Good Fortune

Yesterday morning, as I was squinting over the microscopic print on my computer screen, the right lens of my reading glasses popped out and flew across the room. I assessed the damage (cracked frame) and popped the lens back in, it tentatively agreeing to stay put. But this was a sign, I was sure, that it wasn’t the day to go to the coffee shop to write: A woman loses enough credibility when she must resort to slipping on those horrible eye-distorting reading glasses that give the wearer a perpetually astonished look. But that credibility slides further downhill when a lens drops out and splashes into a cup of coffee. Continue reading

January, 2014

Grey Cat is on the kitchen bench staring out the window, watching the starlings and the blackbirds leap from the overhead power lines and soar overhead before suddenly agreeing to gather at the green cat food bowl. They squabble and jostle and nip at Grey Cat’s food, while he paws at the window, protesting loudly. I rap on the glass and the birds temporarily return to their posts to wrap tiny feet around the power lines once more.

I bundle up and leave the house; headed for town. At Main Street, the crossing guard waits in her car, the stop sign upended in a bank of snow, the handle of the sign cocked at forty-five degrees. The wind brings the temperature down to ten below and steals away my words in great billowing gusts. I hurry to the coffee shop and head inside.

It is here where I write. Here where I trap words on paper before they can be blown away and forgotten. Here where I sit two hours a day, every day. Here, I forget about the house and the dogs and the other daily obligations. Here I forget myself. Continue reading

Soapstone Sink

There’s an old soapstone sink in my basement. Double-basin. Each side twenty-one inches wide and fourteen inches deep. Chipped here and there, like the concrete basement floor, which is webbed with cracks and protestations.

My basement. Full of cobwebs in the old ceiling joists where new electric frowns upon the old knob and tube; a foundation of antique bricks decaying in white flakes onto the floor.

My basement. Several rooms with old doors of scrap wood nailed roughly together, doors that, when shut, don’t completely fill the frame, leaving, instead, a two-inch gap of darkness and possibilities: The old coal room with a rectangular cast iron coal-chute, now sealed shut. The room that houses the incinerator—a behemoth of scrap metal that sits, unused, obviously—waiting for a future unknown while the gas boiler in the main room—another giant—keeps my house somewhat warm. Also in that main room, a dance platform, one wall lined with mirrors where someone must have practiced ballet and dreamed of being onstage. A fourth room houses the electric box and a set of wooden shelves, where, if I ever cleaned them up, I could set jars of my homemade jelly.

But there’s something shameful to me about hiding those glistening jars on a dusty basement shelf. I want to take pride in my jelly…the Concord coaxed from grapes grown along the shores of Lake Erie, that perfect alchemy of soil and wind. The raspberry-strawberry combination from berries I picked with my children last summer. The crabapple. Lovely crabapple stolen from trees around town. It shines the best, sweet and translucent, admiring itself in the afternoon light that angles in through the high windows of my dining room. Because it is here, among my antique China, in the built-in glass-fronted cabinets, where I display my jelly.

I admit it: I flaunt my jars of jelly. Show them off like diamonds or well-behaved Catholic school children all standing in a row. Proof of my productivity, I suppose, in what some might consider an unproductive life.

I find value in the old things: homemade quilts, old domestic arts, soapstone sinks made new again.

In my dreams, I haul up that sink through the sagging, slanted, cellar doors and install it in my kitchen—a future kitchen. A kitchen full of light and possibilities. A kitchen where I will make more jelly and piping hot soup. A kitchen where I will bake bread and listen to the radio while it rises. A kitchen where I will wash my garden vegetables in an old soapstone sink. A kitchen where I will sip hot mugs of tea with my family during the cold and bitter winter.

Final Giveaway

I’m finding that I hate documenting every single thing that I give away. It’s frustrating, futile, even, trying to find significance in meaningless things; things that hold no value for me: The too-small socks. The hardware we’ll never use. The three hundred or so thumbtacks that were used to paper all four walls of my daughter’s last bedroom with covers from Newsweek: faces of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, mainly, but others as well. These covers will not go up on my daughter’s walls in our new house, not because she’s no less of a democrat, but because the plaster walls in this old home are unfriendly to thumbtacks, and even if they were more accommodating to those tacks, I would forbid her from putting up so many pictures in this new room of hers: When we put the old house on the market, the painter we hired had to double skim coat her bedroom walls before applying paint.
What I’m most amazed at, and dismayed by, is the realization that I have so much stuff to get rid of. In a world of need, I need to get rid of things. I am ashamed that I have accumulated so much to begin with, so much that I have a year’s worth of things to write about. I am embarrassed to celebrate this giving away, this clearing out of excess in such a public way. As so, I will continue to simplify my life by shedding things no longer useful to me–but more quietly from now on.
I find as I give things away, they leave tiny gaps in my life like so many holes in a bedroom wall.
Gaps I will skim over and paint upon and, eventually, forget about entirely.

