Stopping to See the Berries

As much as I like to claim a love for change, I’m a creature of habit. The change of seasons makes me giddy. A friend once pointed out that those aren’t really changes because they happen every year. Consistently.

Since 2010, I’ve done Pilates once or twice a week. Stretching my wings keeps the on-going shrinking effect of radiation from affecting my range of motion on the left side. At the end of class, we do a “mermaid” which is an arm-overhead side stretch while seated on the floor. Then we add “thread-the-needle” taking that arm from overhead and weaving it through the hole under the other armThat's firmly planted in place with a hand on the floor. Then, the finale and my favorite: we bring the arm back overhead and then twist back and reach in the opposite direction of thread the needle. It’s my quiet way of cursing cancer, sticking out my tongue while proving I have full range of motion on the left side. Actually, there’s no cursing, only thankfulness for that movement that I can so easily do.

There are sixteen to twenty people in each Pilates class, and quite a few of us are regulars who have been with our instructor for a long time. Pilates is about strengthening the core, moving small muscles, and stretching the body. Small, mindful moves with a bit of fierceness unseen to casual observers. You need to be on the mat to see and feel the intensity of the sport. Hmmm. It’s not a sport per se… but that’s what fell out of my fingers, so I’ll leave it at that.

Last Monday, I left the class standing upright and smiling. People waiting for the class after ours often comment about how happy people look as they walk out of our Pilates class. I left the building with a friend, and we walked to the intersection where we always end our five minute in-transit chats. From there, I turned and headed down the sidewalk toward where my van was parked on the street.

It was a wet day. Rain from earlier puddled on the sidewalk. Sticks were on the sidewalk. Mud was on the edges of the sidewalk. These visual observations were in my peripheral thoughts. Commanding my attention were wandering thoughts – cranking back up was the what-next-in-the-day pattern. My head was down and my shoulders were beginning to lean forward with it. I caught myself. “For crying out loud, stand up straight, and look up!”

When my self-talk starts with “For crying out loud…” I listen. I elongated from the waist up, looked to the left, and saw light red berries right at eye level.

I grabbed my phone and took a photo, thinking how nice it would be if they were a more brilliant red. I looked closer, pulled my glasses down, and saw they had raindrops hanging from them.

Like a dog onto a scent and needing to take a million sniffs, I leaned into the bush, making sure not to touch it. “Holy cow, that’s amazing!”

“Yeah, there’s dew on them! Cool!” said a man passing by.

Each berry looked like it had been glazed by hand in a thick, glossy syrup.

And with an even tighter look, the bottom of the berry melted into the drop of water. The clinging water was nearly as large as the berry. Looking through the drop, the green leaves showed through crystals.

In a bit of euphoria over this tiny, magnificent discovery, I didn’t want to break my gaze. Surely, I was seeing a moment that wasn’t easily repeatable. And one that would be gone with a strong gust of wind or a bump from a passing shoulder. Six inches from my face, this was as close to “now” as I could ever imagine. Right now.

I didn’t stand there for an hour or even ten minutes. The moment from seeing the branch of berries to the discovery of green crystals shining through a drop of water on the bottom of two berries was tight. The linger over the discovery of the latter was longer. And I was thoroughly there. Right there.

Like a bee that’s collected as much pollen as possible in it baskets on its hind legs, I only moved away when I was full. Fully consumed in “now.”

And, it hadn’t taken hours from my day. Just a few minutes.

A Hitch in My Giddy-Up

I’ve been counting a lot lately. It’s proven to be challenging. Very challenging.

On June 20th, I got a hitch in my giddy-up. I was on the treadmill watching my hero walking the next row over and listening to the chatting and heavy breathing going on around me. I had the treadmill cranked up a notch so I was jogging for forty-five seconds – as timed by the clock on the treadmill. When I decreased the speed to return to a brisk walk, my right hip popped, and the gait of my pace changed to brisk limping.

Figuring it was just a pulled muscle that needed to heal, I stayed off the treadmill and rested my body for a few days. Then a couple weeks. July 20th came and went as did August 20th. The come-and-go pain came and stayed after hiking waterfalls in western Massachusetts on August 19th. The physical pain had also become a mental pain. Was this cancer in my hip?

The week after the boys were back in school, I went to my doctor and told her I was there for two reasons: to take care of the physical pain and, more immediately, to confirm that it wasn’t originating from something more complicated. I’m impressed by the medical practitioners out here. My doctors treat mental and physical symptoms equally. Three days later, I was lying on a table at an orthopedic clinic having my hips x-rayed.

After taking the x-rays, the lab tech took me to an exam room and said she’d get the pictures up on the screen for the doctor. My hip bones popped up on the screen, and she left the room – leaving me to look at them. Up close. Eyeing every shade of gray, light gray, dark gray. And, on that right bone were a couple spots of random gray that were not on the left side. In the ten minutes that I sat waiting for the ortho doc to come in, I had cancer all over again. A self-diagnosis. It let a wild animal loose inside my body, running around in a cage unable to escape.

With crazed eyes, I met my bow-tie-wearing ortho doc. He sat facing me, with his back to the screen, and asked me to explain what was going on. I only wanted him to turn around and look at my hip x-ray. After my introductory remarks spoken succinctly and with a bit of a shaky voice, I told him my history of cancer and that first I just needed to know if that’s what this pain was from.

Nope. None. My bones look great. No arthritis either. I was cured of that ten-minute bout of self-diagnosed, make-believe cancer. I felt like a rag doll. That same feeling that tailed me so often during cancer treatment in ’09 and ’10: anxiety, calm, anxiety, calm.

I never thought being diagnosed with bursitis in my hip would feel so amazing! I chose physical therapy over cortisone shots. Which brings me back to the issue with counting: I have ten leg and hip exercises to do twice daily at home. My physical therapist started with just 30 reps on each leg the first week. Now, I’m up to three sets of 30.

The pain is easing over time – despite my inability to count to 30 in my head. This is the slowest task I’ve had to complete in many moons. My brain wants to solve other issues while I’m stretching a muscle. It’s behaving like a child hyped-up on sugar on Halloween night.

The nimbleness of brain movement is like walking on a non-stop treadmill where each step is a new idea, a new task. Something that I don’t want to forget. Something that I forgot but now again remember. And don’t want to forget again.

Honestly, shouldn’t I have absolute control to stop this pace so that I can simply count to 30, thirty times in fifteen minutes, as I stretch? I’ve resorted to physical cues of lifting a finger to signify each set of ten. Three fingers up equal the last set of ten. Assuming I remember to lift a finger at the appropriate time.

So, can you hold one nice stretch and count to 30 in your head, release it, and do that two more times in a row? I’m guessing your brain will take you on quite a ride with this monotonous, silent task. It will surely find something more exciting to do than count non-stop to 30.

A cortisone shot might have been easier. However, the exercise is probably just as good for my brain as it is for my hip.

The Parking Ticket

My best piece of writing last week was a letter that I sent based on principle. Nearly two weeks ago, a bright orange parking violation envelope was left on my van that was parked in front of the library. I had exceeded an hour in one spot. I should have parked on a side street in the two hour spot, but no. I was selfish and carrying a heavy backpack, so I grabbed the spot right out front.

The neon orange paper burned my eyes from its spot on the kitchen counter. For days I debated. Pay $25 and be done with it, or write to the parking clerk asking for forgiveness -- or a hearing. Finally, a week later, I knew the answer. I couldn’t write a check. I wrote a letter intermittently over six hours while my computer sat on the kitchen counter as I made dinner and entertained my 12-year-old on an electronics-free evening – that’s a whole other story about self-induced pain.

First, I thought it appropriate that the clerk knew who I was – and indeed, that I admitted to violating a parking regulation:

I am a resident of our town and a writer; I work in the library two or three times a week. Normally, I park on a side street. The day I received the citation, I parked in front of the library, knowing it would be a short visit. When I left the library, I decided to walk to a restaurant on Main Street for lunch, rather than drive a block. It was one of the first days the humidity had broken, so I lightened my load, putting my computer and backpack in my car. Then, I walked to lunch.

There is no doubt I violated the parking limitation. However, I feel it’s important to make you aware of the fact that I am a citizen of this town and working in this town. I am not a commuter trying to save money by parking for free on the side streets, rather than at the train station.

I spend hundreds of dollars in our town every month. I start my mornings by parking near the coffee shop, buying breakfast and coffee, and grabbing a table in the coffee shop to work an hour before the library opens. Then I drive to the side street adjacent to the library, park, and work in the library for a couple of hours. Then, I drive and park again for lunch at one of the restaurants on Main Street.

I had established who I was… now, exactly what did I want? I decided to move from me to us – citizens who need longer than an hour to park on Main Street.

Rarely do I run to a box store, like Target; instead, I pop into the local drug store or Ace Hardware in town. For gifts, my first stop is the gift shop in town. I’m in our small grocery store two or three times a week. I mail my manuscripts and personal correspondence from the Post Office on Main Street. My whole family goes to the eye doctor on Main Street. Our pediatrician, my dentist, and our lawyer are in the downtown area.

So you see, to be ticketed for parking downtown is a bit of a slap in the face to me. Normally, I drive from one parking space to another, in observance of the parking time limits – in a distance that I could easily walk. For the downtown businesses to succeed, particularly restaurants, there needs to be extended parking. And what about other residents like me, who are using the services and supporting the businesses week after week, and month after month? A resident sticker, perhaps, in return for the vehicle excise taxes we pay?

