A Breach in My Breastplate

I was recently in a social situation when I saw a woman lingering near the group that I was loosely connected with.  She was holding a vogue-like non-smile on her lips.  Her makeup was perfect over her young skin.  She said nothing to anyone.

We were five feet apart when my line of vision and hers clicked like two LEGO bricks, so I smiled and said, “Hi, my name is Linda.”

“We’ve met like ten times before!” She snarled at me, gave her head a short shake in disgust, and casually sauntered away. 

And this is my darkest worry of how the world is really thinking about my ability to remember details. 

Indeed, once she pointed out our prior meetings – and I don’t think there had been ten – I remembered a conversation with her from months ago; again, I had introduced myself to her.  That time she said we had met before and then we briefly discussed hair color and style as probable reasons I didn’t recognize her.  She wasn’t wholly impressed with me then either.

When I meet new people in a crowd, I always say with a laugh that I will probably ask them their name again in the future.  Whether being truthful or being politically correct, inevitably, they laugh and say they will most likely do the same. 

The sting of the words and the tone coming from that perfectly made up face have stuck with me for days.  I know this is not a person I need in my camp, yet my initial thought pattern puts me in a spot of guilt that I made this person, this sensitive woman, feel bad by not remembering her name.  That guilt doesn’t last when I rationalize it for twenty seconds: this isn’t how I would treat anyone who had just introduced themselves to me.  And this particular person is not sensitive. 

I think I know enough from that encounter that a warning bell will chime in my head should I see her again, and that will remind me to leave out the introduction with my greeting.  And, you darn right, I’m going to smile and say “hello.”  However, I’m still sorting out why I feel even slightly compelled to say “hello.” 

Years ago when Will was very young, he wanted to play baseball in the spring, but his gymnastics coach frowned on that, despite the fact that the competitive season had ended.  Will was struggling with what to do.  He respected his coach and didn’t want to let him down.  I said, “Do you want to play baseball?”  He nodded.  “You’re ten, you can play baseball,” I told him.  I knew that didn’t make the decision any easier, so I continued.  “Will, your coach wants you at gymnastics practice because he’s the gymnastics coach, but you need to make your own decision because you’re ten and you want to play baseball.  And, you need to put a fence around your heart and not let his words affect your decision.  There will be times in your life when you need to keep your heart safe behind that fence – and this is one of them.” 

That was a great moment for me.  Not a great Mom-moment, but a Linda-moment.  I’m not sure Will even remembers the conversation, but verbalizing that sentiment has been a useful reminder for me ever since Will played in Little League that spring.  Sometimes you need a rational, armored fence such that every pinging sting doesn’t hit your heart. 

“We’ve met like ten times before!” found a breach in my breast plate.

I’ll say “hi” again, for I know no other way to mend that imperfection in my armor.  And, because Mom has always said, “Kill them with kindness.”  I learned last summer that the action of killing-with-kindness can be maneuvered with either a passion for putting kindness into the world despite the situation or with the precision of sliding a thin metal blade into the toughest leather.  I prefer the first, but I rather inadvertently resorted to the latter last summer.

A young man from the East Coast sat down next to me in a writing class.  We introduced ourselves to one another, and when he heard that I was originally from Iowa, he rolled his eyes and groaned.  He said something to the effect that his writing may upset me because the topic of the ten-page submission was how he more-or-less despises Midwestern kindness.  He was familiar with this phenomenon first-hand as he had accepted the most economical master’s program offered to him – and it happened to be in the Midwest, in the middle of cornfields.  God’s country or God-forbidden country.  His upfront nature was refreshing; sometimes I appreciate this directness in people.  He spoke of the topic in a third-person removed sort of way.

As the week went on, we talked very little; still I could feel that he was exasperated by most people and most situations.  In class on Friday, he said he was looking forward to hiking that evening and exploring the area.  When I saw him Saturday morning, his arm was in a cast.  For the next week, he needed help from strangers – including one Midwesterner.

Sunday afternoon, he asked me for a ride to pick up x-rays from a clinic and medicine from the pharmacy.  I smiled.  And, said I would.  I hadn’t read his submission yet as he wasn’t scheduled for review until the last day of the two-week course, so I hadn’t seen his thoughts on Midwesterners in black and white.  Honestly, I may have subconsciously decided it wasn’t one I needed to read, period.

He thanked me profusely for being so kind as to drive him around for two hours.  I responded something to the effect of you need help and I have the time and the transportation.  We went to the pharmacy first, but his meds weren’t ready, so we decided to pick up the x-rays first. 

Three times I had to ask him what the address was of the clinic.  The third response was finally audible: Love Avenue.  I openly grinned as I gave him a knowing look.  The universe was speaking loudly.  It would have been impossible for either of us not to acknowledge how painful it was for him to be chauffeured around town by a woman from Iowa, let alone having to ask her for a ride to Love Avenue.

This man was a forthright contrarian writer.  And a contrarian in life.  No matter what me, a Midwestern optimist, might say, he would have the exact opposite response. Nothing would give him a glimmer of light to put a little cheer in his demeanor.  I accepted that.  He accepted the ride.  He left campus early.  I never read his paper.

I can’t remember his name now, but I still wish him well from afar.  Perhaps our opposing outlooks will neutralize one another, throwing less yuck at the general human condition.

So, yes.  Next time I see the woman whose comment I remember but whose name still escapes me, I will smile and say hello.  She might need that smile – and it’s no skin off my back.  Nor is her comment now that I’ve thoroughly let my fingers think about it.  Her retort was not about me but rather something within her universe.

I had a thought this morning about my memory.  Ever since chemo and with being on hormone suppressants for a decade, my memory has suffered – but my hair has become extremely curly.  I think my memory is leaking through my hair follicles and putting kinks in my locks. 

It makes me smile to think that I might know where my memory resides nowadays.

Life by the Numbers

I’m pretty sure it was June 17, 2009 when the radiologist’s nurse put an off-putting hand on my back as she led me to the front desk to make an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon for a biopsy.  Today, I’m 10 years cancer free. :)  I’ve had 2 false positives since then.  They conjured up the same feelings as those 10 years ago with that hand on my back.  My annual MRI was 1 month ago – that’s the big kahuna, more all-seeing than the annual mammogram set 6 months apart from my MRI appointments. 

After each MRI and mammogram, I have an appointment with my breast cancer surgeon – so twice a year.  In May, I pointed out 1 correction with my new doctor.  I saw her 1 time before this, so she reviewed my history with me, again, on this 2nd visit.  My decade of details, transferred from an old system to the new system, must have been typed in manually, for they included another breast cancer tumor removal in August of 2018.  I assured her that the only tumors removed were 10 years ago.  A typo.  That “2018” should have been a “2009.”  A reminder to be vigilant and proactive when it comes to my health – or the history of my health.  Those 10 years have been condensed into a 10-line recap in the new system.  That was actually refreshing to see: 10 years out, my cancer can be summarized in 10 lines instead of 100s of pages. 

Will is 15 and has 2 more days left of school.  Liam is 13 and has 5 more days to go.  As for Bill, he turns 60 on Saturday! Bill’s favorite number has always been 8, same as mine, but I think his might be 9 or 18 now, depending on the number of holes he’s playing on the golf course.

We’re attempting to move our 1 guestroom from the big rec room in the basement to a smaller more private room in the basement.  That new room is currently the last stop for stuff before the loft in the barn.  I packed up 6 tubs of craft supplies to go up – that’s funny since I only do crafts 2 or 3 times a year with my neighbor’s little girls or perhaps 1 project at Christmas. 

As the boys moved into their teens, we have been clearing out their rooms a bit making them more like rooms for 10+x humans.  To make more room in their closets, I pulled their baby quilts and blankets out – 1 quilt each made by a Massachusetts friend, a Wisconsin friend, an Iowa friend, an Iowa aunt, and a high school friend; thin flannel receiving blankets that Mom made for them; and finally 2 small white blankets that Grandma Murphy crocheted for them.  For 3 months, they were on my bedroom closet shelves, then in a clear ugly “display” tub, and finally, stacked on the floor.  For 2 months they were in that room in the basement in a black garbage bag to keep them clean. Yesterday, I packed them in a clear tub and took them to the loft.  And cried.  In a future crafty moment, I will find an inventive glass-cased storage unit for them in that room in the basement so I can walk by them and smile at the memories – 100s of my kids and 100s of the hands that made them.

Will made a model of a Byzantine church for school that he wants to keep in his room.  There’s only 1 spot for it: the top of his wardrobe.  We need to box up the cluster of 25+ teddy bears that currently holds residence there.  It’s the 1 lone spot in his room that points to an earlier era.  I will cry.

So… 10 years out.  Many of you were with me on that long road 10 years ago.  We’ve come a long way!  With what I wrote that year, I’ve hoped that if I shared it, it would give 1 thing to at least 1 person on a similar unexpected journey – a smile.  It’s not in a hardcover form, but it is available here on my website, complete with photos of the bald Linda.  That era still feels like someone else’s life when I look through the writing and the photos.  Anyway, feel free to share the Staying Strong link with someone that might find it useful.  Someone who might need a smile.

Staying strong,

Linda

Maple Seeds and Chipmunks

On Tuesday, May 28th at 10:03 a.m. EST, I pushed “send” and launched my manuscript into the next phase… working with my publisher – a major step in turning the spiral bound version into a real book!

