Monday, July 25, 2011
I'm more of a winter person than a summer person. I like fires in the fireplace, stew, red wine, a chilly kitchen warmed by the smell of baking bread. I like our bed, warm with two, three, four, sometimes five bodies, an island of cozy in a frigid room where ice creeps up the inside of the window glass. I like snow. I'm ready for spring when it comes, but it's not long into our growing season before I start seeking out signs of fall: well-stacked woodpiles, that tree at the end of the road that starts showing hints of color in its tallest branches earlier than anything else. I know, I know. Live in the moment. Make peace with the present. Gather ye rosebuds...
The boys and I have a summer tradition. We bake cookies - even in soaking wet heat like last week - and eat them lying on a blanket in the yard reading books. The last two years, though, I've noticed that our summer tradition happens more in the winter than summer. We bake cookies while snow or rain falls outside and then eat them lying on a blanket in the living room in front of the fire, reading books and reminding each other that soon we'll get to do this outside on a patch of grass. But then the world turns green and we forget. We are swimming, hiking, camping, lounging and forgetting about cookies and blankets and books. But still, it's our summer tradition. Eating cookies in the winter wouldn't feel quite right if we didn't do it with the hazy specter of heat and light nodding at our shoulders.
I made cookies this morning so the boys would have something sweet in their camp snacks. At six am, the only creature awake beside the black dog, I melted butter in a sauce pan and poured the resulting liquid sunshine over sugar, brown and white. Stir, stir, stir, add other things both dry and wet, and voila, a plate full of love to greet my cranky morning kiddos. I imagined many things about motherhood, most of them wrong, but I never even suspected that baking cookies at an unearthly hour could make me so...complete. Or that I would ever say yes when asked "Cookies for breakfast?" Sure. Have a cookie. Have two.
I’ve been thinking about that sign all week, kicking myself for not having photographed it. The temps have been so hot that I’ve not felt like eating anything, but rather have come to fully understand what
it’s like to: Be the Butter. Not that I’ve ever had to imagine this before, but I have felt the effect of this intense heat on my brain--basically turning it to mush. Though some would say to stay out of the kitchen this week, I’ve been there more often than not these past few days. While T is away I am helping at another camp, one that he has attended since he was five. (If things work out next year he’ll be going as a counselor in training.) I’ve been helping prepare the food there for as long as I can remember. It is the highlight of my summer and I look forward to it all year long. I enjoy seeing how much the all kids have grown, but to be honest I think of it as an excuse to bake--as much as my heart desires. With close to 150 kids of all ages, there’s always someone to polish off the muffins, granola or quickbread.
One of my favorite poems, “Irreverent Baking” is by Maya Stein. I chose to read at my graduation because it puts into words how I feel about my life’s work. She packs so much into this line: “the house inked with the smell of blueberry possibility.” That’s what baking is to me, possibility. Each time I find a new recipe I get inspired. When I pull out the ingredients I get excited, almost little-girl giddy. But when I put the butter and sugar in the mixer, then it becomes real to me. At first the butter is clunky but soon becomes smooth, coming together with the sugar to create something light and fluffy. No matter how many times I perform this act I still feel reverence for what it can do, for me and for others. Such simple things but they are a gift. I have been missing my son tremendously, even though I know he’s having the time of his life juggling and clowning around. When T comes back at the end of the week, I know just what to make to welcome him home.
Next Week's Word: Doctor
Monday, July 18, 2011
If Life really is a game, then I need to get a clue on the best way to play. Sometimes I think it’s not, but then other times I wonder. I tell myself that everything is going to be fine, then when I least expect it, we run into a spate of trouble that sends us reeling backwards. Sadly I’m the type of person that becomes consumed with worrying how we’re ever going to get ahead. (Will we ever buy a house, adopt a baby, raise some chickens?!?) Occasionally luck shines down upon us with good fortune, and then the money leaves our hands just as quickly. A pay raise at work will surely mean a car repair will spring up out of nowhere and suddenly become necessary. It’s hard not to feel as if it’s all a game of chance; for no matter how hard you try, you never really know what the day will bring. It all depends on the roll of the dice.
Too often I try to look out far on the horizon to see what’s coming. I’d like to gain some perspective and get a sense of what lies ahead. When I’m in despair I crane my neck to get a better view, wishing I could know how far we are from a goal or some sort of end spot. When we reach that space, it’s always a reason for a celebration. (We take them wherever we can get them, including half birthdays and first date anniversaries.) If only there was some secret knowledge that could be passed along so that I could keep my footing even while climbing that ladder and somehow avoid falling down a chute. Such a fall can be devastating, causing us to have to pick everything up and start all over again. It’s happened enough times now, that I’ve become proud of my resiliency and stubbornness. That which does not kill us… In spite of it all, I’d much rather be here than not. Each day I’m just moving my piece along, and maybe looking for a little peace as well. Most mornings I just try to wake up and be happy with the square I landed on.
Cards to a Charley Harper memory game.
Living room table where we eat together and never quite fit. But we make do.
Hole (round peg).
