Thursday, December 24, 2009

For He was the King

from the Wilton Diptych

"I Wonder as I Wander"
Appalachian Carol (collected by John Jacob Niles)

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus, our Savior, did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow’s stall,
With wise-men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high in God’s heaven’s a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing:
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing;
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have had it, for he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus, our Savior, did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

stay forever.

I am watching Middlest negotiate a river crossing I've never had to cross.  She who does not like to cry cannot speak about Eldest leaving for college without her throat filling with tears.  She dashes the water from her eyes with a quick impatient hand, shakes her head, makes herself laugh.

She hates even the name of the university her sister is aiming for.  Has already planned what she will do that first week - eight months from now - packing the days full with friends who have promised to stay overnight the first night, the second night, a series of different hill runs she will work her way through that week.

That first week she plans to gut their old bedroom, repaint it, rearrange everything.  But not until then.  For now, nothing must change.  For now, they are always sitting together, running errands together, their heads bent together over the computer screen, whispering together in the other room.

Unless she's angry with her sister, which is also happening more frequently than ever in their deeply intertwined lives.  Then it's - "I'll be glad when she leaves!"  And when,  later, I suggest it may be time to mend fences, "Why?  It will never be the same anyway.  She'll go and she'll never really ever come back again."

My own sisters are much younger than me.  I came to know them, as themselves, when we were grown.  They tell me that I was an Auntie Mame - kind and exciting but never intimate, swooping in, swooping out, a sudden focus of our parents' energy and attention, the surprise of packages sent from faraway places, letters full of glimpses that seemed glamorous at that distance.

And I was the oldest - always the one who left, never the one left behind.

A few days ago Middlest insisted I come with her to choose a gift for her sister.  It had to be something her sister would use everyday, something she would never want to discard, something basic and ordinary as breakfast, comforting as a bowl of soup, something beautiful and necessary. 

We both laughed when we realized we were letting our steps drag as we left the checkout, pausing at the automatic doors not just because of a reluctance to go out in the cold. 

"My legs feel heavy," Middlest laughed. "I'm thinking I just want to turn around and take it back and then she'd have to stay forever."

Friday, December 18, 2009

life cycle.

A year ago, when first settling on a name for this blog, I didn't realize how hip bicycling had become in the wider world. 

Sure, the Seattle-to-Portland barreled through our town one weekend every summer - but a two-day pack of sweating red-faced riders didn't strike me as the bubbling groundswell of the next New Thing.

Every year there seemed a few more people biking the streets of  Portland.  Wasn't that just part of keeping things weird?

In our own small riverside town new bike lanes kept popping up - and a few more riders all the time.  Which we gratefully appreciated as intermittent episodes of welcome rational thought from the local planning commission. 

For years we had been biking for weekend trips or longer, on sunny days for fun, regularly for exercise and then more and more in recent as basic transportation to school in the morning, meetings, picnics in the park, movies, post office, quick trips to the grocery store.  We were the Biking Family - three little ducks in a row between Mom and Dad, along the side of the road.  But we have never been stylish, except by accident. 

So it has been amazing to discover a whole world since then of knowledgeable, stylish and passionately dedicated riders out there.  Connoisseurs of brake pads and vintage lugs.  (Last year, I didn't even know what a "lug" was unless it was what you had to do with heavy baggage.)  Experts on seat post heights and bike geometry and the best bike lane design.  Opinionated aficionados of bike baskets, bags . . .

It's a good trend, and one I hope lives long.  Lives long enough to become not just a trend for today but an everyday way of life for more than just the lone stubborn white-haired lady I intend to be . . .   

Because long before the first Cycle Chic appeared in Copenhagen, Mrs. C, who has her own ideas about style,  has been making her daily rounds.  I started noticing her shortly after I first moved here ten, eleven years ago.  "Who is she?  She rides every day!"

"I know.  She's amazing."

Mrs. C back then was in her late 60s, and had taught piano to half the pianists in town.  Once when we were both on bikes, me on my way into town, her on her way back out already I told her how my friends and I admired the way she got out on her bike every day.

"Well," she said, "if I don't get on the bike one day, then yesterday? - that was my last bike ride."  And she rode away.

Stop ahead?  I don't think so.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

one or the other: Being the Mother One

I keep trying not to write this particular post. 

But my  event-horizon seems to be resolving itself into an unavoidable singularity and rather than choosing from a range of possible choices it appears I may only choose to
  1. write no post
  2. write with the M-word dribbling out of the corner of my mouth in every other sentence.
And yes, we are talking the real M-word here, the one that will get me a for mature audiences only rating.  Not merely that lesser m-word - the one that makes the  commitment-allergic squirm (with its vows and veils and well-rehearsed formalities).  But the big ol' M of an M-word that really gives people hives, that we prefer to call by euphemistic and belittling endearments, that has to be wrapped up in maudlin sentimentality, masked by noble stances or hidden behind a screen of cutesy clip-art in either pastel or primary colors.  Or blamed for all the evil in the world.

One or the other. 

Because that's the other thing about the way we deal in this day and age with this M of all M-word --  it seems the issues always have to be one or the other.

(And no, MORTALITY, today it is not YOU I mean - go back to sleep, no one wants you right now.)

