Shifting

It is Friday, it is early, and it has rained most of the night. The clouds are pale gray and silver-edged where the sun shyly peeks through. We lace up our sneakers, I push ‘go’ on the coffee maker, and Mark and I head out for our morning walk.

We walk in cool fresh breezes; we see a few other morning walkers; we make a brisk, long circuit; then we head home.

After breakfast—that fresh, hot coffee; a bowl of the new batch of granola—I check grades one last time, add ‘last date of attendance’ for each student, and hit ‘send’ for three classes. I compose a farewell/your grades are posted/best of luck email and send it off.

I log out of the college website, and Mark and Jim get their shoes on. They are going to help me move some furniture, take down some pictures, hang a couple of certificates.

They are going to help me move into my new office.

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

By noon, we’re done. The TV brackets are removed from the wall that my desk, now angled, faces at a slant. A seascape, a painting by a locally renowned artist, covers the spaces where the brackets were hung. We’ve taken other pictures down and stacked them in the unused office at the end of the hall.

We have hung my fancy certificate from the Leadership Academy, and my ‘different drummer’ inspiration piece.

We have discovered that the couch, which is handsome but very hard to eject oneself from, is uncooperative: it does not readily fit through the door; it does not slide nicely down the hallway to be hidden away.

The couch will stay, temporarily tucked against the back wall. We’ll figure that out next week, Scarlett.

But couch or not, the office is ready for occupancy on Monday.

We put our masks back on. Susan comes down to look and gives the furniture arrangement a thumbs up. I have a list of things to buy and a list of things to bring on Monday.  We gather up tool bags, vacuum up a little dust, and head out to start the weekend.

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

It is a catch-up weekend: I do the vacuuming that languished while I was grading final papers, mop the hard floors, shag down cobwebs entrenched in corners. We do a little shopping. Mark works on the basement window he’s replacing. I mow some grass.

Jim, who has gotten his math textbook for Fall semester, does 80 practice problems, just, he says, to get back into the math mind.

On Sunday, I take a pork roast out to thaw, and we head out, under skies that threaten to rumble and then clear for a good bit before reverting.

“Now, WHERE are we going?” asks Mark, and I direct him to the college campus where I have been teaching, thirty miles away. When we get there, we head out for a long rambling walk. I point out landmarks.

“I taught in THAT building,” I say.

“Huh,” says Mark.

“I remember,” says Jim, who would sometimes come to campus, set up in a lounge, and type the morning away while I taught. It was a break from the four walls of home while he waited on job search results. He liked the campus, where the people were friendly and welcoming.

And then COVID crept close, crawled in, entrenched, and neither of us returned to campus again.

Until today.

“I taught in THAT building…” I point.

“I sat with Ben Franklin,” says Mark, walking past a statue on a bench.

Mark and Ben shared a moment on an earlier trip to campus…

“It’s RAINING,” says Jim, and he’s right.

We dash back to the car, not too much damage done.

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

The campus visit was my goodbye lap, my way of recognizing and honoring this transition. We go home then; I rub the pork with olive oil and crust it with herbs. We roast it, and then we eat it with a creamy pasta side dish and crisp, pretty salads. For dessert, I have tried a new recipe for frosted brownies; we eat them with scoops of chocolate chip ice cream.

It is a celebration meal.

The meal, and the trip to the college, are my attempts at a kind of rite of passage.

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

We get up early on Monday; we get a good, stretching walk in through cool and dewy paths. I drink my coffee and eat my granola, and I do the word puzzles in the morning paper.

And then I go upstairs and wash and don dress pants and a scoop-necked, flowered top. I pull on soft black dress sandals and head downstairs again.

I pack up my black bag with my new work laptop and my folders full of notes and reminders. I peel a big carrot and chop it into sticks. I put that in a lidded glass container. I fill a tiny container with mixed nuts, too, and I put a water glass in my lunch bag. I fill a go-cup with the remaining coffee and make sure I have my phone and pens. I kiss Mark and hug Jim. I drive to the supermarket, put my mask on, and run in to buy a clutch of flowers. And I go, for the first time since March 5th, to work.

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

My new job is at a family foundation, where I am the program officer. Foundation funds were amassed through the hard work of the founders, a brilliant and foresighted couple; the funds grew because of their shrewd and savvy investing.

They lived wonderful long lives, those benefactors. He died this spring, two years after his wife passed; he was 98 and had, until his final brief illness, gone into the Foundation office at least twice a week. He tracked the stock market; he traded and bought and sold.

My friend Susan is their daughter, and now my boss; she is president and executive director of the foundation. Her siblings and their children and hers sit on the board of trustees.

Foundation funds are to support community growth, education, the arts and sciences. Part of my job is to get worthy leaders to request support for their worthy projects.

For a year or two after retirement I wrote grants, but I am on the other side of grant-writing now. I may do some teaching about the process, the organization, the scope. I will figure out ways to meet with people, socially distant but still personally, and discuss collaborations. It is, really, a kind of a dream job: helping people committed to making change in firm and positive ways.

I unlock the door of the Foundation office, take my bags to my office, and carry the flowers and two mason jars to the break room. I trim and snip and pull off foliage. I have two beautiful bouquets—purple and gold, red and blue, nestled in lush greens.

I put the mason jar bouquets on a crocheted doily on my new desk, plug in my laptop and pull out my to do list. By the time I meet with Susan at 11:00, the day and the week have taken shape.

This is a place to settle into.

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

I am home a little after one, and the boyos are just eating lunch, so I sit down with them. Mark mentions that he was telling his boss about my new role.

“I told him I think you’re really going to like it, and that you’ve retired from teaching,” he says. He waits—buh dum BUMP—then adds, “For the 78th time.”

It is true, as Jim remarked the other day, that I have had a lot of jobs.

It is true, too, that I have often left teaching and then returned.

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

I look at my college email, just in case, and find that the students can’t see their grades. I check my process, which looks correct, and then I send a message to the guru of the student management system.

That guru is always right on top of things. I find her reply early the next morning; there was a glitch. It’s been fixed.

And with that, the teaching is really done. I send a final note to the guru, telling her, truly, that she’s been a joy to work with.

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

And the week rolls by with early walks and mornings in the office. On alternate days, another Pam, the office manager, is there; she shows me the files and makes me a list of past projects.

Terry, our brilliant tech support coach, comes in and guides us gently, never once rolling her eyes.

Susan and I have a Zoom meeting with brilliant, inspired people.

I learn the history of the Foundation and compile the trustees list and touch base with our web developer. Pam gives me fat files that document projects: a nature refuge for wounded warriors, a Habitat building, educational efforts.  

I figure out the phone system and record a new message. I crunch carrots sticks and read documents that help me begin to see that past and the vision for the future.

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

Thursday comes, and the end of this particular work week. Mark has been to his office to pick things up; he reports that, because of this and because of that, he’ll be working from WORK on Monday. He’ll be back in the office for the first time since March, too.

Jim’s classes start, in person as far as he knows, on August 24th.

Suddenly, the fluid days are structured days, days with walls and bridges.

I think to check my college email, just in case there are any crises or calamities. There are not, but two special students have taken the time to write thank you notes, wishing me well on my new adventure. One of the students I know from a previous real time class. I know her face, and I have seen the faces of her precious children proudly displayed on the broad, flat screen of her phone.

I feel a pang knowing I will not teach her again; this is a young woman who has traveled a long way in life, from a country with another language, from a country where her religion was the predominant one, from a place where she knew the social cues and the shops on the corner and the holidays and  rhythms. She learns like fire burns: voracious, undaunted. Take me out of the classroom and throw me into an online universe? I will make it work, she vows.

It has been almost eerie to watch how much and how quickly she has mastered English writing; she has moved from writing determined, halting paragraphs to crafting seven-page papers with references in less than a year.

I do not know the other student’s face; we are virtual entities to each other. I know that she is a hard worker, someone who asks questions when she needs to understand better. I know that she is determined, too, and that her goals for herself and her family drive her hard.

Their emails remind me how satisfying teaching is, and what good, good work it can be.

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

And yet.

The new job unfolds, its creative possibilities compounding. We talk about logos and I research mission and vision statements, and I open folders and see sincere notes of appreciation. We served X number of children this year, the writer says, and we could not have done that without your support.

“This is my inheritance,” Susan says of the Foundation. It is an amazing legacy; it is an exciting honor to be part of this team.

And now it is Friday afternoon, and there are no papers to grade. No student waits for me to open next week’s work in the virtual classroom; no one has written to say their assignment is delayed because of sick kids or to ask if they can rewrite the paper on which they received a grade they were disappointed in.

There is no planning to do for next week’s class; instead, the weekend looms, unstructured, with time for painting basement walls and mooching around the farmers’ market, masked and distancing. There will be time for walks, for mowing and mopping, and for settling into the reading chair with my current book.

I feel odd; I feel almost guilty not to be creating a rubric or writing feedback to a student paper. It will be good to submerge into this kind of free time.

My five-months’ wardrobe of t-shirts and capris gives way to slacks and tops; I think about coordinating necklaces and which purse to carry. I open the new bottle of perfume I’d placed behind the closet door in the bathroom.

The flow has quickened.

There are right times for passages; I will always, I think, be a teacher, but I am other things, too, and this job now in this place feels like just the right thing. I feel tangles un-knotting, and I say goodbye to the teaching life.

The 78th time, I think, is the charm, and I end the week with no regrets about leaving what was before and with excitement for what’s to come.

Rite Passages (2)

A long time ago, I spent a hard-working day with the kinds of friends who are, really, found family. One of us (we’ll call her Missy), the sweetest and kindest one of us all, was moving into a new apartment.

The rest of us were picking up and driving, toting and sorting, unpacking and washing, and hammering and hanging, and Missy was running around, angling to carry the heaviest things herself, apologizing that people were working too hard, and trying to make the whole experience light and pleasant for everyone but herself.

It was a passage time for Missy; she had lived with an aging relative for a very long time, using all her skills of empathy and compassion to make those last years rich and meaningful.

The death of the family member also meant the loss of her home.

But Missy was not a complainer. She packed up her meager belongings, found a big, light-filled second floor flat closer to her work, and she prepared to move.

She didn’t ask for help, because Missy just doesn’t do that. But one of the women in our little group got wind of what was going on. She called us and she organized us.

So we were all on hand to move Missy.

And it was fun. It is always more fun to work hard at someone else’s house, to do their dishes and vacuum their floors and organize their cabinets (which Missy probably rearranged to her own satisfaction the next day).

