April 29, 2008

The taste of pink

My husband and I don't exchange gifts for holidays. I don't like the way that holidays can make people feel obligated to buy something: it seems like a gift should be freely given. I don't want to my family to get sucked into the evil cycle of consumerism, and gifts too often are thing that people don't need or want.

But I make an exception for fresh flowers. My husband has given me flowers, sometimes on birthdays or holidays, but sometimes for no reason at all, for over thirty years now. Sometimes he'll bring home bright yellow or purple flowers on a grey winter day, or sometimes he'll bring long-stemmed roses with ferns and baby's breath.

I like roses best after they've begun to wilt, and I can scatter the petals across the bed.

The taste of pink

April 28, 2008

Speaking with fabric

Speaking with fabric

Inspired by Berrybird's blog post, I stopped on my way home from work today to see an art installation about as big as my house. It's an abandoned gas station that has been completely quilted. Every inch — all four sides, the sign, and even the pumps — are covered with colorful fabric.

More than a thousand people collaborated on the project, working on three-foot square panels, which were then stitched together and put in place. On this grey, rainy day, the colors of the fabric shone brightly. I walked around the building, looking at the panels, at all the careful work done by creative people who are concerned about the world's dependence on oil.

Protest quilt

April 26, 2008

Sometimes, Rainbows

The semester isn't over yet, but it's getting close. My classes end Monday. My daughter sent her senior honors thesis to the printer last week. She has a few papers left to write; she is working on one now, settled on the other end of the comfy couch with her laptop. Boy in Black says he has five finals and a 15-page paper about dark matter; right now he's sitting on the floor playing cards with With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair Boy, Philosophical Boy, and Pirate Boy.

This morning, I could feel the sun on my bare arms as I began picking up tree limbs that had fallen on the lawn over the winter. Shaggy Hair Boy helped me knock down a Scotch Pine that had been leaning precariously all winter, and Boy in Black helped me drag it off the lawn and into the woods. The grass is greening up, and yellow dandelions are popping up everywhere. Inspired by the sunshine, I made a big fruit salad, cutting up a whole watermelon and several cantelopes, adding bunches of grapes and quarts of fresh berries.

Temperatures soared this afternoon, getting so warm that when I stopped to watch the Ultimate Frisbee game that Boy in Black had set up, the players were all complaining about the heat. "The air is so thick," Blonde Niece said as she flopped to the ground.

I took my car into the garage to have the snow tires removed and decided it was time to pack away the mittens and snowpants in our laundry room, despite a forecast that says we might get snow later this week. Late in the afternoon, the Ultimate players crowded into the living room, joking around and eating fruit salad. By this evening, the rain had begun, but it's still warm enough that the window behind me is open. The smell of mud drifts in on the night air, and the raindrops are a backdrop to the teasing, lazy chatter of my kids and extras as they lounge on the floor, engrossed in card game.

It's beginning to feel like summer.

Sometimes, rainbows

Blonde Niece and With-a-Why take a break during this afternoon's game of Ultimate Frisbee.

April 25, 2008


"Are any of your trees flowering yet?" my mother asked one day. She held up her wrist to show what looked to me like a friendship bracelet, woven from red and white threads. "I'm ready to get rid of this darned bracelet."

She'd been wearing the bracelet since Palm Sunday weekend, in observance of an old Bulgarian custom. It looked a bit ragged, since she'd had to leave it on during showers, while washing dishes, and pretty much all the time.

Of course, my mother isn't Bulgarian, and I'm not even sure she knows anyone who is. But Urban Sophisticate Sister, who lives in Big City Like No Other, has a friend who grew up in Bulgaria and is therefore quite knowledgeable about Bulgarian Springtime Rituals.

According to my sister's friend, Bulgarian Woman Whose Name is Not Spelled With an X, it's an old custom to tie bracelets made of red and white threads on your friends' wrists on March 1. Then, when you see the first sign of spring — a flowering tree — you take the bracelet off and tie it to the tree. In some places in Bulgaria, the first sign of spring is the appearance of a stork: you wait until you see the first stork, and then tie the bracelet onto the nearest fruit tree. Since Big City Like No Other has a real shortage of storks, I can understand why Pregnant Bulgarian Woman With Cool Customs went with the flowering tree symbol instead.

When I asked my sister about the custom, she was a bit vague about the details. "Oh, there's some kind of legend that goes with the bracelets. I think the red stands for drops of blood, and the white — well, doves or something."

She'd worn a bracelet, or martenitsas, the year before, from March 1 until the first time she saw a flowering tree. "It was kind of a pain," she said. "I mean, I had to leave it on even in the shower. And then the first tree I saw was on 89th Street. None of the branches were low enough. Trees aren't that accessible in the city. So I went home and tied it onto the red maple behind my building. It's still there."

Her friend, Bulgarian Woman Who Just Turned Thirty, said that in Bulgarian parks, you can see trees just filled with red and white threads. And people often wear more than one bracelet; some have their whole arms covered.

So anyhow, Urban Sophisticate, who says she joined the ranks of the Bulgarian Emeriti when she wore the bracelet last year, was wearing the red and white threads when she came home for Palm Sunday weekend. But it slipped off her wrist during the night, and when my mother went to make up her bed, after she'd gone home, she found the bracelet in the sheets. A great respecter of tradition, my mother immediately put the bracelet on and sent my sister an email. According to my sister, the gist of the email was, "Well, now I'm wearing the damned bracelet. Want me to mail it to you?"

My sister convinced my mother that she should leave the bracelet on and participate in the ritual, since we live in an area with many flowering trees. And so my mother waited patiently through snow showers and cloudy days for the first sign of spring.

When I returned last weekend from the monastery, I noticed that trees on my street had begun to flower. I called my mother, "Have you tied the bracelet on a tree yet?"

My mother sighed. "No, it's still on my wrist. We passed lots of trees in flower on our ride yesterday, but what am I supposed to do? Just go into someone's yard and tie a bracelet on their tree?'

