Looking for Some Home Truths

I’m thinking about ‘home’: what home is, what it’s for, what comprises it. Whether it’s a place or a kind of being.

Do we go there?

Do we bring it with us?

In a loosened, untethered world, it strikes me that a sense of home is essential. But I have to define it to be able to build it.

Right?

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The curtains are open. Beads of water slither down the window, a kind of slow-motion race: the one who gets to the bottom first wins!

There are lots of competing beads, but most are stuck, sullen, unmoving. Only a few keep sliding, keep searching for the sill.

The dog pants on the old brown lounge chair in the family room; the rainy, changing weather, maybe, has unsettled her. Or she is feeling the pain, or the confusion, of extreme old age. We know that she is at least 14 human years old; in dog years, the vet says, she is more like 98. And, because we are not sure how old she was when she came to us, she could easily be older—she could be, say, 104.

She wakes us almost every night now, panting and sighing and pacing. She comes to draw us downstairs, to confess: she has piddled on the carpet in the family room again. In all the many years the fastidious little dog’s been with us, this has happened, maybe, twice, and only when she’d been left alone for far too long a stretch. Now it occurs more than once a week.

About a month ago, I took her to the vet; he examined her kindly, probed gently, and found nothing specific. Just old age and its probable aches and pains and growing haziness. He changed a prescription, hoping something stronger for her arthritis might help her settle down.

“Take her home,” said the vet, “and see if this helps.”

But things are growing worse. She is home, but home doesn’t seem to be a place of refuge and healing and comfort any more.

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Concoctions simmer on the stove. The sauce pot holds big chunks of beef and pork; they bob gently in a brew made of herbs and tomatoes, red wine and chicken broth. Onions and carrots and celery soften, weaving in their flavors. This will simmer for the whole afternoon, until the meat is almost fork tender, until it can be taken from the rich juices and sliced thin and returned to soak up even more of the robust tastes. This, for me, is a new recipe; this is called Italian pot roast.

The little pot has smaller, bite-sized bits of beef and pork simmering in a broth-based sauce. This is for Jim, who doesn’t do veggies.

In an hour or so, I will fill the battered old pasta pot with water, add a dash of olive oil and a good shake of salt, and I will put it on to heat. Mark and Jim will come back from a weekend trip to Westerville, where they browsed through the library and hit the Half Price Books store: a bookish adventure for a rainy April afternoon. They will bring a loaf of crusty bread home with them. We will cook up some noodles, lay them down, hot and buttered and glossy, as a base, and scoop up the rich meat sauces to cover them. We will eat a hearty meal on a bleak and rainy day.

Home is a place for succor and nourishment, a place to share the tales of the day, to offer up treasures found, and to join around a common table.

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

I wasn’t home for most of the week just past; I was training, in Columbus, to certify to teach a Mental Health First Aid class. Ha, I thought, when I was planning. I can get so much DONE in a hotel room, by myself, every quiet night for four nights. I packed my laptop, so I could grade essays. I copied off a thick grant application packet to review. And I put six books into a canvas bag, imagining a comfy bed; picturing me, snuggling under a white duvet so soft it floats, a lamp burning: the uninterrupted chance to read.

Of course, reality happened. The training was textured and intense and, some days, exhausting. We took, first, the course we were training to teach. And then we trained to teach it, each of us assigned a thirty-minute segment to address. We would present and receive feedback from our peers. We would meet, one-on-one, with a facilitator and talk about, as one of our teachers said, things that glowed and room to grow. We would listen to our classmates carefully, kindly, offering up the strengths we saw, and sharing some opportunities to enhance.

There was an open-book test to complete in the after-hours, a thinking-discovery trek that made us find material in every nook of the participant’s manual.

So the days were jammed with learning, with discussion, with new ideas to tumble around and consider; at 5:00 each day, we felt a little drained. My colleague Becky and I walked back to the hotel, debriefing. Most nights we met for salad and planning. On Wednesday, Mark and Jim drove in, and we went for a family dinner at a softly polished, wood-gleaming, Irish pub.

I never turned the TV on. I pushed myself to grade at least two essays a night, but my mind went slogging through a molasses swamp. The grading didn’t come easy. Afterward, I crawled into bed with a book and fell instantly asleep.

I opted for the green clean solution at the hotel—I didn’t have the cleaning staff in, and each morning, someone slid a $5.00 coupon toward my dinner salad under my door.  I smoothed out my own bed, hung my towels neatly to dry, stopped at the desk each afternoon and picked up my daily two pods of Starbucks decaf for the little coffee maker. I arranged my lotions and potions on the bathroom countertop, and no one moved them to clean around. It was nice to know my room was private, unvisited while I was out and about; it was nice to come back—to come home?—to things left as I had put them.

The room was a solitary refuge, a place to rest and think and recharge for the time when the day would begin again.

It was, for five blurry, action-filled days, a sort of home—a home base, at least, a place where I had all the things (if not all the people) that I needed for my everyday life to work.

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Yes: I have been thinking about home lately,–about how to define it and how to create it and how much of it is physical. Home seems to me a much-needed thing in our jangling, disjointed age. It occurs to me that everyone needs a sense of home, a place where we can safely become the persons that we know ourselves to be.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Death of the Hired Man,” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Hired_Man) and I’ve heard that quoted time and again. But I don’t like that definition—that sense of grudging admission, of unwilling support. “You left,” it seems to say, that quote; “you left, and now you’re back and there’s nothing we can do but open the door and tell you to enter. But we’re not happy. Not happy at all.”

There’s a sense there that home is someplace created by others, tailored to others’ definitions and dreams. No wonder, if that’s true, that the wanderer had to leave.

I’m thinking that home is a destination, a long quest, a place that we practice making all our lives. “What do I need to be happy?” we ask ourselves, and the answer may well be something light and frivolous and fun when we are, say, 22.

And that is not a bad thing. So our homes may be built, in our twenties, around space to entertain, around expensive methods of piping music into every room, even when the chairs don’t match and there’s just a worn, too-small carpet to protect the aging wooden floors. Maybe there is romance, too—candles in the bedroom, wine in the cupboard, two special goblets, a set of satin sheets. Splurges in days when grocery shopping requires careful thought, when sometimes the rent and the utilities battle to see which will be the winner, which ones will be paid.

We don’t think, then, that the homes we create will be places where we absorb hard lessons—where we disappoint ourselves, where we reel from the betrayal of trusted others, where we huddle, terribly alone, where the tears that fall bring bitter revelations. Home, we realize, is not always a place we are happy, but it should always feel safe. We take our hard-earned wisdom; we weave it in and grow.

And often our homes have to open up, to house others besides ourselves, so our vision becomes a shared one. How does this partner see home? What do these children need? Where, in fact, should the dog dish reside, or the kitty litter pan hide? How can I share this space and still honor my need for home?

The quest, I think, stretches and defines us, teaches nurture of others, and demands, finally, nurture of self.

Because we need to know ourselves to make ourselves a home, to realize what we can and cannot live without, what makes us secure, what rituals are essential and which practices can go. We find that out, over and over, deeper and deeper, as we grow more firmly toward ourselves.

And a big, big house with lots of room may be the goal at one point, and then, we discover that, at this sudden point of awareness, a smaller space is perfect.

We no longer crave a sprawling sectional; two chairs, broken in and ripe for reading, are what our space needs now. Home may once have been a launch pad, a place from which we started adventures. It may now have become the constant spot, the thinking place, a place so essential that leaving is an unexciting anomaly.

Home could be both those places, all at once.

Home may become a place where sad things happen, where illness unfolds, where companions leave us, where we learn those secrets we hoped never to have to know.

And yet home needs to be a place where joy’s potential always simmers.

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

We carry our sense of self and home within us; our goal is to actuate and refine those visions. But we need real, physical space, too; we need warmth and cover and freedom from chaos; we need the knowledge that there is food and a sleeping spot and clean clothes enough for tomorrow. We need a place to staunch our actual, physical needs.

