In which, for the first time in a year, a thousand firsts unfurl. Mostly, wrapping my arms around my firstborn, 1750 miles from where I spend most of my days…
It’s questionable whether sitting tucked in a dawn-lit corner in a faraway hotel, I can tap out too many hieroglyphics on this wee little keyboard, more fitting for the feet of an ant than for my fumbly fingers, but here I am, apparently so jazzed on the joy of watching my boys delight in each other’s company, not so adept at catching a night’s worth of zzzzz’s.
In this sweet swirl of days, so many frames have been packed in my brain, sleep has little room. There was the all-black-clad SWAT team rolling into downtown the night of the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, when Portland once again exploded in protest with dumpster fires, fireworks hurled into the night, windows smashed, and graffiti strewn on block after block of marble, glass, or brick-walled storefronts. There are the endless miles of homeless camps on the sidewalks, spilling down embankments along the highways (and I mean right up to the shoulder of where cars race by at 70 mph), in the wells of dried-up public fountains, under the Chinese arch just outside this hip hotel outfitted with British soaps and sheets and “ethical organic” coffees to tuck into earthenware mugs inscribed, “99 problems. coffee ain’t one.” And, no, the juxtaposition, the cruel irony, doesn’t escape me. It’s a wrenching mix of utopia and dystopia here, and it seems to beg for answers to questions and conundrums that would vex a troop of MacArthur geniuses. But my firstborn is here for 16 months, and once my superpower shot kicked in and shielded me and all of us from the red-ringed invader, we strapped on our travel packs and made the trek to Stumptown.
Alongside the unsettling, there is wonder aplenty here, too, as the city seems to collect the curious, the kind, and the kooky. While I sip my ethical organic coffee and watch the sun come up, I’ll let my picture roll do the talking.
I’ve usually been a most reluctant traveler, a top-of-the-line homebody, one who frets in the days before departure about whether my tomato plants will survive without me, whether the pansies will droop, and in this case whether the wily skunk would move inside while we’re not watching. (Shawn the SkunkTrapper sent a text to let me know he was bringing in the infrared night-vision cameras he was borrowing from one of his fox-trapping jobs; I await word any minute now…)
But here I am, four days in, and relishing every adventure. Maybe in my doddering days, I will finally slay a few of the ghosts who’ve long vexed me. Travel can test us as much as it stretches us, and I’m in for the stretch, buoyed by the boys who animate my every heart beat.
Signing off from PDX. With love, always.
Anyone else out there a natural-born reluctant traveler? And if not, what words of enticement might you offer to those of us who’d do well to take a deep breath and put some miles on our hiking boots?
long ago, at the kitchen table where i grew up, the dad i loved, the one whose words seeped deep into corners of my brain as if etched in perma-ink, he was something of a walking-talking bursting-at-the-seams circa-1950s steel-cased filing cabinet, one so stuffed with aphorisms you could only shut the drawers with the heftiest of heave-hos. he had a witticism for everything, and every occasion. and though i can’t remember precisely the way he unfurled it, there was one along the lines of “the only good thing about banging your head against a brick wall is how good it feels when you stop.” only his version was pithier by multiples.
i’ve been hearing some variation of those words rumbling round my little noggin these past few weeks, as slowly, elusively the fog begins to lift, we ease off our masks, and tiptoe back into some shadowy semblance of the life we used to know. the brick wall is crumbling. the skull banging into forged cement is winding down to diminuendo.
and while plenty murky, especially round the margins, there are frames of the now-rolling picture show that indeed feel sharper, crisper, more vividly infused with color than i ever remember. the most quotidian of tasks feel, well, almost celebratory. certainly a relief.
heck, i walked in a CVS drug store yesterday and ambled — no, sauntered — over to the toothbrush aisle, took my time searching for what i needed instead of grabbing and later discovering i’d grabbed wrong. i didn’t even hold my breath when the dude in biker shorts brushed by close enough for me to get a whiff of his perspiratory beads (a polite way of saying sweat). then, for kicks (a double-header that would have been unheard of just weeks ago), i lollygagged into the grocery store and actually hugged someone with whom i share no DNA, nor the same front door or roof. in other words — egad — someone from outside the confines of my months-long strictly-imposed stay-away-from-me bubble.
