Refreshment of Spirit

The road divided; I bore left. And that changed everything.

I had spent two weeks with my amazing mother-in-law in Michigan while she went through a time of illness. It was time to head home to Connecticut; I was loading the car. While I ferried bags, my mother-in-law took a spanakopita from the freezer and carefully wrapped it. She reached down the newspaper from its shelf and taped that. She unfolded a heavy paper bag and carefully closed it around the package. She put it in a plastic bag, after, so the seat would not get soggy as the pita defrosted.   While I finished the last of my coffee, she smoothed out the plastic.

******

When I last had been in Michigan, it was the height of summer. But this time I got to see something my husband had told me about, the beauty of Ann Arbor in autumn. I’m from New England, and I thought that I knew leaves. But these were different trees, different colors, a different sky — beauty in another palette. My late father-in-law was an architect, and the condo they lived in was not a hastily subdivided former one family house, as the condos in the Boston of my youth had been. This was a well planned building, with a flow to it. Light and air swept through each room. The earth tones brought unity while the artwork on the walls, much by relatives, kept it from being monotonous. The landscaping is tasteful, well maintained, and not cookie cutter.

Illness had kept us indoors, but connection with nature is essential.

My foretaste of refreshment of spirit from the woods came from the view from kitchen window.

“That tree!” I said.

My mother-in-law knew which one I meant. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Completely symmetrical.” It was some sort of maple or sumac, next to an oak that we could only partially see.

The tree was green with a tinge of red on the side farthest from us. The oak leaves had all turned gold.

When my mother-in-law went into the hospital, the red spread slowly across the tree, left to right.  The yellow, green and red of the two trees gave me something different to think about in the days she was gone. When she came home, the oak was almost bare, while the maple was engulfed in red.

It was time for me to depart with the foliage.

My mother-in-law and I embraced, she kissed my cheek, and handed me the heavy package, spanakopita wrapped in foil, newspaper, paper, and plastic, to share with her son when I got home. She told me how to defrost and heat it, and showed me the printed instructions, besides. I thanked her.

“I don’t care what time it is,” she said, “call me every two hours to let me know where you are and again when you finally get home.”

And I left.

******

I took I-94 East and eventually called her from the parking lot of a McDonalds near I-80 to say I was in Ohio. A station in Toledo was having an All Seventies Weekend, and I car-danced until the signal faded. But there was still a lot of Ohio before me.

I had packed a snack from Meijer’s grocery store, a package that contained a hard boiled egg, pea pods, cheese cubes, and some kind of trail mix. I had a bag of honey crisp apples that I ate slowly, to savor them, and to save some for my husband. The road split, I bore left, and the coffee kicked in. I wanted to stop at the rest area, but it was only available from the right lane of the temporarily divided road. I groaned at the sign “Next Rest Area Thirty Miles.” A sign at the next exit suggested there was food and gas to be had. So I left the road.

I set my GPS for the nearest McDonald’s, 1.5 miles from the exit. I drove slowly through what looked to be a prosperous town full of many treats for tourists — gift shops, restaurants, quaint businesses. But no McDonald’s.

My need became more pressing, and as I debated which shop might have a rest room, I saw a sign that read “Visitors’ Center Ahead.” Visitors Center usually means there will be a rest room. So I drove.

And I drove.

And I drove.

The drive was beautiful, increasingly so as I got further and further from the highway.

The rest area was not some prefab construction with brochures and a coffee machine. The parking lot was unpaved and full, and the buildings around it reminded me of my own town’s Boothe Park, only much larger. I had inadvertently come across Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Goodness. Goodness and mercy.

After addressing the most pressing needs, I began to wander the grounds. An art show (photographs, drawings and paintings) with the theme “Change, End of Season” took up most of a barn-like building, and if I had the money and the wall space, I would have brought home several pieces.

I could first smell and then see the water. The sun shone on damp leaves, fallen in their changing colors, and all around was color and light. Families were gathered, conversing and hiking.

