In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

On the street where we lived

“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”

You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe

We lived on the Dead-End when I was growing up.  At least that’s what we always called it.

When the town on the edge of a swamp was settled and eventually paved, there must have been some reason for ending a street the way the one we grew up on did. I guess you could say we lived on a strange little cul-de-sac before cul-de-sacs were cool. We never questioned why the other kids in town lived on streets that intersected with other streets or highways while ours ended with a basketball hoop attached to a light pole and two flat-roofed garages where there was  just enough space for a skinny kid to take a short cut.  All we knew was that our street was a central gathering place for anyone on the North End wanting to ride bikes or play hide and seek until the mosquitoes drove them indoors.  Thinking back, it was an awesome way to grow up. It really was.

If I close my eyes, I can conjure up memories of the people who woke up every morning in the houses that lined the Dead End.  The Wilhelms, Wolfes, our own family, and Otts made up one side of the street while Koziseks, Dedericks, Mrs. Peck, Lyons, Barbers and Swishers made up the other.  Each house was neat as a pin on the outside, with flower gardens and large, lovely, evergreens in many of the yards.

The young have tunnel vision where their own childhoods are concerned. Childhood, after all, is neither as carefree nor as complicated as we remember it. Time takes old neighbors. Sometimes it takes young ones, too. We learned that on the dead-end. Too soon, the rest of us outgrew the street where we scraped knees playing tag and rested, spent, on the hill in our front yard under an inky-black sky, wishing on stars.

Why should it matter that decades ago, families I knew lived in those modest homes on both sides of a dead-end street? Why do I long for the way the pretty brick home I was raised in looked growing up and Mrs. Wolfe’s perennials and asparagus in her neatly tended gardens? Why does it grieve me, especially, to think about the trees?  Mrs. Peck’s spruce in her front yard? The Ott family’s towering pine? The gangly evergreen that a blond boy in dark horn-rimmed glasses planted one day in front of my aunt’s kitchen window before the neighborhood lost the boy. Then, there was just the tree. Lance’s tree. 

In a world with so much else to care about, why does any of this matter? Why do I care about a street where kids laughed and played so long ago? About trees that strong summer winds blew down?

Maybe, no matter how old we are, once in awhile, we just want to be able to go home again. To the streets and people. To the homes and shady places we knew as kids.

Perhaps childhood is about more than childish things, after all.

September

Here we are again, in the middle of sweet, soft, September.

Back in May, I had high hopes that this would be the summer I’d stop working long enough to actually bait a hook and catch a fish. Then, in late June when the wild strawberries were ripe, I hoped to get out one afternoon to walk the fields full of daisies and gather enough for at least one tiny jar of jam. In July, I picked a few wild raspberries off the bushes on the side of the yard to eat with my morning yogurt.  And don’t even get me started about the wild blueberry situation. The closest I got to picking a single blueberry was the day I watered planters up at the cemetery and looked down at a blueberry bush in the forest with a few hard, green, berries on it. Then, POOF! August arrived and with it, meetings and traveling and lesson planning.

We checked quite a few of our things off the infernal Cabin To-Do list, though, so that’s good. The little brown house next to the river is standing up a little straighter and prouder than it was last spring. There was one weekend with highs in the 70’s and low humidity and not a bug to be found where I spent hours basking in sunshine on our new deck.  I think back to that one perfect weekend as the highlight of my summer. I’ll take that memory out again come February. It will keep me warm.

Lilly the Beagle has adjusted to life with two humans who aren’t kids any more, but who do their best to understand the needs of a dog who, at age two, still is. She doesn’t mind being an only child in the slightest. Our grown kids think we’re pretty dopey about this small dog and let us know at every opportunity how “spoiled” she is.  They chide us for giving her too many treats and roll their eyes at us because we let her get away with too much nonsense.  Then they pack their cars and take their strong opinions about beagle-rearing home with them to the Cities, leaving the three of us here in the woods in peace.

Here and there, maples are beginning to change colors.  In a month, the woods will be ablaze with crimson and orange leaves.  The days are getting shorter. The nights cooler. Before too long, we’ll button up the cabin for its long winter’s nap. Turn the key in the lock and hunker down where the roads get plowed better.

But before that happens, there is still September.

Sweet, soft, September.

Kinder, gentler

“When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

-Fred Rogers

He could still walk in elementary school.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when he went from being a boy who walked to one who came to school in a wheelchair.  My friend Criss, who has the best memory, will know. She remembers such things.What I do remember with certainty is that even when he could still walk, it looked like a tremendous amount of work. There are tiny snapshots on the shelves of my mind of the sandy-haired boy with the arched back. How he took small, careful, steps. How his legs seemed to operate separate from his torso and how he swung his arms to help him keep his balance. The rest of us were careful around him, not wanting to knock him down accidentally as we ran and played on the playground at recess. He made us more gentle. More aware.

