Saturday, January 29, 2011


From Tom McNeal’s soon-to-be-published novel, “When Deena raised her head into the dappled sunlight to take the band off her ponytail and shake out her red hair, Judith said, ‘Your hair in that light looks like something someone should paint. Doesn’t she Willy, Doesn’t she look like she should be painted?’ Willy regards Deena and replies ‘Problem is, I can’t paint a lick. If I painted her it wouldn’t come out pretty at all. What you really need is somebody who’d do her justice.’”

I’ve never had my portrait painted, I couldn’t imagine sitting still that long and having someone study me so intensely. I can’t even bear to have my picture taken. When I have looked at the results in the past, I instantly recognized that the camera got it all wrong, I’m certain I look nothing like that. So instead I hide behind the camera capturing images, and sometimes people. T has started remarking on this behavior, trying to convince me that he will need to have my pictures for some unspecified time in the future when his memory starts to fade and he can no longer remember my face. But so far I’ve not been swayed. I just don’t feel that the camera does me justice, it can’t capture my essence and so the images I see are dull and flat and ugly. Those pictures are nothing I’d ever want to preserve.

Lately I’m starting to wonder if I’m living my life to the fullest, doing justice to the two arms, legs, brain and heart that I have been given. Often times I wake up in the morning and dread the day before me. I worry that when I’m older, my hair no longer shining in the dappled light, I will look back upon my life and not feel as if I’ve made a difference somehow. As if all of those years recommending books to children hadn’t mattered at all. I’m hoping this is going to change, this will be the year that breaks wide open. I have two major milestones coming in the next few months. Reaching them is starting to feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and I finally have a sense of clarity of what lies below, the direction my life is going to be taking. Maybe they are big changes, like packing everything up and moving to another country in order to help serve a community of people in need. Or maybe I’ll start smaller, trying to slow down and each day to live it to the fullest; leaving my desk for a bit of exercise or finding my way—occasionally—in front of the camera.

Growing up as an only child meant I was rarely challenged over what was fair, right, or just. One cookie left in the package? Mine. Never any argument about whose turn it was in the front seat of the car. I had sole responsibility at choosing the television show. And I never had to share a lap, a toy, a room, or attention, except with the dog. Now I watch three kids navigate the tricky landscape of siblinghood and wonder how anyone without brothers and sisters manages to establish a decent level of respect for the world around her. My boys hold regular tribunals to determine guilt and punishment; they set and sometimes even honor various boundaries; they battle over rights, ideas, perceived trespasses. On Christmas Eve T moved out of Boys' Room and into his own room and while the relationship between him and his next-in-age brother has improved in terms of the frequency of brotherly beatings, I think they've sacrificed a bit of closeness. No more whispered arguments after lights out; when one wakes up scared in the small hours there's no separate breath to reassure. I'm sad that this stage is over, that they have grown up that much more. But still, daytime is filled with regular fraternal explosions, both verbal and physical. They hold each other to the highest standards of justice like nobody else ever will again. And then, sometimes, they share a moment or two of ice cream, like any other friends.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I'm not a fan of crust. I even used to eat my pizza slices backwards to get the crust over with until I caught people watching me in college and I hate people watching me even more than I hate crust. So I flipped my pizza back around. And now I either give the pizza crust to the dogs or the chickens (this is one of my favorite things about being a grownup, eating basically what I want. Amazingly, I often want spinach.) But Italian bread, French baguettes, crusty rolls - clue me in, what's so great about a hard shell? M knows my discontent of crust. That became clear last weekend at the local pub when we escaped the children in a rare moment of alignment (visiting grandparents, awakedness, and nobody was vomiting). I browsed the drinks menu, trying to decide between wine and gin (I know! The pressure!) while M performed small miracles with the bread basket. "Here, I turned this one inside out for you," he said, and presented me with the steamy guts of a dinner roll. When you are small and dressed in pink, marriage is a fairy castle encased in swirls of magical mist where you and your prince eat ice cream all day long and sing duets with sticky lips. When you are grown up and dressed in corduroys and a heavy brown sweater, marriage is someone knowing how you like your bread. By the way, I chose gin AND wine. And, later, coffee.

There's bread for toasting, bread for grilling and bread for paninis (Red Hen's “Cyrus Pringle” is our favorite). There's crusty bread that you tear off with your hands because you can't be bothered to find a proper cutting implement--in some ways it just tastes better, even without jam or cheese, so flavorful it just melts in your mouth. Then there's the bread slathered in butter and garlic that often accompanies a pasta dinner. The smells coming from the oven as it bakes excite the nose and the taste buds. Whatever remained after dinner we wrapped in foil, put in the fridge, then reheated the next day. But growing boys need something to sop up the littlest bit of sauce at the bottom of the bowl, that rate of growth seems to require every last crumb being consumed. Left overs here are now on the endangered species list.