At this point, I was sure I would be called in for a hearing as I heard belligerence in my voice.

I’m not including payment for the ticket. Please contact me with how you wish to proceed. Preferably, this fee will be waived. If I need to come in for a hearing, so be it.

I took the letter to the van with me Friday morning as I left the house to take Will to school. I asked Will what homework he had to do over the weekend, and I couldn’t believe his answer: to write an argumentative essay directed to an official to change a law. No. Lie. I told him to gently rip open the envelope and read my letter. We exchanged “that’s creepy!” looks.

Resisting the temptation to have the taped-shut envelope certified, I dropped it into the outgoing mail slot at the post office. It was good to have that glowering orange paper out of the house for the weekend.

On Tuesday afternoon, my phone ran. “Parking Clerk” was the caller.

“Linda?” it was an aged male voice. “This is Mr. Mah-nah-lah.”


“Mr. Nah-mah-lah, parking clerk.”

"Oh, hello.” I took a deep breath.

“Well, it looks like the heat got the best of you this summer, huh? And since you did admit to parking too long, I’m going to give you a break this time.” These words were spoken in what seemed to be a blend of accents and speech patterns... I think Bostonian, Italian, and elderly man.

I concentrated hard on listening to the meaning behind the words. From my carefully thought out argumentative essay, how the heck did he read that this was my worst New England summer? Had beads of sweat dripped onto the letter?

“Oh, well, thank you!” There was no point arguing the big points of my letter. I would be happy not paying $25 and letting someone else argue the need for better parking in town.

“You’re welcome! I tell you what, you can just give me a cookie!”

I giggled. “Oh, OK! I’ll leave it on my windshield next time I’m at the library!” I giggled, again.

He giggled, “Oh, you can just give it to the librarians and tell them it’s for Mr. Nah-lah-mah!”

I’m moving in one of those crazy surreal spaces again. I don’t know the man’s name, and yes, now I need to take a cookie to the library.

“Well, thank you so much!” I hung up.

Out of my concise one-page letter about the parking situation, he stated so aptly that the heat got the best of me this summer. My high school Sunday school teacher, Marge, might have called this a “God-thing.”

On principle, what kind of cookie do I take to the library? Liam suggested the smallest one possible. I didn’t want to spend a nickel on this ticket. I would dig to the back of the fridge to find the outdated pre-packaged cookie dough, pop the squares of dough into the oven – and then leave the cookies out overnight to harden. But at 9:30 p.m, I had no energy to bake.

This morning, I parked at the local grocery store and ran out in the rain to buy a big chocolate chip cookie. It cost $1.50. And it was hard as a rock. Then I drove to the coffee shop. Then to the library. The cookie is in a brown paper bag at the circulation desk. Waiting for the parking clerk.

P.S. For the record, as I write this on Tuesday, it’s 77 degrees with 88% humidity. And tropical depression Florence is dumping on us – which makes the current weather hot, humid and rainy -- as opposed to hot, humid, and sunny.

Praying for my knees to stop sweating for the season.

NYS Summer Writers Institute Recap

Eleven days ago, my time at the Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, ended.  It’s hard to encapsulate those two weeks.  My elevator pitch for those who ask how it went:  It was delightfully selfish to be immersed in writing, reading, and thinking for two weeks.  

On Day 12, I wrote this…”I have lived in a condo with two poets and two fiction writers. Never have I felt the comfort of shutting a door to my room as what I do here. Whenever I want to read or write, I shut my door. At home when I do this, I put a note on the door: "I am writing, please do not disturb. Love, Mom" I very rarely do this because it feels so heartless and unnatural, to bow out of house-life like that; hence my emphasis on "Love" with a hand-drawn heart next to it. Here, I open the door when I'm done cocooning. And my cocooning is never taken personally, for I live with four others who are also working on their butterfly wings.”

Most of my mornings were guided by the library opening its doors at 9 a.m.  On the 4th of July I met another student at the locked doors.  He looked at me and said, “It’s closed for some reason?”  I shared the same baffled expression as he had voiced.  I can’t remember where I went, but I do remember standing at the big double doors feeling cheated.  Seven percent of my writing mornings on the third floor, the quiet floor, had been stripped away.  

Libraries should open earlier. I spend many waking hours waiting for the library to open, wondering what to do before that nine o’clock hour.  Staying quiet in the house while my three boys sleep.  Some days, I can’t keep the pot on simmer from sunrise to the unlocking click of the library doors. This wait feels like boiling potatoes and constantly adjusting the lid and the fire so they don’t boil over and make a mess on the stove. In the stillness of early morning, my blood accelerates with each sip of coffee, and the words roll in my head.  I’m such a habitual library writer that I rarely try to write at home in the morning.  I wait for that perfect three or four-hour stint in the quiet room at my library.  

At 7:30 this morning (Tuesday), I feel like a human statue in NYC Times Square that must scratch an itch.  I announce to Bill and Liam that I’m going to write in the office; Will is still in bed.  Then, I post my signs on the two doors.  Our office is a through-way between the dining room and the hallway to the kitchen.  Once inside I need blinders to create a tunnel vision that blocks the over-stuffed shelves, the laundry on the chair, and the piles of paperwork.  The conditions are not optimal.

Afternoons at the Institute meant one of two things: Three days a week, I went with my fellow non-fiction writers to a three-hour workshop to critique one another’s work with our professor.  The other two days, I went with my fellow writers of all genres - poetry, fiction, and non-fiction -- around 75 of us in total, to an hour-long Q&A session with a visiting writer.

At the first of the six workshops, I learned a new verb: “workshopped.” I belong to two critique groups near Boston where we “critique” one another's work, but in a collegiate setting, we “workshopped” each other's writing.  Before each class, we read three sets of manuscripts and commented on them – that could mean up to 90 pages of reading and note-making before each workshop.  In class, for a half hour or so, each writer’s work was workshopped by the students and then by the professor. 

My takeaways: I pulled my submissions for this workshop out of a line of writing that I send to you every week, and for someone who has never read my essays, I need to add specific details about the characters I mention, as well as the farm equipment I describe, aka: in the mouse story, I mention a “combine” with no explanation of what it is other than “big equipment."  Phillip Lopate thought my writing reads like a column in a regional newspaper, and in our conference after class, he encouraged me to submit my essays to regional Midwest papers and to magazines or the “back cover” short article.

On my 52nd birthday and my last day at the Institute, I met with Lorrie Goldensohn, the poet/writer who reviewed my 200-page manuscript.  She earned her Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Iowa and was an Assistant Professor in writing, most recently at Vassar College, before she retired in 2000. She has a background in writing and in the Midwest!  I came away from our two-hour meeting with fresh ideas.  Where my strengths are in relating place, people, and processes.  Where I need to pump up the essays a bit before I publish a book.  Where omission of autobiographical information leaves gaping holes.  

While I’ve been attacking this project as a collection of essays, Goldensohn suggested I read memoirs to see how other writers create a whole picture of themselves and establish a readily identifiable voice.  She asked me what I read.  Do you know that the only authors I could come up with were Shel Silverstein, David Shannon, Mick Inkpen, and JK Rowling?  I just said I didn’t read much.  If I want to improve as a writer, I need to read more.  And to do so as a _writer_.

I left the Institute with new perspectives, paths of opportunity, solid publishing ideas, and renewed optimism.  

Yet, the libraries still don’t open until 9:00 a.m.

Here in our office, the cow clock has just mooed the 9:00 a.m. hour -- as the robot stood guard.

Blogs and Fairy Tales

Last week when I was in Saratoga Springs for the New York State Summer Writers Workshop, Phillip Lopate quietly mentioned that for a year he wrote a weekly blog in the American Scholar journal.  He quietly mentions everything so I thought I might have misheard this.  Phillip Lopate said he wrote a blog?  He used first person “I” and the word “blog” in the same sentence?  Mind you, I am pretty sure he said “wrote a blog”; pray God, he didn’t say, “I’m a blogger.”  First and foremost, Phil is a writer and must stay true to that for the earth to continue its orderly revolution around the sun.

Late last Thursday night back in my dorm room, after the 8 p.m. reading and reception that lasted until 10:30, I googled Phillip Lopate.  And sure enough, there is a hit for Phillip Lopate and American Scholar.  I recognize it.  I had seen it in prior searches but had assumed that the American Scholar had only mentioned Lopate in an article.  I didn’t click on this hit when I saw it earlier.  There’s just enough dirt left under my fingernails and farmer’s tan on my arms to give the American Scholar a curt turn of the head.  Accompanied by an eyebrow raise and eyeball bulge, not to be confused with an eyeball roll.  

I landed on the last entry he wrote from that year-long commitment: On Keeping a Blog -- A Farewell.  I was relieved to see that his sentiment about that genre mirrored much of my own.  I would never blog.  No, for I may send weekly emails, and I may post my weekly writing on my website, but I shudder when I am placed anywhere near the word “blogger.”  Admittedly, that reflex has settled a bit over the last couple years, for I know it’s hard to put a finger on what I do.  I spent nine years trying to identify myself, and for the brevity of what I write and the frequency I ship it, I could certainly be labeled a… well, you know.

Within Phil’s only blog post I’ve read thus far, one name he used for such writing was essayette.  What a precise word.  And, it’s so freshly minted that my spell check is having fits with it. I love when that happens – I prefer it to happen with one of my own creations, but I get the same devious smile on my face with this one as well.  

