Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

"But, are you happy, mom?" she asks, her blue eyes peering up at me through her newly cut and very chic bangs. The serious tone of her voice and the careful measurement of her words indicate that she is not asking me about my immediate state, but instead, she's asking the big question about my life.

How did she arrive at this question? I can't remember. Were we in the midst of one of our more and more common newly-mature daughter and amazed-mother life discussions? Or had she honed in on the deepening lines around my eyes and heard another one of my now legendary loud sighs? How unkempt my life of crossed and burning bridges must appear to her as she begins her own journey.

And how could I answer her? Should I tell her about where I intended to go when I was her age? I can still feel the coldness of the packed snow through my boots on the long climb across the field and up to the top of the steep hill in Segovia. All around us the virgin snow sparkled, except for the deep holes our footprints made. I stood then, newly turned 20, on that seemingly momentous morning, and I breathed the icy Spanish air fully until it burned my lungs. On the Roman aqueduct in front of us ticked a clock, and I closed my eyes tightly to memorize the position of the iron hands--fixed forever at ten, to seal this moment in my heart. I thought then that I would never live the average life.

Should I tell her how my heart jumped when my name was called aloud as the winner of my first Golden Quill? I can still feel the power I had then when my name was on the lips of the city's readers, how my name commanded a better table, how my name produced answers. Holding a freshly printed magazine was a heady act for me, and next month there would be more stories bearing my byline, as Pittsburgh lay before me ripe for my plucking.

Should I tell her about the grand offices I had, stained-glass windows lining the walls? Or about the string of characters whose compelling lives may be forever locked within my brain? Should I tell her about who I planned to be?

I think not. If I tell her these things, those blue eyes will turn dark with grief for what I was, what I left behind, what I never would be.

Instead, I tell her this. "Yes, honey, I am happy." She might think otherwise, noting the lines around my eyes and my deep repetitive sighs, but she has much to learn. Instead, I'll take her hand and tell her about how it feels to love her, her brothers, and her sister. I'll tell her stories about the four of them wearing footed jammies, fighting for the two spots closest to me on the bed. I'll tell her what it feels like to fall into sleep next to the man who has loved me since I wore newly cut chic bangs. I'll tell her that love, after all, is all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

For my children and my husband, there are ghosts of Christmas past at every turn. At the top landing as we turn left and right to our bedrooms, there is the large Italianate navity which once sat on my mother-in-law's hearth. Not one lamb has all four legs, thus necessitating a clumsy propping of sorts around the manger. Joseph has lost an entire arm, and a type of plaster gangrene has set in. Even the baby Jesus has a glued arm. This nativity surely should be discarded, but I can't wipe away the image of the women in my husband's life carefully arranging the figures each year, as I do now.

Our Christmas dishes also once belonged to my mother-in-law. Early in my married years, she told me how much she loved the Spode Christmas dishes, featuring a rich green tree on a creamy eggshell plate. My husband and I couldn't afford Spode, so we bought her the knock-off set, stamped with an imitation of the tree design on a flat white background. Each year, we contributed to the set, a cookie plate one year, candleholders the next, and when she died, I asked my father-in-law for them. I wonder now, as I unpack them each year, did she ever even want them, a poor substitute for her heart's desires.

As we readied our house this year for the holidays, I pointed out Christmas treasures to my children. Remember this: There are the needlepoint ornaments my husband's grandmother made to help us decorate our nearly empty first Christmas tree, plastic rocking horses, bells, and trees covered with green and red yarn. Ornate stockings painstakingly sewn by my children's great grandmother as her vision began to fail her hang empty in our living room. The now dilapidated oldest nutcracker, missing both sword and one foot, his arms glued firmly to his sides, was a gift from my in-laws our first married Christmas. The trio of musical angels that had been gifts from my mother-in-law to me, my mother, and herself. I own all three of them now.

Loss nudges in around the edges of our merry Christmas Eves. There are fewer people, for one, although the love between cousins goes a long way toward filling the empty spaces. The sacks of gifts distributed by my mother-in-law are gone. An innocent comment by my then very young daughter about missing those gifts sent her grandfather into a snit about "my ungrateful, materialistic child." He missed the truth within her small voice, however, as he missed so many other truths about my children. In my children's eyes, a paper check was no match for their grandmother's list making, wrapping, and sweet smell as she handed out each carefully selected gift.

