The Day the Season Begins

There is no fixed date; the season chooses its own arrival. But when it comes, I know; I honor it. I do what needs to be done.

We wake, early, to a frozen world. There is talk of two big accidents on the expressway; Mark pulls his IPad toward him, and searches grimly: he learns there has been a tragic death in the slippery early hours.

“Be careful today,” he says, and he searches for school closings. The high schools in the town where I teach, 45 miles away, are closed or delayed. But colleges rarely close.

By the time I leave, I assure him, the roads will have been tended. But I stick close by my computer, checking periodically, that little kid’s hope banked but burning: could this be a snow day?

But at 11:30, James bundles himself into the car, and I pack up my book bag, and we head off. There is a slow, cold, steady rain. The burning bush at the end of the drive has lost all its scarlet leaves. Each spindly branch is encased in ice; each red berry gleams as if shellacked.

It is warm enough—34 degrees–that the sky spits rain, and just cold enough that the dark time’s ice has not yet melted.

I drop Jim at the side door of the college; then he doesn’t have so far to run in this relentless downpour. He bolts inside without his usual wave, and I head north to drive to the Coshocton campus.

**********

The car warms up, and I turn on NPR, and I settle in to the ride. I’d sent my students an email: I’ll be there, I said, but don’t panic if I’m a little late: I am taking my time.

I discover, though, that the roads are fine. I clip along at the speed limit or thereabouts, and I arrive half an hour early. Several students are already in the classroom, and many have stories of ice-skimmed back roads and dicey drives. Josh started out to walk the almost five miles to class because his car had died; a neighbor picked him up at the crossroads, and he arrived two hours early.

“Dedication,” I murmur, and he waves the thought away.

“No sense staying home,” he says.

It’s a good class. The students present group position papers, and then they ruminate and rank each presentation. They are kind; that is something I’ve noted about this group of students from the very start. Their comments are thoughtful, and the rankings are generous.

We talk about the steps to analyzing the group presentation and morph those into peer review steps, and I randomly assign pairs. But then we notice that the rain has turned to snow. Right now, the streets are still dry. I have them exchange email addresses and send them off to work on each other’s drafts electronically, safely at home.

Only Josh groans.

“My ride’s not coming till 3:00,” he says.

But on the first floor, in this inn converted to college classrooms, there is a den with comfortable leather chairs and a snapping gas fire in a broad hearth. Josh hefts his backpack and heads down there.

I sit in the quiet classroom and tally up the rankings for each group. The totals are within one point of each other, all within the low A/high B range. They have been generous, but they have made astute remarks and suggestions, too.

I have high hopes for the peer review process.

I pack up my supplies, bundle into my coat, and reassuringly text Mark, who wonders how the drive was. I head downstairs and out to my car. I wave to Josh, who is nodding by the fire.

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

On Thursday nights, Jim has a two-hour break between work and class. Mark picks him up at the college. Then they select a restaurant; there they can eat, they tell me, as men do. Sometimes, a little time left over, they pop in at the house to say hello.

But tonight, Jim is anxious to work on some homework before class, and Mark texts that he’ll be joining some Bar Association peeps at Weasel Boy’s.

The house is quiet,—quiet and clean. I am glad I ran the vacuum in the morning, de-cluttered messy surfaces, and flicked the duster over the ceilings. No little clutter clumps chastise me; I am greeted by warmth and order.

I light the fire, and the rain pours steadily down outside. The furnace burbles below me, chugging and huffing. I kick off my shoes, place them in front of the fire to dry off, and find my book. I turn on my reading lamp, slide into the chair, and grab the knitted blanket. I wrap my feet, mummy style, pull the satiny edge up to my chin, and open my book.

As the flames flicker and their glow warms my feet, I read Bella Figura. Kamin Mohammadi, in this chapter of her memoir, is staying in Florence in August, while those who live there head off in many directions to the sea. It is hot in Florence, she tells me, and her beautiful apartment has no air conditioning. She suffers a bout of sunstroke after a long afternoon walk and learns to go to the market in the earliest hours of the morning. She spends the rest of the August days inside, writing, and ventures out again as the evening cools, meeting other ex-pats at a café around the corner.

