chili sauce; there are onions and garlic. I debate dicing up one of the jalapeno peppers Mark broke home from last week’s Wednesday night Farmer’s Market.

I line the dry ingredients up on the counter, put the cold things together on the second refrigerator shelf. I have everything I need for a well-simmered meal.

Soup: the scavenger of pantry shelves; the simmering pot that purges leftovers.

At 10:00 there is a weather break; the dampness fades from the streets and sidewalks, leaving pale gray stretches between puddles. I check my phone for permission; it tells me that yes, I can probably squeeze a walk in before the next rain.

I lace up my sneakers and head off, headphones on. I see the burly cheerful guy who’s usually out when I am, early in the morning. We wave as we stride past, and we agree that we have a LITTLE window of safe walking time, and we go marching off in our separate directions.

I crank up the 100 best songs of the ‘70’s playlist and I walk fast. I walk with Elton John and with Grand Funk Railroad, and I hitch a ride with Janis. The sky turns ominous, and I turn back, having fit three-fourths of my usual walk into this rain-free time.

The music is hard and fast and I match my strides to its rhythms and I hurry home. I’m listening to faded rock icons, but I am thinking, “Soup.”

Soup: the promise of warmth and protection on wild weather days.

I soak the boneless breasts in milk; I put the still-frozen thighs in the old, old cast iron skillet. I pour in water, and I put them on the stove, over a medium flame, and I throw in some herbs and spices, salt and pepper, and I go back to work while they simmer. Scented steam sneaks out from under the glass top.

By the time Mark comes home for lunch, the house is perfumed, and the chicken is cooked through.

I lift the thighs from the pan with tongs and set them on a small platter to cool. Mark and Jim look at them longingly, but we slice yesterday’s roast beef for sandwiches.

The rain has come back; umbrella-ed, Mark darts off to work. James and I drive to the mall, where we head off to walk in opposite directions. I can hear the pounding onslaught on the flat metal roof of the shopping center. I weave in and out of families urgently shopping for school supplies, and shoes, and just the right shirt to wear on that all-important first day.

Connie buzzes: I have met my step goal for the day. I meet Jim at the food court, where he shares a cup of hot pretzel nuggets. We stop at a funky store that has an amazing variety of stuff, and Jim finds a lamp that he’d looked at online. Its two black metal dragons face each other, wings half-furled, supporting the base. A tomato-red jewel gleams between them.

“This is just like the one online,” he says, “but it’s twenty dollars cheaper!”

It will look great in Jim’s newly painted, deeply blue room. We buy the lamp and head off in the rain,–heading home to make the soup.

Soup: that magic potion that draws us home.

I dig out the heavy sauce pot. And finally, I can cut and chop.

I dice onions and garlic, toss them into the heated olive oil; their enthusiastic simmering drowns out the rain, once more churned into torrent-force. While the veggies soften, I pull chicken, carefully saving skin and bones to make more broth.

I assemble spices, and I add a little water to the dregs on the bottom of the sweet chili sauce bottle, shaking it to get all the last bits of good flavor excited about going into soup. I dig out the big old can-opener and turn open a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce.

This is a perfect recipe, but like any fine soup, it does not suffer from substitutions or additions. We don’t have a can of condensed tomato soup, but the tomato sauce will do fine. Sweet chili sauce will fill in for chili powder. Cayenne will do for cumin, too.

I nuke the frozen blocks of broth. The onions and garlic are soft and fragrant. The shredded chicken joins them. I pour in the broth, already steaming from the microwave. I stir in spices and potions and the canned tomatoes; I throw in the refrigerated leftovers and the cup of frozen corn.

I stir and stir with my big wooden spoon, introducing all these disparate elements, urging them to get along, to work together to create something wonderful, and bubbling, and new.

I dip the boneless chicken into panko bread crumbs mixed with parmesan, and put them on a tray, and slide them into the oven.

It is four-thirty in the afternoon, and I take my Donna Leon murder mystery to the reading chair. And at that moment I cannot think of a better place to be, my bare feet resting on the old fuzzy gold throw, my imagination traveling on a Venetian canal with Commissario Brunetti, searching for answers. It’s been a good day’s work; my syllabi are almost done; the house is straightened up. Laundry tumbles below me as rain pounds above.