Of course, I feel all of this, as it hangs heavily over my Christmases present and future, but it is the sight of the relatively new gold and white Christmas angel that brings me to my knees. Golden haired and winged, she stands about 15 inches tall on top of the living room cabinet. Her white fur-trimmed brocade skirt is wide, although her gold feather wings span wider. She is beautiful in that drugstore angel way, which is where another version of her can be found each year. That's not, however, where I found her. A week before my mother died, I opened her den closet to look for some new oxygen tubing. "Stop!" she shouted. "There's something in there for you I picked up during the Christmas sales--I got something for you and your sister." She struggled over to hide her purchases before I was allowed to look for the tubing.

It was July before my sister and I could face my mother's empty apartment. By the time we got to the den, we'd folded my mother's clothes into bags and portioned out her jewelry. When I wearily opened the den closet, I found the angel, hurriedly wrapped in tissue paper, the last Christmas gift my mother would wrap.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Talking to Truman, Again

Written after listening to a student read from "A Christmas Memory," a prompt used in a creative writing workshop for high school students.

Dear Truman,

I am always so happy to reread, or listen to, or see the Hallmark Classic version of “A Christmas Memory.” Each time, I hungrily consume your magical words, words that taste like the gems of candied fruit and the “daisy yellow” whiskey in the fruitcakes you and your cousin made, but there is more for me in this story than the sumptuous words. I love knowing that once upon a time, a boy like you, an outcast in his home then and in the world later, was once wrapped in the comfort of a woman like Sook. Even though biographers tell us of your precocious intelligence, penning stories, reading difficult books, I like to picture you pushing the buggy to collect the fruitcake walnuts and decorating a paper kite for your buddy. Was it your best time then, Truman? Even after the Black and White Ball, after the reviews, after the literary world fell at your feet, would you trade it all for another day spent with Sook pasting stars on paper kites?

On Looking at a Jellyfish

A response to a photograph of a jellyfish, written
while leading a creative writing
workshop for high school students.

The depth of the dark blue, almost purple, water beckons to me, for there float the most fragile of creatures, their thin white threads swaying with the unseen current. Their transparency is so lovely, globs of clear white jell bobbing aimlessly before my eyes. At the aquariums I’ve visited, I can routinely pass by the coral reef exhibits, though the electric colors found there do call for a second glance. Lost to me are the lake exhibits offering heavy brown fish suspended in murky water.

But the jellyfish! I stand in front of those exhibits too long, most likely annoying the mothers of small children who crowd in behind me. Often the jellyfish exhibits are showcased behind floor to ceiling glass, and the feathery transparent bodies perform a slow motion ricochet dance. I am jealous of those jellied bodies buoyed by the liquid that surrounds them, submerges them, rocks them. What worries can a jellyfish have? What distractions? What obligations?

Watching them, a calm moves over me. I yearn for the quiet I imagine exists behind the glass, as I drift reluctantly away from the exhibit and then on to the exit where I shake off the cool blue water and my noisy, turbulent life engulfs me once more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

To Truman Capote

are you there?
Sometimes I hear
your next drink
sloshing in the shaker,
small ice crystals
frenzied in their swirl,
both numbing
and greasing at once.
An olive, Mr. Capote?
After all, where does a
mind like yours go
when a heart like yours
ceases to beat?
If I breathe deeply
enough, expanding
my nostrils for
maximum intake,
will one of the molecules
expelled by you find its way
into me?
Will I then be breathing in
a little of the Clutters,
a little more of Perry and Dick,
and some of the darkness you
carried with you to the end?
Though I don't have
94% recall, will some of you
bleed through my pen,
creating havoc on my yellow
legal pad?
If you could, Truman,
would you prime the pump
for me?
Unleash the words clogging
my brain, help them drip,
drip, drip into a pool of
wonder on the page.
I'll see your reflection
when I gaze upon it,
I promise.
In the meantime, Truman,
I'll continue to lead them
to the altar of you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Liberty and Justice in American Literature

