Monday, November 28, 2011


I Am Losing My Bloom.

Not of youth. That patina was rubbed off several years ago, not by a specific number of accumulated years but by my children, who are determined to make permanent the hint of red in the whites of my eyes.

No. My current loss of bloom concerns writing. The voices in my head are getting quieter and quieter because I listen to them so rarely. They are annoyed with me. They've almost given up. They whispered the other day, in the car, “Yes, we were concerned at the lack of specificity in the cartographer's directions. Most of were concerned. Those of us who spent our time looking down at the ground were concerned, but those of us who more often looked up at the trees felt no worry.” I know, it's not much, but it was mine and it was singing until... someone asked if we could get pizza for dinner. And then someone else asked for cd 2, song 4, which happened to be that mining song by the Decemberists that I really loved until we played it for the 459th time – two months ago.

My purse used to be littered with scraps of paper. Important scraps of paper with ideas written on them. Now my purse is just littered. On my computer I used to have several documents open and active and each one would be visited every day and added to a little bit. I still have several documents open in various stages of completion; some of them bordering on late, most of them bordering on boring.

Is this a phase? Does everyone go through a time in their lives when they fail to work at what they love the most? And how does one end the phase? I've tried booze, I've tried Mozart, I've tried candlelit tubs. It's no use.

Patience, I suppose. Patience and distraction. I try hard not to look too closely at the problem, and that's pretty easy since life is full of peanut butter jelly sandwiches, shirts on backwards, those bills that come every month, salted caramels and earaches. Maybe the voices will return full strength in the spring. Which is tough, since, despite the snow on the ground, it isn't even winter yet.

Maybe I just have to listen more closely. Shhhhh.....

It used to be that there were more lazy sundays, those special do-nothing days of the Calvin and Hobbes variety. The apartment and the surroundings may have changed—not to mention the addition of children and pets--but the music has remained the same. Once upon a time Sinatra was the soundtrack to our sundays. Sometimes there was Ella or Hartman, sometimes Baker or Etta, but the sounds from the stereo always went down like a smooth drink that warmed or cooled depending on the weather. Now that it's November the days are looking a bit grey and we're starting to gear up for the beginning of the holiday season. In the face of the chaos that is to come, our teenager spent the afternoon at a friend’s and the grown-ups took the day off.

Blossom Dearie was the clear choice today. She's one of my favorites, I think I feel a connection to those big glasses she's wearing on the cover of the CD. I love her easy, carefree lyrics, which are the perfect upbeat accompaniment to waffle-making, knitting and hand holding. As much as I wanted to cross off all of the items on my mammoth to-do list, I resisted. Still, it seemed to be sitting there, mocking me, growing and expanding every time I turned my eyes away. It haunts me. Yet I wonder, when will I learn that you can only push so far before you break and snap?

M is often after me to take it easy; to rest, relax, enjoy. And I try, I really do. Every time I manage to slough off that ten-ton bit of baggage I've been carrying, I am amazed at how much I enjoy myself and I begin to love life again. I had this idea recently that maybe, just maybe “growing” isn't enough. Could it be that we need more than the basics: food, water and shelter? How much do we need to feel a connection, to be with someone that we can just be ourselves, our ugly selves if need be, to really thrive? Maybe being in a relationship of any kind that is honest and sincere is where we start to show our true selves--our best selves—which allows us to blossom and shine. Given those connections and that intimacy, what we produce and are capable of creating can be heartbreakingly beautiful. I think of those sunflowers I admired this summer and how they would turn their heads toward the sky and just drink it all in. I know (though that knowledge may be buried somewhere deep inside me) that a decent rest can rejuvenate you just the same. “Go, go, go!” doesn’t always have to be the mantra.

Unfortunately we won't see the sun much for the next few months, the days are getting shorter. Much to my dismay I find that my energy runs out so much faster at this time of year. In the summer it often feels like I can go on forever. Now words like “dormant” and “hibernation” trip off the tongue. Really those are just a way of describing a longer rest, cause in the scheme of things Spring is only a season away. We just have to get through the snow that will inevitably bury us several times over this Winter. I don't mind the snow, it's the sun I miss most. On those days when I feel depleted, M will remind me of all we have to look forward to come Spring and how we'll rejoice when we finally see the leaves budding on the trees. He'll also remind me how much I love being cosy in these snow-covered months, and that it really is the best time to knit, curl up with a good book; and that icicles, snowmen and hot cocoa will begin to make their long awaited appearances. As much as I fuss, I can't begin to imagine a year without them.