Picassoey side of T's Rubik's Cube.
Desktop. Not really a desk. A small table on which my laptop rests. Where I work, except when I work in the car.
Scrabble board. A possession for which I'd return to a burning house.
Cabinet doors. Mostly decorated with stickers.
Frame. Which encompasses a photo of a typewriter and the words: Real writers really write. A reminder that there is work to do.
Block of painted wood. White.
CD cases. Most of which haven't been opened in a decade.
Homemade book from Michigan beach trip when T was one year old and L was nowhere in sight. And B was even further away.
Wedding invitation hanging by the door. A reminder, when we go out into the world, that someone is on our side.
Next week's word: Butter
Monday, July 11, 2011
Most of what I know of cities comes from books. I suppose this is what books are for: exposure to places (and people, and things) that we've had little chance to see for ourselves. Unless you count Atlanta; I lived in Atlanta for a couple of years. Plus a few summers. But Atlanta is a city only if cities are defined by long highways static with traffic, and constant air conditioning, and radios stolen from Jeeps. There must have been good things about Atlanta. I do recall with a warm feeling a movie theater that played not-new movies and a used bookstore right beside it perfect for wasting the half hour or so before the not-new movies started. And I once had an amazing brunch at a restaurant on Peachtree St. But, jeez, the roaches? The smell of garbage in the summer? The careful blankness of almost every face? I remember Atlanta as a place waiting to sneer at me.
When I was 18 I was pretty sure that New York City was where I was supposed to end up. Instead I went to western Mass. And then Atlanta. And then New Hampshire, where my road is dirt and I know nearly every car that passes the house. This morning a guy named Dave who lived in his truck for a while and rarely wears a shirt when it's warm turned up at our door at 7:30 with two fish he'd caught on a fishing trip with his dad. This is not a guy you'd mistake for someone with a retirement account, but there he was, bearing fish. Does this happen in cities? It must. Maybe not with fish, but with something, right? Like, art work? Fine wine? Country mice and city mice can't be that different.
Maybe when I'm gray and creaky I'll move to a city and shock my poor children, who'll worry about me riding the subways alone and climbing all those stairs to my apartment. I'll be one of those women who brandishes her cane whenever she feels the hint of threat, who carries mace in each coat pocket and calls the police at least once a week to report a suspicious stranger on the fire escape. More likely I'll be oblivious to even the obvious dangers. Probably I'll find myself wedged in an open manhole within hours of my arrival. Because I'll be looking up at all the concrete mountains instead of down at the street.
L'Engle's New York, Byatt's London, Fox's New Orleans - these are the cities I want to see. The real places have always been pastel in comparison whenever I've had the chance to visit. But so have corresponding countrysides. I'd like to vow that next time I visit a city I'll discard all those expectations bred from literary sampling. But I've read too much. I've gone too far. Those two-dimensional cities are bound forever to their real-life counterparts. I'm a country mouse at heart, but I do plan on more visits to bustling cities where food can delivered to your door (swoon) once my babies aren't quite so attached to my legs. Because it's awful difficult to slip through a subway turnstile with boys hanging from your waist.
Driving down to Boston a few weeks ago, my friend was in the passenger seat navigating. She consulted the map, advised me to turn at the stoplight, not knowing we would be going the wrong way down a one way street. I waited for the cars to pass and then quickly turned us around. She marveled at my calm exterior and remarked that I had my City Face on. I knew just what she meant. Somehow entering an area with tall buildings, a place with many people passing by on the streets, traffic and an industrial hum in the air, just arouses something inside of me. Another self I didn’t know existed.
When I worked in the World Trade Center there were definitely times I needed my City Arms. Arms to hold my pregnant self steady as the bus rounded a corner. And many muscles were often needed to lug the new baby up four flights of stairs to our attic apartment while carrying groceries or laundry. As a firsttime mom I couldn’t ever bring myself to leave him alone, so he traveled down with me each time, while I grabbed another bag or basket for the return trip up. Now that he’s taller than I am, I often wish for those days when he was small enough to fit into a car seat.
Visiting Venice required City Feet. My friend and I were only there for a day, but we made the most of it. We spent the morning walking every street and crossing each bridge multiple times in search of a certain man who made tiny glass animals. We finally found him, then we walked around trying to decide on the perfect place for lunch and then spent the afternoon looking for a glass ring. When I laid my eyes on that particular shade of cobalt blue I knew I had found the one. At day’s end, we walked back to the train station and headed out for the next adventure.
I’ve only been to Paris once, but it was a week I will always remember. The moment I set foot in the city, I was instantly reminded of my time living in New York. It was much more urban than I had ever imagined. All of that time spent lovingly poring over pictures in books and magazines, I felt like I knew what to expect. Yet it’s not gallery or a collection of places just quietly waiting for someone to notice them. Paris is a vibrant, light filled, densely populated place. There is an intensity there that I miss living here in Vermont. It may be that when I visited, I left some of my City Heart behind. Maybe someday I’ll go back and claim it.
