Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What We Read - Instant Reviews Dec - Nov


  • “right now I'm not - that's the problem. I want to get back to the biochemistry and electrical engineering stuff.”

  • Biology (Campbell) "Broad survey, very interesting, well-written."


  • alphabet, by Inger Christensen. "I've got this slim paperback propped up in the kitchen window / laundry window to work on memorizing as I work. Long poem, psalm-like in its rhythms, beauty of the natural world, hope and hatred"

  • Daniel Plainway, or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League, by Van Reid. "Light, likable, innocent and easy-paced mystery set in Maine of the late 1800's."

  • The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins. "National poet laureate is witty and wry - these are funny(!!) poems, often with a tug at the end.”

  • Everlost, by Neal Shusterman. "YA sci-fi, an alternate afterlife, inventive, funny, thought-provoking."

  • The Victorious Expression: Four Spanish Poets, by Howard Young. "Good biographical / historical context and commentary, translations of poems are clunky, originals lovely."

  • Wooden Fish Songs, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. "Bio-novel of the father of the Florida citrus industry and groundbreaking hybridizer – Lue Gim Gong – told in the voices of three women: Lue remains a benign mystery – the disappearing point of origin that connects three otherwise disparate realities. Beautiful achievement."

  • The Saffron Kitchen (Yasmin Crowther) "English/Iranian woman and her troubled mother leave London for the village near the Afghan border where their family lived. Predictable and irritating."


  • Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. "Very thought-provoking school assignment."

  • American Pageant "My history book - it's actually really well written - more like a storybook than dusty historical tome.”

  • Ironhand, by Charlie Fletcher. "London statues come alive, one of the coolest books in A WHILE."

  • Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini. "Eragon series, great escape-read."

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. "NY girl grows up right before WWI, insightful look at human nature, very interesting"


  • Grand Sophy and The Nonesuch, by Georgette Heyer. "Classic and good as always."

  • Amazing Grace, by Megan Shull. "Really good! I agree with the blurb on the front 'a chick-lit grand-slam!”

  • Just One Wish, by Janette Rallison. "Teen romance, cheesy, but good.”


  • The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. "I liked the robber maiden and the reindeer. I think the robber maiden was kind of crazy."

  • Meerkats (Storad) "They're fast-diggers. A bunch of them live together"

  • Centipedes, Millipedes, Scorpions, and Spiders (Gilpin) "Disgusting. I had to quit reading the book because I was so grossed out.”

  • The Story of Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. "I think it's cool that salt used to be rare and now you can find it everywhere."

  • Nellie - A Horse to Remember (school reader) "This 4 year-old horse looks like a swayback, but becomes steeplechase champion. Things keep happening.”

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gifts of Such Astonishment

(week of Dec 21 – 27)


Youngest: We didn’t get as much presents this year, did we?

Middlest: But weren’t they nice presents?

Youngest: Well, yeah, but . . . I didn’t get a sword. And last year, didn’t we have the baskets filled up to like there . . .

Unfortunately for my swordsman-less-the-sword, for our family most of the North Pole preparations are completed many weeks before the children at my house get around to penning those wishful laundry lists.

The girls learned long ago that writing down “robot” on a letter to Santa wasn’t at all like placing an order with Scholastic Books – if you actually did get a robot, it was the next year and was more like a remote control Lego-thing you built yourself and not the handy chore-and-homework-helper you’d imagined.

This has been my son’s year of realization. Last year when I had temporized, “I don’t think there’s money for your very own helicopter . . . ,” he’d insisted, “But Santa can!” This year he brought me his list:

Christmas Wish List for
[spelling out his whole name, so there’d be no mistaking just who was listing wishes]
(2 sided)
* A sword
* Something to help the whole family
* rhodochrosite
* gold
* silver
* blue ore
* ruby
* halite
* flourite
* emerald
* diamond
* pegmatite
* Forever happiness for the whole family

[second side]
* A bell off your slay
* Some tools to help my Dad
* Three pigs
* A dog
* A cat
* five chickens
* A cow
* Two goats
* A parrot

As I came to the end, laughing, he asked a little wistfully if I thought the list was “very possible.”

“It’s certainly long!”

So the next day he came back with a new list:

* A Robot
* three rocks (rare)
* six candles
* three pounds of candy
[with an appropriately nauseated - or sugarcrazed? - face]

and on the other side:
* ipod classic
* A flame thrower
* a cell phone
* $200.00
* Grandma
* Grandpa
[canny choices!]

I laughed harder. His sisters told him they just waited to be surprised. But you can probably imagine that Santa seriously blew it – he didn’t even bring the 6 candles! Or a single sleigh bell! What a Grinch!

Our celebration this year was subdued. Even if we weren’t anxious on our own account (for our own accounts?), the news of our local paper mill laying off someone from so many of the households in our town – households of our children’s classmates – was enough to urge a frugal moderation. So we made merry in a quiet way.

After a full week snowbound, we had ventured (skiddingly) down off the hill the day before the Day Before Christmas to spend the afternoon with friends. We’d been told to each bring our favorite Christmas book. In our friends’ sunny front room, sun reflecting in off piled snow, we read to each other ‘Twas the Night before Christmas and Good King Wenceslaus and The Jolly Postman Rides Again and Davy and the First Christmas and The Nativity Story and Poochy the Pup (!).

Our combined young people watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before dinner, while my husband and I ducked out to make a trip into town for last-minute necessities. Sloshing and sliding around on the ice trying to get chains for our Famobile – which were not in stock. Wandering the aisles of the busy grocery store with strangely empty shelves (no marshmallow crème for the daughter who wanted to make fudge. And no eggnog as requested by our son. Not even any whole milk because the dairy trucks hadn’t been able to get through). But the whole time my husband and I laughing together over things I can’t remember now.

Because honestly, being stuck in the house together this month has not been so great for our marital bliss. There have been years when having time to be together was all it took to remind us why we wanted to marry. But one late night these past weeks I found myself reading some stranger’s blog about “what it’s like living with a depressed husband” and thinking, How much of that is just living with a husband? Nor am I intrepid enough to ask, nor even imagine, what it’s been like living with me.

I don’t know why this year we grate on each other so. Because he’s anxious and I’m worried about what’s coming next? Because we’re both feeling the tug of - not sadness, for both of us it's intriguing and satisfying to see our children coming into their own - but our daughters changed our lives so much by coming to us that now how do we think about how it will be when they go? Because we are the age we are and only perfectly average middle-aged people (which is not what we wrote down on our wish lists)? Or is it just because – as a favor and gift to me – he’s cleaning his half of the closet and everything out of the basement so we can have a room where visitors can stay – with the natural result that upstairs and downstairs are in wild disarray from years of packratting (my POV) and he’s being kicked out of his cave and made to throw away valuables that will be needed the moment they’re donated (his)?

The morning of Christmas Eve a phone call came that a woman we don’t know but who lives on our road was worried the roof to her manufactured home was going to cave in. She and a woman from our church both work in the same realty and so when our church member read her co-worker's emails about being stranded with a creaking ceiling and neighbors a far trudge away through the snow, she had called us, “Don’t you live up on . . . ?”

When I went upstairs to tell my husband I’d signed him up to help me shovel off the neighbor’s roof, he was soaking in a hot bath (and I wonder why he finds me difficult!) reading about global warming – “I guess I don’t have to worry about that today,” he tossed the magazine aside as I rubbed steam off the mirror.

He fired up the tractor and began digging out our snowbound neighbor's long driveway while I tromped around to others on our road trying to find someone with a snow shovel (only our oldest long-timer had one, of course – it’s been that long since anyone’s needed one!) Our new friends were grateful and almost incredulous as the neighbors began showing up – one man had even run to his shop and built a long-handled snow-squeegee. “I can’t believe you would do this!” she said.

“But what a great way to celebrate Christmas Eve!” we said.

“It’s just like a barn-raising!” she said, throwing her arms wide as we all stood on her roof, boots buried in snow. “People just don’t do things like this any more these days. People are usually so cold-hearted.”

“Oh, I think the world is full of good people,” I cried out, without thinking, because I can’t bear the thought that we’re not capable of better. “We’re just ignorant. We just don’t know each other’s need. But I think people are willing to help each other, if they just knew what to do.”

