Monday, October 31, 2005


pumpkin suffering weather

When my children were small, I celebrated candle-lit pumpkins with elaborately carved starry night scenes, always created the evening of Halloween, when the skies were still too light to trick-or-treat. There are enough pumpkins with faces, I surmised. I also worried a face might scare little ones, coming out of a pumpkin. And I just like being different.

I arrived at my friend Liz’ house to find my son elbow deep in pumpkin seeds, tongue sliding out of the side of his mouth in deep concentration. He had cut the front of the pumpkin “with some help,” after carefully making a paper pattern, then he was going at some designs on the backside of the pumpkin, all by himself. He also ingeniously cut a slot exactly the size of a tea light candle at the back of the pumpkin—I’m thinking he should patent his design. My daughter carved her own pumpkin in school, also, with the help of a fifth grader. I am a bit stunned to be so uninvolved in the process! What a strange sensation! I sat down with a bowl of carrot soup, to watch the progress of the children with their carving tools.

How different the world is, everyday, with children who are able to find other assistants for their projects, who can do so much by themselves!

I had just begun to miss my nightscape-carved pumpkins the boy asked to light the candle in his jack-o-lantern and turned the face toward me: a toothy smile, like any jack-o-lantern, with a moon for a nose, and two stars for eyes. “I made the picture myself,” he says. “Just the way I wanted it.”

Friday, October 21, 2005

the real story

She would come early to church, or late as the case would be, and while she was well-dressed, sixty-something, she looked for all the world like a stray cat, too skinny, hungry and big-eyed, more fragile than a person ought to be. I loved the way Elaine climbed into a pew, slipped off her shoes and hugged her knees to herself, staring off into the rafters regardless of what she had walked in on. It seemed as if perhaps she had never been in a church before, though that is hardly possible. Her posture reminded me of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and drinking him in.

That church was in the center of town, and my husband and I called it The Church of the Broken People. Our congregation attracted the newly divorced, a good indicator for a place that claims healing is possible. Elaine wasn’t the first to discover the miracle of it, the warmth of that church at that time, but she embodied the experience of being left behind, forlorn, bereft, like no one else. Starved for goodness, she responded with gratitude to any drop of goodness that could be found, and she found it in the architecture, in the way the light streamed in the window, in the smallest hello.

Prior to the weekly worship service, St. John’s Adult Forum was truly a forum—what we lacked in racial diversity was made up in theological and class diversity, and what congregants believed covered a remarkably broad range. One Sunday, I lead a discussion titled “What is the Bible,” which I introduced with a group cheer:

WHAT is the Bible,
what IS the Bible,
what is THE Bible,
what is the BIBLE—

I made them shout this just to make a ruckus and to loosen up our tongues for the tough questions and differences ahead. I began with a blank flipchart and asked people to tell me what was the biggest, gnarliest question each held in regards to the Bible and modern life. Elaine practically stood out of her seat, shaking with her question when I nodded to her to speak: she blinked as if she might cry and whispered,

“What if… what if it’s real?”

I felt chills as she said it, blood rising to my face in a great rush, and I paused at length to let the question sink in. “Now that,” I nodded, “that is the best question of all, isn’t it? What if this story is true, what if the ending is really good, what if God really cares about us the way this book says, from creation until the end. You win, Elaine! Write that one down.” We proceeded to have the kind of rich, wild discussion one would expect in an Episcopal church where not everyone believes the same thing about the Bible. And every time I saw Elaine after that, I thought of that moment, of magic and vulnerability and grand insight. Every time I saw her I wanted to congratulate her.

Years later I worked in a college office building where Elaine also worked, whole and generous-hearted and capable, not a stray cat at all. And I mentioned Elaine to Gretchen, another member of that community, from that time.

“Now, Elaine, she is a case isn’t she? She never seemed to concentrate on a single word said in church, lost in her own little world. I remember one day she asked in Adult Forum what if the Bible was real, and I wanted to shake her and say, if you’d just pay attention, maybe you’d find out!”