I'm going to have to change the way I teach ENG 295, Liberty and Justice in American Literature. For years, each new semester we've discussed the idea that every citizen of the United States isn't equally entitled to the pursuit of happiness, if at all. In the second section of the class, we undertake Toni Morrison's Beloved, a jazz-symphony of a novel about a woman, a family--in reality, a nation--haunted by slavery. Students are distressed by the brutal picture Morrison conjures for us, wincing visibly in class at the stories of children sold away from their broken mothers. We read sermons written by Northern clergymen, men of my God who used their Sunday preaching time to argue against the humanity of the slave. A little Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes takes us to Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and the long glass-topped wall built against civil rights that held fast into the turbulent '60s.

Being white, I can only imagine what Tuesday's election meant to African Americans, a people who have carried this legacy of sorrow on their shoulders for over a century. A point often raised in class is that we are so far removed from slavery--shouldn't we forget about it, move past it? I ask them then; how do we move past lynchings--Billie Holiday's heartbreaking "Strange Fruit," heat-swollen black bodies dangling from tree branches commemorated on "wish-you-were-here" picture post cards? Is it possible to move past segregation, the reality of grown white men hawking up their phlem to spit on a black pigtailed girl walking to her first day of classes in a new yellow dress? Can we move past three little girls wearing ankle socks and patent leather maryjanes who were blown literally to Kingdom Come in their place of worship because of their darker epidermis? Can we move past the ugly sneer of "damn niggers," ejected like a wad of clogging mucus from a tight-lipped, hateful face?

On Tuesday night, America made an attempt to crunch this nasty past with a twist of her heel. Barack O'Bama wasn't singularly elected by the African American population, after all. So many shades believed in his message of hope, a colorless hope, that our country leapt over the barricades, and we were one, all the past pain arching toward this one moment of true equality.

When I begin my lecture next semester in ENG 295, Liberty and Justice in American Literature, I will start not with the fact of Barack O'Bama's election, but with this story. A friend was awakened from her sleep the night of the 2008 Presidential election by a frenzied screaming, a crazed lament, a lathered repetition of icy words--"You fucking nigger, you'll never be my president!" Her neighbor's words were echoed by the metallic ring of a hammer used to nail a confederate flag to his deck. She was shocked at the ugliness of her neighbor's response, and the ugliness stuck to her heart, leaving a harsh handprint there.

There are other pockmarks in America's victory, angry warning signs that harken back to a darker past. On election night, my sixteen-year-old daughter engaged in a texting war with an Obama opposer, spitting logic across technology to counter thinly veiled racism. On the day after the election, emails describing Obama as the anti-Christ prophesized in the Book of Revelations clogged our inboxes. I can't tell you what those gross liberties in interpretation did to me as an English teacher or to our already sagging American dream.

This time in my literature class, the ugly story won't be where we end. This time we will end with a promise--albeit a promise undermined by a rumble of treachery, a possibly naive promise made by a majority seemingly indifferent to color, a clasping of so many hands across the great divide. Perhaps this tenuous unity will be enough to still the ugly voices.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

No, John, Sarah Palin, Is Not My Role Model

On the day John McCain announced his running mate, a friend of mine shouldered his way through the other parents at the field hockey game until his mouth was close to my ear. "I thought of you today," he grinned.

"You did?" I asked, wondering what committee I would be volunteering for in the next few minutes.

"Yeah, I knew you would be so excited that John McCain picked a woman for his vice president," he continued to smile, "knowing how you feel about women in power and all."

I didn't correct him, then. He was so pleased to contribute to his perception of my feminist vision that I didn't want to disappoint him. So, I didn't tell him about the unexplainable outrage I felt when I heard about the announcement. At first, I was a little ashamed of my reaction to McCain's choice. I thought it might be the very "knee-jerk" response ( full of emotion and empty of substance) that I caution my argumentative writing students about.

