Wednesday, December 27, 2006

exception to the rule

Brendan often chooses particularly challenging projects near bedtime—the Lego car kit that requires tiny pieces placed just right, or braiding, or just the other night he turned over a jigsaw puzzle with a photo of the sun’s surface, then he wept because he just couldn’t make the frustrating pieces fit back together. He didn’t do it to make me mad; he really thought he could do this puzzle, just the same as he could when he is fresh, in the morning. I don’t rescue often—I am the parent who doesn’t give boosts for climbing, doesn’t push swings once children grow capable of pumping their own legs for momentum. “You got the wrong mama!” I laugh when children beg me for things they must do themselves. “If you can’t get yourself up on that high rock, then you don’t need to be on that rock.” Sometimes my children wish they had a nicer mama, but a tough mama comes in handy, too. They are strong climbers, and good on the swings.

But bedtime is a different matter: without that sun picture completed, there will be no sleep. And if tears go on long enough, even if the sun picture is completed, there will be no sleep. “Let’s do it together, B,” I say in what I hope is a soothing tone. It’s late. I hate jigsaw puzzles. “Put all the straight edge pieces in this pile, and then we’ll separate the other pieces by color.” I ask Madeleine to go get my glasses— my eyes show the weariness first.

I place the edge pieces inside the border, and too many pieces are shaped similarly. It’s a 48 piece puzzle designed for eight year olds, and I am swearing at it under my breath, muttering and wanting to pound them with my fist like Brendan does. Fifteen minutes of frustration later, I realize we got two similarly-shaped pieces mixed up, and that’s why the puzzle is not coming together. I pat the sun puzzle with pretend satisfaction, kiss all goodnight and tuck them in, and tuck the puzzle in its case, too. I walk out quietly to my desk, where the urge to type in capital letters I HATE JIGSAW PUZZLES AND I WILL NEVER DO ONE AGAIN IF I CAN HELP IT. But I have other things to write, so I don’t waste my time.

But here I am. Mount Ypsilon, Bear Lake, The Twin Sisters.

My Christmas present from Brendan is a jigsaw puzzle of Rocky Mountain National Park, a topographical map of a landscape I loved intimately twenty summers ago.

The Twin Owls, Sprague Lake. Bridal Veil Falls—there are two different waterfalls sharing the same name, and I used to know which was which, but I don’t now.

I don’t know every single piece. I didn’t own a car when I spent my two college summers working outside of the Park boundaries, so my travels were limited to hikes sponsored by the conference center where I worked, or places I could arrange to hike with friends. My second summer I logged 186 miles over sixteen weeks of summer break, as a slow hiker with a short stride trying real hard. I worked the night shift, then caught the first hiking group available two or three mornings a week, when I wasn’t collapsing due to lack of genuine sleep. Most hikes returned by two p.m. to avoid the afternoon thunder storms so typical in the Rockies. I’d stagger to my little village of staff housing, shower and throw myself into bed, just as the morning kitchen and cleaning staffs arrived home from their shifts to make happy mayhem. Often sleep seemed impossible, so I’d grab my pack and hike to the Big Thompson River, to sleep on my favorite sun-warmed boulder. I had the best tan of my life, joking that my goal was “skinny, tan and godly.” My erratic schedule and my solo work at the conference center’s night switchboard made me half crazy, but “work” constituted stacking the fireplace with wood, playing my guitar and waiting for the phone to ring. And I got to hike more than anyone else but the hikemasters. I invited other staff to come enjoy my fireplace, and the fabulous meals the security guard brought me—steaks and fresh vegetables, delicious strawberries, much better than regular staff rations. With the exception of sleep, it was the perfect job.

I closed my eyes to the cover of the puzzle, so each little piece I turn over from the big box finds me delighted. Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Sunset Lake.

Not much makes me nostalgic. I don’t idealize high school or college—those were lonely years. My first years in the working world were grueling. But I’m nostalgic for landscapes, astounding landscapes like those mountains, the first place I laid eyes on when I left home, the most beautiful place on earth. I long to go back, though I can’t imagine how our lives would need to change to afford such a trip.

Long’s Peak—I don’t think I could train hard enough to climb Long’s easily. It’s a tough, long hike with some very scary precipices. I am not in any kind of condition for it. Altitude sickness occurs in even the fittest of tourists—it would take most of week to acclimate to life two miles above sea level. I am pale and definitively not skinny. Godliness may be different now than it was before, but that spirit-flame is not quite as dependent on circumstances.

I hiked to Eagle’s Cliff at least one afternoon a week, often by myself, to write letters and enjoy a sunset. From there I could see the vast green Moraine Park, which take up half a dozen pieces of this puzzle, with it’s snaking blue river.

Teddy’s Teeth is not a high ridge, but it’s the ridge between Estes Park and Boulder, and the best place to watch fireworks exploding below you, in dozens of cities, for miles and miles of fireworks in bright splashes over the lights of Denver in the distance. Teddy’s is the last peak I climbed, for a picnic lunch with Peter Reigle, 1985, my last day in the Rockies.

I do hate jigsaw puzzles, and I may never do another. But I’ll gladly assemble the Rocky Mountains, each new piece a dream of where I might go someday, if I haven’t seen it already. Five hundred interlocking pieces, some of them falling into place just as I remember them. It’s all I can manage not to obsess over the whole project right now. I will not pound these pieces with my fist or swear at them. Each one is a dear vision. I’ll just go do a few more, just one or two…

Sunday, December 24, 2006

the people in darkness have seen a great light

This elf is "done" earlier than I've ever been, on Christmas eve. I could finish a few more projects, but this little nagging sore throat has me worried. Scott just left for the midnight service. I'm wrestling to upload the photo of my son's spectacular art project/meditation on Isaiah 9 ... it will have to wait.

Meanwhile, when they are awake, and can be coaxed away from tasteless renditions of Jingle Bells (they don't even know who Batman is, or what a Batmobile is, but that doesn't stop them from trying...) in magical moments, they sing this...

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

"People, Look East" was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) and was first published as "Carol of Advent" in Part 3 of "Modern Texts Written for or Adapted to Traditional Tunes" in The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.

Blessed Christmas to you. Thank you for reading.

Friday, December 22, 2006

what my education lacked

The Adjectives

We are the adjectives—artists, too—
We stick to the nouns
As your skin sticks to you.
I call the man great or good or sad.
I call the beast large or fierce or bad.
I paint the grass green
And the flowers gay.
We dance through the world
In our colorful way.

Madeleine brought this home from her third grade classroom. Two years ago, her class memorized a lengthy poem about the vowels and how they work with each other…

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

madness which will not be repeated

This is only a partial reporting of last year's holiday madness, which Will Not Be Repeated for Christmas 2006. Kids seem to be in a remarkably good and settled place, thanks be to God and special thanks to me, their supervisor orchestrating calming activities like eating and sleeping. Not that the mood cannot change, of course, but right now, all is good.

I just peeked in on Madeleine, Brendan and Scott hibernating in a big snoring pile where they settled two hours ago, after I put a halt to the “celebration” of Christmas, hauled away the remaining wrapped presents, and declared Quiet Hour.

I need to admit here a truth that is hard to speak: every single Christmas celebration up to this 2005 one has been so breath-takingly sweet. Ours has been the house you’d hate to phone, our children entertaining themselves for hours with the new marble tower or the new art project. There’s never been a cranky moment, except the Christmas evening we attempted to build a gingerbread house, starting far too late and underestimating the time required. But we’ve never seen anything but sheer joy the morning and lunch of Christmas. My husband and I have, up to now, spent hours grinning quietly at each other over our cups of coffee, agreeing that it is a good idea to give children piles of presents in order for them to entertain themselves quietly across the room.

But this Christmas wasn’t like that.

Scott and I finished our elf-work by midnight last night, and I had waffle dough rising and kitchen clean by one a.m., probably a world’s record Christmas prep for our house. Kids woke at three-thirty to crowd into our bed, and Scott returned them shortly after. They returned at seven, a merciful hour, to wish us Merry Christmas and snuggle for ten wiggly minutes before running for the stockings.

Sounds sane enough, so far, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, we have been consistently underslept and battling colds for two weeks, with children in that regression/tantrum zone one minute and drawing elaborate renditions of Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary the next minute— I need to check to see whether we are dealing a child in the midst of thoughtful creativity or The Other Mood. (I found a paper nativity scene in colored pencil under my pillow, maybe two inches square, offered by my six-year-old son and just breath-taking.)

Yesterday was just the kind of happy-edgy madness we live in: we put off buying a Christmas tree until the tree lots were nearly closed on Christmas eve. Kids and Scott rushed out when we realized everything would be closed by the time the church Christmas pageant was over. They came dragging it home at three p.m. as I finished preparing the extremely late lunch, leaving just barely time enough to dress children for the four p.m Christmas service at our church.

The service reflected none of our madness. Simple and ethereal, readings and music to break the heart, while elders smile at the din of babies and toddlers by the dozen. Three boys, ages seven and eight, read the gospel with the slightest of lisps and the greatest of enthusiasm. A choir of six each holds a single handbell with gloves twice the necessary size, and their faces glow with gusto as they sing. Madeleine and her friend Helen take the offering, holding hands against the fear of such an adult activity. Brendan processes with three other young children, carrying porcelain figures for the crèche near the altar, and like the others he is serious and intent, not performing so much as fully present.

We leave church with tins of goodies, gifts in shiny bags. We arrive home to that tree needing placement, propping and trimming, all of us hungry and cranky and everything is running late, interrupted by children behaving like fraternity brothers at a tailgate party. We force them to eat food with protein and vegetables, cajole them into a bathtub, dress them in the traditional new Christmas Eve pajamas, bribe them with hot cocoa and whipped cream, beg them to stop whining and shoving. They obsess over ornaments for an hour and a half past their bedtime, which would be fine except for the previous night’s pajama party, the sniffles. And the elves still needing time to work and sleep.

I am just now reckoning with a job outside of the academic schedule, a job without “Christmas break.” There are benefits—Scott picked up nearly all of the wrapping duties after I burned my hand cooking, cooking tired after a full work-day on Thursday, after a late faculty party for his school the previous night. And the burn, as well as my limited schedule, brought my expectations of myself to a new “minimum,” comfortably enough. My job, itself, has been buzzing with activity and energy, and it’s easy to love, despite the schedule—we sell beautiful things, lovely scents, delicious foods, and shoppers have been very merry. But my children are long on excitement and short on my time and flexibility, short on the healthy food in comparison to the quantities of sugar consumed, and we are fraying around the edges.

