The Life at the End of the Tunnel

We change our shopping habits as Ash Wednesday looms, stocking up on fish fillets and cheese slices, cans of tuna, toasted sunflower seeds to sprinkle on crisp lettuce salads. I simmer up a batch of veggie broth. When the day dawns, we are ready.

So we greet Ash Wednesday with eggs and toast–a hearty breakfast to last until lunch; there is no eating between meals on this particular day. Choice of sandwiches for lunch–cheese or tuna or peanut butter; for dinner, a homemade mac and cheese and fresh, crisp green beans to accompany the fish fillets we grill. It is not exactly awful, but the gaps between meals seem long on this day of still-observed fast and abstinence–this day that ushers in a season of fasting, denial, sacrifice.

Ash Wednesday is like a heavy, solid metal security door, one that needs shoulder and hip pushing to open, protestingly, into the long, dimly lit tunnel that is Lent. And once I’ve shoved my way inside, that door snicks firmly shut behind me. There is no way out but through. I set off, reluctant and with threadbare grace, for a six week slog to Easter.

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I learned about Lent as a child.

Like many good Catholic children, I cut my reading teeth on stories of the saints and martyrs.  I read about the three children at Fatima, and how, devout and prayerful, they would mortify their flesh by wearing rough, horsehair belts underneath their garments, chafing their tender skin. They would deny themselves any kind of treats, eating only what they needed for sustenance. There were no pictures in my book, but I imagined their glowing, ascetic faces turned toward the heavens, awaiting the appearance of the Lady, cleansed and ready to receive her special message, that special sign of favor.

I read about Saint Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who knew from early childhood that she was destined for a life of prayer and sacrifice as a Carmelite nun. She petitioned the Holy Father for special dispensation to enter the convent before she even entered her teens. Admitted to the cloistered life, she found that she did not have any special gifts of living in community, not as a cook or a confidante. So she embraced the role of acceptance, not arguing when her sisters treated her meanly or unfairly, spending every possible hour on her knees, praying for all the ills she knew of in the world.

I imagined that kind of life–a life of self-denial and prayer. I wrote to the Carmelite sisters; they must have been used to receiving letters from passionate Catholic six-year-olds who’d just encountered the saga of the Little Flower. They wrote back, counseling patience and prayers for discernment, and enclosing informational brochures.

I burned with religious zeal, but I also enjoyed trying to burrow through the contents of my mother’s never-empty cookie jar and the raucous fun of a family wiffle ball game in the backyard after dinner.

And I wrote to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris too, and their replies and the nuns’ replies seemed equally to come from exotic, never-to-be-visited worlds.

By the time I was seven, my career aspirations had morphed to the world of rock and roll–maybe I’d be the fifth, and first female, Beatle. But then Lent would roll around, reminding me, again, of the value and necessity of sacrifice.

I learned about Lent at the Catholic school I attended. Sister Mary Elizabeth, the first grade teacher, inspired me with the joy of sacrifice, but didn’t offer too many hard and fast techniques. (Looking back, I think Sister must have been twenty at the most, and I wonder how the rollicking Sixties affected her vocation.) The lay teachers who came after, in grades two and three and four, shaped me more specifically. Mrs. H was clear and firm and a little dour: she saw no point in wimpy sacrifices. If sweets were what you loved, give up sweets for the whole six weeks. You loved TV? Give up ALL television shows. Make your sacrifice, she said, be something that you FEEL, something that is muscular and demanding.

Sacrifice, Mrs. H opined, was meant to hurt.

Mrs C and Mrs M were a little more flexible. They advocated giving up one thing–say, cookies–making it okay to have, occasionally, a cupcake or a little dish of ice cream. Or give up a flavor, they suggested, like chocolate. Then you could still have Payday bars and snickerdoodles; you weren’t entirely bereft of sweetness for a month and a half.

Or give up, perhaps, one favorite television show; go outside and play instead.

They debated with my friends on a controversial concept: whether or not Sundays were Lenten ‘days off.’

Both Mrs C and Mrs M were plump, cheerful, silver-haired, the kind of women who illustrated the concept of ‘grandmotherly.’ Mrs H was small and taut and scrawny.

My mother was small and taut and scrawny, too, and her views aligned pretty closely with Mrs. H’s. Sacrifice wasn’t sacrifice if it didn’t hurt; sacrifice was also no good if you broadcast it around. So my friends would wail and moan about how hard it was to live six weeks without cookies. I would clamp my mouth shut over the loss of my dear friend chocolate for the duration. Being dramatic about it, my mother taught, was a pleasure in itself. To truly be a sacrifice, the ordeal must be endured in silence. She brought all of the joy of her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing to her fervent conversion to Catholicism; there was no arguing.

And there were no Sundays off.

As I trudged through that childhood Lenten tunnel, the light would grow dimmer as the end approached. Lent broadened out into Holy Week, and the statues in the church—Mary in blue, with her immaculate heart; Jesus in red, his right hand raised to bless us, his sacred heart ablaze; St. Joseph, humbly clad in long brown robes, patient and quiet and giving–would be completely shrouded in deep purple drapes. The candles would flicker at daily Mass; Latin would be intoned, with no music; the shrouded figures pulsed with mystery and danger. There was often incense, chinked rhythmically from the jeweled golden censer. The air was dense with smoke and a heavy, spicy odor, an environment that was tough on little people fasting three hours before receiving the Body of Christ.

Roman Catholic Lenten and Holy Week activities in the early 1960’s were not for the faint of heart.

We re-enacted the Last Supper at church on Holy Thursday, our fathers on the altar, baring their white, frail feet for washing. We spent three hours–from noon until three–in church on Holy Friday. We had no Eucharist, but we lined up to inch toward the altar and to kiss the pale and holy plaster feet of Jesus.

Holy Saturday was like a day to hold your breath, a nothing day, wedged in between the sere and devastating drama of Friday and the glorious joy of Easter Sunday.

And oh, the light of Easter Sunday! The necessary travail of being bundled into scratchy dress clothes, with anklets that drooped and pinching shoes and a hat that would never stay on my outsized head, no matter the number of bobby pins pressed into the battle,–that was all endurable because after that, the hat came off, the jeans came on, and the Easter basket was there–a basket full of candy for just me, if I hid it well enough. (Prevailing wisdom dictated eating the good stuff first, just in case.)

There was ham for dinner and some kind of yummy dessert and Jesus was risen. And after the magnificent holiday was over, we were standing in the pouring-down light of that wonderful thing, ordinary time.

And the Lenten sacrifices disappeared back into that tunnel, dim memories that had no effect on life, moving forward.

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I have traveled some distance, in activity and belief, from those austere early days, but the practice of Lent stays with me. Every year since then, I have at least nominally observed Lent, giving up, some years when I was a young partier, beer and alcohol in general, but more often, my dearly loved chocolate.

My reasons have morphed, from guilt (“Our Lord spent three hours in agony, giving up His LIFE for you, and you can’t last six weeks without a bite of chocolate????”) to greed (“Chocolate tastes so much better when you haven’t had it for a month and a half!”) to an acceptance that sacrifice is a mindful way to center my thoughts, to reflect on what I believe and how I live. So I have pushed away the beautiful chocolate cake, sneaked a Payday bar from the vending machine when my sweet tooth got the better of me, and stopped at the chocolatier to buy a wonderful treat for Easter morn.

And the long season of Lent, for years and years, has passed by, and the door slammed closed on Easter morning, and life returned to exactly where it was before I spent six weeks in that trudging tunnel.

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Belatedly, a thought occurs to me: shouldn’t what I do, or what I don’t do, during this Lenten tunnel-time somehow change me? Shouldn’t my life be somehow informed or transformed, after the measured observance of six weeks of mindfulness?

This year as Lent begins, I am working with a Julia Cameron book, The Prosperous Heart, a creativity course intended to help the reader-user clarify and change her relationship to money. Cameron proposes some rules: keep track of money spent–any and all money. Take walks, write morning pages. And don’t, she tells me, ‘debt.’ So–no whipping out of the credit card to order a book because I have a coupon, because there is a discount, because the author is a favorite blogging buddy…because I just NEED to have that book. Oh, I can have it–but I have to plan and pay for it with real money. I have to be mindful of where my money goes and where my spending leads.

I give up my credit card for Lent, and I find myself growing critical, considering now every blithe expenditure, the need for the cruller or the magazine, the scarf or the silly gift. Do I need that? I ask myself. Could I MAKE that?

Sometimes, I realize the item is a need, and I buy it. But more often, I return it to the rack and leave the store.

Often, these days, I don’t go into that store in the first place.

I find some books on the ‘New Nonfiction’ shelf at the library. One shows  ways to make colorful old t-shirts into bracelets and flowers and spring-time wreaths. The other is written by a blogger who has embraced sustainable living. The things we need, she suggests, are usually already on our shelves or in our cupboards; we can concoct rather than shop. I check those books out, and I  take them home to pore through.

