Saturday, May 31, 2008

last Saturday of May: mulch, rain, lilacs

The neighbors on the street above mine are speaking streams of Portuguese over one another at such a pace I can’t discern if they are arguing or agreeing enthusiastically—I can’t tell if they hear one another. My little neighborhood has ordinances against clotheslines, unfortunately for us, but the street above has no such compunctions, so Maria hangs her laundry (including her husband’s skivvies) to dry from the chain link fence that tops the stone terrace above my vegetable garden, eye level from my third-floor bedroom window. My downstairs neighbor threatens to cover the chain-link with willow-fencing for privacy, but that seems a little drastic. They are nice neighbors, friendly through the language barrier and the chain-link fence, and I can’t imagine asking them to change laundry habits for me.

Some years I’ve managed to grow enough Morning Glories and green bean vines to block the sight of drying jeans and tshirts and skivvies, but some other years the green beans don’t even sprout. The women talk rapidly and loudly while Maria hurries to pull her laundry before the rain begins in earnest.

We woke with the sound of the mulch delivery truck and Scott hurried to organize the weeding of our front and back terraces, the layering of mulch in the places not yet filled with plants. I do the slow gardening tasks, splitting perennials and weeding between plants. Scott does not know a weed from a desirable plant, but he knows roughly where paths ought to be, and he has the desire to cover things with a new layer of brown, like a new coat of paint. It's fun to see his gardening motivation. Because I’d obsess over every ripped up Forget-Me-Not, I let him do his work outdoors. Madeleine is planning for a class camping trip and we have enough work to do, inside.

Monday marks the end of my first year of graduate coursework in creative writing, and while I’ve been wrapping up my creative work, my critical paper, and my book annotations, I find myself itching to step back and observe how my life has shifted and changed with this new adventure. Not yet—need to turn in these assignments first, need to finish my own school year and the children’s, first. Need to plot out summer camps and plans, first. But soon. It’s been quite a year.

I type with the timer set to five minutes, when the coffee will be finished brewing, also, and it will be time to get back to work on my writing for class.

True to form, a due date for homework sets off the need to clean house, just as it did when I was a college student. After Madeleine and I pack for her trip, I set her to cleaning her room. We’ve still not quite recovered from the bunk-bed-building project in April, and each week I find homes for another round of her stuff. Today she patiently sorts four bags of recycling, art supplies, old projects long forgotten, lost treasures. And I clean the sand from the futon and floor for another week, pack up another four bags for the thrift shop, make a few small repairs.

Thanks for being a part of my ongoing letter home—I know these quick missives are anything but deep. Still I remember my senior year when a classmate named Eileen babysat me through my final project for statistics, the only course I nearly failed in all my school years. She brought me a bucket of lilacs and sat at the typewriter at my very clean desk, taking dictation while I leafed through our class project. I’m leaning into the scent of lilacs today, likely the last bunch of the season, writing and editing as hard and fast as I can toward Monday. It's amazing how much one small goodness (lilacs in bloom) can make such a difference. I move a bouquet from the kitchen into my bedroom, where the bed is spread with books and notes and my laptop.

The timer goes off, my coffee is ready, and now my fingers and words are warmed up well. Scott and the kids left their mulching to paint flowerpots and eat pizza at a neighborhood “spring party.” I see Maria finished taking down her laundry before the storm, which is starting up well, just about now. The lilacs remind me: Time for me to get to work.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

snapshots from 2,200 miles in a very small car

Sometime I will write about “road trips that changed my life,” but for now I will simply say that road trips DO change my life. I am always ecstatic about the last one, dreaming about the next one, recalling many past trips as adventures.

I planned to visit friends, thinking “respite” and to change the scenery of our lives for a few days. Over the Rhine’s OHIO concert (once in a lifetime opportunity) provided the excuse, time-wise, but the concert is merely an excuse for making this trip now and not another time. The concert is an excuse to see friends who give life, who take us in, who make our lives delightful. I thought our extended families would be the third priority, and I thought nothing at all about the weather. As a family, I tend to think we will endure, and we will enjoy things enough to be fine.

But put me in a car with a brand new spiral-bound atlas, with tunes on the iPod (placed on “random shuffle” through all 1,200 songs) and everything can change. My son falls asleep with his classic chocolate-milk mustache and my daughter pulls out her recorder to learn Handel’s Messiah by ear, and Beetoven’s 9th (that’s “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” to her), and Scott and I look at each other, turn off the iPod, feel the wind from the moonroof, pass the cool drinks around. Anything could happen.

My son had an Evil Tantrum about which shoes to wear to church in Cincinnati, and drew blood on my arm with his unkempt fingernails—I made us late by rushing to change out of sweat-soaked clothes after the tantrum, but we walked into church to strains of Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling, also known as our wedding waltz. When the congregation held hands for a brief prayer (my friends’ congregation, where their voices can be heard as we sing and pray), my son was sitting behind me, sulking, but he lifted his face and wrestled his hand into mine and the anger melted, and I knew we’d be okay for the rest of the service.