The fire snaps, and I imagine its warmth is like the Italian sun’s; my book transports me. The clock ticks noisily; the rain pours down outside, but for this moment in time, I am warm and dry with an imaginative world open before me.

The reading season, I realize, has begun.

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

In the reading season, my mind seems, contrary to the weather, to thaw and open. I am captured, at the library, by strange new offerings. I take home novels that, in the rest of the year, I might consider too dark for recreational reading, and the stories move me and make me realize how lucky I am, how protected. I borrow memoirs by unlikely people—some celebrated, and some just damned interesting.

I take home a book of essays.

And, at home, I search my shelves, uncovering neglected books, books I purchased and brought home, and then thought, for whatever reason, No. Not now. I find the true story of a lady doctor in the 1800’s, a lady doctor who lived and worked in my last hometown before this one.  I’d bought that book at Kim’s enthusiastic recommendation, and then Kim’s illness and death made me too sad to read it. But now it feels like a connection rather than an aching reminder, and I put it on my TBR stack.

I find some Willa Cather, and some Dickens, who always seems to mesh with this season. I add them to the pile along with Ready Player One and The Last Painting of Sara DeVos, the book the art museum group is discussing this month.

There’s a satisfying stack to one side of the ottoman, and I light the fire, and I take the top book, and I plunge.

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

In other seasons, waiting books would distract and dismay me; I would feel a pull away from the pages in front of me. To be polite to my current book, to give it all my attention, I would have to dismantle that stack of books to be read, and secrete them, discreetly, in waiting spots throughout the house. Then I could finally concentrate on the words that danced before me.

But, when the reading season begins, the books seem to coexist with bubbly good cheer. The book I am reading compels and uplifts me, and the joy I take in that bodes well for the joy to come in the reading pile. Sometimes I read two books at once… a biography and a novel, maybe, and always, some pings of shared knowledge will arise. The biographer describes the very place in France where the novel’s current chapter takes place, and my understanding of both stories, the true and the imagined, bursts open.

Sometimes I crave a poem, and the emotion it evokes shimmers its way into the book I am reading, shimmers and matches and expands.

In the reading season, Jim comes upstairs and asks if he might connect his video game system to the big TV in the family room. Mark is ensconced in his own reading chair in the living room, and I am mind-traveling by the fireplace, and we both encourage James to help himself.

And he will play for an hour or so, his crows and muttered curses a counterpoint to the words we’re absorbing. But Jim, too, succumbs to the season; sated, he’ll shut down the game, and grab a graphic novel, and head to bed to read.

The reading season arrives and sets up camp and opens doors we didn’t even know were there.

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

Friday morning, I determine to frontload my day. I organize my grading and then plan what needs to be done around the house. I throw in a load of laundry, sweep the kitchen floor, and heat a cup of vinegar in the microwave. When that has frothed and bubbled, I take a soft cloth and wipe the little oven’s insides clean, and I shovel baking soda down the sink’s drain in the little half bath.

I dump the hot vinegar down after it and I hear the satisfying hiss and simmer of serious cleaning taking place, deep in the pipe’s bowels.

I vacuum the living room, make sure Jim is waking up, and get ready to meet some wonderful friends for lunch. The house settles around me, approvingly; its back scratched nicely, it can relax.

The boyos are going to Westerville for an appointment; they will, again, eat in a favorite restaurant; they might stop at Fresh Thyme and pick up lovely organic bargains. They’ll come home around seven or so, toting bags and brimming with stories of the day’s adventures.

And after lunch, I will lug packages to the post office, do a little necessary shopping, and come home, again, to a quiet house. Then I will grade three papers. That’s my ticket to the reading chair, where I will spend the rest of the quiet time, lost in a book, the afternoon darkening around me, the fire snapping its ancient message of warmth and protection. I’ll take some soup from the freezer, nuke it up for my supper with a crisp salad and a thin sliver of sharp cheese.

