…And Other Things I Just Don’t Need

We need far less than we realize.
        Dorothy Gilman
Dishes

I plunge my hands into the soapy water–it is steamy, and it feels good on this first-furnace morning of fall. I wash small plates, rinse them gleaming, lay them gently on the drying pad. I shake refillable water bottles full of sudsy water, then I rinse and shake, rinse and shake, until I can’t smell a hint of dish soap. I scrub a colander from the top and spray it clean; then I turn it over and repeat the process from the bottom.

And my morning dishes are done, sparkling, cheerfully stacked. It took me, maybe, seven minutes.  I dry my hands, and a horrifying thought plunks itself squarely into the middle of my mind.

Maybe I don’t really NEED a dishwasher.

Sacrilege! I shake my head hard, trying to dislodge the notion.

We have been hand-washing dishes for a month or so, since the dishwasher, which had been losing functions one by one, finally lost all initiative and sat, blinking idly, refusing to go on.

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Mark is irked by the dishwasher’s demise. It is only three years old–we had the former, reliable machine for almost seventeen years.  The store where we shopped defers all liability to the maker. With this company, Mark’s had trouble getting responses to his emails and calls. Google has been our best resource, offering owner’s manuals and suggestions for what to do when this light’s blinking, when that function’s unavailable,–but in these latter dishwasher days, even Google has no solution.

Mark wants the manufacturer to know our frustration. When he calls the company, a well-known, respected, appliance-maker name, he gets routed into an automated menu so complex that he gives up after 15 minutes with no hope of talking to a live person. He writes a letter instead; he is polite and measured, but he clearly expresses his unhappiness. Two weeks later, he gets a call. The customer service rep offers to sell Mark a new machine at a forty per cent discount.

“Why would I buy another machine from you,” he asks, “when I was so unhappy with the first one? When no one responded to my questions or returned my emails?”

“Well,” says the clerk, “we wish you nothing but the best.”

Mark grimaces and puts the phone down. “Notice,” he says, “they never offered to fix the dead machine.”

Meanwhile, we do dishes by hand.

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There are only three people and one small dog in our household: washing dishes by hand is not a huge inconvenience. And while we fill the sink with suds and plunge the dirty dishes into those soapy depths, we are circling around the purchase of a new dishwasher. By holiday baking time, I am pretty sure, a machine will be installed and functioning.

But I have to admit, I don’t NEED it. With a little effort, a little planning, I can get by just fine hand-washing my dishes.

It makes me wonder what else I depend on that I don’t really need–need to have, or need to do.

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For instance.

Every month, in the last six or seven years of my working life, I went faithfully to Don, my ‘coiffure engineer’ (a wonderful, wonderful man, and an artist, to boot), sat myself down, and had him dye my hair a color very similar to my natural one. Then I started to notice, a few months before I retired, something seemed jarring every time I looked in the mirror. ‘My hair looks great,’ I’d think. ‘It just doesn’t go with my face.’

I had the hair color of a vibrant 38-year-old; I had the honestly-earned face of a woman, 62.

I didn’t want the transition–that growing out line of demarcation–to take place while I was working, but, retirement looming, I called that hair artist and talked him into working with me to grow the dyed color out, to go natural. He was a little reluctant, but I was truly determined. The week after I stopped working, Don cut my hair short, and we began the process of letting the natural color emerge. To my surprise, the color is not bad at all–as the clear, true red of the dye grows out, there’s a frostier reddish-brown growing in.

I like the way my hair feels–natural, soft, uncoated–and I am surprised by how much I like the look–the sprigs of gray and pops of white among my old faithful auburn strands.

I am surprised by how much I love the ease of short, short hair. I love the reality of its color. It looks appropriate. It looks right.

I still go see Don once a month; he keeps my wild hair shaped and tamed, and he feathers in the transition from dyed to owned. By next month, I think, the color will be all mine.

I do not need to dye my hair.

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It is mid-month. I am still adjusting to the new pension-check-arrival schedule of retirement, and I am in a little panic. I thought I’d make tacos for dinner, but we are out of lettuce and tomatoes. I’m not even sure we have ground beef.

‘I need to go to the store,’ I think, and then I straighten up.

First, I need to know exactly what we have to work with.

