Thursday, February 28, 2008

slowly and with great love

I found this snippet in a series of notes from a long essay I am writing about working with my friend Karen.

My entire professional life has been based on the needs of others, real or imagined. I’ve built communities in college dorms, directed the formation of young leaders, directed trips into caves and climbs above the treetops. I’ve attended courses on snow and ice rescue, backcountry cooking, suicide intervention, basic first aid, learned how to deal with drunk people and how to teach church school. It’s been my professional honor to have students wake me in the night with tears and a need to talk, and I’ve welcomed them with hot tea and boxes of tissues. Those jobs were nearly twenty years ago and still I miss life in the dorm, the late-night discussions I hated to leave and the students I invariably grew to love. I miss the intimacy of life in a big rowdy group, and I think I always will.

Motherhood offered the next breath of group intimacy in my life—seven pregnant women joined ranks for a yoga class at our local hospital, and we agreed to meet weekly for tea and conversation. Somehow we met for three years, through nursing and toddlerhood and onto the next round of pregnancies. Bit by bit, the women in our group continued to move away to less expensive parts of the country until there are only two of us here now. But for a few years, I took time to sit, to sip slowly, to watch babies faces change, to get to know people’s stories. Even now, the friend I spent all those nursing hours with is almost too busy to reach. When we get together, there is always a sense of hurry, no matter how we fight it.

When in a life do we simply sit? When do we take the time to do things slowly and with great love? Almost never, in my life. Too, too rarely.

Monday, February 25, 2008

sleepy evening report

WGBH will call to tell me what time the tow truck will pick up my beloved Jetta JuniorMint. (Sigh. She’s been a good one.) Eric the Car Guy will phone me from the auction grounds, where he will choose a new-used car for me—most of my friends, my priest, my neighbors buy cars from Eric, but the process is new to me. He’s a professional, he assures me, but his public tells me he’s a car psychic, reading and assessing what car will suit the buyer best.

But the bottom line is, I need to answer the phone if it rings.

This graduate school quarter started in January, along with the colds and the child sicknesses, and the car breakages. Each quarter requires ten books, a critical paper, and sixty pages of creative writing. Because I can read while sick, can read while children argue that they do NOT have a fever and they will NOT lie down, I’ve kept up with the reading requirements. But my writing!!! Ay, ay, ay my writing has suffered miserably. Writing works best when the stories have a chance to rest quietly over many car rides, to nag at me. This quarter, every waking hour could be sucked up by need and interruption. It begins to feel like a conspiracy.

I remind myself, January and February often feel like a conspiracy anyway. The house fills with things that need to be sorted and culled, all the packrats packing their cheeks and caves with more and more stuff, and the mama Un-Packrat cannot keep up with the stuff.

My Lenten resolution to “be a body” has not gone as planned. Usually, this means eating low-carb, cutting out sugar and grains for a few weeks, remembering the supplements that bolster health, walking. So far this Lent “being a body” means a two-week ginger ale-only fast, followed by the slow reintroduction of food and a cough that still cries out for ginger ale and orange juice—not exactly low-carb. I’ve walked a few glorious walks, when the wind is not too brutal. I am nowhere near “fitness.” I spent the February Break, last week, sleeping and reading and writing as much as possible, to catch up with reading and writing deadlines.

Today I need to dive into my files and thread together some essays to edit and rewrite for the next deadline. I’ve determined to ignore reading until after dinner each evening.

It’s been a good day for rewrites and edits, and getting back to older writing.

And I’ve started arranging childcare and play-dates for kids for the ten days I’ll be gone. Suddenly, I have a lot to do, not only for them and for deadlines, but for me! I need to pull my knitting projects together, and buy those wool slippers I’ve been putting off. I need to get stuff together to hem a pair of pants and buy a second pair of pants…

The Jetta JuniorMint car is long gone, with the tow truck, and the license plates await the next form of transportation. The lasagna pan is soaking from dinner. The snow clothes tumble in the dryer so they will be ready for tomorrow. Kids were writing possible breakfast menus when I forced them to go to bed, and the lists are still waiting at the table, with pencils and pens. Time for me to put my thoughts aside, too. The car will work out. The writing is good work, and it works out. Soon the calendar will read March and the light is already stretching later into the evening. It will all work out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The harbor is a deep greenish blue today, with frothed edges sparkling in the sun—it’s so beautiful I’d probably be driven to tears, except the circuit-board on my van is acting up. Everytime I turn the steering wheel the panel beside my left knee starts clicking a morse code message, and each set of clicks rapidly turns the backseat heater on and off. If I’m interpreting the code right, the message says “despair.” This is the part of winter that seems endless. I drive straight south, trying to avoid sudden shifts of the steering wheel, trying to will the damn clicking to stop.

The subtext of the code: What have I done to my family, spending money and time on graduate school? What have I done that I’ve taken my family’s car on this beautiful day, leaving them stranded. What have I done that I’m shopping for cars again—didn’t we just buy a car? A three thousand dollar car, which we hoped would last for three years, and it did, but the three years are up and the car is used up, and it’s time to buy the next car.