Well, if it were me, or Red-haired Sister, that's exactly what we would have done. But my mother has this irrational fear that people will arrest her for trespassing, or perhaps run her off their land with a shotgun. I think the fear comes from her childhood stay at her Aunt Outspoken's farm. They'd heard that someone had been breaking into barns and vandalizing farms, so one evening when a car drove by with its lights off, Aunt Outspoken grabbed her shotgun and she, my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt all piled into the car with Aunt Outspoken at the wheel. My mother, just a child in the backseat, recalls Aunt Outspoken yelling, "Down in the back, kids. There might be shooting!"

So my mother waited until Tuesday, when one of the trees in her own backyard was just about to flower, before she finally removed the bracelet. "I think you're supposed to say a prayer when you do it," she told me.

It's possible that my Irish Catholic mother was thinking of the spring ritual of her childhood, the May crowning ceremony that involved every schoolchild bringing in bouquets of flowers from their garden, girls in white dresses singing hymns, and prayers said in front of the statue of Mary. I don't know really, if the Bulgarian tradition of the martenitsas is supposed to include a prayer.

But my mother took the bracelet off, tied it to the tree, and said a prayer that Urban Sophisticate's Pregnant Bulgarian Friend would have a healthy baby. And since spring rituals in any culture usually involve blessings of health and fertility, it seems like her Irish Catholic prayer was probably a good fit. When my sister told the story to Bulgarian Friend Who Does Not Spell Her Name With an X, her friend emailed back, "That is so sweet and lovely, and on Earth Day too! Send your Mom a hug and tell her she has officially joined the ranks of the Bulgarian Emeriti. As you know, that is a great honor bestowed on not just anyone."


My mother tying the bracelet onto a flowering tree. I think she must have been eager to get the bracelet off her wrist because that tree is BARELY flowering. Photo taken by my father.

April 24, 2008



As a little kid, I was painfully shy. I was terrified the first few days of kindergarten, frightened to be in a room full of kids I didn't know. I can still remember the first time the teacher asked me a question, trying to get me to speak up in front of the class. I knew the answer — I always knew the answers — but I couldn't bring myself to talk aloud into the silence of the room. The other kids turned to look at me, all of us sitting at these little tables, about 8 kids to a table, and the silence grew bigger and bigger until it filled the room all the way up to the ceiling. I couldn't break that silence, I just couldn't, so I shrugged as if I didn't know the answer, and finally, to my great relief, the teacher asked someone else.

As an adult, I don't act shy at all. I am perfectly comfortable at social events, even if I know no one there. I am comfortable speaking to crowds, I like to meet people, and I'm definitely an extrovert. When I tell people that I am shy, most laugh and think I'm kidding. But I still think of myself as a shy person, even though I don't act that way. I still wear my hair long, so that I can hide my face if I need to. And I still hate silence worse than anything.

When I had dinner last night with Kindergarten Friend, we got talking about our childhoods, our pasts, and she said, "Oh, yeah. I remember how shy you were." And she, because she has known me for so long, believes me when I say that sometimes a situation or just the right moment can still trigger those shy feelings, that paralysis that comes with fear. The moments don't come very often, but I don't think anyone ever completely overcomes shyness: when With-a-Why was little, and I'd see him freeze into silence when a grown-up talked to him, I knew just how he felt.

Really, I wasn't going to post any more lamb photos, but this one seemed to fit the post.

April 23, 2008



Brother Tractor had put five orphan lambs together in a stall in the old part of the barn. Sometimes I'd find them asleep, piled on each other just like a litter of kittens. Other times, they'd run over to me, bleating. The biggest one kept jumping over the low wooden fence into the outer stall. Brother Curly Beard nicknamed him Houblon. I offered to hold Houblon while he was trying to feed two of the other babies. Newborn lambs are amazingly strong and sturdy, and he wriggled in my arms the way a human toddler would. He smelled like the barn: hay and manure and wool. His warm woolly body felt rougher than I expected, and he kept nuzzling my neck and my shirt, looking for anyplace he could suck. When Brother Tractor handed me a bottle for Houblon, I offered it to the lamb, and he sucked four ounces of milk down in just a few gulps.

April 22, 2008


Standing for the first time

During my weekend retreat at the monastery, I spent far more time in the sheep barn than in the chapel. Most of the sheep gave birth on their own, needing no help. The babies, dropped unceremoniously to the floor, would wriggle and choke and then almost immediately struggle towards the mother, bleating and ready to suck. Their skinny legs seemed disproportionately long; sometimes they'd crawl about on their knees first before finally standing up and taking those first wobbly steps.

Early Saturday morning, Brother Tractor brought in a sheep who had been laboring all night. She seemed to be in distress. He put on a plastic glove and reached his whole arm inside of her. "They're all tangled up," he said. That happens sometimes with multiple births. He reached in again to sort out the limbs and managed to get two forelegs in his clasp. The first lamb he pulled out was dead, fully formed but lifeless. But the next two were very much alive. They slid out: wet, slimy, covered with dark yellow gook. Within minutes, the ewe began licking them clean, and soon they struggled to their feet.

One sheep gave birth to a big healthy lamb and a tiny runt. The smaller lamb seemed too weak to move, certainly not strong enough to stand up and nurse. Brother Tractor tried to give him a bottle, but he wouldn't even suck. When I returned to the barn after lunch, I saw the runt lying lifeless in the hay. Brother Tractor said, when he arrived, "I'm not surprised." He carried the body off.

When I returned to the sheep barn after Vespers, the sheep in the nearest pen was giving birth. A newborn lamb wriggled on the floor of the stall, lifting her head, trying to walk on her knees. Labor had stalled, though, and just the head of the second lamb was sticking out of the mother. From what I could see, the lamb looked dead. The ewe paced back and forth, and her sides began heaving again. The lambs are usually born with their forelegs coming out first, as if they are diving, so I wondered if she could deliver this way. I motioned for Brother Tractor, who was just coming into the barn, but before he could make his way over to the pen, she gave a mighty shove, and the baby came out, pulling a clear sac with it. The ewe turned to lick the baby, and then I saw movement. The lamb was alive! He choked and sputtered, and then shook his head.