Alone in the house, I will read while I eat, and then quickly clean up my dishes, so I can slip back into the reading chair, and learn more about the fictional Sara De Vos.

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

The events and obligations of life are grouted together tightly by little strips of time. But the reading season comes, with cold and damp and inside comfort, and those little time-strips seem to expand. The work gets done, and the grades get posted, and we prepare and enjoy family meals. I go to meetings, and do my research, and I cut out the shapes for my book shelf quilt.

In the other seasons, all of that might fill a day, and I might find myself snugged up in bed, asleep before eyes travel down the first page.

But the reading seasons works its magic or its physics, and time’s doors, like my mind’s, open wider. There is always a comfortable space—in the late afternoon’s gloaming, in the quiet dark of our Ohio at 8 PM—to push back and page up.

And for a time, the reading spaces are natural, accepted, taken for granted parts of the day. But time will surge forward, and some day, on a timetable not available to my notice, the season will change, and life will shift, and other priorities will weigh down the need and the time to read.

I know that will happen, but, as I welcome the sudden onset of rich book time, I don’t care. The reading season is here; the books are hushed and waiting, and that, for now, is plenty for me  and more.

 

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Autumn In All Its Crispness

It is 6:30 a.m. when Mark glides the Impala into the car port. He is back from the gym. The coffee is churgling to completeness, and I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet. I pop my morning old person’s pill, and I settle at the table.

But Mark does not come in. Before I pick up the pen, I go to check on him.

He is standing on the back steps, looking out over the yard. I step down onto the cement stoop and shoot him a quizzical glance.

“It’s just…nice,” he says.

I step up next to him, breathe deep. Birds are starting to trill and chitter, and there’s an underhum of cicada. The breeze brushes our hair back gently.

And it is cool, that special cool that only comes when autumn dances over. There’s a clarity to that coolness, a transparency that has nothing to say to summer’s humidity.

“Crisp,” I say.

“Crisp,” Mark agrees, and we stand there for a long moment, reluctant to leave that refreshment to enter a house that now seems stuffy and stale.

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

Later that day, some tasks accomplished, I sit down to do some writing, and I find my mind is filled with empty rooms. I go wandering, looking for a topic, searching for a shard or a crumb that might lead me on a word trail. But, instead of the usual tumbled clutter, I find nothing.

I wait a bit, expecting an overhead door to open and some fine thought to come dropping in—to bounce on the bony floor of an empty room and come rolling over to nudge my consciousness, which is sitting sadly, its head in its hands. When nothing happens, I go to my prompt jar. I shake it, and I stir the little slips of paper. They are goads I prepared three years ago, over a period of a month or two, getting ready for moments like this: creating suggestions for the days when it seems there’s nothing to write about.

I stick my index finger deep into the papers, and I stir them again, bringing the bottom slips up to the top, bringing the oldest slips up to the present. I shake the jar, I swirl it around one more time, and then I reach in with finger and thumb—pincers—and I draw out one folded yellow sheet.

Here is what it says (I kid you not): CRISP.

Crisp.jpg

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

Crisp is such an autumn word.

I remember crunching through autumn leaves with my mother, walking to pick up the big boys from the Catholic school down the street. I was dressed, if that memory serves, in my Little Red Riding Hood cape, which I had decided was a fashion necessity. I had my black ‘hard’ shoes on (sneakers were ‘soft’ shoes). Piles of leaves were snugged up against the stone retaining wall that fronted the school grounds, and I stood next to my mother and stomped on leaves.

They made me think of corn flakes before the milk hit.

“Crunchy!” I said, looking up at my mother.

“Crisp,” she agreed, eyes searching the emerging children for a brother who had, I think, a dental appointment.

“Crisp,” I whispered, and I knew she was right. Crisp was the perfect word for Fall.