I am self-publishing the book with the help of a publishing service, iUniverse, which will help me move the manuscript through the editorial and design stages.  If all stays on track, Cornfields to Codfish will be available in the fall. 

Strangely enough, the first stop for my manuscript is the Philippines.  There, the content will be analyzed to check for libel and copyright infringement.  I’m guessing this is all completed via computer programs that compare my writing to information on the internet.  In two or three weeks, the manuscript will return to Indiana for review by English-as-first-language editors.

In the meantime, I’m working on one final section for the book – a collection of recipes, ones that relate back to the essays in the book.  So just when you think you’ve come to the end of the book, voilà, a little icing on the cake!

I thought I would send you a draft of “Mushroom Risotto,” but that writing took a turn and meandered to a place far from the actual recipe.  I didn’t have time Thursday to pull in the reins and make it suitable to send to you.  Rather, I dropped the reins and let it wander and gallop.  I’m not sure what I’ll find when I seek it out again – hopefully something salvageable that I can call “Mushroom Risotto” in the back section of Cornfields to Codfish.

Today is a Sunday with clouds but, as of yet, no rain.  I fully intend to weed the front of three flower gardens and plant annuals in them.  The perennials in most of the plots are established and few weeds are able to anchor among them.  Every year I fill in the spaces with additional perennials, but in the last couple years those plants haven’t come back. 

I attribute this to the shuffle in the ecosystem in my backyard.  I’m overrun with rabbits.  Seven years ago, I was writing about a family of fox that lived in our backyard.  They were intriguing, and… they were above rabbits in the food chain.  We had two seasons of fox living in the rocky ledge around our property.  Then, late that last summer, a neighbor saw a dead fox on the road by her house, and the following year, no fox family. 

So, the woodchuck returned to his apartments from whence he had been ousted by the fox.  Woodchucks are the equivalent of what Dad calls horses, hay burners – only woodchucks are perennial burners.  A perennial can only take so much continual trimming by these buck-teethed, wide porky creatures before it’s snuffed out.  The wide swathes of empty space in my flower gardens reflect a couple hundred dollars worth of plants that survived only long enough to provide a salad bar to the woodchuck.

That was a couple years ago.  Today, we have an abundance of brave rabbits, with no woodchucks in sight.  Rabbits are just another buck-toothed, heavy-duty nibbler, porky with long ears. 

Procrastinating the move to the flower garden, I took my coffee and a book of essays to the deck.  It was a book that had been on my shelf for nearly a year.  I didn’t think I would get anywhere by picking up the 732-page Anna Karenina that I’m tasking myself with.  The constant pull of all those weeds and baby maples that needed to be pulled wouldn’t let me sink into that story. I only had attention for two or three pages at a time — before the vision of a two-leafed maple sapling interrupted.

Our property is surrounded by maple trees and every fall millions of single-bladed helicopter seeds spin to the ground and lodge themselves in my flower gardens.  Even after a fall cleanup, a hefty number of them spring up as baby maples the following spring.  Every year.  Every single year.  If I take a hoe to them, I only succeed in trimming them, which forces the root to go deeper and for them to regrow stronger the following year.  The most effective method of removal is on my hands and knees, pulling each three-inch-high seedling from the ground with constant steady force so that it doesn’t snap off, leaving the root to go deeper.  I’ve had four pulling sessions so far this spring.  I’m about to head out for, hopefully, one last time. 

With my feet propped up and a blanket over my shoulders, I hugged my book and my coffee in my lap.  Sudden, jerky movements caught my peripheral eye.  A chipmunk was on the deck.  It was rummaging along the edges then darting nearer and nearer to me.  My vocal shooing and flicking of my hand were mere second-long distractions to this little beast. 

The last time I lived on a farm was in 1988, yet my intolerance for rodents – which for me ranges from rabbits and raccoons to rats and chipmunks – has not changed.  I don’t find these critters cute.  They are nuisances and their close proximity to my house in the city takes up a lot of brain space.  So this chipmunk on the deck became intolerable.  I stopped short of throwing something at it.

With my legs up such that it couldn’t run up my blanket, I watched it.  Often I muse at the differences between Bill’s people and my people in his people’s soft spot for animals.  Bill’s mum was a wild animal lover through and through – birds, mice, badgers, hedgehogs. However, I grew up with rabid skunks and raccoons that Dad would shoot in order to protect our family and our livestock.  And, several months after harvest, I would witness corn cribs being emptied and the ensuing dance my dad would have with rats and mice at the bottom of the crib.  Hence the yin-yang of Bill and me: He has a lovely soft heart when it comes to all animals.  I have the heart of a farmer when it comes to rodents. 

I’m quite OK with these small critters remaining at the edges of our properties, but once they move to the flower gardens – and now the deck??  Still, I watched the chipmunk.  He was working hard to dig something out between the boards of the deck.  Quick little fingers magically produced one of those helicopter maple seeds.  He flicked it around so the blade was facing out. And… he ate the seed!   He actually eats maple seeds!  These nuisances without a heart that have me standing on my head for hours in the flower gardens – they are chipmunk food!  This twitching striped rodent is on my side!

Long live the Chipmunk! 

God save the Chipmunk!

Avoiding Revising

There I’ve done it.  I have selected “File -> New” on Word rather than “File -> Open -> Malcolm Cornfields to Codfish beta reader version.”  I had fully intended on opening that rather than writing this to you.  However, procrastination flows freely on the path to perfection.

And that’s the leg of the manuscript journey I’m in now… to perfect it with the last pieces of reader feedback.  Search every “here” and “hear” because my fingers use the two of those spellings interchangeably, despite what my brain directs.  Similarly, “there,” “their,” and “they’re” appear at will with no respect to the context of the paragraph. 

With my readers’ feedback, I’m on a search and rescue mission for dangling participles.  “Born in Iowa, the cornfields shot feet above my head as a kid.”  The meaning of that sentence as it’s written is that the cornfields were born in Iowa, for there is no clear reference to me other that at the end of the sentence, and that is not close enough to the participle “Born in Iowa” to create a clear connection.

Sometimes I do these things intentionally.  Particularly fragments.  Love fragments.  They convey the motion of the brain so articulately sometimes.  They’re much more effective that saying, “I’m thinking in bits and pieces as most of us occasionally do.”  Fragments show that, rather than tell it.  When I taught Developmental English to college freshman, I drilled grammar so my students would be ready to take freshman comp their second year of college.   Students argued with me on my authoritarian direction for writing complete and correctly punctuated sentences. I told them that they needed to learn the rules first, then they could intentionally break them.  Only when you know the rules can you take artistic license in breaking them at just the right time.  Only then.

Since I joined my first writers’ critique group in Boston three years ago, I have wrestled one essay to the ground over and stood up victorious time and again – or so I thought.  It’s the piece of work that has put me to the test in translating from Midwest to New England colloquialisms.  This was in a group of essays that I presented to that very first critique group.  Their cocked heads, inquisitive looks, and blank stares made me rethink my writing style – to write such that anyone would understand what I was saying. 

The problem that arose that day?  Consider this: In a game of Pictionary, put a Midwest farmer at the drawing board with teammates of New England city folk doing the guessing.  Then give the farmer the word “hydrant” to draw.  The farmer’s team will lose.  For the farmer will draw a water hydrant used to fill his cattle’s water tank, and the city folk will never guess it, for the only hydrant they know is the fire hydrant on their paved street. 

Fortunately, a beta reader brought this hydrant section to my attention — again — with a few suggestions.  After fifteen years of watering cattle as a child, I was so familiar with “my” hydrant that I couldn’t tell anyone who hadn’t seen one how it worked or what it looked like.  In my mind, it simply was.  However, after grappling with that two-page description for three years, I think I’ve finally drawn a word-picture that both Midwesterners and New Englanders will understand.  Of course, you’ll be the final judge of that, particularly if you are not a Midwestern or a New Englander. 

The bulk of what I have remaining to edit are clarifications like this and some minor grammar usage issues. That reminds me that I need to search for “its” and “it’s” as well. The biggest mental challenge was taking care of that hydrant section, and that is done.  Oh, but I do now recall that a Midwesterner rightly wondered what the heck a quahog is. 

When my book, Cornfields to Codfish, comes out this fall, you might want a dictionary at hand. Just in case.

Onward to research “quahog” so I can writely define what that is – other than a great big clam.

Counting to Thirty

Yesterday, I was successful in a small thirty-second kind of way. Several consecutive thirty-seconds, actually. Last June, I had a pain in my hip that lingered over the summer. Convinced it was bone cancer, in September I finally went to the doctor. It was just bursitis. Bursitis pain never felt so good! I had too many repetitive movements in my life: sitting at a desk and walking on a treadmill. My hips were struggling with a life of back and forth movement. They needed variation, oppositional stretching, a little specialized attention. A few physical therapy sessions got them back on track and out the door I went with stretches that would keep bursitis away.

After doing the stretches for a few weeks, I felt great so dropped the stretching from my weekly agenda. Within days, the twinging in my hips returned. I stretched. It went away. I’m as bright as Pavlov’s dog: to keep from hurting, I need to stretch. For the rest of my life. That’s a little overwhelming, really. Yet truthful as I’m walking around in a body that doesn’t spring back like it did ten years ago.

The thought of needing to stretch takes up a lot of brain space. The act of stretching takes less than ten minutes a few times a week. I’m supposed to hold each of the five stretches for thirty-seconds, on each side. Why is that math so daunting when I wonder when in the day I’ll be able to fit it in? The stretching grows to the size of a hot air balloon when I think about it, yet when I do it, it takes the space of a little water balloon. And it’s done. I’ve worked the stretching into my Monday and Wednesday routines at the Y. So this scheduling issue only arises a couple times a week.