And then we need a place to keep our treasures—the books of photographs we page through on soft-snowing winter nights, remembering. The packet of letters tied with a ribbon; reading them always makes us cry. The framed photos of dearly missed loved ones. The care-worn teddy bear that once was a constant companion. The only chair that feels just right. The stack of books that needs to be there, always, for the thumbing.

We live in a land of empty, staring buildings; we live in a land where, SocialSolutions.com tells me, there were 564,708 people living without homes in 2016. Can one, I wonder, have a sense of self without a consistent sense of home? And is that what the tearing diseases do—certain kinds of mental illness, the diseases of addiction? Do they rip us away from a sense of a safe and permanent home?

Some people, I think, have safe and wonderful spaces and yet they are physically adrift; some people have minimal living quarters, and yet they are vibrantly at home.

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What, exactly, IS home? I think I need to figure that out. I think I need to learn more, to understand it better. And I think, in a troubled and uncertain time, in a culture where violence roars through the most innocent of places, that feeling the sense and the structure of a home is something no one can be without for long.

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Recipes…

Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe

First Mixture:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1-3/4 cups vegetable shortening
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Second Mixture:

  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup water

In a large mixing bowl, mix all the ingredients in the first mixture with a fork until they’re well-blended.

Whisk the second mixture in a separate dish.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all the ingredients are moistened.

Mold dough into a ball, Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide in five portions. Roll out what you need on a floured surface.

Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Makes five nine-inch crusts; freeze the dough balls you don’t use.

 

Lee Brothers’ Mac and Cheese can be found at….

https://www.tasteandtellblog.com/cookbook-of-the-month-recipe-macaroni-and-cheese/

 

Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies (with thanks to Terry)

Mix together:

1 cup margarine

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons water

 

Stir, then add to the above:

2-1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

 

Stir in:

2 cups oatmeal (quick oats)

And:

12 ounces chocolate chips (optional)

Drop on cookie sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes in 350-degree oven.

(For oatmeal raisin, omit chips; add raisins; and add 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon cloves to flour mixture.)

 

 

A Recipe to Share

Recipes

Larisa texted a couple of us about an event she was going to at her church. “I have to bring two quiches,” she wrote. “I’m using Pam’s pie crust recipe.”

It struck me, seeing that written out. I had shared the recipe with Larisa. It is a recipe I had sought out, long ago, for less than altruistic reasons, and one I use regularly. But I’ve never thought of it as MY recipe.

Way back when, back in my husband’s murky past, there was an accomplished pie-baker. We’ll call her Lulu. Newly married, I was determined that MY pies would surpass hers, surpass them by so much that those pies o’ mine would wipe out any nostalgic memory. There would be no reason for folks at family gatherings to sigh and say, “Remember Lulu? Remember her strawberry rhubarb pies?”

So I mastered pie fillings: that was fun. But the crust part was a little harder to handle.

My mother was unabashedly, unashamedly, no help.

“My crusts are awful,” she said, calmly and with no regret. And it was kind of true. Her pie shells were containers to showcase wonderful fruits and puddings, but the crusts themselves were tough and sometimes sodden. She dealt with it, secure in the knowledge that legions of children, grown and growing, adored and devoured her vast repertoire of cookies.

So I turned to cookbooks for pie crust magic,–turned to them with varying results. “Don’t overhandle the dough!” they all admonished, but how could one get the mixture smooth without pummeling it? I bought a special rolling pin that I would fill with icy water, insuring the crust, in the rolling, flattening phase, did not get too warm. I put the shortening in the freezer. A couple of times, I substituted butter.

Sometimes my pie crusts were good and sometimes they were chewy, and I could not pinpoint any definitively good reason for the difference.

And then one day, Mark and I went to dinner with old friends, Gretchen and Jim. Gretchen served a blueberry pie with a sugar crusted, flaky crust. It was so good. It was good enough that just eating a big piece of the crust would have been an amazing dessert; to have it filled with fresh-picked blueberries, sweetened and coaxed into giving up their syrupy secrets, just put us all beyond the bend.

“I wish I could make a pie crust like this,” I moaned as I slipped into a sugar coma.

Before I faded completely, I heard Gretchen whisper, “Have I got a recipe for you…”

And she did. I know to look for it under G in my cookbook; it is labelled ‘Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe.’ I use it so often, now, that the book flips open to the page of its own accord. It is a recipe that makes enough dough for five crusts. It calls for an egg and a little bit of vinegar, and the result is always, always, fine and flaky. Every month, I make up a batch, and I constantly have three or four lumps of dough in the freezer—ready to use up chunks of ham and the ends of cheddar cheese bars in a quiche-y, last-minute dinner; ready to support a robust filling of apples sliced thin and tossed with sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon and cooked until they ooze up their own thick sauce.

Hallelujah: thanks to Gretchen, pie crust mastered.

Once, years after she shared that recipe, we got together again with Gretchen and Jim and other friends for a picnic. We portioned out the dishes to pass, and dessert fell to Mark and me. My friend Sandee had made a swing through town, and when I came home from teaching, I found, on the side porch, four gleaming baskets of raspberries from the bushes she and her husband Don nurtured for years. I made a Friendship Pie—Sandee’s berries, Gretchen’s crust—and toted it proudly along to share.

When I mentioned to Gretchen I’d used her crust recipe, she laughed. “I got that recipe from Karen,” she said, nodding at one of the other friends at the picnic.

Gretchen lists that recipe as ‘Karen’s Pie Crust’ in her cookbook. In Karen’s files, it’s ‘Grandma’s pie crust recipe.’

And who knows where Karen’s grandma got the recipe. I imagine young women, Depression-era maybe, meeting while the men are at work, sharing recipes and methods. I see a recipe card changing hands. It’s index card-sized, and ‘From the Kitchen of _______________’ is printed in the upper left-hand corner. “Millie” is written in the blank space, written in flowing Palmer-method script, written in spiky fountain-pen ink.

The recipe card has seen hard use, sitting on a counter, soaking up the grease and flour of dough preparation. There is a translucent half-moon on the bottom edge. There is a tiny plunket of hardened dough stuck on to the ingredient list. The woman who borrows the recipe absently picks that little plunket away; she shoots it into space between her work-hardened index finger and thumb. Then she smooths it out carefully and picks up her pen. In flowing script that belies the toughness of her hands, she fills in the title at the top of her pristine recipe card: ‘Millie’s Pie Crust Recipe.’

Someday, maybe, she muses, her granddaughter will copy that recipe into her own cookbook. And then, she, too, will share.

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

I remember the first office potluck after Terry came to work. She brought a big plateful of delicious cookies, chewy, oatmeal-y, studded with chocolate. There was a crowd around those cookies; people elbowed in and shoved each other away.

And when the lovely sweet treats had been reduced to crumbs…which one forlorn cookie-lover swiped up with a finger and scraped into his mouth…we asked Terry for the recipe. Ah, she said. Those are Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies, and she told us a story about a little boy at the school where she’d once worked. He was a mischievous, freckle-faced boy, if I remember Terry’s story well, loveable in himself, but he would have been forgiven many things even if not. The cookies Kevin Weaver brought to events and parties made the angels and the teachers sing.

And Kevin’s mother, who must have been kind-hearted and full of humor, gladly shared the recipe.

Terry shared it, too, and we knew something then about her expansive spirit. She was the kind of person who loved to bake cookies that people swooned for. She was the kind of person who shared the instructions so YOU could bake them, too.

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

Not every person is the recipe-sharing type.  Once I knew a woman who made a super delicious cheesecake, a double-batchy homemade delectation of a confection with a smooth and luscious sour cream topping. She was the mother of a friend; she held that recipe tight to her chest. I would beg for those instructions, and she would smile, a little smugly, and say something vague.

“When I have time,” she’d murmur, or, “Let me see what I can do.”

She never had time; she never saw what she could do. And oh, I wanted that recipe.

One day, at the supermarket that helped me work my way through college, I lamented the lack of that recipe and Marie, a good-hearted produce manager known to be an amazing cook, took umbrage.