One of the sheep in labor on Sunday morning was a skittish first-time mother. She'd been in labor all night, but something wasn't right. She ran around the pen when Brother Tractor entered. He tied a rope to her horns and then tied her to the fence. Finally, she lay down, and he reached a hand in to see if she was dilated. He rubbed and pulled to help stretch the opening as two forelegs appeared.

"We use olive oil sometimes," he said to me conversationally.

I nodded. "Humans, too," I said, "My midwife used olive oil for perineal massage."

After two babies have been eased out, the ewe got to her feet and began licking them. "She'll feel better now, " I said, "It's always such a relief to get that baby out."

Brother Tractor and Brother Curly Beard both looked at me, and it occurred to me that monks would have very little experience with human childbirth, not even the kind of vicarious experiences many of my married male friends have.

Sunday morning was busy in the pens: another 13 babies born. One of the ewes gave birth to three dead babies. Brother Tractor brought her one of the orphan lambs, and she accepted the baby, who crawled under her and nursed vigorously.

Poodles, a dark brown sheep, is a pet among the monks. When she gave birth to three white lambs, several monks stopped to talk to her — and to doublecheck the door on the pen. "She's always getting into trouble," Brother Curly Beard said. "That's why we like her. She's the black sheep." She is known for pushing out fences during restless moods. "Whenever a bunch of sheep get out, you know that Poodles is at the front of the pack."

During quiet moments between births, Brother Curly Beard would get a wheelbarrow of hay, and begin tossing it into the stalls by the pitchfork. Sometimes this would cause a sleeping baby to jump to her feet, sneezing and shaking her head as the hay rained down. An ewe would munch hay contently, while the babies would follow her, butting their heads underneath to nurse.


April 21, 2008



In the sheep pens

First light in the sheep pen

In the big barn nearest to the guest cottages, stacks of hay reach to the ceiling every fall. But by April, the towering stacks are gone. Instead Brother Tractor sets up ten makeshift pens, a maternity ward, where laboring sheep can give birth or sheep who have just given birth can rest with their babies while he monitors and tags them.

The birthing pens are filled with clean hay, but the sheep themselves, after being out in the muddy pasture, are pretty filthy. And an ewe who has just given birth often has bloody afterbirth hanging down, a long wet trail. The newborn sheep are slimy and yellow when they are born, although it's amazing how quickly they turn white when the mothers begin licking them. Brother Curly Beard grabs a pitchfork and tosses hay in the stalls to cover up pools of fluid. Both ends of the barn are open, so sun and fresh air come into the pens. The baby sheep crouch under their mothers, wagging their tails excitedly as they nurse. If I get too close to a baby, the mother will stare right at me and stamp her foreleg.

The sheep barn is a pleasant place to be on a sunny day. Always something is happening: another baby being born, a lively lamb getting loose, another laboring sheep brought in. I stand back against the wall, making myself invisible, while Brother Tractor and Brother Curly Hair fetch hay and water, bring sheep in and out. Once I've figured out the rhythm of the work, I begin helping out, and we talk over the sheep as we look at them. Sheep midwifery does not seem much different than human midwifery, something I could talk about endlessly.

Some of the lambs bleat piteously as they butt their heads against their mothers, looking for milk. When all the sheep get going, it's pretty loud. Once the lambs are about a day old and have been tagged, Brother Curly Beard and Brother Tractor open the gates and move them out into the pasture, to make room for the next batch of laboring ewes. Out in the pasture, the little lambs, their wool licked clean, prance and play in the sunshine.

Monastery in spring

Monastery in spring

On Friday, we drove to the monastery through sunshine. Monking Friend and I talked non-stop in the car, catching up on each other's lives. The breeze that came in through the open car windows felt like summer, and I swear, I could see new leaves unfolding on the trees as we passed. By the time we reached the monastery, the spring flowers that Brother Joking planted all around the grounds were in bloom.

April 18, 2008


April can be a ridiculously busy time for anyone on the academic calendar, students and professors alike, as we rush to meet all the deadlines that come with the end of the semester. A stretch of sunny weather this week just made things worse because I find it impossible to stay indoors in front of a computer when my woods are about to burst into green.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the long to-do lists on my desk, I'm abandoning my computer, leaving behind the stacks of papers, and driving off to a different part of the state. I'm leaving right after class, driving with Monking Friend through hills of farmland, off to the monastery for the weekend.

Since we are heading south, we are likely to see spring wildflowers and new leaves. The monks at this monastery breed sheep, and I'm hoping we'll get to see some baby sheep. I'm looking forward to walks through the hilly pastures and woodlands, long talks with Monking Friend, a visit with Brother Beekeeper, and prayer services filled with chanting and incense. Always, my time at the monastery is contemplative and restorative.

I'll be back next week.

April 17, 2008


Layer of sky

The wildflowers aren't blooming yet, the green leaves haven't burst forth yet, but in the woods behind my house, the sky spreads itself across the ground.


April 16, 2008

Lake in April

Lake in April

Late afternoon yesterday, after talking to a friend about sadness and loss, I decided to sneak over to Pretty Colour Lakes for an hour, hoping that the cool, fresh air would change my mood. In the shade of the hills, I could feel the cold through my fleece so I walked the trail on the east side of the lake to get the slanted afternoon sun. The trees were mostly bare, brown trunks and branches still waiting for spring, with just the cedar trees offering smudges of green. In the wet brown sand at the end of the lake, I stopped to read some brief messages written earlier, evidently by a girl named Katie. The only people I saw were fishermen, all older men, and each alone, in his own spot, just casting a line into the lake in silence. I smiled at each fisherman, but did not speak, as I walked on the familiar trail, stopping in the sunny spots to warm myself, but mostly just moving along, walking and walking until the sadness I carried with me seeped into the lake.

April 15, 2008

The camp journals

Camp journals

In 1968, my parents bought a couple acres of land, a peninsula of oak trees tucked into acres of cattails on the river, the place that we now call camp. That spring we'd drive up for the day, bringing food and an old canvas to sit on, and we'd have a picnic. We kids would explore the new land, climbing over rocks and looking at trees, while my parents tried to figure out where, amidst the cattails, they might build a dock. That summer, my parents set an old canvas tent up under the oak trees and we felt like we were in paradise.