My reaction was somehow connected to an odd conversation I had with one of my creative nonfiction writing students a couple of years ago in the hall outside of my office. Mary Clearman Blew's essay "The Unwanted Child" had led to a spirited classroom discussion about women's roles--and inevitably, women's rights. I shared the story with them about my first teaching job, recalling how I was hired along with a male journalist friend to teach the same course. I had more education and more experience than he, but his pay was $500 more than mine, a fact I discovered at the Gandy Dancer Bar over a Bombay gin martini. The irony of this discrepancy lay in the fact that I had written promotional materials for this university, my alma mater, that proclaimed the institution's dedication to women.

After class, the female student followed me into the hall, and we stopped outside of my office door. "I just don't get it," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"I just don't see you as being a feminist, being that you're married and have children and all," she tossed off as she continued on to the next class.

I stood in the hall, confused. It was only through discussion with some of my female colleagues that I got it--feminism to this student equaled man-hating which stretched to include the final dismissal of men--lesbianism. In our conversation, this young woman sniffed at the word 'feminist,' especially when I told her that I thought she was one. Serving in the army, living on her own since 16, she'd demonstrated strength and self reliance--to me, the epitome of a strong woman. It was at this point that she aimed her final comment at me and moved on down the corridor. She never took another class with me, although she'd registered for one.

How had feminism come to this, a taste of bile in the mouths of our young women, a vitriolic idea to be spat onto the cement? Coming of age in the '70s, dressed in my brother's paratrooper jacket, flannel shirts, and straight-legged blue jeans, my long hair hung down my back in a proclamation of self. I had nothing to prove to the world by strapping myself into heels and pencil skirts. In my third year of college, a professor taught the first of many Women's Studies classes there, and I fell into the history of my gender. I emerged convinced of my strength and determined to prove my equality. I lived feminism then, taking a position in the ranks of predominantly male journalists, meeting them elbow to elbow in the field, in our bylines, and at the bar rail. I believed, not in the superiority of women, but in our equality to men.

Thirty years later I was appalled by the negative reaction to feminism, including a young female student's comment on the fact that women are still paid 70 cents to the male dollar wage: "Oh, well, I'll just use the money my husband makes."

So it would seem that I would be overjoyed at McCain's choice, kicking up my Sex in the City high-heeled shoes in the streets. This will show 'em! Instead, I am angry, a low flame under my discontent. Part of it has to do with some of the reaction toward Hillary Clinton's campaign--internet jokes showing her as half man, hinting at the emasculating tendencies of a powerful woman. With me, that line is just so tired. Yet, Clinton played her best game, trying on new faces so as not to frighten voters away, all the while plodding away, believing that if she carefully argued the issues, proving her competence, she would be taken seriously.

I think my angst is rooted in that desire to be taken seriously, one that I and so many other women of my generation held as a goal and did the work to make it happen. We lived through the years when women believed they had to work twice as hard as the men around them to cement their positions. I guess I am appalled at the idea that one intelligent woman can be seamlessly swapped out for another wearing red lipstick. I'm even more appalled that a large portion of the population is willing to mindlessly cheer this new woman while jeering equally mindlessly at the first. This woman is younger, her breasts are higher, her calves and thighs are slimmer. She is pretty, perky, and entertaining, don't ya know?

I'm sure Sarah Palin is a good woman who loves her country and her family. I'm not sure that she is presidential material, and the fact that she's a woman has nothing to do with my judgment. I'm offended by the supposition that American women would run to the polls to vote for her, just because she's a woman--by the idea that a well-coiffed head could pull votes away from the black candidate--that we could be so easily manipulated.

And, no, John, Sarah Palin is not my role model. Sure, she juggles a lot of roles. But, in case you were out of touch with real women, we all do. I hold a job, make important decisions, mother four children, have a good marriage with my high school sweetheart, connect with my family, stay on top of important issues, balance the budget, deal with crisis after crisis, dream. So does my husband.

John, one thing your campaign has done for me is to spotlight America's continuing gender bias. An unattractive but accomplished female leader is an emasculating bitch, but an attractive not-so-experienced female leader who winks while proclaiming herself a pitbull wearing lipstick is hailed as a change maker.

Have we fooled ourselves at the changes we thought we'd made? You betcha.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Road Most Traveled

Robert Frost's farm waits for me,
a picture post card
of calm green pastures
and pristine white fence posts.
The image floats behind
my retinas, shimmering there.