And the quiet neighbor man who’d stopped a minute to catch his breath, resting his hands on his hips, looking out over the white fields and our scatter of houses against the high walls of snowbound firs, nodded, "That's so."

“Maybe we just need to change ourselves, get to know our neighbors better” – so the talk on the rooftop and later down by another neighbors’ house who was also worried their place wasn’t built to withstand 10 thousand pounds of snow – (is that possible? That’s the number they were batting around. Can snowflakes really weigh that much?) – the talk was of summer barbecues and housewarmings once building projects were finished up. Warm thoughts as our toes turned to ice inside our rubber rain boots no matter how many pairs of socks we’d put on.

Christmas Eve proper the power went out as my oldest was in the middle of making Pepper Pot Soup, as my husband was finishing his second hot bath of the day, as the rest of us began setting the table for dinner.

We lit the house with candles: our clumsy kitchen suddenly beautiful - a cluster of long-legged candlesticks on the table, candles high up on top of the kitchen cupboards throwing their cheery light toward the rafters, a row of pinecone candles given to us years ago but never lit until now brightening the hearth in the next room. We could have bagels and kippered herring for Christmas Eve dinner and finish making the soup tomorrow when we could see to light the propane stove outside if need be. I was wondering whether to call our neighbors (who’d mentioned they had no way to heat their house if the power went out) when the lights flickered, shone - all the electrical apparatus of our lives up and buzzing again.

We turned the lights back off and by candlelight soon were spooning up my daughter’s soup - very tasty (though not as divine as the Red Butter Chicken she made for Curry Night the day after the Day After Christmas). We sang the songs – The Holly and the Ivy, Boy’s Carol, God Rest Ye Merry, Silent Night – and read the story in Luke, watching the lights on our overgrown jade plant masquerading as this year's Christmas tree.

The Day After Christmas (almost before my husband and I were wearing again on each other’s patience), he came in to tell me he’d signed me up to come with him - our neighbor needed a ride to the pharmacy. And we went. And it was good to get out and to be together.

Even if it wasn’t what we’d planned or wished for.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow Sisters

(week of Dec 14 - 20)

During dinner dishes last Sunday I read out loud Snow White & Rose Red

“Oh!” said one daughter, “this has always been one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too!” said the other. Which I knew. Which is why I’d chosen that picture book as part of a holiday break from Marc Aronson’s very good, but too-often interrupted Real Revolution (A Global History of American Independence) which I think we’re all ready to be done with because we've had to go back so often and pick up the thread of the story - what a waste of a great book!

My daughters’ delight in Snow White & Rose Red had always mystified me. The two girls in the story do nothing but mind their mother. Okay, they also let a talking bear into their little house, beat the snow off his pelt and then when spring comes, innocently help a bad-tempered gnome steal away the bear’s fortune in repeated episodes until the bear re-appears and kills the gnome which frees the bear from enchantment (so why didn't he do that years ago?) and the bear changes back into a prince who has a similarly princely brother – and they all four live happily ever after.

But they're mostly passive from beginning to end. It’s a particularly unsatisfying fairy tale (though the pictures are lovely – by Gennady Spirin).

This time, a new disappointment in my older daughter’s voice: “Nothing happens,” she says at the end of the story, some of the magic this tale has had for her obviously dribbling away.

In the past I had wondered if it's the sisterliness of the story that my two girls found so enchanting:

The two sisters loved each other so dearly that they always walked hand in hand whenever they went out together, and when Snow White said, “We will never desert one another,” Rose Red would answer, “No, not as long as we live,” and their mother would add, “Whatever one gets she shall share with the other.”
I realized earlier this week – when my younger daughter was trying to convince me to rent (again!) White Christmas, one of the most abysmally boring holiday movies ever made, and her clincher was to break out in a song from the show –
Sisters, sisters,
There never were such devoted sisters
. . .
Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing
When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome -
She wore the dress and I stayed home!

- I realized that “being a sister” is in some ways as integral to her idea of herself as “being oldest” has always been to me. My sisters are much younger than I am, with a good bunch of brothers between. Growing up, it was “me and the boys," too often, "me vs. the boys," or "me in charge of the boys."

One of the great joys of college roommates and later women friends has been discovering sisterhood – sisters related by affection only, as well as the biological ones that have at last grown up to be nearly the same age as me. I love being a sister among sisters - but I learned how to be one largely from watching my two younger sisters with each other.

And from watching my own daughters.

This week it snowed and snowed and snowed. In our part of the country there are few snowplows, so though there’re nothing like the depths we’d see growing up in Wisconsin or  Ohio, here the day-to-day comes to a sudden halt. School is cancelled. My husband works from home. We can’t get down the hill (or at any rate, back up) without chains for the car. And so we’re stranded. Which means – sensibly - we have more company than ever.

Since my two girls were young they’ve planned parties at the drop of a hat – a doll’s fair, a Valentine’s Pink Party for a houseful of girls, Last Day of School, Middle of the Summer, birthday parties for themselves and their brother.

All they need from me were supplies and permission. Back then, this entailed curtsying and simpering: "Hi, Majesty, we are your maidens,” before getting down to business: “So, may we have ice cream and four friends each over tomorrow?"

Now that my oldest drives, just the capital investment and: "Okay, Mom?"

Before I always thought a party was a more complicated thing – something to be dreaded over, worried over, games to be planned, favors to be bought, invitations to be chosen, written, mailed out and the too probable humiliation of no one coming.

Not for them. Maybe because they always have each other, guarding each other’s back, maybe because they’ve inherited their dad’s open-hearted nature, they throw the door open with glee.

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday they invited their generous dozen every day to come sled down the hill, in varying combinations for ultimate compatibility (which they know how to determine - another mysterious gift!). 

They call around, then walk the 1km down to the corner and wait for their friends to park at the foot of the hill or be dropped off by parents, then all troop back up the hill.

It’s like stepping into an old-fashioned novel to hear from the other room all their laughing voices, the games of charades and piano playing, or to watch them flying down the hill with friends over and over, groups sneaking up behind another group with their hands full of snowballs.

My younger baking daughter comes in to make cookies when the games go on too long. Girls giggle in the hallway. Boys josh each other taking off boots by the front door. We keep spiced cider warm on the stove and the kettle full of hot water for cocoa.

An ovenful of potatoes, many cans of chili, a big bowl of shredded cheese and a frying pan of soft, golden sweet onions fill the red-cheeked hordes one day.

Boboli bread pizzas – built to individual specs – keep them going another day.

Their friends are all very polite to me – patient with my girls’ younger brother – kind to each other – ready to let themselves play and find fun. And they stay until dark - because “sledding by moonlight is so great.”

“Thank you!” my daughters come wrap their arms around me when the last group leaves, “thanks for letting us have everyone over!” And then they walk off down the hall to their room, arms around each other's waists, planning the next day already.

"So what do you think the appeal of that fairy tale used to be?" I ask my oldest daughter this Sunday night when she brings over a bowl of the leftover Spiced Sweet-Potato Soup we made together the day before, as I write at the computer, as she sits herself down across the table.

"I don't know. The pictures?" and her younger sister looks up from over her older sister's shoulder - their hair mingling, the younger's hand resting on her sister's shoulder.

And I wonder suddenly - why not? why insist on characters that change and break away?  why this irrepressible hankering after “things happening”? – revolutions and independence? I’m starting to feel the charm of that old story myself, which ends:

Their old mother lived peacefully in the palace with her two daughters for many years. She brought her two rose trees with her, and they grew in front of her window, and every year they bore her the finest roses, both white and red.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tidings of Joy

A friend recently asked several of us for our Christmas traditions and so I dutifully trotted out our usual pony-show - the tricks we do, the small spectaculars, the material goods that accompany our celebration:

· Only one major "Christmas project" - the years we make a gingerbread house then that's it for the baking. Other years the girls have organized a carolling party. One year we made origami stars to decorate the windows. One year we made fudge. One year we made tins of Christmas cookies. One year we made real clam chowder with clams still living in their shells and a big pot of homemade chili (that was our healthy year). But never more than one biggish effort - and sometimes the BIG project is small.