perhaps you, too, have noticed this phenomenon as we emerge from the COVID caves where we’ve been hibernating through two long winters, two springs, a summer, and a fall. so much these days is bristling with an extra tinge of sweetness. we can breathe again. the people we love flow in and out of our houses, and we are paying attention. we are relishing. the bliss of conversation within the six-foot circumference. the occasions when we might be without mask, and thus can once again bring to our expressiveness the whole complement of facial moves and twitches from the nose on south, those parts so long eclipsed from public consumption.
of course, i’m wary of the calendar filling too swiftly, too mindlessly, but so far that’s not happening. maybe the new dialed-down pace of things will stick around awhile.
mostly, i hope this fresh-washed feel lingers. i’m perfectly content with one foot still in sticking-close-to-home mode and the other freed from inhaling fear with every half-breathed breath.
what i love best about this now is watching a kid i love come and go, flow in and out of summer the way summer is supposed to be. he’s only been home three days, but each one of those days has been the very definition of conviviality, of a kid being nothing more, nothing less, than a plain old happy-go-lucky mask-less kid.
this kid and all kids, in every corner of this republic, are long overdue for anything akin to normalcy. they’re starved for all the sweet spots that make the ardors of growing up bearable. it’s been awful to watch kids confined to dorm rooms, ferrying dinner in plastic-domed containers back from dining halls, to eat in solitude. it’s been awful to know that friday-night fun meant sitting alone in your dorm room, sharing screens on a wide web of laptops, to play remotely — doors closed and towels all but stuffed between the cracks to keep corona off the premises.
it’s the proportional cost of COVID that’s tipped the scales, made it doubly hard for some among the whole of us. for kids from kindergarten through college, the fraction of their lives stifled by hoping to steer clear of the red-ringed virus is not insignificant. the lower the denominator, the higher the proportion of their little lives has been masked and just plain odd. 1/24th is bad; 1/8th is triple worse.
at the other end of the age range, it’s proportionality of another kind: the fraction of years left on one life’s lease. our old next-door neighbor, the spriteliest, feistiest of 94-year-olds, one who still spends his best days at the racetrack, laying down bets on thoroughbreds, was making a lunch date with the resident architecture critic a couple weeks back when suddenly he offered perspective i’ve not forgotten. “when you’re 94 and you don’t have much time left, a year lost is everything,” he intoned into the speaker phone. again, it’s a fraction of declining denominators — 1/2, 1/3, a parade of fractions not pretty.
as we all stand back and try to gain some semblance of deeper understanding of the aftershocks, as we now clock our lives in BC and AC, before and after COVID, the kaleidoscope will ever shift. for now though, there’s a sweetness in the air. everything old is new again. getting on a plane. sliding in a cab. parking yourself in the bleachers at the ball park. congregating on the sidewalk with old long-unseen friends. dashing in the grocery store for that one forgotten item. or listening for the click of the front door, when the kid you love ambles in the door, after a long summer’s evening staring at the stars. and you didn’t once worry that he might catch COVID.
and, now, for a bit of summer reading….
it was my ritual of summer, signaling the start of kick-back time, soon as the last of the school bells rang, we were piling in the station wagon, unpiling at the door to the town library, dashing to the desk to ask the librarian if i could sign up for summer reading, being handed the folded card, filling in my name, piling my arms with books, scurrying home to read — all in hopes of the ink-stamped blot that would count the books i swallowed whole each and every summer. it’s a rite not outgrown. my hair’s now the color of old aluminum pipes, but summer reading is a class all its own, one that belongs to all. best accompanied by nighttime’s crickets and the blinking lights of fireflies. best lubricated, in the heat of mid-afternoon, with tall sweaty glasses of mint-swirled waters. and even better if read from a perch, be it tree branch or (geriatrically-approved) solidly-grounded reading nook that safely and securely looks into the trees.
i’m proposing summer reading here, though what you read is whatever you choose. no groupthink here. i’m starting with annie dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, a collection of meditations “like polished stones,” and french novelist muriel barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or as my adorable mother-in-law suggested, “it’s got a porcupine in the title.” and it’s a charmer, set in an elegant Parisian hôtel particulier, it was a best-seller in france, (originally published in 2006), and though the New York Times subtly scowls that it “belongs to a distinct subgenre: the accessible book that flatters readers with its intellectual veneer,” i say label me “accessible” this summer.
the Times goes on to tell us:
The novel’s two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is dominated by Renée, a widowed concierge in her 50s who calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody. She is also an autodidact — “a permanent traitor to my archetype,” as she drolly puts it — who takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but thinks life will be easier if she never lets her knowledge show. Even the slippers she wears as camouflage, she says, are so typical, “only the coalition between a baguette and a beret could possibly contend in the domain of cliché.”
Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma, a precocious 12-year-old whose family lives in the fashionable building Renée cares for. Paloma believes the world is so meaningless that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.
…Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time.
who’s in? and what titles might mark your beginning in this, the summer when we slink our way out of COVID hibernation??
and, how’s your emergence from the Age of Corona unfolding?
skunk update: he’s still on the loose, despite our wiliest of efforts. just this morning, evidence that he tunneled right out of the wire escape hatch we thought led straight into his take-me-to-the-woods case…..
in which we momentarily leave behind the otherwise crushing worries of the world and the piled-high nail-biters of the day-to-day, and turn instead to contemplations of the wilds of suburbia. most especially the stinky ones….
a tale of one impregnable fortress and how and why it came to be…
he broke ground eight weeks ago, back before the last of the snows fell. he’d come quietly in the night so i took no notice. it was the tree guy who’d ambled into the back yard who first alerted me to his, um, efforts. “got something i need you to see,” the tree guy grumbled in that way that strangers sometimes deliver not-so-good news. then he walked me round the corner of the house, to the skinny walk that shimmies between our house and the next-door fence, and i saw a heap of dirt that someone must have shoveled there. i was confused.
“you’ve got a digger,” the tree guy pointed out. i wondered why someone would’ve tried to pile dirt in a heap beside the house, wondered if it was evidence of someone trying to break in through the underground, or rather to dig up some hidden treasure. (the suburbs, i’ve found, are full of surprises, so hidden treasure wasn’t exactly beyond the realm of possibility. heck, we had an across-the-alley neighbor who bought the losingest team in baseball and wound up winning the world series, so i’ve learned that anything can happen here in this strange neck of the woods.)
turned out, the heap of dirt was the former of my two choices: evidence of someone breaking in. or trying to anyway. but that someone didn’t stand on two legs; rather, it scampered (or waddled, depending on its mood) on all fours. my digger, it would soon be made known to me, was a striped and furry skunk. i wouldn’t have guessed between raccoon, possum, or smelly skunk, but i was informed by my tree guy that skunks are the ones who are decidedly notorious diggers, their front paws and claws as adept as any front-hoe loader.
and, mind you, this four-legged, cloud-spewing specimen was trying to dig not just anywhere but directly below the floorboards of the room in which i sit. RIGHT NOW. and all day every day. and late into some nights.
this room, once an old garage, was long ago tunneled with a coal chute, and the coal chute apparently makes for a cozy curling-up place for a skunk and all its kin. gender at this point remains unknown, so i like to think of him as Mr. Skunk, for if it’s a Ms. she might be looking to outfit this year’s obstetric ward, and i have no interest in being the chambermaid to a litter of smelly babies. no matter how adorable i imagine the little fur balls might be.
thus began the now-months-long escapades that have pitted me against the wiliest of the wilds; so far, the wilds are winning. especially if you measure in nights i lay awake listening for the telltale scritch and scratch. or the dollars spent at the hardware store fetching the latest in my litany of armaments.
i started with coyote urine, a curious place to begin, but i was following instructions of field experts. and when those who are fluent in these things point you to coyote urine, it is coyote urine to which you turn. in ample supply, mind you. i could only wonder how in heaven’s name one goes about collecting coyote urine, but i decided to trust the label and not go too deep in my picturing of that endeavor.
next up was a spotlight, the one i spiked into the ground, in futile hopes that it would chase away the night-prowling interloper. all i did was keep the night bugs awake. and spike my electric bill.
there was ammonia, too, as i was told it worked twice as good as mothballs in out-stinking the stinker. skunks, curiously sensitive to smell, apparently plug their noses and run for the hills when you douse a rag with pure ammonia and stuff it down their would-be entrance ramp.
for a few days it worked. but then the skunk dispatched with my ammonia-sodden rags, the light bulb burned out, and the coyote urine didn’t do a darn thing.
