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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: March, 2007

crack the windows

i stood there trying to brush my teeth, but something caught my eye. something bright and beautiful and liquid. it was the morning slant of light, pouring through the shutter slats. the morning slant of late winter’s light. the light on the cusp of the equinox, when each day the sun, more pure it seems than the day before, inches higher in the sky.

the light in late winter is arresting. it stopped me, all right. pulled me to the shutters, where i couldn’t help but pull them back. i felt hungry, suddenly, for the light. the light so white, so rich, so dense, it filled my every pallid pore. i wanted to drink it, to bathe in it, to let it spill all over my wintry leather shell.

so i did the only sensible thing: i cracked open the window. i let in light. i let in air. the air, chilly once again, did not quite match the light. these are tricky days, when air and light do shifting tango. just the other day, in sync. now, bright but chilly.

but still, once the window opened, i bristled at the brisk cold air. a fine bristle. a healthy bristle.

and smelling real fresh air, as opposed to the stale stuff of winter, i left the window open. let the house exhale. a big long puff of winter air—the air of smoldering logs and simmering soups, the air of baking bread and barking coughs—i let it out.

i let in air of spring arriving.

i think of big-bosomed nurses, long ago. of nurses in white starched caps. with ample arms. shoving open windows in the depths of winter. long ago, clean air, clearing air, had much to do with sanitation. shooshing out the germs. as if the germs would follow rules. follow nurses’ orders.

i tried, lamely, to do the same. i have no bosom, none to speak of. my arms aren’t ample. hardly. but still i ordered out the germs.

and in the next breath, i wiggled finger, coaxing fresh air to come in. to swirl around. to fill the rooms. to fill my lungs.

how often do we think of air? usually only when it chokes us. sometimes, when it takes our breath away. or when it cleanses.

which is what it did to me, my house.

my house is breathing in and out. my house, i hope, is getting pure. what a power, so invisible. the air, i think, is just like God. take a breath. a deep one. fill your lungs.

nook by nook

cranny by cranny, we are tucking bits of our soul into this old house. first time i pointed my shoes down the winding walk that leads to the blue-slate stoop that leads to the glass-paned door and into this humble house, i felt a chill run down my spine.

i felt like i’d been here before. i felt like this was home, this place i’d never been. i felt like i knew not only the essence behind the walls, but all its secrets, too.

most of my life i’ve found the places i’ve lived quite by accident, often with a shiver down my neck. i just know, as i knew here, that these are rooms to spread my soul.

it is often the oddest things. things that don’t add up, not by ordinary math. a laundry chute. a magic place, a place for elves or little children, tucked beneath the boughs of spruce out back. the way the light slants through the front bay window. the narrow planks of oak. the wider planks of pine.

never mind square feet. or mstr suites. couldn’t care less for granite counters. or 3-car garage. like i said, i’m no mathematician. the numbers never add. it’s just a sense, a knowing. it’s a place that calls my name.

besides the oddest things, the don’t-add-up things, there are two essentials i cannot do without: light and flow. i need rooms with light that pours and light that dances, casts its shadows, hour by hour. louis kahn, the great architect and thinker, calls light “the divine animator.” this house has light.

what it didn’t have was lots of nooks and crannies. it was a house built in 1941, a time when efficiency and getting to the point was high on the agenda. it was built by a doctor, a doctor who delivered babies. and i’m guessing he meant business. not one to dilly-dally around the delivery room, he wanted his deliveries, his day, his path from bed to bath unencumbered.

he, unlike me, might have prided himself on a direct route from a to b. not me. i like meandering. i like the route least direct. i’m a dreamer, not a driver. i like stops along the way. i like the possibility of pulling over, unfurling blanket under tree, counting clouds.

nooks and crannies in a house are for those who savor pulling over. nooks beckon. they call your name. they are little places that invite you in. come here, they say, curl up. be harbored. tuck your secrets here.

a nook and cranny in a house is like a jacket full of pockets. like a sentence that rolls with clauses. it makes for texture, layer upon layer of possibility.

and so, one nook or cranny at a time, we’ve filled this house with place to pause, with room enough for wisps of dreams.

up in the room where we lay our heads there is now a window seat, looking out into limbs that any week now might be sprouting tiny shoots of green. i’ll get to watch from just inches away. and if a mama bird settles on a branch, i’ll keep a careful eye on the hatchery.

one whole wall in the room where i type is row upon row of bookshelves. four tall sentries, filled with pages, keeping watch over my shoulder as i channel words to screen.

in the kitchen, there’s a narrow nook for hanging coats. and across the way, a built-in bench beneath a window garden. it’s all a bit of heaven, if your idea of heaven is one with nooks at every turn.

each nook, each cranny, has come to our house courtesy of jim, the grilled-cheese builder. not a one is anything fancy. not a one the stuff that steals the cover of some shelter slick or glossy.

each one is rather quiet. but each one makes me sigh. long as i’ve been dreaming, i’ve dreamed of nooks and crannies tucked in little corners. maybe i read too many fairy tales. maybe i stared too long into drawings of magic cottages in the woods where all was old and quaint.

jim was here day before last, tucking two last nooks in two more corners. they are nooks for plates and cups. very old plates and cups. the ones i had in boxes for the last four years, and before that, stacked so high on a shelf, i needed a step ladder to reach them. i don’t know about you, but i’m less inclined to use for dinner when a ladder is required.