· Another tradition is that we have to walk (or ride the tractor) to get our tree and carry it up the hill to our house (or cut it down from volunteers in the yard). I like our tree to be small enough to be set up on a little table so we can cover the tree stand and the table with bright Christmas fabric. Then all the gifts go underneath the cloth on the little shelf under the table - that way the tree doesn't look bare once the presents are all opened and it helps us keep the gift-aspect less predominant. Of course, the kids prefer TALL TALL trees, and that's where their having to carry it back up the hill comes in handy.

· We try to slip the gifts secretly under the tree. Sometimes I make up poem-clues on the gifts rather than name-tags so the kids don't know which one is theirs.

· We always put up the Nativity sets. I don't believe in collecting multiples but somehow (!) I have a plain white porcelain set like the one we had in my childhood and another terracotta set made by a man in Venezuela with such human expressions on the faces. My in-laws gave the children an unbreakable one of their own which the kids always put on the hearth where they can hide the angels in the basket of pinecones, moving the animals and shepherds and wise men around the huddle of Baby Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph.

· We bring out the Christmas picture books that have been put away all year with the ornaments - even the girls (nearly grown) still like to read these - especially the Richard Scarry Little Bear's scratch-and-sniff Scents of Christmas book and Tolkien's Father Christmas letters (which he wrote for his own children) and a pop-up Natvity. I'll often catch them looking through the pictures in the nativity books. We also like our advent calendar: a set of little tree ornaments/ storybooks on golden loops of thread that tell one tiny part of the nativity story each night.

· Christmas Eve day the house must be Christmas-cleaned (which is the children's best gift to me) When they were small we told them Santa doesn't deliver to cluttered houses where there is obviously no place for new toys - "and that's true," says my son, reading over my shoulder.

· On Christmas Eve we always have a simple dinner - some kind of soup usually and bread. Then we all sit in the front room (sometimes we have a fire, but usually just a few candles) and sing Christmas carols, then my husband reads the story of the birth of Christ from Luke and the visit of the three wisemen from Matthew, we sing one more song (usually "Silent Night") and then hang up the red-and-green granny-square stockings my mom crocheted when we were first married and then I did my best to continue for each of our children when they were born (or a few years later . . . ).

· In the morning no one goes into the front room without everyone else - the kids come bounce on our bed until everyone is gathered and then their Dad goes out to check that Santa really has come and to turn on the tree lights and some Christmas music. I usually have the kids eat breakfast in my bedroom first - something like muffins or granola or croissants and hot chocolate. Then the kids line up, youngest to oldest, with their eyes closed, and we all go out to the tree together. The kids examine their stockings (which are their only gift from Santa) - there's always a chocolate orange, a candy cane, gummies, chocolate coins and nuts, an apple, a banana and a satsuma orange, plus a few individual surprises and then things like lip balm and flavored dental floss and hot cocoa packets and Dinosaur Egg instant oatmeal packets. Santa also always gives stationery and stamps for thank-you notes.

· The stockings always take a surprisingly long time, then each child gets an empty laundry basket to keep their stocking stuff and other gifts contained. And we open a couple of paper grocery bags in preparation for the discarded wrappings. (I've learned the wisdom of making the tidying-up an expected part of the Christmas rituals so I'm not left alone with the mess at the end.)

· We like to linger over the gift-opening as long as possible (to make the most of it - which would certainly drive some people batty, but I think it gives us time to think about each giver and the time they took to choose and send or make gifts for us - also this makes a few presents go a LONG way). So we only open one gift at a time. The youngest picks the first gift - it has to be for someone else - and carries it over to the recipient, we all ooh and ah appropriately, hugs and kisses between recipient and giver - and then the next oldest chooses a gift. There's an excitement about choosing the gift, watching others open the gifts you've put under the tree, seeing what others are giving, as well as opening your own. One of the girls always makes a batch of No-Bake cookies for their Dad as their gift - sometimes there's a treasure hunt with clues to find the cookies.

· Finally when the gifts are all opened, the kids sit at the table and write thank-you notes and address & stamp the envelopes. (Except I think we need to add the tradition of walking down and mailing the notes so they don't end up in the kitchen drawer until after the 4th of July!)

· Then we eat fruit and nuts from our stockings, cereal, yogurt, etc. And there's kippered herring and smoked salmon set out with cream cheese and bagels. Some of us curl up with a new book. Some of us may take a nap. My husband usually starts a fire in the fireplace. Some of us go outside and play - if there's snow especially. The kids sometimes play board games and try out new toys. We call our faraway family members on the phone. If we have a good light-hearted DVD we may watch that in the evening. All day we just do whatever we want to do.

And I do like our quiet Christmases. But looking over it, I wish we had more a tradition of service. Like everyone, we do some quiet things for other people - invite people up for dinner who may be lonely, donate boxes of fresh fruit or canned goods at the Food Bank, help some of the widows we know put up and take down their Christmas trees. But I wish we did something more useful and immediate . . .

And maybe something more physically adventurous - like snowshoeing - or how about carrying pine logs thither like Good King Wenceslaus?

Or am I letting myself get carried away with the idea of having a Christmas that will impress - well, at least myself?

We were talking over dinner (Bacon Potato Soup, Medieval Forest Brussel Sprouts, baked acorn squash) how we should celebrate Christmas this year: a very strong consensus that we didn't need to do anything more - just to do what we have done. And to celebrate together, quietly, without a crowd.

Last Christmas Eve was the most beautiful for me of any I've ever experienced - I had been slogging through the day, trying to get everyone to do chores and get things tidied up. Getting grouchy.

But then my elder daughter decided to be a light - she offered to make dinner. I found myself stepping back - I helped her, working under her direction, chopping onions, running errands, doing whatever she asked. It changed everything. We all cleaned up, bustling around now - even the other two children bustled.

After dinner, the children were the ones to gather us into the front room. I had lit candles at all the windows and on the lid of our upright piano. The children - my young son in particular - had us sing song after song - all the Christmas hymns in the book. And then he chose,"There is a Green Hill Far Away." And then, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

Birth - sacrifice - resurrection. There was the whole story of what Christmas is, sung in the thin silvery voice of my seven-year-old son.

What peace! And if I had been functioning in Supermommy mode I would never have seen my children's grace and strength. What a gift to feel I had done - enough - at least for that particular evening. And that it wasn't just me making good things happen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fool's Confession

(week of Nov 30 – December 6)

There’s a painting I love by Brian Kershisnik called Fool’s Confession. I love the coy dignity of the main figure’s gesture – which I wish I could copy and show you, but you'll just have to imagine (or remember) - his hand so humbly to his chest and his eyes downcast demurely, taking us into his confidence to tell us his shameful secret: from his mouth a slender pale scroll where we can read his just-above-a-whisper, “I am a fool.” And yet he couldn’t have kept that knowledge from us: his belled cap and motley tunic proclaim what he is so loudly. It's always been obvious to everyone but him.

I've been lagging two weeks behind and my “publish dates” are unabashed works of fiction – as unnecessary a confession, surely, as when I admitted a few weeks ago that I wrote at too long a length. (It’s been suggested that blongs are what I write – not blogs).

But now I'm almost caught up once again AND I’ve posted poems and other writing at this more anonymous Imaginary Bicycle site. I’ve left out the poem the husband calls "Oh, That One," as well as the one he calls, "Oh, No, NOT That One." But I think the earthiness of the others is all within bounds - though doesn't that make you just slightly curious to read them through in the off chance ?

I have been reassured however that everything is appropriately tedious and to-be-expected – nothing errant – or would that be arrant and in reference only to the nonsense?

As for this week – ah! – mostly I’ve caught my breath.
We heard Sam Payne sing jazzy Christmas carols at the Venetian Theater – that was fun. I’ve cooked nothing anyone can remember – except when the girls invited their friends over to study and the teenage boys filled up on seconds and thirds of Shepherd's Pie made of Thanksgiving leftovers. And I finally decided where to hang the print of Kershisnik’s painting Nativity.

