Thursday, January 29, 2009

red long johns with white snowmen

The boy is lying on the couch in his red long-johns, the ones patterned with jolly snowmen. His temperature finally lowers enough for him to be antsy, goofing off with the thermometer, but still looking very small.

Sunday he carefully packed the giant wheeled duffle full of snow clothes and work clothes. Monday he woke at five a.m. and tried to go back to sleep, too excited. Ready for school early, he spent a quarter of an hour watching the sunrise over the harbor in the big front window, collecting extra hugs. At one point he leapt up to hug me and banged his forehead on my tooth—I took it worse than he did, seeing stars.

Then Brendan was whisked away to meet his third-grade class for five days on an organic farm, nearly four hours drive west from here. Madeleine and Scott dropped him off at school and I settled in to meet a Monday midnight deadline.

Six p.m., Brendan’s teacher called to say Brendan fell asleep at dinner (no surprise) but when he woke it was with tears, saying his head hurt. From my tooth? I wondered. We traded notes on how I treat headaches at home. Madeleine wrote her essay on Gilgamesh at the kitchen table, while I worked on my laptop.

10 a.m Tuesday, Brendan’s teacher phoned to report a fever of 102 degrees, and another kid Will was feeling sick, too. It seems half the class contracted the flu last week. Rebecca, the other adult chaperone, just nursed her own son through this, and offered to sit with Brendan in the living room of the big farm house. He wanted to stay, in case he felt better and could feed animals and go sledding. We all thought Brendan would be more comfortable sleeping off his fever than riding in a car.

1 p.m. Giant snow and ice storm predicted for morning.

3 p.m. Tuesday, the teacher phoned to say Brendan changed his mind and wanted to come home. Will’s family was coming to pick him up, and Brendan could ride with them.

4 p.m. The phone rang again with the report that Brendan’s fever was 103.8, and did I still want him to ride in the car for that many hours? Will’s parents worried Brendan’s fever would spike higher as they traveled, but they were already packed and ready to travel. We arranged a place for me to meet along the highway.

Strange, this feeling: it seems wrong for this boy to suffer a fever so far away from me. Tightness in my neck and shoulders, tightening further. I’d need to start driving by 11 to meet them. I was ready by nine, and pacing.

I’d never seen Brendan suffer a fever like this. He sleeps through fevers, not raging like his sister, who fights fever restlessly. I asked my friend Emily to drive so I could keep him company in the backseat, not wanting him to be alone in case he was shivering or hallucinating. And I fretted. I poured Brendan’s favorite hot tea into a thermos (9 p.m.) and pretzels, chewable medicine, a blanket, then I burrowed into some internet research to escape my furious worry.

11p.m. Forced Emily to speed to the meeting point. Worried us through a highway detour that seemed endless, though it only took a few minutes, the flashing police lights made me even more irritable.

12 midnight, Got the phone call to say Will’s family had pulled into our meeting place. A turnpike toll collector told us how to go into the next town to reverse directions on the turnpike but I insisted Emily U-turn illegally. (She waited until the last possible minute, still weighing options.) No sirens, and hopefully no photos of my friend breaking the law. (She is changing her license plates today, but I don’t think that would ultimately help.) We pulled into the turnpike rest station as Will’s mom pulled the giant duffle out of her trunk, and Brendan looked at me and waved from his backseat window. (He waved!) Emily threw the trunk open and grabbed the luggage while I opened Brendan’s door. He was clutching his teddy bear and fleece sleeping bag and stuffed dog, while he whispered, “Bye, Will. Hope you feel better soon.” We settled him into the back seat. Because he is Brendan the barrage of questions was not slowed by his fever. Why are we riding in Emily’s car? Because I wanted to ride with you in the backseat, so you wouldn’t be alone. Where are daddy and Madeleine? They are sleeping in case they need to go to school tomorrow. I asked if he wanted to drink the chocolate milk he was also clutching and he said no, but it felt good to hold the cool bottle against his forehead.

“And my fever is down to 101!” He talked to me the whole way home, keeping track of the minutes that passed as Emily drove. We saw a car pulled over by the police and I told Emily she could slow down, after all. The tightness released when I saw him, and he was not listless but lucid. We would be okay, and we just needed to get home. I lowered from near-panic to simple, basic worry.

He hoped it would snow all day, he said as he climbed the stairs. But he would be sad not to shovel.