I went outside and walked down a trail toward Brandywine Falls, explored more commodious wooden buildings,  and crossed the road to find the gift shop with hiking gear, tee shirts, guide books, coffee and ice cream.  Everything one needed was there.

We find what we need, often, when we’re looking for something else. I wanted McDonald’s. I found refreshment of spirit.

I also bought what I needed for refreshment of body, and was ready to tackle the rest of the journey.

I decided to drive straight home, rather than stopping or meandering. My  husband was waiting for me. My spirit was refreshed. And I had a spanakopita defrosting in my back seat.

I buckled my seatbelt, called my mother-in-law, and shifted gear.

 

Put That Thing Down

The new school year is starting, and parents have bought their children cell phones to bring to school because the world is scary and unpredictable. I get it. But as a substitute teacher, I spend so much time bringing my students back to the classroom from wherever it is they would rather be. Our district has a very clear policy, but kids are kids, and the allure of a little box that can reunite you with your boyfriend, let you play a game, or keep you from missing your favorite show is strong.

It’s not just students. I’ve seen clergy take out their cell phones to take pictures during a service or check a message while talking to someone, a busy doctor texts as he explains diagnoses, young babies are handed the shiny devices when their parents want a patch of quiet, and even in choirs when it’s not their time to sing singers who in another time would be chided for whispering text, instead.

The problem is this: when you are there, you are not here. If a student has half an eye on the cell phone (“Miss, I have to take this call, it’s my mother,” I’ve been told more than once), that much of his brain is not engaged in the lesson. If you’re shopping for a prom dress or great sneakers, you’re not learning the vocabulary words you’re supposed to be looking up. It’s a small thing but a big thing — it drags down your grade and limits your understanding of the material. But more than that, it’s a message to the people around you that the people on the other end of the little box are more important, more interesting, and your relationship with them will be longer lasting. And that’s a serious problem.

Boredom, you see, is a catalyst for change. As a mother, I learned this. We moved to Texas from my native Boston, where I was one of six children, forty grandchildren, a small parish, and had two close-knit academic communities from my high school and college. Suddenly I didn’t know much of anyone. Then my kids started school.

I hate Hundred Day. But when you sit with other mothers putting one hundred stickers on crowns and making 100 shaped eyeglass frames from oaktag folders, you talk and you bond. You get to know your fellow volunteers for Math and Reading Centers as you play bingo with the kids and help with the plant sale and play. You stand with the other parents and guardians in the predawn hours loading buses for band trips and waiting for the students to come home again, hungry. Both the high schools in our town have Post Prom, and at my kids’ school, I joke that it’s occupational therapy for the over-committed. The band moms and the drama mamas and the parents of athletes and the moms of the SPED kids (and some of these are all one person) all paint and glue things, decorate, and solve the town’s problems. Improvements are suggested, the administrators who hang out with us gain new insight, and we go home covered with glitter but knowing more people and feeling better connected to the town.

I think part of the allure of summer camp is the limited exposure to screens and the greater exposure to the outdoors and new friends. When everyone is far from home and in a strange place, there is an opportunity for growth and kindness. Little things like walking a friend to the latrine in the dark or cowering together in a storm become bonding moments that people talk about in wedding toasts fifteen years down the line.

Life is especially hard for students who transfer. I know my first year of college, all of us talked about what various of our high school friends would have said about each new thing we saw. And then, we tapered off. We started identifying with the people around us, and they became the friends that we thought of and quoted in our new lives and jobs.