And I came across an article that traces so well the shape of my feelings for this painting. Here’s an excerpt from the article (actually by the same Sam Payne we heard this weekend) written last year about Kershisnik’s Nativity. (See link below for the entire article.)

For several minutes, I’m the only one there. Me and the holy family, and a glittering heavenly host, hair all unkempt (they’ve been flying, after all), and white clothes that look like they’ve been pulled from the temple bags of my wife and my mother and my grandmother. The angels are streaming rapidly in from the left (their tears are windswept back across their faces), rushing in to be close to the baby and his family. In the center of the painting, the angels gather like family at a baby blessing — all awe and congratulatory hush, and helping the other angel-kids to see. The angels, as they exit to the right of the painting, are singing (“they’ll keep singing all the way out into the hills, where they’ll startle shepherds,” I thought). The painting is predominantly solid angels, but down in a gentle, dark pocket rests the Holy Family. Mary is there. There are midwives there too, their hands in a pail, the blood from the birth clinging to them as they clean up. The women all wear gentle smiles, and there is a soft triangle in their focus that includes the women and the baby.

And there’s Joseph. Oh, Joseph. I’ve been in the delivery room for all our baby boys, and there’s always this moment after the birth: I’m standing up where I can dab at Kris’ forehead with a damp cloth and feed her ice chips. She’s exhausted. And for a moment, the weight of responsibility for a new life, the weight of Kris’ trust in me — the first glimpse of a path that you know widens into an all-consuming forever — presses down on me. I love the new child with all my heart, but that moment feels for all the world like agony. And while men in Brian’s paintings often seem, well…befuddled (or confident in a way that makes them seem foolish), the bewilderment and nerves and love and portent of every delivery room experience I’ve ever had is there, writ large on poor Joseph’s face. And among the myriad angels pushing past to see the baby and his mother, one angel (unseen by Joseph) stops to place a comforting hand on Joseph’s head — on mine.

I’m deep in that place (a shared experience between the work and the observer, in case you’re not paying attention), when I realize that I’m not alone anymore. A couple has come into the gallery room behind me. Val and Alice.

I ask what they think of the painting, and Alice is smiling, but can’t speak for her tears. Val, like me, begins talking about what happens in the delivery room. Only Val is an honest-to-goodness pediatrician. “Look,” he says, “The women are cleaning up. There’s blood on their hands, and the baby — so new that he hasn’t been washed [Val points out the blood on the baby’s head, and his deep, red coloring] — is put immediately to the breast [he turns to me] you have to do that, you know; [back to the painting] it’s bloody, but it’s not gruesome. It’s a close, holy time — look at those women, and you’ll see. Mary is flushed, and there are circles under her eyes. The greatness of it all is tumbling in on Joseph. It’s here. It’s all here. He’s told the story as it happens — in stables and in delivery rooms. And he’s reminded us that it’s holy.”

Alice blinks back her tears, flings her arms out and says, “And there are angels everywhere! There we are [‘there we are,’ she says], and we’re trying to be as quiet as we can, but there are so many of us! It’s as if we’re cheering for the holy family. ‘He’s here!’ we’re saying. ‘Joseph, you can do it!’ we’re saying.” Alice lapses into silence, and then says, “I wish Brian would paint one like this of Gethsemane, with all of us there too.”

Do you think you were there in the host that sang Hosanna that silent night 2000 years ago?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moonless darkness stands between

"Nativity," by Carl Bloch

"Moonless Darkness Stands Between"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Essence of Autumn

All this week my thoughts keep turning to a day last October which I remember largely, I am sure, because I wrote it down:

Oct 19, 2007 – Friday

Yesterday an interlude of sweet comfort. It had been a good day: workout, volunteer, phone calls, paper work. Then turned my attention to the grapes in boxes out on the covered porch.

In the background:  kitchen orderly,  laundry almost all done and folded, front room tidy, swept.  Sunlight shining on my made bed.

I set up the big mesh drainer over one side of the scrubbed sink, set juicer on the stove, the bottom pan filled with water beginning to heat. Washed the 5-gallon water cooler and set it on a stool beneath the out-spout of the juicer. Mom called and we talked, trading our best wisdom and laughing while I carried in the first box of grapes and set it on the kitchen chair near the sink and began picking over the grapes and cleaning them, plucking the good ones off the stem to fill the top pan of the juicer.

Our talk came to a natural and pleasant end, the water in the bottom pan came to a boil, ready for the filled top pan of grapes to be placed over it. I turned to filling a big metal bowl with more cleaned grapes. The kitchen filled with the smell of grapes—musky and golden and easeful. The wind blew hard outside. My boy ran across the yard, home from the bus. “Yay! You're doing grapes!” He got the last tray of pears out of the fruit dryer for me.

"I love that sound,” son said as the wind whistled in the chimney, and then went outside to play in the wind. I could see him running and jumping down from the rock terrace, talking to unseen companions.

The kitchen pleasantly warm. The cleaned grapes rounding up in the metal bowl. The sweet juice of cold grapes on my tongue. I propped up Dorothy Sayer’s The 9 Tailors in the kitchen window as I cleaned grapes—transporting myself back and forth between snowy fenland of East Anglia (land my people come from, land of Julian of Norwich) and then back again here—yellow leaves flying and the warm kitchen with the wind moaning in the chimney to make it cozier and the bowl of grapes mounding up and juice beginning to trickle into the 5-gal jug.

Then back to the clean writing, the cultured voices of Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter and the kindly fly-away pastor Mr. Venable and his sensible wife and the sound of bells ringing through their changes and then back to my boy racing with the wind outside and the first cup of warm juice—musky & complex, returning again to cleaning the grapes—a second box now and the delight of being at the same moment useless bookworm & provident housekeeper while my son ran down the rock steps to meet his oldest sister coming from her bus - both with their arms out for a big hug.

That’s happiness. . . Mind alive, fingers busy — the essence of autumn.

I could pour you out a glass of that grape juice. There are still some bottles in the basement. But I'm more grateful I preserved the day in writing.

I'm still sipping at that memory a year later. So that even when I'm spray painting the frame of the aluminum sliding glass door white, cleaning the bathroom, driving to collect Mom & Dad at the airport, staying up late to burn some more rolls, washing dishes, waiting at the stoplight - some part of me is still standing in that moment of happiness.

And when I'm chopping up carrots for Grandma's Thanksgiving Dressing, putting away sacks of fresh walnuts from the farmer's market and small fragrant satsumas still with their green leaves on them in readiness for Orange-Cranberry Relish, rolling out pie crust for Ginger Pear Pie (or Scandinavian Cherry or Ohio Lemon), or directing the setting of the table with the good plates and silverware, playing WhooNu afterwards with niece, nephew, son and daughter, admiring my brother's new baby, standing outside looking at the sky - that golden afternoon seems to cast a wider light, broadening gratitude's claim inside me: that no matter what the next days bring I've been given at least these days of peace and order and enough.

Monday, November 24, 2008

As Good as a Feast

week of November 16 – 22

I once had a professor who made us write our papers so they fit on one page. Is it giving away anything to admit what a challenge this brevity posed for me?

Yes, the tight word limit kept his paper-load down. Better, it clarified and distilled the thoughts I finally committed to writing. When there is only room for the right word, you don’t throw in several sloppier approximations. And just enough argument to convince, because

“Enough,” as Ms. Poppins says, “is as good as a feast.”
Hmm, and here we are back at that idea of what is sufficient?

I don’t think it’s just this time of year – gathering in, providing for winter – nor is it the worsening economy that keeps leading my wild-pony thoughts back again into this ring of Sufficiency. Something in me powerfully wants to know – what is sufficient for me? Brevity, simplicity – is that sufficiency ?

Certainly brevity has a charm – this week on the advice of her younger, socially savvy sister, my elder daughter invited a friend-who-is-a-boy to January’s Winter Ball very simply, without a lot of froufrou or complication: a series of one word notes, printed large, backed with his favorite color (green), and delivered singly by other friends-who-are-boys (plus the calculus teacher): Will – you – go – to – Winter Ball – with – The last note (me?) she delivered herself. (How apt, for she did deliver herself, smiling certainly and most probably like a ripe apple rosy-cheeked.) Her friend thought it was “a very sweet way to ask” and he agreed. (“But of course,” say those of us to whom she is most dear.)