To be honest, there is something about all cities that I love. People living side by side, and a diversity of population that is lacking here. In a city most of what one needs for day-to-day living can be found within walking distance. Tiny shops like the aptly name “Just Rugelach” are right outside your office window. Tall, tall buildings created from an architect’s vision soar into the sky. Often they are a testament to the men who painstakingly built them up from nothing. I think what I miss most about living there is the chance to walk down the busy sidewalks while keeping my eyes directed upward-- not looking down for fear of missing a graceful cornice or a unique window.
When I worked in New York I once went with some friends to the very top of our building. It is one of my very fondest memories. We made or way through a small (I like to think secret) passageway to gaze out at the city and the lights below. We were so high I’m sure we could have almost reached out and touched the clouds.
Next week's word: Square
Monday, July 4, 2011
My father’s parents lived near us, a short jaunt up the road. Because of our proximity to them and because my grandmother couldn’t seem to cook a meal for just two, we spent a great deal of time there. My mother’s parents lived several towns over, and we visited them about once a month. We often went on a Sunday to sit around the dining room table and catch up what had happened since we last saw each other. Most of the year we were served hot tea, which included an ice cube for the little ones. There was always toast with butter and jam, though sometimes we stayed for dinner.
My mother had several sisters who lived nearby, but their brother lived several states away. It was always a special occasion when he came to visit, bringing with him his wife and two daughters. Each time he came was like a reenactment of the prodigal son returning home. Given that my grandfather was a dairy farmer, there may have been the slaughtering of the fatted calf, but I have most likely blocked those scenes from my memory. These cousins were a little older than I was but we shared so much in common that I thought of them as sisters. Being the oldest in a family of girls, it was fun to pretend to be a younger sibling. Having them come to stay was a real treat and after dinner we would “retire to the sitting room.” This was a special room behind the kitchen that was rarely ever used. The rest of the time the couches just seemed to be there with their starched pillows silently begging for someone to sit on them. Sadly it wasn’t even an option, lest you run the risk of not being allowed to run around outside with the cousins. At that age I would much rather climb a tree then sit on a prissy, doily covered couch.
But when my uncle came to town we always gathered in that room to hear of all the latest adventures. I remember sitting on the floor amongst the cousins, all eyes and ears focusing as one. In my mind he is a great storyteller, much like an explorer arriving home with tales of foreign lands, plants and spices. Before he started he would always fill his pipe with tobacco and smoke it as he went along. I remember the smell and being rich and earthy, somewhat sweet even. He spoke eloquently, of what I can’t recall, but we hung on every word.
I can’t imagine how this scene would play out today. The world has gotten smaller and people have the opportunity to stay in contact in ways that weren’t possible years ago. And ironically if I saw someone smoking a pipe, I would certainly head the other way--I would surely cough from the smoke and the speaker’s words would be lost. I guess my lungs aren’t what they used to be. Still it is the ritual of these events that I miss the most. Letter writing, filling a pipe or making the pilgrimage to a relative’s house, they all carry with them a sense of tradition. There is a certain way of carrying out that action that can only be replicated intentionally and thoughtfully, with a particular mindset and mindfulness. These memories and others from my childhood patiently sit and wait for me to notice their beauty. I occasionally take them out and share them with others. Some are polished from so much use, I touch them often like beads on a necklace. Others are almost half-forgotten, buried in the muck until something triggers their ascension to the surface. As tarnished as an old tin, they are waiting for the day I take them out and hold them to the light for everyone to see.
When I was eight years old I wanted to be Ramona Quimby. Remember Ramona, from Beverly Cleary's books? Boisterous, outspoken, brave, annoying, insatiable... I've always been more like her big sister Beezus - responsible, contemplative, cautious. Ahem, boring. But I'm no fool. Ramona is where it's at. So I taped a Ramona name tag to my shirt and started begging for tin-can stilts. But our house was low on tin cans. Didn't my parents drink coffee? Didn't we recycle back then? Anyway, I found a couple of plastic tubs that worked find, except they collapsed around my eight-year-old feet and turned into a kind of leg trap that was difficult to get out of. And the noise on the pavement was tamer than it might've been with tin. But I was happy. I was just like Ramona, except my hair was long. Except that I never talked back to adults. Except that in my family there was one girl and hers had three.
The plastic tubs, before they became my tin-can stilts, held my grandfather's tobacco. He smoked a pipe - you'd never see him without a pipe. He smoked while he watched the Solid Gold dancers on the television, while he drove, while he painted at the picnic table in the backyard under the maple trees that made our world cool even while the rest of the world boiled in July heat. I can't tell you the name of the tobacco. The tubs it came in were white with black lettering. There may have been a picture of an old English cobblestone street. I used these same tubs to make paper mache pumpkins with a babysitter. Stranded bolts and nails wound up in these tubs and were forgotten on ancient windowsills in the big red barn. Grandpa's tobacco tubs ran their own highly successful breeding program and as a result we were never for want of a container. Who needs tin cans?
What I could use these tobacco tubs for now: toys, compost, pens, dog food bowls, tomato plants. Tin can stilts.