And when it was all done, when Missy had a freshly made bed to sleep on and clothes folded neatly in drawers, when her cereal was safely stashed in the kitchen cupboard, and there was a new carton of milk in the newly-chilled refrigerator, when we had wrestled stubborn windows open, and lit candles to eliminate the lingering scent of cigarettes smoked long, long, ago—well, then the pizza arrived.

The pizza arrived, and maybe, along with it, came some icy cold beers.

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

We pulled random chairs up to Missy’s newly scrubbed kitchen table, and Missy apologized for her charmingly mismatched dishes, and someone mentioned bridal showers.

Bridal showers, that person said, are often wasted on brides.

And that (and that icy cold beer, perhaps) set us off.

There should be showers for people when, like Missy, they have a major life change, not just when they get married. Right? someone demanded.

Why not divorce showers? someone suggested.

How about, My last kid is gone to college showers? someone else put in.

Or wait, someone said, why not a shower when it’s been thirty years since you’ve bought new anything, and you can see through your dishcloths and bath towels, they’re so worn down?

We ate pizza, we thought about all the sadly un-showered events of adulthood, and we drank beer, and we got silly; our suggestions grew more and more outrageous.

But now I look back and I think, why not? Why didn’t we have a shower for Missy when her life changed radically, and when she was bravely setting up a whole new home?

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

I wish we had coming of age rituals for kids beginning to stare down that tunnel where the light at the other end is adulthood.

I wish we had rites for all those important passages we make after we emerge from the tunnel, too.

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Peter Prevos (https://prevos.net/humanities/sociology/ritual/) writes, “According to the psychological approach, all people have a psychological need to have the support of ritual in their lives.”

The Akoma Unity Center says, “Rites of passage foster a sense of renewal, since they mark the beginning of a new phase in our lives.” (https://akomaunitycenter.org/what-are-rites-of-passage-and-why-are-they-so-important/)

I think of Missy, at 38 or so, beginning a new life on her own, alone, once her noisy, beery friends rolled down her back stairs and raucously departed. I imagine her awake until deep into the night, trying to imagine what the future looked like, jumping at unfamiliar creaks, feeling bereft and unguided.

Think of the challenges (welcome and unwelcome) we face as adults: new roles, new family members, divorce and dissolution of relationships, other separations, economic challenges, career changes, relocation, daunting diagnoses for ourselves or folks we love, unexpected opportunities, retirement, redesign.

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Once I sat with three good friends; all of us had been through job changes and job losses. We were warm and intelligent women, with families, friends, and interests; we were passionate about varied causes, eager to make meaningful marks on our places in the world. We sat together in a little cafe for three hours; we ate, and we signaled for endless cups of coffee.

And we talked about work: not the work ahead, but the work that was gone. We circled it, round and round; we spun that topic so hard it drilled a deep hole in the ground. We plunged, and we sat at the bottom of the hole, and we talked about the pain and the lack of recognition; we pulled out unjust incident after unjust incident. We battered ourselves, dwelling on the unfairness of it all.

The hole we’d drilled was so deep, we had trouble pulling ourselves out.

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

But what if we’d done something else?

What if, say, after the tearing separations from jobs we had invested so heavily in, what if we had each taken some time to ourselves? What if each of us had poured the loss out onto pages, writing down the pain and the injustice,–what if we wrote it down and then set it aside, and spent time, just by ourselves, reading a favorite book, watching a favorite movie, listening to the music that always moved us? What if we cleared a big block of time and spent it honoring ourselves, respecting ourselves, by indulging in things that made us happy?

And then, having deliberately spent that painful/healing time, say we gathered at a beautiful state park on a clear late afternoon, greeting each other with hugs and joy at reconnecting and tears. Someone brought charcoal, and someone else brought lighter fluid. We poured the fire-making matter into a venerable metal barbecue grill, the kind that’s cemented into the ground on a sturdy metal pole, and we each produced the pages we’d written, the papers filled with the pain and loss and shock of those endings.

We took turns placing the papers on top of the charcoal, and the lighter fluid wielder splashed on some more.

A match flared; the paper caught.

We stood and watched the records of our pain blacken and burn and turn to smoke; and we let it go.

And when the papers were ash and the charcoal glowed, we put boneless chicken and aluminum foil packets of summer squash, new potatoes, green onions, carrots sliced sliver thin–fresh tender veggies basted in olive oil and christened with herbs—on the grill. And someone poured drinks, and someone pulled out plates and silverware and a beautiful pan of frosted brownies, and we sat down at a table covered with a lovely linen cloth, and we ate and we talked.

We talked for three hours, but this time, the topic was, “What’s next?”

And we dreamed together: now that the fetters are off, what can I do that I’ve always wanted to do?

The sun set, the coals turned to embers, the embers to cold ash, and we hugged once more and packed things up, and we headed off into the new lives we were just about to create.

We promised to meet again in a month and celebrate the changes we’d begun to live.

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

Our needs for comfort and reassurance might have been better met if we’d done THAT instead of drilling ourselves into that hole over coffee.

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Prevos invokes Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), a French anthropologist who coined the term and the concept, ‘rite of passage.’ Gennep suggested that a successful ritual for adults navigating important transitions includes three stages:

  • Separation
  • Transition
  • Reincorporation

Think of what usually happens. We enter a major life change by flinging ourselves at it, running pell mell toward it, grappling it and wrestling it to the ground.

Or we stand off to the side, refusing to enter the change that is going to happen anyway. We damn and blast the change. We decline to take part. Instead, we worry the change’s cause like a dog with a rat, shaking it viciously, repeatedly, by the neck.

Not believing that passage is truly dead, we have a hard time letting it go.

A time of separation gives us the space to grieve or celebrate—some passages are wonderful, after all,—to turn backward and let things go, to wheel around and eyeball what looks like it lies ahead.

A time of transition gifts us with people who care about us, who encourage us, who offer great ideas, and maybe even wield a paint roller or bring a cold drink when we’re exhausted from the efforts of getting ready. We gear up. We stock up. We rest up.

We begin to believe it’s quite possible this whole new venture will work.

And then we launch back in, reincorporating, eager to know how we’ll fit into this new tabletop puzzle now that the colors have changed and the pattern has shifted just a bit.

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

Oh, think of the things we grown-ups go through: major moves. New relationships, or changes in old ones. The loss of friends, the loss of dreams, the loss of parents and siblings and children.

The growth of new dreams. The gift of new people in our lives.

We change jobs. We change titles. We get fired. We get hired. We retire.

We take trainings; we earn degrees.

We move into bigger digs.

We downsize.

We navigate new cities and towns.

We move back home.

The damned dog dies, and an era ends.

We lose weight or we gain it.

Children arrive and grow and go away.

Children arrive and grow and go away and COME BACK.

Once we turn 21, the changes don’t end. The passages continue.

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I like the idea of renewal, of some sort of a meaningful marking that allows us to contemplate the change, to decide how we’ll traverse it, and to shape the new life the change engenders. And, like coming of age rituals, I think each successful rite of passage should end with a celebration—even in COVID days, when the party might only have three attendees, or the trip may be to a cottage by the lake instead of to a bustling city’s museums and restaurants and theaters.

Maybe the celebration is a book or shirt or painting we give ourselves.

But the change has happened, and we mark it.

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

I bet it’s been thirty years since we moved Missy into her first solitary apartment. I’m thinking it might be time for an “I can see through my dishcloths” shower.

Rite Passages (1)

          How might it have been different for you, if on your first menstrual day, your mother had given you a bouquet of flowers and taken you to lunch, and then the two of you had gone to meet your father at the jeweler, where your ears were pierced, and your father bought you your first pair of earrings, and then you went with a few of your friends and your mother’s friends to get your first lip colouring;

          and then you went,

                   for the very first time,

                             to the Women’s Lodge

                                      to learn

                                                the wisdom of the women?

          How might your life be different?

                             —Judith Duerk, Circle of Stones

I have been thinking about rites of passage for a while now, and especially about coming of age rituals.

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It was kind of serendipitous. I wanted to give my Comp II class a practice topic for writing a comparative analysis; the actual assignment was ready to go, but I like to give students a run-through activity. So I went browsing on the Web for one website that would offer a choice of comparisons.

I found a site much like this: a site that summarized 13 coming of age rituals from around the planet.

https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/13-amazing-coming-of-age-traditions-from-around-th/

I asked the students to pick two of the rituals, do a little more research, and write up a comparative analysis.

They wrote with horror and glee and a dawning respect about exotic, community-building, frightening, risky, and painful rituals. That was our practice assignment.

When they got the actual assignment, they told me they wished the coming of age activity had been their REAL paper.

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One of the rites that fascinated my students was the Bullet Ant Ritual, practiced by the Satere’-Mawe’ tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. This tribe has been isolated from the outside world for thousands of years; the qualities they prize in their warriors are strength and courage.

So the bullet ant ordeal aims to teach the tribe’s 13-year-old boys how to become strong and brave.

The boys themselves go out into the jungle with a trusted elder, and they harvest bullet ants. The elder sedates the ants with an herbal infusion; the boys bring them home, where they are woven, stingers handward, into gloves.

When the ants awaken, the boy must put on the gloves and keep them on, betraying no fear or pain, for five to ten minutes.

According to “Cultures and Customs” from Penn State, “A single sting is capable of causing hours of pain.” People who’ve been shot and who’ve been bitten by a bullet ant say the pain from the ant is worse—hence their name.

The ants’ venom causes long-lasting effects, including violent shaking, paralysis, confusion, and hallucinations.

The boys put their hands in the gloves not once, but twenty times. When they are done, they are warriors.

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In their final, de-briefing essays, several students said learning about coming of age rituals was the high point of the class (which featured face-to-face sessions until March, and an abrupt, pandemic switch to on-line learning after spring break wrapped up. The students were a great group, but it was a confused and disconcerting semester.)

I decided to take that activity and incorporate it into this summer’s class as the REAL comparative analysis assignment. And then I thought, well, we could segue from that into the proposal activity: the students could choose a young person or group of young people they felt would benefit, and propose a coming of age ritual for them.

I went looking for examples of current, safe, sensible coming of age rites on the Internet, and I came across Ron Fritz’s wonderful TEDX talk. (https://tedxbend.com/presenters/ron-fritz/)

Fritz and his wife designed coming of age rituals for each of their three kids. The rituals included lessons to teach important values the Fritzes chose; they included a challenge geared toward the child; and they offered up a group of caring, loving elders who, in addition to the child’s parents, promised to be there in certain ways and at certain times.

Lessons about values. A personal challenge. The gift of a supportive community of elders.

I thought about what Fritz had done, and what I was asking my students to design, and I started to wish we had given our boys coming of age experiences.

I started to wish I’d had one, too.