A daily reflection challenges me: what are you doing, along with your sacrifice? And I think about that, and I think of all the undone projects, and I decide that, while in the tunnel, I will complete as many unfinished starts as I can. I’ve knitted, for instance, torso, limbs, tail, and head of a silly monkey doll; those flat, empty monkey parts nestle next to one panel of a scrap-knit afghan. I’ll get my needles out instead of playing two-suit spider solitaire on the computer after dinner.

There are the brushed silver knobs I bought for my kitchen a year ago, along with the paste and paint to repair the random gashes and dents in my dark wood cabinet doors. There is a little pot of spackle, meant to repair cracks in the settling walls. There is semi-gloss paint to touch up the woodwork.

There are boxes to be mod-podged, and there are cracked but beloved ceramic pieces waiting to be morphed into outdoor mosaics. There is furniture to paint. There is mending to be done.

In the time I am not debting, perhaps I can be creating or completing.

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I feel, this year, a little of that reverent mindfulness that imbued my early Lenten journeys. There’s a reason for this, I think, and the lack of debting, and the act of fixing, weave together to build me a sense of actual change, and a bubbling sense of hope. Maybe, this year, I will develop a new habit. Maybe, by April 16th, my home will look as different as I project my spending habits will. (And it won’t hurt if I cut down on my chocolate consumption…but that won’t, this year, define this season for me.)

This year, when I climb out of the Lenten tunnel, climb into my sun-drenched ordinary time, I hope those ordinary days are a little differently shaped. I hope I will be buoyed by a sense of completion, lightened by awareness of living cleanly within my means. And I’ll be a little different, with shelves that are cleared and satisfaction in finishing long-simmering, oft-delayed projects, and the peace that mindfulness and restraint have given my relationship to the money I earn.

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This year, I embrace Lent, and I look forward to seeing a change in the light—a change in the LIFE–at the end of this particular tunnel.

In Birdland

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so.
Mary Oliver, “Bird,” in Upstream

They are here, everyday–even in Winter, when some wing southward, the steadfast ones remain, shivering the slender branches of the bushes, teasing off the winter red berries, flying off into gray laden skies. A concurrent civilization: the birds are here with us, but not part of us. We are landlocked; they are sky-bound. Our lives intercept, but they are not parallel.

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The parking lot is full, after lunch (just imagine–some student up and took ‘my’ convenient space on this cool, gray, rainy day!), so I park in the back lot and tug my bags out of the back seat. I trudge across the rain-slicked lot thinking desultory thoughts,…thinking, “Gotta email John, and set a time for the extra workshop. Where’s my Third Thursday schedule?” when a flicker snares my attention.

I look up to see that there are plump, rosy-breasted bluebirds perched in each of the saplings in the grassy yard behind my building. They flutter into flight as I walk by,  as I stop to fumble, too late, for my cell phone and its camera.

Bluebirds! I marvel. A flock of bluebirds!

I lived in New York State, where the bluebird was the official state bird, for the majority of my life. I had never seen a live, free bluebird until we moved to Ohio. And never before today had I seen an entire flock of them.

The little birds are so bright and boisterous I can see why they’re associated with happiness. Feeling somehow lightened, I march back to my office to tackle my trudgy to-do’s.

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I leave work at 5:30 that afternoon, when nature is beginning to hunker down for the night, drawing close its gray wool covering. And the crows are on the move, en masse, cawing harshly, leaving whatever places they inhabit during the day, gathering in pulsing, heaving, social masses.

They blacken the trees perched on the edge of the slope behind the Helen Purcell Home, the steep drop-off that rolls down to the river plain; they overlook, as the sky darkens, the winking lights of our little city spread out below. The crows gather and they open their beaks and chorus raucously as they sing their late ones home.

Sleek and black and noisy–the crows don’t give me that flicker of hope the bluebirds imparted. Instead, safely inside my car, I duck my head defensively, and feel a cold finger trace chill lines on my back and upper arms.  Foreboding: that’s the emotion the crows bring with them.  I am glad to park my car in the carport and bolt into the house.

Today is one of those days that I remember to realize that birds live all around me.

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I know people who pretty much pay attention to birds all the time.

There is Al, who teaches in the Wildlife program. He leads a troupe of students who build wooden box dwellings for barn owls.  They put these up in the deep, unsettled areas of this rural county; they don’t share the locations because barn owls, endangered and necessary, are shy creatures who don’t cotton to the company of human gawkers.

Al is someone people call when they find an injured bird. He came to an all-employee meeting once with a majestic red-tailed hawk perched on his shoulder; she’d been hurt and was mid-recovery. Her eyes rolled at all the people. Al put her on a tarp and let people sidle carefully closer to observe this emissary from a different civilization. She paced, nervous and wary. When she spread her long, strong wings to try to flap her way outside, away from people, to a free, safe place, I felt the heady rush of wind she created twenty feet away.

Al has other birds, too–hawks and falcons, fallen ones that he nurses back to health and launches back into their wild homes. Sometimes, though, they won’t leave, and Al has a continuing companion, one who, I imagine, keeps his barn free of rodent pests and keeps him, too, carefully within the long, wide shot of their piercing, protective eyes.

There is Eryk, one of Al’s students, whose passion for wild birds leads him to his choice of profession: park ranger. Eryk, in a writing class, taught me about wild ducks and geese. He talked about bald eagles, too, raptors which have returned to this corner of Ohio. When I told him I’d never seen one, he laughed.

“You HAVE!” he said. “The immature birds have dark heads. You’ve probably seen them clustered in fields, and thought you were seeing vultures.”

There are wonderful bird-bloggers, like Kathy Doremus at Backyard Bird Nerd (https://backyardbirdnerd.com/2017/02/20/a-popular-place-to-perch/ ), whose wild bird photography fascinates me.

There are people who have their life lists, who travel to sight the birds they’ve never yet had the chance to see in nature.  We know a very special woman who flew overseas to catch an important migration not so very long ago. She was in her 80’s, with a serious illness, and that illness brought her home early, but, darn it, she took the chance and saw the birds she needed to see.

Some people, I think, share a little of the migratory wanderlust with the birds that fascinate them.

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Mary Oliver writes about rescuing an injured bird, of creating a place for it, giving it a good life in its last broken days. My brothers sometimes brought home broken fledglings when we were children. We would nest them in cardboard boxes from the supermarket; we would try to feed them with an eyedropper. Mashed worms. Warm milk. We would coo them welcome.

They never made it. Often, they would disappear from the box while we slept, our parents not wanting us to wake up to that stiff little feather bundle. There were baby bird graves in our back yard.

My mother fed the birds in that yard. She kept a container where we threw stale ends of bread, crusts and heels, and she would crumble those up and broadcast them in the hard-packed areas of the yard that we’d worn grassless playing wiffleball and kickball.  The birds would swarm–mostly robins and starlings and sparrows. She would stand, smoking, in the kitchen window and watch them, marveling at the way they integrated and shared and communicated.

Feeding the birds is not a habit I’ve perpetuated. Seeding the lawn with edibles would invite a whole additional set of visitors beyond just birds. I don’t want to encourage raccoons and squirrels and field mice who might just turn a speculative eye toward the house from which such bounty emanates.

And my appreciation of Mom’s bright-eyed perky sparrows has been jaded, too, since talking with our nature-loving friend Grace. Grace is zen-centered, non-aggressive, and willing to live in peace with most of God’s creatures, but Grace despises the English sparrow. They’re not supposed to even BE here, she says; they stowed away, most likely, on rickety wooden ships making the sea voyage to the New World, debarked, checked it out, and decided to stay.

And propagated.

Sparrows, Grace says darkly, are the Cosa Nostra of the local bird kingdom; they will wait until a bluebird has settled in a box, and a lovely warm home has been created. Then they will viciously attack, killing the grownup birds, destroying eggs and tender babies, and smugly taking the comfy site over for their own. They will nest, says Grace, right on top of the carcasses of the birds they’ve killed.

Now when I see the sparrows hopping and pecking, they look sinister, not perky. What are they plotting? I wonder. Or–what have they already done?

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For there is, certainly, a cold and  bloody side to our beautiful bird friends. We have seen, walking with our animal-loving granddaughter, laughing crows sweep in and steal a baby wren from its nest, dangling the sad little thing, staying a few feet ahead of its frantic parents, cawing and taunting as they take turns flying in to peck at their little captive.

“Put it DOWN!” our granddaughter wailed, running after the carnage-crows, but they laughed and taunted her, too.

And one day, Mark stood on our sunporch, talking on the phone to his brother in California. He was watching a couple of chipmunks cavorting in the rain across the street, when a hawk swooped in, grabbed a chipmunk without breaking flight, and pumped away, lunch in its talons.

“Whoa!” Mark yelled. “What did–? I can’t believe that just happened!”

The other chipmunk skittered away, and the sky, Mark said, was vastly empty.

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I have read that birds are closer to dinosaurs than any other creatures living, and I imagine those prehistoric creatures cocking their heads, rolling their eyes, hopping delicately from treat to treat like the funny little birds on my lawn.  I picture T-Rex with a coating of bright feathers. I wonder if its tiny arms weren’t vestigial, if the T-Rex sported wings whose flesh and cartilage, in time’s furnace after death, wasted away, leaving tiny arm bones for scientists to find and speculate upon.