"Shame on them," my fierce friend is almost spitting.  "Shame on them!"  She had been watching until I'd finished reading the article thrust into my hands, an article by Susan Klebold whose son killed 12 students and a teacher and then himself ten years ago. 

My friend's vehemence is not aimed at this other mother or even primarily at the magazine selling copies by trotting out private pain, but for the angry blamers some rival media had dug up from under a rock to spout how outraged they are and to repeat and repeat what a bad mother Susan Klebold must have been.

Between my friend and me sits my own son, glasses slipping down his nose, hair flat against his familiar scalp and bangs cut a little crooked over his brow. 

He sits between us, apparently oblivious, deep in his book - Eragon this week.  We are sitting on the sides at a swim meet - at which none of our children are likely to come in first, or even second.  She has raised three sons to adulthood and across the pool her last one, shaking the water off his arms, is finally starting high school. 

We are both what people call "good mothers."

We both know how dangerous it is to believe it.

Perilous treasure to set your heart on the happiness and success of your children.  Because what matters more?  and into what else do you have such limited vision?  over what else do you have so little real control?

I have been greeted by new cousins, with engagement rings bright on their hands, "Oh, you're the one that's such a great mother!"

There have been, from time to time, younger mothers who have pulled up a chair and settled in -  "Now I want to pick your brain and find out your secret.  What did you do to have such great children?" 

Because a mother is only as good as her children appear to be.

And there has not been one of those young mothers who has not at last shot me that look of half-resentful disappointment.  As if I were mocking them, making fun of them, withholding the great secret.

"I don't think there is a secret.  Except maybe just liking your children . . ."  but that of course suggests that they don't already like their children.

"I don't know that it's so much the parents, as what the children bring with them.  You really just have to reinvent with each child . . . "  which suggests that parenting is an exercise in futility.  (Well?) But what I meant was rather than remake the child, it's better to remake your mothering -- that all you can do is try to provide channels where their particular energy can flow most effectively without harming themselves or others. 

Was it tactless to suggest that quiet studiousness was not so much a virtue arrived at through flash-cards and interesting combinations of vitamins, but what you might expect when you cross a deliberate math-geek with an introspective bookworm? . . . as if I were suggesting that the outrageous hilarity and vivid stubbornness of their own child had not fallen too far from the tree? . . . though if I had suggested such a thing I ought to have also made it clear that those qualities were treasures of their own, to be made the most of.  And I ought to know, having a hilarion of my own despite all those geeky genes in the background.

"Actually, I think probably the most useful thing is to realize we are as powerless as we are powerful.  All we really have to give them is our attention and a witness.  All we can really do is just be company to them while they go through what they have to go through . . . ," which was brushed off as facile Zen-mumble - and thank you, but they were also returning the book lent them - Whole Child, Whole Parent - which was a little dense, a little "fringey," and not after all "the only useful childrearing guide I've ever read," but in fact, not really what they were looking for at all.


I'm not sure what they wanted to hear.  Something more practical?  more concrete?

But even that gives no satisfaction.

"I would never speak to my daughter like she was a dog!?"  at the suggestion that the secret was to be the Pack Leader.  Which is not what I had meant to suggest. Rather that there is a certain attitude of responsive, consistent, cheerful authority that kids seem to respond to well.

"Running laps around the outside of the house?  hmm . . . " - that one they tend to like a little better - at least it's something other than spanking or time-outs, a way to mark behavior as inappropriate and to give everyone some breathing space to start over, a style of discipline more corrective than punitive.

But, darlings,  that's all that's hidden behind the curtain.

I remember the op-ed pages ten years ago after the Columbine shootings.  It seemed important to many to point out that the mothers both worked away from home.  "Ah, that's what it was!  The mother of course!" 

"Shame on them!"  This fierce friend of mine can do just about anything - she completely wired her house; she laid the stone tile in the front hall; she held her finger in place driving herself to the ER - it's healed quite nicely and is only a little stiff now. 

But we both know as we sit here on the sides - my young and for-now innocent son sitting between us, her son on the other side of the pool - how powerfully powerless we are.

As mothers.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

riding in the rain with rose-colored glasses

For too, too long lately I have been reading other people's winter biking adventures - no more! swore I - I will live life Myself and not just vicariously by the written word!  But then I succumbed to Scheduling Issues and then to sub-freeZing temperatures and iCe on the road - for though I have learned that studded bike tires are not somebody's funny idea, they are not as yet a budgeted item on my shopping list.

"I will bike next Tuesday," I said, promising rashly.  "Definitely Tuesday.  One deadline down by then.  And Christmas packages will all be sent.  No matter what (as long as that matter is not ice) I will bike on Tuesday." 

And woke this morning to rain.  Not ice.  But also not just the soft condensation of heavy mist that Northwest rain often is.   Deep, drip-drop, soakyoutotheskin rain.

"You don't really have to bike," said the pale snail inside me.  "Why don't you take the car?  You don't want to get those books and papers wet."

"Hah!" scoffed the few drops of Viking blood that have made their way to me through a Danish grandmother.  "What rain?!  Pfft!  this is nothing!" (You probably did not know that Vikings said Pfft.)