And now it was time for me to be astonished, again, blood rising to my face again, but this time in bewilderment.

“Did you see her face when she said it? You didn’t feel how deep this question was, for her?”

“Deep? The opposite of deep. I just gave up on her. How can a person like that learn anything?”

Now I was discouraged. How could anyone see Elaine that way?

I know my experience. I was present in the room in that Adult Forum, wondering if the Holy Spirit would whisk us all away on a big wind—so was Gretchen, present in the room and permanently discouraged, writing off Elaine as too far gone. You are reading my story, not Gretchen’s, so you will think my side more likely. Which is true?

I am intrigued. It’s perception, interpretation. It’s what we are ready to see. It’s where we have been, along the way, and Gretchen has certainly been some places along the way to see suffering. She is not shallow, not blind at all. I remain convinced of the fire inside the question, convinced I have something to learn from Elaine, to be Mary at the feet of Jesus. But the other perception? I need to know that, too, that mine are not the only eyes in the world, mine not the only view.

Perhaps the lesson for me, once again, and again and again, that others see things differently, feel things differently, even when the Real Version is as plain as the nose on my face, to me. The disparity is unsettling, discordant. And as a writer exploring my own past, this disparity is important. Is my version true? Has my memory embellished it?

In the case of Elaine, she seems vibrant, now, and thrilled when I bring her a yellow tulip for her office. As for me, I laugh and shake my head. Regardless, I like my version better, and I’m sticking to my story.

What if it’s real? Isn’t that the best question of all! What if.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

houseboat in the pussywillow Posted by Picasa

Children have built a houseboat, they tell me, in the pussywillow tree. Their busy laughter has charmed me for hours, the past few afternoons of clear skies. I peek out to find they have strung watering cans and baskets and sand shovels onto yellow yarn, dangling each from tree branches. They are checking to see if their "traps" have any lobsters, good New England fisher-folk. I see a plastic rake up there. I don't ask questions. They are happy, in the fresh air, making a world of their own choosing and their voices are the kind of music one imagines with the words "happy childhood."

Yard sale today at our church, and my take is a giant bag of treasures: three barely worn pair of boy’s sneakers (50 cents each), two quilted pillowcases that will make lovely doll blankets, a well-built hole-punch, a skateboarding helmet. Two high quality baskets, a stack of saucers, a water-filter pitcher in much better shape than our current one, a “salsa maker” that doubles as a child-sized salad spinner. A glass butter dish, an alternative to our everyday Tupperware butter dish. Two great picture books. A child-sized teapot. Extra-bulky wool yarn in blue, the color I always neglect. A wire basket for fruit. Everything in the giant bag seems letter-perfect for our needs. I even found a book I was wanting in the dollar pile. “Oh, that’s marked down to a quarter now,” the saleslady said. I pay my Sunday school girls twelve dollars for the lot, two happy hours pass. I am surprised the children have followed my instructions and have not removed the salad spinner to the yard with the other houseboat needs.

The big frost will come soon. Yesterday I spirited children outside in order to plant the rhubarb starts, the anniversary gift hydrangea and foxglove, the wildflower seed. I weeded for two hours, trimmed perennials, mowed one last time and moved a few strategic plants—no use trying to keep anything alive where the children jump out of the tree. I potted some more delicate herbs and brought them to the porch. I potted two wayward tomato seedlings complete with tiny tomatoes on them, hoping. I am a sporadic gardener, but I hate to lose anything good. The boy was completely absorbed in sifting one shovelful of compost, then he left the other twenty shovelfuls where they spent the entire summer—I understand that. That’s how I garden, too.

The clocks will change soon, but already the children are ready for sleep when the skies turn dark, pleasantly early. We need candles for dinner, and we watch the sunrise at seven a.m., late.