Maybe birds once ruled the world.

Maybe, in their perception, despite our houses and cats and environmentally unfriendly habits, they think they still do.

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But how would I know what birds think? I barely register sharing space with them most days. Unless it is spring and they are boisterously calling; Mark swears we have a dysfunctional bird couple that returns to roost in our trees each year.

“Judy Judy Judy,” he calls, pleading. But, “Cheater Cheater Cheater!” she shrills back at him.

You’d think, Mark says, he’d learn–or she would.

We used to have hummingbirds that visited; then I hung a hummingbird feeder. I haven’t seen one since.

I am not, naturally, a nature girl; a too-close high school encounter with a nasty bird who targeted my shining red hair leaves me permanently bird-wary–and left me, too, with the nickname “Condor” for quite a number of years. So I do not know how to lure and keep feathered friends returning to my yard; they make me a little nervous, in themselves, and  I worry about the habits of the friendly prowling cats of this pet-loving neighborhood.  But I feel the prickle of awe when I see a calm, majestic hawk perched on top of a power pole. I marvel at the gawky, prehistoric flight of one of the herons I see on summer evenings, lazily winging away from the river.

We are earth-rooted; birds are, as Mary Oliver writes, sky-citizens, ambassadors from a wholly different culture, testifying quietly in our midst. I am glad for the glimpses I get into their world, for the visit of a bluebird bunch, for the awkward heron flapping. I treasure the photos and the facts more knowledgeable people share. They remind me, birds do,–when I am awake and aware–that MY world is also THEIR world; that we live side by side with all kinds of wonders,  with beauty and with treachery.

And we do not know everything. And we are not alone.

Saturday Cleaning (This Week, a Lick and a Promise)

Saturday morning, 9:30… breakfast complete, the day’s chores begin.

The boyos clomp downstairs and begin chuddering around, packing up bins of clunking glass bottles and chingling tin cans.  They heft and stomp and chide each other. They are going recycling. They’ll drive up to the bins at the city barns, behind the new building at the College, and they will empty out the totes they’ve packed into Mark’s  trunk. They’ll stuff the aluminum and plastic and glass and paper into all the right compartments, pack up the empty totes, slam the trunk closed, and then they’ll head over to the bakery outlet store.

There, they’ll buy a couple of loaves of cheap white bread, a package of English muffins, a single serving peach pie, and a sleeve of little chocolate doughnuts. They’ll throw in two bags of cheese curls–the kind that are so cheesily powdered, they turn our lips and fingers disgustingly neon orange. (And still, I can’t stop eating them.)

The boyos might stop at the wholesale grocer, too, and buy little chunks of assorted cheese (cheddar, hot pepper, colby-jack) packed  in a baggie, a couple of long, skinny, pungent beef jerky sticks, a one-serving bag of nacho Doritos. They may find some amazing deals on General Mills cereals or frozen pizzas or canned kidney beans. Then they’ll pack their bags of goodies into the car and head over to DQ, where they’ll treat themselves to the five dollar lunch deal, complete with mini-sundae.

They have their Saturday rituals. I have mine, too. While they’re gone, I’m cleaning.

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I have already walked the dog, who, sighing, sinks into the couch, rests her chin on the overstuffed arm, and falls immediately into a deep, elderly sleep. I throw open the coat closet where I keep my cleaning arsenal. I pull down the Swiffer duster and go to my rag bag to find a couple of soft, worn, white socks. (One Saturday, I reached for the duster refills only to find the box was empty. I said to myself,–I really did,–“Well. I’m not going to be able to dustmop until I get some refills!”

An immediate cacophony raged in my head, the derisive roaring of generations of stern Scottish housekeepers howling at the thought that I needed to buy duster refills in order to clean.

Above the howling, I swear I heard my mother’s dismayed, determined voice saying, “Oh, just put a sock on it!”

Sure enough, soft old socks, secured on the flexible stem with a rubber band, work just fine for dusting ceiling corners, light fixtures, the curved wooden rims of mirror frames, the iron fretwork on headboards, and the always dusty ledges of window sashes.)

I learned that Saturdays were for cleaning from my mother. By the end of the busy week, our house felt heavy and and dusty and lived in, and we would wrestle the proper tools from the broom closet–a dust mop with a fluffy head of brightly colored yarns, the old damp mop loaded by folding clean soft rags into neat rectangles and feeding them into its pinching, clamping jaws. The canister vacuum was heavy and irascible; it had to be wooed and fidgeted out of the closet, and its long hose was always curling up on itself, reluctant to cooperate. We used clean cloths to dust the furniture, and we did not use polish, Pledge being a hoax perpetrated on slapdash housewives with money to burn.

I did not like to clean, and my mother, a perfectionist at times, often found my help more trouble than it was worth. She doggedly kept at it, trying to train a reluctant daughter who would much rather curl up with a book and escape to a different world than embrace the romance of a freshly mopped floor. But sometimes, in frustration, she would snatch the mop or the dust rag or the vacuum hose away.

“I can’t stand to watch you,” she’d say. “Let me just do it.”

I would slink off to find my book and a quiet corner.

But she, even when feeling her lug-headed daughter was just not getting it, sowed the cleaning seeds deep. I feel that same household heaviness on a Saturday in 2017 that we felt in 1965. My arsenal of cleaning weapons may be modernized, but it, too, is much the same.

I learned the ritual of cleaning from my mother; but I did not absorb so much the best ways to go about creating a  clean house. My first apartments were grand examples of cluttered mess.  I learned efficient technique when, shortly after moving to central Ohio, I cast about for work. A mistaken phone call came when I was getting very frustrated–a wrong number from a cleaning company tracking down an applicant. Well, hey, I said, I’d be interested, and they said, Sure. Come on down.

They cleaned banks, this service. At the training, in the huge main downtown office, they unveiled the tools of the trade, and taught their philosophy of cleaning. Make your tools work for you, they said. And clean from the top down. Vacuum first, then dust.

I was assigned two small branch offices to clean; I worked with a trainer for a week or two, and then I was on my own, terrified that I’d forget the security code or take so long in locking up that the police would arrive and haul me away for questioning. But the work itself became a patterned dance–arranging all the tools, dusting from the ceilings down to counter height, scouring the bathrooms with antiseptic cleaners, waltzing the mop backwards across the scuffed tiled floors until the shine returned, sashaying myself backwards out the restroom door. Then I’d vacuum; I quickly learned where the most convenient plugs were, the locations that would give me maximum play of the cord. I’d dust the counter-tops with a citrus-y polish, pack up the cloths for the person who whisked them away for cleaning, dump the vacuum, bag up the trash. I would do one final circuit, making sure I hadn’t missed spots or left a bottle of cleaner sitting on a countertop, and satisfied, I’d grab my purse and coat, frantically pound in the security code, and rush outside while the door snapped firmly shut.

It was hard work, but satisfying–and it was kind of fun to be locked inside the bank all by myself after hours. To go from workday clutter to shining surfaces in a two hour sweep made me smile.  Before too long, I got a teaching job and said goodbye to the cleaning company, but I’d learned a thing or two about efficiency that I applied at home.

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So, on this Saturday morning, armed with the socked-up duster, I start upstairs, at the top, smoothing away dust strands stuck in high corners, sweeping over the tops of picture frames, scooting dust from the blades of ceiling fans.  I scrub the bathrooms and dump towels and washcloths and rugs down the laundry chute. I sweep, and then, just like the old days, I do a little dance with the damp mop on the tiled floors, backing myself out into the carpeted hallway.

I vacuum the carpets, but today, I do not move the beds or chairs or vacuum the mattresses. Today we have an adventure planned for the afternoon–a lazy meander down a road we haven’t traveled yet, one that winds south down along the river–and I want the house done before we take off.  So, I vacuum the obvious surfaces, and use the duster to tease out the under-furze, sucking it up with my Hoover. Next week, I’ll make up for the laxness, for doing what my mother would call a ‘once-over-lightly’ kind of job.  “We’ll just give it a lick and a promise,” she’d sometimes say.

My younger self thoroughly enjoyed a lick and a promise days.

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No, I have not always been a dedicated cleaner. In fact, although I always liked a shining house, was comforted by uncluttered, gleaming surfaces, I struggled to reconcile that with a fledgling understanding of feminism. In college and just after, I felt guilty for tackling the cleaning and the laundry–Why is this MY job? I’d demand angrily,–and sometimes I would grab my book and defiantly sit reading, actively ignoring, or trying to ignore, the mess and the clutter.

But the truth was an awful, messy house gave me awful, messy thoughts. Aged twenty-four or so, an avid reader of Cosmopolitan magazine (the day the new edition hit the supermarket shelves was always a treasure day for me), I came across an article by a young woman executive in New York City who lived in a messy apartment. She wrote how defiantly she did NOT clean up–she was a liberated woman, after all,–and how disgusted a date was at her messy digs. And suddenly, she said, she saw her quarters though his eyes, and it became not an issue of gender equality, but a symbol of lack of pride and terribly poor organizational skills.