So I biked the miles into town in the driving rain.  Stopping to shed wool scarf and the second pair of gloves as I warmed up.  Wiping the steam off the inside of my rose-colored glasses - why yes, I do look through rose-colored glasses when I bike! (but only because they cut down glare and protect eyes from bulleting raindrops without obscuring detail) -

Biked, not fast, because I would be meeting others later - having given myself plenty of extra time to run errands - and didn't want to arrive over-perfumed d'essence sportive.

Biked on quiet roads with almost no cars until I came to the heart of town.  Biked to the hardware store for this.  To the pharmacy for that.  Poked my head in another shop to see if they had an item in yet.  Everyone in the different shops laughs when they first see me, dripping, exultant, laughing back.  Even in the rain it is so many more times easier, more human, more rewarding to run errands by bike.  I wonder when shop owners will realize how much more accessible to the quick and profitable drop-by their places become once their clintele set their selves down onto bike saddles?  Meanwhile, my skin tingles, warm against cold air,  all the blood cells in my veins singing their happy little song of renewed activity.

Biked to the bookshop.  As I tied up my bike, saw a guy in the rain on his bike with a vacuum strapped on behind, headed toward the Sew & Vac & Chimney place just down the road.  I tried to get my camera out in time to show him to you, but my hands were clumsy in their wet gloves and by the time I'd laid hands on camera he had pedaled away.  So I took this picture instead of my deluxe weather protection system:

As I did, a friend pulled up, she parked her car, and we joked our way into the bookshop to wait for the others. 

"You clean up good," she said after I'd ducked into the restroom to shed and trade layers.  Because yea, I, even I, am guilty of GoreTex.  It is appallingly yellow and wonderfully waterproof.  "What'd you do? Completely change?"

"Just a matter of wet layer off into one bag and dry layer over out of the other."

And I who have been half-alive with busy-ness and indoor lethargy, am whole and all-alive once more.  All that old air in my lungs traded for the new and improved ultra-oxygen mix.  Seriously, I think I must be addicted to the buzz of biking - even now hours later I'm still feeling the sharp vigor of weather on my face and the heat of my own work warming me up like the feeling of courage. 

Soon the others have gathered.  After last month, scribbling in my hermit's cell, seeing no one but the necessary, it warms my heart to see all these others' faces, hear their voices.  There are too many of us to grab a table at the bakery next door, so we cross the street to Sunshine Pizza for our soup and salad.  (There may not be a lot of choices in our once-a-milltown town, but there are choices.)

"You didn't bike here?"  the cry goes up, when at last, having between us established new rules for the Running of the World, I mention I'd better get going so that I can get home in time without having to sweat it up the hills.  "You didn't ride here today? in the rain?"

"Aw, she bikes everywhere," which I only wish were true.  We've already discussed how Fritz's father's truck that Fritz drives now has completely wiped out any environmental credit I've built up.

"She has to bike to make up for MY truck," says another grinning.

"Someone has to," I grin back.

I slip into the restroom, slip somewhat soggy raingear over wool pants and long-sleeved knit.

"So, I've got to ask you," one of the last lingerers asks me when I stop in the vestibule to zip my waterproofs tight at the ankles.  "Why the boots?"

" . . . I like them?"

"Oh, I thought maybe there was some technical reason."

"Nope.  They keep my legs warm."  That and tights (and -  but you have to promise not to tell anyone - black fluffy Dr. Scholls diabetes anklets which is a keep-your-wet-feet-warm trick I learned from my 60-year-old friend who goes on walking adventures around the world.  They fit beneath even snug boots and no one - except you now - the wiser.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

neither riding, nor writing

But I do offer you:

A Week in Pictures
[click links beneath for Flickr sets for each day]

Sunday                                         Monday                          Tuesday 

Wednesday                                      Thursday                       Friday

which I must admit, makes my life look plenty idyllic.  And reminds me of pictures I took once of plants another's generosity had  allowed me to plant in my garden, pictures seen by an aunt, who shortly after wasn't able to recognize my actual garden as the same garden.

Close-ups here and soft-focus there and drowning out the background with a fog of light.  Avoid the flash.  Bask in available light.  Keep a steady hand.  Shape my view around the beloved. 

Is this a philosophy to live by?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

where there is room

"Mother & Child with sparrows,"  Brian Kershisnik, by permission

I’ve been asked to write a Christmas story. But there is no Christmas story better than that first story, the one that begins -
AND it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . .
Perhaps the world would be a dimmer place without Tiny Tim's "God bless us everyone!" And yes, I’ve chuckled at the story of the school pageant where the 3rd grade innkeeper ad-libs, “But you can stay in my room!”  I'll even admit to getting a throb in my throat at the story of the struggling newlyweds who give tortoise-shell comb and watch-chain only to discover the beloved’s auburn hair and golden watch have been sold to buy the other’s gift.  

But really, there is just one story at Christmas. And it is this story that matters.  The one I listened to on Christmas Eve, holding my breath as my father read, word by precarious word.  About the time when
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
I say “precarious” because my father had a speech impediment:

He stuttered
      each sentence like shutters
            banging in the wind      I had
                  to learn to listen
for more   than words   to sit
      silent   holding   back
            my quick   inaccurate
                  translations until he
                        wrestled his own words
out   panting   into the open
He wouldn’t like me to tell you this – that he stuttered. He worked all his life to overcome it, to work around it, to be so smart and quick in other ways that any slowness of speech became unremarkable.