But our camp journals go back only as far as 1985, which was the year when my brother bought a spiral notebook and wrote the first entry. Oh, we've got a log for the sailboat, with entries from all family members, that goes back into the 1960s when my Dad built the boat, but that journal describes only events on the water. The first page of the camp journal contains a list of rules from my brother, including admonitions to print instead of using handwriting and a plea to use only one side of the paper so that ink didn't bleed through. Most of us have pretty much ignored those rules and done whatever we pleased. Ignoring rules is a family tradition. And we are great respecters of tradition.

The journals are written mostly on spiral notebooks and sometimes even looseleaf paper although my mother has gathered up the notebooks and put them into hardcover binders. My mother has served as the keeper of the journals; all summer, they sit on the shelf in the cabin and she'll say to a grandchild at the end of the weekend, "Hey, why don't you write an entry in the journal?"

Despite the ridiculous number of authors for the journal, there is somehow a fairly consistent voice that has developed over the years. For instance, everyone writes in third person. If you read through the journals, the reason for this becomes clear: we all have a penchant for the hero narrative, and it's much easier to tell a dramatic story of heroism about yourself if no one knows until the end that you are the one who wrote it. Nearly everyone in the family likes to use adjectives that quite exaggerate the noble quantities of the people in the story: it's always the gallant trio, the happy couple, the brave hikers, the courageous soul.

The two oldest authors, my parents, have a tendency to stick to actual facts when writing in the journal, but none of their children and grandchildren feel that need. Here, for example, is a line from an entry written by my youngest sister after we returned from swimming: "Urban Sophisticate and jo(e) amazed everyone with their grace and superb ability as they performed stunts similar to those seen in old Esther Williams movie." You don't really need to watch me swim to see the hyperbole in that sentence.

The journals are filled with constant references to the weather. "It was so cold that Granmother-of-the-family had to break the ice in the bucket every time she washed her hands." An awful lot of rainy weather is recorded, perhaps because rainy days give everyone plenty of time to write. Most entries talk hopefully about how the weather is going to get warmer and sunnier. The writers quote my father as saying things like, "The wind is shifting," and "The barometer is rising, " while Blonde-haired Sister is famous for saying, "I think I see a patch of blue sky headed this way." Other entries are more blunt: "Red-haired Sister realized that she had come 300 miles to be wet and miserable with her family."

The kids in the family start writing in the journal just as soon as they are old enough to write. Here's an early entry from Schoolteacher Niece: "THE FUN AND HAPPY DAY WITH MY COUSINS AT CAMP AND WE WENT FOR A SWIM AT AN ISLAND. WE LIKE OUR CAMP." Of course, many of the early entries remind me of those good old days when our tents were filled with toddlers and babies. "Saturday night was cold and clear, a good night for sleeping if it were not for a certain teething child who woke up every half hour screaming in pain."

My mother is the one person who records such things as marriages and births. She'll get to camp and note in her journal entry that she has two new grandsons, or that she just came from a wedding. Other family members record Firsts: the first time Dandelion Niece caught a fish, the first time Boy in Black fell off the dock, the first time Suburban Nephew swam to the shoal, the first time With-a-Why jumped off the rock into the water. And of course, no matter how cold the water is in May, certain people will always go swimming just so they have something to brag about in the journal.

I brought the journals, or at least the early ones, home for the winter so that I could use them for the book I'm writing. But it's easy to just start reading them and get distracted from my task. I keep reading aloud entries to my kids about stuff they don't remember. Mostly, though, just looking through the pages makes me wish for summer to come faster.

April 13, 2008

The Bonfire Game

It had nothing to do with bonfires. Years and years ago, I used to play the game with my youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, who in those days was Small and Grubby and Not Sophisticated at All. I think she was trying to say blindfold and kept saying the word bonfire instead. And we continued to call it the bonfire game long after she had stopped mixing up words.

The game is simple. You find someone else who wants to play and you both put on blindfolds. And then you walk around the house. You'd be amazed at how much fun it is to do something like go through the refrigerator and guess what all those strange objects are when you can't see anything. This afternoon, With-a-Why and I put on blindfolds and spent a couple of hours, stumbling about the house, talking constantly to each other so we wouldn't lose each other.

One realization I had when playing the game: if I were really blind, we would have to keep the house a whole lot neater. The furniture wasn't a problem because I sort of knew where it was, but I kept stumbling over books, backpacks, and shoes, which seemed to have been scattered all over in a completely random fashion. If I were blind, I would never visit someone like me: it would be too dangerous.

Since we were both blindfolded, we kept trying to help each other out. "Watch out. Someone moved the rocking chair. And the piano bench -- OW!" Bruised shins are part of the game. As With-a-Why grew more confident about his ability to move, he'd go quiet for long stretches. "Where are you?" I'd ask and then listen for his breathing. Then he'd grab my ankles and I'd scream. The more times he did it, the less funny I found it, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on him.

One difficult part about being blindfolded in our house is that we have so many cats lying about in unexpected places. I was coming down the stairs confidently, with my hand on the rail, when I heard a sudden hissing just below me. With-a-Why had stepped right on a cat who had decided to take a nap on the stairs. Sometimes we'd play the game of trying to identify which cat we were touching. "Not fat enough to be Emmy. Too big to be Salem. She hasn't scratched us yet, so it's not Gretel." We came to a surprising discovery: Rogue and Rachel, two cats who look nothing alike because they are different colors, felt so much alike that we couldn't tell them apart until Rogue reached out a paw to take a swipe at With-a-Why.

When we reached the piano, I could hear With-a-Why fumbling over the keys. "I have to find middle C," he kept saying. At first, it sounded like he was just hitting random notes. But then once he figured out which key was middle C, he began playing — and the music sounded no different than normal. That seemed surprising to me: I would have thought that he needed to see the keys.