From the corner of my eye
my peripheral vision
caught it, an unlikely mirage,
a hopeful snapshot,
in my mad dash from ice rink
to ice rink.

My husband once promised me,
in lovelocked words,
"I'll take you to New England,
to see where they wrote,
what they wrote--
why they wrote."

So many years later,
four children later,
life and death
and much inbetween later,
we are here
to watch my daughter skate.

She is a beautiful girl,
her brownstreaked hair
hidden by a hard hat;
she flies from blue line
to blue line, around and
around the rink,
her skates first puncturing,
then lacerating the ice.

I know now
that with each stroke
she was waiting
for something else to happen,
like so many others
before her.

That day on the road
in New Hampshire,
we stumbled upon the farm.
No gates, no billboards--
Could it be just here,
so greenly unassuming
only steps from Rt. 76?

We piled out of the van
onto the side of the road,
the gently curving farm
just before us.
The gravel pushing through
my flip flops,
I felt the pull.

I could feel him there,
beckoning, as I gazed up
into the second story window.
He was in the field, thinking,
writing, just over the crest.

I could write here,
I thought. Here,
the words would tumble
in a freefall for me.
Sitting on the porch,
I would begin to spin a tale.

"We'll come back,"
my husband promises.
As if fenced, I never leave
my graveled spot to step
onto the grass
that is Robert Frost's farm.

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

It's been such a long time, and I thought I might see you today. I'm sorry I didn't make it.

Rachel played a field hockey game not too far from where you are now; I know you would have been there if you could. I thought back to the old days when I'd get to the softball or lacrosse field late, and you'd be waiting in the stands. Do you remember how you toppled backwards out of your chair in the outfield? We laughed then at our shared clumsiness, the sunshine crowding in around us, our feet bare in the clovered grass.

How many times did we sit knee to knee in the ice rink, a single blanket covering us, as we watched my sons and daughter cut across the ice from net to net? I don't think you ever understood the rules of their sports, but your hands were always full of quarters for the kids to play video games, to buy hot dogs and hot chocolate. "Where's Nan?" they would ask me when you couldn't come because of a play, a card party, or a dinner out.

And then you really couldn't come. You did try, the long walk from the parking lot to the rink stealing the little breath you could pull into your lungs. The last time you came to the lacrosse field you tripped up the steep metal bleacher stairs, leaving bloodied shins that were reluctant to heal. I don't think you ever did see Rachel play lacrosse, fiercely defending her goalie, your determination flashing from her eyes.

After a while, I quit telling you about things. Did I lie to you? It was such hard work for you to come to concerts and games. At the end, you were starting to get ready for dinner outings shortly after noon, so wearily slow was your small body. I tried to pick what you would like most, and I shielded you from the others--at least that's what I told myself. Perhaps it was too much of an effort for me to help you, so short of breath--an old woman frantically gulping mouthfuls of air-- up the steps, down the hallway, into a seat. Mea culpa, Mom.

Today I thought how much you would have loved watching Rachel as goalie. Her red mouth guard makes a loony smile, and she stands tall in the net like a blond Amazon. We call her RoboRach, her bright orange pads giving her the look of a Transformer. You would have sat talking to me, drinking me in, loving me until I redirected your vision, saying: "Look, Mom, they're headed toward Rach. Look, look there--you'll see her stop the ball."

I could see myself turning left instead of right after the game, following the winding road to where you are now. In my heart, I would throw myself across your grave, face down in the spiky grass, tracing your name and date on the bronze plate with my disconnected fingers. People watching would have seen a woman sitting on a concrete bench; perhaps she would have covered her face with her hands. Instead, I turned right onto McKnight Road, so I would be on time to meet the bus.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Letting Go

I am perched on a black faux leather stool in the middle of Sephora, feeling rather conspicuous as a flawlessly sponged and lined face asks me questions.

"Where is your daughter going to school?" she asks as she brushes on a thick layer of Dior foundation. I have asked for something to help my old skin look younger. "Yes, yes...you want something to make you look dewey," she says.