But, if you always have the people you are comfortable with literally in the palm of your hand, how are you ever going to feel the need to open your life to someone new? Part of it is learning about other people. Part of it is discovering that you have something to offer — the answer to a question, a color for an art project, a spin on the book you are reading. You don’t always know what’s inside you until it has a chance to come out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “Hamilton,” has various characters sing, “Look around! How great it is to be alive right now!” And this is true of high school. Not everything about it is wonderful, but the people who stand up for you during the bad times there are the ones you call later: when you meet the right person, when you are in labor, when your cat is sick, when your father dies. And when your friends go through these things, you will be the person whose voice they will want to hear. Yes, in some ways they become the new faces in the box in your hand. But your back bench of friends will be so much stronger and richer for spending time doing things you have to do graciously with people who are not like you.

I am not condemning cell phones. The world without cell phones could be dangerous, and keeping in touch was expensive. In an emergency, you’d have to find a pay phone, and you’d have to have money for it. To stay in touch with family when we moved to Texas, we were charged ten cents per minute to call out of State and twenty-five cents per minute to talk across Texas. Cell phones can be good, useful, bring people together. They allow me to see my granddaughter in Virginia, show the people at Home Depot the part that I need, and text the exact address of the place that I’m seeking. That said, please, don’t let the little box take you from the moment. Be where you are, with the people around you. You can’t know what it is you will learn from and offer them if you don’t make eye contact and talk.

 

Acquiring the Spirit of Peace

Today is the Feast of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

I volunteer, each summer, in the kitchen of a camp for Orthodox Christian youth named for the Saint.

We recently had a spate of sad events and bad news.

It has been helpful to reflect and remind myself of some of the Saint’s words.

You can find his life by clicking on the word “life.

His most famous saying is, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

I wish you all peace on this day.

A Different Kind of Summer

On this first day of summer, I find myself in a different place and setting than I’d envisioned.

We live in coastal Connecticut, and I write and edit, teach and conduct a choir.  My life between weekends is a wild card — I substitute teach, and I am never sure which age or subject I will teach from day to day. But in summer, I plant my garden, grow my flowers, and watch for the progression of plants that I knew as a child but lost, briefly, as an adult in Texas. In Connecticut and in my native Boston, Spring starts white and yellow and green. Forsythia and crocus, tulips and the first dandelion start the season. This year was cold in Connecticut. My lilacs bloomed only for a week, likewise my lily of the valley. But at least they bloomed.

Spring had been stolen, but I staked my claim for summer. I put in a garden — the “three sisters” at the back near the fence, four six packs of tomatoes (black Krim for novelty, Roma for canning, grape tomatoes for instant gratification, and Early Girl for slicing) in pots and cages. I awaited the usual signs of summer — the end of school, the opening of the Farmer’s Market, the first good beach day, the blossoming hydrangeas, the Apostles Fast where we eat vegan and the first ice cream after it ends. We had just set up a new computer, and transferred all my documents onto it. I thought I would divide my time between words, plants, sorting things (we have six people’s things and three people at home just now), cooking, and church, with forays to the beach and to my siblings’ homes to play with their kids.

Instead, I am roughly seven hundred miles from home. My mother-in-law had an injury from which she is recovering, and my father-in-law, the vibrant author and architect, successfully underwent planned surgery. I planned to come while they both recuperated the rest of the way at home. But several days after my father-in-law’s surgery, he unexpectedly died, peacefully, not quite three weeks ago. Of all the people in the family constellation, I was the one most available to help at this time. And I am glad to be able to do it. My mother-in-law came to help us every time I had a baby, for each of my husband’s ordinations, for the children’s graduations and major concerts, for our parish jubilees. It is a joy to be able to help her, instead, even if at this point she is doing so well that she doesn’t let me do much.

Before she was home, though, from post-surgical care, my first job was to prepare for all the relatives who came for the funeral. I made beds and cooked, not for the mercy meal but for the arriving people — my husband and his brothers, one sister-in-law and a bunch of nephews and kids.  My m-i-l came home the day before the funeral, and everything took shape from there. Then, one by one, the relatives went home. And now it’s a quiet life with just the two of us, as my mother-in-law masters doing her usual household tasks using the hot pink walker that the grandkids surprised her with and I reach the things that require climbing or stairs. She lets me drive. I go shopping and to church services. But mostly it’s a quiet life at home.