No matter the time of day, the time of year, or how he's feeling, M never fails to perk me up when I need it most. He supports those crazy out-of-this-world goals and dreams of mine. When I whisper ever so faintly how much I love baking and taking photographs he is the one who hears the quiet longing of my heart. And when I (finally) get up the courage to make those passions a bigger part of my life I know he'll be there with open arms to clap for me or pick me up when I fall.

In the words of our gal Blossom, “I'm glad that I'm the one who found you. That's why I'm always hangin' round you. Do I love you? Oh my, do I. Honey, indeed I do.”

Next Week's Final Word: Afraid

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


November is many things, chief among them grey, desolate and often the calm before the chaotic holiday festivities. It is also known to others as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. A few years ago my sister-in-law mentioned to me that she might like to try it. Last year I signed up online, mostly for the pep talks, which come once a week from a variety of authors. Even though I didn't really write any fiction last year--that thesis seemed to suck up all my energy like a high-powered vacuum cleaner--I did enjoy getting an “I know you can do it” message in my inbox each week. This year I signed up without any reservations or hesitations. At this point my word count is still meager, but I have created characters that seem to be living with me. It's like I bump into them occasionally while I'm on my way to something else. Through these little interactions I'm always surprised to find out what sort of breakfast cereal Mattie prefers or what bedtime rituals help Jamie drift off to sleep. Still no matter how many words I actually accrue towards a finished novel, for me it's all about the pep talks.   (Erin Morgenstern thinks that “pep” sounds like a dog nickname, and encourages you to think of her inspirational note as a small dog full of spirit or energy. Gotta love that imagery.)

This year the NaNoWriMo website has an agony aunt, Maureen Johnson, in all her irreverent irrepressible glory.  Every day she responds to a question a struggling writer has submitted. The results are very unexpected but always right on target. As much as I find some wisdom in her answers, I highly enjoy the pictures she includes from old black and white films that feature the Marx Brothers, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart. In one of her very first letters she made reference to a cheese wheel race down a very steep hill every held Spring Bank Holiday in Gloucester, England. The analogy being that this month in which one tries to write a whole novel is all about giving in, letting go and rolling with the words wherever they take you. It's not about editing, critiquing or refining; it's about writing that rough draft no matter how bad it may be.

One of the ways I foster my creative energy (and conveniently procrastinate) is to read most everything I can lay my hands on. Right now it's “Bluefish” by Pat Schmatz. Skimming the blurb on the back of the book I was instantly drawn to Velveeta. It is a name she wears with as much style as the colorful scarves she adorns everyday--each one different to suit her mood. Her real name is Vida, but she was given nickname by a classmate in second grade. Much to her dismay, she is also known as Cheap Cheese. This being a YA novel, the moniker seems obvious, but Velveeta manages to ignore it, her dysfunctional family and most everyone around her. She finds herself drawn to Travis, a boy with issues of his own. And then there is Mr. McQueen, a teacher who helps his students discover their true potential. He does it in such a sincere way (or as Velveeta calls it: all Stand and Deliverish) that I wish I could channel him in my class. As far as I’m concerned, any book that offers up “The Book Thief” and “One Fish Two Fish” as important influences is pure genius.

I am more than enchanted and excited by both of these characters and the author as well. It's like by reading her words, Schmatz has given me some highly-caffeinated, super-sugared drink that's enabled me with super powers. I can't get to the keyboard fast enough. Yet I can only maintain the buzz for so long. I find in that in the quiet moments it's the poetry of Mary Oliver makes me want to be a better writer. She instills in me this sense of wanting to put down word after word after word just to see what they look like floating next to each other in a sea of paper and ink. .

If this were somehow possible, I imagine that they (characters, authors and poet) are all on the path up ahead of me, beckoning me forward. I don't know where they are leading me, try as I might I can't see past them. Will it be a clearing, a flower-filled meadow, sandy beach or steep hill? Be it the latter, I should do up my laces, and get ready to run. Auntie MJ, I think I'm ready for those trips, stumbles and ridiculous speed you mentioned. Heck, I don't even care if I win the cheese, I'm just happy to be in the race.

Context is everything.