And from the kitchen, a wonderfully perfumed steam emanates.

Soup: an elixir of anticipation.

Mark comes home a little after 5:00, and, “Oh, man. That smells GOOD,” he says, and he heads off to change. I struggle out of the comfy chair and we converge in the kitchen.

Jim puts tots in the preheated air fryer to roast up, crispy and sizzling. I find the block of Vermont cheddar in the fridge, and Mark digs out the cheese slicer. There are whole grain crackers. There is a new bag of crunchy corn tortilla strips.

We pull roasted chicken from the oven, and Jim makes himself a plate of golden treats and wanders off to eat and type.

Mark grabs the old white ladle from the crock, and we fill the heavy white ceramic bowls with soup that is thick with meat and veggies and the exact rich tone of that jewel in the dragon lamp. We sit at the table and slurp; we slice cheese almost so thin we can see through it and we fold it onto those fresh, crunchy crackers.

And the day releases. Goals fulfilled, tensions melt in the fragrant steam.

Soup: the reward at the end of a stormy day.

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

Wednesday dawns bright and washed clean. I lace up and head out, seventies music pulsing me along. It will be a busy day, and it will be a hot one. Today, I think, we’ll rub some chops and throw them on the grill, put together a lettuce salad.

It’s a day to gather with retired teachers for an outdoor lunch, to mow the lawn, to trim the iris leaves, browning and curled. Today the air conditioning needs to be invited back on.

Today we will eat summer food, and I will pack the leftover soup into freezer containers. I will label those containers carefully and hide them away in the frosty dark. They’ll abide until the next damp and stormy day, when chill breezes breathe.

They’ll be there, those little chunks of frozen treasure, ready for us, the next time we have a day when we need soup.

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

Wendy’s Delicious Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 tsp .oil

I cup chopped onion 

2 cloves garlic, minced 

2 cups cooked shredded chicken 

1 cup frozen corn

1 tsp cumin (or cayenne)

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp chili powder (or sweet chili sauce. Or chopped jalapeno, or red pepper flakes…)

8 cups chicken broth or stock 

1 can diced tomatoes (10 or 12 oz) Diced tomatoes with green chilies add a little zip , but you can use plain 

I can undiluted tomato soup (or small can tomato sauce)

tortilla chips 

sour cream, diced avocado (Nice, but not essential!)

Saute onion and garlic in oil . Add all ingredients  except chips etc. Bring to boil , then simmer 1 hour on stove top or 3-4 hours on low in slow cooker. 

Garnish with crushed tortilla chips , sour cream and  diced avocado as desired. 

Recipe freezes well and is easy to double or triple for a crowd. 

Enjoy !!

Notes from the Hinterlands: Random Thoughts in a Random Week

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.

Rainy Days and Doughnuts Never Bring me Down

Rain was beating down when I woke up on Thursday morning.

We had been so lucky. Our days had been mostly sunny or gently overcast, while all around us, people weathered bruising storms. A little town less than ten miles away endured a tornado. No one, thank heavens, lost their life, but many people were displaced by crashing trees and destructive winds.

And there I was, leisurely mowing the lawn, planting flowers, meandering along on my morning walks…sitting at the patio table to do my morning pages, enjoying gentle skies and refreshing breezes.

And then, on Thursday, nature sent a little, “We didn’t forget YOU,” message. Rains battered; winds whipped.

Mark was already at the gym when I got up at 6:00, dressed, and stood gazing out the window. Water was sluicing down it, and the downpour beat a crazy cacophony.

‘Maybe,’ I thought, as I moved away to pour water into the coffee maker and grind some beans, “maybe, I’ll take the morning off. Maybe I’ll skip my morning walk and relax with my coffee and my newspaper, do the morning word puzzles, then finish my frothy summer book.”

That sounded like such a wonderful plan. But when Mark dashed into the house, soaked through running the few feet from carport to door, I was lacing up my sneakers.

Sometimes, a conscience is a darned inconvenience.

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

I walked on the indoor track at the rec center, where 12 circuits make a mile, and where there’s a nice selection of weights to take on a walk. I grabbed the pretty blue ones and set off, swinging my arms.

