Friday, December 14, 2018

Mid-December 2018: long time no blog! Hello out there!

The cat meows pointedly at me, after I place the can of food in his bowl.  My pomegranate tea is brewing in the thermal mug. I add a little stevia, some grapefruit bitters. I’ve already drunk two cups of coffee and caffeine is not helping me this morning, after a late night of grading. I woke too early, finding Scott still at home, asking for necessary money tasks before the caffeine could set in. An hour had passed by the time I moved cash from one account to another, checked the PayPal balance, emailed the woman selling an Amish yarn-skein device, emailed the other woman who sells me yarn. Scott is at work now, and Madeleine sleeps after her own late night working on one of her finals for the semester.

I translate the cat, talking to him as I do when there’s time to breathe, when I’m not hurrying. “Grateful to be alive? Sort of?” He meows again, firmly. “Me too. Sort of.” Another meow with direct eye contact. “Disappointed, maybe? Low mouse count this winter? I get that. I really do. But I know you work hard.” He meows again, looking over his shoulder as he walks to the sunbeam and flops himself on the floor to wash his feet. Vain and handsome creature.

Today is the day for the pom-pom hat with its extra layer of mohair fuzz for insulation. Mittens—I never wear mittens and in seconds I’ve caught the car keys in the tender yarn at the thumb. Alpaca yarn, hand-dyed, not good in wet conditions but perfect for a crisp day. I take off the snagged mitten and slowly circle the key fob until the snag is released. These were the first mittens knit on my machine, and I’ll experiment more with this pattern before next winter. Down puffer coat, Blunnie waterproof boots over wool socks.

Out the front door at a stalking pace.

I haven’t walked at speed since shorts weather in October, twenty pounds ago. The steam rises when I pop open the mug. I wonder why the compost pickup folks left all the grossness in the green bin this morning—then I see that the compost is frozen to the bin. Too late now. I wheel the bin to the porch: maybe next week I’ll solve that. My neighbor Diane and her husband frown at jumper cables between two cars. I round the corner on the busy causeway for just a minute before turning onto a trail through conservation land, open and rolling greenish fields. Just last week I nearly sank above my boot tops, but today I stalk over the frozen landscape, sticking to the sharp grassy tufts so I don’t slip.

I pull up the down hood—I hate the slippery sound near my face, but the wind sharpens and bites. With one mitten off, I pull my turtleneck over my nose for just a few minutes before it slides back down so I can sip my tea. Hamstrings tight, hips stiff. I reach up to tap each of the low limbs of a tree over the path, hello, hello, hello, too cold to stop and offer a proper greeting. At the rise I turn right down a shaded tunnel of brush and cold wind, the path to the island in the middle of the marsh. There are two islands, and the other is called Bakers Island, but this one is My Island, whose name always scatters. A rotted board is frozen in place to cross the mud in fairer weather. The path opens to scouring wind and bright light. The two windmills tower above the landscape, one elegantly turning, turning in the sun, and the other frozen. Like me, I think. I pull the edge of the hood across half of my face, reminding myself not to keep my hands in my pockets, wind cutting through my mittens.

Strange, after six weeks of working so hard, day after day, my exhaustion transforms itself to a shame that is not normal for me, not reasonable. I feel as though my soul has been removed from me, so profoundly empty. I remind myself it’s December, mid-December, and I’ve been pushing harder than ever at all the jobs. Last week, saying “I won’t have your research essays graded until the semester is done,” then sitting up grading them, knowing some students will panic over points and scores, and my next few days will be ruined. But I want the grades done. I want the stakes for final essays to be clear. Last week, saying “No I absolutely cannot take another college application client. I can’t.” Then thinking about the money, and the reason why I coach these students, which is love and hope. I texted back to say, “get back to me after December 17th, okay? Okay.” Last week, leaving the knitting machine packed up in its rolling case so I won’t be tempted to just keep knitting through the stress and weariness. Then the weekend, fourteen hours of driving until I saw hallucinations about two hours from home. I know I drove safely in those last two hours, but I remember none of it.

There is no reason to feel ashamed of what is undone, except that I want to do everything—more than everything. I’m not afraid of doing nothing: I just don’t remember how it works, right now. And I’m eager to recall it. Soon.

A flock of birds startles from the crabapple tree as I walk by—hundreds fly and my head lifts to follow them, tossing back the hood. Four wise birds stay in the branches, eating. They can see I’m no threat, or they don’t care.