The next day she handed me the exact cheesecake recipe. It was handwritten in red ink on a pretty recipe card adorned with a teapot. “From the Kitchen of Marie!” it read, and it was encased in a plastic, protective sleeve.

“Good cooks SHARE,” she said.

At the end of the recipe, she’d written, “Eat hearty!!!!”

I use that recipe every Easter I use it because I love the cheesecake, and I use it in honor of big-hearted Marie.

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

There are some people who don’t share because, maybe, that recipe is part of a kingdom they rule with a close and jealous hand, and there are some people who don’t share because they are not the recipe-following type.  My Aunt Annie, my mother’s sister, was that kind of cook, the kind who used a recipe the first time through, maybe, but who then took those instructions as simple guidelines. Why not, that kind of cook might think, try chicken broth instead of heavy cream? Why not use half Swiss and half Monterey Jack instead of a full cup of grated cheddar?

My mother would tell stories about Aunt Annie’s mac and cheese—how people would angle for dinner invitations just to taste it, how mac and cheese nights were always call for celebration and extra beaming faces at the table. And my mother would ask for the recipe, always, and Aunt Annie, always, would say, “Well, I start with a white sauce. I usually boil a full box of elbows, but sometimes I use ziti…”

She’d go on, saying you COULD do this, or she might add that, and my mother would, finally, slap down the loose-leaf sheet on which she’d been trying to capture that recipe. She’d click her pen shut and mutter, “Never mind,” and later, she’d bemoan the lack of that wonderful recipe. She would scour magazines for macaroni and cheese methods; she would experiment with different cheeses, half and half, heavy cream. Never did her efforts meet her hopes: in Mom’s eyes, her mac and cheese never came up to the Aunt Annie standard.

So I kind of inherited a mac and cheese quest, but again, someone gave me a recipe. My niece Margaret moved to Charleston, and one Christmas, she sent up a fat cookbook by a couple of skinny Charleston lads called the Lee Brothers. Despite their extreme slenderness, those boys whipped up southern recipes that bloomed with bacon and lard and whole milk. We found our favorite collard greens recipe in their pages, and we adopted their Hoppin’ John technique for our New Year’s Day fare.

And we discovered, to our great joy—and to what I imagine would have been my mother’s great joy, too—Lee Brothers Macaroni and Cheese. We make it for company, and for a side when we roast up a Flintstone-sized slab of barbecued ribs. It is one of Mark’s go-to dishes when he has to bring a dish to pass; he mixes up a batch of Lee Brothers in the crockpot and takes it to work. He puts the crockpot on the break room counter and plugs it in and lets the smell of bubbling cheese sauce marinate his morning.

People ask him for the recipe. He shares.

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

Because recipes are meant to be shared. When we share them, we weave a kind of connection net, whether we are passing on handwritten delights on aging index cards, or printing off, say, a copy of the Beef-Barley Stoup recipe that Jodi so kindly offered up on her blog. It is not the first recipe of Jodi’s to become part of family food lore; it is, Mark says, the best beef soup—or, umm, stew—err, stoup—he’s ever eaten. And even though Jodi and I have never yet met, she’s woven into our family culinary repertoire, along with Gretchen and her pie crust, and Terry, and Kevin Weaver, and Kevin Weaver’s mom.

Those recipes weave our experience together, weave us tight across time and distance, tromp over barriers, and melt away cold towers of isolation. The sharing reminds us that people are good and open and generous—that people enjoy good things at special times, and that they want others—they want everyone—to do the same.

The World Beneath My Feet

         I began life by supposing, as all children do, that my home ground was the world.

—Scott Russell Sanders, “Beneath the Smooth Skin of America”

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

Seed pods

I walk the dog down to the street, and we navigate around seed pods, prickly little spheres that look like they spring from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. The sweet gum tree in the front yard is loaded with them. They drop into the yard and into the street. They are hard, and they are no fun at all to step on.

Last weekend, I scraped them out of the street with the metal rake, which squawked and wailed as I worked it, sending shivers up my back. Mark got the leaf-blower out and corralled the fallen pods in the yard into two large piles. I shoved the pods from the street into a sturdy green bag; it was, maybe, filled a fourth of the way. And then rain started to fall. We tucked the bag next to the brick front stairs, and, looking around the newly cleaned yard, said we’d shovel up the pod piles later.

The bag and the pods remain, a job for tomorrow, maybe, if it doesn’t snow.

But the yard’s no longer clean. A changeable weather week brought a little bit of everything, and, Wednesday, strong gusts shook the tree. Sweet gum pods rained down, on the grass, in the street, rolling into the neighbors’ yards.

“I don’t think,” I said to Mark, “There’s ever been so many of them in one year. Has there?”

We contemplated. I couldn’t remember having this many pods to clean up in years past. Maybe there’s a sweet gum cycle, I thought—maybe they are extra abundant every couple of years. I looked up sweet gum trees on line. There were posts about crafts one can make with the pods. A blogger recommended using them as mulch or churning them into hard-packed dirt to aerate it. I learned that the pods are not sweet at all, that the seeds have high concentrates of the main ingredient in Tamiflu, the anti-influenza medication.

I browsed through five or six sweet gum tree sites, and not one mentioned anything about high-production cycles. We must have had the same number of pods in the yard last year, and the year before.

It upsets me that I don’t remember that. Why am I not more in tune with the land that surrounds me, every day?

**********

I waited for spring, as a child, because spring meant being outdoors. And outdoors meant exploring. There was all of the back yard, with its base paths worn from nightly games of wiffleball and kickball. Those games began as soon as it was warm enough to go outside with light jackets or sweaters; they began as soon as the base paths were packed dirt and not squelching mud. They lasted until late fall brought the first deep snow. The grass never, ever, had a chance to grow back.

At the very furthest part of the back yard, a stand of lilacs marched up next to the old garage—we called it the barn—and in the lilacs’ shade, my father built us a sand box. It was huge and strong, made of sturdy wooden boards thick enough to sit on, or to drive a fleet of toy trucks on. Every year, Dad would go down to one of the Lake Erie beaches near the power plant where he worked, and he would fill cardboard boxes with sand. He’d heave those boxes into the trunk of whatever big Buick he was driving and bring them home.

My brothers would help him lug the heavy cartons into the corner of the yard by the sandbox. Dad would angle a big, wood-framed window screen on two walls of the sandbox, and then he would lift each box of sand and pour it through. Soft, clean sand sieved into the sand box. Pebbles, beach glass, and fragile little shells remained on the screen, treasures to scrape into an old glass jar and keep on a window sill.

By the time each box of sand had been filtered, the sandbox was full after a winter’s depletion. Then it was ready for imaginations to transform it.

We built villages and landscapes in that enclosed world. My brothers brought out their green army men and had full-scale battles, plastic tanks cresting molded sand hills and plowing down whole troops of plastic infantry. Sometimes we brought out tubs of water and wet the sand so it was as malleable as clay. We would push all the sand into the center and shape it into a tall volcano. If my mother was in a very good mood, she would let us bring out baking soda and vinegar, and lava would pour down the volcano’s steep sides, and we would help tiny tropical inhabitants scurry off to safety.

Sometimes we made hard-packed roads and brought out toy cars and raced them around the network of highways, squealing on the turns.

I loved it when the lilacs bloomed, and tiny purple blossoms would drift into the sand. The whole yard was perfumed with lilac-scent; the spring sun would dapple through the branches of the trees, patterning the sand, teasing me with the possibility of what that blank and sandy slate could become.

The backyard was the wiffle ball field, and the lilac trees, the sandbox and the front wall of the old garage. It was the prickly row of tea roses that bordered the yard along the driveway we shared with the Jeffreys’. For three seasons of the year, my mother would open the door in the morning and send us all out to play, and we would have to be harangued in for lunch. When I fell in love with books, I had a favorite reading spot, an old metal chair back by the lilac bank. And in winter, Dad and my brothers would sometimes make a big ice rink, filling clothes-pole boundaries with water from the garden hose. Then, we’d spend long parts of winter days out there, too.

