This Isn’t That

The author and her husband model their new fashionwear.

“This isn’t that.”

This short sentence gets me through much.

Lately, I have found myself frozen, and I wanted to figure out why.

We all have things that make us hesitate — a person who looks like, smells like, walks like, someone who once hurt us. This man with a cheesy mustache is not that man with a cheesy mustache. This person saying the work needs improvement is not the teacher who wanted you gone. The pain from exercise is not the pain from having pulled something. Sometimes I say it out loud to get through, or move on.

I was upset because I can’t come up with a decent poem. Some friends from my MFA program and I decided to spend this time of world-wide enforced isolation running our poems by each other, and I was able to enter the first two rounds of submissions on something approaching a high. Then, this week, I froze. It wasn’t just writing. I bought the cards for Mother’s Day but didn’t mail them. There was the day that I did all my writing in my night clothes, the day that I didn’t cook, the day I wore an outfit that would make my daughter cry. I managed to perform my remedial ablutions and brush my hair and teeth, but the poem would not gel. The words did not come, and when I gathered them anyway, they scattered again like pepper flakes on the surface of water when you stick in the corner of a bar of soap.

I complained to my husband. He is, after all, the rest of what I call my “germ cohort.” I said, “Sir Isaac Newton discovered algebra when he was in isolation from the plague. I can’t write a poem. What’s wrong with me?”

“First of all,” my husband said, “Sir Isaac has nothing to do with algebra. He discovered gravity. Second, he outside of London where it was safe but he wasn’t cooped up, he was able to walk outside. How do you think the apple could fall on his head? Thirdly,” and he meant this kindly, “you are not Sir Isaac Newton.”

Whew.

I think those of us who are inclined to put pressure on ourselves (Happy Mother’s Day to the lot of us) feel like we should be using this time of enforced idleness to create something of lasting beauty, that this is the chance we have been dreaming of to spend time at home working on what we love to do.

This isn’t that.

This isn’t what the Romans called “otium,” leisure. This is not, as my grad school experience was, time carved out one precious second at a time for dedicated work even in the face of two jobs and a family. This isn’t down time. This isn’t freedom. This isn’t respite.

This is a time of global trauma. And we cannot be healed from its effects until we recognize that fact.

One of my MFA mentors, the writer Kim Dana Kupperman, encouraged my workshop colleagues and me to learn more about the science of the human brain (among other things) in order to be able to write with understanding. I took her advice to heart, and attended a conference on trauma and writing that stressed that trauma does not take place in words. Trauma is felt, comes in images, scents, sounds, but not words. The seminar was for teachers of writing, and stressed that as writing instructors, we could not heal people the way a counselor can — there is a time and place and often a need for counseling. But by helping trauma victims to write well, we can literally give them control over the narrative of their lives.

I started exploring more. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine offered classes on trauma and the brain. I knew all about Fight or Flight. But I didn’t know that there is a third term involved: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.

This horrible illness has caused not stay-cations or a writer’s retreat but rather has turned the whole world into refugees in our own homes. This has not been a choice. And so it’s not leisure, it is the deprivation of the time, routine, income, company, work, and entertainments we had previously chosen. Some of us are fighting, like my daughter who made us the beautiful masks. Some are fleeing, like the people who insist on flocking to beaches and stores as if nothing has happened, in the hope, perhaps, that acting that way would make it so. (If this is magical thinking, it is not good magic.) And, some of us are frozen.

Frozen isn’t always the worst option. The government chooses to call it “sheltering in place.” We are staying put while we assess the situation and evaluate for ourselves the dangers, risks, allies, and safe spaces.

But in the meantime, if you cannot start or finish a poem, mail a package, decide what to make for supper, or get dressed, you are not failing. You are booting up.