And simplicity can be definitively delicious. No delicate French custard can compare to a perfectly ripe pear simply baked (or microwaved even) until its golden juices first begin to exude, then sliced in half, the stem and core gently lifted away, and served on a plate in its own skin to be spooned irresistibly towards grateful mouth. In fact, I am convinced baking and confectionery began as a way to perk up, preserve, and finally approximate fruit at its peak of perfection. As for flavorings and seasonings, even that grande dame of cookbooks (Joy of) states:

while ~> we advocate a constant use of herbs, we don’t advise too many kinds at once or too much of any one kind.

This advice ran through my mind early this week while cooking up a pot of Creamy Cabbage and Potato Soup (Moosewood). When I first tried the recipe (almost decades ago now), I worried caraway would be too bland as the only seasoning – oughtn’t I add a little thyme, oregano maybe . . . Back then I couldn’t figure out why so much of my cooking tasted like everything else I cooked: garlicky and lots of Italian seasonings. I’ve been learning since the melodic brilliance of a single main herb (salt and pepper singing doo-wop, onions and garlic going shalalalala)

But brevity and simplicity are not enough. Friday I worked with a friend making pie crust for our coming, respective Thanksgiving Feasts, while our children were in school. We could have made more crust, more quickly, working alone, each in our own homes. Our time was not used efficiently and often we stood, leaning on one hand, taken up mostly with talk – easy meandering talk, a thousand words with side-trips and complicated backtracks – which all laid the foundation for one brilliant moment of clarity – the whole reason I love conversation - that moment when you both chime, both sensing at the edges the reverberations of Deeper and Higher Chords in sympathetic vibration.

But here I am at the end of my page and just beginning to say . . .

Monday, November 17, 2008

Community Pool

Week of November 9 - 15

The pool re-opened last week. At last!

The past two months the swimming pool doors have been closed to lessons and morning deep-water aerobics and dogged lap-swimmers (or lagging dog-paddlers) – while the pool was resurfaced, a changing room re-arranged. But now this month the pool again re-opens to our rough-edged-mill-town-morphing-into-commuter-community. And just in time.

Last year, I began the morning aerobics class as a reason to meet and talk with a dear friend when our natural paths no longer crossed often enough. But I hadn’t realized how dependent I’d become on the twice-weekly immersion itself.

The first day back last week - rainy gray and cold outside, balmy and bright inside the pool’s fogged-up greenhouse - I felt I’d stepped through into an alternate reality. Through the scratched-up glass I could still glimpse the dismal world I’d left behind, but here was warmth and light and laughing voices, voices softened by echoes re-echoing off the rippled water. Here were friendly faces I hadn’t seen since summer – grandmotherly many of them, or like myself, women of a certain age – but softened and clean, our bodies buoyed up not only by the water and our excess lipids, but by the matching light-blue foam belts strapped snugly around our waists, right over our navels. Here was, in fact, a return to the primal sea, maternal and cradling.

Malyssa, who leads us, made us work hard and at the end of the hour, we could feel it – muscles, blood in our veins, our lungs filled out with effort. Our cramped and tightly bound individualities relaxing and expanding in the safety of the community pool.

This weekend my husband took our son to visit grandparents the next state over. And – while the cat’s away – my daughters and I went to a friend’s to make rolls for Thanksgiving. Though if that had truly been our only goal the afternoon and evening would not have been a success – yeast refusing to rise, the oven’s top element refusing to heat. In the middle of all our talking, laughing, grousing, and the kids (her teenage boys, my daughters) in the background playing board games like the cousins they were meant to be – we broke away – she and her boys to another friend’s for dinner, my older daughter splitting off for ice-skating with her group of girls and boys, my younger daughter and her friend with me to the Island to serve at a benefit dinner for a 9-year-old boy who’d just undergone open-heart surgery.

The dinner was held at the Island's community fire station. We stopped for our CSA share at the farm on our way, though no one was there and the barn was dark, the walk-in cooler stacked doubly, triply full with the gathering harvest – evidence of a good week’s work by many hands.

Turning out toward the main ring road, we noticed how dark the way and all the roads unlit. I realized I’d left the directions to the benefit dinner at home. But on a small island there are only so many places a fire station could be, so we drove out to merge onto the ring road. Lights from a few cars approached, passed, obviously traveling together. And further down the way, headlights converged from an intersecting road.

“Should we just follow them?”

“Sure, why not.”

And of course, another curve of the road and there was the sign for the fire station, dimly lit, and an impromptu parking lot already filling up in a neighboring field. Inside the barn-like station: tables and chairs ready for diners, longer tables full of donated pies, garden implements and other gifts for the coming raffle, and a kitchen of eager helpers. The girls with their friendly faces were set up with a roll of tickets and a cash box. I donned plastic apron and gloves and found my place behind mountainous bowls of potato salad, macaroni salad, green salad, jello salad and corn on the cob, chatting with the women on either side, joking with the people coming through the line.

Half the faces coming through the line I knew – my congregation shares our church building with another congregation taking in those who live out this way. But it became obvious as the dinner progressed, as the kitchen cleared out and my daughter and her friend and I paid for our own plates of food and found seats with neighbors of ours, that the community here on the Island was more neighborly, more tightly knit than our own small town. The auctioneer seemed to know all the other Island-people by first name. And then, the easiness and private jokes between passing Islanders, cheerily fighting their way through the crowd to their seats. Even many of their faces, rosy, round-cheeked, seemed to share a family resemblance. I wanted suddenly and deeply to live there and be part of that knittedness. Later, when we returned to my friend's house to finish up roll-making, I comment on the Island’s tight community. “Yes, and lots of cancer there, too. I think there’s something in the water.” I suppose she would know after her years on the watershed council.

Why do all our dreams of safety, snugness, coming home, have to break and wake this way? Because hasn’t everyone at some time toyed with the dream of living on an island – with a single bridge like a drawbridge over a moat? Or a ferry only. Or no ferry service, just your own boat, water dripping from the paddles and no other sound but the sudden flight of a white crane as you approach your island’s shore and your own familiar town waiting, all the houses of your friends. No longer strangers . . .

My schedule is certainly easier with husband and son gone this week. Nearly full-grown daughters are fully capable of dressing, feeding, transporting themselves, directing their own schedules. Meals are easy. 

From some fresh green beet tops another member of the CSA had trimmed away as so much refuse and left in the pass-along bin (even though beet greens are close kin to chard, sweet and green-and-red, and full of nutrients!) I play around and make up something new for dinner. Everything fresh from the farm: new carrots, fresh-grown celery, good hard onions. Well, almost everything – I had a half-used carton of beef broth in the fridge and I suppose if I were a full-cloth back-to-nature fiend I’d have made homemade noodles. But not when Mrs. Weiss' Kluski Noodles are to be found in the local Safeway. The girls and I dub this new creation Poverty Soup, made as it is from discarded vegees, though it is rich and filling. 

I love the freedom of these days, but then as evening draws on I feel unsettled coming back up to the house, knowing our menfolk are still away. I sleep in the middle of the bed with extra pillows piled up all around me and a stack of books and the light on.

On Tuesday, back at the pool, I find myself exclaiming how great it is to be back in the water, working out together, how I can feel the pieces of my life falling back into their places. We drift around in the water, working against our own currents, trying to stay out of each other’s way. Dressing afterwards – actually, blow-drying my feet before putting on my second (dry) set of socks before going back out to bike around my errands in the pouring rain – I fall into conversation with a woman coming in all swaddled up in coat and hat and gloves.

I don't think I've ever spoken to her before, but soon I know her husband's also gone this week. He’s in the fishery, often and regularly gone. While I don items of attire and she doffs, we talk about the freedom of being alone, the chance to divest ourselves of routines, schedules, other people’s clutter. We talk about owning things, how they get to own us. There is complete agreement between us and as I stand there, zipping up my raingear and buckling on my helmet, it strikes me that there aren’t many places you can have a serious philosophical discussion with someone dressed only in a fur cap and a bra.

