This is For Special — Wednesday Writing Prompt

The Wentworth by Thomas

Growing up, I understood that my mother’s mother’s china had a special place in our lives. They were not just dishes; they were “your grandmother’s good china.” We used them for company and birthdays, for special occasions and holidays. Grandma Rooney died before I was born, and these dishes were, with a few other items, my connection to her. These dishes were kept in a special built-in rosewood cupboard in the dining room, and stayed behind glass when it was not a special time.

Dishes can be a shibboleth. When we read “Jane Eyre” in ninth grade, I was struck by how important a treat it was for ailing young Jane to receive a pastry on a special dish:

Bessie had been down into the kitchen, and she brought up with her a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in me a most enthusiastic sense of admiration; and which plate I had often petitioned to be allowed to take in my hand in order to examine it more closely, but had always hitherto been deemed unworthy of such a privilege. This precious vessel was now placed on my knee, and I was cordially invited to eat the circlet of delicate pastry upon it. Vain favour! coming, like most other favours long deferred and often wished for, too late! I could not eat the tart; and the plumage of the bird, the tints of the flowers, seemed strangely faded: I put both plate and tart away. 

Some dishes are an honor; others serve a less honorable function. When my children were young, once all of them were sick at once, and we followed suit. I handed out buckets and basins and finally designated one of my cheaper mixing bowls as the Emergency Barf Bucket. After everyone was better, all the receptacles were washed and sterilized and the mixing bowl was put in the kitchen but not with the dishes, just with the canned goods, in case I needed to hand wash something or soak an item of clothing. Everyone knew not to use the plastic green mixing bowl — everyone who lived with us all the time.

Then as a special treat, some weeks later, my husband and I hired the daughter of our son’s pre-school teacher to babysit for the evening. She was a teacher in her own right, and the children really loved her. I told her she could help herself to anything and could even make brownies, if she liked. I put the box of brownie mix on the counter. I should have been more thorough. When we came home, she told us how good the children had been and told us they had even saved a brownie for each of us. I was about to pick one up and bite it when glanced across the kitchen and saw the green mixing bowl in the sink, with brownie batter still clinging to it.

An object that has meaning and history for one person is just a thing to another.

Here’s the background: Everyone has a special dish, a favorite coffee mug, the plate that everyone wants to use or the dish that no one wants. My husband and his brothers each had their own colored cup, and it was unthinkable to drink from the green instead of the blue.

Getting the Dishes You Want: I learn from my friends. One bought her sister a beautiful gold china set that their parents gave away upon the sister’s death. This left a hole in my friend’s heart until she saw a way to fix it. On Ebay, she found the same set and bought it, setting it up in her dining room where it shined on her quilts, statues, paintings, and carpets, part of the warp and weft of her daily life. That inspired me. When my stepmother moved, she had given each of us siblings some of what remained of my mother’s good dishes. I chose the big glass plate with metal decorations that had held so many birthday cakes, the tray that had held the celery that I stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts for hors d’oeuvres as a child, and as many of the Wentworth plates as still were intact. I lamented that there weren’t really enough for a full dinner, so my husband encouraged me to go through an online website to obtain enough matching plates to have eight place settings. The day they arrived, I could hardly breathe with anticipation. Unwrapping them felt good, initially, and I set aside the bubble wrap, removed the stickers, washed the plates, and put them in our new china hutch with the rest of the set. But after, I felt like a fraud. I could not tell which dishes my mother and grandmother had held and which were from strangers. I was almost as unhappy as Jane Eyre. Later, when we had company, pre-COVID, and I served a formal meal on the good china, with flowers and candles such as I could not have done with four children home, some of my joy was restored.

Here’s the prompt: Every family has their own special dishes, for better and for worse. Write about a time when someone let you use the good thing, or when someone made you use the bad thing. Think — who or what kept you from having the one you wanted? Was it love on your part, giving your husband the big cup or your child the plate that wasn’t chipped, or was someone making a statement, or, worse, oblivious to your happiness or sorrow?