This Christmas involved “time outs” and hauling several wrapped gifts from the room to let them rest in a closet until tempers cooled down. This Christmas was an educational reminder to us, the parents, of what ought not to happen. It was Not Ethereal. It was nearly mean. I will write more about it another time, but just know that we will learn, we will learn.

Note: in this Advent, the tree was already hauled up the street by two slight-but-enthusiastic elves singing "Oh Tannenbaum" at the top of their lungs. They decorated Mr. Tannenbaum with great love and only a touch of chaos. The five advent calendars and one spinning advent lantern are getting their daily dose of use. I'll find my other notes on How Not To Celebrate the birth of Jesus, sometime. However we celebrate, I am hoping for calmness and wonder, like the other Christmases we usually have.

Wishing you Ethereal, as much as can fit.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

applying myself

I am writing scholarship applications and working on some stories that are tougher to write about, these days—and preparing for holidays.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d post my grad school application, which I really enjoyed writing. The application question asked “describe your development as a writer and a person of faith.” I used the same framing story as a previous essay, so the first and last paragraphs may seem familiar (sorry—the art of publication is re-publication, I hear), but the bulk of this piece has not been posted previously. If you didn’t already know too much about me…

Oh, and I got into the program at SPU—now “all I have to do” is locate scholarships to pay for it. I hope to begin in August.

Three years ago, I reached into a beach bag only to find I’d forgotten my journal—in truth, writing was the reason I’d packed all the gear and taken my two small children to the beach in the first place. Frustrated, I picked up a stick and wrote I AM A WRITER across the sand. This news surprised me. While I love to read and I admire writers, at that moment I’d not made any effort to “finish” the stories in my journal pages and letters. I applied sunscreen to arms and legs of wiggly children for a few reflective moments before pulling out the Tonka trucks for a beach day without a pen.

When a few hours opened between my parenting schedule and my work as a college writing tutor, I leafed through my journals to find narratives worth exploring. An article for a former employer’s online magazine grew into a monthly column, and a sheaf of finished stories developed into a blog. Initially, I wrote for the same reasons I’ve always written, to clarify my thoughts, to capture a moment, and to inspire connections between people. But something in the telling transformed my personal stories and transformed me. Writing calls me to be present, awake, listening to my entire life with one ear, and listening to what is happening this very moment with the other ear. When I stumbled into writing, it seems I stumbled into myself.

Years before that day at the beach, I proposed a memoir to two writerly friends when we were three nursing mothers with no hope of holding a pen. I begged them to consider The Great American Novel of my ragged little dating life, and I talked them through the stories, one after another. I even had a title: The Absence of Reliable Transportation, about boyfriends, broken cars and road trips. Neither friend accepted my challenge. Two years ago, I began writing essays for this book, one chapter at a time. In darker moments I subtitle it “47,000 words looking for a structure,” as I become evermore aware of my limitations and lack of training in the craft of writing. My craving for deeper skills often reaches a fevery desperation to tell this story better than I know how. I’m eager to join a committed circle of writers and readers to wrestle with plotlines and character development, to learn to do this thing that I am already doing.

While I chip away at this long project, a second online magazine recently chose an essay of mine for their annual print journal. An editor at Paraclete Press noted several pieces on my blog and requested a book proposal. I’m submitting short pieces to magazines and periodicals. I’m learning the profession via self-directed study.

I hear the phrase “spiritual path” or “career path,” or any kind of path at all, and I picture a favorite quilt pattern called The Drunkard’s Path, worked in yellow and white, held with wooden pins to a breezy line. At first glance, the quilt’s pattern is barely visible through the curves and turns, then the crazy genius of the seamstress becomes clear in the arrangement of quarter-rounds and squares. My history houses many labyrinthine strands that fall in a not-exactly-linear pattern. The “career path” strand includes stints in college ministry, student development, adventure education, motherhood, and now writing. Another strand is a progression of descriptors about faith: Methodist, evangelical, Mennonite, Presbyterian, reformational, sacramental, Episcopal. I could include “animist” for my childhood habit of talking to trees. On a good day, the strands fit together into one beautiful piece. Pray like an evangelical, cultivate like a Mennonite, strive for reformation, live sacramentally. The love of God infuses everything, and I still talk to trees. But these are vexing times to be a believer. On a less than good day, I need to speak to that drunkard quilt designer with some strong questions, as I read the puzzle of this life and ask where in God’s name this pattern is going.

As a spiritually sensitive child, I was something of an anomaly in my hometown of Farmland, Indiana. My parents’ disdain for religion heightened my curiosity further. I marveled that they felt no longing for God, and my longing seemed just as foreign to them. I joined a church youth group and sucked up Bible stories, hymn lyrics, Sword Drills and all the counter-cultural trappings of middle-American Christianity in the late 1970’s. Those trappings made sense to me in a way my home did not. Good families “took me in” when my own family life grew too broken. Their generosity defined The Church for me, and under their influence I grew less fearful and defensive, and more at ease in the world, like that quilt unfurling in the breeze.

Eager to escape my small town, I landed a summer-long apprenticeship in a Christian drama troupe. I began my earnest study of faith viewing Christians as joyous and “thinking people,” in contrast to my anti-intellectual family. What luck to be a curious seventeen-year-old, living among bright seminary students at a lakeside summer camp! It’s charming in retrospect, given the modern-day caricature of Christian “thinking” and given the hostile anti-intellectualism in some Christian circles.

I lived in a number of faith-based communities for the next decade, including Christian colleges and student leadership houses. After four years in the world’s best college ministry organization, I worked as a Residence Director at Whitworth College. I served smart, sassy Christians whose faith did not and would not conform to mine, as well as smart, sassy non-Christians who thought just as profoundly about issues of faith. Scathingly frank conversation caught me off-guard, daily, but once I adapted, I thrived. I found strange joy in teasing away the cultural trappings from the core of my belief. While campus ministry years helped me shed notions of “good behavior” as salvific, at Whitworth I gained confidence that God loved my favorite student heretics just as deeply as I did, and would not wipe us out in a fit of wrath. I want to honor the gifts given from all these communities, while continuing to seek what is real and true.

Other strands in this quilt include a Drunkard’s Path of friendships won and lost, places and jobs loved and not loved, and a fifteen-year path of culture shock in New England. My relationships, my faith, my joy and fury intertwine in this strand where I live. I knew myself to be an unusual character, but my oddness is highlighted in this corner of the world. My neighborhood is annoying and vibrant; my children’s school, quirky; my church, unlike any other. My marriage provides its own story line. Writing drives me beneath the swirl at the surface. I listen to savor words my children say, and to hear the bitter truth one neighbor offers another. I watch for nuances, juxtapositions. I’m not sure why these everyday epiphanies are important, but I sit down and write. Some of my writing is specifically spiritual in nature; much of it is not. I like the possibility the Seattle Pacific program presents to explore all of it, for the spiritual nature imbedded in every kind of story, and for the quality of story within spiritual writing, as well.

I am rarely without a pen and paper, these days, but even when my life requires pushing a Tonka truck, I am a writer. I don’t need a stick and sand to tell me so. Writing is the way I stitch together all the strands of my life into one varied and colorful fabric. Alongside my pen this interesting creation unfurls, in a pattern just barely visible, at first glance. I hold a deep affection for the twisty paths that draw all these pieces together, a deep respect for the questions imbedded, here. The pattern draws me forward, anticipating the joy of the next turn, and the next turn after that, too.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

cleaning adventure

five chunks of sea glass, large ones brightly colored which suggests this is “manufactured” sea glass, not the find-at-the-beach kind

orange yarn

a red knotted yarn for string games

lip balm in a green case with cross-and-skullbone designs—obviously marketed for Halloween and boys

a map of the Paris subway system?

Yesterday was the annual pre-Christmas purge of my children’s tiny bedroom, netting two bags of trash and two bags of stuff for the consignment shop. I find not only the items my kids use, but the packaging of several things, torn boxes, pieces of cardboard. I find numerous children’s menus from Friendly’s, Bertucci’s, Jalapenos. I move the seldom-used stuffed animals and dolls back to their home in the Guatemalan hammock, high above.

I find the special stashes of glitter glue and stickers that were given protective custody for so long that no one remembers where they are—tubes of glitter glue in the back of the old jewelry box, tucked into the play mailbox, rolls of scotch tape tucked among the handmade dolls. Jammed under the dresser is my dusty old computer keyboard, where it’s been hiding since July, encased in cardboard—I put it in the trash pile.

It’s been a month of stitchery projects, so the collection of used paper is not overwhelming, this time—M and B and I sorted an entire office-storage box a month ago, crammed with drawings and paintings. Usually I do this in the dark of night, but now kids are old enough to recognize that not every drawing is remarkable enough to even remember what the drawing is about.

Scott firmly believes in keeping everything, always, as if he (or anyone he knows) lived through the Great Depression, or a time of shortages. “I hope you didn’t throw out anything good,” he says when I clean.

“Explain to me the qualitative difference between a collection of six cheap Hawaiian leis and a collection of thirty-six identical leis. Or the reason why to keep ten boxes of cheap giveaway crayons from Friendly’s, the kind that break on impact with the paper, when we have a good collection of German crayons and Crayolas. Do we need the box that every item came in? Do we need five wooden train whistles, just because we’ve been given five train whistles? We need space.” He consents to let me be me, the hausfrau goddess. Some items do get tucked away in case someone asks for them—but not many.

So today I come to Brendan’s backpack, to see what he’s forgotten there. A pencil, good. A booklet from the New England Aquarium—we went in early summer, six months ago. A tiny stuffed pig, perhaps four inches tall.

And a map of the Paris subway system.

I’ve never been in the Paris subway system, nor in Paris, nor even in France. I’ve been to Ireland, which is technically in Europe. I can’t think of anyone I know—or anyone the kids know—who has recently been to France. The map is in French. It’s not something he could simply pick up in a local store.

Brendan and Madeleine have been asking me about passports. His friends Salome and Sophia travel to Hawaii often, and Madeleine’s friend Helen has a Canadian/American dual citizenship. We need to buy passports soon, so we are free to cross the Canadian border easily.

But he’s seven, and perhaps the youngest age seven that’s ever been. He just lost his first tooth. How did he get a map of the Paris subway system? Does he have a plan to go?

