Tag Archives: memoir

Flexibility, Part 2

In my last post, I noted that I thought my physical flexibility was lessening somewhat.  I am not happy about that, but my chief concern is that I remain (or maybe the correct phrase is become more) mentally and emotionally flexible.

I like to think that, at least sometimes, I embody definition #3 for flexible: “characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements….” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/flexible) This is not just some random idea I picked up on the Internet.  I did once have an actual mental health professional called me flexible (and, for the record, resilient also).  My family seems to expect me to be flexible and I think they are more or less satisfied with me on that point. I was going to write that my coworkers have generally thought I was flexible, but I don’t think that is completely true.  However, many of my coworkers/friends have found me friendly, cooperative, and non-doctrinaire.  Anyhow, back to considering my flexibility quotient:

How I have become or tried to become more flexible:  

  • I now like to listen to opera.  This is not because I’ve changed my bourgeois Midwestern spots. It’s just that our parrot friend Phoenix enjoys opera and I trust his instincts.
Phoeni

Phoenix

  • I used to despise eggplant.  I don’t blame myself.  I think when I was young, I only had tasted horrible school-lunch style eggplant parmesan. I mentioned this dislike to an Afghan student.  She said that she would change my mind when I tasted her eggplant dish.  She was right and between the baba ganoush and that Chinese dish of fried eggplant with lots of garlic, I am now a dedicated fan.  In fact, I am growing four Japanese eggplants this year (a huge crop when one gardens on 1/20 of an acre as I do).
eggplant

eggplant

  • Time was—back when I was a new gardener—just sighting a slug was cause for loud complaints and gross-out noises. There was the time I ran barefooted to answer the phone and stepped on a giant, spotted, end-of-summer specimen. I washed off my foot in the tub for five minutes.  The thought of slug slime on my foot was just too much for me to bear.  It’s been a rainy spring and early summer here and just last week, I flipped a page of The New York Times Magazine, which had been out on the patio, and found a slug making itself comfortable inside.  I took the slug outside and, with Tom’s help, we liberated it.  I don’t usually even sprinkle my diatomaceous earth around the vegetables to tear the slugs’ little bodies.  Life’s tough enough all around already without it.
diatomaceous earth

diatomaceous earth

  • About five years ago at one of our Deep Creek, Maryland family meetings, one of my sisters-in-law  introduced me to Sudoku. Not only introduced me, but left her puzzle book for me to finish. She told me that, to begin with, it was okay to fill out a few of the squares—using the answers in the back—to help me get the idea.  Well, it took me more time than I want to admit to figure out the logic involved in Sudoku, and I still cheat on every game I play.  At first, I kept playing because the puzzles were fun and because I love my sister-in-law and her book.  Later, I played compulsively to help me through a tough patch or two. Also, at the back of my mind, I remembered that pop culture tells us that doing this stuff (crosswords, playing bridge, etc.) is supposed to help keep our cognitive functioning up to snuff—flexible, that is. I have about a fifth of the puzzles in the book yet to complete, so I guess I will see whether my slow and unsteady pace wins the prize of maintaining well-oiled cognition.
Sudoku

Sudoku

  • I was the youngest of five children and so I never spent too much time alone when I was growing up.  I had roommates in college and at my first jobs away from home.  Then, for two quarters—maybe one—when I started graduate school, I lived alone in a cellar—more or less—in Salt Lake City. Some things happened there. A figure crouched at my window in the night staring down at me in my cellar. A thief robbed me of my Zuni bracelet, my mother’s brooch, and the Swiss Army knife I kept by my bed for safety. Many early mornings a greasy crone greeted me when I stumbled from my little space through the laundry area to my even smaller bathroom. I was not a success first time out alone.  So, later on, married with kids, I used to worry when my husband would go away on business trips.  I don’t know what I expected. We had nothing much to steal and, by this point, we lived in nice neighborhoods.  When the children got a bit older and life became—let’s say—complicated and, maybe, not easy, I learned something new. The scary things were no longer separate from me crouching above my bed the way they had been when I was young.  I realized that the fear, insecurity, and pain were inside of me.  I became flexible (and resilient) because I had to do so. And I keep trying most days.