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

The air is crisp. The leaves are crisp. I like that. Crispness is what it is, sharp and hard and no-nonsense. Crisp doesn’t float on top of a ninety per cent humidity pool. Crisp grabs the curtain in one strong hand and pulls.

“So,” it says. “Take a look.”

And it shows us leaves shaking out of trees and cradling to the ground, and summer flowers drying into brittle black stalkiness and hard beige patches of grass that would pricker my feet if I were silly enough to walk on them barefoot.

“That’s it!” says Crisp. “Like it or not.”

I think of a person I’ve worked with recently, a tech support person, a busy lady, who sat me down, showed me exactly what I needed, and asked, “Anything else?”

“Uh…no,” I said. “No, I think I’m good.”

And she got up, trotted briskly around the desk and held open her door with a smile.

Dismissed, a little light-headed, I packed up my stuff and headed home. Where, when I got on my computer, I discovered that I did indeed have everything I needed to accomplish the task at hand.

My tech support person was crisp, but very, very helpful.

Crisp can be like a splash of vinegar in a spray bottle. Oh, the smell makes me wince. But when I spray my windows and scrub, it does its job, crisp, fast, and well.

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

Of course, I start wondering about the roots of crisp, its definition, its etymology, and I log on, pulling up etymonline.com, which shares some wonderful facts.

Crisp, the site tells me, comes to us from the Old English, meaning “curly, crimped, wavy,” and being applied to heads of hair and pelts of sheep and such-like.

And before that, Latin had it at crispus, which meant the same. And way before that, in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots of the word, it was sker. And that meant to turn or to bend.

To turn or to bend! And I picture autumn reaching for the lamppost at the end of summer, grasping it firmly, and heaving the whole long body of its season around the corner that lamppost guards. For autumn is the turning season, isn’t it? It bends us inexorably, often unwillingly, toward the bare bold face of winter.

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

But there is beauty and joy in crispness, too.

Here come those changeable days—one humid and summery, one crisp and clear. And on those crisp, clear days, back to schoolers gladly pull on long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants. They wear wooly soft socks, and they lace up sturdy, beautiful new shoes, and they go off in crystal clear air to crunch and stomp and wind up in the classroom, cold-cheeked and open-minded.

On those days, teachers can just lift the hinged top of each noggin and liberally pour in the learning.

Crisp, clear, learning days.

Smoke floats on the outdoor breeze; in these climes, people still burn their leaves in autumn, spreading the ashy residue for enrichment. The air tangs; it bites with that pungent smoke upon it. Crisp—that smoke-scented air.

The leaves crisp up and fall. Warm rich colors bloom. The apples plump up and blush up and wait to be picked.

I drive by a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Thursday on my way to a campus in Coshocton. The first time I stop, it is for the mums: five mums for twenty dollars! I pack a couple of cardboard flats into the back seat and load them up with potted plants. A couple bloom gold; a couple are a kind of copper with a golden-orangey eye. There are some that are a sort of maroon, and one, at least, in an autumnal purple. Crisp colors for the season, for the front yard.

And then the apples begin to arrive, and I drive by a couple of times, and it’s like there’s a magnet there I can’t ignore. One sunny day, I pull in and look through; I chat with the helpful clerk—We like ours pretty crunchy, I tell her—and I load two burgeoning white paper bags of varnished fall fruit onto the floor of my back seat.

It is just warm enough that I roll the windows closed and turn on the AC. I  drive the thirty miles home with apple perfume floating around me, enticing me to think of recipes: apple pie, of course, and baked apples; applesauce  set to simmer with nutmeg and cinnamon all day in the crock pot.

And apple crisp, for heaven’s sake. What is autumn without an apple crisp to top off some kind of pork-y, potato-ey dinner?

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

At home, I go searching. I look through my wooden recipe box of family recipes. I find apple bread and apple bars and apple cake instructions.

There are no recipes for apple crisp in my notebooks, or in the family cookbooks Jim put together for me. And then I know just where to look.