On Monday, I found a spot on the mat at the Y and started that first stretch. After “1… 2… 3… 4…” I jumped ship to the to-do list to attend to after I left the Y. I caught myself and guessed at “15… 16… 17…” before again my focus flipped 180 degrees. I may have held that stretch for 20 seconds or a minute. I ended it on “add dish washing soap to the grocery list.”

Thankfully, at 52 I talk to myself nowadays.

After that first stretch, the conversation started. While I don’t remember it word for word, the initial screaming went something like, “For crying out loud! Just count to 30! That’s all you have to do RIGHT NOW! Count to 30!”

Then, more calmly, “You’re absolutely right! I can’t accomplish anything right now from that list! I only need to count to 30!”

It was answered by an exasperated, “Finally, you get it! Now, I suggest you count out loud!”

Taking the firmly dispensed advice, for each stretch, a similar but less intense conversation ensued. “Right now, all I need to do is to count to 30.” Then a whispered count.

The gym is a good place to whisper counts. Many people are counting repetitions out loud there. I join the crowd and keep my mind in place for thirty seconds at a time. And I repeat it ten times.

Unsure which benefited more while I stretched yesterday — my hips or my mind.

A Day's Thoughts

A Day's Thoughts...

It’s been a few days since I’ve faced a blank page. It’s a bit intimidating at first. Like arranging dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in months or years. Feeling unsure of how it might go. Will it be like old times? Will we have anything to talk about? Will it be awkward? Then, with a smile and a “hello,” that time between conversations melts. And when the dinner ends, you’re smiling ear to ear. And by the time you get to the car, a somberness clouds the air, for when will you meet again? Can it be sooner than later?

I traveled to Arizona in early April to catch up with my roommates of thirty years ago. We knew one another from accounting days at Sundstrand. I was a pricing analyst and cost accountant. Jeepers, that’s a funny thing to say. I’m many years – and universes – away from that career! For three solid days, we caught up and covered the gambit from kids to husbands, from cancer to the future. It was as if we were in the middle of a desert flower bloom, an outburst of friendship. And it was absolutely wonderful. We timed our arrivals, them from Chicago and me from Boston, within fifteen minutes of one another. The same with our departures. At the end of the trip, we had lunch at the airport, and then they walked me to my gate before going on to theirs. We said good-byes with smiles. Then they were off down the terminal. The sudden aloneness caught me off guard. Honest to Pete, I felt a piece of me just peeled away as the three of “us” became “them” and “me.” The sudden absence of conversation and laughter hit as though I had been thrown into a cell in solitary confinement. Tears rose.

Often times when I fly, I take a virtual walk through our house and jot down house projects that would open the bottleneck of too much stuff in our house. How to clear the dining room. How to better organize the office. How to make more room on the shelves and hooks of the mudroom. How to make the rec room in the basement a place where my family wants to hang out. A virtual walk-through helps me identify projects without putting my hands on a thing and getting distracted.

Inevitably, a room in the basement rises to the top as to where the cork needs to be popped to let all other projects commence. This room has had many labels since we moved in nearly fourteen years ago. Guest room. Craft room. Library. We had shelving and cupboards installed in 2010. Then in 2012, water got in the basement when we were putting an addition on the house and over half of the storage units had to be ripped out. Since then, finding a label for that room has been tough. It’s the catch-all room. During the holidays and decorating the house, I call it the room-where-all-the-magic-happens. It’s a holding room for all things that need to be taken back to the barn loft – out the basement door, across the backyard, through the main level of the barn, (aka the garage), and up fifteen iron steps to the wilderness. To that place behind a cheap wooden knob-less door. The door that I knock loudly on, ten or more times, to let the little beasts know I’m coming up. The story about loft critters is still brewing.

So on the flight back to Boston from Phoenix, it becomes clear that the project that must be on the priority list is this room. Scarier still was that I needed everyone’s help because the cork was made of questionable stuff. Does 15-year-old Will want to keep Beyblades that his 8-year-old-self played with? Does 13-year-old Liam want the journals that his 8-year-old-self drew pages upon pages of Mario levels? Does Bill like to re-do jigsaw puzzles that he has already put together once? I took a deep breath Saturday morning as I headed out the door and proclaimed, “I need everyone in the basement for an hour this afternoon.” Then I ran. Afraid of the fallout. Fast forward to that dreaded hour… I’m amazed at what we accomplished! I set up three stations: keep it in the house, put it in the loft, or donate it. As we moved through stuff, we had a laugh when memories were dusted off. Seeing what the three of them kept and what they didn’t want was enlightening. (Let me know if you want any jigsaw puzzles!) We gained a 10x10-foot patch of floor space and now have two empty cabinet shelves.

Backpedaling, at Logan airport on my way to Phoenix, I picked up a magazine that grabbed my eye. The headline on the front cover was “GET ORGANIZED!” Yes, all in caps. Anticipating my virtual de-cluttering list, I grabbed it and was a bit stunned when the cashier asked for $13 and change. But there were “100+ IDEAS FOR EVERY ROOM” and “QUICK & EASY CLUTTER CURES” – those were surely worth the money. I read it cover to cover on the flight to Phoenix. And then I cussed a Grandma Murphy little “s” cuss word. There was nothing new. I KNEW IT ALL. And it had been written by twenty- or thirty-somethings who had no real stuff to manage in their lives. And too much time to think about all their imaginary stuff. The little tidbits of “Paper Your Shelves” and “Roll Your Towels” were of no use to me. And the offering of how to avoid stray single socks coming out of the dryer? There is no such fix. Fiction.

And finally, our realities of how long to keep blush in your make-up bag before replacing it were so far apart I wanted to throw the magazine, for my replacement of blush has never been based on time but rather on consequence. The day the plastic case dives out of my hand and crashes on the bathroom floor and the lid and base skid apart as the blush breaks and sends crumbles of soft color flying – that’s when I know it’s time. I have about a week of patience after that for taking the hair band off the case and tapping broken rouge with the brush. And if the drug store isn't in my week's travel circle, I can probably make that bumbled together blush case last another two weeks. Fact.

Forty-eight Hours with Will

A couple of weeks ago, I spent forty-eight hours with Will. On Friday, I took him on a college tour at Tufts University in Medford, MA, then to his State Gymnastics meet the following day.

We aren’t in a serious search phase yet as Will is only a sophomore. Over the coming months, we’re visiting a variety of colleges to see which style of school/campus feels right. For Will to answer the question, “Could I spend four years here?” Tufts is perched on the Somerville/Medford line, but once you are at the center of campus, those towns vanish. The school is small, only 5,000 students; there’s easy access to Boston only five miles away; and a mechanical engineering student gave us the tour. Will and I were both impressed by all three of these things, particularly the fact that an engineering student was quite comfortable with public speaking. In June, we are going to visit Boston University, which has over 16,000 students and is right in Boston. A large urban university with no secluded campus but rather a cluster of big buildings hugging the Charles River and bordered by Commonwealth Avenue on the other side. The thought of a school this size makes me quake, but I’ll try to keep that to myself and let Will come to his own conclusions.

Rarely do I spend a full day with now 15-year-old Will. When he was two, we were a duo. Boston was our backyard, and we often made trips to the Museum of Science. On one visit we were with a group of friends — three moms and three kids. After lunch, the moms took the kids into the women’s bathroom. I hoisted Will up to the sink so he could reach the soap and water. Then we moved to the sensory-shattering hand dryer: the XLERATOR. Will and I stood side by side, he with one hand over an ear and the opposite shoulder scrunched up to his other ear. He dried one hand at a time. The sharp funneled warm wind blew the toddler fat around on top of his soft chubby hand. I looked at my hand as the same funnel-shaped air blew my skin around. Unlike Will’s, my skin appeared to be less connected to my flesh. He and I noticed the difference, and a scientist-mom-friend peeking over our shoulders mentioned something to the effect of age and the loss of collagen and how it would only get worse for me. I wasn’t even 40 yet.

Between the campus tour and the information session at Tufts, we picked up on bits of vocabulary that will become the norm Will’s junior year in high school. We stole looks at one another and nodded or shrugged to convey whether we had any idea what “early action” or “holistic application reading” meant. We were in a learning mode, and by the end of the day, we were both saturated. We agreed that future college visits would be best handled by visiting only one college a day.

We came away with some valuable information from the student tour guide as well as the admissions counselor. When touring colleges, ask what student life is like – do engineering students socialize with students outside of engineering? How many classes are taught by graduate students? When filling out the college applications do not write essays about sports, about your favorite family member, or about losing an iPad in a hurricane – particularly when that hurricane killed people. Counselors want to see a glimpse of you not already outlined on the application; they want to read something about you, not your grandma; they probably won’t want you on their campus if your essay only demonstrates that you are self-centered and immature.

Before heading home, I stopped in the bathroom, and when I went to dry my hands, there it was. Again. The XLERATOR. Like the hundreds of times I’ve dried my hands under wind tunnels like this since that day at the Museum of Science, I see that my skin has loosened so much over the years. With the air hitting right in the center of the back of my hand, the skin blows out into a circle with edges that wall up like a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I credit my 65-year-old skin, more than a decade beyond my biological age, not only to the natural ticking progression of the years since that day at the museum but also to a lack of hormones over the last ten years. Estrogen… breast cancer feeds on it, and it helps keep skin supple with collagen. My collagen glue has been wiped out with medicine since 2009.