She did not date the disapproving man again–a little too stuffy, she wrote,–but she changed the way she looked at her living space. She became, she said, house proud. She made her apartment a place she was glad to come home to. She cleaned and polished and decorated, not to impress another, but to be good to, and caring of, herself.

Funny how an article in a frothy magazine could re-adjust my thinking. House proud, I pondered, and I began to clean to please myself and not to conform to anyone else’s standard. And later, when Mark and I got married, the division of labor fell into an easy, pleasant rhythm. I liked to cook, and he was happy to do dishes. He took over the laundry; I vacuumed and mopped; we changed the beds together.

On Saturdays, although he was always willing to pitch in if needed, he did guy-things, sometimes with one of the boys, sometimes solo. He handled the car maintenance, hung pictures, did yard work, took the recycling to the bins. He cleaned and organized his tools. I cleaned the house.

The division of labor seemed pretty fair and even.

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

Today,  I work my way downstairs. I straighten and tidy; I vacuum, and the sighing dog runs away to another room.  I run a soft rag over the dusty surfaces of end tables.  I empty the vacuum’s packed dust-catcher. I replace the towels in the half bath and the dishcloths in the kitchen.

The house is cleaned,–licked and promised,–and the boyos pull into the drive,  go-cups in hand, plastic shopping bags looped over their wrists, kicking the empty plastic recycling bins ahead of them. They have Saturday morning adventures to share.

I mix up tuna salad, make myself a sandwich, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and then we are pulling the door shut behind us, and heading off to explore the backroads on a sunny February Saturday. The adventure is undergirded by the knowledge that we will come home to an uncluttered, organized house, with clear surfaces on which to set any exploration swag we gather,–a lightened, brightened space where we can kick back and relax, dissecting the week.

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

“How we change,” I remember my father remarking, stopping in to see me shortly after Mark and I got married. He was remembering, I am sure, my messy bedroom, the chaos that was my first apartment in college. Now, the house was pleasantly clean, the cookie jar was full; we put on a pot of coffee and sat down for a visit at an uncluttered table, in some uncluttered time.  I was proud that he’d dropped in to find me organized, proud that I had mastered the art of caring, for my family, yes, but also for myself.

It’s funny. As a child, I needed to know that someone had it all under control–the house would be clean, there would be socks in the drawer. The cookie jar would magically refill. I needed that, but I needed, too, the teachers who dragged me out of my dependency on someone other, who nudged me into places where I knew I’d have my own landscapes under control. I needed to reach that place where I knew, having given my household terrain a lick and a promise, the promise would, eventually but certainly, be kept.

Crouching on a Crumbling Ledge, Looking for Common Ground

    Common ground (phrase): a foundation for mutual understanding
        —the freedictionary.com

Remembering.

There were eight students in the class, four men and four women. Four were white and four were not. Two were immigrants to America. Two men worked at the little private college in maintenance; two were women in their fifties. A couple of young professionals, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in her Somali community, a dignified older man finally enrolled in college after he’d sent all his kids to school: all busy adults taking night courses, enrolled in degree programs, working hard, and seeking better, richer lives for themselves, and for their families.

The course itself was a kind of hybrid freshman seminar, sort of English comp meets thoughtful-discussion-of-current-issues.  The college provided a common book. That year, 2004, it was a journalist’s discussion of how, in post-9/11 times, the rest of the world viewed and considered the United States, as a government, and as a people,–which, we found, were two very different perspectives.

We met in a kind of conference room, around a table that would seat twelve comfortably–the perfect room, the perfect size, for this small troupe. The room was on the third and highest floor of a blocky brick building; it was a corner room, and we could look out over the university’s green lawns and watch the quiet neighborhoods of the suburb settle into evening. There was something lightened and safe about the space, and there was something about the people enrolled and the subject matter involved that allowed a free and open exchange.

All the students came with defenses down and doors wide open, with real curiosity about what the others thought and knew and felt. They demolished barriers from the first meeting, wanting to meet on level ground, to hear real talk about real issues. No one snorted derisively, for instance, when one of the working men spoke of feeling passed over by affirmative action-type programs; the students listened, and considered, and asked questions.  And the others openly shared their experiences, too–as people of color in competitive markets, as older workers trying to remain viable and vital. Their classmates absorbed their words and wrestled with meaning.

Early on, it left off being a class and became a kind of team. Attendance was not an issue; they came, eager for the next discussion, open to learning, ready to share.

During Ramadan, Saara, the Somali woman, brought in food to break her daily fast. We would watch as the windows darkened, working until the sun took its late autumn slide, and then she would unpack a basket, set out plates for all of us, and pass everyone a kind of fried pie. Everyone tucked in; no one picked up the unusual (and tasty) food and examined it skeptically.  Saara talked about her faith and her country and her brother, a military officer who was murdered by the new regime in her old homeland. She told us of her work with the Somali people in her neighborhood, helping them navigate unfamiliar systems and find the supports they needed to be successful.

As she spoke to us, calmly and confidently, in a voice lilted by intonations learned on different shores, her world grew familiar–not exotic and other, but everyday and real. As did the lives of the other people–the single mothers in their fifties, one struggling with a grown child’s mental illness; the father taking the chance to educate himself after launching his six kids; the vibrant and successful young salesman who really yearned to be a college professor; the working guys; the young assistant director of college admissions…all of them met in the right place at just the right time.

They did good work, that class. Well, seriously, they blew me away; they did great work. On the last night we met, they all brought food to share, and they compiled lists of email addresses so they could stay in touch. Charles, the salesman, agreed to come and talk during a career exploration segment of a tech writing class I was teaching during Spring term at a community college.  Mary, one of the older women, gave me a beautiful hand-painted wooden box; it still, today, holds my letters and stationery. They stood awkwardly when the class wound down, reluctant to leave the tiny and temporary utopia we’d enjoyed for 16 weeks.

I waited until they had all left, cleaned up crumpled napkins, tidied the classroom, lingering at a college where, having accepted a full-time position elsewhere, I would probably never teach again. What a gift for me, as an instructor, to have had the chance to meet and work with these amazing people. These totally unique, very disparate folks who had entered into a kind of covenant, all there for a common purpose, all finding common ground.

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

It is evening, and I am scrolling through my FaceBook feed. I see a post from a person I know professionally, respect professionally, and don’t even come close to agreeing with politically. The post is entitled something like, “A Letter to My Child,” and it explains this man’s disagreement with my point of view. I slow down to read it.

It is thoughtfully written, I concede, although I quickly decide there are fallacies a mile wide in several of the arguments. And it is, my prissy English teacher inner voice opines, a little glib. But it is honest and an attempt to share an opposing view.

But I know my view is right. Although I’m reading, I am not listening.

Then I read the responses. There are many, and they are mostly strident, some in support of, and some opposed to, this man’s stance. One of the opposed is someone very dear to me; she has launched an attack on the writer’s post that is shrill and laced with vulgarities and that hits at him very personally. The violence of it makes me recoil–even though, on all the issue’s points, I agree with her.

I feel a sinking dread in the pit of me.  I think of these two fine people, and the chasm that yawns between them. What could ever cause two people so strongly bastioned in their fervent beliefs to find a common ground?

**************
About a month before the election, my son James and I were driving to a little town fifty miles north of here for our dental appointments. There is no interstate pathway, so this trip relegated us to back roads. It was a bright fall morning. We drove past horses grazing in October sunshine, past fields of slow moving cows, past the stubble of cornfields. We came to a stretch of Amish country where we navigated around a slow moving buggy. We tempered our speed again in a little crossroads town that has a stop sign at its intersection. As we cruised to a stop, I saw a person tumble over a rock in a yard, and I did not see that person get up.

There is a corner store at the crossroads; I pulled in and turned around.  I half-registered a pickup truck behind me doing the same as I drove back to the house where the person had fallen. On the ground, propped up against a tree and looking bewildered, was a heavy elderly woman, bundled into a plaid wool jacket, rimless glasses glinting in the sun. Her sweatpants were green-streaked and muddy. Wispy gray hair escaped from a brown knit cap.

I rolled down my window to ask if she needed help. She gave me a puzzled look.

“I don’t think,” she said slowly, considering, “that I can get up.”

I turned off the car, pondering quickly our next best steps–should we try to get her up? Call for help? But the pickup truck I’d seen glided into a space right in front of us.  A man got out–balding, with overalls straining over an impressive belly. He came to my window and said, “I wasn’t sure WHAT I seen till I seen you turn around. You go on, now. I’ll get ‘er.”

He went over then and held out his hands, and the woman reached out to take them. He pulled her up. Her face changed completely, shining as she looked at her rescuer. She turned her head and gave me a nod–“We’re fine now!” it said–and she gazed up at the man in wonder. We pulled away, leaving them there, engaged in earnest conversation. I had that strong feeling one gets, knowing a problem has been taken on by someone who will see it through.