I knew the backyard: its shady spots, and where the dog, Buttons, had dug deep, ankle-twisting holes, and where puddles gathered after the rain. The lilacs and the roses wove their budding and blooming and the drooping of their petals into my knowing.

Behind the garage was the way-back-yard; beyond that was a broad field, big enough to play real baseball on. My favorite spot in the way, way back was a place we called The Island. There was no water—but I imagined that there had been, once,—and a little mesa-shaped hill rose out of pebbly ground. Thick, strong grass grew there. My friends and I tried to weave it into mats; we brought out old plates and found bent silverware, bits of cloth, pieces of wood to make rock-legged tables, and wobbling chairs. We marked off boundaries and created, mostly in our imaginations, a house that was populated with  wonderful people having wonderful adventures.

Beyond The Island was The Little Woods, which led to the Big Woods. The Valones, who were big boys, had a camp in the Big Woods. My brother John regularly planned to walk all the way through the Little Woods and the Big Woods, all the way to whatever was beyond. It seemed a frightening trek to me, a huge journey into lands unknown where strangers, and maybe mean dogs, lurked.

But we knew the lands in our little universe. We knew where the rabbit holes were, and where the baby bird had fallen from its nest in the cigar tree, and why the earth was matted down where the deer—much shyer then—slept when the woods fell dark.

I lived in that world, in the only home I could remember, until I was ten. And then I got used to moving.

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

Moving tears up roots, and I don’t get to know the land that supports me. Flower beds in the new house seem like someone else’s vision, a vision I feel honor-bound to try, at least, to maintain. So it is that, six years after moving into this house, I am looking around and wondering about the double-lot that is my new outdoor universe.

There is a spot that just begs for two wooden Adirondack chairs and a low table that would support two glasses, clinking with ice on a hot summer’s night.

There is one long, flat patch that could play host to bocce games if we would pull up the leathery ground cover and start again with soft, soft grass.

There is a big old log, the center beginning to gentle into mulch, where shy, shady flowers could grow if we could persuade the deer not to eat them.

There are spongy beds of pine needles that could join the sweet gum pods in making home-grown mulch.

There are six or seven different kinds of daffodil, just beginning to bloom.

There is ivy, strong and invasive, that pops up throughout the yard.

Every year I vow I will spend more time in the yards, on my knees pulling weeds, in a tucked-away chair, reading a book in the morning or evening cool. I will rake and dig and learn the land I live on. I will shatter beloved ceramics, chipped and broken into pieces, and lay them in cement, creating mosaics that frame the firepit. I will live in my space, I think firmly; I will know it.

Daffs

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

Many years ago, when I was teaching middle school, I came across an outdoor exercise. Give each student a length of string, the book said, and take them outside to a grassy place. Have them scribe a circle with that length of string. Everything inside it is their world. Have them lay on their bellies and watch that little space. Let them see what grows there. Let them count the rocks and pebbles; let them note what crawls up from the ground, what flitters down through the air. Help them realize that, in that tiny, string-enclosed space, there’s a universe.

Perhaps it’s time to circle my string and do that myself.

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

We grow, and our awareness turns outward. This is good. We learn about a vast and diverse world. We become aware of other power, other sufferings, other voices. Other beauty. We meet new people, read amazing new books, and our focus shifts. There’s a long horizon, far away, and there are things between it and us that we need to strive to reach.

But there’s a wisdom in childhood, too, when we know so firmly that the amazing patch of land on which we plant our feet is a vast and fascinating world. We set out each day with curiosity and a sense of wonder to learn the parameters and the inhabitants of that world, and to settle joyfully into our place within it.

Snow is falling tonight, snow on April 6th, hard, peckly, stubborn snow, but spring is coming. Forsythia blooms and leaves flare out on the scrubby bushes beneath the trees. When I take the dog out in the dawning day, birdsong swells. I notice, suddenly, how the rock by the front flowerbed is almost completely covered with moss, and I draw my sight back inward in a little. The wind has blown a plastic flowerpot up against the crook in the fence out back; there are fragile buds on the blueberry bush. A rabbit dashes into the shrubs.

Inside the borders of my yards, a universe pulses: an amazing microcosm of a world. My little world. Time to explore it; time to live, for long chunks of refreshing time, within the string.

Mossy rock.jpg

 

 

Good Friday in Ohio

It is cold; it is gray; it is wet. I clip the leash on the little dog, and we venture, in the lightening morning, out into the front yard. She darts, confused, from spot to spot, looking up at me, imploring, keen to get out of the rain. Finally she finds her place, takes care of business, and tugs me toward the door.

I kick off my duckies and shrug out of my jacket, which is sodden. When I rouse James and hurry him through breakfast, so we can—on this last Friday before the first of the month—take care of banking, pick up prescriptions, and fuel up the car, I wear my raincoat. It, at least, is dry.

Rain beats against the windshield; the wipers squawk and complain. We plot our route efficiently, accomplish job after job, and head home where it is dry and warm.

********

I trade my black sneakers for penny loafers, change into my off-white blazer, drag a comb through my hair, holler goodbye to James, and head out for what has become a lovely monthly ritual. I am meeting three friends in the parking lot of a big-box hardware store, an easy launch onto the road that will take us to Granville. There, we’ll check out a new restaurant, and we’ll meet two more friends who’ve driven in from Columbus.

I feel my jacket sleeve: still damp and cold. And then I think to look out the window. I realize it is snowing, hard little pocks of snow that hit the pavement with a ‘chishing’ noise. I open the closet, and I pull out my winter coat.

Linda and Judy are parked in the very last row of the parking lot, cars warming. We all grab phones and text frantically, and Susan’s car appears, surging up from right in front of the store itself, where she’d actually been transacting business. We bundle into her SUV and begin catching up on all that has happened since our last meeting.

And we complain about the weather. “Snow on Good Friday!” we all snort in disgust, relaxing into the gentle heat of the car, comparing notes on the just-past snowstorm, commenting on the irony of that first day of spring event.  The thirty-mile drive melts away.

Becky and Karen have staked out a table for six, tucked into a corner by a window. Karen and her husband Tim know the restaurant’s owners. The wait-person is Karen’s former student, Rachel. She brings us water, brews up a fresh, wonderful pot of decaf, and lets us talk our way through deciding what we’ll order.

Linda has had to cancel her extended family Easter because her daughter-in-law has a nasty case of the flu (The soup today is chicken tortilla. Don’t the cheese strips sound good?) Susan has wonderful news to share; her Sara has just found out she’s a Fulbright scholar. Sara will do research in Finland for a year before starting her graduate studies. Susan and Tom will visit her in the spring.

Judy and her husband will be flying out to Arizona in a couple of weeks; they’ll rent a motorcycle and explore, revisiting favorite places and seeking out new adventures. (There’s a pick-two option—soup or sandwich and a salad. Soup sounds good as the snow falls!) Becky and Karen both have photos to share—Becky’s, from her magical Valentine’s Day trip to the newly refurbished hotel where she and her husband, Greg, spent their twentieth anniversary. For this visit, a special re-opening event for a select group of couples who have a romantic history at the resort, she and Greg searched out vintage dress clothes.

Becky’s dress was beaded, flapper-style, and her shoes were gem-studded. Greg’s 1930’s tux had a cummerbund and snowy white shirt; he wore white and black patent leather dress shoes. People kept going by and nudging him, Becky told us; “Nice shoes!” they’d say. Her pictures bear evidence of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

(Fruity grilled cheese: that sounds interesting! I wonder if I can get an appetizer as a side for my salad?) Karen is taking a photography class at a downtown college; she pulls up an incredible photo of a dove just rising into flight. The color, the movement, the glint in the bird’s eye: amazing.

Rachel comes and takes our orders, and we talk: six retired women discovering the wonders of life after career. The ticky snow taps the windows; Rachel hovers with fresh pots of coffee, and she slides plates in front of us. We eat, talk, laugh.