This reminds me not of school but of the reading period between the end of classes and the first exam. The people who are alone are so very alone, and the people who live with others feel like they are never alone. As with reading period, some of us are running around in our sweatpants reading intently and staying up all night. Some of us are all ready for whatever lies ahead and we are quietly creating order out of the chaos of around us. (I expect there will be some amazing yard sales when this stay in place order is lifted.) But the whole schedule where your roommate leaves for class at one on Tuesdays and the room is yours for three hours is blown. We are all displaced and anxious.

I have a few suggestions for wading through:

1) Go ahead and mourn

Coronavirus is not baseball. Cry if you need to.

Tears contain toxins. You really do “get it out of your system” when you have a good cry over something. Lament the graduations and weddings that are not taking place, the deaths and the scares, the restrictions and the cancelled plans.

2) Accept that the world has changed.

The military term for this is “embrace the suck.” Once you have acknowledged how bad things are, it becomes an established fact, it’s like learning your times tables of fractions. It makes it boring rather than scary. It is no longer fodder for complaint or conversation.

3) Look for the helpers.

There are good people everywhere, making signs, going shopping, working in hospitals, watching other people’s children. Actively seek out the good.

4) Be a helper.

Find the thing that needs to be done that fits your skills, talents, and means. Can you donate to a food pantry? Can you buy masks? Can you make masks? Can you help people tie their masks? Use your keyboard and your phone to write and speak words of encouragement.

Do what you can do. If you cannot help, at least don’t be part of the problem. Don’t do things that will endanger the lives of others or frighten the people who love you. Wash your hands, wear your mask, stay home when you can. This applies to me: if I cannot write a good poem, I can read one for now, and let it percolate in my brain. If you cannot face getting all the way dressed, at least brush your teeth and hair. Do small things that your future self will appreciate — pay the bills, wash the dishes, greet people, even if you have to do it from afar.

5) Keep in mind that this will end.

It is maddening not to know when or how this will end, but if we keep in mind that some day it will be over, we can think more clearly and with better hope.

6) Pray.

This should, of course, have been my first suggestion. If you are not a praying person, if you don’t have a prayer book, if this hasn’t been your tradition, that’s okay. Prayer is communion with God. Find a quiet place and, out loud or in the privacy of your head and heart, tell God what’s going on and what you think you need. Ask Him if this is really so. Ask Him to send good advice, good thoughts, good solutions. You can tell God when you are scared. It’s not like He doesn’t already know. You can ask him to watch over the people you cannot be with. He already loves them and knows them better than you do.

One of my favorite icons illustrates a section from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”

When the stress cramps my back and I find myself hunched over and fearful, I force my shoulders back and breath. Rest in God.

This will end.

Fresco from Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, Manville, NJ

Another Birthday, a New Request

I have a recent birthday.

And while Facebook encouraged me to do a fundraiser for the occasion, I don’t like that idea.

But. twenty years ago I turned the age my mother was when she died and ten years ago, I turned the age my brother was when he died.

This year I reach the age Dad was when he died, and realize afresh just how young that really was. It’s a milestone, but it’s the kind that forces one to think.
So here’s what I want:

Forgive someone.

I mean, I shouldn’t have candy, flowers are expensive because of Valentine’s Day, and have you seen my house? As much as I would like more books, it would be hoarding to ask for more.


But life is short, we are not promised each other’s company indefinitely, and you want to be at peace with the people near you and those with whom you share history, space, and blood.

The simmering resentments that poison everyday life suck away energy you could be spending joyfully, cherishing the good things that God sent you in the people and places around you.

Pray for strength, courage, and just do it.

Stop being angry at someone who has hurt you or with whom you disagree. Have compassion on someone who has disappointed you and try to be as strong as you wish he or she had been in your moment of need.

Forgive.

You don’t have to TELL the person that you forgive them and truly in most cases it’s better if you don’t.

Just, for me, do it.

Do it for you.

And do it for the person whom you miss.


And then I will be a very happy, if unspeakably old, birthday person.


Thank you.

Not this year. The author with cake.

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?