For the past few days I have been able to remember, very faintly, the smell of the carpet in my parents' living room.  Not the living room carpet they have now, which is red.  I think.  I have no head for details.  But the carpet currently haunting me was beige and fairly unblemished by exposure to ancient dogs.  It did not reach the walls all the way around but was framed by bare pine boards run through with squiggly dark lines that I used to suspect were secret codes implanted by a child who'd lived there before me.  The rug's weave was scratchy against my elbows.  That floor, that rug, was where I read most of the Little House books.

And when I snuggled on the couch last Friday night with T, L, B and friend D, and read to them about how to slaughter a pig and make head cheese, that rug came back like it had been lying in wait around the next bend of brain.

This happens more and more often as T reads the books I once read, sometimes the same worn copy.  He zipped through retro Gordon Korman and I found myself in a sleeping bag on a friend's floor with MTV blaring from the television on the dresser.  He read A Wrinkle In Time and boom, my mouth was filled with sharp rock candy.  It's not just kids' books - whenever I reread The Stone Diaries I taste roast beef half subs on white with oil, vinegar, and rosemary, my standard lunch during my last year of college.  Rosemary for remembrance. 

I wonder what attracted to me to those Little House books, which turn out to be a long list of instructions that could have been titled "Frontier Living For Dummies."  But T loves it.  Which is strange, since he's the one who spends months October to May wrapped in a quilt.  He's the one who avoids the outside if he hears the whine of any type of insect.  But there he sits, reading about cutting ice from frozen lakes and escaping beatings from the schoolmaster.

I wonder what he'll mentally associate with these books when he's older.  Maybe the smell of a dying fire.  Maybe the taste of eggnog of which we are all allowed one glass a day during this delightful season (some of us add spiced rum and moan like Homer Simpson).  Maybe he'll remember me, something about me.  I'd like to be remembered as all-knowing and benevolent, but most likely my voice will sound a tad, ahem, whiny in retrospect.  Probably it sounds like that now.

But we have little control over what our kids will remember about us.  Mine might remember laughing about head cheese as we sat cozy on the couch in late evening light.

Next Week's Penultimate Word: Blossom

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


One morning last week L asked me "Do you want to hear this song I made up?"

No.  I did not want to hear the song he'd made up.  I wanted to feed dogs, walk dogs, feed horses, feed children, drink more coffee, make lunches, shower, brush my teeth, sign T's reading log.  My morning had no room for made up songs sung in high, squeaky voices.

"I'd love to, sweetie."

And so he began.  This was no ordinary song.  This song had props: shiny slivers of colored stones held up against the morning windows of our front door and crowned in the sunlight: kings of earth, sea, wind and air.  I'm not sure why he called them kings.  I'd record the lyrics if I could remember them, but only the theme has survived my my beleaguered brain.  L carried those stones, his kings, with him for several days - to school, to a cub scout meeting, to bed.  A few times I caught him holding them one by one up to whatever light source was available, sometimes humming under his breath.  Those stones, for at least a week, were something magic to him.  I miss that, about being young.  The ability to know for sure that magic exists.

Of course, today was overcast.  We tried to recreate the light-and-stones show for a picture, but the inside of our house was uncooperative and the outside just as bad.  After a few dismal tries L and I headed for a flag burning ceremony.  I was a bit shocked when the e-invite to the flag burning came from the cub scout leader, who never seemed the type to take that sort of action, but M explained this is what you do with a tattered flag - burn it.  Not bury it, not shove it in the trash can.  And apparently you can't cut it into squares to use as hankies, like we do with old cloth diapers.  No, flags have to be honored with fire.  The stripes are cut apart and burned individually; the square with the stars goes last; it's all very solemn and...cold.  At least today was cold.  And really there was nothing about kings on that patch of grass next town over; it was all about the opposite, the democracy we find ourselves trying to uphold with occupations both foreign and domestic, but the ceremony was royalesque, and L, standing at attention a few times visibly trying not to shiver, looked princely.

My princes of New Hampshire, my kings of New England.  Keep reminding me of magic.

After several weeks of rehearsals, T's play was performed this past weekend to several sold-out shows. My son is usually the one to be on stage, but this time he found himself working behind the scenes. As part of the tech crew he moved props and made sure everything on the stage was where it needed to be. He also stepped in to rehearse lines when different members of the cast were unable to make a practice or two. As a result there were many lines from the play being bandied about at home. One in particular was my very favorite, and was often quoted to me whenever I stood in the kitchen with mixing bowls and oats at the ready.