By the time we reluctantly push our plates aside and gather up our go-boxes, the snow has stopped. The sky is a sulky gray. We take out our calendars—paper and electronic—and juggle schedules to plan our next outing. The ride home slips by swiftly; we disperse in the parking lot, heading back to our separate lives.

I swing by and get James; there are a few more errands to run, and he is an agreeable wing man. The pavement is drying; only a few puddles linger from the morning rain. The snow didn’t stick on the saturated ground.

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

Greta and I head out for a longer walk; she sniffs frantically. At home, I boil an egg and chop veggies, defrost some peas, and open a can of tuna. I take the leftover penne pasta and mix up two salads—one without tuna for Mark, and a batch with tuna for me. Dinner will be simple: grab and go.

And Mark comes home and we fill plates and pour water and gather at the table to compare notes from the day; to slit open the mail that sat, ignored, until this moment; to firm up the menu for Easter dinner. And it’s just chilly enough, we agree, to warrant lighting the living room fireplace.

Before I sink into the cozy chair with my book, a new mystery from a favorite author, I give the dog her meds and take her out one more time. And the world is cool and fresh and bright: a friendly evening sun breaks through the clouds. We meander, Greta and I; she sniffs, quivering, her arthritic legs shaking with excitement, as birds shrill and squirrels scurry about. It has turned out to be, after all, a beautiful day. Finally, we turn back toward home, toward a fire and a good book and a restful night after a hectic week full of things unexpected.

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

Good Friday in Ohio: rain and snow and glowing sun. A cloud-lowering day that fulfilled its threat, and then, relenting, let go and let the sun in.

 

 

Fault. Fault. Most Grievous Fault

Dust dances in soft red and yellow beams of light, the late afternoon sun breaking through the thick stained glass and falling on the cold marble floor of the church. The scent of incense lingers. My feet hurt in stiff buckled shoes, worn only to church; my good dress scratches.

It is 1962. I am seven years old; it is the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and I am waiting in line to go to Confession.

I am going to Confession because I want to receive the Body of Jesus in Holy Eucharist tomorrow, and I can’t do that with sin on my soul.

I am going to Confession because it is part of my Easter Duty to do so during Lent.

I am going to Confession because I reached the age of reason last year; my first-grade teacher, a black-robed sister of Saint Joseph told us that when we prepared for our First Holy Confession the week before we received our First Holy Communion. “You have reached the age of reason,” she told us sternly. “You cannot pretend that you are too young to know right from wrong.”

I am going to Communion because I do know better, and I have been dragging around a heavy sin that weights me down.

I know that there are two kinds of sin. Venial sins are bad, and if I die with one or more of them on my soul, I will have to spend a certain amount of time in Purgatory, working them off. There are different reports about Purgatory: I have been told it is just like Hell, but with a time-limited sentence. I have been told it is NOT like Hell, but that it is a cold and barren place where one must labor unceasingly to slough off the yoke of those venial sins. The teachings of the nuns don’t always match with the intonements of the priests or the lessons taught by lay teachers. But I know this: whoever is right, Purgatory doesn’t sound like much fun.

The other kind of sin is the mortal kind, and if I die with mortal sin on my soul, I will plunge straight to the depths of Hell, and there will be no reprieve.

I picture my soul as a beautiful white satin balloony-kind of cushion. I am pretty sure it floats with me, behind my right shoulder. But when I sin, the shiny satin is marked by black, deep ugly black, like the cavities in my teeth. Venial sins leave little pockmarks. Mortal sins drag the cushion down, insure it is trampled and soiled. I am very much afraid the sin I am dragging to Confession this day, tugging it alongside me as the line of the faithful inches slowly forward, might well be a mortal one.

**********

This is what happened: I told a joke and hurt my little brother Sean. Some friend played the joke on me at school; they told me to put out my right hand, fingers extended. They did a little chant, saying a word as they touched each finger:

Super…Man…Never…Says…

When they came to my pinky, they suddenly pulled it back, and it hurt.

“Ouch!” I yelled, completing the sentence.

It must have been funny, because everyone laughed, and so I sucked in the tears, swallowed the lump in my throat, and I played the joke on my four-year-old brother.

In those days before car seats, Sean had a usual spot in the car; he stood on the floor bump in the middle of the back seat, his head over the back of the front seat, where he could see out the windshield and talk to my parents as the car sped along. So, “Want to hear a joke?” I asked him slyly that awful day, and of course he said yes. “Super…Man…Never…” I whispered, and when I pulled back his chubby little finger, he screamed in shock and pain and outrage.

My father, driving, reacted. His hand whipped back and he smacked Sean in the face. Defeated, my little brother sank to the floor of the car and cried.

And oh, I sank, too, into the knowledge of my own evil. Not only had I hurt my trusting little brother, I had allowed him to take the punishment for my stupid sin. I shrank into the corner, pressing my face against the cold car window, and I knew the despair that comes of being really, really bad. I wasn’t sure atonement was even possible.

**********

The confessional doors swoosh open and shut, and the lucky person on the other side of the trauma emerges to kneel at the altar rail, to say their penance. If one cares to count the minutes, one might determine who had gotten a big penance and who had a little one. In my current state of sin, I don’t think I’d better do any judging. I nudge the bobby pin that holds my chapel veil more tightly into my scalp, and I shuffle forward.

Finally, I am inside the booth, listening to the low murmur of the priest, in his august middle section of the confessional, and the other penitent, in the booth on the far side. My stomach flutters so badly I think I might vomit. And then, at last, the cloth screen slides open, and the priest bids me begin.

“Bless me, Father,” I whisper to the Representative of God on Earth, the holy man who could, if he wished, deny my absolution if he decided I wasn’t truly sorry, “for I have sinned. My last confession was…” and I let the form carry me into the recitation of my sins. And I have a list, starting with venial things like telling a lie, and bragging, and eating the last cupcake. I dump those out and then at last I spill out my perfidy, my awful commission of a hurtful joke.

There is silence for a bit, and my heart sinks, but then the priest begins talking, in a low, stern voice. He tells me that what I had done was wrong; that I must never hurt people intentionally. That when I do, I must search my heart and find the sorrow this engenders. I must pray to God for forgiveness, and then I must go to the person I had wronged and beg forgiveness. If possible, I must do something to make that wounded one feel better.

And I must face up to my responsibility; I must never let another take the fall for my wrong-doing.

He is very stern, but not unkind, and he gives me a hefty and satisfying penance. I stand up, feeling relieved, feeling like there is a path out of the spiritual morass into which I had, pig-headedly, slogged.

I drag my tainted soul to the communion rail, and I say my long penance—a whole decade of the rosary, I think—and I walk home. I find my father and tell him the truth—that I had made Sean yell and distract him when he was driving, that he had smacked the wrong kid. Dad talks to me sternly, but he does not smack me, too.

I find Sean and say sorry—a really heartfelt sorry, and I invite him to color with me after dinner. We had recently visited a Revolutionary War fort and Sean had been fascinated by a diorama of a battle. Little soldier bodies were flying; some appeared to be stuck, headfirst in the ground. “Head holes,” Sean decided, thinking they were some kind of ancient war technique, and that night we drew picture after picture of soldiers in head holes, their red and blue uniforms Crayola-ed, the ground bright green where their heads pocked into the must-have-been very soft earth, their legs flailing in the air.

I go to bed feeling like my soul is floating back where it should be, up behind my right shoulder. I imagine that it is not quite as shiny white as it had used to be—a sin of this magnitude must leave a little something behind, after all. There must be a grayness like you get on a much-washed white shirt, a dull softness that speaks of heavy wear. But I feel much, much better.

***********

There have been many times since that Palm Sunday that I have sinned again, sinned through my fault, through my fault, through my own grievous fault, and I have mourned my lack of discipline and care. But I always clung to that priest’s prescription.

Dig deep and find real sorrow for my sin.

Ask God to forgive me.

Take responsibility for my actions, even if it means being justly punished.

Seek out the one I’ve harmed and do what I can to make amends.

Although that church is no longer my church, I have never found reason to deviate from their teaching in regard to the act of penance.