Good thing he loves his mama. He won’t travel anywhere without me, anytime soon. He’s just learned to bravely walk two doors down to visit the little girls on our block, and I can see it takes all the determination he possesses to walk out that door by himself.

I leave all the treasures where I found them, in his pack. I’ll check with him after school to ask if he remembers who gave him the map or why. I bet he won’t remember and we’ll be left with the mystery. He’s wrapped up in today, in the golden “angel coin” left by the tooth fairy. (The tooth fairy did not have her glasses on. She thought the coin was a shiny Sacagawea dollar coin for spending—but this is so much better! It’s a gold coin imprinted with the image of an angel on each side. He ran out singing, an angel coin, an angel coin, the tooth fairy left me an angel coin…)

The room is clean enough for now. Madeleine and I constructed a case for her “mandala maker,” from a green wool sweater, with a pocket for the colored pencils. I left Brendan’s one special pizza box (which means I got rid of three stashed non-special pizza boxes) marked with numbers for a marble game, and the long cardboard tube with “marble shooter” written backwards down the length. For Christmas, I need to work with Madeleine to make a suitable case for her American Girl doll clothes and accessories. I’ve made a half-dozen small treasure bags from solo hand-knit socks I can’t bear to part with, for marbles, for jacks, for angel coins and sea glass. I’ll keep looking for other junk to eliminate and other ways to organize stuff.

Today I need to sort the basket of papers on my desk, so there is room for the Advent Lantern and a small wooden tree. It’s unlikely I’ll run into anything as remotely interesting as a map of the Paris subway system.

But then, you never know.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

early twilight

He calls between evening appointments to say, “Don’t miss it.”

I meant to bring down the advent box and the beautiful advent lantern, this fifth day of December and the third day of the advent season. I stepped in the school store to buy a set of advent candles, but half a dozen parents were shopping, and there wasn’t really room for one more.

Carl asked if the kids could play after school’s end, in the little wooded area they call a playground. “You need a winter coat on,” he said merrily. “You’re from the Midwest! You should know better.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” I pull my wrap around my thick wool sweater. “I just haven’t faced the cold, yet. It was sixty degrees last week.” I found my warm hat, and my warm curls add a bit of insulation to my ears and neck. I found my fleece gloves, too. It’s my feet, I want to say. My feet are unprepared, and it makes me crazy that I can’t find my warm sock-liners, my feet’s salvation.

Laura and Jesse asked us to have cocoa with them at the local coffee shop, a rare decadence. It’s all the light we have today, I think, just this little sliver of an hour, and I hate to be away from the sunlight. But it’s also “beggar’s feast” night, creative use of leftovers night, so we go for mugs of hot brew. The children’s cups are topped with mountains of whipped cream, swirls of chocolate sauce, and colored sprinkles. I wish I were so carefully tended as these mugs of cocoa.

We emerge from the coffee shop in the half light, and stumble into the beautiful gem shop, the jewels and stones and fossils arranged by color family, and the proprietor charmed by three curious learners, holding each of the kinds of tumbled stones in the display of pocket treasures. Brendan examines huge amethyst caves, fish fossils, picture jasper.

And the cell phone rings just as we are leaving.

“Don’t miss it. Have you looked out the window?”

“We are downtown. What should I see?”

“Oh, you are out and about? Drive the Boulevard. Now is the time. Don’t forget to watch for the moon. Even the highway is gorgeous. Go now.” I say okay and hang up, and hustle the kids into the van. They begin to argue over music or no music, and somehow they agree on quiet, as I round the corner, just at the right moment. The sun is already down at four p.m,, but the deepening color lingers over the pretty end of the harbor. We drive just to drive, in the pink winter light.

I once lived near enough to Stacy Boulevard that I could run down the street and watch the seals on cold afternoons, until the sky was too dark to see them anymore and the air grew cold. Now we live on the other side of town, scarcely two miles away. Most days I sit in the bay window for the last half hour of light, if I haven’t gotten sucked into a project or writing on the other side of the room. I often get distracted, with Madeleine and her homework—such a new phenomenon that she relishes the work—and Brendan and his toodling projects.

Stars emerge with a sliver of orange moon, and the Big Dipper is visible when I climb the second flight of steps to our treehouse condo.

After all the sorting directives, coats away, shoes away, lunch boxes empty, I start the kettle of water for chicken stock. Vegetable scraps from the freezer, chicken bones from last night’s roast, thyme, rosemary, two cloves and a bay leaf. I start a smaller pot for tonight’s soup: a small onion and celery stalks, carrots and red lentils for body. Leftover roasted potatoes, corn, broccoli. I almost always enjoy the resulting soup, but tonight, just as I am thinking I can barely choke it down, Madeleine declares it the best soup ever.

Then the baths begin, while I cut thin slices of the stale bagels. Madeleine butters the slices and we place them on a cookie sheet to toast in the oven, mixing cinnamon and sugar while we wait. The stars are clear, the one lonely string of Christmas lights shimmers, and each child opens a door on the Advent calendars. Madeleine the Reader locates her verse in the book of Isaiah. The smell of toasted bagels fills the room and we run to sprinkle cinnamon and sugar over the “toasties,” then gobble them up. Toothbrushing, and a quiet evening is ending.

Then my brother phones, and the quiet exits while children shout hellos and I talk with him on the speakerphone. They are hearing too much, but I forget how to turn off the speakerphone without hanging up on the caller. I’ve made the same cutoff mistake a dozen times. And he’s entertaining, as I stir the pot of chicken stock bubbling on the back burner, the condo filling with the aroma. The children practice home-run sliding into bed a few times before I figure out just what is going on. It will take awhile to settle them down, now. Scott arrives with a bag of groceries.

“Did you see it? The color?” he asks.

“Yep. Someone called to give me a ‘heads-up,’ so I saw it, thanks. Beautiful night.” I answer. He tucks kids into bed, or subdues them somehow. I strain the soup broth for another beggar’s feast, sometime in the future. Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll bring down the advent lantern I’m so eager to see, and the candles, and the box of advent stuff. Today, well, I’m waiting already, paying attention to the quiet darkness, saving up rich moments of light against the long winter nights.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

weather report: the spiral of light

The kids are finally drifting off to sleep, early because we were out ridiculously late last night. I just wrote “it’s the first time this weekend without an urgent need,” and of course one should simply never write that. I hear a groan from across the room.

“We forgot.” Scott said. “We forgot that Madeleine’s birthday buddy is Jaita, and Jaita’s birthday is tomorrow. We need to bring treats for the third grade.”

“Is this on the calendar? Because I sure don’t remember it.”

Scott walks over to the calendar and picks up a pen. “Yeah, it’s on the calendar now. I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to bake.”

“I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to go to the store and buy chocolate chips.”

Three hours go by, baking and cleaning up, getting ready for tomorrow. Brendan wakes twice, his foot hurting from a tumble at a gymnasics party. Medicine, love, and back he goes. Clothes are out for tomorrow, head almost empty enough to sleep. I started out the day teaching Sunday school. I haven’t stopped moving, since. These are tough days for needing a minute to catch up with myself.

On Saturday, we celebrated The Spiral of Light, or the Advent Spiral. A darkened hall, a circle of children surrounded by a circle of adults, and surprising quiet. A tall teenager dressed in angel white slowly carries a candle through the simple labyrinth of pine boughs, to the center. She lights a candle, there, and emerges just as slowly, then follows the first child through the labyrinth. The child carries her own candle, set in an apple for a holder, and chooses a spot for her apple to set in the pine boughs, and returns to her seat while the next child makes the journey. Into the darkness, out with a light of her own, so goes each child, as a harp plays.

Last year was the hardest spiral for Madeleine. She chose a fancy dress, red and black, and flitted and flirted with her dress, showing off her silliness for classmates as the quiet music played. Her teacher moved her once, twice, three times away from the other silly-makers, all silly-contagious. This year she is utterly composed, solid and present in the moment. She chose a no-nonsense turtleneck and skirt, and her walk is deliberate and careful. She does glance up to quickly smile at her classmates, and she places her candle in the spot just at Brendan’s feet, so he will have a candle to watch as he waits his turn. She is more than a year older—she is decades older than last December. And this is her last spiral. The ceremony is only for children in the third grade and under. She can carry her light now, on her own.

Brendan makes his round, meditatively. He is surrounded by very calm children, and they effect him well. He is not rapt, but he is not distracted. I get the feeling he could stay here in the near-darkness all day, just like us.

One of the other silly-makers from last year is Miles, and he too is settled and tall. He fidgets a bit, but he too sets his candle directly in front of his younger brother Jamie, who is four years old. One by one the third graders, second graders and first graders walk the spiral, then Mrs. Babcock walks quietly to Jamie, and he solemnly holds her hand and takes his candle to the center, taking his time to thoughtfully place his candle where it lights an amethyst cave, near the spiral’s center. When he walks back to sit with his dad, Miles sees Jamie coming and pulls an empty chair next to his own. Jamie’s face lights and he hops onto the tall chair, as Miles pulls him close in a hug.

“I got to be the last one,” he whispers, and everyone hears. “I got to be the last one.”

The musicians stop playing and we sit in silence, a spiral now lit by candles, faces of children visible in the glow. We file out quietly.

“Hey, Jamie,” I say when we are outside, kneeling to his eye level.

“I got to be the last one, you know,” he says.

“I saw it. How was it?” I ask.

“The last one,” he says again. “This is my candle.”

“Yes it is. You have a light,” I say, and wish him goodbye. I wish I were young enough to walk the spiral, too, to see what I might learn. I know there are labyrinths all over the world, for some similar reasons, to go to a center and return again. None are the same as this one, with these children and their friends, and their brothers and sisters.

The children hold their apples for the ride home, in the dark. We turn on the heat for the first time, in the car. Winter is here.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

the four-letter word

“Mama,” said the plaintive boy-voice, “my head is itchy.”

“Where, can you show me? Let’s see if it’s a bug bite or something.”

“The whole back of my head itches.”

Oh shit, I’ve already muttered to myself. It’s Monday night and I’ve been running hard for four days, late nights and barely a moment to myself.

“Bring me your new headlamp, the one you got for your birthday, and a magnifying glass. Madeleine, could you bring me my glasses from my purse, and my comb? Let’s see what we see.” I type the four-letter word into the Google search box and hit return, to look for a picture of what I fear. I read it silently.“The first sign of an infestation is usually itching around the lower part of the back of the head, and behind the ears.” I wince, hide the photos, and go back to the kitchen table.