Thank God for this beautiful ocean on this dreary-hearted day. I pull into Barbara’s parking space, to the tune of the fog horn from the Coast Guard station. “It’s because the equipment reads moisture in parts-per-million of each square inch of air,” my red-bearded friend Michael told me long ago. “But the fog horn is blowing, and there is no fog!” I argued. “Do you read parts-per-million? I don’t think so. The equipment says there’s fog.” He smiled. We both shrugged at the absurdity. Parts-per-million, it is. The horn keeps me company, along with the sun and the gulls.

My few winter days at my borrowed writing studio have been a wrestling match with winter cold, but today the sun streams in—the thermostat reads seventy degrees! The wind howls but the heat builds. I may never leave. I may read all day. I forgot my cell phone. I love being lost to the world. I love being out of the damned broken car with its treacherous morse code messages. Soon I will need to find a phone and call home, but for now it’s seventy degrees and sunny in the top floor of the Rumplestilskin house on Rouse Road, overlooking the Atlantic. For now I am only thinking of the next hour of quiet and gathering material for the missed writing deadline, and this little pocket of time, unbroken and sweet.

Friday, February 01, 2008

baked goods

“We’re out of flour, Mom,” the barefoot girl calls from atop the kitchen counter.

“How can that be?” I ask and peer into the canister for myself. Good thing she just finished the dinner rolls. Less than a quarter cup remains. “How many batches of yeasted dough have we made since you got the new cookbook for Christmas?”

“I don’t know—six maybe?” Hmmm. Each day she asks to bake I remind myself, she may not always have this desire, and it’s a good desire. If I can make it happen for her, I will, despite the supervision required. Her cookbook insists “the adult” melts the butter for the dough, then again for the sticky bun topping. “The adult” boils the water for pretzels and lifts them in and out as the timer rings. “The adult” puts the pan in the oven. Six batches, usually divided into half for two baking projects. A whole lot of white flour, which doesn’t hurt her as much as it does me. I encourage her to use the whole-grain flour she ground by hand at her friend’s house, mixed with the white flour.

My grandmother was a talented cook and a caterer, known as “the finest cook in the county” for her fresh dinner rolls and her pies, her mashed potatoes and hand-rolled noodles. I worked with her because she paid me well, but I gave little attention to the food, and more to serving and cleanup. My brothers both absorbed her cooking style and remembered everything. I was dreamy and distracted. I taught myself to cook a decade later, but I wonder what else I’d know if I started earlier, and with a guide.

I do remember how to squeeze the yeasted dough into small rounded balls, three per dinner roll, into the buttered muffin pan. We butter our hands and do it just the same way, setting the pan aside for the rolls to rise one more time.

Madeleine’s fancies come and go, and I don’t know if she will stick with baking. She shows a level of confidence in the kitchen that I learned in my thirties, mixing the yeast and watching to make sure it’s “alive.” When I tell her I’m making spinach lasagna, she says “I don’t even like eating it, but can I help?” Yep. I pull the chair over for her to stand at the counter with me. I chop spinach and carrots in the food processor, then mix with cheeses and an egg. She layers the noodles. I pour the sauce over the layers.

“The art of teaching is to make the enjoyed moment serve the whole life,” I read earlier today, a quote attributed to A. C. Harwood. “The enjoyed moment” is what my fourth-grade daughter brings home from school. Joy. I envy her pure joy of learning. She sings as she works, not some sweet song but some song about pirates losing limbs merrily. She dances as she works, too, and stops to repeat “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog” so I can see that it’s a PALINDROME. (Spelled the same, backwards and forwards.) “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” Another palindrome. She asks excitedly if I know how many words can be spelled from the letters of PALINDROME and we laugh that someone Googled to find 531 words, while her class could only come up with 149. The enjoyed moment lasted 149 words!

The article continues “if math and painting are taught with humor or warmth… and through a process of beauty, then the ‘memory’ of math and painting lives far more deeply in the person than just the memory of ‘how to do it.’ …Then even if specific information may retreat from the conscious memory… appreciation for all subjects remain with the person for life.”

I consider how to make the enjoyed moment serve the whole life, as a parent, when it’s mid-winter and I am grouchy and struggling to make headway on my projects. Warmth, humor. Specific information retreated long ago. I remember my Grandmother and I feeding kitchen mice little scraps when we catered one cold winter evening in a rented kitchen at the Lions Club, how surprised I was to see her eyes brighten as we watched.

Madeleine asks if she can go play after I pop everything into the oven, and I turn to survey the flour on the kitchen table and counters, the sink filled with measuring cups and spoons and bowls, caked with flour and butter. “Please?” she says. “Brendan is playing a game I want to play.” Okay. I’d like her to learn to clean up for herself, but I’d like her to feel like cooking is more “play” than a chore. This enjoyed moment has passed and dinner will be a little later than usual, but it’s a little more special than usual, too. She leaves her apron on the back of the chair and I push up my sleeves and start the hot water running in the sink.

“Pssst.” She calls to me and stands by me at the sink.

“Yeah?” She crooks her finger to draw me closer to her whisper.

“Go hang a salami!” she quips. My educator.

“I’m a lasagna hog,” I reply, and we wink at each other. “Let’s try it the other way: Go hang a salami.”

“I’m a lasagna hog. But not really. I don’t like it much.”

“Do you think you’ll eat a little?” She nods.

Does it serve her whole life? It’s hard to say. Maybe. Does the enjoyed moment serve my whole life? Definitely.

“Have a fun game. I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”