When I read my poem to him, he sat back like I had just slapped him. I think all he heard was lack and failings.

He didn’t hear how it was the very slowness of his speech that opened the story for me. How his slow and careful reading, slowed me. Made me see, instead of swiftly skating over.

Made me hear.

Let the starlight and the light of love in the mother’s and the child’s eyes shine in and fill me. Made me feel how it could possibly be that an all-powerful and flawless Love, the Creator of the universe, could enter into this broken world of taxes which thought it had no room for Him.

So that now, any one else’s voice is never as good, is too quick, too slick, too sure of itself. Now when I read these words to myself,
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
I read it slow and hesitating, remembering how as a child
I would shut
                  my eyes    hunkering
                        down until the fretwork
opened and there
      in the articulated    hes-
            itation    between
                  words    see starlight    see
                        lantern's glow on
heaped straw    see the shifting
      feet of cattle    their warmth
            their whuffling breath    the lamb’s small
                  bleat    and far off the icy    voice
of angels

 for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people


Friday, December 4, 2009

Finding My Bearings

Because what is galling me is that I have been working for (how sad to say) years to streamline Everything Else and squeeze out a substantial block of time to Just Write.  And now that I've gotten here, I feel guilty.


Especially as I don't believe in guilt. 

Compunction, yes.  First of all it has more syllables.  More importantly, no one carries around a load of compunction.  Compunction is momentary.  Compunction tells you you've misstepped, overstepped, stepped on - it's a course correctional tool.  Fix it, get on with it. 

Guilt is more a dead end.

So away with it.

The Grandmothers-of-the-Mind came whispering in the early hours of the morning, saying, "So dear, would you feel better about this writing if you set bounds and aims?  Now think, isn't  it better to go on now that you've started.  You do like it.  And what is useful anyway, hmm?"

(You do have Grandmothers like these, don't you?   I think they may be universal.   Because I remember the pleasant shudder with which  I recognized, very young, the Lady in George MacDonald's Princess and the Goblin.  Years before I would read the whole book, when I had just learned to read on my own, I found that single chapter lying in my lap one afternoon, as I curled up in the little room under the stairs at my grandmother's house.  I shiver and laugh still at the memory of reading how Irene climbs the stairs, loses her way, finds her father's mother's father's mother - and I knew Her - and there it was all written down on the thick, slick pages, so beautifully bordered, so intricately line-drawn, between the tall, heavy, bittersweet orange, pebble-bound covers of the ChildCraft anthology.)

Not that I listened to the Grandmothers-of-the-Mind this morning, their voices are so murmurous and easy to ignore.  Instead I woke my dear Fritz to ask what he thought about nursing school.

He had no opinion.

Which was unfeeling of him.   I stomped off to write - and gave over trying to be useful for the day.  Later he called, "So how's the writing going?"  (And no, I wouldn't want to live with me, either)

As for being useful, he said, "Have you thought about welding?"

" - uh.  No? - " gasping for breath after sudden laughter, "That - would be Useful."

"Hey, I'm just trying to offer you something orthogonal."

" - - ! I don't know what that means."

"Something totally different.  It's like - perpendicular.  You haven't thought of welding before have you?"

But now, my dears, I have.

And  . . . welding does have its possibilities . . . that summer I spent, between college and grad school, infatuated with the fresh-faced sweetly shy welder in the  next bay over from the paint-line where I hung parts that would become medical tables.  Watching him through the net curtain . . . thinking how like a modern knight . . . as he took up his tools, dropping the dark visor over his face, and the sparks flying against his breastplate, while the curtain billowed. 

In fact, it was the intensity of that whole summer, working ten hours in the factory - the squeal of the rolling metal doors opening, waiting workers backlit with early light, personalities, jockeyings for power, recaps of wild nights and then stories people told me quietly of deep struggles, smell of cigarettes and patch of green grass at our breaks (where I also read Henry James' Portrait of a Lady for the first time),  the final buzzing bell when all work STOPPED - and then a shower and three hours as a copy editor for an advertizer paper late into the evening - much quieter, much sadder and more silent struggles - that made me fear less the alienation of labor and more the alienation of a bodiless life of the mind.

And now I want them both - body and mind.  And the work that unites them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

whither now, Imagined Bicycle?

(or How to Come Back to the Useful Life, Having Tasted - )
pomegranate - that fateful fruit - Persephone's doom and Demeter's sorrow but Hades' reprieve

After a month of intensive writing, and absolutely NO biking, it is surely time to swing the pendulum back to life in the waking world.
(hey? so could I just trade in the pendulum?  And go with digital instead?  Or a sundial?)
Today I should have biked into town, picked up the pieces of my volunteering, that sop I throw to Usefulness.

I do aspire to usefulness.  I admire it.  For example(?) I take many pictures of tools, admiring the spare lines of their useful design.    And hands doing their own well-learned work. 

I can tell you are not convinced.