By the time Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy came in from the backyard, where they were practicing Ultimate Frisbee moves, we were done with the game. We'd taken off the blindfolds and were both on the comfy couch, reading books. "Hey, what were you doing in here?" Shaggy Hair Boy asked. "I looked through the sliding glass doors, and all I could see was With-a-Why walking with his hands out in front of him. Like some kind of zombie."

Which cat is it?

With-a-Why trying to figure out which cat he's touching. I was wearing a blindfold when I took this photo although I cropped it with my eyes open.

April 12, 2008

Chocolate in the center

Splash of red

I drove to work yesterday on the kind of cold and rainy morning that made me wish I could have stayed home in bed snuggled under a down quilt. I promised myself, as I drove sleepily through wet pavements blurred with the crimson of taillights, that I would reward myself at the end of the day by a trip to the Sucrose Mollusk Stone, a cafe in the city fairly close to the music center where I'd be dropping Shaggy Hair Boy off for his guitar lesson. The prospect of steaming hot soup at the end of the day put me a cheerful mood.

The Sucrose Mollusk Stone sits on a street corner in a decayed city neighborhood, just a few blocks from where my father lived as a small child. Owned and run by two women, this cafe fills the first floor of an old house that must have been a luxurious mansion 100 years ago, with sturdy beams and lovely windows. The group of women who volunteered hours of time to revamping the Italianate mansion refer to the place as an "Espresso bar and lounge," which sounds far more sophisticated than "cafe."

Once inside, I smiled hello to the owner, dumped my bag on a chair to claim a spot near the big window, and went right to the bar to look over the assortment of vegan desserts. It was easy to forget that I was in Snowstorm City: the place has a funky decor that always makes me think I'm in Big City Like No Other — and the kind of fantastic vegan cooking that can usually be found only in big cities.

After a busy week of classes and meetings, a whole hour to myself was a treat. I chatted briefly with Dark-haired Owner and then settled at the table with a bowl of hot lentil soup and my laptop computer. I've eaten there with my friend Reiki Woman, and I recently did a poetry reading there with Fire Ant, a blogging friend who writes poetry in which she is often naked. But yesterday, I was alone, and I savored time to just write and think by myself.

Three women came in to take a table near me, talking and laughing the way only close friends can. Their sentences overlapped, with phrases flowing smoothly, always at least two women talking at once, like a song that had been planned and practiced, complete with synchronized hand motions and looks of mock horror and bursts of laughter. I recognized the rhythm and depth of the conversation: girlfriend talk, one of my friends calls it. One of the women caught my eye, and we smiled at each other before I looked back down at my computer to give them their space.

Rain splashed against the windows, but warm light lit the deep red walls inside the room. The raincoat I'd hung on the back of my chair was dry already, and my fleece felt cosy as I pulled it tighter. I wrote a little, looked out the window, and sipped a cup of hot tea. The vegan cookies I chose had a whole layer of dark chocolate in the center.

Going back to the bar to pay my bill, I stopped to talk to an energetic woman who had to be at least 60. She told me funny stories that involved her motorcycle, and then she and another woman began talking about an event this May during which the city will close their streets to regular traffic and hundreds of bikers will show up for the "blessing of the bikes." I could have listened to her stories all day, but a glance at my watch told me it was time to pick up my son. My hour was over. Filled with warm food and hot tea, I packed up my stuff, put on my raincoat, and walked out into the rain.

April 11, 2008

The rest of the green bench story

After I wrote the last post about the Green Bench Secret, readers emailed me asking me asking how my family reacted when they saw it. So here's the rest of the story.

Keeping any kind of secret in my extended family is difficult, especially in the summertime when we see each other pretty often. On long summer days when our kids were driving us crazy, Blonde Sister and I used to do what we called a "kid switch." I'd drop my youngest two boys off at her house so that they could play with Blonde Niece, and in return, her oldest two daughters would come to my house to hang with my daughter and Boy in Black. This arrangement worked out for both families: kids behave so much better for an aunt than a parent.

So my kids had plenty of contact with their cousins — and most likely, their grandparents too — but none of them said anything about the green bench.

When my parents drove up to camp the next weekend, they didn't suspect a thing. They were alone when they arrived and were still unpacking their car when some long-time friends pulled in for a visit: Opera Singer and Hyper Generous Woman, a couple they knew from home who lived at their marina up in the islands during the summer. My mother and Hyper Generous Woman were happily talking and getting out some food when my father and Opera Singer walked down to the dock. Checking on the sailboat is one of the first things my father always does when he gets to camp.

My father was standing on the dock, looking over his sailboat, when Opera Singer said, "Hey, is that a new bench?"

Without even looking up, my father said, "The old green bench? That's been around a long time."

Opera Singer looked again. "Really? It looks new."

My father glanced over at the bench. Even from where he was standing, he noticed something different. Had someone painted the old bench? Replaced some slats? He walked closer, completely puzzled. The bench looked just the same, but the wood was new, the paint fresh. He examined the frame. It had been built with number 16 nails, bent over after they were pounded through, just the way he had done. We'd apparently done a pretty good job of duplicating the bench exactly, even though we'd had limited tools and had had to use a Dr. Seuss book for a carpenter's square.

Completely befuddled, my father went back up the path to call out to my mother and have her come see the bench. Since they have no telephone at camp, my parents had no way of reaching anyone in the family to ask about this bizarre puzzle. But my mother knew immediately where to look for the answer.

On the shelf in my parents' cabin are big binders filled with spiral-bound notebooks: the camp journals. All members of our family — and guests too — are invited to write in the journals as soon as they are old enough to hold a pen. Those big binders contain more than twenty years of family history. My mother pulled down the most recent journal and flipped through quickly to look at the last three entries, which were written by me, my daughter, and Shaggy Hair. And then she read aloud to the other three the story of how we decided to rebuild the green bench.

In her own journal entry, which she wrote that night, she said how pleased she was that family members would be "watching sunsets from the green bench for years to come."