The day after the tour, I drove Will to his State Gymnastics meet. We left the house at 6 a.m. and drove an hour for the 7 a.m. check-in. In the van, Will immediately put his earbuds in and went to a private place to mentally prepare for the meet. I could’ve listened to Christmas music the whole trip if I wanted to, for he had checked out of this ride with me. All the boys who competed that day placed high enough to qualify for Regionals. Will had a couple of slips. A fall on the rings dismount after a clean routine. A fall out of giants on the high bar that broke his momentum for the high-value dismount he had planned. He was gracious in accepting where he placed and making it to Regionals, but in the van I could tell he was disappointed. It’s a game of math for him. He knows precisely what each skill is worth and goes in confident that he can compete all of them. Then, there’s the personal reckoning after the meet.

On the drive home, I saw tightness in his face – his eyes straight forward and his lips pulled taut into a near grimace. He touched the thick callouses on the palms of his hand, thankful that the one spot of new skin he had babied for a week had not ripped off on the parallel bars. We talked a bit about the competition and prepping for the next one. Another chance to put it all out there at Regionals. Practice the next four weeks, five days a week, would polish his routines.

The conversation quieted. Will nodded off. I glanced over to see his eyes gently closed with a child’s eyelashes protecting sleep. And remnants of those beautiful toddler lips, pouty and supple, erasing teenage contemplation.

The Season of Brown

I’m pretty sure we had our last glimpse of winter from a mountaintop on Sunday. Saturday evening, Bill, Liam, and I drove two hours north up to Gilford, NH; we were skiing at Gunstock Mountain early Sunday morning with another family. Our oldest son, Will, had gone to Crotched Mountain, also in New Hampshire, with a friend to ski Saturday afternoon and night.

A drive north to the mountains never disappoints. And the fact that I can drive to the mountains still seems out of alignment with my Midwest born feet. However, on Sunday the lack of snow on that journey north meant one thing. The Season of Brown has arrived. Yet the summit of Gunstock, at 2,300 feet, had gotten four inches of snow a couple days earlier. When Gunstock came into sight, miles away, we recognized it because of the snowy wide strips running vertically down the mountain. The surrounding area was brown, just like the drive up. Aside from the snow at the very top, the trails weren’t covered in winter snow. Most of this was man-made snow — able to cling to the trails because the ground is still cold, the humidity in the atmosphere is just right, and the sun isn’t yet warm enough to melt it.

The snow on the trails was soft not slushy, but it was heading in that direction. It was hard work plowing through thick snow on some of the trails. My first thought was that it felt like skiing through peanut butter. Our friend we were skiing with named it more aptly: mashed potatoes.

Normally, I find a green run and ski it, by myself, from morning til close. Throughout my typical ski day, I build up confidence such that I don’t have to think about this ludicrous thing I’m doing. I get used to one trail’s curves, icy sheets, and gravelly frozen bits. I go slowly and stop often to take in the view. I don’t worry about getting hurt when I’m skiing alone, for I have complete confidence that one of those little five-year-olds who ski with no poles will get help for me if I happen to wipe out and not be able to get up.

But Sunday was different: our two families skied together every run. As we walked to the first chairlift, I coasted on a fine line between terror and peace. Blues and blacks scared me, yet I had a good set of greens under my belt for the season. Much like my snowshoeing expedition a few weeks back, I remembered that while down might be intimidating, I can ski across anything. Or, as an adult woman on the other side of fifty, I would be quite comfortable taking the skis off and walking down the mountain. Or sliding on my butt. I have choices. Our first run down would be a blue. Green is easiest, then blue, then black, then those crazy double blacks. There would be none of the latter that day.

I think the color label on the trail reflects the steepest part of that trail. I could tell on the blue trails that the earth was propped up a bit, pushing me faster than my comfortable green runs. Everyone skied ahead of me, but Bill. He took up his normal residence behind me, like the dad chasing behind his son’s bike the first time he rides solo. Bill did the same in Utah some thirty years ago when we were at a tough mountain, Snowbird, in which the green trails are the narrow mountain roads circling down the mountain. On that trip, Bill coaxed me down a blue run, away from the edge of a mountain. He stood at the top as I took off across the steep hill. I could traverse but not turn at the edge of the trail. Mentally, I couldn’t get past that moment in a turn when both skis point straight down the mountain. I fell instead. Then, I’d scoot around on my butt to go the other direction, stand up, traverse, and fall again. Perhaps I did this five or six times before I simply didn’t get up. Bill came whooshing down the mountain to my side. I was sobbing. His “let me give you a hug” was met with a fierce “a hug won’t get me off this %$#@ mountain!” I don’t remember how I made it down, but I know there was no hug involved. I had a six-inch purple bruise on the back of my thigh that trip from landing on my ski in the same place each time I fell.

As for Sunday’s trip, our friends had skied this mountain all season, so they had each trail’s personality memorized. They gave us a little debriefing before each run. The kicker was the black run with the “head wall.” Think forehead. A steep to vertical cliff landing at the bridge of a less steep nose. Maybe it was only twenty feet down. Maybe it was fifty. Or, was it a football field? I dropped in from one side and traversed across, cutting the edges of my skis into the side of the mountain to hold on. I was doing wide, ugly traverses leaning into the mountain. As I made the first turn —without a fall, I looked down to where the trail was a bit less angry, but still steep as a nose. I recognized Liam’s blue coat and black pants with a white wiggly puff attached to the back. He had his snow pants on backwards that day so all of his previous ski passes that should have been at his belly button were flying on his backside like a rabbit’s tail. He and his buddies decided not to use ski poles that day, and this made it very easy for him to do jumping jacks — with full extension of legs and arms — as he glided down the mountain.

I pulled my focus back to crossing the headwall. My shoulder was practically hugging the mountain. A straight, outstretched arm would’ve touched the ground. If I fell in place without sliding, which would be impossible, but if I did, my side would fall against the mountain. I wouldn’t fall down onto the the mountain for the side of the mountain was next to me. Watching Liam’s wild flying arms, I couldn’t help think that we both looked like hot messes coming down this trail, albeit for different reasons.

We weaved our way across the whole mountain, skiing most every run but the double blacks, and stopped around 2 p.m. After refreshments at the base, we packed up, anchored our ski bags on our backs, balanced our skis over a shoulder, and carried our poles in the other free hand. We landed on the pavement, out of the slush and mud puddles that had bloomed throughout the day. Then onto the gravel parking lot. A skier needs the right equipment for the job — as does a scuba diver or an astronaut. The lightness when removing the hard plastic boots, big helmet, sweaty gloves, and swishy snow pants leaves the released body feeling like it’s floating.

We slung our gear into the van, and in the driver’s seat, I slowly picked a path through the pot-holed lot onto the road. We were turning our backs on the snow. The woods around us had only dirty lumps of snow remaining. The trees weren’t yet budding. The dead leaves from fall sat as they had in late November. Entering the first Season of Brown for 2019 made me want to cry. The second Season of Brown will come again in November, after Halloween and weeks before the sparkle of winter again covers the dormant, dark ground and trees.

Snowshoes

Last weekend, I was on a solo writing retreat in the Berkshires.

Monday, March 4th

After six inches of snow last night, I worked in the morning then midday tested out my new snowshoes, plus accompanying “gators” designed to keep my calves dry and a water supply tucked into a backpack to keep my body hydrated.  Rather than drive somewhere, I decided to trek around the immediate area of where I’m staying.  There are several buildings on this timeshare plot of land, and around the perimeter, trees are dripping with snow. 

Putting snowshoes on feels like tying narrow tennis rackets to the bottoms of my feet.  My normal stride needs to widen to make room for the wider-than-my-feet snowshoes.  After twenty steps, my subconscious spoke, “Howdy, partner!”  The gait I’ve fallen into is reminiscent of a slightly bow-legged cowboy. 

My wander around the backyard is not a race.  I step slowly and methodically through the white canvas.  Whether dropping backwards into the snow to make a snow angel or writing in the snow by shuffling snow boots to draw a letter then taking a giant hop in order to start the next letter, I find the same giddiness in tableau blanc snow as I do in a new journal, an iced-over mud puddle, or a plate of Christmas dinner.  The perfect beginnings of those things tickle me, but once written in, broken through, or bitten into – respectively, they lose their clean, magical awe.

Following the edge of the property, a hill appears to my right.  In no hurry, I march up the hill and the steel grips on the bottom of the shoes hold tight.  Once on top, I see that to continue on my perimeter walk, I need to go down the other side of the hill.  And down looks longer and more challenging than the upward trek had been.  Remembering Bill’s first downhill ski lesson, I called forth his advice: Don’t ski down the mountain.  Ski across it.  Traverse.

I completed a three-point snowshoe turn by planting each foot heavily.  My eyes drew lines like that on a protractor from the point of origin to the arc.  If I made a traverse about ten degrees down the hill from my original path, I wouldn’t make much progress down the incline.  I sighted a thirty degree line that was doable.  Slow, marked steps took this sloth-like winter human down the other side of the hill.  At one of the turns, I had a pang of anxiety that I occasionally have while downhill skiing.  But it was fleeting because I can turn much easier on an incline with grippy snowshoes than I can with slick boards attached to my feet. 