As I walk to the island—someone’s pet island with a well-mown clearing and a new bench overlooking the river-- I forget to look for the tall asparagus fronds—that is work for April, though I mark them most times of the year like a treasure map. This year the spring was cold, and the asparagus didn’t show until June, late and sparse. Next walk I will remember that the world exists beyond this nadir of cold.  

I haven’t been to the island for months—the path has been underwater for much of November, the mud clay-filled and still clumped to Madeleine’s waterproof boots in the mud room entry. To the west, a man stands ankle deep in the river mud, digging clams without a heavy coat, his small boat moored nearby. Working, working—like the windmill, working, working. Me, hamstrings still tight, hips still stiff, punching my heels out and pulling my toes up as I walk, hoping to stretch something loose.

I can choose the long way to return home, with more sunny fields, or the short way that cuts through the riverbed—my nose is running and I’ve brought no tissues, and I choose the short way, thinking I might see a neighbor, even though it’s not dog-walking hours, but I only meet a fat squirrel scurrying through the riverbed. They’ll be hibernating soon—the solstice, I think, so a fat squirrel is a squirrel who might live through the winter. I drink the last of the tea and pop open the front door. The mud room gathers the sunlight directly onto the new wreath of dried flowers—red sumac and lavender—atop the brass pineapple door knocker. Not a Christmas wreath, but a welcome. Inside the furnace warms all. Put aside the mittens, the hat, the down puffer, the boots, take the thermal mug to the kitchen sink (overflowing) and march past the work-couch (overstuffed with stacks of papers), and find the last rays of sunlight in the reading chair.

The year is 2018, nearly 2019, and this is my home—in my name as well as Scott’s, regardless of whose paycheck is larger.

It is five years after the first hint of Madeleine’s health scare, three years after the peak of her migraine season, two years after I knew she would be okay.

It is five years after the home-buying scare, five months after the re-fi allowed me to settle into home ownership without a nagging sense that it could all fall to hell.

It is my ninth year of teaching part-time, with a contract that still moves from year to year, now, rather than semester to semester. My department head says she will keep asking for a permanent half-time position each year—she swears she will copy and paste the same request until the budget relents, but still there is no real hope of full-time employment. It is my fifth year of college application essay tutoring, at a school for international high school students and from my home. My checking account reminds me I’ve tutored more than 30 hours over the past six weeks. It is my third year as a small business owner with Stockingfoot Knits—my second profitable year after the initial crowdfunding campaign. I could be winding that special hand-dyed yarn right now, for my family’s Christmas presents: at any moment, I know the next step, and the next, for producing more socks.

This is the first year in which I have not been job-hunting, at all, because there has been no time. Last summer, a retired headhunter said to me, “it’s not impossible to think you might find the right fit at a college, but you need to know the path is far from certain.” I nodded. It would need to be special. It would need to be timely. I am good at my work, but colleges choose younger people, ambitious people with PhDs. They would have to meet me, and so far, my resume has not charmed anyone into meeting me. 

[I added a friend's story of job-hunting, here, in my earlier draft-- and a demand to create an entirely new curriculum as a part of an interview process. That is his story-- not mine, and I may come back to that later, but I think about the audacity of a request that explosive, at THIS time of year. How I might burst into flames if anyone asked anything of me, right now.] That is where I am right now, empty after six weeks of hyper-dedication to my three jobs—and I am relieved NOT to think about what is next. I am sick with something akin to self-loathing that is only related to self-neglect, and it’s no different from every December, when the Christmas music and tin-foil decorations mock me with a cheeriness that is trying too hard. Even my own tradition includes Advent, a time of preparation, and I remain unprepared, overstretched, near breaking. I am more like the squirrel, still gathering nuts and preparing for a week-long nap to reset and rekindle some sort of life. Much to do, much to do, much to do, SLEEP. That is what I want: knitting and sleep.

Meanwhile the boy finishes his semester and plans his own ride home. The girl wakes and begs to make gingerbread houses with her girlfriends (yes, the kitchen is free—yes). Scott plans a special birthday extravaganza on Broadway with our best friend Hank, and I decline the invitation, with a bit of envy. Deadlines. Must meet deadlines. And the quiet weekend will do me good. Perhaps I can finish some work then clean the house, before we return to a four-person family, and some stews in the slow-cooker, and baked stuff.

The sun shines. That one windmill keeps turning. The clam-digger is gone, making chowder by now. The cold wind whips. And I have stuff to do. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

All Saint's Day

First of November, and I can’t get the house warm all-the-way-through. I turned the thermostat to 70 for fifteen minutes, and then I felt too guilty and turned the dial back to 68, added wooly socks and a big sweater.