Great 365 Day Purge – Day Thirteen

I must have kept every single card my husband ever gave me in the twenty-five years we’ve been together: Anniversary cards. Birthday greetings. Christmas and Easter cards when we were engaged. Some, early on, with brief notes penned by my husband. Others–the later ones–simply signed.
Today, I recycled them all.
And my husband did the same with the cards I gave him.
But I did keep this note, written in my grandmother Alice’s hand…a note I discovered shortly after her death…a note that records a conversation she’d had with her husband, my grandfather.

April 28, 1991
Conversation at dinner table
Ken: (having been reading “John Cell…” [the rest is illegible]) said, “I could not write a book like that now if my life depended on it.”
Alice: “You probably could if you were interested.”
Ken: “Well…”
Alice: “You don’t seem to be interested in anything.”
Ken: “Um…” (in consent more or less).
Alice: “You could try.”
Ken: “It just doesn’t seem to be worthwhile. Nothing is worthwhile without you.”
Alice: “Well that’s true for each of us.”
I can see my grandparents sitting at the kitchen table during this exchange…my grandfather’s glass of buttermilk…their blue dishes, neatly set. I can see their poodles beneath that table, noses poking up the tablecloth as they beg for scraps. I can hear the clock ticking gently in the background. I can hear the sadness in their voices as they struggle to come to terms with my grandfather’s cancer.
This note I will keep, as proof of a deep and lasting love. And if my husband and I feel the same about each other near the end of our lives, our love and marriage will have been a success, even without all those recycled cards to prove it.

Great 365 Day Purge – Days Eleven and Twelve

January 11, 2014
Days Eleven (and Twelve!) of “The Great 365 Day Purge of 2014.”
And speaking of growing…
I went in for my physical the other day. Had that horrible stepping-on-the-scale moment (after slipping out of my boots, of course). Height. Blood pressure. The whole bit.
The doctor told me my blood pressure was good. I thought it seemed high. She told me the standards had changed. What was once considered pre-hypertension was now within the acceptable range. My weight, too, is now acceptable: Apparently I’m just a smidge overweight, despite the fact that my BMI puts my body fat at twenty-five percent. As we’ve grown as a nation, the doctor informed me, the standards have expanded to accommodate us.
This reminds me of the day my teacher explained the changes to the grading system to my third grade class. Whereas before, a student needed a ninety-six to quality for an A, now, the only requirement was a ninety. Suddenly many more people became A students. And while I’m certain I benefitted tremendously from this deflation of standards (especially in chemistry, geometry and physics), the change felt a little like a cheat to me.
And so, today, I give up on the idea of accepting my weight as “within range”. Today, I give up my comfortably uncomfortable BMI. And to get there, I’m giving up sugar as well. All sugar. My homemade jelly. My zucchini bread. Boxed cereal and many breads. Candy bars. Leftover Christmas cookies and the hand-dipped candies my family and I make every year.
If my sister can give up cigarettes, I suppose I can give up sugar.
It’s going to get ugly around here.
You may want to stay away for a bit.
But if you do see me on the street, looking a bit wide-eyed and snarly, try to understand: It will pass.
Soon, I hope.
Soon.

Great 365 Day Purge – Day Ten

My son discovered it when he was nine. He found it, tucked beneath the bills and the Christmas cards, among the pleas for donations, the community newspaper and the thick stack of circulars from the grocery stores. It really should have been wrapped in brown paper.