But it is true that my affection for my own non-vintage, non-stylish bicycle is largely because it is so explicitly useful - my feet go there and there, I step down, the gears turn, the tires turn, the bicycle moves, carrying me and a load of groceries for miles more than I could walk and I am a walker - any fool - even I - can follow that chain from impulse to effort to result.  Satisfyingly useful. 

Like the solvers and devisers and those who carry out the plans.  And the gallant and heroic unsung who carry on, polishing the light on the lighthouse, or less metaphorically, who day after day teach and heal and build and weed.  The doers.

I have even been useful myself. And there are people who remember those days - who perhaps think I just need reminding?

Am I the only one to catch a certain plaintive note in this map of a young boy's mind? -

through that open door
that tiny straight-backed chair pulled up to the table,
the half-seen broom,
the perilous cliff with tree growing from the vertical edge,
the vine clinging desperately to the wall,
the empty waiting mailbox,
that uncertain trail that wanders away up past the house and off the page. 

Though the House is sturdy Usefulness itself: the heavy beams overhanging the eaves, the densely weatherproof pattern of the shingles, the purposeful chimney

Poor son.  I was more useful in his young days.  And he remembers it.  And no matter how I shape my life now, he will be - I am afraid - that wanderer looking in toward a remembered ideal.

I am / have been considering going back for a nursing degree.  That would be incontestably useful (in a way which a graduate degree in literature has not been).  In pursuit of which, I sat down with my friend and sister-in-law, a longtime and superbly competent and compassionate nurse, to pick her brain.  She answered all my questions thoroughly, whole-heartedly, reasonably, competently (in other words, as a true nurse would).  Then very kindly, gently asked me, "What kind of nursing is it that you are drawn to?"

Uh, the useful kind?  "Actually, the more I hear you talk about nursing the more I realize I just don't have the same kind of passion for nursing that you do."

She didn't dispose of my plans nor unveil me as a career dilettante, "I think you could still be a very good nurse," and went on to suggest possible areas - "But," she continued, "I have to tell you, I've always pictured you as a novelist writing away in your cabin in the Maine woods."

Well, yes.  I like that picture, too.  Though actually, very few novelists live in cabins  - neither in the woods, nor elsewhere.  And writing?  Some people's writing is indeed very useful.  But not all.

And even if I repeat over and over my mantra (from Berryman by way of Merwin):  

                                   you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
even if  I don't have to be sure,  I do need something bigger, and more satisfying, that I can toss to that three-headed dog who hangs around, snapping outside the door. 

It doesn't help, after a month in the company of an unwieldy, unshapely first draft, to return to you, my Dream Machine, and find that you, too, are ungraceful and sprawly, trying to cycle down too many paths. 

How admirable the sites that focus day after day on just bikes, just poetry, just locavoring.  A reader knows when clicking over to those useful sites just what to expect (i.e. bikes, poetry, food&farming, in that order) and if there are sidelights of a more personal life, they are just tantalizing hints.  My dear Fantastical Conveyance, do you not read your Emily Dickinson?
A charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.

photo by Shadi Ghadirian, quoted from

So, what am I going to do with you, IB?  Don't you have anywhere worthwhile you can take me?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

She Curls in Brown Pod and Inside Her Mind . . .

Nativity icon from Rena Andreadis collection

"Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993"
by Jane Kenyon

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cat Callings

We have in our household a horrid little beauty of a cat.  Scratchy, impatient, bad-tempered -  unless YoungSon has her.  He rescued her last autumn, a year ago, from the barn, and has persevered gently when the rest of us gave up on her spiky person- . . . er, cat-ality.  Now she ignores the rest of us, but comes when he calls her and lets him ~ only him ~ scoop her up in a ball in his arms.  She gazes around out of his cradling arms like a baby ~ though one particularly nervy and hirsute.

Since the rescue of That Cat, aka Daisy, aka (of all things?) Mousy - and in addition to our patient and sweet old Cat of all Cats (whom I do love, though with a distant, dignified fondness) - YoungSon has also insinuated into our midst a one-eyed bruiser who struts around under the hopeful name of Phoenix.

Moreover, through this past summer and fall, YoungSon has been coaxingly negotiating an adoption with a handsome wandering gentleman who has seemed more than happy to scarf up the kibbles, but not interested in making friends.  YoungSon has been sure that this fourth cat is the long-lost and stubbornly feral Tansy (see link, if you must know more). 

This is all to say that cats are, to YoungSon, serious business.  That he adores them with all his little boy heart.  To him falls the daily chore of water and food, which he fulfills at least half the time without being reminded.  He tells us he does all the work.

On his bedroom door, amidst other important public notices, YoungSon has set out the Universe of Cat-toward approaches as they exhibit themselves in our family.  This document is entitled "Cat Callings."  Any guesses which is who?

  1. Annoyer
  2. The one who stops people from being mean to cats
  3. Watcher
  4. Spoiler (making them rotten) - though this was at first something more like "avoider" - YoungSon says he changed it because maybe this person just needed a better idea
  5. Main worker

And YoungSon wants nothing more than to expand his cat-caring labors.  Every free kitten needing a home, every untagged cat who wanders within range excites his collecting instincts. 

It is enough to reduce him to an expostulary splutter that She Who Stops People from Being Mean to Cats also stops them from adopting any more cats.