I pull up Jodi McKinney’s blog, The Creative Life In Between, and have the recipe I need within minutes—a crisp little expense of time:

Double Crumble Apple Crisp

Sunday, I think. Sunday will be an apple crisp/crisp apple day.

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

Today I woke up and the sky was pressing down, trying to rub up against a damp and surly earth. Pushing humidity at me. Hot. Muggy. Dense.

But we have sker-red; we have turned the corner, bent the season. The muggy days will come, here and there, but more and more, we’ll feel the brisk breezes beneath the heat, and clear days will shove the dense and heavy ones aside.

Autumn is upon us, clear-eyed autumn, offering its hand to guide ours, ready to help us safely ascend into the shelter that winter demands we find. Autumn instructs us to harvest and save, to snuggle in and hunker down, to get ready for the frigid beauty that is winter.

Mark and I will greet more and more days on the cement back stoop as they rush in, cool and refreshing. I’ll take the energy those cool moments share.   I welcome Autumn, acerbic and plainspoken, that crispest of seasons.

First Frost: A Peregrination

Frosty morning fog

Greta and I crunch out into the driveway, down to the street, and we gaze at a changed world. Each leaf, in the waiting pile, is finely limned, dusted and glazed. They are not what they were yesterday. A cold fog hovers over Sandi and Colleen’s houses, over the Helen Purcell home up on its hill. And the lawns are white, each blade of grass carefully picked out, Crayola greenness muted on this cold, cold morning.

My valiant marigolds have thrown up their petals in defeat. The last seven blooms are choked and crispy. Today, I’ll pull them out, throw them on the leaf pile.

It’s over, the season of outdoor growth.

First frost has come.

*********
The Impala is warming up when we sidle back through the carport, and Mark is bundled into his winter coat. We wave him goodbye. The furnace chugs in the morning house, and I grab my cell phone and go out to take pictures, to try to record the magic the night has wrought on the neighborhood. I try to capture the immensity in my forlorn little shots, the transformation and the message. Because the season turned a corner last night, irrefutable, irrevocable.

First frost brings, of course, the possibility of Indian Summer, which can only happen after temperatures have plummeted. But there is no doubt now: winter surges toward us.

Leaves on grass

*********
In the dining room, I stare out the clear, insulated glass in the bay window. I remember waking to lacy, intricate tracery on my bedroom windows long ago. It was art that grew and moved, climbing upward, rolling forward. I could make it stop, make it disappear, with the heat of my fingers.

“Jack Frost has been here,” my mother said. I pictured a fox-faced, blue-tinged boy ordering frothy designs to appear on the cold glass of my windows, and I shivered. That impish sprite felt like no friend of mine.

But now I find we are fascinated, as a culture, by Jack Frost. I look him up on Wikipedia and find that every culture that has winter also has some sort of Jack Frost figure. He may be old (Grandfather Frost in Russia) or female (Mother Holle in Germany). The Hindus believed that a giant from the arctic regions ruled the highest, permanently snow-covered areas of the Hindu Kush; this giant waited, malevolently, for all passersby, and one had to be canny and fast to elude him.

The Jack I know comes to us from England; he may have traveled there with his Anglo-Saxon ancestors or on a Viking ship.

He has appeared in books and poems and films and television–impish, sly, a little destructive. He slows things down. He stops them, mid-growth. He makes things end. He seduces us with the power of his pretty art—art that draws one closer to explore the detail, to gasp a bit over the never-ending variety of pattern. And all the while we are drawn further and further into the cold.

Wikipedia notes that Elizabeth Bishop mentions Jack Frost in a poem, “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and I pull my Complete Poems from the shelf and look it up. The poem tells the story of the death of a cousin, little Arthur, who is laid out in the narrator’s childhood living room. Her mother gives the girl a sprig of lily of the valley and bids her put it into the baby’s hand.

Jack Frost had started to paint him [Bishop writes]
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever. 