I take a legal pad and I open the freezer on top of the fridge in the kitchen. I pull things out and stack them on the counter, and I write down exactly what is there.  I am surprised by the bounty–there is boneless chicken and little Tupper-ed  up cubes of homemade broth; there are veggies of every sort, and there is pie crust ready to defrost and roll. There’s a forgotten pound of turkey bacon. There are beef bones to make a savory stock.

I do the same with the little chest freezer downstairs, and my list grows and grows: we have so much food. I put everything back except for the package of two year old soup I somehow missed, last freezer cleaning (that will meet the Dispos-All), and I go upstairs to conspire with The Joy of Cooking.

I don’t need no stinkin’ road trip.  I have plenty of food options right here in my cupboards and freezer spaces.

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Nearly every day, I write a check or a note or a nice long letter; then I pull the car out of the driveway and head over to the post office, where I drive through and drop those missives in the box. And every night, I kick myself: too bad you didn’t get a walk in today, I think.

And then one bright and sunny morning, as I’m bundling up my post office cargo, I stop. Why can’t I just walk these down to the mailbox on the corner of Dresden, near Maple? I change my penny loafers for my tennies, and set off at a brisk pace.

On my way, I stop to chat with a neighbor I’ve never spoken to before, a big guy with a tiny, friendly dog, and we move from weather topics to solving the world’s woes. We do solve them to our satisfaction, at least theoretically, so we wave and move on. As I stop, watching traffic before turning the corner, another new neighbor-acquaintance drives by and honks. She’s the proud owner of an elder dog, Boston, whom she recently adopted at the Humane Society. Boston, a bulky, barrel-y, black Lab-by sort of dog, is as friendly as our little Greta is skittish. When he sees us out for our evening walk, he heaves himself up to his feet and comes over to chat. He is white-muzzled and trusting.

Now when I see his person (we need to get names in place: she is ‘Boston’s mom’; we are ‘Greta’s family’) we wave and exchange updates. Walking brings me closer to neighbors and reminds me that it’s acorn crunching season, that the leaves need taming, that the air has taken a turn for autumn cooling.

I walk down Dresden Road to the mailbox, slide my envelopes inside and turn to head home. When I arrive, my health activity app tells me I’ve walked almost a mile and a half.

I do need that red-cheeked, social, muscle-moving walk. I don’t need to drive to the post office every day.

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And now I am asking myself:

Do I need to buy paper napkins? Couldn’t I iron up the old white napkins huddled in the drawer and put those on the table?  Couldn’t I buy a swarm of handkerchiefs and put them, in some kind of cute basket, in the bathrooms instead of Kleenex?

Now that I’m not working, do I need all these business-y clothes?

I clean out my closet. I am thinking I need a pair of black dress shoes, but I pull out a pair with a busted buckle–I love their style and fit. And I think that there’s a shoe repair shop around the corner and down the road, and that I don’t really need to buy a new pair of shoes. I’ll just get these old friends fixed.

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And I am reading, as often happens, a book that locks right into my train of thought.

“If we are heading into a world of shortages [Dorothy Gillman writes, in A New Kind of Country, way back in 1978] we, too, will have to learn the art of mending and preserving; it will do us no harm, and it will sharpen our wits. I have read that in Zen monasteries or schools the first lesson a Zen student must learn is to practice economy in living: lights never burned wastefully, a minimum of utensils, a single mat to sit on; the fewer the number of possessions, the more we are in touch with them and their nature and care for them.”

I will never get to a state where I have just a single mat to sit on, but I need my wits sharpened. And this seems like the time to scrutinize, to sort, to really be aware. Time to ask: What, really, do I need to own?

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I know we will replace the dishwasher. And I know, too, it is a luxury, not a necessity. But I think it is okay to indulge in a well-thought out time- and effort-saver, in a machine that probably has health and sanitation benefits as well as the great good boon of hiding dirty dishes away from anxious eyes. But the process of being without it brings mindfulness, encourages realization. The things I take for granted; the things I use, heedlessly and without appreciation; the corners I cut; the dimes I spend…

This week, I take myself to task. Of all the cluttered possessions in my home, of all the busy things I do, which ones, really, are the things I need?

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The Weight of Stuff

shelves
I pull out a drawer and gasp. It brims with  electronics–cords and devices, chargers and controllers. It is so full that I don’t know how the last person to open it got it closed. Now I am committed: this drawer is going to have to be cleaned out.

Jim comes in as I am hefting it out of the dresser and lowering it to the floor.

“Yeah,” he says. “Dad and I just throw electronic stuff in there.”