I have privately, thoroughly defined these terms – blog, blogging, and blogger, such that I can use the format of the genre without being fully committed to what I perceive to be its true definition.  First, the format of a blog is to post something short on a website and send a note to subscribers telling them it’s there.  Yes, that fits me and the musings I write.  However, my tribe of subscribers is quite ornery.  I’ve sent many of them personal musings via email for nine years, and now, to get them to go to my new beautiful website to read each week’s musing is impossible.  They have no problem opening my emails, but they see that click to “Read More” on my website as an invitation down a rabbit hole.  And they are people with real lives who do not have the time to scoot down a rabbit shoot.  I love their orneriness.  Their allegiance and feedback have been gold coins in my coffer for many years; they can do whatever they like – preferable that doesn’t include clicking “unsubscribe.”  I love them all equally, but if someone who has been a quiet reader lets me know that a specific musing spoke to them, their confession gives strong credence to my occupation.

Second, blogging.  Very close to the definition of blog.  If I wrote the definition, it would be to create a blog. And then you would have to scurry back to blog to see what that meant. 

Then comes blogger. 

Marketing guru Seth Godin calls for people to ship.  Don’t wait for perfection. Ship.  Ship into the world and good things will happen. Through the genre of blog, I do just that – a weekly shipment of what I write.  And there’s the key difference between me and this outlet.  I do not self-identify with the noun “blogger."  I am a writer.  I do not make a living blogging.  (Sadly, I do not make a living writing either, but that’s a story for a different time.)  I have refused from day one to run an ad on my website to make money.  I refuse to bastardize my site and interrupt my words with attempts at profit.  If someone takes the time to come to my site and read, so shall it be.  Without interruption or pop-ups that reflect what they last searched for on google or some bandit ad in the middle of a musing. 

I see now, after reading Phillip Lopate’s blog post on the American Scholar’s website, that I’ve been too narrowly defining blogs.  Lopate’s essayette was published without the interruptions I mention above.  I have some reading to catch up on in back issues of the American Scholar.

Call me what you like.  Whether through age or practice, I’m pretty thick-skinned.  And ornery.  So if you say, “I read your blog post today!” I will process, “I read your essayette today!”  And hopefully, we’ll both be content – you with what you read and me with the fact that you took the time to read it.

P.S. Sometimes I imagine getting characters together in a particular setting just to watch and to listen to the interaction; then I start willing it to happen with specific details that must play out.  This morning, Phil Lopate is on the ranger with my dad checking fence lines in the timber where the cows graze – and the ranger is powered by an electric golf cart motor so that my dad can hear Phil and actually converse.  And, Dad has his hearing aids in.  They are talking about common sense. And cows.  I’ve always loved fairy tales.

Essay Styles

I have something to say and I want you to hear it.  Now.

I could add "before I die."  For, essentially, that unspoken thought powers the engine.

That’s my style of writing and why I ship every week.

Last week here at the Writers Institute, I picked up a few new terms as related to styles of essays.  I’ve tried to take this new terminology and apply it to my own writing.  To categorize some of the Musings I ship out every week.  Although I seem to be my own breed when it comes to the shipment of frequent writing.  It's more of what a journalist must do, but I am not a journalist.  Anyway, defining "me" is not the point of this musing.  Defining the essay styles is.

Shipping an essay in its most beautiful form is like bequeathing a faceted gem.  As I hold it up to the light, I wonder – will all respond to a ray of this refracted light?  Invest in its source?  

Actually, a more honest account is that this took a heck of a lot of energy – time and emotions – to write.  I’m flattened with no wind left in my sails.  Will my spinning of words be comprehensible to anyone else?  Please, let there be one person that says, "I’ve been trying to put that into words!" Then my time on this rather traditional personal essay will be well spent. 

Sometimes my essays are chaotic.  Written in staccato.  With no other purpose than to ship a musing at 12:08 on Wednesday morning.  Because that’s what I usually do.  To break the rhythm?  That might be the end of my musings.  My “fragmented” essays mock the cadence of my life.  At a certain time.  During a particular season.  Normally appearing when time is thick with transition.  From summer to fall.  From spring to summer. From Thanksgiving to Christmas.   I can’t draw an arc from beginning to end.  Maybe you'll sense the arc?  I’ll take you for a ride in my jalopy.  If you dare to ride along on this pot-holed gravel road.

A step up from chaos, perhaps managed chaos, are those essays in which I'm able to fluidly pull sentences together to create a paragraph.  I feel a flow when joining these sentences from the first indented word to the final period.  Then I hit “enter” and start the next paragraph, again grabbing sentences that blend together.  I might write five or six of these segments not knowing how or why they “are,” but assume they must "be" for they come out of the same energy sequence, within a few hours.  However, I lack transitions from one paragraph to the next.  I can’t put my finger on how one is related to another; I struggle to tell you this because I don’t know myself.  Still, you’re welcome to follow me and see where this ends up – maybe together, you and I will look back and see the arc of this “mosaic” essay by the time we read the last line.

Mind you, there are still unidentified essays in my “online storage unit.”  Some may even be under the classification of Probably-Shouldn’t-Have-Been-Sent, for sometimes I feel like a cat hacking up a hairball and gingerly shaking my paws to step over and away from the mess. Never to look back.  Even those, I generally still ship, thinking there is always the potential of someone relating to such disarray.

The Sixth Sense of Responsibility

While I’m at the Writers Institute for the next two weeks, I have handed the reigns of motherhood over to mothers in Iowa – a friend, my sister, and my mom.  They, in turn, will allocate my sons’ time with their families.  Never have I been without the direct responsibility of mothering for so long.  With 14-year-old Will and 12-year-old Liam, I no longer feel the need to write long notes of how to take care of these two young men.  

A few times when the boys were toddlers, Bill and I would go away overnight, perhaps two nights.  I would write a long, detailed caregiver’s list.   I must admit that I failed miserably on one such getaway.  We left Will with a friend who was also a mom, and I forgot to mention that my son had a Mongolian spot.  When I returned on Sunday afternoon to pick him up, my friend was ashen.  She had no idea what she had done, where she had left Will unattended that he had gotten such an enormous bruise.  I had failed to responsibly care for my friend who was caring for my child.

When Will was only a few months old, I put him down for a nap one Saturday afternoon and told Bill I was going to lie down as well.  Bill decided, since Will and I were both napping, to go golfing for a bit.  My relaxed state escalated.  I still rested, but not fully.  When I became a mother, the sense of infinite responsibility kicked in.  When Bill came home a couple hours later, I tried to put into words that prickly elevated sense that I had hoped to shift down a notch or two while Will took a nap – that it could only have happened if Bill had stayed in the house as I slept.  He asked why I hadn’t said that earlier, but I didn’t know how to put into words that feeling – how to ask for some relief from responsibility.

Around twelve months old, Will had not felt well, and I took him to the doctor.  She had prescribed an antibiotic, so we stopped at the drug store to pick it up on the way home.  He was lethargic in my arms.  I wanted to get that medication into his little body as soon as possible.  

We arrived home at lunchtime.  I put Will in his highchair and gave him the medicine and then some grapes to nibble on while I made lunch.  I turned back to the counter and chatted away to him, but he didn’t make a sound.  I glanced over my shoulder to see him slumped over in his chair, his lips turning blue.  I took him out of the chair, but I lifted a limp ragdoll not my little boy.  “I’ve lost him.  I’ve lost him?” I rolled the words around as a statement, as a question.  “NO!  I will not lose him!” formed as an assertion, an exclamation.  

An EMT could feel no breath coming from Will’s nose or mouth.  Thinking perhaps he’d choked on a grape, he was given mouth to mouth.  His heart was still beating.  His lips remained blue.

A Nurse took him and held him tenderly; she kneeled at our back door, waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  She was gently rocking Will, looking down at his unresponsive face, when a policeman arrived.  Immediately, the Nurse tried to hand Will to him but then realized he wasn’t there to take care of my son.  He seemed to be there only to monitor the situation.  My neighbor saw the police car and walked over to my house.  The cop tried to keep her at bay; yes, with a babe in her arms, my neighbor surely looked like she could pose a threat to us!  Laughable – the only part of the scene that makes me laugh out loud today.  

A Program Manager type of person started talking to my neighbor and asked her to get my husband to the hospital.  My neighbor took guidance from the Program Manager and went home to make arrangements for Bill to meet us there.  We had only lived in this town for a few months; I nor Bill even knew where the nearest hospital was.

Finally, the ambulance arrived just as a Crisis Clinician came onto the scene.  The Nurse immediately thrust Will upward toward a paramedic’s open arms, almost like an offering to a god. The Crisis Clinician explained to the ambulance crew the sequence of events as best as she could.  The paramedic was calm and talking to Will, “Hey, Buddy…”  Did they mention seizure then? That he would be OK?  

The Crisis Clinician got me into the front seat of the ambulance while the paramedic sat in back attending to Will.  I remember hearing the driver on the radio saying, “She’s pretty calm.”  He couldn’t hear the stream of prayers I repetitively screamed upward.  

Within a fifteen minute period, I had been EMT, Nurse, Program Manager, and Crisis Clinician – all fields for which I was not certified.  All positions that fell under the umbrella of "mother."  In the front seat, I became a Pray-er, and honest to Pete, God probably said, “Hello, do I know you?”  