This was in the early 1970’s, decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and public spaces like schools had to be handicapped accessible. Years before elevators were the norm in public elementary and high schools. I remember the big study hall on the top floor of the old high school with the concrete spiral staircase the led from the top floor to the ground floor down the hall. How other boys in our class picked up that boy and his wheelchair daily to move him from the top of the school to the bottom down that staircase. This would never happen today. There would be numerous meetings and discussions about “liability” and “safety concerns” and “compliance” instead of discussions about who would pick the boy in the wheelchair up and help him. It usually took two or three boys to move the boy and his chair.  Strong boys who spent their time outside of school on the football field and basketball court and climbing deer stands. If there was a rush between classes and they were on the spiral stairs, the rest of us waited, out of the way. He made us more patient. More tolerant.

We all graduated from high school. Said our goodbyes and went our separate ways into the world to places that had stoplights. He passed away some years later. While he was fighting for his life, the rest of us were busy learning and growing and trying to make ends meet. We were falling in and out of love and reaching milestones that lucky young adults meet. His life, and premature death, made us appreciate what we had just a little more.

I think of him now and then.  How he was just one of us in a class of less than a hundred kids in a tiny town without a single stop light. A town that others passed through on their way to some place else. I wonder who he’d be today, had he lived.

I wonder who the rest of us would be today, had he not been a part of our lives.

 

Summers off

Oh, middle of August, you’ve arrived too soon again.  You do this to me every stinkin’ year.

Last Spring, when I posted my grades, you seemed so far away that I had a hard time imagining you’d ever come back around. That’s how it is every year for teachers, I suppose. Even ones like me who really, really, like teaching.You finish one academic year and have this span of time that feels like it will last and last so you diddle around for at LEAST the first month reading dumb stuff you don’t read the rest of the year and staying up much too late and sitting in the sun when you could be getting ready for the next semester. Besides, you have all these people in your life who keep telling you that you are lucky because you have summers “off” so how can you NOT take a little vacay, right? Can I get an Amen, Teachers?

And you have PLENTY of time to get ready, you assure yourself. After all, you’ve just finished grading about a million essays and your mind needs to rest. So you take a little break from thinking about anything even remotely related to the teaching of other human beings for at least the first month. Then, before you know it, the 4th of July has come and gone. And again, you say to yourself (only this time, with a little less conviction) that there’s still time to do All the Things you need to do before a shiny new semester begins. You aren’t quite as sure as you were in June, though. So you get a little jumpy and start prepping and rearranging and re-tooling what you’ve done in the past. You plan where you want your students to go in the sixteen weeks you have to meet course objectives. If you’re smart, you have your ducks in a row before August ever arrives.

At least this is how it is supposed to work.  And most years, it does, for most teachers. Because teachers know, without a doubt, that this sweet last month of summer that looks long on the calendar, this month of warm days and cool nights so perfect for sleeping, is over in a snap. A snap, I tell you. So a teacher had  better make sure her ducks are lined up nice and straight by the second week of August when workshops and inservices start for most teachers.

My ducks are looking pretty good for the most part considering that this is my nineteenth year teaching college freshmen who incidentally, just happen to be the most interesting humans in the world. A lot has changed in those nineteen years, and a lot hasn’t. One of the very best things about teaching is the fresh start every fall semester. New names and faces make the same classes and curriculum come alive for me each year. This is true even after nearly two decades of teaching some of the classes. I wonder what it will be like when I retire and no longer measure time in terms of sixteen week semesters.

Luckily, that’s still a few years off. This year, I will learn their names and come to know their strengths and work with them to learn how to write with purpose and skill. This August,  I still believe that teaching is a calling. That it is holy, sacred work. If an August ever arrives that I don’t feel that way, I’ll know it will be time to leave. Stay at the lake a few weeks longer into the fall. Maybe hire myself out to paint a kitchen or something. Who knows? Time will tell.

But not this August. Nope. This August, I still believe it with all my heart.

Gus

He was a giant of a man, as I recall.  A giant.

Okay, well maybe not physically, in the ways that people often think a “giant” might be. In fact, in terms of his physical appearance, he was fairly average in height and build.

But that voice that echoed through the high school hallway down by the locker rooms or shouted plays from the bench or side line was deep and loud. He was quick to raise it with the boys he taught in Phy Ed or coached who didn’t listen to his directions. His favorite expression, when dealing with such boys was “Bean Head.” Sometimes that was preceded by an expletive.  I read in his obituary that, as a young man, he’d served in the Navy. This, more than anything else, would explain why he spent all of those years trying to pound discipline into the young men he taught. He made it his mission to turn them into people who were not Bean Heads.