Dewey would be miraculous at 52, but I would settle for something that would masque the tiredness in my face. "She's going to California," I tell her. "To the University of California at Davis."

"To California, California?" she asks as the brush stabs foundation into the side of my nose.

I have answered this question hundreds of times since last fall when my daughter signed the NCAA Division 1 intent papers. "Yes, near Sacramento."

"Ohhhhh, that's so far," she coos. I hope the foundation is doing its job.

"Yes, it is far," I answer roboticly, as I've answered nearly everyone who has heard she is going to UC Davis. "But, it's been her dream to play Division 1 lacrosse. How could I keep her from her dream?"

I look up at my daughter, wandering freshfaced through the aisles of liners, bronzers, and concealers. She carries a round mesh basket, into which she drops various colored pencils, tubes, and boxes. We have been shopping for weeks, buying room decor, clothes, school supplies, books.

Winding her way back to me, she glances with a bit of alarm at my face, which has now been brushed with powder, blush, and a mash of bronze beads.

"What do you think?"

"I like the way you usually do your makeup, Mom," she says, "but this looks nice."

In the mirror I see that the dewey look involves emphasizing the fine lines around my lips and nose. My personal makeup stylist tells me, "We can change anything you don't like."

If only that were so. I buy the expensive foundation and concealer, putting back the dry powders that gathered in the creases of my face.

We purchase my daughter's pencils, tubes, and boxes, and we will add them to the evergrowing pile on the floor of her room, a pile that is a hedge against the day I fly home from California. She is collecting all she might need in any scenario, wrapping these new things around her as an insulation from the certain loneliness she will feel when she wakes to find herself only one instead of being one of six. In the packing, can I slip some of who we are together between the layers of sleep shorts and bathing suits? Can I leave something there for her to find, to hold onto until she gets her California legs, until the new becomes more real than the old?

I catch our reflection in Sephora's window as we leave, shoulder to shoulder, close enough to distance the coming separation. Even in the blurry mirror image, the Dior foundation lays heavily on my skin.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Recurring Nightmares

The first year of teaching, the nightmare was the worst, and I woke with a heart-thumping, cold-sweat start. The dreams have continued at the start of each new semester, but now they no longer end my sleep. We're used to each other by now.

On the night before classes start, the dream goes like this. I'm wandering through Antonian Hall on Carlow University's campus (the location never changes even though I've taught other places). It's an evening class, and I enter in a panic from the street level, bolting up four cement steps, turning right down a long hall of classrooms. Darkened hallways make me wonder if I've gotten the date wrong. The doors are heavy wood with small deeply-colored stained-glass inserts that muddle my view inside.

I know that I'm late. What I don't know is what classroom I'm scheduled into--and so I begin a frantic check of each classroom. How long will the students wait? The rooms in Antonian Hall are quite large--partially separated by an acordion-pleated room divider, and as I open the door, the room at first looks empty. No class here. Then, I hear what might be a voice, and I peer into the back corner of the room. There is someone here! I enter, and I see a gathering of people I have long loved. Some have been dead for years. All have been lost to me, people I may never have the opportunity to see again. My brother is seated in one of the old desk chairs, smiling--with his pipe clenched between his upturned lips, waving me in.

Caught between two worlds, I hold up my finger---stay, just a minute. Wait for me, I plead, and I run down the hall to find my class. All the time I am thinking, how could I leave him? But my responsibilities call me forward, and I tear from classroom to classroom finding no one. When I realize that the students must have grown tired of waiting, I run back to the first classroom, which is, of course, empty.

What might we have said to each other, my brother and I? How fine would it have been to lay my head once again on my father's warm shoulder? As much as I would play Daniel Webster to see them again, the dream never changes. I hold up my finger--stay just a minute. Wait for me.

I'm sure my nightmare is born only of presemester apprehension. New faces line the rows bringing with them challenges and expectations. Can I win them over? Will I be able to lead them to love what I love? Will I be enough?