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To echo Judith Duerk, how WOULD our lives be different if that entry into the lobby of the land of adulthood had been celebrated with a ritual designed just for each of us? 

I entered my teens feeling like I’d been shoved into a dark room with a flickering flashlight and commanded to find something. The light was weird and wavery, and I had no idea what I was looking for.

I stumbled, a LOT, and the longer I was in there, the worse the stumbling grew. Oh, I emerged eventually, with some new ideas, a battery of bruises, and several scars, but mostly intact. But I can’t help thinking that a coming of age ritual might have given me something like a search light instead of that damp flicker.

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I was a bookish, creative kid, with very little self-confidence and lots of apprehension. What if a kid like that had been challenged to do something she’d never dream of doing…say, talk to one person she’d never spoken to before each day for a week? She might keep a journal of the conversations that ensued, and at the end of the week, she might share it with one of her mentors, a grown-up person who was gifted at connection. Together, they’d sift through the seven people that child had spoken to and find someone the child found interesting and would like to know better. The next week’s challenge might be to invite the new person for coffee.

And maybe the person wouldn’t go because they didn’t want to, or wouldn’t go because their schedule disallowed. But maybe they WOULD go, and maybe the shy, awkward child would meet a new friend.

That would be just one kind of challenge tailor-made for just one kind of kid.

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

Fritz had his kids build things, make things, and push themselves physically. They all came through the experience, it seems, successfully, and probably with a dawning surprise at what they themselves could actually do if they pushed the limits of their beliefs about their own abilities.

I love the idea of a ritual that makes us do that sort of stretching.

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

Another ritual that captivated my students was the practice of land diving. This takes place on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, according to ABCNews.go.com. To prove their manliness, boys dive from 100-foot-tall towers of wood.  Not only are participants proven to be fearless, but, the tribe believes, the successful completion of the challenge insures their crops will grow.

The tower is built of freshly cut wood, tied together with fresh vines; the freshness insures flexibility. Brittleness could mean disaster for the participants, who choose a vine that will get them as close to the earth as they can fall without crashing.

The vine’s ends are shredded and tied around the young man’s ankle, and he scrambles to the top of the tower. While her boy makes his jump, the mother grips a favorite token from his childhood.

When the boy completes his jump successfully, the mother throws the childhood token away. Her boy needs it no more; he now is a man.

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

For each of his children, Fritz and his wife gathered a community of adults who cared about their kid, who would continue to care, and who could be relied on to be there later on and down the road. The elders might share stories that inspired or that implied, “Don’t worry: we’re all a mess at one time when we’re growing!” They might write down words of wisdom. They might share all together in a group, or the young person might walk from elder to elder, from mentor to mentor, receiving a glimmer and a strand of a lifeline from each.

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

I think of my son Jim, and other autistic young adults.

The statistics for this group of people are disheartening. College degree completion is low, unemployment is high. A lot of very talented people spend their 20’s playing videogames.

Would, I wonder, a coming of age ritual have helped Jim and folks like Jim?

What if we had posed Jim three challenges that took him outside his comfort zone, but not so far he couldn’t see dry land? Imagine he had, over a course of weeks, navigated those challenges. Then say we had, one at a time, provided him with a group of adults who said things like, “I love movies, too. Once a month, you can call me and we’ll talk about movies,” or, “I was awkward with other kids when I was a teenager. If you get frustrated dealing with the other kids at school, call me, and we’ll talk about it,” or, “When I was your age, my parents drove me CRAZY! When yours are driving you crazy, shoot me an email, and I’ll reply asap.”

An autistic kid might not pick up the phone or sit down at the keyboard and make the connection offered by those compassionate adults.

But then again, they might.

And the individual caring mentors might have become a network, and they might have inculcated the belief that, Hey. I CAN nurture relationships with people outside my family. I CAN make and be a friend.

Hmmm. How might Jim’s life have been different?

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

There are other, less brutal rites, too, of course.

Amish groups observe Rumspringa, the time before a young person is engaged. During these days, which can last many years, the Amish youth, both boys and girls, can experiment with ‘English’ clothing and equipment. They might drive; they might go to movies. They might drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.

At the end of Rumspringa, they must choose: marriage into an Amish family, or a life forever outside the community that raised them.

Bar mitzvahs challenge Jewish boys to enter the life of their religion as a full adult. The boy has prepared, studying and reading, and, at 13, is required to present a spiritual reading to the members of his Temple; his ascendance to adulthood is celebrated, often with an elaborate gathering.

Jewish girls may make their bat mitzvah at 12; they demonstrate their learning of their Jewish heritage, too. They may be expected to do some kind of bat mitzvah project, as well, which benefits others. (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1918218/jewish/Bat-Mitzvah-What-It-Is-and-How-to-Celebrate.htm)

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The last thing Fritz said was an essential component in a coming of age ritual is a party, a celebration, and the ones they offered, again, were geared toward each kid, toward what they saw as an amazing time.

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My students found that the remnants of coming of age rites in the United States often skipped over the values lessons and the challenges, bypassed the sharing from caring elders, and went right to the party.

In the Quinceanera, a ritual for girls turning 15 in Latina and Hispanic US cultures, the emphasis is on the reception after a religious ceremony. My students were fascinated to learn that a family with a modest income might pay as much as $10,000 for the honoree’s dress.

The reception would be in a fancy hall, and the guests would challenge its capacity. Food would be lavish.

Another rite that fascinated my students, who are mostly hard-working folks juggling jobs and classes, was the all-American Sweet 16. There, the party’s the focus, too, and in wealthy families, or at least in families wealthier than the ones we rub noses with, the highlight of the party is when the 16-year-old gets the keys to her spanking new car.

Pretty heady stuff.

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But so many US kids go on to less than glittering success…to drug use and addiction, to failed attempts at college, to early and unwed parenting (which is, of course, not exactly a failure, but often a deviation from long-held dreams.) Suicide is a real issue among US adults, as is incarceration, shared parenting, divorce, and disillusion.

Lessons that teach values, challenges that push a kid to discover what they’re capable of…could such simple things be part of a web that catches people in a downward spiral?

Could coming of age rituals at least be part of a package that offers help and hope to confused and floundering young people, to kids who feel like no one gets them, that there’s no one there to talk to?

I like Fritz’s model—lessons, challenge, supportive elders. If we—as families, as communities, as school, or as churches—could offer a positive, value-infused coming of age ritual to young people…well, as Judith Duerk asks, how might their lives be different?

And even if there’s no entity to give that child—the 13-year-old, the fifteen year old, the seventeen year old—a formal rite of passage, maybe we can each reach out in appropriate, caring ways to the one kid in our life. Maybe we can share a shred or a shard of wisdom. Maybe we can encourage the child who feels alone to make a catalog of wise elders they can call on when need arises. Maybe, in some small way, we can help that budding person realize and celebrate the wonder of who they are: someone who is essential to the whole.

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Of course, there are other rites of passage besides coming of age rituals. I’ve been thinking about them, too.

What I Take for Granted

Once, several years ago, our petite but mighty friend Wendy came for a visit. In the hatch of her sporty compact car, she had a gift for Jim: an apartment-sized refrigerator.

Wendy had wrestled that fridge out of her basement, shoved it in her car, and brought it 300 miles to Jim to use in ours. He was putting together a kind of man-cave. With a refrigerator and a microwave, he could even make his own meals downstairs.

“That is COOL,” said Jim, and he and his dad maneuvered that little fridge down the stairs, barking and yelping—never stopping to think how Wendy had done that, in reverse, all by her own diminutive self. They set it up and plugged it in; we wiped it down, and it immediately became the drinks fridge and the overflow freezer.

It settled into its new home, and it has plugged away for years, reliable and largely unnoticed.

Then, three weeks ago, our kitchen refrigerator, which wasn’t very old (maybe a day or two older than its four-year warranty) began to wheeze and moan, to get steamy, and to give up.

A helpful repair guy came to look, shook his head, and said he couldn’t gouge us for the kind of money it would take to fix that sad machine.

So we went out appliance shopping. The burners were slowly dying on the stove; we needed matches to light all but one. And we’d replaced the thing in the oven that regulates the temp (the regulator?) more than once.

It was time to buy a new stove and a new refrigerator. May as well get a pair that matches, we agreed. We looked; we conferred; we ordered.

The only problem was this: it would take two weeks for them to get here.

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And so, while we waited, we used the little basement fridge to salvage what we could from the defunct one. Because of that little, unassuming machine, we could keep milk and cheese and eggs on hand; we could have crisp lettuce and carrots.

It was a long two weeks, but you are imagining, I bet, that each day, as I ran up and downstairs, grabbing chilled ingredients for grating or chopping, for the putting together of lunch and dinner chow, I was feeling grateful. You can picture me saying to myself, “How lucky we are! If we didn’t have this little fridge, we’d be in a whole lot of misery.”

Right?

Well, that’s not exactly how I perceived the situation. In fact, I stomped up and down those stairs, glaring at people, and saying things like, “I am so SICK of stomping up and down these stairs!”

But the new refrigerator arrived and hummed into life, and the next day we loaded it up with a whole new batch of chilly Kroger groceries.

Now I can just dance from countertop to refrigerator, grab an egg or a stick of butter, find some ham or celery to chop, pull some ice cubes from the freezer.

Now I can say to myself, Let’s never, ever take having an upstairs refrigerator for granted again.

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It’s easy to take mechanical things for granted, to feel like, Well, of course, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do! That’s their job: to make MY life easier.

Only their absence makes me appreciate them.

For instance. When James and I moved to Ohio to join Mark (after his first year of law school and a year of distance familying that was just NO fun), we thought it would be really smart to buy a used mobile home. We would get it for next to nothing; we would revamp it inside and out, and we’d have a private place to live, with a lawn and a little porch and with no one pounding around or playing bad music overhead or below us.

We found the perfect situation. There was a tidy little trailer park right at the edge of town. And the first trailer on the backside was for sale. Our front yard would look out on the street; the back of the trailer bordered on an endless cornfield. We’d have one neighboring trailer, and in that lived the nicest young couple with a sweet baby girl.

The trailer had a dishwasher and it had central air, two things we did NOT have back home. It needed some work, but we were up for it. In fact, we were excited. We’d move in July; my new Ohio job didn’t start until the end of August, right about when law school started for Mark and fifth grade kicked in for Jim. We’d have over a month to get things in shape.

We signed on the dotted line and went back to our New York State home to start packing.

(Just a side note: one of Mark’s classmates liked our idea so much that he bought a trailer there too. He and Mark decided they would not refer to our new neighborhood as a ‘trailer park.’ No. At law school, they called where we lived a ‘planned living community’ instead.)