My son. My pure, innocent son. He tossed the mail on the table and disappeared with it. I found it later, in my son’s bedroom, lying on the floor amid a stack of books and a Lego set under construction. Its pages were dog-eared and wrinkled. The centerfold had been pulled out.
“This is mine,” I said. “What are you doing with it?”
He grinned.
“You marked in it.”
He grabbed the centerfold and opened it up. “Look.”
Heirloom garlic and beans of all sorts…tomatoes…celery…basil.
“Where,”I asked him, turning the page of my favorite seed catalogue, “are we going to put three apple trees?”
He grinned over the top of his crooked glasses.
I grinned back.
* * *
Every winter, my father would get restless, forlornly staring out the window, hoping for a good snowfall so he could get out the tractor and begin plowing the drive. When the snow did come and the driveway was clear, he’d watch out the front window, waiting for someone to get stuck on the road so he could pull them out with a chain. And, when the day’s chores were done, he would spend hours sitting in his easy chair, football game on low, planning the spring garden, as if, by this act of setting his vision on paper, he could rush the season along. He looked through his seed catalogues, dog-earing pages that piqued his interest, making a long list on a yellow legal pad: carrots, corn, beans, broccoli, peas, spinach, tomatoes…
“God is in the details,” he would say, as he carefully filled in the order blanks and sketched out that year’s layout. Then he impatiently watched at the window, waiting for the UPS man’s delivery that announced the arrival of spring.
Today, I give up my CSA. For ten years, my family has participated in a farm subscription, paying anywhere from six- to twelve hundred dollars for two seasons of fresh, local, organic produce. I loved my CSA. I loved picking cherry tomatoes and eating themwarmed by the sunright in the field. I loved watching the sunflowers grow. I loved talking with the farmers and working our required eight hours: weeding, rolling out straw to keep weeds down, blindly reaching into lovely, loose soil in search of potatoes.
But now that we’ve moved, I’ve decided: This is the year to go it alone.
Today is the day I give up as much reliance as possible on othersgrocery stores and CSAsto feed my family.
Today I plan my garden.
I dig out my seed catalogues, pick up my legal pad, and begin to dream.
God is in the details and spring is only eleven weeks off.

Great 365 Day Purge – Day Nine

January 9, 2014
Day Nine of “The Great 365 Day Purge of 2014”
I have in front of me fifteen “candles” – white plastic tubes screwed into gold plastic bases: made-in-China products that every year I set in the windows to celebrate Christmas. Based upon this year’s performance, each candle chews through two double-A batteries and a bulb in less than a week, even if I go from window to window unscrewing the bulbs every morning.
Assuming I use those candles for three weeks a year, I could easily go through ninety batteries a season. After ten years of such use, my family will have used nine hundred batteries.
I unscrew the candles, shake out the batteries. These and the bulbs will go to my local recycling facility.
I have no idea what will happen to these batteries; these bulbs. Will they, indeed, be recycled? Or will they join the thousands of other things I have thoughtlessly placed in the landfill?
Sure, I could buy the rechargeable batteries and plug in my charger, but I have a better idea. Next year, these candles will not brighten my windows.
I will miss these candles, for sure. I love the way they look at night. But I can’t justify the waste that goes into their use.
I put the candles in the giveaway box, hoping that this small spark will fan the flames of revolution in my home.
I don’t need plastic candles to celebrate Christmas.
I don’t need tinsel and wrapping paper and endless rolls of tape.
Celebrating Christmas requires no expense, no decorations, no endless, frazzled shopping.
All I need to celebrate Christmas is my family. A bit of time for reflection. A stack of books to read and ponder. Endless boardgames and mugs of tea with my husband and children.
I don’t celebrate Christmas to grow the economy.
I celebrate to grow my heart.

Great 365 Day Purge – Day Eight

January 8, 2014
Day Eight of “The Great 365 Day Purge of 2014”
Today, as the temperatures claw their way up to the thirties, I let go of trying to keep Grey Cat inside. While Calico Catthe cat who adopted us in Octoberhas been enjoying her indoor respite, curling up on a feather tick and sleeping for hours, forgetting entirely about birds and squirrels, Grey Cat is angry: Kept inside the house against his will, he runs to the door trying to slip out between our legs whenever we take the dogs out for a walk, sitting upon the kitchen table when denied, intently staring at the action outside: The snow that’s so cold it squeaks underfoot…the three-foot-long icicles hanging from the gutters…the occasional bird that flits to the suet feeder…the Christmas trees piled curbside…the recycling bins blowing down the street.
Yesterday morning, in a last desperate bid to escape, Grey Cat crawled up the inside of the chimney and sat upon the damper, peering upside down at my daughter, refusing to come down. He emerged, some time later, sooty paws tracking across my hardwood floors and, of course, onto the kitchen table.