since this is, i swear, the house where i’ll grow old, the last house i’ll call my own, i thought it might be rather nice to actually start to use those dishes. a cupboard is an old idea, not a radical idea, a place to hold your cups. a cupboard tucked in corner, even better. a fine old idea; one the doctor, bless him, didn’t think of. he was thinking straight lines, i am thinking not.

alas, on the long list of things this old house needed, i assure you, nooks for plates and cups, especially old ones, was hardly up there. even if it meant years of dinners, christmas, seders, passed without the fine old plates.

as jim & co. banged the nooks into their place, i heard the old room sigh. it’s been waiting 66 years for that little bit of angle-changing. i sighed too. knowing that we were ticking off nearly the last nook on the list.

this old house has been hammered plenty since we moved in. the rafters might well be shaking. it’s time at last to settle in, to settle deep into these floorboards.

a wise friend and architect once told me, “a house bends toward its inhabitants.”

our house has bent, all right. our house, once hard angles everywhere, is now a house of nooks and crannies. it’s a place where i can dream. curl up and wonder. stretch out and ponder.
we are blessed to call this home. more blessed still to have tucked in nooks and crannies.

do you have a nook? one inside your house? one somewhere out in the woods? a nook of the world? a nook beside your bed? where in your house do you feel your dreams best stoked?

the hunter

looks innocent enough, our ferocious cat, on this side of the glass. boy accomplice at his side. gaze locked out the window. just beyond, the critters romp; not a one’s at risk, in danger.

ah, but this is my cat in winter.

you should see what’s happened since the snows have melted. the full-blooded hunter gene seems to have been catapulted from its winter sleep.

back then, a week ago, in depth of winter, he was content to press wet nose to pane. to keep an eye on things from the comfort of his lookout rug.

but that was then. this is spring, the season of a cat’s deep stirrings. he’s on the prowl, well, whenever he’s not curled up napping. like at 3 o’clock this morning, when he nudged me for escape from house. he was in the mood, it seems, for mouse.

just yesterday morn, as i stepped out into the march morn masquerading as june, there was trophy no. 1 for the season. shall i spare you the gory details? let’s just say our mouse population is down by one. and i’ve got the head to prove it. (oops, hope you didn’t spit your coffee out.)

meet turkey baby, the meanest cat in town. ol’ turk (that’s short for turkey baby meow meow hi cat bye cat choo choo space shuttle, a name derived from early passions of a boy then merely four) is son of prowling farm cat.

and it seems, as ol’ papa farmcat strutted past sweet turkey’s mama some fateful day, he made sure to sink his prowling gene deep into the mix, into the kitten once so small we carried him home tucked in one sleeve of an otherwise empty cardboard six-pack.

that was almost 10 years, and heaven only knows how many chewed-up critters ago.

i had thought this past winter that our ol’ turkey baby was finally showing signs of slowing down. i was thrilled to see him sitting by the glass. thought perhaps he’d finally turned the corner, would let me off the hook of being the not-proud owner of the ferocious feline flesh-eater.

you see, my little gray-striped cat is my moral dilemma. especially in hunting season.

i am, no surprise, pacifist from head to toe. proudly raised boy no. 1 who never once chewed grilled cheese into g-u-n. (then along came boy no. 2 and quickly dashed my future claim to two boys, no weapons.)

so what to do with cat who hunts? hmm.

we’ve tried bells around his neck. we’ve tried keeping him indoors (that was swell, he found an open third-floor skylight and took a leap at 6 o’clock one morning; i flew down the stairs upon hearing his desperate meeeooww amid descent, and met him unharmed but staggering around the side of our old city house).

just the other day, boy no. 1 suggested a chinese gong. strapped around his little neck, mind you. perhaps a high-tech advance warning system. a little air-raid siren for all the critters: “prowling cat, duck for cover.”

thing is, our cat is fast, our cat is super sly. he just might be the toughest cat around, it’s hard to know these things. what i do know is that many a morning he leaves an offering on the mat.

this morning as i let him out, i offered this: “no feathers.”

if he knows what’s good for him, that darn cat, he minded my admonition. discerned fur from feathers as he made his rounds.

i can’t say i cry over every mouse, or even chipmunk (yes, my cat has killed whole colonies of chipmunks), but when it comes to birds, i crumble. i shoosh and flutter. i don’t make nice. i thought for sure my cat would be in line for psychotherapy, poor thing. there he is doing his proud cat thing, there i am getting weepy. talk about conflicted id.

dr. freud would have a field day with my cat who does in field mice–and birds who flutter.

so here i sit in the season of my moral rumblings. i have a cat who kills. a murderous cat, most certainly. and i have birds i dearly love.

my mama, bless her, always tried to assuage my guilt, to tell me that the only birds who die are ones who aren’t so fit. my bird man, though, this winter set me straight. said that wasn’t so. said millions of birds–fit birds, fine birds–each year are killed from mean cats on the prowl.

it’s a mean spring out there, all right. if anyone’s keeping score, the fat cat’s ahead–at least by one to none. i haven’t ventured out this morn, to gather up who might be fallen.

i don’t think i want to know. how’s that for moral failing?

all right, people, any fine ideas for how to keep my cat at bay from unsuspecting birds?