I am writing this facetiously, which is an inappropriate tone.  Forgive me.  It is the tone with which I always approach the essential things.  Last month I was working at my desk and YoungSon came running up to the sliding glass door, slap-tapping it to get my attention.

"Let me in! Let me in!"

When I opened the door, his eyes were wide and frantic.  I wondered what had been chasing him. 

"The cat!  the cat!  Tansy!"

Who it turns out has just been hit by a neighbor's minivan.  Now the story turns ugly - please stop reading and come back later if this will ruin your day -

YoungSon is jumping up and down, his voice distressed, "His eye I think it popped out  And I don't think it's dead yet but it is hurting too much - too much! and there is all this blood And it was just going like . . . " my son's body writhes and shudders showing the agony of what was, I have to admit, a beautiful white-breasted cat.

I hold his shaking body to me.  I sigh, "Let's get a shovel.  If it's savable, we'll take it to the vet.  If it's not - " this is the part no one warned me about when I turned into She Who Stops "- then we'll put it out of its misery."

And I just hope the force of my shovel-blow is enough the first time.

YoungSon is beginning to calm down, though still chattering, "I won't look at it.  I don't want to look at it."  It is not just the shock of seeing the impact.  It is also a sense of complicity.  He had been sneaking toward the cat with fishy treats in his hand, trying to lure Monsieur into a cozier connection.  The cat spooked.  Ran off down the hill.  Out into the road.  Right in the path of the neighbors' car.

Who have returned and are now stopped again in the street with their minivan, as we approach downhill through the tall grass, shovel in hand.  They are lifting the cat's limp body into a plastic tub.  "Is it your cat?"  They are so sorry.

We dig.  YoungSon won't look at the cat in the tub who is beautiful still.  But only from the ears back.  The sludgy stench of flesh is beginning to rise from the tub.

When the hole is dug - deep enough that the body won't be dug up by the coyotes whose nightly ruckus down in the ravine I mistook at first for the hoots and catcalls of kids drinking down by the creek - I send YoungSon up to the house to make a grave marker.  And by myself dump the poor body into the clean cool earth.  I avert my eyes.  A thin puddle of dark blood is left in the bottom of the green tub and the smell of death.

YoungSon is heading down the hill as I shovel in a layer of the sweet, clean dirt. By the time YoungSon gets back with the grave marker - two popsicle sticks crossed with Tansy's name carved with a pocket knife - YoungSon is in pretty good spirits. 

By this time he's planning out where all the other cats will be buried when their time comes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

49,842 - the battery charger failed me during the long drive home last night so after 3 hours writing and building up steam I had to close up shop.  I spent long dark hours watching shadowy hills pass by and feeling the story seep out of me. 

Instead we played a game:  

"Okay, I've got my animal.  Guess, yes or no?"

"Mammal?  Bird?  Fish?  Insect?  Parasite? Mollusc?  Freshwater?"

"Does it have six legs?  Antennae?  Is it red?  brown?  green?"

"Is it native to Oregon?  Have you ever seen one?"

"Is it poisonous?"

"Does it have three syllables in its name?  Does the first syllable begin with a? b? c? d?"

158 more words is no problem. 

It's just how to get to the ending and what that ending is - (mammal?  fish?  parasite?  Does the second syllable begin with a p?q?r?) 

Fritz says to celebrate just for the 50,000.  But I wanted a story, not just a lot of words. 

O please, dear Muse, send me a story ending that sizzles.  Just one more day.  Please.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

coming to an end

I have some new stories to tell - though maybe not in their unretouched and recognizable forms, perhaps not here in this venue - but information, scraps of conversation, personal details - to be tossed into some later fictional stew - which is for me one of the best parts about visiting family at the holidays.  Years past it used to make me feel like some kind of monster, this doubleness - that even while I'm experiencing something a part of me is thinking, So how would you write this on paper? Now I just go with it.

As of Wednesday night - 44,489.
As of Friday night - 46,010

I've got 4,000 words left to go.  Wednesday was a 10 hour ride beneath a laptop from which I had no way to run and no Internet access.  I've got the same weather conditions facing me today.  Something wonderful happens - or happened - at about 2000 words  - the story starting to gel and flow at the same time.  I hope it happens again today.

Next time you see me, I should be done.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I Bless the Daily Labor

 by Marina Tsvetaeva (translated by David McDuff)

"Evening Meal," by Carl Larsson

I have loved this poem for years now - even before I knew anything about the life of its author.  And even though I'm still not quite sure what she means by "dusty purple" (her art? her passion? her memories? the majesty of her inner fire?), nor what her dusty staff is "when all light's rays are shed" (her enduring stubbornness?  her hope beyond hope?),  nor what is the "law of blessings and law of stone" (the gospel of Jesus and the Ten Commandments? grace and justice?  the sudden miraculous serendipity that walks hand in hand with relentless reason and unforgiving consequence?)

But I love this poem because, even without knowing exactly what she means - I know what she means. 

After WWII, Marina Tsvetaeva faced starvation in Moscow - even mistakenly (and tragically) placing a daughter in a state orphanage where she thought the girl would be better fed.  She and her surviving daughter fled to Berlin, where she was reunited with her husband.  They moved to Prague, where their son was born, then settled in Paris where she contracted tuberculosis.  Then faced ostracism when her husband was revealed as a spy for the Soviet secret police. 