Last night after I had posted the story about the green bench, I remembered that I had the camp journals in my house, that I'd brought them home for the winter. I leafed through to make sure I had gotten the date right: I had. But my daughter's entry included some details that I had forgotten, like the way Boy in Black decided to paint his feet white while the kids were putting on the primer coat, and everyone else followed his lead. (Boy in Black's crazy ideas are always contagious.)

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter wrote that I didn't want the two youngest boys around while I was using the circular saw. "Dad took the boys into town to the Dollar Store to keep them away from Mom while she was using dangerous power tools. THEY RETURNED WITH SWORDS."

I do remember the plastic swords that led to some ridiculous sword fights in the middle of the project. And I had forgotten that my daughter was, at the time, in that lovely pre-puberty stage in which everything Mom does is wrong. She explained that work on the bench was hampered by "Mom screaming loudly about our faces being too close to the hammer." She noted that she was sent to the tent for a time-out during the project and added, "It's hard to know when you're being rude."

Mostly, though her entry describes how fun the project was, and how pleased we all were with the result: "And although I have white paint on my feet, green in my hair, my arms are worn, and a massive splinter has been forced out of my hand, I am glad."

April 10, 2008

Wood, paint, and a little magic


Many years ago, my father built a big green bench for camp. He put the bench under an oak tree down near the dock, creating a private spot where anyone could go to read a book, have a quiet conversation, breastfeed a baby, or just look out over the cattails. The bench was big enough to hold ten grandchildren, so long as they crowded in close and sat on each other's laps, as evidenced by some of the photos we've taken over the years. The tall sides of the bench made it the perfect place to hang wet life jackets after a canoe trip.

The green bench stood in the same place for many years, but eventually the weather began to erode the paint and eat into the wood. By the summer of 1999, it was no longer safe for the kids to climb on. The slats were rotted, ready to break.

And that's what led to the secret project.

It took place in August, when I was spending a vacation week at camp with my husband and our four small kids. My parents weren't there that week, nor any of my siblings; it was just the six of us. One morning the weather turned cloudy, too cool for swimming, and my daughter said, "We need some kind of project to do." I agreed. I didn't want to spend the whole day playing cards in the tent; the kids were already old enough to beat me.

Inspired, I said, "Hey, let's build a new green bench."

As we talked over the idea, we decided it was the perfect carpentry project. We didn't need a plan: we could just look at the old bench and copy it exactly. And we would do the whole thing secretly. That was the best part. We'd build a bench that looked exactly like the old one, and when the rest of the extended family came up later in the month, they'd think the green bench had magically healed itself. The kids loved the secrecy part of the plan: even my four-year-old was excited.

We set to work. The older kids took the task of measuring every piece of wood on the old bench and figuring out just what we needed at the lumber yard. Soon they had a yellow legal pad filled with my daughter's neat handwriting. Even though my parents' cabin is tiny, I knew my father kept tools under the wooden bunk that served as their bed. I rummaged through to assess what tools he had. My husband gathered the tools we kept in our car and then went off to the camp on the other side of the hill to see if he could borrow a circular saw. I told the kids to break off a piece of the bench so we could take it with us and match the green paint exactly. They did so gleefully.

The slats on the back of the bench were neatly spaced. "How do we get them to look exactly like that?" my daughter asked. I tried to picture my father putting the bench together. What would he have used as a spacer? I looked around my parents' small cabin, and my eyes fell upon the breadboard. I handed it to my daughter, and she ran down to the bench to put it between two slats. A perfect fit.

The kids were excited when we all returned from the lumber yard with new-smelling wood strapped to the top of the station wagon. They didn't even want to stop for lunch. In the shade of the oak trees, they spread the lumber out across the grass and began marking off pieces with pencils, consulting my daughter's pad of figures again and again. Afternoon brought another trip to town, this time to a hardware store where we bought nails and matched the green paint.

I wouldn't let the kids near while my husband or I was using the circular saw, but they participated in all other parts of the project. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black took charge of the two hammers, and the youngest boys sat on wooden slats to hold them down while they were being nailed. Everyone kept running back and forth between the new bench and the old one, checking to be sure we were getting every detail right. And all four kids happily painted, getting splashes of green all over their black t-shirts and shorts. With-a-Why kept sticking his entire hand, both the fist and wrist, into the gallon of paint every time he wanted to put more paint on the brush, and by the time I brought him down to the dock to wash up, his arms and face were bright green.

A few days later, when the new bench was done, sturdy and shiningly green, we burned the old bench. That was part of the secret plan. A light rain was falling that day, perfect weather for a bonfire. The kids hacked at the old bench gleefully, breaking it into pieces, and we tossed the old, dry wood into the flames. We stood in the misty rain, warmed by the fire, and talked excitedly about how surprised everyone would be.

By the end of the day, the bench had disappeared completely into ashes. But down by the dock, under the very same oak tree, a new one had risen in its place.

On a summer afternoon

The photos of the green bench were taken over the summer. The girl in pink is Dandelion Niece.

April 09, 2008

Sex in the woods

My woods are still brown. Dark puddles stretch beneath bare branches. The poison ivy that will be so thick and glossy later in the year has not yet appeared. The ground is covered with wet dead leaves and last year's dried stalks.

What I notice most are the brilliant mosses, shining from stumps and logs. I stop to look at them up close because they aren't all the same. Some are shaped like little ferns, others like Christmas trees. Some are thick and spongy; others cling tightly to logs. Even the green varies, from a rich dark green to a light true green.

When I kneel down on the wet ground, I can see sporophytes protruding from moss, the result of sexual reproduction. These first cells of the next generation wave toward the sky, ready to send spores off to spread more moss through the woods.


April 08, 2008


I've been waking up with nightmares again, the recurring snake dreams I've had my whole life. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that when I took a walk in my own woods, I kept seeing serpentine shapes everywhere. The Scotch pines in my woods have branches that curve and curl, and the branches that have fallen to the floor of the forest, draped across old stumps or half-submerged in puddles, look like snakes. The thick vines of the wild grapes slither down from the bare branches of trees.