When we moved to Houston, the plants were different, and I went into mourning. I don’t want to do that again. Here, too, the plants are different, but I am working on learning them and celebrating. It helps that my ships were burned at the harbor; when I called home, I learned that critters devoured my garden some time between the last two rain storms, every tender talk and spindly vine gone. It’s a loss, but it’s also one less thing to worry about. I can buy vegetables later. Now, I am learning Michigan plants and enjoying what is. The white dander that floats into the garage is not milkweed, it’s cottonwood. And it’s everywhere. My hearty bushes of Andromeda and blue hydrangea are back home, but here I have delicate clematis and carnations in deep purple and vibrant pink. Both places have chipmunks, squirrels, and the sporadic rabbit, but here they have hummingbirds, which we entice to visit with a feeder and a hanging basket of red flowers.

I miss my husband, but he is everywhere here, in the photos and books, in the stories friends tell and in email and cell phone. I miss the ocean, but I hear tell it will still be there when I come home. I miss my local, church, and writing friends, but I brought my editing with me, on a flash drive. And time alone with this brave, beautiful, and intelligent woman is an incalculable gift. I am learning the wisdom that women pass to each other through osmosis — stain removal hints, habits of virtue and industry like cleaning the stove after each meal, putting the dishwashing liquid in a hand soap dispenser so there’s nothing ugly by the sink, which pan to use for what and why. I am learning to wear shoes while at home, to avoid injury, and new ways to set out a nice tea. I’m meeting the neighbors, who come with zucchini bread, banana bread, dinner, stories, love.

This isn’t the summer I planned, but Tolstoy’s three questions come to mind. This is the most important thing I can do now. And it is a joy and an honor to be able to do it.

The Part I Can Do

I am sorry to have been so silent for so long, both for the offense and for the cause. My sister-in-law, Janet, died on January 10, after a three year battle with cancer about which she was very, very private. And I tried writing about her, but it just plain hurt too much. Also, I want to respect her privacy. But I’ve been thinking.

I don’t recall breathing at all, for the first seven pages, when I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, at the urging of my second MFA mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman.  Gornick describes a eulogy given for one female doctor by a younger colleague that let all the mourners grasp who this doctor was, what she meant to her colleague, and what the world will now miss in the absence of this woman. I wanted to write something like that about my sister-in-law, but I cannot. First, the pain is too raw and too strong (the astute reader will notice that I have posted nothing yet this entire year). Secondly, she was an intensely private person, and I don’t know how far I can go before I step into the realm of what Aslan calls, in the Narnia Chronicles, “someone else’s story.” And thirdly, my brother-in-law Mark, a far more accomplished writer than I, has already written the definitive piece.  But here’s the thing that I can do: I can write about the place she sent me to shop. Think of it as an exercise in metonymy. Or think of it as all I can stand to do.

I can’t write about Jan on the whole, about Jan and her sense of humor, and all her common sense. I can’t write about her telling me about Florence Foster Jenkins and sharing our love of PDQ Bach. I cannot write about how she came to be with me in the hospital when I was in labor and my husband had to be in church, or about her ability to cook around anyone’s allergies, or her ability to fix and create, to mend and adapt, to welcome and assist. I can just barely write about one small recommendation that she made.  But I think, with God’s help, I can pull it together to write about Friendswood, Texas and “The Shepherd’s Nook.

When my husband and I moved to Texas in 1989 with our two toddlers and 39 boxes of books, Mark and Jan had already lived in Friendswood, a Houston suburb, a number of years. They were high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, and moved down so Mark could work on NASA projects after college. I met my husband, who was already an astrophysicist, when he was in seminary and I was in high school. We waited till I graduated from Wellesley to get married, and were living in my native Boston when the Houston parish needed a priest. “I thought because Father has a brother down there, it would be easier for you,” said the bishop who asked me to move a thousand and a half miles from my five siblings, thirty-four cousins, my almae matres and home parish.