Bishop’s work makes me think of another Frost, of Robert Frost; the anthology of his collected works sat on my parents’ bookshelf. It was a gift, I think, from my brother Dennis, who focused on the poet in his undergrad days. Dennis came of age as John F. Kennedy was sworn in, with Frost as his accessible, inaugural poet, worn and craggy voice of a hopeful people.

We read in school, of course, about the two roads diverging; I fixated on that patient little horse. And I explored the book of poems and was caught by “Out, Out—” Another child dead, this one from the leaping, malignant, laughing saw (it shared a little of Jack Frost’s horrible mischievousness, I thought–a blank-walled lack of care about who might be hurt). The suddenness, the horror, the raw, untempered grief…and then the return of the family to the things that every day must bring. The boy, buried and gone.

I went back to that poem time and again, worrying it like an aching loose tooth, feeling the frost.

************
Now, wondering about the history of the word itself, I go to dictionary.com and find that ‘frost’ has not changed much over hundreds and thousands of years. Hard, cold, crystallized, the word fell through time, from the Old Norse, the Old High German, the Old Saxon: a shared word, it seems.  It tumbled untouched, hard and brittle, through the Middle Ages, and landed in this modern age, self-contained, essential. Frost, akin to freeze. It means what it means, now as it did then.

Frost is “a degree or a state of coldness sufficient to cause the freezing of water.” It is the forming of tiny needles of ice in the night, “when they have cooled,” the website says, “by radiation below the dew point.” This is called hoarfrost, a lovely, harsh romantic word, evoking flint-eyed battling giants in my mind.

We are in the time of the hoar frost, I think, and the days begin to wear a kind of frozen splendor.

*********

There are many other ways the word ‘frost’ can be used. Relations, once warm, can become frosty. Enthusiastic planners can find their proposals stopped by frost. Plays and movies, songs and stories, may meet a frosty reception. Frostiness is not what we want to encounter at, say, a job interview.

We frost cakes. We frost glass. We frost people, as in, He was so nasty that the whole staff was frosted at him. We frost our hair.

My hair is frosted, not by design, but by nature, a consequence of retired life: I decided to stop coloring when I decided to stop working in higher ed. I waited, tentative and nervous, to see what would emerge. The last time I’d seen my real hair, there were occasional sproinging grays that stood straight up, like periscopes sent skyward by a spying scalp. A random pure white strand would wiggle out to breathe, brittle and tough. But most of it , seven years ago, was my own reddish color.

First I decided to add blonde highlights, Then, I said, let’s make them all the same color–MY color.

Now I want to know, in these latter days, what ‘my color,’ means.

We cut my hair as short as it’s ever been, and then wait. Each month, Don, the master hair cutter, trims off the colored ends. They fall like brassy auburn leaves to his immaculate shining floor; he rakes them up and tosses them away.

By November, he says, you should be completely YOU.

My hair frost coincides with the hoar frost.  That’s something I need to ponder.

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

The growing season is over, but that does not eliminate the chance of growth.. In fact, I think, with the tumult and lavish energy expended, now is the time to employ the fruits. The frost has come, the crops are bundled into their silos, the potatoes are in their cellar bins, and the tomatoes glow in rows and rows of Mason jars. Now we think about what we can make from those harvested treasures.

Growing time over, it’s time to create.

Time, too, to celebrate: to gather in, to roast gifts of field and flock and give thanks for another year’s bounty. Time, maybe, to mark down the costs the year brought us, and render their meaning into mindfulness. The frost has come, and we are called to be grateful.

The time of frost deepens into winter, and our lights spring up as the darkness enfolds. We become makers: cooking and knitting, painting and rearranging. Labor of the growing time done, we can bring order and thought and care to the living of our daily lives. We can rest, and we can prepare for the swing back into spring.

*************
First frost–it seems, at first, like a mischievous, ill-meaning, taunting time, but as I explore more deeply, I find comfort and possibility. There is beauty here, and there is potential. There is the chance to bundle up against the chill, to walk on crisp, leathery leaves in the small remaining sunlit hours…to wave at neighbors, to savor the sight of pumpkins and corn stalks. There are the evening hours that open up to literature and films and the writing of letters. There are naps in front of a crackling fire, wrapped in a warm afghan.  There is the impulse to create.