As we pulled away, James noted that the truck had a bumper sticker touting Not-My-Candidates.

“How,” he asked, “could someone so nice vote for THEM?”

And the overalled man might well have been thinking, “I can’t believe one of those ones bothered to stop and offer help.”

A reaction to an emergency, a person vulnerable and needy: a chance for common ground.

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

What would make my Facebook friends find common ground, I wonder. I have to think that, faced with an emergency, both of those good people would put aside their differences to work together, to get the fallen one back onto her feet, to call in the necessary experts.  They are, both of them, compassionate folks. They do not want to stand by while people are unnecessarily hurt.

I think of the kinds of emergencies that might create this bonding–egregious loss of freedom? Outright violence? We can’t wait until we get there, I think, to find our common ground.

Mandated participation in something–a class, a workplace seminar–creates the possibility of finding common ground. If people come in thinking, “Well, it COULD work. If the others are willing to be open and honest…well, then I will, too.” With the right people, the right program, the right environment…those obligatory meetings could turn into something rich.

But barring an emergency or a mandate, how do we leap across the chasm?  And more and more,–as I weave uneasily, as the ground shifts beneath my feet, and as the gap widens,–more and more, I feel the real and wrenching need for this leaping to happen, for an open and empathetic exploration of the beliefs underlying our actions. We need to inhabit the shaded space in the Venn diagram where we overlap and converge.

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

So. I enter ‘common ground’ into a search engine and hundreds of thousands of hits pop up. There is a progressive rock group called Common Ground; their album cover shows hands cupping dirt from which a tiny shoot grows. I bookmark them to listen to later; I think their common ground has to do with caring for the Earth.

I find a college website that has rules of engagement for instructors trying to norm their grading, to reach common ground on what constitutes an ‘A’ and what work has to be considered failure. That website offers steps to consensus–Collaborate creatively, it suggests, and then defines that for the instructors involved. Establish effective leadership. The site describes where such meetings should take place and how long they should last, who should be there, what should be provided.

A PROGRAM, I think; what if we had a program?  I remember a young woman named Valerie Walawender. Valerie, who was in a women’s writers group I belonged to many, many years ago in western New York State, developed a program to break down barriers between people, and to infuse appreciation for diversity. I type her name into the search engine and there it is: Valerie’s website (http://valeriewalawender.com/?page_id=714), and a description of the program she developed, called Faces in the Crowd. Participants are given masks; when each looks into a mirror, they see the face of another–a different gender and age and ethnicity, perhaps,–and they are asked to think for a short respite about who they would be if that really was their face. And then they have to share that story with the person next to them, and listen to that person’s story in turn.

Faces in the Crowd, it seems to me, is a tool for establishing understanding, to inching onto common ground.

But what circumstances would make us use such tools, engage in those programs, put that music on and sit down for a steaming cup of decaf and an earnest conversation with the Other?

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

I have been trying, this year, to shift my perspective, searching for my own strengths, and for those of others, rather than focusing on weaknesses and flaws. And here, I think, is another necessary shift…finding what we share, not what divides us. Where we converge. I am astounded by how difficult this process, seemingly simple, can be. It is so hard to really listen, so unsatisfying to release my need to be right.

The wider the divide, the more I think I lose sight of the other as person–as a person with beloved family and cherished dreams and aching hurts and needs they search to address.  We become, grouped and gazed at from a growing distance, The Other Side,–a faceless, nameless, soulless mob, an entity to be battled.

And then, thus labelled, we are stuck in place, quivering on the crumbling edge of the canyon, in danger, all of us, of tumbling in.

And, oh, maybe that’s just melodrama. But maybe,–a sobering maybe–we really need to find connection, build a bridge, toss a sturdy rope, sit and talk until we uncover our places of agreement. Maybe we need to find a safe room, acknowledge this emergency, and talk it through.

Not compromising our ideals–never that. But creating the circumstances for finding common ground.

The Lull

I pull on my orange jacket and urge a reluctant dog out the door. The wind nips and the oak tree, clinging to its brown, dry leaves, rustles like an understated musician brushing at her drums. Ragged scraps of snow float to the ground.

The dog perks up. Are scents enhanced by cold and snow? Greta strains at the leash; now she is tugging me into a kind of sniff-and-tumble forage ahead. We skirt Sandy’s yard, loop up the big curved drive by the Helen Purcell home.

On the downslope, Greta pulls me off the pavement. She inches into the garden area where thick piles of leaves mulch the wintering perennials. She snouts around excitedly, upturning planks of leaves, exposing their darkened bottoms.

I let her go. It is Friday afternoon, Friday after a long and swirling week. Obligations have been met, and now the day’s ceiling opens up like the folding lids on a box–wide open to the sky and possibility. We can do anything we want. No need to hurry.

But even outrageous, exotic scents grow familiar, and small, aging dogs begin to feel the cold. We head to the house. I let Greta go at the stone front steps; she bounds around to the kitchen door and waits for me, grinning. I unhook her leash and we head in.

The kitchen smells like cinnamon; a small mound of snickerdoodles, edges just shy of burnt, just the way we like them, cools on the counter. Jim taps quietly on his keyboard in the family room. It’s an easy dinner tonight—packaged au jus; leftover beef, sliced thin to simmer in that dark sauce. Scalloped potatoes, made from a mix. Green beans.

I chop and mix and pour, getting things ready to cook. Then I make a cup of tea, move to the dining room table, and sit with my journal, pen in hand, staring out the window. It has been a week, a careening, charged time of meeting upon meeting, complex conversations rolling into each other, allowing no chance to absorb and reflect. The week was a tumbling, bubbling stew–a melange of things, all thrown in together; the simmering surface does not reveal the individual elements thumping around below.

But I remember, now,–now that I have a moment to reflect– the silver-haired man (silver hair like a lion’s mane) who got up to speak at Jim R’s funeral. It was after Jim’s three children had stood, bravely, fighting tears, to eulogize their father, to talk about his endless collection of classical music, and how they could never leave the house to go, say, to a restaurant until the entire side of a vinyl album had finished. About learning to make shelves and boxes in Jim’s basement woodshop to house those records and CD’s. About what he had taught them, and the teaching he shared with his more than 8,000 students. They went back to their seats, flanking their mother; they dipped their heads and they cried.

Jim was a lifelong learner, a scholar who was all but dissertated in history, a history teacher at the local high school. And after he retired, he came to teach at the community college. History was an elective, a course of choice in the one or two spaces where students could pick: one course from among the social sciences, say. Many chose history because someone told them it was the easiest, and then, they would encounter Mr. R. After that, they would usually opt to take the second half of American history, too, because he made them care so much.

“They don’t KNOW!” he would wail. “They don’t understand what happened or WHERE it happened! They don’t know why!”

And he wanted them to know, and he wanted them to care.

I would walk by the door of Jim R’s classroom on days when I badly needed a jolt of here’s why we are here doing what we’re doing. There he’d be, striding around the front of the class, pivoting, his hands flying, shaping balls of air into guns or bills or chains or victory. He would bend toward the students, with a laugh, with a groan, and the students would lean in to catch every single word.

And this was after the bad heart trouble, and after the belly surgery that left him so depleted. “If I have to quit teaching,” Jim said, a few years ago, “they may as well just carry me out of here.” For many students, Jim R, 72 years old, was not a history teacher or a grand storyteller so much as he was a transporter, holding open wide the door of a vivid time machine.

A month ago, he was teaching.

On Tuesday, we gathered at a little funeral home, filled to standing room capacity, to mourn him. And his friend stood up to share a tale.

He was also an educator, this friend, an administrator, I am guessing,– someone who shared a long chunk of career with Jim R. He talked about their passion for learning, and about other things they shared–love of hiking, of traveling; an inclination toward a good joke.

This man told us how he’d gone to see Jim at the hospital just two days before he died. Jim was sleeping deeply in his hospital bed, white as the sheets that covered him; his friend went and sat beside him. He took Jim’s hand.

“Jim,” he said, “I want to tell you what a wonderful friend you’ve been to me. And I hope I’ve been as good a friend to you.”

There was a moment. And then Jim squeezed his friend’s hand, and slowly his eyes opened. They shared a long look, the two old teachers, and then Jim, still squeezing his buddy’s hand, spoke.

“You’re getting fat,” he said. And fell back to sleep.

Oh, it was a good story, and oh, Jim’s friend told it well. We were all shocked into laughter. Driving back to Zanesville, I thought, “Jim taught us all a little something about friendship and humor, a teacher to the last.”

And I thought, too, that maybe he wasn’t above leaving his bud with a good story to tell at his funeral.

***********
And now I realize it is 5:00; I slide the red porcelain casserole into the oven, put the green beans on the simmer burner, start the water on to boil to make the au jus. Greta jumps up and barks: Mark has  pulled into the carport. She and James greet him at the door. He comes into the kitchen, rubbing hands together, cheeks red above his gray scarf and long black coat, and his eyes light up at the mound of cookies.