When I actually got to experience the performance I found that I knew much of the dialogue and was familiar with several of the songs. Still, I kept waiting for my line. Finally we came to a part where the old and new toys are facing off against each other. Mr. Potato Head confesses that the only reason he's still around and not in the recycling bin is that some mommies don't believe in letting their kids play with video games. Queen Frostine chimes in with her affirmation, “I have met those moms. They live in a magical Kingdom called Vermont and they make their own granola.”

If I were to be a king I would wish for something as beautiful as Vermont the woods and hills as far as the eye can see. I know that I am truly lucky to live here and at the end of each day before I close my eyes I often hear a familiar refrain (albeit in a voice reminiscent of Michael Caine.) “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England. Then I start what has become for me a nightly Cider House Rules ritual. Which begins by me silently saying “ Let us be happy for...” and like a prayer I go through in my mind all of the things I am grateful for. And in this way my days come to a comforting close.

Yet overall endings to most anything make me weepy and tearful, I'm rarely ready to let any experience go. The end of this weekend's play was no exception. Throughout each scene the queen is insistent that her one wish will be granted and it will finally snow inside the toy store. As the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the audience, the first flakes started to fall and it truly was magical. In a clear quiet voice she began to sing, “And when it snows. It is how I know. I am home.” Tears came to my eyes as I felt a recognition and deep connection to those same thoughts. This is my home and it truly as beautiful as a dear friend reminded me in the midst of my feeling sad this week. My one wish would be that everyone should have a place like this to feel at home. A house, a fortress, perhaps a castle--or my fondest desire: a turret-- where they can live, reign and love as they so choose.

Next Week's Word: Cheese

Just three more left, hard to believe.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Looking back over this week, a flood of inconveniences wash over me: the overflowing toilets, the lack of sleep, and the walnuts that were toasted beyond recognition. Then there was the alternator in my car that gave up the ghost. I really couldn’t blame it, weeks like this make me want to throw in the towel too.

Having only one car threw a real wrench into my weekend plans. I had a commitment on Saturday and needed a way to get there. The only solution was to wake up at the crack of dawn and take M to work. As we stepped outside the stars were at their brightest, surprising me with their beauty. Who knew the sky could be so intense before the day breaks? We drove down the hushed streets of town without seeing a soul. Most likely they were still asleep, enjoying a slow start to a day off from work. After dropping M off at the store, I headed back to the house; turning up the radio to keep awake but not really listening. As I drove out of town a fox crossed my path, breaking me out of my thoughts.

When I got home I fed the dogs who were eagerly awaiting breakfast and snuck back into bed. I picked up a Maureen Johnson book and tucked under the covers. A few pages in and there it was, a description of a fox wandering early in the morning. And then another mention a few pages later. An artist had tattooed the names of her foxes on her feet. Instantly I felt a connection and the book became electric in my hands.

Then it was time for me to get up, get ready and head out on my way. The drive up to school gave me an opportunity to think about all that’s happened these past few months. The question I keep coming back to is this: Why is it just when I think I’ve reached the bottom does the rug suddenly get pulled out from beneath me?  It makes it so hard to get my footing, and almost impossible to take that first step

We live in a nice house in a lovely small town, but we certainly don’t live on Easy Street-- though I think about moving there. When I do, I hear that song in my head from the Annie musical. Which always reminds me of that redhead’s introduction to the mansion and everyone who works there. What would it be like to have someone draw my bath, lay out my clothes and give me tennis lessons? It might be fun-- even thrilling--at first, but overall it sounds boring to me, never having a chance to do things for yourself. I am nothing if not a DIY gal.

Given everything that’s happened to our family recently, I’ve realized that it comes down to a choice. I can be broken or broken open. That’s the one true thing that I keep coming back to again and again. Rather than be deluged by thoughts of inconveniences, hardships and mishaps I’m choosing to look beyond. I think of the stars, the fox and the warmth of sneaking back into bed with a book. Too bad those people on Easy Street slept in and missed it all.

We live on a road.  I don't think I've ever lived on a street.  Streets offer neighbors, hot dog vendors, sidewalks, parades.  If you live on Mulberry street you might catch a glimpse of elephants, pashas, bands and men with long beards.  Our road is dirt and quiet.  Sometimes dusty.  Today I met a man with the same last name as our road.  That's what happens when your neighborhood is both large and small.  When the dirt you walk upon is old as...dirt.  My dogs and I generally rush through our morning walk these days; the air is frigid already and there are small people to deliver to various spots.  But the road is very patient.  It waits for weekend days when time is somehow longer and stretchy.  Our road has never hosted a parade beyond our line of boys and four-legged friends, except when the road needs grading.  Then we sit on our porch and pay close attention.  We wave.  We might cheer.  And we feel less alone in the world populated by large growling machines.

