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.


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.”


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.

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!)