darn it!

unsuspecting, i pulled back the doors to the linen closet the other afternoon. a closet that holds, besides pillow cases and old quilts and sheets, a stash of bandages and alongside those the means for mending holes in tattered clothes.

piled just to the north of the so-called sewing basket, an ancient relic, practically, i spied what could only be a not-so-subtle hint that perhaps i ought to resuscitate the ol’ relic.

there, waiting, suggesting thread make way through eye of needle, a turtleneck with cuff in shreds, a pair of jeans with missing knee, a pair of socks with holey toes. seems my mother, who on grammy tuesdays makes it her job to deliver undelivered laundry, eyed the clothes en route to drawers and ruled them unfit for wear.

without a stop at the sewing basket, that is.

and so, there i found them. there i got the message.

in the same way i once got lessons in how to iron, i long ago sat at mother’s knee and took in tutorials on how to do the sewing basics. darn it, i know how to darn. or at least i did. it’s not a skill i claim to exercise with any regularity.

it is the humblest of the needle works, nothing showy, not at all. to darn is to weave back and forth, and then to stuff what once was torn but now is whole down the mouth of some old shoe. or, just as hidden, just as shy, tucked out of sight, in the shadow of a folded hem. it is, by intent, done best when undetectable. it is, by design, yet another invisible art–or labor, you decide.

but is it lost, the darning needle?

stumbling on the shameful pile made me grab for sewing basket. i rummaged through. found gingham squares and corduroy, a quarter yard; indeed i found, in bits and pieces, more material for our now running series: the care and tending of our cloth, laundry art reconsidered.

installment one: the iron. door-stop versus zen.

installment two: the sewing basket. what’s the darn thing destined to these days?

it can only be considered quaint, the basket modestly equipped. it holds the essentials (and mind you, the one who stocked it is one and the same as one who long ago was known to safety pin her schoolgirl hems when threads on the loose threatened to make a scallop of a crisp clean line).

there is the see-through sleeve of needles, a progression from insanely tiny to industrial strength that reminds me of pipe organ pipes. spools of thread in basic colors, and the occasional odd shock from some weird-colored frock that simply had to be hemmed (in matching thread, for once). teeny scissors for snipping threads. and a small round tin that holds a living catalog of all the clothes i must have buttoned over the last, hmm, 30 years.

there’s the laura ashley calico-covered button from my first, best-loved maternity dress. there are button placards with names like villager, and talbots, liz claiborne and j. jill. the other j.– j. peterman, remember him? from not so long ago, ann taylor. the litany of my dressing-up years, the years now pretty much behind me. there’s the little golden coin of a button from my faux chanel. but there is not a button from my audrey hepburn wedding gown, nor a single one from prom, oh, 100 years ago. there is, though, a snap from baby gap, and a little teddy bear from when i found collecting for my unborn teddy rather irresistible.

they are relics i might riffle through, if i ever did what the basket’s begging: sew holes in socks, return a blouse’s missing closure, how ‘bout a patch on that sweater’s elbow?

where went the art of darning? why in this age of disposability have we done away with means of mending? at what exit on the high-speed highway of these modern times did thread and needle pull off, park themselves in some rest station?

i remember sitting at my mother’s side, and my grandmother’s too, watching thread be spun by fingers, looping through, ending, bravo, in a knot.

i remember piercing eye of needle with the serpent head of thread. (back when i could see close-up, and not be stabbing, literally, in the dark of blurry, might-as-well-be-blindness…)

i remember sewing hems, cinching holes in toes of socks.

i remember what it was to repair, to fix, to mend, to darn, gosh darn it.

once upon a time an educated girl embarked upon a course of sewing. once upon a time it was a woman’s plight to sew, to tend the cloth, to keep the apron, the stockings, the overalls in working order. the patch was not some affectation but pragmatic in its very nature.

as wagons rolled across this country, thread and needle were chief among the armaments of pioneers who barred cold winds or blazing sun by keeping holes in check. and farm women, north and south, could give you chapter and verse on how to make a tablecloth, or a sensible set of napkins, from emptied sacks of flour.

now, though, it is nearly revolutionary to pluck hole-pocked sock from dryer, pierce toe with thread, put reconnected cloth back in play. now, though, is it waste of time, or time of waste?

not so many years ago, i discovered a charming set of books, the mary frances series, written by jane eayre fryer, first published in 1913 as “instructional/story books,” so the frontispiece tells us. from cooking, to housekeeping, to gardening, to sewing, the post-victorian-era books were designed to teach “useful things in an entertaining way.”

one of the books, “the mary frances sewing book: adventures among the thimble people,” was reprinted by berkeley, california-based lacis publications (a fine textile arts publishing house) in 1997, “with the hope of capturing the imagination of every little girl who discovers the pleasures and rewards of working with fabric and thread.”

it stars a sewing bird, mr. silver thimble, tomato pin cushion, and a fairy lady, among the storied cast. all intent on teaching mary frances how to make her way through the sewing room.

and so, the heirloom pages, all 280 plus 10 fold-out patterns, brought back instructions, lessons and exercises of another age, beginning with how to “outfit a work basket,” moving on to “making a knot,” merrily dashing through basting, running stitch, french seam, whipped ruffle, and finally, the spider’s web, that ornamental lace stitch (or so the sewing bird says). there are two separate darning lessons: darning stockings, and darning woolen goods.