Then there is the bread that is made more than ninety miles from our house, it is a rare and special treat when we bring Great Harvest home. When we lived in Michigan we often stopped at a certain plaza in Ann Arbor on Saturday mornings. We visited the little animals at the petstore, stopped in for a bit of playtime with the Thomas trains at the White Rabbit toystore and then each of us got a free slice of bread at the Great Harvest before making the agonizing decision over which loaf to bring home. My favorites were: “Red, White and Blue,” a hearty white bread with red and blue berries throughout, and “Chocolate Cherry Bomb,” a name which doesn't quite due justice to the sweet surprises found in each loaf. As M and T made plans to go to Burlington this weekend, I visited the website to swoon over the bread menu and make suggestions for what to bring home. I must admit I started dreaming about it. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, distance often intensifies desire.

Then Friday something happened that dispelled any thoughts I may have had about wanting a round loaf of bread. The day was just about over, when in walked a friend carrying a wrapped rectangular package that seemed like salvation itself. Once a year, and only then, does my friend engage in the act of baking her Eggnog bread. This ritual can only occur when the key ingredient is available and, as such, can only be dreamed about the other twelve months out of the year. Having her bring me one of these loafs was such a special treat that I almost jumped for joy. We no longer work together but manage to see each other a few times out of the year. Getting this bread in January made me feel as if the new year had finally begun. There were no countdowns, dropping balls, fireworks or dragon dances, rather the slicing of a piece, the accompanying cup of tea, savoring each bite, and using your finger to get every last crumb. I am not a growing teenage boy, but I do know that it will be awhile before this bread comes my way again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


M proposed to me in front of our friends' house. It was the end of a lovely late Spring vacation in Vermont and we were just about ready to make the arduous trek back to Pennsylvania. I don't remember his exact words, but what does remain vivid in my memory is the way I closed my eyes to kiss him. My arms were wrapped round him and all I could see was golden sunlight. Afterwards we got into our two-seater, Bronte the dog in back, and drove home to the beginning of everything. To this day if I am sad or depressed, I often close my eyes to try and conjure up that image, that feeling of complete and utter joy.

It would be many years before we would be able to call Vermont home. First there was the attic apartment, which was too small to set up our kitchen table--we never unpacked several (40+) boxes. In Michigan we lived in an apartment complex. One night Toby and I had to evacuate due to the suspected bomber living next door to us. Fortunately M was busy with a bookstore inventory so we spent the night there with him. We finally made it back to Vermont in 2000. This is the third house we've lived in here. After seven years it's been the longest we've ever stayed in one place.

We've painted the walls of our bedroom yellow, in some ways an homage to the event of engagement. (With a name like Sunny Beach it might have been an attempt to recapture some of that old Cape Magic.) It took us several days to tear down the floral wallpaper in order to make-over the room. Each time we opened the can of paint I was reminded of cake batter pouring forth. I know it wouldn't have tasted sweet had I dipped my finger in to taste it, but it sure felt that way when we finally finished and moved the furniture back to its rightful place.

There are two kinds of yellow it seems to me. There is the kind that calls your attention in order to caution or warn: yellow lines dividing the road, SLOW Children at Play signs, or traffic lights. Then there is the brighter type that excites you and propels you forward: school buses, Ticonderoga pencils and boxes of brand new crayons with the tips still intact. It is this color I see before I go to sleep each night, my husband already deep in slumber. My lamp illuminates the walls, surrounding me in warmth. The glow is still with me even after I turn off the light and put my head to the pillow moving towards my dreams.

Winter here is gray. Gray snow, gray trees, gray sky. When we painted the interior of our house eight years ago, after gritting our teeth through six months of construction with the aim of enlarging our house to accommodate one wee baby, we put colors on our walls. Green, blue, lavender, brown - and in the hallway, a decent yellow trimmed with a dusky orange called "burnt pumpkin." There are days I barrel through the hallway, down the stairs, sharp turn on the landing and into the kitchen, usually carrying a load of something (dirty clothes, brimming trash cans, a child or two) and ignore the persistent cheer on the walls. Less frequently come the days I pause and notice the way the sun hits the upstairs corner in a silent explosion of light. If I were a kid in my house I'd spend long hours on the landing reading a book. I'd eat snacks there, drink cocoa, entice a dog to join me. I'd defeat long winter days with time spent surrounded by yellow walls. But I'm not a kid in my house, not usually. There are too few of us here able to light matches and assemble recipes longer than four ingredients, so I have to be one of the grownups. Until I get to be a kid again I have to use different methods of enduring the persistent gray: laughter, cozy books, endless cups of red rose tea, family hugs, the occasional hothouse yellow sunflower on my table. The hallway helps, too.