Note: My husband read these words and mentioned that I haven’t  actually explained why I became flexible. I guess that’s because a) I don’t know why and b) it’s not totally true. Maybe it’s because as the youngest child and the only girl, I fit naturally into the already well-developed family structure: not too much complaining or crying or I couldn’t tag along; once a brother deemed me able to walk home from kindergarten by myself, I just had to find my way home (I did); don’t flinch when the hardball comes at you–hold your glove in the right place.  As an adult, I have sometimes taken sips from the cup of bitterness.  Happily, I never gulped.  Instead, I would remember the Bob Dylan lines, “Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now” (from My Back Pages) and it  has seemed true for me, whenever I shook loose of the bitterness.  Also, I am a stick-in-the-mud about many things–from how I put dirty dishes in the dishwasher to my politics. Furthermore, I am becoming less flexible and resilient about driving.

I don’t know whether or not my examples have convinced you or me that I am flexible.However, when I have been writing, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about some words from a W.B. Yeats poem that give me comfort.  Here they are from  “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

From The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933

Artifacts

San Rafael

San Rafael

Sometime in 1974, my husband Tom and I and our friends, Art and Dave, decided to explore the San Rafael Swell area of Southeastern Utah. This area wasn’t too far from Carbon County, Utah where Tom and Art had grown up.  If you’ve driven on I-70 through eastern Utah, you’ve seen how remote this area is. Even now, the 110 miles between Green River and Salina, Utah is the longest stretch of the Interstate Highway System with no services for motorists.  Back in 1974, the freeway wasn’t even built, so we were really in the middle of nowhere.  That’s not the accurate thing to say, though.  We were alone in the middle of thousands of acres of beauty and silence.

That’s not what I have been thinking about all these years, though. I have been thinking about two things.  First, I think about how we—not scampered, not trudged— more like just persevered up and around the swells and valleys in the blue Volkswagen Squareback.  I always pretended the car had 4-wheel drive capabilities, and it generally rewarded my high expectations.  This day, we were on a sandy, rocky track toiling up to a rise. There was a large rock ahead on the side of the track.   When we got almost next to the rock, it shape-shifted into a golden eagle.  The eagle unfurled his wings—almost close enough to touch—and flew from the brown sand into the blue sky. Was it magic or some kind of benediction or just nothing out of the ordinary? I’m reserving judgment.

But I mostly think about how I almost killed our friend Art, all around good man and best man at our wedding.  With all the hundreds of canyons of the San Rafael surrounding us, it just seemed natural to start climbing up and that’s what we did. I was young then. My bones didn’t creak and I did not step gingerly. We started scaling a cliff—mostly straight up—and I was first. I don’t remember why I was first, but I suspect it was because I was the non-Utahn in the group, by far the shortest, the woman, and so they wanted to let me set the pace. After me, came Art, then Dave, and then Tom—one straight below the next.

I don’t remember now whether it was sandstone (probably) or limestone, but I felt indigenous to this place. My hands felt at home on the rocks.  I knew how to carefully search out footholds and handholds, and soon we were high above the canyon floor. I grabbed a large—and, I thought, secure—rock.  It dislodged and fell down on Art’s shoulder.  He fell straight backwards towards the canyon floor 50 or more feet below. Probably before I could even scream, Dave caught Art and stopped his fall. That’s about when we finished that climb.  I don’t remember anything else about that time. We all resumed our lives. Some things changed; some things stayed the same.

Last week I saw Art for the first time in thirty years. Tom, Art, and I were having dim sum at the Café Anh Hong in Salt Lake City.  Art said he sometimes thought of that incident in the San Rafael.  He thought maybe that throughout our lives we don’t always know when or how often we just miss death or calamity.  I am glad that Art missed that San Rafael exit point and that his good will has stayed in the world all these years. Art’s favorite old rock CD is Love, Forever Changes.  It does, but it stays the same.