Here, thirteen years later and with a few powerful, prayerful moments under my belt, I sometimes think that He throws these curveballs to remind me to cast words upward.  And, I have learned He will take just about anything I can dish out.  No longer am I meek in the quiet young Methodist way of my youth when I pray.  He gave me freedom of choice, and I take full advantage of that when I get to slinging demands upward.  

I prayed; the driver drove; Will and the paramedic were quiet.  I remember praying on the drive that seemed to take hours, but I remember nothing else until Will had been in the hospital for an hour – perhaps two or three.  He had an oxygen monitor connected to his toe and when he came too after being given children’s ibuprofen, he looked at me, crying, and pleaded, “Get the fuzzy out of my toes!”  That’s when the day’s first tear rolled.

As it turns out, Will had had a febrile seizure caused by a very quick change in body temperature.  When a fever jumps quickly from low to high-grade, it’s a shock to a baby’s body, resulting in the scene that will live permanently in my memory.  One of the darkest of days ever registered.  

I looked up the phenomenon in the tell-me-everything-about-the-first-two-years-of-life book, and sure enough something like “it may look like your child is dead” was the description.  Should something like this not be marked and perhaps placed in a “MUST READ” chapter at the beginning of the book?  Not buried on page 230-something?

This was the only such incidence that ever occurred, but it left an ominous cloud of responsibility hovering over my being that’s accompanied by panic attacks whenever my sons are ill.  My rash movements to seek the shelter of my home and the bottle of ibuprofen whenever fever strikes make no sense to others; mostly because, similarly to the napping instance with Bill, I can’t communicate to others what it feels like to have simultaneous fear and responsibility rushing through my core.  This sixth sense.  Years later, I’ve gone back to friends and explained my actions of quickly evacuating my sons from situations, actions that were, at the time, bizarre and inexplicable. 

A couple of weeks ago, Will and I were chatting in the van on the way home from his gymnastics practice, and he asked me how I would feel when he left for college.  A genuine smile spread over my face, and I told him I would be so excited for that phase of his life to unfold.  I’m sure I would be sad when I dropped him off at school, but by that time, he would have gradually become pretty independent.  I told him that I remembered Michelle Obama saying that it is a parent’s job to raise a child so that he doesn’t need us.  I felt queasy after throwing that quote into the compressed atmosphere within the van.  As if I had released a traitorous gas.

Two days later, in another twenty-minute commute, I told Will I had thought a lot about what I had said and that I was really bothered by it.  I retracted the statement and explained that the quote was a valiant attempt on a parent’s part to give their kids independence.  To make the letting go easier.  I told him I would miss him like heck, particularly our rides and conversations in the van, and that always I would be here for him whenever he needed me.  He could call any time for any reason – if he had a major problem or just needed to know how to make a cup of tea.  He smiled and said he might need advice on the second.

That sixth sense is beautifully permanent and absolutely unrelenting.  To lose it would be to tear a piece of being from my soul.

Dirt & Mulch

Four yards of black dirt and six yards of mulch don’t look all that big until you start at the piles with a scoop shovel and a spade.  Then, words like, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” seem appropriate.  Or overwhelming.  Fortunately, Bill has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting: spreading newspapers to smother weeds, pushing wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of black dirt to a thickness of six inches on the ground, then more wheelbarrow pushing of mulch.

As for me, I’m getting used to this gardening in the city gig, finally, after living here for over twelve years. Bemoaning too much shade, too many volunteer baby maples, too little black dirt.  I’m buying native shade plants, pulling three-inch high maple seedlings, and buying dirt.  Plus a bit of cow manure.  

The front of our house, near a busy t-intersection, gets the most sun.  I’ve hesitated to work much out there.  I prefer the privacy of the backyard. This year, I’ve put my big girl bra on and headed to the front.  We’ve converted one whole piece of the dead front lawn to a huge flower garden.  (Well, to readers in the Midwest, it's more like the size of a postage stamp.) Again, much thanks to Bill’s turning the earth, laying newspapers, and hauling dirt.  

In the past, when working in the small gardens out front, I always tried to bend over with my butt facing the house, not the street.  In my youth, there were too many old-lady-bending-over-gardening “yard art” pieces; they left a mark.  One late afternoon last summer when I was bent over pulling weeds, a car-load of kids came whizzing down the hill, and as they turned the corner, one of them yelled, “We can see your tits!”  And off to the backyard I retreated.  For a year.

In fact, they saw cleavage.  If we were on the beach, no one would have shouted that out.  I had no comeback as they sped off, but I’ve come up with a few since that day.  I think the best one would’ve been, “I’m calling your mom!”  Of course, he never would’ve known whether I really knew his mom or not, particularly if I shouted it out with gusto.  I have another comeback should they have gotten stuck in traffic in front of my house.  “I’m glad you noticed because I’ve worked hard to keep them!”  And then gone into the surgeries, the chemo, etc., etc. Yup, I think I would’ve pulled the breast cancer card on him.

Speaking of which, I’m nine years out from diagnosis and will be on the 10-year treatment plan of dousing all estrogen and progesterone hormones through 2020.  This spring’s MRI looked good, my bones don’t seem to be suffering from lack of hormones, and my left arm used to be 12% bigger than my right, but now it’s only 6% bigger.  That bit of swelling is a result of having lymph nodes removed when I had the surgery in 2009.  Now, I’m nearly 52, and many of my friends are joining the club with hot flashes.  To them, I say, “Welcome!” It’s good to have them along for the hot summer ride.

Back to the front.  Since I now have the comebacks in my back pocket, I’ve been confidently planting and weeding out front. I’ve met quite a few early morning walkers, and late in the day during rush hour, a few cars have pulled over to say how much they like driving through the intersection when all my flowers are blooming.  Plus, I’ve chatted with families stopping by in the evenings to go through the books in the Little Free Library.  

All in all, the former weedy areas look and feel a lot different with high-quality black dirt spread over the top like thick chocolate frosting.  And a handful of one-liners at the ready.

Malcolm to Attend NY State Summer Writers Institute

Local writer, Linda Malcolm, has been accepted to the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Malcolm will be one of approximately sixteen writers attending the two-week non-fiction workshop, “Memoir and Personal Essay,” taught by Phillip Lopate, long-time professor in the MFA non-fiction writing program at Columbia University in New York City.

Throughout the last nine years, Malcolm has been writing creative non-fiction. Ebbing and flowing between parent and writer, she writes short personal essays on subjects ranging from deep-sea fishing and canning tomatoes to death and laundry.

“I have dutifully posted over 400 essays in my ‘online storage unit,’,” Malcolm said.  “This year, I am stepping out of my small readership in search of a larger audience.  At the Writers Institute, I will be working on a collection of essays to be published in my first book later this year.

“Born in Iowa, I was raised on a dairy farm surrounded by cornfields.  Now, I live north of Boston and write about life, one slice at a time.  I believe the little things in life are the most joyful, the most humorous, and the most over-looked.  They are the seeds for my writing.  The juxtaposition of cultures, peoples, and places drives the shape of my essays.”

The New York State Writers Institute, established in 1984 by award-winning novelist William Kennedy at the University at Albany, SUNY, will hold its 32nd annual summer program July 2 - 27, 2018. Under the joint auspices of the Office of the Dean of Special Programs at Skidmore College and the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the summer program is held on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and will feature creative writing workshops in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. An extraordinary staff of distinguished writers, among them winners of such major honors as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, serve as Institute faculty members. 

For more information or to receive Malcolm’s weekly essays, contact her at

(How did this leg of the journey begin?  Like this...)

Discovering Burrata

When Bill and I first bought our house in Rockford, Illinois, I had the unfortunate experience of discovering a wolf spider and her babies.  I saw this unusual spider in the entryway one evening when Bill was out.  I decided to put it in a jar to show Bill.  Its head and legs were normal size but it had a body the size of a small grape.  As I tried to trap it, I bumped the body and a hundred baby spiders dispersed from the grape shape. It makes me shudder today, 27 years after that discovery.

I was reminded of this after an unfortunate cheese incident this week.  Thinking a fresh ball of mozzarella, some aromatic basil, and thick tomato slices on piece of crusty bread sounded lovely, I reached for a container of two mozzarella balls as I zipped through a small Italian grocery store.  I know every aisle in this local store, so as I caught sight of the familiar container in my peripheral, I hardly slowed down as I threw out my left hand at the fresh cheese shelf to snag the mozzarella balls.

That evening, the boys had a friend over.  In one combination or another, I knew the ingredients for this sandwich would feed everyone.  A deconstructed sandwich platter would give everyone the freedom to create their own dinner.  I fished out one of the mozzarella balls to slice and dried it with a paper towel.  It felt squishy – very different from the normally firm fistful-sized balls I’d purchased in the past.  My knife broke open a smooth outer skin of mozzarella and hundreds of white spider-like little bits spewed forth in a creamy liquid.  My stomach still lurches at the thought of it.  I flopped the mess back into the liquid and put the lid on the container.  The label read “burrata.”  

We had crusty bread dipped in olive oil for dinner. 