so quaint, i grabbed a copy. that was back before i knew i would be the mother only of boys. not that i don’t think a boy should thread a needle. just that the boys i’ve got barely know how to make their way to the laundry chute. (yes yes, it was the first thing i loved about this old house; it has a sheet-metal drop straight from upstairs to basement floor, complete with little elfin door, just like the one my grandma had, just like the one we used to use–still do–for dropping the occasional something besides the clothes.)

all this makes me wonder just how it is that we’ve decided we don’t need to tend our clothes. got a hole in your sock? toss it. at best, make it into a cleaning rag.

need a hem in your pants? take ‘em to the cleaner.

why the lost art of self-sufficiency? of making something last? i don’t have answers. only questions.

and the questions prick me. just like the pins in the porcupine cushion up above. one given to me, ages ago, by my grandma lucille, a woman who knew her way around a thread and needle. a woman who would shake her head at the sorry basket on my shelf, the one that rarely sees the light of day, barely ever gets an honest stab at exercise…

your thoughts?

over and out

if, in my leafy little town, they give a prize for last one out to the garbage bins, i think i might be a winner. although some around here might call me a loser. a big fat christmas tree loser.

there was a wind change over the weekend. light changed too. suddenly the december in my backyard looked a little dated. it was like i got the itch.

after weeks of not noticing the spruce faded to not-so-spruce faded to brown, suddenly everywhere i looked it was blkkhh, that color that knows no redemption.

there seem to be two overarching developments out my door (notice we now move beyond the passive looking through window of winter, we advance to actual tiptoeing through door into, voila, out-doors, an early exercise of spring): we’ve got squish, and we’ve got browning.

everywhere you walk, a little water wobbles up from underneath the earth. the final days of winter sticking out their tongues. and then there’s the brown. olive brown, the color of the lawn (or what’s left of it). brown brown, the color of the christmas greens long past their expiration date.

okay, so i surrendered. at last i got the message. hey, lady, your christmas trees are overdue. we’ll see if the garbage man lays on a fine.

i find, as i haul my beloved trees, the ones whose branches harbored so many english sparrows through the most blizzardy of days, the ones in which the juncoes played a sprightly peek-a-boo, that i am pure, plain, sad.

i am decidedly not so good at change. not change of any sort. i–once a catholic school girl confined to the same plaid skirt and navy sweater for eight long years–still look down and find myself wearing a variation on a theme day after blessed day. i am a girl not good at shifting gears.

not even when the gear is shifting from one season to the next. or maybe it’s just leaving winter that makes me pine.
i know there will come a day, come a day quite soon perhaps, when the earth is bursting. when every morning i will be drawn from my bed before dawn to go check the progress in the beds. to see if the delphinium has bloomed, to check the hyacinth unfurling. to keep a mama’s eye–if i’m really blessed–on some mama bird and her baby brood, nesting on a low branch, where i can monitor the long, dramatic road from egg to flight.

but that is not now. right now i am grinding gears. finding the loss of winter just a tad bit sad.

it was not for lack of wishing, wishing for one more morning’s waking up to white, to white that shooshes and silences the sound of a world that sometimes needs a blizzard to slow down, that i finally succumbed and swallowed hard as i unscrewed the screws of the ol’ christmas tree stands and slung the sorry branches over my shoulder, down the path, to back where the garbage trucks do their rumble.

i think of all the things i’ll miss about winter: the sweaters pulled tight, and wrapped around; the frost that swoops and swirls on windowpanes; the crackle of the logs, burning, tumbling from the grate, collapsing in a red inferno of wintry glow. the shock of papa cardinal’s scarlet coat against the all-white tableau of snow, snow and more snow.

the sanctuary of being tucked in a cozy farmhouse kitchen looking out at a winter world of which i am in awe. the contemplative nature of the season that draws us all deep into the back of our cave, where i, curled up under a blanket, with a book, with my thoughts, find deep fuel for the year ahead.

i will await the tender shoots pushing through the earth. the first signs of color amid the brown and ooze. i will, i know, be swept up into spring. but right now, i am feeling empty for the branches no longer there to hold my sparrows.

is there, anywhere in the whole wide world, a single other soul who sadly waves goodbye to winter? or at least to the poetry of winter? certainly not to buckling little boots and stuffing little arms into puffy sleeves, certainly not to cars fishtailing down the lane, but to the beauty of the season that demands retreat to the inner recesses of our shivering soul?

if you missed the first go-around about making bird sanctuaries of christmas trees, take a peek back in the archives to christmas tree leftovers….

floor play

one snowy eve not so long ago, the risk got hauled from the game closet, from the near-cobwebs more likely. the little one brought it up by the fire. we all joined hands and sat in a circle (just kidding, just that that scene was starting to feel so walton-y, so little-home-on-the-prairie, i got carried away…).

actually, we spent close to an hour rolling the dice, positioning little men with their miniature weapons. covered the map, yes we did.

and then, for a coupla weeks practically, the men and their armies stood motionless. frozen on war fields. a board game that never took off, got shoved under a table. a board game turned still life turned dust pond.

drum roll…

i risk being banned from the playroom, and yet i confess.