My turn was as tight as that I make at the end of a row of crocheting, where I have to pay attention to which hole I pull that anchoring yarn through – the one that will make for a perfect turn, matching the one before it; that sets me up for gliding, traverse stitches back across the length of a blanket.  In four traverses, I’m at the bottom of the hill standing in a parking lot.  I hear water flowing in front of me and remember that there is a creek along one side of the property.

The juxtaposition of wide frozen chunks hanging over a noisy rippling stream is eye candy to me.  After I absorb it for a couple minutes, I step down to the stream’s frozen edge, tightly hugging the embankment.  I can’t really tell where the creek starts and the land ends.  The hollowness underfoot makes me think that I’m walking on a frozen, perhaps twelve-inch thick, bank of ice.  It’s wide enough that I don’t worry about it breaking; I stay close to the bank’s edge and do not venture out onto the chunk hanging over the mid-stream flowing water. 

I won’t string along the wondering mind; while navigating along a narrow eighteen-inch section of the bank — I fell in. Although it wasn’t so much a fall as an immediate lowering of my body by a few inches when an edge of ice broke under me.  I heard a splash into the six-inch deep water and immediately pulled that foot up, reached for a tree, and pulled my weight off of the crumbling edge.  I scrambled up the bank – a relative term given I was wearing tennis racquets – and was surprised that my feet weren’t soaked.  The loud splash must have been made by the twenty-five-inch long snowshoe quickly dipping into the water. 

Like following huge Hansel and Gretel crumbs, I turned to backtrack my own footprints and went up onto terra firma. Once on solid ground, I looked up and discovered that the most scenic part of this walk was actually at my back where the sun’s winter rays lit the trees and the stream.

Nebraskan Potstickers

I ended last week’s Musing with a photo of the bathtub at our hotel.  That was a great soak.  That particular late afternoon, I conducted the business of making dinner reservations for seventeen from that hot bubbly tub. 

In Lincoln, New Hampshire, very few restaurants take reservations.  Instead, you can call ahead and put your name on the list.  It would seem they equate this with you walking in and saying “I need a table for eight” to which they reply that there is an hour wait.  So if you call at five, you may be told that the soonest you can be seated is six.  Basically, by putting your name on their list, you wait in the comfort of your own space until 5:45 rather than lolling around at the entrance of the restaurant or standing at a crowded bar dodging elbows for forty-five minutes. 

We were traveling with gymnastics families, so at its peak, we had twenty-four in our community.  Ordering pizza in was the best bet for this group at the beginning of the week.  A couple nights later, the majority of us decided to eat out.  I volunteered to put our name on the list for 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. at a highly recommended local hamburger joint.  One table for eight adults and one for nine kids.  I called at 4:00, knowing from an attempted booking the day before that if I waited until 5:00 to call, we wouldn’t be seated until 7:30 or 8:00.  Which might mean 8:30.  At four o’clock on the dot, I called only to learn that I couldn’t put my name on the list for a specific time; rather, I had to call at just the right time to hit that elusive target time I wanted our groups to be seated.

From the bubbles, I called every fifteen minutes, changing the pitch and pace of my voice each time until I nailed the time.  Still the semi-reservation was complicated… No guarantee that groups would be seated at the same time or near one another, and we might still be split up into smaller groups.  With so many conditions, our group re-grouped.  Six adults went out for dinner.  I think that’s a good number to do dinner with under these “call-ahead” conditions.  Kids happily ate in and the adults had a just-long-enough wait sitting on a cozy couch before being seated.  In the end, six friends squeezed into a booth and laughed most of the evening between bites of brie & bacon or teriyaki burgers.

The next night we were in need of dinner for twelve.  Friends staying at a different location suggested Chinese and that they would pick it up and bring it to our room at the hotel.  I volunteered to organize.  Remembering the hotel had given us a list of local restaurants when we checked in, I found Imperial Palace on the list, plopped it into a Google search, and then sent the menu link to all families.  They texted their selections, and I called in the sixteen items, paid for the order with my credit card, and retreated to the tub again to sooth sore muscles.  I had a half hour.  I needed that half hour.

My phone rang several minutes into the soak.  It was Bill.  “We think you placed the order at a restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska!”

I hit “Recents” on my phone and re-dialed the Imperial Palace.

“Where are you located?”

“Lincoln.”

“What state?”

“Nebraska.”

“Oh no!  I’m the one who placed that big order twenty minutes ago!  I’m in Lincoln, NEW HAMPSHIRE!!”

“Hold on… STOP THAT ORDER!” he shouted to his kitchen. 

I braced myself for his response to me.

“No worries. It’s happened before.  I’ll credit your card.”

How kind this man was not to yell at me.  His response really could have taken the evening a whole other direction. 

From the tub, I sent a short cuss text to Bill, confirming my error.

Then, I texted confirmation of my error to all the parents, including our friends out driving around between Chinese restaurants.  I begged for someone else to take over the ordering responsibilities.  An organized dad called the Imperial Palace in Lincoln, New Hampshire and placed the same order.  I got out of the tub, leaving behind one of the most unpleasant baths ever.  Dinner arrived an hour-and-a-half after the Nebraska order had been placed.

Fortunately, I was with friends.  Forgiving friends.  Humorous friends.  Friends who will long remember ordering Chinese from Lincoln, Nebraska.  One cleverly texted me a photo of the ever elusive Nebraskan potsticker.

Years ago, when the question “why” spilled so easily from preschoolers in my life – my own and the children of friends and family – I would stop the repetitive questions for which I didn’t know the answer with one simple repetitive answer: “because the sky is blue.”  I stole that response from someone else I met along the way.  These now-teenagers still remember my response and have used it with the young “why”-asking children in their own lives.

“Because the sky is blue” gave me an idea.  Rather than linger over this imperfect ordering fiasco, I’ve found a new philosophical answer to an often asked question in our house: “Where is …?”  If I don’t know where the object is, my answer shall be “Lincoln, Nebraska.” This answer shall also apply to those grown-ups who are looking for the location of the next gymnastics meet.  Or the nearest Chinese restaurant. Lincoln, Nebraska.

On Skis

The Malcolms have been in New Hampshire scooting around in calf-high hard plastic boots with slick one-by-fours snapped onto the bottom.  Some of us point them down the mountain and ski.  Personally, I traverse across the mountain and brake.  If the run is gentle, I straighten them out a bit, aim downhill, and work on that parallel sway I see others doing on the steep bits. 

But generally, I grip the side of the mountain with the sharp edges of my skis.  If the pace quickens too rapidly, I turn harder and carve lines into the snow pack with the edges of my skis and conquer the mountain by stopping.  With this maneuver, I imagine I leave giant fans imprinted on the snow behind me, like the tail of a fancy goldfish. 

Daily the view changes.  One day was full of blue sky and sun.  Another, day-long huge snowflakes fell against the evergreens making it feel like I was skiing in a snow globe.  Another, high clouds and strong winds left me not looking around but rather head down into the wind as I worked my way down the mountain.  Yesterday, at the 3,064-foot summit of Loon Mountain, I looked down into the soft, hazy clouds hovering in the space between the mountains.  I looked down into the clouds.

For a flat-lander who grew up at around 500-foot elevation, the thoughts of a being atop a mountain summit, skiing down the side of a mountain, and looking down into clouds… well, I’m intermittently rattled and awed.  On every run, I pull over to the side of the ski trails a half dozen times to look at the mountainous horizon.  From the lower half of Loon Mountain, I see tract buildings on the side of a mountain below and in front of me.  It’s a bit unsettling, for they look like they are pitched forward, about to fall into the valley.    

The ski trails are crowded here with skiers like us on February break from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Wisely, New Hampshire and Vermont hold off their schools’ winter break until next week.  Then they can have the mountains to themselves mid-week.  The skiers rather than the mountain have been my biggest challenge this week.  The skier with the right-of-way is the one downhill; logical as we don’t have rearview mirrors.  This is a fine rule for adept skiers who can pick a line through and around those in front of them.  I generally don’t need to worry about passing other skiers, until I come up on a new skier.  My muscles stiffen when I see a skier making unpredictable, wide traverses, and slow turns.  I’m not sure where to pass them, so instead, I stalk them down the trail until it widens enough for me to comfortably make a move.  I’m the same obstacle to those behind me.

From the summit of Loon Mountain, white capped, 6,288-foot high Mt. Washington in the distance. Mt. Washington’s conditions today: 8 degrees F with 53 mph wind. Not gusting… solid 53 mph wind speed.

From the summit of Loon Mountain, white capped, 6,288-foot high Mt. Washington in the distance. Mt. Washington’s conditions today: 8 degrees F with 53 mph wind. Not gusting… solid 53 mph wind speed.

The longest green trail I skied this trip runs from the summit all the way to the bottom of the mountain.  Green trails, being the easiest and just above the bunny hill, is where relatively new skiers and no-thrill skiers such as myself practice our craft.  Plus, the snowboarders.  I can’t move beyond thinking that people with both legs attached to a wide surfboard on the snow have much less control than those of us attached to two skinny sticks.  The sound of a snowboarder behind me is unnerving.  Boarders have only two edges to carve and do so by manipulating their full body weight between the two.  Often, they travel in groups – this sounds like a grinding stampede coming down the mountain. 