“You look funny in my headlamp!” Brendan giggles, switching on the light for me.

“I used to wear one of these every day,” I say, reminding him of my former work as a cave tour guide, with boys his age. But this is my life, now. I diagnose. I treat ailments. And I’m hoping beyond hope not to turn zoologist or entomologist today. “Brendan, when did you get so much hair?”

“I needed a haircut for a long time, mama. It’s in my eyes, see? I want a short, stick-up haircut like my friend Will.”

“B, I don’t see any rash or bites. I do see this little scab-thing, though.” I scratch at it and the whole hair pulls out. Brendan’s face registers betrayal and he yells at me for pulling out his hair.

It looks like a tiny droplet of blood dried to his hair. I put it in the one-inch square plastic box with the magnifying lid, made for viewing pond life. I find a second one, too. They are too small to view with my tired eyes at this time of day, even with glasses. Madeleine remembers the very powerful magnifying glass on my keychain, which has lived there so long I’ve forgotten it. I slip it out of its protective case. These things look like a droplets with a clear coating.

Scott walks through briefly, on his way to a tutoring appointment. “I give up! What on earth are you doing?” I gaze steadily at him for a silent moment, from under my headlamp. “Oooooh, wait a minute,” says Scott the Squeamish. “I don’t really want the answer to this question, do I?” I nod slightly to the computer screen. He reads quickly and whistles an aha. “Call me if you need me to pick up anything, once you know anything for sure. Are you ready to shift your schedule tomorrow, if need be?”

I nod, and trap the two miniscule droplets into the magnifying box again, and put the lid on tight. Madeleine picks up her violin to play and I’m singing along, looking through B’s hair when he pouts, “You’re saying there’s something wrong with my head!” and his tears begin just as I say, “Well it looks like these might be eggs for a bug that likes hair,” I see movement under my comb and I’m just fast enough to catch it between my nails.

“Open the box quick!” I say, and he does. I drop IT in. “We got a kicker!”

The tears cease immediately as he watches the offending critter in the magnifying box. I look for more, but his hair is thick and lush.

“LOOK AT THAT COOL THING! THAT WAS LIVING ON MY HEAD?!” he shouts. Madeleine runs over with her violin still in hand, and pronounces it “as-sgusting.”

“B, how would you like mama to give you a haircut tonight?” His eyes light up. Madeleine would make a good surgical assistant—immediately she runs for my good scissors and a towel.

“I never knowed that you cut hair, mama!” he lifts his face beatifically, with eyes shut in expectation. I think of my own mother, all of the emergency room visits, watching the stitches and tetanus shots, being strong, then collapsing in the corner to cry when the need to be strong had passed. She was squeamish like Scott.

“I cut Daddy’s hair twice,” I say as I cut a guiding line across his forehead, and brush the trimmings downward. “The first time, it looked good, and the second time only half of it looked good, and I haven’t tried again.” I remember ears are the tickliest part and I don’t want to leave those until last, like real barbers do. I trim another guiding line around the curve of one ear, then the other.

“Brendan, I think we need a home day tomorrow, you and me.”

“Can we bake?” he asks.

“Hmm. We’ll see about that. Mama has to learn what to do about these little hair bugs.” He looks in the little viewing box at the bugs, and nods okay. I remember the basics of hair-cutting, smoothing sections of hair up from the nape of the neck, cutting a curved line parallel to the shape of his head. I cut it from three inches to perhaps ¾ of one inch. As I cut, worst case scenarios brew, and I think of Madeleine’s delicate scalp, how she howls at the hair brush. I interrupt her violin practice again.

“M? Does your head itch?”

“No,” she answers. “But as soon as anyone says the word itch, my nose itches, and then my whole face itches!” I laugh with her. Then I think of my own worst, worst case scenario. I’m handling wildlife pretty carelessly. Madeleine runs to get me a length of yarn, and ties up my hair until I can deal with it. I do what mothers do in all crises: I boil water in the teakettle, between snips. When the cutting is done, I comb and find a few more critters and a few more eggs. Brendan runs to see his new “do” in the mirror, while I drop the comb and scissors into a bowl of boiling water.

“I LOVE my new stick-up haircut!” he exclaims, and I am glad to see his eyebrows. I sweep the floor obsessively, putting what appears to be an entire head of hair in a Ziploc bag, putting the Ziploc into the trash, hauling the trash to the porch.

“Now,” I say, bidding my emergency assistants one more time, “bring me all of your bedding, all of your pillows, all of your pajamas and your teddy bear.” Brendan starts to tear up again, and I read the suggestions to run everything through a hot dryer for thirty minutes if it cannot be washed. I explain that we will dry Pinky for thirty minutes tonight, then wash her tomorrow. Brendan sets the timer for thirty minutes. I whisper a prayer that thirty minutes does the trick.

They walk through the house, systematically gathering every hat and scarf, every sweater worn in the last week, every item in the clothes hamper, every towel, while I phone Scott and say, buy whatever the pharmacist recommends. Thanksgiving is in three days, and I don’t want us to miss it.

I send Brendan to the bath so I can go over Madeleine’s hair, and she gives her best to look over the back edges of mine. Neither of us find anything. I prepare her to deflect the following day’s questions from classmates, to protect Brendan. He’s been particularly irritating to his classmates, and this it the worst possible time for him to have a contagious disease. I phone his teacher to set the notification process in motion. Vanya agrees it’s sad timing, just when repairs are needed.

Children tuck into bed only a little late, remarkable for the amount of activity and the loads of laundry gathered. I read a little more about various treatments, and I obsess. I am not prone to obsession, but this seems a worthy occasion.

“Proper combing with the special lice comb can require 1-2 hours for coarse or long hair,” reads the website. My hair is both coarse and long. I can’t rely on anyone to comb it twice daily, as recommended. I’d be lucky to find someone patient enough to do it once.

Were I not so weary, I wouldn’t sleep at all after those closeup pictures of lice. Were I not so tired, I’d worry into the night.

Brendan wakes me in the morning, and I continue the laundry, and comb with “The TerminNit-er” comb, gathering another tribe of eggs and a few more “kickers.” I throw away the tissues I wipe the comb on, wash my hands and massage a quarter of a cup of olive oil into my hair, as one website recommends. I use a little less for Brendan and cover his head with a shower cap, to keep him from touching the oil or his hair. He sets the timer for two hours and pulls out his bin of little cars and trucks. I feed Madeleine and get her ready for school. I try to put out of my mind the image of my squeamish husband submitting to the lice comb, or combing my hair with it.

After I switch laundry again, I look over to see the oil has migrated down his forehead, and his eyelids and lashes glisten. A bead of oil threads its way down his nose, but he is concentrating on his traffic. I think of olive oil and the Old Testament, how riches and gratitude were expressed by “oil running down the beard of Aaron” in a dry land where olives truly were life. Twenty-five years it takes for a tree to bear olives. Seventy-five years, the olive trees life expectancy. I wipe the little drop from the bridge of his nose.

“I like having a home day with you, mama,” he says, as I bring him a small plate of Clementine slices.

“You are good company, too, Brendan.”

The timer rings and we agree that I should wash my hair first, which takes three washings to remove most of the oil. I run a bath for Brendan while I comb through one more time. Many more eggs come out with the olive oil, and a few bugs that are no longer moving. We wash his hair three times with the lavender shampoo.

We head out for a bagel and to pick up Madeleine, and Brendan says, “I feel special today, you know, in my special haircut from my special mama.” Tomorrow might be hard at school—who knows how long it might be hard for Brendan. He is working through more than just a case of head lice.

I remind him that he has been patient with everything I’ve asked him to do, today. I agree that it’s been a special day to be together. And I pray that we have better excuses to be together for special days, and never another stretch of days like this for my boy who is delicious to bugs. I pray the rest of us avoid the plague. And I pray a prayer of thanks. It’s not so hard to do what is necessary, step by step until it is done.

And like my own mother, I am looking for the right moment, when no one needs me, to collapse for a few minutes until I am needed again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

an un-quiet existence

I was a quiet kid in a quiet town, and all I wanted was a quiet existence, really. Would I have wanted something different if my parents hadn’t been who they were, then? Perhaps. I am not known as quiet, now, though I do need a sizable quantity of solitude. I am fearless and capable, bold and creative. It’s hard to believe how much I wanted to be unremarkable and to blend in, but that just wasn’t meant to be.

My hometown of Farmland, Indiana is a no-stoplight town, one mile long from end-to-end, and perhaps half a mile wide. Downtown consists of four beautiful blocks of Victorian storefronts, old-fashioned three-story brick confections with turrets and towers, and a few similarly old and fancy buildings on each side. Current census data indicates that the entire township weighs in at 1,212 occupants, 1,208 listed as “white non-Hispanic.” When I lived there, we all knew everyone else, and not only did we know them, but we knew who was related to whom, who had ever dated whom, and we knew long lists of successes and failures. It was not a good place to make a mistake, if you’d like to ever forget that mistake.

That’s the downside, though— I also felt the goodness of community support and care, even if it had to be borne alongside the weight of scrutiny and overinterest. It seemed then as it seems now, that people might be willing to take me in, given half an excuse, and I loved the feeling of safety in my small village.

My parents: how to describe them? Omer and Pat. My father’s contagious humor and laugh loosened people up and made them feel at home. He was tall and handsome and his younger pictures look so much like Lyle Lovett that I wonder if Lyle is my lost older brother, is dark shock of curls aiming up in the air and his angular face resembling my dad much more than I do. My father accepted the role of emcee of every town function, from the time that a microphone could be employed. He announced the floats at local parades, called the numbers for the cakewalks, read the winning raffle ticket numbers, and offered the sportscast at every Little League game, including mine. “That’s Denise Frame at the plate, folks, and this batter has requested that I allow her to bat in silence, and I will try, folks, I will try.” On quiet summer evenings I could hear my father’s voice booming across town from the baseball diamond’s loud speakers—I could hear his voice in the downstairs bathroom of the house on Plum Street. There was no escape. Not that I wanted to escape him, personally: my dad was impossible not to like.