I give him the Mom Look over the top of my glasses, and then I begin to sort.

**********

I find:

–pristine ear buds and a never-used charger for one of our current phones.
–a complete history of our smart phone lives in discarded boxes, some with bits and parts of add-ons we will never use again.
–cords for video game systems from the 1990’s.
–accessories for old computers and game systems and controllers and phones that we never used when we had the devices.
–a stack of owner’s manuals for things we no longer own.

In and among these dubious treasures is truly usable stuff–cords for our laptops, storage cases, a handful of batteries. One or the other other of us has probably rampaged through the house at some point, stomping and yelling, “Why can’t I ever find the thing I need when I need it?”

The answer is that we are buried in stuff. I am, finally, cleaning out the cupboards.

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We live in a lovely 1930’s house that was designed and inhabited by a smart couple, an engineer and his wife. They insured that there is plenty of built-in storage: capacious closets, bookshelves, cabinets with doors that close to hide what lurks behind. There is a linen closet and a pantry cupboard. There are hall closets in the front and in the back. There are nooks under the eaves in each of the bedrooms that provide space for big and bulky things. Our dry basement offers a hidden storage room and old kitchen cabinets.

It is, really, more usable storage space than we’ve had in any other home. To that, we add our own storage units–the repurposed cabinets we use for an entertainment center; the old dresser I repainted that anchors the living room, bedroom storage, and basement shelving.

There is stuff filling every single inch.

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

When we moved in, on a weekend, rushing to get ready for the work week bearing down on us, we said this:

“Just put it anywhere it fits. We’ll go through the storage spaces, one by one, and we’ll sort it out as we go.”

Tonight, I am looking at things I haven’t seen or touched since that weekend five years ago. I am picking up and turning over and deciding how to dispose of things that I didn’t need when I moved them.

Yet I moved them anyway.  Those things had some kind of hold on me, demanding to be taken wherever I went.

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Some things seem to need approval from a higher authority to be disposed of. So paperwork for cars that sputtered, died, and were replaced long ago, lives on in my filing cabinets, along with a mortgage for a home we sold in 1995.There are folders full of defunct medical insurance information. There are human resources packets from jobs in a different state.

Why are we keeping all this?  Mark and I look at each other helplessly.

It’s all….official.

We buy a shredder and begin, officially, to grind it all up.

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There are things we stashed, thinking vaguely that we might need them. The laptop stayed out where it would get plenty of use; accompanying CD’s for a trial of some publishing software lingered in the bottom of a drawer. Other stuff layered on top of it–lots of layers over lots of acquisitions.  When we happen on the software trial again, we don’t own the laptop and none of the current technology will even support this cute and quaint program.

We get on line to see where one recycles old CD’s.

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There are gifts given by people we hold very dear–cheap mugs from kids that sport our initials or that say, “World’s Best Dad.”  They are chipped and worn, and we each have other favorites–thick, heavy mugs that weigh substantially in our hands and keep our beverages warm a long time. But how do you toss the things that sweet, grubby  hands weighed and measured, plotting surprises? How to recycle something paid for with carefully counted out cash earned by pounding the pavement day after day, delivering the paper?

We take them out of the china cupboard, we roll them around in our hands. Finally, we wrap them in newspaper and stash them in boxes which go down to the basement, awaiting a judgement we’re not quite ready to give.

We move on to other gifts.  There are painstakingly stitched and hammered homemade seasonal decorations. There is a kind of crockpot thing that melts waxy scented cubes, wafting enticing aromas through the house. The enticing aromas make Mark and Jim sneeze.

Still, the electric smeller-thingie is brand new, and a gift from a  special friend…

We start a Goodwill pile.

I find a beautiful hand-glazed blue tray, a tray that had pride of place on holiday tables and at potluck dinners, a tray that held cookies and moist and tender slices of banana bread studded with chocolate chips, and that offered up halves of deluxe grilled cheese sandwiches for Friday night dinners in three different houses. The tray was a special gift. Now it has a corner missing. I do not want to lose this tray, to throw away its beauty and its memory and its meaning. I want to take it outside when the spring comes, sandwich it between layers of heavy cloth, smash it into shards. I want to use it, and the chipped cups and plates we’ve saved,–special pieces, pieces by local and beloved potters. I want to create a very special mosaic next to Mark’s fire pit.

I take myself sternly to task. Will you REALLY do it? I demand.