Wednesday, we woke to what would be an all-day snow, beautiful white-out. Brendan made us vow not to shovel anything, and we all agreed. By evening, rain washed most of the snow away. Brendan had a few good hours without fever, but was too tired to go out for hamburgers and fries.

Thursday is sunny with blue skies, and a boy on the couch sniffling and fiddling with the thermometer. He is not well enough to be irritable. I am reading and tidying up around the house, making him drink any liquid I can talk him into. If he must be sick, I’m glad he is here, while he is still so small. How either of us will handle the next fever away from home is anyone’s guess. But I’m glad to be here, today. And glad for him, and the red long johns he will grow out of, any minute now.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Robert Farrar Capon's Supper of the Lamb

NOTE: I'm working with Supper of the Lamb for my academic thesis work-- as well as MFK Fisher.

The world will always be more delicious than useful. p 40

Permit me now to wipe my hands and introduce myself. p 3

Supper of the Lamb is my definition of the “creative” in Creative Nonfiction. It’s not memoir but the writing is personal in tone, and paints the narrator as a character, certainly. The whole book is a stack of riffs and distractions that work beautifully together in a way Capon claims “outwits the Muse.” In other words, he planned this book to be eight chapters of the distractions involved in cooking a leg of lamb for The Great Feast, or the feast at the end of time.

A pair of pale blue pages falls out when I open The Sacred Kitchen Copy of The Supper of the Lamb, a set of notes from a devotional talk 20 years ago. Three sets of notes in three different pens color the battered title page, and a bookmark in a child’s handwriting announces “buy butter for Spritz” at page 264. The original price was $3.95. It looks plain enough for a book. The yellowed book with the food stains does not look ferocious or magnificent, but it is both.

How a book changes a life—how it happens is a mystery and how to put that on paper is even more of a mystery. I’ve written the same story several times over and I never come close to telling the heart of it. A substitute professor showed up when the regular professor canceled, and he crowned the first lecture by reading a passage from The Supper of the Lamb, and tears streamed down his reddened face for joy of what he was reading. The whole course was later described as a wash, a terrible mistake because for heaven’s sake I did not receive the required lectures on the Foundations of Reformational Thought, alas! I’ve asked several classmates who scratch their heads over my description. The professor himself forgets the whole incident. “And I alone lived to tell the tale,” I suppose. The reading exists only in my memory.

But I plowed into the book in 1984 with a pencil in hand and launched from subsistence meals to life as I know it—life as I know it involves cooking and gardening and tangible pursuits of beauty. “One real thing matters more to God than all the diagrams in the world.” p 21 (Or theologies, I might add.) Real Things—God created and loves real things, real scents, real textures, real food, not ideal followers or fantasies. Prior to that reading, the world was a utilitarian place, and afterwards my eyes were opened to the seeds Paradise right here in the created order. In the pages of this book, I learned to make gravy and white sauce by reading the directions every single time I made a new attempt, until flour and butter became easy. I learned about stock, food made from scraps and the basis of all good soups.

At my spring residency, a professor invited each member of our CNF group to bring copies of a favorite passage of writing, to discuss why that piece was powerful. Alissa chose Norman MacLean, Emily chose a piece from Adam’s Task, and Alison chose Maxine Hong. I chose the exact passage from Supper of the Lamb (p 188-90) the professor had chosen so long ago. Doug’s first suggestion: when the writing process bogs down, look to see the balance of Anglo-Saxon words to Latinate words. Before I could spit “Latin?” Doug patiently added, “let’s circle the words directly taken from the liturgy—those are Latinate. Capon uses Latinate to lift and Anglo-Saxon to bring the reader back to earth. It’s a simple linguistic technique and Capon is the master of it.” Though Latin may escape me, we discussed vowel sounds enough for me to understand why some writing “sounds” Midwestern to me, why Capon “sounds” so high-church.

pulls together many of my loves: I adore well-written instruction. (As a knitter, I similarly love Elizabeth Zimmerman, known affectionately as EZ in knitting circles.) I love humorous writing. I love sensual description and dizzying swoons over goodness. I love writing that flirts. And the liturgy—I didn’t know it when I first heard this passage, but the liturgy was already calling me to a form of worship deeper, older, and when I arrived in an Episcopal church five years later, I knew it already as “home.” I heard it with my own ears, calling. In that very passage of Capon, I circle “solace,” “sustenance,” “astonished,” “inconsolable,” followed by “love is strong as death” (Song of Solomon).