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

It is ironic that, in the week before another Palm Sunday arrives, 56 years after that learning moment, my younger brother Sean should be the one to email me an article from the paper for which he writes. It is a list of names of pedophile priests, priests who abused their trust and the boys who trusted them, over the course of sixty years.

Prominent on that list is the man who heard my confession yay those many years ago—the man, now deceased, who taught me the Church’s way of penance. That is the man who came to our classrooms to deliver stern lectures on religious duty. He handed out our report cards, scrutinizing each and every grade, demanding explanations, in front of the whole class, for lapses in excellence. He is the man who would stop my mother on the way out of church and tell her the altar cloths needed ironing.

He is the man who trained altar boys and who moderated the College’s Newman Center, who was entrusted to be a mentor and a spiritual guide to young people.

The revelation is stunning but not a total shock—I have heard rumblings and rumors over the years; a dirty secret of this sort is hard to contain. And, as a result, I have sought and read books and articles about the scandal of the priests who abused and of the church who covered up for them.

I am not an expert in childhood abuse, but, as an educator, I have encountered it,–oh, hell. Anyone who lives in our society has encountered it–and I have seen the dirty, stinking stain that seeps into lives because of it:

The shame that silences people who really, really need to be heard.

The shock that family members feel, learning the truth, years later.

The suspicion abuse victims, like rape victims, encounter: Maybe, you did something to cause it. Maybe, you wanted it to happen all along.

The outcomes of abuse, I know, include rage and depression, broken relationships, substance abuse. All of those things ripple into the communities that house them; they ripple, and they touch life after life after life.

**********

With few variations, none of the men whose names are on the list have been held accountable to the law of the land. None, that I know of, have sought out their victims and poured out heart-felt apologies. Although there is now money flowing, through the courts and to the victims, there has not been, that I’m aware of, any real and concerted attempt to make true and meaningful spiritual amends.

How could a church that taught us so much have also hurt us so much? And then, how could they have hidden that hurt and all of its consequences for so long,–how could they LIE to us, for so many years?

Find the sorrow, I want to say to them—the still-living abusers, the church that has protected them. Search your hearts and ask for God’s forgiveness.

And you know what you have to do then. You taught me, after all.

Intellectual Assault of Another Kind

John’s comments on the essential nature of libraries, especially university libraries, are important!

Books Here And There

Sarah Bond details for us the growing trend of research libraries relocating a large portion of their books in order to make way for different kinds of collections.

I took part in a discussion related to this topic two weeks ago; you can read what I had to say about Pam Kirst’s post in the Comments section.  Back then, our focus was on the changing nature of the public library; but Bond makes it clear that the same kinds of changes are happening to the libraries of major research universities like the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Generally, I acknowledge that changes must come to all libraries, especially free public ones, which are obligated to serve the needs of the most diverse segments of our population. There is a need in those places for computer access and digital collections, not merely of…

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Between Times

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

Mark fills a huge coffee mug with kitty kibble, and he pours filtered water into a big glass, and, just as dusk sets in, he walks across the street for the feeding of the cats. These are the cats we’d thought were taken care of; but, after the dust settled, and after their people finally, irrevocably, moved away, it became clear that the cats were living under the front slab at the empty house.

Mark, who would tell you he’s not a cat person,–who might even tell you he hates the damned things,–feeds the cats every night. There are three of them: a big gray-striped cat, a small gray-striped cat, and a black cat with a Roman collar. When they see Mark they gather on the cement block stoop, and they sing to him. The little one runs across the street to meet him, dances between his legs.

The clerical cat has bulging sides; we think it may be a mommy-to-be.

A ‘For Sale’ sign went up in front of the house after the former neighbors were well and truly gone. There was a brisk flow of people in, looking; we got to know the realtor’s car. But early this week, the realtor met some people in front of the house. There was a great flurry of hand shaking, and the realtor took the ‘For Sale’ sign with her when she left.

Now the same two cars have been at the house each day. There is a lean and grizzled-looking older man who drives the smaller car; there are two woman, both plump and blonde and pretty, maybe a mom and daughter, who arrive in the other.

“What about the cats?” Mark and I ask each other, worried. I take the dog for a walk, and the women pull up. I hear one of them saying, “Come here! Come here, buddy!” and making clicking noises, inviting noises, with her tongue. Maybe they’ll adopt those critters.

But when they leave at the end of the day, the cats are there and hungry. Mark slips across the street under cover of darkness and fills the bowls that still sit on the slab.

Will the new owners take the cats on as pets? Will they appreciate the fact that we—the whole neighborhood ‘we’–have nurtured those cats through a difficult winter, making sure they are fed and warm, or will they wish we’d found a different solution?

What will happen to the cats?

There is no way, right now, to know. When the people are well and truly in, we can wander across, make their acquaintance, find out their feelings about those feline residents. Right now, we simmer, and surreptitiously ferry cat food across the street.

It’s a between-time; there is nothing we can do but wait and see.

***********

In the mornings, there is bird song, bright and sharp and clear; single notes break the silence as the ebony sky grays, and, swiftly, more join in. There’s a cacophony, a full-throated chorus.

Spring is here, we think, and it’s a joyous thought after a rugged winter.

The weather warms, and Mark and Jim break out the cargo shorts. Shy crocuses shiver up between clumps of grass. The daffodils push up in the front yard; buds appear, nodding like sleepy heads.

And then the temperature plunges and robins hop through snowy yards. We huddle by the fireplace with our books at night, reconciled to the return of the frigid air. It’s not really winter, but it’s not yet spring either. It’s a between time. Anything can happen, weather-wise, and we can’t move forward with spring things until this interim is over.

**********

After Christmas, Jim takes a deep breath and makes a decision. He is going back to school, pursuing his bachelor’s degree, designing a program that will help him work at a library. He emails his college of choice, makes an appointment, meets with an advisor. The advisor sends him home with a list of things to do, and Jim sets to work, requesting transcripts, filling in forms. He gets everything done and he waits.

Then, last week, good news arrives: he is accepted into a specialized studies program. He can begin taking courses this summer. We cheer; we high-five. Jim starts planning.

Then he realizes he has three months to wait.

It’s a between time. Jim has lots to look forward to, but he can’t start for a while yet. Right now, it’s a waiting game.

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

I’m with Goethe—whatever it is, I think, begin it. I am blunt and direct, and I don’t like waiting.

So when a problem sprouts, I want to take a sledge hammer and pound it into oblivion. What is the point of letting it sit there; why on earth should we tippy-toe around it? Slam that thing back down to earth.

But sometimes God or nature or the universe, or whatever power one invokes, puts the brakes on. Right now, she whispers, right now, you need to wait.

Wait! Wait! I don’t want to wait. I want to get it out in the open, survey it under the bright sun, figure it out.

I do not like between times.

And so maybe I need to embrace them, relax into them, figure out the wisdom of this time that sits like an airlock between one decisive period and another. Maybe I can stock up on the oxygen I’ll need for the next challenge. Maybe I need to look around and make sure my resources are gathered, that I have the tools I need to do the work ahead.

Maybe I need to take a deep breath and just relax and accept the interlude.

Maybe I need to realize I am not always in control of what happens next.

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

This morning, James and I took a road trip to a favorite library, 50 miles away. The snow had mostly melted—just ragged little tufts left in the onion grass sprouting on the lawn. They looked like scraps of cotton. The sun was out; a few clouds (they looked like ragged cotton wisps, too) scudded across a blue, blue sky.

We drove down Route 146. The lake was full on one side; we could see it through the bare-branched trees. It will be hidden in a month or two when the trees are fully leafed. I drove and looked at the trees, thinking it felt as though they were holding their collective breath. There’s a haze of buds on all the branches, a shimmer of almost-there green or redness. But the branches are like knobby fingers, tightly extended. Not yet, not yet, they’re saying.

We drove past meadows that are sere and brown and seemingly lifeless. Not winter, not spring; almost, I thought, a time devoid.