so i called in the Skunk Trapper, a lovely fellow i’ve come to think of as the fearless superhero of our dynamic duo — Skunk Man to my Robin — in this nightly endeavor in sisyphean critter catching. Skunk Man’s actual name is shawn and we text each other every single day, sometimes several times a day, with the latest advances or retreats in skunkdom. if you ever need a skunk trapper, check with me, and i’ll give you shawn’s name and number. he’s the A-1 best at pests here on the north shore of the great lake michigan.
so far, shawn has set not one but two traps. we’ve reinforced the side of the house and all but a narrow opening with cement and bricks (the last thing we’d want to do is permanently seal the coal chute before we were 1,000-percent certain no skunk was left behind, right beneath where i dangle my feet while typing). we’ve pounded in rebar spikes, nailed boards to the have-a-heart trap (we’re releasing him to the best woods around, so fear not, we’ve got this skunk’s best interests at heart here), and wrapped the whole thing in wire mesh and caging. i’ve hauled every heavy object from my garage: sacks of river rocks, sand bags, wire planters, metal buckets, even a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. looks like someone’s junk yard in what was once my soothing secret garden.
my beloved lifelong mate, away for weeks of this adventure (in new jersey attending to his beloved mother), came home the other evening, took one look at my rube goldbergian doings, and pronounced it “The Impregnable Fortress.” i do like the ring of that, makes it sound more upscale. someone else might simply call it “Junk Pile.” i’d not realized before that i’d married the man for his propensity for putting flourish to humble heaps. although he is the architecture critic. i now wear the pronouncement proudly. “may i show you my impregnable fortress?” i ask of any passerby. no wonder i get looks.
but back to the story, cuz it’s extra delicious in what comes next. the other night, shawn pulled out his best effort yet: on his way here to set another trap, he swung by the house, sliced a wedge of his sister’s taco pie, wrapped it in foil, and — voila! — he set the bait. he left a chunk of it on what amounts to the trap’s front stoop, and tucked the rest deep inside, hoping the skunk would slither in and the trap door would click shut behind him.
it worked! well, sort of…
night before last we caught something all right, and all the clanging woke up the next door neighbor who leaned out her bathroom window to ask if we were planning to keep the poor thing in the trap all night. i promised to ping shawn to see if he was in the midst of any midnight run, but alas, we had to wait till dawn. and that’s when brave shawn peeked inside and saw, not the wily skunk, but a big ol’ possum who must have a taste for taco pie. for shawn’s sister’s taco pie, specifically.
and once again this morning, there is digging aplenty but no sign that my impregnable fortress has been impregnated. once we’re 1,000-percent sure that no fur balls are furled inside, we’re hauling out the wheelbarrow and the cement. and that, i hope, will be the end.
and so it goes here in the heart of the heartland, where skunks outsmart the humans on a nightly basis. and where this critterly distraction has turned out to be something of a welcome diversion from the host of other worries piling high and mightily this long, cold spring.
while i cook up yet another ploy in my skunk-chasing escapades, i thought i’d leave you a recipe, should you suddenly find yourself hungry for a slice of taco pie.
if you’ve any leftovers, i am still deep in my efforts to catch that smelly skunk before he sets down impenetrable roots in my old coal chute….but for now, i offer you…
Should-You-Need-to-Catch-a-Skunk Taco Pie.
from the Betty Crocker kitchens…
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 package (1 ounce) taco seasoning mix
1 can (4.5 ounces) chopped green chiles, drained
1 cup milk
1/2 cup Original Bisquick mix
3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
1 Heat oven to 400°F. Grease 9-inch pie plate. Cook ground beef and onion in 10-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until beef is brown; drain. Stir in seasoning mix (dry). Spoon into pie plate; top with chilies.
2 Stir milk, eggs and Bisquick mix until blended. Pour into pie plate.
3 Bake about 25 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake 8 to 10 minutes longer. Cool 5 minutes. Serve with salsa and sour cream.
what tales from the wilds do you have to tell? have you built impregnable fortresses in your life, literally or metaphorically? and if so did it serve its purpose? (a question for contemplation only, especially if a metaphorical fortress…..)
this morning’s meander is dedicated wholly and heartfully to shawn o’hara, my skunk-chasing boss and ally. the best there ever was…….A-1 Pest Control in Highland Park. five-star best.
it was written inside a mother’s day card, the sort that might be plucked from a slot in the greeting card aisle of a corner drug store. if you were lucky enough to get to a drug store. or it might have been all that was left in a heap on a metal cart with rickety wheels that rolled past the cell of the north kern state prison where kerry baxter senior, who is serving 66 years to life in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, spends his days and his nights and his years. he never forgets mother’s day, or her birthday, says his mother, anita wills, who spends her life missing him fiercely, who waits for his every 60-second pre-paid collect phone call, and who has devoted her life to proclaiming and proving his innocence.