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It is no exaggeration to say we moved on the hottest day of that summer. When we drove up to the trailer in our convoy—Mark and Jim in the U-Haul, the dog and me in the car—it was about 2 p.m., and the thermometer said 96 degrees.

We had huge heavy things to unload; we had a boy and a dog to acclimate to their new home.

We grabbed essentials and unlocked the metal door of the metal house which had been waiting for us, baking in the sun, and we trundled our armloads inside.

I started putting refrigerator stuff away. Mark went to turn the AC on.

We held our breath until we heard the wonderful whoosh and whir of the system kicking in. A blast of cold air thundered out of the vent by my feet.

And then the air conditioning just died.

Nothing Mark could do would revive it. We found, finally, a repair guy who would come after dinner.

Being in a trailer baking in the sun is sort of like living in an empty tin can you left out on the driveway. We opened windows; we turned on fans, but it was HOT.

And we had to carry heavy stuff, and we were tired and anxious. That was not a fun day.

It got even less fun when the repair guy came,–late, after all retail was closed—and did a thorough examination and told us the central air was certainly dead. He wouldn’t, he said, even look at another central system for a building the size of ours; he’d buy economical wall units and save ourselves the cost.

We agreed that was a fine plan, but by then it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, and nothing within thirty miles was open. And none of us felt like getting in the car and driving anywhere anyway.

We took turns taking showers—a momentary relief—and then we flopped onto mattresses on the living room floor—putting beds together was a TOMORROW thing. Mark noted that the temperature was only down to 88 degrees; I barked at him that it was so REASSURING to know that, and then the three of us fell into disgruntled, sweaty, muttering sleeps.

The next day we followed the repair guy’s advice and went out and got four AC window units. They worked perfectly to cool that little abode, and we settled in and made the place comfortable—a kind of funny, loveable, temporary home.

But I swear to you that, since that day, I have never taken my central air for granted. In the heat dome we’re currently under, I come home from my early walk to hear the AC shoooshing on, and I say thank you to the gods of chillers.

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There are machines—like refrigerators, like AC units, like cars and washers and my trusty Kitchenaid mixer—that make our lives so much BETTER. I love what those machines make possible. I try not to take them for granted.

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A big, big difference between OUR pandemic and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 is technology. Imagine what life would have been like, sequestered at home with no phone, no Internet, no TV, and no computer.

But we are so lucky. Mark and I get up each morning, take our meandering walk, then come home to hot coffee and a good breakfast.

Then, “Goodbye, dear,” Mark will say. “I am off to work.”

“Will you be home for lunch?” I inquire.

“Oh yes,” he says. “Yes, I WILL.”

And he walks to the door of what we grandly call the Florida room (and is more truthfully known as ‘the side porch’), opens the door, and sits down at his desk. He fires up his laptop, pulls out his phone, and goes to work.

On the other side of the wall, I boot up my desktop, check my college email, and go to work myself, planning, responding to emails, and grading papers.

Because of technology, we’ve had no disruption in our jobs.

Because of technology, I have virtual coffee with friends I miss via Zoom.

Because of technology, we have weekly touch-base calls with friends and family.

It’s hard to remember life when we didn’t have this kind of efficient technology.

It’s hard, isn’t it, not to take it for granted?

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But machines, technology…those things make our lives so much easier, but they are not the big guys. PEOPLE are the big guys, and, oh, how hard it is to not take people for granted, to think that they will always just BE there.

I think back to that trailer, for instance, to a July phone call from my brother Dennis. We hadn’t talked in a while, and he was worried that our law school move would create a wedge, a distance, in our relationship.

“That will never happen,” I assured him, and he allowed that we would have to work hard not to let it.

And then (enough introspection), he started telling me about a job fair he’d orchestrated that spring, an event that was a huge and unexpected success.

Before he hung up, Dennis asked me if there was a campground nearby; maybe in September, he and Judy, his wife, would bring the camper and stay for a long weekend or even, if they could work the time out, longer.

I gave him the name of a little park I passed on my way to work every day, and he said he’d check it out online.

And then we signed off and plunged back into our separate busy lives, and the thought of calling Dennis tomorrow buzzed around the back of my head.

Less than a month later, he was dead.

There are still days when I think, “Oh, I should call Dennis!” It’s a knee jerk-y kind of thing.

I took it for granted that he’d always be around, that we’d sit around a campfire and laugh and compare notes over cold beers, solving, between the two of us, all the world’s ills.

The people we think will always be there for us…well, I remind myself every day not to take that companionship, those relationships, for granted.

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I stumbled on a website about coming of age experiences six months ago; the rites, from around the world and from cultures within the US, were fascinating.

And meaningful.

I used the website as the basis for a practice comparative analysis activity in Comp II; last semester’s students liked the concept so much that I built it into the curriculum this summer. Then I had the students write their first proposal paper on the topic, too; they had to suggest a coming of age ritual for a group of children, who could be their own kids or any kids they felt could benefit.

One mom wrote about a ritual for her own children, who are boys, and who are also Black. “I’d like to create a positive ritual,” she wrote. “Their father and I have already had to tell them about being a Black male today. We have taught them what situations to stay away from. We have taught them how to extract themselves from dangerous situations. We have taught them when to keep their mouths shut and when it’s best to just give up and run like hell.”

The boys, I think, are 5, 7, and 10 years old.

The mom went on to describe a beautiful coming of age ritual for each of her boys, but those introductory words just kicked my butt. She wrote, that student, so matter-of-factly about the danger her boys needed to learn to avoid. I am the mother of sons; I cannot imagine having had to train my boys the way she has to train hers.

I take that safety, that privilege, for granted, and it is time for me to stop.

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The pandemic has slowed things down, allowed time for mindfulness to take up residence in my days. I have had time for pondering, and I have had time to realize how much I take for granted.

Keep Calm and Cook the Pasta

Pasta is, for all intents and purposes, a comfort food…Pasta, with its long, multicultural history, is a culinary connection to our past.

                   Tori Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta,” npr.com

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Three times in the past week…on a blog, on a cooking site, and on Facebook…someone has written something very like this:

I was stuck at home because of COVID, and I was anxious. So there was nothing else to do but to cook pasta.

And, oh, I get that. Since we’ve been becalmed by COVID, we have discovered new pasta favorites. Pancetta now has a permanent place on our every-third-week pick-up order from Kroger. A serious question we deeply ponder is, “Red sauce or Alfredo?”

Somehow our gluten concerns have morphed and shifted; we still don’t do a lot of bread…but no one best be messing with the availability of our pasta.

Pasta: the anti-COVID complications meal.

The idea of pasta as comfort is nothing new; just look at the wonderful success of Giulia Melucci’s memoir with recipes, I Loved, I Lost, I Ate Spaghetti.

Pasta has made us feel better for a long, long time.

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Pasta is…

  • History
  • Simplicity
  • Complexity
  • Economy
  • Spirituality
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Gastronomy

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Did Marco Polo really bring us pasta? I go digging and unearth an article by NPR’s Tory Avey, “Uncovering the History of Pasta.” And there I find that pasta was already piquing palates on the shores of the Mediterranean BEFORE Polo ever left for his monumental travels: another childhood cultural belief busted.

But pasta is descended from Asian noodles; in Asia, they’ve been making noodles, says Avey, for thousands of years. Probably, she says, Middle Eastern nomads first brought noodles to Europe. By necessity, Europeans (not having such things as breadfruit trees or rice paddies, so much) changed the ingredients, using the flours they had on hand.

Italians christened the food; the word pasta, sensibly, comes from the Italian word for paste.

And nearly every culture has its own pasta, Avey writes. Think spaetzle and orzo; think kreplach dumplings.

It was Spanish settlers who brought pasta to the United States and the Americas; then Thomas Jefferson insured its US reception after spending time in Paris, where he indulged in lots, it is written, of macaroni. He brought two cases of the stuff back with him, and rapidly sent forth an order for more.

In the late 1800’s, many Neapolitan immigrants came to the United States, bringing their love of pasta and their tasty recipes. And with that elemental boost, pasta became a staple of American life.

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That’s the global history. Each of us, every family, every person, has their own personal pasta history, too.

Penne a la vodka, sausage and peppers, baked ziti, eggplant rollitini, homemade calzones….

Not all pasta but those are the Italian dishes Adolph cooks when he has the time. And of course homemade meatballs and sauce. The kids always say Grandma Rose’s are still the best.

                   Meg Lanza, South Carolina

I may have mentioned that my mother, good Depression kid that she was, tended to cut some ingredients and beef up the cheaper bits in dishes to stretch them, to fill the gaping maws of her always hungry family. We were hard-pressed to find more than two chocolate chips in a cookie, for instance.  (“You don’t need all that chocolate!”)

Her spaghetti sauce was pretty thin; I called it Scottish red sauce. And there was a lot of floury white sauce in her macaroni and cheese.

I remember one family dinner a long, long time ago, when I was very little. It was a Friday night in the Catholic days of “no meat” rules. The hungry horde gathered at the table. My mother put down a thick dish towel and then went back to the kitchen for a huge Pyrex casserole of mac and cheese, crushed crackers burnt on the top. She plunked that down on the folded towel.

There was a steaming bowl of canned peas, too.

We said grace, of course (Blessusohlordandthesethygifts…) My mother stood up and scooped big dollops of macaroni casserole onto our plates. The peas got passed around.

Then there was quiet for a moment. Mom had her head bent, surveying her plate.

“Annie,” she murmured—referring to her sister—, “makes the best macaroni and cheese. People beg her to make it. I ask and ask, but she won’t tell me her secret.”

A pause. Then, “Maybe,” a small, anonymous voice said into the stillness, “she uses CHEESE.”

Every head snapped upward, my mother’s first of all. In the shocked silence, she swiveled her eagle eye, looking for the culprit.

Every face was washed clean of guile; innocence shone at that table.

There was one of those impossible, long moments, and then, my father couldn’t stand it. He laughed.

Then my mother did, too, and then the whole table exploded into that kind of relieved, released laughter that follows a moment of grave danger.

No one was ever stupid enough to claim the cheese remark as their own, though. And it seems to me that, after that, Mom started experimenting with exotic cheeses, like cheddar, in her baked macaroni.

So I did not grow up a huge fan of red sauce or mac and cheese (that would come later), but I did love my mother’s tuna pasta salad. It was tendered as a side dish, but for me, a big cold bowl of tuna pasta salad was summer’s perfect meal.

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I like macaroni and cheese. Sometimes I just get it frozen, but I add some truffle oil to zing it up! I also have spaghetti sauce which I make with turkey burger instead of meat.