I wonder if tonight my mother will be sitting in the classroom waiting for me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Learning to Pray

I was nearly 50 before I really learned how to pray. It was a raw spring day, and I had the day off from work. Sunk into black misery over a million wrong turns in my life, I still wore pajamas at nearly 1:00 p.m. My hair stuck out in a tangled poof, and I had been sitting for hours in the oversized suede chair in my family room staring mindlessly at daytime television. I think I dozed through Good Morning America, and then sat numbly through Regis and Kelly, Rachel Ray, The View, and the local news. Nothing registered except for the laugh track.

Finally tired of sitting, I lumbered over to the coffee pot, thinking a dose of caffeine might get me moving before my family began arriving home, one by one. The coffee pot was off, having stopped heating hours ago. I poured the cold coffee into a carefully chosen cup--today, the Pawley's Island mug--hoping for a quick mental dip in the warm, crytalline ocean. Slipping the mug into the microwave, I turned to look out the window. The weathered deck wood looked gray and bleak without the summer deck plants and furniture. It looked like I felt.

Closing my eyes with a sigh, I waited for the beep signaling that my coffee was ready. At the sound, I opened my eyes, and there on my windowsill sat a fiery red cardinal. The contrast between the colorless deck and the magnificent bird made my heart race. The bird didn't seem to be in a hurry, and I studied the point of his beak, the crest on his head, the fragile black feet, the patterned red feathers. "Nature's gift to me," I thought.

My mood lifted, those red wings bringing me a fluttering of hope. Might it be the small things that count the most? If I held tightly to those things, might I find my peace?

And so I started to say little thank-you prayers. Thank you for the startling beauty of the red cardinal on my gray deck. Thank you for the opportunity to teach the beauty of the written word. Thank you for the speed and grace with which my daughters cross the field. Thank you for the marshmallow roasted crusty black and oozing white cream.

Those moments of gratitude buoyed me, comforted me, changed me. When I look beyond the small things and get lost in the large void of "what if's," I reel myself back in by thinking of that random visitor to my windowsill. Then I start over. And so tonight I say, thank you for the ripe tomatoes eaten with fresh mozarella cheese and basil from my garden. Thank you for the corn from our farmer friends' fields, tiny full kernels popping with sweetness. Thank you for the black-nosed dog who lays his two paws across my son's legs. Thank you for the man who has loved me wholly everyday since I was sixteen. Thank you for the pile of unread books waiting for me by the side of my bed. Thank you for the dance of the fireflies I've watched on my nighttime hillside all summer long.

Thank you for listening.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Joke of the Day

In a conversation today about boys, I asked my 16-year-old daughter if she knew the main reason I decided to go out with her father when we were in high school.

"Because you felt sorry for him?" she asked.

My sides still hurt!

Grocery Store Violence

Both of these incidents happened in the same week about ten years ago.

I swear.

The first happened in the produce aisle of a Shop 'N Save. When I looked up from examining some lovely red grapes, I saw a woman grab a head of iceburg lettuce. This head was large, solid, and unwrapped. What happened next, I still see in slow motion. The woman stood up straight, squared her shoulders, raised her arm, and tossed the iceburg as hard as she could--at another woman's head. The second woman's head snapped back a bit, and she began to sob. To this day, I don't know if they knew each other, but there was something in my intuitive replay of the events that signaled they were strangers. Pandemonium broke loose in the aisle, and I hurried away with the bag of sweet grapes in my cart. I still think about those two women, and what really happened there. I couldn't make any sense of it then. Was the lettuce thrower mentally imbalanced? Did she have a grudge against the other woman? Was there a man involved? Or did she just snap under the pressure of traffic, checkout lines, snarling faces, and overdue bills?Over the past ten years, I've recounted this story to my writing students--those who complain, "there's nothing to write about." Open your eyes, I tell them. You might see something like I saw at the Shop 'N Save.

Later that week, I was back in the same store. (What can you do when you have four kids?) This time I stood fretting in the checkout line. I was late to drop off or pick up--or both. My line of vision took in the automatic doors. People streamed in and out, while I stood still (unless you call tapping my foot moving). A man in his thirties bounded in, grabbed a cart, and started off in a sprint toward the produce. In his hurry, he clipped a little girl--a pig-tailed toddler--who had strayed out a bit from her father's side as he paid at the register. The hit on her shoulder knocked her to the ground, and her high scream refocused her father's attention. His fists moved almost faster than his feet as he cold-cocked the cart racer. "Son-of-a-bitch," he growled. "Watch where you are going!"