Maybe only at the community pool.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I’ve been slowly learning by heart a long poem called alphabet by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. I’m up to the eighth section, the letter h:

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
harvest, history and Halley’s

comet exist; hosts exist, hordes
high commanders, hollows, and within the hollows,
half-shadows, within the half-shadows occasional

hares, occasional hanging leaves where . . .

The poem is based on the Fibonacci sequence – a mathematical pattern that describes the spiral of a Nautilus shell, numbers of leaves, branching patterns in trees and bronchioles.  Proportions found over and over in nature. 

It’s a simple and infinite pattern beginning with zero, then 1.  To produce the pattern you take the last number and add it to the number right before it: 1 + 0 = 1, then that second 1 + the 1 right before = 2 , then 2 + 1 = 3.  So that soon you have a self-propelled sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 . . .)  

You can think of the originating 1 as a gift.

And you can imagine, in a poem patterned after the Fibonacci sequence, how quickly sections which begin very short may become very long. For example, in alphabet, the first section (a) is one line:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

The second section (b) is two lines:

bracken exists and blackberries, blackberries
bromine exists, and hydrogen, hydrogen

By the eighth section (h), I’m looking at 34 lines, and what began as a simple feat of memory – a matter of minutes – has now become more of a challenge.

But the work of committing something to memory centers me. And this poem (which contemplates – as it pleads against – the possible destruction of the world) especially helps me to quiet my mind. The word that is repeated over and over is “exists”:

doves exist, dreamers and dolls;
killers exist, and doves and doves . . .

I find it incredibly settling to recite and to start in my mind a measured procession of all that exists – horrors taking their place beside hopes and comforts, ugliness another entry in the encyclopedia that contains beauties as well.

I find myself noting that not only:

seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists, memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists, oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist,
eider ducks, spiders, vinegar
exist, and the future, the future

But also, here at our house:

Daylight savings time exists and then does not, real time exists, our own internal clocks that perversely wake us at three-thirty or four in the morning exist.

Laundry exists, warm from the dryer.

Pumpkins exist and the seeds inside them.

Swimming exists, buoyancy, wavering rings of light reflected in the moving surface of the water exist.

Bike helmets exist, forgotten on the kitchen table. The softness of the air moving through uncovered hair exists.

At the food bank, cans of corn, cans of tomato soup, cans of tuna exist, even when there are no cans of chili, no bags of bread for worried parents to make school lunches. Bags of raisin bagels exist and stale cake. The last frozen packet of ground pork exists. People living in cars exist. People who have lost their jobs just today exist. Children who do not recognize a pear exist.

Courthouses exist along the river, ballots exist and the mailbox to receive them. Cars on the road beside me exist, the risk of slipping, swerving, injury exist, but only as possibility. Arriving safely exists as well.

Empty churches exist, friends filling them exist, quilt squares and quilt frames exist, needles and yarn exist, even when they are forgotten up the hill at home, left on the table beside the bike helmet. Cars that quickly, easily climb the hills home exist and people who lend them and laughter exists.

Grass exists and rain; dry sidewalks exist, especially when they are pointed out to you. Doors exist, doorbells exist. Visiting exists, small talk, the usual questions and answers. And better questions exist, my clear-eyed friend with her gentle voice, "Tell me about how you first started coming to church," and the quiet, thoughtful answers.

And news exists. Elections exist. Differences of opinion exist, and mutual respect in spite of everything. This nation exists.

A son exists who meets his mother at the door near tears because losing candidates exist.

In the kitchen, older sisters exist, listening to the official news of the count. Their jubilation exists (for winning candidates exist as well), though subdued out of respect for a brother's distress. Listening and nodding and putting arms around exist. Democracy exists. In some places, candidates who won’t concede, presidents who won't step down, fighting in the streets exists, one neighbor against another the next street over. But not here in this country, not now. Gratitude exists.

The radio exists. Stirring speeches exist. Hope exists and worry.

Dads exist and political allies. A son asking, "Are you mad that McCain didn't win, Dad?" exists. Fatherly words about being one nation and praying for the new president exist. Paper and pen exist and a son asking to borrow them.  And then a new thing exists - a boy's letter introducing himself to the new president, inviting him to come visit our house and his school, "Hi, President Obama. Good luck!," ending, "P.S. - if you come to our house my sister will make cookies." And "You are welcome any time."

And the next day and always laundry still exists. Haircuts exist; the cut hair swept up in a dustpan exists.

Elementary schools exist, copy machines exist and teachers and papers and backpacks.

Bikes still exist, cars still exist, choices always exist.

Grocery stores exist, aisles of food exist, and for me, money exists to pay for the milk and the fruit in my basket. Panniers exist to carry food home on the bike. Hills exist, hard breathing exists, thoughts about prayer as a complete exhaling exist. Gray days exist and cold.

Potatoes with the dirt still on them exist. New carrots exist, chopped into coins; fresh-grown celery. Local beef exists, raised by a friend of a friend. Tomatoes exist, a row of them bottled last autumn. Bay leaf and its fragrance. Blue and white stoneware bowls filled with soup I've eaten every winter (every winter?) of my life exist. Parent-teacher conferences exist, husbands who take the day off to attend exist. Sewing machines exist and daughters who are making and remaking dresses.

Artists’ receptions at the community center exist and a son’s painting of a single huge leaf sprouting out of a trunk against a black sky with a small faraway moon like a pearl. 

Nearby, a painting called Hope exists, first-graders’ lovingly detailed paintings of identifiable species of birds exist and Emily Dickinson’s words lettered in gold paint:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune - without the words,
And never stops at all . . .

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Cat Dad

Son has found a baby cat in the barn.

This is not the first time.

Earlier this summer he found three kittens, at first so tiny they barely had their eyes open. He waited until he thought they would be old enough and then caught them and brought them into the house. I did say "into the house," though I am firmly averse to animals in the house. What can I say? - he convinced me.

Plus we'd be doing the neighborhood a favor. Their mamma is a feral cat, a very fertile feral cat. Our half-hearted attempts to catch her and take her in to be spayed had not met with any success, but we could at least neutralize her progeny. And they were adorable - a black tuxedo he named Peridot, an orange creamsicle named Tansy, and Aspen, a black-and-white stripey.

They didn’t last.

It’s not just that their adoption coincided with the start of our building project, which began with tearing open the wall in the downstairs bathroom to fix a non-functioning shower. (And why exactly was I surprised to find kittens climbing all over inside the basement walls?)

Keeping the kittens outside on the porch in a big computer box worked about three days. We could handle their newfound skill at jumping out with a weighted screen over the top. But we were no match for the mamma cat, Feral Fertile, who mer-yowed around our house all night every night and finally even brought a big burly tom with her, whom I can only suppose was their father.

I cannot oppose a dedicated mother (and a father to boot! there is hope in the animal world!)  Out of maternal solidarity and despite my son's most pathetic pleas, I decreed the kittens let free and watched them scamper to reunite with their family. May the same be measured out again to me.

I’m sure the songbirds -- threatened now by a thriving tribe of predators -- will forgive my sloppy, shortsighted, anthropomorphic sentimentality.

Son was heartbroken - or more accurately, all the more determined.

The rest of the summer he was on constant lookout for cats he could tame. And every other week he’d go back out to the barn to see if “his” cats had seen the light and given up Life with Mother to come back and live with him.

“I'm going to go look for my cats in the barn," he said last week.

"They're not there anymore. You're not going to find anything out in the barn, except mice maybe." 

But of course I was wrong. He came floating back from the barn, his face like May morning, cradling a tiny baby cat: “He just walked right up to me and put his foot on my foot and said meow.”

Ugh. Now there is a faint whiff of cat whenever I come in the front door.

But Son cuddles the cat around with him everywhere, cooing over it cuteness.

"It's almost as good as having a brother," says he.  "Do you think it might be like this when I'm a Dad?"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Trouble with MOM

with apologies to Brian Kershisnik - his unadulterated picture may be seen here

Son, on his way out the door in the morning: "Bye! You're the best mom in the world - no matter what anyone else says!"

