Monday, April 24, 2006

my break from spring break

It’s easy to look across my almost-paradise this morning, and look past the clothes peeking out of the hamper, the dirt on the windowsill where a potted plant has spilled, the mysterious sticky stuff on the kitchen table. What I see is a house empty of people, on an ordinary morning.

It’s nine a.m, Monday after Spring Break on Cape Ann. My husband and children left for school more than an hour ago—children with bright happy faces and Scott lost in concentration, thinking about the classes he will teach today. Scott made sure kids were in bed very early last night, remembering a few of the last “mornings after” school breaks, so the children are rested and mostly helpful today.

Madeleine and Brendan are eager to see how their school friends liked the letters in their mailboxes. Each mailed a dozen sweet letters to their friends over the break, asking if they had a good Easter or Passover, saying how much they loved them, and enclosing crayon pictures made with care. Scott had to buy a new box of envelopes and a pack of stamps. He is better at transcribing their dictation than I am, answering requests for word spellings and looking up addresses.

Brendan left me a bowl of cantaloupe he painstakingly scooped into melon balls, “for you, Mama, when you eat breakfast later.”

And when I do eat my breakfast, later, I have my pen handy to unpack the last ten days or so. I worked my regular store hours, I attended a ten-hour writing retreat, and logged a lovely day in Boston with my family. And I served as personal assistant to a woman who is recovering from a stroke. That’s a total of thirty-four hours for pay this week, plus ten hours of professional development, in addition to an Easter feast for nine people, plus a labor-intensive Easter morning for children. It’s the opposite of “break,” for me, but it’s all been good.

The real treasure of my week is the unexpected pleasure of serving Karen, who is legally blind, but she is decidedly not “a blind woman.” She is unable to use her hands for most everyday tasks, but she most certainly is not an invalid. Karen utterly defies labeling—she is in recovery, and she’s one of the most mentally healthy people I know. She is a stickler for organic foods, and a chain-smoker. She is fiercely independent and yet I need to peel and slice apples for her. “I recognize you from the store downtown,” she said by way of introduction at our first meeting. “Sit down and let me make you a cup of tea. You look tired.” Karen’s range of vision is very small, the size of a thirteen-inch television, she tells me. But what she sees in that thirteen inches, she sees with her whole heart.

I am writing this down as an initial sketch, like I would write a letter, to collect my thoughts. What I’m puzzling is the incredible blessing that has come my way, this week. Assisting Karen is my friend Suzanne’s job. Suzanne approached me a month ago, to ask if I’d substitute for her while she travels over break. When she described assisting Karen, I said I would absolutely not enjoy these duties, but I could use the income. I said I was definitely capable, though I worried about my impatience. There are more complications, possibilities of anaphalactic seizures, instructions to drive Karen to a particular hospital an hour away in case of emergency, not to allow the local ambulance drivers to take her. To be honest, the job sounded overwhelming and scary. I thought it would feel like servitude.

The truth is, though, I don’t mind cooking and cleaning for someone who would cook and clean for me, if she could. The truth is I truly love to cook for anyone who is attentive and thankful. I made a simple salad of baby spinach leaves and avocado slices, with a bowl of dried apricots and toasted almonds on the side, and another bowl of sliced pears. “Thank you so much for the putting the fresh garlic in this salad dressing, dear—I taste it and it makes all the difference in the world to me.” I sat down for an hour with her to eat and talk over this simple meal, rising only to refill our teacups. “Did Suzanne tell you I am a former chef?” she asked. Karen would sit at her table and talk with me while I prepared a fresh lunch and prepared the food for her snacks and dinner, every day.

One day we walked the beach, talking, and another day Karen did not feel well, so I created a filing system for her medical papers and financial papers. I hung pictures on the walls and I scratched the cat behind the ears while I waited for Karen to emerge safely from the shower.

But for the hours Karen was well enough, she talked to me at length about my “career” in writing, how to organize my time, how to get my stories published, how to invest in this project until it pays off. “But I need to make money!” I lamented. “Like you are making money, now, honey? This is not money, not really.” I shrugged and laughed—I am so thankful for this paycheck, yes, but it is quite little pay for my time.

“Karen, I am deeply grateful for good work, work that matters, work that does good in this world.”

“That’s why you need to put your energy into writing. It matters. It does good in the world.”

“How do you know that?”

“I see how you think, how you organize ideas. Suzanne is quite confident about your work—did you know that? But if she hadn’t told me that, I would have asked if you were a writer in the first hour I met you, because you obviously think and talk like one.”

Some days I marvel at how lucky I am—this week I got to spend twenty-five hours with a new career mentor, and be paid for it. This week I had the incredible privilege of serving a brilliant woman who could just as easily choose bitterness as gratitude, could just as easily be needy and demanding, could meet pain with dark fury. And she does have a little dark fury also—you should see the veracity of her smoking! But she chooses to smoke outside her own home, to be thoughtful of those serving her. And she chooses to be a gift.
I have a beautiful pewter magnet from my store, a Christmas gift that reads “The winds of grace blow all the time. All we need to do is set our sails.” The quote is attributed to Ramakrishna, and I have no idea whether that is the name of a person or a wisdom tradition. Though I set my sails, expectantly, still I am surprised what blows in, the strange blessings that come my way.

“I get paid for this,” I say and shake my head. It has not been a break from work, this week, but a break from the ordinary. I am thankful for Scott, who took on forty-five hours of childcare with barely a blink, during his vacation week. (He also got a full day off and a night at Fenway in the deal, and a few more drops of income in our bucket, so he’s happy.) I am thankful that most days have been “outdoor days” for my children, warm enough to play wearing a light jacket. I’m thankful for Jim and Mimi, who offered a night of childcare so Scott and I could go out for a few hours of coffee and reading, a special date.

And, as ever, I am thankful for this quiet, rainy Monday morning, many things to do and I’m not doing any of them for the next few minutes. I am pouring another cup of coffee and watching the rain come down for a bit—my break.

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