I look around at the lightness of newly organized shelves, and the mosaic suddenly seems like a do-able dream. I gently wrap the tray and place it in a box, neatly labelled, and I put it in an easy to access place. If I don’t follow through in a year, it will go.

But there are some things worth keeping.

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I find plastic hands and swords from action figures, a battery-powered alarm clock, and episode guides to DVD seasons long ago traded in. I find a baby blanket and seven jars without tops. I find a can of fruit cocktail that tells me it is best used by March 12, 2014.

I find boxes and magazines and letters.

I sort and consider and dispose.

And my house seems to sigh in relief.  When I open the door to come in after work, things feel lighter and less pressing. Every time I sort a shelf or a drawer, I lighten the oppression of stuff.

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There are reasons I haven’t tackled this job until now.

The sorting is daunting, of course. Just opening a drawer clogged with random bits and pieces–every single thing requiring consideration, deliberation, determination,–is a weighty act. Then to commit to their appropriate disposal–well, how long will that take? Because of course, no good deed goes unpunished: sorted, items then demand to be taken to the thrift shop, delivered to the recycling bin, mashed into their smallest selves and relegated to the trash can.

Cleaning the clutter is a lot like work. That’s one reason to assiduously avoid it.

But there’s another, deeper process going on.  Every time I weigh that long-kept item in my hand, every time I say, “No, I will truly never use this—never again make a label with my battery-operated label machine, never put these once-important  pictures into a fun collage, never turn these boxes into festive gift containers–“…every time I make that kind of admission, I am giving something up. I am acknowledging a day that will never come. I am relinquishing a dream that seemed so easy, so important, to live out at one time, but that I now know will never really happen. I am saying goodbye to a hope or a plan or a creative impulse that no longer belongs in the life I live today.

I am putting a lid on a younger self and bidding her a firm farewell.

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But that’s my job, isn’t it?  Every decision point bids me to let something go. If I refuse to listen, if I cling and clutch, that weight goes with me. It slows me down. It fills my arms and hands and heart, and I cannot embrace the new treasures that a quirky, unpredictable fate rattles in its dice cup and tosses into my path.

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And, at the end of the day, it is just stuff. The purpose of the device is gone; it has no relevance to us, today, and so it needs to go. The love that went into the gift–we hope it’s still there; we don’t need the holey old blue socks to remind us.

Some of it, maybe,we can re-purpose and reuse. Some of it can be donated, keeping someone else warm, scenting someone else’s holiday home, making someone else smile when they use it. Some can be recycled, mashed down to the essence, and used to create something that, we hope, will make a life better or easier or brighter.

And some just has to go, its thing-ly lifespan finished.

And then I can go on, too–lightened and freed, open to next things.

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It may be time of life. But it heartens me to be letting go of the weight of stuff.

Recipe Reminiscence

BC Cookbook

I think I was six when my mother first made the sweet dough.  She was searching for a yeast-raised coffee cake or sweet roll to serve for Easter breakfast: this particular recipe called for 11-3/4 cups of flour, a lot of muscular pummeling, and several raisings, deflatings, and raising-agains.

There was muttering; there was a floury mist and a fine silt that covered every kitchen surface, but, at the end of that first long-ago run through, there were trays and trays of wonderful, yeasty, cinnamon-scented sweet rolls.  Golden brown, light and powdery, they were topped with thick swirls of butter cream icing.  They sat, triumphant, those rolls, on six or seven cookie sheets around that big old country kitchen, an Easter-Eve culinary triumph.

Very few actually made it through to the next day: the yeasty creations were an unusual treat for four healthy boys and a sturdy sister with a willing appetite.

From that Easter on, the recipe became an expected part of family festivities.  I think Mom tired, quickly, of shaping all those individual sweet rolls by hand; one Christmas, she braided the dough into coffee cakes, frosted them, and using what was on hand, made a pleasing pattern with halved maraschino cherries and walnuts.  That, too, became law:  “Cherry NUT cherry!” my organized little niece Meg would intone, helping Grandma decorate the cakes.  No deviations were thereafter allowed. (It may not surprise you to learn that Meg grew into a wonderfully talented, highly disciplined, very orderly, engineer.)

The yeasty coffee cakes are still holiday essentials; I am thinking of them as Easter approaches.  I confess to giving up that fine layer of silt in favor of buying frozen yeast dough and skipping right to the raising and shaping steps.