And my mother was the perfect counterpart. Like Lucy and Desi, my parents were like an ongoing comedy team. He announced, and he teased people, including my mother. She did not hesitate to heckle, in response, to upstage him if she felt like it, which she often did. She was louder, bigger, funnier, and she was also more visibly capable of fury over injustice. My father served in the Lion’s Club, the American Legion, and the volunteer fire department. My mother ran ice cream socials, chili suppers, women’s auxiliary clubs of the same local organizations. She coached softball. They sold raffle tickets, served on committees, and they were simply everywhere and knew everyone. They were unpretentious and homey and looking for opportunities to be generous. They were loud, and just a bit bawdy, barely constraining their natural tendency to swear colorfully in every sentence. They hosted late night card games with shouting and laughing loud enough to wake us children: we would enter the bright kitchen light, rubbing our eyes to the cloud of cigarette smoke, the smell of strong drink and tears streaming from the corners of their eyes from laughter. My parents were local celebrities.

I grew up in a dream world, then, perhaps because my life seemed so un-dream-like. I lived the life of an escapist, hiding in my own skin. I tried to disappear, quietly, before people’s eyes.

And it might have worked, if it hadn’t been for my ornery parents and their general obnoxiousness. (I say this with deep affection and no small amount of admiration.) And if it hadn’t been for my head of very unruly hair, and my peculiar taste in clothing. And my excellent grades. And my constant reading. And my inability to soften the blunt truth about things. And my tendencies toward spiritual growth. I was an odd kid, made all the more odd by the parents I lived with. My parents lived entire lives as “black sheep,” even while doing good. In some ways, as the very opposite of a black sheep, I outwitted them, quietly and firmly. On the other hand, as a very serious child, I made a good “straight man” to their comedy, but I wanted out of the show, entirely.

In many ways, I became more “myself” the first time I left home for any length of time. There were no voices talking over me, no television in the background, no noise of expectation or reputation, not the same set of shouted swearing and back-slappings. I attended summer church camp, and I felt weightless, lighthearted, free. I knew I’d live the rest of my life that way, as soon as I could make my way “out.” People found me delightful, when unencumbered by memories of my childhood exploits and my parentage. I felt delightful, too, when I could stop reacting and adjusting to what people knew (or believed they knew) about me.

Last year I enrolled in a memoir course at a local school. After a few readings, one class member said she thought my stories “would make better fiction.” I blinked a few times and restated carefully, “Wait, it seems like you are saying it’s hard to believe these stories are my real experiences!” Yes, yes, she said, that’s it. The truth hit me later, that most people’s lives are populated with rather normal folk, most lives suffer a fair amount of boredom. But not mine, never. I grew up with characters right out of a John Irving novel, people uncowed by rules and expectations. My life would make good fiction. I wanted to argue that she should meet my parents if she wanted to know some candidates for larger-than-life tales. In many ways, I pale in comparison, or at least it seems so. I don’t give away my time and energy nearly so much. I feed myself, first, with writing and solitude, and sometimes there is little leftover for community involvement.

Reflecting from a distance of twenty years, I have new questions: when I made my way out, how much did I become like Omer and Pat? I share their social fearlessness, their confidence, their love to laugh with people. How much do I carry Farmland, Indiana with me? I long for community and I work to build it, to make connections between folks and to feel the goodness of being stuck together. How much am I a working class kid from the Midwest, wrangling with words until I think a factory worker could understand my big ideas? How much do I still buck against the norm of what people expect of me?

Lately I’m concerned for my children, remembering that parents can be so overwhelming. When my son was a toddler, he was the kind of guy who shut down when people looked directly at him, so I learned interpersonal stealth and cunning, to watch from the corner of my eye like a hunter working not to startle, or a photographer trying not to disturb her subject. It’s not easy to fade into the background, and it’s harder all the time: I still have unruly hair, peculiar taste in clothing, and I still have a hard time softening the blunt truth of things. I’m a know-it-all, and now I’m all these things with a strong dose of fearlessness. I’m glad for the training in stealth and cunning, but I know I’m prone to forget, and I hope somehow that these children find their own place to “be,” alongside me. I will make mistakes at this facet of parenting, perhaps every day. I hope I learn to apologize, to quiet myself and get out of their way, enough. Just enough.

My children don’t like it when they feel I am applauding too loudly, or when I heckle someone gently. They don’t like it when I am not a sweet mama, bending to their wills. And I balk against the weight of their expectations that I will try to “fit” better. It won’t be a quiet existence for them, either. “She’s not a tame mama,” my husband says to my children from time to time, claiming the words about Aslan’s still-wildness from C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Wildness and strength are good traits, even for non-fictional parents, and my hope is to be tame enough—just barely tame enough to give them plenty of room to grow alongside me, to find some Spirit-blown wildness and strength of their own.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

reaping in the sunny field by the sea

This boy loves to clean—he does not love to tidy up or to do basic maintenance cleaning, but he loves a big messy project. He’s looking for the kind of project that allows him to eradicate massive quantities of yuck. I understand. I was the same as a child. And I have seen the future, for all of us: there are not enough cleaners and menders and fixers and repairers in the world, not enough for all the breakage and entropy crumbling all things around the edges. His heart is true. Though it would be significantly less work if I did the cleaning myself, I find him a project.

“Sweep floor,” reads the list of chores for Saturday, written in red magic marker on a sheet of paper at the table. Brendan has Madeleine read him the items, and his eyes light up. “Can I mop the floor, Mama?” What’s a mom to say? The floor is disgusting. It needs to be mopped.

“We have to start from the top and go down to the floor, if you want to do that. Otherwise we make more work for ourselves, later. Will you help me with the other parts, first?” As I make sure he is serious, he has already begun to move the dining chairs to the living room, to haul out the broom and dustpan, to clean the sticky spots on the dining table.

“Bring me the cleaning cloths from the bathroom, my putty knife, too.” I instruct. I do the first sweep. I am thinking, the floor is extra dusty because the dryer is located next to the refrigerator, and the tubing to the dryer vent disconnected itself weeks ago, so bits of dusty lint adhered themselves to the wall behind the frig, the items above the laundry area. I can’t start this project, I think, recalling the last time I replaced the dryer vent tubing, how it fell off immediately three times in a row before I got it right. I don’t mind the warmth and damp air blowing in, but it drives Scott crazy. I take a few of those cleaning wipes from the container and lay them over the unidentifiable stains to soften them.

And Brendan moves more of the furniture out of the kitchen, while I dust the walls and the refrigerator free of the lint. I will fix it. It needs to be done. When the dusting is progressed as far as I can go, I wiggle the dryer free from the wall, an inch on the left, an inch on the right, until it is free from its space entirely.

“Cool!” he shouts, immediately placing himself in the dusty square of floor space. “This is like a house, except small,” he exclaims. “Unless you are a mouse, of course, and then it is big.”

“Hmmm. Proportion—yes, that’s a good way to look at things.” I know what is coming. It’s okay to set myself up, sometimes.

“What’s pro-por-shun?” he says, my good straight man.

“Proportion means that what is small to you is what’s big to a mouse, just like you said.”

“Oh,” he says brightly, fishing behind the refrigerator with the whisk broom for more yucky stuff. He picks up the silvery tube and looks inside. “Cool! What does this do?”

“See if you can tell me where it attaches to the dryer.” This is so much better than a thousand “educational” plastic Legos. “Can you find me the duct tape?”

“What’s this silver thing called, Mama?”

“It’s a duct. And the stuff we use to seal it to the dryer is called duct tape.” I set myself up again, of course.

“You mean it’s not Duck Tape?”

“I don’t think it’s used for ducks at all, do you?”

Peals of laughter follow. We sweep and sweep, then begin repairing with the tape. I explain that we do the dryer project before mopping so we don’t ruin our mopping later with lots of dust. We broke our mop handle a few years back, so the mop shares a handle with the broom, which requires unscrewing the broom “head” and replacing it with the “mop” head. Since the broom and mop are never used at the same time, the process works—but Brendan the Over Eager keeps getting ahead of himself, and I find the mop head on my broom again. I give him a mock scolding look.

“Oh, yeah! We still need the broom to be the broom!”

Madeleine begins singing from her bedroom, where she has begun to vacuum. While not so eager as Brendan, she is just back from a field trip to a farm, and she has grown accustomed to work and chores in a new way. She is singing a farm song over the vacuum, so her words are loud and clear.

“I will go with my father a-plowing, to the green field by the sea,
And the rooks and the crows and seagulls will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the patient horses, with the lark in the light of the air,
And my father will sing the plow song that blesses the cleaving share.

Brendan knows the words too, from his first grade circle, and he sings along, now using my putty knife in rhythm, to remove sticky spots from the floor. The duct repaired, I inch the dryer back into place and do a final sweep to remove the last bits of lint. I quickly brush the counters and the stove top to remove the last crumbs before the broom becomes a mop. Both children finish their tasks and beg for who will have what turn with the mop. I fill the sink with hot water and mild soap, and the cloth covers for the flat mop.

“First we must move the dining table. Then Madeleine will clean the cracks between the table leaves with the putty knife,” she grins and nods, “while Brendan takes the first turn mopping. Mop it all, then Madeleine can mop it all with the second mop cloth, while Brendan cleans the bathroom floor.” Each begins a task, singing.

“I will go with my father a-sowing to the red field by the sea,
And the rooks and the gulls and starlings will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the striving sowers with the finch on the flowering sloe,
And my father will sing the seed song that only the wise men know.

I go back and forth, keeping the mop-cloths hot enough to clean, supervising the furniture and floors in the cleaning process, asking for the lyrics of that beautiful song to an old Irish tune.

I will go with my father a-reaping to the brown field by the sea,
And the geese and the crows and children will come flocking after me
I will sing to the weary reapers with the wren in the heat of the sun
And my father will sing the scythe song that joys for the harvest done.”

Neither the father nor the mother at this house knew this song as children, neither the plow song nor the seed song nor the scythe song. Neither the father nor the mother plow, at least not enough to brag about. The father is not sowing or reaping anything this weekend, but he is vacationing a bit, after sowing and reaping young readers at his school. We barely know the wren from the geese. The only weary reaper is the little farmer girl, herself, who slept twelve hours straight last night, so happy to be in her own bed.

Our father in heaven sings the scythe song to the weary reapers, though, on this sunny morning in the house, as we reap a clean floor and a repaired dryer and a trio of uplifted spirits. We barely have time to replace the dining table and chairs when neighbor kids’ voices ring out. The children run outside, calling an impromptu meeting of their seed-saving club. It is payday, they tell me. They run back with $2.10 each for their little banks.