So, we went.

Jan oriented me. “Up North, if you have cockroaches, it means you’re a bad housekeeper. In Texas, if you have cockroaches, it means you live in Texas. But hire a bug service, so whatever drops from the ceiling vent is dead.” She showed me where to shop and what to wear, shared her friends through the quilt group and taught me how to make a strip quilt. She guided me toward the best Mother’s Day Out program for her son and my daughter, who are less than a month apart in age, and shared the driving, especially when I had morning sickness. And around the end of  January,  she warned me about February.

“In February, the rodeo comes to Houston,” she said, “and the excitement is everywhere. The events are on the news every night. The cashiers at Kroger dress up in cowboy clothes. And the schools have something they call ‘Go Texas Day.’ They eat franks and beans from tin pie plates at school, so you’ll need to start saving them now to send in. They learn about roping horses and riding. And you’ll get a note that says they can wear their cowboy clothes to school. Now I know, I know, you don’t have any cowboy clothes now. Believe me, you will by the time they are all in school. You don’t have to go out and buy anything new. Around this time of year, they start displaying them at thrift stores, like The Shepherd’s Nook.

“I will take you there. It’s wonderful. It’s an old house that someone donated to the church, and they think of it as a ministry twice, to sell things for not so much money to the poor and then to use the money to help people. And they have everything, divided into rooms. They’re only open three days a week, so you have to catch them when they’re ready for you.”

The next week we loaded all the children into cars and took them to The Nook. We pulled into an unpaved driveway covered with gravel and walked into…. a little blue house.

The front room had the nice things, which is only fitting, for the parlor. Baby things were off to the left. A room full of men’s clothing was at the front bedroom, after which was a bathroom and two bedrooms facing each other, one for boys and one for girls. In the back of the house was the pay dirt — women’s clothes, household items, books, games, and tools.

We came home with cowboy boots and hats for everyone, after which Lardas Boy Child Outdoor Outfit became a diaper, boots (to fend off fire ants), and a cowboy hat. At two, they had to wear underpants, and at three, I made them wear something over the underpants.

I had a whole house to furnish and equip. But I also had another way of life to learn. And so I often went to the Nook for cookbooks and dishes, linens and pillows. I saw things from America’s bicentennial and Texas’ sesquicentennial, both of which happened before my time there but still loomed large. The grocery stores still sold (and still sell) the Texas shaped pasta that were created for the latter event, and red white and blue were everywhere anyway, not so much from the bicentennial as because it was Texas.

We had more children, and all four of them grew. My husband was priest and engineer, and there were lean times in each field. But when someone ripped their pants or outgrew their sneakers, I knew I could find what they needed at the Nook. More than that, I found fabric and yarn, toys and utensils. I bought cookbooks from local church fundraisers, and learned to cook like the neighbors. And I bought all of us books.

All my children were avid readers, and the women who staffed the Nook appreciated that. Local retired engineers and teachers donated their libraries, so I found gifts for my husband and stacks of books for the children. I found things donated by kindred spirits, copies of books of poetry that I’d lost in the move or which the kids had ruined. I was part shopper and part archeologist, learning about this new place from its artifacts. The farm stand down the street a block sold similar things, along with local produce and gorgeous plants, and became my second stop on the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the Nook was open.

Sometimes Jan came with me, and helped me develop my taste. She explained why one thing would be uncomfortable to wear and another would have to be dry cleaned. We would raise our eyebrows but not giggle at some of the color combinations of afghans from the sixties and seventies that people donated from their grandmother’s estates, but, I also bought some of these and tucked my children in under them. We’d talk about recipes and kids, what to plant and how to cook it when harvested. Time spent in her kitchen or living room, with kids everywhere asking questions or seeking justice, with Jan telling me her stories from Michigan and me adding mine from Boston, was formative and healing. I was so homesick that I would listen to “Car Talk” on NPR for the accents as I drove down planned roads past cattle, palm trees, and oil rigs. But at Jan’s and at the Nook, I felt like I was in the home of family.