Pity Kulich

My husband and I stood on the porch under an umbrella, not quite out of the rain, ringing Evdokia’s doorbell. (Her name isn’t really Evdokia, of course.) We knew she was home — she was blind, elderly, and never went anywhere — but she refused to answer.

She knew why we were there.

We were getting damper and colder, despite the fact that it was Orthodox Easter Sunday. We were on a mission, delivering baskets to the shut-in’s, and you don’t get more shut-in than this. My husband dried his hand on his jacket, handed me the umbrella, and took out his phone.

“Evdokia Makarovna, eto ja, otets Giorgi!” “It’s me, Father George,” and he explained that he was here with a basket that the children had made for her. She doesn’t have to come downstairs, if she just buzzes the lock, he will bring it in.

Yes, she knew who he was and why he was there, and she didn’t want the basket. Give it, she said, to someone who DOES need it. And she hung up.

At this point both of our faces were dripping and my headscarf was soaked through. We looked at each other and laughed, and went to the diner alone together for coffee, our annual treat before we went home to finish celebrating the biggest feast of the year with our children.

The basket was small but had all the traditional Russian Easter foods — a hunk of kielbasa, a small cup of pascha cheese, a red egg, and some candy. We had driven all over the Greater Bridgeport area dropping them off, and Evdokia’s was the last stop.

There had actually been some controversy about the baskets. These were given to widows and to shut-ins, but many of the widows didn’t want one, because they could still bake for themselves and indeed, for everyone else. They brought large baskets to church to be blessed for their own families and handed out smaller parcels to others at church, including the fortunate clergy. These women could bake!

The parcels my husband distributed were a group effort. The Sisterhood made the foods, the children made cards and eggs, and we brought them to people. It wasn’t just the goodies that made them special, it was the idea that the church still remembers those who cannot get there often. Sometimes my husband would stay for tea, and catch up with the elderly, filling them in on current doings at church and learning more about the parish’s history.

Sometimes we missed someone — we didn’t know that someone was sick or in the hospital. Sometimes people didn’t want to be contacted. And sometimes a person requested a basket. “She might be a widow, but she still gets around and can cook!” one elderly woman said, while passing on her friend’s request. Well, if someone feels the need to have the priest show up with goodies and stay for tea mixed with sympathy, it’s a need. One more basket is not hard to make.

The baskets were distributed on Pascha and during Bright Week, just before the blessing of graves that takes place the following week. And so it was a time to verify who was buried where, and to gather names of the deceased, as well. Granted, it was also one more thing to do after the most exhausting and exhilarating time of the year. But it was an important ministry.

Some people declined a basket out of shyness. Others didn’t want to see the priest. And then there was the implication of receiving a basket. It’s makes a person part of a category that not everyone is ready to join. Evdokia, whom I never met in person, had been adamant about not needing a basket. Yes, she was blind. Yes, she was a widow. Yes, she couldn’t get to church. But she could still provide. The Sisterhood, whose members were all women who were younger than Evdokia, insisted that we bring her a basket. We were squished in the middle of an intergenerational war, and it seemed better to err by bringing Easter cheer than to risk offending people by not doing so.

It had a difficult Easter for me. I felt like less than a perfect hostess, because while I had made my cheese and dyed my eggs, I had not made kulich.

Kulich is the traditional Russian Easter bread, and it is baked in cylinders (coffee cans, special beakers, empty oatmeal boxes, according to your budget) and is frosted. It contains many of the things we give up for Lent — eggs, milk, butter — and provides a sturdy platform for large helpings of the pascha cheese. But this year I couldn’t knead the dough, because I’d sliced the side of my right hand.