He is such a hard worker. She is such good company to have back home. Scott will come home with energy like a Mexican Jumping Bean, after his visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s special educator day. I am gathering myself for the next leg of my journey to becoming published—I pursue magazine publication, beginning this week, and as far as I can see there is nothing to stop me from learning the ins and outs of the writing business. And now there are two nagging tasks done, as well.

Joys for the harvest, done. Time for lunch.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

organic fuji

She loves apples. Though other foods come and go from favor, this has not changed over the last year. Organic Fuji apples, Haagen Daz ice cream, and red meat, served as rare as possible. Sometimes she loves whole milk yogurt, drizzled with maple syrup. Last week I enticed her with carrots, sautéed and sauced with ginger plum jam and a squeeze of citrus. But today her stomach is bothering her, and she wants only apples. Fuji. Organic.

I brace myself and phone Karen from the supermarket aisle, to report that there are no Fuji apples today. I hear a long silence and a bit of a whimper like a disappointed child. “I see beautiful Braeburns, Granny Smiths, and translucent yellow ones, let’s see… yes, Golden Delicious.”

“No Fuji. No Ginger Gold? Did you ask?”

“I asked. Braeburns, Grannies, Goldens.”

“Okay,” she says, followed by a long pause. “Four Goldens.”

“The Grannies look good.”

“And two Granny Smiths.”

“Be there soon, Karen. Bye.”

I pull up to Karen’s door to find the bottled water delivery has been abandoned at the base of the stairs. I take the apples to the sink, then make five return trips up the stairs with loads of spring water.

She has just woken, she tells me. The smell of cigarette smoke permeates the bedroom, and she is embarrassed. In warmer months she restricts her smoking to her patio, but today is damp. She keeps the windows open and fans running, so the smoke smell never grows stale.

I rearrange the water supply, then empty first the small dish rack and then the dishwasher. I check the cat’s dishes and the trash cans and the laundry. I carefully wash my hands and wash the apples, start the coffee pot then check the refrigerator. She needs apples, now, and there is only one blue porcelain dish of thin-sliced apples, with a half of a juiced lime stored in the bowl. I pour her a cup of fresh coffee, add a drop of maple syrup, and carry the chilled dish of apples to Karen’s bedroom. “Sustenance!” I announce.

“Such sustenance! I’ll be a few minutes.” She apologizes, a woman recovering from so many things, she still feels responsible to be a good hostess in her own home.

I return and calculate what Karen will need for lunch and dinner. I carefully wash the apples, and set a bin for compost beside the cutting board. I roll the lime on the counter with a bit of pressure to release the juices, cut it in half and squeeze it into the next porcelain dish. Quarter the apples, peel and core the quarters, and slice each quarter into three or four thin slices. I cut them as if I were feeding the apples to toddlers I don’t want to choke. And I roll the slices in lime, just the way she likes them. The Granny Smith apple is pale green on the inside, just as the Golden is a pale yellow. As I peel the Golden Delicious slices, I see one peel go into the compost and then I ask myself what I am thinking! I peel the other slices and stack all the peels on the side of the cutting board. When I’ve rolled the last of the slices in lime and placed the dish in the refrigerator, I toss the lime into my water glass and snack on the delicate peels.

That’s enough apples for overnight.

Karen walks carefully into the kitchen with her empty bowl. I can see that walking is painful for her, and she seems unsteady. Still she is thanking me graciously, and I try to convince her to let me make her breakfast. Nothing tastes good, she says. She wants a shower. As she goes, she turns to say, on second thought, could I make her a hamburger? I am such a mom about these things, so excited to find something Karen will eat.

“How would you like it?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, could you sauté some finely chopped red onion and garlic and mix it with the organic burger? Lots of onions and garlic.”

“Salt? Pepper?”

“Lots of those, too. And rare—bloody rare. Just introduce the burger to the pan and embarrass him a little in front of his friends.”

I love all these little instructions that remind me she used to be a chef. She can coach me through a dish, and the food seems to come out exactly as she wants it. I heat extra virgin olive oil in the cast iron skillet while I slice a red onion paper thin and rough it up a little, then mash the garlic under the flat side of the knife, with the bang of a fist.

“Karen, it’s cooked barely enough to hold the burger together. Is that the way you like it?”

“That sounds perfect. Can we heat up the sweet potato fries?”


I set the table for two and pour myself a cup of coffee. I grab salad fixings for myself, and leave room for a few of the fries on the side of the plate. Floral plates, napkins from India, a little vase of flowers from Karen’s regular assistant.

And we sit, and we talk, and she is so pleased with her hamburger and fries. Her eyes close and she hums a little with contentment.

“Exactly as I wanted it, dear.” And she is just as hungry for my company, for conversation. We linger over our plates.

After lunch she heads for the shower, after all. I begin to tidy up dishes and pans and I glance at the list of chores I saw earlier on the kitchen table, written in very large hand so Karen can check it over. Number 1 read, Slice apples, and she has scrawled something above it with a bold permanent pen. So now it reads “Slice FUJI apples.” I smile and shake my head. Next time, I say to myself, next time I will go to as many stores as it takes, if I have to go to every grocery in town. Organic Fuji apples, peeled and tossed in lime, next time.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


“When you are depressed,” she said, “and when grieved, take a shower.” I stared at her, dumbfounded. This is the advice people pay for? “I know it sounds silly, but think about it. Don’t you feel, when you are really down sometimes, like you don’t need a shower? But that’s when you need it most. When I’m down, I tend to wear the same thing, tend not to care how I look, to be out of touch with what my body needs. When you feel that way, shower.”

I recall this strange, straightforward advice from my friend the professional herbalist, as I catalog the last few days. Did I shower yesterday? No. But probably the day before. I can’t remember. And if I didn’t shower, I didn’t look at the calendar to see what day to change the patch, and yes, I forgot to replace it yesterday, and no, that’s not good. Missing two days might cause headaches. Writing on next week’s calendar, Friday, patch, don’t forget.

And then I shower.

I toss the favorite turtleneck over my head—not the same favorite turtleneck as yesterday, nor the same favorite jeans, though it’s a temptation, a yearning to wear them for a second day, or maybe a third. Someday I’ll explore where that compulsion comes from. Not today. Today, I simply need to look like “I tried.” I bring down the necklace of Indian corn hanging from my dresser mirror to add just the right touch of whimsy, the sentiment about my children and the colors of nature in autumn. It’s more everyday than dressy. And it reminds me of a dear friend who moved away, after we strung these necklaces for her son’s sixth birthday party. Just a year ago.

I unwrap this week’s patch—it looks exactly like a repair patch for an inflatable children’s pool, or an air mattress. I peel half of the adhesive and press it onto my left hip for the count of ten, then peel the other half, smooth in place and press for another ten. It’s a form of prayer, a no-more-migraines prayer, a thanks-for-no-more-migraines prayer. I am officially repaired for another week.

It’s not, this grief, so much about the loss of my friend Eugene—though that is a loss, a huge loss in the overall fabric of my life. Eug was Ellen’s best friend, and very close to the Schraders. We didn’t have that kind of “always current” friendship; we had instead a we-don’t-need-to-be-current friendship, and I was comfortable with that. The grief is not over the issue of mortality—the shortness of life has been pointed out before.

And it’s not the curve of the widow’s shoulders, the bent arch drawn by her vertebrae in the black dress, though that picture will haunt me, along with the numbness of her hands hanging limply at her sides.

My grief is spurred instead by a moment six weeks before his death. It begins with the way she looked at him as he defied doctor’s orders by trying to stand, in his hospital room. She looked like a woman scolding an angel for flapping its wings, love written all over her at the same time she was exasperated and nearly desperate. “They need your compliance if you want to come home, and you want to come home. Sit. And wait. We all need you to come home.” This grief that breaks my heart is the next moment as he collapsed onto the bed, shaking, grinning and proud of himself for flaunting authority. She lifted his foot and placed it on her lap, exasperation melted, and the cup of her palm slid under the achilles tendon to his heel, removing his running shoes one by one and thus effectively preventing any further foolhardiness—without the stability of those shoes, he would not dare try again. His foot may have been recovering from paralysis, but his eyes looked at the golden crown of her hair. He knew her adoration, spilling out from the cup of her hand. Enough tenderness to create the universe all over again, if she had the power to do so, the power to change anything. His health was already hopeless. He didn’t know it, but she knew.

The grief then? I thought, watching that generous hand cupped, I cannot possibly do what she is doing, live through what she is living through. I can’t even do the simple things my life needs doing, behave lovingly towards the people who need me. I need to be a better person.

Her adoration was so pure, even in the midst of fear and exasperation. I am not selfless, have never been selfless. My caution is that selflessness holds a dangerous edge for women, an edge that leans toward self-erasure, and I’m unwilling to try it on for any longer than necessary. Self-mindfulness, I aspire to, but not selflessness. And adoration? Adoration overflows for my children, unstoppable adoration that surprised me when I first gave birth, because I do love my husband, but I do not adore any adult, not like that. I’m afraid my cupped palm overflows with the exasperation, only, the frustration, irritation, weariness. Rationally, I think my husband probably deserves that rich substance, as much as any good husband, but that impulse reserves itself for my children. I wonder if that’s typical. I wonder if Eugene’s wife’s adoration flowed simply from his nearing death—somehow I doubt that, but perhaps I am giving her the benefit of my self-doubt. Is my love less? Or is their love merely intensified? Perhaps it’s the latter answer, but still I wonder, just as I did when I was an awkward twelve-year-old, if I am simply defective. I give a great deal. My giving is not effortless.

Do I love like that? Do I even have the capacity, beyond those little ones I gave birth to?

I am writing at my kitchen table after my shower. I write through breakfast, over my coffee and I can’t recall what errand pulls me into the bedroom. Earrings, the ones with a touch of orange to match the corn necklace. And there is the mirror—how long since I bothered to wear more than under-eye-concealer? Mascara, then, and a tinted lip balm.

“The shower is not about being clean,” said my herbalist friend. “It’s about circulation, removing the dead skin and dust, helping your skin renew and breathe, the steam releasing the tension in your lungs.”

“I have to adjust to this,” I protested. “I shower like a committed environmentalist, a short shower every other day, unless it’s summer and I’ve sweat a lot. My hair dries out if I wash it too often.”

“That’s what hair conditioner is for. Shower long. Pour a pot of boiling water into the plugged sink first, so there is plenty of steam. Add a few drops of lavender so you breathe more deeply. Your hair holds in the pollen, dust, allergens. It’s not about clean—your scalp needs to breathe. Shed some deadness. Try it and see, first thing when you feel blue. See if it helps.” We discussed a dozen other good options that day, but showering is cheap and easy, requires no expertise and no shopping.