The cat crosses his front paws these days as he settles into his daytime nap on the back of the couch. His ears swivel at the sound of my keyboard flurries and mutterings as I type. He would like to be close, beside my left leg, but he can’t bear it when I stretch or sneeze or reach for a book in my bag, so he settles nearby but out of reach.

I ran out of yarn in my mitten project, which means I’ll need to change it to a mitt project, sigh. I ran out of yarn for the socks I was knitting, which means I’ll need to unravel the toes and replace the toes with a contrasting color—which will be brilliant, but it takes a little figuring and fiddling, and what I like about knitting is continuity, without figuring and fiddling.

The cat, the knitting, the grading projects for classes, these all make me want to go back to bed, but then I remember how precious this light is, how short the days are, how much coffee I’ve already consumed. The go-back-to-bed wish is shorthand—wish I felt at leisure, today.

The cat stretches his long neck and head over his crossed front paws in a miracle of cat-yoga. I see his hips stretching out like bellows as he breathes in, breathes out.  I love that he can sleep like this, pretty creature, sleep like a prayer, sleep like a sigh. I roll my shoulders a few times and dig into my stack of student essays, while I have the light.

Friday, September 12, 2014

a porcelain cherub in a rough world


My mother loved auctions, and really—what was not to love? Sometimes she would pack my brothers and me into the station wagon and drive, just because she liked one of the auctioneers. A big auction would have a food table with chili and hot dogs, and pie by the slice, which we kids would notice right away, as my mother drifted where her curiosity took her. She upholstered furniture, and people always needed couches, if she could find a good one. She had a friend who refinished dining tables and fine furniture, and perhaps she could find him a deal. And of course, my mother was a player in the day-to-day history of my town. Everybody loved Pat, and she made people laugh. I could hear her from such a distance that I never worried where to find her.

She would give my brothers and me two dollars apiece, and we would see who could buy the best prize, and we would shoot off in different directions to rummage through the tents and the tables of treasures, on a dusty hot day with nothing better to do and nowhere better to go. My brothers would head to the electronics, and I would head to the household goods.

I craved the old trunks, the quilts and old lamps, especially—anything that looked like it had a life before 1950. My mom would bid for me, but only up to a limit, and always my dream furniture would go to another bidder. My best bet—for coming away with anything at all—was to rummage through the tables of small stuff sorted into lots, to be sold by the box. I worked in polite silence, as a ten-year-old, pulling down each box and laying out the goods on the grass to examine them. Then I would repack the box and lift it back onto the table.

Unpacking yet another box of junk, I found it, this tiny blue porcelain vase with a pink cherub and roses, sweet sculptured leaves and gold-painted edges. I remember the gasp, and sitting down on the grass to look it over. Vase? So tiny, so detailed. What could it possibly be FOR? The world went wobbly around the edges as I sat for a moment, before I remembered that other shoppers COULD SEE ME looking at this blue bit of bliss. And they were on the hunt for buried treasure, too. I put the sweet thing under a crumpled piece of newspaper on the very bottom of the box, and stacked on top of it a glass maple-syrup pitcher with pouring lid—the kind that could be found at any diner. Then I straightened my shoulders and put on my best auction-goer face, glancing from side-to-side with a face that I hoped would not betray how deeply I had fallen in love with this cherub beneath the paper, beneath the syrup pitcher.

If I were a film-maker, I would put that little girl in pigtails, the curls of her hair escaping the bright beaded ties. She would be pale as expectation, freckled as only a child can be, when the freckles can be counted like constellations. She would be fully believing that she’d hidden her desire because she only glanced at that box every few seconds. But she would be shaking as the auctioneer moved from the farm machinery to the auction tent, from the big furniture to the boxes of the small things. She would step forward so the man could see her plainly, when her box was lifted by the auctioneer’s assistant.  The man showing the box would pull out the syrup jug and a brass candle-holder to show the buyers what kind of kitchen stuff to expect. And the bidding would begin at fifty cents. The girl shoots her hand up.

“Fifty cents and-a-dollar-now, dollar-now, dollar-now, not-gonna-let-this-purty-box-go for a-dollar-now, dollar…”

“HUP!” shouts the assistant, pointing to a man at the back left of the crowd.

“Na Five-doller-five-dollar-five, who’ll gimme five?” He looks at me.

“TWO,” I shout, nearly leaping with effort, fists down by my sides, stepping closer.

“Three, gimme-three, gimme-three, and YES!” the auctioneer points to the back and I gasp for the second time in the day, spent, the end. I don’t have three dollars. I step backward into the crowd, face hot, trying to find someone to hide behind.