“Look at the vultures,” I said to Jim,–conjuring images of lifeless prey–and we both peered up through the windshield. The big birds swooped and soared, black wings arced.

“Wait,” said Jim. “Look at that one. It’s got a white head.”

There was nothing behind us. I pulled the car over, and we craned our necks, tracking the white head, close enough to see the cruel curved beak, watching the eagle curve and loop on the wind.  Maybe, I think, a sight we wouldn’t have seen when the trees were green and little wildlife were running through hidden fields, enticed by the feeling of invisibility among the tall grasses, seduced by the warmth of a springtime sun.

Strong and sure and joyful, the eagle soared away. I pulled the car back out onto the highway, and we resumed our road trip.

But—an eagle, I thought. An eagle in the between time. There’s a message there, for sure.

Like finding the wisdom of between times, I just have to figure out what the message is.

 

 

 

Thoughts in the Stacks: What a Library’s For

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.

–Jorge Luis Borges

***********

“Use your post-its and your Sharpies,” said the architect, “to react to the slides we show you. Add a few words about why or how or what you like or don’t like, if you want, and after the slide show, we’ll have you put your post-its on the appropriate chart.”

The lights dimmed, and the architect clicked the mouse.

“These are entryways,” he said, and he began to show us hundreds of pictures of different libraries and how they use their spaces.

I scribbled furiously, breathing, Oh, yeah, when we saw a picture of gleaming wood shelves and overstuffed chairs and floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with hard bound books. The woman next to me, the new young librarian at the local private college, got excited about some modern soft upholstery, kind of a banquette of chairs that provide comfort and privacy. “I bought those,” she whispered, “at my last school.”

All through the auditorium, people scribbled and reacted and whispered to each other, some jogged by clear, clean, sleek modern spaces, others by classic styling. The children’s area photos provoked ahhhh’s and discussion, and when the presenter clicked through a series of shots showing video-gaming areas in different libraries, there were hisses and tsk’s.

When the lights came up, we heaved out of our seats, stacks of post-its in hands, and circled the room, slapping our notes onto corresponding flip charts. Then the architect and his assistant read through our notes and people responded, with comments and questions and suggestions.  At the very end, an elderly woman stood up and said, “Before we talk about what would look nice in the library, don’t we need to agree on one thing? Don’t we have to decide what the library’s FOR?”

“Well,” said a voice from the darkness in the back of the auditorium, “I’ll tell you one thing. It sure as heck isn’t a place to play video games!”

The discussion rose again, but my attention was derailed by the woman’s question. I thought about the homeless people who use the library as a kind of living room and study. I thought of desperate parents who, lacking adequate childcare, send their latch-key kids to the library after school every day.

I thought of my son, who found a social group and volunteer opportunities at the library during difficult high school days, before an autism diagnosis gave him clarity and self-understanding.

I thought of myself, seven years old, and proud owner, at last, of my very own library card, walking with my bag of books…walking down from my house on summer days to the crosswalk where a stop light allowed me to cross the busy street. Safely across, I wasn’t far from our local library, where it was cool, where it was quiet, where I could spend hours poring over shelves, selecting the four books I was allowed to take home.

 “Don’t we have to decide what the library’s FOR?” that earnest woman had asked, but maybe the answer was different for everyone in the room. For me, the library was a warm and welcoming place, a refuge and a launch pad, a place to dream and learn and grow.

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

My first library was lodged in an old, old house…a house that dated back to the early 1800’s. Upstairs, there was a museum that was only open a few hours a week. Children were not allowed up there unaccompanied. One exciting day, our teacher walked us to the library museum, and we sat very still and listened to stories about the pioneers who had lived there. The docent showed us a butter churn and the fireplace where food could be cooked, and she demonstrated how women carded wool. We sat in a quiet semi-circle, and she walked before us, extending the wool she’d just combed for us to touch. It was greasy and coarse, and I shuddered to think of how clothes made from that mess might feel.

That museum was a magical place, and I was glad we visited, but the real joy for me was downstairs, in the stacks, picking out my books.

I graduated, there, from picture books to real books; I read indiscriminately and all the time. I read biographies of famous and influential people; I read novels about the teenaged twins, Pam and Penny,—one very, very good, and one very, very mischievous. I read books in series and tons of one-offs. That library was my third place, my safe spot. Away from the demands of home, I sat in a quiet corner and read, and then I spent more time deciding which books were going home with me.

I read my library books at the table, in my bed with a flashlight; I read during television, and I read when I should have been doing other things.

“Get your nose out of that damned book,” my mother would say, and she’d direct me to clean my room or sprinkle the ironing or get off my butt and go outside to play. And sometimes I would go outside and get involved in a kickball game, but more often, I would take my book and sit by a tree and read.

I found A Wrinkle in Time on the shelves of that small, quiet library, and it made me rethink just what a girl could do.

********

We moved to a small nearby city for my middle and high school years, and I moved to a new library—a bigger place, where I was allowed into the adult stacks. I discovered The Miracle Worker, crying when Annie’s little brother died in the poor house. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and lots of John Steinbeck, Anne Frank’s diary, and To Kill a Mockingbird. One summer I decided to get serious and read the Russians. There was a two-time limit on renewals, but the librarian was so thrilled I was reading Anna Karenina, she let me keep it all summer, and the only price to me was updating her on where I was in the novel whenever I visited.

I worked in a library during college. I discovered feminism and read Germain Greer, Betty Friedan, and Simone de Beauvoir. I also devoured books by Leon Uris and Herman Wouk. I read Madam Bovary and I read Marilyn French.

And then—after years of studying literature,—the heady freedom of going into the library and just plucking any old book off the shelf, just reading because the cover was pretty, the book looked good, or someone told me, “You have to read this!” I read Maeve Binchy and Edna Ferber and Rosamunde Pilcher. I read Willa Cather and I read Peyton Place. And then James was born.

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

There is no greater resource for a parent than the community library; when your child has special needs, that’s maybe doubly true. Jim read from the time he was two years old; he taught himself by taking the same books out over and over again. He could tell you whether a big digger was a pay loader or a grader before he was three. He loved Helen Oxenbury’s Tom and Pippo books and learned his alphabet from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.

We had three favorite libraries when Jim was little; one was a book-reading library. One had toys he would play with for hours—great plastic dinosaurs, colorful foam blocks. One had an amazing book collection, but a second-floor bridge crossed over the reading area; it had railings and mesh, but James was terrified of heights, so we only went there for very, very special books.

The library became for Jim a safe third place, where people praised him for reading and didn’t tell him to put the book away and go to gym.

When we moved, far away from family and old friends, the library was the first place we explored in each new town. When Jim was in high school and struggling, Cordelia, the youth librarian, introduced him to a group of offbeat, funky high schoolers who met at the library, watched movies, did crafts, and supported each other. When Cordelia left that job to enter the seminary, her successor, Beth, put Jim to work as a volunteer.

Jim’s 28 now, and the library remains integral to his week. Again, we have three favorites. One, fifty miles away, has the movie selection he covets and the grant-writing database I need to do my post-retirement work. We love a small college town library that has classic styling, gleaming wood, and thick soft cushions in cozy window seats that invite me to read for hours. And we are ‘friends’ of our hometown library, the library that, under a new director, is looking at how it uses its space.

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“Don’t we have to decide what the library’s FOR?”

I understand the woman’s question. How can you plot uses for space before you know what resources, technology, and furniture you need? But the library fills so many needs it would be impossible for one vision to encompass that space. The leadership was smart to gather as many community voices as possible, to seek as many perspectives, to add as many tones to the symphony as it could.

Once, way back in June 2015, I wrote a post about visiting an amazing library, and how important libraries are in my life, and a blogging friend from another country commented, “The libraries in the US are wonderlands…and we don’t have libraries like that here… If we had libraries like yours, I’d live in one!”