Here are examples: You might write about choosing your own china pattern for your wedding, or about seeing dishes like those someone you love had at a yard sale or flea market. Or you could write about what happened when a dish that you didn’t know that you treasured broke.

You might write about a mother and daughter arguing over whether an old, chipped dish should be discarded. To the daughter, it’s old; to the mother, it’s a gift from the departed. Or, vice versa, it may be important to the child to use the pink cup and a parent may try to give her juice in the white one.

How many ways can you reveal a conflict, using dishes, without actually spelling out the source of tension?

Enjoy!

Wednesday Writing Prompts

Introducing something new, a writing prompt every Wednesday, to do with what you will.

See the source image

Here’s the background:

I needed to print something.

I remembered that we were low on ink.

I called out to my beloved, “Could you please change the ribbon?

He asked, “What ribbon?”

I sighed and remembered what century it is.

“The ink cartridge. Could you please change the ink cartridge?”

Here’s the prompt:

What is a word that we don’t use any more for something that we still do or use?

Examples:

When I was growing up, older adults said “dungarees” for “blue jeans” and “ice box” for refrigerator. Somewhere between 1975 and 1985, “jogging” became “running.” At some point as a nation we stopped using participles and nouns (“unveiling” and “request”) and started using verbs as noun (“the reveal,” “the ask.”) Tee shirts used to be “undershirts.” Now they’re just “tees.”

Here are possible ways to use the prompt:

  1. Have one character use a word that the other doesn’t understand, as an aside or as a catalyst for crisis, to show the difference in age without using numbers.
  2. Write a poem using the old word for something as the title, perhaps the memory of a moment.
  3. In WWII, escaped prisoners gave away that they were Americans by the way they used their knife and fork in France. Create a scenario in which the use of a term gives away something about a character.
  4. Nonfictionistas, write about a time you used a word that everyone knew when you were younger and people don’t know now.

Enjoy!

There May Yet Be Time

“Hurry up and write that book, Ann Marie,” said my last living grandparent. “I’m not getting any younger, and I want to read it before I die!”

No pressure.

I have written many things in my life — poems, essays, two theses, many posts to online groups that were turned into articles, and some articles that were accepted and even paid for, which is becoming uncommon. But I haven’t written The Book, or even A Book, even though I have made verbal promises to produce two (One is about Bishop Constantine and the other isn’t) and I have saved pictures and documents for a third. Now that my children are grown and we are living both in semi-retirement and during a general world wide pandemic quarantine, you’d think I would find the time to write them, but time is not the issue. As an old commercial used to say, “It’s not soup yet.”

But I am encouraged by a show on PBS that I found in passing and watched twice (we have both Ohio and Kentucky PBS stations available in Cincinnati, so often I can catch something on one channel if I miss it on another.) It was part of a series on poetry, and focused on one of my favorite poems.

My senior year of high school, when I took the AP English exam, I was gobsmacked by the poem we were asked to analyze. It was by a poet I had never heard of, Elizabeth Bishop. “One Art,” which you can visit here, discusses “the art of losing.” The list of things that she has lost escalates and becomes both more abstract and more intimate. I almost went over the allotted time writing about it, because it so mirrored feelings of my own.

I thought, then, that poets had to be single and young.

I was blessed to be able to take poetry courses at Wellesley with Frank Bidart, who had been Bishop’s friend. I paid for my graduation gown rental with the prize money for a sonnet I wrote as a senior, and had poems published in various school publications, but then I got married and had four children. I still wrote poems, but I rarely published them.

When I watched the PBS show, in which various people talk about how the poem affected them, and talk about loss, I was mesmerized. I lose things — I am a frequent flyer when it comes to praying to St. Phanourios. This is a season of loss anniversaries — ten years since my brother’s repose and twenty-five since my father’s — and we have relocated to another State and Town which meant selling the house we had lived in for nearly twenty years. This was the third “realm” I had lost, after Roslindale, Massachusetts, and Webster, Texas. Intellectually, I accepted the loss of the house, and parish, and town, but when I saw that the new owners had cut down all my flowering shrubs, I felt a fresh wave of new pain. I expected the windows and roof to go, but I thought the lilacs and forsythia were forever.