it is, probably, my no. 1 downfall of parenting. the thing that cuts me off at the knees, every time. i am, when i catch myself squirming, up to my kneecaps in guilt over it. even alone, i wince at the shame of it.

it’s the down-on-your-knees part of parenting. the fumbling and fiddling and piecing together (fill in the blank here: lego, building blocks, board games, you name the vex on your knees) ’til you’re blue in the face. blurry eyed. cramped in the joints. weeping. dare i mention the b word? yes, bored.

there, i said it.

and so, so ashamed to report, you know what i do about it? pretty much nothing.

i am, it turns out, not terribly good at getting down on the ground, on the rug, on the cold basement floor and futzing with things. not even when a rich imagination—or just plain old fun–is the thing that’s at stake.

seems in my first go at this, when i was the mama only of boy no. 1, i was decent enough. concocted all sorts of plots–grocery stores out of old cartons and cans; a train, once, out of a box that stored copy paper; a school with stuffed animals filling each desk.

but now, now that i’m old enough to have been asked too many times if my little one is my grandbaby, i seem to have lost my knack—and my desire—for getting down on my hands and my knees.

it is a vexing conundrum. we live in an age of so many conveniences—instant mashed potatoes, e-z wash wipes, drive-thru lattes—but the one thing there isn’t (and shouldn’t be) is a condensed, abridged, add-water-and-stir version of pure, simple, child’s play.

time, uninterrupted.

focus, undistracted.

in the word of that great observer/analyzer/thinker of what makes creative types ooze with creation, mihaly csikszentmihalyi, there is not enough flow in the floor play.

not when i’m in the picture, there’s not.

and that is not, i assure you, something i’m proud of.

i look at the titles that pack one of my bookshelves. i have a whole row just on natural parenting.

i gulp, wondering if i might be something i’d dread if i’d ever before given it this thought: what if i’ve somehow become an armchair parent, one who guzzles and gulps whole chapters and verse on the virtues of childhood the old-fashioned way. without screens, without clickers, with free time to play for hours on end, fueled on imagination, and the occasional pretzel, alone.

but then, where the knees hit the rug, i’m dismally distracted, multi-tasking, two-steps-behind-and-fretting-every-step-of-the-way, ’til finally i push up from the ground, i surrender, i dash or i dial, i do anything really but stay on the floor with my child.

my mother, the wise one, tells me not to worry so much about the house, whether it’s clean, laundry folded, food on the table.

another wise woman i asked, quipped (and quickly): “that’s what playdates are for.”

but yet another wise friend, one who works hard at being a beautiful mother, made a pledge, for a month, to get on the floor with her kids. each one, an hour a day.

oh, lordy.

guilty as charged.

there are, i admit, some parts of this job, this mothering, that i do do quite well. i can talk and emote ’til you’d be red in the face. not me. i keep on.

and i’m certifiably silly.

but point to the toy closet, haul out a game, and i start getting itchy all over.

i am, in the end, mama erectus, a mama who’s best on her feet, mouth moving.

maybe it’s futile to kvetch and to worry. maybe this floor play isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. but, dear doctor freud, deliver me please from this guilt.

all i know is, thank god in our house there are four hands to carry this load. the man who i married, father of said boys, boy 1 and boy 2, is quite a bit good on his hands and his knees.

building with lego. making like frank lloyd wright with the blocks. racking up real estate, one green hotel at a time, in the wonderful world of monopoly, the wonderful world where you do not pass go, do not collect $200, instead go directly to jail.

which, sometimes is where i have dreams i’ll be sent, if the parent police ever catch me utterly absent when it comes to time on my knees.

i confess my sins here, wondering if you too find this—found this—a part of the job description where you come up—came up—short every time? or at least a whole lot of the time. for those of you who look back on floor play as a thing of the distant past, have you any wisdom to impart as you glance through the rear-view mirror? some of you might find deep solace on your knees. care to pass along your secret to kneecap nirvana?

in memoriam

be still, your pounding hearts. we gather today to—wait, to consider the death that abounds in vases all over my house. the bouquet that’s gone bust. the flowers duly expired. the blooms well past their best-if-used-by prime.

fitting we should consider the limp, the faded, the still–to my eye—beautiful here in the desperate days of end-stage winter. where if things don’t lighten up, warm up, spring forth, or d.) any of the above, we shall make like the flowers and go limp, fade, flop over, or d.) skip the above bit about beauty beheld.

as we limp, no we stagger, toward spring, where week-ahead forecasts for 50s and 60s (remember, chair headquarters is here in chicago, along the shivering shores of lake michigan) tempt us to roll up the scarves, shove away mittens, we are exhaling the last final puffs of spent, dry, stale air from the pits of our lungs. we are clinging to walls, waiting for updrafts from parts of the world where, by now, it is blooming, it’s warm.

we have, if you’re like me, tossed away sum after sum in the grocery store line, week after week plucking those plastic-sheathed posies, thinking a rose in a see-through sleeve is a beautiful thing, is the only thing really that might keep your spring hopes alive.

i’ve done tulips by the near truckload. opted for a few precious clumps of wordsworth’s golden host, the daff-o-dill. clutched white roses at christmas. antique porcelain, with a mere wisp of mauve, up above. the hydrangea beside it spoke to me, too; i couldn’t leave the grocery without it.

fool, me.