“Smells like cinnamon,” he says, and then Jim is pulling colorful Fiesta-ware from the cupboard, and the dog is jumping around my legs as I stir the beef into the bubbling juice, and Mark is telling us about a visitor he had, a funny encounter that happened. And he’s hanging up his coat, and we’re dishing up our food, and we’re toasting with our ice water: Let the weekend begin!

Warmth and good scents and steaming food: we relax into the meal and the conversation; we linger and enjoy.

****************
I am swishing my hand in hot soapy water, agitating the suds to scrub the pans, when I think of the young man I met yesterday. I was on a field trip to a nearby village, going to explore a home-grown leadership program that was seeping its way into all kinds of the town’s corners. Into the high school, where it linked high-achieving students with developmentally delayed counterparts, creating new friendships and new ways of leading. Into the courts where young people with promise were funneled into, of all things, a leadership course. Imagine! Into Job and Family Services, where people struggling to turn their lives around got a chance to explore their leadership capacities, and to tussle with concepts like ethics and self-fulfillment.

Shelly, the dynamic force behind the program–its pilot light–told me that they’d applied for a grant for a leadership curriculum. And plummeted when they didn’t get it.

And then, when the initial shock wore off, they said, Well, we can’t afford to buy a program. We’ll just have to create our own.

She handed me a facilitator’s handbook and a participant’s guide, glossy and professional, and we paged through together. Then she took me out to meet her peeps.

It was the kind of place where everyone pitches in. So the program coordinator might also stop to get refreshments, and the executive admin teaches a module. The marketing crew make phone calls and know participants’ names and the names of their family members, and staff members take time to stop and talk with a visitor come to see their program.

One of Shelly’s colleagues is a young man whose hair–top of his head, lashes and brows,–is snow white. Three years ago, he told me, he was laying on his couch, turning his head away when his wife or daughters tried to interest him in what they were doing, in some exciting event. He had an auto-immune disease. His body was attacking itself, and the doctors had nothing to offer him. He turned his head away.

And then, somehow, he and his wife learned of a program in Chicago, and they gathered up their resources–no easy task for a young family–and they went. The medical innovators harvested stem cells from the patients, they brewed them into something injectable, and they re-implanted them in the patients’ bodies. And somehow, by some alchemical reaction, the infusion of stem cells changed the course of this young man’s disease.

It wasn’t, of course, as simple as my telling of the tale, and it took months of time away from home. But, he told me, he limped into the hospital, leaning on a walker. And he walked out, straight and tall, striding next to wife. His dark hair had turned stark white, but his health was back. And he was determined to work with people with disabilities. He found his place among the passionate professionals I visited.

***************
My tea water is ready. Mark and Jim are in the family room, guffawing at Frasier and Niles’ antics. I bring my IPad to the table and sip my tea and ponder what to write.

Some weeks are just nuts. Obligation flows into obligation; there is little time to reflect or assimilate. It can be dangerous, that kind of week; I can miss the miracles that roll gently into my path. I need an interlude, a lull, and time to sort the treasure from the dross.

And I think of good Jim R, gone so quickly, missed so much, and of the eight or ten thousand students he sent out into whatever worlds they were forging, out with new knowledge and new passion and doors opened in their minds. Not doomed to repeat history; not those umpteen thousand.

I think of how he left us with a good story and a good laugh.

I think of the young man with the white hair, who took an incredible chance and regained his health and found his purpose.

I think of the families who love and support both those men, and of the lives they touch and have made better.

It takes a lull, sometimes, to be aware and mindful of the magic and the miracles among us. Those hectic days–they suck my attention; they only let me focus on the jabbering and the demanding: the right-here-right-now, got to get it done, tip of the iceberg.  I need the lulls. I need the time to let the stories of wonder rise to the surface of my thought, and to remember the friendships and the decency, the loyalty and the openness, and the hope and possibilities, that always dwell among us.

Adventures in Ordinary Time

The sun is not yet up, and my son James, 26-years old, is stretching his arms in the dining room.

“Should I get my shoes on?” he asks.

Jim’s dad, Mark, passes him on his way upstairs to dress for work.

“Good morning, Sabu,” says Mark.

“Morning, Dabu,” Jim replies, their own special dialect in play.

I have just poured my first cup of rich dark decaf; I haven’t even pulled my binder from the cupboard to parse out some loose-leaf, pick up a pen, and write my three required morning pages. My slow, fuzzy morning mind churns reluctantly.

“Sooooooo….” Jim says, a question in that one-drawn out word.

And then I remember. Last night, clipping coupons, I’d chopped a page full of great Tim Horton deals into their discrete elements. And I said to Jim, “Hey–we should go to Timmy H’s tomorrow for breakfast.”

“Cool,” he’d said, and I went back to my clipping. I’d been thinking of a meander over to Maple Avenue at, oh, say, maybe 9 or 10 A.M.

Yet here, up and waiting well before 7, is Jim. A whole thought-reel plays in tiny seconds: I NEED to do my morning pages; I haven’t even combed my hair. Everyone knows I need at least half an hour to wake up–and what the heck is he doing, up before the sun? Moms need their morning quiet time. Is the paper even here yet?

And I look at Jim, shining with expectancy. Autism and depression and OCD are all parts of his complex personality. One of his greatest pleasures is eating out. One of his autistic attributes is a tendency to be very, very literal. And last night I said, “We’ll go to Timmy H’s in the morning.”

It is morning. He’s been waiting. I bite off a retort, run upstairs to wash my face, comb my hair, make a feeble attempt at wide-awake presentability. I grab the coupons, kiss the dad, and we head out, James and I, just as the sky gentles into gray.

It is a warm January day, heading up toward an unseasonable 60 degrees. It is raining, the streets dark and shiny. The windshield wipers slap rhythmically, and Jim says, “Want some music?”

“Sure,” I agree, and he says, “Nothing dark though, right?”  He pulls up the theme song from The Karate Kid. It’s the score to our trip to the doughnut shop.

Inside, a cheerful but sleepy bespectacled girl waits on us. We do a Laurel and Hardy routine, she and I. I hand her a muffin coupon and say, “Doughnut.” She says, “Muffin?”

“Yes,” I say and order up some decaf.

“Wait,” she says, pushing keys. Then, “Orange juice?”

Actually that sounds good, so I say sure. “Any coffee?” she asks, and I start to laugh. She pauses and then smacks her head.

“Decaf!” she chortles.

Too early, we agree, for effective communication.

Jim, using his coupons, orders a toasted bagel and two doughnuts. He surveys the case carefully, seriously, and asks for a honey cruller and a Boston cream.

“Anything to drink?” asks our new friend, and he requests a Pepsi.

For breakfast???? I think. Doughnuts and pop for breakfast?  My teeth hurt just thinking about it, but I clamp my lips together and do not preach. This is not everyday; this is an everyday adventure.

At the pickup stand, we realize brazen inauguration hype is playing on the big screen TV.

“Mind if we sit on the other side?” asks Jim, and I agree wholeheartedly. We get the last table by the window and unload our bounty.

Jim lines his food up–doughnut, bagel, doughnut,–and begins to eat. And to talk. He has a passion for film, and he tells me about one of his favorite producers. This guy, he says, had a story he really wanted to produce, and so he signed an agreement with the studio to direct two superhero films. Then they produced, and he directed, his story which was, Jim agrees, a magnum opus. But the characters in the super hero films were neither: not super, and not, in Jim’s considered opinion, anything resembling heroes.

He crumples up the paper from his first doughnut and muses, while unwrapping his bagel, on why it seems that modern film-makers want to bring super-folk down to the level of mere mortals. He has worked this through, and his ideas are interesting. I nod and ask a question here and there, but mostly I sip my coffee, break my muffin into bite-sized pieces, nibble; I listen as James expounds an evolving theory.

By the last doughnut, he is talking about a screenplay he’d like to write, a story that’s a crossover between two popular, but, on surface, dissimilar franchises. It’s an intriguing idea, and he has thought it out. He knows which characters would be drawn to each other, in friendship and in romance. He has ideas about conflicts and enmities and how a new story would spin out among the characters from oft-told tales.

And then the food is gone, and Jim winds down.  “Well,” he says. “Shall we go?”

We stop at Kroger, more coupons in hand, to buy the pizza he’ll cook himself while Mark and I go to a bar association dinner that night. We pick up a few necessities. I stop and pump gas, and then we head to the post office, a few miles across town.  Jim plays more music. “Lord of the Dance” is followed by Metallica doing “Whiskey in the Jar,” and then he plays a new artist doing a cover of Night Wish’s “Story Time.” The artist is called Amateur, and a clear, sweet voice caresses familiar lyrics.

Jim’s tastes in music are eclectic and surprising.

I buy stamps and mail a bill and then, windshield wipers fwapping, we head home.

“I’ll get the bags,” offers Jim, and he grabs the groceries from the backseat and runs through the rain to unlock the back door. We schlep in, stomping rain off our feet at the door, greeting the bouncing dog.

Jim puts the grocery bags carefully on the counter.

“That,” he says, “was fun.”