Like most injuries, it was stupid. My children all made their own lunches, and the youngest had decided that “green bean juice on white bread tastes just like steak.” I didn’t see it, but as long as he also brought a protein and a fruit, I had no problem with him packing a baggie of green beans in his lunch. He didn’t need a full can of them, though. So one morning when I was cleaning up the post-exodus mess from four children making lunches to take to three schools, I saw there were a few lonely green beans left in the can. I stuck my hand in to liberate them (and eat them), and when I turned my hand, I sliced it on the edge. I didn’t bleed long, but I bled a lot, and I didn’t want to risk bleeding into dough made with six cups of milk, a dozen egg yolks, saffron, sugar, etc. I bought a tsoureki, instead, from the Greek church. News of my injury reached parishioners and friends, who gave me what my daughter termed “pity kulich,” most of it better than mine, and I bought a Potemkin kulich from the Russian store to grace our basket.

The next day, we were about to eat supper when the doorbell rang. It was Evdokia’s son-in-law. He was holding a large bag, and he looked very, very nervous. He apologized to my husband, held the bag as if it contained a decapitated head and said, “Mama said I need to come.”

Looking much like a nun who was asked to repeat a swear word, he gulped, and continued, “Mama says that she knows you hurt your hand.” He nodded at me briefly but would not make eye contact. “She said that she’s not the one who needs a kulich, you are. She said that even if she can’t see, she can still bake. And she said I should bring you this.”

My husband opened the bag, and pulled out one of the largest and most luscious kulichi I have ever seen. It was golden and smelled of yeast, eggs, and butter. The son-in-law looked like he wanted to sink under the floor boards, and my husband had not yet recovered his power of speech. So it was up to me.

God bless Evdokia. People tried to tell her she was one thing, she maintains she is not, and she decided to prove it in the tastiest way possible. “I am taking notes,” I thought. “This is how one refuses to go gently into the night.”

The son-in-law still stood before us, looking miserable. I had it in my power to fix one thing. I dried my hands on my apron and extended the right one for him to shake. “Please, please thank your mother-in-law for me!” I said. “I’m healing nicely,” I said, showing him the thin line on my hand, “but I was so disappointed that I couldn’t bake, and that looks absolutely delicious. I’m so grateful to you. I appreciate you bringing it to me.”

The son-in-law looked up with relief, and, still not making eye contact, shook my hand, got my husband’s blessing, and fled. It was a glorious kulich, and it lasted us many days. And the next year, and all the years after until she died, none of us ever dared try to bring Evdokia another basket again.

Alas, she never made me another pity kulich.

But I do have a recipe that’s good, I’ve had several more years practice now, and I am truly capable, once again, of making my own. I don’t always take the time to let them cool properly, they may break, but they fill the house with a yeasty miasma, they taste good, and the preparation makes me feel like part of a long line of women laboring to make the celebration palpable for the people around us. We are not Manicheans; the Church blesses Things — bread, water, eggs, cheese — because God’s creation is good, and He allows us to participate in the joy of creation by making things with our own hands to share, in love, in imitation of Him.

Evdokia knew this, and was not going to let anybody tell her that she’s out of the game.

Here’s the recipe for kulich. I quadruple it, but you might not have to.

Enjoy.

Kulich

One and a half cups scalded milk
1 envelope dry yeast (= 2 teaspoons)
4 egg yolks
1 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup grated lemon rind (I don’t use that much)
pinch saffron (I soak this in brandy or rum for more uniform color)
2 (46 ounce) juice cans, washed (remove labels!)
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup chopped blanched almonds (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup seedless golden raisins (more or less — you decide)

Scald the milk. Let cool, remove the “skin.” In a large bowl, combine milk and 4 cups flour. Soften the yeast in the 1/4 cup of water; then stir into the flour and milk mixture. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
(This gives you time to separate your eggs, melt your butter, etc.) In a small bowl, beat the yolks with sugar until light and thick. Add butter and blend well. Stir in nuts, lemon rind, salt, saffron, and raisins. Gradually stir in enough flour to make the dough firm enough to handle. Turn out onto a floured board and knead well (this is hard work!) until the dough is smooth and elastic, working in more flour as
needed.
(We discovered that it’s “enough” flour when your hands are no longer goopy with dough.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (The recipe says 370 but mine burn if I use that high a temp.) Divide the dough in half and place in cans. (Some people grease the cans with white shortening (Crisco-type stuff or even spray them with Pam) and line then with brown paper. I used to use grocery bags, but that’s not safe any more — some have pesticides — so I buy parchment paper. Other people use butcher paper. The paper should extend above the can. Be sure to cut out a circle for the bottom of the can also.) The cans should be half full. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. KEEP THEM OUT OF ANY BREEZES! I had a batch one year that looked gorgeous, but was raw in the middle.