between my cat who decapitates tulips like my little one sneaks handfuls of gumdrops, and the rather short-lived life of a stem out of soil, i watch clump after clump go the way of all flesh: peaked to shriveled to brown-tipped to dried. dehydrated right there on the stem, in the vase, on my counter, long past the point you might consider polite. (if flowers have pride mine might be ashamed.)

quite aware of the fact that i’ve shot my winter’s allowance for flowers, i am now milking my petals for all that they’re worth. thus, the tea rose up above, the hydrangea beside it, they’ve been in serious need of resuscitation—or recycling bin—for the better part of a week.

but i’m not budging. i have, not yet anyway, no intention of tossing. long partial to the weak and infirm, i have every intention of milking every last drop of my fading bouquets.

besides, i rather like the more challenging task of searching for beauty where others see none. in a world that rewards in-your-face, pop-up aesthetics, anna nicole’s bosom versus katie hepburn’s upsweep, i’ll take the upsweep. any day.

and, yes, looking in the mirror is a daily reminder that to fade, honestly, naturally, without shame, is an ennobling possibility.

so i will keep my bouquets parched as they are, gasping for that last breath of life. i will watch the sunset of their petals, as they fade into the horizon. i will honor them, keep them, well after death us do part.

in the share-a-quirky-secret society, anyone else hold onto floral abundance ’til it’s turned into floral decay? beyond the dead buds, anyone else see the beauty in things old and faded and dry? wabi sabi does….

the grilled cheese that launched a kitchen

phone rang yesterday mornin’. it was jim, the man who built our kitchen, builds our dreams, i always say. he needed to stop by, pick up some hinges, make sure they fit the corner cabinet he’s building for my dishes, the ones stacked in moving boxes in the dark corner of the basement for four years now.

i am nearly certain plates and cups are broken. it would defy all of newton’s laws for that fine old china not to be broken, what with all that’s been dumped on its head.

but, like an ostrich, i’m not looking. and then, when i unearth a chunk of plate, a half a saucer, i will put on my best zen, and say i’m lucky for what’s left, for they all came to me the easy way, from folks cleaning closets pretty much, knowing i’d be trusted guardian to their treasures. gulp. (did you hear me swallowing my chagrin?)

ahem. back to jim, and his stopping by. last thing i said before we hung up was, “i’ll crank the griddle.” he laughed. he knows that the griddle is synonymous with grilled cheese, and grilled cheese around here is synonymous with jim, fueling jim, fueling him for years, in fact.

in the latest installment of jim’s-grilled-bread-with-cheese, during the 12 months that was supposed to have been three that it took to build our farmhouse kitchen, i musta slapped, slathered, sizzled some 1,000 grilled cheese. gone through 500 loaves of hearty wheat, nearly as many bright orange blocks of cheddar, enough butter to charm a cow.

every day, round lunchtime, even on the days when we were inhaling dust or ducking under dripping wires, i cranked the firehouse stove i call my own, and i sizzled up at least three if not more grilled cheese. then, on paper plates some days, jim & crew shoved aside just enough saw dust not to get more crunch with their cheese, and sat down to lunch. many a day, i sat down too.

and the grilled cheese always sealed the deal. always said the thing unspoken, though i’ve told it to his face plenty of times, and in print in the newspaper, too. the grilled cheese told jim & crew that they were not some hired workers, they were integral, essential, pretty much part of the family.

if they could build me my dream, hammer through headaches and near frostbite, for cryin out loud, jigsaw through knicked thumbs and delayed orders, powerdrill through the hassles of a stolen van and a lifetime’s lost tools, i could slap cheese on bread; butter; grill.

to be honest, not every day was a happy day on the long road to the farmhouse kitchen. at least one or two days jim wanted to kill me (like the day we discovered that the cabinet doors i’d described and the ones he ordered–and was starting to hang–were decidedly not the same).

but through it all the cheese was grilled, the apples were sliced, and in the end, the jim who walked in yesterday, pulled out a stool, sat down and bit off a corner of my grilled cheese, he’s one of the dearest hearts in my life. we endured, fueled, in good measure, on that oozy cheese.

it just seems right to me, and food for more thought for another day, perhaps, that the souls you invite into your home, to build your home, to wire your home, to get the toilet flushing, they are part and parcel of the woodwork, the wiring, the very innards of what makes your house not just a house but a very live theater with all sorts of characters who fill the stage with their charms, their quirks, their persistence and their considerable capabilities.

it is a bond not paid in dollars. it is far beyond obligation. it is, far as i can tell, a kind of love best served crunchy on the outside, oozing in the middle.

i’m curious, have you too forged bonds with folks who make your house keep ticking? or, if you’re a soul who does keep houses ticking, how’s it feel when you’re made to know, in no uncertain terms, that you are, simply, indispensable and far beyond just another worker hired for the job?

p.s. those are, obviously, jim’s hands up above, holding that grilled cheese. i love those hands, working hands. as i kept clicking, while he chewed, i was raving about the hands–knicks, calluses, rough spots, the whole shebang. he chuckled. said that was a first. said i oughta go watch seinfeld, some episode where someone–i should know who–becomes a hand model. oh well, in the comedy i call my life, jim’s hands will do. just fine.