I look at the clock. It is not even 9:00 yet, and we have crossed the morning errands off the to-do list, shared an unexpected treat, had a chance to talk.

“That WAS fun,” I agree, and I look at the kitchen with different eyes. I could, I think, take the aging apples and cut them up to make the kind of apple cake my mother used to make. I’ll use a recipe for Busy-Day Yellow Cake that Jim recently transcribed for me.  The unexpected day’s start seems to open up other possibilities, a  little healthy perspective-shaking having taken place.

I slice and chop the apples; I throw together the simple, one-bowl, cake batter, and soon the house smells warmly of cinnamon and sugar, flour and butter. What else is on offer, today?

Jim goes off to start his screenplay, and I realize I have all the ingredients for a pot of chowder waiting in the fridge. And I can roast the chicken bones leftover with some veggies and herbs to make a base for broth. The day simmers forth, and I decide to do unexpected things: I put away the outdoor Christmas trees I’d been waiting (Why?) for Mark to take care of; I decide, having just read an article about dust mites, to wash all the pillows. I change the shower curtain and pull the sheets off the bed. I throw laundry in, then head up to finish a book review I’d started way back the week before.

Jim switches from his screenplay to his paid work; he begins to transcribe a new batch of recipes as Frazier re-runs play in the background. Every now and then he roars with laughter; every now and then he calls out a progress report: Five recipes done!

Five more, he tells me, a little bit later.

And the cake bakes and the broth bubbles and the day flows into a wholly unexpected shape, not exotic, not extraordinary, but somehow morphed by the simple expedient of an unexpected start. A lesson to be learned, I think, and a habit to be broken, perhaps.

Certainly, there’s possibility to be pondered, in the transformation of the expected by a different kind of day’s beginning. There’s a lot of energy generated by adventures in ordinary time.

In Good Hands

Capable, the American Heritage Dictionary tells me, is from the Late Latin capere, which means “to take.” And I think of all those people, who, understanding their strengths, make bold to take things into their own, capable, hands.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/capable/

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I remember my parents, seated at the kitchen table, heads bent toward each other. My mother held one of my father’s broad, battered hands in her left hand. With her right hand, she rubbed healing lotion into Dad’s cuticles, using the blunt, rounded end of a metal nail file to gently push them back.

Dad’s hands took a beating. The first knuckle of his right ring finger was permanently V-ed from some awful long ago accident (depending on the day, he’d tell me a different horrific story; I always wondered the real truth of what caused that awful bent). During his working life, Dad’s roughened hands were shaded with black in all the crevices, black that wouldn’t come out with washing, no matter how strong the soap or diligent the scrubbing. Dad drove heavy machinery on the coal pile at the electric company. The coal dust worked its way into his hands, under his nails, and didn’t leave.

Those hands were fearless behind the wheel of any vehicle, and they wielded hammers and saws and screwdrivers with confident ease. My dad, I often thought proudly as a child, can fix ANYthing.

And at night, in the amber light of the brown-shaded lamp next to his Barca Lounger, Dad’s hands quietly turned the pages of book after book, thick historical fiction, usually–Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener. Dad’s path, during the Depression years, had led him to leave high school a math credit short of graduation; his hands were his ticket to earning a good living, to helping the family he was born into, to providing for the family he later created. To serving his country. But he never lost his love of the written word.

Dad’s hands threw endless baseballs in the backyard, shot up unfailingly to catch our errant pop flies.

When grandchildren arrived, those hardened hands were gentle as he danced cranky babies into calm: a soothing rub on the back, a crooning whispered song in fretful ears, and those babies went from rigid, insistent crying to sighing relaxation as Dad waltzed them off to a snug, warm sleeping spot.

Mark’s Dad, Angelo, same generation, had nearly the same story: left high school to work and help the family. Service in World War II. A long working career in a factory that demanded hard service of those hands.

At night, when his kids were growing up, when his wife, Pat, went off to work, Angelo would fix dinner, fix problems. His hands were seldom still. He’d tear out walls and reconfigure the entire downstairs, putting his hands to plumbing, wiring, carpentry–whatever the task required.

In his spare moments, Angelo set himself up a wood-shop in the basement. He’d slide his hands over slabs of wood, considering, and then he would take the chosen slab to the lathe, turning out candle sticks and fluted plaques and decorative, polished wooden wheelbarrows.

For both Mark’s father and mine, their hands were their livelihood. We knew that—although there might be momentary fireworks when the subject was broached,–we could take just about any problem and lay it in our fathers’ hands. We rested in that reassurance that all children should have: we believed our parents were capable of handling anything.

Handling: no coincidence in that wording.

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

I watch Jim’s hands at the computer. He has an idea burning; his hands are his medium of expression, flying over the keys. Keyboarding classes were excruciating for him; he has perfected his own technique, and his fingers are confident on the keys.

This past fall, I brought Jim stacks of recipes–hand-written recipes from family members and friends long gone; recipes ripped from magazines and yellowed clippings from newspapers printed in long-ago home towns. Jim took that dross and Rumpelstiltskin-ed it into gold…created three family cookbooks with neatly typed pages and tables of contents and indexes, the chaotic clutter of someday recipes turned into usable, findable inspiration.

In job situation after job situation, Jim has come home frustrated: I’m not coordinated that way, he would say, talking about the challenge of quickly sorting tabbed pages into piles and inserting them into binders. I get behind, he’d say. Everyone is faster than I am, and the coaches are always telling me to hurry up.

He’d fall further and further behind; his paychecks, based on piecework, would be disappointing, and soon that particular experience would be over. Hope and confidence had slipped another notch.

But on the computer, Jim’s hands find a comfortable niche, and his expertise becomes a livelihood. Now he creates cookbooks for others, too, sorting, organizing, typing, comfortable in the computer milieu, sure of his way forward, confident of the outcome.

And when that paid work is done, his hands fly over the keyboard, spinning imaginative tales of superheroes and sci-fi figures, creating fan-fiction that brings him warm reviews. Jim has discovered one way to use his hands for good and for glory; he has discovered one important facet of his capability.

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I think of my hairdresser, with his sure, smart hands, a man who makes a wonderful living for his family through his artistry. A ‘coiffure engineer’ he calls himself jokingly, and he went into the hairdressing field when few men did: when there was a sort of stigma or expectation attached. His father, my hairdresser tells me, was shocked at this career choice; he belittled his son and told him he’d never earn a living from wielding those scissors.

But he knew early on, that coiffure engineer, just what his hands were drawn to do, and he proved his father wrong, wrong, wrong.

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I think of artist friends and the amazing, inspired work of their hands.

I think of a woman I am always happy to see when blood-drawing time rolls around; that woman can smile and chat and find a vein and draw three vials of blood, leaving me with my hand in a fist pointed upward, scrunching that cotton ball tightly in my elbow pit, before I have time to blink. She’s a genius; I want her always to be on call when I am in blood-draw mode.

I think of a young man with verbal communication challenges whose hands fly over a small keyboard, ‘talking’ to waitresses and clerks and colleagues at the retail shop where he works diligently in the back room, sorting and stocking and packing for return. His hands have found some of the things they are capable of, and the work of his hands is valued and respected; he uses his hands to share his thoughts and needs.

I think of Lois, whose hands fly as she teaches American Sign Language: her hands are a language bridge between two cultures. She is a genius at communication, Lois is; she knows not only how to sign the language, but how to share it with hearing students. She teaches the signs, and she makes them want to learn.

And I know some people who are frustrated and searching. They have not yet found the work of their hands. They do not yet know what they are fully capable of doing.

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

And I believe this: I believe each of us has wonderful capabilities. Our quest and our goal is to find the work of our hands, to land at that place of satisfaction and pride–a place where we can step back and show the onlooker just what we have completed. And then, Look, we can say–whoever we are, at whatever age or phase or level; Look what I have done.

For many of us, our hands are the accessories of our brains. They tell the tale, they soothe the aching back; they create, create, create, in whatever shape, whatever form. And everyone, everyone, everyone, has a niche and a gift and a passion. To find, then, the right and proper work of our hands is to begin to explore all the things we are capable of doing.

Capable: both mastery and potential. The things we know our hands can do. The things we’ll discover we can–perhaps to our complete surprise–take capably into our own hands.

The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie & That Something about Baking

I can’t tell you how many of Jodi’s recipes I have bookmarked, and how many of those have become family favorites. So it’s a really, really big deal to have a recipe featured on Jodi’s blog!

the creative life in between

reeses-peanut-butter-cup-cookies-stack The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie

The Ultimate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cookie

A few months ago, I recall my youngest son, watching me mix together a batch of cookie dough, asking, “Do you actually enjoy doing that?  Seems like a lot of work!”

I thought about it.

It is a bit tedious.

It makes a mess in the kitchen.

I could be binge-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix or painting or exercising or reading or so many other things.

But…

There’s something about baking…

reeses-peanut-butter-cookies-close-up

There’s something about using Grandma’s old tin measuring cup and reminiscing about childhood summers.

There’s something about the way the house smells like home when you bake.