I pocketed these two incidents, thinking they should be filed together under Shop 'N Save, but there was something more there, a nagging association of more importance than random grocery store violence.

Today, I stood in line at the Giant Eagle, and my cashier made the association for me. Not that she said a word to me. My cart contained a 30-pound bag of dog food, which I dragged onto the conveyor belt. Usually, my husband buys the dog food since he's worked much harder at maintaining his upper body strength than I have. And usually, he holds the heavy bag over the scanner for the cashier and then loads it into the cart. I figured getting it onto the belt was good enough. After all, if the store offers 30-pound bags of dog food, the management must expect the cashiers to finish the sale.

I was wrong. The cashier, an older woman, narrowed her eyes at me with what I innocently mistook as distress at her own inability to lift the bag. Instead, it appeared that she was disgusted with me for bringing something large to her register. "Can I help you scan it?" I asked.
"Can I turn it?"

"Can I help you?"

There was no verbal answer, but, oh my dear, she said plenty. She continued to glare at me while she ignored my questions. My face grew hot. As a customer, I had offended her with my lack of purchasing sensitivity. My instinct was to direct my discomfort back at her--"IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH MY PURCHASE?" But, instead, I swallowed hard and handed her a check.

This wasn't my first grocery-store offense, for which I merited the stare, the glare, or the big, heaving sigh. I've towed two overflowing carts (more than once) to the checkout counter, which seems to be immensely more effort for the cashier than checking out two back-to-back customers. My deli order has often exceeded more than two items--that must be sliced to order! I've also needed to pass by someone whose cart is parked sideways in the aisle. Worst of all, I've dared to say "hello" to someone whose eye I've caught. I fear I am not a politically correct grocery store patron.

So, ten years after the Shop 'N Save episodes, I think I understand. A lobbed head of iceburg, a cart accident, a man thrown to the floor all seemed to be random violence. I think now that it was a perculating undercurrent of anger and disassociation growing in our American society. Of course it would surface in a grocery store, a place where we all gather regularly to meet one of our most common basic needs, but where we really don't connect. As a people, we face each other with a steely set jaw, fencing each other with our carts. If we smile and say "excuse me" in an accidental near miss while looking for cereal, there is no smile in return. Do not expect to hear "excuse me," "thank you," or "you're welcome." Instead, expect lettuce leaves on the produce aisle floor.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


How is it that we've come to this? Angry, venonmous voices snake across the table, searching for a soft target. Snide "hmm's" and "sure's" poke at conversation attempts. Dark moods set in to match the bullying tones, and I look at my children, my family in confusion.

Do I encourage this? Does my demeanor feed this frenzy, this wild ride of the whip at my dinner table? I close my eyes and picture the four of them younger, fresh from their baths. Two of their heads of hair are wet springy ringlets; two others peek out from behind bangs plastered to their small faces. We always read then, each child carefully selecting a stack of favorite books. Did they sense my tiredness as I thumbed through their towering piles of what we called "the long books"? Did they misinterpret my physical exhaustion as lack of interest? Sometimes we all climbed into my bed, and I would read from Hatchet or Holes or Harry Potter until the littler two fell asleep. I felt so confident then, tucking each pajamaed child into bed. Kissing foreheads and tiptoeing backwards out of the door, I was strong in my motherhood. There had been measureable progress. I had loved them well, nuzzling their damp faces, inhaling their sweet breath, moving us forward to another day of just us.

It wasn't enough. I know that now. The knowledge is ugly, twisting around my heart with a viscious squeeze. I must have missed something along the way. Some task, some link, some act of love was forgotten--lost, dropped, split in two. Now hateful words sting me. I watch, feeling myself grow smaller inside. I am there, yet I am not. I am so painfully present, but I am distant...falling, falling, falling deep inside myself. I have failed them. When was the moment we lost other? Did I let go first? The nightly string of words, once soothing, is jumbled now.