My mother lived to be 37, my brother 47, and my father 57, my current age. I worry that I am reaching my expiration date without having Done Things. I am too old to make a “thirty under thirty,” or “forty under forty,” or even a “fifty under fifty” list of hot new writers. And I feel neither hot nor new.

But a group of MFA writer friends and I formed a poetry group, and I have been writing poems again, which also makes me want to write everything else, also. And then, when watching the PBS show, I heard two facts that I didn’t know about the poem: it took sixteen drafts. And Bishop was sixty-five when she wrote it.

I have published poems that had fewer than sixteen drafts.

And I am still not sixty-five.

We live in hope.

There are so many things I want to say and write, but, one cannot water a garden with a firehose. I don’t just want to fling my words into the universe — I want to curate them, I want them to be sculpted and present them properly. And that’s what Elizabeth Bishop did. It took her sixty-five years and everything else she did and wrote to prepare her for this task.

I may yet have worlds enough, and time.

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

Love and Worship in Time of Quarantine

A friend called to ask what I thought about the government telling us to close the church to most people and have minimalist services broadcast.
I told him I don’t like it, but what is the intent?


The intent is not to shut down religion or to keep us from each other.
The intent is to keep us alive, to keep us from hurting each other, and while “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not the first commandment, it’s on the list.
This is a different illness. It’s more like chicken pox, which all of my kids have had and one kid had three times, which is supposed to be impossible, in that you are contagious days before you show symptoms.
So no matter how good we feel, we could be spreading this to people we love.


These bans are to keep us from doing that.


These frustrating measures are to keep us from harming each other, and harming each other gravely, by accident.


Excommunication, when imposed by the Church, is the gravest punishment and is saved for the gravest of sins, and it feels like we’ve been excommunicated when we cannot congregate together and celebrate the Eucharist, together.


But the Church uses it for our salvation, and this separation is for our good and the good of the people we love.


And it’s temporary.

At Jordanville in my husband’s time and later, seminarians were assigned, in rotation, to barn duty instead of church on Sundays so the barn workers could be at the Sunday Liturgy and commune. The cows had to be milked and fed at the same time every day, and sometimes you have to miss church so the cows can eat and so that your brother can be at the services. One seminarian balked, and went to church instead, He said he came there to get an education, not to milk cows, and there was fallout. An elderly monk remarked to a friend, “You know, if you’re supposed to work in the cow barns, and you went to Liturgy instead, did you really go to Liturgy?” I thought of this often when my children were young and I had to stay home with whoever was sick.

This isolation is working in the cow barns so your brother can live and go to church another day, and so you can, too, only now we can also see the services on the internet, and receive Holy Communion one on one from our priests, who need prayers for protection, support, and strength during this difficult, difficult time.

Sometimes the best way to serve is to cease from complaining and to be where we are told to be for the duration, thinking always of how beautiful it will be when we are all together again.

This is the Sunday of the Cross. How few of the Apostles were there at the actual Crucifixion. How many millions now stand at the foot of the Cross, looking up for hope and help. Another thing — the myrrh bearing women and the noble Joseph who buried Christ were considered unclean and would not have been able to participate in the Passover, for having touched a dead body. But we sing of them now. And that one sacrifice lead to so many more services, churches, congregations, and chances for believers to pray together.

This is hard. This is miserable. This is temporary. And in that it is what God has either sent or allowed, it is for our salvation.

This is the loving thing that we can do, right now, for each other, and that we can do graciously, to support our bishops and priests, who want us to have life, and to have it abundantly.

Let us pray for our bishops, for our clergy, for each other, for our civil leaders, for all those who have to make hard decisions and for all of us who have to live with them. And in that way, this disastrous crisis can bring us closer together, by bringing us closer to Christ.