Skiers and snowboarders in New England are more skilled with edges than people who learn to ski out west, for we have ice.  Skiing out west feels like a nonstop trip on marshmallows.  New Englanders are used to the feel and to the sound of grinding edges on patches of ice.  I asked Liam what he thought that scrape sounded like.  “Coffee grinder?”  A good analogy.  As for me, fingernails on a chalkboard.  I end each ice grinding of my skis with a little shudder.  Assuming I see the ice before I hit it, I run my skis across the mountain, dig in the edges, and scrape-slide down until I hit snow.  When a snowboarder hits ice behind me, it sounds like a Mac truck with an engaged snow plow sliding down a giant chalk board.  I grit my teeth and wait for impact.  I narrow my traverse trying to leave as much free trail as possible for this runaway semi.

While I often stop to the side of the trail to admire the view, I do the same to let traffic – boarders and skiers – go by me.  Much like getting onto a busy highway, I watch for a gap, preferably re-entering when the uphill trail is absolutely clear.  I like to have the mountain to myself.  To practice clinging to the side of it and building thunder thighs while doing so. 

By the end of the week, my thighs are my superpower and a hot bath soothes the pain.

Dichotomy of Place

I’ve been out of the loop for a couple weeks! Two weeks ago, I finished Round 2 of my manuscript and sent it off to the professor I met at the New York State Writers Institute for her to read a second time.

Then, last week I stepped off the carousel in Massachusetts and jumped on another one in Iowa to help my mom and my family. Mom was in the hospital for a week with a nasty infection in her colon. She’s home and on the mend, and I’m back on the carousel in Massachusetts.

However, my marbles aren't back in order yet. I'm struggling a bit with dichotomy of place. I spent a week waking up to wide horizon sunrises — and on one particularly cold morning, this spectacular double sunrise.

Then, early Sunday morning, I saw the hot pink morning ball breaking through a cloud on the horizon of Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline sleepily nestled in the foreground. With a strong tailwind, that flight out of O’Hare was the shortest ever back to Boston, an hour and forty minutes.

Unlike my normal landings at Boston’s Logan Airport, when I avert my eyes from the view, I glued my eyes to the window, forcing myself to watch and to hold confidence in the pilot as we glided what looked like only a few feet over the water. I held tight convincing myself that a smooth landing strip would soon appear and catch the jet's tires.

The abruptness of this change in location — from calling one place “home” and then having less than a two-hour flight out of the Midwest to “home” 1,600 miles away — has left me reeling a bit, looking for firm footing on “place.”

So, stringing a line of words together to form a sentence is a challenge. Let alone a few paragraphs. Perhaps next week.

All is well... I’m home.

Organizing Codfish

Flitting. Random. Chaotic. Yet, relatable.

These are words that describe the second half of my manuscript.  I’m looking for a quote to open that section, and there isn’t much in the way of positivity about those first three words! 

I want to prepare new readers for this second jauntily meshed together section. “It’s all right.  These essays don’t flow together.  Take it easy – don’t look for a theme.  Just take them as there are… independently written essays about random topics from life in North England.”

And that, my friend, is a huge leap of faith to ask the professor emeritus of writing to take as she embarks on reading my manuscript for the second time.  The professor’s main over-arching idea in her response to my manuscript the first time she read it was that there was no over-arching organization allowing the general story to come to a designed conclusion or culmination of events. 

Yup.  That’s dead on. 

I’m still hoping that a newly written preface explaining this bundle of essays, plus a reordering of the essays, will help this time around.  I’m also looking for a quote for each section of my book, which is currently titled Cornfields & Codfish - Musings.  For “Cornfields,” which includes reflective pieces about Iowa, I found this:

“To understand where you are going

you must understand where you come from.”

– Celtic Proverb

Yup. That’s dead on.

Then… there’s “Codfish.”  Let’s just say that the organization of “Cornfields” - about life twenty years ago – flows better than those in “Codfish.”  I have an idea why.  We’re still living the stories of New England.  They happen haphazardly one after another.  They aren’t ready to be drawn into a straight line. There are too many holes in our narrative.  Maybe in another twenty years, but not now.

This afternoon, I found a potential quote for “Codfish”:

“We live in a rainbow of chaos.”

- Paul Cezanne, French Post-Impressionist painter

Yup.  That’s dead on.

(By the way, have you seen the cover photo for my book? Thanks to Iowa photographer Angie Carlson’s artistic eye for The Cover Photo!)

Three Tines

When we were at Mom and Dad’s in Iowa over the holidays, I was struck by the use of tines – three different sets in the course of 24 hours.

While Bill and I were out one day visiting friends, Mom spread peanut butter over buttery crackers, sandwiched them together, then dipped them into almond bark that she had melted in a double-boiler.  It looked like white chocolate.  She laid them out on two big pans so the sweet chocolaty coating would harden. 

Later that afternoon when I got back, I rallied my nieces into helping with the final dipping of the day: round pretzels into brown chocolate almond bark.  The pretzels were wide enough for a fork to go through the holes in the middle, so after a dunking the tines would haul them out of the melting pot.  With a few tap, tap, taps on the side of the double-boiler, the excess chocolate would drop off and then the circle was dropped on to parchment that covered the big pans.  It was a loud endeavor.  The sound of the tapping reminded me, unfortunately, of the tapping of the toilet brush on the side of the bowl after I cleaned it.  My nieces loaded up the forks with three or four pretzels to make the dipping go a bit quicker, resulting in fewer taps. 

The next morning, I went out to help Dad feed the cattle.  Twenty-some calves from last spring are on the feedlot at Mom and Dad’s.  They were brought here from my brother’s place, a mile away, to be weaned.  I was home when they were first brought over in November, and I saw their first feeding.  Dad scattered hay along the 25-foot-ish feed bunk to draw them in.  At first they looked like petulant two-year-olds refusing to eat in this confusing environment sans their mothers’ milk.  Slowly, they stuck their heads down and latched onto some hay.  Dad sprinkled a little corn in to entice them. 

On this most recent visit in December, their timidity had completely vanished, and I smiled at the noise a bunch of calves could make eating shelled corn and protein pellets!  I remember a lot of the sights and smells from growing up on the farm, but those big calves crunching away seemed new to me and made me smile.

I filled several five-gallon pails with shelled corn, and Dad spread them along the bunk, followed by a five-gallon pail of protein pellets.  The dust that the corn kicked up as it poured out of the bin was familiar and intense.  It introduced a memory of “all things corn” growing up: harvesting it in the fall, grinding it in the winter, shelling it another time, and finally scooping up ground corn and dumping it in mounds in the manger to feed the cattle when we milked dairy cows.  Twice a day, every day.  Fifteen years for me; many more for Mom and Dad.

After we fed the cattle, Dad checked the shed where the cattle went to get out of the wind and the cold.  It needed to be bedded again, for the straw spread out a few days ago had been tamped down into the manure.  The barn and shed shared a wall.  I crawled to the top of the stack of small bales in the corner of the barn and gently dropped the bales down to Dad.  The stack went up to about two feet from the roof of the barn, probably five or six bales high – about fifteen feet.  The dusty smell and grasp of twine holding the bales together felt recent.  Much more recent than the span of years it had been since I tossed my first straw bale.

Dad tossed the six bales through the wide opening that was a half-wall high between the barn and the shed.  We hopped over the wall and grabbed pitch forks.  I'll leave it to you to envision what "hopping over a wall looks like" when a 75-year-old and 52-year-old complete this feat. As we pulled the twine strings off the bales, they fell apart in six-inch sections.  To spread the straw evenly, I stuck my fork into one section at a time and shook it vigorously around me.  The movement was an old one; it put my shoulder muscles into an action that felt new.  I loved this part of growing up.  Taking a section at a time and spreading it out.  While I’m sure my company was pleasant for Dad, I’m not sure my contribution in the shed had much of an impact.  He had four bales spread when I was midway through my second.

A couple early mornings I went with Dad to feed the cattle at my brother’s place.  My brother had foot surgery a few weeks ago, so getting up and down, in and out of the skid loader was on hold for him until his foot healed.  I took up my spot as gate girl, one that I’m very familiar with, and watched the lights on the skid loader disappear in the pre-dawn light over the rise along the fence line as Dad went to get a bucket full of silage.  When I saw the headlights, I opened the gate wide and stood in the opening until Dad was close.  A couple months ago, the cows had gotten out and now there were a couple wild old girls who hovered at the gate entrance whenever it was opened.  Dad took four loads of silage into the field and dumped them into old inverted tractor tires that served as feed bunks.  Four loads is key in defining the importance of a gate-girl or boy: If Dad did this himself, it would’ve meant getting on and off the skid loader sixteen times to open and close the gate.  Gate-girl is not a glamorous job but very helpful – more than that of straw-girl.

One morning, my brother jumped onto the second skid loader to take a big round bale of stalks in to bed the area where the cows were fed.  He would catch heck from Dad for doing it, but he did it never-the-less.  These bales were taller than me and held together with nylon string netting. My brother drove the skid loader up to the tine attachment suited for moving bales, loaded a bale, and headed out to spread it.  Dad helped him get the string off the bale, which took a bit of doing – moving the bale this way and that to get to all the string off.  Then, with the same expertise as Dad’s spreading of straw with a pitch fork, my brother toggled the lever in the skid loader to spread the cornstalks out.  He drove slowly as he bounced the bucket, covering the exact area where the ground was soft from the cows feeding there.  

I could do tines in chocolate easily, and I had a good attempt at the pitch fork tines, but I’ll leave the skid loader tines to someone else.  While I watch the gate.


edited.jpg

The Address Book

The countdown to Christmas: Six days as of today, December 19th.