Five years ago if you asked me what I learned from Robert Farrar Capon, I’d have said first I learned how to shop for knives. Then I learned to cook. Then I learned to garden. Then I learned the form of worship that is my home. But all along Capon has been teaching me to look carefully at mysteries, beginning by spending an hour with an onion (page 10), moving on to how flour and butter make a roux for sauces and puddings. I learned to look, smell, create textures. I learned that a priest can make a living writing a cooking column for The New York Times, and it’s not a waste of effort that could better be spent in ministry. I learned some good clues to sexuality and those old old roles which were common before Political Correctness tried to erase them. (A woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman….A man who has seen women only as gentle arrangers of flowers has not seen all that women have to offer. Unexpected majesties await him. p. 61)

Now I will tell you Supper of the Lamb was THE toppling challenge to my lifestyle and my parents,’ which shifted me from life-as-utilitarian to life-as-celebration. I allowed myself to fall in love with the world, something I’d been wanting to do all along. Now I will tell you I learned the basics of paying attention, which is the raw stuff of writing. I learned to love extremes. (Should a true man want to lose weight, let him fast.) I learned writing does not have to be merely one thing (how-to) or another (theology). And I learned a book can change EVERYTHING in less than two hundred pages, if it arrives at the right moment of open-heartedness.

I might learn with some close attention, how Latinate words interplay with Anglo-Saxon, how some sets of sounds call to be read aloud, how a writer weaves majestic and authoritative words with plain talk, humor with high-mindedness, and every kind of riff and scrap a writer can weave into his text. Mostly, with each rereading, while I notice words and phrasing, what I read in Capon is joy. I never tire of him. I tuck back into the book my notes from 1989, which was my third re-reading of the book. What reading am I on, now? Tenth or twentieth, I’m not sure. I know I’ve managed to keep this kitchen copy when my 25th anniversary hard cover and my husband’s copy disappeared. I know the latest edition costs $14.95 and I paid considerably more for the missing anniversary hardcover. Whatever reading this pass represents, it’s not the last, and even if it was, Capon stays with me, always, like the brown stains of butter on yellowed pages.

When I find the way of writing this story that truly captures the transformation instigated by this humble-looking worn paperback, I will let you know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

sage and black, black and sage

Something about winter makes me crave sameness, some flatness of detail. I have in my possession a pair of sage-colored slacks of a perfect cut, with a little stretch, with a pair of lean cargo pockets placed at an angle so that they actually look good on a woman of my shape. And I have, also, a lean ribbed turtleneck in black. One pair of black merino socks is thicker than the others and I found a pair of black wool Danskos at a local consignment shop, a few months back.

Now I ask you: why should I ever wear anything else?

I switch to pajamas at night, a black velour cardigan and sage velour slacks. I could look just about the same, 24/7!

I actually love clothes—I do! I found four new just-right ribbed turtlenecks in the pre-Christmas sales, because my brown one shows wear and my purple one sports a nasty hole under the arm. Last year no stores stocked ribbed turtles, so this year I purchased every non-pastel color available: bright pink, dark apple green, black (sigh!) and a beautiful charcoal grey. But the grey does not match the sage pants, the favorite pants, THE pants. And I don’t “feel” bright pink. The dark apple green required some convincing, and a floral scarf to make up for the green-ness. Grey, pink and green can be worn with the black slacks, sometimes, or jeans in a pinch. No ribbed turtleneck should be worn with wide-wale corduroy black pants, though I sometimes match them anyway, when I’m going out to sit at the coffee shop and I want a pair of warm slacks AND a warm neck. The closet holds plenty of winter options.

But somehow I only want to wear… my winter mom-uniform, writer’s uniform, student uniform. Sage. Black.

So my New Year’s resolution is an odd one: I will wear different clothes every day. And if I plan to see people at any point of the day, I will apply makeup in the morning, as if those people matter and as if I matter. And if I applied makeup during the day, I will wash my face before bed. In an office or store environment, all of these resolutions would simply be expectations. Here, I could get away with wearing the same thing every day, and perhaps no one would notice, but I might feel apologetic. After awhile one day bleeds into the next in my memory, no day all that different from any other.

Somehow a fresh set of clothes each day equals some sort of dignity. What kind, I do not know. I do know craving sameness of clothes and avoiding face-washing seem to lean toward depression, always a threat in the short days of winter. Perhaps this change-of-clothing thing is some sort of incantation or prayer against darkness. It’s a necessary resolution. I am keeping it.