Place cans of dough in a preheated oven. Bake about one hour and fifteen minutes, until golden brown.

Allow kulichi to stand for about five minutes. Take them out of the cans by tugging out the paper. Good cooks roll them back and forth so they are perfectly rounded. I don’t. Mine list, like friends who’ve been carousing, but it’s all good. Peel off the paper and wrap the kulichi each in its own clean towel to cool.
When cool, stand the kulichi up and cover them with lemon glaze (let it trickle down the sides).
Some people decorate the tops with “XB” in candied cherries. Others just use candy sprinkles. Our Ukrainian parishioners use a fresh rose, which is also pretty.
Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, 2 teaspoons hot tap water, and one teaspoon lemon juice. Start with less juice and use more only if needed. The frosting should be thick, like fondant.


You can make these in a variety of sizes by varying the cans you use. One quart juice cans, frozen juice concentrate cans, 11 oz. coffee cans, etc. all work.


Remember that smaller kulichi will take less time to bake, and larger will of course take longer. If the tops of the paper start burning, cut them off or ignore it, depending on the danger of them bursting into flame.


Kulichi can be frozen in thick zip lock bags. To serve, cut off the top, then slice the cylinder. Serve the round pieces first, always putting the top back on like a cookie jar lid so the bottom slices don’t dry out. Serve with Pascha cheese.

Next year, you can order good kulich from here!

Don’t Write People Off; Draw Them in.

There is no age at which it doesn’t hurt to be left out. On a mothering group, the question came up when someone’s child was not invited to his friend’s birthday party. In adult life, this comes up when coffee klatches, outings, work parties, PTA planning sessions, or Girls’ Night Out happen without us.

When I was in Kindergarten, I sobbed, broken hearted, when a child told me she was having a birthday party and X and Y were invited and I was not. My teacher gave me paradigm shift. She said that not everyone has enough space or money to invite everyone, and some people can have only a small party with one or two people. Sometimes that’s true.


Other times, people are being exclusionary and even mean. That stinks, and it stinks worse the older the “kids” are.


But we cannot assume the worst, because it makes us look at people funny, and our faces will freeze like that. Elder Thaddeus would say that they will know what we are thinking. So it’s better to assume that it’s economics or space.


That said, I think part of the way that many are saved by childbearing (1 Tim 2:15) is that it gives us a chance to tackle whatever issues we didn’t handle when we were younger. When someone excludes us, we are hurt. When someone excludes our child, we are furious. But sometimes people only want what, or whom, they want. The secret, then, is to find a way to be happy without them.

For parents, redirection is the key. We can give our children something good to think about so they don’t dwell on what they’re missing. Mom used to take my brother to a museum if there was something at school she didn’t want him doing. The St. Herman Conferences began because a bunch of us were not celebrating Christmas yet and some seminarians thought it would be nice if we did something fun and useful during that time. Stay friendly, or friendly enough, with the excluders, and then look for more people to love.


My youngest invited his whole class to his birthday party in our back yard, in fifth grade, and most couldn’t come because they were on sports teams. But all the minority kids came, and said it was the first party they’d been invited to since Kindergarten, when the whole class had to be invited or your couldn’t bring the invitations to school.


There are other people out there whose children also don’t get invited. There are women who don’t get invited. There are men with no family, older people whose kids are grown, new families in the area.

Someone needs to include them. And look, God made you!

My younger brother’s teacher taught his class a poem that stayed with us all.


“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

Edwin Markham


Sometimes, the only thing to do is to draw more circles.