Like the baby wolf spider experience, a little research on burrata was necessary to calm my gag reflex.  A thin layer of fresh mozzarella contains tiny cheese curds soaked in cream.  That’s burrata.  Why haven’t my Italian friends told me about this?   Warned me? The event awakened my burrata radar: the next evening while reading a magazine before going to bed, I found a recipe for burrata over salad.  My small intestines clenched.  We went out for dinner the following night, and along comes a salad past our table of arugula, tomatoes, and burrata with pesto.  So, it would seem that people really eat this.

I’m a junkie for food from different cultures.  In our dating years, Bill and I bonded over cooking – finding recipes for entrees we’d never had and giving them a whirl.  We joined another couple every month and picked a different themed food for our cooking evenings.  Brazilian, Caribbean, Thai… we weren’t shy about any new ingredient.  

The approach makes all the difference.  I searched youtube for a video about how burrata is made.  It’s absolutely fascinating and quite an artisan piece of work.  Had I encountered this ingredient in a recipe, ransacked grocery stores to find it, and broken it open over fresh pasta with a dab of olive oil – one of the serving suggestions, I know my interpretation of this foreign object would be different.  

Part of me wants to attempt an approach from this angle.

Then there’s the part of me who found pork chops cut Iowa-style on the meat shelf yesterday.  I’ve never been happier cooking inch-and-a-half thick Iowa pork chops on the grill.  And I think they were cut that way by mistake: they were the only package on the shelf, and they were marked half-price.  The supermarket in my little Italian town came through with an Iowa comfort last night that soothed my mind like Pepto-Bismol.

A Slice of Early Morning Light

Today, the sun rose at my house in Massachusetts at 5:08 a.m.  In Iowa, at Mom and Dad’s, it rose at 5:31 a.m.  That time doesn’t consider topography of the land.  That is the scientific time the sun first peeks over the true horizon from nearly 93 million miles away.  I do not feel the sunrise that early in Massachusetts.  It takes longer to appear over the next-door neighbor’s house which is uphill from us and only about twenty yards from our house.  Then, once it has risen over that, our maple trees blot out direct sunlight until mid-day.  The result is a morning spray of light through the trees that softly reflects in a leaf dance on a wall.

We were in Iowa last weekend for a quick visit, and each morning I woke up at sunrise.  Through sleepy eyelashes, an orange vertical slice of light appeared on the wall opposite of me, ten feet away.  The rest of the room lay in quiet shades of black and gray with no other decipherable color.  

When I woke up the first morning, the orange bar confused me.  I initially thought something was hanging on the wall but soon realized that three-foot long bar was the morning sun on fire over the horizon and shining through the inch-wide space between the curtains on the north-facing window.  That wide expanse of Iowa farmland let the sun stream into the room at the true time of the sunrise.

The slice on the wall was the truest orange I could imagine.  Not the color of the fruit.  Not neon orange.  It was nearly the orange of an unwrapped orange crayon.  And not enough red to be red-orange.  It had the vibrancy of a jewel tone – a ruby, sapphire, emerald, or amethyst, but there is no gem for orange.  

We sleep in this room whenever we are home, but I hadn’t noticed this band of light before. Ah, the beauty of science!  We are rarely home this early in the summer: with the tilt of the earth and the placement of it on the rotation around the sun, the sun rose in the high east – very near to northeast.  At Christmas time, it rises at the high edge of southeast.  

That bar was gleeful.  A kind of early morning surprise that had only my eyes.  And the color… sublime.  After percolating on the back burner for five days, I finally found a word for it.  I know what its true color is.  Popsicle orange.  

Not the color of a Popsicle when it first comes out of the package and momentarily sticks to your tongue on the first lick.  That first sight has a frosty, subdued look from the cold hitting the hot summer air.  Then, the Popsicle color brightens with a few well-placed licks all the way around.  It wasn’t that color.  Eaten in the hot afternoon sun, heat begins to melt the Popsicle, speeding up consumption.  At the first drip of the Popsicle… that’s the color of an orange jewel – and the color of the sun peeking in the window at sunrise at Mom and Dad’s.

What would be a most accurate new crayon name?  Popsicle orange?  Or, Slice of Early Morning Light?

Riding the Strands of Fireworks 2018

A single fuse is lit. A gust of gunpowder soars into the sky as one and pops into a sprinkling of sparkling, bright fireworks. It’s not a vision of the 4th of July. It’s the explosion of everyone’s spring activities. Post-spring break. Well-choreographed are the questions. “Where are you supposed to be tonight?” “Who should you send these pictures to?” “Is this a practice or a game?” “What day does your flight leave?” “Where is your uniform?” “Which baseball shoes are mine?” “Do you have a white shirt and black pants for me?” “What time do you need to be there?” “What you do you want to do for Mother’s Day?” “How many more days are left of school?” And it’s me asking that last question. 21.

Families who have kids in elementary school are riding on the same combustive fuselage.

... All of that might sound familiar: I wrote it May 13th in 2014.

It was a deja vu moment when I tried to write the Hump Day Short this week. A couple year's ago, a friend and I were talking about how we liked change, and I told her that I loved the change of seasons. To which she replied, "But it's the same change every year!" So it's a predictable change. That's what this post-spring break era is.

Thursday was the mid-show big firework display. I sketched out my second eight hours of the day on a yellow sticky in half-hour increments. I would be leaving the house at 2:00 to drop off Liam's drum at school for band. Then I would scamper around dropping off and picking up until 7:00 p.m. when all four of us would land at the same spot, Will's spring concert at school.

As chauffeur for the day, I decided to dress as a professional driver. I slipped over my head the only dress I own. In low, comfortable heels, I packed a snare drum case, a golf bag, a baseball bag, and a trumpet, then loaded them into the van, together with three changes of clothes and three pairs of shoes. The back of my van looked like the backstage of a production about to go live on stage. I bought sunflower seeds for baseball and Cheeze-its for on-the-road snacks and deodorant and Static Guard for me, the chauffeur. My mind was in the game.

As I weaved my way through the scheduled drop-offs and pick-ups, my spirits were high. I landed at the concert a bit smug with the success of my polished five-hour drive. And, while watching my 7th-grader's concert, I counted up to 12. Just five years until Will's last spring concert.
There are a finite number of these days remaining. In a few years, I will be dressed as a spring chauffeur with no place to go. The patterned seasonal changes I so look forward to will take a drastic change.

This morning, a twinge of foreseen pain accompanies my footsteps to the dryer to retrieve Liam's baseball uniform for today's game.

…And if all of that sounds familiar, I wrote it May 24th in 2016.

Now, the era has shifted: we are a family with kids in middle school and high school.

I notice that I’m more or less looking Will in the eye and looking down only slightly into Liam’s eyes.  I march the boys to the door of the office – the room that used to be the toy room.  I pull out my skinny Sharpie and back each of them up to the door and draw a level line from the tops of their heads onto the door.  Liam is three-quarters of an inch taller than he was in the fall.  And, I must concede that Will is now taller than me.  He marked my height on the door as well; then looked at me with a Cheshire cat smile that said, “Finally.”  

We’re at that awkward age where Will can hug me with his independent arms over my shoulders, but I still want to hug him with my protective arms over his shoulders.  We alternate between the two.  Will’s just finishing his freshman year in high school.  I know we are nearing that time where all hugs will be those of an independent young man.

While Will is quiet and contemplative, most of Liam’s thoughts are on the table.  He’s the boy that still leaves the bar stool under the high cupboard where we keep the candy, and the door is left wide open.  His uniform pants always have a rustling piece of plastic in the pockets, either from his juice box straw or a piece of candy acquired during the school day.  His compassion continues to grow and his empathy is maturing.  If I sit on the couch, he is there in a flash to cover me with a soft blanket and pat my shoulder.  Much the way I tuck him into bed every night.  

We’re maneuvering the spring chaos with a bit more grace every year.  Last night before I went to bed, I pulled Liam’s once-worn shorts out of the dirty clothes, gave them a shake, and pushed the wrinkles out of them before hanging them on the stair railing.  This morning, Will pulled a rumpled school uniform out of this gymnastics bag and was about to put it on when I asked, “Would you like me to iron those for you?”

“That would be great, thanks, Mom,” he replied in that deep 14-year-old voice.

Neither of us was in a panic.  I took the shirt and trousers upstairs and set up the ironing board and plugged in the iron.  I made the wrinkles disappear from the shirt and the trousers.  I ironed the chalk dust and dirt as well.  They weren’t perfect, just pressed.  

And earlier this spring I made a decision not to replace the trousers that are about an inch and a half shorter than they were in the fall.  I watch many of the other boys walk into school wearing the same style.  It’s what a year older looks like.

Compact, Chaotic Contemplations

I only have compact, chaotic contemplations this week…

Last week my dad was hauling shit, this week I’m buying it from Home Depot for my flower gardens.  Country mouse vs city mouse.  Weirdly unsettling.

Six years after our house addition, the earth has settled around our house.  The flower gardens are begging for real dirt.  Four bags of purchased cow manure aren’t cutting it.  I’ve ordered a load of black dirt and cedar mulch to liven the place up and make the flowers grow and bloom. 

The Writers Institute I’m attending is July 1st – 13th at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  Manuscripts are due June 1st.  On Tuesday, I compiled 65 pages of essays to submit – 90 more pages to go.  (I would gladly accept any suggestions from past Hump Day Shorts/Musings that spoke to you in any way.  Perhaps write your suggestion in the comment section below?)  

There are a quintillion new, ugly, unidentified weeds popping up all over our property.  Their root structure is so intense that I can’t pull them out even after a good soaking rain.  I’m surprised at how gratifying it was to spray poison all over them last week – oh, the power and control in the poisonous wand of death!  Who the heck am I?