All around, people were doing crazy contortion-y workouts, lunging and lifting, tossing and stretching. Some would jump on the track and run hard for a time or two and then rush back to their machine of choice.

It looked hard. It looked painful.

I wished I’d brought my iPod to lose myself in music.

I walked on, as rain lashed the floor-to-ceiling windows and then died away for a breath, as people puffed and grunted, sweating and red faced. I walked the same circuit a couple dozen times or so, and I thought about the changing vista of my outdoor walks—squirrels with their balletic road crossings, the sight of a crimson cardinal on a faded green fence, the brazen robin that stood its ground, head cocked, as I walked toward it. The mama deer with the wobbly-legged baby; the tumbling, pugnacious raccoon triplets. The fresh breeze, the smell of cut grass.

I like walking outside better than anything, but there is a soothing sameness rhythm, I realized, to walking the indoor track once in a while.

And I walked for 45 minutes, took a short ride on a stationary bike, and then went home, where Mark was dressed and ready for work. Just after I walked in, the skies opened again, and the boyo gripped his umbrella, took it out onto the back step, opened it wide.

“Yikes,” he said, and headed off to work.

I dished myself up a bowl of dry granola, poured some coffee and juice, and sat reading as rain battered the house.

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

Mine was the only car in the parking lot at the haircutter’s, and Don waved me into the shampoo room even though I was ten minutes early.

The rain picked up again by the time he was drying my hair and brushing the little pricklies off my neck.

“Look at it out there!” I said. “Don’t worry about the drying.” As I ran out to my car, the rain drenched Don’s careful work.

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

At home, James was eating his cereal, deep in a book, and I ran up to don dry clothes. Then I settled at the computer to work on a grant. And the tattoo of beating rain ebbed and swelled, inspiring deep concentration and an appreciation of indoor working time. By noon, the grant was drafted.

Mark, home for lunch, opted to heat up some pulled pork, a hot meal for a rainy day, before he headed back out into the wet and the fray.

And the sky lightened a little, and James was pacing, so we drove off to the mall for another walk indoors.

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

By the time we got back home, the sky was glowering again, pushing down, closing in. James grabbed his laptop and set up shop in the family room, feet up in the lounge chair. I took my book to the reading chair, and finished it as the winds swept up again, and then I closed my eyes and slept, which is, I think, a rule on rainy days.

And then it was time to put the roast in a pan and peel potatoes to nest around it, and to put all that in a hot oven, and to mix up a pan of chocolate chip bars to slide onto the rack below. Rainy days call for naps, but they also call for hot cookies. I started, as they cooked, the next in the series of my new favorite murder mysteries,–perfect reading for a day that glowered and threatened.

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

The weather pushed, and I bowed to its demands and stayed inside for the rest of the afternoon, chopping and cooking, reading, writing in my journal.  An interior kind of a day:  we ate the roast and its long-cooked, caramelized potatoes, enjoyed a salad, and then gathered in the family room, each of us pulling knit throws down from the back of chair or love seat, snuggling in to watch some Netflix.

Riding out the storm.

I called it an early night, took that mystery novel up to bed, and fell asleep to the sound of wind and rain.

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

Friday morning dawned storm-washed and clear, and I looked forward to my walk, anxious for the outdoor time after the day inside. I laced up and set off. The world was cool, the sun gentle, the birds calling a crazy chorus after weathering the wild wet.

Anything, I thought, could happen on a day as promising as this one; only the darkness of yesterday made that apparent.

And I rounded the corner from Yale to Dresden, and I saw, to my surprise, Mark’s car heading slowly toward me.

That isn’t, I thought, the way he usually comes home from the gym, and then I figured he must have short-cutted over Adams Lane.

But he slowed as he drew near, the street empty at 6:30 a.m., and his window slid down. Carefully, slowly, he showed me just the edge of a large white box.

I stopped and stared for just a moment. And realization came.

“YOU,” I said, “stopped at Donald’s Doughnuts!”

He smiled slyly and gave me a thumbs up, slid the window shut, and drove quickly away.

I walked off quickly, too, knowing that, at the end of my walk, there was a cake doughnut—a very special cake doughnut—waiting for me.

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

Anything is possible, I thought, when the storm is past, and I headed off, up the hill, wondering what else this new-washed day might bring.