But still. Easter morning without this particular coffee cake would just seem flat and wrong and weirdly devoid.

**********

I am thinking of this–of coffee cakes and other favored family dishes–as my son Jim tackles a new project: organizing our rampant collection of recipes.

Some of our recipes spill out of boxes and folders; some are carefully collected and committed to notebooks and binders.  Recent clippings sit on top of the microwave.  Ripped-from-magazine possibilities poke from ‘real’ cookbooks,–an aging Betty Crocker binder from the late 1960’s, the red-checked Better Homes & Gardens classic I’ve replaced at least twice.

Just recently we went searching for the Buffalo wing dip recipe. I thought I knew which collection it was in, but couldn’t find it in the table of contents Jim had carefully organized a few years ago.  The title by which we called the dip didn’t match the title under which it actually resided.  Mark had been commanded to bring the dish to work for a birthday celebration; we needed to shop for the ingredients.  I was looking under ‘Buffalo’; the recipe actually was listed under ‘Hot.’  We found it, in time, but not without a little angstiness.

Jim’s organizational chore is timely and helpful, and it has me thinking of how we acquire the recipes we love.

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For instance.

Our go to recipe for “Beef Paprika” comes from my old friend Pam Hall.  Pam and I worked together in college; we dated fast friends; broke but hospitable, we served a lot of scratch-cooked meals at our respective tables.  Pam’s talented mother tested recipes for Betty Crocker, and one of the recipes she tried out was Beef Paprika.  Cubes of beef that simmer in a rich paprika-based sauce, it starred in a meal Pam fixed for our troupe shortly after we stumbled onto that wonderful friendship.  I borrowed the recipe; I committed it to an index card.  I cooked it many times.

And then I moved out of that particular phase of my life, and I discovered, with dismay, that the index card was lost in the transition.  Pam moved away for graduate school, and we lost touch; and it was only years later that I discovered “Beef Paprika” was the cool insider’s pre-publication name.  The recipe is in that Betty Crocker Cookbook on my shelf, the very one my younger brother Sean and I scrimped and plotted to buy our mother in the late 1960’s.  It is called, there, Hungarian Goulash.  We still call it Beef Paprika; I still make it at least every other month.

And I never fail to think of Pam, who was a dynamic, successful woman, taken by an invidious cancer way too early.  I treasure the times.

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My first real job after college, not counting things that had no relation whatsoever to my college degree (dental assistant, ice cream factory worker, deli clerk) was teaching middle school English at a little inner city parochial school. During my nine years there, I went from married to unmarried to married again.  And during that time, my role as doting aunt prepared me for a new step-mom gig, and finally for the impending arrival of my son James.

When James arrived, I left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom for a while, and joyfully joined the group of Catholic school mommies who met for breakfast every other week at one another’s houses.  The children played and fought and fell asleep to Sesame Street; we mommies ate delicious home-baked goodies and drank quarts of coffee and shared our worries and exhaustion and cost-saving tips.

And recipes.  Our family enjoyment of breakfast bakes and pig-picking cakes dates directly bake to those blessed bi-weekly outings, which offered sustenance on many levels.

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I mentally fast forward twenty years to the Pasta Club, our group of seven friends with a love of cooking and a reverence for each other.  We took turns, every month or so, meeting at each other’s homes and enjoying meals that often, but not always, centered on pasta dishes.  One Saturday night, Kathie and Dan hosted us in their beautiful farmhouse, and  Kathie lifted the lids from two pots of fragrant soup.  I can’t remember what the second one was, I was so taken with her rich and hearty chicken and rice soup. I called her for the recipe not long after, needing a dish to pass for a work event, and she generously shared.  Last month, I made it for the Thursday lunch club that meets in our building, and the crockpot was pretty much scraped clean.  That soup says “fellowship” to me with every savory, cheesy spoonful.

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The menus of our lives are gathered from family celebrations, from sharing with friends.  They are shaped by individual leanings and by nutritional needs. I have a repertoire of goodie recipes from the days we tried hard to avoid using wheat or dairy in Jim’s diet.  During that era, we also discovered an easy chicken and rice bake technique and added it to our regular offerings–one dish, thrifty, tasty, and inoffensive, ingredient-wise.  We wove that sucker into the family repertoire; we enjoyed it just last night.