Artifacts:

Anasazi man

Anasazi man

Smiling man

Smiling man

artifact, recent

artifact, recent

changes, but stays the same

changes, but stays the same

Looking for the Thunderbird

snow 12.19.12We’re having the first snowstorm of the season today in Denver and that’s a good thing.  We’ve had so much drought and so many fires that we need all the precipitation we can get. Right now, though, I’m mostly worrying about getting in the car and driving out to pick up my husband at the airport.  They put the new airport a million miles (24 from our place) out on the eastern plains and, after living in the Washington, DC area for 25 years, I am snow driving averse. So I am sitting here obsessively checking flight updates, waiting for the sheets to dry, listening to Judy Collins radio on Pandora, writing, and indulging in a bit of nostalgia.  Right now, I have been listening to “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall.” Before that I heard John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and K.D. Lang’s version of “Hallelujah.”  I’m waiting for a sign to see whether I should drive or tell Tom to get a taxi. I’m not a good snow driver now, but it wasn’t always that way.

In 1972-1973 I taught eighth grade literature in the (then) little boom town of Page, Arizona. Each week I struggled to make it through to Friday afternoon.  I was prepared, though.  Thursday night I would gas up my Volkswagen Squareback at the Circle K, put my bag in the car and be ready to head out of town right after school the next day.  About every other weekend, I would drive up 386 miles to Salt Lake City to visit Tom.  Other weekends, I would just head out anywhere away from town.  Lucky for me, anywhere and everywhere outside of Page was beautiful beyond any words I might try to use here.

West Temple, Zion National Park

West Temple, Zion National Park

Decision: Okay, I will finish this story later.  I am going to try to drive out to the airport. If I find the roads too bad, I will turn back, but, at least then I won’t feel like a superannuated chicken. If I used to be able to drive 386 miles in the snow to see Tom, I should hope I could still manage 24.

Result: The roads weren’t that bad, the wait for Tom to clear customs wasn’t too long, and the view of the Front Range on the drive back to Denver was worth the earlier ice and slush.

Back to the story: One snowy Friday afternoon in December (I’m back in 1972 now), I headed north on U.S. Route 89 going somewhere.  It was snowing so hard, it was so dark, and I was so lonely that I pulled into to the Thunderbird Lodge in Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah.  Even though the motel was only 91 miles from Page, I had dinner, booked a room, and settled in for the night. As the snow came down, snuggled in my bed, I watched a special repeat on T.V. of The Walton’s The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. I think I might hear people gagging or laughing out there in the cyber world, but I did love watching the show about snow coming down, Christmas coming, and people wanting to be with those they loved. I’ve never been a very successful cynic and maybe the times were different back then.  A year or two before I had seen The Homecoming with some of my friends back home in Milford. I wasn’t home, I was not anywhere near a stable with oxen, and yet I felt happy and content.

Even though it is somewhat gussied up (for Mt. Carmel Junction) now, I still love the Thunderbird.  Just this past summer, I had left my friends Sally and Laura after our rendezvous in Zion National Park, I couldn’t get to my campsite in the Dixie National Forest because of landslides, I got freaked out again on high desert roads, and I needed a place to feel safe and to not be alone. I drove to the Thunderbird, which was in the opposite direction I should be heading, had dinner, booked a room, and snuggled into bed reading Mysteries and Legends of Utah.

Back to the present: It’s been a difficult week for all of us who struggle to believe in a civilized world where we take care of little children and everyone else. I wish us all to feel safe and to not be alone.

Mt. Carmel Junction 6.26.12

Humbug, maybe

I realize I haven’t posted anything for a couple of weeks.  I have some excuses to give and then I will tell you the truth.