To enlarge my front flower garden, I laid thick layers of newspaper on the ground over the weeds then spread a couple bags of dirt and manure over the top of them.  Another bizarrely satisfying spring act of covering headlines and opinions with… well, shit on shit.  

The warming of the earth is bringing Grandma Murphy’s temperament out in me as I fight to control what's coming up from the soil.  I don’t recall Grandma ever using the “f” word.  But she could effectively string together a series of “SOBs” and “SOBs” and “SOBs” to get her point across.  Fortunately, I’m cussing at weeds, not people.  And, like Grandma, I’m not using the “f” word.  

I’m the queen of double and triple bookings this spring.  Fortunately, many of my friends are operating in the same chaotic frenzy.  Years ago, my Sunday school teacher said to me, “Aren’t friends just the best?”  Yes, Marge, especially in May when I have to make apology calls and send apology texts to explain my calendar mistakes.  My friends understand.   

However, I nearly came fist to cuffs with one business who said I was a half-hour late for an appointment.  They most definitely had it wrong on their books because I had written the correct time down on the side of the Kleenex box in my van and had verified it with one of my sons who was in the front seat during the piped in phone call.  Alas, I’ll give them this one, for 'tis the season of spring blossoms, Mother’s Day… and weeds. 

After a 40-minute cardio circuit with Liam at the YMCA a couple weeks ago, we were heading into the house and Liam said, “Mom, I’m so glad you adopted me.  I don’t think any other parents could take care of me as well as you and Dad do.” 

Thankfully, the transition to spring is filled with more blossoms than weeds.  To all of my mom friends and family… have a wonderful Mother’s Day weekend.

(P.S. Hop over to my New England Gallery for a few more spring blossoms in Massachusetts!)

Intentionality of Friendship

It’s spring.  Just barely according to the weather, but in the cadence of life, I feel it.  The predictable schedule of fall and winter was like a dormant volcano: lots of activity but under control.  With spring, active lava flies out at will and spews new opportunities.  I’ve given up thinking I’m inside controlling the trajectory; I’m outside chasing the hot ash.  

I know where I am without confirming the date on the calendar: Mere weeks before the end of the school year.  Will has added track practice and track meets to his schedule, not in place of anything but on top of everything.  The end of Liam’s chess club is overlapping with the beginning of his cooking class and golf league, on top of guitar lessons.  Somewhere in the mix are Will’s spring concert and spring recital, and Liam’s trips to the YMCA to burn some energy off in the pool.

To Bill’s delight, perfectly manicured green grass has an open sign on it.  He can once again chase a little white dimpled ball over grass, through woods, onto sand, and into water.  Plus there’s soccer, Formula 1 racing, and golf Friday through Sunday on the tube. He’s in heaven.  

As activities flux in the Malcolms' lives, I’m working like heck to keep me on the schedule.  Over the winter months, I carved out a pretty good exercise routine throughout the weeks, and I’m looking forward to holding onto it through June 13th; Liam’s last day of school when all semblance of the current schedule disappears. I’m confident I can manage this: it’s an existing machine.  The where and when already pre-determined by habit.  

What’s more challenging lays in the land of community.  I’m the social coordinator for the family, and there is danger in this: booking for everyone else, but me.  On Thursday mornings every week, a friend and I are committed to walking 5k around a local lake.  Two other mornings I do Pilates to keep this post-cancer body limber and strong.  Those are the only weekly social interactions on my calendar.  I feel grateful that they are routinely scheduled to happen.  No, not even scheduled, they just are.  

Occasionally, I have a lonely week.  Bleak even.  This is a bit confusing because I’m rarely alone and always out and about.  Looking at a week’s view of my calendar, I could see that while it was jam-packed, I had no intentional, personal social interactions of my own, outside of these three hours of exercise.  Mind you, a hello, a wave, and a five-minute conversation on the fly do not count.  Nor do texts, emails, or social posts.  Call me old-fashioned, but for me to feel socially connected requires more intentionality.  To sit across from a friend and talk for an hour.  To have an equally long phone conversation with long-distance friends.  To spend a weekend together with out-of-state friends.  

A 47-year-old friendship... Vicki, my friend since kindergarten.

And the funny thing is, the more intentional time I spend with friends, the more I want to see them.  The intensity and quality of time in one another’s company doesn’t quench the need but only intensifies the want for more.  

So, as hard as it is to mesh Saturday morning schedules for a breakfast, pull off a mid-week dinner, or connect at the right time of day by phone, I’m going to keep plugging away at my social calendar, for the payoff is indescribable and immeasurable.  

Enjoying the journey…

Heat on the Annisquam

It's spring break week in Massachusetts.  We aren't traveling this year, rather choosing to stay close to home this week.  We have a couple day trips planned to Boston, and I'm taking Will and Liam on a two-night trip to New Hampshire late in the week.  It will be mostly unplugged.  A stressful proposition for me to plan, but I'm hoping once in the remote, non-WiFi locale, we'll assimilate rather quickly.  

Today we have plans to go bowling with friends then head to the Institute of Contemporary Art this afternoon, so my normal Tuesday morning writing in the library is now compressed into forty minutes or so.  And that's OK, first and foremost I'm Mom... the writer can have her day back next week.  

Given that we are still experiencing winter weather, I dug through my journal entries looking for a nugget from a warm summer day.  I think I've found just the thing.  When we renovated our house in 2012, we had to move out for a good portion of the summer.  We found a big, old house to rent in Annisquam, MA, overlooking the tidal river of the same name.  The river connected the Annisquam Harbor to the north and the Gloucester Harbor to the south.  Both ends of the river lead to open waters of the Atlantic.  I hope this warms up those of you still entrapped by winter on this mid-April day.

August 2012
The house on the Annisquam had the shore’s pulse.  A lifetime of that pulse.  The vinyled kitchen and dining room floors reflected the hardiness needed to live by the sea.  Sand from the river’s beach.  Water from a lobster pot.  Dirt from the paved street.  All of the residue from summer days digging for clams, dining with friends, and walking uphill back from the dock.  

That aura sunk into us. Through and through.

We kept the old windows open wide, upstairs and down.  The near-ocean breeze was the only coolant in the house.  A fact that nearly broke the deal for me.  I’m an AC worshipper on hot summer days.  Light woolen blankets were on each of the 10 beds.  I immediately removed all of those.  This was summer in the Northeast!  

We ventilated sun-soaked rooms by leaving ceiling fans on every day and throughout every night.  I like ceiling fans about as much as I like the heat.  But this was the only choice for any comfort.  I describe the air in these rooms as if it were always heavy and heated.  And that was the norm in that dreaded noon to four portion of the days.  But after that, the evenings were capable of great variety.  

At the going-to-bed hours when the house held the heat, I surrendered to it.  Sheets off.  Fan on.  Windows open.  Our bedroom at the corner of the house faced the river and benefitted from a set of windows on both exterior walls.  We kept the bedroom door across the hall from us open, so we had a third source of airflow through that room’s open windows on a third exterior well.  
All doors had heavy door weights: seashells.  Big and heavy.  At first, we kicked them aside; it made opening and closing the doors quicker.  Within the first couple days, we had experienced enough gunshots ricocheting through our flesh – created by slamming doors – that we fell into the habit of using the weights.  

From my bed, I could see Annisquam Lighthouse.  The lighthouse was on a little belly that jutted out into the river, so I was seeing the light from about two miles away from my bedroom window, as the crow flies.  On hot, humid nights, I lay still on my right side and watched the light.  Lying motionless was more effective than continually tossing to find a cool spot of cotton sheet.  The light held my gaze, and I found myself counting seconds between the flash of light.  Beacon.  Two, three, four, five, six, seven.  Beacon on eight.  I didn’t lose myself counting innumerable sheep.  My eyes drifted shut watching and counting to eight, time after time.  I shared my system with Bill.  At the end of summer, we were going to miss having that light lull us to sleep. 

By morning, the air cooled and was pleasant.  The sun woke us and soft breezes blew away the sleep.  The house was chipper in the morning.  I felt like a cotton sheet that had been aired out overnight on a clothesline.  That kind of freshness.

One night, Bill and I flew out of bed with bangs and cracks of a storm that had blown up in the middle of the night.  Blowing rain into the windows, the wind was whipping through the bedrooms making the curtains flap with the intensity of a midwestern tornado.  With six bedrooms, twenty bedroom windows needed to be dropped to keep the inside dry.  The old wooden sash windows fought with us a bit.  Original to the house, most raged with character but some had simply given up the fight, forgetting how the weight system worked.  This resulted in an occasional slam as accosting as the doors slamming.

One early morning while it was still dark, we woke up to a horrible stench.  Something dead outside our window.  Despite the heat, we made our way around to the windows and lowered them down.  It didn’t help the indoor air much as the odor was thoroughly inside and had the strength of a skunk spraying under an open window: the times you think the skunk MUST have gotten into the house because the scent is so strong.  I envisioned a whale – or, most likely, a very large dead fish -- washing up on the shore, but in fact, there were no waves on our little piece of water.  It was a river.  So it wouldn’t have washed up.  More aptly, it would have been left behind with the outgoing tide.  By morning, the smell was gone and the tide was high.  We would never know what decaying creature, or group of creatures, created that smell of rot.