It was the mid 1970’s, a time when teachers could still call a student a (insert expletive) Bean Head. Back then, if a boy came home and told his father that his teacher or coach had called him a Bean Head in front of his friends, the father would most likely have shrugged and said, “Gus is absolutely right. You ARE a Bean Head. So stop acting like one.” This is because nobody’s parents had time for fragile egos in those days.

Gus coached junior high girls basketball the first year that girls playing basketball competitively became a reality, thanks to Title 9. This was decades before feeder programs, clinics, and camps had little girls learning the basics of the game in elementary school, the way they do now. As the coach, it was his job to teach a bunch of hormonal teen girls the fundamentals of a sport we’d, up to that point, spent our childhoods only watching from the bleachers unless you count the games of HORSE or PIG we played with our brothers.

Gus had coached a lot of boys, but we were a whole new ball game. We had a lot to learn that first year. A few of us were naturals. The rest of us tried to make up in enthusiasm what we lacked in basic skills. Some of us only lasted a season before we went on to activities that involved less running and sweating. I was in that third group, but it was nice to have the choice. Many of the women I know from that first team went on to raise daughters  who have grown up taking for granted the fact that they could choose to be basketball, volleyball, softball, and soccer players. Really good ones. We’ve come a long way when it comes to girls and athletics, haven’t we?

A giant of a man with a whistle and a bark that was worse than his bite helped make that happen for a group of pep club girls and cheerleaders in a small town in the 1970’s. We are better people, stronger women, for having been coached by him.  I hope he knew that.

Rest in Peace, Gus.

 

Home to roost

The bats at the lake were just getting ready to call it a night.

I was up before dawn drinking coffee and watching as several swooped around on the other side of the screen, catching mosquitoes in the yard. When I went to bed last night, there was a strong breeze. This morning, it was completely still and misty right before the sun peeked over the trees across the river.

The bats live in the attic of the addition my grandparents had built onto the house in the late 60’s when it became clear that the number of grandchildren who wanted to stay overnight had exceeded the number of beds in the house.  In their later years, they slept in the “back bedroom” themselves, often sharing two double beds in the cramped room with a grandchild or two who would lie awake listening to old people snoring in stereo and night sounds on the river, feeling safe and snug.

This morning, at first light, the bats flew back into the attic one by one. I listened to the rustling and scratching above me as they settled in to sleep. The birds began morning songs in the meadow. A cool breeze came through the screen door and I could see silver ripples on the water. It is my favorite time of day here at the cabin in July. That moment when another day begins. It never gets old.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about where creatures tend to roost, and why. Whether it is habit or instinct or convenience. My dearest friend and her husband have recently come home to roost, too. This is good. It feels natural to grow older with the people who knew you when you were young. People who loved your parents and remember your grandparents. It closes up the circle in profound and simple ways.

The bats in the attic only know that they have found a warm, safe, place to roost. That’s all they need to know.  It’s good to know where you feel snug.

Maybe we are not so very different.

 

Trees and other beings

I am writing at my desk this morning, which is odd. I spend the academic year with my butt plastered to my office chair teaching online so it is pretty rare to find me in this room at this desk in July. It is much nicer to curl up cross-legged on the futon in the back porch with my computer balanced on my lap, listening to birds and looking for words. I save my desk for the long, dark, winter months of work. It’s my system.

There are four trees in the yard outside my window. A pair of scrawny apple trees that have never produced a single blossom or apple and two pine trees. One, a prickly gray-green spruce. The other, a balsam fir.  I yanked them up from the damp moss off my grandfather’s grave in July of 2009 right after we’d uprooted our two teenagers and moved back here. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that everybody would thrive and be okay when I did it. Seven years later, the evergreens are as tall as I am and the kids are fine. So, yeah. Sometimes we’re right. And sometimes, we keep buying apples at the grocery store.

It’s been a disturbing few weeks globally, nationally, and locally. Every time I turn on the news, it seems like the fabric of society has unraveled another row. Nice, Turkey, South Sudan. Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights. Flooding around the state and wind damage right here at home. And if this wasn’t enough for one month, we still have to endure two political conventions this summer. Candidates will trash their opponents and pretend that they,alone, have the solutions to complex problems. That will be the biggest lie they tell us. It’ll be a whopper.

Men drive semi trucks into crowds. Wives bury police officers. Girlfriends live stream a death. Toddlers are shot riding in minivans. The obscene senselessness of all of it is too much to bear some months.

Meanwhile, the world keeps turning and my trees keep reaching toward the sun. Barring any strong winds that take them down in the prime of their lives, they’ll be here long after I’m sleeping under my own blanket of moss near my grandfather. This, I can accept. This, I understand. It makes sense.

The rest of it?  Not so much.