Lucky. We’re so lucky. The library is for reading and connecting and playing and gathering in book clubs, for getting great bargains at used book sales, and for meeting in fresh, bright rooms that are open to community groups. I see people at the library being tutored; I see people sorting through stacks of grocery coupons that people donate—a bring one/take one kind of arrangement. I see kids playing and teens mooning and people with clothes ill-suited to an Ohio winter keeping warm. People pick up tax forms. People discover their genealogy, and people are exposed to great art. People use the Internet, and people find life-changing ideas, and people are met with smiles and welcome and true interest in who they are and what they need.

All of these things fit into the stacks of the current library building, but library leaders and the community are looking at space and looking at needs and looking at the future, and things will change and the building will morph and the library will grow to meet the needs of an evolving society. I’m glad the administration is asking for my opinion; I’m glad I was at the session where other visions, made real, were shared. The building will change; I know my reading chair will still be there, but I can’t wait to see what else will be…all those essential and wonderful elements that reflect to us what a library is FOR.

What’s New?

New.  Adjective.

  1. Not existing before; made, introduced or discovered recently for the first time.
  2. Already existing, but seen, experienced, or acquired, recently or now, for the first time.

-from Yahoo Definitions, powered by the Oxford Dictionary

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Jar

 All during this hurly-burly week, I’m pondering writing topics. Ideas swirl like crumpled papers on a windy day. When I run to catch one, the wind takes it, bounces it on the pavement in front of me, and, laughing, bears it away.

Finally, I decide it’s a week for the prompt jar, a little used relic from years back. It’s a mason jar filled with slips of lined yellow paper on which I, a long while ago, wrote words and phrases, whatever was on the top of my mind on that particular day. I was reading a book on teaching writing creative non-fiction; this was a technique proposed for those breezy times when life’s boisterous climate buffets inspiration.

The thing is, the author told me, one can’t pick and choose. One has to commit to taking the slip of paper one first selects, smoothing it out on the dusty desk surface, and letting the word percolate. No second choices.

I’ll do it, I think. I shake the jar vigorously. I stick my finger in and stir the slips of paper. I have no memory of what ideas I captured here; this is, I’m thinking, kind of fun, kind of an adventure. Okay, former self: what’s my writing prompt this week?

I pluck out a yellow slip, unfold it, and read, “New.”

Well, I think. Well. That’s a stupid prompt. What was I thinking?

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Clumps of daffodils and onion grass push up all over the front yard. After the coldest, snowiest winter we can remember since nesting in this corner of Ohio, Spring is nudging at the edges.

Temperatures rise; Jim and Mark break out their cargo shorts. In the morning, the birds shout raucously. I take my walk and startle a fat robin that scuttles away, running into the bushes, not bothering to fly.

I wonder if he’s a resident robin or a Canadian, taking a break on his long trip home. A few years back, on a bleak February day, I crossed the quad at the college; it was covered with hopping, squawking robins. Spring is coming! I thought, and shared the good news with Scott, a young environmental prof, wise in the ways of birds.

Don’t get too excited, he said. Those are Canadian robins. They’ll be gone by tomorrow.

But still…Canadian or Yankee, those birds have heard the call of spring in their climes. They are heading for nesting trees and grassy slopes where juicy worms push through the soil and the sun warms speckled blue eggs quivering with promise.

New life, I think, the promise of spring. A cliché, maybe, but a welcome one.

That’s something for my prompt.

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I cook a pork roast over the weekend; I was inventorying the freezer and stuck a thumb through the plastic wrap. I’d either have to re-wrap it or roast it.

Mark was away; it was a largish chunk of meat for just James and me, but I thought I’d find something to do with the leftovers. We had a little feast on Saturday night, with roasted pork, a rice mix, and green beans. We let ourselves eat in front of the TV, watching old episodes of ER. I wrapped up the hefty remains and refrigerated them.

On Tuesday morning, I pulled out the pork roast and chopped the leftover meat into cubes. They filled a medium mixing bowl. I pulled cookbooks off the shelves and found a recipe for sweet and sour pork I’d never tried.

We had everything needed—the pineapple, the chopped green pepper. I told Jim my dinner plan, and he allowed as how he might put some chicken in the air fryer; the dish sounded a little too organic, too vegetative, to him.

At dinner time, I spread the cookbook open and gathered my ingredients. I put rice on to boil, and I mixed up the batter for the pork. I heated oil in the cast iron skillet, tumbled the pork cubes into the batter, and they sizzled and popped on the stove. I sliced carrots, rescued green pepper cubes from the freezer, opened a can of pineapple and reserved the juice.

When the pork was hot and brown and crispy, I scooped it out with a slotted spoon onto a paper-lined dish, and Jim followed his nose to the kitchen.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the hot golden nuggets of meat. “Oh. Could I try…?”

He deemed the pork delicious, and doled out a hefty helping into a bowl where they’d be uncontaminated by close proximity to vegetables.

The rice burbled; I sliced carrots and minced garlic and sautéed them in the porky, leftover juices, then stirred in the pepper. Pineapple juice and a touch of brown sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, corn starch. Then the pork returned to the pan with the pineapple chunks, bubbling in a thick brown syrup. Mark came home and hung up his coat and shared a thing or two about the day he’d had. We filled thick white bowls with rice and sweet and sour pork and carried them to the table.

Mark tasted a big forkful and slapped the fork onto the table.

“Damn!” he said. “This is GOOD.”

A new recipe. A new way to morph leftover pork…who knew?

What other recipes lurk in books on shelves, waiting to delight, waiting to be discovered?

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The dog suddenly stops sleeping upstairs at night. She still nudges me at 9:00, still reminds me that it’s time for bed. When I climb the stairs to take my bath, she follows. She waits in the bedroom, curled on the floor, but when I climb into bed, set the alarm, turn the lamp on to read, she comes over for one last head scratch. She pads to the door and nudges it open with her nose, turns to give me that liquid, sad look, and trudges downstairs.

She sleeps in a corner of the couch, snuggled in the old fleecy beige blanket. She sleeps soundly, and she doesn’t rouse when we get up. She sleeps deeply long after Mark heads off for work.

Every day, I check on her, make sure her sides still lift and her eyes flutter. Each day, she sleeps a little later.

But then, when she wakes up, she is instantly there, fully alert, ready and anxious to get on with it—to walk, to eat, to beg at the table, to curl up next to us and watch TV: fully awake, fully alive.

On Thursday, I can’t get her up to go out before James and I head off at 11:00 for a road trip, and I text Mark to try to get her outside when he comes home for lunch. At 2:00, he sends me a message: she never stirred, even when the cell phone repair guy came in. He sat at the dining room table for half an hour, replacing the screen on Mark’s phone. Normally, Greta would be a snarling, snapping, defensive cur when a stranger came in the house, a little dervish that had to be contained on the sun-porch. Today, she slept right through.

This is new behavior; this is ominous. I’ll have to call the vet, but I’m not sure I want to hear what all this means.

And James and I get home around 4:00, and the dog trots to the door, just awoken, anxious to go out and anxious to be fed.

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My printer, purchased last fall, dies; the company quickly and responsively sends me a new one. I turn on the broken printer to see if I can harvest its ink cartridges, and suddenly, defiantly, it is fine. Startled, I do a big batch of printing. The machine gets right to the end and then shudders into the error code that necessitated its replacement in the first place.

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James suggest a new restaurant to try in Westerville, a Chinese place, and he insists on treating. They serve us steaming plates, huge portions of orange chicken and General Tso’s. We eat as much as we can; we barely make a dent. The kind waiter gives us white Styrofoam boxes, and we carry out enough for the three of us to have at least two lunches.

James is tickled that I liked the lunch. “Good new place?” he keeps asking. “Good lunch? You’d go back there?”

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I meet two women who have created a plan to provide enrichment activities not just to terminally ill children in hospital, but to the siblings of those children—siblings whose needs and interests are often overlooked, swamped by the needs of their ill brother or sister. It’s a new strategy for a sad, old problem; it sends a new energy into sad work. I will write some grants for them, a new challenge.

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Maybe the prompt wasn’t so stupid, after all. Suddenly, I can’t stop noticing the new, the different, the recently changed. The week is full of newness, and my eyes are newly lensed to see it.