                   Kimberly Allen, Central New York

Pasta needn’t be complicated. I remember my friend Liza fixing a simple lunch when we were in eighth grade: canned tomato soup with elbow macaroni. It was AWESOME. How simple is that? I thought, and I made the dish for myself at home for a long time after.

This year, family meals loom large during a stay-at-home time, and we’ve gone delving into cookbooks for different methods. A long-simmered sauce is a delight on a cold or rainy day, but, temps grazing ninety, it’s nice to have a simple top-of-the-stove sauce that’s ready in half an hour or so.

We love Alfredo sauce: so easy, and so tasty! And there’s a red sauce in the Joy of Cooking—just called ‘Meat Sauce,’ I think—that’s a ‘sauté the pancetta and onion, open cans of tomatoes, throw your herbs in and wait a minute,’ kind of concoction, and it is GOOD.

The just-right-simmered pasta, the perfect tangy sauces: they don’t have to take forever. It doesn’t have to hurt to make them. Simplicity can be just the ticket.

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Mark, though, has a wonderfully rich pasta-history. His old friends will still reminisce: Remember when we went to your house for dinner in college? And your dad made sauce? I can still taste those meatballs; they were the best…

Mark’s father, Angelo, and mother, Pat, simmered many, many pots of Sunday red sauce, and they were complex and wonderful concoctions. There were meatballs, always, but there could be fresh Italian sausage, too. (If there wasn’t, Pat usually sprinkled in dried fennel, to suggest that sausage flavor.) There might be tender pieces of chicken or pork, meat pulling away from the bones, bones imbuing the sauce. There could be pork hocks simmering in that sauce. There could (dear God!) be tripe.

There would be a giant pot of bubbling, salted water; that would produce mounds and mounds of perfectly-cooked pasta.

No matter how many people gathered around that table, enlarged by two or three leaves, no one was in danger of leaving hungry.

In Lenten times, and on Fridays before Vatican II, Angelo would make an array of meatless sauces. Clam sauce just never called me close; instead, it yelled at me to run the other way. And many of Mark’s family loved spaghetti and sardines, which also boasted chunks of hard-boiled egg in the sauce.

A few years before he died, Angelo painstakingly copied down the method for spaghetti and sardines and sent it off to Mark. That letter is a treasured family document.

But I confess I have never followed the recipe.

Acquired tastes, some pasta presentations are, but for those who grew up eating those rich, unique creations, a forkful brings back warm and gentle days.

Mark’s dad’s spaghetti and sardines recipes is a cherished document…

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And another good thing about pasta: it’s relatively cheap. I remember being invited for meals during college, at apartments that sported bean bag chairs and cotton Indian-print throws on the walls; I remember sitting cross-legged on pillows and eating plates of spaghetti noodles and red sauce at someone’s coffee table. (How…trendy! How…Asian fused with Italian! How…I hobbled when I finally stood up!)

I remember, too, going out to fancy restaurants with friends in much, much younger days. Half an hour before we were to meet, I would be digging down the back of the seats of my car for enough change to pad the feeble contents of my wallet, to insure that I’d have ready cash to eat a modest dinner, have a glass of wine, and give the server a reasonable tip. Usually I would spend every penny, and always I would order the pasta, the cheapest thing on the menu.

Never once was I jealous of the steaks or cordon bleus that my more prosperous (or frugal) table neighbors might be eating; in that little city, with its heavy Italian cultural influence, the pasta dishes were uniformly GOOD.

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Well…sometimes you just need spaghetti and meatballs…

Jodi McKinney, Pennsylvania (https://lifeinbetween.me/2020/06/21/find-joy-in-the-journey/)

I remember another restaurant, this one in Detroit, Michigan, where Mark and I traveled soon after we were married. The friends we visited there took us to a wonderful, hole-in-the-wall, red-checked tablecloth, candle-in-a-wine-bottle, kind of Italian restaurant. There it was that I had my first taste of homemade pasta.

Whoa! I put down my fork and waited until the angels finished singing.

Where had THAT been all my life?

I swear the eating of perfect pasta can be a spiritual experience.

In fact, it must be, because a lot of Catholic school expenses are offset by spaghetti suppers. Mark and I worked at many of those, when our boys attended parochial schools. Mark did not always agree with the cooking methods, his particular definition of red sauce clashing with the definition of whomever headed the cooking team.

Often, I’d finding him working in the serving line, or bussing tables at those events.

“I had to get out of the kitchen,” he’d say. “I couldn’t watch.

But the eaters ate up all that spaghetti; the dinners racked up dollars for the kids.

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We learned a different kind of spiritual sharing when we worked at Hot Meals at our Mount Vernon church; once a year or so, Mark would orchestrate a red sauce dinner, with meatballs and Italian sausage: the kind of dinners his parents proudly served. The guests at those dinners were kind and gentle people with fascinating pasts and incredible adventures who were, for a time, down on their luck.

They loved Mark’s spaghetti.

“This is like getting pasta in a New York City restaurant,” one woman said to him, coming back for seconds. And Mark beamed.

Eating good pasta is wonderful. Cooking and sharing it is divine.

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Maddie loves spaghetti and meatballs. Nothing homemade or fancy, usually no time for that, we just doctor up jarred sauce and frozen milk/egg free meatballs. Noel is not a fan, so I either make a lighter sauce or we make it when he’s traveling. I make extra and send it to school for Maddie’s lunch.

My brother-in-law makes this incredible chicken spaghetti; it’s seriously so good. Not sure exactly what he does, and it’s a little different each time cuz he uses stuff we have on hand. Spaghetti, chicken, a little green and red peppers just for flavor, chicken flavoring; he’ll put chopped up ham in it also if we have some to use up. He threw a little tomato sauce in it last time (but doesn’t usually) and it still wasn’t tomato-y at all.

Chicken penne pasta has always been on our routine dinner menu, but I recently tried this new recipe. It was really good and will replace our original chicken penne. Based on the review comments I used one cup less chicken broth and added extra chicken flavoring for taste. Used dairy free whipping cream and then after everything was mixed together separated Maddie’s out. Baked hers with her cheese and baked ours with mozzarella instead of Gruyere cheese.

The last few years Gabby started doing the southern thing and wanting to have mac & cheese at Thanksgiving. This year we used a recipe that incorporated jalapeno peppers, and it was really, really good. Not something I would make on a regular basis because of Maddie, but definitely something I’ll do for Thanksgiving from now on and anytime it’s appropriate.

Shayne Gutierrez, Florida

And here’s another thing about pasta: you can bring your whole self to it, and you can adapt it to whomever is eating. As I mentioned, Mark’s parents were adventurous about what they’d throw in broth to simmer; we may not do tripe or sardines, or, God forbid, a single clam, but we often simmer pork and chicken in the pot. We’ve cut sliced pepperoni into fine bits and thrown them in when sautéing the veggies, and that’s perked in a bright flavor. Zucchini and yellow squash are lovely in red sauce, too, we’ve found, and I have a friend who sweetens the pot by throwing in a carrot or two.

Different friends use different spices; I have had nutmeg and cinnamon in sauces served by special people, and those sauces have intriguing flavors.

My niece Shayne has a sweet daughter, Maddie, who has food allergies, so Shayne makes pasta with ingredients she’s hunted down: egg-free noodles, dairy-free cheese, and other inventive ingredients. Maddie loves the results.

And I bet if we got twelve of us together in a room, and said, “Okay; what HAS to go in tuna pasta salad?” we’d get a dozen different answers.

When cooking with pasta, personal spins are not just welcome; they’re almost mandatory.

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Aaron’s mother’s Italian family spaghetti sauce is my kids’ fave. We will argue over whether we will have thin spaghetti or rigatoni noodles when we make it. Sometimes we end up making both. Homemade noodles are a must for Thanksgiving. Jordee had aprons made for her and me that say “Team Turkey.”

Everyone likes my lasagna even though there is nothing homemade about it. I make some wicked mac n cheese when I have time to stir the sauce. We are a very big pasta family. 😊

                   Dr. Larisa Harper, Central Ohio

That creativity, that experimentation, comes, I think, in large part from pasta’s diverse background. Every culture, almost, has its pasta dishes, from ramen noodles to spaghetti and meatballs to real, Southern, soul food mac and cheese.

Such a wide swath of influences gives us a whole lot of freedom in what to mix in and what to omit.

We’ve been watching a new (to us) cooking show on PBS lately: Somewhere South with chef Vivian Howard. She’s a North Carolina chef; on the show, she takes an aspect of southern cooking and traces it back in unexpected and charming ways. So, on her show, we might meet Southern cooks of color, chefs from Indian roots, those who are descended from Chinese settlers, or those whose cuisine owes its flair to Jewish culture. We meet chefs from European backgrounds and those whose Hispanic cooking tradition came their way via Central and South America. What I have thought of as ‘traditional’ southern cuisine has far-reaching, fascinating, evolving influences.

The other night, we watched an episode about dumplings, which Howard was hard-pressed to define. She went to visit her chicken picker, a young, spunky southern woman, who got interested in Howard’s dumpling quest.

“Well,” she asked Howard, “did you eat chicken and dumplings or chicken and pasta where you were grown?”

They cut to a clip of women assembling chicken and pasta…putting the cooked chicken in a pot, covering it with small squares of translucent pasta, layering more chicken and broth and pasta squares until the pot was full, putting it on the range top to simmer.

It looked delicious. It looked like comfort. That comfort tradition shoots its roots long and deep into our collective pasts.

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We had tuna pasta salad today! I sometimes make it with shell macaroni but today I used elbow macaroni because it’s what I had. We love lasagna and Paul decided a couple of years ago that thin spaghetti wasn’t working for him, so we use rotini now. Either way, though…pasta is at the center of many of our favorite meals!

                   Dr. Terry Herman, Central Ohio

None of this would make one tiny bit of difference if pasta didn’t taste so darned good. And, during confused and anxious days, we need to nurture and fortify ourselves.

We need comfort right now. COVID-19 case numbers are spiking in the United States; this disease could be with us for quite some time.

“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” says the Center for Disease Control website.

We shouldn’t use food as a crutch, but a meal, savored thoughtfully, can lift us up. It can connect us with absent people, with different times; it can remind us that one day, we’ll gather around a groaning board again with people we care about. “Comfort food is all about flavors that we associate with some of our most important life experiences – moments that warm our hearts,” say the authors of ilgustononmente (https://www.oliocarli.us/magazine/inspiration-of-gourmet/cooking-at-home).

So it’s no surprise we turn to pasta. It gives us a creative surge; it doesn’t break the bank. It reminds us of special times and special people. At its absolute best, well, yes: it makes my soul sing.

And mostly, mainly, magnificently: it tastes good.