Excuses: My husband retired on November 30. Two days after that Tom went to India. He will be back in a few days. Meanwhile, I have been getting rid of more stuff as we get ready to leave Denver in January. This meant making trips to the Goodwill, packing boxes, and thinking about organizing our files.

My friend Jenny and I transported the silver Honda and the green parrot, Phoenix, back to Virginia where they originally came from.

Jenny in Salina, Kansas

Jenny in Salina, Kansas

Phoenix in Topeka, Kansas

Phoenix in Topeka, Kansas

Now at 11:19 AM (EST) Wednesday, December 12, I am sitting in a Starbucks—kitty corner to the Waffle House—off Berryville Rd. in Winchester, VA.

Actually, I didn’t stay long at that Starbucks, although I was in Winchester long enough that I finally understood the road system. I am still not sure whether the roads revolve around the big box stores or vice versa. On the brighter side, twice I was able to eat breakfast at the Apple Valley Café with my son Bill. Last Sunday, I was able to see my daughter Sarah and her husband Mike at the Eden Center in Falls Church, VA. We had café sua da, seafood soup, and then bubble drink to follow. Now I am sitting on the couch at my son Robert’s place in Pittsburgh.  I crave more air and light, but I love all the books, art, and other stuff and I just ate a bowl of delicious potato soup.

books and other things

books and other things

silver Honda in Pittsburgh

silver Honda in Pittsburgh

Truth: For most of my life—for decades after I became an agnostic—I loved Christmas: Snow on blue spruce, getting all the decorations on the tree, especially those handcrafted with yarn and construction paper.  I loved making the gingerbread cookies that went on the tree. I loved making the pralines and the pecan pie.  Tom, the kids, and I reveled in our own special holiday treats: chả giò, pupusas, Chinese dumplings, or chili verde. Even though I didn’t believe the religious part of the holiday, I believed fervently in the family and tradition and love and hope parts of it all.  A couple of my Christian friends laughed with me about my large collection of holiday music. I have everything from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez to the Congressional Chorus and the Boston Camerata, although now the CDs are in storage.

Something has happened to me these last few years. I was the one who had really believed in Santa Claus, even though I was the one who put the oranges in the beds*, candy canes on the tree, and the gifts from Santa under the tree. Now I feel gloomy and I feel sad.  Those emotions might be permissible as my Germanic soul waits for the Solstice, but I also feel petulant and that is less acceptable.  My husband has noted that I have tended to be gloomy around Christmas ever since my dad died.  That’s not right, so I am bucking up right now.  Robert and I are going to the bookstore and then to lunch.  I think I will buy an orange and a candy cane.  I will believe in family and tradition and love and hope because I think that is how I can live successfully close to the ground.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”   Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843

*At our house Santa put an orange in each of our beds as the proof that he looked in on us while we slept.

candy cane with orange

candy cane with orange

New Orleans Pralines

I started the compilation of family recipes about six years ago.  It’s not finished, but I do manage to keep transferring the document file from one computer to the next. The objectives of this particular project were three-fold: divest myself of my battered gray file box with its motley collection of scraps of stained and faded recipes, share favorite recipes with my family, and finally, satisfy my apparently unquenchable need to organize.

Currently the recipe compilation is 22 pages long.  I finally tossed out the greasy old file box (circa 1970s), but I have noticed that I still can’t bear to throw away many of the scraps of paper.  I’m going to try again to do so today and also share a couple of recipes with you.  I’m leading off with my mother’s New Orleans Pralines.

Just two weeks ago, I braved possible interference by TSA officers to take a batch of pralines on the plane with us to the annual family meeting.  Of the many, more typical, holiday treats we enjoyed as kids (e.g., pecan pie, pumpkin pie, mince pie), the most iconic for us were my mom’s pralines.  Even then in our childhoods—long ago now—pralines seemed like a slightly unusual treat.  What I am telling you is, if you are not afraid of hot bubbling sugar and butter, my mom’s pralines are quick, easy, delicious, and the cook gets accolades she hardly deserves for the amount of work she puts in.  Here’s the recipe:

New Orleans Pralines
2C. firmly packed brown sugar
½ C. water
2 C. pecan nut meats
1/3 C. butter or margarine

Combine sugar, water, and butter.