There’s something about the smiles you know will emerge when hubby sees stacks of cookies cooling on racks when he comes home or comes in from out of the cold.

There’s something about making goody packages to send home…

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Left Breast, and the Woman Who Brought It In

[This time, the story has a happy ending…but here’s to Kim and Sandee and Susan G and John H and Patti, to my mother and your sister and our dear friend’s uncle…to all of those for whom the follow-up appointment was not closure, but the beginning of a frightening and unexpected journey…]

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Years ago, after I’d had my mammogram, I complained to my doctor that surely a male had invented that machine. And he–that shambling, wild-haired, guffawing man—he laughed outright. In Europe, he said, they have developed a machine that gently cups the breast instead of flattening it.

Well, I suggested, let’s get one of those.

Nah, he said. That was the day he had a piece of gauze sticking out of his nose, stanching a bleed. You ought to see a doctor for that, suggested his sharp-tongued nurse, eyes twinkling. He shooed her away with a flapping hand and turned back to me.

Nah, he said again. Whaddaya want? That we treat you like some kind of person?

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Don’t move, they tell me, and so I don’t. I lay on my belly; my head rests in the crook of my right arm. I hook my left foot around my right ankle just in case my right leg, which tends to get crampy, starts to twitch. I am buffeted by warm flannel, and I am floating on a Valium cloud–all of me is, that is, except my left breast.

My left breast hangs through a hole in the weird, strong plastic table; it, and I, are suspended above three practitioners, a doctor and two nurses. They all seem like lovely people, but they situated me, then they elevated me, and then they ducked under my floating table to deal with my breast. I hear the murmur of their words, but I am detached, separate, not part of the goings-on.

It is easier, maybe, to forget that there’s a person attached. They need to focus. I am merely the pleasant woman who brought the breast in for them to work on. I am left breast needle biopsy, Thursday, 3:15.

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One morning this fall, after months of avoiding the idea, I woke up with an imperative, fully fledged, in my mind. Make your OB/gyn appointment. Do that today.

I called as soon as the office opened, called before I left for work; they had an appointment for me the next week.

I met with a nurse practitioner, Abby, who looked as though she might be all of 25. But she was calm and capable and friendly; we had a good discussion about career choices and how it is that she came to work in the OB/gyn field.  A tough field, I thought, as Abby apologized for pressure and prodding and cold steel instruments. Gynecology, to me, seems to have the potentials of extreme joy and of total disaster.

The joyful days, Abby said, balance the depressing ones, but she was glad to be a part of the process either way. Sickness and health. Babies and menopause. Prevention and cure. Diagnosis and management.

Are you doing your breast exams? she asked, and I allowed that I was, and I found nothing  amiss. She did her own exam, and she agreed. She wrote me a scrip for a mammogram and ushered me out.

See you in a year, she said.

The receptionist set up the radiology appointment; there was an opening that Friday afternoon.

Good, I thought; let’s get this over with so we can concentrate on packing for our Thanksgiving trip, and then on Christmas preparations. But I had a sort of nubby suspicion, free-floating.

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

Diana came out and got me within five minutes of my check-in; I’d barely had time to crack open my book. She walked me through a cheerful hallway maze, and told me she’d be taking my mammogram pictures. She ushered me into a pleasant changing room where the ubiquitous pink flowered cape waited.

I changed and pulled the cape around me, and I cracked the door open to let Diana know I was ready. Diana was a wiry, attractive grandma, just about my age. She was excited about her new grandbaby coming for Thanksgiving. We talked about brining and roasting bags and just cooking the damned turkey; we compared notes on stuffing (sausage? oysters? in the bird? out?) as she shaped first my right breast, then my left, like Playdough and sent the top clamp pressing down. The machine buzzed and clicked while we chatted.

Then her talk wound down.

Let’s just try this again, said Diana, and she re-situated me, a different left breast view, and took more shots.

I’ll just take these to the radiologist, she said, smiling, patting me on the shoulder. And then we can get you dressed!

I heard her cushioned shoes pad down the hallway, heard her stridently cheerful voice greeting a colleague. She was back quickly to steer me back to the dressing room, and she waited while I dressed to guide me back through the maze to the door.

“Bye, now!” she said brightly. “Have a nice Thanksgiving!”

“Happy Thanksgiving to you,” I said, and I knew: there was something. I’d gone from being a friendly woman to talk with to being Left Breast, mass identified.

**************
The second mammogram was scheduled within in a week. A different radiographer, Lois–substantial and forthright. See? she pointed out. See there? And there?

My breast tightly vised, I turned and looked. One spot was  the dark open end of a flower stem; the other, a tiny, bright asterisk.

Definitely there, said Lois. Sometimes it’s just the way your tissue overlaps in the shot. But not this time.

We’ll get you down to sonography, she said, and handed me over to a firmly cheerful young woman who told me about her three year old and likened this kind of sonogram to a search for a needle in a haystack. But she found the needle; she snapped shot after shot, typing in a description on each.

***************
An appointment with a specialist, who was brisk and professional and reassuring. Benign properties, she adjudged (but I recollected uneasily that Sandee’s doctor told her the same thing), and she set me up for a biopsy the following week.

It’s not a pleasant procedure, she told me, but it’s not horrible. The worst part is getting numb, she said, and cheerfully left me to get dressed.

(I remembered Kim and Kathy talking about their biopsies. I remembered them talking about being placed on a table with a hole cut out for their breast, so that people underneath them could perform the necessary rites.

I remembered one of them saying, fighting back tears: This was the worst thing…)

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And so, Mark and I came to be in an inner hospital waiting room on a snowy Thursday afternoon.  A young woman in bright scrubs came and beckoned me, took me into a back room, and asked, Would you like a good strong dose of Valium?

Oh, yeah, said I, forgetting my strong stance against over-medication: Yes, ma’am. I do.

Good, she said, and she gave me the pill and a big glass of water. As I walked back to sit next to Mark, I could feel the fizz entering my veins. I was free-floating when the nurses came to get me.

There were two; their names have wafted away on a Valium tide, but one was young and dark-eyed and plump. The other was thin and taut and in the throes of hot flashes. She pulled her long-sleeved uniform jacket off repeatedly, grabbing it when goosebumps rose, flinging it off again when she began, suddenly, to sweat. We talked about menopause, and I admitted, feeling guilty, to having had very little trouble.

And they gave me a cape and introduced the doctor and helped me onto the table.

Don’t move, they said; you can’t move now.

And the table rose and their voices receded. I was strangely alone above the fray. I wanted to say to them, I’m a little bit scared here. I have a 26-year-old son with autism who’ll be terrified if he finds out I’m sick. I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m working on, and my husband and I are looking forward to traveling, post-retirement. I’m thinking, I wanted to say, of writing a book.

But they were huddled below me, intent on their tasks.

I felt the needles for numbing.

Now you’ll feel PRESSURE; that’s okay. But tell us if you feel anything SHARP, said the dark-haired nurse, popping up, patting my jutting elbow, then ducking beneath the table.

But I DID feel sharp things, pointed things, crisp flashes. There were tiny, glancing, interior pops of white light. It felt like the needle lanced my breast through to the other wall. There were murmurs and pushing and lightening pops below me; cushioned shoes scuttled to a monitor. Muted discussion. Tissue harvested!

And then the three abortive efforts to seat a minuscule marker deep in my breast–the lights popping more quickly and more crisply, the nurses murmuring encouragingly, and the doctor calling up, each time he started over, “Thanks for your patience!”

The Good Girl part of my brain thought, with satisfaction, “I’m a good patient.”

The other part of my mind snapped back, “What damned choice do I have?”

Done, finally, and the doctor soft-shoed away while the nurses lowered me down and said, Just stay still a minute while we clean up the blood.

I hadn’t thought about blood; I’d thought of a slender tubular needle zipping in, flashing out, process done.

I hadn’t thought about bleeding, or bruising, or about being suspended above the process itself, as if someone had said, in brisk annoyance, “Can we hide that person, please? While we tend to the breast?

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This story has a happy ending: the doctor danced in to our next meeting with the word, “Benign!” quick on her tongue.

So we’ll watch things a little more closely for a bit. I’ll have mammography a little more often, just to be sure that nothing changes or grows, no desperate tendrils unfurl in dark places, snaking out to grab healthy bits  and choke them.

And I will remember, warily, the feeling of disconnection, of being ancillary to the whole medical process.

The woman who brought in the breast–what shall we do with her while we’re busy here?

Just lay her down; we’ll raise her over our heads so we can concentrate on what’s important. Then ready Left Breast and let’s get cracking.

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

I am thankful every day, for my undeserved, unearned health–health that beloved dear ones, and health-conscious young ones, and many someones’ precious, precious ones, do not enjoy. Then  I ponder the advances in medicine that float away the person, leaving only the silent, uncomplaining part of the body to attend to. I met many kind and caring people on this short journey, but I realized, in our time and in our system, that medicine is often about the limb, the lump, the blip, the blood…and not always about the complex personality affected by the pain.