Today I open the door and let the cat run.
Today I air out the house and wipe down the kitchen table.
Today I hang up the puzzle that we’ve spent the past cold and snow-bound week assembling and gluing: a nine hundred eighty-three piece puzzle that would’ve been a thousand, had not the puppy eaten the seventeen pieces that fell to the floor.
Today I shoo Calico Cat from my daughter’s suitcase, parked in the dining room, packed for college.
Today I liberate the zoo that this house has become.
Today I open the door and let the cat run.
Today I also let go of my frustration that my husband isn’t handy.
I grew up with parents skilled at using their hands: My father taught his daughters to run electric and plumbing…how to build a fence and bale hay. My mom taught herself how to quilt and can and refinish furniture.
Growing up, I had the expectation that people everywhere learned these valuable skills. But my siblings and I were lucky: Few of our peers learned to plant a garden or muck a stall.
On Christmas Day, my mother was teaching my daughters and me how to do The Hundred, that hellish Pilates exercise designed to increase one’s core strength. As we panted and struggled and strained to hold our bodies in position, my husband got down on the rug and joined us, despite the fact that my entire family was present.
My husband won’t repair a leaky toilet. He won’t touch electric. That’s OK. He’s willing to laugh at himself.
My husband has spent the past twenty years working full time while I dabbled…teaching part-time here and there, staying at home with our kids, reading…writing…gardening. Too, he’s spent the past twenty years paying repairmen to come in and fix the repairs I make on the house: The water line I snapped repairing the kitchen faucet…The ceramic tile I chipped after installing a ceiling plant hanger with the toggle bolt upside down…The sinks I tried to replace in our first home.
My husband isn’t handy.
That’s OK.
Today I pick up the toolbox and head to my son’s bathroom to repair the broken drain.
And sure as that cat will come back inside when the temperatures drop, we’ll need a plumber before I’m done.

Great 365 Day Purge – Day Seven

January 7, 2014
Day Seven of “The Great 2014 Purge.”
But I do not shred the Bible I’ve kept in my trunk for years, given to me during the short span of time when I attended Sunday School at the local Lutheran church. This Bible, Good News for a New Age, consists strictly of the New Testament and has several passages marked in pencil or underlined in orange highlighter, passages that must have spoken to me at one time: Luke 12:15-22…Corinthians 2:5…Romans 1:12…John 14:15.
I scratch out my name, neatly penciled in the inside cover, and put the Bible in the giveaway box.
* * *
I remember sitting in the family room struggling through the family Bible, trying to work my way through the begats, telling myself that if I didn’t start at the very beginning and read every word, then my efforts were invalid.

I remember going to a friend’s Sunday morning Bible study group, after spending the night at her house. When the leader instructed us to turn to a certain chapter and verse, I flipped frantically back and forth through the Bible I’d picked up from the cart at the front of the room. The other students watched me expectantly until my friend turned to the proper page for me. Later, she asked me if I’d been saved. I had no idea what she meant by this; had no idea how to respond to such a question. She told me she’d been saved on the telephone and I wondered if there was a number people dialed in order to be assured a place in heaven.
I remember lying awake at night, imagining heaven an immense blackness…a blackness rolling over and over itself like an ocean wave. I imagined myself there, hanging in heaven, waiting all alone in all that darkness.
And I remember the bus driver, too, from when I was nine. At her first stop, she called the students to attention. We paid her no mind: Christmas vacation had begun and we kids were in jolly moods. “I have a present for you,” she said, her eyes watching us in the long rearview mirror. She stood and held up a candy cane and a book: several sheets of two by three pieces of construction paper in varying colors, held together by two neat staples. As she turned each page in the book, she went on to explain its meaning: black represented sin…red was for blood…white for the cleansing of sins…gold for God…green for growth in faith.
“Don’t forget,” she said, opening the bus doors and pressing a candy cane and a book into the palm of my hand. I ate the candy cane immediately and put the wordless book into one of my drawers, occasionally taking it out to try and recall the meaning of each color. I held onto it for many years because I thought I’d be punished somehow were I to discard it.
I don’t remember when I finally worked up the courage to get rid of the Christmas book, but I still have two crosses, crocheted with blue ribbons woven into them. I have no idea how these crosses came to take up space in my trunk. I do know that I’ve had them…and ignored them…for years. They’ll better serve someone who will treasure them. These join the Bible in the giveaway box. Finally, I add to the box the Missal I stole from the Catholic church, the day I converted to my husband’s faith.
As a Protestant, I was taught that communion bread and wine are symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice. As a Catholic, I was taught that the wine and bread are the actual body and blood of Christ.
What do I believe?
I believe that giving away an unused Bible does not make me irreverent.
I believe that someone will treasure these crocheted crosses.
I believe I can navigate my way around a Bible pretty well now and that the Beatitudes are my favorite parts to read.
Most of all I believe that arguing over religious differences is the surest way to lose faith.