I look in the mirror once again. If I am dressed and accessorized, I might as well circulate right out the door. Maybe I’ll shake off some dead skin. I might well be defective—if so, it’s something to pray about, but I pray best while moving. I grab my bag, my keys, and go.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

autumn comfort food: spiced cider and bagel crisps

On Saturday my son attended a birthday party at a lovely organic farm, and while he climbed onto the hay wagon for a ride through the woods, I stepped into the farm store, window shopping through the aisles of produce and gourmet foods, artful clothes made from recycled woolens (it’s not just me: it’s a fad, a good fad). Cynthia, the store manager, unpacked gallon jugs of cider from a case.

“Cider! I was just looking for cider! My husband is buying some at the grocery, but I need the good stuff, the direct from the apples stuff.”

“Unfortunately, you can’t buy it,” Cynthia shrugged. “It’s for the members who purchased a farm share, which is the only way we can distribute it. It’s unpasteurized, so it’s illegal to sell.”

“But unpasteurized is the kind I want!”

“Would you like to help me with something in the back?” she asked. I nodded and followed her. “I still have some left from last week. If you’d like to offer me a gift of five dollars, I could offer you a gift of unpasteurized cider, which would be illegal for me to sell.”

I looked her in the eye to see if I had it right.“Hey, Cynthia! I’m feeling compelled to outright give you a five dollar gift!”

“You know, I was just thinking I’d like to give you a gallon of cider. How ‘bout that? Thank you for not purchasing.”

And here it is, next to the grocery store cider, in my frig. Madeleine tells me she likes “the grown-up one” better, after I tried to get her to drink the store-bought one.

So I’m heating up the storebought cider, which already tastes a little cooked. I can disguise the flavor of pasteurization, easily.

My secrets for spiced cider:

Heat a pot of cider to steaming—but keep a small pitcher or measuring cup of cold cider, to cool a too-hot drink. While it heats on the stove, add a pinch of allspice, two cloves or a pinch of powdered clove, a generous dash of cinnamon and a dollop of vanilla. A dollop of maple syrup is nice, but not necessary, and if you have no real maple syrup, a spoonful of brown sugar is sometimes enough to entice young drinkers.

While the children ran over to say hi to a neighbor, and while the cider heated, I quickly set up their small potholder looms with a shiny pretty yarn as a warp, and cut lengths of a lovely thick and thin wool in muted shades of purple. I started to knit something from the thick and thin wool last week when I realized the texture of this yarn is just miserable, damaged. I have other skeins of soft thick-and-thin wool that are not a chore to knit. Still, the purple is too pretty to waste, but it needs a project that isn’t to be worn near the skin. Potholders? Or dollhouse rugs. Or pieces for bigger projects, if this weaving thing catches on.

For an additional snack, I sliced a stale bagel into tiny rounds, buttered them and placed them on a cookie sheet at 425 degrees, and when the slices began to brown, I added cinnamon and sugar and served, with the cider.

And for the moment, with warm snacks and cool projects that demand concentration, I am one popular mom. A hundred unfinished projects dot the landscape, but I’m paying attention to this one, right now, the kid project, the best project.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

bakery notice, seeds for sale

As you see, I am not the only writer of the family. This reminds me to find last summer's saga, "The Gost and the Gril," a short story about a playful ghost and a fearful girl-- all written in multicolor pencil.

Oh, and the seed project: my children collected seeds from the pods of flowers of neighbors, constructed and labeled illustrated envelopes for the seeds, then proceded to sell the seeds back to the exact same neighbors. So far they have collected $4.80 and penciled in a few dozen meetings of The Seed Store onto their busy calendar. I got a complementary pack of sunflowers, after showing them how to rinse and dry tomato seeds.

autumn girls, bluebird and picnic quilt

I believe this is Madeleine, on the right, and her friend Lila on the left. I will see if there is more of a story-- found this in the big bin of collected paper productions.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

weather report: soccer and violin

I don’t know how it happened. One day I was cradling the newborns with my friends Tad and Dianna, reliving the glories of spit-up and burping and footie-pajamas, soft round heads and necks to be supported. Mothering floods back, the curve of a baby against the neck, tiny fingers arching and gripping. I love the way time stops and the baby and I test one another’s long gaze.

And days later I am attending my first soccer practice with my nearly-seven-year-old Brendan, watching him fly at the ball with no concern that he knows nothing, has not even seen a soccer game. I ask Madeleine, nearly nine, each day if she needs to remember her violin, the love of her life. Soccer. Violin. He crafts things with great precision. She reads, with a strand of hair stuck in her mouth. Each night I ask Madeleine to find a good place to stop in her reading of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Sometimes she is kind enough to read Winnie the Pooh stories for Brendan, and sometimes she agrees to give him a violin lesson. I watch her just now, practicing after her bath, kneeling in her nightgown and damp hair dripping as she concentrates on “Old MacDonald” and a French carol. She begins a new piece that turns out to be our favorite lullaby, Ode to Joy, and hears me gasp in recognition. “I thought I’d surprise you, Mama!” she laughs.

“Oh, play it all! Play for me!” I continue typing at the keyboard, while Brendan sews buttons and Madeleine finds the notes. She’s been playing for three weeks, and while expertise is somewhere in the distant future, she uses her bow with great love and great long strokes, while Brendan and I sing.

Brendan’s imagination soars to all kinds of things he can do. Projects are hard for him to let go for another day. He is so much like me in this respect: when he likes a task, he likes it in great detail. He’d been bugging me to find him a sewing project for a week or so when Scott lost a button from a dress shirt. Brendan ran to find the sewing kit while Scott and I shared a knowing “aha.” Mending? We have an ongoing supply of mending. Where to find buttons? The boy knows the location of twenty odd buttons, in drawers and treasure baskets and piggy banks. I show him the matching replacement buttons which are sewn to the bottom of the button placket of dress shirts, and he runs to show the me similar replacement buttons sewn inside polo shirts and trousers.

“Yes,” I say, “the people who make clothes know that buttons sometimes fall off. This one just needs a grown up to snip it free, and then I will show you a few things to look for. See how this button is sewn with two bars of threads? See how that one is sewn with an ‘x’? See how that other button’s hole is in the back?” He sees. He has an eye for detail. I demonstrate one time how the knot needs to be underneath the shirt, how to wrap the stitches for strength, and he is off, searching for more buttons to replace. There are many. The urge to find and replace buttons may not last more than a few hours, or it may last a month, and I want to catch it while it lasts.

Both Madeleine and Brendan are tempests, but different kinds of tempests. Brendan’s fury is a full-body freight train of strength—but he can suddenly drop the fury for a good distraction. Madeleine’s fury starts small and escalates step by step to high drama, and at times it seems that “there is no going back” from very early in a strategically-planned parent-disassembling tantrum. I think back, each time, to her first tantrum at age 18 months, how I was so mystified that I grabbed the camera and made a photo essay of each of the stages, right up until she was her laughing self again.

I miss the newborn days, and I don’t miss them. I miss the days before “no,” the days when food and sleep and warmth were all the worries, days of sitting in long stretches, waiting for the baby to nod off or settle down. But that violin charms me, and my son’s thrilled description of team practice warms my heart. He sleeps well, with all the buttons in the house sewn in place. She dreams of string ensemble, begging for one more Mozart song on the CD player before bedtime. I’m glad for how they are unfolding, just now. I wouldn’t trade mine for the cuddly ones. We’re just getting started.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

three a.m. wooly-headed report

Just off of a searing headache—at some point, I become the kind of hostage that bargains, with Advil Migraine, one, then two, with Claritin, with caffeine, anything to make the buzzing/burning stop. It seems that whatever makes the pain so miserable releases at ten p.m., almost every time. What is that? The headache has been building for nearly a week, hanging around the edges with a little burning in my head, some sinus stuffiness related to allergies. Last time I had one this bad was in early May, six months ago.

The headache subsides, but my muscles are so tensed, and the caffeine still kicking—thus I am writing at three a.m. I will try horizontal again, soon.

I remember, a few hours ago, the feeling that the world was tipping with this pain, and then my ears would latch onto something like the train whistle, a mile away, or the gull cries, or my sense of smell would grab the scent of those fresh green beans I was preparing for dinner, or the salt air. Each of these markers of some good, real joy roots my feet back to the ground and spurs me to simple endurance.

Sometimes I grab my drop spindle and spin yarn, mustering focus from the sickening swirl. The spindle is how I distracted myself from headaches for nearly six months last year. Today’s yarn is a sea green, varied with specks of blue and spring green. I have no idea what this yarn will become, or if it will become anything at all—I just know the concentration pulls me away from the pain.

I was in the middle of “felting” several sweaters, i.e. recycling and re-fashioning the pieces into other creations, when the headache expanded to something difficult to manage. While the pain was in full force, a rich fuzzy brown wool and a patterned blue and pink fair isle emerged from the dryer, plus a sweet girl-sized boiled wool cardigan shrunken from an extra large cardigan with embroidered flowers. A too-bright Bolivian wool sweater will get a good look tomorrow, to assess its good qualities. Will it become mittens? A hat? I sewed two charcoal ribbed sleeves from a ruined sweater into very warm black mittens with long cuffs, and they shrunk to just the right size. Yesterday I asked children to help me scrub and shrink two pair of mittens for the school store—and somehow, though I intended to sell these three pair of mittens, one adult and two children’s pairs, there is one pair of just-right mittens for each of us, and I’m not certain I can part with them.

The day before yesterday, I dipped into my recycled sweater stash to find a formerly huge pink sweater with a hideous Aztec sun design on the front and back. It’s Madeleine’s size, after half a dozen washes, and the scratchy homespun yarn changed to a soft, thick wool. Hot water, agitation, and an alkaline soap make the fibers shrink, and the “split ends” create a beautiful fuzzy haze or “halo” over the sweater. I “needle felted” a swirling sun of gold and orange into the center of the Aztec design, cut and rolled the cuffs and collar with bright yellow wool whipstitching. She wore it to church yesterday, shining like the sun, herself. I’m eager to re-fashion the other sweaters, as well. Imagine, gorgeous one-of-a-kind garments from the “buck-a-pound” thrift shop. I’m working to re-fashion something specifically for Brendan, next. I have a matching Aztec sun blue sweater, which I whacked the sleeves off in haste to make mittens—I may need to re-knit sleeves for the damn thing!