I’m trying to revive an old tradition this year: Sending Christmas cards. When Bill and I were first married, this was one of my favorite holiday activities. Hand writing addresses, writing a Christmas letter, buying beautiful Christmas cards, writing a personal note and signing each one. I had a lot more free time back then to do all of that, plus scurry around looking for addresses.

Two years ago, I had Christmas cards made and threw most of them away the following summer. I sent a few to friends who I thought would get a kick out of getting Christmas cards in July. I’m torn by the process. I love beautiful Christmas cards; yet I want to send people we haven’t seen in a long time a photo; I like to write a Christmas letter, but I’ve gotten a bad vibe about those for a few years; I want to write a personal note on each card...

With time to wait for Will while he and a friend were at a movie Sunday night, I packed my backpack with all things related to Christmas cards and found a Panera near the movie theater. I had my two address books and my phone with me so I could address the envelopes. With my phone, I had a tool that I did not have the last time I did this: the ability to text. I sent several quick requests “What’s your address?” I was about to send one woman that message when my phone pinged with a text from her with the very same question!

One address book is from the 80s and 90s. The second is from the first decade of the new millennium. And contacts in my phone may or may not include addresses, unless the residence is on one of the carpool circuits. And even then, some of those houses are programmed into my internal map by visual location rather than street address.

I started with the oldest address book. The tabs where the letters should be are so worn that I cannot read most of them. I start with the A’s and flip through page after page first looking for people who live in England. Even though it would be a Christmas miracle if any of the cards I put in the mail on the 17th might arrive before the 25th, those are the envelopes I address first. Page after page I turn and run my finger down the entries. And the joy of writing Christmas cards is dampened by echoes of loss over the last thirty years.

We’ve had a lot of drizzly, dull days since Thanksgiving. The sun only peeks out in between swarms of gray clouds. Following in bleakness, the flags have been at half-mast for what seems like weeks. They hang heavy, wet, and limp, perhaps they are too low to catch the winds that pass over the tops of the poles. The iconic white, wooden New England church in our town that burned down on October 23rd still lies in rubble covering a full lot. Our real Christmas tree started reaching its dry prickly fingers to the floor within a week of putting it up. It must’ve been cut down in October before being trucked to the local Christmas tree lot. Its lifeless branches remind me of the feet of dead chicken. If you’ve ever butchered chickens, you know what I mean. Glass ornaments shatter as the tree slouches and shrugs them off.

Initially, the pages of my address book only added to this environmental bleakness, showing me loss over the last few decades. I see names of my grandmothers, two great aunts, many elderly friends, and a few young people. As I become more grown up, losses become more common. They feel like a tearing pain that simply won’t stop. I think the saving grace is knowing I’m not alone. Like generation after generation, to feel this intensely means to have had much. This isn’t new in the world, just another stage of adulthood.

Bitterness makes the sweet sweeter. The sweet life as vibrant as it is all around us, as well as the sweetness of what we’ve experienced in the past with family and friends. As much as the beauty of the Christmas ornaments on the tree remind me of past events and people, those names written in gray pencil lead in my address book are the same. To have two old address books and a phone filled with names of friends and family… how lucky.

And that’s where I am today. Each name that I cared enough about to jot down in the address book is a gift. Some people I knew better than others. My grandmothers’, mom and dad’s, and siblings’ addresses and phone numbers were etched firmly in my memory. Some people were good friends for a time, then by the patter of life, I saw them less and then through distance, heard from them less. Some I see maybe once a year, some more often. Some every few years, or less.

While I feel a ping of hurt seeing names of people who have passed away, at the turn of a page, I laugh at an entry jotted down so I would remember how I met the person: “At the train table in the library.” That mom and I never met up again, but it’s good to know that in the hour we spent with our toddlers at the library over ten years ago that we connected enough to exchange information. That day she was a gift to me – more important than a yellow sticky with a name and a number; I wrote her down in my address book.

I feel the very same about my Linda Malcolm-the-writer’s address book. Our physical paths may frequently or very rarely cross, but I’m so thankful that you are in my address book. You are a powerful gift of light this holiday season.

Blessings to you and yours, now and always.

Fresh Air Macbeth

Every day, Liam sets his alarm for 6 a.m. then moves to the couch to finish his night’s sleep. Sometimes he hits snooze and his alarm goes off again at 6:10 a.m. Will’s alarm goes off at 6:23 a.m. And today, my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. There’s no need for Bill to set an alarm given all of this daily, early morning ruckus.

This morning, I turned the Christmas tree lights on, watered the tree, made a cup of coffee, and decided I had time to sit and drink it. I went to the couch to find that Liam’s lanky legs had taken up two of the three cushions. I wiggled into the third. Most of him was under the plush blanket, but his head and feet stuck out either end. The distance from his head to his feet didn’t correlate. Surely there must be two boys under there and I’m seeing the head of one and the feet of another? How did these legs sprout like this? From September to the end of October, he grew an inch. We are getting closer and closer to seeing eye to eye – physically, not theoretically.

Liam’s eyes were closed. “Mom, can I have a bagel?” Yes, he must be growing; he’s asking for food in his sleep. He’s in 7th grade and will be thirteen in January. In the last couple of months, he has headed for bed without being asked to and without asking me to tuck him in. And, what is it that I’m feeling? A liberating sadness. Simultaneous polar opposite feelings are exhausting.

As his body stretches up, his humor bone is expanding with him. Liam’s word plays suck me in, and his dry one-liners catch us out.

Every turn of the season between summer and fall, the change from humid to dry air brings nosebleeds to the Malcolms. Liam was hit particularly hard this year. One late Sunday afternoon in October, the boys and I were headed to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston to see Shakespeare's Macbeth performed outside. A fog artist had set up five fog exhibits in Boston, and one was at the arboretum. The fog was set to roll continuously down a hill that was the stage – a fabulous setting for Macbeth.

That morning Liam had a torrential nosebleed, which he handled quite well, Kleenex after Kleenex, as he stood over the garbage can. Consequently, for the trip to the Arboretum, along with our chairs, blankets, snow pants, and hot cocoa, I packed an easily accessible lump of tissues.

We parked then walked nearly a mile to find a spot on the lawn by the hill. We set up camp, sat down on our beach chairs, and Liam’s nose took its cue for another gusher. Calmly, Liam accepted and exchanged tissues. I was trying to keep the blood-stained tissues out of sight from the crowd around us. From Liam’s nose, I whisked them quickly into a grocery bag. Liam looked at me as he sat patiently waiting for it to stop.

“It wouldn’t be Macbeth without a little blood, Mom.”

Indeed.

Too Many Toothpaste Choices

Some pieces of writing brew for weeks and months. This one has been simmering for years. It came to a head on November 15th at a supermarket in the toothpaste aisle. I was in a gargantuan supermarket with a bustling lunch area, warehouse high ceilings, and aisle after aisle of saleable goods. I only go to this store once every few weeks when I get my hair done. It’s two minutes away from the salon. I go for a quick lunch. And to grab a few things on our grocery list. On the 15th, I failed that last step.

When I got home from this megastore, I told Bill that we should go there, together, some time when we have time to explore the store, together, then cook a meal, together, in the evening. That’s the mindset with which this store needs to be approached. As a team. An adventure. An outing. A date with my husband. Not to quickly pick up a few things I need at home. On the 15th, I went into that supermarket to pick up ten items. I left after finding three.

There were too many aisles to search. Too much ruckus from echoes bouncing to the 100-foot high ceiling and back to my ears. Too many choices on the shelves. And on this day, the toothpaste aisle did me in. I have a basic opinion about toothpaste: every adult human wants to keep their teeth as long as possible and to have fresh breath, and one toothpaste can accommodate those basic needs.

This mantra flows when I’m in the drugstore shopping for toothpaste. Crest whitening. Crest with Scope. Crest whitening with Scope. Crest Pro-Active. Crest Complete. Complete sounds good, proactive even – and complete should include whitening. I see Crest for sensitive teeth and my general opinion widens about toothpaste. There could be two kinds: One complete, and one complete with an ingredient for sensitive teeth. I contemplate which one to get for our family. I’m a Crest loyalist. But beyond that? I want it all. All. In. One. I maneuver those drugstore shelves and depart with two tubes of toothpaste with Scope on the logo. I don’t know what else the toothpaste was capable of – visually, I’ve narrowed the choice to Crest and to a box with Scope on the label. No true reason for selecting one with the Scope other than it’s a second tier of easy visual selection.

In the supermarket on the 15th, toothpaste was on my short list. I found the long aisle with toothpaste stacked on shelves up and down both sides. My eagle-eye spotted the Crest logo five feet ahead of me on the left. I pulled my cart as far to the right as possible and stood back to peruse the shelves for the words Scope.

In disbelief, my laser scan measured Crest shelves five-feet high and ten-feet wide. I scanned again to reaffirm the measurement. Was this like the ceiling that I felt was 100-foot high but in reality was only 50 feet high? The second scan proved to be an accurate measurement of 5’ x 10.’ Bigger than a standard 4’ x 8’ piece of plywood. Two of me lying on the floor head to toe would span the entire length. My senses were on fire with overload of choice. The Crest tubes leapt off the shelves and danced in my eyesight. Heart pounding, I broke the trance with a head shake and continued down the aisle to the nearest check out. Without toothpaste. Without six other items on my list.