At various moments in our travels, my children shined for others, brought out the best in others. The same son offers me the first sip of his root beer, which I don’t accept but I love his generosity just the same. My daughter eagerly courts a cousin she’s never met, making a new penpal of a girl who doesn’t like writing much. Time with my father, my stepmother, my brother and sister-in-law—my children were like movie-children, curious, helpful, asking good questions about PaPaw and NaNa’s favorite crafts and projects.

A “grown-ups only” breakfast allowed Dad and Ann and David and Jan to be as bawdy as they like to be, without taming themselves too much for me—I love it when they are “themselves” and not too cleaned-up for the “minister-girl” they still see me to be.

I didn’t think the trip would be “about” us as a family, but of course it is—the way we fail to rustle up a fast-food dinner fast enough and children are whining, and the way we say “yes” to the hotel swimming pool at 10:30 at night, yes to children who want to find the ice machine down the hall “by themselves.” The way Brendan begs for “healthy food” instead of fast food, and he devours brocolli and steamed carrots and chicken noodle soup and a fruit cup after too many chicken nuggets on too many days.

And the trip is “about” our extended family, the people we moved “away” from without half thinking about it. Bodies fail the people we love. I can’t write about it much yet. My husband spends time with his father and brother but I sneak off to get a tour of Uncle Irish’s garden, to cut rhubarb and let him talk to me about pears, about garlic, about the right fertilizer for tomatoes, about fishing. I can talk to Scott’s brother and his wife on the phone, but I can only be with Irish this way in the garden. I find Aunt Peggy all folded up in pain on the porch swing—when I met her she played the ukelele and sang, and she would send me home with jars of pickled beets. I wanted to help her walk this time, but I don’t know enough about where she hurts and how. Her hands don’t unfold to hold mine. In my mind, I drew a cross in oil on her forehead but she might think such a ritual to be superstitious—I wish I’d asked her, wish I’d offered. I tell Irish and Peggy they are two of my favorite people on earth, but I don’t know that they believe me.

When my children start a dual tantrum, Scott and I hustle them into seatbelts for the long drive home, and Peggy begins to cry about us leaving. There is no way to soothe her, though I place myself on my knees at her feet and hold her beautiful old face. “It’s okay that it’s hard, Peggy…” I find myself whispering. She tells me banker’s daughters don’t cry and I tell her I cry all almost every day. “It’s hard that things change, Peggy, that we lose so much.” The children get louder and we reach a quieter moment. I sit in the car and see that my husband is weeping, too, but we need to get out of the parking space or extend this scene longer. I think the words “child sedative, there needs to be a child sedative” and we drive to the grocery, park in the thin line of shade so Scott can rush in for cold chocolate milk. I open the car door, threatening children to an inch of their lives if they undo the seatbelts or hit one another, then I stand and lean my head on the roof and sob. They are so loud they don’t notice, and I’m oddly thankful. Scott returns with the sacred chocolate milk and they chug, and they do become quieter. I check to make sure Scott is good to drive, and he assures me it will be good to focus on the road. We drive south down the winding road to the interstate. The children are asleep in minutes. There are still ten hours of driving—and several expected tantrums—left to get us home.

Before all that, though, the time with our friends was the highlight of our trip, the highlight of our month, our spring, maybe our year. If I say “friendship is the dearest thing on earth,” I will sound like a Hallmark card and I can’t bear that. If I say “they save our lives,” that too may sound saccharine. Do you know what I mean, though? First I am taken in, in friendship, by a new classmate, just a few months ago. Then my whole family is sheltered by this friendship, too, and my friendship extends to his family. Not only do these “new” friends love us, they are astounding people who inspire us, challenge us, and make us laugh, spill their generosity over our heads. And they were never “new” friends—from the beginning, we have been old friends. And old friends, by their very nature I think, heal.

These are just scenes, unorganized and too raw to see what they mean. I got no work done because the weather was so beautiful, the hills so green, the trees in bloom and I couldn’t take my eyes off any of it to look at the pages of even the best book on earth. I am working hard at my essays and I will get you a report, soon, of how I end my school year. Pray for me if you are the praying type—I grow more scattered the more I need focus, it seems. Walking helps—I need more of that, too.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

traveling mercies

Writing a quick note from the middle of Pennsylvania, in a hotel where my children and husband are quietly settled in with books. It's MIDNIGHT and we are all weary, but clean and settled and still. The road trip quick-dash to Indiana has been filled with great treats: a visit with our best friend Hank, surprising my dad and stopmom by showing up to eat breakfast with them, time with my younger brother and his wife, a visit to life-giving friends who more than make up for the thirty driving hours (okay, more than thirty driving hours). One fabulous double-date, many hours of laughing with kids, much insanely good food.