And on the very bottom of my recycled sweater stash is the little hat Brendan wore until he was three, the dancing people hat. Suzanne tells me the hat is Peruvian, and that she bought it as an adult hat, but the combination of damp snow and body heat has shrunken it to toddler size. I took a scanned image of the hat, with hopes of recreating the knitted pattern in an adult size again—but this time in washable wool, for my friend! All that is for later, though. First a hat for Sasha, made from handspun wool from her sheep. Or perhaps sleeves for a blue Aztec sun sweater. (Let me just say it here: I can’t really believe I’m going to put sleeves back on that sweater. Grrrr.) All knitting projects are for days without headaches, not today, not the middle of the night.

Horizontal. Will try horizontal again, and hope for the best.

Woke in time to make breakfast and pack lunches—head is okay enough, this morning.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Thursday, October 05, 2006

elopement risk

“Elopement Risk”.

My friend Eugene and I contemplated a sign he sees every day, and the mystery of those words together, in this setting, bore into me. Elope, such a merry word in this unmerry place. The sign is posted on a set of double swinging doors—with a lock, evidently.

“Can’t very well have us running off, now, can we? This is a brain injury ward,” my friend jokes from his seat in the wheelchair. “Does wheeling me remind you of your stroller pushing days?”

“Yes, the double-wide jogging stroller felt much like this, and was just as hard to turn.” Another image incongruent with this moment—the handles of my jogging stroller, powering the seats bubbling over with life and giggles, the outside air, little feet bobbing up and down.

But I am pushing Eugene in a wheelchair, in a brain injury ward, because his legs don’t work, currently. And I love this dear man, and some part of me wants to elope right out that door, where the staff are notified to secure the exit behind them. I look down the elopement hall, and it looks no greener nor more promising than this one.

I’d like to run off with my friend to a time in the past. I’m not prone to nostalgia, but health is altogether another kind of nostalgia. I would go back to a time without fear of physical calamity, without the brain tumor. Yes, I’d run away there in a heartbeat. But I speak the opposite.

“I’m not eloping today. I came a long way to be right here, to see you. No escape for me.”

“Me, too. I’m right here.”

And I wish, I wish it were true. He is here, but not fully here. Something of the part I love is missing. The Eugene I know would be depressed out of his mind, wrenched with grief, quick to tears. The Eugene I push in the wheelchair recognizes the change, on an intellectual level, but the tumor is located in the emotional center of his brain—he doesn’t weep, doesn’t keen, speaks in a positive and even tone about the frustrations of hospital life and being removed from his family. The irony of him being “right here” pulls angry tears from me, and I’m glad I am standing behind the wheelchair, where he can’t see. You’re not right here, damn it! If only you, you were right here, we would have a good cry. Eugene, and not Eugene. Do I hope for cure? Do I despair the loss? Is he recovering or dying? No one can say.

My friend Ellen phoned in early July to say, he’s leaving us. I demanded to know how that could be: Eugene! The most “alive” man alive. Brain tumor. The irony, for this brilliant man, that the brain could be the seat of the sickness. I phoned him to ask, “would you like me to come?” and he said yes, he’d like that very much.

After two days by bus, I arrived in white linen to beat the August heat, topped with a bright sarong overlay—he smiled at the brightness and said, “I always think of color when I think of you.” There is not a stitch of nostalgia in him. He barely notices that eighteen years have passed since we shared leadership of a house of twenty college students. He reminds me, as he does each visit, that I saved his life by talking him through a terrible depression the year we worked together. I remind him I was also dealing with a lot that year, and I could say the same of him. How I wish I had any power to save, this visit. I can only be company, diversion from the deadness of this place. Color. And I can push a wheelchair.

When I entered the room, he looked so much like himself—too skinny, but dressed in his running shoes, alert, and ready to get up from his hospital bed, any minute. The whiteboard behind him read “Goals: raise head to midline 80% of the day.” I remembered Ellen saying his head rested on his shoulder in a disconcerting way when she visited, but there was no sign of drooping for my Saturday. He smiled and welcomed me. I scruffed his beard and told him the truth, that he looked good. Relief washed over me—my friend recovers! He is right here. I sat in his wheelchair and pulled it close to the bed, my feet dangling uselessly off the ground. Eugene asked about my travel adventures and I tried to condense a whirlwind into a few sentences. He struggled to follow my conversation, and I thought of the incredible level of medication, and I reined my story in a bit.

“I miss you, Eugene. I’ve been planning to visit when the kids are big enough to see the history in this town—they are not ready to make the most of it. But now I’m sorry I’ve been putting it off. What a gift to visit you all by myself, though. Tell me if I make you tired. I have just one day: I’m staying the whole day, if that’s okay with you.”

I see his gladness. I hear him checking with his wife by phone—she is having a wheelchair ramp built, so he can return home, and it will take all day. She is relieved by my visit. “She knows I do better when I have visitors,” he said. “I wake up each day and ask her who God will bring me next.”

Eugene shows me the gallery of photos in the frames on his windowsill. We begin comparing timelines in our minds, when we shared a house, who we’ve seen last, how we summarize that pivotal year in our own minds. He plays with the button to raise and lower his hospital bed, not to the right height, but compulsively raising and lowering, right in the middle of a somewhat intimate conversation. Eugene would never do that. The new reality knocks me cold: he’s right there in front of me. And he’s altered, all the friend, minus the intuition and attentiveness I expect. It takes every ounce of Eugene’s energy to focus on our conversation, and he seems engaged one moment and mentally shut down the next, fidgeting wildly with his clothes, his nose, his bandages. That’s right, I think. He fights fidgeting on a good day, without medication. Usually he fights it off well. Remember he’s really, really sick.

A nurse arrives to lift Eugene into the wheelchair I’ve been sitting on, and take him to physical therapy. “I was running, six weeks ago,” he reminds me. “I’m stronger every day, and I have more energy every day. All traces of depression are miraculously gone.” I’ve always trusted every word Eugene has said. What do I do with this information? He wheels off to his appointment, and I pull the curtain, lie down in the hospital bed and nap.

Eugene returns to find me asleep in his bed, deeply enough that I wake startled, and I think without thinking, “I am sleeping in a dead man’s bed.” I have no idea if it’s true or not, and I put the thought aside. I rise and sit knee-to-knee with my friend. I read him a story about memories from our year in Erie, Pennsylvania. We talk about more memories, and he asks me to read another. He likes the fact that he can dip in and out of the story, focusing on some images and letting his mind wander in the wash of words when he wishes. I like it, too. He remembers everything, remembers many details I’ve forgotten, cracks a deadpan joke that he still has his memory intact, even though he lives on a brain injury ward.

And so the day winds on, moments I’m simply together with my friend, the same as ever, and moments where the wind is knocked out of me and I gasp, he’s gone, while choosing my words carefully, not disturbing his seeming peace. Reminder, he is not here for my benefit—I am here for his. I owe this friend so much. I decided, the year I worked with Eugene, ate my breakfasts and midnight snacks with him, that I might want to marry someday, encouraged that I could live with someone for a year and not grow weary with his company.

His wife arrives, exhausted, and we walk to get a bite to eat. It’s my first conversation with her since her wedding. It seems unfair that our first friendly conversation is about losing her husband, about whether he will recover and what parts of him may not recover. I’m a distant friend, from a part of her husband’s life she doesn’t know. She is preparing for a future as the single mother of two children not yet in grade school. She is already alone, and she knows it. He’s right there, and he’s not there.

Eugene is tired when we come back, setting up a DVD player to watch The Office as we leave. I stand close but he is lying down, so a goodbye hug is out of reach. On impulse I kiss him on the forehead. “Be well, my friend. Sleep well. And give me a better excuse to visit next time.”

“Thank you for making the long trip to see me. You’ve been a great encouragement. Safe journey, Denise. I can’t thank you enough, for everything.”

I think, the next time I see him he will be sicker, and I want to be ready. But I want to remember how it feels to be in his company, today.

And Eugene’s wife and I are out the door, talking once we are out of earshot. She drives me to my hotel. I travel home. She prepares for Eugene to arrive at home the following week.

A month passes, and my friend Eugene has died, at home, after a dinner with his family. None of us expected his life to end so quickly—by all accounts, he seemed poised for a slow decline as the brain tumor progressed. He’d been working very hard to walk again, and photos show his spirit, still working hard in his final few weeks. Every one of us is miserable not to see him one last time. I wonder if every one of us holds a secret corner of relief that his children will not see him deteriorate inch by inch over the course of long months or years.

I drove, Sunday, hustling my little Jetta down the East Coast for a thousand miles of grief. Mutual friends made a home with me for a few nights, and at some moments our borrowed house provided corners for four women to write pieces for a memorial service.

Eugene has given me everything available in his heart, again and again, and I’m glad to give the same. I wrote a story of one year in our mid-twenties, to tell Christine, his wife, and I read it directly to her during the service. I could not have spoken if I’d not taken time to write it out—that piece of paper anchored me. I’m thankful I packed flat buttery-soled shoes, to feel my feet gripping the floor beneath the podium at the church. Heart stumbling so desperately, it’s a comfort to still be upright, walking steadily to the aisle, the pew, the reception, the car. I drove away thinking I’d spoken too personally—I think that very thought every time I read to someone I know. The stories that interest me are the stories close to my heart, the closer, the truer, the more wrenching to speak, the more necessary. I told a story of Eugene’s generosity and joy, his committed friendship.

Perhaps I will tell that story here, sometime. I arrived home Tuesday afternoon, after four hours sleep and nine hours of driving, the kind of blazing headache one should expect after such a quantity of heavy crying. The whole experience is too raw just now.

And it was too raw to admit to any but my friend Ellen: I woke up the morning after she told me of his death, and my first thought was, he’s eloped. I imagined once again some green rolling hills and the hints of autumn around the edges, hidden on the other side of those ominous swinging doors in the hospital. He’s eloped and he’s free from that damned tumor, and he weeps for awhile to begin with, for the sorrow of his family and friends. And then he runs, because he can. I don’t know the next scene, because he is far in the distance from me, for now.

I’m right here, for now, remembering my friend’s voice and praying for those who love him. I think about the word “parousia,” the Greek word for that time-beyond-time at the end of all things. “We don’t know much about it,” I say to my Sunday school class, “but we know it will be good.” I think also of the longing of the psalmist who says, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem…” If I forget thee, my friend—well, I won’t forget.