Every season has its depth and its meaning and its purpose. I settle, as if drawn by Jack Frost’s fern-like artwork, deeper into the time of frost. I hunker down, tentative and a little fearful, but I see more clearly now: this time can be so good.

Leaf on leaf.JPG

 

 

The Hardest Part

…I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth   
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
        –from “I am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42869

“I am waiting,” writes poet Ferlinghetti, and years ago, I, an awkward, impatient college student, read those words and realized something: everyone is waiting. Waiting for payday, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the message or the phone call; waiting to hear about the job; waiting to settle into the job; waiting for real life to commence.

They’re waiting for baby to arrive, for the results of the election, for the next joyful day. They’re waiting for the next bruising thing.

Waiting, my 19-year-old self realized, though dimly, through distorting smoky lenses, is the human condition.

And, oh. How I hated waiting.

***********

As a child, it seemed that every good thing involved a protracted wait, a rigorous preparation time,—and I was not, I quickly learned, a graceful wait-er. Before we put the Christmas tree up [on the day before Christmas Eve, and why did we have to wait so long? Everyone else’s tree had been up for a week or more. I had a friend whose family put their tree up on THANKSGIVING WEEKEND] the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. This involved scouring all surfaces and, sometimes, even painting them. It involved crawling on the floor with a bucket that contained water sudged up with a glomp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, a viscous substance which needed much flailing of hand in the bucket to become one with the water.

“God forbid,” I would mutter, “we should march into Christmas with unwashed woodwork.”

That sentiment earned me a rap on the head, but it did not get me out of cleaning. Christmas was coming; Advent was its season of waiting. Of preparation. We washed woodwork. And I could feel the coming of joy, of that moment on Christmas morning when it was finally time! When everyone piled in and tore off the wrappings and wonderful, unthought-of things were mine, mine without asking, mine without sharing, mine, because someone had considered what I might like. Thank you, Jesus, for your birthday treasure, thought the child.

I did not sleep the night before Christmas; I thrashed and whined and lay, eyes wide open, feeling all the angst and wonder of major joy imminent.

It didn’t help that my father worked for the power company and that he always had to work on Christmas. If he was scheduled for later arrival– 8 a.m., perhaps, we’d all get up at 6 and pile in. But if he had to go in early–say, from 6 until 2–we would have to wait. Those hours, after a sleepless night, and with the presents stacked enticingly below the tree, were murderous.

“Take a NAP,” my mother would snarl, when I whined about how long it was taking.

A NAP? Was she kidding?

The hours ticked away, moment by sluggish moment.

Good things are worth waiting for, my mother opined.

Waiting, I thought (but did not say), is highly over-rated.

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

It was hard enough waiting for good things. Waiting for bad, awful things was even worse. When I committed some childhood crime and was told we would talk about it later, I thrashed and moaned. Oh, let’s just get it over with! I thought; let’s be on the other side of the spanking and the yelling.

But timing wasn’t MY choice; if they said wait, then wait I must.

We had an egg-shaped dentist, bald of head, round of belly, garbed in white, who had powdery clean hands and lashless eyes behind rimless glasses. He did not believe in Novocaine–Novocaine was for SISSIES! he said,–and he would crook my head firmly in the pit of his elbow and drill for gold.

No matter how I brushed, it seemed there was always gold for which to drill. In those memory-tinted days, we did not go to the dentist every six months; we went every toothache instead. So there was never a, “No cavities this time!” visit; every visit involved the whirring, smelly, smoky dental drill. And there was always a wait of at least a week before we could go.

So I waited with an aching tooth, and I waited with the knowledge of pain to come, and the waiting seeped in and flavored–tainted–every single day.

I tried to tell myself that I was letting one anticipated moment ruin hundreds of others.