I wore my tall boots because this time of year the woods are filled with deep puddles of murky water. I didn't see any real snakes, of course — it's still too cold. I won't see a real snake until the end of the month, until we get enough warm weather to make the green burst. Yet, even as I walked, sometimes striding over dry ground, sometimes plowing through the murky water edged with bumps of green moss, I still kept thinking about the snakes in my dreams and what they might mean.


April 07, 2008


Saturday was warm and spring-like. The younger members of the household put on long underwear and cleats and went to a field near our house to play Ultimate Frisbee. They spent the afternoon running up and down the field, leaping to grab a disc out of the air, or throwing their bodies down into the mud to make spectacular catches. When they returned to the house, they were dripping with muddy water.

Boy in Black, the most experienced player of the group, wears his long hair pulled back with a bandana. His "lucky bandana" is, for some reason, bright pink. With-a-Why, naturally, copies his older brother and pulls his own long, dark hair back with a black-and-red bandana. When he came in, the red long underwear shirt he had borrowed, several sizes too big, was splattered with mud, but the bandana had stayed in place. He looked like a little pirate.

"How cute," I said to him. "You look adorable."

Shaggy Hair rolled his eyes.
Boy in Black glared at me.
Skater Boy spoke up firmly: "No. He looks badass."

Right. That's what I meant to say.



'Tis the season.

April 06, 2008

No gloves

During February and early March, I don't go out in the evening very often. Once I've come home from work, it is difficult to get up the energy to put on layers of clothes, brush snow off the car again, and drive through the dark over icy roads that threaten to send my vehicle careening into a ditch. Frequent snowstorms make it easy to stay home every night by the fire.

In April, it feels wonderful to walk out to the car without mittens, get in the car without scraping ice off the windshield, and drive the speed limit over dry pavement. Spring means leaving the house more often and re-connecting with friends that I didn't see very often during the winter months.

On Thursday of last week, I decided to give myself a day off, take a day for friendship. After the long ordeal with my husband's kidney stone surgery, I felt a need to connect with friends, to get out of the house, and to have conversations with people who know me well.

I began the day by spending a couple hours on the telephone with a long-distance friend. Our busy schedules meant that we hadn't had a chance to talk in well over a month. Exchanging emails is never as satisfying as hearing someone's voice. And some of my long-distance friends have such lovely accents!

For lunch, I met a local friend at a restaurant where we could sit in a sunny window and eat some Middle-Eastern food. After a conversation that was both serious and silly, I drove home to run some errands with my youngest son, and then headed back out to meet another friend for dinner at a Thai Restaurant, where we talked over stir-fired veggies and rice. We continued our conversation in the parking lot, sitting comfortably in the front seat of her car while the sun set over the building behind us.

What I love about my closest friends is that they aren't afraid to tell me the stuff I don't want to hear. Oh, they say it in a loving way, of course, with all kinds of joking mixed in, but they are honest with me. I hear things like "What? Again? Do you just like banging your head against a brick wall?" or "Oh, the caretaking trap! I do that too!" or "Why would you CHOOSE to do that?"

In the classroom sometimes, when we are talking about sensitive issues like racism or sexism or homophobia, I'll encourage students to be honest, to take a risk in speaking up, to move past polite conversation. Because tiptoeing around issues never solves anything. I find frankness so much more helpful. I feel the same way about friendship: the friends who play the role of cheerleader, always positive but never calling me on anything, have limited value. I depend on friends who expect me to take responsibility for my behavior, who remind me that I have choices, and who challenge me to take control over my life.

As I was driving home Thursday night, I felt grateful for friends who are willing to take the risk to be honest with me, to tell me the stuff I don't want to hear, to be the kind of friend I try to be to them. These friends are willing to discuss my issues, notice my faults, talk about my struggles, and see the darkest parts of me. And yet, they like me anyhow. They give me compliments even while they point out my blind spots. They choose to spend time with me. They choose to be my friends.

April 05, 2008

A certain slant of light

A certain slant of light

Coils in the murk

I'd offered to give a student a ride home, and she asked me to drop her off at some big event that was happening near where she lived. I figured that since the event was in my hometown, just behind the brick elementary school, I'd stop and say hello to some people too. When we pulled into the parking lot, I could see a crowd of people, all standing around with drinks in their hands.

The parking lot was flooded with snowmelt. Big banks of snow still stood at the edges, but the party itself was held in deep water, almost chest-high. I decided to leave my shoes on, even though I knew they would get wet, and began wading into the water. Even though the pool of water was being held in by snowbanks, the water was warm and murky. I had no shock of coolness when I stepped in. I began walking toward the crowd of people, figuring I'd just make the rounds, talk to whomever I knew, and then go home.

I saw my parents coming toward me, both talking pleasantly to each other. The water was about chest-high on my father, and he had to hold his drink up at an awkward angle. I moved toward them, wading into the water until it was deep, but not over my head. Squinting into the late afternoon sun, I had a hard time seeing who else was in the crowd. I had made my way into the middle of the pool, chatting with my mother as I pushed through the murky water, when I noticed movements in the water.

The man behind me had hooked a snake, a live snake, with a metal hook and was guiding it, calmly and quietly, out of the water. Another man, to my left, had grabbed a snake near the head and was pulling it with him out of the pool. As I peered into the murky water, I saw snakes, curled and writhing, and floating with their bodies near the top of the water just the way snakes always do. These weren't the common water snakes that I know from camp, but brownish, whitish snakes that blended in with the water and sunlight.

"Oh, yeah," my mother said as she noticed my reaction. "They've been pulling snakes out of the water all day."

I decided quickly that I wanted to turn and make my way out of the pool. "Don't panic," I told myself. "Just calmly walk out of the water."

A snake floated up against me, and I grabbed it near the head. "Stay calm," I told myself. Everyone around me was calm. No one else was even talking about the snakes. They were drinking cocktails, standing in the chest-deep water. For some reason, I remembered my grandmother telling me a story about the time she dove into the water, and all these snakes came up around her. She swam calmly to shore, flinging snakes with her arms as she swam, and she didn't understand why her Girl Scout troop, all standing on the shore, were all screaming. Snakes didn't scare her.