In this October full of hurricanes (they visit here, too, though we have escaped the devastation, for the most part), our little three rooms with a fabulous view seems like a houseboat of sorts, too. Some days I have wondered if we would float away with the rain, after the long, sunny September. We have begun the season of soup-making and I am glad for my work at the organic grocery, where I haul home bags of slightly dated and wilty items, still delicious but no longer quite as beautiful or fresh as it needs to be.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

rainy saturday weather report

Yesterday and the day before reminded me of my students in the Pacific Northwest, blinding sunlit heat interspersed with rogue patches of freezing, dripping fog—weather as an embrace of polar opposites. As I squeezed in a twenty-minute beach walk, wind was beating the fog back toward the sea. I heard maniacal laughter emitting from a cloud, wet suited surfers appearing and disappearing a few feet away from me.

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, today, and the weather report says when the rain ends in a few days, the long, endless warm season will be over. Children decided, against my recommendation, that this is a perfect brownie baking day. The soup pot is bubbling, soup made from roasted chicken stock from last May’s rainy season.

At some point, multitasking is another word for chaos, as the boy insisted his grilled cheese sandwich be eaten even though he was in the middle of chopping potatoes for soup. I was wrestling with the computer: I am trying to lighten my backpack by using the Palm Pilot more effectively, so I was downloading tide charts and the lunar calendar, searching for the church calendar and lectionary online, too. Somewhere in there, I waltzed to the stove to stir the soup, and I realized a third of my wooden spoon has burned off or is still somewhere in the soup, disguised as a piece of chicken or potato.

The cook and developmental psychologist’s dilemma: do I tell? If I tell a nearly six-year-old that there may be a charred piece of wood in his soup, he will be looking for a charred piece of wood in every bowl of soup until he is twelve. If I tell a nearly eight-year-old that there may be a charred piece of wood in her soup, she will tell me she didn’t want my homemade chicken soup anyway, that in fact all chicken soup is yukky and she hates it, that she won’t eat one bite except maybe the carrots. (I always quadruple the carrots in the soup, for this very reason.)

On the back burner of my mind, behind the baking brownies, the six-year-old dishwasher splattering, the eight-year-old arranging miniature dogs on the windowsill, the husband looking for a missing car registration, I marvel the funny irony of a tide chart on a handheld computer. The world we live in! I am trying to figure out nature by looking at a computer! I adjust the screen display to my exact beach location, which changes the time of high tide by two minutes, corrects the whole chart to match the yellowed fold-out paper tide chart from my local hardware store, which lives on the refrigerator until it is too stained to read. Our favorite beach all but disappears at high tide, so there is a practical purpose to this function. And outside of the practical, my Palm offers me a “you are here” arrow on a beautiful color graph, and the times of sunrise and sunset, to the minute. I hope to download a calendar of meteor showers and astronomical events, too, and Jewish holidays. And the pattern for the sweater I am knitting. I am too good at losing little slips of paper and forgetting details of upcoming appointments, and if I fill the Palm with fun information, I will look for these necessary factoids more often.

It’s the “to do” list I use most often, the antidote to all the paper lists I promptly forget and lose as soon as I write them. Don’t forget: the windshield needs replaced. The valve on the washing machine, too, and it’s time to sign up to take flowers to the girl’s classroom. Don’t forget visitors and trips that fill October, don’t forget that the boy is expecting a birthday party this year and the girl wants a fuzzy black bat costume to match the boy’s fuzzy black bat costume, so buy another yard of black fleece and find a black hat for ears.

Don’t forget… don’t forget autumn is the most beautiful season of the year, my favorite. Don’t forget that it’s time to visit some of our friends who are getting very old, don’t forget that time passes so quickly and they may need our affection to get through the winter, though they would never ask for it. Don’t forget to walk, while the streets are still easy to maneuver. Don’t forget that everything will seem too busy, very soon, as if everything is leading up to the holidays. Don’t forget to breathe deeply the ocean air.

The tide chart is complete and correct, the lunar calendar is left to figure out. The soup is steaming and good enough for two bowls. “Watch for bay leaves,” I warn, deciding that is all the information they really need on an unhurried day to slowly eat soup.