Cook slowly stirring constantly until mixture boils
Add nutmeats
Boil slowly, stirring constantly, to 246° F (firm ball stage)
Remove from heat.
Drop by tablespoons on waxed paper, making patties 3” in diameter.

My notes: I think we had a candy thermometer and I also have used a tall glass of water to test the firm ball stage, but basically, you can tell the candy is done when the mixture begins to change from a glossy to a matte look and to thicken just slightly.  Then you have to quickly spoon the mixture onto the waxed paper.  If you start to drop the spoonfuls too soon, you will know because the candy doesn’t immediately start to set up. If you wait too long, the mixture could harden in the pan.  If you wait just a little too long, the last few candies might have a dull consistency, but everyone enjoys those just the same.

My take away: Apparently pralines resonate with many people.  I conclude that because when I typed in “pralines” in the Google search box two minutes ago, there were 784,000 hits in 0.27 seconds.  Well, I love pecans, brown sugar, and butter as much as the next person, but it’s channeling my mother that makes these treats so tasty to me. About cooking and life in general, I learned many things from my mother. I learned how to cook, then peel, and oil the warm potatoes to get just the right consistency for the potato salad, I  learned how to roll out pie dough, how to make smooth turkey gravy, and, of course, conjure up the pralines. What I really learned—reflecting years later—was more significant: Good work requires close concentration and a deft hand. Don’t make a big deal out of things. Keep your work surfaces uncluttered (I struggle with this). Be generous.

Bonus: In the residual pile of my mother’s recipes, I found a copy of my great aunt’s butterscotch pie written in her own hand, I am guessing at least 60 or 70 years ago.  You can see it below.  Now, I’m going to warm up a plate of leftover turkey, dressing, gravy, squash, and cranberry relish.  I lift my fork to us all and our happy memories. Happy Thanksgiving.

butterscotch pie#1

 

butterscotch pie#2

You Can’t Take It With You

ticket stub, YCTIWY

They say that you can’t take it with you, but I’m not so sure that’s true. Right here on the arm of my chair I have a ticket stub from a production of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. This evidence suggests that I have been, in fact, taking this scrap of paper with me for decades.  The play was performed at Milford High School, Milford, Michigan in my senior year, 1967. I was a member of the drama club, but I only did mundane things like sell tickets.  What dramatic impulses I do have blossomed years later when I became a teacher.  I see by two old tape marks, that this ticket must have been part of the scrapbook that stayed at my  home for years. However, the scrapbook has traveled with me at least since my parents moved away from Milford over twenty years ago. About seven years ago I discovered that the scrapbook itself had mildewed. I tossed it out, but carted with me the actual photos, ticket stubs, and other souveniralia when we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia.  As part of my ongoing deaccession project, I saved many of the photographs, but jettisoned most of the odd bits and pieces. The items I abandoned include:

  • 7 junior high and high school attendance, achievement, and academic certificates
  • Camp Cavell (YWCA of Detroit) Birthday salutation
  • Henry Ford Museum Brochure
  •  2 “Installation of Officers” pamphlets from the Milford Bethel No. 68 International Order of Job’s Daughters plus my  purple and white Job’s Daughters headband (don’t ask—really)
  • 3 high school playbills: A Thurber Carnival, Diary of Anne Frank, and Twelfth Night or What You Will (1963, Pontiac Northern Senior High School, “in Commemoration of the Bard’s 400th Anniversary”)
  • various report cards and other school mementos
  • enigmatic broadside, “Satan’s Herald” from July 3, 1967 including the Blue’s Heaven Library books for loan that month, Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson and The Variety of Psychedelic Experience by R.E.L. Masters and Joan Houston
  • blue Romney (George) bumper sticker
  • Receipt for $84.05 from Robinson Auto Service Kanab, Utah, 4-1-73. The so-called mechanic put in a new generator and/or regulator, apparently backwards (which caused the car to stop working in the Sierra Nevada mountains 20 miles from Reno—another story)
  • and much more