here’s what kerry wrote in his mother’s day card:
What God has intended for our mothers to embody, you have personified. I’m humbled by your examples of leadership, time after time. Your energy is a wellspring of endeavors to be carried to their accomplishments for the benefit of we who are in compromising conditions. I can attest firsthand that you have demonstrated how a love that is truly unconditional translates in this physical world. Your love is a verb. How precious you are. Thank you, profoundly, for the many lessons you have and do teach.
“that’s from my son. who’s in prison.” says anita looking up from the card, adding that when he was was sentenced in 2003 to 66 years to life that meant “i would never have seen my son as a free man.“ she goes on to say, in a new yorker documentary titled “On Mother’s Day,” that until kerry was sent to prison, family used to come every weekend. “he was our barbecue person. we spent the holidays together, thanksgiving, christmas, birthdays. after he was gone, it seemed like everybody stopped coming. everybody stopped coming after kerry went to jail.” in 2011, when kerry’s own son — anita’s grandson — was murdered, kerry couldn’t go to the funeral, so anita brought new urgencies to her exoneration efforts.
i can’t stop thinking about five words in kerry’s card: “Your love is a verb.”
when love is a verb. isn’t that the point? isn’t that — really — why we live? isn’t that the thing that just might make the difference between taking up oxygen during our stint here — however long that lasts — and bending the arc toward the love we all deep down dream of?
haven’t there been a hundred hundred days when our eyelids fluttered open in the morning and right away the lead ball in our belly pounded hard against the walls of us, and before we wiggled a toe we were washed over in the weight of whatever it was that worried us, and weren’t the worries twice as heavy when they weren’t about us but rather someone we loved, maybe even someone we birthed, or have loved since right after birth, someone whose time on this great blue marble we’ve felt was ours to protect, to guide, to keep from falling into pitfalls, but when they stumbled or bloodied their knees we might have raced to reach out our hand, to be right there to let them know they didn’t need to climb out or up all alone, but that we’d bear as much of the weight, of the pulling from the depths, as we could bear. however much they were willing to let us pull.
isn’t love — unfettered, unconstrained by our own agendas, selfless as selfless can be — isn’t love the thing we’re aiming for? the thing we keep trying to get right? like turning the mothership some days.
don’t we all dream of love the verb? if it’s simply a noun it has no real distinctions, no muscle, no bone. the love that might change things is the love that doesn’t hang out in armchairs (not unless it makes room for someone to snuggle right beside), doesn’t hang out in corners idly hoping its fumes will get the job done.
it’s a verb in its truest form. it’s the verb that picks up the call. at the oddest of hours, and snaps to attention, full attention soon as your ear canal opens. it’s the verb that grabs the car keys and leaps behind the wheel, and drives as many hours or miles as it takes. to get the job done. the job is being there: being there in heart, in the flesh. at the bedside. when the elevator door glides open. when the curtain of the ER cubicle is pulled back. when eyelids flutter open after emergency surgery.
that’s love at full attention. love when it asks the next question. and the hard question. and the hardest question of all.
it’s what i try to think about not just on mother’s day. but every day. love is a verb. and it dies without practice.
i’ve long declared that this day set aside for “mothers” is really a day that should be devoted to “mothering,” another action verb. a synonym for love when it’s a verb. a verb that belongs to no pre-specified quadrant of the population; a verb for all who practice. who day in and day out practice, try to get it right. admit to the fumbles and stumbles, shake the dirt off their knees, get back up and try it again. to mother is to love defiantly, urgently, sometimes as if there’s no tomorrow. to mother is to lavish the golden glorious rule: “love as you would be loved.” whatever it takes. however deep, however hard, however exhausted.
here’s to every someone who puts the verb in “to love.” and especially to those who mother me with all their hearts: to my mama, my mother-in-heart in new jersey, to my best friend who long ago taught me what love can feel like, and to those rare few who let me practice day after day, hour by hour. i love you. happy love-is-a-verb day.
define or describe “your love is a verb” from the person or people who taught you….
here are the two mamas i’m especially loving this day…both have had especially bumpy months and we are loving them dearly….