These are weird and unsettling days; they are days when we need to be gentle with our anxious selves.

No wonder so many of us are in the kitchen, planning how to fix our pasta.

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To the Foot from Its Woman of a Certain Age

…But this blind thing walked

without respite, without stopping

hour after hour

one foot and then the other,

now a man’s

or a woman’s,

above,

below,

through fields, through mines,

through department stores and ministries,

backward,

outside, inside,

forward,

this foot labored with its shoe,

it hardly took time

to be naked in love or in sleep,

it walked, they walked

until the whole man stopped.

                   From “To the Foot from Its Child” by Pablo Neruda

It is possible that faces remain taut and lineless, that eyes still sparkle, that hair—by art or by nature—flows lush and vibrant and free of any gray. A person’s countenance might mock and defy the influence of age.

But all an interested on-looker would have to do, to truly know the era of that seemingly youthful being, is to look at her feet.

We don’t need portraits moldering in an attic; our feet reveal the truth.

We ought to be more grateful to our feet.

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

When I was a child, the feet of adults embarrassed me.

I saw them rarely; they only emerged from their hard, black oxfords or cheap everyday canvas sneakers, on trips, say, to the beach. Parents did not, in my experience, wear toe-revealing shoes, not ever. The feet that emerged when we went to the lake were shocked by the sun, scalded white, looking like something long locked away.

My father would sit on the blanket, after everyone was settled, the cooler parked, towels and over-clothes tossed in a pile and bathing-suited kids running screaming to the water. He would sit on the blanket and unroll his thin black socks; he’d knot the socks into a tight little ball, light a cigarette, and stand up to walk to the water’s edge on feet that looked impossibly long and thin and fragile.

My father worked on the coal pile of an electric company; he drove the heavy machinery: bulldozers, cranes, sometimes the short connector train that picked up the box cars full of coal. He was outside in all weathers, and his skin was burnished like a fine wood by sun and wind and freezing rain—the skin on his face, and neck, and arms and hands.

His feet and his legs rarely saw the sun. In those days, men would come home from work and go out to toss a ball with their kids, still wearing hard black dress shoes, plaid button shirts, and creased and cuffed trousers.

For men like my father, the sun rested on his toes only at the beach. There, his long, thin feet stepped gingerly on the hot sand, avoiding sharp rocks; he parked them in the shallow water where it lapped the edge of land. He stood there, smoking and watching his kids in the water until his cigarette burnt down.

He’d push the stub into the sand of the beach, burying it deep, and then he’d swim out, with long, strong strokes, to the very edge, that place where ‘I’m okay here,’ crashed into ‘This is too deep.’ He’d park there like a sentinel. The bigger kids, the daring, strong swimmers, would join him there to splash and dunk and carouse.

My mother stayed on the blanket in a prim blue cotton gingham one-piece suit. She might venture down to the water’s edge to build a sandcastle or search for tiny shells with a little one, but she did not go into the water. Once, in the faded haze of history, she had been a child who jumped into a crowded pool and plunged to the bottom. Other kids jumped in after her; they knocked her back into the water, over and over.

She thought that she would drown, and when she didn’t, she vowed never to go swimming again.

And my mother’s poor feet! Twisted and knotted from overwork and years of poorly fitted shoes and a family tendency to bunions, her toes overlapped each other. Bones stuck out where they shouldn’t. A barefoot stroll on the beach was an excruciating ordeal.

She stayed on the blanket, a towel thrown carelessly over her toes, or she crouched in the damp sand with her castle-builder, her feet half-submerged.

Looking at my parents’ feet on those exciting summer days shot a chill through the adventure. Those feet had a message.

There has been pain, and it has been hard, they intoned.

Poverty and neglect can twist you around, they whispered.

I felt a painful lump in my throat, looking at my parents’ feet when we went to the beach. I ran into the lake to throw myself on waves where the water came just to my chest.

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

My mother had a bunion operation, and it went horribly wrong. Nowadays, it’s an in-and-out, healed in a week surgery, but not for my mother. Her bones shifted. One stuck out the bottom of her foot. She’d go to see the surgeon who caused the damage, and he’d perform some arcane treatment. When she came home, sometimes, the pain was so bad she would crawl from the car to the house.

It was a long, long time before she completely healed. There were very few shoes that she could wear.

“You take care of your feet,” my mother would tell me, “and they won’t look like mine.”

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

My father, on the other hand, believed in the power of shoe-free feet for kids.

“Take off your shoes!” he’d yell, when we came in the house, when we sat down to watch TV.

When the grandchildren came over, the first thing my father would do is pick them up and swing them around. Then he’d sit down with them and pull their shoes off.

“Better for them,” he’d say. Patient daughters-in-law would bite their lips.

Maybe my father’s feet resented their time in his steel-toed work boots, in his hard-soled black shoes.

And maybe, my mother hinted, he remembered his years as a poor kid in the Depression, standing in line for shoes his father couldn’t buy him. The ladies who gave them out, he told me once, treated the kids they favored with hand-me-downs like crap,—looked over and through them, saw not the pinched faces of children in need, but the wonderful glimmer of their own good deeds. 

They weren’t particular about things like fit.

“Those ought to do you,” I imagine one saying absently, handing a pair of old leather high-topped shoes to the scrawny kid that was my father.

He took them home and tried them, and they didn’t really “do” him; they were a little tight already and his feet were growing. But those shoes would last him, oh, two years, maybe; he’d squeeze his feet into them and make them work, because they were what he had.

No wonder he peeled the shoes off the grandkids as soon as they walked in the door.

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

Oxfords, some doctor told my mother, were the best shoes for growing feet. Good sturdy Oxfords were the thing. So during the years when she could still dress me, my mother made me wear saddle shoes or clunky black tie shoes. They were horrible things. How I longed for a pair of slingbacks.

By the time I got to high school I was babysitting, saving my cash, starting to buy my own shoes. I bought ugly, sensible earth shoes, yes. But I bought slingbacks, too. And I bought four-inch platform soles and clomped around, scraping the sky at about six foot three. I bought pointy-toed narrow heels and minced.

My feet were killing me, but what price fashion? I put band aids over the blisters.

And I bought sneakers for the everyday, sneakers so I could walk. I came late to the land of driving, and I walked everywhere, miles and miles a day. To classes from my apartment in college. To the supermarket where I worked. Downtown to meet friends.

My feet really were my locomotion. Did I think to thank them? Did I soak them and baby them? Did I insist on sensible, comfortable shoes?

Oh, no. Not once.

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

In college, I discovered Pablo Neruda, and his poem, “To the Foot from Its Child” especially spoke to me. I loved metaphors, and the foot as metaphor for life, the blind appendage, once soft, growing “…into hard horn”…oh, that moved me. The work of it, the grind, the never-stopping-ness, the pleasures those feet hardly took time for.

That, I thought sagely, was an everyday foot, and an everyday life. I would not forget; I would not grow callused. My life would be vibrantly different.

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

Then there was teaching, where the standing on pointy toed, heeled shoes all day long, slip-slapping down aisles to check work and answer questions and comfort the confused or wailing,—well, that was hurtful. I discovered foam-soled Mary Janes, and those became my teaching shoes.

And then there was parenting, comfy sneakers for backyard play, the arrival of a baby that never, it seemed, slept. Barefoot walking, back and forth, up and down. Shush now; shush now, little one.

And he was quiet while we walked.

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

That ‘baby,’ thirty now, stared down at my bare feet today as I worked in the kitchen, and said, tongue sharpened by autism-frankness, “Mom, your feet look really weird.”

I gazed at him, trying to formulate a suitable sentence. Thus encouraged, he went on.

“Your big toe,” he said, “it’s like it’s at a right angle. And the toe next to it is bent like a tent.”

“Well, James,” I said, “thanks for that. I guess.”

“Well,” he said. “I’m just saying.”

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

Later I go to pull on my hiking sandals, the ones that leave my hammer toes gloriously free and unfettered. I look at my feet through other eyes, and I know my son is right.

My feet look really weird.

I have beaten them up many times,—battered them in the name of fashion; pounded them through a half-marathon in shoes I would later learn were a size and a half too small (that adventure caused my big toenails to turn bloody and fall off; oh, my bruised and aching toes. And that was when a petite, impossibly chirpy young shoe clerk told me I’d been wearing shoes that were not nearly roomy enough.

“Our feet get bigger as we age,” she said sagely, in a voice so syrupy with sympathy, I wanted to add a batch of salt to the conversation. But did not. One day she too will feel the unexpected bumps and hollows of age; one day she’ll ignore the flaws and celebrate, as I do, the patina. I wish I could be there to comment, but I, of course, won’t be, more’s the pity.)

My feet have been workers, trudgers, occasionally dancing, sometimes running, kicking through turquoise pool water, scuffing the tennis court, and always, always walking, walking…

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

These days Connie Fitbit keeps me going, fires up my competitive urges, makes me walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I feel like a shirker on days I only reach 10,000; I like it when my phone peeps with a message: Whoa! Overachiever! You’re 4028 steps over your daily goal…

Damn straight, I think.

But I still don’t think to appreciate my feet.

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

And there are metaphors there, in the worn and bent feet of my parents, who hoped for better for me and my brothers; there are metaphors in the choices I made that battered my own feet and led me, late but appreciative, to understand.

Similes there be, like the under-accoladed feet are as the under-recognized workers…essential, but not glamorous. Not sexy; not front page news,…but nothing would get done without them.

I am an English teacher; I could go on, but I would never say it better than Neruda. Instead, on this Friday evening, storm clouds gathering, world gentling into night’s darkness, I will draw a hot bath.

I will soak my feet.

I will clip the nails and rub the callouses with a little brick of pumice, and slather my feet with sweet, silky lotion. Then I will let my feet rest while I loll in bed, my hands doing the work of holding up that hardcover book, until I drift off to sleep, mid-chapter.

All that Neruda wrote is true, but I take a mindful minute now to ponder them: my feet, my over-worked, always dependable feet. Thank you, I think, sending that down the line of my body, right down to the toes, which I realize now that I’m paying attention, are just the least little bit sore.

Thank you. Don’t give up on me. Let’s keep on going on, together, a decade or two, or maybe even more.

The Longest Day in a Long, Long Year

It is the end of the longest, lightest day of the year, and, at 9:10 p.m., the world around me is only just beginning to darken. I sit out on the little back porch, on a bench I bought at WalMart thirty years ago. That bench’s shiny surface grew annoying at some point. I roughed it up and smoothed it down and smudged in some black paint on corners and crevices, covered it over with white, and then randomly hit it with the sander so that, in spots, the underlayers show.

Then I layered on a clear matte coat so we could put that piece outside.