They do scare me. I tried not to let the fear paralyze me as I walked out of the water, pushing the snake to the side and letting it swim off. I felt relieved to be out of the water, just standing in the parking lot. I looked back at the party to see if my student was still in the crowd, but I couldn't tell. I decided she'd be okay -- no one else seemed to be bothered by the snakes. My mother and I began walking through this old mansion to get back to my car.

"Something still feels not right," I said. I felt uncomfortable in my wet clothes. Something was wriggling inside of me. I began to shake.

I pulled up my wet t-shirt, and the snake that had been wrapped at my waist fell to the floor. I didn't even have time to see it before it slid quickly off and into a crack in the sideboard. I began stripping off all my wet clothes then, to make sure I had combed the snakes from my skin and hair.

I've had snake dreams all my life. And they terrify me. I wake up, tense, anxious. I can't stay in the warm bed or the dark room. I'm too afraid that there are snakes I can't see, slithering under the bed or even the covers. So I go down into the living room, turn on a light, sit where I can see the floor and know that the snakes aren't there.

Poet Woman tells me that snakes mean change, growth, transformation. She says I should embrace the snakes in my dreams.

I've always been terrified of change. And that's the feeling I had when I woke up very early this morning, in the darkness: I wanted badly to scream instead of patiently guiding the snake through the water. I hated the way the snake's body felt as it turned and twisted under my t-shirt.

I took my computer into the familiar and well-lit living room, to write the dream down, calming myself with the familiar act of putting words on the page. And then I went back to bed to lie in the dark and allow the feelings to wash over me.

April 03, 2008

Top Secret

Shadow women

We met on the steps of Dead Famous Guitarist Chapel, two bloggers getting together for lunch on an April afternoon. Fire Ant is the name she uses on her blog, although I've been known to call her Often Erotic Sometime Blogging Friend, a pseudonym that was changed just a couple months ago to That Naked Blogger.

We were friends for years before blogs had even been invented, so our conversation over lunch delved into all kinds of topics, including some hypothetical discussion about just what can be done with the different pieces of a bicycle. Eventually, we did talk about blogging; I was feeling regretful that I was not at the FourSeas Conference, going on right now in City Stupidly Built Below Sea Level, a gathering that includes a whole bunch of my blogging friends. All the naked photo shots I could be getting! My readers do love the naked photos, and I live to serve my readers.

"You need another man to strip for you," Fire Ant said.

She's right. I haven't had a naked man on my blog since the time Artist Friend's brother posed for me. We talked over male bloggers we knew, discussing the possibilities. And almost immediately, we hit on the solution.

Picky Mick
. He's the studly brother of Pilgrim/Heretic, which means that the photo would fit the Naked Brothers theme. Seriously, how many bloggers out there have a tradition of posting naked photos of their friends' brothers? I could be the first. Plus, he's cool. He has a sense of humor and a blog. He's a singer/songwriter, which means he's used to baring his soul in public. Singer/songwriters are like poets. They take their clothes off all the time.

So yeah, we think it'll be easy.

Of course, Male Blogger Who We Think Would Look Good Naked lives halfway across the country, in Middle of the Flyover Zone State. So we started brainstorming ways to fund a visit him.

"We need to both publish books this year," Fire Ant said. "Then we can go on a book tour in State in the Middle of Nowhere. We can start with a reading at his bar." That plan made sense. It seemed to us that the residents of a State So Bland I Can't Even Come Up With a Pseudonym could use a little entertainment.

"Or if that's too much work, maybe we can just plan to write a book. And write a grant for that," I said.

And so we have a plan. It's top secret, so please, no one leak this to Soon to be Naked Blogger. We want him to be surprised when we show up at his bar, get him drunk, and demand he remove his clothing.

We know that secretly, he'll be pleased.

April 02, 2008


Yesterday I didn't need my winter coat or my mittens for my walk in the woods. Brilliant green mosses shone from tree stumps and old logs, the only green I could see, unless you count the ferns, who stay green all winter but just flatten themselves under the snow. I hadn't gone very far when the rain began, first a gentle warm rain, and then a sudden downpour.

The familiar rhythm of raindrops on the hood of my raincoat made me think of camp. Now that the winter is over, we'll be back up on the river again soon, eating and sleeping under the oak trees, going out to the islands to swim.

How wonderful it felt to walk in the rain and yet feel warm, without the chill I've felt all winter long. I stomped my tall, green boots through puddles and admired the way the rain made the mosses look even brighter. All around me the rain came pouring down, washing away the very last of the snow and filling the air with the smell of new mud.

An afternoon visit to the urologist with my husband brought good news: he's healing fast now. Boy in Black came home mid-afternoon to play frisbee in the backyard with his brothers. When I asked him how his classes were going, he said with a grin, "I'm worried that my schoolwork is interfering with my Ultimate Frisbee playing."

It was lateafternoon when the three boys came in, soaked and muddy. Shaggy Hair Boy said, "Hey, Mom. Those tree frogs you like .... they're out."

I pulled open the window and heard them, that unmistakable sound. The peepers were singing. It's spring.

Always moving outward

April 01, 2008


Last year at the end of March, as I was leaving a party at my friend Quilt Artist's house, I noticed little white flowers in bloom at the edge of her driveway. Snowdrops, she called them. The name seemed especially appropriate because we still had snow piled in banks along the road. "You don't have any snowdrops at your house?" Quilt Artist asked, and she dug up a shovelful to put them in a plastic bag for me. When I got home, I stuck them in the ground under the barberry bushes and forgot about them.

Yesterday, I looked up from my computer to complain to anyone within earshot that other bloggers were posting photos of flowers in bloom, while we still had snow on the ground. Every year, I am the last blogger to post any flower photos. My daffodils and tulips aren't up yet, and the lilacs won't flower until the second weekend of May.

"What about those little white flowers?" Shaggy Hair Boy asked. "You know, under the barberry bushes."

The snowdrops! I'd done nothing to take care of them, but they had faithfully returned, hidden between the bushes and the foundation of the house, the first flowers of the season.

Snow drop