And then there are Holy Grail recipes for which I continue to search.  In high school, at a bake sale, I tasted a bar cookie that was a revelation: all these years later, I taste those cookies in my dreams. I still scour websites and pore through magazines, seeking a cookie method that REACHES that bar.  And I circle in on a recipe that, baked at home, approximates the wonderful Reeses cup cookie in some, but certainly not all, Starbucks branches that are tucked into Barnes and Nobles stores.  (“STOP!!!” I yell when, on a trip to our old hometown, we approach the Peach Street exit outside of Erie, PA.  “STOP!  I have to get a cookie!!”)

My recipes are aided and abetted by thrift and an inherited horror of waste: I have tasty recipes that use up stale bread and the ends of bags of potato chips, nubbins of cheese, that little bowl of boiled potatoes, and the last bit of ham in the tupperware on the back of the shelf.  An anthropologist, I think, could look through the book that Jim is assembling, years hence, and probably make some pretty apt guesses about who we, as a family, are.

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I think of our wonderful wellness coach who wants so badly for us to give up some of the things in our diet—white flour and sugar, most carbs and red meats, candy bars and cheese curls.  She offers us a snacking recipe of organic nut butter balls with flax seed and agave syrup, tiny sticky things that are no doubt very healthy.

And I think of my cookie jar, which cries out piteously when empty.  I think of Grandma’s Christmas fudge and special occasion roast beef and gathering a crew around a big pot of Mark’s parents’ sauce and meatballs.  I think of the chocolate chip cookie recipe we have all come to favor.

So, the flax balls: probably not, although we have committed to more salads and fewer mac and cheeses (but, oh! I have a wonderful recipe for mac and cheese…) We aim for healthy, but the foods of our life, the feast and the treats, are more than that.  They’re history and they’re memory; they’re ropes that tie us together, and they are joys that set certain days apart. We’ll always weave them in, just maybe not as often–but they’ll be more treasured, due to that.

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“Is Chex mix an appetizer?” Jim asks, looking up from his perusal of rumpled, dog-eared recipes.  And I remember, suddenly, when he was a wee one and we lived down the street from Jane Lincoln, that talented French teacher, that wonderful mom.  Every Christmas, Jane would make buckets of Chex Mix, pack it into beautiful tins, and her glowing girls would bring those offerings to the neighbors.  Like Pam, Jane left us way too soon.  Like Pam, a simple dish is one of the things that keeps, for me, her giving, gallant memory alive.

“For sure, Chex mix is an appetizer,” I agree, and Jim turns back to his keyboard, fingers flying, gathering the recipes of our lives and loves together.

 

Tales Told By Friends

February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.

Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk.  Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.

The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.

Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves.  It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick.  Deadlines loom.  There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.

And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive.  They are stories from friends:

–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.

–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.

–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.

Their stories speak to me of  bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.

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Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man.  Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown.  Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.

The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978.  He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home.  She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.

Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states.  He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days.  He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares.  He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.  He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions.  In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.  They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.

Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York.  Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away.  He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those.  He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away.  There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them.  And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing.  When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man?  Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way.  During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family.  Al grew into management.  He grew into manhood.

You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair.  You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad.  He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.

All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.

***********

Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time

It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake.  She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds.  From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards.  There are security lights that shine all night long.

The pool at night

She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights.  When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.

She tries to decide what to do.  I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner. 

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking.  The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.

Sharon is galvanized.  She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying.  And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog.  By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.

She says a prayer, and she is in the water.

She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water.  It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.

Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police.  They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.

Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night? 

*****
Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her.  The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.

There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore.  There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.

Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.

A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up.  That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.

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

Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds.  Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year.  Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.

They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood.  Larisa and  her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s.  Their kids were in and out, every day.

Janette misses that.

But they visit, all the time.  When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.

Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18.  Mimaw gets interested.

When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that.  Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.

WHAT?????

Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root.  Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos.  But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued.  Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work.  The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant.  The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.

Larisa calls her siblings.  Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.

They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”

They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.)  Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed.  They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.

There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.

The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain.  Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too.  Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .

But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day.  Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.

Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months.  She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order.  What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?

The artists and his subjects

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

I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.

I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.

I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.

Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.

Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

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

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

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

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

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

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

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

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Gateway Days: Put a Candle in the Window

Candle and pie

The dark is gathered tight outside the bay window–the only light there, staring at me, is the reflection of the dining room lamp.  It is cold, wet, early.  When I let the dog out, she stops and she shakes, and then she looks back.  She has urgent business, but seems unwilling to run too far into the depths of the yard. It is a secret-hugging, opaque day’s dawning.