The bench has been on the back porch for nine years now. My original attempts at distressing it have become redundant. I lean back on the still sturdy, aging back rest, and I bump up against the mop I laid to dry today, after I washed the kitchen and bathroom floors, along the top of it. I settle the mop handle with my shoulders, and I sit in the cooling, but not chill, night.

I am watching fireflies.

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

We discovered wonders when we moved here to the heartland; one, the first summer we came to Ohio, was driving through highways banked with sunflowers bobbing and weaving,–miles and miles of them. Someone—some county government, some coalitions of towns,–decided to border their roads with thick, lush rows of sunflowers. Endless ridges of sunflowers, the most cheerful flower I know, welcomed us—uninitiated strangers—to the land.

Fireflies were another wonder-filled revelation; on hot dry nights in late June and early July, our yards would fill with blinking, staggering, emphatic pinpricks of light. It was unexpected entertainment of the environmental variety.

Oh, we had the occasional firefly in New York State. It’s not like they were unknown. As a child, I tried to capture them in old glass mayonnaise jars; luckily, I was slow and seldom successful…and not really avid about getting up close and personal with insects, anyway. My brothers were more adept; their bedroom often hosted sad winged beings in those glass jars whose metal tops were pierced, over and over, by a thick nail. They hoped, maybe, my brothers, for a natural sort of nightlight to gentle them off to sleep.

There, at any rate, fireflies were rare enough that they were kind of a triumph to capture.

But here! Here, the yards host a floating, drifting light show: the magic and the science of bugs that cast an outrageous electrical glow.

So tonight, I sit and watch, and I notice a lone, late robin hopping on the lawn. It waits for long pauses, and then it hops forward, and I suddenly get it (maybe): it’s watching for glowworms to signal their potential mates. Another robin, fat and puffed, lights on the lowest branch of the magnolia bush, head cocked. Soon it is hopping in the grass, too, then stopping and dipping its beak.

If those robins are munching on glow worms, then what a dangerous mating dance this is, and what boldness, what bravery, those fireflies’ partners show: risking everything for one night’s, one moment’s, burst of passion.

(If one eats a glowworm, does one’s belly glow?)

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

Somewhere, somebody sends off a premature firecracker; just practicing, you know: getting in the swing of things before July 4th rolls around. There’s no little dog, this year, to panic at the booms, to jump shivering into my bed and tremble, panting, on my chest, breathing hot, nervous dog breath insistently up my sleepy nose.

No little dog to be frightened of fireworks, or of thunder either; this season brings storms, too, and last week they tore through, scattering leaves and old dry branches, leaving the world cooled, refreshed, and littered.

We were lucky, I had thought: no damage. But this week, I woke one dark night-middle and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I crept downstairs to snuggle in the reading chair and read myself back into nocturnal oblivion. And when I had turned on the lamp and pulled the throw over my always chilly toes, found the page in my book, and begun to read, I realized there was a new, unusual noise. It was a weary whooshing, like a very old Darth Vader’s rhythmic labored breathing, and it was coming from the refrigerator. The noise whooshed me off to sleep.

The next day we checked things out. The freezer was warming up; the whooshing was getting louder. We moved the most vulnerable food to the freezers downstairs, and we pulled the fridge away from the wall. My God, the dust and debris! We vacuumed off every dusty surface, and we turned the chill settings on to high, and the bulky old thing seemed to rally.

But not for long. Soon the respite was over, and the Big Black Box was gasping for breath once more, and we thought about repairs and weighed that cost against a purchase. Last night we went and ordered a new refrigerator, and we got a matching new stove, to boot.

I never considered the why of the fridge’s failure, just thought about appliance age and planned obsolescence and the inevitable fact that when you have a little mad money set aside some compelling reason to spend it will arise. And then my friend Terry texted that her garage refrigerator and freezer were both storm-shocked, and that she and Paul just replaced the two of them.

Do you suppose, I said to Mark, the storm surge hit our refrigerator, too?

He sank his chin into the cup of his hand.

That could be so, he said.

The summer storms have no little dog to scare, but they wreak other havoc,–this particular bit of havoc, thank goodness, easily enough solved.

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

My friend Wendy texts that the pool in her village will not open this year. She goes to that pool religiously, in season; they reserve an hour, each day, from 5-6 p.m., for ‘adults.’ That technically means anyone 18 and over, but in reality, the kids disappear, and their parents, and the youngish singles, and the senior citizens take over. Those people of a certain age are free to power down the lanes or to drift and chat, to sluice cleanly into the deep end, or to chug along gamely. Or even just to dangle feet in the turquoise waters, idly talking to an equally dabbling friend.

Wendy does laps. When I visit, once or twice a summer, I tag along, and the people who work there, the elders who swim there, have all started to look familiar. That daily hour is an important and refreshing part of summer for Wendy, and I can sense her disappointment when I read her text.

That same day a Facebook post pops up from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg. She reminisces about going to the pool as a girl; she lived on a military base, pool provided, and summer days meant long hours spent in the water.

“We learned to dive, but some of us, I’m not saying who, were too chicken to dive off the high dive. Some of us merely jumped off it with our toes pointed, which we felt was good enough,” Berg writes, and oh, I remember.

I remember, in particular, a trip to Letchworth State Park where, having newly earned my Red Cross swimmer’s certificate (kind of like a swimming license, I thought), I spent hours with my friend Mary Jane, jumping off the high dive into the crystalline water. It was such a thrill: plodding, cautious ME, doing this daring thing.

I jumped and swam to the ladder, padded back to the line. Ascended to the top, jumped, and swam to the ladder.

Once, I think, in a true fit of derring-do, I jumped BACKWARD. MJ (who was always more nimble and athletic), if I remember right, actually DOVE.

On one of my trips back to the line, the lifeguard stopped me.

“You’re getting too tired,” he said. “Take a break,” and he pointed to a bench.

“I’m NOT tired,” I wailed, and my eyes filled with tears, but he was adamant.

I went and sat, disgraced, until ages had passed—ten minutes, probably—and I was allowed back in the queue.

Earlier this week, James and I were driving off to the hospital’s walking trail when we saw a young mother and daughter walking. The girl was maybe six, long haired, lanky, and unhappy. The two stopped and bantered, and the mother grew angry, we could tell. At one point, she grabbed the little girl’s arm, and the child pulled in the opposite direction, pulled with that attitude of complete scorn and negation, and the rigidness of tears very near the surface.

That child needs a long visit to a cold pool, I thought, and then I realized that probably won’t happen this year.

We have hundreds of children who have home-schooled since March. For them, that feeling of endless summer, sculpted on the last day of classes when you say goodbye for now to many and plot adventures with the intimates of your inner circle—adventures that surely and always include SWIMMING—will not happen.

Endless boredom, maybe, that feeling will morph into, having rebelliously completed schoolwork online, aching to escape to something else, and wandering into ennui. And then finding that summer, really, was just more of the same, without the homework.

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

It is Father’s Day, and the sun shines strong. We drive to the doughnut shop, but the line wends out the door and around the building; cars line up, waiting for a parking place. We know that, if we queued, we’d probably finally arrive at emptied shelves and paltry choices.

We go home, and I make a streusel top coffee cake instead, and we eat it with scrambled eggs studded with ham. Mark opens his cards and gifts, and then we drive to a campus about thirty miles away, and we walk. It is hot on the pavement, hot in the sun; the sun cooks our backs, and the shady spaces feel like blessings. We walk and we walk, and then we pile back into the car and drive home, where, instead of lunch, we each have a thick slab of Father’s Day ice cream cake.

Ice cream: the reward, in summer, for braving the hot outdoors.

Later, Mark grills steaks, and we eat them with hand-cut fettucine noodles and crunchy cut veggies with homemade sour cream and onion dip. That food, too, tastes like summer.

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

Mark starts a fire at day’s end; it blazes, and we pull our chairs to the windless side and settle in. Across the alley, someone is calling and calling, looking for their dogs. Kids’ voices rise and fall; a basketball smacks against a backboard, and the voices rise again, arguing.

Cars whoosh by in the distance. There’s the sad wail of a siren.

And rain begins to fall, quelling the fire. We move the chairs onto the porch; the breeze blows brisk, and I think that the plants I just put in, butterfly magnets from the Soil and Water District, won’t need watering tonight.

I had forgotten: summer means rain, too, sudden upstart showers, quenching and slowing things down. Soil preens beneath the huge drops that fall insistently. A rich, loamy smell circles.

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

One of my students wrote in a discussion board post, “This is a crazy, frightening world. I don’t recognize it, and it scares me.” She was talking about the death of people because of the pigment of their skin. She was talking about working in a nursing home and then returning to her family, hoping she wasn’t carrying a virus that would make them all sick. She was talking about having to take all her courses on line, and about not knowing if her kids would go back to school in the fall, if violence would break out at a memorial service, or if it would be safe to visit the zoo this year.

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

It IS a crazy, frightening world. The fear and the uncertainty settle in us, inhabit our bones, populate our dreams with weird and threatening characters.

And yet: summer comes: the lightning strikes, the pop-up showers, the relentless sun. The solace of a shady spot; the plants that grow in spite of everything.

The cool and dewy mornings when I can’t help it: against all odds, I bask in promise.

The nights when fireflies dance.

Summer bears potential; summer forces growth.

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

It’s hard to say what’s growing this summer, only that the soil seems to be teeming, especially fertile, and seeds are being planted. Something will surely come forth, strong and possibly unexpected.

We will have to be vigilant this summer, tilling what we can, weeding what threatens, investing our hope that the harvest will be worth the wait.

Something Lithesome This Way Comes

Lithesome describes something that’s graceful and flexible, like a ballet dancer or a willow tree bending in the wind. Use the adjective lithesome when you need a delicate word to describe a person or thing that bends and turns easily, whether it’s a jaguar in the jungle or a young gymnast on a balance beam.

—-https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/lithesome

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

There are things brewing, things I want to write about, but none of them are whole. Some are slithery beasts, like down-deep, from the mud base, pond-water creatures…things that I can’t get my hand around for purchase (and maybe—eeuyewww,—I don’t want to hold onto that slimy thing). Some are just forming, like oobleck in its haze-phase: they are abstract, too insubstantial to explore with words just yet.

I go searching for topic alternatives, and they all run too fast; I flutter forward, but I can only get a glimpse of them, disappearing around a corner far ahead of me.

Then it is Friday night, and I don’t have a topic for my Saturday blog post. I head to my last resort: the prompt jar.

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

I unscrew the lid and hand the jar to Jim. He swirls the pieces of paper inside; he digs down deep and pulls out a one-inch yellow square. He opens it up and reads, “Lithesome.”