I tried to tell myself that the time before and after the dreaded moment was GOOD time, happy time, time to draw pictures and play kickball and read wonderful books. But that one looming moment soaked into everything I enjoyed, spoiling the fun.

I would leave the dental office with the memory of that ache ground into my teeth, knowing a next time was coming.

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When I grow up, I thought, contemplating waiting, things are gonna change.

And so I waited to grow up.

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And I discovered, having at least nominally completed that growing, that I finally had some control.

So our Christmas tree went up the second or third week of December, and quite often, the woodwork had not been scrubbed on hands and knees. We enjoyed the glow and the greenery and the warmth through the depth of that darkest month. The wait for Christmas morn, and the tearing into presents, became an enjoyable anticipation. If I still couldn’t sleep the night before, as a grown-up, there was plenty to keep me busy–presents to assemble and wrap, coffee cakes to shape and bake and frost, thank you notes from Santa to write for plates of home-made cookies.

And then living with an autistic child taught me something about waiting, too–taught me that if waiting for the good thing is exquisite and challenging for US, it can be true agony for THEM. And so we had to change the shape of much-anticipated holidays, doling out delights along the paths, lessening the pressure-cooker of stressful anticipation.

It wasn’t just being a grown-up. The people who are dear to me changed the way I wait.

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But. I controlled what I could.

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I found a better dentist, of course; I went for regular checkups. The need for the drill lessened dramatically…and when it did come ’round, I forcefully advocated for Novocaine.

I found that planning made the waiting times flow; that tasks to be done and milestones along the way created a pace and a paving to the anticipated event.

Time taught me that there are some waits I cannot control, as we navigated such things as closings for houses and celebrated the nine month preparation for a baby.

And I learned that, sometimes, waiting involves vigil.  I learned that at the bedsides of my parents; they taught me deep-planted lessons about the grace of dying well.

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Lent is a waiting season, a vigil itself–waiting for the tragedy to happen, trusting in the miracle to follow. And this Lent, the theme of waiting is especially present.

This year, I can count on one hand the months left in my academic life: I am waiting to retire.

This year, I walk by my little dog, melded into the couch cushions, snoring deeply, and I think about her milky eyes and at least twelve years, and I ratchet down my annoyance at her pleadings and ratchet up my love of her silky head.

This year, my bold friend Kim, who was told seven years ago to get her affairs in order–told then that her hour was at hand,–is well and truly entered into that last days tunnel.

And I’m realizing that waiting times are sometimes grace times–times of doing the necessary work, ordering the papers; times of being mindful and joyful of what we know we’re losing; times of celebrating connection before the necessity of letting go: preparing the house for the event I know is coming.

I have learned this: that life, no matter what, brings pain. I can insulate myself to minimize that, to keep the pain at its very minimum–but the isolation itself is painful consequence. So…with every dog we’ve ever had, when the parting time comes, we have wept and we have muttered, “Never again. Never again. I cannot say goodbye like this one more time.”

And the car stops, it seems, of its own volition, at the Humane Society, and the wet-eyed pup pokes its nose through the chain links, and we know: we will adopt this dog, and we will love each age and stage.

And we will say goodbye.

And if I throw myself out into the torrent–if I take chances and forge connections and braid myself into others’ lives, and weave those others into mine–then loss becomes an inevitable part of joy. But on the way–what wonders. What growth and sharing and learning accrue, the gifts of deep friendships and family relationships and community commitments,–accomplishments forged together; fun, unimagined beforehand; perfect, complete, and nurturing times–what things I would have missed.

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I am waiting, writes Ferlinghetti, and oh, he’s right: I am waiting.

I am waiting for the flowers to bud, for the paperwork for the pension to arrive, for the four-legged step to falter, for the days of a wonderful friend to ebb and wane. I am waiting for that end to come, and I am waiting to learn how that end is also a beginning.

I am waiting because I must; I am waiting without grace; but I am waiting. And I am discovering the value that lurks within.