“Na FIVE-dollar five-dollar who will gimme five? HUP!” He points to the back right. “Now TEN dollar-ten-dollar who will give me ten for this fine box of household goods including this darling maple-syrup pitcher, who will give me ten? Ten dollars? Who will give me ten?” I know he looks to the man on the back left, and I know he looks for me, because that is his job, but I am hiding, defeated. “SOLD to the lady in the blue shirt for five dollars, now onto box number seven—can you bring me the next box? Who will give me fifty cents?”

I am not a film-maker, and I can’t say what the scene looks like, only that crying is a hateful thing on a sunny bright day, and I know that girl would sniff back tears with a fierceness nearing violence, willing herself not to cry.

I wandered to find my mother. Maybe we could have that hot dog now, and maybe I’d feel like it wasn’t the end of the world if I could have a slice of pie. Maybe. How could that sweet little thing sell for more than twice as much money as my mother had given me? The world was so unfair.

“Hey, hon. What was in that box you were bidding for?” I sniffed and trembled as I grabbed the hem of her shirt. “Now, it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter,” she knelt and put her hands on my shoulders. “I saw you bidding. You did a good job, but you have to go slower, so you don't use up all your money so fast.” She held me close to her side, walking with me in some direction I could no longer see. “I’d like to pay,” she said to the lady at the table with the cash box. “That’s two-dollars for Burl’s stereo speakers, and two-dollars for David’s tools, and five dollars for box number six in the kitchen goods.” I looked at the hem I was still holding—the blue shirt. My mother was wearing a blue shirt.

“The box? You got my box?”

“I knew you’d bid everything you had, so I figured it must be something more important than a syrup jug.” We found box number six, just sitting there on the table where the auctioneer left it, with the name "Pat" on a piece of paper taped to the flap. I stretched my hand down into the corner, under the crumpled newspaper, to show her my treasure. She took it in her big hands and turned it in the sunlight.

“Well, now. Isn’t that a pretty thing? I think this is probably for holding rings by the sink, so that fine ladies don’t lose their jewelry while they wash the dishes. You’ll want to wrap that up in paper again, so we don’t break it on the way home.” I told her I thought Burl would like the maple-syrup jug, and the rest of the box was just junk. “Well it’s our junk now, so we’d best get some pie and call it a day.”

Sweet world, where someone, somewhere, can dream up an odd little holder for rings and make a cherub and roses from porcelain, for fine ladies who probably never shop at dusty auctions on a hot July day, for my mother who knew five dollars was a small price, even if I didn’t know that then. I smile every time I look at it, just for its dearness-deep-down-things. I’ve only ever used it to hold the little papers from fortune cookies, and maybe a button or a bead.

The wind blew last night, and threw down a hand-made glass trivet from my brother, down from the window-sill, into the thumb-sized terra cotta spirit-man from Santa Fe, into the wee ring-holder. One more gasp, finding the cherub separated from the tiny vase, but the break is not a bad one. It’s a miracle that the delicate thing has lasted this long, in a world of packing boxes and crumpled newspapers, era after era, home after home, blustering wind crossing over yet another window sill, a little blue holder for dreams.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Okay, so that last post was an experiment: I put a draft into a folder on blogger, and put in on a "timer" to publish itself the following day-- I REALLY intended a second post on Saturday. Not fibbing, that's what I'm saying.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

my summer non-vacation, part II

Note from Saturday...

Did I tell you I was once a college residence director? I lived with college students for six years after I graduated from college, for a grand total of 10 years in college dormitories. I think I loved my work more than any other residence director I’ve ever met. I came to college just starving to be with people who were vibrant, growing, questioning and questing, and I found my joy living with hundreds of those people at a time. For six years I listened, trusted, gave my heart, gave solace.

What was I trying to do, there in those dorms? I was, on one hand, compensated with free room and board, no small thing for a woman without a car, without money when I started. I was also hoping to pass along the gift of friendship—my own college friends helped to quench my deep thirst to be heard, to be accepted, and I thrived under their care. By the end of those six years, I knew I would never live in a college dorm again—knew that I was done at that job, spent, burnt-out, a little triumphant and a little defeated, because I didn’t know what I would do next. But while my dorm-life lasted, my heart was yearning to step alongside the next young person who needed me.

Later, Scott and I would temporarily take 9-to-5 jobs in an office—I remember how we would laugh on the evening commute, laugh at the miraculous lightness of being DONE with work, of leaving the office behind.