He hands it to me with an interested look.

“Lithesome,” I say. “Huh.”

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

I know what lithesome means. One day long ago, I WROTE it on that little square, after all. But I take the little piece of paper from Jim, and I thank him, and I go upstairs to the quiet writing place.

And I look up lithesome.

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

A person that bends and turns easily…I have seen the word used to describe ballerinas and twig-thin models, but never to describe me. Once, back along a rock-strewn road a lifetime ago, I was twig-thin.

Once.

But I don’t think I ever bent or turned easily.

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

At dinner I was flipping through People magazine. I am not even sure why it arrives each week; it must have been a bonus prize for ordering something or other.

When it slides through the mail slot, we snort and discount it. “People?” we say. “Who reads this shlock?” And then we leave it on the table so we can page through it, loving shlockiness, indulging a guilty pleasure.

Beautiful people crowd the magazine’s glossy pages.

“Who is that?” asks Mark, stabbing a finger, and I see that it is Jared Leto and a younger woman, a Russian model. He is 49; she is 26 or so. They have been together for four years, but those four years (the magazine tells me) have not been smooth ones.

He is dark, thin, bearded. He looks intense. She is fair and slender. (“She looks anorexic,” Mark says. “Too thin!”)

She smiles at the camera with a certain kind of energy that suggests she is probably bendable. She looks lithesome.

For some reason, that jogs Mark’s memory.

“Have you ever heard of the singer, Lizzo?” he asks.

I have not.

He tells me that she is a beautiful young woman who is NOT lithesome. She is large, Mark says, and quite happy with it.

She is the kind of woman, he ruminates, quite comfortable wearing a bikini. And if you don’t like it, don’t like the way she looks, she’ll just tell you to go away.

I look Lizzo up on-line. She is a beautiful woman, and she is a big one. “Lithesome” was not coined to describe her, but I bet she bends and turns easily, too.

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

This week the first hot-hot day came, upper nineties, bringing that pending, just-you-wait feel with it. I walked early, did a little yard work, then holed up in the air-conditioned house, catching up on classwork.

The sun beat down, and the air shimmered.

Toward late afternoon, clouds began to gather. The heat grew closer, pushed down, moist, and the air was like a gasped breath, never expelled.

As we ate dinner, the wind began, softly at first. The small leaves on the tree by the kitchen began to tear off.

The wind grew stronger and bolder; those fallen little leaves were scooped up and tossed. A laughing, wicked spirit was playing.

All the trees joined in then; soon the rain began, hard, furious; it pounded while the trees thrashed.

The small tree by the kitchen bent and swayed; it was lithesome.

The big trees out front flailed and wrenched. Branches flew down, and nosegays of leaves; sweet gum pods detached and bounced through the rain popping in the street.

Those big trees knew how to bend and turn, but they didn’t make it look easy. Each wrenching movement cost a little piece of tree-something.

The next morning, the yard and the street were scattered with tree detritus, and most of the little tree’s leaves were on the ground.

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

It’s funny. I have been thinking about trees lately, quite a lot more than usual. We walk on the new path at the college on hot days, the Joe’s Run Trail. We wander through a shady woods; we cross a sturdy bridge over a sparkling brook, and then the path turns woody again, paralleling the road for a ways.

The trees there have personalities; they make me think about blowing the dust off my sketch pad and sharpening a pencil.

There is a big tree, a wise old tree, with interesting silver bark. In places the bark has seized up and made scarred shapes. I walk by and neck hairs rise, just a little; it looks like this tree has a graven eye; it looks as if it this tree is eying ME. And then the silver bark settles down again, smooths itself.

The smoothness has been irresistible to people with pen knifes. The silvered trunk is trusted to tell the tales of old lovers, to remember dates of events we can only guess at, to testify that this certain person was, once, here.

And then the shiny, almost metallic, surface splits again, and a resigned, etched eye peers out.

That tree would be “The Watcher.”

There is a tree with the bark blown away in a swirling swoop; burnished wood slopes down into a plunging root. It looks, for all the life of me, like a proud, sturdy woman showing off a well-turned ankle.

I could sketch that tree and call it, “The Flirt.”

There is a slender tree with long, long branches. One wraps around a nearby companion, holding it back from the fray. Another branch reaches toward the path, as if signaling.

I’d call a drawing of that tree, I think, “The Crossing Guard.”

The Crossing Guard is the only one that qualifies as lithesome, but all the trees feel like they are ready to move and to bend.

And maybe they do when we’re not around.

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

I am reading, oddly enough, a novel about trees: The Overstory, by Richard Powers. He starts by throwing out the stories of different people, different families. There are immigrants and travelers; there are happy, well-adjusted folk, and there are seekers and strivers, the ones who can never quite sit still.

There is, for each of those characters, a tree connection, that slowly, slowly—almost as slowly as a tree might grow,—brings those folks together.

There is a beautiful lithesome character in the book. I will not tell you her fate.

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

Lithesome! Early this week, Mark and I headed out for an early walk; the world was dewy and cool, and in the semi-circle of iris plants just before the foot of the driveway, a tiny trembling fawn nestled.

It startled us; we startled it.

The tiny thing’s nose quivered; that trembling nose was outlined, I was surprised to see, with a scant row of white fur.

“Where is your MOTHER?” Mark asked it, and then we both thought to fumble for our phones, to take the baby’s first photo.

It looked at us, perplexed, and then suddenly, it was air bound, running away, pointed, in the space of a breath, completely  in the other direction. Liquid, fluid, other.

Lithesome.

We keep looking for that little furry one to come back. We haven’t seen it yet.

“I hope,” says Mark, “that baby found its mother.”

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

Life, this year, has certainly moved and bent. One week, we are shopping, stopping for a nosh at the coffee shop, planning an outing, getting ready for a face to face class, thinking about travel.

The next week, we are at home and hunkered down, ready to face a long-sequestered spell.

When, finally, things seem to be ready to ease up, we are planted, facing an entirely different horizon than we previously contemplated.

What, we ponder, will life grow to be like now?

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

And, thrust into our thinking, a senseless act of brutality anchors our gaze on things we would not look at. Here it is, the tragedy says. This is racism. Stay and see. We cannot look away.

The times demand bending, moving, changing.

The changes won’t be lithesome; frozen limbs will creak, will groan. There will be snapping and discomfort and laments.

But change has to come.

Or maybe it has to be here NOW.

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I will seek, this week, to appreciate things lithesome, and to accept that I will never join their ranks, will always be an appreciator. But, bending, moving…those are movements I can aspire to, as I flash an arm down to capture that slippery, elusive thing, as I blow cool breath on the haze and help it grow whole.

And Life Goes On

It was a warm Memorial Day, warm and muggy. We tried to make it seem like a holiday, like a day to remember. In these work at home COVID days, though, the at-home days blend, and  that can be a challenge.

But we worked outside, and then we barbecued some burgers.

That night, we all piled into Mark’s car and took a ride down by the river.

While we were riding, George Floyd was dying.

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I heard about it the next morning. I had to read the article twice.

“What?” I said. “WHAT???”

“Yeah,” said Mark. “Yeah.”

How do you even process something like that?

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

But my students had submitted their analysis papers, and the papers needed to be graded. The bathroom floor ached to be mopped, and I had a long-awaited hair cut appointment. In the afternoon, I had a tele-meeting.

I went about my day. I enjoyed getting four months’ worth of scruff sheared from my head. The meeting was productive. The papers were amazingly well-written.

The bathroom floor preened itself and gleamed.

And the little voice kept demanding attention.

“WHAT????” it asked, plaintively. “What?!!!!”

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And the protests started; of course, there were protests. But in some places—some close by me—there was breaking and fires and looting, too.

“Well,” people said. “THAT’s not right.” And the damage became the focus.

I did load after load of laundry. I baked cookies, a special recipe: flat and crisp edged, these cookies are meant to sandwich a big shmear of ice cream. We liked those cookies, and we liked those ice cream sandwiches.

I inventoried the freezers, and I started thinking about what kind of meat we might eat in the days of COVID shortages. How will this change our cooking, I wondered?

“What?!?!!” said that little voice.

“I know, I know,” I answered it. “But I don’t know what to do except keep on doing what I’m doing.”

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There are events that don’t get national traction. My Facebook friend Kim posted an article about police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who knelt before protesters in a show of support and sorrow. Houston police chief Art Acevedo went out and marched with the protesters in his city. Others did, too.

In Mount Vernon, Ohio, my friend Kathie took part in a protest on the square.

“All ages were present,” she wrote. “Families with young children, teens, people in their twenties, elderly in wheelchairs and with walkers. They sat on the square. Some had signs.”

And the Mount Vernon police, on that hot day, came in with coolers. They handed out water bottles, dripping with condensation, and they stood with the protesters.

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On June fourth, my friend Terri would have been 65, would have retired from her life-changing domestic violence work, would have been broken-hearted at the death of George Floyd,—would have, if she hadn’t died, suddenly and heartbreakingly, from cancer a little over a year ago. I started the day thinking of Terri and her family and sadness seeped into all the porous places.

But the papers still needed, darn it, to be graded, and assignments had to be written. I had a tele-meeting in the afternoon that went really well; I went back to grading while chicken roasted in the oven on a day that had a roasting sun, too.

And then I got a text from my friend Sharon.

“I just stood for the 8 minutes 46 seconds with the congregation,” she wrote. “So powerful.”

While I went about my everyday in Ohio, mourners gathered and remembered in Minnesota. In New York State, my sweet friend Sharon stood with them, and she remembered, too.

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And life goes on. Of course, it does; I still have to go out and get the newspaper, empty the dishwasher, wrestle the vacuum out of the closet, pour detergent into the washer.

Life goes on. It goes forward.

But it doesn’t have to go on in the same complacent, destructive old way.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

“What?” asks that little voice, and I know it’s time for me to do something, time for me to answer. Time to find the best way forward.

How will we answer? What will we do? When the outcry dies down, and life again settles in, how will we be different?

My friends, can we talk about that?

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https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/state/north-carolina/article243193151.html?fbclid=IwAR39yy10wzBkd9LlrQKNz30WE1INAIaly9Hwzd4PxSrzXYJdtauRmIW9c8k

https://www.knoxpages.com/life_and_culture/there-s-no-turning-back-hundreds-protest-racial-inequality-police-brutality-in-mount-vernon/article_1c91ac96-a5a0-11ea-9ade-5fc7813ca7c8.html

https://abcnews.go.com/US/police-officers-stood-protesters-outraged-george-floyds-death/story?id=70984369

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/live-blog/2020-06-04-george-floyd-protests-n1224496/ncrd1225221#blogHeader