Coming Back Soon. Meanwhile…

Life has been complicated, and while I have many first drafts of posts on file since October, none were worthy to go up yet. My thoughts were too scattered and cloudy, as has been my heart. I traveled a bit. I drove to Boston to have a turn taking my sister with cancer to one of her chemo treatments and saw some of my adult children and siblings and their children en route. We’ve been blessed with more grandchildren, I’ve reconnected with old friends both online and in real life, and for this year’s plot twist, after I had been told that I had more basal cell carcinoma on the bridge of my greatly changed nose and to expect surgery, I was called in, instead, by my two awesome doctors for a second opion biopsy today because they looked again at the slides, conferred, and had doubts that it was that bad. It may be something easier to treat.

I thought I was reconciled to more of everything that recovery required this past year — scraping, slicing, and bandages; surgery and recovery; sleepless nights in the recliner downstairs so neither my husband nor I undid my stitches; numb minutes watching strange animal videos and old sitcomes while not being able to wear my eyeglasses to read. This isn’t exactly a complaint. I’m not especially brave or stoic, but when the choice is death or discomfort, I will celebrate discomfort as the much better outcome. Cheerfulness is a Christian duty, and courage can be contagious. It can even spread from person to person but also within us, unannounced. That was my aim, but I have been strangely subdued. I hadn’t realized that, like the smoke from Canadian wildfires, the anticipation of going back down the rabbit hole of Treatment had tinged my world view and kept me from making solid plans.

but this new development has made me feel like Mole casting aside his paintbrush at the beginning of “Wind in the Willows.” All of the sudden I am writing again, I am editing things and creating canva posts, and looking at new submissions to the press where I work and I plan on going back to camp, after three years away, to help once more in the kitchen to work with friends and family. I am looking forward to this, and have been in training in my own kitchen so I can prepare fruits and vegetables and clean pots and pans cooking for so many more than two. This is much better than whitewashing.

“The first pancake is lumpy.”

When the essays that were percolating in my brain are fully brewed, I will share them here. In the meanwhile, just a short slice of life, some talk in the car between my husband and me. His Russian is better than mine. What you have to know is this: the Russians have a saying, “первый блин комом,” meaning, “the first pancake is lumpy.” I use it a lot when I cook, and when I write, and even when I sing. And now I am contemplating all the many lumpy pancake varieties I can create.

Conversation in the car on the way to the doctor:

Me: “Sweetie, if one were to write ‘первый блин’ in English transliteration, how would one do so?
He: “Let’s see…. ‘p-e-r-v-y b-l-i-n.'”
Me: “Aw. Not ‘p-e-r-v-i-i?'”
He: “No, it’s ‘ы’ and not ‘и.'”
Me: “Drats.”
He: “Why?”
Me: “Well, you know how I’ve just tried making saurkraut, and my pickles and all sometimes come out great and then other times do not?”
He, cautiously: “Yes….?”
Me: “Well, it occurred to me that someday, when I get better at it, I could start a food business, and call it Pervii Blin Productions, but if I spell it the other way they people will think I mean ‘pervy’ in English, which is altogether different, and then I may as well call it Enron or something.
He: “It’s unfortunate, but, yes.”
Me: “And also, First Pancake Productions just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
He: “Alas, no.”

Back to the proverbial drawing board.
I am impressed at the fact that for the most part he kept his eyes on the road.

Wednesday Writing Prompt — Cicadas

The cicadas which are emerging from underground all over North America are a great gift to writers. Their life cycle offers so many metaphors. They leave their shells behind, as so many of us do in June when people graduate, marry, or move. They travel in large numbers to thwart predators. Their shells repulse some people while others find the translucent wings, their struggle to arise from the earth, and their flight from the ground a thing of beauty. But also, they offer the canny writer a new angle for writing about the passage of time.

A generation, in the Bible, is fourteen years. Cicadas emerge every seventeen years. This year, I am fifty-eight and living in Ohio with my semi-retired husband. Seventeen years ago, I was 41. We had arrived in Connecticut just four years before; the oldest of our children was about to graduate high school and start college in another State. Seventeen years before that, we were newlyweds with two children, living in Boston. I had not yet had a miscarriage. My husband’s ordination to the priesthood, our life in Texas, and the birth of half our children took place while the cicadas were growing underground. And the cicada season before that, I was only seven. I have no memory of the insects themselves, but I remember being horrified by the sporadic empty shell still clinging to the tree like one of the frozen figures in Pompeii after the volcano. (I came from a family that would have told me more about Pompeii than about cicadas.)