Without other options, Tsvetaeva followed her husband to Moscow, but in Stalin's USSR found all doors closed to her.  Her sister had already been imprisoned and the two sisters never saw each other again.  Friends, afraid for their own lives and reputations, refused to help.  Within a few years her daughter (who had increasingly turned against Tsvetaeva) was also imprisoned and Tsvetaeva's husband was shot for espionage.  Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to an area where she could not find work to support them.  She spent the last months of her life desperately looking for any kind of job.  Some believe she was at last forced by a squad of secret police to hang herself.  She lies in an unmarked grave.

Not so encouraging reading for our Thanksgiving Feast? 

But this story traces the shapes of all the things I fear most - the monsters of my nightmares - torn by war, not being able to feed my children, losing the people I love, estrangement, doors closed against me, betrayal, despair - and still, in the face of all these nightmares, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote this poem. 

I bless the daily labor of my hands,
I bless the sleep that nightly is my own.
The mercy of the Lord, the Lord’s commands,
The law of blessings and law of stone.

My dusty purple, with its ragged seams—
My dusty staff, when all light’s rays are shed.
And also, Lord, I bless the peace
In others’ houses—others’ ovens’ bread.

A poem which still lives. 

Which still carries on, whispering her words into my ears and now yours, lighting a small and comforting fire on other hearths many years and many miles from her own.

Blessings on all of you,
wherever you are, whoever you are. 
Peace to your houses.
May you have peace as your daily bread.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