The weather is the surprise star of this trip. We'll be home tomorrow night. Then I'm pushing hard for my last few days of the quarter, and the end of my kids' school year. Much to do. Glad to be traveling and away from my calendar, for a few days.

awash in gratitude, short on time...

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Just finished Scott Russell Sanders A Private History of Awe, beautiful, rich, provoking heartbreak and soul-searching and yearning.

Today's reading: World Gone Beautiful by Linda Buturian. Still early, but I love her tone and candor about family life.

Countdown: five books to go, a critical paper (5-7 pages) to write, a whopping story to revise one more time. One May Fair this weekend (billion flower crowns to weave, clothes to choose for kids to dance in), one big whopping trip to make (top secret, will keep you posted), a fourth-grade bike trip to plan for, a teacher scrapbook to produce... I'm sure there's more but I'm forgetting.

Unlike my lawn (mostly dead from last years’ draught) the neighbor’s grass must be growing, since the hum of the lawnmower drowns out my daughter’s wailing. She keeps her homework binder at home, with one lesson per day, and the notebook is due on Friday morning. This is the first week she has slacked off, and she began the evening three nights of homework “behind.” Thus she did not get to run errands after dinner with her father and brother, and she is still wailing fifteen minutes after they left.

Wait, she tells me she is done wailing and would like to come smell the scent of grass in my bedroom. This might be a trick, but it’s worth trying. I worry that she will become distracted and not finish her homework at all. She claims every day that she’s forgotten all division, that she cannot possibly remember the 7 Times Table, that she can no longer subtract. She never claims that she’s forgotten how to read, spell, or play an instrument, and somehow she never forgets German—in this last respect she is far advanced from me, and I’m jealous. I whisper the German word for “plum cake,” and the word for “birthday,” my tiny remnants of college level language learning.

So here she is, lying down on the opposite end of my bed with her too-short black velour pants, the ones with the knee worn to transparent. A giant pink fleece sweater. Blue and purple paisley socks. She wears a lavender headband of her own design, crafted from a scrap of wool. And the scratch of her pencil is good company. She hums while she works, which is preferable to doing her math out loud. When she lifts her notebook for a minute, I see that she is concentrating hard, unlike her work before dinner. She must’ve needed to eat.

I need to do my homework, too, and I’m so much more than three days behind. I didn’t get to go on errands either, but then, I’d much prefer homework. I’m reading a delightful book. The story I’m writing is exciting and I can’t wait to get back into it, when the possibility of interruptions is a little lower. So, back to the delightful book. The dishwasher is cleaning tonight’s dishes, the clothes washer is set for the next load (tomorrow, since the dryer vent is still broken and the damp air fills the room when I run it). The living room is clean with the exception of four loads of laundry to fold and put away.

She’s on the last problem “on this page,” then one more full page of math to do. Boys will return with dessert and other good stuff, soon. My book is right…. Here.

lost note from Monday

While I crack eggs into the small fry pan, I marvel that I’ve propped a literary journal under a carton of eggs, to read while I cook my breakfast. It’s come to this: I read all the time. Such is the life of a grad student, stealing any minute I can.

My laptop is open and warmed up on the kitchen table, with the two books I’m studying for a critical paper. I spent half an hour with email, half an hour clearing the clean laundry off the couch. The crease in the futon cushion is filled with beach sand, but wrestling the cushion off… that falls under the category of “complicated and time-consuming,” which means it will need to be solved LATER. As with so many things. A bag of stuff to go to the thrift shop, another bag to go to the school book sale, a backlog of winter clothes that needs to go to the attic, but can’t simply be “stirred in” to the existing piles in the attic. The list continues. But yesterday I weeded half of the yard and patio, prepared the vegetable bed, and found the cut-up remnants of our Christmas tree that Brendan used for a “fort” behind the butterfly bush. The lettuce starts and pansies will go into window boxes and the garden, today or tomorrow.

I DID work, I HAVE worked, I WILL work on these things.

Good to be home, looking out the window at the ridge of spring green trees, just past the harbor. The last of the forsythia still blooms. I need to work on my paper, edit my essay, attack my to-do list, and go for a walk, hmmm. I will write a terrible draft of the critical paper—for an hour perhaps, then go at one of the other needs, after. I hope. Meanwhile I’ll finish breakfast, pour more coffee, close the journal and put away the carton of eggs.

I’ll need to find something bigger to prop open the other books.