casserole for a faraway friend

she is, sadly, only the latest. only the latest in a circle that keeps growing, a circle for whom casseroles are tossed together, tucked in the oven, delivered.

delivered in hopes that what you stirred into it might lift the burden, find the cure, deliver them from whatever evil ails them.

this time the casserole is for a faraway friend. in case you pray, she is sliding into that ether-stoked sleep at 1 o’clock today, on a hard cold surgical slab in baltimore, actually. the skilled hands that will wield power over her are hands that will be excising cancer, taking it out from her breast, dammit, that place that keeps harboring cancer in women we love.

my friend is young. has children far too young. beautiful little children. a girl with such curls you want to sit her down with a set of oils and paint her, and frame her. a sweet big-eyed boy too little to be worrying about his mama. today or any day.

my friend, who writes roadmaps through kitchens, but really through life, for a living, for a newspaper, sent an email the other afternoon. short and to the point. let a whole string of us know with the click of a button that she was having surgery today, breast cancer surgery. she apologized for the abruptness of the news and its arrival via email. but she explained, as if she needed to, “i haven’t been much in the mood to talk.” vintage for my friend, telescoping so much in so few words.

she asked for whatever sorts of prayer anyone might happen to pray. then she mentioned, in a short string that sums up a mother’s worries, that casseroles, spring play-dates and dog dates would be more than welcome.

casseroles, it seems, are the latter-day pulling in of the wagons. when the distress call is put out, like so much gray smoke rising from the chimney of the house where the hubbub is happening, the women all through the village start lining up at the door with their casseroles, their bundt pans, and their tins filled with brownies.

here in the town where i live, the labyrinth of home-cooked, personally-delivered meals is astounding. i’ve seen it go on for months and months, strategically organized, right down to the plastic cooler on the front porch where meals could be dropped without ever disturbing the family inside nursing a young daughter through death, it turned out.

the meals come so fast and so furious, the need for air traffic controller is immediate. without asking, it seems, someone steps up and takes over that slot, too.

there is, when you’re the one being fed, nothing to do but sit back on your pillows and take in the great parade of great food, and unshakable friendship. some come quick, simply. some are elaborate works of caring. i still remember the kindergarten teacher who sent food for my little one and thought to make it into a smiley, silly face of cut-up fruits and squiggly pastas. my little one, who often doesn’t, gobbled it.

the point when making a casserole is that it is, often, the only darn thing you can do. we all know what a slippery slope we dwell on, we all know that to suddenly be whisked from your role there at the command center, in the kitchen, at the phone, in front of the computer, is to surrender all semblance of order in your life and the lives of those who you love.

in the case of, say, my faraway friend, she is, God willing, going to be all about the business of healing. even if she hadn’t asked, the impulse would be there: to bake something, make something, take something, do something, dammit, to ease her equation. even if something boils down to nothing so much as a few chicken breasts, rice, broth, a sprinkle of herbs, salt and pepper.

in the casserole for my friend, which was only one made in her name (the distance is daunting, a serious impediment to personal delivery), one made as my way of harnessing forces, sending deep casserole vibes out into the far-flung universe, i took that casserole up a notch or three.

you see, she is all about cooking. she writes, droolingly, about cooking. i have called her for years my latter-day laurie colwin, that magnificent writer of food (“home cooking,” “more home cooking,” both still in print), but really of life, who died way too young, at 48.

i realized yesterday i stop my comparison of my friend to laurie at the point where her words make you hungry and fill you all at the same time. nothing more. no further comparison.

so inspired by my friend, i took my stand-by, family favorite, chicken rice grammy, dug it out of the old wooden box that i hold together with a red ribbon these days. and i spun it up a notch, made it chicken rice for my faraway friend.

added red peppers, wanted a splash of intensity for my friend, even if it meant my one boy who would eat it would curl up his nose, shove red bits off to the rim. added artichoke hearts. this was my friend, for crying out loud. sophisticated, elegant, always-producing-the-unexpected, my faraway friend, this was.

slid it into the 350 oven, filled the house with its savory perfume. these were vespers for my friend, lifting and rising. an hour later, i took it out of the oven, slid spoon into thick creamy middle. this is comfort as comforting as it gets.

nearly three springs ago, my friend wrote about bringing ready-to-eat meals to a friend of hers who’d been up all night having a baby. “if she can deliver life,” my friend wrote, “you can deliver dinner.”

she went on to tick through the essentials: it need be “something sturdy enough to endure the car trip. resilient enough to shrug off freezing or reheating or neglect. and yet, nothing so grab-n-go as to be mistaken for K rations.”
she finished with this, most essential: “a dish that suggests hope.”

she went with risotto, risotto with shelled english peas. i went with rice and artichoke hearts. the intent is the same: my faraway friend, wherever you are, however knotted your tummy, there is a casserole baked and waiting for you. now all i have to do is figure out how in the world to mail rice, broth and perishable chicken.

i am certain as i could possibly be that i am preaching to a choir of practiced casserole bakers, a whole phalanx of hot meal deliverers, whether you have a casserole story, a recipe, or a tip for taking that delivery up quite a notch, won’t you please pull in your chair and spill here at the table?
and, oh, by the way, here’s my chicken rice for faraway friend….

lunar pull

there she is, hanging, shining, beaming, i tell you. illuminating, casting shadow. not a reticent bone in her body. she is out there. boldly. no peek-a-boo moon this one.