Preserving these relics (and, pathetically, there were many) of my ordinary life must have been my attempt to take it with me.  My childhood was generally happy. I did a few memorable things in my happy, ordinary life. I have wanted to keep this happiness with me in my cozy nest of memorabilia, books, and papers. I think my husband and I are getting each other Kindles for Christmas. My nest is almost gone now, but I think I am okay with that.

Maybe what I can’t face is the meaning of the word “it” in you can’t take it with you.  I did take the corporeal ticket stub along with me. I did take the memories of my home in Milford, my family, my friends, and my school with me, too.  Last week I had yet another (in a long series) birthday and wrinkles have recently broken out in a new quadrant of my face. Today, I realize my nest of words and oddments were supposed to fend off the contemplation—let alone the fact of—death.  Really, I’m not gloomy; I’m just striving to face facts within the constraints of my sort of touchy-feely, but agnostic worldview.  I don’t have clouds with angels, I don’t have a great wheel that turns, but I do have poetry.  This morning, finally finishing up this blog that has been sitting on my table and my mind for two weeks, I have words in my head. I hear Yeats and Easter, 1916, the last lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a Meskwaki poem, from The Little Square Review (Number 5-6, Spring-Summer 1968) that my friend Jan gave me for my birthday over forty years ago. Oh, and a touch of Tennyson’s Ulysses, and I bet my contemporaries know which lines I am hearing.

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1833

I’m done. I will either throw the ticket stub in the trash or pocket veto it in my top dresser drawer.  Thanks for listening.

Next: Trying to write about death bogged me down some, so my next blog—in time for the holidays—will be about New Orleans pralines and other old recipes. See you then.

It’s October and the Leaves are Shaking

leaves, October

I’m writing “It’s October and the leaves are shaking” because I write it or say it every October. I’ve used this incantation ever since I plowed through Look Homeward, Angel sometime around 1966.  All in all, I might have been better served if I had begun with Light in August or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At least, I think I can safely say that those are good novels.  I’m too far away from literature classes to want to make a judgment about whether or not Look Homeward, Angel is a good book. Although I discarded my own copy of the novel last year (in the great book abandonment project), I am still fond of it.  I do worry that this fondness might point to a certain verbal over-exuberance and lack of discipline on my own part.  Okay, I admit to it, but I still love Wolfe’s words.

What I really want to write about This morning, I walked to Whole Foods to look for broccoli rabe, get something to eat for lunch, and sit outside and absorb Vitamin D while I copy edited my so-called book. I sat near an old guy who was either talking into his ear-piece or to himself or to someone whom I couldn’t see.  When the man got up to leave, I saw that he was indeed talking to himself or to someone who wasn’t visible to me.  Although it doesn’t reveal me to be the open-minded, egalitarian, and even-keeled person I wish I were, I was happy when the guy moved on.

Next, I went to the local library to check out a copy (the only one on the shelf) of Look Homeward, Angel and then on to Starbucks for coffee and more copy editing. One time I looked up from my work and saw the old man sitting across the street and then, later, he quickly walked past me.

My final errand was to walk to Safeway for milk and to search for the elusive broccoli rabe. A few blocks from the store, I saw the old man again walking quickly in my direction.  I changed direction, cutting through a plant median, so I wouldn’t have to cross his path again.

What’s with me? Did I see a ghost today–a ghost of all the mumblers, screamers, window peepers, burglars, and assorted troubled souls from other times and other places in my life? Maybe he was a ghost, but I am not sure whether he was a ghost from October past or from October yet to come.

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost land-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

Look Homeward, Angel

borrowed from the Denver Public Library, 10.30.12