When we discovered I was pregnant, we moved from the historic home where we were tour guides, into a sweet little condo with a view of Gloucester Harbor. We called it The Baby Pod. I was working a sales job and finishing a full semester of classes when my hands and arms went numb, and the doctor said “rest.” By the time Madeleine was born, I moved into my next all-encompassing job in hospitality, right there in the tiny condo. My work—as a parent and creative home-maker—was exactly right for my skill-set, except for the exhaustion and the lack of income. But some part of me wants to delete that last phrase: it was perfect. I could sing a song here, to the imperfect/perfect mess of parenting infants and toddlers, to the love of home and neighborhood, to being a college residence director for my several beloveds, then and there.

A friend I admire reminds me from time to time that we parents need to grow out of that kind of intensity, to give our children room, to listen without hovering. To remember that we no longer need child-proofing devices as much as our families need learners’ permits and wifi passwords. Thank God, thank God.

In the midst of this growing-out, my teenage Madeleine woke up with a severe headache and sore throat, sick for the third time during the same school year. The sore throat subsided with the second round of antibiotics, but the headache stayed. She contracted another illness, a mono-like virus, and my days returned to that earlier kind of parenting, around-the-clock, filtering the outside world, deciding from the day-to-day symptoms whether to push the child out to the schoolbus or to cocoon the child in swaddling blankets.

At the same time as this bout of headaches, I got word that my summer work had been cancelled. I applied to teach in another summer program, that was also cancelled. And Madeleine met with a neurologist who called this on-going headache a migraine. She started a prescription migraine preventative with a terrifying list of side-effects, hand-tremors, dizziness, nausea, violent mood swings, all possible. Without too much thought, I quit looking for summer income to stand alongside a young person who needed me. Vibrant, growing, questioning and questing—an irresistible calling, really, and a joy.

But unlike my time working in the dorm, I worried for the whole summer, as her headache stretched on and on. And I am worried now, too. So yes they left for school. Yes they completed an entire school week and her headaches are considerably lessened. And yes I stumbled into the first day that feels like a day off from urgency, the first day since I can’t remember when.

I remember that first day of Brendan’s nursery school, ten years ago. I told my friends that I would walk, I would weep, and I would write until I figured out what to do next. Can I really be at that same point again? So much catch-up to do, but I want to rest, to be alone, to come down. The first day of a new school year, in which things might work out for good, like a normal school year. If things don’t go smoothly, I know what to do, how to stand alongside, how to love my children as needed. But if things go right, I can do the deeper work of writing that I’ve been longing to get to, for more than a year.

So we come to today, to a new beginning. Today. It’s 90 degrees again, and sunny, and I have a beach pass. Not sure if I will cry, as ten years ago when I so hungered to hear my own thoughts again, but I might. Walking the beach and writing, while my family is doing something else without me—for these tasks, I’m all in.

Friday, September 05, 2014

blogging jumpstart: how I spent my summer vacation

I wake late to a quiet house—late, at 7:40 a.m., in a panic that maybe everyone has slept through their alarm clocks and maybe I will need to marshal kids to school, to drive in my bathrobe before I’ve even had coffee… and within moments, I push aside the sheets to find I’ve been spinning my worst-case scenario, like the good midwesterner I am. I’ve simply slept hard, harder than I’ve slept in days, after the SAT-prep center opened to some small measure of success, after the first week of the college courses I’m teaching. None of my workplaces seem shiny or perfect—I feel a little bit behind on copies, files, names, record-keeping on all of my classes, and I forgot a meeting with my teaching assistant last week. I can’t say how many days I’ve forgotten to eat breakfast, forgotten to eat lunch, forgotten to plan a dinner to fit in the 90-degree afternoons, between school pick-up and soccer drop-off.

I wake late, to a quiet house, because everyone in my family is all right, is exactly where each person needs to be. And I am here, with the cool edges of morning still lingering on the shady side of the house. Here. Thank God, thank God. While the sun will swelter today, we’ve begun the autumn schedule so well that I slept through the morning rush in the downstairs hallway. September, perhaps the most beautiful of all the months of the year, at last; like a finish line, we’ve reached September.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, I type, the stupid irony of the non-vacation. How I Spent My Children’s Summer Vacation, in which I did not vacate. In which I apparently did not breathe, in retrospect. I would say I'm breathing now, but I'm just getting started.

I spent my summer, gave my summer, invested my summer…

More tomorrow. I haven’t blogged for years, but I’ve been thinking about blogging all summer. I need to remember not to say everything all at once, dear ones. Remember, I used to write letters, and I need to return to that kind of beautiful discipline again. Let me tell you a story, but maybe not all at once today.

For today, I am still finding my footing, foggy-headed, adjusting. Time for coffee. See you tomorrow.