she’s there now, just sliding down from the nightsky, our nightsky at least. she’s moving on to someone else’s night now. i’m left standing here, jaw-dropped, marveling. moon struck.

the moon, when you watch her, puts on one heckuva show. problem is, we don’t watch her so much anymore. we’re busy. we’re tucked in our houses, under our 100-watt moons. we might be out driving, but it’s the fluorescent beam that keeps us on our side of the yellow line. who, since the owl and the pussycat, thought to steer by the light of the moon?

when’s the last time anyone turned out the lights and watched how the moon shines?

a coupla kooks for the moon show, my man-child and i, we headed out to the horizon’s-edge theatre the other evening. took our seats right there on the beach. waited. the opening act, clouds billowing, streaked with azalea and rich dabs of peach blossom, they warmed us up, got us ready for what was billed as the 5:39 showing of the full worm moon rising, only eclipsed. a once-every-few-years total eclipse, which means that, by the celestial geometry that dictates these things, ol’ mama earth had wedged herself wholly between moon and the sun, and all that we’d see of the moon was the shadow of earth cast on moon’s face.

well, don’t you know, those opening clouds did not get off the stage. they stayed there and blocked the big act. so we sat, and we waited, kept thinking she’d get up, take a bow. but nope, clocks all over the beach (for we weren’t the only ones who’d been drawn to the moon show) ticked toward 5:45 and then, finally, 6. there would be no moon show, not yet anyway.

by the time we drove home, by the time we were nestled back snug in our house, that ol’ wily moon, she appeared. broke through those show-stealing clouds. shone bright as a beacon all through the night, and me and the man-child we kept gawking.

there is, for my money, nothing quite like the nightly moon show. especially the once-every-29.5-days moon show, the full moon show. the one where her whole face is aglow, all lit up, like, well, the moon.

got me to thinking how for so many eons, and in so many civilizations, the moon was the beginning and end–save, maybe, for the sun (which, to my taste, is a tad boring, same old, same old, day after day). but for us, most nights, the moon, it’s barely a blip.

if you check the old farmer’s almanac, a compendium of charm and delight if ever there was one, you would find that each full moon has a name. the one shining right now is, by some accounts, the worm moon, because for the native americans who named her this was when the rains came, and with the rains, came, you guessed it, the worms. thus, the full worm moon.

but that’s not the only name that’s been pinned to the full moon of march. listen to this:

in colonial america, she was the fish moon. the chinese call her the sleepy moon. to the cherokee, she’s the windy moon. the choctaw, sadly, called her the big famine moon. the dakotah sioux, poetic, pragmatic, call her “moon when eyes are sore from bright snow.” the celts, snaring their own bit of poetry, call her moon of winds. and the english medievals, primly, call her chaste moon. hmmm.

once upon a moon, wise people looked into the nightsky for, well, wisdom. for when to plant, and when to set sail for new lands. for when to wage war, and when to harvest their fields. the moon, you remember, has the power to pull oceans in and out like a yo-yo. and somehow it has something to do with the number of kooks who come barreling into emergency rooms and jails and other dark corners of the moon-lit city. remember the term, lunatics. hmmm.

as for the moon shining light on the farmers, how’s this: whole fields were laid out according to the phase of the moon. from new moon to full moon, when each night a new sliver of moon is lit up, you planted your crops that bore fruit above ground, foods that delight in the light. but from full moon to the next new moon, when every night one less crescent is lit, you planted your under-ground foods, the ones that produce in the dark. your radishes, carrots, potatoes, and such.

by the way, you would never plant on a full or a new moon. and no seeds should be scattered on earth during the 48 hours before the full moon, the book says so. perhaps that has something to do with the universe stingily gathering all life-force for the full glow of the moon.

as for those sea captains, they charted the pull of the moon on the tides, decided when to pull in and out of the ports, depending how high or how low the waters, which of course might have meant the difference between scraping the bottom–or not.

it’s spine-chilling to think that as long as there have been bipeds walking this earth, there has been an undeniable pull between mere earthlings and moon. once it was the night’s only bright light. but then, as torch passed to torch, and lightbulb turned on, and now as you fly up above, whole beltways of light light this globe, we seem to care less and less about dear mama moon.

ancient peoples once thought her a big bowl of fire; then, a mirror reflecting the light of the earth. the greeks, smart, figured out she was a sphere orbiting. plutarch, though, thought little people lived on the moon. ptolemy thought moon and sun revolved around earth. copernicus, though, straightened him out. galileo mapped the moon in 1609. neil armstrong slapped his 13-by-6-inch left foot on her moondust, july 20, 1969.

all the while, she’s hung in there, the unflappable light of our night. the bright beam of all of our dreams. undaunted.
sad fact is, she’s slipping away from us, one-and-a-half inches a year.

i don’t know about you, but i’m thinking we turn out more lights, we look to the moon. we bow down and honor the moonbeams. she’s been keeping us out of the dark for as long as there’s been creation.

and that, friends, is worth more than some awe as we stand under the nightsky and whisper our moon incantations.

p.s. for a peek at the mighty fine cloud show, the one that got in the way of the worm moon rising, check out the lazy susan, which, as always, was restocked over the weekend.

p.s.s. dear marlee we’re thinking of you…..