 

This past Ascension Thursday, my youngest son and I landed in Houston, his first visit since we moved when he was five. Now 23, and an environmental engineer, he made acute observations. “Mom, there’s no place for the water to go when it rains here! Why would anyone build a city on a swamp?” And, as we passed a retention ditch, “Mom, water is just never supposed to be that color.”

We were there for the wedding of the youngest daughter in a family of friends that we knew through Jan. She and my son spent many hours together, each the baby of a large family, and they stayed in touch through letters and Facebook. They shared a love of God, theology, bad puns, and our families and friends. The groom even looked like my son. We were there to celebrate. We were there for the wedding. And we were there to see Jan before the cancer took her all. John stayed with the groomsmen at the bride’s house (she and the bridesmaids were at her sister’s home) and I stayed with Mark and Jan, so I had a rental car.

Jan had lost weight from the cancer, and her luxurious  long black hair was replaced with a thick shock of greyer hair that still looked healthy and stylish. She did not have a lot of energy, but she insisted on doing the dishes herself, and cooked us a casserole and gave me the recipe as she gave me pointers on beating diabetes. She gave me tricks for living with my difficult medicines, and described how she overcame the need for it through diet.

We all understood that she was dying. She had surgery and chemo, radiation and immunotherapy, and each thing worked until it didn’t. I had been de-cluttering our house in preparation for downsizing, and our mutual friends had been helping her do the same, finding homes for her late mother’s doll-making things and for Jan’s fabrics and notions.

I think that part of being a good guest is to give the family chunks of time without you. Mark had to work, and Jan had to sleep. I was to drive a guest to the wedding, and I went out to learn the route to her place, the wedding site, and the reception site in advance, so I wouldn’t get lost on the big day.

I also took a side trip.

I drove past our old neighborhood in Webster, Texas; I drove to our old house (but didn’t leave the car), past the children’s school, and off to Friendswood. The stores had all changed names and places, the library was now in the old bank building, but the Shepherd’s Nook was still there. I pulled into the driveway with a familiar crunch, and opened the door to find the store was ever the same.

I walked through the rooms with nostalgia and appreciation, stopping to choose a gift for my friend’s granddaughter and a dress for my own. I chose some books for the flight home. I wandered past shoes and boots, hats and negligees, silver trays from someone’s 25th anniversary and balls of yarn, marveling at the continuing kindness of strangers. Before I came, after I left, and surely after I came home, these volunteers collected, sorted, and displayed donations, told which color looked best on you and set aside good books for someone’s kid, folded and re-hung the things people had tried on so the shop would be orderly and the customers would have dignity as they looked for what they needed, and what, thanks to these kind people, they could afford.

It was with heightened gratitude for what was and what is that I went to the wedding, to my brother-in-law’s book signing, to our old parish downtown for Saturday vigil and to my in-laws’ Greek church for Liturgy on Sunday. When I got to sit around Monday with Jan and a friend and talk about nothing important — jury duty and road tests, licenses and quilting — I valued each second. Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated.

My life in Connecticut has been very different from our life in Texas, because suddenly I was the mother of teenagers rather than toddlers. We live in a town rather like Friendswood, though, full of churches determined to help people. The Episcopalian church in town even had a house turned resale shop, “The Golden Rooster,” until three years ago. And I bought nice silk scarves, a stunning jacket, and some kicky earrings there.

But the days of toddlers who outgrew their clothes, elementary students in need of toys and books, middle school students who needed new khakis for their changing bodies, and a baby who was happy with anything he could chew on are over. I miss those days. I miss our friends. I miss the little blue house of a store that provided for them so well for so long. I miss the straight roads, and the cows, the sunlight and the sky that stretched over them all.

And I miss my sister-in-law.