Another night, we were tucked into our hot, humid beds when a cooling breeze came through.  It was gradual at first and felt comfortable, then it was downright cold!  The need for those thin woolen blankets suddenly become very apparent.

End of entry.

I'm ready for the heat of the summer sun.

Book Places

A couple weeks ago, the four of us went to a bookstore for the first time together in a very long time.  It was a box store, not a small independent.  I’m partial to the latter but we’re content in either.  Very, very content.  

Bill and I were shopping at a store next door, and the boys went ahead to the bookstore on their own.  When we arrived at the bookstore, I walked toward the children’s section at the back to make sure they were both there. 

At the entrance of that section, I heard a dad call out, “Max, where are you?”

Max replied, “My normal spot!!”  

So, we aren’t the only ones.  I think Will and Liam have had these spots since they were preschoolers.

To get my boys back into reading, I only need to take them to the library or to the bookstore.  I’m finally realizing that, like it is for me, there are many distractions in our house for them.  But if you walk into a building of books, the options are limited – even though there are thousands.  

And if your sensory system is on high alert after a day in school, or around people, or amidst noise, I feel a building full of books strips away the crazy, over-excitables and mellows out the soul. 

In all the times I purchase a book on these trips, the little two-hundred-page memento that goes home with me does not calm the soul the way physically being in the building does.  Once home that book becomes another book to read.  It moves from opportunity at the store to “to-do list” on the book stack. That purchase feels like the right thing to do at the store.  But it’s a little like shopping at Pottery Barn: just because you buy a giant sage green pillar candle doesn’t mean your dining room table will look like a designer’s masterpiece the way the candle did on the table in the store. 

A few years ago, when we were waiting for friends at a train station in Boston, we took the boys to the bookstore in the middle of the station.  They found little pieces of real estate to crouch down and read books they had pulled off the shelves.  The store manager caught them and said they couldn’t read in the store.  They were appalled to know that there were book places where reading on site was prohibited!

A couple years ago, I went north to Maine for a writing weekend on my own, and Bill took the boys on a Boy Scout trip to southern Massachusetts.  On Saturday afternoon, Bill and I texted one another photos: we were both in independent bookstores at the exact same time – wishing the other could see what we had individually discovered.

I’ve been going through photos the last few days.  I’m struck again and again by the Zen oozing from the pores of my kids when they are in bookstores.  When they were much younger and in small bookstores, I would find the two of them, side by side, squatting in identical positions, heads down, reading books.  

In this world of screens, my heart bulges at the sight of them sinking into words on bound paper. 


English Daffodils

Yesterday was Bill’s mum’s funeral in England. So bittersweet. Saying “good-bye” brings so many people together for the service to honor a loved one.  Funerals are one of those rare  life events, like weddings, that pull family, friends, and acquaintances together. I met so many of my mother-in-laws friends who I’d heard stories about but had never met. I felt like I was being introduced to characters from a book. People approached me saying, “You don’t know me but....”. And I smiled, for I felt I actually did know them through Bill’s mum’s vivid memories that she shared with us. 

And, like the conversations at my grandparents’ funerals, many of us said, “Why do we wait for occasions like this to get together?” Life. It’s movement pulls us into our own grooves. Then that tug of a life event pulls us together in times of great happiness or great sorrow. 

We do not usually visit England this time of year. While the days have been wet and dreary, I’ve been surprised by hosts of daffodils that are absolutely everywhere!  Rather than continuing to peck away on my iPhone, I want to share this with you from 2011:

Norton Anthology of Poetry. Spring. Daffodils. Wordsworth poem. Memorized. Not. It's an annual tradition. Unsure if I found the poem first or the daffs first. But this year, I know exactly where to find the 26-year-old anthology, so I can try yet again to memorize it. The chemo shelves in the basement.

Armed with an empty laundry basket, I head to the basement for a double-errand: dry towels & swim trunks and the big book. At the bottom of the stairs, I'm delighted. I remember both the bag and the book. I open the anthology and briefly glance at the poem. It was still there. I would fold laundry upstairs, then sit for five minutes and read the poem.

Two hours, or two days later, I got the basket to the second floor. And with a few minutes at hand went to pick up the book I had laid on top of the towels. Gone. And so much time had passed since pulling it off the shelf, I have no recollection of where it went.

Call it what you like: multi-tasking; distraction; motherhood; age; chemo brain -- my short-term memory has blown a fuse.

"I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats o'er hills and vales, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils. I gazed and gazed but little thought what wealth to me this sight had brought. For oft when in pensive mood... inner peace and solitude... sprightly dance." And there is my jumbled favorite poem. I extract its meaning even though I've lost the exact wording.

No appearance of the anthology. But thanks to modern technology, I found the poem. The character of the poem is very different on a clean computer screen. No smell of paper and dust. No notes in the sides. No dog-eared page marking the spot. Wordsworth wrote this in 1804; I think he meant for it to be read from paper. Eternally read from paper.

Easter Eggs

I never know what I’m going to write until I sit at the computer and hover my fingers over the keys.  I’ve learned not to fret about that.  Throughout high school and college, I operated the same way, not knowing how I got the grades I did in some cases.  What I know now is that power of the back burner, the power of the subconscious slogging away while I’m at the edge of the present, focusing on the future, reflecting more than I would like to on the past.  However, I work hard to find times within each day to be present only.  And it is work.  To feel my fingers on the keyboard, my butt anchored in a library chair, my breath evening out the longer I am still.

On the way to the library today, my sister called me.  We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks so we brought one another up to date on bits and pieces of our lives, our families, our worries.  She was on her way to spend time with our sister-in-law who had surgery yesterday to reconnect her colon after several months of treatment for colon cancer.  It has been a kind of “Hallelujah” inspired surgery; the last major medical step in putting that year and the disease to rest.  

We talked about a friend of mine who is undergoing significant medical procedures for a rare disease.  With her husband by her side, Mary is in the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.  From here, I can only funnel prayers up and positive thoughts over to them.  I have dug a pipeline between us.  And truly, that is the best and only thing I could do whether living 1,600 miles away or just around the corner from them.  The expertise of medicine and doctors is what she needs close at hand.  From here, I keep the pipeline full.

I wind up the conversation with my sister telling her I only have a brief window to write since I have an appointment at 11:30, only a couple hours after the library opens.  “What are you writing about?” she wonders.  I explain that I never know until I sit down at the computer.  “You know, I think you need to write about something bright and beautiful – like Easter eggs!  Do you remember how Grandma Murphy used to dye them with onion skins?  I need to work out how to do that!!... Hey, I just drove by a sign that said ‘Malcolm’ – that’s a sign: you really need to write about dying Easter eggs.”

Indeed.  For I’ve been in a conundrum about dying eggs most of the week.  I grew up living near our cousins, and often times for Easter dinner, we would go to Grandpa and Grandma Mill’s house.  On my mom’s side I am the oldest of twenty-one grandchildren, so of those living locally, there would be at least thirty people that could make it for Easter dinner.  Bottom line: We could decorate a few dozen eggs and all of them would get eaten.  Celebrating on a smaller scale, I cannot justify coloring two dozen eggs for the two adults who eat them in our house.  (Sidebar: I laughed about this on Skype with my mom.  Can I not waste a few dollars on hard-boiled eggs that will not get eaten?  It goes against my waste-not-want-not genes, shared with me from both Mom and Dad’s sides of the family.)

My sister and I both wondered when was the last time we dyed eggs with our kids?  Weeks ago, I saw the beautiful Pinterest idea of rolling eggs in aftershave tinted with food coloring.  However, our conversation about the way Grandma Murphy used onion skins made me shun the idea of leafing through screen after screen on Pinterest.  Even away from a Google search.  Instead, I searched the library's inventory for a book on “how to dye eggs with onion skins.”  I didn’t want the computer to tell me how my grandma did this forty years ago.  I found a book with step-by-step directions.

My house is going to stink today, for I’m going to boil eggs in some natural ingredients – perhaps three batches… red onions, purple cabbage, and coffee.  It will be a little science experience with Liam and a couple of his buddies after school.  I’ll march through it with them, knowing full well that I may enjoy it more than they will.  We’ll stew the white eggs in pots of water with a couple teaspoons of vinegar and a cup of “natural dye ingredients” for 20 minutes, then let them set to cool for an hour in the dye.  Coloring Easter eggs this way will leave them with a tangible memory like my sister and I have for Grandma’s eggs, for it will appeal to their sense of sight as well as smell, plus the weirdness of it all.  A triple whammy.  

Next year, Liam and his buddies will be thirteen.  Perhaps then I will coach them through making Ukrainian eggs the way my friend Mary did with me many years ago. We sat in her cold garage with her Ukrainian friend and worked over a table covered in newspaper.  First, he had us dunk the fresh eggs in a light yellow dye.  Then, where we wanted the yellow to remain, we painted on wax before the egg went for another dip in perhaps pink.   Then, where we wanted the pink to remain, we painted on wax… And so it went for over two hours.  The final dunk was in deep purple.  Black?  At the end of the session, our cold fingers had created the ugliest, globby eggs I’d ever seen.  Completely covered in bumpy, black wax.  Her Ukrainian friend gently packed our wax-coated eggs and took them with him to process: he blew the eggs out then melted the wax off by baking the eggshells.  What he returned to us were spectacular pieces of art.  