The sealed drive, the sidewalks, the gray-paved street–all are slickened blackness.  Wind flails–a precursor of high winds to come, eager tendrils of Hurricane Patricia’s wildly whipping fronds.  Falling leaves are wet and heavy and wooden; they scud reluctantly and slap down, exhausted.

I think of Mary Poppins–the brooding book, not the light-hearted movie.  I think of Poppins warning that the wind brings change.  That’s what this is–a changeable dawn, a gate-keeper day.  We are moving from the light-filled seasons to the time of drawing-close dark.

I herd the dog back inside where she runs, manic, three times through the downstairs rooms, around the stairway pinioned in the middle of the house, a superstitious kind of circuit, shaking off the ghosts of this gateway day.  I treat her with Beggin’ Strips and frozen coins of hot dog. Satisfied that no more goodies are forthcoming and that the darkness is firmly at bay, she subsides, a warm and snoring furball curled into the pillow on the couch.

It strikes me that we’ll do much the same, this weekend, with our little costumed visitors; we’ll treat them with store-bought goodies, fill their arms-out bags and plastic pumpkins with sugar and cocoa, lecithin and guar gum oil, ooh and ahh at their transformatory garb, and send them home to settle in.  Hoard acquired, they will gather ranks with the mama, the papa, the siblings, and see what they have gleaned to stave off winter’s warning chill.

It’s a gateway day.

This weekend just past, we drove home, home to where we grew up, to spend time with Grandma Pat (Pat, who claims this current raging hurricane. “They named it after me,” she asserts firmly), to gift a nine-year-old granddaughter, to steal a moment to visit with friends who were visiting, too. They are friends who once lived close enough that we could cut through yards  to each others’ houses; now we are flung across the country. The sky, on our traveling days, Friday and Sunday, was perfectly blue, the air had that crystal, champagne quality, and the trees were at their screaming glory.

“This will not be a beautiful fall,” many people had sagely cautioned, harking back to odd summer weather. But the leaves didn’t listen. The golds were thick and almost viscous; my mind kept racing backwards to a paint by number set I’d gotten once when I was eight or so.  The little plastic pot of gold oil paint there–gold for a palomino’s gleaming bridle–was just exactly the gold of those leaves. I lowered the car window and expected to smell the paint.

There were deep, exuberant orange leaves, too, and russet leaves that rustled and shone, and every once in a while, there’d be a blaze of outrageous scarlet.  It was like summer’s sunlight was trapped in those leaves, the tight-fisted trees holding it close for as long as they could.

And then, the winds this week: those laughing, sly, knowing winds, ripping inwards, tearing leaves from branches.  Quenching the concentrated summer sun. Opening the gateway to the time of fire-huddling and flaming window candles. We may be alone in the darkness, but we’re not giving in…

********

For a week I walk past apples, green apples, sitting in a bowl in the kitchen in my building at work; finally I email my colleagues and tell them I’m taking the fruit.  I bring the apples home and slice them up.  As I do, my mind ranges over memories, sorting and picking; I think about peeling apples as a child, with the goal being to have the longest continuous peel.  My mother would tell us to throw the peel with our right hands over our left shoulders. Then she’d bid us turn to discern what letter that flung peel most resembled, and we would know the initial of our one true love.

(I discovered this week, in a lovely blog—  http://21timetraveler.com/2015/10/its-the-great-turnip-charlie-brown-and-other-samhain-traditions/ —that the peel-throwing is a custom left over from the ancient celebration of Samhain, that bonfire against the darkness, earthy festival–a custom that surely seeped into my mother’s childhood self via her Scottish roots.)

I pull out my Tupperware rolling mat and sprinkle flour that flies over counter edges and onto the floor and into the toaster. I pull out the heavy marble rolling pin, a gift, once, from my oldest brother to my constantly-baking mother, and I energetically flatten and smooth the pie dough into almost-transparent circles.  I line the pan, glaze the dough with egg white, then layer the apple slices with cinnamon and sugar, nutmeg and  flour. I lay the second pastry circle over the top, folding it to cradle the apples, tucking in the edges tenderly.