Monday, January 3, 2011


The week before Christmas our washing machine died. This was not a sudden disaster; I'd been ignoring the warning signs - bangs, moans, high-pitched whistles - for weeks. But on Sunday there arose from the basement a horrendous clunk that could be ignored no longer, especially since M was in the house. Our cozy at-home day in front of the fire (board games, Christmas wrapping jobs, art projects) slipped wistfully away away as M and I looked at each other over the heads of our overly-excited children with a shared premonition of expensive repairs. He dug out his toolbox. I, knowing wrenches as well as I know Cantonese, put on the kettle.

Our friend who lives nearby knows wrenches rather well and offered to help instead of whiling away the playdate hours upstairs with me in the brightly lit kitchen, where spiders know their place and only rarely risk a trip to eye level. Brave woman. She descended into the depths of the house and I, feeling guilty, followed, bearing tea since I knew my fix-it talents would be less than adequate. "Wow," she said. She was NOT looking at our mangled washer. "Nice lamp."

The basement lamp used to reside next to my side of the bed. But nearly nine years ago it was replaced by a baby and since then it's slipped from room to room, demoted for reasons of dimness, aesthetics, and awkward switch placement until two years ago when it ended up in service of a fix-it job in the basement when the overhead fluorescent burned out. And there it stayed. It emits enough light to do laundry by and we never, ever turn it off. My only explanation of the longevity of that bulb is: magic.

Several hours and four cups of tea later the machine was pronounced dead. It lies in various pieces on the basement floor, a mere clunky ghost of the domestic vision it once was. It can be fixed, probably. For anywhere between two and four hundred dollars, plus a bunch of man hours we can either pay for or suffer through on our own. Mostly M's own; see above: Andi, wrenches.

Instead of fixing it we bought a hand washer that sits like a patient puppy in our downstairs bathtub. Almost every day I wash a few loads, spin them in a centrifuge, and lump them into the dryer to get them fluffy. Laundry has become the best part of most days, which means I am deserving of either your envy or your pity. In the summer I'll hang our clothes outside on the line and may go months without visiting the basement; our lamp will burn and burn with no witness. If the bulb does flicker and fail, we may not discover the lack of light until next winter when the snow and ice beat us back to the dryer in search of convenience. By then, perhaps the spiders will have woven a permanent mantle around the lamp, rendering it useless for much else. And there the lamp will stay, in our basement graveyard, with the washer for company.

More than 25 years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I first read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” The moment Lucy entered Narnia and met up with Mr. Tumnus I was hooked. Now when I visit someone and we sit down to tea I think of these characters having a little snack in his suitably furnished cave and wish that real life could be that cozy. After finishing the first book I raced through the others. When I got to “The Magician's Nephew” I was astonished to learn that it was all about the creation of Narnia. The lampost where Lucy and her dear friend the faun met, it was actually created after Queen Janis threw an iron bar at Aslan the Lion. This book chronicled the beginning, when the land was being created. At that time so long ago, anything that got stuck into the ground grew. Amazing. Here it was, the genesis of the world in which I had felt so at home. But I wondered why it came so far into the series. Forever after I chose to put “The Magician's Nephew” first whenever I reread Lewis.

Years later Santa brought T the complete set of the Narnia books in hardcover. It was his first Christmas and though he was only five months old, Santa knew these were a necessity. I was surprised to see that the books had been reordered and that “The Magician's Nephew” was now listed as number 1 and that “Lion” was now number 2. I know many, many diehard fans who insist the other way was what Lewis had intended and as such should not be messed with. I personally find this new order makes more sense. I love to read about How the world was created before meeting up with the Pevensie children. In fact, this book ends with the creation of the very wardrobe Lucy walks through when she discovers Narnia.

In the years since I first discovered this world, I have come to realize that it is the How of anything that matters to me most. Who, What, Where and Why have their place, but it is the creation, the backstory the very construction and context of something that interests me. I was never the type of kid to take things apart, but my dad did. For a time my family lived above an industrial-sized garage where my father would fix cars, but once or twice he took them completely apart. It was this understanding of how the pieces fit together that provided a deeper appreciation of technology. I seem to have inherited this desire to make sense of the world around me. I want to see which pieces fit together, their cause and effect. Once the right construction is achieved and the puzzle reassembled, then all it takes is the flick of a switch. I've found that it's like turning on a light, the glow from understanding illuminates the darkness and confusion.


We wish you the sweetest of dreams come true in the New Year...