Projecting time forward puts a new twist on the phenomenon. If I live to see the cicadas emerge again, I will be seventy-five. Will I have written That Book yet or not?

Rich soil here for planting ideas. The existence, life span, structure, and perception of cicadas offer a variety of frameworks for writers. Here are some prompts:

  1. Write a piece in which two people stumble across a cicada (alive or a shell) and show their different reactions to it.

Comparing and contrasting two people works across all writing genres — Natalia Ginzburg does it brilliantly in her essay “He and I.” Pearl S. Buck masterfully handles this in “A Pavilion of Women” when she contrasts what the heroine, Madame Wu, knows about her best friend’s husband vs. what Mr. Kang knows about her. Borges does this in “Borges and I.” Parents know that two children can have very different reactions to something. A poet may write on one side of the page about being repulsed and on the other about being touched by beauty.

2) Look closely at a cicada shell and write your own response to it.

3) What were you doing last time the cicadas emerged? Were you alive yet? Did you see them? How old will you be when you see them again?

4) Make a list of concrete nouns about cicadas. Now make a list of abstract nouns. Now use them both in an essay, poem, or story.

5) Scientific writers could write about some aspect of the life of cicadas that has been overlooked — their environmental impact, the chasm between how people perceive cicadas and what they actually do. Make a list according to your specialty, then compare and contrast — cicadas have no teeth, but cicadas slice holes in plants in which they lay their eggs. Cicadas are not poisonous, but their shells are hard for dogs to digest.

6) Cicadas are noisy. Write a piece in which the hero is trying to concentrate on one thing and the sound of the cicadas is a distraction. (Bonus points if you can make the character relate this to the last time he or she heard the cicadas.)

Once you’ve done this with cicadas, you might try it with other insects — contrast cicadas with earthworms, write an “ant and grasshopper” type story about cicadas during their frolic, write a story about edible insects and the recipes people have created for cicadas… make it your own.

But write fast, because when they’re hidden, they won’t be back for another seventeen years.

When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

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.

Radishes

April is National Poetry Month.

When my children were younger, I went through a phase where I tried to get them to appreciate poetry by reading it to them at the dinner table. They were, at the time, the opposite of appreciative. It’s not that we didn’t read at the table — my husband had moved bedtime stories to dinnertime as their tastes went from Richard Scarry to “Lord of the Rings.” But they wanted stories, not poems. And especially not the poem that I tried to make them love.

I had chosen a Japanese poem, “The Man Pulling Radishes,” by Kobayashi Issa, who lived around the time America was founded. It’s a simple poem, not even a haiku (at least in English), but it encompasses so much. The translator, Robert Hass, is still alive, and I don’t know enough about copyright law to know if I can post his translation here, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Here’s a link.

I love the poem because in three short lines, Issa (and Hass) accomplish and teach so much:

– The man pulling radishes had nothing to use but the radish, but
– the man seeking his way didn’t know where he should go, but the man pulling radishes did, and yet
– the seeker will continue on his way, and the man with the radishes will keep pulling radishes.
– Sometimes all you have is a radish. God will make it enough.
– Even though all someone has to point the way is a radish, it’s enough to get you started.

Radishes are easy to plant, and are one of the first things to come up. And so this might set the time of the encounter for us — early Spring, and the seeker is out seeking, and the man who planted the radishes is harvesting them. Each of us has a task.

My children’s reaction, though, was horror at the idea of me reading poetry every night during great story time, followed by derision of the poem for its brevity and content. Radishes became a running joke. When they encountered a bad poem at school, they’d shake their heads and say something about it being worse than radishes. When my mother-in-law gifted me with a GPS, a glorious day for everyone I’ve ever driven anyplace, they joked that now I don’t have to ask men pulling radishes. Whenever I served radishes, they quoted the poem, and rolled their eyes. They brought me radishes on a plate when a poem I was working on was not going well. And when they learned that a place called “Radish Magazine” reprinted my Guy Soup recipe but that I had signed away the right to a reprint fee from the place it was first published, their laughter was complete. Mom and her radishes. The irony was that yes, I had been trying to point the way with the radish poem. Instead, I was afraid that I had ruined poetry — and radishes — for them forever.

But then something amazing happened. Their adolescence (April, 1999 – June 2014) ended, and they became lovely adults, some of whom appreciate poetry. And my adult daughter chose this very poem to post on her Facebook page for National Poetry Month. “Today’s poem is beautiful both in its simplicity and in all the years of solid joke material it’s brought us since its Lardas Family debut. This one’s for you, mom!”

Well.

Plant those seeds, whether radishes or love of poetry. When you harvest them, you can point somebody’s way.