Guess what? Yesterday I wore the green turtleneck and cords, and the day before I wore the pink turtleneck under a black cardigan, so almost no pink was showing. You know what that means? Today, I slide on the sage pants (cargo pockets!) and black turtleneck with a sigh. With my wool Danskos, my feet rest firmly on the floor and are WARM. Someday I will write a treatise on the benefit of warm feet in winter, a new element of my life in drafty New England.

But for today, I get to wear my sage-and-black uniform happily and with dignity. Even though I am writing, at home, I am ready to see people, should any appear. Already it’s a good, good day.

Today I revisited the pack of Official Documents for my masters program, as a refresher. The 15- to 20-page critical essay that will become my graduate lecture is due in five weeks, which translates to 20 “working” days with kids in school—barring kid-sickness and snow days. While polishing this academic essay I’m supposed to continue with new writing, with seemingly endless reading. Believe it or not, this “twenty pages in twenty days” is good news: I thought I needed drafts of my creative thesis (100 pages), too, but apparently those are due later in the year. I’m double-checking on that fact, later in the day.

My critical essay plays with Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb and MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, to look at how each writer approaches meaning and humanity via food and hospitality. At least, I should say, that’s the plan for now. To “essay” is to try—I will have fun trying.

My next residency is in late March—SEVEN required books to read between now and then, besides more research for my critical essay. Then nine more books in late spring as I pull together 100 pages of creative writing from the past two years.

I graduate August 1, in Santa Fe. Want to come? Let me know and I’ll get you details.

And today I also sat down with a pen and wrote and wrote for hours, filling pages. Still so much to write! I know I've been a sporadic blogger, and I think it's likely to continue this way for a few more months. Thanks for hanging around.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

the Monday when they all go back...

Day Off:

My first job is to unwind myself from the spell of them.

The Monday after Christmas break is so full of possibilities. While Scott and the kids ate breakfast I folded and shelved all the laundry, cleared the dishwasher, put away the cookie press and all the little odds and ends left on the counter. They leave for their work, and I’m left to mine.

The first job of my first job is to restore sensation for myself, in place of intuition for others. Complete collapse is a temptation. To surf the Internet endlessly is another. All of this would be perfectly understandable. How to begin?

1-Deep condition hair with some seriously beautiful stuff. Top with a warm towel and top the towel with a stretchy wool hat.
2-Listen to a friend’s podcast while cleaning the sink and taking ten minutes to scrub that evil burned-on stuff in that stock pot, again.
4-Make The Perfect Breakfast and The Perfect Mug of Coffee.
5-Look at email but don’t take it too seriously.

6-Shower, dress warmly, dry hair lightly (for the smell). Put on makeup for leaving the house, later.
7-Goof around with some writing here, some writing there, try to describe once again the backstory to why I live here. It doesn’t come out this time, either. (It will. I persist.)

8-Pour seltzer water and orange juice. Eat a small apple.

The morning flies by.

9- Start a new book, Walker Percy this time: required and very entertaining.
10-Lunch on a bite of Provolone here, a handful of pecans there.
11-Write a thank you note to my dad and stepmom for the Christmas gifts.
12-Sit in the window and pull in any available light.

The two-o’clock bell rings and it’s time to pick up Madeleine, to check in with the other parents about their Christmas break, to say hi to teachers. Not a productive day, but a good day. The quiet is delicious. And I’ll have more tomorrow. The work is waiting for me and I’ll need to be careful about time: tomorrow. Madeleine and I run a shopping errand after school, then we take our chairs in the window to work on our homework, together.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Snowy houses on the laundry-buffet

You are probably saying, "Wait, is that the $7.99 Trader Joe's Gingerbread House Kit under all that candy and icing?" Yes. $7.99 a year ago, much dust on the boxes, and $20 worth of candy this year, and much extra frosting.

(I have better photos of the houses, but they are buried deep in an argument between my camera and my computer. This photo is from Dyana! Some of the goodies have been eaten-- sorry.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

it turned out to be for me

I'm so pleased with how this scarf turned out! One old skein of lavender chenille yarn and one $3.50 skein of multicolored boucle, with a little glitz. Warm. Nice texture. A wee bit of color.

Weaving makes good use of a specialty yarn and takes much less time and effort than knitting. However I can't carry a loom with me like I can carry knitting needles-- that's the only downside. Kids can weave, too-- this was woven on a Harrisville Easy Weaver for children.