(Did Work: later I sorted all of the kids' clothes in the attic, put in new labeled boxes. Still lots to do and lots to write.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

writing studio, spring day

Every item in Barbara’s house is parallel to everything else and I feel like I’m leaving traces of my presence each time I visit to borrow the quiet room on the third floor. By the time I arrive, my writing bag packed, the chores from home staved off for a few hours, the fires in my heart stoked to blazing, waiting to get to that page—by the time I arrive I wonder if all the fiery energy blows disarray into the very air of this tidy, beautiful little house. Are all the shoes still parallel, where they wait in a gentle line by the door? The dishes and plates, are they still in their places? Simple arrangements of flowers adorn the table, the entrance, and I know the little studio will have more, too. This pair of yellow roses smells like tea, just like my mother’s rose bush when I was a child.

On the way up the steps I notice a pair of pajamas and a fleece jacket tossed casually on the bed, and the non-parallel arrangement tickles me: something out of place! How lovely! In the third floor studio, too, I note the door is ajar to the tiny deck, and a few small clumps of soil rest on the tatami floor. I pick them up, delighted, and walk the bits of soil out to the deck before I can step on them by accident and grind them permanently in. I toss the crumbs of earth over the edge of the deck, where they can grow something.

Spring is here in all her messy glory, deck surrounded by buds, carpenter bees buzzing, birdsong charming. I can see only a hint of seafoam through the trees, can hear only a bit of the waves through some steady sound of construction equipment or maybe the humming of Coast Guard helicopters in the distance. I’ve forgotten the sunscreen again, unaccustomed to this new routine.

Much work to do on The Essay today. Classwork is a joy when I can simply let all the guilt go, guilt about all the undone things calling me from my own home, miles away. That’s why I’m here: most things are parallel here, in the right place, and not much disturbs me but the notion that I’m leaving a trail. Now I see Barbara herself leaves a trail, so I will worry less, by two crumbs of soil and one pair of pajamas.

A nuthatch swishes by me twice and I wonder if I’m too close to her nest. Much to do. Batteries run low and I will need to be near an outlet, and avoid sunburn that way, too. I will head inside for a bit, plug in the laptop and get to work.

But meanwhile I am thankful for everything, for things parallel and messy, for the gift of fresh flowers in a vase and a space dedicated to quiet and concentration. For Barbara who offered this place, “because you would do the same for me.” For the work ahead of me.

The carpenter bee hovers between me and the laptop—time to go.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Flowers! My daughter and her friends agreed to help me set up a tutorial for sculpting Mother's Day flowers from felt and from a felted sweater. Didn't they do a great job? I'll post the link to the tutorial when the project is all set.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

postcard from my birthday

I was wakened in the early morning by two children full of kisses—one of them flopped his entire weight on my bladder, as is his tradition. My email fills with well-wishes and MY DAD PHONED to wish me happy birthday, at eight-thirty in the morning! Scott and kids arranged an elaborate breakfast tray with “46” spelled out in blueberries on top of my pancakes. Children thought a drippy-sugary breakfast needed a dessert, and so arranged a bowl of candy hearts topped with a candy cane: leftovers! Children after my own heart. Mardi Gras beads, cardboard bookmarks with hand-drawn designs, candles in my pancakes, and Chinese cookie fortunes adorning everything. Be sure and put them back in the jar, I say. My sentimental treasures, these fortunes.

From now on your kindness will lead you to success.

Your dearest wish will come true.

You have an active mind and a keen heart.

Keep your feet on the ground even though friends flatter you.

And my favorite, Friends long absent are coming back to you.

Friends have indeed flattered me to the point my feet can barely touch ground (you know who you are), and I’m working on kindness. Friends long absent are showing up—I joke that I’m reading my life like I read a John Irving novel, that I never know who will show up from the earlier chapters and I expect all the plotlines to converge soon.

My brother phones to say it’s a good thing the kids spelled 46 in berries instead of candles.

My writing life is an unwieldy beast! I’ve been working with one particular essay since October, waiting for it, watching it and this past week it exploded into something wonderfully different. Can I say perhaps I’ve never really revised an essay before? Not like this, anyway. The process is terribly exciting, a bit frightening to see my original creation in pieces everywhere, my reading time and parenting time decimated by my pursuit of this story. Somehow I need to pull myself back into daily life (ie dinners, cleaning, tasks to support family life) while catching up on reading, drafting a critical paper, and continuing to work on this one essay. Life as a grad student: it doesn’t all fit.

Good thing I love it.

This week my daughter starred as Urd the Norn of the Past in a production of The Fate of Baldur (A tale of the end of the Norse Gods), and Brendan got a call about his first little league practice, and Scott held parent teacher conferences. I am looking into summer camps, summer responsibilities, and setting the spring and summer clothes in order. It might be a good day to set up the vegetable garden (better late than never) and maybe turn the compost, a great birthday tradition.

Assuming I recover from breakfast in bed. How lucky to have a Saturday birthday!

The fortune taped on the back side of my cardboard bookmark reads, Treasure what you have. Okay. I’m up for that.