What exactly is it that anyone else says? And who are they? His sisters? His dad? The neighbors, his teachers? The word on the street? How far exactly has the rot spread and how much damage control am I in for this morning?

Okay, so maybe I'm not the best mom. A truth unpalatable, but especially so when my hair's still sleep-matted on one side and fuzzed-up in back and when breathing my own morning breath, wearing rubber garden clogs with stylish flannel and scraping out the burnt-oatmeal pan.

Lighten up. It’s a joke, says the voice inside my head that speaks in my husband's tones.

Right. I know that.

The trouble is, it’s not just the twist at the end - even the first part chafes me, that part about best. Because best I’m not, not right now, not ever, certainly not when I’m battling the inner spider so hard.

Let him have “the best mom in the world.” Allow him that. Doesn't every child deserve to have the best mom in the world?, says that other voice, the one that sounds an awful lot like my mom in WiseWoman mode.

Oh, yeah, Inner Child puts her two-cents in, like how whenever I said "Mommy, you are so pretty," how you’d say, “Pretty ugly and pretty apt to stay that way”?

The inner spider, of course, has no voice because it has nothing to say because there is nothing to say because there is nothing to do but throw out filament, filament, filament out of itself, wrapping up the world in absence and paralysis.

The best I can do is sometimes forestall my son.

"Best mom in - " he begins.

"Best mom you'll ever have. Have you got your lunch? Your backpack?”

Or on the better mornings, "Best son in the world. Now run, your dad's waiting."

But I know it's coming, the morning I'm too slow - the morning I'm the best mom in the world - no matter what anyone else says.

And I'm having too many of these days lately. Days when I have to flog myself to get up, get dressed. Days when getting a dinner on the table is cause for celebration.

Part of this is just the darkening weather. Part of it the accumulated craziness of the girls' marching band schedule (which will be over after the first of November!).

And part my anachronistic need to grieve for my grandpa who died hardly a month ago. I think it would do me good to live in a society where subdued behavior after the death of a close connection was expected.  I'd feel protected and guided up out of sadness by the wearing of black, then gray, then finally lightening into lavender. Here, though, and now, it's as unmannerly to keep grieving once the funeral is over, as hot pink flounces at a funeral used to be a hundred years back.

Maybe I should move to Spain. I was reading this week the intro to a book on Spanish poetry:

The Spaniard, says Julian Marias, constantly thinks in terms of final things . . . he broods in a way that the humanist or rationalist would not, on the insult of death.
I don’t think it’s the insult of death that drags me down. It’s not even that I’m sad, really. I don’t feel sad. I laugh. I smile. I make my way through the day. It’s just that having the people I love die, makes an emptiness in me. Like the best guests leaving a party that falls flat suddenly and pointless. Or like the silence that meets a vapid remark, echoing, re-echoing how stupid, how vain . . . Okay, maybe it is the insult of death.

But death’s insult is that I’m left back in the mortal eddies while others swirl out into a wider eternity. Like the way it feels when my children go off to school each September, with their new books and new clothes, ready for new friends and teachers. I feel left behind.

I’m trying not to brood. I’ve been through this process enough times now that I know the arc, the downwards rainbow through dark water. It seems to take me about 9 months to a year. I always come out again into the sunlight, once again a citizen of day. Which is a good thing for – as I was reminded in that Spanish poetry introdution –

But death, to use the ironic phrase of Marias, has never been granted citizenship in the United States.

This isn’t the entry I was planning to write this week. This writing is meant as a way of charting my way up and out of the cave, constructing a scaffold over what sometimes feels like misery, though it is shallow of me to call it so.

When I was young, my family moved from Ohio to the Bay Area, California. “I bet you’re glad you moved here,” were the first words I heard from a Californian. And heard over and over, in every possible permutation.

Everyone I met was sure as could be that I was basking in the sunny California glow, reprieved from Midwestern propriety and the certainty of winter, glad to trade flaming maple and sweet gum, buckeyes and Osage orange, hot chocolate at Friendly’s after football games, ice skating, snow days, snow-topped mailboxes, and the first green mist hovering over rich, black, new-plowed fields, for this sullen sky, this bland barrenness crowded over with identical suburban houses.  They were sure.  And I was sure that glad is what I was not.

And so, to get me through, I made myself find and see, each day, one thing worth seeing.

Those images are still strong in me - small, safe clearings of peace in my mind - even now I can bring them sharply to my inner eye: a willow tree in rain, the curve of a gingko leaf against the sidewalk, the muscular hand of an oak tree’s branches standing alone, the sun twinkling faraway on Sausalito Bay from our tiny kitchen window.

It’s become a lifetime habit of observation and meditation and salvation.

Trouble is I’ve lost the little notebook I’d been carrying around with me, full of daily notes of stories and scenes and, this week especially, notes from something Dieter Uchtdorf said very insightful and inspiring about being willing to something and how it would open us to “inconvenient, but life-changing” something.

I did try this week. When the phone call came I pushed back my half-valid excuses and gave up other busy-ness, made re-arrangements to my Wednesday schedule so I could drive an older friend of ours into the City for a full day of doctor’s appointments. The trouble is, like everything this week, even that good intent came to naught – our friend called and cancelled her appointments. So no extra life-changing inconvenience - and I’m stuck still with the same old life.

Let’s see what else this week . . . no, let’s not . . . my memory of Friday, for example, so blank I had to ask my daughter.

"Harvest party?” she offered.

Oh, right. How could I forget? I spent the whole day trying to figure out how to make an Alaskan Indian costume out of some pale brown burlap for the son who was rashly counting on me.  This is not what I spent several years of graduate school preparing for.

At the Harvest Carnival that evening, I sat, supervising my young women's class run their doughnut booth, still pulling out threads to make the fringe so he could wear his costume at least for trunk-or-treating later on in the parking lot.

The dullness and domesticity. Where are the roaring motors and cavalcade?

The trouble is what I do remember is a litany of things I forgot, meetings I was late for, meals I didn’t make, times I felt like an interloper, stupid things I said, silences and emptinesses.

Here’s something else: Cleaning off some extra papers, I found a note from my eldest daughter written some years back on the eve of Girls’ Camp (when I was sick with panic, dreading a week of babysitting teenagers as Camp Mom).

Daughter Dear had written, “MOM upside down is WOW” – a nice thought and then the kicker: “Think how awesome she would be right side up!”

Amen to that.

Trouble is, which way is up?  and how do I get there from here?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

My Sorrow when she's here with me

"Surprise" by Henri Rousseau, detail
"My November Guest"
by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

(week of November 2 - 8)

Sail On, O Ship of State! (from The Building of the Ship)
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all its hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
‘Tis of the wave and not the rock;
‘Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by a gale!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith, triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, —are all with thee!

(week of November 9-15)

First Lesson
by Philip Booth

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

(weeks of November 17 - 30)

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke(translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jean de la Lune

This Friday I found myself in the early afternoon legging it along the two-lane highway, just beyond our neighboring town, still miles from home.

I'd been biking back from the Island where Husband had dropped me off that morning in the first misty hours of light - wisps rising up from the rippled surface of the river. I'd gone to help 'pop' garlic at the farm. It was good to get back there.

The ride from the Island, back along the River, is "world-class biking, nothing better" - says Husband. I don't disagree: nice, level ride, no real hills. To one side: the river with her houseboats and a ruffle of alder, maple, oak. To the other side: rocky basalt cliffs, ferns, tiny waterfalls, Douglas fir.

And a clean, wide bike lane.  Well, mostly clean.

I'd come more than half way on the bike that afternoon - it's couple-hour ride - and had just begun to congratulate myself at being almost home already, when my back tire began to flop around.

Dismounting, I found a nail in the tire - small, bent, but sufficient.

At least my eldest daughter, newly driving, had an orthodontist appointment within the hour and would be driving the van with the bike rack my way.  And we have the wonders of modern technology in the form of cell phones.

Cars whizzed past as I walked down the highway. I'd picked up my weekly share of produce at the farm and my yellow waterproof panniers on either side were full and heavy. I lifted them now from the back and hung them over the handlebars, hoping to take some weight off the flopping tire.