details details details

I've been keeping a grateful tally this past month:
  1. a computer that works.
  2. mental engagement - this incredible excitement to get up in the morning!
  3. how snugly ordered it feels to alphabetize papers and file them away.
  4. the textured histories of people's names - some of what their namers hoped for the babies each of these people once were, where they've come from, familiar family groups, nationalities - and the open pleasure when you guess right: "Portugese?"  "Why yes!" and the stories of immigration and opportunity that follow.
  5. sharing cooking tips for kale or squash over a box of donated produce, trading favorite recipes - dried cherries in cinnamon rolls? this I am going to have to try!
  6. singing "We Gather Together" or "For the Beauty of the Earth" in the morning, before we all gallop off in various directions.
  7. the surprise of a cup of hot licorice tea carried down to me on a saucer.
  8. a long back rub while I'm hammering away at the keyboard.
  9. walking in the dark, early in the morning, when no one is out but me and my friend.
  10. THEN! walking by daylight on Saturday and seeing color everywhere!
  11. the smell of the poplars as their leaves die.
  12. Sunday afternoons (after a week of writing I bask in the peace of a day that I don't write - a day of rest indeed - Whoever thought up this idea must be Genius!)
  13. the (resultant?) energy and eagerness of Monday mornings.
  14. finding a good clean rental (triplex) for my in-laws so quickly and easily in a near neighborhood, for a reasonable price.
  15. the fun of planning the daffodil bulbs to cheer my mother-in-law this coming spring - oh, and also tulips!! because their place is down out of deer range (okay, also to cheer me!)
  16. re-connecting with a favorite neighbor who had moved (and who I'll see now regularly when I stop at my in-laws').
  17. just in general, though also in delightful particular, friends who stay friendly despite vicissitudes.
  18. a bad day writing that doesn't mean I stop writing.
  19. a good day writing that follows after!
  20. my feisty 90 year-old neighbor down at the end of the road who says things like: "Anyways, that doctor still kept asking me if I was sure I had  eye surgery.  Like I told him, it's not my brain I'm having trouble with - it's my patience!"  (and the crinkly chuckle she gives, quirking her eyebrows when I burst out laughing).   "Like I say, last time I was at the doctor's office he had retired.  Apparently he made his wad.  Like I say he was young yet.  Not like these politicians who don't know when they're through and have to die in their offices and be dragged out feet first."  I simply love her.
  21. kisses goodbye from my 9yo son.
  22. daughters who make meals occasionally.
  23. daughters who are clever and "brave" - and also actually brave.
  24. good news! (and one step closer to a tuition scholarship - fingers and toes all duly crossed!!)
  25. sunshine suddenly very brilliant.
  26. also rain - the sound of it on the roof and now all the saturated greenness and luscious plummy greys.
  27. prayer, the openness that comes after.
  28. watching YoungSon play basketball with such vehement pleasure.
  29. (and my dear Fritz who is such a great coach with those 4th graders - our daughters and I, watching him at the games, agree he has in part missed his calling, working away every day in his lab - he would have been a great teacher - patient, clear, engaged).
  30. though I am grateful too for the working away in the lab - that he has it to do, that he does it, that he enjoys it as much as he does - all of which allows me to take this year to make one of my dreams reality.
  31. going into the city all together as a family - for once!
  32. listening to the radio together (even if it is Owl City over and over and over).
  33. trying out mattresses (ah!) (though it made it harder than ever to go back to our lumpy old pallet - oops! I mean - of course that I'm grateful I even have a mattress and the thought that someday I'll have a better one is just added cush).
  34. the talk-therapy at the morning pool.
  35. pomegranates.
  36. individual seeds of pomegranate like jewels sprinkled over a bowl of vanilla yogurt.
  37. the kitchen entirely cleaned by other hands than mine.
  38. all the laundry folded ditto.  (Is this a once in a lifetime experience?)
  39. my daughters' blatant enjoyment at the strengthening of their bodies, showing off new muscles since joining swim team.
  40. YoungSon's explosion of bakeryism: shortbread, cranberry shortbread, pumpkin cookies with brown butter icing, cocoa crackles, pumpkin pie bars - though his setting these confections day after day on a plate at my elbow while I sat at my desk has rendered a favorite pair of jeans - well, let's admit it - unwearable.
  41. walking in the rain.
  42. a husband who can and will maintain tidiness and order in the house.
  43. encouragement in all its forms.
  44. the webby world where words matter.
  45. Emma Thompson in Wit - Take that MORTALITY!
  46. watching Ushpizin as a family - a funny-sad Israeli comedy - the title means "guests" and centers on the week-long Succoth holiday tradition of welcoming all comers - no matter who, nor how difficult.
  47. the internet going down (? - yes, because I got so much more writing done that week).
  48. also the friend who let me check in on the webby world from her house when I couldn't stand the electronic isolation any longer.
  49. woolen hooded cape that keeps me warm on morning walks even in pouring rain without steaming me in my own juices.
  50. my Mom writing out her memories of kayaking among the wild geese, a drake with a curly feather on his back, a heron taking flight.
  51. talking to my sisters, to my mother, to my daughters.
  52. a training meeting for youth leaders that for once does not waste my time but fills me and feeds me with ideas and enthusiasm, makes me feel part of something bigger and better - rather than making me more weary and weighed down (as may sometimes, sadly, and too frequently, occur).
  53. a son who greets me with, "Mommee!" and when he leaves, "Good luck today!  Write lots of words!"
  54. people who are able to appreciate my children.
  55. my friend who comes to YoungSon's ball game even in the midst of her own crazy-happening life.
  56. fluffy soft woolen gloves - and mending them so they are wearable again - nothing keeps my hands so warm as this long-(and well-)loved pair.
  57. black tights.
  58. also black boots.
  59. daughter who brings down a big pitcher of water and a white china cup when I ask, does she knows where my water bottle is?
  60. the goodness of water.
  61. hazlenut and shrimp cream sauce over penne.
  62. Barbara Pym and all her works, but especially this month, Civil to Strangers ( . . . and how great would it be to be managed and pampered like the famous male author of that book? . . . this must have been an exercise in total wish fulfillment for darling Barbara, the "most underrated writer of the century").
  63. a loaf of fresh bread from a friend.
  64. the sweetness of sleep.
  65. seeing a falling star one morning while walking alone.
  66. bitter greens with sweet D'Anjou pears and blue cheese.
  67. a husband who lets me put my cold feet on him.
  68. {anything else I've left unmentioned}
  69. geese flying over and their calls.
  70. dry socks.
  71. a furnace that works.
  72. the rock ballads of the 80's - and the way the music of one's younger years - even stuff you never really cared for at the time - sweeps you back to a not-after-all-so-unpleasant a past - though it was one which you could not wait to grow out of and away from .
  73. lunch with friends - chopsticks, tempura and miso soup - and talk and talk and talk . . .
  74. lunch with my daughters - good bread! hot mint tea!  lemon curd cake!!
  75. (obviously, I am also grateful for exclamation points!!)
  76. hearing out of the blue from a young woman I worked with in the church youth program to get her enrolled at the community college - "Hey, I haven't talked to you in a long time.  I miss you." - in college now (thinking criminal law) and doing well.
  77. how clean a rag and a bucket of warm water-and-ammonia, finished up with a squeegee, can get a window - i.e. how much more light the window now lets in  - which begins to be important in this corner of the world this time of the year.
  78. that I could pay my son to do it (#77)
  79. the always reliable quick meal fall-back - deeply nutritious and greeted with cries of "Oh, yum!"  - we miscall it "Orechetti" (rhyming inaccurately with "spaghetti")
  80. the indescribable goodness of baked pears.
  81. seeing other people's gratitude lists - the small delights especially.
  82. watching Middlest and Eldest plot out the Cooking of the Feast - the menu, the recipes, the order of the attack.
  83. watching them make rolls - and their prospective grief at all these cute little crescents being gobbled by the heedless hordes.
  84. Fritz who takes Middlest shopping for supplies and only sighs a little bit to find me sitting at the computer  - writing here - and not adding to my wordcount.

  85. walking in and getting my hair cut without having to wait.
  86. Even an encounter with someone who thinks this novel-writing is rather silly and is a little put out when I say, "No, sorry.  I told you before, not until after Thanksgiving," even that makes me grateful - that all month long I've been surrounded by people (like you) who  either understand why this crazy endeavor is so important or love me enough that even if you don't understand you know that it does matter immensely to me -  thank you

. . . and about that wordcount?  40,285. Not bad.

But I'd like to see something much more fantastic tomorrow.

Yes? Can we schedule that in?)

9715 words left to go.

(And an ending of some kind would be nice . . . )
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