Sadly, my egg didn't fare too well in the semi-truck from Illinois to Massachusetts.  Still, I don't need the egg.  That early spring afternoon with my friend etched a vivid memory, and this year it keeps my heart full, despite distance and time.


At 8:10 Monday and Wednesday mornings, the treadmill at the Y – in the second row from the window and third one down from the end – is mine.  Before I start my work out, I grab a disinfectant wipe and give the treadmill a sponge bath.  I watch others do the same after they work out, and I see their cleaning is not as thorough as mine.  Some of them barely run the cloth over the hand rests in front and on the side.  They are the ones who barely come into physical contact with the machine.

That’s not me.  By the end of 45 minutes or 5k, whichever I can last through, I’m clamoring onto the side rails of the treadmill.  If I kick the speed up to do a forty second “run,” I feel the sweat pouring.  Certainly, some of it is splashing onto the machine.  I symmetrically wipe the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.  If I wipe one eyebrow and not the other, I have basically wiped one penciled eyebrow completely off my face. 
Playing basketball in high school, I had a similar issue only with baby blue eyeshadow.  I remember a girl who played forward pointing at me and laughing.  I hadn’t a clue why until after practice I saw one of my eyelids was baby blue and the other was not.  Her baby blue eyeshadow never smudged, for she never seemed to sweat.  The complex has stayed with me reminding me to either wipe above or below the brow.  And in the event I think I wiped one eyebrow pencil marking completely off, I try to do it evenly.  I’m OCD when it comes to sweat and my eyebrows.
I play solitaire when I’m walking on the machine.  So the same sweaty mitts that are wiping my brow move the cards on the treadmill’s screen.  With all this hands-on activity during my walk, I give the treadmill another good sponge bath when I’m done.

With 45 minutes of walking to nowhere, I do a bit of people watching as the usual crowd shuffles in.  Same woman always reads.  Same woman always walks.  Same man always breathes in a heavy rhythm as he runs.  Even if I can’t see him, I know he’s somewhere in the gym by his breathing.  I note the defibrillators on the wall and am confident someone other than me has the know-how to use them should the need arise. Same two women run side by side and are able to talk non-stop.  Mid-way through my walk, two gentlemen come in and find neighboring treadmills.  There is a generation between them: one must be in his 80s and the other in his late 60s.  The elder of the two approaches his treadmill, hangs his cane on the side rail, and gets the machine in motion.  No muscle-clad person in this entire place awes me as much as this gentleman.  What do I want to be when I grow up?  The 80-year-old who hangs my cane on the treadmill before I walk on that belt to nowhere.  

Twice in my life, I shook the hand of Captain James Lovell.  The first time was just over a decade ago, and I didn’t know he was going to be at the restaurant where we were celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday.  Captain Lovell’s son owned the restaurant in a Chicago suburb, and it was filled with space memorabilia.  The second time, I called his personal assistant to schedule a lunch with Captain Lovell so that my 6-year-old space enthusiast Will could meet him.  Captain Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13, a failed mission to the moon with an end mission of safely returning the three astronauts onboard back to earth.  They succeeded by zipping around the dark side of the moon and using the moon’s gravity to catapult them back to earth.  Both times, I greeted him like a star-struck teen.  What does one say to someone like Captain James Lovell?  

Simmering feelings of the same amazement strike me at the Y when this older gentleman prepares to board the treadmill next to me.  I want to say something, but “Holy cow!  You’re amazing!” doesn’t seem right.  “You are my hero!” also seems a bit trite.  Finally, one day we acknowledge one another with a nod, a smile, and a “good morning.”  The greeting didn’t convey all the words that were bubbling in my head, but it didn’t need to.  I’ll take the quiet strength of heart this man gives me as a kind of mentoring for my potential cane-bearing future. 

Inspiring skiers give me the same kind of goosebumps.  In Utah, we skied all day then watched the Olympics at night.  The triumphs of Shaun, Chloe, and Lindsey gave me energy and inspiration to take a sore body back to the slopes the next morning.  Some stretches and a little Advil was my prep each morning.  

The second day in Utah, Will and Liam took day-long ski lessons.  Bill and I met them around 3:00 p.m. at the ski-school base camp.  With the lifts closing at 4:00, we watched many ski instructors returning with their students.  From tiny three-year-olds with two-foot-long skis and no fear to stiff adults who appeared to be trying to control the slick boards by curling their toes into their skis.  

Then, seated skiers – paraplegic skiers, returning confidently skiing alongside the crowds.  They were led by paraplegic instructors as well as instructors on traditional skis.  Some of these skiers were harnessed to the instructor who was skiing behind them, and some were on their own.  No safety net.  Comfortable in their ski gear, a seat on a ski and a ski fit on the end of poles held in either hand.  

In the distance, a group of four skiers with yellow signs on their fronts made their way down the hill.  As they got closer, I could read the sign of the person skiing in the middle of the group “Blind Skier.”  That skier was accompanied by an instructor and one person in front and one in the rear with matching signs: “Volunteer: Blind Skier.”  My gaze followed them as they skied past me in the same direction as the seated skiers.  The back of the instructor’s jacket read “Park City - Ability Center.”

These latter groups of skiers left me in quiet wonder.  Whatever the catalyst had been for their disability, it was in the past.  They had moved through the dark, burning moments of a life-changing event or perhaps challenges that they were born with.  My brain churns to find words to explain the inspiration and the peacefulness I felt watching these skiers.  Fortitude in overcoming physical challenges and motivated by their physical abilities.  From past chaos to present calm, a state of admirable grace. 

Wintering in a Storage Unit

For the second Tuesday in a row, the library is closed due to a Nor’Easter – the third Nor’Easter within three weeks -- two weeks?  Tuesdays are the days I spend in my office, the Quiet Room at the library, writing.  I liken that gorgeous spot to a hotel room when you first open the door: There is nothing started that needs to be finished and everything is in its place.  Long tables with lamps and chairs slid under the tables await like soldiers at attention for the morning’s direction.  

Determined not to let the day go by unwritten, I chisel a space in the corner of my home office.  From a side table, I gather pages and pages of travel documents that need to be collated and stapled.  I move piles of scout paperwork to the back corner of the office.  I stack books into a tidy pile on the end table next to me. And now, I need to move them – they beckon to me as a reminder of things that need to be done.  I pivot on my stool and place them on the table behind me.  Out of sight out of mind.  My backpack sits at my feet like a loyal dog.

Now, I think I’m ready.  Ahh, the last item on the table is a yellow sticky pad with a new password.  I move it to a shelf out of my line of vision.  Only my computer and coffee cup fit on the table I sit at.  It faces the corner at a diagonal. And in my peripheral slightly to the right in front of me is a metal basket filled with solid summer memories: rocks from the beach in Kingston, shells from Cape Ann, a desert rose from South Dakota, and one baleen whale tooth from last summer.

After a long winter, the shelves and drawers are full.  It’s no surprise.  It happens every year.  Will was unloading the dishwasher a couple days ago, and after a lot of heavy mug clinking, he was defeated, “There’s no room!”  Indeed, the summer mugs started us off in early September; the fall mugs soon joined; the Christmas mugs followed; the snowmen mugs crept in; the red winter mugs are still hanging on.  Not to mention Bill’s year-round mugs.  I dare not introduce a spring mug until I’ve had a giant reshuffling.  

In the basement room that has had many dubious names: guest room, storage room, craft room, and finally “the room where all the magic happens” – a sprinkling of summer, Halloween, and Christmas decorations lurk having missed the last boat to the garage loft where all the seasonal tubs spend their off-season.  

The mug shelf and kitchen drawers will soon be sorted out because we live in the kitchen and those contents constantly remind me of the need for reorganization.  However, the rooms upstairs… ugh.  Getting ready in the morning, I see the jumble of drawers and cupboards, then I race down the stairs to get the day moving.  Getting ready for bed, I see the jumble of drawers and cupboards, then I do the nightly routine and use what little energy that remains to climb into bed.  The upstairs is like an itch that never gets scratched.

Since Christmas, I have thought of the cupboard under my sink as one of those arcade coin slot machines – the ones where all the coins and prizes are laid out and a little bulldozer constantly pushes from behind.  And if a coin rolls down the slot to just the right place, and the bulldozer doesn’t push it up and over the back row of coins, coins and prizes dump into the tray!  So it was when I was packing to travel at Christmas time.

I needed a new deodorant, so I opened the door under my bathroom sink, and plop!  A new deodorant felt out at my feet!  I was also in search of shampoo and conditioner, so I took one of six baby powders from the top front and tossed it to the back.  Voila! Out from the front came a shampoo -- and a conditioner was stuck right behind it, half visible.  I pulled it out and that’s where the magic ended.  A whole slew of bottles toppled onto the floor.  I shoveled them into the rear of the cupboard and quickly closed the door before the bulldozer had a chance to push the pile again.  I held the door closed for a few seconds, waiting for the last of the thumps on the inside from falling objects.  That cavernous space is good for nothing other than 24 rolls of toilet paper.

At storage overload times like these, I think of my friend and one particular closet in her house.  If her husband is looking for something and she tells him it’s in that closet, his reply is that he would rather go buy it than open that closet door.  That has most definitely become the philosophy with my bathroom cabinet.  Although for the fun of it, I occasionally toss something to the back just to see what falls out the front. 

Here’s to my fellow New Englanders stranded in their storage unit by two feet of blowing snow today!