Next week's word: King

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I tasted my first margarita in a dimly lit dive in Amherst, Mass.  The usual story.  A lazy winter afternoon.  Two friends, now faceless in memory, did not have to work hard to convince me to skip my women's studies class for a more productive lunch of burritos and margaritas. I was a beer girl back then, beer or screwtop wine, and their margaritas seemed excessive in huge bowl glasses with lime adornments and salty rims, as bad as those plaid elbow patches affected by certain English majors. But one sip and I was reborn.  My feet ceased their cold ache.  My nose quit drizzling.  My worries about essays, that pesky graduate thesis, rent payments, a far-away boyfriend - all hushed while I embarked on a brief yet potent tropical vacation.  And then those friends ordered guacamole, another first for me, and I might have married either one of them that moment if they'd thought to ask.  Never mind the far-away boyfriend whose heart may or may not have been broken by my sudden elopement.

I had a margarita last Saturday night while dressed as a witch and accompanied by a ghost, a geek, a German beer wench, a driver and a zebra.  And though the wind cackled and battered the window panes and my feet were damp in their high-heel boots from the short trek up the storm-struck hill, that cool margarita made me warm.  As did the friends around the table in various stages of giddiness.  I usually leave Halloween for the kids and dip into their candy bags as if they were my own but this year we shucked our true selves and went out dancing, drinking and laughing.  Another margarita, waiter. No worries about the faces of these friends turning ghostly with time.

Dear P,

We only met once and perhaps it seems an odd thing to write now, yet something told me I should. I always wished that we had had more of a chance to get to know each other, but for some reason it wasn’t meant to be. I tell myself that it’s not as if you’re completely gone, your legacy lives on in your children and grandchildren. This November marks the seventeenth anniversary of your death. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you. This time of year I am reminded of it was like to be a stranger amongst your family. Trying to comfort them for their loss, all the while trying to make that Thanksgiving seem as normal as possible. I’ve always wanted to thank you for all that you’ve done, and this week just seemed like a good time to put down these thoughts.

I’m sorry that you didn’t live to see your son become a father. He’s done such a wonderful job, you would be oh so pleased and proud. Hard to fathom how quickly it happened, but your grandson is a teenager now. He’s very tall, though you probably expected that. I would describe him as witty and talented, with his own unique sense of style. He seems so confident and comfortable in his own skin. I
sometimes imagine the two of you having a chat over tea and scones, I’m certain you both would enjoy each other’s company. You would smile at his wry sense of humor. Raising him as an only child, especially one without grandparents, has presented its own set of challenges. When I think about you raising six children I am in awe. I often consider what it must have been like when your family sat down to dinner at the very same table that now resides in our kitchen. I think about you using the blue and white canisters we inherited as you baked something special or put together yet another meal. Perhaps once you got sick you wished for the routine of everyday life. Hoping to roll out a pie crust or sprinkle the salt onto some freshly baked Parker House rolls.

Those rolls are some of my favorites. Who can resist that soft, pillowy dough? The kiss and bite of the crystals, ensuring you will reach for another. You can never eat just one. Did you know that your son is an amazing cook and a talented baker, making us dinner each and every night. His willingness to try and replicate any meal I discover in a magazine or online is one of the reasons I absolutely adore him. He’s thoughtful, kind and caring. I know it’s due to your influence that he became the loving husband and father that he is today.

Thank you for all that you’ve given us. If I had my way we would have had more time to talk and chat, for you to give me advice about being a wife and a mother. I often revisit the one afternoon we had
together. You brought out your quilts to show me, as I was what you called “a captive audience.” Many years after our meeting we still have some of your smaller quilts hanging on our walls. Everyday I am
reminded of your artistry and dedication. Someday these will be passed along to children and great grandchildren, along with canisters, furniture and other memorabilia. It’s the stories though that I hope to preserve and pass down. In this way we keep your memory alive for generations to come. Thank you for all that you accomplished as a wife and mother and for helping to give my little family a strong
foundation on which to grow, shape, structure and grace.

Love always,
Your daughter-in-law


Next Word: Street