The word “choice” baffles. It’s not always a positive word. I want to live in a place with freedom of basic unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To have the choice of making major life decisions in whichever way I wish. To have freedom of choice. However, when it comes to small stuff like toothpaste, the market is clobbering me with too many itty-bitty choices.

Even the two local supermarkets where we normally shop for standard supplies are feeling too big. Fortunately, I can write my list based on the layout of the stores and make my way through each of those buildings grabbing items pretty quickly from their appointed spots. And skipping the thousands of items not on my habitual list.

One afternoon the week after Thanksgiving, I needed a few staples, plus food for dinner. My heart skipped a beat thinking back to the megastore experience. On that day, I couldn’t even do the local supermarket. I needed a small space. I wanted to go to the place that feels to me much how I envision Linus’ security blanket feels to him. I picked up Liam from school, and we went to our small, local family-owned grocery store. I’m guessing the total square footage is maybe less than a quarter of our local supermarket. Pushing a mini-sized grocery cart, I felt a coziness when I walked through the door.

Normally, we go to this store for the fresh stuff: fruit, vegetables, meat, breads, and desserts. However, on this day, Liam and I shopped every aisle. After picking up fresh fruit, that smelled and looked just-picked, I went to the back of the produce section to the dairy case. I have a quirky habit at this store when I open the door to get a gallon of milk. I inhale. Then I smile. For every single time I open that door, I either get a whiff of cut-up fresh fruit or of pleasant disinfectant cleaner. Never is there the lingering smell of spoiled milk that I’ve come to accept at the supermarkets.

From the milk, Liam and I scooted through the dry goods aisle for Goldfish crackers, Cheezits, and Wheat Thins. There may have been only two flavors of each, which was fine. We are the original-flavor-cracker-eating kind of family. I grabbed one roll of paper towels, and we rounded that short aisle and approached the meat counter where I was greeted by one of the butchers.

“How are you today? What can I get you?” And he handpicked and packed the steak tips, the marinated chicken, and the boneless pork chops for me. Same thing at the deli counter. And in the bakery. Liam picked out a package of hamburger buns from the choice of two brands on the shelf.

We pushed our cart up to Shirley’s checkout lane; if Shirley is working, I’ll wait in her line so we can visit as she scans and bags for us. Once bagged, we pushed our cart out to the parking lot where just twenty cars can park.

Sometimes, I buy toothpaste at this store. I couldn’t say which kind of Crest, just one of the three tubes on the shelf. Here, I do not have too much choice. Just two or three options. And a little bit of community. And that’s refreshing.


Faithful Morning Light

It’s black Friday. Will is skiing with friends; Bill and Liam are home making bread; and I’m in the library. I’m thankful yesterday was Thanksgiving, for I’ve brought a mug of green tea and the first sip has scalded the taste buds on my tongue. And that’s where we seem to be many days, scrounging around for the good amidst the bad and the ugly. I want to associate the word “relentless” with the “good” for a bit.

With a little prompting by a message delivered at church a week ago, I sat down with a blank page the night before Thanksgiving and began the list of things I’m grateful for by taking a spin through photos on my phone. What a great place to start, for I rarely take a photo of something I’m NOT thankful for!

A lover of writing lists, this one is particularly rewarding because there are no restricting rules for writing it and no actions required after writing it. I can even lose it and simply write another one; it doesn’t need to be the same. The beauty of this list is in the reflecting and initial writing, rather than the rereading.

I managed to come up with a full notebook page of hand-written good stuff. It meant walking away from the TV, social media, newspaper – and those other lists with the prefix “to-do.”

I have been revising my manuscript more than writing lately. I have a deadline of the end of November to send the manuscript for a reread by a professor/editor I met at the Writers Institute over the summer. The biggest challenge has been to organize my musings so that they will make sense to a new reader. I do not write based on a calendar with a topic slated in for each week, reflecting a natural arc or flow or theme. Scattered, random, and sprinkled are the more positive ways I would describe my writing process. Disorganized, strewed, diffused would be those adjectives on the polar opposite of my description. I’m looking for a meeting place in the middle of the two.

However, today I’m not working on the manuscript, rather I’m in my corner office and reflecting on a corner in Mom and Dad’s basement.

When I walk up the steps to the quiet room in the library, it feels like a grand cape of the every-day-non-writer Linda flies off and glides to the floor. It lays there with all that is “that me” until I depart the room a couple hours later. Similarly, Linda Malcolm the writer doesn’t think too much about the quiet room when I’m not in there. However, I noticed the quiet room recently when I was on my way to the post office, which is next door to the library. Early morning sun was shining on both buildings and my eye gazed at my corner office. The whole annex on the right-hand side of the building.

Pivot to scene two. A week ago, I went to Iowa for a pre-Thanksgiving trip by myself to see my family. Mom had Thanksgiving dinner early with all my siblings and their families. After the clean-up, the dishwasher sprung a leak and flooded the kitchen floor, then seeped through the beams to the basement where we soaked up and DryVac-ed up a small pond. If this little event hadn't occurred, I may not have noticed this corner.

Scenes from childhood live like apparitions. The feeling of a time and place is familiar but rarely tangible. Yet this… Oh my… This. These are the shelves that kept us fed with fruit and vegetables in the winters. With the same canned fruits and vegetables. Peaches, green beans, applesauce, Bing cherries, peaches, tomatoes. I caught these quiet shelves early in the morning, lit by the sun coming in the basement window across the room. Each jar points back to the growing season, to Mom’s work in canning, as well as ahead to dinners throughout the winter and early spring. Perhaps there are more pints than quarts now, but that is the only difference I see from these shelves to those of some thirty years ago.

Of all the scribbling on that list, these corners fall under the unwritten item that draws them together today. Faithful morning light.

The Cover Photo!

I bumped into an Iowan a few weeks ago. We had never met and didn’t recognize one another’s family names, even though we grew up only fifteen miles apart, with one town separating her hometown and mine.

Today, Angie Carlyle lives in western Iowa. Included among her many titles are beekeeper and photographer. We had the pleasure of chatting back and forth over a few days. Her talent with a camera is what prompted our conversations.

I spend some time every week putzing around on Facebook looking for groups who might someday be interested in what I write. “I Grew Up in Iowa” is one such group, and it’s there where I found Angie’s work.

When I visit Mom and Dad, there are a couple of times a day I disappear outside with my phone to take photos – at sunrise or about an hour before sunset. The latter being my favorite, for the light at that time is like truth serum pouring over trees, fields, buildings, equipment, dirt, and flowers. There are no purer nor more vibrant colors than from that last powerful light of the day.

I’m certain that’s why Angie’s work caught my eye. She sees Iowa light the way I do. Anyone can take pictures of silos, barns, horses, and hydrants, but when a photographer can capture those back road images in the richness of the right light, the result conveys a stunning portrayal of the spirit of place. Those images seize moments full of ambiance, character, and tone. They present a motionless scene peppered with ethereal life.

Here’s a sample of her work – mocked up with my working book cover! I’m delighted to have met this fellow Iowan and so grateful for her talents. Her cover photo and my essays make for a great team.

Now, go for a late afternoon stroll through Iowa via Angie’s camera lens on her Facebook page, Iowa Back Road Images. Enjoy her photos as you indulge in the magic of Iowa light!

Nearly All Go for Fall

With nearly my whole being, I’m welcoming cool temps and cool breezes. Frosty shadowed mornings and orange leaves spotlighted with the morning sun. A light sweater over a summer short-sleeved shirt. The comfort of my hair insulating my neck rather than pulled up in a summer ponytail.

By the end of October, I’ll have little pots of thick hand cream and lip balm placed within reach of the day’s journey. Reminders of the dryness of fall rustle in the leaves on the sidewalks and on the catching of skin when putting more knits on my body.

“I think I have dust in my gills.” That’s Liam’s interpretation of this change. Time for more tea and hot cocoa to help clear the dust of cool fall afternoons and dry nights. Bill and I smiled when Liam started drinking English tea last winter. Based strictly on the English population I’ve met, including Bill’s mum, who was a kind of English tea goddess, English breakfast tea is usually consumed with milk or with milk and sugar, only occasionally, black. Liam started his tea odyssey with sugar and... half and half. No half and half in the house? No tea for Liam, thank you. As much as I enjoy half and half in my coffee, I cringe when I make Liam’s tea with this thick dairy product.

We had our first frost over the weekend. Soon there will be fires in the fireplace. Once Bill gets on that kick, there will be a fire every night. Before the snow flies, we want to rent a log splitter and take care of chunked up logs from a tree we had taken down this summer. Then there’s the creosote that needs to be swept away before the first fire.

Chili, stew, and roast beast are on the horizon. More slow-cooking, less grilling.

The October mammogram has come and gone with an all-clear.

Yes, the stage is nearly set to snuggle into my favorite season. If only my feet were as ready as the rest of me. It was 44 degrees this morning. As I looked through the mudroom for proper shoes, my feet screamed like a toddler. “I want to wear sandals!” Not this morning. “I’m not going if I can’t wear my sandals!!!” No. “But I don’t know what other shoes match my outfit! And, I don’t want to wear socks. Definitely, no socks. I. Want. Sandals!”

We agree on shoes with no socks. The toes wriggled about all morning inside the confines of their enclosures. They’re happy now that I’m at the library. I kicked off the shoes and brought out a pair of short socks from my backpack. The library runs cool, so I always have an extra sweater and socks with me.

Shoes with no socks seem OK. Socks only seem OK. I’m taking baby steps toward the season in which both are essential.