I paint the top with the leftover eggwash; I sprinkle sugar over all; I cut in vents, and I put the pie in the waiting oven,–which exhales its hot breath at me when I open the door, and consumes my little pie.  In minutes the smell of hot cinnamon pervades the house, and Mark comes downstairs and grabs his book and a fuzzy blanket to cozy up in the reading chair.  Jim brings his Mac-book into the kitchen and settles at the little glass-topped table, his back to the long window, his back to the glossy, windy blackness.

It is a time to bake, to scent the house with comfort. I dig out my old cookie cutters and l think about shortbread cookies shaped and sugared like autumn leaves. And I think about stews and pots of simmering sauce.  I think of casseroles and bubbling applesauce and warmth amidst the darkness.  Soon I pull the pie out of the oven, setting it on its rack to cool, to take to work and share with colleagues.

*********

I request time off, a week to clean and prepare, to ease summer’s careless grit out of corners, to rub oil into wood and to splash vinegar on the windows.  (Let’s capture every bit of sun; let’s not let a tiny ray be obscured.)  It is a ritual, the cleaning, a practice engrained deep in childhood–one can’t approach the holidays without a thorough house-cleaning! I try, though, to embrace this necessary cleansing mindfully and not grimly, to revel in the treasures revealed by a deep down search-and-sort, in the beauty and luster uncovered with the rigorous application of Murphy’s oil soap.  Let the cleaning usher in joy and warmth and safety.

I start to think about gifting, about ornaments and picture frames, about classic games and about popping corn grown in nearby fields, and  about knitted slippers and favorite photographs.  Christmas stockings and tiny treasures. As the days shorten and the frost dulls those glorious mums Mark planted, the prospect of creativity spreads a simmering grow.

During a  Barnes and Noble foray, we find wonderful Christmas cards and we bring them home  and stash them; soon it will be time to send them out, and to receive others–little transmitted slivers of  light and connection.

*****

We’re prepared, I think; we’ll weather this darkness. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, Lois comes into my office. She is her usual smiling self as she explains that she’ll have to cancel class because the hospital has called, the one in Cleveland, two and a half hours away. And then the smile abruptly melts away, and she is crying, she is sobbing; something horribly contained has just loosened its bonds, and I am helpless to give comfort.

One month ago, she says, Danny was out painting a house. Five days later he can’t walk.  She talks of cancer and tendrils that can’t be lanced away; like the hydra, more monsters spring up wherever those tendrils toss their infinitesimal teeth.  All that can be done is chemo, and now the chemo has caused clotting.  His lungs are filled with clots, she says, and they say, the doctors, that she’d better get there fast.

She turns at the door and says her stalwart son has taken a leave from school, come home to help his dad.  He can go back, Lois says, her son can go back to school.  But when his dad dies–she grips the molding, and breathes in a ragged breath–when his dad dies, my life will be over, too.

My hands are empty.  She walks away into darkness, and I have no light to offer her.

*********
This other darkness: it snuffles and explores.  My gentle boss Jim’s face is taut and cautious; this weekend, he buried a brother-in-law who died suddenly, aged 61. There is the pain of sudden loss. And there is this: His kids, said Jim, realized for the first time that he and his wife could also die. Would die, sometime. This death held their faces to the window, forced them to confront that dark truth.

I read a book that’s long been on my shelves: it’s a luminous wracking story of a family’s journey with muscular dystrophy.  The author tells how, generation after generation, beautiful boys grew out of toddlerhood and into illness, weakened, wasted, and died–at age 12, age 16–some few stronger boys made it to their mid-twenties.  The girls survived, scarred and battered; the mothers knew they had carried the gene that sickened and killed their sons.

The author writes so beautifully; she is  wrenching and she is funny, but her words unlatch the door and that snuffling darkness peers in.  There is sickness and pain and death, it reminds me, and it chortles, and it pushes the newspaper at me.  I read about a shooting, about unrepentant cruelty, about the gross and disgusting misuse of power, and my stomach lurches.

I can light a brave flame in the physical dark; how can I combat this other?

***********
I do not know the answer, but I know you can’t stop the dark by standing still, and so I light the oven and I stir the sauce, and I sit down to write a letter.  I visit a friend undimmed by cancer’s twilight, and I seek the source of her illumination. Rusty, humbled, out of all practice, I pray a prayer with no words, and I feel soft comfort, whispered warmth, sense some sort of unknown promise.

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

It is, today, a gateway day; the times are changing. Draw near, the season tells us, draw close and take your comfort.  Your lights shine brighter multiplied within a company that cares.