Cyclists use the fine wide bike lanes on this road most days of the year. I was a common sight. No one stopped to offer help, nor did I expect them to. That one gear-head in a neon aquamarine helmet and yellow jacket had succumbed to road conditions --reduced to pushing her conveyance like a broken wheelbarrow-- just marked one-up for the Autos in the ongoing, almost subliminal antagonism between spoke and hubcap.

I forgot the traffic, though, walking along, taking in the intensity of the changing leaves.

Really looked for once at a lonely house along the highway.  Shingled roof wrapped fatly around the log-edge of the eaves. Heavy oaken door: great iron hinges and just off-center, a slender diamond-paned window.  A round hobbit-window and wide picture window into a sunny (perhaps book-lined?) room.

It was like the story of a little house in the middle of the woods.  Snug and self-sufficient.

As I approached the outskirts of the town just next to mine, a man ambled out from his roadside apartment to check the mailbox, "Hmmh!  Don't you have a patch kit?"

Which I supposedly carry always.  Husband has put together a handy tool kit for me. But one of the panniers I'd grabbed this morning was apparently  not mine, so though I had hand-sanitizer and bandaids and honey sticks, ibuprofen and notebook and pens and a tiny doll-sized Bible, I had no tools, no pump, no tube, no patch kit.

Which was a pity, since I'd just been contemplating, before my tire went flat, the joys of self-sufficiency that a long-distance bike allows.

In fact, Sufficiency has been the mantra running through this week. Over the weekend, we'd ordered metal roofing to redeem our never-used-by-us chicken coop. We'd talked plans for making a root cellar out of the bike room off the garage. Then early in the week I kept finding myself repeating under my breath, Ҫa suffit, "it suffices." I kept remembering, half-remembering a line from some poem: "Each something in their --or was it its-- sufficiency . . . "

The day before I'd made bread (again, at last) and then, at the farm this morning I'd talked breadmaking with one of the apprentices, our breath rising like mist, our cheeks and noses red. He was going to try working as a baker next - cold days working out in the mud had made a floury, yeasty heaven of the idea of those early, early mornings in a bakery. "So how do you make your bread?" he wanted to know.

recipe is beautifully basic - things I keep on hand - olive oil, honey, water, salt, yeast and whole wheat flour I mill fresh in a kitchen grinder. It is the epitome of self-sufficiency.  And smells not just of warm grain and yeast but of thrift and industry when it comes out of the oven.

The other apprentices, on their way out to the fields, kept stopping by the table this morning where we worked dividing the garlic into separate cloves for planting.  Each young farmer seemed to have a story about their cider-making of the weekend before, their plans for applesauce this coming weekend as the apples kept falling from the trees around us, how their little red hen was laying, sausage-making.

Two of the apprentices have rented a big old house over the hills together and have already started getting a garden plot ready for next year, setting up some beehives in the spring. I admire them all - their energy and practical idealism and easy competence.

I'd hoped by rubbing shoulders with them more of their competence would have rubbed off on me.

Pushing my bike, I hobbled into town, trying to remember which traffic light to turn at for the orthodontist - this walking was taking longer than I had expected - hoping it was the next light, then hoping it was the next one after that. A familiar van pulled into the bike lane ahead of me and, like an angel in heaven's blue, suddenly there appeared my flame-haired friend on her way home from the City. She'd pulled the seat out of her van that morning - "I don't know why. It must have been for you!" - and now helped me lift my bike inside and both panniers with their weight of gorgeous produce.

With ease and speed we drove past the corner for the orthodontist and I called my daughter once more - now to let her know she wouldn't have to wait for me. As we slipped through the intervening fields towards our own town, my friend asked if I hadn't felt "pretty vulnerable out there on the road?"

"I guess not." I hadn't thought of it.

I'd thought of bread and the secret hidden house along the highway.

I'd thought how the farm last year had been an answer, the place for me, but now felt like a wrong-sized jacket I wanted to keep but couldn't fit into quite right any more.

I'd thought of travelling by bike, carrying with me everything I'd need.

I'd thought of my son asking me again last week about a book we used to check out (over and over) a few years back - Jean de la Lune.

The book has since disappeared from the public library, though we keep going back and looking for it. During our bout of homeschooling, picture books in French had been a way to start the girls on their French grammar and vocabulary drill.

Son had been three or four years old, and  very like the innocent, open, little round-headed moon man on the front cover himself.

I'd thought, musingly, as I pushed my bike toward home, of the way Jean de la Lune had captured my son's imagination - how Jean, from his home on the moon, had fallen in love with the life on Earth, the dancing and laughter beneath the trees hung with colored lights and, wanting to experience it for himself, had caught passage on a comet's tail.

But he ended up in prison, ankle shackled, staring out through the window-grate at his first home, shining silvery and full in the dark sky. Miraculously - as the moon wanes, so does Jean, until he is just a sliver of himself and able to step out of his shackles and through the bars of his window. And then rockets back home with the help of an eccentric inventor.

Son used to ask for this book over and over, sitting afterwards with the book open on his lap, poring over the pictures. I would read it to him, wondering what caught him so. Hoping he would recognize within himself his own powers to escape and outwit - that deepest self-sufficiency. Wishing for him the help of friendly rocket-builders along the way.

Last week we looked for the book on Amazon, but it's out of print and rather spendy as people say here in our corner of the woods.

"We'll just have to keep looking for a Jean de la Lune that's not so expensive," I'd told him when he brought the subject up this week - driving to piano from his red-and-white country schoolhouse. "You know, I found it in English, too, except it's called Moon Man. But it has the same pictures, the same story. What would you rather have - in English or in French?"

"Wasn't my Jean de la Lune in English?" Son was surprised. Then silent after I explained the here-and-there translation-as-required we'd read it in.

"I want it in French," he said at last. "Because I know it in English already and then I would have it both ways." Though the English he knows was more French, but apparently  English enough for his understanding.

So I'd thought of that.

Of Jean de la Lune. And of fall. Of the thrill it used to be, starting a new semester. Of the color of leaves, gold on the branches, a deeper gold on the ground.  Of the abundance of just enough.

I hadn't thought of vulnerability.

After my friend deposited me and my wounded bike safe and sound in my own drive -- after she waved good-bye amidst my last, laughing thank-you -- after she drove back down the hill toward her own home -- I discovered I was locked out of the house, not having brought my keys because I wasn't driving, forgetting that the garage door was locked from inside because of the builders.

I sat out in the sun against the sliding glass door, waiting for my daughters to come home and let me in, reading from my tiny travel scriptures whatever fell open, dependent as always on others in this deeply intertwined life we live.

And in the sufficiently wondrous way it always seems to go, opened to . . .

. . . come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you . . .
What does it really mean -- sufficient, sufficiency?

That evening I made
Stir Fry Salad with some of the gorgeous produce from the farm - a surprisingly satisfying and incontestably nutritious dinner, delicious with the hot cornbread my younger daughter made.

It wasn't until the next morning, dawdling back up the hill after the usual walk & talk with my Saturday morning friend, that I realized the line of poetry I'd been trying to remember - "each weed's sufficient grace" - was actually from something I'd written myself, 14 years or so ago.

Considering that all the cells of my body have changed twice over since then, it's not surprising the words seemed to have been written by a different person, someone who might have know what they were talking about:

What Comes Next

Most days you drive along, looking for the bend
in the road, lost in a cloud of dust
and noise and thought. If only you would stop

you could watch the grassy foxtails gather sunlight.
You could watch them burn away the afternoon
until the shadow of these weeds lay long
and blue. You could finger stems, leaves,
touch shining seed hair. If you stayed
long enough, you could walk home
beneath the first stars, feeling your blood
rise and fall with the pull of the moon.

Afterwards, in the light of your own kitchen,
you might find burrs and fluff on your clothing,
dried leaves in your hair. That night as you slept,
perhaps Earth, this old mother, this laughing Sarah,

would rise from under the hill, dancing flat-footed,
her arms bent high, her fine
white mane bent down toward the dust,
each step raising a whiff of dust.

In the rain you would awake, before learning the steps.
You would scarcely remember the foxtails, their fire,
each weed’s sufficient grace. But your blood
already knows. Your arms and legs can find their own.

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